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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wizardry, Sorcery, and Psionics

Everyone's talking about the cleric lately, so I'm going to talk about ... the sorcerer. I like the basic idea of different flavors of magic, but I hate the idea of creating a new class just because you chafe at the restrictions of an existing class. The sorcerer, as the concept has evolved in D&D, seems to mainly exist so that some players can use magic without having to worry about spell books or making the wrong decision about which spells to prep. I can see balancing a variant class concept, but that concept has to have more behind it than "I don't want to prep spells in advance."

Psionics could be viewed the same way, but in my mind, there's more of a conceptual backing. Wizardry (standard magic) is external (manipulate magical forces or auras;) Psionics is internal (mental forces.) Thus, psionics doesn't require words, gestures, or ingredients (external components,) but can't maintain an external existence on its own (requires conscious thought.) There are a number of conclusions you can draw from this distinction:
  • Because psionics are internal, they rely on the psychic's own power, and are fatiguing;
  • It's possible to run out of psionic power, but it's also possible to use psionics at-will;
  • Psionics can't be maintained without a conscious psychic backing them;
  • Internal power can only be disrupted by internal actions, such as successful mental attacks or Confusion effects.
See the difference? You can start with the basic assumption of "psionics is internal (pure mind power)" and evolve a number of details from that. But sorcery, as typically presented, isn't differentiated from scholarly magic. I think there's the potential that it *could* be. Consider Wizardry and Psionics as two extremes, with Sorcery somewhere in the middle. Sorcery could be more like psionic manipulation of magical force, sort of a bridge between the external and internal. Sorcerous spells can be maintained without concentration, but there's still a personal connection; I would definitely make sorcerous enchantments end when the sorcerer dies, which matches the way magic sometimes works in legend and literature. Because the sorcerer manipulates an external magical force, sorcery relies on a physical substance: burning incense, spilling blood; each sorcerer would have a particular style. This is distinct from the wizard, who (by default) only uses spell ingredients during preparation, not when triggering the spell.

The sorcerer relies on personal power rather than knowledge of formulas, so sorcerers would not require books, but would start with fewer spells. It should be more difficult for them to acquire new spells; perhaps they should be limited to a number of spells equal to double or triple their level, but they would be able to cast these spells multiple times per day, within the limits of how much incense (or blood, or other substance) they have left; also, sorcery should be exhausting, but not as much as psionics.

Incidentally, I'm seeing the illusionist as being somewhere on this same wizardry/psionics continuum, but closer to the psionics end, compared to the sorcerer, who is closer to the wizardry end. This may mean that illusionists should not have limit on how many illusions they can create per day, but can become mentally exhausted faster.


  1. Here's a recent take of mine on the sorcerer. I am pleased with the game mechanics, but I have not had a chance to play test it yet.

    The internal/external schema that you set out here is really interesting. It would also mean that if you killed a psionic, everything they had created would dissipate, whereas the same would not be true for a wizard.

    I still have yet to come across a psionic system that I feel works well. I think part of the problem is that I don't like having too many power lists. Maybe something like a table that was effect * magnitude, where effects included all the traditional psion powers like telekinesis, esp, etc. and magnitude would specify how powerful the effect was (how many pounds lifted, and for how long) and how many "psionic strength points" (or Con points, or whatever) were required to power the effect. Just thinking "out loud" here.

  2. I've never liked any of the official psionic systems. Personally, my perfect system is the one Geoffrey McKinney has in his Carcosa supplement, although I use it without the random element. It's beautiful in its simplicity.

    As for the sorcerer, another way to tackle it without creating too much work for the DM is to make them "memorise" their spells by performing rituals, have them fire and forget like the magic-user but instead of studying a spell book the next morning, they have to spend the equivalent time performing a "top up" ritual to gain access to those spells again. If they want to change the spells they have access to they need to perform a full ritual for each new one.

  3. I agree with everything you've said here, including re illusionists... which is one reason I've always been uncomfortable with illusions that have a mechanically-represented reality apart from the caster (per our recent discussions; the idea of illusory attacks causing damage etc).

    I reject the AD&D psionics rules out of hand and have toyed with some kind of Julian May psionics system. Where wizards have their bag of tricks that work roughly the same every time I think psi should be more improvised - an application of some broad power like telekinesis, which is difficult and variable in use, like a skill.

    If psi is a "natural" ability and wizardry is a manipulation of secret codes of the world (basically a technology), sorcery could be distinguished by being based on exchange - fatigue or POW or magic points for temporary effects, permanent sacrifices for permanent results (up to the moment when all exchanges are cancelled - usually by death, maybe by something else). Again, the "spell list" would be largely improvised. The player could say "what would it cost me to fly right now?" and get a ballpark response from the DM and then have a difficult choice to make.