Friday, August 6, 2010

Open Friday: Psionics Use

As some correctly guessed, I wanted to ask about psionics this Friday.

This is a question for people who actually liked and used psionics in their D&D campaigns, not those who didn't use them, didn't like them, or thought they had no place in a fantasy setting: did you use the psionics rules as written (either in Supplement III or the PHB) or did you modify/house rule them or use a variant of them from some other source?

The psionics rules are notoriously difficult to get a handle on, after all, and, when I used them back in the day, I know I wasn't using them "as intended." I'm wondering how common my experience was and it's that that I'd like to hear about today.


  1. When I was in high school, we were playing mostly 1e but with some of the LBB material mixed in. I did most of the DMing for our group, but I made one of my friends DM some games so I could play; for some reason, the sessions he ran were usually with just me as a player. I played an MU with psionic ability; I'm pretty sure my friend ran it with the 1e charts, but he might have used Eldritch Wizardry instead (I see penciled-in corrections to ranges in EW.)

    When I DMed, either none of the players qualified for psionics, or possibly they didn't want to mess with them, so I never had direct experience with the charts from a DM perspective. I did start modifying the psionic rules around the time UA came out (I still have notes from that period,) but I don't think I ever had a chance to test them. My modifications concentrated on converting psionic combat to use the standard attack tables.

  2. Dragon Magazine #78 has some really useful ideas for psionics.

  3. We always used psionics the same way-

    our party would be stuck in some impossible situation, usually trapped in some room with no spells or equipment, death slowly but inevitably creeping up on us. We would have tried everything ("I disbelieve in the room" was a favorite) until finally a light bulb would go off and someone would say "You know, I never checked for psionics when I rolled my character." This would be followed by all of us trying to roll a 99 or 100. Of course the one time it actually worked the character ended up getting some lame defensive thing...

  4. We technically used the psionics rules in AD&D, but nobody ever got them.

    I wrote up a psionics class that could only do psionics (using the rules in the PH), and was allowed to play it. It was a lot of fun.

    In 2e, I also played a psionic using the newer psionics rules and official class. It was fun, although I preferred the old rules (even at the same time admitting that they sucked, too).

    I eventually wrote a completely different psionics ruleset for DragonQuest, and also now use a variation of it for Gods & Monsters.

    One of the problems with the 1e rules, that the 2e rules made worse, was the superhero feel to the powers. I preferred rules that made psychic powers be more traditionally psychic: telepathy, telekinesis, , object reading, etc.

  5. We used psionics. I loved 'em...but I was a 13 year old power gamer, so go figure.

    We graduated to AD&D 1e from B/X so never had any experience with EW, it's system or it's attempt at "game balance." Once we all got our hands on the PHB, we had a blast exploring the new classes and spells (up to 9th level!). It was probably close to a year before we even got to the appendixes in the back. Once we did we were sure to try them out.

    Our social contract was "treat the Rules As Written." All existing characters got rolls for psionics, all new characters got to roll. At least a couple new characters were created specifically to test psionics (rolling until you got high ability scores and then checking psionics, discarding everything if it didn't pan out). We were kids and we were literal.

    The Attack/Defense rules were confusing, and even for the characters with medium-heavy psionics, they didn't get much use. Most PCs would default to the standard "style" of their class...a magic-user would use spells instead of psionics, for example (a couple of the powers/disciplines were exceptions to this...). One thing to remember is that the only psi attack that can affect non psionics is Psionic Blast...and since most encounters were non-psionic the attacks and defenses almost never got used...maybe against some major demons or something, but those may have only been play-tests, really. Most monsters (orcs, trolls, owlbears, DRAGONS) do NOT have psionics after all. And against powerful NPCs/Monsters, Psionic Blast has little effect.

    In the end, with one notable exception, the presence of psionics was NOT a "big deal." We found them mostly...well, boring (keeping track of "points?" how very un-D&D!). We certainly did NOT make them a focal point of the campaign in my youth, something that, as an adult, sounds like a very cool idea to me (the mashing of genres, etc.).

    Two last notes: While I like psionics, I've always detested psionic "classes," whether in later D&D (Psi-Warriors, etc.) or other systems (Rifts, Heroes Unlimited). My perspective (for what its worth), has always been that psionic ability is something "extra" that anyone might have. Like that waitress in the TV show True Blood. She's a waitress...just like her fellow waitress. She just happens to be psychic.

    2nd note: the one time we "house ruled" anything with psionics it was because we found them boring. One of my players asked me (as DM) if his psionic character could be a pyrokinetic like out of Firestarter (we were heavily influenced by Steven King in the 80s). We made up some guidelines for pyrokinesis (and it involved no points at all...pretty much he had constant fire-building ability). His character was an elven assassin that masqueraded as a magic-user, so he used the powers as a cover. It was cool, and could have been "un-balanced" but that wasn't his point and wasn't how he used them so it never became an "issue."

