Working on Psionics

I’m working on psionics rules for my Crimson Sun campaign, but I can’t find a solution that satisfies me.

My end-goal is both “wild talents” (characters with random psionic powers, usually no more than 1) and psionic classes (like mages, spellswords, nightblades, etc., but with psionic powers).

I could just plug in Courtney Campbell and Nathan Lord’s Psionic OSR supplement, but I find it too heavy; 40 pages of rules is too much. Psionic points and multiple attack and defense modes are too much.

I’d love to just create a list of powers, preferrably with the same names as spell (condensing power descriptions mostly to “As the spell.”), but this seems like a backwards way: it’d mostly limit the powers to existing spells. Dividing the powers by levels may be tricky, too: I’ve got a list of 62 powers (mostly just “As the spell.”), but I’d need to divide them among 1-6 levels… and I’m not sure that’s even the right way to approach psionic powers. (AD&D didn’t divide them by levels.)

If I don’t make the powers divided by level, I’d need to build them into some sort of trees (AD&D style) with prerequisite powers…

I’ve also considered dividing psionic powers into “tracks”: you choose a track and get specific powers at specific levels, and can either use them at will or e.g. an level-based amount of times per day. I have no clue how I’d balance such classes, though. Doing the psionic powers as Spell-Like Abilities would seriously limit their usage.

I’m not looking to create that broad of an array of powers, anyway: mostly, I want telepathy (which automatically grants you some kind of ability for psychic combat), ESP, telekinesis, and pyrokinesis, maybe teleportation… I’m divided on “psychometabolism,” but since it’s pretty much part of Dune I guess it’s in.

There’s also a very specific issue: no matter what approach I take, I want powers equivalent to nearly at-will telekinesis and telepathy spells available. How unbalanced is that going to be?

I guess I’m mostly looking for ideas, comments, and sounding boards. Has anybody worked out psionics-type powers for ACKS, or know of a really simple OSR-compatible psionics system I could plug in?

Hi Rhynn, as far as I know no one has worked out any psionic rules for ACKS.

Just riffing off the top of my head, you might try something like this:

To use Psionics, the character makes a psionics throw against a target value based on his level. (You could use the target values for Magic Research, or the target value for Saves v. Spells, perhaps; or you could create custom target values for different psionic class progressions.)

The character modifies his target value by equivalent of the spell level of the effect he is trying to achieve and adds his Wisdom bonus to the roll. On a success, the effect is triggered as if cast. On a failure, the character takes WIS damage equal to the level of the spell. WIS recovers at 1 point per hour.

On a natural 1, some sort of psychic trauma occurs - possibly use on of the mishap tables from Player’s Companion.

Before the roll, the character can expend WIS for bonus on the roll. This also recovers at 1 point per hour.

All powers are divided into different tracks. Each track has a proficiency associated with it. The first rank of the proficiency allows you to use psionic powers of that type. Each additional rank gives a +2 bonus on throws to use powers in that track.

EXAMPLE: Aerion is a 5th level character with Psychokinetics 2 and Psychometabolism 1 proficiencies. His WIS is 16 (+2). His psionic target value is 12+ (from the ACKS magic research throw table).

Aerion wants to “cast” Telekinesis, a 5th level effect in the Psychokinetics track. He will roll 1d20 against a target value of (12+5) 17+. He gets a +3 bonus on the roll (+2 from WIS, +1 from proficiency), so he’ll need a 14. On a failure, he’ll suffer 5 points of WIS damage.

He decides to voluntarily spend 5 points of WIS for a +5 bonus. Now he needs a 9+. Tragically he rolls a 3, and still fails. He takes a further 5 points of WIS loss, temporarily reducing his WIS to 6.

Totally unplaytested but something like that might work.

Thank you! That’s some excellent ideas. AD&D 2E uses “power checks” for activating powers, and I sort of like that, although I’d prefer to keep it simple - much like your version. The AD&D 2E system has separate critical success/fumble results for all powers, which was a hassle.

I’d actually worked out a “casting check” system for AD&D I never got around to using that was a bit similar: d20+(caster level)-(2 x spell level), your result determines if you cast immediately, next round, or have a mishap.

Making psionics mechanically different from spells seems like a good idea: the difference would reinforce the “oddness” of psionics.

One option would be to try and adapt the psionics system from Stars Without Number (a sci-fi RPG based on old-school D&D; the basic PDF is free) to ACKS; this is only 9 pages long, Psychic class included.

