Monday, May 16, 2016

The Force as Psionic Powers

Telekinesis by Remplica

Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to you, telling you the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you will hear them speaking to you. 
-Quigon Jin, the Phantom Menace

Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and sequels. Heavy use of psi (“the Force”) in a space-opera context, including training sequences and telekinetic swordsmanship.  
-Inspirational Material, GURPS Psionic Campaigns

The Force is best represented by psionic powers.  Star Wars constantly depicts Jedi as moving things with their mind (telekinesis), reading or influencing the minds of others (telepathy) and seeing distant places or receiving glimpses of the future (extra-sensory perception).  Depending on your source material, Jedi also heal themselves or others (psychic healing), shoot people with electricity (electrokinesis), and draining others of their energy (psychic vampirism).  In most computer games and rpgs, Jedi abilities are even described as "Powers."

Psionic powers have a long history with science fiction.  Parapyschology began in the 19th century as an effort to meld the science of the Englightenment with the mysticism of the Spiritualist movement.  Psuedoscientists wanted to apply scientific concepts to mystical ideas: a witch doctor didn't curse you, instead he was a latent psychokinetic unknowingly focusing a constant flow of detrimental micro-pk at you; exorcism didn't really remove demons, it was just a telepathic effort to push an astral parasite out of someone; and so on.  By rephrasing supernatural concepts in scientific-sounding terms, psuedoscientists hoped to lend their profession the air of rationality that would make them more socially acceptable, and to an extent, it worked.  Sci-fi author John W. Campbell fell in love with the concept of psionics and pushed it into the sci-fi mainstream, connecting psychic phenomenon to future sci-fi works, including Star Wars.

Star Wars isn't even the first to describe psionics as a "force."  In the mid-19th century, Carl von Reichenbach postulated the existence of an "Odic Force." Likely working from the "ideas" of Frans Anton Mesmer or Swedenborg, he explored the idea of life affecting life via bio-magnetic fields, and argued that all living things emanated, and were connected by, these bio-magnetic fields, which had both a light and dark "flux." Sound familiar? Of course, Reichenbach wasn't the only person to postulate some sort of "vital life force," a force that would join the forces of gravity and electromagnetism to explain why life was living.  These efforts all proved in vain, of course, but most of those elements continue to thrive in the ideas behind psionics.  Presumably, an advanced society would "finally" uncover the secret to the "life force" and manipulate it as easily as we manipulate electro-magnetism.

The problem with using psionics to represent the force, though, is precisely its attempt to strip paranormal phenomenon of their mystical trappings.  From the Demolished Man to Push to Akira, psionics has been associated with science and scientific trappings.  In these stories, psionics have a genetic basis (and thus psions can be engineered), they are studied with scientific precision (with Kirlian cameras and Zener cards), and they can be augmented or defeated with a physical injection of special drugs.  We tell stories of conspiracies trying to control or weaponize psionics, with secret communist psychic plots, or even the very real Project Stargate.

Mace Windu tests Anakin using principles similar to Zener cards
Star Wars, on the other hand, explicitly retains mystical trappings.  The one time they attempted to step away from philosophical claptrap to explain the Force is the very first quote I note above, audiences universally reviled it.  Yoda's mysterious statements defined the Force for most fans, not the psuedoscience of midi-chlorians.  One cannot genetically engineer Jedi, Jedi do not take Force-boosting drugs, and they certainly do not test their future Jedi using Zener cards.  A Jedi is closer to a cinematic samurai, a warrior who cultivates his qi and learns at the feet of a master, than he is to a genetically-engineered CIA test-subject using his LSD-induced ESP to uncover cold-war secrets.

GURPS and Psionic Powers

GURPS Psionic Powers
Now that I've outlined both the advantages and disadvantages to using Psionic Powers to model the Force, let us quickly look at how GURPS models psionic powers.

I chose psionic powers as our starting point not just because psionics so closely models the effects of the force, but because psionic powers are right there in the core book.  Nonetheless, we won't be using those psionic powers for this iteration, but the ones found in the following books: GURPS Psionic Powers, GURPS Psis, GURPS Psionic Campaigns and GURPS Psi-Tech.  As previously mentioned, it may be useful to have GURPS Powers on hand as well.

Allow me to offer a brief outline of these powers for the uninitiated: GURPS handles Psionics as a set of associated advantages, each of which have a power modifier, a talent and the list of associated advantages. Psionic Powers expands this by defining skills for each power, including techniques, and defining elements like Extra-Effort for Psi and Psionic burnout, etc.

The power modifier means that all Psionic powers can be defeated by "anti-psi" and psionic countermeasures (the aforementioned psi-dampening drugs).  The Force never has to deal with these problems, but if we're going to use psi as written, then we must.  We already have some psionic countermeasures defined in Iteration 3 in the form of power damping collars, but we'll also need to explore anti-psi as a core basis for powers in Psi Wars.

The presence of distinct Psi talents and Psi powers makes each psi unique.  Psionic powers, as written in GURPS, works closer to those depicted in Push or the X-men than in Star Wars.  A Star Wars character is or isn't force sensitive.  He can read minds, see the future and move objects with his mind, or he can't (or he just needs additional training).  In GURPS, by default, a psi can do only what he's talented in.  Some psis might only have a single, highly specific ability ("I'm a firestarter!"), or they might have a suite of powers (Jean Grey can do nearly everything), but most powers tend to be unique to the character, and they tend to fall within the defined categories: the firestarter might eventually expand out into a complete psychokinetic, but she'll never uncover the ability to read minds or see the future.

He is too old. Yes. Too old to begin the training.
-Yoda, the Empire Strikes Back
Skills and extra-effort do certainly match our expectations of the Force.  A Jedi needs years of training to use his powers properly.  Those who switch to the Dark Side also need extensive training, despite the fact that their core powers don't seem to change that much: both sorts of Jedi can move things with their mind, but those on the Dark Side, for example, seem more adept at choking people, or "channeling their anger."  This seems to match the idea of "different psi styles" where characters learn different sorts of skills that revolve around the same basic powers.

Extra-Effort seems to match the occasional burst of extreme power depicted by Jedi, and even the fact that they can sometimes exhaust themselves in so doing.  Video games often depict the Jedi as having "Force Points" that they expend when exercising their powers, and that matches closely with fatigue or special "Psi-only" energy reserves.

Getting Started

Psi certainly seems to have some strengths and weaknesses when it comes to modelling the Force.  Over the next week, I'll explore the specifics of powers, see how well they match up with our expectations and see what roughly 50 points of psionic powers can buy us.  We'll explore how the Dark Side might look with psionic powers, we'll look at how we can adjust psi to make it look more like the Force... and what Psi Wars might look like if we were to discard the concepts of the Force and replace them completely with psi.  Finally, we'll look back and see how we feel about the whole exercise.
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