How are Psionics and Magic different (in setting)?

Apologies in advance for the slightly discursive introit here…

Having spent quite a long time not thinking about Dark Sun at all, I recently happened across the Bone, Stone & Obsidian podcast (it was a plug on Bonus Experience that led me to it) and that led me back here, having been something of Dark Sun devotee some (many) years ago. I was listening to the 5e episodes (a few years old now) and I was struck by a series of thoughts which I have realised in the course of writing this paragraph are probably not interesting enough to expect anyone to follow the whole train. I shall skip a bit…

As a result I am now toying with the idea of working on a Dark Sun conversion for Zweihänder. A lot of the mechanics seem to align quite well along with the general “Grim & Perilous” vibe. The usual things are difficult though: chiefly how to handle psionics. (Also Thri-Kreen PCs but that’s more easily isolated I think.) That psionics and magic are very different things is a really important aspect of the setting. But most systems (including 5e) aren’t really trying to model this distinction - and I think it’s probably an accident that 2e had such a stark distinction for Dark Sun to adopt.

So my question…

What are the (in setting, in character) differences between psionics and magic that it’s important for the mechanics to model? What can you do with magic that can’t be done with psionics? What criteria should we use to judge whether a game system has done a good job of representing Athasian magic and psionics and the fact they are different?

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The best person to ask about this is @JesseHeinig if he’s around. He’s spent a lot of time reading about psionics rules for every edition.

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I’m more interested in the fluff difference than the crunch difference - what are the differences in the setting rather than in the rules.

It’s a somewhat artificial question, of course, because the reason for the distinction is that they were different in 2e and the writers took that and made it key to the setting. But this is more of a what line of inquiry than why.

Maybe a better way of asking the same question is, why did Rajaat develop defiling magic when there were already psionics? What did sorcery allow the Champions to do that wasn’t possible with psionics? And why do contemporary Athasians now turn to magic when psionics is far less likely to get you lynched.

Arcane magic (both classical style) have some advantages in compare to psionic.

First is more destructive potential. Spellcaster can kill more people than psionist. Offensive spells can lead to mass destruction - psionic powers are more individualistic.
Second - magic is more universal. Spellcaster can have greater number of spells focused on persons, living matter, nonliving matter, create “something from nothing”, transfers energy, matter, sensories etc. Psionic is more focused on persons and living matter. Ofc - psionics also have powers competitive to spells or with similar effects. But, in compare to spellcaster, psionists have to specialize. Psionists focused to mid-fight will not have many astral senses. Mage in one day can have 10 offensive spells and in second day can have 10 travel spells. In own spellbooks can have unlimited number of spells. Psionist haven’t this option.
Third - lesser requirements. Good spellcaster need be main smart and learned (high INT). Good psionist need be smart, learned, well-built and wise. Also important is development threat. Non-controlled psionic wild powers, in early stage of life, can break mind, damage body etc. This is represent in few tables and rolls in books that wrong rolls in wild-talent test can lead to reduce eg. save vs death or INT.
Fourth - to magic you use external energy, to psionic you use internal energy. What this mean? In extremal situations psionists have higher risk to damage own body or mind. This isn’t represented in rules, but I can image, that dwarven psionist can be so much focused on psionisc duel, in effect he transform own blood to psionic energy. Preservers and defilers, when need, can stole energy to magic from other, external sources (main plants, but some can use also other living creatures or other).

Maybe someone else will come up with other reasons.

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Summoned, I appear!

Ok, in terms of in setting, the principal distinction is that psionic powers are socially accepted. Psionic academies exist in every city-state. Many people (though not all!) have wild talents, making psionic abilities a commonplace part of everyday life.

Arcane magic, on the other hand, is widely believed—correctly—to be a contributor to the devastation of the world. Sorcerer-monarchs practice it, and everyone knows that they are bad news. They also have defilers who do their dirty work, and those are bad people, too. When someone reveals that they practice arcane magic, for the typical Athasian this is akin to admitting that you’re a terrorist. You wield a kind of power that is used by the dictators of the world, and which was used recklessly in a way that turned the world into an unforgiving desert.

Psionics are also very covert. You think, you concentrate, you shape your Will with the Way, and you manifest an effect upon the world. If you’re cautious, you can slip into someone’s mind and nobody will ever know. You can fold space to travel long distances, or sense upcoming hazards, or realign your body to heal terrible wounds, all with concentration and meditation. Unless you use a concentration focus (which is purely a personal aesthetic choice for most of the psionicists out there), your abilities have no overt signs of use: You don’t chant words, you don’t wave your hands in weird gestures and sway your body back and forth, you don’t produce and handle odd implements and objects.

