Monday, May 18, 2020

Adapting AD&D's Psionics, Part 1

Prompted by Anthony Huso at The Blue Bard, I've been digging into AD&D's psionics. It's been illuminating, seeing how this much-maligned system actually works. Which is not to say its reputation is undeserved. Because, hoo boy.

I was expecting the system to be clunky, but functional, with its complexity being an exaggerated meme. Nope. The AD&D psionics rules are about as confusing as advertised. Worse, the rules are split between the DMG and PHB, with outright contradictory information in some cases.

I'll be reviewing the rules for Psionics from both the 1e PHB and DMG. Much of this is already covered in Anthony Huso's Psionics: The Way No One Ever Played Them, but I'll be covering the topic more briefly while cribbing from him.

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Review of the Rules

Determining Psionic Ability
Before anything else, you need to figure out if your character is psionic or not. Unlike later editions, psionics isn't a class you can choose, but an ability granted to characters by chance. To determine if you're Psionic, the following applies.

You must have at least 1 mental attribute (Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma) at 16 or above.
If only 1 is at or above 16, you have a 1% chance to be psionic.
For each point of Int above 16, add 2.5% to that chance.
For each point of Wis and Cha over 16, add 1.5% to that chance.
Drop fractions. All the scores above must be unmodified.

Example. A character with all 16s has just a 1% chance to be Psionic. A character with natural 18s in each ability has 12% chance to be Psionic.

Generating Psionic Strength
If your character is psionic, congratulations! Now we have to generate your psychic strength. The formula goes like this.
Take each of your mental attributes, and subtract 12 from each. If the number is positive, keep it. If two of the scores are greater than 16, double the total. If all three scores are over 16, quadruple it.
Take this total, which ranges from 4-72 (the PHB lists the range as 1-72, but because of the requirements for being psionic no character will have less than 4) and add it to a d100 roll.
This number is your Psionic Strength, which ranges from 5-172. This is not the same as your Psionic Ability, which is your P. Strength doubled, and so ranges from 10-344. This will get confusing.

Example: A character with 16, 16, 16, has 12+1d100 points. A character with 17, 15, 10, has 8+1d100. A character with 18, 17, 17 has 64+1d100.

The Psionic Strength scores directly determines several things. First, Both your Psionic Attack and Psionic Defense point pools have a maximum equal to your P. Strength.
Note that while both the pools of Attack and Defense points are expended and regained in play, your total P. Ability score does not change with them, and is only ever decreased by brain injury.

Attack and Defense Modes and Disciplines
Those point pools, believe it or not, are actually used for something.
Roll a percentile die and consult the table in the PHB to see how many attack modes you have, from 1-5. Do the same again for defense modes, from 2-5. You must take mode F, Mind Blank, and can choose the rest.

Roll on a similar table to see how many Major and Minor Disciplines you can learn. At character creation you only get one of your Minor Disciplines, and the rest of your Disciplines are learned every other level, Minor first. This means that the more Disciplines you can learn, the longer until you learn your first Major Discipline.

Also note that while Attack and Defense modes consume points from your Attack and Defense pools, Disciplines use Psionic Strength points, which means that for every P. Strength point consumed, you lose a point in both your Attack and Defense pools.

Psionics in Play

There, that wasn't so painful, was it? Next up, a quick overview of Psionics in Play, with a focus on combat.

Using Minor and Major Disciplines consumes points as explained above. Each discipline has its own rate of consumption, rules for when and how it can be used, etc. Many of them are mechanically soft abilities which require GM improvisation.

A combat between Psionics happens in the blink of an eye, before regular initiative is rolled (this is silly and we'll get to it later, but this is what the book says). It is all determined by a table, which Anthony Huso has conveniently remade with color coding for optimum choices.

If a Psionic runs out of Defense points, psionic attacks against them are made on a special table with nasty conditions. If a creature has no psionic power at all, then they cannot be the victim of a psionic attack unless you use Psionic Blast. All attacks and defenses are simultaneous, meaning there is no initiative order like in regular combat. In practice, this means that the GM and player both secretly write the attack and defense they intend to use next round and reveal it together.

Also, if you have any intention of using this in play, you will need an automated spreadsheet to take care of the numbers. Huso has one linked at the top of his post which you can download.

Adapting the Damn Thing

And that's Psionics in a nutshell. Trying to adapt it is a tremendous task, and I'll definitely need to split this into another post. Before putting down too many concrete rules and recommendations, I'll to some more fancy-pants analysis of the existing rules, mostly as an exercise for ordering my own thoughts.