    RE: the "notable exception" - I'll be posting this story to my own blog.
    : )

  6. When we attempted to use the AD&D psionics rules as presented we found them poorly explained, tedious and not worth the effort. I always saw magic and psionics as two different explanations for the same phenomena. Thus if your fantasy world had magic then psionics were redundant.

  7. I had little contact with 1st ed psionics, but it always fascinated me... When I started gaming, we played a 1e-2e-UA-OA mash up in a club, where PCs and DMs freely changed. You got your characters with you, and every gameday you just went to play at whatewer DM allowed you at his table. So it was RANDOM. In this milieu I have met characters with psionics, who sometimes proved to be too powerful, and there were arguments, but I liked this randomness, this unpredictableness. The club drifted to 2e, and when we found the 2e psionic rules with the psionic class or the Dark Sun everybody is a psionic etc. I felt that something is wrong with this... It's not the same, and it's not that good. So I like 1e psionics exactly for the same reasons why some people don't: It is random, dangerous and powerful...

  8. we used them as presentend in the Player's Handbook 1st edition :)
    we were a 3 character party so we needed them, I got esp, detect magic, cell adjustment, telekinesis and energy control (my f/mu was a blast :)
    we didn't get big problems just more toys to play with
    we didn't use the attack/defense mode tough

  9. I rolled for and got psionics with my bard. That's the only part I remember because I tried to practice for that d100 roll at home before going to that character creation session. It was amazing. I loved it.

    I don't remember ever actually using it, though.

  10. I don't think I ever used them 100% as written in the core rules. As far back as I can remember I was at least using the alternate rules from Dragon.

  11. Used psionics on and of in the good old days. Players of no-psionic characters tended to not be annoyed by the seeming extra-powers of their ally but by the increased presenceof psionic monsters as 1 in 4 random encounters would be from the psionic encounter table.

  12. With 1e, we always rolled to see if we got them. In all the hundreds of characters rolled up only one of mine every actually received psionics, and the power was to heal himself of 4 hitpoints a day . . . rather anticlimactic.

    Partially because of that rarity, psionics will always be an attractive part of D&D lore for me. I have ideas for a simplified approach simmering in the back of my brain.

  13. As I recall from my 2E days (was it Dark Sun? Maybe the Psionics' Handbook?), there was both a Psionic class and "wild talents," sort of the equivalent of the old class+psionic ability scheme. Dark Sun was the only time psionics ever "felt" right to me, but that was probably just the group I was in. But for the record, I liked the split--there are people with natural ability, but to really master psionic talents, you have to eschew other professions. Rock on.

  14. I am currently running a game with a person who has 1st edition psionics in it. I run Hackmaster, and am using the psionics rules straight out of the 1st edition DMG.

    It works just fine.

    Sure, the player gets a lot of power. But they set themselves up for death. After they qualify they have to make 4 rolls. The first is for power points, the second is for attack modes, the third is for defense modes, and the fourth is for 'special powers' (disciplines/sciences). Those powers are nice. The downside is it makes you vulnerable to psionic attacks. And unless you roll very well on the first three rolls, then the first time you run into psionic opponents, you will be killed, knocked unconscious, dazed, or dominated before the fighters can engage in combat.

    I have some more information on my blog.

  15. We always used them, but within the first six months or year, we scrapped the Attack and Defense modes and substituted Runequest Spirit Combat. Every time there was a psionic combat we would spend WAY too much time on it, and spirit combat is basically an opposed roll. Much easier and faster.

  16. My own experience with psionics in-game was in high school. It was, first and foremost, as a DM when a player successfully created a psionic wizard who wound up being hideously overpowered and unbalanced the game to the point of voluntarily ditching the character because the rest of the party was sick of being overshadowed. The game wasn't fun for anyone any more.

    My second experience was as a player in a group where another player successfully created a psionic cleric who wound up being hideously overpowered and unbalanced the game to the point of destroying the campaign because everyone else, one by one, dropped out because they were tired of being overshadowed by the cleric from hell who flatly refused to get rid of his character or quit being a jerk about it; the DM actually tried to kill him twice, and failed. The entire campaign finally disintegrated amid bad feelings, rules lawyering, and chaos.

    Since then, I just don't do or allow psionics, period. The occasional psionic monster is allowable.

