Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Mysterious Power of Psi Wars

We've just spent a week looking at Psionic Powers and trying to find a way to make a power framework that looks something like the Force.  How did we do?

Personally, I find that the effects of the powers definitely feel close to how we see the Force operate in the films.  Psions can jump great distances, grab their fallen force swords, yank blasters out of their enemy's hands, blast back a wave of battle-bots, read their opponent's next move or his darkest secrets, know when danger is coming, have prophetic dreams and sense a disturbance in the psi.  It looks great.

It has a few problems, though.  First, the price.  For 50 points, you can effectively do one of the above, while most Jedi seem capable of doing everything.  You could have a psychokinetic space knight or you could have a ESPer Knight, but you couldn't have both.  Even if we squeezed in another 50 points, the typical space knight isn't doing nearly as much as a typical Jedi.

Moreover, Psionic Powers tends to emphasize this with its talents.  To be good at ESP and Telepathy and Psychokinetics, you must drop a minimum of 15 points in talents just to get started.  Then you need to buy all of those various powers and you need to invest in skills in them!  Easier, instead, to pick a single power and a single ability within that power, and then master all of its intricacies.  A Jedi-style Space Knight isn't practical.  An ESPer knight makes more sense in a variety of ways.  You'll have specific characters with specific, unique powers.  No two Space Knights would look remotely the same, while two Jedi often exhibit very similar powers.

Then, of course, we have Antipsi and Psychotronics, both of which must exist if we use Psionics-as-written.  Who has Antipsi?  You could make the case for Jedi being able to stop other Jedi.  Does that mean all space knights should have Antipsi, giving them yet another place they need to spend their points?  Or are there specific characters with Antipsi who walk around, "soulless" characters?  You also have to have some kind of technology to stop Psions, and what's to stop every non-psionic organization from equipping all of their minions with null-field generators other than price?  Setting aside the fairness of doing that, it's something you never see in Star Wars, even in the prequels when the stormtroopers turned on the Jedi.  The Force is practically unstoppable, and you defeat a Jedi by overwhelming him or forcing him to choose between his loved ones and his desire to win, etc.  You don't defeat him by shooting him with a dart full of Muffler.

Finally, that all important element, the Dark Side of the Force, feels underdeveloped.  Sure, the temptation to use it is there, and the rationale behind why psis must behave a particular way, but it's far more theoretical. The Dark Side, in this model, is not a palpable force, just a metaphor for a choice psions must make.  Nowhere here is there the faith of the Jedi, with the Dark Side as the devil, offering power at a price.  Worse, certain characters would be naturally stigmatized or canonized as saints.  For example, if your character happens to have the Psychic Vampirism talent as their only psionic talent, that makes them a Psychic Vampire, and therefore evil.  Why?  There's no morality inherent in any of these powers, no reason why a Psychic Vampire can't be a saint, and a Psychic Healer a genocidal jerk-face.

The net effect is a setting that feels less like Star Wars, to me, and more like the X-men in space.  You have individual, unique psions with their own talents and powers who must live by a code to keep people from fearing them, while fighting those who violate that code.  They study and train their unique powers, and those with scary powers tend to be more socially reviled (but are not necessarily immoral themselves), and those without powers can fall back on scary, technological means to put the psion population down, if they wish.

Putting the Force back into Psionic Powers

How can we make Psionic Powers feel more like the Force?  We have several problems:
  • The high cost of Psionic Powers
  • The way talents encourage specialization rather than generalization
  • The presence of Psionic countermeasures
  • The abstract nature of the Dark Side of Psi.

The High Cost of Psionic Powers

While the Psionic Powers I've noted feel right, we don't quite have to use them in a full-developed way.  The Extra Effort rules, which I discussed yesterday, allow for characters to take cheap powers and expand them when they need them.  For example, consider Telerecieve.  Level 1 requires skin-to-skin contact, which is frankly strange for Star Wars, but costs a relatively modest 21 points.  And yet, in the Empire Strikes Back, Luke seems able to connect with the thoughts of others over great distances, closer to Telerecieve 6 (75 points).  However, if we make Godlike Extra-Effort standard and grant most characters Energy Reserves and substantial Will (both of which are entirely justifiable), then we can increase our Telerecieve, or Psychokinesis, or Precognition, or Combat Sense, or whatever else we need, to high levels for a modest character point cost.

This has the added bonus of making characters more generic (as Energy Reserves and Will apply across the board) and emphasizes training over power, which fits the martial arts vibe Star Wars has.

Talents Encourage Specialization

The solution here is simple: Remove the specialized talents.  Instead of having specific talents, have a single pan-psionic talent that costs 10-15 points per level, called "Psi Sensitivity."  If you're Psi Sensitive at all, then the whole Psionic smorgasbord is open to you: You can as easily be psychokinetic as telepathic.   The only difference, then, becomes choice and direction of training.  Paired with the Extra-Effort solution above, we encourage generalists over specialists.

Psionic Countermeasures

The solution to psionic countermeasures is to remove them.  Psi Campaigns has a model for "Old Time Psionics" which lowers the modifier to -5%, assuming antipsi still exists.  If we also remove antipsi, then we're left with a -0% modifier, which is fine.  Powers don't have to have modifiers.  It does raise the cost of those powers, though, or we need to apply some kind of new modifier.  

