Psionics: The Way No One Ever Played Them
Let's get this out of the way right now. I have a DM's Familiar, which is an excel spreadsheet. Without this familiar, I could not play AD&D as BTB as we do. You are free to download this mother right here, but I warn that it contains extraneous info including the calendar and characters of my on-going campaign.
Why am I bringing this up?
Because Psionics are hard and Gary himself claims he didn't like the system and never used it. So why then do I inflict psionics (as written) on my campaign? Well, because even if it's true that Gary never used them (and it probably is) I'm not so sure he wasn't just taking a shot at TSR while promoting this:
See, Gary claimed that all the problems with psionics from AD&D were "solved" in Lejendary Adventures, which is what prompted me to buy a copy.
His endorsement means that he LIKED the idea of mind-powers in an AD&D setting and system.
It is my subjective opinion that he may have overstated how well he tackled the problem (in the Lejendary system) because after all, he was a great marketer.
I find little about "Psychogenic Ability" as it is called in LA that warrants much attention. So no, I did not find a magic bullet in this rule set.
Back on point. Why then am I inflicting psionics on my campaign?
First and foremost: Because that's the credo I play by: by the book as much as possible, all the rules as written, spirit of the rules where the written text is too complex to parse, and utter surrender to the system in order to see what happens without complaint. (Did I mention this is a blog with a niche audience?)
Because there are a bunch of BAD ASS monsters in 1st edition that don't operate in full terror mode without psionics (which include the major sciences and devotions).
Because psionics offer another vector of attacking the character sheet, especially high-level character sheets.
Because I love the idea of mental powers.
Because with my DM's familiar spreadsheet, psionics are NOT a giant headache.
Because psionics don't happen that often, so it's not a big deal to accommodate them when they do. They're spice, not staple.
So let's dig into them.
First off, just determining whether a character HAS psionics is a nightmare because the fairly straight-forward formula is buried in paragraphs on p. 110 of PHB.
The first thing I did was create a calculator on my DM familiar to do this for me. You'll find it on the Psionics tab of the sheet where it says "Am I Psionic?" If all mental Ability Scores (INT, WIS, CHR) are below 17, the PC must roll 00 on percentile dice to qualify. With 17's in all three, you've got a 5% chance. Again, my spreadsheet is there to help.
If the PC is psionic, you roll d100 and add a certain number to this roll as detailed in paragraph five of PHB p. 110. That's a little tricky, but not too bad. I bet you can do it!
This will give you a number between 2 and 172. Once you've done this much work and have your number, let's pause to talk about the elephant in the room.
Confusing Terminology: the PHB uses the terms psionic "strength" and "ability" in problematic ways. Rather than confuse you by stating it the same way, I'm going to modify my language to hopefully make it more clear. Let's step back out:
The number you just generated (between 2 and 172) is going to be used for two different pools of points: ATTACK points (and) DEFENSE points.
So let's assume you rolled 63 and because of your Ability Scores (INT 17, WIS 17, CHR 13) you got to add 22 to the roll = 85.
That means you have 85 ATTACK points and 85 DEFENSE points.
Player of Psionic PC: (Leaping to feet) "Whoo-hoo! Let's go mind-blast some shit!"
Savvy DM: "Grab some wood there, bub! Per DMG p. 78, a psionic creature can only mind blast a non-psionic creature if his ATTACK points are CURRENTLY 100 or more. You've got a max of 85 so you'll never be mind-blasting any but other psionic persons!" (Note that Psionic Blast is also the ONLY attack mode that can be used against non-psionic creatures).
Player of Psionic PC: "Womp, womp! So what's the point then?"
Savvy DM: "The point is that if you run into a psionic monster you might be able to shield your friends from psionic attack (mind blast)...because some psionic defenses include a radius around you...like a paladin's protection from evil aura. Plus, you get to roll to see if you have additional mental powers (called major sciences or devotions), and you can use these powers in any circumstances at the speed of thought!"
Player of Psionic PC: "Hmm, I guess that sounds alright."
Savvy DM: "Let's roll on p. 110 PHB to see what attack and defense modes you get."
PHB states that modes are determined by choice but since certain modes are no-brainers (ha!) I prefer to roll a d5 and assign them. More on this later.
PHB p. 111 makes it pretty easy to roll up the PCs devotions and sciences. If you lack a d24, simply roll a d6 and d12. The d6 result (1-3 [or] 4-6) determines whether the d12 result is 1-12 [or] 13-24.
