D&D General what is the difference between magic and psionics?


A suffusion of yellow
Psionics is the internal power of the mind and will affecting self, other minds and perception to the extent that perceived reality can manifest externally.

Magic is the willful manipulation of external energies that permeate the dimensional matrix of reality

Both require a will full act to cause change and thus often overlap
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad


I've had both in my homebrew for 40 years - and they fill very different holes for me. Each DM will have their own take on this, but here is how I use them and how Psionics and Magic differ.

There are 5 types of Magic in my setting: 3 Based on the Weave, and 2 Non-weave. The three weave magics are Arcane, Divine and Nature. The other two are Psionic and Supernatural. Supernatural magic is the purest form of magic and is what empowers the Gods, Archfiends, Archfey, Science, Lycanthropes, Ghosts, and a wide range of things that do not fit the other 4 buckets.

The Weave is a connection between the heart of the Positive Energy Plane and the Heart of the Negative Energy Plane that passes through all of existence. Nature Spellcasters pull magic out of this weave directly from the positive and negative energy planes - making them the masters of life and death forces. Divine Spellcasters have their magic delivered to them via this weave from powerful Supernatural beings like Gods, Archfey and Archfiends. Arcane casters are thieves/recyclers that capture the magic that escapes from the weave and crafts it into spells. All three of these spellcasters rely on the weave for magic, which makes their magic susceptible to counterspelling, dispel magic, detect magic, anti-magic, etc... as these all mechanically trigger off the weave (in my setting).

Psionics are different mechanically, thematically, and dynamically.

Psionics come from within the psionic creature. They learn how to create power within, harness it, and release it. Monks, psions and psionic warriors are the three most common humanoid psionic heroes. What they do isn't stopped by an anti-magic shell, and all of those protective spells means to halt a spellcaster are mostly useless against a powerful psion. The mechanics I use for psionics have evolved a lot over the years, but outside of a brief experiment that did not work for me or my setting, they do not replicate spells. And, that evolution has some limitations: My setting has a time travel element that results in the past repeating often, so I have a need to maintain a core aestheitc feel to my game that doesn't change too much.

For 5E, I've used them only in a very limited fashion in order to preserve flexibility for my campaign to adopt the official psionics rules if they were to be released, but historically they have been designed mechanically so that they mimic the materials I used for inspiration - an inspiration derived from my early experiences used AD&D and 2E psionics.

Thematically and in terms of inspiration: My psionics are essentially comic super powers. I strive to make sure my rules for psionics give us those same tropes that we see in comics. You have a limited, but adaptable, power set. You can do some things all day, but you can 'push yourself to the limit' in order to do something special. Essentially: If you see it in a comic book, there is a good chance I've used something similar as inspiration for my systems. Many of the core power elements are also inspired by the Jedi - but not the Jedi of episodes 4 to 6. The Jedi of the Clone Wars. Additionally, psionics were introduced into my setting, according to lore, when the Far Realm first made contact with the Known Universe. Thus there is a madness to them ... a Lovecraftian element that gives them a reason to be more terrifyingly dynamic.

Dynamically they are designed to have more highs and lows than other classes. In some versions of this, you might see it manifest as a PC blowing their Power Point load all at once to deliver a real big blast os psionic power against a foe. That is their bad $@# moment. The high. the low? That comes if the attack fails to land, if there is a counterstrike by others when their PPs are deleted, if the foe can turn that attack back on the psionic PC, if they push themselves so hard that there is a risk it kills them - and it does, etc...

This works. It works well. It fills an opening that doesn't need to be filled, but can add a lot to a setting if it is filled. I think of it as adding a great garlic butter sauce to a great steak. You don't need it, and you can have a wonderful pure experience without it - but it can be amazing with it as well. It adds a 'high risk fringe' around the stable and reasonable designs of the core classes.

Psions, psychic warriors and monks do not feel like wizards, paladins and rangers. They feel foreign and mysterious. They're capable of amazing things, but also of going too far and having everything go wrong. They bring that tension that comic characters have clouding around them into your D&D game ... that soap opera style question of whether this is the time that they fail ... that they lose control and let everything fall apart. Their mechanics and thematic elements just give them a broader range of impact on story than a typical PC.


