Game Design and House Ruling - 1e Psionics
Over the years I have come to think of game design differently. I don’t want “perfect”, unless “perfect” happens to meet all of my personal design preferences. And no game will ever do that. The set of preferences I bring as a DM and a designer are completely unique, in some places I will want crunch, in others particular kinds of crunch, in others no crunch at all.
The perfect is the enemy of the good in game design. RPGs work best when you can fine tune them to your group. Arneson realized this, Gygax realized this, it was expected that you would modify your game to your tastes. Drop certain rules, keep others, rulings over rules, free Kreigspeel, that sort of thing.
So when game components don’t work for your group, you can do a few things. One is to switch to another game. I can see that happening in aggregate, e.g. if there were too many things I didn’t like about the system, or if there were a few really big ones I didn’t like, then sure, switch systems.
So for example, my group wanted a science fiction game, so I switched from AD&D first edition to Stars Without Number, 1e AD&D can do science fiction, I know it, it already has science fiction elements, but the setting materials that a new game would bring were important to populate the universe for me. Switching brought along different mechanics that were fun as well. I’ve pinched a few mechanics and ideas for my 1e game from there as well. A good designer steals whatever works.
But you can also muck with things. I thought it would be fun to go through the process of changing something to show how it works from a design perspective. One of the strengths of 1e as a system is that it has a system of “mini-games” for various things (armed combat, initiative, unarmed combat, psionics, WvrsAC tables). Yes, this makes it rule heavy, but it also makes it almost infinitely customizable.
A very simple system can be customized by add ons, the basic system is likely a universal mechanic or small set of simple mechanics, so changing them is difficult, but adding to them is easy.
AD&D goes the other way, it gives you a set of mechanics for a lot of things, but they are independent of each other and the core exploration, role play, magic and combat mechanics. You can use the grappling rules, or you don’t have to. You can use weapon speeds to break initiative ties, or you don’t have to.
Or, if the mini-games are robust (and here’s a hint, they are), you can tweak them to the preferences of your group. That’s the secret sauce of Gygaxian game design, give ENOUGH crunch in the mechanics that you can tweak the rules to the preferences of your group.
Let’s take an example.
Psionics are the bastard child of fantasy gaming, since the earliest editions psionics have been criticized and in many cases simply ignored. D&D is a vast, sprawling game that covers many genres, as it was primarily designed to emulate pulp literature, and pulp is inherently polygamous.
So many people WANT psionics, but few, it seems, actually use them, outside of D&D settings that are psionic heavy.
So when I wanted psionics for my campaign, I did a review and redesign.
I did a review of the rules, and ran some playtests with my regular players outside of the main campaign. After a few run throughs the main objection I collected from my players (and subsequently found through polling on social media) was that 1e psionic combat is boring. The disciplines (more on those later), are generally liked. But the combat is dull as dust.
So I decided to change the combat and leave the disciplines alone.
What was boring about psionic combat? Look at the instructions here, every participant in the combat has psionic ability, that gives them attack and defense points.
Given the way stats are produced, most PC psi would have an average of around 80-100 psi points, so 80-100 for attack and 80-100 for defense.
With the minimum strength requirement of 100 attack points to use psionic blast, the only attack that works on non-psi creatures, this system makes it very unlikely that the psi will be able to use their combat powers on non-psi. That’s fine from a game design perspective, but from a fun perspective it’s a loss.
This was an easy fix, I divided the number of attack points needed for psionic blast to 50 from 100. That meant that most psi characters, if they didn’t squander their points on disciplines. This means that psi PCs become cautious with their abilities, but can still use them. That’s the sweet spot for OSR gaming in my opinion.
The next problem was the combat mechanics:
In each combat round the attacker and the defender get one attack/defense routine, in each case you announce your attack, the defense is announced, and you read off the point cost to both (for attack and defense). Then the other participant does the same, points are totalled, and you continue this until someone runs out of points or suffers a consequence (e.g. death).
