Friday, May 27, 2011

Ladies and gentlemen… we have a (psionic) winner!




Since reading (and playing) with a psionicist from the Complete Psionics Handbook, by Steve Winters, for AD&D 2nd, I’ve being a fan of those weird pseudo-scientific, pseudo-eastern powers.

I was specially influenced by Terry Dykstra’s illustrations, with their Persian/Indian flavor, which had an enthralling effect upon me at the time, fixing in mind (no pun intended) psionics as esoteric and mysterious arts instead of “science fiction powers” (as I believe they’re commonly seen).


Together with a unique rule system (that it has its flaws, I know…), the Complete Psionics Handbook (CPH) showed me that there’s always room for new and different ways of exploring the fantasy genre.

Later, that initial reaction also taught me that I don’t have patience for “different” systems that are, in the end, just the same thing with different names (or by adding the “psionic” word to it). I’m not saying that I’m against effect-based RPG systems. What I believe is that if a game designer doesn’t want a new subsystem, he should be sincere about it, like Monte Cook’s cool take on psionics with his mind witches (from Arcana Unearthed) or Jason Bulmahn’s proposed slot-based psionic system for Pathfinder (from the Paizo boards). Both authors were since the beginning very straightforward about their intentions.

Although I like the Expanded Psionics Handbook (and its predecessor Unleashed Psionics), I can’t shrug off the feeling that there was a certain degree of “design laziness” behind it (yeah, I know the original author later commented about the existence of a preliminary feat-based system, but that doesn’t change anything).

Because of my love for all things psionics, I’ve being searching for a cool psionic system of choice for my (I hope) future Old School games. While Old School Psionics is mechanically more traditional and easy to use, I was impressed and pleasingly surprised by Courtney Campbell’s Psionics (with contributions by Nathan Lord). It had enough elements in common with the system of the CPH to drawn my attention and it even removes some balance issues from the later. It’s an amazing work, particularly if you take in account that is was done by a fan and for free (unlike Old School Psionics).


For these totally arbitrary reasons, Psionics is now my way-to-go for mind powers in Old School games (the fact that some of its illustrations pay homage to the CPH is a bonus). So, that’s it. If you’re interested in psionics and Old School, please, take some of your time and check this beautiful supplement. It’s a dense read, but it is also totally worth of your attention.

Now, to stop a violation of the The Joeskythedungeonbrawler Protocol, I’m going to post some thoughts about a (very) polemic subject: psionic combat system.

This was one of the features of the CPH that most appealed to me (it was, after all, different) and while it wasn’t properly balanced, at least you can say that it’s still more viable than the crippling psionic combat system found in the Psionics Handbook, for D&D 3.0 (that the author tried to correct in other two products, from Malhavoc Press, without much success). The system was later dropped from D&D, with its power attacks and defenses incorporated as normal psionic abilities. Many were relieved by that, but I thought that we saw another episode of “design laziness”. It would have been better, in my opinion, to have provided a new (and viable) psionic combat subsystem as an optional rule.
So, I tried to add a Psionic Combat System to the Expanded Psionics Handbook/Unleashed Psionics mechanics (which I’m still using, because I didn’t found an easiest way of doing it). Basically, I plucked some ideas from the CPH, like tangents. It’s far from perfect, but my player so far haven approved it. As always, any feedback is appreciated.


PSIONIC COMBAT

Basic Premise: All psionic creatures are especially protected against psionic mind-effects (nonpsionic beings have their Will saving throws and other normal protections). They are said to have closed minds. To affect a closed mind, its defenses, called tangents, must first be brought down. This is done through psionic combat.

Closed Mind: Psionic creatures have closed mind and thus cannot be affected by any telepathic psionic power. Mind-affecting effects from other sources (like spells or spell-like abilities) affect a psionic normally (although psionic defense modes can help a little).

Open Mind: Nonpsionic creatures and psionic creatures defeated in psionic combat have open minds and can be normally affected by telepathic powers.
In fact, psionic creatures with open minds are especially vulnerable because their natural defenses were disabled. In this delicate state they resist against telepathic powers using only their Wisdom modifiers.

Psionic Attack Modes: These attacks are used to break open a psionic mind. Each psionic attack mode removes e certain number of tangents.
Each psionic attack mode has two effects; the first one removes tangents and the second affect only open minds (like nonpsionic creatures). Psionic attack modes use against closed minds require less finesse and concentration and can be manifested as move-actions.

