Tuesday, June 21, 2016

ESP in Action

Recommended Powers

  • Awareness: Eliminates darkness penalties and a Deep-Scan provides a +4 to Search rolls for Checkpoint Security (page 29).
  • Clairaudience: Another form of Audio Surveillance (page 12). You may still need to make Hearing rolls or Observation rolls to pick out specific details.
  • Clairvoyance: See below.
  • Combat Sense: In addition to the obvious benefits, the ability to know what will happen in combat moments before it does really helps in a Standoff (page 39). Add Combat Sense level to all Stand-Off rolls (or "Cascading Wait" rolls).
  • Danger Sense: Note that Combat Sense and some forms of Vision replaces Danger Sense.
  • Prognostication: See “Precognition, is there anything it can't do?” below.
  • Protected Power (ESP): To deal with Anti-Psi or Power Dampers.
  • Psi-Sense: To detect any psionic use.
  • Psidar: To detect any psionic characters.
  • Psychic Hunches: See below.
  • Retrocognition or Retrocognitive Flashbacks: See below.
  • Seekersense: Excels at finding “the Macguffin.”
  • True Sight: For defeating Mind Clouding or Sensory Control
  • Visions: See “Precognition, is there anything it can't do?” below.

Other Suggested Abilities

  • Competitive Precognition: A new one! A hard technique which provides a bonus on precognition contests, for dueling precogs, up to a maximum of skill+4.
  • Jam: Competive ESPers who happen to be looking at the same thing at the same time can try to block out the other one.
  • Hide Signature: If an ESPer wants to spy without being detected even by other psis.
  • Exposition Sense: Handy for allowing the GM to signal plot hooks to you.
  • Forecast: Might occasionally be useful, especially for survivor-type characters.
  • Know It All: A clever trick
  • Visions (Aspected Dreams): A nice way of gaining controlled information, and adding some flavor to your character.
  • 20/20 Hindsight: Pyramid #3-69, page 6
  • I Feel Them Watching Me: Pyramid #3-69, page 7
  • Psi-Strike (ESP): Pyramid #3-69, page 16

Discouraged Powers Powers

  • Illuminated: Largely inappropriate
  • Oracle: Better covered by the various forms of Blessed from Communion.
  • Racial Memory: Tapping into the total experience of your ancestors is better covered by Communion.
  • Spirit Communication: Psi-Wars doesn't trade in ghosts, and communing with the astral is more a trick of Communion.

Precognition: Is there anything it can't do?

Both Prognostication and Visions make use of the Precognition advantage which, by far, requires the most attentions. Visions themselves don't offer much in the way of a problem, as the GM controls both their content and when they occur. They make an excellent way to feed the players useful information. Prognostication, especially with the Directed technique, can prove to be more of a problem as it bypasses a lot of the typical informational hurdles that most G.M.s put in place. Finally, both Visions and Prognostication have powerful implications on the game. For example, if the character sees something in the future, can he change it? What happens when two precognitive characters go up against one another, and what if the players, lacking a precognitive character, find themselves up against an NPC precog?

I recomemend using the following options from Page 29 of Psionic Campaigns “Which Future”: Likely to Happen, and I recommend Muddy or Metaphorical, to prevent it from overshadowing everything and to allow some leeway in interpretation. Megan McDonald has an article, the Art of Prophecy, on page 33 of Pyramid #3-38, which discusses what sort of imagery to offer.

Ideally, a vision in Psi-Wars should not be a carefully laid out description of events, such as “Your character will kill the Emperor at midnight,” because player agency, and the dice, will necessarily intervene. Making things “likely to happen”, especially with a “multiple possible futures” interpretation helps preserve player agency and allows for the randomness of dice: Then it can be, “You will kill the emperor at midnight, or the girl dies,” similar to the angst-ridden precognition that features in Dune. By muddying the vision, or making it metaphorical, you give yourself even more leeway to move “I... I see the white knight slays the black King, at which point the red pawn is revealed as a queen. If this does not happen, I see... pain. So much pain.” What exactly do these mean? That's up to interpretation, not just in the sense of player interpretation, but the GM can potentially reveal multiple "truths" about the vision, depending on how the story goes.

GURPS Supers, on page 108, has an interesting mechanic for handling Precognition: Successful use of Precognition creates a Destiny. It suggests rolling on the Reaction table, with a positive reaction resulting in a “free” advantageous Destiny, while a negative reaction results in a disadvantageous Destiny. The wording of the destiny should match the wording of the vision.

However, if we use the Impulse Buy version of Destiny, as described in Monster Hunters, then Precognition puts the truth behind the vision squarely in the hands of the players. They can spend their bonus impulse buy points on things that fit the vision, provided they can find a way to justify it, which means the players themselves will be looking for a way to resolve prophecy. A disadvantageous destiny becomes an excuse for the GM to throw problems at a player, using the negative “impulse buy” points gained from the disadvantageous destiny. The possibility of negative destiny will make precognitive characters cautious about looking into the future, lest they set a dangerous fate in stone.

