I have seen many people suggest they don’t use psionics, not because they are a bad thematic fit with their game, but instead as they are hard to understand. Generally speaking I would say that 1e psionics are confusing due to Gygax’s style of explanation and game design. In short, he has an elliptical way of writing and he often leaves out parts of the mechanics for you to fill in.
1e has a lot of “mini-games” imbedded in the larger game, some work, some don’t. The grappling rules are another great example, they are actually pretty easy to use as most of the modifiers are fixed, but when you look at the table it appears quite dense, so most people don’t bother.
The psionics system is actually pretty good when you make a few small adjustments, and it can be flavorful and fun. It’s different than magic, and it involves monsters that often don’t see a lot of action in the game. It’s also relatively system neutral, so it can be easily grafted on to other games.
I will outline the basic system, then make some observations about how it works in play, and discuss the rationale for my changes.
Let’s do a once through, creating a psionic character and running her through some combat.
Creating the Psionic Character
So let’s start with Kalena the Red, first level warlock. She has an intelligence of 16, a wisdom of 17 and a charisma of 17. Thus she has psionics if she rolls a 98 or more. Say she rolls a 99!
Now we determine her psionic ability. Her bonus is determined as follows, for intelligence she gets 4 points, for wisdom 5 and for charisma 5, for a total of 14, this is doubled as two of her numbers are above 16, for a modfier of 28. She rolls a 52, which is added to 28 to give her a total of 80. Double this to determine psionic ability, half in attack strength, half in defense strength.
So Kalena has 80 psionic strength for attack and 80 for defense.
Now let’s determine her powers and disciplines. Powers include raw psionic attacks and defences, as well as disciplines that mimic spells.
So say Kalena rolls a 70, she gets three attack modes. The book says you pick your attack modes and defense modes. I will just pick three for now and give the justifications as we work through the psionics table.
Kalena chooses psionic blast, ID insinuation and psychic crush
Here Kalena gets three defense modes and chooses mind blank, mental barrier and tower of iron will.
Now we have to roll up disciplines.
She rolls a 42 for two minor and one major discipline. As she is first level, she get’s the first minor discipline to start, the second minor discipline at 3rd level and the major discipline at 5th level.
She rolls detection of magic for her first minor discipline, object reading for her second (gained at third level) and mass domination as her major (gained at 5th).
So we now have Kalena the Red, 1st level warlock:
Psionic ability score of 160 (80 defense, 80 attack)
Three attack modes (psionic blast, ID insinuation and psychic crush)
Three defense modes (mind blank, mental barrier and tower of iron will)
Minor Discipline: detection of magic
Having a Fight!
Psionic encounters resolve on one of three tables, one for psionic against other psionics, one for psionics against “defenseless psionics” e.g. those with no defense points left, and one for non-psionics.
We will start with psionic to psionic combat.
This is where I do a bit of house ruling, so let’s look at three changes I make to the system as written.
1. Attacks by psionics on non-psionics come during the surprise phase and always go first; they get one attack before the combat round starts. If a psionic is surprised then their attack is simultaneous with the attack upon them.
This house rule is used as the books are a bit confusing on how to incorporate psionic combat into regular combat, and psionic characters will want to use psionics on opponents who attack them normally.
2. 100 combined attack and defense points are required to use psionic blast on a non-psionic victim (e.g. 50 attack/50 defense, 30 attack/70 defense) etc.
This house rule is used as the requirement for 100 attack points to use psionic blast on a non-psionic is prohibitive for most PCs, and means it won’t get used. I don’t see the point of giving the abilities if they won’t be used very often, so I allow it with a combined total of 100 strength points. This is clearly optional.
3. Defenders do not know which attacks are directed at them until after they choose their defense
This is a major change, but I think a necessary one. The way the rules are written, you automatically choose the best defense against whatever attack is sent against you. This is efficient, but makes psionic combat rather dull and a matter of counting out the numbers. Choose your attack, best defense is raised, calculate numbers, rinse, repeat.
With this change you don’t know what’s coming, so you have to guess, which makes it necessary to get to know how the system works to determine your best course of action. It also adds some excitement as there is a random factor involved.
Let’s do a few attacks and defenses to show how it works, then I will get into how you go about choosing attacks and defenses tactically.
