Sunday, August 8, 2010


Last week, James Malizewski started a mini-flood of blog posts on the topic of psionics in D&D, spurring a post from Talysman and a mention from JB as well.  I've got a bunch of posts half-written but nothing I want to work on in my currently sleep-deprived state, so instead I'll talk a little bit about my own love-hate relationship with the topic.

None of us really understood what Id Insinuation was all about, but it sounded kind of naughty.
I never played OD&D, and psionics never made it into the classic boxed sets, so my first real exposure to the topic was a set of rules crammed into Appendix I of the AD&D Player's Handbook.  We never used them much back in those days - oh, sure, I cheated to get one fairly rolled a psionic character up after several dozen attempts, but it never really came up all that often.  Psionic combat was a sort of tacked-on affair with a completely different, rock-paper-scissors type of game play that nobody seemed to want to master, especially given its uselessness against most of the creatures you would ever encounter.

Part of the problem was that, unlike the other archetypes in D&D, psionics didn't have a strong  role model - at least, not in the realm of heroic fantasy.  Fafhrd did not fire off a Mental Blast in desperate times. Conan never defended himself with an Intellect Fortress. And none of us really understood what Id Insinuation was all about, but it sounded kind of naughty.

In 2nd Edition, psionics were removed - and then added back in, although now they were the domain of a special class: the psionicist.  That removed many of the most glaring balance considerations from play by treating it much like magic - your fighter or thief cannot just "pick up a spell or two", so why should difficult mental powers be any different? Dark Sun took a ifferent tack by giving psionics to everybody - but I had left D&D behind by that point so I can't say too much about it.

It wasn't until Bruce Cordell got ahold of psionics in 3rd Edition that they really started to be interesting to me.  The psychic warrior added Jedilike possibilities to the mix, and the crystal-and-tattoos aesthetic of the illustrations made them fit neatly into the 3e "dungeonpunk" flavor in a way that bondage sorcerer Hennet never quite managed.  It took him a couple of tries, though, and his best work wasn't even published by Wizards of the Coast: instead, Monte Cook's Malhavoc Press brought out Mindscapes, a psionics sourcebook that keeps nagging me to use it, even to this day.

Mindscapes ditched the old psychic combat and introduced the idea of - wait for it - mindscapes, a sort of mental battlefield that could affect what was going on in the real world. A mindscape would automatically spring up when multiple psionics knowingly encounter each other. Participants could attempt to seize control of them through psychic combat and gain bonuses to saves, skill checks, even damage in the real world.  That simple idea tied the psychic combat into the rest of the game and really made it work.

I still never got around to playing a psychic character, though.  Same old story - none of the DMs wanted to bother learning the rules. I had notes for a couple of psionic-based campaigns that I never ran, too.  One was an ESPionage game (although that particular itch was scratched by the movie Push), while the other was an anime-inspired "Nightmare Hunters" game with the PCs as people whose latent psychic abilities are awakened by an incursion from the mindscape, opening them up to the bizarre creatures that dwell there - but also giving them the ability to defend themselves and the unaware masses.  I would have run that one as a gritty d20 modern, with separate D&D-based stats in the dream realm.  I doubt I'll ever actually get the chance - too many other games to run and play in now.

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