Furthermore, this version of Destiny means that the disadvantageous and advantageous versions can be side by side. The level of Destiny is determined by how important the GM decides the vision is, and the nature of the Destiny depends on the reaction roll. An excellent reaction will reduce the negative destiny down, perhaps to zero, while a poor reaction will reduce the positive destiny. Thus, a high reaction roll for a minor issue (“Will I ask the girl out?”) might give one level of positive Destiny, while an neutral reaction roll for a major issue (“What will be the fate of the battle of Styxia Fall?”) might result in 3 points of both positive and negative Destiny.
Obviously, not every single vision needs to result in this sort of thing. I would limit the game to a single “prophecy” per campaign arc. Once one prophecy resolves, then a new one can be given. This doesn't mean that neither Visions nor Precognition can be used thereafter, they just get more mundane uses, or reveal a few more details about the current prophecy.

Naturally, characters will have their own Destiny, as will weapons or planets, or who knows what else. Visions and Prognostication act as a sort of “Detect Destiny” in that regard. For a visionary psion, just touching a charater with Destiny might be enough to reveal what that Destiny is.
But characters can also get general benefits. Supers page 108 also recommends +4 to Gambling, Strategy and Tactics. Taken together, Visions and Prognostication interact with Action 2 in several ways.
  • Getting the Ball Rolling (page 6): Visions are an excellent way for the GM to feed a story hook to the player, simply showing him what he needs to know to at least get started on th enext adventure.
  • Gathering Intelligence (page 11): Prognostication and Visions can both replace many of the rules here by simply feeding information directly to the players. The players can look to see the fate of the kidnapped girl, or where the Empire will attack next, and so on. If you use the suggestions above, though, this prevents Prognostication from dominating the game, as it has drawbacks of its own.
  • The Mission Plan (page 17): Precognition grants a +4 to Strategy and Tactics, both of which can be the core “Planning” roll.
  • Locks (page 20): If faced with a keypad on an electronic lock, a clever ESPer might look forward to see what someone in the future will do to open the lock, and then use the same code to get in as well.
  • Using Your Head (page 39): When making an Analysis, remember that precognition grants +4. This might not necessarily require an instant, turn-by-turn vision of the future. It might be enough to know the general outline of events to come, and then connect the dots by seeing what the enemy is doing and making a tactics roll to realize what's really going on.


Rather than look forward, the character can look backwards. The fact that the past has already happened makes it harder to justify the weird, muddy nature of visions for Retrocognition, which means that it'll generally be a more effective means of gathering information. But the GM still controls the visions and may thus provide as much or as little information as is necessary.
  • Gathering Intelligence (page 11): Retrocognition is phenomenally useful here. The sense of what happened in the scene can direct a character as to where to look. This grants a +4 when using Diagnosis to determine cause of death on Corpses, when making Criminology rolls for Deduction and +4 to Tracking when Tracking, assuming that Retrocognition doesn't give the sought-after information outright. Retrocognition can also replace Audio and Video Surveillance if the character can simply step into the right room after the fact.
  • Locks (page 20): Retrocognitives can do the same trick as precognitives, only with greater clarity (provided anyone has ever used the lock before).

Psychic Hunches

When faced with choices, gaining advice as to which choice to make can prove to be extremely useful! Broadly, when faced with a choice (“Should I attack here or there?”) it provides its usual benefit. More subtle options apply below.
  • Gathering Intelligence (page 11): Knowing where to focus your search can be exceedingly useful. Broadly, allowing ESP to guide his actions might provide a +2 to Search (Hidden Items) for getting an idea of where to look, Tracking (Tracking), for getting a hunch about which way to go, or Research (Research) for getting a feel for which books to read.
  • Surveillance and Patrols (Page 18): If abstracting away an intrusion into a few Stealth rolls, Psychic Hunches definitely adds a +2 because the character knows which paths to avoid and which approaches to take. Don't apply the +2 if playing out the actual moment of sneaking past a guard: Hunches helps you pick a path with fewer guards and cameras, but it doesn't actually help you bypass them.
  • Bomb Disposal (Page 28): If Defusing the Bomb follows the typical cliché of “choose the right wire,” Hunches definitely helps to pick the right wire. Add +2 to Explosives rolls if it's more abstract.
  • Checkpoint Security (Page 29): Just as with Surveillance and Patrols, the ability to pick out the right person to search “on a hunch” can provide a +2 to various security rolls, if checkpoint security is reduced down to an abstraction.  If playing it out in detail, then hunches lets you pick out the right guy to search.
  • Chases (Page 31): During a hectic chase, route choice really matters. If faced with multiple choices for a route, choosing the “right” route should generally add a +2 to Chase rolls.


Clairvoyance allows you to see without seeing. In addition to allowing you to see in areas normally closed off to you, it also allows you to see without being physically present, which allows you to gather information without being seen.
Pertinent elements in Action 2 are:
  • Gathering Intelligence (page 11): Clairvoyance is Visual Surveillance. You may roll your Clairvoyance skill to watch what others are doing. Normal skills, like Observation or Perception, are still necessary to pick out important details.
  • Using Your Head (page 39): The Secondary Sense technique can be used to allow you to engage in Spotting without actually sacrificing any action, or doing anything beyond shouting out the necessary instructions. The -4 penalty from Secondary Sense is negated by the +4 for miraculous assistance, representing your ability to see the situation from nearly any perspective. Simply use your Secondary Sense technique in place of Observation at no penalty or bonus.  Note that Clairvoyance requires a full minute of concentration.  You'll either need to "set up" your overwatch position, or you'll need to use the Fast-Activation technique.

