Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Retrospective: Psi World

I have a very strange relationship with roleplaying game published by FGU. I rarely actually played them -- and when I did, I generally found them far less satisfying than I had hoped they would be -- but I was always interested in them. I'm not entirely sure I can explain why. Were I to guess, I'd say it was because FGU games always gave the impression of being "serious." By that I only mean that they knew what they were about and made no excuses. They didn't pander to the lowest common denominator and they certainly didn't try to appeal to kids. When I first entered the hobby, such things were important to me, however superficial they might appear in retrospect.

A good case in point is Psi World, which came out in 1984. Subtitled the "Role Playing Game of Psionic Powers," Psi World was written by Del and Cheron Carr and "takes place in our world, the Earth, in the not too distant future." It postulates that sometime in the next 10 to 50 years, a minority of the world's population manifests psionic abilities and whose existence has thrown society into turmoil. The game assumes either that the psionically gifted are hated and oppressed by the government or that the psionically gifted are attempting to use their powers to manipulate society to their own ends -- or something in between.

The game thus seems to have been intended as a platform for exploring a number of social and political issues -- exactly the kind of "serious" subject matter I associated with FGU back in those days. Of course, Psi World contains next to no guidance to the referee on how to use these issues to generate adventures. The bulk of the game's short rulebook is devoted character generation, combat, and psionics. Its world building chapter is a joke, devoting the bulk of its scant pages to sample prices for goods and services. The sample adventure included in the boxed set does little to rectify this oversight, concentrating as it does on fairly low-key events that don't provide much more meat for the referee (or players) to chew on.

Needless to say, this was a huge disappointment to me. I very much like the idea of a game focusing not just on psionic powers but on the various "What if?" scenarios that might arise in the face of their appearance. Unfortunately, Psi World isn't that game. Instead, it's a pretty bland skill-based FGU game that offers little that I couldn't cobble together myself from games I already own. That was even the case in 1984, when I was a lot less experienced at kit-bashing rules and there were a lot fewer rulesets from which to choose. Looking back, I find myself wondering why Psi World was published, since it offers very little that's original or distinctive. Even its psionics rules, which ought to be the game's crown jewels, aren't particularly noteworthy, which may be Psi World's greatest disappointment.


  1. I have to admit that I still love this game, despite its flaws. I bought it originally (over 25 years ago!)as a teenager because the cover artwork was a collaboration between two of my favorite comic book artists: Bill (Elementals) Willingham and Matt (Grendel) Wagner.

    The details about the world of "Psi World" are frustratingly sparse. (I laughed with recognition at your reference to the price lists.) That was my biggest disappointment, too. (Though the subsequently published adventures do add some detail.)

    I also liked the overall metaplot of "Psi World," which assumed that many psionics were hunted and feared as powerful mutants. Though at the time, I thought it was pretty derivative of Marvel Comics' "X-Men."

    I also remember being struck by the fact that the game was apparently authored by a husband and wife team (which I thought was unusual, if not unique), and that the spelling and presentation of their names in the credits seemed to be intentionally 'different.'

  2. (Though the subsequently published adventures do add some detail.)

    I didn't realize there were any subsequent adventures! Thanks for the heads-up.

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  5. I remember seeing the ads for Psi World in Dragon and being very excited about the game. I couldn't find it in my local comic/gaming stores and gave up on it far earlier than maybe I should have.

    Good to know I didn't miss out on too much. =)

  6. oooh, you bring back many memories..

    after reading this post, i couldn't help but doing it

  7. There were a total of three adventure modules published for the game. The first, "The Hammer Shall Strike," was by the game's original authors. The second and third, "Underground Railroad" and "Cause For War," were by the Keith brothers, I believe.

    If memory serves, the third one, "Cause For War," was the best and had the most detail about 'the world' of Psi World. That's the only one not still available from FGU's website I noticed just now, a fact I'll take as confirmation of that memory.

