Friday, March 15, 2024

Adding Psionics

Another "Friday Funday" post...which is to say, random musings that folks might check out later this weekend as Fridays are (notoriously) slack for reading.

I was considering writing about my current "house rules" (because there are so few these days), and skimming my last post on the subject was struck by something that has NOT changed since I posted it; namely, that I haven't yet added psionics to my game. I have, more or less, gone back to "straight AD&D" I think it might be time (finally) to bite the bullet and just go ahead and do so.

Turns out I've written about psionics before, and reading back through these posts I see my thoughts on the topic haven't changed much since 2009. The main difference between then and now is that I was struggling to figure out a way to implement psionics into the B/X game system; now that I'm playing AD&D, the mechanics are already a part of the system.

So why haven't I implemented them?

Reflecting a bit on the question, I think the main reason has been a little intimidation (or laziness). I am already running AD&D very well, thank you, using the vast bulk of the Rules As Written. But adding psionics requires me becoming intimately familiar with a number of sub-systems that I have let fall by the wayside, left to gather dust for DECADES.  Jeez. I'd have to RE-READ (Heavens!) the Appendix A of the PHB, and familiarize myself with the psionics section of the DMG combat section, not to mention reviewing the psionic wandering encounters...and probably skimming the half dozen psionic monsters in the MM just to remember what I once knew.

Mm. That's not really all that much. I think this IS laziness on my part.

Of course, there's always the "fear" that psionics will "break" the game, even though I don't recall this ever having been the case. My own (vastly over-powered) character back in the day made LIBERAL use of his potent psionics...and still died more often than any other PC in the game. 

[yes, favorite characters still die in 1E games...sometimes MANY times. It's why it pays to have SOME friends who will do the work of reviving you]

Psionics (as others have pointed out) add "flavor" to the game...and complication...but they're not destructive, and they open new avenues of game play, adding richness and (possibly) depth. 

And it's not terribly difficult. I mean, we ran the game with psionics just fine back in the day, and we couldn't even drive then. Just a matter of re-familiarizing myself with rules I haven't used in (35!) years, that's all. And making all our new PCs check for psionic potential; hm, let's see:
  • H Paladin (I13, W15, Cr17): 2% chance
  • HE* Thief (I14, W12, Cr13): 0% chance
  • E Magic-User (I16, W14, Cr14): 0% chance (because he's an elf)
  • H Fighter** (I13, W16, Cr16): 1% chance
  • G Illusionist/Thief (I16, W13, Cr11): 0% chance (because he a gnome)
  • H Cleric (I14, W16, Cr 14): 1% chance
Those are pretty slim odds we'll see ANY psionic-wielders in our game at all. And, yet, I wouldn't put it past my players to roll a double-0 when checking (we have, after all, seen TWO characters with 18/00 strength since we started playing AD&D). 

Yeah, I'm kind of getting excited at the possibilities. Even though psionics DO add some extra "oomph" to a character, it just means they have A) extra survivability (always welcome at low levels), and B) some additional ways to approach challenges (one of the same reasons I like my house rules for magic-users). 

Yeah, time to get off my ass about psionics. Oo-oo...just the thought in implementing (re-implementing?) them has given me some ideas for my campaign! Now I'm getting excited!
; )

* I allow half-elves to gain psionics due to their partially human heritage (and we always played that way, back in the day). Yes, I still have ONE type of "half-human" left in my campaign (as noted before, my "half-orcs" are just orcs). This Friday fun post was almost a discussion on race in AD&D, because I have a lot of things I want to write/discuss on the subject, but I'll save that for another day.

** This is my son's "bard-in-training." Just wanted to note the funny bit: he's named the character "Landon Jr." after my old bard character. Very amusing. It'll be interesting to see if he inherited his "father's" psionic power.


  1. I have a love/hate relationship with psionics. I pretty much only use them in AD&D 1st ed. The 4e psionics were not bad, at least I could see why they were there. For me they are too "sci-fi" to use in D&D. I use them all the time in Doctor Who, Star Trek and other games.

