Psionics in Dungeons & Dragons Part I: Original D&D

I'd like to take a couple blog entries to explore the concept of psionics in the early editions of D&D--specifically, original D&D and AD&D first edition. Psionics, traditionally, have been a much-reviled part of the D&D opus, and those who do not include them in their game are certainly far more common than those who do include them. It's no secret that even Gary Gygax lamented and regretted their inclusion, and didn't use them himself.

As with any aspect of the game, ask 100 players why they don't like psionics, and you'll get at least 50 different answers (if not more). The vast majority, however, will come down to one of two major points:

  1. They are science-fiction feeling and simply don't have a place in a fantasy game
  2. They are overcomplicated, confusing, and simply arcane and unworkable. 

I can't really address point one. If you simply don't like the idea of psionics, if you feel like they're not fantasy-feeling, and you think they're a sci-fi element, that's perfectly valid. For those, I'd point you to my articles on how AD&D can be used to model science fiction (or how OD&D can be used to model Star Wars). For these folks, psionics might be a great alternative to magic.

Tim Brannan also addresses this point in a recent blog. He doesn't come up with any real answers, but he throws me some nice compliments, and he offers up a solid discussion of the issue. 

For the second point, I feel like I can challenge the assertion that psionics are overcomplicated or unworkable. Certainly it's true that the rules are not optimal in their organization and presentation. They can take a good, thorough read or two, to work out and grok. But once you do understand them, they work in a pretty smooth fashion. 

For purposes of this blog, "EW" references the Eldritch Wizardry supplement (Supplement III) for Original Dungeons & Dragons.

OD&D vs. AD&D Psionics

Certainly the OD&D rules are more basic than those in AD&D, but not a great deal. As with much of AD&D, the rules therein are a re-presentation and further codification of what is found in OD&D. They're an expansion and the intent to clarify often ends up adding additional complexities. Still, the rules aren't all that tough to work out. 

With all that said, let's devote this entry to OD&D psionics, which form the foundation of the rules found later. In the next entry, we'll examine how they work in AD&D, how those rules are evolved from OD&D, and how the initial rules can help to understand what came later (and vice-versa). 

I will ask some leeway with what I'm posting, here. I am going to endeavor to interpret these rules as though Eldritch Wizardry was my only exposure to psionics, without relying upon understanding gained from the later system, and simply analyzing the text that is there. This might lead me to make statements that may not jibe with later interpretations, but we shall see. 

Psionics in OD&D: How They Work

The vast majority of rules and subsystems in OD&D are put together in a way that by today's standards is considered somewhat sloppy, but I'm sure at the time seemed like the best way to organize them--the aspects that involved player character creation went in one place, the aspects that mimicked magical powers in another, etc. In the case of psionics, it has the unfortunate result of mixing important rules with other unrelated systems, and separating related rules by a number of pages in the booklet. Let's try to lift the psionics rules out of the book to figure out how they work, when they're all taken together. 

Percentages: The Elephant in the Room

Another common complaint about psionics is that they're built on a percentile system as opposed to a d20-based system, which people claim removes them from compatibility with the rest of the game. I am rather dismissive of this claim for a couple reasons. First, a d20 roll is actually used for very few things in Dungeons & Dragons: it's used for attack rolls, saving throws, and the rare random treasur table. 

d6s are used far more often than a d20. They are used to roll ability scores. They're used to determine surprise, to listen at doors, and for a wide range of other things, in what I refer to as "the rule of 2"; that is, if something needs to happen, roll a d6. On a roll of 1-2, it happens (or doesn't, based on the situation). The odds can be changed by changing the die or range (some characters and monsters are surprised on a 1-2 on a d8, for example, or surprise others on a 1-3 on a d6). 

Thief skills are already figured using percentile dice, so that firmly establishes % as a standard form of resolution in D&D

Further, if one looks closely, just about everything in Dungeons & Dragons is built around probability, not dice mechanics. This is why, in my opinion, Gygax usually expresses ranges instead of die codes (2-7 instead of 1d6+1, for example), despite establishing the xdy terminology in the context of the game. I've said it before; I'm of the opinion that with work, everything in D&D could be changed over to an expression in percentages. Someday maybe I'll follow through with that and prove it. 

In any case, percentile-based psionics fit just fine with the rest of the game.