Example of Play
Say Kalena meets an opponent, Roguld the Reviled, a warlock with a psionic ability score of 190 (80 attack/80 defense), psionic blast and ego whip, mind blank, thought shield and intellect fortress.
Kalena has psionic ability of 160, psionic blast, ID insinuation and psychic crush plus mind blank, mental barrier and tower of iron will.
The two meet and combat begins, initiative is different for psionic combat as all attacks and defenses are considered simultaneous, and a psionic attack round involves one attack and one defense by both sides.
It is not explained how to run this, so I suggest the following. In order to get things started you have to decide which of the two participants “attacks” first, if either psionic surprised the other, they attack first, if there is no surprise base it on intelligence and roll if intelligence is equal.
So let’s just say Kalena get’s surprise and attacks first.
The sequence would be:
Kalena attacks, Roguld defends, Roguld attacks, Kalena defends, Kalena attacks, Roguld defends, Roguld attacks, Kaleena defends, etc.
She leads with psionic blast, Roguld defends with thought shield. Then Roguld attacks with ego whip and she defends with mind blank.
Psionic blast costs Kalena 20 attack points, Roguld’s thought shield costs 2 defense points to mount. Since Kalena is at full psionic ability defending against her psionic blast costs Roguld 27 defense points to maintain.
Roguld’s follow up ego whip costs him 7 attack points, Kalena’s mind blank costs 1 defense point to mount, as Roguld is at full psionic ability his ego whip costs Kalena 38 defense points to maintain given her defense of mind blank.
So at the end of the first exchanges, Kalena is down 20 attack points and 39 defense, Roguld is down 7 attack points and 29 defense points.
Kalena: attack points - 60, defense points - 41 - Psionic ability: 101 (down from 160)
Kalena: attack points - 60, defense points - 41 - Psionic ability: 101 (down from 160)
Roguld: attack points - 83, defense points - 61 - Psionic ability: 144 (down from 180)
When Kalena attacks next round she will be doing so from the “101-125” category, so her psionic punch is muted a bit.
As you can probably guess, these fights can end quickly if one of the participants has high psionic ability and the other does not, and it can vary a lot depending on what defenses you use.
How do you choose your attacks and defenses at character creation, and how do you choose them in combat? If you just look at point costs you miss what makes the different abilities interesting. So from a strategy and tactics perspective, you need to look at how many factors matter for each ability.
Also, it is important to remember that each psionic does not necessarily get the full range of defenses and attacks, for example, 75% of psionics will have at most 3 defenses, 50% of psionics will have at most 2 attacks. This matters both when choosing attack and defense modes and when using them in combat.
With that in mind, let's look at the individual attacks and defenses.
Mind Blank: the cost of mind blank as a defense (to mount it and maintain it) is the lowest in a few cases (psionic blast and ID insinuation). Seems odd as it is the defense everyone gets.
However it is also the worst defense against all other attacks, which balances it out.
Thought shield is more expensive to use, and it is the least effective defense against psionic blast, and it is also restricted to individuals. However, it has the unique property that it, “can be kept up at all times, unlike the others.” This can be interpreted in a few ways, but since psionic combat is so fast I would interpret this to mean that it is possible to do other things while the thought shield is being used. A psionic character could mount thought shield and have it up constantly until attacked. This is important as otherwise psionic powers are fleeting, having a defense mode that can stay up for long periods of time is useful.
Mental barrier is in the middle in terms of point costs hovering around the 2nd cheapest of the defenses. From this perspective it is never really worth choosing as a defense (why not pick a cheaper one). However, I think this isn’t a fair assessment. First, it depends on what defenses you have, and mental barrier is listed as the only defense an attacker can use when he is attacking with psychic crush. Thus if you want that attack you have to take this defense or risk being defenseless whenever you use it.
Intellect fortress is high in relative point cost, but not as high as it looks. The “mounting” cost is high (8 points as opposed to 1 for mind blank) but it is only one of two defenses that work with a radius (10’ in this case) which allows you to do two things, first, if there are multiple psionics in the AOE then the defender using Intellect fortress can use the best defense of all in the AOE, and second, any non-psionic gets a +2 on their save versus psionic blast while being in the AOE. As psionic blast is the only attack that works on non-psionics it can be assumed that it will be somewhat common amongst psi’s. Intellect fortress is also the second best defense against psychic crush.