Krampus ate my d20s
The trap is baited... I can not resist.
Psionics are an internal supernatural power. Previous incarnations of psionics in D&D have been an add-on for liars or the exceptionally lucky (AD&D), a spell point system with wildly unbalanced elements (2E), a spell point system that was similar to Vancian magic spells, but with fewer drawbacks (3.X), just a different power source (4E) and now a spell tag (5E).
I love psionics next to magic. I struggle to find a reason to separate Arcane vs Divine vs. Nature, but I like the dichotomy of internal magic vs external magic. Fortunately, depending on the information released on January 13th, I may not have to worry about WotC producing psionics in the new edition.


Follower of the Way
are they the same thing?
Depends on the setting.

Personally, I prefer magic (read: spellcasting) and psionics to each be distinct ways of approaching the supernatural, which includes a hell of a lot more than JUST "magic." I like these different things to use different methods. E.g., I don't like spellcasting Paladins. If the system is going to use Vancian spellcasting, I would prefer that Paladins approach the supernatural in a different way. Auras are part of that, but for temporary/instantaneous effects, I would use something like Litanies (I also like the term "Rituals," but that's already claimed by something else): supernatural prayer-recitations which provide various effects. Likewise, I love things like having rune-word systems, which provide a different path to supernatural power.

Psionics, under this lens, would need to differentiate itself from magic in some key way. Sadly, the way D&D magic is done...it's already very pseudo-scientific, so a lot of the typically-available paths are closed off. Most likely what you would need to do is build up some fictitious physical theory, and then use the laws/rules of that to create a consistent framework on which psionics can be built. One possible option could be that psionic energy is never created nor destroyed, but oscillates between "poles" or "states" or the like, thus forcing the psionicist to marshal their resources carefully and "go with the flow" or risk problems/feedback/consequences.

So, for example, neutrinos oscillate through three flavors as they travel through space: electron, muon, and tauon (named for the "normal" particle they associate with.) Perhaps, then, when you spend psi points, they become "mu" points, and then "tau" points (or something equivalent, if you want more "interesting" greek letters.) Psi points might always power something creative or productive, while mu points might power something sustaining or repairing, and tau points something destructive. This opens up room to do interesting things like reversing the cycle, exploiting "feedback" caused by repeatedly using abilities from the same part of the cycle, or otherwise toying with the pseudo-physics behind the mechanic.

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Depends on the setting.

Personally, I prefer magic (read: spellcasting) and psionics to each be distinct ways of approaching the supernatural, which includes a hell of a lot more than JUST "magic."
This. There are a lot of things in the game that aren't spells, but are obviously supernatural in nature, from a Monk's stunning fist to a blue dragon being able to breathe lightning.

That spells are the primary way to access magic when all these other innate forms of magic exist always struck me as weird. Psionics is another way to access supernatural powers that isn't spells, analogous to ki or whatever you call the various weird things monsters do (Blue Magic?).


Guide of Modos
are they the same thing?
I can make new antibiotics.
I can make computers survive aquatic conditions.
I know how to run a business, and
I can make you want to buy a product.

Am I a magician, psion, or flobot?

Paionics is space or otherworldly magic. . .
No, Paionics is taking a dying role-playing game and keeping it alive for years on end. With cooler goblins.


I think they should be different, but in the way Arcane, Divine and Primal are different. In that what effects you get and related class abilities should be different. I don't think psionics should bypass magic resistance, and though it is a bit weird, balance-wise I can live with it being affected by counterspell/dispel magic (I mean, if you can counter a god-given miracle cast by a priest, what chance does psionics have?)


Limit Break Dancing
Different people will have different answers, obviously. For my part: I've never needed psionics to be different from magic, so I just call it a different kind of magic.


Practicially speaking, psionics are just the science fiction version of magic. For D&D, I don't particularly want psionics in my game as it makes things too science fictiony. Never you mind about that whole Barrier Peaks adventure... It's just that in the past 30+ years of D&D playing, psionics has never added anything of value to the game.

Remove ads