The history of psionics in D&D is a bit patchy, partly because in some settings it feels basically rather redundant. Supernatural powers are supernatural powers, and a pseudoscientific explanation for one set as opposed to a mystical or theological explanation is just a different flavour of fig leaf over them, as far as I am concerned. Especially once you have the idea that (in some settings at least) clerics can cast spells through the sheer force of belief in something, including an abstract idea, I’m not seeing much conceptual difference between a psionicist and a cleric who gains spells from their sheer belief in the power of their mind.
Still, the difference seems bizarrely important to some people in the D&D fan community, to the point where Psionics Totally Isn’t Magic is an article of faith to some people even though if you dip into the broader history and philosophy of either there really isn’t much of a gap between them – “psychic powers” is just what pseudoscientists call the act of changing the world through sheer will, which in turn which is how lots of occultists define magic these days, and in general seems to be an idea which only really makes sense in a post-Enlightenment context which sits awkwardly with a magical land of dragons and gods and pixies.
A snarky part of me suspects that the Psionics Aren’t Magic crowd includes a somewhat self-serving faction who just want their characters to be able to get supernatural powers that counterspells and Dispel Magic won’t work on and can always work so long as their character is conscious, which presents obvious advantages over mages and clerics – but just because you want a cookie doesn’t mean it’s necessarily fair or thematically appropriate or game mechanically sound to give you that cookie.
That said, I have noticed that some of the people who most strongly insist on this point often seem to be 4E fans, which makes me wonder whether it comes down to 4E’s very explicit focus on the idea of power sources, and the associated idea of character roles (Controller, Striker, Defender, Leader). Although it isn’t true to say that these concepts were simplistic liftings from MMOs – something like it had been implied in D&D for a good long time – 4E made them so central that it seems to have shaped some fans’ perceptions of the game and of what they expect from character creation in it.
In particular, the character role in 4E tended to reflect how your character actually behaved – so the task of a Controller or Defender or whatever would be the same as any other Controller or Defender, regardless of class – and the power source tended to be as much about aesthetic than actual game mechanics. But because the power source lent so much flavour to the class, it’s become extremely important to the 4E generation – for instance, a regular complaint from hardline 4E fans about 5E is that there’s no Warlord and therefore nothing they would regard as a “Martial Leader”-type class, because they are used to a game where any power source can drive any character role, rather than a game where some power sources just don’t lend themselves to particular roles, or even to being thought of as distinct “power sources” as opposed to character aesthetics.
The “power source” terminology does, then, form a sort of lens through which you see the game, and it carries with it certain assumptions which will affect setting construction and world building. For instance, the assumption that any power source should in principle be able to support any character type leads you to a very different style than the assumption that some power sources are better at different things from other power sources, and likewise the idea that “Martial” makes a sense as some sort of source of superhuman power as opposed to just reflecting your personal training has its own implications. If you buy into all this, it makes sense that you would consider the distinction between psionics and magic to be of crucial importance.
Psionics controversies are not new, however. Gary Gygax admitted in later years that he was never that keen on them, but included them in the game due to popular demand – which might explain why psionics in 1E AD&D was basically an afterthought, hastily cobbled together and consigned to an appendix at the back of the Player’s Handbook. The presentation of psionics there has various issues, where perhaps the most serious one is that psionic powers are an extra snacky bonus you get over and above your standard clasa abilities if you roll well enough at character generation, and the roll to acquire such abilities are tied to your ability scores, giving lucky rollers there yet another advantage over unlucky rollers.
For 2E, the decision was made to take psionics out of the core rules altogether – they were simply too contentious and too rarely used to merit being there – and to detail them in one of the supplementary brown-covered splatbooks, The Complete Psionics Handbook by Steve Winter, who was assigned the tricky task of untangling Gygax’s original first pass at the subject and making improvements to it.