Arcane magic is overt, especially if you use the rules from Dragon Kings. Casting a spell frequently involves speaking strange words that are obviously not from a common language. Many spells rely upon making odd gestures and body movements. Quite a few require you to handle curious little objects, which mysteriously vanish or crumble (or, in some cases, you consume them). It’s possible to make your spellcasting secret—you can make your somatic gestures appear to be stumbles, odd twitches, accidental movements, using the Somatic Concealment nonweapon proficiency—but if people are paying attention, they will eventually catch on that you’re doing something strange. And, of course, if you are defiling, that’s almost impossible to hide. (In the Revised 2e edition you can do your defiling as you prepare your spells, but that still leaves a scar where you did your spell preparation; in the original 2e, you always defile where you cast the spell, which makes what you are doing very obvious).

In terms of ludonarrative harmony, psionic powers function through concentration, mental exercise, and internal focus. A psionicist relies on holistic body awareness and deep wellsprings of an opened mind, and these result in abilities that clearly demonstrate mind-to-mind contact, ability to glimpse the future and past, twisting of space and time through higher dimensional cognition, manifestation of forces without physical origins, and total control over the body’s functions. Conversely, psionic powers find it difficult (though not always impossible) to perform functions like reanimating or raising the dead, communicating with plants, binding extradimensional creatures (they can be summoned from other dimensions but there are no “protective circles” or “bindings” other than telepathic domination), conjuring matter (like a wall of stone), or dispelling magic.

Arcane magic, on the flip side, is extremely flexible. It excels at conjuring forces and matter, building magic defenses (whether force-barriers against physical attacks or magical abjuration against spells and extraplanar powers), summoning creatures, making things invisible or intangible, and enhancing or diminishing creatures by giving them unnatural qualities (like haste and slow, or strength, or spider climb). But on Athas, arcane magic comes with a price. In original 2e DS, you were either a preserver or a defiler and those streams didn’t cross (there’s a Sage Advice answer in which it’s mentioned that a preserver cannot “become” a defiler, and vice versa). Later, this was opened up to allow defilers to seek redemption, or to allow preservers to fall to temptation—a dramatically-powerful rules element that supports the notion that every preserver is just one bad day away from becoming another would-be sorcerer-monarch. (This also underscores the social danger: If any preserver is a potential defiler—like Sadira in the novels, or like Oronis, who went from defiling to preserving—then the fear that the general public has for wizards is much more understandable, because even a “good” wizard can break bad.) Arcane magic involves drawing energy from planar interstices by using repeatable phrases and motions, so it is something that people can see and notice, and you risk discovery when you use it. And, of course, defiling is a choice, and one that damages the life energy around you in a very clear and conspicuous way; the rules need to support that when you use arcane magic, there is a chance you’ll be caught, and if you use defiling, it is literally painfully obvious to everyone around you.

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While I’m considered among the knowledgeable on psionics (Edel) over in the Greyhawk community, my focus is on mechanics and not fluff. Since this is more of a story and appearance question, I don’t think I have much to contribute at this point.

However, I am finding the discussion quite interesting!

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Thanks for the extensive response.

I like your idea of the flexibility of arcane magic in contrast to psionics.

I wonder what you (or indeed anyone else) think of this characterisation: wizards learn how to cast spells - the hard part is learning how to do magic at all, but once you have the principles, mastering new spells is relatively easy. Psionicists though develop specific capabilities. The discipline and focus needed might be transferable but reading someone’s thoughts with the Way and lifting a stone with your mind are fundamentally different skills. The time spent practising and strengthening one technique (say telepathy) cannot be spent developing another (say telekinesis).

Moreover, psionics cannot do anything ; it represents a specific set of (in some sense) natural abilities (albeit ones that are undeveloped in most people, even Athasians). Psionicists can learn to do extraordinary things - but only certain extraordinary things for which the potential pre-existed.

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Grammatical point. “Psionics cannot do anything.” Sounds like a complaint about having to roll under your power score. :laughing:

I believe you mean “Psionics cannot do everything.”

And i think you’re generally right. The only thing arcane magic really can’t do is heal. A wizard’s max known spells is limited bybtheir Int score. A Psion’s max powers is a class feature (though obviously psychic surgery can get around that).

Your hypothesis is supported by the game systems: Wizards can keep learning spells, at least until they hit the limit of their intelligence (if you’re playing 2nd edition). Psionicists, on the other hand, generally can’t learn new powers just through exposure and training—learning new powers is a feature of “leveling up”; you have to improve as a psionicist in order to unlock new mental abilities.

