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Writings > Dragavan's Den (closed) > 13: Psionics are Not Magic
13: Psionics are Not Magic
Published by Dragavan on 2007/10/10 (6935 reads)
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Psychics and Psionics

More Than Just Magic Without Words

Psionics, or Mental Powers, are a part of a lot of games out there in the world of RPGs. Psychic powers, like telepathy and mind reading, are common abilities to see in games and fiction, no matter what they call it. Healing oneself or others, sometimes even draining ones own life energy into the injured, also shows up quite a bit. Some even go so far as to have telekinesis (the ability to move things with your mind) and even the creation of things out of thin air, like bursts of fire or powerful illusions. Through all of this the powers of the mind seem huge and extensive, but most games tend to limit them to certain areas or powers.

To many people they seem like magical powers that just happen to be controlled by the mind, but they are usually kept separate from magic in most games. The separation between the two often seems to be either arbitrary or very fuzzy, which annoys me to no avail. Psionic powers should not just be "magic without words" and should not cover the same ground as magic, just in a different way. D&D seems to be one of the worst about this, treating psionics just as one of the numerous forms of magic in the game (although this may have been changed in the latest versions, I gave up on the game ages ago).

I am a lover of psionics and think they can be a great addition to many games and stories, but don't want to see it be treated the same as other "powers" the game may have. It is unique and special, and should be treated as such. Unlike magic or superpowers or whatever, psionics are powers of the mind and come completely from within it. This means that both the good and bad of them should be based on this concept. Let me break this down for you.


The first thing to talk about is how I see the separation between magic and psionics, the two things that are usually most closely arranged together in games. Unless the game is based on the concept where magic is actually our psychic connection to the "other world" (as appears in some of the more "new age" feeling games or fairy realm type games), magic and psionics should be completely separate in how they look and feel, as well as how they are used. Plus, in games that do use this other form of "magic through psionics", they are still separate things even though they are used together.

I see the main separation between the two as being the difference between external and internal. Magic is about control over the physical world in some way, while psionics are control over your own mind. Magic can create and destroy, while psionics can only manipulate. There might be some areas of crossover (as would be expected with certain "kinesis" type psychic powers), but most of the powers should be kept apart. The biggest problem is determining where this line should be drawn, but I never expect everyone to agree on this so I am just going to use my personal take on it as I go on.

With magic one should be able to create things seemingly out of nothing (fireball, light, wall of rock, summon, etc.), remove things from existence (darkness, disintegrate, banish, etc.), change or manipulate things before them (rock to mud, transmogrify, fly, etc.), and cause other physical effects (healing, damage, etc.). Magic should also have some kind of connection to an outside source, which can be called anything (like mana, magic energy, the source, spirits, gods, etc.), but in the end it's something the spellcaster taps into to do the powers they have access to. This connection should also be able to cause a physical drain or other side effects and problems for the caster. The extent of the connection and the possible side effects/problems should depend on the game system and setting.

Magic should have some kind of action taken on the part of the spellcaster to make it work. This doesn't have to just be the old magic words or waving of a wand, but should be some kind of controlling action. This can be anything from knowing the right words, prayers, actions, components, rituals, dance moves, or whatever is needed in this world. Magic should be based more on the caster's ability to mold and control whatever the source of the power is. In many ways magic is more like a form of science and technical skill, often in a world without these things being present or common.

Psionics, on the other hand, should be about three basic aspects: Control over one's self (extending senses, sensing danger, controlling pain, etc.), Affecting others' minds (hypnotic suggestion, planting thoughts, telepathy, etc.), and Affecting the physical world (healing, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, etc.). Most of this should center on the first two, with the third being far more limited and difficult. The powers should strain the mind (and through that weaken the body) if they are pushed or used heavily, but not from any external source. All the power for these comes directly from the mind of the psychic, so the limits and strains are all on them completely.