The challenge here was that the players simply read across on a chart, and chose their least cost defense against it, and repeated. There was very little strategy to it, and it required them keeping track of a death by 1000 cuts. Small bites out of larger psi strength was kind of dull.
I thought about it and what makes this dull is that your choice on the table is essentially made for you, since you know what attack is coming in you can pick the best defense.
So that’s what I changed. Now, you don’t know what attack is coming to you. So you have to test your opponent a bit to see what they can do, and choose your strategy as you fight.
So the system rewards players who take the time to read the system and realize that certain defenses work against most things, some are limited but protect against deadly things so they have to be thought through.
So for example, if your opponent has psychic crush, they can kill you with a successful attack, though the odds are fairly low. But as all of us know, I’ve seen players roll a 20 more than once per session, and that’s only a 5% chance. So psychic crush isn’t a bad choice. There is strategy based on the number of psionic attack points you have, lower total psi point characters will favor lower cost attacks and defenses for example.
In short, this opened up a whole new kind of combat, one that required a whole new kind of strategic and tactical thinking. It made it necessary to feel out your opponent to know what to do. It held surprises, sometimes the rolls would come through on difficult things. And all that was necessary was to make the incoming attack opaque to the players until they had chosen their defense.
Just to give a sense of how this looks in play, here is an example from my game of psi combat between a lizard man magic user and an intellect devourer.
Ability: 250 (125 attack/125 defence)
Attack modes: Psionic Blast, Mind Thrust, Psychic Crush
Defence Modes: Mind Blank, Mental Barrier, Intellect Fortress, Tower of Iron Will
Ability: 200 (100 attack/100 defence)
Attack modes: Psionic Blast, Ego whip, ID insinuation
Defence Mode: Mind blank, thought shield
Note that psionic blast is not normally usable by an intellect devourer, I gave him this as he has survived a while and I figured that would be a lot more sensible if he had the ability to attack non-psionic types with his mind.
[Psionic battle occurs at a rate of 20 attack/defend pairs per round, two per segment…]
Neither opponent moves, the battle is all in the mind.
The beast attacked by digging his psychic fingers into Zintar Huss’ mind, attempting to subvert his conscious control by asserting his subconscious. Huss felt a surge of base terror as he saw shadowy shapes moving at the periphery of his vision, and a feeling of dread arose from within. Huss, anticipating the beast to lead strongly, wrapped his brain in his super ego as a fortress against any attack. The increasing primal fear receded.
[DM’s note: for psionic combat we both picked our attack and defence and wrote them down, then we revealed to each other and I checked the chart for point costs.
For the first attack:
ID insinuation (cost 10) against Tower of Iron Will (cost 10 and 21 to defend, 31).
New totals (A: attack points, D: defence points, PS: total psionic strength)
Zintar Huss: A: 125, D: 94, PS: 219
ID: A: 90, D: 100, PS: 190
Huss returned the favor with a psionic assault on the devourer’s synapses, seeking to short circuit his brain and end the fight, the creature had assumed Huss no real threat and presented a blank front to the lizard man, and his mind slipped away from the assault.
Mind Thrust (cost 4) against Mind blank (cost 1 and 30 to defend)
Zintar Huss: A: 121, D: 94, PS: 215
ID: A: 90, D: 69, PS: 159
[End segment 1]
The creature was enraged and attacked fiercely, Zintar Huss had attempted to hide his mind from the devourer in defence, but suddenly the lizard man felt his loss of humanity years ago, his defeat and subsequent inability to cast spells, they all came crashing down upon him, and for a split second he was overwhelmed, then his mind slipped just out of the creature’s grasp for a moment, and he reasserted himself.
Ego whip (cost 7), against mind blank (cost: 1 and 38 to defend)
Zintar Huss: A: 121, D: 55, PS: 176
ID: A: 83, D: 69, PS: 152]
The brain on legs was now worried that it would lack the strength to protect itself, so it attempted to hide it’s mind, the most basic defence. Huss redoubled his attack, a bolt of pure psionic energy passed from his mind to the devourer, making the air shimmer like a vibrating liquid crystal between them, the beast did not die, but it still felt the fierce psychic pain of the assault.
