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.