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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Psionic Thoughts

Jason Vey of The Wasted Lands blog has been running a series on psionics in TSR-era D&D, covering both the OD&D and AD&D systems and the differences between the two. The easiest way to check it out is to go to the psionics label on his blog and look at the last four articles. I disagree with Jason on one major point, but it’s a matter of opinion rather than a debate over facts. The series is a good read.

The last time I dealt with the psionics system was 40 years ago. I never had anyone play a psionic character when I GMed, but I played a psionic magic-user when my friend GMed. Since, for some reason, my friend only GMed one-on-one sessions with me vs. the larger number of players when I GMed, psionics turned out to be crucial to my character’s survival. Psionic Blast saved my bacon on solo encounters vs. some tough random monsters. I enjoyed my psionic experiences, but although the OD&D and AD&D rules aren’t unplayable, they are really much too clunky, which is why I’ve previously tried to rewrite the system.

But there are a couple things I’d keep, at least conceptually:
  • The different feel of psionics for each class (Fighter/Thief psionics are considered yoga in OD&D, for example)
  • The rarity of psionic characters
  • Slower progression or reduced power in the main class
  • Differences in effectiveness of attack modes vs. defense modes
  • Very quick psionic combat (multiple attack/defense exchanges in first round)
I do think my past attempts to use the existing melee combat system to handle psionic combat is the right way to go, but I still have some work to do on fixing the rest of psionics. And the way things are going, I think it’s all going to be linked to a rewrite of magic spells as well. We’ll have to see what happens.


  1. For psionic combat, an interesting take on it is the one that Mentzer ended up making for his stealth-remake of it in the Immortals boxset: it's already a fancied-up rock-paper-scissors, so just simplify it down to that.

    His "advanced" method adds in betting, two more options, and extra benefits to each option*, but even then it's really just rock-paper-scissors with five options to choose from. Much like base OD&D Psionics is playing two sets of complicated table-based attacker vs. defender five-option rock-paper-scissors.

    *"Change" makes them unable to use magic, "Erase" paralyses them, "Hold" stops the opponent from moving, "Slam" moves them, "Wrap" negates their senses.

    1. Not sure how that works, since I've never seen the Immortals rules.

      In my previous fiddling with psionics, I equated the defense modes to armor classes:

      - AC 9 = surprised or defenseless
      - AC 8 = Thought Shield
      - AC 7 = Mind Blank
      - AC 5 = Mental Barrier/Intellect Fortress
      - AC 3 = Tower of Iron Will

      Psionic attacks are like weapons. All do 1d6 psychic damage (counts against hit points, but erased after a turn of rest.) Mind Thrust acts like a sword, Ego Whip like a whip (can target arms or legs to immobilize.) Psionic blast is like a weak breath weapon, Id Insinuation causes fear, Psychic Crush can do 1-2 points of physical damage on a good roll.)

      I had a modifier scheme where there were variant attack modes targeting different parts of the psyche, but I can't find my notes on that.

  2. What do you think of the Psionics system found in Carcosa?

    1. I hadn't really looked at Carcosa, but then I remembered I got it in one of the old school bundles, so I just skimmed it. It's short, really just enough for a taste of psionics, so that's a plus, even if it does a few things in ways I would not. Really, it's geared for the specific vibe of Carcosa.

  3. So the biggest problem we had in playing with psionics in the party in the old days was the different pace compared to melee. Every time a psionic encounter occurred the DM and the one psionic party member would go off for an hour rolling dice while everyone else twiddled their thumbs. Boring as heck for most of the players.

    1. It definitely has a different pace and can interrupt the flow of play. But it also sounds like you DM was either doing something wrong or using a different system.

      Definitely, there's no need to take the psionic party member to another room. The other players should get a chance to witness the drama.

      And as written, there's not much dice rolling in psionic combat, since most of the exchanges just require table look-ups and point reductions. It shouldn't take an hour, although it might if the DM had to look up the rules and all the edge cases every time combat took place.