P/X: Basic Psionics Handbook (OSR)
P/X: Basic Psionics Handbook (OSR)
This book clocks in at 58 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 55 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
One of my patreon supporters pointed this book out to me, and asked me to cover it, so that’s what I’m doing!
First of all: If the title wasn’t enough of a clue, this is intended for use with the elegant and minimalist B/X-rules. If that sounds like a squaring of the circle, then you’d be right. But let me give you a brief rundown: You see, today, psionics, particularly those championed by Dreamscarred Press, have become a staple in many modern high-complexity games like Pathfinder, but it took until D&D 3.5 until the rules presented for psionics became anything that resembled “elegance.” While I, as a GM, always enjoyed monsters with psionics, the AD&D rules back in the day were notoriously fiddly, and indeed, the same held true for the 3.0 iteration. It took Bruce Cordell and his Malhavoc Press offerings, as well as Dreamscarred Press, to make them as popular as they are now. Psionics haven’t always been this elegant.
The first iteration of psionics, at least to my knowledge, was introduced in Eldritch Wizardry, and took a class, the mystic, and disassembled it, which may well account for some of the chaos that was to follow. Anyway, this book does attempt to reassemble the class, which is one of the two base classes provided within.
But before we take a look at the classes, let us first cover a couple of things that are important for folks coming from a more contemporary background, from a more rules-heavy game: Psionics, as presented herein, is NOT magic, so there is, per se, no transparency between the two. The term used to denote a character with psionic abilities is “psionicist.” PL (psionic level) is analogue to character class level, and, as is the case to this date, psionics operate by using PSP (psionic strength points) to pay for the abilities; these replenish analogue to how spells do, after an undisturbed meditative 8-hour rest-period. Psionic saving throws are based on the saving throw vs. paralysis, modified by the character’s Intelligence-based adjustment (see below); when a save vs. paralysis is called for, the Intelligence-based adjustment is NOT applied. Close reading is required here.
There are two ability score relevant for psionics: Intelligence governs resistance to psionics: Particularly low or high Intelligence means that you can have anything from a -3 to a +3 bonus on saving throws versus psionics. High Wisdom scores, on the other hand, can yield up to a +3 bonus to psionic combat rolls. (If you’ve been around since before 3.5, the sheer mention of psionic combat will have had you groan.) Important to note: Creatures with Intelligence 2 or lower are immune to psionic attacks, but not psionic disciplines –there is a difference between the two.
Psionic abilities can be roughly categorized in two groups: On the one hand, there are disciplines, and on the other, there are the modes.
Modes are employed in psionic combat. There are 5 attack modes, and 5 defense modes – these can be telepathic or telekinetic in type, and list the targets they attack, or protect, respectively. Attack modes may be used against psionic and nonpsionic targets. Using a psionic attack prevents you from moving or taking any other action, and psionic attacks versus psionic characters tend to have additional effects. Defense modes must be decided upon before initiative is rolled for the round, and come into effect AFTER spellcasting and psionics use is declared. The book does present an easy to grasp sequence that shows the modified phases of a turn, when and where the psionic combat modes come into effect, etc. A cursory glance at them makes them seem akin to spells, and frankly, that’s pretty much how they operate – with one exception. The dreaded Attack/Defense-mode interaction table. You see, e.g. mental barrier provides a +3 bonus to saves vs. area attacks, and halves telekinetic damage, for example. This means that ego whip and mind thrust are very effective against this defense mode. The downside here would be that, probably due to blending two iterations of the system, two defense modes are clearly “superior” options, where previously, they could be risky. The pricing of them also can be a bit weird – for the same PSP-cost, you can unleash an AoE damage + stun, or a single-target attack that deals ½ class level+1d6 more damage than the massive AoE-blast. It lacks the stun the AoE has, fyi.
Yet, I should like this rock-paper-scissors principle; it even has a table. I really, really don’t. I tried for years playing with it, and the whole defense/attack mode-sub-engine never fails to at least bring the game to a stutter; make that a grinding halt for groups less familiar with it. Now, admittedly, the implementation here is better than a lot that I’ve seen – the utterly grating hourly regeneration tracking and the like is thankfully gone, and the boil down of the ridiculous combat matrix to a 5 entry by 5 entry-table helps make this “on par” with 3.0’s implementation…but still. This is an instance where I don’t see the payoff for the complexity; I never have. Then again, leaving this aspect out would probably have had SOME grognard out there screaming blasphemy in rage – there are bound to be folks out there that enjoy this. I am not one of them, and I usually enjoy complex systems. Make of that what you will.
The good news is that you can arguably cut the attack/defense mode stuff from the psionics engine presented herein without breaking it.