Psionic Defense Modes: These are natural mental defenses, possessed by any psionic creature. Without them, a psionic creature is very vulnerable to mind interference (i.e. they use just their Wisdom modifiers on Will saving throws).
Each defense mode requires an immediate action to be activated, always as a reaction to a mind-effect (even if the psionic creature is unaware or flat-footed).

Tangents: Tangents are the name of the mental layers that protect the brain of a conscious psionic creature (i.e. that keep his mind closed). Now, one of the most important aspects of tangents: they’re always numbered in relation to a specific attacker. Psionic combats are, essentially, duels. This means that even if Hosni opened Gustafa’s mind through psionic combat, his ally Raji couldn’t attack the mind of Gustafa. He also must break through the psion’s defenses.

An example: Let’s suppose that Gustafa (Wis 20, +5 mod) has 6 tangents. After a few rounds of psionic combat between him and Hosni, his number of tangents is reduced to 2. If at this moment, Raji enters the battle and also attacks Gustafa’s mind, but he must destroy 6 tangents, not 2.

Joining Forces in Psionic Combat: The restriction that limits psionic combats to duels can be ignored by following the same rules found in “Manifesting an Unknown Power from Another’s Powers Known”. If two allies are touching each other and spend 1 full-round action to establish mental contact (Spellcraft DC 20) between them, they can attack and breach together a enemy’s mind.
In the example above, if Raji spent 1 full-round action in mental contact with Hosni before starting a psionic combat, he would find Gustafa’s mind with just 2 tangents.

Number of Tangents: All psionic creatures have a number of tangents equal to their Key Ability Score modifier + 1 (minimum 1).
The Key Ability Score modifier is the ability score used by that psionic creature to manifest powers (if he has more than one ability score, he must choose one). Some psionic monsters may have an extra number of tangents.

Breaking the Last Tangent: If a psionic attack mode deals more damage than the number of tangents possessed by the defender, he must make a new Will save against the last attack mode used or suffer its full secondary effects. Exceptionally, he can use his normal Will save bonus against this penetrating attack.

Dominance: The psionic opponent responsible for breaking the last tangent gains what is called dominance (and is usually called dominator). He steals a number of power points from the defeated adversary equal to his Key Ability Score modifier. If the adversary doesn’t have enough PPs left, he suffers the excess drain as temporary damage to his Key Ability Score modifier.

Holding a mind opened: Once opened, keeping dominance requires concentration and range. The dominator must keep within 300 ft. of the defeated. The dominator can’t pinpoint the adversary’s location, but instantly knows when he leaves the area.

Recovering tangents: Once a dominator stops concentrating, the psionic creature instantly recovers all his tangents. The only exception is when he is completely depleted of PPs after his mind is opened. In this last case, the psionic being is totally vulnerable until he recovers at least 1 PP (or rest for 1 hour, whichever comes first).


Psionic Attack Modes:
All psionic attack modes work at 90 ft. of range and require line of sight. Each has two effects: the primary one removes tangents, the secondary affects open minds only. The primary effect requires a move-action to manifest, while the secondary requires a standard action. All the effects below supposes that the target failed a Will saving throw.

Psionic classes gain one attack mode at 1st, 5th, 9th, 13th and 17th levels. Psionic monsters should have as many attacks modes as the Gamemaster finds satisfactory.

Psionic attack modes can be resisted with a Will saving throw. The DC is 10 + ½ manifester level + Key Ability Score modifier. All psionic attack modes ignore Psionic Resistance.

Mind Thrust
Primary Effect: 1d3 tangents.
Secondary Effect: The target loses a number of PPs equal to the highest power he can manifest (if psionic transparency is used, spellcaster lose their highest spell slot).
Cost: This is the most simple attack mode and can be manifested simply by spending the psionic focus. If used against open minds, it cost 1 PP.

Ego Whip
Primary Effect: 1d3+1 tangents.
Secondary Effect: For 1 round per manifester level the target can’t benefit from any morale bonus (and can’t rage). The target’s also shaken and suffers a –4 penalty against fear.
Cost: 1 PP.

Id Insinuation
Primary Effect: 1d2 tangents (and ignore any Mental Hardness).
Secondary Effect: Target is confused. Duration is 1 round per manifester level. The target also loses the ability to communicate or interact with others and to differentiate one creature from another.
Cost: 2 PPs.

Psychic Crush
Primary Effect: 1d6+1 tangents.
Secondary Effect: The target suffers 1d6 non-lethal damage in the first round. Each round that the manifester keeps concentrating increases to damage by +1d6. Duration is concentration, to a maximum 1 round per manifester level.
Cost: 3 PPs. This is the only psionic attack mode that can be augmented. For each 2 PPs, the damage starts +1d6 higher.