    1. I think THAT (that psionics are too "sci-fi") is probably a common complaint for a lot of folks...even 1E players.

      I've pretty much disliked every version of psionics from post-1E editions of D&D, mainly because the tendency was to make "psionicist" a dedicated class...just another type of spell-caster for players who want to be 'something different' from a cleric, wizard, warlock, sorcerer, etc.

      I can only assume that this tendency has been in aid of "game balance;" that it was deemed poor sport to allow some fighters (or thieves or whatever) to have "extra juice" because they happened to roll "00" on their psionic check. To me this is ridiculous considering the role (no pun) of random ability rolls in increased character effectiveness (do we complain that a cleric with a high wisdom receives extra spells? that a fighter with 18/90+ strength gets devestating melee damage? that a high DEX character never suffers the penalties for surprise?).

      The occasional (rare) character...PC or NPC...with psychic powers isn't game-breaking; and it adds something "a little different" to the game, which is nice spice. Generally, possession of psionics doesn't give a character a leg up over non-psionic users (would be a different story if you could attack non-psionics with Id Insinuation or Psychic Crush)...but a couple little bonus powers (in the form of devotions and disciplines) with finite capability (due to the drain on psionic strength points), can contribute to the success of an adventuring the risk of attracting un-wanted psychic attention.

      I dig it.

    2. Playing Stars Without Number, there Psychics can absolutely attack non-psychics, and at high levels with quite drastic ones like erasing or rewriting memories and personalities, and at low levels with having an invisible rifle to shoot them with mental power.
      Psychics are extremely powerful --- but they are, essentially, just magic users with a scientific-like veneer.
      Adding psionics to a game that already has magic is a bit redundant; that is probably also where the idea comes from that psionics are sci-fi:
      They are sci-fi because sci-fi has no magics.
      The moment you add space-magic to sci-fi, it is redundant because you have psionics, and vice versa in fantasy.

  2. I predict that in a year or two, you'll be back writing a post about why you're dropping psionics ... not because they break the game, but because it'll strike you that they obviously don't add anything to the adventure progress over the overall emotional investment your players have in the game.

    You'll feel moderately ashamed for having written this post, but you'll hedge that off by claiming that it's a learning process, that you had to see, that it seemed like a good idea at the time, and that you were following the passion given to you by your nostalgic memories of psionics. You'll call this a learning experience, and argue that it was necessary for you to take this direction, and that now it's behind you, the overall benefit was positive and useful.

    You may mention psionics again, but only in reference. You won't seriously evaluate that your mindset as a youth was probably that of a child, and whereas inwardly you'll acknowledge that your present game concept does require you to put childish things aside, you probably won't actually write the words when you post.

    Hopefully, however, you'll gain a little more insight on just what a prat Gygax and others at the time were, lose a little respect for them, become a little jaded, but in the end be more insightful and able to discern good from bad.

    1. I'd guess "embarrassed" more than "ashamed." I often get embarrassed reading over my old posts. Shame is something more...uncomfortable.

      But we shall see. I'm not sure I do see this as childish nostalgia. Rather, I feel I've been absurdly intimidated at the idea of "oh, boy, that's too much work to use." THAT's embarrassing. The excitement I feel...that's not childishness (I don't think). It's more the anticipation of

      Thing is, I'm looking at ALL of AD&D now (or most of it anyway) with wide-open adult eyes: and enjoying the newfound use of the thing. I have a pretty good handle on what it...and what it isn't...and the work *I* need to do with it.

