Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Defending psionics.

AD&D psionics. Everybody either hates the hell of them or never used them (or, paradoxically, both). But not me. I think AD&D's is a very solid, very usable psionics system and I'm here today to tell you why.

Could it be that I was a counsel for the defense at Nuremberg in a former life?

Anyway, psionics in Dungeons & Dragons certainly pre-date their most well-known appearance in the first appendix of 1978's AD&D Player's Handbook. I, however, do not. Therefore, I'll be focusing on AD&D in this post. That being said, if somebody out there has additional relevant insight into how these systems differed in TSR publications that predate the PHB, that's fine with me. Comments sections are there for a reason, after all.

Let's jump right into it, shall we?

1. Psionics "don't work."

I hear this one a lot. The psionics rules were somehow either incomprehensibly convoluted or completely illogical and simply didn't function if you attempted to run them as written.

Wrong. AD&D psionics are actually quite simple. Everything from calculating a character's chance to be psionic, to determining a psionic character's overall strength, to allocating psionic powers is as straightforward as any other aspect of character creation.

The effects of the various powers are as clearly explained as those of magic spells. No more so, but certainly no less.

Psionic combat is a simple matter of cross-referencing two values on a chart and applying the indicated results, the same as regular physical combat.

2. Psionics are "unbalanced."

This misunderstanding is a lot more understandable. The psionic character gets all these special powers for nothing, right?

So you might believe until I point you to a little thing called the psionic encounters section of Appendix C of the Dungeon Master's Guide. It turns out that each time a psionic power is used within one turn of a wandering monster check, that wandering monster has the potential to be a psionic one.

And psionic monsters? As per the Monster Manual, they're really, really damn nasty. And prone to target psionic PCs. As written, it's only a matter of time (the chance is a full 25% upon a positive wandering monster check) before some brain-eating nasty rolls up and pulls a Scanners on your psionic wunderkind PC, and quite possibly the rest of his party, too, considering that psionic encounters are rolled on a chart that includes arch-devils and demon princes and doesn't discriminate by PC or dungeon level.

Not so unbalanced now, it is? In fact, the check that the DMG encounters appendix places on psionic PCs is such an outright gruesome death lottery that I don't think I'd opt to run a psionic PC in AD&D even if I could.

3. Psionics "don't fit in a fantasy game."


Seriously, this one has to piss me off the most. Go back and actually read the fiction that inspired D&D. Many of you reading this already have, but it bears emphasizing how the artificial and stifling separation of fantastic fiction into rigid genres is a Crappy Thing, as are its effects on RPG gaming (as exemplified in this sad stab at a criticism).


  1. How about "psionics is superfluous"?

    As in, we don't need a parallel system of magic, that "really acts like magic in a number of really significant ways, but is just.... DIFFERENT!"

  2. Well, the AD&D psionics rules were a *bit* confusing.

    For instance, some gamers played it so all psionics were acquired at first level and all ascended at the same time. Some had them acquired in steps and advancing incrementally. I don't recall the EXACT rules, but that was my confusing experience with them. (Maybe some of these variations were house rules? No clue.)

  3. "As in, we don't need a parallel system of magic..."

    Who's we? There are plenty of people who would argue that two ways of doing it aren't enough and that it's already boring that magic-users, clerics, and druids all use the same magic system.

    It's all a matter of personal preference, and doesn't really touch on any of the points I made.

  4. It wasn't intended to touch on one of the points you made. It was intended to point out that there are other points that could have been made, that you neglected to make.

    As in, your three points aren't all there is to the question. Which I think, in and of itself, is a valid enough point to make. :-)

  5. "For instance, some gamers played it so all psionics were acquired at first level and all ascended at the same time. Some had them acquired in steps and advancing incrementally."

    Second method is the one in the rulebook. I guess house rules could confuse the matter, but that's not the core system's fault.

  6. "As in, your three points aren't all there is to the question."

    I don't touch much on personal preferences for a reason. Instead, I tried to confine my commentary to common statements about the AD&D psionics system that are *factually* incorrect and not just things some people don't like for whatever reason.

  7. I love the psionic system & its nice to have a slightly different spin on the whole D&D is simply a magic based system. Funny how it always creeps under the back door

  8. "In fact, the check that the DMG encounters appendix places on psionic PCs is such an outright gruesome death lottery that I don't think I'd opt to run a psionic PC in AD&D even if I could."

    That's as good a reason as any to cite Psionics as being somewhat (or entirely, fundamentally) imbalancing to a campaign as written.

  9. Well, since I have been delving deep into Supplement III for a while, let me share some insights.

    There are quite a few places in the original rules which are superfluous. It's also very badly written, and some procedures which could be simplified.

    So, since it's not uncommon for people to build their ideas on hearsay, I dare to guess that from the day Supplement III was published until the PHB came out, I bet many learned that the psionic rules were a mess. They are cleaned up in the PHB, but I'm not sure its reputation hadn't already been set by the earlier publication of those rules.

    That being said. I think the rules are less well working than the magic rules. I must confess that I don't have my PHB handy (just Supplement III), but the fact that not all powers use psi points is confusing. Magic have clearer set borders, which define how it works.

    The idea that you don't need yet another "magic" system is a good argument I think. I never liked the idea that the Bard, the Druid and the MU and Cleric all used the same magic system never sat well with me, but if that is the case why should psychics be different?

    Since I have spent so much time on it, I guess you have some idea that I do value the existence of psionics in D&D. I think they are fun, and it is cool with some outre oddball powers to shake up the game. Science fantasy gonzo carcosa is how I rock. :)

    The rules could use some cleaning up (guess what one of my projects is?) but it's not that far worse than the rules for initiative or unarmed combat in AD&D.

  10. I played psionics for AD&D back in the day. several problems arose.
    1) Nobody could get them (the stated chance to be psionic was really low).
    2) When we finally got someone who could use them, they were set on a different time scale (10 times faster than the standard round). As consequence most of the players would sit around while the DM and psionist duked it out BORING!

    When I played the Dark Sun computer game where everyone got psionics and psionic powers were only usable one per round, I usually found there was something better to do than my psionic attack and only used them when the magic-user had thrown all his other spells.

  11. Huh. We never used Psyonics in our games, but I always thought they were a fascinating concept. Makes the game more variable, you know.

  12. are there any authentic grimoires about medieval ones thanks

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