Psionic Character Creation

First, having established all of the above, let's look at the numbers involved with psionics. After all, most things in D&D come down to your scores. Psionics are a natural ability that can be had by any human character of any class except druids and monks, providing that they meet the strict requirements. They are not a character class unto themselves. Because of this, they can greatly power up existing characters, though some measure is taken to mitigate this. We'll get to that later. 

Step One - Are You Psychic?: At character generation, every human character that is not a monk or druid and has a score of at least 15 in Int, Wis, or Cha, throws percentile dice. A score of 91 or better means they are psionic (EW, p. 2-3). This is a one-shot deal. You don't repeat this roll every level. If you're psychic, you're psychic. If you're not psychic, you never will be. 

Step Two - Degree of Psychic Potential: Psionic characters roll percentile again to determine their degree of psychic potential. This result functions in two ways. First, it gives the bonus or penalty to learn psionic disciplines (psychic powers) at each level (EW, p. 3). Second, it forms the basis of a character's total psionic strength. 

Players should record their psychic potential and the bonus or penalty it awards, as it will not change, save to increase by multiples of the character's level. 

Step Three - Determination of Powers: Next, the player should roll to determine which psionic powers they know. They have a 10% chance of learning a psychic power per level, which is further modified by their psychic potential bonus or penalty. Thus, if a character has a psychic potential of 77 (a +1%/level accumulative bonus), at first level they have an 11% chance of learning a psionic power. At third level, the bonus would be 3% (since it is accumulative per level), and the base chance 30%, so they would have a 33% chance of learning a power (EW, p. 3,4)

If a character learns a psionic power, they may roll again to attempt to get under their psychic potential; if they succeed they immediately learn a second psionic power (EW, p. 3)

Psychic powers known are selected randomly by rolling on the tables on page 14, based on character class. The one stipulation is that a character may not have more Superior abilities than they have Basic abilities (EW. p. 8). Thus, if a Fighter already knows one Basic and one Superior ability, and the random result indicates another Superior, they should keep rolling until they get a basic. You also reroll any results that indicate an ability you already possess. 

DMs are encouraged to weight the gaining of abilities based on already-possessed powers so that you build an interrelated suite of abilities, but no specific guidelines are given on how to weight the selection process. 

Finally, when your chance to learn a power equals 100%, you no longer roll randomly, but choose the power you want (EW, p. 4). It is unclear if this also applies to bonus powers you get by rolling under your fixed psychic potential, but presumably, you would still need to make this roll to see if you learn a second power, and the second power would then be selected randomly. 

Note: One minor problem with this is that there are 20 powers for Fighters and Thieves (thieves gain fighter powers (EW, p. 2)), and only 18 for Magic Users and Clerics. The simplest solution would be to just roll a d20, and re-roll results of 19 and 20 for Magic Users and Clerics, just as you'd reroll any results that indicated a power you already have. 

The complete list of powers, and tables broken down by those abilities available to each class, can be found in EW, pages 14-21

Step Four - Determination of Attack/Defense Modes: After you've determined your selection of powers, you'll need to know which psionic attack and defense modes you know. There are five of each of these (EW, p. 7-11)

  • Attack Modes: Psionic Blast, Mind Thrust, Ego Whip, Id Insinuation, and Psychic Crush
  • Defense Modes: Mind Blank, Thought Shield, Mental Barriers, Intellect Fortress, and Tower of Iron Will.
As soon as you gain your first ability, you learn Psionic Blast. Thereafter, you gain one attack mode per four psionic powers you gain (five for fighters/thieves), and you gain one defense mode per three abilities (four for fighters/thieves). This means that while you'll start with a psychic attack mode, you don't start with any defense modes until you rack up at least 3-4 powers (EW, p. 8).

There are no guidelines on how attack and defense modes known are determined. The two options are to determine them randomly like powers, or to grant them progressively. It is my opinion that since they are sequentially lettered on page 7, and attack modes in particular have increasingly brutal effects as they progress "upwards," they should be granted sequentially, offering what is nominally increased power, though some defense modes are more effective against some attack modes, and vice-versa. 

As such, while you start with psionic blast, you'd next learn mind thrust, followed by ego whip, etc. In terms of defense modes, you'd first learn mind blank, then thought shield, etc. 