      Will psionics end up being trashed, like alignment? Maybe? But I haven't tried using them in a looong time...hard to say until I've given them a harder look, and a bit of a spin 'round the block.
      ; )

  3. For a long time, I was very down on psionics, on the grounds that it was redundant with magic. When I first got back into old-school D&D in the early 2000s, I was enamored with the notion that all of the "sub-classes" could be done away with and merely "roleplayed" (by which, at the time, I would have meant something like "portrayed without recourse to game mechanics" in the same sense that 5e players nowadays like to justify rampant reskinning by regurgitating the catch-phrase, "flavor is free."). In the same way that the 2e PHB pooh-poohed having barbarian and assassin classes around because "a barbarian is just a primitive and poorly-armed fighter" and "an assassin is just anyone who kills for money," it was fine in my opinion at the time to say that a paladin is just a pious fighter, a ranger is just an outdoorsy fighter, a bard is just any adventurer who is also a musician, etc. In short, I had a newfound respect for Basic D&D's simple setup of fighter, magic-user, cleric, probably thief, and sometimes monk, and I was in love with the parsimony of game mechanics that implied.

    So my opinion of psionics throughout most of the last two decades has been: they're just unnecessary. If you want to play a psychic, play a magic-user and let your spells be your psychic powers. 1st level magic-users are mediums; 2nd level magic-users are seers. You've already got the "crystal balls and fortunes" flavor worked into the class from the ground up, just lean into that, suck it up and deal with the unalterable fact of spell memorization, and reflavor your MU as a psychic by treating spells as psychic abilities by another name, or by treating psychic ability as a specific kind of magic-using "tradition," the same way you might flavor this magic-user as a witch or that magic-user as an alchemist.

    And while that approach can certainly work for some kinds of games and some kinds of settings, I've come around in recent years to feeling differently about D&D specifically. D&D has psionics, it just does, and psionics aren't magic. There are a number of ways to implement them, but implement them we should.

    For my part, I do prefer having a dedicated psionicist class and not having random wild talents manifesting in some small percentage of PCs. Moreover, I think that the monk is the best foundation for a dedicated psionics-user, as the monk is a really cool and much-beloved archetype that nevertheless suffers from the dual problems of lacking a mechanical identity (even Gary Gygax seemed to think that monks were just weird-ass thieves) and being kind of shit to play. Give the monk psionics, though (however you want to balance that out), and suddenly they have both a raison d'être and a mechanical hook. And the martial arts and fortune cookie mysticism gives them more flavor and more thematic cohesion than the bland and generic psionicist classes that we got from Dragon, Role Aids, or 2e.

    I get that this approach won't by any means work for everybody, but it works really well for me.

  4. I solved psionics in Cha'alt, right around page 50... if memory serves.

  5. Odd you're contemplating psionics at the moment, as I am doing the same exact thing. I've been reading the 2e Psionics Handbook, which I like for the variety over 1e's system, but then I happened upon my Gamma World 1e book, and now my mind is swirling with all sorts of stuff.

  6. Yeah as already mentioned psionics seems too sci-fi for my games. Though not the concept(doing magic with your mind, ie inherent inborn magic), simply the terminology. The presentation of psionics in ad&d just seems too scientific for my campaign world. Oh sure maybe some other civilization off in space might have a more scientific mindset and use psionics as is and call it that, but for my actual game world where humans have a pretty much premodern look on the world they would not label something psionics, it would be another form of magic with a different name or something. I just can't figure out how to bring it into my game without all the 1e disciplines and abilities etc. as John said above Ive thought about the idea of making it part of a monk/mystic class, but can't figure out how I want it to work.

  7. My players get one psionics roll on character generation, which they record, in case their stats go up and thus allow them to obtain psionics. It's happened once out of the 80 or so recent characters we've rolled up. I can't say it has added much to the game.

  8. Further to this: I have a random character generator in excel that I use to determine class prevalence.
    With 10,000 '4d6, drop the lowest' generated characters, while 26 potentially do have psionics, not one actually has psionics. (The d100 roll was not successful)
    On this basis, I estimate in the overall population, 1 in 40,000 people would be psionic.
    While it is implicitly stated, if that person was 0-level, they have no benefit. A person can only really benefit if they can level up, for the disciplines etc.
    At the nation level, in a population of 5 million, you'd have say 125 psionic individuals. Compare that to 70% of a (3d6 generated) population having the minimum stats (9 Int, 7 Dex) to be a magic user.