Magical Mondays: I, Psy   2 comments

I psi, with my third eye,
Something… sentimental.
-Bill the Telepath?

For today’s Magical Mondays, we’ll be discussing psionics. The magic of psionics… if, in fact, psionics is magic at all… always works its way into a game system that allows magic if enough time passes. Players want it, game designers want to design it, and fans of lore can’t stop thinking about it. What is it that attracts us to this system? And more to the point, is it right for your game? This is a serious question, whether you’re just a player or a game master.

One of the key benefits to including psychics, telepaths and clairvoy…ants? Clairvoyers? Clairvoys… is the fact that you can justify it in a game world that has supernatural elements but seems to lack magic. If there are no witches or wizards, psychics fill the void easily. Like alchemy, there’s just enough of a touch of realism that lets players suspend their disbelief. And once disbelief is thoroughly suspended, you have a chance to wow your players.

In a game world that lacks magic, psychic powers can be justified through a number of ways that “aren’t magic” (heehee). In Cosmic Patrol, the Moon Men employ incredible feats of Dynamo Psychism through a combination of their highly developed brains (though this might have been modified by their Sufficiently Advanced Technology, a topic for another day.) The psychic powers of the Moon Men involve things like memory modifications, lifting objects (or other creatures, or even themselves) with their mind, or simply blasting other people’s thoughts with their own. The second of these is the unusual one; rather than using their mind to influence or measure another’s mind, it involves physically interacting with the world around them… but not by touching it. In this sense, psychic powers expand beyond material relating to the mind; as we can see in other games, the powers almost take the form of imagined effects translating into reality.

Psychic abilities outside of the spacefaring world of Cosmic Patrol, such as in superhero games like Aberrant, give a more down-to-Earth spin on the entire thing. Psychic powers in this case are (usually) the result of a mutation: something is simply different about this person. The way he or she thinks touches on the ability to manipulate one (or some or all) of the four basic forces of the universe. On the opposite end of the spectrum from idealistic superhero fantasy, a friend pointed out to me (shortly after suggesting this article, in fact) that the horror game Chill offered psychic powers to its players as the only form of magic for a while. Eventually, ritual magic existed as well, but psychic abilities were one of the only supernatural tools given to players instead of the otherworldly things that SAVE opposed.

D&D’s third edition used intellect and player level to determine a player’s brain power when they brought psychic abilities into the picture. Like a sorcerer, the player could learn a set number of powers and didn’t need to prepare them; instead, the player spent points to activate the known powers. It was effectively Vancian Magic in an intriguing new package; mechanically it wasn’t that different from arcane or divine magic, but the premise of using powers instead of practicing spells was appealing. Perhaps it was an inborn ability like the sorcerer’s, but the psion’s magic came not from the blood but from the mind. 4th Edition introduced power sources for each of the characters and demonstrated that The Monk was actually a psychic character, though possibly one built of concentration and training instead of a genetic mutation.

For the game designer or eager player who wants to buck tradition, a psychic character in a low-power game setting offers a lot of possibilities. Homebrew is tricky, but if the focus is on roleplaying instead of combat the following Five Minute Psychic might put you on the right track to finding something that works.

The Five Minute Psychic

1) Theme. It’s tempting to give your psychic “the whole package”, but that can be too powerful. Classic examples would include things like Telekinesis (moving or manipulating things with one’s mind), Telepathy (reading or manipulating the minds of others), and Pyrokinesis (creating or controlling fire with one’s mind). Feel free to create other options. Psychic control of the weather could be too powerful for some games but just right for others. Modeling an ability to control (or create?) water on Pyrokinesis offers some interesting options. A general knowledge of Telepathy could be swapped out for a more powerful amount of control over a specific emotion like love, anger, hatred, or euphoria with potentially terrifying results. And detecting the auras around people and objects to see what’s happened to them in the recent past (or will happen in the near future) is great for anyone who wants to be a psychic detective. Figure out what kind of psychic powers you’ll have and then run with them.