One of the other significant differences is that psionic powers tend to be more sharply limited in area of effect. Wizard magic can do impressive things like fireballs and cones of cold that affect a wide area. Many psionic powers affect only the user, or one object, or one target. Powers that affect multiple targets, like mass domination, tend to be more advanced, and there aren’t nearly as many. A psionicist could invent a new power to do this, much like a wizard can invent a spell, but with arcane magic, these sorts of spells already exist, and they are fairly numerous.

In addition, the “high end” of arcane magic generally outstrips what one can accomplish with psionic power. You can disintegrate someone with psionics, or control their mind, or even summon creatures from other planes, but you can’t duplicate the power of wish, power word kill, or meteor swarm. These kinds of powers are just beyond the kind of energy that an individual or even a convergence of psionicists can channel personally. The closest that psionic power comes to this is with psionic enchantments, where magic is doing part of the heavy lifting anyway.

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I also think, that research into creating new psionic powers is more difficult im compare to creating new spells.

In “The Complete Psionics Handbook” we haven’t mechanics to creation new powers - this was added in “The Will and the Way”. 120 days of meditations with positive rolls (if a character fails three consecutive progress checks - he can try in next level). But notes to creating new spells we have in DnD “always”. Eg. in DM handbook this is 2 weeks per spell lvl and INT/WIS check in end + 100-1000 gold per spell lvl (as special components, experiments etc. some components can reduce gold-cost etc.). So spellcaster can faster (and more confident) find new spells, but problem will be only gold and/or components. Psionists have longer and harder time of research, but they haven’t special costs.

And exta. Cuz psionists have maximum limit own psionic powers, they cannot research new powers if he have “full limit on this level”. This can mean, that psionists will be more interesant learn classical powers, knowed in a nearby schools or mystics, than research new powers. Especially, that templars and SK’s will not be happy, if some psionist find new power too competitive to magic and psionic of SK’s.

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Okay. I’m having trouble not responding to some of the conclusions being drawn, so I’ll chime in again.

Having thought for a while about the various statements made about psionics thus far, I can say with complete confidence that in the context of 3.5 edition mechanics ONLY, many partly erroneous as well as a few completely inaccurate statements have been made about the nature and capabilities of 3.5 edition psionics.


I still cannot speak at all with regard to the fluff or story aspects of psionics within the scope of Athas.

As I am uncertain if comments about psionics from a 3.5 edition mechanical perspective would be desirable or not, I’ll stop here. Please note that I am speaking of 3.5e psionics holistically - as in all official 3.5 psionic material, not just what Athas.org has produced.

Feel free to bluntly indicate yea or nay about the desirability of further analysis from the aforementioned perspective from me.

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That’s an interesting observation.

I have to be honest and say that, for my part, I’d largely moved on to other things by the time that 3.5 came out. I don’t have much of an impression of how the commercially produced Dark Sun material for 3.5 and 4 used and presented psionics (or anything else).

Anyway, I’d certainly be interested in a different perspective. I’m very aware that my perspective is very much a 2e one.

I (in this particular scenario) agree with Nijineko that in the context of 3.5e psionics, psionics is more capable of the type of stuff that arcane magic could do.

The differences Jesse outlines are true in 2e. In 3.5e, psionic versions of many spells and effects are listed and are in many ways better than the arcane version (compare the arcane Fireball to the psionic Energy Ball).

However, 3.5e psionics still covers different areas than arcane magic, being capable of healing and incapable of creating Illusion or Necromancy effects (as it currently exists - that’s for you Nijineko :grin:).

These edition-based differences in psionics would be plain to folks in Athas, as psions would launch area-effect balls of fire and bolts of lightning in 3.5e.

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3e psions are, effectively, variant sorcerers with a spell point system. They switch to using Intelligence as their primary stat instead of Wisdom (from 2e), and they duplicate a great many functions of wizard spells. They no longer have fighting ability similar to thieves, instead being on par with arcane casters (no armor, limited weapon selection, few hit points, crummy attack rolls). The system also does away with the old science/devotion divide and prerequisites, instead simply having power levels in exactly the same fashion as spell levels. Some powers are just the same as spells except with “psionic” added to the name.

This extends even to wish-like powers; in 3e I played a psionicist in Necropolis (Matt Colville was our party’s wizard) and I used clairsentience powers to perform limited wish-style effects.

In 3e the principal difference, aside from power points, is cosmetic. Psions use dorjes instead of wands and drilbu instead of staffs. They manifest powers that have auditory or mental signatures instead of using verbal and somatic components. They manufacture psionic items instead of magic items, but those items frequently have no difference in functionality.