General ESP Concerns

Defeating ESP

The greatest problem with ESP is that the typical tricks of “Avoid the psi” and “Buy up your will” don't apply. An ESPer can see you without being present, either in space in time, and there's nothing you can do to stop it. How can you stop someone who knows what you're going to do before you do it, who can see without seeing, who is aware without being present?

Fellow ESPers can use jam to try to disrupt their opponent's visions if they're both looking at exactly the same thing. Supers page 108 recommends that if two precogs look at the same event, only one will be able to claim the bonuses. If you use the “Destiny” model, it doesn't much matter as all characters will see the Destiny involved and know what they need to do, but if it's a simpler vision, meant to get a +4 to strategy, etc, then have the two ESPers roll off in an precognition skill contest, and only the winner gets to benefit. The winning precog better understands the implications of the vision and is able to make moves and adjustments necessary to change it just enough that the other precognitive character cannot benefit.

As a general rule, characters with the ability to sense psi should definitely be able to sense that someone has looked into the present from the past or the future. Cue the cool, cinematic moment where the precognitive character is looking into a vision when one of the participants in the vision stops and looks directly at the precognitive character's point of view and the vision cuts out.

The problem with anti-psi is that the ESPer is rarely present to actually stop. Thus, the Anti-Psi character must focus on prevention. Para-Invisibility is deadly to an ESPer as it hides the Anti-Psi not only from his clairvoyance or clairaudience, but his precognition as well, which might have knock-on effects if the anti-psi has a major impact on the future. Screaming can similarly cancel out precognitive visions, though in this case the ESPer will clearly know that something is stopping him from seeing things ("There is a figure here, a shadowy figure who hides himself from my vision.  Now he spreads his shadow over the rest. I can see nothing").

Non-psionic characters have little hope of defeating an ESPer. But ESP can only show what is. It doesn't actually make the psion stronger, faster or better. If the non-psionic character applies superior force, the ability to know of impending defeat will do little to help the ESPer. For example, if you apply overwhelming firepower and numbers in a battle, the ESPer who looks into the future will only see the certainty of his doom and retreat. ESPers have human limitations and can be as fooled as anyone else. If you assume your opponent is always watching you, then you can start to confuse him by always speaking in code or other, similar obfuscation tactics. ESPers aren't telepaths (usually). Moreover, you can distract an ESPer by convincing him that something is vastly more important and worth his time to investigate with all of his visions. For example, if you arrange for a major war to break out, a psion might be too busy looking at how to win battles to even notice your slow-but-inevitable rise in power as you attempt to take over the Galactic Senate. Finally, Push offers an interesting solution in that if the heroes themselves don't know what they're doing, they make the future more and more uncertain, laying down more and more randomness until their opponent has a hard time picking out what future will occur, because nobody, not even the heroes themselves, know what the future will bring.

Technologically, the prime counter-measures match typical anti-psi countermeasures. First, a null-field mimics screaming in that the ESPer will see something interfering with his visions, and psychotronic para-stealth will hide the wearer, like Para-stealth, while also looking crazy-cool.
A larger concern is not how the NPCs might defeat player ESPers, but how non-ESPer PCs might defeat an NPC ESPer. After all, if the NPCs always know what the players are doing, always show up where the PCs are and get huge bonuses all the time, the players might find it frustrating and contrived. In this case, make sure to funnel information to the players that describes the ESPer that opposes them (secret files, mad rantings of crazed individuals, etc), so that they understand why their opponent always seems one step ahead of them. Furthermore, make sure the players can eventually gain access to the details of the prophecy surrounding them. Use the Destiny version of that prophecy, so that the players can even exploit it, once they figure out what's going on.

Improving ESP

The drug Mind-Hype (Psi-Tech 34) is useful for all kinds of psi, but it makes the most sense for an ESPer, who can lock himself away somewhere safe while he goes into a trance and seeks his answers.

Niche Protection

The ideal way to treat ESP is as a new theater of information. Rather than replacing the information gathering skills of the other PCs, an ESPers visions should complement the other players' information. For example, if the precognitive keeps having visions of “The Black King” and the number 42 and a huge ship descending on a planet and burning it to ash, then players know to research ships, or to see where the number 42 pops up, or what the Black King might refer to (A project name? A nickname for someone? A reference to the so-called “Black Prince” rising up in power?). But if the visions remain murky, then skills like Research, Intelligence Analysis, Criminology, and traits like Contacts become ways of finding the answers to the questions posed by visions, and visions become a way of confirming, or providing a context to, the information discovered by the rest of the players.

Treated in this way, ESP steps on no toes. Instead, the presence of an ESPer opens up new avenues of information and new play mechanics that the whole party can exploit.
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