Monday, February 15, 2010

REVIEW: Old-School Psionics

Old-School Psionics by Charles Rice is an optional supplement for OSRIC that presents a psionics system for use with that game. Unlike OSRIC itself, which hews as closely to its AD&D inspirations as possible within the restrictions of the Open Game License and copyright law, Old-School Psionics is a fresh take on its subject matter, a "what if" product in the words of its author. Consequently, the system it presents, while having some elements in common with its 1e predecessor, is largely an original creation. That's frankly a wise decision, as AD&D's psionics, like those in OD&D's Eldritch Wizardry, are an unholy mess that no one I've ever met could use without significant house ruling.

Unlike AD&D psionics, which was intended primarily as an adjunct to the existing class system, Rice instead presents psionics as the domain of a new character class called the mentalist. There are provisions for "wild talents," which is to say, psionic members of other classes but they're supposed to be exceedingly rare and their aptitude with psychic abilities is decidedly lesser. Again, this is a good decision and reminds me of the psionicist class created by Arthur Collins and appearing in issue 78 of Dragon, one of my favorite articles from the magazine back in the day and one I used extensively as the basis for a psionics-based AD&D campaign.

Where Collins's class was tied into the existing AD&D psionics system (albeit with modifications), Rice's mentalist is its own creature, being somewhat like an illusionist who wields psychic abilities instead of spells. These abilities are divided into four disciplines, with the mentalist acquiring greater access to them as he advances in levels. Psychic abilities are cast not from slots but through the expenditure of psionic strength points, the mentalist's pool of which increases with level. The class also gains a few other level-dependent abilities, such as crafting psychic items and traveling to the astral and other planes. As with the previously-reviewed alchemist class, I would quibble with any level-based ability being placed at 20th level, which makes it even less likely to be obtained than mighty spells such as wish, but that may be a matter of taste.

Each of the psionic disciplines has seven levels of abilities, with 3 or 4 such abilities per level. The result is a very tight collection of powers rather than the usual cornucopia I associate with AD&D spells. In this respect, the abilities more closely resemble AD&D psionic powers and their fewer number helps lend a different flavor to them compared to standard magic. They likewise seem to be well matched against magic, being somewhat more potent individually but balanced by the fact that they can be used more rarely, given the number of psionic strength points needed to do so.

Old-School Psionics also includes a number of psionic monsters, many of them old favorites, such as the aboleth, brain mole, and intellect devourer, as well as "new" ones that reinvent D&D favorites that WotC did not include in the D20 SRD. These are all nicely presented and tie into the new psionics system so that they can be used to their full potential. Rounding out the 22-page PDF is an overview of the Nexus Campaign, an extraplanar setting based around the city of Nexus where one can find portals to infinite worlds and whose governance is in the tentacles of the mysterious Unseen Masters, an ancient psionic race.

Retailing for $3.00, Old-School Psionics is well worth picking up, if only for inspiration in constructing one's own psionics system for AD&D, OSRIC, or another retro-clone. The system Rice presents is easy to use and flavorful, feeling sufficiently different from "ordinary" magic that including it in one's campaign would bring something genuinely new to it. That said, I was disappointed that Old-School Psionics does not include a psionic combat system, which was the part of AD&D's psionics rules that were perhaps the most unintelligible -- and the ones I most wanted to find some way to use. As someone who attempted to make sense of it myself, I am deeply sympathetic to Rice's decision to avoid it, but I nevertheless had hoped that a product calling itself Old-School Psionics would have included it. Secondly, unless I somehow missed it (which is possible), there is no discussion of how psionic strength points are regained after being used by a mentalist.

In the end, though, these are quibbles. Old-School Psionics is a solid product and one I'm glad to own. It's a good example of the kind of mechanical material I'd like to see more of: presenting simple but still flavorful rules for subjects that aren't covered in existing retro-clones and simulacra. Here's hoping we'll see a future expansion that tackles psionic combat.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Get This If:
You're looking for a straightforward way to add psionic abilities to your D&D game.
Don't Get This If: You somehow understand the original AD&D psionics rules or don't think mental powers belong in a fantasy game.


  1. The original psionics just never appealed to me. That the occasional character would come along with the powers while the others went without just didn't seem necessary. The spells were enough.

    Has Sir Gary or any of the old gang ever discussed why they included psionics in AD&D in the first place? I'd leave to hear more on that than to get more rules on using them.

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

  2. I would love to see a system in which relatively unobtrusive psychic powers make an appearance in EVERY character with the wisdom to use it, separate and apart from their own class.

  3. This sounds like a really interesting product.

    Only I should mention to my American friends the rest of the English speaking world has a slightly different nuance to the word "Mentalist"...

    For example : )

    1. Just wait until you find out what Rangers are!

  4. My favourite bit about psionics is that it's originally described as being based on yoga. I guess yoga was a lot more exotic in the 70s than now.

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  6. If you *have* to have psionics, I'd be more likely to give it to characters with LOW wisdom, charisma and intelligence: I'd be thinking of characters like Stephen King's Carrie. Characters with high mental stats I'd be more likely to give powers like in 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon': flying etc.

  7. Brunomac, as far as I know the psionics rules were added to the game for the usual reason : one of the players asked for them and Gary, nothing loth, put them in. In the case of psionics, I think it was Brian Blume who asked (he wanted to play a character like Dr Strange).

  8. Has Sir Gary or any of the old gang ever discussed why they included psionics in AD&D in the first place? I'd leave to hear more on that than to get more rules on using them.

    Steve Marsh is in fact the originator of the psionics system that appeared in Eldritch Wizardry, although the form in which it appeared in Supplement III was quite different than Marsh's version, which was based around a character class (or classes) and drew its inspirations from yoga, at least in part. Then, somewhere along the line the original idea took on a life of its own, perhaps under the influence of Dr. Strange comics (as noted already) and other sources. Like many things, the history is murky and there are lots of contradictory stories to go around.

  9. Its top banana, I'm converting it over to my Myths & Monsters Games (house ruled Castles & Crusades) - one of the better thought out Psionics rule-sets for a while IMHO>

  10. Wow, thanks LDK!

    And thanks for the review James.