Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Problem with Psionics

is that it's trying to represent three archetypes at once.  I think this made sense, in that the three have many similarities and are all about "mind over matter."  But there are some differences that become problematic.

The Ascetic
This archetype is about renunciation, especially of the natural comforts of the body, in exchange for otherworldly powers. These can come from all cultures, but the most vivid imagery seems to come from fakirs, swamis and the western view of yoga. Renouncing, though, is not easy and requires mastering the body and mind.  A swami is "He who knows and is the master of himself."  These masters of yoga would be able to perform incredible feats known as siddhi. (Interestingly, when psionics were introduced in Eldritch Wizardry it was as "powers commonly known here as Yoga" and 18 of the possible devotions were called Siddhis.)

The Warrior Monk
This archetype is about "excellence achieved through long practice," where excellence here means the ability to walk up walls and make part of your body iron-hard.  The mastery of the body is similar to the Ascetic's, but almost always toward martial ends.  The Shaolin monks of Shaw Brother movies and those possessing the abilities of wuxia fall into this category.  (The 1e Monk is an alternate approach at fulfilling this archetype by giving a standard set of wuxia-style powers at predictable levels.)

The Psychic
While there have always been seers and fortune tellers, this archetype comes from much later and is related to exploring the hidden powers of the mind. The Psychic's powers are often couched in terms of science and the discovery of abilities existent but unknown.  Like the Warrior Monk, practice can play a big part in mastering this hidden potential.  Unlike the other two archetypes, the Psychic's potential is often portrayed as hereditary.

Now, the idea to smoosh these all into one system isn't bad. The archetypes actually share several themes quite strongly.  First, they are all about our minds mastering matter.  Second, there seems to be an element of fatigue involved when exercising these powers.  And finally, the selection of powers available to individuals, while astonishing, are limited in number (sometimes only one).

And there is evidence in popular culture of the conflation of these archetypes.  In Master of the Flying Guillotine we see a practitioner of yoga using his abilities to fight in a tournament.  In Star Wars, the Jedi start out more as Warrior Monks but in the prequels the Midichlorians shift them toward hereditary Psychics (notice also the scientific aspect of detecting the presence of the ability).

But I would argue these conflations are muddled (who liked the midichlorians?).  And there are two very large differences in the archetypes that are hard to ignore.  The first is the hereditary nature of Psychic abilities.  Psionic ability in 1e D&D is based on this premise: that you either have the potential or you don't.  And yet, the lore of the other two archetypes is that through hardwork and sacrifice anyone can unlock these powers.

The other difference is the kind of powers.  I'm guessing that many of you, like me, were surprised the first time reading the 1e PHB's section on psionics by such powers as "body weaponry" or "expansion" because those aren't traditionally psychic powers.

So what now?  I think a kind of Choose-Your-Own Psionics is probably possible where you as DM would decide which of the archetypes you are most interested in.  I imagine this as three partially overlapping power lists and, at least, two systems for obtaining powers from them.  Another challenge I think is possible to surmount is designing a mechanic that works well for the idea of powers that fatigue.


  1. The only way I can really dig psychics in a D&D setting is with a heavy dose of Mind Flayer/Cthulhoid dimensional-fuck-up potential.

    Like: the psychic is, essentially, semi-possessed or otherwise in contact with a dangerous zone of fuckedness.

    Otherwise the sci-fi ness of psionics just kills the magical D&D mood for me, even in a sword-and-planet context.

    1. it is good that i read this comment of yours, i'am making cards games myself (something like D&D) at the moment, and i think you read this article a little wrong.
      look at the Ascetic's, they are not really psionics, they cant read somebodies mind?
      no they can just do unbelieveble thing a normal humans can't do,.
      and i am going to make a card game out of that,....(nice article didn't knew some of the thing and i can really use it) :D

  2. I think that's a common reason for disliking psionics and one reason I'm interested in compartmentalizing the powers.

    Would you have a problem with the crazy-ass wuxia style powers in your world, sort of magic through secret training and force of will?

  3. most archetypes presented in d&d Are a mix. The thief can be bilbo and the gray mouser. A magic user can be gandalf and Merlin or a necromancer. A psionic archetype should have the same flexibility.

    Ironically, the original psionic I 0d&d does exactly this. A fighting man who develops powers can be your wuxia monk (and is limited btb to mind over matter abilities), a magic user who develops psionics is the mentath/telepath. Like prestige classes tied to the base class, giving up some original abilities for new psionic ones

  4. It's true that classes are abstractions but I'd say the examples you give are pretty similar to each other: Bilbo sneaks and steals, so does the Grey Mouser. The only difference I see is in their attitudes.