The reason that I lean on the 2e descriptions of psionics is that Dark Sun was originally designed as a 2e setting. It was built hand-in-hand with the Complete Psionics Handbook from 2e, and shared the rules and motifs from that book.

In 3e, the Dark Sun material that appeared in Dragon #319 fit the design directives of the time: Include all kinds of things from current books, in order to get people to buy those books. That’s why the article includes new lore and rules for maenads, elan, and other things that were not part of Dark Sun before.

Athas.org’s 3e material is an extension of the 3e design, which is, as previously noted, effectively a point-system Intelligence-based sorcerer.

In 3e the principal functional difference between psionics and arcane magic is that arcane magic still has the possibility of defiling, which means it gets you killed by angry mobs. Beyond that there is little distinction.

This is also true in 4e, where most powers were flattened into having cosmetic labels on top of “Daily power that does triple your weapon damage and knocks the target 10’ away from you” and the like. Psi powers in 4e do have some amount of augmentation (holdover from 3e design) that differs slightly from arcane powers, but because defiling is itself a power choice in 4e, the distinctions are small.

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IMO the greater problem with adaptation “psionic of laters editions” to Dark Sun world is fact, that this is too similar to normal magic. In this situation we lost important elements of “world buildings”.

Eg:

*Why Rajaat was working about problem of magic if more popular psionic can give similar effects?
*If psionists had similar potential why they haven’t power to was stop with champions and followers of Rajaat? Psionists had advante of number and experience, they was in alliance with druids and priests etc.
*Why uneducated volk, that doesn’t distinguish between defilers and preservers and hate any form of magic, would be more tolerant to psionists (“mages of mind”), if effects of psionic power is very similar to effects of “normal magic”?
*Why SK are more tolerant to psionists and extremal intolerant to mages, if psionists can have similar potential of destruction and other supernatural powers?

Ofc. There are possible creating answers “therefore cuz this and this”. But I will not buy this.

Psionic in Athas need deep differences to rational adaptation. Psionic cannot be only “mind magic”, where “spells” will have main difference in style “damages have source of mind in place fire”. This is one of many points, why I still work in aDnD 2ed.

Fair points, but the core of Rajaat’s reasons for using arcane magic remain:

  • arcane magic was new and largely controlled by Rajaat (aftet the Preserver Jihad).
  • defiling gave a boost in power and effectiveness that clerical magic, psionics, and preserving didn’t have.

Remember, the Champions have always been defiler/psions. Psioncs was always useful for Rajaat, arcane magic was his “ace in the hole.”

Other reasons Rajaat might have preferred arcane magic over psionics, including the ones mentioned by yourself and Jessie, might be the “therefore and cuz” reasons - those that hang upon 2e game mechanics and not story.

For 3.5 Dark Sun I use partial transparency rather than full transparency for powers vs magic. I also default to creatures being psionic in nature (i.e power resistance vs spell resistance) so that magic has a niche.

I will address points that I noted as I read through (I may not address all points, and I may add thoughts of my own) so it will be more or less a list.