2) Power. What’s your limit? Consult with your Game Master to figure out how powerful you can be. If you’re playing D&D your power will be limited by your level (but then again, if you’re playing D&D you’ve got a number of psychic classes to choose from already and probably don’t need The Five Minute Psychic.) If you’re playing in a game of superheroics or something inspired by over-the-top Anime action, your powers might literally be Earth shattering (though that can end a game quickly). On the other hand, they might be barely sufficient to light a match (though remember that a match can do a lot of damage to a can of propane or gasoline.) In a Punk game (Steam or Cyber, specifically) your powers might be severely limited… but enhanceable by a mysterious invention of questionable origin or homemade mechanics. Your fortune telling ability might not amount to more than hunches about the near future for others… but your friend made this steam-powered Thinking Cap with material from the Atlantean ruins, and if you’re willing to risk second degree burns on your scalp you might be able to see into next month. When modelling your power, don’t think of it in terms of an upper limit alone; instead, figure it out based on something like D&D’s encumberance rules. How much can you do before you break a sweat or start getting headaches? When do the nosebleeds start? Are there abilities you can pull of theoretically but might put you into a coma? You might be able to tear down a building, but it could also make you forget the last year of your life.

3) Drawbacks. This is an ugly one, but for the terms of game balance you probably need to define some. In D&D’s third edition, once you run out of power points you’re simply done for the day (though there are some ways to spend your physical health in an emergency.) A game like Chill or World Of Darkness might have severe social limitations… your psychic powers are great, but you need to keep them a secret from other people (and the darker things you face). On the other hand, if your psychic power is just an ability to blast telepathic energy at other people’s minds, see if it’s comparable to a regular attack that another character might make. The first Moon Man in Cosmic Patrol, for instance, had a powerful attack that was just as usable as every other character’s.

4) Details. Depending on the player, this part might be the easiest or the hardest (or anywhere inbetween.) Character name, history, and things of this matter. Also figure out how your character feels about its psychic powers. Does she revel in pushing her limits and seeing what she’s capable of? Does he fear the abilities being discovered, or their possible risks to himself or his friends? Is it a robot that has a human brain in it, programmed to use these powers exactly when needed? This look at history will help to inform when the character decides that it’s appropriate to use the powers.

5) Finalize. Show these details to your GM, and work out just what works and what doesn’t. If your GM is the sort who approves homebrew characters anyway, you probably have a good idea already about what to expect. If not, be prepared to change some things. (Note: this step may take longer than a minute.)

Following these five steps, you’ll have an admittedly rushed but potentially well fleshed out psychic character. These suggestions assume a homebrew game or a game that gives you a lot of freedom when defining character abilities (such as Xd20 or Cosmic Patrol.) In other games it pays to looks at any pre-existing systems; usually an official psionic system will exist, and even when it doesn’t there might be fan-made psionic systems that have had the benefit of playtesting.

That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays. See you next time!



2 responses to “Magical Mondays: I, Psy

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  1. Great post, glad I suggested it!
    Chill also limits psi powers by making them a hefty commitment of build points. Having a power means your skills and even ability points will be lowered in addition to the role play consequences.

    • Yes, that’s a good point. I sort of hinted around it in the Drawbacks and Limits sections of the 5 Minute Psychic without actually describing it. A psychic character will normally pay for the phenomenal abilities in some way simply by virtue of having not taken other options. That’s part of why these characters tend to be physically weaker (or at least less capable in terms of combat or other abilities.) A Psion in D&D won’t get access to good armor or many combat options like a Fighter. In Chill, giving any supernatural powers to the players can be a balancing risk as it causes the potential to turn a horror game into an adventure game. Not necessarily a *bad* thing, but probably not why most people play Chill. Having psychic powers be costly when compared to the other abilities that a character could get helps to keep that edge of terror fresh, I think.

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