    "Ironically, the original psionic I 0d&d does exactly this." I don't think so. The psionic rules in OD&D are a mess so it's hard for me to be sure.

    It does have different lists for the different classes, but the fighter list still includes things like domination and telekinesis. And I think the point is moot anyway, because players only have an 11% chance of getting any powers (without exceptional mental attributes). The whole system is based on the idea that psionicists are rare individuals with exceptional mental abilities; they didn't train for them or learn them from a master.

    Again I'm not sure how they intended for the disciplines to be determined, but if it's like 1e, it's random, so your fighting monk might end up with only one ability, the ability to shrink!

    I know it was close, that's why psionics have been so tantalizing for me all these years, but like encumbrance, it's one of those things often complained about. I think part of it is the clunky point system, but part of it is that people see it as solely space age psychic powers rather than the other fantastic powers it could represent.

  5. I feel like the crazy wuxia guy I pretty much attribute to "ninja magic".

    I feel like I play D&D when I play D&D because it's magical, and psionics seems basically like less magical magic.

    maybe it's just the word "psi" sounds so modern. psionic sounds like "bionic"

  6. Zak,I guess you can reskin cthuluoid monsters (intellect devourers, mind flayers, actual cthuluoids) to not have a sciency feel, but the time travel/world traveling in the lovecraftian style has hints of science fantasy--as do all the best wizards from Vance.

    It doesn't work for Tolkien--sure, but maybe that's why elves can't be psionic.

    Im in a stage now where I would love to play d&d using Stars Without
    Numbers, so I'm biased ATM. I think their inclusion works when tastefully done (giving up class abilities) creating a "psionic class" always went too far for me. Too 'normal' when you have a 3rd level telepath or what have you as opposed to a thief who can read minds, but is stalked and whispered to by
    nightmares only he can see and hear.

    Since the f/Mu/th/cl are our "normal people" giving them psionics doesn't turn it into an episode of star trek where you have a Diana Troy type character next to your wizards. It remains unnatural.

  7. Because your class is also your job, and what "job" does a mideval psionicist have? Although it would be cool for him to build a keep at 9th level etc etc it presumes a world where psionicists buy land and develop guilds and have psionic retainers--I think this is the aspect people balk at, being forced to accommodate an alien class into the world.

  8. A sadhu's job is mastering his body, the way a cleric's job is following the will of his deity.

    I see no problem with this. It even has a built in reason for gaining followers, although probably not landholdings.

    A wuxia might build a school though, and his job is pretty much a Knight Errant's or Robin Hood's.

    So, I guess I'm not sure what your point is. Maybe that you don't like a class based psionic system and you would want to keep it as exceptional powers open to anyone? That's cool. But as you can see from Zak's comments some people don't like that ESP chocolate in their fantasy peanut butter. And that makes sense to me.

    I suppose personally I can do without ESP, telekinesis, and their ilk because magic-users have almost all those powers as spells already in D&D. But I really would like to have ascetics with weird body altering powers that don't match up with my conception of how Clerics petition a higher power for aid. That's what I'm working toward here.

  9. It's obvious that no one has a problem with ESP or telekinesis, or turning your arm into rubber or healing yourself. All these thing Mu and clerics do all the time. My point is that a psionic "class" comes with an urtext of assumptions where somebody ESP doesn't.

    You're focusing on the fluff, but it's the idea of class that I think really bothers people. Take a fantasy wizard with spellpoints and have him cast ESP and telekineses, or have a fighter/Mu start fires with his mind like a character out of a Steven king book--nobody calls it scifi peanut butter. But as soon as you have a psionic "class" that does this now it has become a meta game. Certainly a passing peasant or npc would consider this character a magic user or a fighter/Mu but it's the player that has foisted the "psionicist" into the game world.

    Honestly, I'm not sure what I'm arguing either, so there you go.

    Do you agree that calling him a "knight errant" has an impact instead of wuxia irrespective of wether he uses spell slots or PSP/spellpoints?

    Calling someone a "mind Mage" is meta and breaks imersion because a peasant would just call him a magic user.

    Again, I'm confused about what were arguing, but it has nothing to do with psionics and peanut butter, my example of the psychic thief proves that point, as does calling your wuxia a knight errant.

  10. Makes my point rather, not proves.

  11. I'm going to have to disagree again. I don't think the kinds of wondrous things a character can perform are "fluff." If that were the case clerics could be merged with MUs. But the miracles of saints have a different feeling than wizardly spells, so much so that MUs would probably be considered in opposition in most pseudo-Medieval settings, diabolic even.

