Building a Better D&D
My Thoughts On Psionics
Sorry, I couldn't help myself about the title. I hate weak puns like that as much as the next guy, but it HAD to be done. Anyway, even before I'd started this larger project I'd undertaken some work on making 1E psionics functional. That does indeed mean that I believe them to be highly DISfunctional. Figuring out how to make it functional requires knowing as much as possible about how the original system goes together and where it goes wrong.
It's well known that Gary was disappointed with psionics in 1E. Like a number of other elements he'd been cajoled into including it and later regretted doing so because by his own admission it was in a such an undeveloped state. While the disciplines seem fairly well done to me, it's the COMBAT portion of the rules that seem almost to have been an early alpha at best. The chart is complex. So much so that it seems stupidly, even pointlessly complex. It's amazingly resistant to analysis which actually suggests to me that it is in fact just arbitrary crap that never HAD any underlying pattern, rhyme or reason. Now I'm no numerical/statistical analyst and I'm not at all good with spreadsheets, but then not only have I personally been unable to make real sense of it but in months, even years of searching the net I've never seen even ONE other person who has. People just accept it as-is or utterly reject it and use something else.
I'd always hoped and nurtured a suspicion that somewhere in that crunchy goodness of the psionic combat chart was something usable. Something in there could be tweaked. Maybe it needed wholesale reconstruction, maybe it needed just a nudge - but the underlying sense of it all could perhaps be brought to the surface and it all would come together. My current analysis is that it is not to be. The combat system as written is hopeless. It cannot and perhaps even SHOULD not be salvaged in any form. Better to nuke it from orbit and start afresh. Its failings are multiple and ultimately insurmountable.
The first error was in not just making it a class unto itself. It is organized and presented strictly as an optional add-on where any class can get psionics. In doing so there's no costs, tradeoffs, or limitations upon those who do get it other than it's made so rare that it hardly bears thinking about. Now even if you disagree with the notion that (for example) wizards are balanced because they suck at low levels and are over-dominant at high levels, psionics doesn't even follow that bankrupt line of logic. Given the way it's built, getting psionics can either make you a god, or simply make you an easy meal for the first psionic monster or NPC to find you.
That's because you get ALL your strength points at first level. Even though you get disciplines and combat modes spread out over several levels your power for all that ability starts as good as it will ever get; it will never be better or worse. Contrary to the class-structure of the rest of the game you don't start out at the lowest level of ability and increase. You start out nearer the TOP of your potential psionic ability than the bottom and only get marginally better with a random selection of a few additional skills to use. Strength points at 1st level can be near maximum rivaling the point resources of demon princes, or nearly non-existent.
The second error is the complete lack of tactical functionality in combat. It's blind-mans-bluff. You essentially pick what combat power to use at random. Since you can't predict what attack or defense your opponent might use (and he can't predict yours either) there is no way to work the combat chart to your advantage. You don't even get the interchange of a rock-paper-scissors approach where at least blind guessing has predictable, sensible results that a player can understand. Even if you COULD have the ability to cherry-pick your attacks and defenses your choices are only a matter of managing your expenditure of points - and he who starts with the most points WINS. AT BEST, after a few exchanges, you will have seen what your enemy has for attacks and defenses, and then it's just MATH. The system then either results in a totally arbitrary winner that nobody could predict or the winner is simply the one who started with the most points - those points which are UTTERLY arbitrarily set in the first place. That is the most suck-ass basis to work from that could possibly be devised. You may as well just roll a friggin d20 for each opponent - high roll wins, low roll DEAD. Move on to the next round.
Yes, it IS that fucked up. It just takes time and effort beating your face against the cantankerous system to get to that simple result. There is just nothing interesting or useful about the combat system than the names of the combat modes. All it does is take up time at the game table while the points are whittled down. There's nothing there to work FROM, therefore nothing to reconstruct or apply repairs to.
The third error (which hardly matters at that point) is that psionic combat was utterly disconnected from regular combat. Psionic combat is useful only against others with psionics (psionic blast notwithstanding). Arrows and swords can hit and damage any physical creature with but a few exceptions. Spells affect everything, again barring only a few exceptions. However, rather than psionic combat having only a few exceptions, the exception is the RULE. For a psionic attack to have any effect the opponent must also have psionics. Therefore, psionic combat is useless against everything except against psionic opponents.
Okay, maybe that WOULD make sense when the whole system is a freebie add-on. But still, as noted above, entering combat with psionic opponents with THAT system is unpredictably arbitrary at best and is thus actually better resolved by a single opposed roll than all the sound and fury signifying nothing. The practical outcome of every psionic combat is either that the PC dies (or just completely incapacitated, usually permanently) and normal combat then proceeds with the surviving characters, or the PC wins the combat single-handedly and the other PC's have nothing to do. For practical purposes there isn't any middle ground in that because the system is just not designed to accommodate any - it's all or nothing.
Now, I believe there IS a place for psionics in D&D just as I believe there is a place for monks. For those who despise the idea of psionics in their D&D game they don't have to use them. However, I believe that it WAS the intent that 1E have a psionics system - it just needed to be a LOT better than what resulted.
I don't yet actually have a solution. What I'm working on doing though is folding the 10 combat modes into the rest of the disciplines. Psionic characters would simply be given gradually increasing access to those attacks and defenses - and as a rule they would affect everything, with perhaps just a few exceptions. Those combat modes will end up being redefined. Rather than damage being drawn from Psionic Strength Points, damage is DAMAGE, meaning hit points. They will have special effects like stuns, domination, confusion, or temporary loss of abilities. The defenses will have the specific ability to counter those attacks or lessen their effect - assuming, of course, they are from a psionic source. Psionic combat becomes simple and direct attacks usable against any opponent with simple and direct results. Psionic attacks upon another psionic means they have a heightened ability to defend against those attack modes. In that case there should be some kind of interactive combat table. It may even end up looking similar to the original, but it will be functional, allowing meaningful tactical and strategic decisions for participants. You'd CHOOSE an appropriate defense based on A) what you have available to you, and B) what would be most effective, but then C) there would be a random, albeit weighted/adjusted, result from that interchange.
I'm likely to be trying to do away with PSP's altogether and simply allowing a "sorcerer" approach to using available slots for combat and miscellaneous powers. That is: the psionic character class gets only a certain number of slots per day to use for his miscellaneous abilities. He only knows a certain number of miscellaneous abilities, but he can use any of them as many times as he likes - up to his daily maximum allotment for total powers. Some of his acquired abilities are specific attack and defense modes. These would be used and counted against the use of his daily total allotment, except that when attacking another psion, the opponent has the opportunity to put up a specific defense and the result of the attack is then perhaps diced for on a specific results chart. That chart would compare the attack/defense modes in question, and adjust for differences in ability level - but results WOULD otherwise be random. Hopefully I can build that to make the choice of defense something where a weaker PC can gamble and perhaps even turn the table on his attacker occasionally.
Clearly I have my work cut out for me. With luck I'll instead just find a system that someone else has built which I like better. Otherwise, since I want to make Psion a CLASS, there actually aren't enough abilities in the PH. I'd wind up adopting and adapting the 2E psionic powers list, and probably stealing a bunch from 3E as well. Yeah, I hear you out there yelling, "Sacrilege!" already. To that I say that if YOU build a better mousetrap I'd rather buy that than have to reinvent my own. But, I have yet to see one that takes the CORRECT approach to the problem - which is, the approach that this entire project is laboring under: 1st Edition AD&D - just better.
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