Gary Gygax Loved Science Fantasy, So Why Did He Want Psionics Out of D&D?

In the fall of 1985, just as Gary Gygax left TSR, Dragon magazine issue 103 revealed his suddenly obsolete plans for second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Not all his plans featured additions and enhancements. He aimed to remove two parts of the game. Both items on Gygax’s hit list appeared in original D&D. Both struck Gygax as poor fits with D&D’s medieval fantasy.

Gygax’s first target, the monk, rode in on the same craze for kung-fu action that fostered a TV show, comic books, and the 20th-highest-selling single of all time. Gygax wanted monks moved to an oriental-themed add-on.

As for the second target, psionics, Gygax wanted to “remove the concept from a medieval fantasy role-playing game system and put it into a game where it belongs—something modern or futuristic.” But Gygax freely mixed elements of science fiction with medieval fantasy. He wrote Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the adventure with a ray gun on the cover.

In the years before D&D, many popular fantasy series started with medieval worlds and added psionics to include something that worked like magic. Gygax included Andre Norton on his Appendix N list of inspirational authors. Her most popular series, Witch World, mixed psionics and magic. The Deryni series by Katherine Kurtz started in 1970 and centered on a race of humans with magical and psychic abilities. Marion Zimmer Bradley started her Darkover series 1958 and wrote it for decades. Set on a lost colony planet, Darkover mixes medieval technology and psi powers that work like magic.

In the 70s more than today, people saw psychic potential as a frontier of science that merited serious investigation. By using psionics to create a sort of magic, science fiction authors reframed their worlds from an impossible fancy to places that could exist someday, somewhere. Many science fiction fans enjoyed the step toward reality.

D&D’s notion of psionic attack and defense modes comes from another book featured in Appendix N, Hiero’s Journey by Sterling Lanier.

Gygax enjoyed a dash of sci-fi in his fantasy, but the flavor of psionics in D&D lacks the feel Appendix N. The flavor shares more with the 70s popular culture and pop psychology that brought psychic aura readings and biorhythms. The concepts may come from appendix N, but names like “Ego Whip” and “Id Insinuation” draw terms from psychology.

D&D’s psionic rules injected modern science into a fantasy world. The rules come rife with scientific terms: “Mass Domination,” “Probability Travel,” “Energy Control,” and so on. Why would someone in a D&D world call a psionic power “Molecular Rearrangement” rather than Shapechange? How would they know about molecules? When I first read the psionics rules, names like “Intellect Fortress” and even “Id Insinuation” inspired me, but too much of the jargon failed in a D&D setting.

Aside from a flavor that evoked 70s parapsychology and pop psychology, D&D’s psionics suffered a second problem: The actual rules owed more to the critics of D&D than to the original game.

Next: How psionics accommodated D&D’s critics

5 thoughts on “Gary Gygax Loved Science Fantasy, So Why Did He Want Psionics Out of D&D?

  1. Shyber Kryst

    I never liked psionics in D&D. The rules were overly complicated and didn’t fit the medieval fantasy theme as you pointed out. I love Dark Sun, however, even with psionics baked into the setting.

  2. Peter

    psionics were great but they could break the character and the game. they were good in NPC to make them dangerous. In the unlikely event the PC had it needed to be heavily regulated.

  3. Chris Tamm

    i made psionics into spell list like others and it worked very well – new systems are a pain
    i wish androids and robots were in MM2 with other barrier peaks adventures

  4. Pingback: For 10 Years D&D Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots | DMDavid

  5. Kevin Vinson

    I have played D&D since the 1970s. I played with psionics as they were in the Dragon mag intro and in AD&D 1E Players Handbook, to the last series of games I played in 2019, so 1E through 5E. I took the combined efforts from all books and magazines and settled on the one focus. Psionics are NOT magic. They are powers of the mind (as was stated when they were first used in D&D…they worked in the gaming system well, but the rules were not followed correctly by most when being used). The players HB stated this and even defined that powers were added as a character grew in levels, most missed this in the 1E PHB, such as Page 111, where it states that only 1 discipline can be gained at 1st level, and another one 2 levels thereafter, and you had to have 2 of there to learn 1 science at 5th level as a character. The max was 4 disciplines, and two major sciences for any psionic unless a God willed it be that you could have another. In this case, you would have to be an 11th level character to even get your last power. Also, most powers had limits and ranges. These abilities were not associated with your class or magic. The cross over to that was after the new 3E series. That was a mess of rules in all cases. To many rules ruin this game. When I first played I had the old box set with three small books, then dice in it, and the crayon to color in the dice, as they were all white, or an off white color. The Three Vol set. 1977. At one point I had all of them, the box set, all books of 1E through 3E and all supplemental books and modules. Sold the entire set to a guy in Sam Diego, even all my computer disks and software games and dice and miniatures. I gave the map of the world I created and the detailed city maps for free. Still love the game though!


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