Many of the powers are potent indeed and, like 1st edition spells, require some use of DM fiat to properly balance. Keep in mind though, that USE OF PSIONIC POWERS DISTURBS THE ETHER! Every time psionics are used, other psionic entities might be nearby, lurking in the border ethereal, and they could be drawn to the psionic PC in the same way curious folks were drawn by search beacons to premier events. If the player uses his/her powers sparingly and judiciously, the likelihood of drawing attention should be reduced or non-existent. Whereas the abuser may find a curious Githyanki on the back end of constant psionic use.
These are the checks and balances that must be plied by advanced referees with wisdom and aplomb.
"Fine, fine," you say, "but how does the PC use these powers?"
Let's go back to those pools of points. The 85 points you have in both pools. ATTACK and DEFENSE.
The psionic character is certainly able to ATTACK and DEFEND at the same time. Obviously, attacking draws points from the ATTACK pool and defending draws from the DEFENSE pool. But using a science or devotion draws the point cost from BOTH pools.
That's right campers. The PHB is confusing b/c the Point Cost listed for each devotion and science is the number of points taken from EACH pool (paragraph 5 p. 111 PHB).
Therefore, if you want to use Psionic Dimension Door, it's going to cost you 10 ATTACK points AND 10 DEFENSE points to do so. Since your pools might be at different levels depending on what you've done psionically, you might not be able to afford this cost.
Additionally, some powers are passive enough (like Mind Bar) that the PC can be Attacking, Defending, AND using a science or devotion ALL AT THE SAME TIME.
Now you see why I made the spread sheet. If you scroll right on the Psionics tab, you can see a handy dandy way of conducting combat that auto-tabulates the new point totals for all combatants as the segments progress. Without this type of automation, the math for running psionics by the book is fairly untenable. Which is probably why no one ever did it.
If you're still with me, try to think of it this way. Psionic vs Psionic combat is more like a punishment for PCs that over-use their sciences and devotions. And since psionic monsters tend to have far greater point totals than PCs, the monsters will probably need to be brought down with conventional weapons and spells by the psionic PC's companions (and quickly!) before the psionic PC's Defense pool runs out. Or, psionic vs psionic combat is that rare spice that makes an other-planar encounter special (and/or) makes fighting an arch devil or deity all the more improbable.
Have I ever run any large scale psionic battles in my campaign?
I have run 1v1 (psionic PC vs psionic Monster) during a general melee and it was no problem because I had my spreadsheet. A handful of combatants is also pretty easy to take care of. Large-scale psionic warfare between an army of Githyanki and Mind Flayers...I don't think I'm going to be doing in this lifetime.
In the beginning I tried to run BTB (since the rule states psionic combat happens in the blink of an eye and you can resolve the whole psionic combat prior to the initiative roll). This turned out to be not so cool because the PC typically ran out of DEFENSE points before the monster and simply died.
But when I shifted to allowing an EXTRA segment prior to each combat round for one psionic exchange, that all changed. So basically, we run it like this:
Psionic PC secretly writes down his chosen ATTACK & DEFENSE modes
DM does the same for the monster
Any active sciences or devotions are also noted (some that require total concentration must be ended via DM fiat, while others can continue).
Attacks and Defenses are revealed (like a rock, paper, scissors duel) at the same time.
Psionic vs Psionic point expenditures are entered into the spreadsheet on my DM familiar, which auto calculates total point loss and reveals the new totals for each combatant.
Any side effects are also applied (psychic crush, attack on defenseless psionic etc.)
General declarations are made (for spell casting etc.)
Regular initiative is diced for, missiles launched, etc.
So psionic vs psionic happens DURING a general melee and the Githyanki get to attack and defend mentally at the start of each round while also swinging their silver swords.
The above can happen quite quickly and doesn't happen very often. It does require a good understanding of little hidden details, like the fact that if you attack with psychic crush, you MUST select DEFENSE mode G or have no defense at all...which makes psychic crush risky to say the least, especially if the PC or monster doesn't HAVE defense mode G!
I'm not going to cover all those little details here. You'll have to pore over the psionic section just like I did. But what I am going to do is show you how I run a psionic battle in order to help you understand how this esoteric system CAN actually work in a real game.
You'll notice on my spread sheet that the colorful table to the left is verbatim from the DMG, whereas the colorful table to the right calculates the total cost, adding together the points lost (from being attacked) and the points spent (on the chosen defense mode). This second table is more a point of trivia and gives you an idea of the smart choices to make (but we won't make use of it in this post).