Step Five - Determining Psionic Strength (Attack, Defense, Total): After it is determined which powers and attack/defense modes you know, you'll need to determine your character's Psionic Strength. This is a basic calculation: Your Psionic Attack Strength equals your psychic potential (PP), plus double the powers (P) you know, plus five times your total psionic attack and defense modes (M). The formula, then, looks like this:

Attack Strength =  PP + 2P + 5M.

Your Psionic Defense Strength is equal to your Attack Strength. 

Your Total Psionic Strength is equal to double your Attack Strength, or the total of Attack and Defense strength. 

Record all three values. 

As an addendum, it is noted that a Helm of Telepathy raises psionic strength by 40 (EW, p. 11), though it is unclear if this is in terms of points you have to spend--it is my opinion based on context and its specific location in the psionic combat section, that it just raises your effective Strength for purposes of psionic combat, which we'll get to in a bit, and doesn't provide extra strength points for powering abilities or modes. This, again, is unclear in the text, however, so it should be left to the rule of the DM. 

Your Final Psionic Character: In the end, your psionic character should include the following statistics:

  1. Psychic potential and bonus/penalty to learn powers
  2. Psionic Attack Strength
  3. Psionic Defense Strength
  4. Total Psionic Strength
  5. Attack Modes
  6. Defense Modes
  7. Powers
You're now ready to play. 

Using Psionics

Most psionic abilities--attack modes, defense modes, and powers--require psionic strength points to power and use. You simply pay the point value, and you can use the ability in question. Some powers don't require expenditure of points. The costs for various abilities are given in the book: Attack and Defense Mode costs are detailed on page 7, in parentheses next to the listed modes. Power costs are detailed on page 14, again in parentheses next to each listed power in the tables. 

When a psionic attack mode is used, the points expended lower your effective psionic attack strength. When a psionic defense mode is used, the points expended lower your effective psionic defense strength. 

When spending points to use powers, the points are drawn from your total psionic strength pool, and every 2 points spent, lowers your capability for both attack and defense modes by 1 each (EW, p. 7). This, I suspect, was done for simplicity's sake, but you could just as easily choose which pools you're reducing on a 1:1 basis. 

Recovery of Psionic Strength Points: Your psionic strength points restore naturally, so long as you're not using powers or modes. You recover 6 points per hour of non-strenuous activity like traveling, walking, talking, etc. You recover 12 points per hour of quiet rest with no real activity. You recover 24 points per hour of sleep. 

Sensing Psionics: Whenever psionic powers, attack modes, or defense modes are used, there is a percentage chance that any psionically active individual in the area will sense their use. The range of this sense is equal to the maximum range of the ability used for Basic abilities, double the range of the ability for Superior abilities, and triple the range for attack/defense modes. The percentage chance is 10%, plus 10% per additional round used. So abilities used for four rounds have a 40% chance of being sensed by other psionics in range. 

Spells and magic items that have functions similar to psionic abilities also can be detected in this manner, though there is not a comprehensive list, and this is left to the DM to determine.

Balancing Classes

Because psionics can be so powerful, steps were taken to balance classes. Basically, the more psionic powers you know, the weaker your standard class abilities are. It breaks down as follows (EW, p. 1-2)

Fighters lose 1 follower per power, and lose 1 point of Strength per four powers known. 

Thieves lose 1 point of Dexterity per four powers known. 

Magic Users lose 1 spell level cumulative per power known. Thus, for one power, they lose a single first level spell they can prepare daily. For their second power, they lose either two first level spells prepared, or a second level spell, in addition to the one lost at first level. They are not allowed to know more high level spells than low level ones as a result of losing spells. 

Clerics lose spell levels exactly as magic users. In addition, they turn undead as though they were one level lower, per power known. Thus, a cleric that knows four powers, turns undead as though he were four levels lower than he is, as well as losing one, plus two, plus three, plus four spell levels. 

The sacrifices for psionic power are great.  

Psionic Combat

So far so good! Now we get to the part that a lot of people find confusing: Psionic Combat. The idea behind this is that two psychics can go head to head (see what I did there?), unleashing waves of psychic energy at each other in an attempt to psychically destroy their opponent. 