    So, yes you could stuff all the fakir type magic into the MU class. But I think it becomes too broad an abstraction. MUs are about achieving power through learning, these psionic archetypes I'm most interested in happen to achieve power through sacrifice and struggle.

    These seem incredibly different to me. Maybe that is what I'm trying to do, systematize the different sources of fantastic power in my fantasy world. One is through petitioning a divine power, one through learning how the world works, one is through learning how to unlock the potential of the human body.

    Now, that's not to say I am against a non-class based solution to granting these kinds of extraordinary powers. That was kind of the point of my original post, that I think by parsing these out you can have both and they will feel different. Your firestarting fighter might have red hair and tend to pass this ability on to his kids. A person who can make their body impervious to fire gained that ability through fasting and years of study under a swami.

    Now, a peasant might call both of these "Mages" but if they need help defending their village they can look for any red heads in the first case, but would need to find an influential swami in the latter. And if they wanted that kind of power for themselves in the first case, they're out of luck, in the latter, follow the swami.

  12. Actually after all that blah blah blah by me, I think I'm realizing we are on the same page: you mention you don't like the idea of a psionic class and mention Deanna Troi as a negative example and ask what "job" they would have.

    So you don't like the idea of the third archetype, the hereditary Psychic, as a class. I don't really either. That was 2e D&D's solution. And I wondered the same thing, why do you need a class if you were born with the powers? And what do they do? walk around practicing lifting things at fairs?

    But you see how a saddhu or wuxia type character could be different than that, right?

  13. The idea of a Psionic character as a profession is complicated by the existence of the Monk character class (Or Mystic if you're going with Metzer D&D). At their heart they're two different ways of achieving the same thing... an ascetic who hones their ability as you say through discipline and sacrifice. Are they perhaps variations on the same class... as least on par with the relationship between the thief and the bard?

    I've found the best way to connect the aesthetic psion to the hereditary psion is via the wild talent option. In my worlds wild talents tend to be a bit more common. Little things that represent the way this ability is coming out in the world. They'd be really something if people would just focus and train those abilities.

    I understand people who have problems with the scifi aspect of psionics and have never had a problem making it a more magical thing standing out from God Given(Divine) or Studied Magic(Arcane) as instead a form of natural magic. Anything 3rd edition or later of course throws this into conflict with the Sorcerer.

  14. Yes. I mean supplement III already calls the fighter psionics "yoga". Instead of dicing for psionic talent, at the cost of finding a trainer (a swammay?) training just allow a fighter to develop his wuxia. The loss of followers is a direct result of his fad and te loss of strength comes from beginning to resemble Ghandi physically.

    The magic user psionic is really still a magic user, but studies with a magician who doesn't need books for some things /shrug

  15. Which makes sense, since even the normal invisibility spell cast by a normal magic user effects psionic creatures. A magic user with psionic ability just has an at will magic spell, instead of usable 3x a day or what have you, you use points to spend on them.

    Furthermore, psionics--reading supplement III won't realistically be gained until 4th level+ and it recommends that probabilities for gaining new abilities be adjusted as related to abilities already possessed.

  16. Thanks for the comments. DarkTouch, I think the comparison to thief/Bard is apt. It's a similar problem of overlapping archetypes. I made my Choose-Your-Own rogue as a way to satisfy that problem for myself and that was what I was thinking about here a mixed bag of abilities that players could choose from to allow for the archetype they had in mind.

    UWS guy, yeah going with subclasses, or at least building on the existing classes makes sense. I'm hesitant to go that route because I want to keep things as simple as possible. But that might be the simplest way, I'll have to think about it.

  17. It seems to me the MU is already an ascetic in practical game terms (no armour, poor hit dice etc), and I've always been confused about the source of his power and limitations... so swami-type discipline makes MUs make more sense, so thanks.

    Psionics bother me because:
    (a) it's a lottery win, in a game that's otherwise all about character power being a reward for labour/risk, so they seem basically unfair as a part of chargen;
    (b) psi smells wrong in fantasy. Magic and miracles already have the mysterious powers of the self and the cosmos wrapped up - what's psi if not some... other kind of magic that magicians don't... do...

    Solutions? (a) what if all PCs took a risky lottery on generation: they can get to be psionic, or they can get some other advantage OR disadvantage, or nothing, on a dice roll. Risk justifies reward: you roll bad, you get screwed, like with attributes. The special rarity of psi makes it worse, IMHO, exactly because it sets that character apart from all others.

    ALSO, psi talent must need training from an esoteric master. It's too good a plot hook to be given out without having to search for one, and I'd be in favour then of split-class training, to allow the psi as a special kind of MU, WITH ascetic limits like the MU (but not identical...?). If this lead to a cool psionic/monk hybrid I might even be persuaded to start running monks.

