Seized by what I can only describe as an incomprehensible fit of pique, I’ve spent a decent chunk of my free time over the last week looking into the history of psionics in Dungeons & Dragons, which is quite naturally folded into a look into why it is people absolutely loathe psionics in Dungeons & Dragons. There’s no other system in the game that has been so consistently added after the core lineup of classes and systems (every version has offered it), and no other system that’s so consistently and vehemently hated by a section of the audience.
Of course, all of that examination and thought isn’t really what this here site is about, but the thing is that this dovetails nicely with MMOs. Despite the obvious potential for it in places, psionics are oddly missing from MMOs even when they would make sense or explore some new grounds. But I think the examples of things that feel at least tangentially related to psionics might offer some insight into why we don’t see them more often.
Psionics as a powerset are a bit vague, but they also don’t actually show up very often in any genre of game. One of the more common complaints about the powers in D&D is that they’re much more of a science fiction trope, but even our major science fiction MMOs don’t feature psionic powers. You’re not using psionic abilities in EVE Online; there are very minor psionic tricks here and there in Star Trek Online but they certainly are not the “magic” of the setting; and they’re not on display in smaller titles like The Repopulation.
You might think that Secret World Legends would get in on psionics with the whole “modern occult” routine, but… no, psionics are nowhere to be found; it’s just weird forms of magic. In fact, the genre that most frequently leans in on the idea of psionics is the superhero set, with both City of Heroes and Champions Online sporting a variety of psionic powers for players to explore.
There’s also one other setting that has something that isn’t psionics but carries a lot of the visual signifiers of them; we’ll get to that. If you’ve already thought of it, bully for you.
None of this is to say that there are no brushes with psionics here and there. The Illithid offer the flavor of psionics whenever they show up in D&D-based properties. World of Warcraft has a few psionic tricks in the Shadow Priest tree, even as the whole “mental attack” angle has been downplayed on a whole. There are some abilities that are themed as telekinetic assaults for Jedi Consulars in Star Wars: The Old Republic, although the equivalent Sith tricks are just firing lightning.
Therein lies part of the problem. In a world where magic exists and works, you have to come up with a reason and a justification for psionics also existing but somehow being distinct from magic. While psionics is a broad power set on a conceptual level, generally including everything from telekinetic power to telepathic constructs to clairvoyance, it’s not nearly as broad as magic tends to be. A telekinetic can lift things with her mind, but in WoW a mage can do that just as easily, so where’s the actual difference?
Most often, the actual answer is that magic is a universal force that harnesses external energies, while psionics are internal and made by the wielder. But the point is that it needs to be justified, that you can’t just have an order of psionicists without them being something else alongside using mental powers.
It doesn’t help that more often than not, psionics overlap with things that feel more natural in other settings. For example, if you wanted to make an order of psionic warriors trained in obscure pseudo-magical arts that allow for incredible abilities despite a lack of overt weaponry in WoW, the first thing that everyone would ask – rightly – would be how that’s different from what Monks already are. If you want to explain that a psionicist in Final Fantasy XIV uses internal energy to produce powerful effects, you’ll be informed that this is literally what 80% of the jobs in the game already do because that’s describing how magic works.
Even games that functionally do have psionics tend to redub them. There’s a prominent series in which you have characters who can lift and throw objects with their minds, sense feelings and thoughts, see bits of the future at times, and so forth. We don’t think of them as psionics because they’re called biotics and the visual language is different from what we think of as psionic effects, but Mass Effect is really a game with psionics in all but name.
So we get the idea, right? The problem is that in order for psionics to make sense in a world with magic, you have to establish limits of what psionics can and cannot do that make it distinct from magic while also being a worthwhile addition to the world. And more often than not, the whole point of magic is that it can do anything, which means there’s not much space left for psionics.
Except when psionics are magic.
Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2 do not feature any psionics in so many words, but Mesmers are already so close to the ideal that the name even sounds like a potential branding for a psionic class. Unlike the various other casting options in these games, Mesmers occupy a distinct space with unique limits to what they’re capable of doing, a potent mixture of illusions, controlling effects, disabling spells, and other bits of woven magic that are meant to lead to a shifting and reactive battlefield that’s difficult to react to.
In the most technical sense, yes, Mesmers are just Illusionists, and in lore terms they are definitely another kind of caster. But they also come the closest to capturing that need for psionics to feel like something other. They do something distinct from magic, and it offers softer edges than the more practical casting disciplines like Elementalists and Necromancers.
Of course, the other element that makes it difficult to make a space for psionics is that there’s not as clear a picture of what psionics are supposed to look like. So you need to make this different flavor of what is functionally magic have a place in terms of different gameplay, and you also need to construct an identity for psionics as more than just the anything-box of normal magic. That’s a pretty tall order from the start.
Ultimately, I think the Mesmer provides a pretty solid proof of concept. No, that’s not actually psionics, but it manages to feel like it is just due to aesthetic and gameplay. But Mesmers have also been a part of both games in the franchise since the start. It might be harder to retrofit psionics in without them feeling like a bit of an also-ran, an additional form of not-magic in a world of magic wherein you could accomplish the same things by magic.
Heck, maybe that’s why they seem to show up most often in superhero games, wherein psionics can feel like a normal category of powers in a world filled with powers that all work differently. In a world where everything is weird and runs according to its own logic, you don’t notice one of another two dozen totally separate systems of weirdness amidst all the other.
But I also wouldn’t mind seeing more games take on things like the Mesmer. Yes, some people are probably going to hate the inclusion of psionics or the close-enough equivalent. That’s part of the fun. It’s unusual, it’s weird, and above all else it prompts some questions about the world. And if we’re willing to accept guns existing in fantasy settings, we might as well accept that maybe all forms of supernatural power don’t work according to the same cosmology.