catastrophic psionics

Yesterday Mike Mearls publicly mused about psionics on Twitter (which I assume means that some psionics-friendly publications are coming up).

He started with a question: “Agree/Disagree: The flavor around psionics needs to be altered to allow it to blend more smoothly into a traditional fantasy setting.”

Psionics has always been peripheral in my games because I haven’t figured out how it is different from magic in an interesting game-world way, so my inclination was, “Disagree: Psionics does not need to be MORE blandly medieval-fantasy.”

Mearls went on to say, “I think a psionicist should be exotic and weird, and drawing on/tied to something unsettling on a cosmic scale.”

Sure, I thought, psionics is tied to mind flayers and stuff. It’s kind of Lovecraftian. But, story-wise, how will it differ from the 5e warlock’s star pact, which name-checks eldritch horror without necessarily telling a story about it?

Mearls: “One final note – Dark Sun is, IMO, a pretty good example of what happens to a D&D setting when psionic energy reaches its peak.”

And this is when I *got* psionics.

The existence of psionics is a sign that something is catastrophically wrong. Waking up with psionic power is sort of like being a little deep-sea fish who suddenly sees light: it probably means that one of those creepy predatory anglerfish is swimming up behind you.

Maybe we can take this analogy literally. A world’s budding psions, along with increased mind flayer and beholder sightings, are signs that some eldritch horror is drifting towards us through some unfathomable gulf. Maybe the eldritch horror will pass us, or maybe it will swallow our multiverse in one gulp.

I think this idea has emotional resonance because, just as zombie stories tap into our real-world anxieties about overpopulation, Catastrophic Psionics mythically transforms our environmental anxieties. People born with psionic power may use it for good, or they may use it for evil, but either way, they’re tapping into a power that’s consuming the world. It’s possible that psionic powers are merely a symptom, and using them does no harm; it’s also possible that using these powers accelerates the cataclysm.

What do psionic monsters want? Let’s take a look at Dark Sun, which Mearls identifies as the psionics endgame. For some unexplained reason, Athas has no gods. Maybe a world’s gods are like a beacon that attracts – whatever is coming. Maybe it eats gods.

14 Responses to “catastrophic psionics”

  1. Wrathamon says:

    darksun was a setting where Arcane Magic went crazy and destroyed life (plants first)
    when using magic became scarce, it meant a power vacuum which was filled by psionics. Monsters which used psionics became the standard as magic was not there to fight them back and standard life became extinct because of the loss of forests and water. It became a harsher environment to live and psionics gave you the edge.

    I dont recall why there are no gods, but that vacuum was filled by elemental powers.

    It wasn’t a cataclysm caused by psionics, but a result of a magical cataclysm.

    I do like you idea … and it could fit into the mythology of darksun (or a new setting)

    The idea that Elder Evil(s) are coming and psionics in people and critters is awakened by the approaching terrors. Fight or join it matters not. Great for a fantasy super hero setting :)

  2. Stan says:

    I love this take on psionics. On a practical basis it puts the magic users into an oddly conservative role. Making psionics a weird and unsettling thing no one has seen before “well now that’s odd isn’t it?” –and that’s always good. I can see people (spellcasters and the people who hire them) being all UP IN ARMS about people who can do ‘magic’ but that Detect Magic can’t touch. That would be scary to the powers that be.

    It would start with the random psionics of OD&D/1E. Later people might figure things out enough to have the actual psionicist class.

  3. Benjamin Baugh says:

    The Church keeps a watch, for the children who can see without eyes, who hear thoughts, for whom their toys dance and caper. There is a scisim in the church as to whether the children are symptom of cause, but they’re a sure sign that the Hungry Times are coming, when the Sleepers wake, the Eaters in the Darkness hunger and crawl, when the world goes mad, and nations die. In the last Waking, the old Elvish and Dwarvish empires broke, their strength spent holding back the chaos. In this new Waking, who has that might? Humanity? Too splintered, to factious, too quick to deny reality, to blame the child seers for the world’s pain. No human alive remembers the last Waking. But there are Elves who do, and some of them are still sane. And the Dwarven Stone Saints know too, but they speak little these days.

