Psionics in Dungeons & Dragons, Part II: Advanced D&D

Now that we've looked at how Psionics work in original Dungeons & Dragons, let's examine how they work in Advanced D&D. Readers may be shocked to discover that psionics in AD&D are, in many ways, much easier and more straightforward than they are in OD&D. The two systems are very similar, but there are some important and notable differences. The next blog entry in this series will compare and contrast the two systems, but for now I want to focus on how they work to keep a clean exploration and explanation of these two rules sets, both of which offer a lot of fun and something different and mysterious for D&D games that have become a bit rote in their approach.

Psionics can present an interesting approach to mysticism in an AD&D game, particularly one that seeks to represent certain styles of 1970s and 80s fantasy, particularly those of writers like Mercedes Lackey, Ursula K. LeGuin, Andre Norton, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, which in modern terms systems such as Blue Rose endeavor to emulate. They are excellent for sword-and-planet type games in settings like Barsoom, Darkover, or the like to add a distinctly different feel for mysticism, if not in those specific settings, in settings like them.

Again, as I said in my previous article, if you simply don't like psionics, if you think they're too sci-fi, or you are turned off by the flavor and feel there's a disconnect with magic, that's fine, and there's not much I can say to convince you otherwise. This blog is for those who think that the systems are confusing, difficult, or arcane, and will hopefully shed some light on just how easy they actually are to use.

Character Creation

Psionics are available to any character of any class, and nominally humans only, but at the DM's discretion, dwarves and halflings may also be psionic. Only characters with an unmodified intelligence, wisdom, or charisma of 16 or better may be psionic. Such characters may roll percentile dice, and a score of 100 (00) indicates psionic ability. This chance increases with high ability scores:

  • Each point of Int above 16 increases chances by 2.5, cumulative (so Int of 18 = 95-00 chance)
  • Each point of Wis above 16 increases chances by 1.5, cumulative (so Wis 18 = 97-00 chance)
  • Each point of Cha above 16 increases chances by 0.5 cumulative (so Cha 18 = 99-00 chance)
  • Combine bonuses for all abilities over 16, and drop fractions (So Int, Wis, and Cha of 18 = 90-00 chance). 
Psionic Ability and Strength: If the character has psionics, throw percentile dice again. Each point of Int, Wis, or Cha above 12 adds +1 to the roll, cumulative. If two abilities are above 16, double ability bonuses. If all three are above 16, quadruple ability bonuses. Thus, if all three abilities are 18, throw percentile and add 72. 

The total result is your Psionic Strength. Your Psionic Attack Strength and Psionic Defense Strength are each equivalent to your Psionic Strength (so a Psionic Strength of 120 means you have Attack Strength 120 and Defense Strength 120). Your total Psionic Ability, then, is double your Psionic Strength (or the combination of your Attack and Defense Strength). Record these numbers separately. 

You will expend points from attack and defense in psionic combat and the use of abilities. The above system is detailed in the PHB, p. 110. 

Determining and Learning Psionic Powers: At this point, three more percentile rolls are made: one on the attack modes table, one on the defense modes table, and one on the disciplines table. These rolls will determine the total number of attack modes, defense modes, and disciplines you will learn over the course of your adventuring. You do not make a check to see if you learn powers every level; only one check of this type is made. Future checks are simply made to determine which powers you learn.  (PHB, p. 110)

Best Practice: Write down the results of your tables on your sheet--especially the result for disciplines. You'll need this to track the number of abilities you learn as you increase in levels. 

You choose the attack and defense modes your character knows right away. In terms of defense modes, you must take Mind Blank as your first defense mode. Thereafter, you can choose any you like. Attack modes are not restricted in this way. These are all of the attack and defense modes you will ever know, barring extraordinary circumstances like magic items that may grant additional abilities. (PHB, p. 110)

You immediately learn a single, randomly rolled minor power. Thereafter, every two character levels (so levels 3, 5, 7, 9, etc.) you learn an additional power, randomly rolled. If your result indicates major disciplines (Sciences), you may not learn any until you have acquired all of the minor disciplines (Devotions) you are entitled to acquire. (PHB, p. 110-111). 

The vast majority of powers are available to any psionic character--they are not divided up by class, though some, such as Body Weaponry, may have different effects for different classes. 

For example, let's say your rolls on the various tables indicate 3 attack modes, 2 defense modes, 5 minor powers, and 1 major power. Immediately, you choose the attack and defense modes you want. You choose Psionic Blast, Mind Thrust, and Psychic Crush for attack modes, and Mind Blank (required) and Tower of Iron Will for your defense modes. You will never learn another attack or defense mode under normal circumstances.  

Next, it's time to determine powers. You immediately roll randomly on the minor power table to see which power you learn. Thereafter, at levels 3, 5, 7, and 9, you will randomly roll on the same table and learn an additional minor power (re-rolling if you get a result of a power you already know). At level 11, you will roll randomly on the major power table to acquire your major power. (PHB, p. 110). 

Your character is ready to go. 

Using Psionic Disciplines

Psionic Disciplines are powered using psionic strength points. One point each of psionic attack, and psionic defense, equates to a single point of psionic strength for powering a discipline (PHB, p. 111: "the employment of these powers costs psionic strength points, the equivalent of 1 point each of attack and defense points."). You do not spend total psionic strength points on disciplines, reducing attack and defense by 1 per two spent--it's actually the opposite, with disciplines being much more expensive to use than attack and defense modes. 