  8. If I'm not mistaken, Scott Bizar's business model at FGU was to keep cranking out new games/systems (usually by buying them up from younger/less experienced freelance designers), then do little to support them. Bizar had a wargame background and thought that products should be "complete" as sold.

    The irony of this is that FGU is now actively seeking submissions to expand on the works they do still own (especially V&V and aftermath.)

    Personally, I wish Jeff Dee had been able to retain more rights to V&V, especially as FGU stopped promoting it in the late 80s.

  9. I owned a bunch of different RPGs published by FGU. I never could discern a consistent pattern myself.

    There were some "generic" RPGs, like V&V (which I loved and which was well supported) and Space Opera. But then there were other "generic" games which only had a few supplements, like "Aftermath."

    Then there were a bunch of really niche-y games, like PSI World, or Flashing Blades or Bushido, some better supplemented than others.

    I bought several of them, and still have moth of the ones I did buy. Other than V&V, I rarely played them, but rather mined them for ideas that I applied to other games.

    James had noted in his superlative blog here several times that FGUs advertisement in Dragon were notably alluring. I found them so as well. Several of their boxed sets also had excellent cover artwork, I thought, which frequently exceeded the industry standard of the time I thought. I bought several FGU games solely because of one or both of these factors. I was rarely disappointed with my purchases. But I rarely plaid the actual games either (other than V&V).

  10. We played the game quite a bit. Like you though we were confused by the lack of setting, or how to use it. So we would make up Blade Runner style hunters, that would be tasked with rounding up dangerous unregistered Psionically gifted individuals.

  11. I bought Daredevils after reading Jim's retrospective, and it looks like a quite cool game.

    FGU did some good stuff.

    Psi World is one of those that looks good, but nothing ever sold me on it. Sounds like that's for the best!

  12. My impression of Psi World was that it was published to capitalize on the contemporary film Scanners.

  13. I owned PsiWorld as a teenager, but we never got beyond character creation. After all these years the thing I still remember about it is something about the psionically gifted being sent to do work in orbit, because it was such a horribly dangerous place. But I can't remember if they had been psi-lobotomized or not. I thought that was sort of cool.

  14. I'm with you guys on the FGU advertising. I personally know the reason I went and bought V&V and started playing it was solely because of the ads from Dragon magazine. To me, the brilliance of the ads was showing me the characters and giving me stats/powers. I had to get inside that box and figure out what they all meant.

  15. thoughts in order:

    1) I have never heard of this game!
    2) What a cool idea!
    3) How disappointing! What a missed opportunity. much money did they spend on advertising? Their ads were all over Dragon in the 80s and I didn't purchase a single game of theirs until 2010 (when I found a copy of V&V used). Their stuff was never actually for sale in MY shops, back when I was a kid.

  16. As a kid I was lucky to live near several well-stocked hobby stores and comic book stores. So I could find FGU games.

    But as a kid I was also an 'opportunistic buyer.' If I had accumulated a little money (working, allowance) I would go to a hobby store and spend it. That's where FGU's ads really affected me. Because I wasn't looking for anything in particular, but wasn't going to leave without a purchase, I was very susceptible to impulse buys back in the early-to-mid-1980s.

    All of that being said, at the tail end of my heavy involvement in RPGs (around 1987), I also ordered several FGU games by mail from a store in, of all places, Albuquerque, New Mexico (also from an ad in Dragon).

  17. We played quite a bit of Psiworld in our day, mostly set in a near future when mutants were hunted, most obviously drawing from The X-Men at the time. It was one of several FGU titles that we played, including Bushido and Aftermath. Our favourite, and perhaps FGU's most radical title was Year of the Phoenix, though we never went into the future of that title's setting.

  18. Conceived and fleshed out by Julian May in the Galactic Mileu Intervention Duology, outlined first but not published until much later, the atmosphere was very similar. People fear what they don't understand.