Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Meditating on Psionics

Although I have always had a soft spot for psionics in D&D (it is a great concept), I have never allowed them in any of my campaigns. This is due to my one experience with 1ed psionics. I had convinced a DM of mine to allow me to play the NPC Psionicist class from Dragon Magazine (I forget which issue) in a campaign of his. The exercise was not very entertaining. My DM felt completely justified in sending high HD monsters after us because, not only could my character easily dispense with them using a Psionic Blast, but he also felt the need to deplete my character's psionic attack strength so that when our party got into the meat of an adventure, I couldn't simply use my psionics to blast past something meant to be challenging for a normal party.

Though I won't label his tactics as unfair — he once pointed out that though he had purposely ambushed our 3rd-4th level party with a 16HD froghemoth, my character did kill it in one round (though not before it had incapacitated or killed most of the party) — I was acutely aware that he was doing this. In the end, it wasn't very fun for anybody. My DM was constantly threatened by the level of power psionics brought to the table, I had to play with a target on my back and my fellow players had to put up with otherwise outrageous encounters that would kill off the entire party in most other circumstances.

Over the years, I've looked with interest on attempts to make a more palatable version of psionics. To be perfectly frank, I've never been quite satisfied with any of them — mainly because they've understood psionics as a kind of alternate point-based magic system, which I have no interest in. Recently, I have taken to meditating upon how I might make my own version for use in some of the D&D retro-clones. I decided to start with psionic combat because that is the part of psionics that both interests me the most and is the least comprehensible aspect of the system as presented in 1ed.

The concept that inspired me to pursue this meditation was that I hit upon the idea of treating the various attack and defense modes of psionics as equipment rather than powers. Attack modes could then be seen as weapons and defense modes as armor. This leads to the very simple idea of attaching a Mental AC to each defense mode:

No Mode = No Armor
Mind Blank = Studded Leather
Thought Shield = Scalemail
Mental Barrier = Chainmail
Intellect Fortress = Bandedmail
Tower of Iron Will = Platemail

In turn, all the various Attack Modes would be assigned a different damage roll:

Psionic Blast 1d4
Mind Thrust 1d6
Ego Whip 1d8
Id Insinuation 1d10
Psychic Crush 1d12

According to the need to each campaign, each mode could have a cost representing how common or rare psionics are. It also allows for the concept that psionics need not be mental powers but actual pieces of equipment that can be found/taken away. In fact psionic training vs. psionic items could have different price points. This then opens up a whole new classification of magic items. For example, a common device in a psionic world might be a crystal mind shield which would serve the same function as an ablative shield. These small crystals could be worn anywhere on the body in order to make the wearer harder to hit by a psionic attack and be destroyed in order to negate the damage done by a psionic attack.

One option for psionic damage might be to use Psychic HP which would be based on Int, Wis and/or Cha. When employing a psionic attack, all damage would go towards reducing PHP (with the possible exception of Psionic Blast, which would always do damage to normal HP). When reduced to zero PHP, the character would then make a save vs. death or be rendered unconscious. Should the save be successful, the character could continue to fight, but all damage taken from a psionic attack would be applied to normal HP.

This system could be easily integrated into the existing combat system. Each attack would take one round; however, psionic attacks happen simultaneously with all other attacks, including other psionic attacks. Thus, if a psionic character killed a sword wielding orc with his psionic attack, the orc would still get to attack with his sword that same round because both attacks happened at the same time. Psionic attacks would have no range limitations, but require line of sight.

Although I like this set-up because of its simplicity, it does not reflect the kind of tactical mode vs. mode choices that seem apparent in the 1ed rules. This feel could be accomplished by a kind of Weapon vs AC chart where the "to hit" rolls remain static and different attack modes are more or less effective against different defense modes. As characters gained levels, they would gain a number of attack rolls equal to their HD (also making conversion for psionic monsters reasonably easy).

The table might look something like this:

.......................Blank.....Shield.....Barrier.....Fortress.....Iron WIll






If you are wondering, these numbers are quite arbitrary. The only logic I am using is that Blast works better against the most accessible defense mode, where as Crush works best on the rarest defense mode. From there I made sure that each row and column had all of the following "to hit" rolls: 12, 14,16,18, & 20.

I invite comments and criticisms.


  1. I've had very similar thoughts. You might want to look at the current draft of Under the Dying Sun to see what I've done:

    Also, an early version on the blog:

  2. Hey Matthew,

    It seems great minds think alike ;)

    I am curious as to how your system has worked out in play. Whereas my focus has been on the idea that anybody can use psionics, yours has been that they are primarily tied to a class but anybody might be able to use them. I also want to know how your use of INT, WIS and CHA as psionic hit points works out (I use them to calculate psionic hit points as opposed to being those hit points). Personally, I have never been a big fan of tying damage to abilities that affect combat because once one side does damage, the other is seriously handicapped and the fun of combat can evaporate very quickly. Otherwise, I very much like what you've done...thanks for the link.

  3. Sorry I took so long in replying:

    Psionic sorcery has seen very limited use so far in my game, so I don't feel like I have a good sense of it in play yet. However, I don't think the damage to the mental Abilities has quite the death-spiral effect you imagine. One woudl only get a neg modifier once an Ability 5 or less and by then, it's pretty much over.

    I thought about making up a Psychic Hit Points, but it didn't feel right to me. I really wanted to emphasize how psychic sorcery was different.