Thursday, August 5, 2010

OD&D Psionic Balance

One of the commoner complaints about psionics is that there's no balancing mechanism in the rules. That is, characters with psionics are simply better than those without. In Eldritch Wizardry, that's not actually true, because the text notes that, depending on one's class, there's a price to be paid for acquiring psionic ability.

Fighting men:
for every ability they gain they must lose the service of 1 of their followers, and for every four abilities gained 1 point of strength is permanently lost.
Magic-Users:
for with each psionic ability gained the magic-user will lose the ability to remember a spell. That is, with gaining of the first ability the magic-user will be able to use one less 1st level spell, when the second ability is gained he will lose two additional spell levels (i.e. two 1st level spells or one 2nd level spell), and so on. At no time may the magic-user remember more high level spells than low level ones, and if he is able to use 6th level spells, for example, and he selects one, he must be able to remember at least one spell of each of the other five levels.
Clerics:
for every psionic ability gained the cleric will lose two of his other advantages. First, he will lose one spell, exactly the same as a magic-user loses spell ability. Second, the cleric loses the ability to turn away undead monsters as he gains psionic powers, so that for each psionic ability gained the cleric ranks a level lower in the ability to turn undead. Thus, a 10th level cleric with four psionic abilities would have a loss of 10 spell levels and turn undead as a 6tyh level cleric.
Thieves:
In addition to the penalties noted for fighting men, however, thieves also lose 1 point of dexterity for each four psionic abilities gained.
Say what you will about the efficacy of these proposed balancing factors but they're actually quite interesting. For example, psionic ability would seem to be at odds with magic, since an increase in psionic potency is met with a concomitant decrease in magical potency. Psionic ability also somehow weakens the physical body, as evidenced by the loss of Strength and Dexterity by fighting men and thieves (There's also the implication that thieves are a sub-class of fighters but that's a different topic). Finally, there's the decrease in a cleric's ability to turn the undead the more psionically powerfully he becomes. What's up with that?

Again, I'm not certain that these penalties for possessing psionics make up for the benefits gained, but there's no question that they're very suggestive about the metaphysics behind psionics. With the exception of the undead aspect, there's even a certain logic to it all (and there may even be with the undead, though I haven't yet figured it out). Any new psionics system would be wise, I think, to look to Supplement III for inspiration, even if using different details. I like psionics to feel odd and alien and somehow contrary to the ordinary rules of the D&D world. That's part of what makes them compelling to me and why I think they deserve their own mechanics, distinct from those of spellcasting.

13 comments:

  1. Interesting too that fighters lose followers as a result of gaining power - the implication being that followers are as fundamental to a fighter as spells are to wizards and turning undead is to a cleric! It just goes to show how much people who skip the followers rules are doing fighters in particular a disservice...

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  2. This is why despite my psionics rules' foundation in the AD&D 1e system, I'm keeping this portion of the EW rules. It's not only a balancing factor, but it makes some sense, as psionic characters have less time and desire to devote themselves to worldly concerns and non-psionic arcana. A low-level Magic-user with psionic abilities is virtually crippled for spellcasting purposes.

    The "turning Undead" penalty for Clerics also makes sense to me. It's implied (and explicitly stated for Fighting Men) that psionics require delving into Yogic esoterica and the like.

    Presumably, Clerics exploring these paths are at best spending less time on the mainline teachings of their religion, and at worst may be engaged in borderline schismatic or heretical delvings. I have trouble believing that the average pseudo-medieval Catholic hierarchy is willing to give its official imprimatur to outright mysticism, any more than the real one was. So psionic development probably comes at the expense of exploration of the core dogma of the faith.

    The EW psionics rules essentially make one's character a multi-class. As characters get deeper into the psionic disciplines, they have less time to engage in their "main" class, and that's reflected in penalties to class abilities rather than additional xp costs.

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  3. I always thought of treating Psionics as a "new Class". So when a character becomes Psionic (whether starting the game that way, or picking it up at a later time), it slows down their level advancement.