Psionic Blast*
Primary Effect: 1d6 tangents.
Secondary Effect: The target’s HPs are “blocked”. The total is 10 hit points per manifester level or half the target’s total HPs, whichever is lower. Treat these “blocked” HPs as a special fixed nonlethal damage. They remain “blocked” for 10 minutes per manifester level. A target can only be affected by one psionic blast. Spells like lesser restoration remove these “blocked” HPs.
Cost: 5 PPs.

*This attack mode can be chosen only by characters with at least 10 levels in a psionic class.

If you believe that the psionic attack modes, as written, give too much punch to psionic classes, I recommend giving a +2 bonus to all Will saving throws of nonpsionic creatures against psionic attack modes.


Defense Modes:
Psionic defense modes require an immediate action to be activated and are always used as reaction to a mind-effect. They can be used even if the psionic creature is unaware or flat-footed.  Each has two effects: the primary one grants Mental Hardness against the attack mode’s damage. Any mental damage must first bypass this Mental Hardness before any tangent is removed (minimum 0). The secondary affects works against nonpsionic mind-effects (like spells).

Psionic classes gain one defense mode at 1st, 5th, 9th, 13th and 17th levels. Psionic monsters should have as many attacks as the Gamemaster finds satisfactory. All psionic creatures gain Empty Mind for free at 1st level, doesn’t matter which class. If they pick a psionic class, they choose a second defense mode.

Empty Mind
Mental Hardness: 0
Against nonpsionic: This defense grants a 20% of mind concealment against one mind-effect. That means that this effect has 20% of not working on you.
Cost: This is the most simple defense mode and can be manifested simply by spending the psionic focus or paying 1 PP. However, it has one special requisite – it doesn’t work if your mind is open.

Thought Shield
Mental Hardness: 1
Against nonpsionic: Activating this defense grants a +1 bonus on one Will saving throw against a mind-effect.
Cost: This is the most simple defense mode and can be manifested simply by spending the psionic focus or paying 1 PP.

Mental Barrier
Mental Hardness: 2
Against nonpsionic: Activating this defense grants a +2 bonus on one Will saving throw against a mind-effect.
Cost: 1 PP.

Intellect Fortress
Mental Hardness: 3
Against nonpsionic: Activating this defense grants a +3 bonus on one Will saving throw against a mind-effect. It also allows you to ignore any partial effect on a successful save.
Cost: 3 PPs.

Tower of Iron Will
This defense mode is special in that it affects all allies inside a 10 ft. radius around the manifester.
Mental Hardness: 2. This hardness value is stackable with other defense modes activated in the area; the exception being other towers of iron will.
Against nonpsionic: Activating this defense grants a +2 bonus to all Will saving throws against a mind-effect made inside the area until your next turn. It also allows all targets to ignore partial effects on a successful save.
Cost: 5 PPs.


Psionic Combat Table
When any character declares that he’s starting psionic combat mode, he must select a target and chose – secretly – an attack mode which he possess. The target – also secretly – picks a defense mode. Both then reveal the chosen psionics modes and check the table below.

The number shown is a modifier applied to the attacker’s DC. If he fails, he suffers the primary effect of the attack mode (and if the attack penetrates and opens his mind, he must make a second Will saving throw against the psionic mode’s secondary effect).

Psionic Combat

Empty Mind
Thought Shield
Mental Barrier
Intellect Fortress
Tower of Iron Will
Mind Thrust
+2
-1
-2
-2
-3
Ego Whip
+2
unaltered
-1
-2
-1
Id Insinuation
-1
+3
+2
-1
-1
Psychic Crush
unaltered
-1
-1
+2
+2
Psionic Blast
+1
+1
unaltered
-1
-1
Psionic target without an active defense mode: +6

New names for old powers
Because I’m using the old names to most attack and defense modes, it’s necessary to change the name of the official powers from the Expanded Psionic Handbook, to avoid confusion. Below are all the necessary updates.
Mind Thrust is now called Mind Scourge.
Ego Whip is now called Erode Will.
Id Insinuation is now called Mindbreak.
Psychic Crush is now called Psychic Onslaught.
Empty Mind is removed as a power.
Thought Shield is removed as a power.
Mental Barrier is now called Kinetic Shield.
Intellect Fortress is now called Ablative Dome and it reduces only physical and energy damage.
Tower of Iron Will is removed as a power.