All right, where was I? Oh yeah, the mystic: The class is presented as a full 20-level option, and begins play with 5 PSP, gaining 5 more per level after 1st. as far as experience point progression is concerned, we begin analogue to the dwarf, with 5th level onward providing some minor discrepancies from the dwarf’s progression. The mystic, thus, can be situated slightly below the magic-user in how much XP a level-up takes. The class uses d4s as HD, but saves are pretty solid – in sequence (poison, petrify, breath, wands, spells), the class begins with 10, 11, 15, 14, 15 and improves them at 5th level and then again at 9th, 13th and 17th level.
If you are playing with attack and defense modes, you begin play with one attack mode and will have unlocked all at 8th level; the first defense mode is gained at 2nd level, and all 5 will be available at 10th level. All levels have until 11th have individual titles, just fyi. Mystics use Intelligence and Wisdom as prime requisite, and a score in either of 12 or higher nets a 5% XP-bonus. Intelligence of 13 or more AND Wisdom 16 or more upgrades that to 10%. Mystics use the attack table of thieves/clerics, and may wear nothing more protective than leather armor. They may not use shields, and are restricted to daggers as weaponry. Furthermore, they draw their power partially from a disdain of the physical, and thus may not carry more treasure than absolutely necessary for survival. The mystic may only carry treasure with the goal to grant it to those in need. A mystic furthermore may NOT own a magic item, and may only use them in the service of others. The exceptions here are those that allow fighters to use them, and psionic items. Wearable items may only be worn while actively adventuring, and impose a hard cap – per item worn, the mystic must meditate two turns per day.
Psionics in this system are associated with the seven chakras – root chakra, for example, corresponds to psychometabolism; the chakras can be tough of as spell-schools, or in Dreamscarred Press’ parlance, as “disciplines” – be aware that this means something else in this book!!
There are two special cases – the third eye requires that the mystic has access of all other chakras and is associated with metapsionics; the crown chakra represents something that only divine beings may attain – this means that, for the purpose of playing, 6 chakras are relevant. These are usually gained in a linear fashion as the game progresses, but, in a nice touch, there is an alternate system included that allows development to adjacent chakras from one chosen, and one that leaves it all up to chance.
Each chakra features multiple disciplines, the spell-equivalent, which are basically what later iterations of the psionics system called “powers;” these themselves are segregated in two categories – major sciences, and minor devotions. To give you an idea: The mystic begins play with one major science, and 3 minor devotions, and get an additional major science every odd level, but at first receives two devotions per level, with 5th level+ slowing that to 1/ level, for a total maximum array of 10 major sciences and 25 minor devotions at 20th level.
Each chakra sports 7 major sciences and 12 minor devotions to choose from, so quite a lot. A nice component here would be that the respective disciplines presented feel very much…grounded? The notion of the mystic/ygi-like figure, the magical ascetic, if you will, as the guy with the strange powers is well-represented in the powers chosen. The curator’s care of establishing themes and maintaining classics here is rather pronounced: Yes, there obviously is a dimension door, but so is there a sensitivity to psychic impressions, telekinesis, molecular manipulation and, of course, the classic…ultrablast! A big plus: Since effects like schism or ultrablast are major sciences, (both btw. metapsionics, so relegated to higher levels) are very potent, the book balances e.g. the latte one’s power with a pretty long countdown and the chance to knock yourself out. All in all, I do enjoy the psionics baseline presented and encapsulated by the full-caster class here.
This book contains a second character class, which sports a pretty analogue XP-progression and has 16 levels – this would be the monk, and if you’re familiar with d20-based iterations of the game, you’ll get what you’d expect: The class starts treating its unarmed strikes as silver at second level, and later increases them to be treated as up to +5. Melee damage inflicted begins at 1d4 and increases to 3d12+12 at 16th level, and the class has unarmored armorclass improvements baked into its core engine, beginning at AC 8, and improving that to -4 at 16th level. So far, so expected – not for the nit and grit: The class uses d6 as HD, and have their own saving throw table that starts at 11, 12, 14, 13, 16 (poison, petrify, breath, wands, spells) and improves at the usual pace established above. They attack using the fighter’s table, but may not use shields or armor, nor employ magic items that are protective; they may use items that provide attack and damage bonuses. Prime requisites are Strength and Dexterity – 13 or higher in both nets 5% bonus XP; for Strength 13 or higher and Dexterity 16 or higher, that becomes 10%. Monks regain twice as many hit points when resting, and they begin play with 2 PSP and one minor devotion. They gain 2 PSP every level, unlock their first major science at 2nd level, and in the end, will amass up to 6 major sciences and 16 minor devotions when reaching 16th level.
If you’re playing with psionic combat modes, they are REALLY squishy against them – and same goes for wildcard psionics, if you use that optional rule. Having latent, but not really developed psionic powers may be more of a curse than a blessing, considering how several effects hit psionicists harder than regular characters…depending on your vision of psionics, this may be considered to be either a bug or a feature.
