This entry is part 1 in the series Examining Psionics

Lately I’ve been thinking about Telepathy quite a lot. I know that a psionic character will be joining the team in the next phase of my Zenith-3 superhero campaign, and I want to have the a solid handle on all the wrinkles that come with it. I want some simple analogy that I am instantly familiar with – as will my players – to enable me to grasp and describe what is going on.

Modernised Rules

About four years ago, the rules for Psionics in the game were thoroughlly revised, basing them on a successful approach to the casting of spells in a superheroic environment, and other arcane phenomena. I thought I would start with a number of excerpts from those rules, spelling out some of the general concepts inherant in the new system, and then move on to some new material.

That plan has been defeated by the sheer mass of words left when the rules are excerpted. Make no mistake, these are a lot shorter than the actual rules, as these omit virtually all the game mechanics; this is a more conceptual treatment of the subject.

So I’ve had to split the whole thing into smaller parts.

This part will focus on the metagame concepts and how they interface with the Game Mechanics, and act as a primer on this interpretation of the subject. There will also be sections with thoughts on roleplaying psionic characters and GMing psionics.

Part two is rather smaller, and looks at a theoretical “Biology” of psionics. Call it a Meta-biology.

Parts three through five are actually the post that I intended to make – everything in parts 1 and 2 is preamble, though hopefully interesting enough conceptually to be worth the reader’s time.

Concepts In Psionics

The following are excerpts from the game rules, redacted to remove game mechanics that would not be applicable to other campaigns. Each excerpt is contained in a seperate block.

Psi powers are manipulations of the mind. They tend to have relatively low END costs, requiring minimal expenditures of energies, and operate directly on the thoughts and perceptions of the target(s). A characters capacity for Psionic Interventions is called their Psionic Potential, and this is expended through what are called Psionic Disciplines.

Psionic characters can utilise these Disciplines to produce preconfigured effects, called Psionic Abilities. There are limits to the number of Psionic Abilities a Psi can develop within a Psionic Discipline, and to the number of Disciplines that a Psi can develop.

Psi powers suffer from one tremendous handicap: characters without Psionic ability or potential ability are difficult to influance and hence the characters most susceptable are also the most capable of retaliating. Psionics therefore opens a whole new area of vulnerability in the character.

Characters come in three varieties, so far as Psionics are concerned: The Nulls, The Potentials, and The Awakened.

  • Psi-Nulls are characters that are not, and never can be, Psionic. They have 0 OMCV and masses of DMCV (often 100+). [NB: The game rules are d%-based and track Attack and Defence for mental powers seperately to the combat characteristics for physical attacks.]
  • Latents are characters that do not have Psionic powers at the moment, but can develop them in the future; at best they may have one unreliable ability. They are just as vulnerable as The Awakened, typically having an OMCV somewhere betwen 0 and 100 and a DMCV somewhere between 0 and 50.
  • The Awakened are what (psionics) are all about. You have to be Awakened to fully use Psionic powers. They have typically reduced their DMCV to very low values to get a better OMCV – DMCVs less than 0 are not unheard-of. This is because most Psionics want to be able to affect Psi-Nulls. Since the to-hit calculation is Roll Required = 100 + OMCV (attacker) – DMCV (target), it can be seen that the closer OMCV is to 100, the better, and 150 is better yet!

In other words, Psionic characters tend to be vulnerable to others with the same powers, and that they are therefore reliant on other defences – like Mind Shields, and high Ego Defences. Ego Defence is the “second line of defence” for most characters; it’s unreliable unless you spend a lot of points on it and ineffectual unless you spend a lot more again – all points that therefore become unavailable for the purchase of powers.

It’s fortunate, then, that ANY Psionic power that penetrates a character’s defences, no matter by how little, has a significant effect on the target.

The Psionics framework permits characters to construct tools and techniques from their own mental energies and use them to affect the world around them. While there are some powers that can ONLY be considered Psionic in nature, almost ANY power can be developed from a Psionic Basis, from a Telekinetic Barrier (Force Wall) to a Psionic Strike (RKA) to Translocation (EDM). The character’s ability to construct these tools is known as his Psi Talent (aka Psionic Rank, Psi Rating, etc), the Tools and Techniques are also known as Psionic Disciplines, and an actual effect based on the use of one of these tools is known as a Psionic Ability.