Tower of Iron Will is the highest defense in terms of point cost, so why would you be interested? First off, it provides the best protection against psychic crush. Second, it is an “AOE” defense, so it allows the user to take the best defense of any psi in the area, but more importantly it gives anyone in the AOE (3’ radius) +6 on their saves versus psionic blast. Considering the mind-toasting power of psionic blast, this is not to be ignored.
What about the attacks?
A few preliminaries.
Range matters a lot to psionics, as medium range attacks reduce damage by 20% and long range attacks reduce the attacker's effective total psionic strength by one category (25 points) and reduce damage by 20%. However, if there are multiple psionics together each additional one beyond the first adds 50% to the range of attacks.
Ranges for the various attacks are:
Attack Mode - S M L
A. Psionic Blast - 2" 4" 6"
B. MindThrust - 3" 6" 9"
C. Ego Whip - 4" 8" 12"
D. ID Insinuation - 6" 12" 18"
E. Psychic Crush - 5" _-- __
Also, unlike defenses, 75% of psi’s will have 3 attacks or less, 50% of psi’s will have 2 attacks or less. So attack options are far more curtailed than defense options; this means that differences between the attack modes matter a lot more.
Psionic blast is the highest in point cost of any attack mode, and not only that, but to use it on non-psionics the psionically attacking creature must have a current psionic attack strength of 100 or more. This is a significant limitation in that psionic points can be used up fast. I house rule this so an attacker needs have 100 combined attack and defense points, but BTB it is only attack points.
Still, psionic blast works best against the lowest cost defenses, so it is a useful starter if you think your opponent is using a generic defense. Also, it has an AOE, not just a range, Psionic blast - 1/2" base, 6" length, 2" terminus cone.
However, psionic blast also has the property of being very costly compared to the defense points it eats up for psionics with low total psionic strength. For example, an attacker with a total psionic strength of 40 pays 20 points to use it but a target with mind blank (the cheapest defense) only loses 6 points.
Having said that, as the only attack that works on non-psionics there is a strong temptation to take this attack, depending, I suppose on whether or not your DM has creatures attracted by the use of psionics that often or not.
Mind thrust has the lowest cost of any of the attacks available, so is worth taking for that alone, but it also has good results against mind blank, the most common defense available. However it has the shortest range at 3", and it only works on an individual. You can also increase the range of mind thrust by spending more points, e.g. 2x to 3x the points gets you 2x to 3x the range.
Ego whip has, oddly enough, very similar impacts as mind thrust, but costs more, which makes it a less desirable choice. However, a closer look shows that at the higher end of the scale (e.g. for attackers with higher total psionic strength) ego whip does better. So for a psionic with high total psionic strength ego whip would be a better choice. It also has a greater range than mind thrust. Ego whip can extend the range by spending more points as well. Note that psionic blast and psychic crush cannot have their ranges extended by points expenditure.
ID insinuation has a higher cost than ego whip or mind thrust, and it is very poor against mind blank, the most common psionic defense. However, it does very well against all other defenses, particularly against the most powerful defenses (Intellect Fortress and Tower of Iron Will). In addition, it has an AOE: 2"x2" area within range, and with a short range of 6" this could be used against a group of psionics. ID insinuation can extend the range by spending more points as well.
And then there’s psychic crush. With respect to defenses, the kill percentages decrease with the increased defense cost. However, these are kill percentages, similar to an assassination percentage, they may be low, but they work irrespective of the victim’s HP.
And even though the percentages are low, that doesn’t make the attack useless. Look at it this way, a 5% chance is the same as rolling a 20 on a d20. I don’t know about everyone else, but 20’s come up a decent amount in my game. A 5% chance of death (no matter what the victim’s HP) is nothing to sneeze at.
So in summary, here is what I see:
A. Mind blank - good against psionic blast and ID insinuation
B. Thought shield - more costly and less effective but can be "kept up at all times"
C. Mental barrier - only defense possible while using psychic crush
D. Intellect fortress - has an AOE, second best defense against psychic crush, allows psionic to pick best defense while in a group and can protect non-psionics.