Psychic combat progresses, basically, as follows: 

  1. Determine Surprise
  2. Determine Initiative
  3. Compare Attack/Defense Modes
  4. Record Damage and Effects
  5. Repeat. 
It's worth noting that while engaged in psionic combat, the participants can't do anything else; as such they're effectively removed from normal combat. This leaves a bit of a conundrum as it doesn't clarify what happens if a particpant in psionic combat is shot, stabbed, slashed, etc., by a normal weapon. My thought is that would resolve the current round's attacks against them on the Special Matrix (see below), and cancel any psychic attacks they wish to make for that round in the same manner as spoiling a spell. 

Step One - Determine Surprise: There are no specific guidelines for determining surprise in psychic combat, so it can be assumed that this simply uses the standard rules as found in Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, page 9.

Step Two - Determine Initiative: When surprise is not a factor, and both participants intend to attack, initiative is determined by rolling percentile dice and adding the result to current Psionic Strength. High roll goes first. This is certainly a different initiative system than in standard combat, bit the idea is that it takes your current psionic power into account, allowing you to overbear an opponent.

Step Three - Compare Attack/Defense Modes: The attacker determines which attack mode they are using. Each attack mode has three range increments: close, medium, and far. Damage and effects are reduced the further away they are.

The Attack Mode is then compared against the defense modes available to the defender. This is where things get a little muddy. It's not clear whether the defender chooses the psionic defense mode used, or whether they simply use the most effective means at their disposal. There are, then, three possibilities that could be applied, and again, so long as you are consistent at your table, any should work.

  1. The Defender knows which attack mode is being used against them and can choose an appropriate psionic defense. 
  2. The Defender instinctively uses whatever psionic defense they know that is most effective in the currrent situation
  3. The Attacker and Defender must each secretly declare which attack and defense modes they are using, then reveal their choices simultaneously, thus creating a sort of chess game. 

The comparison of attack and defense is made on Matrix B: Full Psionic Combat, Damage Scored, pages 9-10 in EW. The table is a simple cross-reference of  the attacker's total psionic strength and attack mode chosen, against the defense used. The result indicates the number of points of damage scored, or in the case of Psychic Crush, a percentage chance to kill the opponent.

Psychic Crush and Lacking Points: Note that the book says that the percentage chance is reduced on a 1:1 basis if the attacker tries Psychic Crush without having enough psychic strength points to use it. It does not make this clarification for other attack or defense modes; the indication seems to be that you can try to use psychic crush, and psychic crush only, if you don't have enough points to do so, but it'll be less effective. Other modes you can't use if you don't have the points.

Psychic Crush and the Attack Matrix: When Psychic Crush is applied, the only defense that can be used against it is Thought Shield. Any other defense is treated as no defense, and the attack resolved on the Special Attack Matrix (see below). 

Step Four - Record Damage and Effects: This step is self-explanatory. The damage shown on the chart is not to Hit Points, but to Psionic Strength. Remember that every two points of Psionic Strength drained, also drains one point each of Attack and Defense Strength (EW, p. 7). Note the damage or effects scored, and proceed forward.

Step Five - Repeat: Assuming both parties survive, another exchange occurs with the defender now being the attacker. Then proceed back to step one, and continue the battle until both parties break off, or one dies.

The Special Attack Matrix

When one attacker surprises the other, or when an attack is made against a defenseless psionic (they don't have the points or proper defense mode to mount an effective defense), the attack is resolved on the Special Attack Matrix (EW, p. 8). This table simply pits the attack strength of the attacker against the Psychic Potential (not Strength!) of the defender. In this case, the attack mode chosen will affect the results on the table, as noted in the table's footnotes. 

Attacks against Non-Psionics

Only psionics with an attack strength of greater than 120 can attack non-psionic creatures. Such attacks are resolved by the defender making a simple saving throw against psionic attack, as listed in the table on page 9. This section also gives the effects for failed saves, benefits provided by specific magic items, and saving throw adjustments for specific races and classes. 

It's worth noting that there's a statement buried in there which says a Helm of Telepathy will, on a successful save, stun the attacker for three turns.

And that, my friends, is how psionics function in Original Dungeons & Dragons. They are actually fairly straightforward, and it's my opinion they can be a lot of fun. That's why I use them to model the Force in Star Wars instead of using magic. 

Addendum: Successive Levels

Just to be completely clear, while your psionic potential stays the same, you get to roll for new powers every level, with an increasing chance to get them, and you both learn attack/defense modes as you get new powers, and you lose class abilities as you gain additional powers. As your number of powers and associated attack/defense modes rack up, your psionic attack, defense, and total strength will also need to be recalculated as they will also, in turn, grow. 