The character’s ability to tap his mental energies is known as his Psionic Potential, and is analagous to a mage’s Mana Pool. It tends to be smaller and more expensive than a Mana Pool but is more effective, point for point, than a Mana Pool. If a character has not been Awakened, he CANNOT have a Psionic Potential, or Channels. If a character is not a Latent or a full Psi, he CANNOT even have a Psi-Rating (well, technically, he has one of zero). Psionic characters buy one or more Psionic Potential pools at a price determined by their Will and appropriate skill levels. The higher the character’s Psi-rating, the larger the Psi Pool they receive per character point invested.

Psi Rating

Psionic Talent is often interpreted as Psi Rating. A character’s Psi Rating is equal to (Psionic Talent+80)x3/40. The following is a rough guide to the significance: of a given Psi Rating, based on material in various comics and in Babylon 5:

Psionic Talent Aprox Psi Rating General Interpretation (For a Psionic)
-80 to -74 P 0 – P 0.5 Barely alive. Impossible to achieve without deliberately reducing Psionic Talent
-73 to -60 P 0.5 – P 1.5 Marginally Psionic. Even a Latent Psi with INT 0 & WILL 0 can get a Base Psionic Talent of -67%!
-60 to -47 P 1.5 – P 2.5 Vaguely Psionic. Most Latent Psis with realistic stats will be in this category or higher.
-46 to -34 P 2.5 – P
3.5
Minimally Psionic. Good latent Psis can reach this category. 4% to 16% chance of succeeding in a Routine psionic task, such as scanning a willing mind.
-33 to -20 P 3.5 – P 4.5 Functionally Psionic. A P4 is the lowest Psi Rating that is even marginally practical. 17 to 30% chance of succeeding in a Routine psionic task. Note that even an awakened Psi with INT 0 & WILL 0 achieves a Base Psionic Talent of -27%!
-20 to -7 P 4.5 – P 5.5 Commercial Psionic. A P5 can reliably perform Routine psionic tasks (30-43% chance).
-6 to 6 P 5.5 – P 6.5 Commercial Psionic.
7 to 20 P 6.5 – P 7.5 Commercial Psionic. Psi Rating 6.83 makes a second Psionic Discipline possible.
20 to 33 P 7.5 – P 8.5 Commercial Psionic. Deep scans on unwilling targets and other "Very Difficult" tasks become possible (but may require repeated attempts). Psi Rating 7.58 permits a third Psionic Discipline, P8.33 permits a fourth.
34 to 46 P 8.5 – P 9.5 Commercial Psionic. This is the top-grade of Commercial Psi, often attached to law-enforcement divisions in Psionic cultures. Up to a 1-in-5 success rate with Very Difficult tasks. P9.08 permits a fifth psionic discipline.
47 to 60 P 9.5 – P 10.5 PsiCop minimum. P10s can usually overwhelm the defences of Commercial Psionics. P9.83 permits a sixth Psionic Discipline.
60 to 73 P 10.5 -
P 11.5
PsiCop standard. P11s can routinely overwhelm the defences of Commercial Psionics. P10.58 permits a seventh psionic discipline, P11.33 permits an eighth.
74 to 86 P 11.5 – P 12.5 PsiCop elite. P12s can often overwhelm the defences even of other PsiCops. P12.08 permits a ninth Psionic Discipline.
87 to 100 P 12.5 -
P 13.5
Military Psi minimum. P13s are extremely powerful, capable of abilities on a Global Scale. P12.83 permits a tenth Psionic Discipline.
100 to
113
P 13.5 -
P 14.5
Military Psi standard. P14s can potentially bridge interstellar distances psionically. P13.58 permits an eleventh Psionic Discipline, P14.33 permits the twelfth and normally last-permitted Psionic Discipline.
114 to
126
P 14.5 -
P 15.5
Elite Psionic. P15s can potentially bridge dimensional gulfs. Referees may optionally permit P15s to take a thirteenth Psionic Discipline. This Option is NOT in effect in the Z3 and related campaigns.
127 to
139
P 15.5 -
P 16.43
Elite Psionic. P16s can potentially bridge dimensional gulfs. Referees may optionally permit P16s to take a fourteenth Psionic Discipline. This Option is NOT in effect in the Z3 and related campaigns.
Psionic Disciplines

Psionic Disciplines are the psionic equivalent of Schools of Magic. The number of Disciplines a character can master is determined by the character’s Psionic Talent: 10% or less = 1; 11-20 = 2; 21-30 = 3; 31-40 = 4; 41-50 = 5; and so on, up to 111-120 = 12. Optionally, as shown in the table of Psi Ratings above, the referee may permit characters with Psionic Talent of 121-130 to take a 13th Psionic Discipline, and characters with a talent of 131-139 to take a fourteenth.