    (b) Sorry, the name has to go, and the range of powers is just weird (not Weird). Alas, Zak's spirit-possessed, uncontrolled Carrie type psi don't fix it for me, unless they're actually possessed in which case it's not psi. BUT Julian May's Many Coloured Land psychic elves somehow smelled OK. And had a coherent system of powers (although there was no other magic, and they were horribly overpowered compared with non-psychics, so that'd need work). They solve nothing if you're an OD&D purist, alas.

    BUT maybe my payment for BLAHBLAH can help: a new kind of MU class: the Servant of Kami

  18. Servant of the Kami.

    Kami (nature spirits) can be found in all environments - caves, forests, rivers, wells, glaciers, the sea, the sky, thunderstorms. They can also inhabit well-used objects like walking sticks or books. The Servant of Kami can call and bond with them, keeping them in "pots" (talismans) like a hoodoo man. When released from their pots the kami generate one spell effect - generally more or less predictably - related to their home environment. Offensive spells include lightning (from storms), winds, killer waves, darkness, rockslides. They can also ask the local environment for information. The Servant can keep the average of his CHA and level in kami. To get the kami back in the pot after each use he must save vs CHA + level - number of uses that arbitrary period (week? day? scene?). Kami also sometimes want the Servant to do stuff for them. Kami are jealous, prefer Servants who know their place and dislike seeing objects being treated as mere slaves: Servants can never carry more possessions than they have Kami and should never accept aid from magicians or clerics if a Kami could help instead.

    The only "spells" the Servant really knows are Bind and Speak WIth Kami. Everything else has to be gathered in play. Depending on how he treats them, the Servant may retain Kami as allies in their home locations after he releases them.

  19. I'm currently building a campaign deeply inspired by C.J.Cherryh's Chronicles of Morgaine. The central premise is that all the fantasy/magical elements are actually super-advanced alien (actually ultra-terrestrial) science. Most races can utilise psionics, while magic is employed solely by individuals possessed by/in contact with these incorporeal extra-planar beings (think race of ghost wizards). Simplified material requirements ("magic" gemstone containing rechargeable component points. Defiling mechanics (Dragon magazine). No Divine magic -- No Gods (the aliens represent themselves as such)... Mean't a bit of extra work for me -- rebuilding some core classes (e.g. psionic druid) but it has been worth it. Makes it all a little easier for me to imagine, rationalise (this was important), and keep track of. Plus it provides an additional secret/puzzle layer for the players to uncover.

  20. Found my way here from your other thread.

    I like your Ascetic/Kung Fu/Psychic breakdown of psionics. It's a useful thing to keep in mind, though honestly I don't mind mixing the genres and muddying the waters a bit on these things. I could see there being some proclivity toward hereditary psychic abilities which can be enhanced through practice, or forms of practice overlapping with self denial.

    But I agree with some of the comments to the effect that, "what is the place of a psychic in fantasy". I personally have no problem with there being yet another form of magic to give things a different flavor. But the issue I see is: What the heck is the psion doing with a traditional game of wealth and magic item acquisition?

    The hereditary psychic may simply treat abilities as random perks (like being strong) and look at treasure accumulation as a way to hedge their bets. But the ascetic and kung fu types seem all about denial of the need for things outside themselves. Maybe the kung fu exponents might need a few thousand to build a monastery, but magic weapons? Pah!

    That said, I really like the idea of all these sub-classes being included and would be interested in any justifications you can think of to make them better fit.

  21. Thanks. Kung Fu movies are probably more related to westerns, in the sense that they are about protecting the innocent and getting justice for wrongs. It is literally about taking the Law into your own hands. So in that sense they don't mesh as well with the traditional D&D goals.

    But then imagine if we were making the game today, why would MUs want to go into the dungeon?! These guys are all about scholarly study, if anything they would hire some peasant to go into the dungeon to look for books and scrolls, and yet, we have no problem questioning pasty, white scholars going into megadungeons.

    I think if you give players the archetypes, they and the game will give fuel for why they are doing what they are doing.

  22. I guess you're right.

    Although, a couple places for arcane magic types do spring readily to my mind:

    Neophytes simply need to earn their startup capital, or spend a few years as journeymen before the guild gives them a license to settle down in a tower and send folks on quests. Experienced mages who still delve are along the lines of researchers and pulp archaeologists: learning everything they can from and about the magics, cults, and creatures encountered. Nothing like getting your hands dirty.

    But regarding the kung fu tradition, your mention of the parallel to westerns was a great idea seed and got me thinking of a few possible psionic-delver justifications.