[RPG] Why are psionics controversial


I have recently had a conversation with some of my friends about psionics and their place in the D&D universe, both lore-wise and gameplay-wise. We were discussing the psionics as an optional part of the game, discussing the practice of banning psionics altogether as a houserule and pretending they don't exist. Some other people joined in and the conversation quickly devolved into a heated argument about whether psionics are the cancer of the D&D or the best thing since sliced bread.

Intrigued, I searched the web and the question frequently asked is "Why people hate psionics?". The Internet lists some reasons, but due to the nature of forum discussion the claims are often accepted at face value and opinions are conflated with facts, therefore I find it hard to understand all the hate. Below I would like to list several opinions or reasons for why various netizens think psionics are being hated and my reaction/rebuttal to why the argument is insufficient to be reason for alleged controversy (I used GiantITP, Reddit, Paizo, and Myth-Weavers).

  • Psionic rules were broken and unreasonable
    However D&D is known for its lack of balance between systems, even very basic ones
  • Psionics are over/underpowered
    Wizards are known for gamebreaking power and monks for severe gameplay limitations. Banning psionics does not change much.
  • Players don't enjoy Psionic lore
    I find this argument unfounded, with no attempt to explain why is it so, if true.
  • Psionics are often chosen by players who want to build "special unique snowflake Mary-Sue" characters
    But so are dual-wielding Rangers or various spellsword classes, which don't get the hate
  • Psionics are not mentioned in Core Rule Book
    But so are various widely appreciated extensions
  • GMs don't want to learn yet another system
    Which is fairly simple and clear, certainly less taxing than e.g. Tome of Battle Maneuvers and stances
  • Hating or loving Psionics is considered edgy and cool
    But why psionics and not something else?

None of these arguments are unique to psionics. Why are psionics picked on?

What makes psionics so different?

I am looking for factual evidence or a well-grounded argument in absence. I accept that all of the listed reasons are likely to be valid and observed, but what I lack is why these reasons would apply to psionics but not other systems, often with greater flaws. Are psionics made of skub?

For the purpose of this question I'm not trying to establish what are the hate-generating flaws in psionics that make people hate them. Instead, I'm trying to establish why people are eager to pick on those flaws (whatever they are) despite them being present in other material as well.

Best Answer

It boils down to what kind of style you like. Most systems have an inherent style to the way the world works and people tend to pick the game that fits their favorite style.

The style in D&D is medieval (or early renaissance) sword and sorcery, where themes of powerful wizards wielding magic, gods being real and bestowing powers upon their clerics and supernatural beasts ranging from demons to dragons are all part of the storytelling conventions enough that players would expect and readily accept these as part of the game. Note that in all of these cases magic is a regular (one might even say natural) part of the world. Even sorcerers only affect the power of the "weave" of magic that is omnipresent.

Psionics on the other hand are a set of powers that are not tied to the world itself, but rather to the characters and creatures themselves. Some very classic D&D monsters wield psionic powers, such as Illithids, Aboleths and the Gith. However, since these are considered strange, outlandish or downright freaky in the context of the world, they are easily accepted by people liking the sword and sorcery style.

Having characters, which are an integral part of any RPG story, wield powers that go against the assumed ground rules of the fiction's genre is often where the willing suspense of disbelief breaks down. Remember, in sword and sorcery magic is a (somewhat) natural part of the world and mages, etc. just know how to affect this otherwise hidden power.

In different settings more separated from these assumptions, often in a world closer to our modern world rather than a medieval setting, psionics will often be considered as acceptable as (or even more acceptable than) "conventional magic" by most people. The reason is similar to what I described above: in such a modern setting magic that permeates the world seems out of place, while powers bound to individuals and ancient items are imaginable.

In the end, it boils down to what assumptions everyone brings to the table. A genre trope of sword and sorcery is that magic is part of the world and characters only shape what is already there. This is why psionics get so much hate in the standard D&D settings.

The fact that game designers often want to separate psionics from magic in terms of rules only adds another layer to which people can refer for their criticisms. As you wrote, there usually are plenty of badly balanced parts in D&D anyway. In my experience, nitpicking about the rules for psionics often is a surrogate discussion. Maybe one is not comfortable with defining the boundaries of the campaign's genre, possibly afraid of being considered close-minded or adhering to clichés. Maybe one can not even put into words what is the actual issue and then starts to argue about rules just from a bad gut feeling.

I myself have belonged to the latter group of people for a long time, trying to argue why psionics is bad rule-wise, without realizing that it just is not a regular part of medieval fantasy worlds that I can or want to imagine.

In the end, if you find yourself in such a discussion, it might help redirecting the focus to what themes are considered part of the canon of the game. The people arguing against psionics would most probably just as much hate a gnome tinkerer "inventing" modern weaponry.

As with most matters of opinions, there are no actually wrong ways of thinking about it. Still, it helps the game a lot if everyone at the table has the same (or at least compatible) angles on the subject.