Saturday, February 21, 2015

Psionics, Not Mind Magic

Psionics entered RPGs with Eldritch Wizardy, a supplement for the original Dungeons and Dragons game published in 1976.  Psionic powers were available to all character classes; there was no distinct psionicist class.  That class would not arrive until the 2nd edition Complete Psionics Handbook in 1991.  As originally presented psionic powers were a randomly rolled benefit, not easily obtained, and gave player characters one or more (though never very many) powers, not unlike low level super heroic powers (such as the ability to grow in height or climb walls), but acting as at-will micro-spells powered by psionic strength points.  This added a new dimension to characters and was not all that disruptive really.  It was the release of the aforementioned Complete Psionics Handbook that introduced a class devoted to psionic powers.
This was a very different type of class with a mixed bag of features that did not meld easily into the standard fantasy teams we'd come to expect.  From personal experience I can say that with the exception of my original gaming group the groups I played with did not like psionics and often would not allow them.  I suspect this had to do with personal prejudice, as I often heard people say they just didn't like it, didn't feel it fit a fantasy setting, or that is was imbalanced.  To some extent I can understand.  In every edition the psionics rules came out after the core had been published and was being played, sometimes several years after the fact.  This had the effect of shoehorning in the psionics rules and that can lead to imbalance if not handled properly.  I never noticed any imbalance personally.

3.X psionics even seemed to be just another form of magic, albeit using power points instead of "spells per day".  So if a 3.X sorcerer can cast any spell he knows, vice spells memorized, up to his allotment per day, how is a character than does the same thing but uses power points imbalanced?  If a cleric or paladin or bard can swing a weapon and wear armor while casting spells how is a psychic warrior imbalanced?
Short answer: They aren't.  It is personal prejudice.
There are spells a wizard or sorcerer can learn, depending on the edition, called ESP and telekinesis.  Indeed many spells exist that seem to mimic psionic powers, so what's the big deal?
To me the big deal is that psionics and magic should not simply be the same thing only different.  They should fundamentally work differently.
Psionics come from within.  Not like a sorcerer that is born magical with spells running in the blood, but from the mind itself.  The ability to move objects with the mind should not be the same as a spell that pushes an object.  Classic fictional psionics always seems to involve the continued application of the will, not a fire and forget magic spell.  Magic bends, twists and sometimes outright breaks the laws of physics and reality itself.  Psionics is more subtle in that respect.  As an example, let's look at the classic Fireball of magic.

Fireball is a spell that summons a ball of fire from nothing, that burns seemingly without the need for fuel, and then allows the mage to launch said ball at his target(s) whereupon it explodes on impact, doing damage and setting flammables alight.  One way to express this is to say that the mage, upon casting the spell, rips open a hole in the Prime Material Plane and pulls forth a bit of fire from the Elemental Plane of Fire.  This is pure fire.  This is Platonic Fire.  The mage then sends this ball of elementally pure fire toward his intended target(s) where it explodes, unlike normal fire, and then any remaining burning is normal fire.  That's magic.  That save for half damage represents the targets getting the hell out of the way as much as possible, not the targets being somehow immune to burning.  We can assume the remaining unsaved damage is heat, burning, ignition of flammable objects and shrapnel from the explosion.

For the psionic equivalent we have pyrokinesis (like in Firestarter), but what is pyrokinesis?  It is the ability to start fires with the power of the mind.  Can we do better?  Indeed.  Pyrokinesis is a specialized form of telekinesis wherein the pyrokinetic agitates the molecules of a target object causing them to generate intense heat (motion equals heat in an exothermic process) and that heat causes flammable objects to burst into flame.  Not at all like a fireball, really.  Can't be thrown, does not explode on contact, requires the object be able to burn, etc.  Unlike Fireball, which is a spell unto itself, pyrokinesis is a variation of telekinesis.  If you can do the one you should be able, with practice, to do the other.  Can the pyrokinetic use their ability to create explosions?  Sure, if the conditions are correct, but it is not part of the basic act itself.