  4. jdjarvis says:

    That sscreaming, that rising chorus isn’t from outside it is from within. Part of you has remembered what was and what is to be. Are the screams a warning or lamenetations?

    Yeah, psionics can work as a harbinger of an impending cataclysm. Little girls can wake up in the middle of the night discovering they can set fire to objects with a thought (too bad the walls are on fire), and a poor lost soul locked in a stygian pit can discover there is an entire world waiting just aside if only something can be surrendered…

  5. paul paul says:

    @Wrathamon: Good point – but what caused the magical cataclysm? What twisted magic to become a greedy thing? These questions may be answered in the Dark Sun setting material, in which I am not an expert :-)

    @Stan: Yes, our defenses are suddenly useless because of these young punks? It would be like how War Games tapped into the anxiety that kids with vaguely defined hacking powers could start global thermonuclear war.

    @Benjamin, @jdjarvis: Exactly! Just what I was trying to say.

  6. Brett says:

    This is kind of similar to Armageddon as well as C.J. Carella’s Witchcraft from Eden Studios.

    An increasing amount of psionics, magical folks, werewolves, etc. are appearing, because the creatures from the worlds beyond (demons, devils, monsters, etc.) are trying to break through into our reality. The powered folk are the last bastion against the rising evil and destruction.

  7. Wrathamon says:

    not sure how accurate this is

    It looks like there was a series of post apocalyptic events. The Blue Age was after previous apocalypse that isnt discussed, but the halflings are the only ones left. I’m guessing because I remember in one of the books that gnomes never were reborn (awoke) Rebirth means that these races existed at one point, it was hinted they all went into suspended animation or something (very earthdawn) to avoid something. And the gods aren’t there (I think it was because they got shut out … crystal sphere era where athas was sealed off. (maybe by tharizdun?)

    Magic is lost (only way to connect to the weave is through lifeforce?) but re-discovered by rajat.

    cool stuff and your ideas could easily fill out some of the mystery backstory

  8. Rhenium says:

    This sounds quite similar to the Laundry Files by Charles Stross, just in the D&D world. The walls of reality weaken slightly making things more able to “break through”. How does something manifest itself when it has no idea what flesh and bone are? Through our minds.

    I’d also name-check “The Willows” and “The White People” for two other weird and unsettling examples of the above in literature done well. Lovecraft’s “The Unnamable” as an example done somewhat poorly.

  9. Jesse Cox says:

    So psionics has a strong history in the horror genre (especially if you consider mediums to be psionic) so it’s not surprising that they go well with post-apocalyptic (or pre-apocalyptic) settings.

    There’s also the constant tension between the dangers of ignorance and the drive of curiosity on one side — and things you with you could unlearn on the other.

  10. Jesse Cox says:

    For the same concept with “magic” see Earthdawn — the rising mana level empowers spells and adepts, but it’s a tide the Horrors swim in as home.

  11. Rhenium says:

    This is very interesting topic with lots of food for thought and game material.
    I hope Paul posts a follow up.

  12. Rich Howard says:

    Yup. I agree. Environmental pressures are key.

    I’m pretty sure we talked about this idea in the most recent Dungeon Masters’ Block (ep 37), at least in relation to aquatic campaigns.

  13. Cody C. says:

    This is delightfully creepy and I wholeheartedly approve on that alone. However, I would probably keep this fact a secret from the player who happens to be using a psionic class, waiting for that moment when dropping this piece of information would be perfect, causing them to question their place in the world, what they might have done by using these powers, and what will happen if they continue to do so wantonly.

    I’m definitely making a mental note for this the next time I allow psionics into a game. This is too good not to use. Bravo, sir. Simply bravo.

  14. Gabor says:

    The Warhammer franchise (WFRP and WH40k) has a somewhat similar take on psionics by default. Their relevant system / world building stuff may be worth looking into, if you’re not familiar with them already. :)

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