Wednesday, November 18, 2009


As I wrote regarding paladins, I sometimes feel a bit o frustration by my lack o knowledge at the origins of the D&D game. Certainly with regard to psionics, this is especially true…I know that they were not introduced as rules until Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry, and I believe the mind flayer first appeared in an earlier wargaming periodical, but damn I wish I had them now.

I have mixed feelings about psionics in a D&D campaign…actually I have “mixed-up” feelings; I’m not sure HOW I feel about ‘em. In the games of my youth, we used the psionic rules in our 1st edition AD&D campaign, and used them fairly extensively…as with all things “canon” if they were in a TSR publication with Gary’s name, then they were NOT optional. But once we started introducing these options from the appendix we also opened the door to weirder, home-brewed stuff in our campaigns, too.

After all, we were big readers of mythology and folklore (not to mention Steven King). If Loki could give birth to an eight-legged horse or a minotaur was descended from a human woman, who was I to say that a storm giant polymorphed into elven form couldn’t sire a half-elf with elemental abilities? And yes there was a player in our campaign that took that on.

We also had a pyrokinetic (a la Firestarter) with rules we “brewed” ourselves…that guy was fun.

ANYWAY, similar to the paladin/holy avenger I like the IDEA of psionics in a campaign. However, I was NOT distressed to see them disappear from the 2nd edition (and later) basic rule sets. Unlike the assassin or bard (or demons and devils), I didn’t think doing away with psionics as a REGULAR PART of the game diminished the “flavor” of D&D in any particular way.

Heck, in our games “rolling for psionics” only happened if a player actually asked for a check, and usually the player wouldn’t unless they were looking at some pretty high ability scores the mental areas. Otherwise, having psionics was generally non-integral to the game.

And yet, there are many monsters in the Monster Manual that have psionics and access to psionic powers, and not using psionic rules cuts out part of this game content. Mind flayers, of course, fall into this category (though their thought blast can work on non-psionics), but also intellect devourers, thought eaters, and the major demons and devils. I can recall (as a child DM) wishing more players had psionics so that I could hit them with a Psychic Crush attack.

; )

But between “being a kid” and now, for the most part I was perfectly content to allow psionics to fall by the wayside…especially when 3rd edition made the psionicist its own class (2nd edition might have done this as well, but I never owned the Complete Psionic Handbook and am unfamiliar with the use of psionics in 2nd edition). As a kid, both as a player AND as a DM I enjoyed psionics as an interesting little “add-on.” But I cannot stand it as a “dedicated class. That’s just garbage in my mind. Pick a class…fighter, mage, thief and be THAT. If you happen to have the ability to move objects with your mind more power to you. But no one gets TRAINED for that…at least not in MY milieu.

In science fiction? Sure: Traveller’s Imperium, Firefly’s secret alliance bases, the Bene Gesserit of Dune…these are great settings for psionic “schools.” But in a world that already assumes mental/metaphysical training (i.e. universities/schools for magic-users and their ilk) a dedicated psionic “class” seems like over-kill to me. And by over-kill I mean “unnecessary.”

That’s not to say that one couldn’t customize his or her own D&D campaign to HAVE psionic schools (if you want to roll that way it’s your prerogative and D&D is adaptable to a lot of settings). I simply prefer to handle psionics differently from “their own class.” A fighter fights…with or without psionics. A thief sneaks…with or without psionics. Etc.. That’s one of the reasons I prefer it as an “add-on” (the other reason probably being “I’m used to it”).

[Ha! I just remembered my dream from last night…I met up with another old gaming buddy I haven’t seen in real life since 1997. Wow…I DO have D&D on the brain these days!]

So okay, I’ve said how I like to handle psionics (add-on, not dedicated class) and how I feel regarding its necessity to the rules (not necessary to make D&D be D&D). But what do I think of its place in the context of D&D gaming…as an add-on, an option, do I feel it adds anything to the game? Or is it an unnecessary complication? Or worse, is it an abusive system or system subject to abuse?

