Monday, August 2, 2010

Thinking 'bout Psionics

This post over at Huge Ruined Piled has got me thinking about psionics again. Or rather it's intensified my latest bout of thinking about psionics. I make no secret of the fact that I've always loved psionics in D&D. I know all the arguments against them, the only truly cogent one being that the old school implementation of them, whether in Eldritch Wizardry or AD&D, never really worked, but I've never understood the notion that psionics "don't fit" D&D. I mean, I can understand not using psionics in every D&D campaign, but I'd argue that the list of things that genuinely "don't fit" D&D in any absolute sense is vanishingly small.

My own renewed interest in psionics is twofold. First, ever since my stillborn attempt to produce an old school psionics system for use with the retro-clones, I've thought that I ought to revisit the topic from a slightly different angle. Second, without revealing too much to my players, I think there's definitely a place for psionics in my Dwimmermount campaign. Indeed, over the last few sessions, I've found myself thinking that I really need to come up with a psionics system that "feels right," so that I won't miss the opportunity to introduce it into the campaign when the moment arises.

So far, though, I don't have any new insights into the topic and so I'm left more or less where I was last time. I remain committed to using Eldritch Wizardry's system as a starting point, because, to me anyway, that funky system has a great deal of flavor that I want to preserve. Figuring out a way to preserve that flavor and create something that's, well, actually playable and isn't a bookkeeping nightmare. Beyond that, I am not yet sure how to proceed, but it's something I am cogitating upon a lot these days, so don't be surprised if you see a bunch of psionics posts here over the next couple of weeks.

32 comments:

  1. I've always liked persimmons too. Er... I mean psionics. :)

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  2. For me, the questions become; what is psionics other than just another magic system? Why is it needed, when you have magic-user spells, illusionist spells, cleric spells, and druid spells? If you want to make a new type of spell caster, fine and dandy; do so, make the spells, and move on.

    I think the whole notion of it not being a good fit with D&D stems from its filling the same ecological niche as magic. I'd put the AD&D psionics rules in a game of Gamma World or Metamorphosis: Alpha in a heartbeat (with maybe a tweak or two). But in D&D, they're superfluous.

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  3. It sounds like you're gearing up for your Friday query to be something about our personal psionic histories?
    ; )

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  4. I share Joseph's concerns about psionics competing for the same niche as magic. James, since you base your D&D in the pulp fantasies that inspired it, is there one or more that mix psionics and magic in the same world in a way that they feel genuinely different?

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  5. But in D&D, they're superfluous.

    I see psionics vs. magic as roughly equivalent to orcs vs. [insert your favorite humanoid race here], demons vs. devils, clerics vs. paladins, or innumerable other similar topics. No, they're not needed and, yes, they fill a similar role to magic spells but they bring another option to the table in terms of both mechanics and flavor.

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  6. James, since you base your D&D in the pulp fantasies that inspired it, is there one or more that mix psionics and magic in the same world in a way that they feel genuinely different?

    I can't think of any pulp fantasies that do this, but the distinction between magic and mental powers is a strong one in comic books throughout the Silver Age of the medium. I'd hazard a guess that it's from comics that the idea the notion took root and spread to gaming.

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  7. Gygax once said that the whole inspiration for psionics came from some group of gamers he met with for an afternoon in Chicago (if I'm remembering the details correctly). He regretted it from the start.

    But to your other point, if it's "just another way of making stuff happen supernaturally", why not just call it magic and give it a list of unique mental-type spells? I still don't see the need for an entirely different, and yet parallel, system.

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  8. Gygax once said that the whole inspiration for psionics came from some group of gamers he met with for an afternoon in Chicago (if I'm remembering the details correctly). He regretted it from the start.

    As I understand it, Steve Marsh was the immediate origin of the Supplement III psionics rules. He created a whole class built around it and Gary pulled the class apart to create a more generalized system.

    It's certainly the case that Gary regretted it, as he did many other aspects of AD&D, which is fine. I don't think anyone should feel bound to include psionics in their campaigns, but I do think there's a place for it.

    But to your other point, if it's "just another way of making stuff happen supernaturally", why not just call it magic and give it a list of unique mental-type spells? I still don't see the need for an entirely different, and yet parallel, system.

    As I said, there's no need for it, but, if one likes the idea of psionics, and the basis for its powers is different than magic, why not use a different system? I'm not a big fan these days of shoehorning everything into a one-size-fits-all template, which is my biggest beef with most psionics systems for D&D. I find the welter of parallel systems in D&D to be fun and interesting rather than annoying, but I can appreciate it's not to everyone's taste.

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  9. In a D&D-like world, I'd imagine that most people would consider psionics to be magic, even if the psionicists and wizards didn't.

