Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "And Now, The Psionicist"

Psionics in AD&D is a strangely contentious topic and not just because the rules presented for it in the Players Handbook leave a lot to be desired. For many gamers, psionics belong to the realm of science fiction and are thus inappropriate to a fantasy game like Dungeons & Dragons. I can understand that point of view, but it's not one I share, since D&D is a "fantasy" game in the broadest sense, which is why it can readily incorporate "science fiction" elements without difficulty. That said, I never used psionics much back in my AD&D days nor have I attempted to add it to my Dwimmermount campaign. The reason for this has nothing to do with maintaining the "purity" of my fantasy worlds so much as the fact that, as written, the rules for psionics are a mess.

This unsuitability of the psionics rules was widely acknowledged by nearly every gamer I knew back in the day. Consequently, many of us greeted issue #78 of Dragon (October 1983) with some pleasure, as it was largely devoted to psionics and its problems. Of the articles in that issue my hands-down favorite was "And now, the psionicist" by Arthur Collins. Collins was one of those authors, like Roger E. Moore and Ed Greenwood, whose stuff was always good. He wasn't as prolific as Moore or Greenwood, but he never failed to impress me. Indeed, if I were to be completely honest, I think Arthur Collins was my favorite old school Dragon writer and "And now, the psionicist" reveals part of why I think so.

The article takes the then-bold step of introducing a new character class -- the psionicist of the title -- as a way to make the psionics rules both workable and enjoyable. More than that, though, Collins also does something even more remarkable: he makes the AD&D psionics rules intelligible. He does this through his explanation of the psionicist's class abilities, such as its acquisition of attack and defense modes and psionic disciplines. It's a small thing, really, but it had a profound effect on me as a younger person. For the first time, I began to feel as if I understood how psionics was supposed to work. Likewise, the notion of making psionics the purview of a unique class rather than an add-on to existing classes was a revelation to me. It made so much sense that I couldn't believe no one had thought of it before. (Someone had, of course -- Steve Marsh -- but their version of psionics never made it into OD&D as written).

"And now, the psionicist" is fairly typical of Collins's work. Rather than wholly rewrite AD&D, he instead clarifies and expands upon the rules as written, in the process making the original rules both understandable and stronger. It's a talent all the best Dragon writers had in those days, but Collins, in my opinion, made it into a high art. Moreso than any other writer, he showed me that, strangely organized and presented as it was, AD&D's rules weren't wholly arbitrary; indeed, they often made sense if you actually took the time to look at them objectively and think about the logic behind them. The proper attitude when encountering a rule that seems "broken" is to step back and consider it carefully before deciding to excise it from the game. That's an attitude that has stuck with me after all these years and one I continue to recommend to others.

19 comments:

  1. I loved this article when it came out. It made sense out of something that never had a lick of sense prior. I'll need to look up my digital copy of the issue now (my originals are all packed away)

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  2. This is my cue to share that I've written an extensive treatment on this topic, including the material from this issue - it collates all the information on Psionics from various sources and collects it in one area. It even includes a good deal of original art.

    If you use psionics in your game and you haven't looked at this, you're doing your campaign a disservice.

    Psionics

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  3. The real problem with Psionics in AD&D is that the rules are split between the PHB and the DMG, and not in any logical way. The DMG explains much of the meat of how psionics work, and they're not nearly as arcane as they have a reputation for being. I've written an exegesis on psionics from the DMG perspective, which will (eventually) be posted on my blog. The PHB version will follow if I ever finish my close reading of the DMG and get to it. Heh.

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  4. I agree. This was a really good article.

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  5. Let's not forget "The Deryni" (with actual author conversion approval!) and "Heroes and Villains of the Deryni" articles. All-in-all, a nice gaming supplement of a Dragon mag.

    Ciao!

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  6. I never cared for psionics, but I think your article finally has clarified why. It wasn't the messy rules text or that they were 'science fiction'. It was the implementation of them as add-on to existing classes. For example, psionic fighting men seemed to spoil the class, or create a subclass that confused things in a way that a multi-class character or a specialized class such as Ranger did not. Psionics did not seem related to level, if I recall correctly, like other class abilities.