So, let's go back to that left table; the one that's lifted directly from DMG p. 76:
In the Above, your character with 85 points in each pool runs into a mind flayer. Note that because you have 85 attack points, you fall into a different bracket than the flayer (who starts out with 150 attack points). Both of you are at full strength. You decide to Ego Whip the flayer and use Intellect Fortress as your defense. The flayer will Mind Blast you (point of trivia: the flayer in the MM doesn't even have Mind Blast listed in its stat block but we all know the truth!) and it will use Thought Shield to defend.
So, your Ego Whip (Green Circles) 85 points strong goes up against the flayer's Thought Shield and will therefore drain 9 points from its defense point pool. At the exact same instant the flayer (who has 150 points in each pool) lambastes you with Mind Blast. Cross-referencing the blast with your Intellect Fortress shows that the blast will drain 16 points from your defense pool.
Let's watch this battle play out in my spread sheet. Note that all numbers are taken from DMG p. 76:
Segment 1: we've already talked about, but let's assume your PC (Albin) is also using Psionic ESP. Psionic ESP requires concentration so would I really allow this? Maybe not, but who cares? For the purpose of this example, we'll assume the PC uses ESP to always know what attack and defense mode the flayer will use, while this mentally-challenged flayer forgets to use ESP in return.
Segment 2: Flayer blasts (cost 20) and defends with Thought Shield (cost 2). Albin knows this is going to happen so he chooses to retaliate with Id Insinuation (cost 10) and defend with Tower of Iron Will (cost 10). Color coding on my table reveals that these are smart choices to minimize point loss. As a result, Albin takes only a 7 point loss to his DEF point pool while the flayer loses 15.
Note that Albin just fell into a new bracket because his ATT pool is now between 51 & 75 so the damage he inflicts will be reduced.
Segment 3: The flayer tries to switch to a new DEF mode to compensate, using Mental Barrier (cost 3) and pounds away with another Psionic Blast (cost 20). Albin's ESP allows him to know this is coming so he selects Tower of Iron Will Again (cost 10) and Id Insinuation again (cost 10). Because the flayer also dropped into a new bracket (101 to 125) Albin takes only 4 dmg to his DEF pool this segment (instead of 7). Albin's dmg to the flayer is likewise reduced from 15 to only 13.
Segment 4: The flayer knows he's being read like a book so he does DEF on the cheap with Mind Blank (cost 1) but pounds again with Mind Blast. This time, Albin chooses Mind Thrust (cost 4) but even in his reduced power bracket this attack is devastating vs the cheap Mind Blank. It deals 18 dmg to the flayer's DEF pool. In the same instant, Albin suffers only 2 dmg from the flayer's blast because the flayer dropped yet another bracket at the end of last segment's exchange.
As you can see, Albin has very little chance of winning this fight (as it should be vs the dreaded flayer) but the ESP has allowed him to always choose the best rock, paper or scissors for each exchange and thereby drag out the battle...hopefully long enough for the flayer to be slain by other means with the help of friends.
Have I actually run this kind of combat in my campaign? You know it baby. And although it might seem boggling at first, it's just not that hard. It flies by and, if you take the time to be fluent in psionics and use a calculating aid (like my spread sheet) you'll find it adds an occasional extra-spicy dimension to combat, similar to weapon speed factor but much more infrequent.
I would of course run the flayer in a more intelligent way during a real game, AND it's unlikely that Albin actually has that entire selection of attack and defense modes at his disposal. So the battle would realistically have been much worse, especially if they were truly doing rock, paper, scissors without ESP.
Furthermore, you can see how running a combat like this BTB (where the whole fight happens in an eye-blink prior to dicing for initiative) would spell instant death for Albin. But slotting one psionic exchange into the front end of each melee round allows for more interesting things to happen as weapons, spells, devices and special abilities layer over top of the mental battle.
I'm not gonna lie. I LOVE the possibility of psionc exchanges in my modules and always try to support at least one or two instances of it. Gray Ooze suddenly becomes a horror (but since it lacks any DEF modes is also easily dealt with because it is treated as Defenseless Psionic on p. 77 DMG. Probably the ooze gets one (two at most) chances to Psychic Crush before dying outright.
Psionics add a fear factor to the game that's hard to overstate because they allow monsters to do extra stuff each round and that stuff is often a serious threat.
In the end, I'm going to nod at anyone that says, "Hey Anthony, thanks for explaining that. It makes more sense now but I think it's still too much of a hassle for me to worry about."
But if like me, you want to try and play 1st Ed AD&D as written to the best of your ability, then maybe this crazy blog post will help you engage with psionics for the first time ever.
Good luck and let me know if you have any questions or if you find errors in my stuff!