    Maybe the resulting pedantic geek-rage fuels their psionic powers :)

    What flavour would a psionicist class have? I'd think of ancient, advanced, enlightened but world-weary aliens/evolved ex-humans, rather like the Watcher of Marvel Comics, or to a lesser extent Mr Spock.

    I like how OD&D states that psionic powers derive from yoga.

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  10. Perhaps an informative question might be... if you were running a game of GW, or M:A, or even Mutant Future, would you want to include a Vancian spell system to include magic into the setting? If not, why not?

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  11. I always figure the more the merrier. Is there a need for psionics? Is there a need for orcs and hobgoblins? No, but a little extra color can be fun now and again.

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  12. I'm working on psionics rules over at Huge Ruined Pile but am not sure if I'll implement them. If I don't, it'll be because of mechanical concerns.

    There's definitely no *need* for a psionics system, it adds a layer of relatively complex bookkeeping, it works differently than magic, and it's not a perfect thematic dovetail with the default setting implied by the rules.

    However, part of the attraction of OD&D for me is that it's a baroque edifice with lots of nooks, crannies, and overhangs that add up to something pretty neat, like a sprawling mansion designed by 12 different brilliant but crazy architects.

    (Contrast with Harn, which is much more of a spitwad than is popularly recognized, but in which psionics are still a bit jarring.)

    I'm blithely unaffected by concerns of thematic or mechanical consistency, or I sure wouldn't be playing OD&D, which is a nightmare in those regards. I just think psionics are kind of cool, and if I work out a system I can live with, I'll be happy to let the Lanierian psychic hang out with the Vancian wizards, the medieval militants, and the Hobbits.

    Word verification: dhumb ;)

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  13. Psionics to me scream Lovecraft. Mind Flayers, su-monsers, intellect devourers. 4E took the right track with really emphasising the aberrant nature of these creatures, or "the far realm".

    A demon can be summoned with magic, A demon-lord can use magic, but it's the psionic powers that it has that melts your mind! It's the mix of vance and lovecraft.

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  14. I'm also working on psionics to include in my Labyrinth Lord game, but I'm only including them as something a character can acquire in a very specific way by interacting with a specific group. I'm making the separate from the magic system specifically to distinguish them as one of the more science fiction-style elements of my world. I haven't decided on the mechanics yet, but I've been looking at Eldritch Wizardry, AD&D (1st and 2nd eds), Traveller, old Dragon magazines, and even 3.x for ideas. I'm basically trying to wrap my head around all of the various ideas and come up with something that has the flavor I want, works in the game, and isn't a bookkeeping nightmare. So I'm pretty much working along the same lines but planning to keep it more rare and less generally available in my campaign. If you want to knock some ideas around, let me know.

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  15. Why not make psionics the "7th stat". Kind of like the idea that gets bandied about like "perception" being part of the 3d6 str/dex/con/int/wis/cha that gets rolled at character creation. Or "tech level" in that one science fiction game. 3d6. A 17 psionic score means 170 attack and defense points. Not everyone needs this 7th stat of course.

    /shrug

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  16. I'm looking forward to your thoughts, James. I've always envisioned psionics as something that requires extraordinary mental discipline -- e.g., something that shows up in pulp kung fu. In that sense if I were trying to come up with a mechanic, I'd want to somehow capture that constrained randomness...maybe by making some proportion of level be the modifier to a roll. I'd also want to somehow capture the idea that an effect only persists via intense concentration, but since I hate point-based systems, I'd have to think about that. And the "effects" / "abilities" could be limited in very interesting ways. E.g., They might be mostly self-oriented, or emotion-oriented, or purely "read minds" / "explode brains." :)

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  17. Hey, there's a reason nobody makes books with black pages and white text...

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  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  19. Rolemaster's Spell Law categorises magic (quite well, I think) into three main areas. Chanelling: magic direct from 'the gods' or other external source; Sorcery, which manipulates some kind of magical force inherent in the world; and what it calls Mentalism (=psionics) which is a little like Chanelling except that the energy comes from the individual, and the effects are generally personal or person to person, affecting moods, emotions or mental states, as Mark suggested.

    The game Dragon Warriors also has the Mystic class, which are basically Mentalists or Psionicists. Their magic has a slightly different system and the spells have a different flavour to the sorceror.

    The Tekumel game also has psionic type spells/effects though of course that is more science-fantasy.

    And like UWS Guy says, those crazy psionic monsters in D&D like the Mind Flayers, Githyanki, Su Monsters etc. are scary because they are so alien, and save vs. spells doesn't work against Psychic Crush.

