Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Class Struggles: Psionics, D.S. al Coda

I have not done a Class Struggles in a while, but something came up to make want to look back at a few I did in the past.


Jason Vey, author and game designer of many systems (currently working with the Troll Lords on Castles & Crusades and Amazing Adventures), recently did a deep dive into the psionic systems of both OD&D and AD&D.  If you have not read his blog, please do. He is more knowledgable about OD&D and AD&D than many of the self-professed experts out there.  He will be the first to claim he doesn't know everything about the games and he has still more to learn, but I will take the opinion of a quiet sage that claims to know only little than a loud-mouthed fool that claims to know a lot.

Anyway, his posts are here:


If you have any interest in psionics or OD&D/AD&D in general then it is a great read. 

I covered similar, but with a different focus, in my Class Struggles posts on Psionics and Psychic Classes, Part 1 and Part 2.  I also covered the Pathfinder Occult heroes book and the Judges' Guild Psychic Witch in detail. 

That's a lot of actual and virtual ink spilled on the subject of psionics.

Today though one of my biggest questions is this.
Do psychic powers belong in Fantasy Role-Playing Games?

Now there are a lot of GREAT game books on psionics and psychic powers.  That is not what this question is about.  This question boils down to a few things in my mind. Should psychic powers exist alongside magic? If they do, can psychic powers interact with magic? Can a character be psychic and magical? 

Jason addresses some of these questions in his first post. He addresses it as his Point 1 ("They [Psionics] are science-fiction feeling and simply don't have a place in a fantasy game.") and later states that it is not the focus of his post.  That's 100% fine. It's not the purpose of his, but it is the purpose of this post. 

Psionics in Fantasy Role-Playing Games

Maybe it was because I grew up in the 70s and played a lot of *D&D in the 80s this question seems bigger to me than maybe it really is.   

Back in my AD&D days, we played in two separate psionic focused games. The first was our regular big AD&D game in which psionic people were inequivalent of witches or mutants. We read a lot of X-Men back then.  So there was a class of psychic characters that would use their psychic abilities to mimic wizards just to survive.  It was a great meta-plot and I have not done anything similar to it for a while.  We also did a limited run "Deryni" game using OD&D but the AD&D psionic rules. I thought they had been the OD&D Eldritch Wizardry rules, but re-reading Jason's posts made me realize that what we were doing was closer to AD&D.

In these games, this worked for us because we kept magic and psionic powers completely separate. Detect Magic would not detect psionic powers. For example, the spell Detect Invisible would not detect someone that was invisible due to psychic powers.  We decided that magical invisibility would "bend the light around you", thus the idea that "shadow" ala the Hobbit, could be seen.  Psychic invisibility edited the person from the minds of those looking.  So mindless creatures could still see a psychically invisible character. 
We had a lot of discussions on what worked when and how.  As I got older I wanted things to be simpler.  

The trouble lies not in the complexity or simplicity of the systems really. The trouble lies in my own bias.


D&D 3.x made some great strides in fitting Psionics into their Fantasy Magic game by largely making psionics just another type of magic.  This is a good thing that helps deal with the host of natively psychic monsters (grells, mind flayers, brain moles, intellect devourers, aboleths) and keeps the D&D 3 mantra of one single system going.  Trouble is with this idea is that psychic powers now do feel just like another form of magic.

D&D 4 also did this, a bit more powerfully and it kept the unique feel of psychic powers <> magic.  Which is quite a feat given that one of the legitimate complaints of D&D 4 is that all the classes feel the same. 

Thinking back to the 70s and the Occult Revival magic and psychic powers were all wrapped up in the same ball of weird-ass, new age, stuff.  While I certainly think that psionics, as they are written in OD&D and AD&D, were influenced more by science fiction stories there is certainly a feeling of the 70s mentality on what these powers are.

For simplicity sake maybe it is as simple as this.
Magic is a power external to those using it. Be it from a god, pact, bloodline or the ability to learn to how to manipulate those same forces. 
Psionics are power from within.  They can mimic magic but are not the same.

So what is the difference then between a Pyromancer (magical fire) and a Pyrokneticst (psychic fire)?  Maybe none from the outside, but one has spent more time in school learning how to use their powers and the other likely spent their time in a mental hospital for using theirs.

Another way I guess to look at it is through the lens of books and television shows. Magic-Users are more like the Magicians, Harry Dresden, and Harry Potter. They study a lot, they know the rules of magic because others have written them down before them. In the case of Harry Potter the magic is outside of them and they manipulate it and in Magicians it takes a lot of learning and practice.  
Psychics are like Tomorrow People or The Gifted.  There are certain things they can do but they have had no training, and sometimes it is painfully obvious they haven't.  

I guess in the end here I still don't really have an answer.  
Maybe that is fine. Maybe I don't need an answer to "do psychics belong in a FRPG?" becasue that is not the right question to ask.
Maybe the right question to ask is to borrow from a current meme "Does it bring you joy?" or the question I ask everytime I design a new game or piece of a game, "Will it be fun?"

Do psychic powers belong in Fantasy Role-Playing Games?
Will it be fun?

If yes to the second question, then yes to the first.

Everything else are just details.

4 comments:

Justin Isaac said...

I do feel that psionics have more of a sci-fi feeling to them for me. I did have a lot of fun playing an elven soulknife in 3.5 though. That's why in some games I keep them regulated to creatures beyond the stars and in the Underdark (which is also alien).

That being said, I think you have a great point. If you think they're fun, then add them and use them in a game.

Adam Ness said...

The "I studied it exhaustively" vs "It comes to me naturally" dichotomy comes in to modern D&D in the Wizard vs the Sorcerer. If I'm doing Psychics in 3e and later, I usually just reskin Sorcerers into Psychics.

Travis Casey said...

Katherine Kurtz's Deryni series does an excellent job with psionics in a fantasy world. The deryni -- essentially humans with psionic powers -- are considered a "magical race", and are feared, admired, and hunted for it. There are glimmerings of "real magic" as a thing in the series, touching somewhat on the real-world idea that "magic" is simply a ritualized way of calling up and focusing psychic power.

It spawned two adaptations into AD&D. The larger one appeared in Dragon #78, with the first version of "the psionicist" as a class, an article expanding on psionics, and articles specifically on the deryni and the major characters of the series as it stood at that time. The other was Lenard Lakofka's "The Cloistered Cleric" in a different issue of Dragon (I forget the exact number now).

Timothy Brannan said...

@Travis: Yeah, I have covered the Deryni here quite a bit. I think Dragon #78 is on my list of ones to review too.

I also have the Mayfair games book with the Deryni as a playable class/race here too. Fun stuff, but I have not played in a Deryni game since 1988.

@Adam: Yeah, that is also a good way to do it. Very much like the Adept we played in 1st ed that I talk about in the post. The psychics that mimic wizards.

@Justin: Fun is the key. If it isn't then why do it? I have a 1000 other games I can play.

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