Dark Sun Ever Mindful of D&D Psionics
Like Nerdarchists Dave and Ted and Nate the Nerdarch mention in the video above, psionics has been a part of Dungeons & Dragons since 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. In the interest of utmost accuracy, the supernatural power of psionics were first introduced to D&D in Eldritch Wizardry, a 1976 supplemental rulebook for the original edition. Also of note are the other now-iconic facets of D&D included in that 60-page digest: the druid class, demons and demon lords like Orcus and Demogorgon, mind flayers, and artifacts like the Rod of Seven Parts and Axe of the Dwarvish Lords.
With those bits of long forgotten secrets behind us now, let’s turn our clairsentience to the future. Based on hints and bits of information shared through social media and in interviews, a fifth edition D&D iteration of Dark Sun is almost certain.
We’ve already got the mystic class available through the Dungeon Master’s Guild, giving D&D players the opportunity to utilize the awesome power of psionics in D&D 5E.
Now we only await the introduction of the sun-scorched setting of Dark Sun.
Psionics are weird
One criticism leveled against psionics in D&D runs along the lines of “it’s too weird.” Whether it clashes with the pseudo-medieval fantasy setting, or it’s too science fiction-esque, or the idea psionics is basically just magic, the powers of the mind have had detractors in D&D since the beginning. Psionics can be all of those things, none of those things and more than those things all at the same time. For my 2cp the biggest fault of psionics in D&D has been it’s later addition to the game after each new edition launched.
Since it’s never been included in the core classes of any D&D edition, psionics as a class option has always been tacked on. New mechanics, new terms, and structures to distinguish itself is a wise choice. But being so unrecognizable compared to what gamers have had in their Player’s Handbooks inherently makes psionics weird.
By that barometer, AD&D 1E should be the premier model of psionics. There was an extremely slim chance for any character to manifest a psionic power, with expanded information in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Later, an issue of Dragon Magazine presented a psionicist class. That being said, psionics didn’t really catch on much at the time.
Dark Sun gets D&D psionics right
What did catch on, and stuck, was psionics as a part of Dark Sun. It’s such a part that the setting literally would not be the same without them and to this day remains the ultimate example of a D&D setting and psionics in perfect harmony.
The Dark Sun boxed set and supplements in second edition AD&D were cherished parts of my RPG collection for many, many years. Plenty of deadly adventures and struggles for survival took place, and when we weren’t at the gaming table I was reading the Prism Pentad or simply reading through the sourcebooks for fun.
To that end, I absolutely will echo the Nerdarchists’ sentiments that what makes psionics work so well in Dark Sun is being built-in from the very beginning. On a basic level psionics are the go-to form of supernatural power in Dark Sun, straight away removing preconceived notions about magic – both arcane and divine. And from a design perspective, tying psionics so closely to the setting never makes it feel like an outlier. It is a part of everything in the setting, making creatures and NPCs aware of and prepared for dealing with psionics as a part of life.
Best use of psionics in D&D
I’ve been playing D&D since the early 80s and every edition has been my favorite, improving on what came before. D&D 4E was no exception, and I had fantastic experiences playing.
These days I’m all in with fifth edition but 4E comes to mind whenever I think about psionics.
The at-will, encounter and daily powers structure removed the add-on weirdness of psionics as well as every other class not included in the Player’s Handbook.
I loved the powers system (and lots of other aspects of 4E too). When the Players Handbook 3 released and included the psionic power source in the form of ardent, battlemind, monk and psion classes, they didn’t feel any stranger than warlords or wizards from the core rulebook.
In that way, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting felt even more accessible to D&D players. In the past, playing a Dark Sun campaign meant training your mind to reimagine all the familiar tropes AND wrap your head around psionics. But thanks to 4E you only had to move beyond traditional fantasy elements, and not learn a distinct new set of mechanics on top of it. Granted, the actual Dark Sun Campaign Setting in 4E doesn’t require – or even mention all that much – the psionic power source. The book mentions how prevalent psionics are on Athas, and the Creature Catalog has a helluva lot of creatures with psionic and psychic powers.
But my point remains: the sameness of character powers in 4E removes the weird factor of psionics in this edition of D&D – better than any other edition.
But what about the mystic?
I like the mystic. I’d like to play one and any of the players in my Spelljammer campaign are welcome to try it out as well. Like the Nerdarchists mentioned, it began as a traditional fantasy campaign. At this point, it’s grown very weird and expanded to include elements of science fiction alongside the sword and sorcery. Adding Hyperlanes material means androids, energy pistols, and technological star ships are in the mix and Esper Genesis brings interesting new classes like melders and engineers. The universe is vast!
In the sort of setting our D&D game evolved into, throwing psionics into the mix would be the least weird thing.
The only problem I have with the mystic class is the same one present in previous editions – it adds an entirely new set of mechanics outside the core classes. Psi points and psi limit are unique only to the mystic. The argument can certainly be made that things like sorcery points are unique to the sorcerer, for instance, but they’re only a resource interacting with the existing spellcasting mechanic.
In no way am I saying the mystic is bad class design or too different and difficult to comprehend. It’s purely a personal thing. If it were a core class in the Player’s Handbook, elements of the mystic or at least similarities might be found elsewhere and other content like the Monster Manual would relate as well. But as it is, and this is especially true for players new to D&D, it’s a steep learning curve to add on such a unique class and fit them into a campaign where nothing else is remotely related to them.
On the other hand, once we get our fifth edition D&D Dark Sun, which I’m sure will heavily involve psionics, the mystic ought to fit right in there as the perfect class for their time and place. In the meantime, I suggest that if you’d like to include psionics in your game, give some serious thought to how they fit into the setting. Dark Sun nails it by making them a vibrant, intrinsic part of everything.
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