In the Other Side of Psi, we discussed the possibility that all Psi-Powers are uncontrollable without the mitigating factor of mental discipline.  We could say that Meditation can replace Will for Uncontrollable Rolls and have that replace the -10% (and assume that destructive powers never actually harm people or say that those powers have a worse cost to them).

The Dark Side

So, philosophical arguments as to why Psi must be controlled isn't enough.  If we use all the solutions above, then characters can have access to all aspects of Psionics.  What if they couldn't?  What if there were set-side powers, such as Psychic Vampirism and Ergokinesis for the Dark Side, and Psychic Healing for the Light Side.  "Dark Side" and "Light Side" could be talents, and all powers associated with them have a moral limitation, such as Pacifism (Cannot Harm Innocents) for the Light Side powers, and Uncontrollable for the Dark Side powers.  If you ever choose to gain a Dark Side power, you have a dangerous edge to you, but if you ever gain a Light Side power, you cannot use your them if you ever act in a particular way, forcing you to remain on the straight and narrow.

We could even make the Light/Dark side talents stack with Psi Sensitive, gives us specialization in the right direction.  Characters can choose which path to follow, and we can even make the Talents moral in nature: You'll lose the Light Side talent if you violate the Code of Honor (Psychic's), while you'll lose the Dark Side talent if you violate some hypothetical "Evil Psychic's" Code of Honor (say, inspired by the Way of the Sith).  Thus, a character who has invested in one path or another is more powerful than a character who hasn't, but can only use his powers in a particular way.  The Philosophy skill would even be appropriate: You could roll it to check with the GM to see if a particular use of a power or an action would violate your code ("Is it okay to TK-Crush a slaver to rescue a slave?")

Going Crazy with Psi in Psi Wars

Psi Wars isn't Star Wars... so why should Psi necessarily feel like the Force?  It doesn't have to.  We could go in any direction we want with it, and we could embrace Psi for what it is, rather than trying to hammer it into the mold of Star Wars.  I have two suggestions for possible directions Psi Wars could go in while embracing Psi in all of its glory.

Super-Powered Psi Wars

I mentioned that Psionics felt more like the "X-men in Space" than Star Wars.  Why not embrace that comic-book vibe and go a step close to lensmen, and into the wild and wooly world of the sort of anime inspired by Star Wars?

First of all, the specialized nature of psionics doesn't have to eliminate the martial arts component of Psi Wars.  ESPer characters could learn to master their Third Eye in the art of war, while Telepaths could learn to read their opponents.  Christopher Rice has an excellent article in Pyramid #3-69 "Psionics II" called Mind and Body that addresses exactly that. We create a baroque universe full of unique and specific psi/martial traditions arising from specific powersets.

Those powersets are, of course, genetic, and thus inherited, father to son, mother to daughter.  Thus, you could certainly pass on your martial wisdom, or your pyschotronic technology to your children, and it becomes natural that certain worlds, certain civilizations specialize in particular psionics, as both a genetic and martial legacy.

Psychotronic greatly empowers warriors.  Imagine how dangerous an Telepathic starfighter pilot with Telepathic Switches is!  He can simply sit in his (psychically locked ship) with his eyes closed, read your moves and then adjust the ship to compensate.  If you get close enough, or your connection with him is strong enough, he might even blank your mind so that your ship just drifts, pilotless, while he comes in for the kill.  Or imagine an ESPer general.  She can see how the way the battle will play out.  She knows who she needs to kill days or even weeks to make sure he victory is assured.  She spends her time fighting the future, and has you beaten before you even step onto the battlefield.  The setting is called Psi Wars because it's fought with Psi.

We make them full Supers too: 500 points.  Space Knights are the natural rulers of worlds, wielding the powerful psychotronic technology and martial arts of their ancestors, fighting a war with powers mere mortals can barely conceive of, let alone effectively combat.  Some are heroic, psionic paladins who fight for the little man, while others are dreaded villains, inflicting fear on their foes or devouring the life essence of entire towns to power their enormous Godlike Extra-Effort powers.  It's Super Space Knights.

Conspiratorial Psi-Wars

On the other hand, Psionic Powers promotes themes of paranoia.  You never know who could be reading your mind, or what the government is doing.  Psionic Powers can also have transhuman themes, with characters transcending both physical and mental limits thanks to sinister sciences.

Our characters remain specialized, but they can be engineered or cloned for those powers.  A few characters (the PCs, most likely) manage to expand out of those designed conditions, which makes them dangerous loose cannons in a carefully controlled universe.  Psionic booster drugs fuel armies of psionically-empowered clones, with trauma maintenance systems in the hardshell armor keeping them pumped up, and psychotronic mind-control technology keeping them loyal.  Truly powerful psions find themselves under the government's lock and key, and those who escape quickly become enemy number one (hunted by the Empire's "sniffers" and soulless, creepy "antipsi"), only to be picked up by one of a variety of psionic conspiracies, some of which want to overthrow the shackles humanity has put on them, some of which want to expose the secret psionic masters that control humanity, and some of which want to live in coexistence with humanity, once this dark empire is overthrown.

This is a setting of secret powers and conspiracy that suits the Action framework of Psi-Wars well.  It doesn't support martial arts or space knights very well, though.  This is Psi Wars as the Mind-Gate Conspiracy, or as Push.  The characters remain low-key, perhaps the standard 250 with psionic powers chosen out of your unspent Advantage points, or from unique new "Psion" templates, perhaps based on the Soldier or Secret Agent templates from Psis.
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