Psionic blast (cost 20), against mind blank (cost: 1 and 28 to defend)
Zintar Huss: A: 101, D: 55, PS: 156
ID: A: 83, D: 40, PS: 123
End segment 2]
The beast vibrated with rage as he fired back a fierce assault, prying out childhood memories of Huss when he was human, the death of his mother, his first near death battle, the wave of desperation began to surge, but Huss had called up an equally powerful memory, his transformation into his current form at the hands of a mad mage, Huss re-lived his thoughts at the time of his transformation over and over again in his mind, by doing so the feelings of inferiority and desperation became quietly lapping waves against the island of his mind
Ego whip (cost 7) against mental barrier (cost 3 and 6 to defend)
Zintar Huss: A: 121, D: 46, PS: 167
ID: A: 76, D: 40, PS: 116
Huss focused his mind on the beast, once again assaulting his synapses, but again the beast’s mind narrowly avoided his prying psionic fingers.
Huss attacked with mind thrust (cost 4) and the ID defended with mind blank (cost 1 and 30 to defend)
Zintar Huss: A: 117, D: 46, PS: 163
ID: A: 76, D: 10, PS: 86
End segment 3]
The beast then directed a wave of pure psychic force against the former magic user, however Huss had brought up the walls of his ego and super-ego, and the blast washed away.
Attack with psionic blast (cost 20), defence with intellect fortress (cost 8 and 11 to defend)
Zintar Huss: A: 114, D: 27, PS: 141
ID: A: 56, D: 10, PS: 66
Huss felt this was his last chance, he focused the entirety of his will upon the beast, drilling into it’s mind to crush it at its base, the self, the beast fought, it sensed Huss’s lethal intent, he put up his most formidable defense, hiding his mind with a scattered shield of thought, but Huss’s will was too strong, the creature seized, it’s mind collapsing to dust, and it fell dead.
[DM’s note: Attack with psychic crush (cost 14) against thought shield (cost 2) Psychic crush requires a percentage roll, there was a 16% chance, the player rolled a 12. One dead intellect devourer.
Now, I spiced up the descriptions when this was happening with details from the PCs background, you don’t have to spin that every time. But as psi to psi combat isn’t too common, you don’t have to. The point is that there is some strategy to what you pick, and you learn about your opponent through combat that lasts long enough for you to learn.
And this all happened within 4 segments of the combat round. That’s another aspect of this that can be a problem, it’s all between the DM and one player, and it can last for 3-5 rounds (in my experience), so there is some room to learn what is up.
The bigger point here is that the system is a lot of fun, it even has the prototype for a spell point system in the disciplines. If you want to run D&D without spell slots, just use the psionic system and assign point costs based on casting times for spells or something else that scales with level.
Managing the points between psionic combat and disciplines is another interesting strategic choice that the system brings.
Ultimately, you may prefer to switch systems when something doesn’t work for you, and that makes sense. However, I have found that few systems scratch all my itches, and I eventually tinker with everything. The modularizability of 1e AD&D and it’s level of crunch allows me to tweak it to my needs.
We use psionics in our game, and have psionic monsters, nasty lot, those. It adds a real vibe to my game, making it more pulp than high fantasy. And it took two small changes to make it work.
The great thing is that Gygax was a cunning madman, he anticipated the potential for a psi to become campaign dominating, and built in safeguards. Psionic monsters are varied and dangerous, use of psionic abilities attracts more of them to you, and the occurrence of PC psi will be limited due to the odds of acquisition.
So what you get is a system that adds to a small number of PCs, produces many new challenges, and gives real flavor to the game.
Never be afraid to tweak things. Just do so slowly, iteratively, and pay attention to feedback from real play.