Limited Role of Chance in Psionic Play

One of the results of the Psionic system is a schizophrenic attitude towards randomness. Determining Psionic Strength and whether you have the ability at all is based entirely on random chance, as is the number of attack and defense modes you have access to. In contrast, actual psionic combat involves almost no randomness, unlike the rest of AD&D's combat system. A psionic combat is decided entirely by the choices made, and the results of a static table. The exception is Psychic Crush's percentage chance to instantly kill an enemy.

A reduced emphasis on random chance and instead focusing on tactics and decision-making actually makes sense for the fiction the Psionics system is trying to simulate. Psionics being spice rather than staple, it provides a different texture to psionic play which can very effectively create mystique and a feeling of specialness around the system. But this doesn't mesh with the extremely random system of determining psionic ability, determined entirely by percentile dice and randomly generated attribute scores.

My reason this dissonance is that the psionics fiction emphasizes the strangeness and rarity of those powers, leading the creators of AD&D to want the powers to be rare even among players. But the implied setting of AD&D is one in which other forms of magic are relatively common, where players become powerful through effort and risk, becoming truly exceptional. The psionics system, instead of emphasizing the role of self-improvement and mental development native to the concept, makes it something you're effectively born with or not.

Psyker | Warhammer 40k | Fandom

Psionic Development and Leveling
A quirk of the Discipline system is that, the higher your roll for maximum disciplines, the longer it takes for you to develop your Major Disciplines. You gain a new discipline every other level, but have to get all your Minor ones first. So if you rolled in the middle of the Discipline table, you'll only need to advance to 5th level before gaining your first Major Discipline, while rolling high, you'll need to advance to ninth or 11th level.

The effect of this is that overall weaker characters get access to the goodies earlier on, while ostensibly more powerful characters have to advance more slowly, but will be very versatile at high levels. There's also a weird discontinuity in the Discipline table which looks like an error to me.

Psionic Combat Speed
The ruling that Psionic combat takes place in the blink of an eye, before initiative is rolled? Yeah, that doesn't work, and even Anthony 'By-the-Book' Huso doesn't use it. His ruling is to add a psionic combat stage at the beginning of each initiative segment (if you're playing AD&D, before every round otherwise). This solves a few issues.

First, instead of making non-psionic players sit back while the psionic combat goes on, it's distributed across the fight. The typical result of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it mental combat is that most psionic monsters have bigger point totals than a player will, and with the low-randomness nature of the system, the psionic player will end up falling over dead after making eye contact with the enemy.

This actually involves the rest of the party, making the role of a psionicist to take the heat and divide the enemy's attention while the rest of the party takes it down the normal way.

When a psionicist runs out of defense points, they are utterly screwed, unless the enemy is forced to attack another target or takes mercy, their next attack will likely kill the psionicist outright or impose a horrible condition on them that might prevent them from ever using psionics again.
Live by the sword, die by the sword and all that, but there's an additional wrinkle.

If you were unlucky enough to roll a character with very low Psionic Strength, and thus very low Defense, you are actually more vulnerable than if you never developed your powers. If you want that to be a risk of psionics, so be it, but it means there's a good chance that a player will be forever stuck with a death sentence that gets called in the moment a psionic creature enters the game.


Through dark science he had recovered a fragment of the Universal Song

If you want to add psionics to your game (an do it well), you'll need to do some real work integrating the themes of the fiction into your game as well. It is in many ways at odds with the standard fantasy milieu, and if you're just trying to run an old-school fantasy game with a low barrier to entry, this could very well get in the way.

In particular, you'll need to decide what psionics looks like in your game. My points of reference for this are the psychic combat is the Dresden files series, Kill Six Billion Demons and (and stick with me here) JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. I'll explain more of my thoughts on this in the next installment, in which I get down to the actual work of adapting the damn thing. Until then, be at peace, psychonauts.

1 comment:

  1. Personally I went with the fact that psionics are just another weird thing out there, just as they are in the Savage Sword of Conan comic books. I accept them as being there, without necessarily providing any explanation for my player.

    In terms of system, I've made multiple attempt at streamlining it in the previous years, notably because nobody have been able to roll one. I've tried to use the AD&D rules in a simplified format, I've tried to redo them within a different framework, and then finally I settled on just creating a new system influenced by it. That last one is basically a GLOG class using the Magic Dice mechanic. There is also the matter of: do you make it a class, or do you keep it a sub-feature of the main class ? That also makes a huge impact.

    I'm not a huge fan of GLOG or the Magic Dice mechanic for magic-users, I prefer the Vancian one... but for psionics it's just perfect ! It's like it was MADE for this instead of for magic-users. You can see my various attempt on my blog by searching for psionics. My latest version is not on the blog. If you are interested I can put it there.