Power in the DnD multiverse comes in many forms, whether obtained through sheer physical strength, study of the arcane, or directly from a god or other powerful entity.
Some extraordinary supernatural powers emanate directly from the mind itself, manifested through sheer mental discipline. These are called Psionics.
Wielded by creatures like the Illithids or Githyanki, Psionics are a category of mental powers adjacent to, but separate from, arcane and divine magic.
Although they’ve been a part of Dungeons & Dragons since the game’s first edition, they’ve rarely found their way into a version of the rules without attracting some degree of controversy.
Whether that’s meant complaints that Psionics “are too much sci-fi in my fantasy RPG,” or (and this is the one I sympathize with the most) that adding a whole extra, exceedingly complex, subsystem to DnD is a bridge too far in terms of complexity, the result is that, until recently, 5e hasn’t really felt like it knows what to do about bringing Psionics into the latest version of the game.
With Psionics being (albeit softly) incorporated into DnD 5e’s playable character options at last (monsters have had psionic abilities since the beginning, and why should Mind Flayers get to have all the fun?), in this article we’re going to be giving you a beginner’s guide to Psionics, their history, the monsters with psionic powers in 5e, and how you can play a character who can, like, kill stuff with their brain.
Are There Psionics in DnD 5e?
While a number of monsters, like Mind Flayers, have been able to use their psionic abilities since 5e’s launch, this has largely taken the form of being able to cast spells without material, verbal, or somatic components rather than a discrete subsystem of rules.
However, with the introduction of the Psi Warrior and the Soulknife Rogue in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything as well as the Telekinetic and Telepathic feats, there are some mechanically unique psionic options for player characters in 5e.
A History of Psionics in DnD
Psionics were introduced to DnD all the way back in 1e as part of the Supplement III – Eldritch Wizardry (which also saw the first appearance of Mind Flayers), and they are probably the element of the game that’s undergone the most changes throughout the years.
In 1e, Psionics were introduced as a suite of mental powers available to humans (no psionic elves here, folks) but not human druids.
The rules were supposedly “bound to enliven games grown stagnant,” but in reality were fantastically complex and difficult to apply to the already somewhat arcane and stale rules of early DnD.
(Don’t get me wrong, I love old school DnD with all my heart precisely because it’s full of absolutely wack nonsense like THAC0, but even for a 1e/BX apologist, first edition Psionics are too much).
Psionic powers, although basically unusable, were still really interesting and full of flavor, however.
Psionic characters could use telekinetic or telepathic powers, guard their minds against attack, and even put their metabolic rates and bodily functions into a form of stasis.
In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Edition Player’s Handbook, Psionic abilities were included and presented as an optional ability available to many monsters and to players who could qualify with lucky rolls.
There was no official specific character class that specialized in psionic powers yet; however, although an unofficial class, the psionicist was introduced in Dragon Magazine issue #78.
In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, psionics were initially absent, although they were later introduced as part of a dedicated release, The Complete Psionics Handbook that gave us expanded rules and a dedicated psionics class.
Presented as an alternative to “Vancian casting,” Psionics often ended up being reflavored to be used as magic in a more general sense.
Also – and I think this has led to even more anti-Psionics sentiment over the years – Psionics in 2e was in many ways more flexible and powerful than straight-up magic, which had the added effect of making Psionics the province of wangrods, power gamers, and munchkins for years at a time.
Psionics were overhauled again in 3e and 3.5e and then again for 4e.
By the time (the also controversial) it finished up, there were a full four psionic classes in the game – the ardent, battlemind, monk, and psion – which used a variant version of 4e’s infamous “powers” and “disciplines” systems.
Different editions of D&D have created different rules for psionic powers, sometimes expressing them in wildly divergent ways.
- Despite how different the rules have been in each edition, there have been a few consistent elements:
- Psionic powers arise from the user, rather than from an external source.
- Psionic aptitude can be used to cast spells, as well as to create effects beyond the limits of spells.
- The powers associated with psi in D&D are like those that appear in other media that feature psionic characters: telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, and the like.
- Unearthed Arcana, Psionic Options Revisited (2020)
Psionics in DnD 5e
When DnD 5e launched in 2014, Psionics were conspicuously absent – a somewhat jarring decision given just how much psionic bloat was included in 4e by that edition’s end of life.