  1. 3.5 psionics is as potentially destructive as magic, if not more so (due to wilder and over-channeling, not to mention kalashtar shards if you even allow those in Athas). The ability of the class, feat, and item boots psionic manifester level (equivalent to spellcaster level) with varying side effects and limitations, and even allows one to break the maximum cap, sort of like the wild mage of yore, or a defiler.
  2. 3.5 psionics is as universal as magic due to changes in the rules. However, magic retains it’s “petty specific” spells wherein there are a lot of spells that just do one weird thing that psionics would be hard pressed to duplicate.
  3. Stat requirements are the same for manifesters as they are for spellcasters - a single stat. However, having good supporting stats (like CON) is always good regardless.
  4. Unless one is using over-channeling or the wild surge, there is no normal risk of damage or impediment to the mind, body, or spirit when using psionics. This is mechanically speaking, and something which I am not fully in agreement of as I feel there should be some risk with greater powers and when running low or out of power points.
  5. 3.5 psionics now have displays, which are sensory linked side effects of using a psionic power that other people can observe if at close range. However, these displays can be suppressed with a good enough skill check. There are secondary displays inherent to some powers (usually energy powers and a few others) that cannot be suppressed or avoided without some serious shenanigans.
  6. 3.5 psionics have very few summoning type powers, and the vast majority of what exists is actually based around astral constructs (temporary constructs shaped from ectoplasm).
  7. 3.5 psionics can destroy undead fairly well, but cannot usually create any without using a Shape Reality power, lesser or greater version (psi-equivalent to a wish spell) which burns XP.
  8. in 3.5 it is possible to summon matter, and dominate creatures if you run into them (but can’t really summon them, see above), and communicate with all manner of creatures. build force effects, buff or debuff creatures, and even has limited forms of invisibility.
  9. If one is using the “Psionics are the Same” rules, then psionics can disrupt invisibility effects and disrupt spells, just like dispelling.
  10. It is possible to transfer knowledge of powers in 3.5, and there are now psionic items which store powers and from which powers can be studied and learned. Also, metapsionic effects are now a thing.
  11. Arcane magic CAN heal, btw (see the bard spell list in 3.5). Psionics can heal as well, and not just one’s own self - see the Sangehirn prestige class.
  12. 3.5 psionics can actually replicate everything magic can do, due to an obscure but famous / infamous Alternate Class Feature which allows an Erudite (variant psion base class) to convert magic spells into psionic powers. This ACF is regarded rather contentiously and poorly by many.
  13. Psionicists CAN keep on learning powers in 3.5 due to the Expanded Knowledge feat as well as the aforementioned Erudite class which specifically has no limit on how many powers they can learn from the base Psion/Wilder lists. Also there are a few prestige classes which add on new powers as well.
  14. The high end of magic power levels is matched by psionics in 3.5. The Wilder’s Wild Surge class feature can break the upper limit (similar to the wild mage of yore), and the Over-channel feat also allows one to break the power cap limit as well, though with side effects and not as crazy as the Wilder. Kalashtar power shards are insane if limited slightly by usage times, so I will just mention them again in the cap-breaking category.
  15. Psionics were given roughly the same guidelines for creating new powers, and the guidelines for creating new spells in 3.5. The rules and costs are roughly the same.

Overall, the designer of the 3.5 psionics system learned from the poorly designed 3.5 magic system and addressed some of the more egregious problems and broken aspects of the magic system - thus it is actually better written, somewhat (as in only slightly) more balanced, and easier to play than the magic system.

The rules were harmonized to a large degree, which makes it much easier to learn and play - however this also causes some people to feel that psionics is too close to magic, something which I can… mostly agree with. There are still some significant differences and improvements to the psionic system over the magic system, but the rules do resemble each other a lot more than ever before in 3.5.

There is an often overlooked rule setting in 3.5 psionics material which stipulates the degree to which magic and psionics can interface and affect each other. The “Psionics are the same” / “Psionics are simliar” / and “Psionics are Different” options. (3.5 defaults to Same setting.) This can make the two compatible or incompatible as the DM wishes. I feel that on Athas, the default setting SHOULD be DIFFERENT, myself.

D&D 3.5 is a magic heavy system, there are 1606 spells on the Consolidated List, and 916 powers in the game according to the Master List of Psionics (including duplicate powers that have differences in effect between 3.0 and 3.5, and the d20 psionic powers, since 3.5 is a subset of d20.)

So, this is a lot of stuff, I will stop here for now.

From a fluff perspective there’s one big difference between any kind of magic (clerical/divine or magical/arcane) and psionics: Psionics is fuelled by the users own mental strength/determination. Magical power originates from an external source.

In late 2E or in 3E, arcane magic power comes from plants, animals, the Black or the Gray. Divine (priestly) magics come from the Elemental and Paraelemental Planes or Spirits of the Land (and quite where they get their power from I’m unsure). Leaving Vancian mechanics aside, a wizard can throw as many spells as he/she can drain life energy. A psion(icist) can only throw powers out there for as long as their Will and their mental energy allows (represented by psionic power points). There are ways they can boost their PSP total (stored PSPs in an item, draining/accepting someone elese PSPs), but that’s still a limit.

Clerics and Druids access energies that are freely given to them and exert no toll on Athas, probably why Athasians seldom get upset at them. Wizards on the other hand almost always have to draw upon the easiest life force available - plant life. That’s not a replenishable supply, which causes the environmental degredation.

Thanks all for the thoughtful and detailed responses.

I wouldn’t disagree that 2e Dark Sun was built around the game mechanics of the time. But the writers of the CPH, for all its manifold flaws, did produce something that felt substantially different from spellcasting and the writers of Dark Sun used that difference in an interesting and engaging way in their world-building.

So I guess my question is - to come back to the theme of fluff over crunch - do the subsequent iterations of Dark Sun manage to do something with the updated mechanics in terms of world-building? Is there a “here’s how 4e incorporated the new psionic classes into its Dark Sun source material in an interesting way?” for example.

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