Monday, March 22, 2010

SoG Psionics: A Long Time Ago in a Fantasy Genre Far, Far Away...

I remember reading somewhere that when EGG wrote the original psionics for AD&D, it was done primarily in response to a player's request to be able to play a psionic PC rather than from a particular desire to put psionics into the Greyhawk campaign. In a similar vein, my SoG campaign has a player who has a very specific vision for his character--combining equal parts assassin, monk and jedi-knight.

And so the implementation of psionics I am presenting here bears much more in common with WEG's D6 Star Wars than the normal AD&D psionics. But there will be no SW-related story conventions: no "Light Side", "Dark Side","Force", what-have-you for SoG's psionics. I have retained some of the limiting factors, but redefined them somewhat to fit in with the Fantasy genre.

The good news is that once a few key issues were worked out, the D6 system as it was implemented in Star Wars 2nd edition (revised) is really a nice fit into Fate.

Working out "a few key issues"

Because my intention is to use this with Spirit of Greyhawk, I wanted psionics to have a different feel from Magic, but still stay pretty close to Fate conventions.

Psionics is very definitely NOT magic and while similar effects might be generated, they are generated by very different sources. Magic effects are generated by the caster manipulating external forces, similar to a scientist creating effects by his knowledge and skill of chemistry or physics. Psionic effects are generated by use of skills that manipulate something internal to the psionicist: like esoteric yoga or martial arts.

Perhaps another way to state this is if a psion and a wizard were transported from their high-fantasy realm to a low-fantasy realm, the wizard's ability to generate effects would likely be impacted while the psion would likely be unaffected.

However, this also means that the psion has limitations and concerns that a wizard doesn't necessarily need to be worried about.

Differences from SoG Magic

Base Skill Levels

I'll list out the psi skills below, but because psionics are so rare and so esoteric that they start at a -4 level (Abysmal) rather than the SotC floor of 0 (Mediocre). This way if someone has a psionic Aspect, a tag would take them to -2, which would allow for the potential of untrained "wild talents" who could occasionally generate some sort of psionic effect if the dice were right. In other words, without training (and without an aspect) someone without the skills has no potential to generate psionic effects.

No Aspect Requirements

Unlike magic, there is no aspect requirement to be psionic. The implication here is that given access to enough training and time for personal advancement, anyone could generate psionic effects. While this is not exactly canon, it could be argued that psionics as a whole in the Greyhawk source material were always optional anyway.

So while not required to generate psionic effects, someone could have Aspects related to their psionics. In fact, many psionicists have acquired Aspects through the course of using their psionic skills! Typically, acquired Aspects related to psionics have a negative implication (i.e., madness), but can still be tagged or used via Fate point expenditure to increase psionic effects.

No Fate Point Commit Needed

My current feeling is that I don't believe that the Fate Point commit rule that exists with Magic is needed for psionics. However playtesting will determine if this is necessary. The potentially damaging nature of using psionics beyond your skill levels (see below) will itself provide a limitation. Additionally the quantity of skill advances required to become proficient at psionics is also a limitation.

Psionic Skills

All psionic effects are generated by the use and interaction of three skills:

  • Control - Using psionics to generate effects within the psion's own body.
  • Sense - Psionics will provide information about things outside of the psion's body.
  • Alter - Psionically alter things outside of the psion's body.

Each skill has psionic effects that can be generated by the use of that skill. Additionally, unique psionic effects are generated by the combined use of 2 or all 3 of those skills, subject to the usual rules for "Combining Skills".

Rather than mess around with sub-skills, the player would have to elect specific psionic effects that are attributed to each skill, based upon the number of advances they have in a particular psi skill (not the skill level, since most psions run negative skill levels). Once selected, psionic effects cannot be swapped out or changed.

Example: Revok has two advances in psi skill Sense, so he may select two Sense psi effects from the list (or depending upon the nature of the story, the GM may dictate which psi effects the character would have access to--subject to what was available, mentor and training-wise.)

Psi Skills and Mental Stress

A unique feature of psionics involves the fact that since the effects come from within the psion, there is the opportunity to "push" the potency of those effects by virtue of the psion accepting stress to their mental track.

Example: Revok has two advances in the psi skill Sense for a net effect of -2. (-4 + 2 = -2). His dice roll was neutral (0) but needs a Good +3 effect. So in order to achieve it, he would have to have 5 extra shifts. Therefore, he accepts 5 stress shifts to his mental stress track (some big stress).

Open Issue: I currently don't know if the rules should dictate for the mental push after the PC rolls the dice (similar to Fate points) which means you use only what you need, or if a push is determined before the dice are rolled. There's reasons to do it either way, but I would like to keep the uniquely "retroactive application" of Fate points as being particular only to Fate points. Which means for the time being, I'm currently going with having the player state any mental stress being used for "pushing" BEFORE the dice are rolled.

While aspects and fate points are used as per normal skill useage, many psions find it very tempting (or necessary) to "burn the candle bright" because it takes so long to become skillful in psionics.

Of course there is a danger to this--it would be very easy for a psion to accumulate severe consequences if they were taking mental stress from opponents in addition to using it themselves to boost their own psionic effects.

In this fashion, a psion could quite easily acquire long term mental damage (in other words, gain aspects with a more negative focus). Eventually a psion could literally end up driving themselves mad by generating psionic effects that would normally be beyond their skill levels!

Some sample mental aspects gained from psionic combat / usage:

  • "I can't shut out the voices!"
  • Catatonic episodes
  • Persistent nosebleeds
  • "Everything I touch gives me flashes of those who touched it before!"
  • "I see everyone who ever walked here..."

The Psionic "Death Spiral"

Psions who acquire aspects in the above fashion (by accepting mental damage), could actually tag those aspects to boost their potency. In fact, it's quite possible a psion could choose to continue to acquire damaging mental aspects to allow for more frequent tagging. Functionally the character could become so hemmed by their aspects as to become virtually unplayable (read: gone insane).

So the really good (or really smart) psions rely purely on skill for their psionics and accept their limitations. That is to say that they are calm, and at peace when using them.

Psions that use their emotions / aspects (anger, fear) to power their psionics run the real risk of descending into madness and losing themselves to their psionic abilities.

Next Entry: Skill specifics


Mike Olson said...

I remember reading somewhere that when EGG wrote the original psionics for AD&D, it was done primarily in response to a player's request to be able to play a psionic PC rather than from a particular desire to put psionics into the Greyhawk campaign.

That's, like, the driving factor behind umpteen changes from OD&D. Jim Ward watched a lot of Shaw Brothers movies and thought it'd be cool to play a martial artist -- boom, monk. There was so much unexplored design space back then that even broad concepts like monks and psionics were uncharted territory.

Unknown said...

Heh, so I'm in good company! :D