In retrospect, it’s not too surprising; the 5e design team was building their new edition in (what they perceived, at least, to be) direct reaction to the tactical, crunchy, wargamer mechanics of 4e.
If you’re trying to make DnD simpler, more elegant, and more accessible, a bulky and controversial secondary magic system is probably going to be the first thing to hit the cutting room floor.
Sure, the Monster Manual contains a number of creatures with (in name at least) psionic powers.
Aboleths, Illithids, Thri-Kreen, Flumphs – basically anything super weird and gross that lives in the Underdark, come to think of it – were either referenced as having some form of Psionic ability or had a little “(psionic)” notation next to their spellcasting sections.
It wasn’t long at all, however, before Jeremy Crawford and the rest of the WotC design team started picking at the idea of playable psionic options, releasing the Unearthed Arcana content in 2017 that played with the concept of a standalone psionic class: The Mystic.
Unearthed Arcana: The Mystic
“Mystics shun the world to turn their eyes inward, mastering the full potential of their minds and exploring their psyches before turning to face the world. Mystics are incredibly rare, and most prefer to keep the nature of their abilities secret. Using their inner, psychic strength, they can read minds, fade into invisibility, transform their bodies into living iron, and seize control of the physical world and bend it to their will.”
– Unearthed Arcana: The Mystic Class (2017)
The Mystic class was an interesting mixture of offensive, defensive, and utility psionic abilities that worked through a system that’s mechanically similar to artificer infusions, spellcasting, and Battle Master maneuvers rolled into one.
A lot of the effects of the Mystics powers were directly pulled from psionic abilities found in earlier editions.
The UA class got a relatively warm reception, but was widely agreed upon by the community to be either too complex and powerful or that it encroached too much on the core competencies of other classes.
As a result, the Mystic was scrapped, and Psionics have since found a home in a number of subclasses (some pulled directly from the Mystic subclasses, like the Soulknife) and feats throughout Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
Can I Play a Psionic Character in DnD 5e?
Yes, but some classes feel more “psionic” than others.
Barring any big changes that Wizards of the Coast are currently keeping very close to their chest (they seem to be more focused on eliminating bioessentialism and other quality-of-life tweaks in the lead up to DnD 5.5 at the moment anyway) Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything represents the full extent of Psionics in 5e as it relates to playable characters.
Still, the supplement gives you some rather fun options to play around with.
Aberrant Mind Sorcerer
The least overtly psionic subclass found in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, the Aberrant Mind Sorcerer essentially gets access to some spooky psionic features like telepathy as well as a few spells from the Warlock list that focus on either mind-controlling people or seriously messing people up with wiggly black tentacles of eldritch doom.
This is a great way to embody the whole Eleven from Stranger Things fantasy as it’s all about the unwilling or unwitting attainment of Psionics as opposed to playing a character who sought out and learned psionics intentionally.
“An alien influence has wrapped its tendrils around your mind, giving you psionic power,” reads TCoE.
A Psi Warrior is a fighter who augments their physical might with psi-infused weapon strikes, telekinetic lashes (one of the classic psion abilities from earlier editions), and barriers of mental force.
Gith are the most common race to follow the Psi Warrior route, but anyone can push themselves down this ultra-powerful damage-dealing route.
Psi Warriors get a pool of Psionic Dice (like the Battle Master Fighter’s Superiority Dice) which get bigger (going from d6s all the way up d12s at 17th level) as they improve and let them access a few interesting psionic abilities – including a mental shield which reduces incoming damage, a psychic strike which boosts your outgoing damage, and a way to up your movement speed not unlike a Monk’s Ki.
Originally a Mystic subclass, the Soulknife Rogue is all about harnessing psionic powers to dish out more damage and conjure blades of pure psychic energy.
Like the Psi Warrior, Soulknife Rogues get a pool of psionic power dice that let them do crazy stuff like teleport, communicate telepathically, and boost their skill checks even more (because that’s something rogues totally need help with).
Check out our in-depth guide to the Soulknife Rogue here.