  17. I'd like to use the PHB psionics system, and I understand the mechanics (thank you Dragon 78!), but I just never got comfortable with the idea of multiple attack and defense modes - it just seemed like a tough thing to justify to a player. "Okay, you have this one attack that lets you attack non-psionics, and these other two that let you attack psionics." "What's the difference?" "Um, the resolution chart in the DMG, pretty much." The disciplines/sciences always made more sense, but using just those removes the usability of mind flayers and such.

    Coincidentally, while working on a house rules document for an upcoming 1E game, and trying to decide what to do on this topic, I came across on old thread on dragonsfoot that suggested importing Gamma World mutations. Sounds weird at first, but at first glance, I think it will work pretty cleanly. Combine it with the existing disciplines/sciences, and it has everything needed.

  18. RE What Steve Said:

    I always found the terms used for Attack and Defense ("Ego Whip," "Mind Thrust," "Pyschic CRUSH!") extremely cool and evocative, though it would have been nice to get a little more info than what was there. Again, the rules seemed a bit confusing.

    For example, at some point it says that "no psionic defense except Thought Shield is proof against Psychic Crush," but the DMG shows the effect of various defenses against it (I am pulling this info straight from 25 year old memory...I paid attention to the "instant-kill" attacks back in the day!). We always went with the original interpretation and considered any defense EXCEPT Thought Shield to be "No Defense" against PC. I guess this is considered a "house rule" but we were simply trying to rectify the discrepancy within the Rules As Written.

    RE Psychic Monsters

    How many times in reading monster descriptions (psychic or not) did I read about an ability called "Probability Travel," and have absolutely no idea what the hell they were talking about until we discovered psionics! This is the only psionic-specific power that gets mentioned specifically in many places outside the Psionic chapter (as opposed to say, cell adjustment, molecular agitation, body weaponry, etc.). If psionics were only rarely used back in the "old days" why the need to bring up Prob Travel so often in the text? It is ONLY present in psionics, not magic spells.

  19. When we played back in High School, we always rolled for Psionics, but one 2 people ever got them. My wizard, and some guy that never played.

    We played the rules as written. The really confusing part was some charts used the psionic strength, which was attack and defense added together, others used just the attack strength. But after a couple readings we got it right. It did not seem like a lot extra to keep track of, just attack power and defense power. I was already keeping track of hit points, and spells cast, equipment etc.

    It did make my character quite powerful, but it seemed okay, because it only came up occasionally, and because we did not really care about balance back then, and because I was a wizard, and the only one. If there had been 3 wizards, and only one had psionics, it might have been more noticeable. If one of the fighters had psionics and had all of these magic like effects it might have seemed different.

  20. Was Dragon #78 the one that had the psionicist class? I can't remember. I played on in a game and it was the first time we ever used psionics and really enjoyed them.

    I remember liking the use of psionics in 2nd edition AD&D too. One of the few handbooks we liked.

    But straight up psionics never worked well for us. It was fine for monsters, but when a PC had them it neither felt nor played right. Usually the PC felt over-powered right up to the point they encountered a psionic monster. Then the PC usually died.

  21. More
    Psionic combats were pretty rare. The only really strange part was, when there was a psionic combat, segments were treated as rounds, so we would fight 10 psionic rounds, per round of melee combat, which pretty much decided the whole thing in one combat round, so no one else could intervene. Since I was the only wizard in our party, and was a little higher level than everyone else (I never got level drained) 8ish vs 6-7ish, and I was normally fighting another wizard, who was the leader of the opposing party, the whole combat, came down to that one round of psionic combat, and no one could help me. If I lost it would probably be a TPK. We were normally outnumbered, so the fighters could not get at the opposing wizard, so if I died, the opposing side would have an un-opposed high level wizard.

    Since I was not really eager to roll the dice like that, I didn't normally used my psionic blast (the only attack power you could use against non-psionic) against opponents unless things were looking grim and we were desperate. If my opponent had psionics, that would open a battle, and psionic blast was an expensive, and poor choice for psionic combat, so I would be at a disadvantage.

  22. I had a M-U (1e) who upon somehow obtained a wish through an item, and used it to obtain Psionics - the DM allowed for normal rolling after that to determine the specifics, the results being fairly decent with regard to psionic points, etc.

    However I found that Psionics are more curse than boon. Psionic combat highly likely to leave you an insane, babbling vegetable as any enemies encountered in numbers will inevitably overwhelm you. Run up against a couple Mind Flayers or other Psionic creatures who can gang up on you and you're toast.

    You are also vulnerable to every Psionic creature that you come into proximity with. When it comes to Psionics, non-endowed characters remain blissfully ignorant of all the brain-frying dangers lurking all around them.

    And, the Psionic combat becomes a time-wasting bunny-trail that must be resolved by the DM, for one character, distracting from the main thread of the party's action.