This simple comparison illustrates the key difference between magic and psionics.  Psionics is not simply magic of the mind.  It is a fundamentally different concept.  It deserves its own rules and classes.  Think of spells as formula for a specific outcome.  For the most part these are rigidly defined outcomes.  The spell for levitation causes the target to defy gravity and float.  The spell should provide guidelines for how much weight can be levitated, for how long and at what velocity.  Can a mage use levitation to throw a target across the room?  Maybe, depending on the GM, the game system, and the creativity of all involved.  If a levitation spell specifically states that the movement rate is very slow then no, the mage cannot throw anyone with it.  He might be able to crush someone against a ceiling, however.
Even the Wookiepedia calls this "telekinesis"

Ideally, psionics works much differently.  The telekinetic does not have a list of spells, that is formula designed to produce a specific reality warping outcome.  Instead he has a power with a general description: allows the user to move physical objects with the force of the mind.  From there it is all about application of power and creativity.  Ideally we are looking at power, expressed in psionic strength, and skill, expressed as the psionicist's ability to manipulate his power.  I point you to the Jedi for a moment.  Is the ability to choke someone to death with the Force really a separate power or is it the application of the Jedi's (Sith in this case) knowledge of the Force.  That is to say that if you have the ability to manipulate the physical world with the power of your mind and will such that you can move objects, is it not an extension of this to crush the windpipe of a target?  Obviously it is and that is how it should be treated, although games disagree with how to do it.  Primarily I believe this is because games need to provide a structured rewards system (e.g. leveling).
Darryl Revok is about to have a very bad day
Remember the movie Scanners?
Remember the part about 15 minutes in where Revok (played by Michael Ironside) makes that dude's head EXPLODE?  Okay, keep that scene in your head, because that is psionics in action.  Revok closes his eyes, grits his teeth, starts sort of moving his head like he's imagining the outcome, there is shaking, the other guy starts to freak out, clearly in pain, and then...KABLOOIE...head explodes.  Now in the film scanners are telepaths only, but by connecting with the mind of another they can influence their nervous systems, sometimes in dramatic ways, such as the head exploding thing.  In the climactic final battle skin burns, eyes go white, veins bulge; it's almost telekinetic except that it all comes from within the target using their own nervous system.  The key thing to get from this is that it takes effort, the force of willpower, and it can be resisted, as with Revok and Vale's final battle.  Each is using their will like boxers use their muscles, straining, fighting, looking for openings in the other's defenses or forcing openings with their own strength and skill.  This is quite different from magic where the mage says the words, maybe pays the mana cost, and shit just happens per expectation and formula.

In game terms we could view this as follows:
You have a mage that wishes to get past a monster.  He looks at his available spells and decides to charm the monster to use it to aid him.  The mage considers his options.  His low level charm person spell will not work on the monster as it is not a person.  He must cast his higher level charm monster spell.  A spell like that requires more power and knowledge, which means a higher level spell.  A neophyte (that is, 1st level) mage simply does not have the power or knowledge to do it, represented by not having access to the more complicated magical formula that is charm monster.  If the game uses a mana system (power points) the spell will most assuredly cost more mana to cast than the simpler spell.  He says the words, uses whatever gestures and/or components are required and viola, instant pet.  That's magic in action.
The psionicist should, properly, have an ability to telepathically dominate targets.  A monster is tougher than a person, having an alien mind, so the psionicist must concentrate, focus his will and pour on the power points.  Ideally the system will let the psionicist keep adding power points in a battle of wills until the monster is under his command.  He can break off the attempt, saving his points, if he feels it is not going to work.  That's psionics in action.
At least that is how it should be.
Ultimately the balance is found when we see that mages are more powerful in the end game.  All the messing about with components and wands and such gives the mage a power advantage.  He violates reality with his magic.  Psionicists tend to be less powerful in that extreme but more versatile.  Not requiring magic circles, wands, or bits of freshly killed chickens means that the psionicist has all his abilities with him at all times, but is limited in their absolute power.  He has to be creative with it.  Mages throw magic missiles but not psionicists.  Psionicists disrupt neural pathways, or perhaps shoot bio-electricity.  It should not just be Mind Magic.  Think of it as internal versus external.  Magic calls on spirits, extraplanar entities, effects the physical world through the application of formulaic (or inborn for some types) power, but always it involves the world without.  Psionics comes from within and mostly works within.  Even the reshaping of physical objects or pushing them around is about extension of the mind's energy to interact with the very molecules, perhaps even the very atoms in the truly gifted, of the world.
There are MANY things wrong with 3rd edition DnD, but this is not one of them.
Mages that specialize in mind magic seem to cross the line into psionics, and while they have appeal, I like to keep them separate.  Of course there is nothing that says that a psionically empowered character would not be called a wizard in the right circumstances.  This is fiction, after all, and the author/creator can do what he or she pleases.

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