Awakening

When a Latent psi Awakens, it’s like a flower blooming. It’s slow and painful and inelegant and uncontrollable – and a thing of beauty. Whole new vistas open up for the character, their horizons recede immeasurably. All of these should be reflected in the GMs handling of the situation and the character’s roleplay.

There are two ways to handle the awakening process.

Option 1: Revelation
Where the character has the character points to spare, the referee may choose to permit a Revelation-style awakening. If the player wants to do it that way, and the referee permits it, and the character can afford it, the character simply pays the full xp cost. They then have the full Psi rating, the full Psi Talent, and the full Psi Discipline score. Further development of the character as a Psi is then handled as any other character development.

In practice, this should only be permitted by the referee when the character’s Psi abilities are being deliberately awakened by another full Psi of at least 1 Psi rating more than the character’s full rating as it will be, or when a similarly-persuasive justification is made.

Option 2: Deliberate Development
This option reflects an active effort by the character to develop their abilities by using them on the people around them, and should be roleplayed accordingly.

Roleplaying Telepathy

Psionic awakening can and usually does cause radical personality shifts. A Telepath can be instantly aware of exactly what another character really thinks of them (unless the other character is a more powerful Psi), and of everyone else around them (same caveat) – no forced politeness is possible, no diplomatic phrasing. Moreover, characters reactions to the Telepath will often change when they know they are dealing with a Psionic, as it’s impossible to develop a psionic ability without invading someone else’s privacy in the most intimate way possible. The player and referee should carefully discuss exactly how the character is going to react to all this, in the context of the established personality of the character.

Particularly in the early stages of psionic development, it’s all too easy for an awakening psionic to commit a form of psychic rape that neither they nor the subject can control. And, what’s more, the psionic character is going to be fully aware of the trauma that this causes the subject after the fact, and will probably be reminded of it every time they see the character.

This is especially likely to happen to another psionic, whose defences against psionics are weakened by virtue of their own abilities. Even reasonably well-adjusted individuals can required intensive psychotherapy when they Awaken.

Societies of telepaths normally learn that lying to a telepath is futile. Anyone from such an environment will have to think carefully about how their characters will react if they are lied to. Remember that lying is an in-built part of human nature, and that some professions mandate evasions and even outright deception at times – spies, diplomats, lawyers, used-car salesmen, marraige counsellors…

Almost anyone that a psionic character meets will want, need, or desire something from the character, even if it’s nothing more than a passing speculation, an idle fancy, or an “impossible” fantasy. Most people treat strangers percieved at a distance – on a passing train, walking on the sidewalk, whatever – as a thing, a receptical for their own needs and desires, not as another person. Only when the stranger does something that strikes a chord with the perciever – gets injured, introduces themselves, interacts with another person in a way that marks them as a human being – does the perciever begin to treat them as a human being. Until then, they just aren’t real. That’s part of the burdon of being psionic.

Another part of that burdon is difficulty sleeping. The psychic atmosphere (see “refereeing psionics”, below) is the equivalent of a white noise generator – a noise that can only be ignored through deep concentration, which normally precludes sleep. Newly-awakened Telepaths often need immediate training in meditation and self-hypnosis before they can overcome the disruptionto their normal sleeping habits that this causes.

Telepaths also grow accustomed to communicating subtle nuances with their minds, if they come from a telepathic culture. If this channel is not available to them, they may appear to posess character traits that aren’t really there – bluntness, intolerance, frustration. These percieved traits should also be roleplayed.

Refereeing Campaigns With Psionics

Psionic characters are always aware of the broad emotional states of others nearby. Collectively, these emotional states are often referred to as the Psychic Atmosphere. A description of the psychic atmosphere should always be part of the description of a room or area containing people or a person other than the psionic.

If the psionic character has his defences raised, then all he can discern of the psychic atmosphere without a Psionic Talent check is “dark” or “light” or other such sharp contrast. A successful Psionic Talent check with appropriate modifiers (Perception is complimentary) would permit a one-word description of the overall mood of those in the room. These one-word answers, without any context, tend to be annoying as hell to everyone else and can be easily misinterpreted (watch the first season or two of Star Trek: The Next Generation).