    My guy was fried into a coma, or into a babbling madman more than once (to be later cured by clerics), and finally somehow used some powerful means to get rid of the Psionics! (The DM may have even allowed a Limited Wish for this purpose, as he was probably as sick of it as I was).

  23. Back when I used psionics, I used them by-the-book from the PHB/DMG. But then I was very much a literalist about everything until recent years, so that's not a great data point.

    I wouldn't worry about psionics these days except for one major sticking point: How do you use mind flayers without them?

  24. I just want to chime in and report on a clear example of the ripple effect that Grognardia has on the blogosphere. It's probably not a coincidence that, since James published his "Thinking 'bout Psionics" post on Monday this week, there's been an explosion of posts about psionics on numerous blogs.

    Just another example of the RPG clout James commands!

  25. I've always been confused by people who assert that 1 seg. = 1 round of psionic combat is some sort of flaw/problem in the system. My guess it comes from people who don't really know how to run 1e initiative. If a fighter attacks on seg. 2 (the number rolled by his enemy) how is it some sort of god awful time waster for the psionic to get 2 attacks during this time? How is it any different than rolling 7th level fighters 2 attacks in amount of time it takes to adjudicate? If a wizard casts a 9th level spell with a ct of 9 why doesn't anyone complain about the opposite problem of a character waiting 8 segments of combat before being able to perform any action at all?

    I think it also goes without saying that the poster who said a DM was incapable of killing a players character because that character had psionics is laughable on its face and the rest of the post needs no other refutation either.

  26. @UWS guy
    Each segment is a round for psionic combat, so in each melee round, 10 rounds of psionic combat happen. basically in most cases the psionic combat is totally over after one round, and one guy is dead or enslaved, or insane or whatever and the other is still alive.

  27. Melee battles, don't really last that long either, especially since a well built party is going to have 50% chance of surprise on the enemy (elves, rangers, etc) and a surprise round with a few archers may never make it to round 1.

    Fireball ends most combats in a single round as well, so I still don't know why the psionicist gets singled out so much.

  28. You played a diffeent game than I did, our fights last far longer than your describing.

  29. A little bit of background: our group played a lot of Spelljammer but we made up our own definition of THAC0. We had B/X, BECMI (well, BEC anyway) 1e and Unearthed Arcana. None of us had the 2e rules. We figured out what the acronym was, but we never used it the way the rules described.

    Having said all that - we had a lot of Githyanki, Githzerai and Mind Flayer encounters, so psionics played a larger part in what we did. For some reason, I don't remember using the attack/defense modes so much, but we did a lot of object reading and ESP.

    We enjoyed it. The party seemed to enjoy object reading a body 'frozen' in the phlogiston and mind blasting the giant space hamsters.

    Later, I found the Complete Psionicist rules in 2e and reading liked them. I enjoy that psionic are seen as a 'skill' and as a non-equivalent force to magic.

    For some reason, I always imagined the attack/defense modes to be like rock, paper, scissors, spock ,lizard.( If players could get used to it, it could be an interesting mechanic to resolve psionic combat.

  30. Never 1e Psionics, which I only reread the rules for after discussing them with Tim Kask at 2009's NTRPG Con.
    Played with the 2e version for a couple of years in the Dark Sun, Ravenloft, and Spelljammer settings. I really liked those rules, but they are more predictable and mechanical than the "unleash the awesome power of the mind" sentiment that the 1e rules exemplify.

  31. I wouldn't worry about psionics these days except for one major sticking point: How do you use mind flayers without them?

    Yeah, mind flayers are pretty well de-fanged without psionics, although, as I recall, 3e produced a non-psionic version of them, substituting various spell-like powers for psionics.

  32. Just another example of the RPG clout James commands!

    Fear my power!

  33. I used Psionics as written ... in the AD&D 2e Complete Psionicist Rulebook. Not sure that's helpful. ;)

  34. I used Psionics as written ... in the AD&D 2e Complete Psionicist Rulebook. Not sure that's helpful. ;)

    Inasmuch as it meant that you liked the idea of psionics enough that you used them, it is useful. I genuinely think there's a place for these powers in D&D.

  35. We used 1st edition psionics powers as written. We didn't find psionic combat that interesting, but liked the extra powers. I can't really recall any particular character with psionics that either played in my game, or was played by another player. But I've had only one psionic character myself, and I liked him very much. Again, mostly the extra powers: healing, speak with animals come to mind. I do remember being the DM's punching bag sometimes, with psionic monsters about, but I didn't die or go insane (insofar as I remember). Nowadays I'd probably simplify, but at the time the rules didn't seem TOO bad.