E. Tower of Iron Will - highest cost but has an AOE, best defense against psychic crush, allows psionic to pick best defense while in a group and can protect non-psionics.
F. Psionic blast - highest in point cost of any attack mode, min attack strength required to use on non-psionics, works best against the lowest cost defenses, has an AOE, not just a range, very costly compared to damage it does for psionics with low total psionic strength, only attack that works on non-psionics. Cannot extend range with point expenditure.
G. Mind thrust - lowest cost of any attacks available, good results against most common defense (mind blank), shortest range (3"), only works on an individual. Can can extend the range by spending more points
H. Ego whip - also does well against mind blank but particularly for attackers with higher total psionic strength and also has a greater range than mind thrust. Range extension possible.
I. ID insinuation: higher cost but it does well against all other defenses, particularly against most powerful defenses and has an AOE: 2"x2". Range extension possible.
J. Psychic crush - high cost and low percentage of success but can kill regardless of target's HP, range extension through point spending not possible.
Strategically, I see variety in costs and benefits that makes it worthwhile to choose different attacks and defenses. For example, if you want a psionic attack that can kill (regardless of HP) psychic crush is your choice. If you want to have a defense you can leave up (say you are expecting ambush by psionic creatures) thought shield is handy. If you take psychic crush you must take mental barrier if you want to be able to defend yourself while using this attack. If you want range extension with extra point expenditure you should take one of G, H or I for attack modes. Tactically, you have a range of options, e.g. taking a low cost attack is always good as you can use it to feel out what defenses an opponent has. Since the majority of opponents won't have that many defences, you can learn quickly what you are up against. Psychic crush is a good option if you are concerned about the fight lasting too long as it can kill instantly if successful. Thought shield can be kept up at all times to keep you from being psionically ambushed. The system is complex enough to give interesting choices.
Ultimately I think the focus on points and "most and least" effective attacks and defenses makes it hard to see important differences.
When a defender’s defense point strength is zeroed out, or they are unconscious or unable to protect themselves, you switch tables to the Defenseless Psionic table.
The table is a bit confusing, as the defender’s full attack and defense total is used to locate them on the table, even though it could be lower than that or 0, but otherwise it’s straightforward.
One clarification, the last line should read “where 0 defense points was reached” not “attack points”.
Attacking a Non-Psionic Psionics are effective against non-psionics, and make them formidable.
Note that range and the intelligence + wisdom of the target influence how psionic blast works on non-psionics, so there are some limitations on its efficacy. There are also a number of class and race based modifiers to keep in mind.
The impacts of these are pretty deadly:
There are a lot of fun details here, linking psionics allows you to increase the range of the attack as well as spending more points on it. This means that the range limitations are variable and subject to tactical considerations for several attacks.
Use of Psionics
One important part of psionics is that their use attracts psionic creatures. The method recommended is to roll for random encounters, and if psionics have been used recently, then you roll for a potential psionic encounter.
Also, the use of certain psi like spells can trigger the same result, so the table includes a list of psi-like spells.
The list of potential psi monsters is very intimidating.
I won’t go through each discipline as it would take too much time, but I will make a few general comments.
Despite what you have heard 1d psi characters cannot “replace” other classes, as they will most often have too few disciplines to do so, and what disciplines they do have are restricted in power by point cost and by level progression, as your “level” in various psi abilities is equivalent to your character’s class level.
Keep in mind also that the disciplines are gained as you level, so the minor disciplines first, one every two levels, the major disciplines next, one every two levels. So even if you rolled 4 minor and two major disciplines, you would only have all of them at 11th level.
Certain disciplines are restricted from certain classes as well.
Finally, the point cost listed for each discipline is the cost in BOTH attack and defense points, so if the listed cost is 1 point per round, that’s 1 defense point and 1 attack point.
Psionics in 1e is really a whole other system within the game. Magic works in one way, psionics works in another. I like using psionics as there are built in limitations (average psi ability scores are low, number of powers and disciplines on average are low, range and point cost restrictions, the threat of summoning psi creatures when powers are used) but they are quite handy in certain circumstances.
This is the classic resource management design element at the heart of 1e. Psionics, like magic, are a blessing and a curse, and bring a different set of tactical and strategic concerns into the game.