Well, here are my personal feelings:

As I wrote, I like the idea of psionics, and I think it can fit with the earlier forms of D&D. To me, early forms of D&D (OD&D, B/X, AD&D1) have a much more down-and-dirty, sword-and-sorcery feel than the stuff that came later. And to me, psionics FEELS more sword and sorcery…certainly in the vein of MZB (the dearly departed Ms. Bradley) and a few others.

I like the idea that while some characters get their powers from the divine (clerics), and others with wrestling with ancient incantations (magic-users), some folks have natural gifts that allow them access to powers other don’t have (psionics). Like the poor bastards in a Steven King novel, some folks just have the blessing (or curse) of “being special.” Other spell-users may envy them (or want to dissect their brains for study or spell components), they are more vulnerable to certain monsters (with psionic abilities) and psionic NPCs…it’s not necessarily a picnic.

Of course, some folks object to psionics, not for the “sci-fi” flavor but rather in homage to that all-too-elusive idol of “game balance.” To which I say, “go fish up a tree.” By which I mean, I could care less about game balance.

HOWEVER, while I personally could care less about game balance, I understand that I’m not necessarily in the majority opinion on the subject, even amongst other “old school” types. So yeah it does seem like characters with the good fortune (or DM fiat) to possess psionics are blessed above and beyond the rest of the proles, one has to remember:

- finite resources (psionic points)

- special vulnerabilities (psionic monsters/enemies)

- possible plot complications (witch hunters and xenophobia)

As a player with a character that had some fairly potent psionics himself, I found myself mainly relying on my normal character class abilities, except when solo adventuring. And regarding the latter, it was the reliance on psionic abilities and their finite resources that eventually did my character in on one particular outing, resulting in a lengthy torture/dismemberment/imprisonment on one of the lower planes of existence.

Regarding the actual psionic SYSTEM in AD&D…well, yeah it’s in need of a lot of work. At least for my tastes it’s more cumbersome than I’d care to use (heck, it was cumbersome when I was 14 and I used to LOVE archaic systems like this!). On the other hand, I really dig the Gygaxian flavor writing in the psionic section: “disciplines” instead of powers, names like “ego whip” and “fortress of iron will.” Check out “molecular agitation,” “body weaponry,” and “probability travel.” Probability travel? That just sounds awesome, I don’t care what it actually DOES.

Yeah, it might be cool/interesting to include a psionic add-on in my B/X Companion, but I think space limitations will prevent it. HOWEVER, even if I HAD the space, I would need to somehow streamline the system, while still keeping the Gygaxian flavor I love…no easy task, that. Which is why I wish I had a copy of Supplement III to peruse. Even if it’s MORE clunky, these glimpses into the “original rules” give me a ton of good stuff…Swords and Spells sure did with regard to mass combat.

Though honestly if you can’t include a mind flayer in the monster list (Intellectual Property and all) psionics lose a lot of their luster….


  1. Are Mind Flayers even an option in a campaign without psionics? I do not care for psionics -- they seem too cumbersome indeed to me -- but I love Mind Flayers. Any suggestions?

  2. Why not try something along the lines of Black Dougal's sorcery and sanity connection? I also like the idea of rolling to see if a spell works, is delayed, or is forgotten. You could use the same sort of chart with psionics, except "forgotten" would be a sanity hit. Also, instead of level of character on the vertical of the chart you'd have sanity. Better sanity would be like higher level, but the idea would be that rather than being fixed, sanity could fluctuate even within a single encounter. You might also want to have a modifier that reflects "stress." E.g., this could cause a stronger but less controlled effect.

  3. You know folks, I haven't even yet CONSIDERED how I might rework psionics for B/X play...I was just considering whether or not I'd even like psionics in the Basic/Expert game.

    And honestly, I don't know. I like the idea but it just seems...well, a bit controversial. I think I want to look around at what some other folks are doing (a couple different blogs), before I start throwing out my own ideas.

    Any feedback, though, is cool and appreciated. Thanks!