Best Practice: Though the book doesn't clarify this, it essentially makes your discipline points equal to your attack and defense points, so you should record discipline points as well, and understand that each discipline point spent reduces both attack and defense strength. 

Note: this may be a surprise and something of a disconnect to people used to the prior system. My suspicion is that it's a concerted effort to balance the system. In AD&D, characters who are psionic do not lose points of ability scores, spell levels, or other class-related powers, so it became necessary to reduce the overall power creep of psionics, and this serves well. Your total Psionic Strength, which is still based on Attack and Defense strength, will be used in Psionic Combat, later. 

Each power is detailed, along with its strength point cost to use and full effects, using a similar format to spells, so they are quite easy to understand.

Psionic Combat

For psionic combat, the part that most people find difficult, we need to bounce back and forth between the PHB, and the DMG. Pages 110 and 111 in the PHB describe what each attack and defense mode represents, and the attack and defense strength points required, respectively to use them, as well as the range of attack powers, and the effects of attacking at long, medium, or short range, and the area protecgted by defense modes. 

The actual procedures for psionic combat are detailed in the Dungeon Master's Guide on pages 76-79. Like normal combat, psionic combat is scored by referencing combat matrices. The following guidelines are important to consider. 

  1. There is no initiative in psionic combat. All attacks and defenses are simultaneous. (DMG p. 76)
  2. Any psionic character will automatically engage whatever psionic defense they possess that is the most effective agaisnt the attack being used against them, which they have the strength points to use. (DMG p. 79). 
  3. Psionic combat is lightning-fast, measured in segments rather than rounds. It is recommended that when psionic combat takes place, the DM stops everything else, resolves it, then moves to regular combat (though if you're good at tracking initiative segments, there's no reason you couldn't work it into the regular cycle). Each cycle of attacks and defenses (one each by all combatants) represents one segment of time. (DMG, p. 77, 79). 
  4. Each combatant's psionic strength is consulted before deductions for attacks and defenses are considered; that is, the points you spend on attack and defense are spent at the end of the segment, not the beginning. This can be tricky; it's best if the DM simply notes all points spent and lost, and doles them out at once at the end of each round. (DMG p. 77, 78). 
  5. A character may use only one psionic activity while using a defense mode. That is, if you're attacked psionically, you will automatically kick up a defense mode. At this point you can only use either an attack mode or a discipline. (DMG p. 79). 
With these basic procedures in mind, simply compare the attack mode to the defense mode on table IV.A. PSIONIC VS. PSIONIC IN MENTAL COMBAT. The attacker's total psionic strength (remember, before deducting points) determines the row used (Table footnote, DMG p. 76). Points of "damage" are points deducted from the defender's Defense Strength, except in terms of psychic crush, which is a % chance of simply killing the defender. A failed roll to kill means no effect. In addition, certain defense modes (based on the strength of the attacker) will also instantly negate psychic crush. 

At the end of each combat segment, attack and defense strength points are deducted, and total psionic strength recalculated. The next segment begins, with another exchange of attacks/defenses, or moves to regular combat if the psionics break off. 

Psionics vs. Defenseless Psionics: When psionic defense of a character is reduced to 0, combat moves to table IV.B. PSIONIC ATTACK ON DEFENSELESS PSIONIC (DMG p. 77). Things can get bad here, with the result of an attack being massive reductions to psionic attack strength, confusion, dazed, idiocy (forever), death, permanent loss of powers, coma, loss of willpower, or psionic wounds. If attacks on this table result in more damage to psionic attack strength than the defender currently has, carryover goes to hit points. 

Attacks Against Non-Psionics: Only a psionic with a current attack strength of over 100 can attack a non-psionic creature, and the only attack mode that will work against non-psionics is Psionic Blast (PHB 110, DMG p. 78). The creature must in turn make a saving throw based on its combined intelligence and wisdom (a table is given on p. 79 to determine wisdom of a monster based on its Intelligence rating). Success means no effect. A failed save sees percentile dice rolled on a table for effects that are similar to those achieved from Psionic vs. Defenseless Psionic, though all results on this table are conditions rather than points of damage (death, coma, sleep, stun, etc.) (DMG p. 78). 

Additional Information: Tables are given on page 78 for psionic attack ranges, damage adjustment, and area of effect. An attack at short range is standard. Medium range reduces damage by 20%, rounding up fractions. Long range attacks reduce total effective psionic strength by one category (25 points), and reduce damage by 20%. If this would reduce strength below category 1, damage is reduced by 50% instead. 

Interestingly here, there is a mention of "attacks in series" on page 78 (DMG). It is unclear exactly what this means, but it appears that multiple psionics can link up to attack a single target, and if they do, attack range for each of them is increased by 50% per additional psionic after the first. In addition, expending additional points can double or treble the attack ranges of Mind Thrust, Ego Whip, and Id Insinuation.

There you have it! That's how psionics work in AD&D. Though the rules are split between the PHB and DMG, and the various tables in the DMG can be a bit intimidating at first glance, they are fairly straightforward and quite easy to use.  

Next Up: A comparison of psionics between OD&D and AD&D. 


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