Thursday, May 17, 2012

Psionics in D&D

Psionics in D&D has gotten a bit of a bad rap. Which is strange to me, not just because I like it. Psionics clearly wasn't implemented well in the original first-edition DMG, but there's no reason that D&D has to be purely tolkien fantasy, particularly when Gary Gygax included some of the Tolkien-ish elements to give the game a broader appeal. In that sense, why not allow psionics? Furthermore, ideas of mind-reading, sight-beyond-sight, and the like are all good fantasy tropes. They just tend to live more in the realm of pseudoscience than pure fantasy.

One major issue with psionics in D&D is whether or not it represents an additional type of magic, or an alternate system of magic. Thus far, only in the Dark Sun setting has psionics really been mainstreamed. If done well, psionics surely has as much of a place in the game as dwarves and dragons. As pcs, psionicists need their place in the world clarified, not just tacked on as an optional sub-system. This can be done well via the class system.
For using psionincs in the game, I see three solidclass archetypes:
  • Philosopher/Ardent
  • Monk
  • Ascetic/Psion
These three classes are a legacy group, so they might be considered warriors or priests or magicians depending on one's worldview, but also are likely to be mechanically related. These classes don't quite fit a generic Tolkien-derived setting, but often may be used in a fantasy setting in lieu other archetypes. A spiritual or psionic power source is not just an asian concept of ki under another name though. That said, some of the ideas for these classes are asian in origin, but that's because some of the asian concepts of magic and the divine don't fit so well into the wizard or cleric. These archetypes could easily be put under priest (philosopher/ardent), warrior (monk), and magician (ascetic/psion), but I'm discussing them together since they fit as a 'power source' and are drawn from some of the same (Asian) source material. I'll try to mention non-asian archetypes as well though.

Philosophers are priest-like ardents and believers, who gain their power by determination and belief. I envision them having subtle powers that rearrange reality in accord with their beliefs. This conception merges the 3.5 ardent and divine mind, and would be ideal for portraying the Greek cynic, stoic, or epicurians; Chinese Taoists or Confucians; as well as D&D's so-called clerics of philosophies. I can even see this as a non-cleric class for the old idea of priests of a philosophy or forces. One could even keep the name Ardent for the class, as I'm not 100% keen on philosopher as the class name. The powers of this sort of philosopher-priest would involve harmonizing with the world, or breaking with that harmony perhaps. One can become resistant to arrows by believing oneself like stone, or pass through walls when one understand the true nature of walls. This class is all about moving with the righteous order of the universe, rather than against it.

The monk, here, is the Shaolin-type of martial artist who's mindfulness and devotion transforms his body into a powerful weapon. I say ditch the standard progression of a flurry of blows and fixed-level powers to give them the type of subtle psychometabolism powers that are seen in other versions of the game. Flurry-of-blows could be one of these such powers, but also slow-falling, self healing, walking on water, speaking with animals, etc. In this sense, the monk combines aspects of the psychic warrior, soul knife, and maybe even lurk from third edition as well as perhaps the 4e battlemind. These are the hardest for me to bring into a non-asian tradition, but the fantasy version of sufi dervishes might fit as monks.

The ascetic/psion is a bit of a legacy as well, but is the type of caster whose power comes from within. I've gone with the name ascetic because its a different sort of magical study than wizardry (body-mind-soul unity), and ascetic seems to convey this a bit, though mystic would do nicely if I weren't considering using it for a priest archetype. Faqir might do it too, but it sounds a lot like faker, which isn't the intent of the class here. Ascetic is a better English term perhaps, unless I could free up mystic. Then again, perhaps the monk and ascetic are too similar and should be combined? The ascetic is also the noble adept from Dark Sun though, so I feel like there is some room for these clases.  Ascetics can readily be found in Indian fantasy, but also in the early Christian hermits (desert fathers), visionary qabbalists, and so forth. One problem is that we tend to associate the Abrahamic monotheistic faiths with the cleric class. Some eastern religions, or religious practices, associate the self with the divine, leading to notions of inner power (think ki, kundalini, chakras, etc) which one might model better with psionic powers than clerical devotion. Its not a clear distinction in many real-world faiths though.

The key for these classes being successful would be a close thematic list of powers, focusing on some of the traditional descriptions of magical powers in the east that are closly related to ideas of meditation and awareness. Ardent philosophers might use their solipsisms in different ways than monks or ascetics, but their thematic powers might be similar. This includes telepathic powers, cosmic awareness and ESP, moving objects with one's mind, control of one's body and desires, and the manipulation of time and space. One might abandon the notion of the power point and use some of the same spells from the cleric or wizard lists. I see psionic magic filling in the archetypes of subtler magic and real-world legends. I'm thinking ascetic gurus and yogis, mindreading witches, and miraculous bilocation. This is the stuff of legends, like Milerepa hiding from the rain under a leaf, without the leaf growing larger or him growing smaller. Even some things like the shaper psion might be found, as long as their ability to dream things to life is thematic and properly limited.

I'm ignoring classes like the 3.5 soulknife, which has predacessors in the X-Men but not necessarily fantasy fiction or historical legends. I've also avoided the wilder as a class, because that archetype is filled by the sorcerer, though perhaps there might be a variant sorcerer known as the wilder who uses psionic powers (if psionic powers are distinct from other spells). The notion of these psionic classes is a bit of a legacy issue for D&D, but I can see it fitting, and crucially it also covers a lot of non-traditional western fantasy ground. One could imagine fantasy cultures or races with affiliations for these classes: Githzerai come to mind, but perhaps gnomes would be affiliated with the ardent class rather than clerics or druids to represent their inquisitive nature (and lack of worship of the divine).

Deciding which of these classes to use in a setting or game still depends on what the players and DMs want, and how the background material may come. These three classes would cover quite a bit of game space though, as well as having a historic precedent within the game.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent article. Your thesis about psionics place in traditional fantasy narratives is well made.