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything also introduced some psionic feats for any character – harkening back to 1e when anyone (except elves, dwarves, halflings, druids, or clerics – I think that’s it. Basically, humans) could attain psionic abilities.
These two feats include:
Telepathic: Project your own thoughts into the minds of others and, once per long rest, read another creature’s mind. This feat also provides a useful boost to your Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma.
Telekinetic: In addition to bumping up one of your mental ability scores, this feat teaches you a souped-up version of the Mage Hand cantrip that lets you push or pull people and things around as a bonus action.
DM Advice: How Do I Put Psionics in My Campaign?
If you’re a dungeon master whose homebrewed world steers more in the direction of traditional high or low fantasy, then including Psionics might understandably feel like it “breaks” the tone of your campaign a little.
Personally, I don’t think it’s too difficult to reflavor psionic abilities as simply a different sort of magic, or maybe even restrict them to character races that hail from beyond the material plane like the Gith or perhaps those touched by the plane of dreams, like the Kalashtar.
Like the Aberrant Mind sorcerer, Psionics could be the result of contact with beings or energy from the Far Realms or other eldritch places.
However you choose to fit Psionics into your game, try picking a few sensory details that clearly mark such powers as psionic. I do the same thing with arcane and divine magic in my games.
All arcane magic makes people’s hair stand on end and the air taste like copper; all divine magic manifests alongside strange smells, like incense, cinnamon, or cloves.
It’s very easy to make psionic powers feel alien by choosing a few recurring descriptors.
Maybe anyone using Psionics momentarily has their eyes turn jet black, or perhaps psionics in your world involve manipulating frequencies of audible sound – leading psionic characters to make all manner of strange and discordant noises just inside the range of humanoid hearing.
As with pretty much all my DMing advice, it boils down to: have fun with it; make it weird.
Dark Sun: Plundering Past Editions for a Psionics-Heavy Game
Dark Sun is easily one of my favorite settings for DnD, and many of the adventures set in that strange, Mobius/Terry Gilliam-inspired universe truck heavily in Psionics-centric adventuring.
If you’re willing to do a bit of conversion legwork (to be honest, I’ve never even run a 5e adventure “out of the box”; I always graft on other bits, homebrew monsters, and generally just borrow lore and overarching plots or modular dungeons and encounter areas for my own games), then the adventure DSE1 Dragon’s Crown from 2e is an amazing thing to steal from.
Basically, it’s seven connected adventures (themselves part of a larger Dark Sun story line) that center on protecting a mighty city state from the threat of “an insidious new enemy, one who controls the use of psionics throughout the dying world of Athas.”
It’s great, gonzo weirdness and totally worth the rather long read.
Using Psionic Monsters in DnD 5e
There are a respectable number of monsters with psionic abilities in DnD 5e that largely fall into the category of Aberrations.
Psionics are not something that occurs naturally in the material plane, and most of the creatures that wield such powers tend to be ancient, otherworldly, and just all-around freaky.
A few monsters with Psionic powers you can include in your next campaign include:
Aboleths: Giant, prehistoric squid monsters that once almost rose to godhood by mind-controlling entire species.
Mind Flayers: The classic psionic monster. Unrepentantly evil humanoids that exist to plot, scheme, and eat your brains. Mind Flayers live in vast hive mind colonies throughout the Underdark, ruled by powerful Elder Brains (big lumps of gray stuff in jars), and generally have a penchant for royally screwing with other races of creatures. As such, they’re largely responsible for the creation of most of the other psionic creatures in DnD 5e.
Oblex: Possibly the scariest Mind FLayer Creation: a highly intelligent Ooze.
Intellect Devourers: DnD’s answer to the Xenomorph face-hugger. Intellect devourers are basically a brain on legs that clamps onto the back of your head, slurps up all your gray matter, and drives you around on the orders of its Mind Flayer overlords.
Gith: Broken up into two warring subraces, the Githyanki and the Githzerai, the Gith are also survivors of a complicated relationship with Mind Flayers and now hunt them across the Astral Sea in a millennia-long, bloody war. Gith are almost all psions of some description, able to infuse their weapons with additional bursts of psychic energy.
That’s hopefully enough to get you started on the long, winding, contradictory road to understanding Psionics and how they work in DnD.
Until next time, happy adventuring.