If the psionic lowers his defences, even without actively scanning, what they normally percieve as an annoying background babble (10,000 voices whispering nonsense to each other) gets louder, and more distinct, as though they had turned the volume knob from the lowest audible setting to something reasonable. (Try turning the TV or radio on, turning the volume down to half what you would normally use, and then going two rooms away. While you can hear noise, what you hear won’t make a lot of sense). They can then percieve that one-word emotional summary without a perception roll, and can make out some of the context with a successful roll. The psychic atmosphere may have gone from “Dark” to “Hostile” to “They’ve been arguing. You sense resentment and anger and feelings of betrayal.” (Note that this example implies the presence of two or more people and does not specify who is feeling what, let alone why).

Communities will react to the presence of psionics in general as well as to the specific personality of the psychic. This reaction will usually vary with the degree of certainty with which the psychic ability has been proven, and will usually be to a generalisation of the abilities of the psionic character, and not to specifics. The referee should be carefully prepared for the consequences of public proof. One possible result is detailed below to provide food for thought.

When proof of psionics becomes publicly known, there will be many reactions.

Some people will initially be skeptical, but far more were so before there was proof. Others will iconify the psionic character, while still others will react to that iconification, presuming a cult connection where none exists. When the proof is confirmed proven beyond doubt, a psionic subculture will begin to emerge, which will arouse jealousy, envy, anger, outrage, greed, and several other emotions. Relatively few will be sanguine about the potential invasions of privacy that this will entail. Hate groups will form, while some already in existance will target psionic individuals. The accusation of psionics will (for at least a while) have the same impact as allegations of child molestation – a permanent taint, whether justified or not. Regulation of psionic phenomena will initially be based on existing laws – privacy, fraud, etc – and totally ineffectual. As the credibility of psionic abilities rises, specific laws will be drafted, going from the sublime to the ridiculous. At roughly the same time, laws protecting individuals from assault will be tested in ways never before envisaged, with no satisfactory outcome possible.

Consider the following hypothetical scenario: One man kills another and is arrested. He alleges (through his lawyers) that the dead man was a psionic who attacked him mentally, that this qualifies as assault, and that he was only defending himself. If this defence is accepted, it establishes the principle that no proof is needed to justify killing a psionic in self-defence. The result would not only be open season on psionic characters, it would permit anyone to kill anyone else, with an indisputable legal defence. However, if it cannot be proven that the victim was a psionic, who did actually attack the accused murderer, the defence is will almost certainly be rejected (and any panic-stricken jury verdict overturned on appeal, if it even got that far). This establishes that psionic attack is not assault under the law, and that the public have no legal defence against mental invasion. The mobs would be forming immediatly the verdict was announced!

Psionics would, of necessity, be driven underground. Posession of psionic abilities may or may not be a capital offence, but the only alternative is some form of penal colony that is exclusively devoted to psionic transportees. Being psionic would be analagous to homosexuality in the middle half of the 20th century – underground movements and clandestine associations and perpetual fear of being “outed”.

Meanwhile, the defence and political implications would be playing out. The advantages of a Telepathic spy network are obvious, both to friend and foe alike. Just at the point that psionic characters needed help in going underground, people who are professionals at doing so would quietly step in and provide it. The clandestine associations would grow larger and better organised, with whole branches of the various organisations interested in keeping – or obtaining – secrets emerging. Crime gangs, Big Businesses, Defence Establishments, Spy organisations, Terrorist Groups – they would all want to get their hands on a psionic, on the quiet.

Over the next few decades, the psionic underground would establish one or more extended underground communities on a national or even international scale. Ultimately, the needs for self-preservation would lead one or more of these to attempt to take control of the establishment (think Magneto). A counter-psionics community trying to achieve legal recognition for psionic rights would undoubtedly be formed in response – whether by a group still underground (think X-men) or an officially-sanctioned top-secret police force (more likely) would depend on circumstances. Where things went from there is ultimately a question of who wiins that conflict, but either way the establishment of a psi-corps style group, with appropriate rules and regulations, would seem certain to result, probably 30-50 years after the first proof of psionic abilties. (For a different take on all of this, read “To Ride Pegasus” by Anne McCaffery).

