How Psionics Accommodated D&D’s Critics

In 1966, Gary Gygax fielded a personal ad in the General seeking gaming opponents. He included the line, “Will cooperate on game design.” In the years to follow, Gygax proved a zealous collaborator. Aside from teaming with other designers, he wrote a flood of articles proposing variants and additions to existing games. In the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax brought the same spirit to D&D. He published rules and ideas from the gamers in his circle, and figured that players could use what suited their game. In the Blackmoor supplement, Gygax wrote, “All of it is, of course, optional, for the premise of the whole game system is flexibility and personalization within the broad framework of the rules.”

D&D owes its psionics rules to this spirit.

Just after D&D’s publication, future-TSR-designer Steve Marsh started corresponding with Gygax. Marsh sent many of the aquatic monsters that would appear in the Blackmoor supplement. Also, he proposed a Mystic character class based on the mental powers attributed to Indian mystics. Always the collaborator, Gygax saved the class for later attention.

Gary credited this cover with inspiring the mind flayer

D&D’s psionics started with the mind flayer, which first saw print in Strategic Review #1 in spring of 1975. The creature’s mind blast sent a “wave of PSI force” that could easily incapacitate a party. The monster terrified players. TSR employee Tim Kask recalls, “monsters with psionic powers like Mind Flayers were too horrible even in a fantasy game as they wielded an unstoppable weapon.”

The mind flayer’s power inspired Gygax to draft a countermeasure. “I should have left well enough alone; but no!” Gygax experimented with mental powers for D&D. He created a Divine class that boasted psionic attacks and defenses, and then sent the class to players in his circle.

“I soon hated the whole business, but Len Lakofka and his group in Chicago loved the concept,” Gygax wrote, “and Tim was enthused about the addition as well.”

“Yes, I probably lobbied for their inclusion in AD&D,” Kask recalled. “No, Gary did not love them as I did. But he was wise enough to know that for D&D to continue the phenomenal growth, we had to offer stuff that others might like even if one or more of us didn’t.”

The classes from Gygax and Marsh both reached a big bowl where Gygax collected ideas for D&D. When Tim Kask earned the job of editing D&D’s next supplement, Eldrich Wizardry, he took the bowl.

Gygax’s Divine class (and author Sterling Lanier) provided the notion of psionic attack and defense modes. Marsh’s Mystic class inspired the psionic abilities. Marsh also took the blame for denying elves psi powers. “I was 5’2” at the time and built like a wrestler, because I was a wrestler, and had more sympathy with dwarves than elves.”

Kask brought an enthusiasm. He wanted psionics to inject a new vigor in the game. In Eldrich Wizardry, he explained the goal. “The introduction of psionic combat is bound to enliven games grown stagnant. It opens up untold possibilities for both players and the DM, and in so doing recognizes one of the favorite topics of science fiction and fantasy writers: the unknown powers of the mind.”

When Tim Kask devised the psionics rules, he made two decisions that seemed to answer D&D’s biggest critics.

Critics disparaged D&D’s class system as unrealistic and confining. Rather than limit psionic abilities to a class, Kask separated psionics from D&D’s classes. Anyone could be psionic (except for elves). Steve Marsh recalls, “I wanted a character class, but [Tim Kask] decided that the abilities belonged available to everyone.”

To D&D’s critics, the process of memorizing and forgetting spells seemed unrealistic. They argued for a spell point system. Rather than patterning psionics after D&D’s spell casting system, Kask adopted a point system.

Separating psionics from D&D’s system of class and level threatened to create overpowered characters. Kask saw this potential and worked to inject balance. Characters who added psionics paid a price. Fighters gave up strength and potential followers, magic users lost spells, and so on.

None of these drawbacks fully offset power of psionics, so Kask added a second disadvantage. Intellect devourers, brain moles, cerebral parasites and other creatures sensed psionic users and sought them as prey. When dungeon masters single out psionic characters as targets for attack, the game becomes balanced.

The mental combat system added another new element to D&D. “I LOVED psionic combat and had great fun devising it with all of its tables and charts,” Kask recalls.

“I hammered and twisted those psionic rules forever, and inflicted play-testing on the gang until they got sick of them.”

So Tim Kask created psionic rules that answered D&D’s biggest critics, rules that he tested to perfection. What could possibly go wrong?

Next: Psionics: What could possibly go wrong?

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

7 thoughts on “How Psionics Accommodated D&D’s Critics

  1. Pingback: D&D Adds Psionics: What Could Possibly Go Wrong? | DMDavid

  2. Ilbranteloth

    Interesting article, although were there really that many critics in 1975 about classes and Vancian magic? Seeing as psionics were introduced in the inaugural issue of the first magazine publishing material for a game that had been out for perhaps a year?

    Certainly there were plenty of critics in later years, but who were “D&D’s biggest critics” during 1974/75 when Tim was developing these rules, and where had they “disparaged D&D’s class system” at that point in time?

    1. Ilbranteloth

      I can’t edit it, so I’ll just point out my error in introduction time – Eldritch Wizardry was published in 1976, so development was probably in the ’75 to maybe ’76 period. But again, I’m wondering what critics he was attempting to silence. Seems to me more of a question of a passionate designer coming up with a different design, just as it often seemed like Gary Gygax felt the need to come up with a new mechanic for every new thing, rather than settling on an existing one.

    2. David Hartlage Post author

      Hi Ilbranteloth,

      Your question, “Were there really that many critics in 1975 about classes and Vancian magic?,” led me to my copy of Playing at the World. By 1975, D&D had already sparked vigorous discussion in APA zines—the Internet forums of the mimeograph age. In the May 1975 issue of APA-L #521, Ted Johnstone became the first to suggest spell points.

      D&D discussion so dominated APA-L that Lee Gold started Alarums & Excursions to handle the D&D discussion. Gary Gygax was tuned into the APA scene. In July 1975, a letter from Gary appeared in A&E #2.

      Alas, Jon Peterson never covers the early discussion of D&D’s class system, so I’m left citing Gary’s defense of his system.

      When Tim Kask developed the psionics rules, I don’t know whether he ever really considered D&D’s critics. Nonetheless, his rules defy D&D’s conventions in a way that seems to give D&D’s critics the sort of reforms they wanted.


  3. Steve Killgore

    I changed the process of acquiring Psionics – which may be present (2 in 6) whenever two of INT, WIS or CHA *rolled* are prime numbers (3,5,7,11,13,17) and if all three are prime then 4 in 6 is the chance – so many seemingly “average” and “below average” potential characters have a greater chance of Psionics


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