Okay, beyond these classes and the base system, the book also contains a psionic bestiary of sorts, focusing on classic creatures that have been rebranded to avoid IP-violations – aboleth may be found alongside limbo/astral gith (githzerai/yanki), there are four-armed “mantis-men” for fans of Dark Sun, and from various intellect devourers to “Mind Threshers” most folks won’t have an issue understanding the critters. They do come with decent b/w-artworks each, which is a plus, particularly for newbies. Some more obscure ones, like a psionic wooly white rhinoceros, or ki-rin and hollyphants may be found within as well. Did I mention the Zowl?
The book also highlights the interaction of psionics with certain items like helmets of telepathy, provides basic rules for psionic items with some examples, a cheat-sheet of magic/psionics interaction, quick notes on monster rules, a means to make phrenic creatures, etc. The book even has a detailed index, a cheat-sheet of disciplines by chakra and handy PSP cost/bonuses/attack-defense-mode listing page that practically begs to be used as a GM screen insert.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. From a didactic point of view, I applaud the formatting of key terms without undermining established conventions – it makes the book easier to read and grasp and enhances the reading flow. Layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard and is pretty down-to-earth, bereft of frills and printer-friendly. The artworks within are b/w and range from really nice to slightly goofy in a charming, old-school way. The pdf version comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, and I unfortunately can’t comment on the merits or lack thereof of the softcover, as I do not own it.
Richard J. LeBlanc Jr.’s Basic Psionics Handbook is an exciting example of rules archaeology and reconstructive speculation done right, for the most part – the rules-integrity per se is tight, precise, and shouldn’t upend the balance of B/X-games. It manages to instill a sense of identity and culture into psionics that sets them apart from regular magic, but doesn’t relegate them exclusively to tentacle-studded monstrosities. In that way, it is a resounding success that blows the classic old-school renditions of psionics clear out of the water.
The one issue of the book is perhaps immanent in its genesis: It attempts to remain faithful, when the slaughtering of some sacred cows would have been very much in order. The streamlining of psionic attack/defense may be a step in the right direction, but ultimately only brings the system up to the approximate level of quality that 3.0 psionics had, when going one step further here in design paradigm would have been warranted for a playing experience as smooth as we’d expect from B/X. The clinging to fidelity also creates the few ripples of rules integrity and balancing that I managed to spot – the author clearly realized the issues present, but either didn’t want to go all the way, or didn’t dare to due to fear of the notoriously vitriolic backlash that such changes might have yielded. Here, a brave “Fortes fortuna adiuvat” and a forging ahead might have been in order – after all, the complexity of the options, the variety is here – why not finish the job fixing the mode-material?
The flaws of this book notwithstanding, it is a professional, well-wrought supplement; it may have missed the label of true greatness, but it most assuredly is the best old-school psionics system I have seen; it is not a step, but a leap in the right direction, and considering the success of Necrotic Gnome Production’s “Old-School Essentials” project of premium, streamlined B/X-rules, one that will find plenty of fans. My final verdict will clock in at 4 stars – this is a good book worth its asking price.
You can get these neat psionics rules here on OBS!
You can get it in print here on lulu!
In case you missed it – there is currently a kickstarter running, where B/X-rules are collected in both a boxed set and a massive deluxe-tome! The KS has transcended 100K and only has 2 days to go – you can check it out here!
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I was thinking that psionic combat has always been sucky. Even Malhavok’s version, which was nice mechanically, made non-psionic players feel out of the club. I think 3.5 and Dreamscarred version, where the attacks and defense modes are powers, is way better. I think I would also like a psionic focus-based engine that used different action types as the cost of attacks, and maybe something like style feats where you have to have it and can only be in one, with again psionic focus and immediate actions as costs.
I have always enjoyed the feeling and theme of psionics, my favorite books ever about it are Te Will and the Way (pure gold), and the campaign setting Mind Shadows (which suffered from not wait till 3.5 psionics and used 3.5 rules but 3.0 psionics).
Anyway, this one looks nice!
Agreed 1000%; psionic combat grinds the game to a horrid halt, and is, particularly for B/X, an unnecessary complication, even more so than in D&D 3.0. That being said, apart from the inclusion of this rather unfortunate design-decision, this is a great old-school psionics system.
Re psionic focus and attacks/Style feats: Yeah that is kinda awesome…oh wait, that already exists: Spheres of Might’s martial focus behaves in many ways like this, with martial focus expenditure as means to power special moves. 🙂 That being said, I agree that a psionics crossover would be nice, but at this point, there are pretty much two DSP-psionics: One intended for use with pretty much all games, and one that is high-powered and intended for use with games that have a Path of War power-level, so designing this would be a challenge.