Reactions To Awakening

So far, this section has shown that Awakening means there’s a lot for the psionic character’s player to think about, and a lot for the referee to think about. But Awakening itself doesn’t actually trigger a lot of the consequences that have been discussed, most of them are due to people in general becoming aware that a character has Awakened.

So it is with the other PCs. Being closer to the psionic character, these are more likely to become aware of the potential (or actual) consequences of the psionic Ability, but often they will also have the benefits (or lack thereof) of knowing the individual who has just become psionic. When the awakening first takes place, the referee should take the newly-awakened character aside, have them read the sections on Roleplaying Awakening and Roleplaying Telepathy (above), and start thinking about his character’s responses and reactions to these developments. The referee should then ask the other players, out of earshot of the newly-psionic character, some very leading questions. The answers should be brief – one or two sentences at most – and written, to enable later referral to them. In all fairness, the referee should also encourage metagaming to the extent of reminding the players that the newly psionic character will eventually almost certainly learn their answers eventially.

Psi-Prejudice

It’s quite possible for a character to react to someone else being Awakened by becoming prejudiced against Psionic characters in general. The mere fact that they can mess with your head and you will never know it is quite enough. A general distrust of what might be done with the ability is quite enough. A personal trauma involving psionics is quite enough. It’s easy to find reasons to fear and mistrust Psis in general, with only a few rare and limited exceptions, grudgingly acknowledged. This phenomenon is known as Psi-Prejudice.

Of course, some Psionic characters will react to this prejudice – which cannot be hidden from them if they are telepathic – by their own overgeneralising of non-humans. It is all too easy for Psi-Prejudice to become self-fulfilling prophecy.

Creating Psionic Characters

“In a perfect world, there would be points enough to buy everything I want.” So said one player when contemplating a character design. But it’s an imperfect world, and as a result, players need to balance conflicting needs very carefully when constructing characters. This is especially true for Psionic characters, who have some extraordinary demands to meet.

In particular, the fact that everyone else gets a significant free defence against psionic powers while characters who posess those powers get a free vulnerability to those powers, forcing them to spend lots of points improving an expensive second-string defence mechanism, means that there will not be many points left for the psionics themselves. As always, the exact balance to be struck is subject to variation by individuals, and this section is not going to offer too specific a blueprint. Some people will want to have the best defence they can afford, at the expense of a variety of front-line abilities; others will accept a wider margin of vulnerability in exchange for greater psionic powers, with the intention of adding a third-stage defensive mechanism like a Mind Shield early on.

The following observations may be useful:

  • Ego Defence is essential and expensive at high levels. Decide the minimum amount that you need and purchase it early in the character construction/reconstruction process. You can always add more if you have the points.
  • The Psionics pool is relatively cheap, but by the time EgoDef is factored in, there will not be enough points for everything. Divide the planned Psi Pool into two or three smaller pools, then start by buying no more than 1/3 of the total you expect to be able to buy eventually. [The Psi Pool is a specific type of characteristic used to power psionic powers].
  • Rising Psi Ratings are geometrically more expensive. It’s not unreasonable to expect the total spent on Psionics to start at 50 and to increase by 10 points, cumulative, for each full point of psi rating. A P5 should expect to have to spend 50+10+20+30+40+50 = 200 points on psionics and related costs (like restricted-purpose WILL). You might be able to do it for half that, but you would be a singularly anaemic P5. Certainly, you would not expect to spend more than twice that. The higher the Psi Rating, the greater the committment of points to Psionics – which means that there will be less for everything else. So pick a Psi Rating within your budget and aim for that – at first. You can always improve it later in the character creation process.
  • Psionic Abilities are relatively expensive in character point costs. So only plan to buy one or two of these at first, at most, and be prepared to accept reduced effectiveness (ie higher END and Psi costs) to keep the overall price affordable.
  • Psionic Disciplines can also bite deeply into your points. Aside from being relatively expensive in and of themselves, they also commit you to buying at least one additional Psionic Ability. The balance between diversity and effectiveness needs to be carefully managed. As a general rule of thumb, no matter how many Disciplines your planned Psi Rating will let you have, start by buying only one, or at most two.
  • Complete the rest of the character before expanding your psioinc horizons beyond the minimum. Higher Psi Ratings are always more cost-effective in the long run, but in the short term they consume your points for little-to-no benefit.
  • Everything said here applies doubly or triply if your character is not intended to be a paranormal.

Whew! Out of room – stay tuned for part two of this series, when I contemplate a hypothetical biology and physiology of psionics!

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