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  20. My problem with psionics is not one of flavour, but of (and I know you hate this word) balance. Referring to your previous posts, it seems psionics are arbitrarily rare, fairly powerful, unlikely to be explored in any detail and disconnected from all the cost/reward systems of the rest of the game (level limits, numbers of XP per level etc). In one way I can appreciate the idea behind this - psionics are radically uncontrolled and unpredictable talents, a matter of luck rather than choice - but in another way I think it's a mistake to add big systems to the architecture of the game which do not obey the principles of that architecture.

    I am greatly in favour of psionic monsters, equipment, castles, islands, alien bases, and so on. Psionic characters... I'd be inclined to increase the unpredictability in use OR restore the character class. After all, who trains them?

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  21. I had been using BRP's psychic powers set just tacked onto to 1e prior to the release of Classic Fantasy and using the much maligned RQ3 Spirit Combat as a model for psionic combat. I love psionics. 1e's system was a little too complicated for me. The powers were fine, but the attack and defense modes were really clunky.

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  22. Just as I loved the AD&D psionic rules, if I had to create new psionic rules for a retro-clone I would take a totally different route.

    Indeed I would create a system of Psionics as "super powers" so creating different groups of psionic powers and giving specific powers (no power points, no fire and forget) with level growing effects. Since this would be always on they should require to hit, saving throw and not be overly powerfull (something you can also do with magic weapons only in a more super ways).

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  23. I like the option to have psionics - it's another tool in the box. But using every tool for every job is dumb. I don't like kitchen sink fantasy.

    In actual fact psionics are much closer to how I like magic to appear. I don't like fireworks and lasers and other special FX. I like magic to be subtle and unseen.

    In my dream campaign I would throw out the arcane and divine magic rules and replace them with psionics. It would still be 'magic' and would be called as such, but it would look and work like psionics.

    Maybe one day.

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  24. I don't see the issue. If you can have wizard magic, which is different from cleric magic, which is different from druid magic, why can't you have psionic "magic" in there too?

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  25. You can certainly have both. The Marvel Universe works fine with both Professor X and Dr. Strange.

    There was one of the R.A. Salvatore books (Starless Night?) that dealt with a particular house of Drow with psionics. I thought it was handled well.

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  26. if you were running a game of GW, or M:A, or even Mutant Future, would you want to include a Vancian spell system to include magic into the setting? If not, why not?

    Interestingly, I have in fact done just this in the past. I once ran a game that freely mixed magic and mutations, as per the DMG, and found it enjoyable. Would I always want to do it? No, but it's a viable option and one that is as well grounded within gaming history as D&D's inclusion of psionics side by side with magic.

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  27. However, part of the attraction of OD&D for me is that it's a baroque edifice with lots of nooks, crannies, and overhangs that add up to something pretty neat, like a sprawling mansion designed by 12 different brilliant but crazy architects.

    Now that I think of it, maybe that's the issue here. I'm looking at this from an OD&D perspective rather than an AD&D one. AD&D has always felt more "unified" to me, right down to its cosmology, so perhaps it does make sense to say, in that context, that psionics "don't fit." But OD&D? Nah, anything goes. :)

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  28. Psionic characters... I'd be inclined to increase the unpredictability in use OR restore the character class. After all, who trains them?

    Interestingly, these suggestions are both options that have occurred to me as well.

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  29. Maybe you could start with the Turn Undead mechanic. You've got a chart of HD, and you roll 2d6 against it. Here's the results for "Telephathy" chart:
    R - Read thoughts.
    P - Project a though/idea. This might be telepathy, or an illusion, or just a memory of how incredibly tasty those cookies are.
    B - Mind blast. Like a Mind Flayer, but start with stuns and Sleep-like effects.
    W - Mind wipe. Leaves the target catatonic. A really high potency it simply wipes out their memory and personality forever.

    A Telepath can voluntarily take an effective 4-level penalty on his chart to make an area (multiple target) effect instead of a beam (single target) effect.

    You could also have charts for ESP, Telekinesis, whatever.

    I don't know if I'd base this system is monastic asceticism or Weird Tales "stuff from the beyond", but I would definitely include rules to play up whatever source I chose.

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  30. Oh, and for what it's worth James, I always prefer websites to be dark with light text. Less eye strain for me. I don't get why anyone has a problem with them. Shame you aren't able to offer a "themes" button. But the new layout is fine.

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  31. Cusick,

    I rather like the general thrust of your psionics idea, because it's a bit more random -- and dangerous -- than magic, which is something I think that's missing as a trade-off in most versions of psionics.

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  32. If you're looking for a fantasy author who combines a lot of different magic systems, including psionics, Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos novels are ideal.

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