Next up, we'll look at how these powers work in AD&D, and compare the two! 


  1. In EW, don't you also get to roll to see if you get psionics every time you level up?

    1. Yes. I thought that was implicit in the increasing percentage to get powers with each successive level, the note that you can never get more than 2 at a time, and the additional balance about the abilities you lose from your class with each successive power you get.

    2. Also, that response came out WAY more pissy than intended. Sorry about that.

    3. I guess I wasn't clear. I meant, is "step one: are you psychic?" repeated every time you level up if you were not successful previously.

    4. No, that's a one-shot deal. If you're not psychic, you're not psychic.

    5. If you are psychic, you roll every level to see if you get a new power. If you get a new power, you get to roll against your existing psychic potential to see if you immediately get a second power.

  2. "Psychic Crush and the Attack Matrix" is backwards, I think - you can clearly defend against it with any defence given how the attack matrices have it be strongest against Mind Blank and successively weaker against every other (e.g. 25% vs. MB at 121 strength, 4% vs. Tower of Iron Will at the same strength).
    The only way to read the statement on p.11 ("If this is attempted..."), then, is that the person using the Psychic Crush can only defend with Thought Shield (or nothing at all). Going all-out with your offensive, so to speak, and leaving yourself open in doing so.

    There's also some readings to be made about what exactly is meant by "when psionic combat takes place no other actions can be performed". Is it just that those locked within psionic combat cannot take part in mundane combat, with one round of psionic combat per round of swordfighting, or is it an AD&D-esque situation where you resolve the entirety of the psionic combat before any else gets to act?

    Also, of course, there's the question of "do Attack Modes take from the entire pool of points or just from the Psionic Attack Strength Points (and vice versa for Defense Modes)"?

    Oh, and do make sure to note that attacks upon non-psionics require a psionic attack strength of 120+ and that monster descriptions only list their attack strength - the former got modified and the latter ignored in AD&D's Player's Handbook, which greatly weakened all the psionic monsters there.

    When it comes to the powers, there's also a curious concept of "levels of mastery". (This also applies to attack mode ranges, by the way.)
    As best as I'm able to tell, this is simply how many levels you have had this power - so if the Fighting-Man gets Body Weaponry at level 4, it strikes as a dagger; when they reach level 5, as a hand-axe; and only at level 10 (mastery level 6) is it as a sword+1 (and AC 3).
    (Body Weaponry is also strange in how it separates "weapon factor" (Chainmail's "weapon class"?) into "speed factor" and "length", but that's more of a "how did AD&D get made" curiosity.)

    This is more for players, but do note that psionic abilities are dirt cheap! It's the combat that really empties your pool, not the 1/turn drain of Levitation.

    There's also something that players wanting to be psionic should be aware of, as there's an in-system "punishment" of sorts for players using it. If you're psionic or use psionic-related powers (AD&D's list of spells here is extremely harsh), 1/6th of encounters will be on a special psionic encounter table rather than the typical ones. This table is level-agnostic, so I hope you like battling Demogorgon on dungeon level 1.

    1. The rules are very clear on psychic crush. You're overcomplicating the issue in an attempt to read into it. Again, the rules are very clear on psionics engaged in psychic combat not being able to take any other actions. You cannot assume it works like in AD&D, as AD&D had not yet been written. Yes, using basic reasoning and logic, attacks come from attack strength and defense from defense strength. That's the whole point of having attack and defense strength.

      You're also bringing in a WEALTH of AD&D-isms, when the blog SPECIFICALLY states that AD&D will not be considered in this interpretation. And you're doing so just to muddle things.

      You're really stretching as far as you possibly can to overcomplicate this--deliberately, I suspect, as you just want to "prove" that psionics are complicated. The truth is, they're not. I just laid it out, step-by-step. You just don't WANT it to work.

    2. Yes, the rules are also clear that level of mastery = character level. Period. If your'e 4th level, you use Body Weaponry at 4th levle mastery. It doesn't matter what level you were when you got the power. It's what level you are.

      I get it, though; you hate psionics. You're going to go as far as you can to "prove" they're complicated and unworkable. Thanks for your thoughts on the issue. You're incorrect.

  3. Man, I wish I had seen this about 40 years ago... :)
    Great article!


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