One excellent idea Winter implemented was making “psionicist” a distinct character class. Whilst it remained possible for characters of other classes to turn out to have a stray psionic power here and there – the delightful Fortean term “wild talent” being used for such abilities – such characters were constrained both in the number of power points they had to power their abilities and in the set of psionic abilities they could receive; being a wild talent gave you a little extra edge, but only a little, and you couldn’t get access to any of the attack or defence modes used in psionic combat. If you wanted to be good at psionics, you had to opt for a class – and really, the test of psionics for 2E purposes was whether it provided a strong and distinct enough basis to hang a class on.
To an extent, psionics is basically a spell point system snuck in the back door. Gygax was infamously averse to them because he thought they involved too much book-keeping, though goodness knows his dictats on time-keeping and the like surely amount to far larger tasks – but psionic powers here essentially work on a points system, with psionicists drawing on a pool of points determined partly by their attributes and partly by level and using those to power their abilities. In 1E they had separate pools for attack, defence, and their various utility powers, but here they are combined into a single pool, instantly massively simplifying that book-keeping Gary was so worried about. Another reform is that powers do not work automatically – taking inspiration from the proficiency system, psionic powers have target numbers based on your ability scores (with a bonus for easier powers and a penalty for more difficult ones).
The utility powers basically constitute a spell list, divided up into different categories based on stuff people typically ascribe to psychic powers – so you have your telepathy stuff and your clairvoyant stuff and so on. Things get more intricate when you get into the various psionic attack and defence modes; psychic combat works on a sort of rock-paper-scissors basis, where the attacker selects which one of the attack modes they have available to them they are going to use and the defender picks their defence mode and they both reveal at the same time, and then you cross-reference the defence mode chosen and the attack mode on a table to work out whether the defence mode make succeeding the attack mode roll harder or easier, and by how much.
That is fine in principle, but some defence modes are clearly much, much better than others. Both Intellect Fortress and Tower of Iron Will give big, chunky penalties to all attack forms, and whilst you do pay for that in terms of the points cost, they’re also easier to trigger and actually let you defend your friends at the same time, whereas Mind Blank is crap – it’s free, sure, but it actually gives bonuses to most attack modes and it’s actually quite tricky to activate.
The wrinkle in psionic combat is that failing to defend once isn’t that bad – it’s a string of failures which is an issue. Each time someone penetrates your psychic defences, they establish a “tangent”. Each attack mode lets you attack twice a round with that mode, and it takes three tangents to penetrate a psionicist’s psychic defences – at which point you may use any telepathic power you wish on them. The trick here is that you don’t need to defeat any non-psionicist in psychic combat to do exactly the same thing, so since it will always take you at least two rounds to breach an opponent psionicist’s defences, it’s almost always more worth your while simply doing whatever you were going to do to them to one of their non-psionicist comrades and let your allies in your party take down the opposing psionicist. Why spend the effort trying to break into a psionicist’s mind when you can quickly mind control one of their buddies to make them stab the psionicist in the back?
(This, incidentally, makes Intellect Fortress and Tower of Iron Will even more absurdly superior to all the other defence modes than they already are – none of the other defence modes allow you to protect your fellow party members, so if you don’t have either of them and the opposing forces do, that’s a huge disadvantage.)
The major problem of the psionic combat system is that it tends to assume that psionicists will focus on fighting other psionicists by attempting to use their telepathic attacks on each other, without other parties being involved or trying to do anything else, and without the psionicists trying to exert power over others whilst being attacked by another psionicist. On top of that, it seems to assume that psionicists will willingly stand out in the open to be targeted – the attack modes require line of sight, so simply moving behind cover could in principle be enough to stop an enemy psionicist from targeting you whilst you can still target any of their allies you can see.
The other major issue with psionics here is the issue that psionics always had in D&D up to this point: it isn’t really part of the classic package of D&D fantasy, so it tended not to be featured very much in campaign settings. Greyhawk, Dragonlance, the Forgotten Realms – all of those settings had been published under 1E, when psionics was ostensibly part of the system, and yet largely ignored them. There’s a chapter at the end of this supplement which gives suggestions on how you can work psionics into existing settings, but it feels a bit like an after-the-fact patch. It wouldn’t be until a little later in 1991, hot on the heels of the Psionics Handbook coming out, that TSR would release a setting which had psionics worked into it from the ground up…