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  7. I have to admit, I have a reaction to psionics in my fantasy game similar to the way some (but not me) react to firearms in theirs: no thanks.

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  8. @Jason:

    By various sources, I of course mean the PHB, DMG, and Dragon Magazine #78.

    Then I added magic items, back ground training, kits, and more.

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  9. psionics are verboten.

    There was once a psionist, but we don't talk about it. Eight years later, we don't talk about it. To say it was bad, is like referring to the Hindenberg as a blimp accident.

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  10. As a teenager I read The Deryni Chronicles, so I was always somewhat fascinated by psionics in fantasy roleplaying. The awkward implementation of such in AD&D lessened that.

    Psionics were basically magic in the Deryni books. When I encountered pseudo-scientific versions in would be science fiction I was less enamoured. The least satisfying part of Star Wars. (I now run for cover.)

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  11. I used psionics in my early AD&D games, because it was in the book, it was mysterious - and more mysterious even for a non-native english reader becasue it was sometimes so hard to grasp how to run that thing. I got some evry nice remebers about total munchkin games involving pisonices and high-levl magic with translation misunderstandings. But after I played far much more D&D than AD&D, so I didn't really bothered too long about psionics.

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  12. I did contemplate hacking the Eldritch Wizardry psionics rules into something useful for a world where there was no magic.

    If I remember aright, your base Psychic Potential was equal to the sum of Int + Wis + Cha, and it increased by the inverse of your class hit die (so a d4 hit die gave you an extra d10 psychic potential).

    Didn't think it would work and never used the system, although I did use the world once where I used it as a parallel world where sorcery was unknown.

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  13. James- I just stumbled upon your site today, after spending some time on EBay with my 10-yr old son looking for Ral Partha figures. In homage to all-night campaigns from the late 70's early 80's, I may spend the next 10 hours looking through your archives. What a wonderful discovery. -NB

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  14. I played one of these for a while in a campaign and had a really good time with it. He met his demise when encountering a Mind Flayer while very low on power, which was a wonderfully horrific death. I still fondly remember that character and how impressed I was with the innovation in the class design.

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  15. Does anyone know where Collins is now? I've asked about, but can't find any information. I started wondering when I was beginning to work on Under the Dying Sun and immediately went and reread this article in prep for a nothing-but-psionics setting. I didn't actually use much from the article, but it was still valuable.

    I agree that he was an excellent writer and, as someone else who is less prolific, I sort of appreciate that quality in him. :)

    IIRC, he wrote one about setting up his long-term campaign that I always enjoyed (with Morgan LeFay as the Big Bad).

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  16. Arthur Collins, as I recall, lives in Indiana. He's a Methodist minister and I've tried a couple of times to hunt him down without any success.

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  17. http://www.manta.com/g/mm03ck1/arthur-collins

    Perhaps?

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  18. I just stumbled upon your site today, after spending some time on EBay with my 10-yr old son looking for Ral Partha figures. In homage to all-night campaigns from the late 70's early 80's, I may spend the next 10 hours looking through your archives. What a wonderful discovery.

    Thanks for sharing this!

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  19. generally speaking,
    psionics as an concept in a fantasy game is great. theres no reason to really differentiate them from arcane magic. whats the difference between using the mind to harness forces, or using your "mind" by reading texts, or your mind to do a complex movement, or your mind to spew words out of your mouth to harness/trigger "external" energies flowing through "wherever"? just because the mechanics of it were rushed/botched/whatever, doesnt mean the concept is.

    and arguing about what is fantasy and what isnt for a game based on imagination building and fiction is pretty lame. why frown on potential ideas for imaginative storytelling? and how do you run any mindflayer encounter without any attempt at psionics? hopefully their XP is cut in half if so.

    pretty sure i rememeber re-reading this article a couple years back to play in a skype game.

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