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  4. Like Jimmy, I feel more comfortable with psioncs [sic] producing a new class (or set of classes), rather than a new rules layer modifying existing classes. I think it would be very difficult to really get the balance right, even if there are benefits to it as well. The other problem would be that you would have to think of new penalties every time you introduced a new class to your game, such as Druid or Paladin.

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  5. Damn, man - every time I read one of these psionic posts it get's me jazzed to try a psionic conversion for B/X. I have too much on my plate already!

    I, too, have always loved psionics, but I never owned EW. Does anyone out there know the particular inspiration for EW's version of psionics? I mean, all this stuff percolated somewhere (Tolkien for halflings, Vance for magic, Anderson's 3Hearts/3Lions for paladins, etc.). Does anyone know the original basis/origin for Psionics in EW (I am assuming Eldrith Wizardry was the first stab at the "mind powers")?

    Thanks!

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  6. I haven't read it in a long time but I remember thinking a lot of the D&D psionics system bore more than a coincidental resemblance to the psychic combat in Sterling Lanier's Hiero's Journey.

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  7. Interesting too that fighters lose followers as a result of gaining power

    Yes, it is fascinating, although one wonders what Supplement III means by "followers." Does it refer to henchmen and hirelings or to something else?

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  8. Presumably, Clerics exploring these paths are at best spending less time on the mainline teachings of their religion, and at worst may be engaged in borderline schismatic or heretical delvings. I have trouble believing that the average pseudo-medieval Catholic hierarchy is willing to give its official imprimatur to outright mysticism, any more than the real one was. So psionic development probably comes at the expense of exploration of the core dogma of the faith.

    That does make sense, actually. Hmmm. I may have to rethink my own ideas for psionics in Dwimmermount as they don't quite jibe with what Supplement III presents.

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  9. Does it refer to henchmen and hirelings or to something else?

    I'm interpreting it as Maximum Hirelings (i.e., not mercenaries etc.) as described in the Charisma section of Volume 1.

    It makes sense that a Fighting Man, who presumably attracts loyal followers not only with his gold but with his reputation as a sword-arm and leader of men, might seem less "followable" if he's always sitting around in lotus position doing Yoga and making flowers unfold with his brain.

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  10. Does anyone out there know the particular inspiration for EW's version of psionics? I mean, all this stuff percolated somewhere (Tolkien for halflings, Vance for magic, Anderson's 3Hearts/3Lions for paladins, etc.). Does anyone know the original basis/origin for Psionics in EW (I am assuming Eldrith Wizardry was the first stab at the "mind powers")?

    As I understand it, Steve Marsh, who first came up with psionics, was inspired by yoga and similar sorts of "Eastern" mysticism in creating the core of the class that Gygax (or whoever) took apart and used as the basis for the generalized psionics system. I have also heard that Marvel's Dr. Strange character was an inspiration. but I couldn't cite any evidence in support of this.

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  11. To add a theological foundation to what Scott has already pointed out, psionics is an art that pushes a cleric to rely more on himself than God.

    To put it another way, he has more faith in his own abilities than he has in God. By relying more on himself than God, he actually gets in the way of God working through him. Thus, fewer spells and a loss of the ability to turn undead.

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  12. I put some thought into this awhile ago. Although I went with something different in Under the Dying Sun, I still think there is something good in the idea that the better you become as a psionic, the worse you get at your class.

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  13. @Andrew: I think one of the focuses of a fighter in OD&D should be to eventually carve out a domain for themselves and become a general, warlord, baron, or queen. And to do that effectively you really need trustworthy lieutenants, so followers are extremely valuable. Try commanding an army without loyal subordinates to exercise command and control and rally troops.

    Games which don't proceed to this level, especially those games where the fighters are simply a mobile shield wall for the spell-casters, are shortchanging the fighter immensely.

    [This was one of the reasons in my game that fighters could gain XP by spending gold on developing a domain and reputation, as well as training and practice in a martial arts school.]

    Considering the EW psionics rules allowed the fighter to continue developing powers along with the cleric and spell-caster, it's a rather fair trade-off.

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