Since psionics are from within, they should be more about how well the psychic is able to control their mind, remain calm, concentrate, focus, and all those things. Uncontrolled and angry outbursts might cause wild psychic effects from these people, but controlling the mind is the only thing that should allow them to control the powers. Straining the mind to cause larger, more powerful, resisted, and dangerous effects should cause the psychic to have more trouble maintaining the needed level of focus and concentration. Emotions and thoughts should be a large part of how these powers work or fail, but understanding of the forces behind them is not needed.


Now that we know what psionics should be like and how they are not like magic, let's take a look at how this can be translated into rules and arrangements that work within games. I will just avoid game mechanics that feel or act like I would expect Magic to work. This means I won't be doing the ritual magic, stored up mana points, calling upon the gods, or daily limitations of number of spells (which doesn't even make sense to me for a magic system) for this. Psychics use their own internal sources of power or fortitude, so none of those make sense.

In games where it's more about the story and light on rules, balance isn't an issue so there doesn't need to be a mechanic in place to limit the usage of powers. The powers are used more as guidelines as to what the character knows and can do and can be used whenever they (the players and GM, if there is one) feel it is the right place in the scene for one. The mechanics in these games will simply be about how the powers work and not how many of them they can do in a certain amount of time. These games are relatively rare in the RPG scene, so I won't elaborate more on them.

In most games there is a reason to put limits on the characters and how often they can use powers and/or how powerful they can be. The main way this is done is through the use of some kind of point system that is spent to use the powers and is regained according to the rules at a later time. Most of the time these points are made to represent some kind of mental energy, stress, or other aspect that limits the character. Over time these points are regained either naturally or through some ritual. In the Land of Karn these are called Psionic Energy Points (PEP) and are gained back through sleep or meditation. PEP is based on the amount of mental strain the character is able to withstand (the Mental Endurance attribute), but can be increased through training.

In these point-based systems, when a psychic use a power they have to spend a certain amount of these points, which drains the character. The number of points spent usually depends on how powerful the ability being used is and/or how skilled they are in using it. There is also usually some kind of random roll involved to see what the outcome of the attempt to use the power is. Once the points are spent the character will feel drained, at least a little, and will be down in points. If they don't have enough points to use the power they want to use they usually can't do it, unless there is some kind of dangerous penalty they can take to still attempt it. In the Land of Karn it can cause Stress damage as well as harm mental attributes and cause other problems.

Another option could be a risk system for every attempt at a power, where the stronger the power they attempt the more chance for a negative or even dangerous outcome. There is no limitation on the number of times a power can be used, but each use runs or possibly even increases the chance of damaging one's self. Small things should be relatively easy to pull off, but also tend to be less helpful. Larger things are extremely useful at time, but could end up with the psychic passing out, taking damage of some sort, or even dying (if the risk was high enough). The more power you try to use the higher this chance of failure goes.

I am sure there are other ways it could be handled, but I think these two general styles cover the largest and best ways psionics could be handled in a game. Changing the dice mechanics, chances of success, or other behind the scenes elements doesn't mean it no longer fits into these two styles. The key parts being that it is from within and causes mental strain (which can lead to physical problems) as opposed to being an outside element that is controlled or used by the person.


Psionics are an amazing area of powers that can greatly enhance the feel of games in nearly any genre of game. I would love to see more games handle psionics as its own special form of powers and not just an alternate to or extension of magic or some other skill set. It saddens me to see it so greatly abused or ignored in most games, which is why I have such a dedication to it in The Land of Karn. Before I finish here, let me talk a little about what I did.

Although it is based on the same general mechanic as all skills and powers in the game, Psionics have a lot more under the hood when actually using them. They are built on a structure of sub-abilities, which determine the limits of what each power is capable of and are trained up separately for each character. When using them you choose how powerful you want them to be, spend the necessary PEP, and then make the skill roll. The outcome of the roll determines what happens (including possible dangers) and the drain of PEP can cause problems like drowsiness or stress issues. It is also possible for the target of the power to stop it if they have the chance or ability to save against or block it.

For more details on this you can see the full game when it becomes available or get on the forums and chat with my players and myself, who can all tell you more. Questions are always welcome. As for psionics, I hope to see more games treating it as its own unique and special thing in the future. Psychics are not Mages and should never have been treated as one by the rules.

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