Another option would be to use the ACKS system as-is, with some reskinning, and maybe with a few new spells. Fist of all, use existing spells and maybe create a few spells on your own to represent psionic powers; a Mage (or maybe a Cleric?) could be reskinned into a Psion and simply take these spells. As for Wild Talents, use the rules in the Player’s Companion p.98 to transform some or all of these spells into Proficiencies; a Wild Talent would simply mean taking one of these proficiencies, or, if you want, make a “Wild Talent” proficiency which lets you roll on a table to see which ability you gain.

I’ve recently been converting some Dark Sun material to ACKS for a campaign I’d eventually like to run. I looked at the OSR supplement you mentioned, but found it overly complex. I had also considered something along the lines of what you were suggesting (piggyback off spells), but there were a couple things I disliked about that approach.

First, it makes Psionics into nothing more than another type of magic, where I prefer it to have a distinctive feel. Second, it leads to a feeling of being overpowered unless you mirror the structure of when spellcasters receive specific spells rather closely, which then leads back to the first problem.

I’ve started tinkering with Psionics, and I’m using the AD&D 2nd Psionics Handbook rules as a base. Trimming the powers available, swapping modified ability checks for fixed Throws, fixed power points gained per level (not ability based), number of powers known similar to the original chart. A failed Throw expends no power points but doesn’t work, a Throw of 1 not only fails to work but expends power points, and a Throw of 20 works at 1/2 power point cost.

A couple other things I’ve thought about but haven’t toyed with yet include simplifying Attack/Defense modes in some fashion, and improving Throws by assigning more power slots to an existing ability or uninterrupted rounds of concentration beforehand.

I’m not positive about page count, but, at this point I’m betting I can keep it under 25 pages. Keep in mind that most of that is a couple classes and then actual power descriptions, similar to the fact that most of the magic page count is composed of spell descriptions. Considering that it’s opening up a whole new subsystem for play, that didn’t really seem like a lot of overhead to me…

I’m fairly certain I can make this quite workable, as our group had a lot of play experience with the underlying AD&D 2nd rules, which gave us familiarity with the good and the bad parts of that system.

My main source has been The Complete Psionics Handbook, so far; I really like the system, but it’s way complex. I love the idea of the Contact power and how establishing contact is required for all telepathy powers, but in practice it’s a huge hassle! Campbell & Lord’s system is obviously based on it, but like I said, it seems very complicated.

Carcosa and Mutant Future have pretty appealing systems, but they go too far in the other direction, and I really want “Psionicist” to be a character class.

One thing I definitely know is that I want to tie psychic combat to a basic telepathy power; any telepath (including “wild talents”) can attack someone psychically (with some kind of basic Psychic Attack Throw), but someone who really studies telepathy will be better at it. No separate attack and defense modes, but I’ll probably create at least one telepathic power that defends against such attacks.

PS. Am I supposed to be thinking of Bob Loblaw, looking at your nickname, or is this just a happy coincidence?

Agreed, Contact and Attack/Defense modes are some of the real bugbears of that system. Personally, I’ve done away with Contact as a separate power. In many cases I’ve rolled its costs into the discrete powers it’s a requirement for.

As for Attack/Defense modes, I’m currently toying with the idea of reducing the numbers to two of each (2 Sciences and 2 Devotions), then eliminating the Attack vs. Defense mode complexity entirely. For the number of times we ever saw psychic on psychic combat come up, it never really seemed worthwhile. I haven’t worked out specifics for this yet.

As for the name, you’ve got the pronunciation correct.

I love psionics!

So far, I have only dabbled in psionic classes using the available ACKs toolset. For a “spell-like ability” approach to psionics, see the Psionic Adept on my site ( For a “spell” approach to psionics, see the Psychic Warrior (Magus) on my site ( The latter anticipates selecting existing spells with psionic overtones, and one could certainly do that with a Mage.

I too would like a light-weight system that doesn’t jar with existing ACKs. I began adapting Microlite20 Psionics to ACKs. Microlite20 uses a HP drain mechanic for spells and powers. I used ACKs’ power point values from these forums (1:1, 2:3, 3:6, 4:10, 5:15, 6:21) with a power point reserve granted by class Psionics Value and level.

To do psionics as I’d like to see it done, any new psionic powers would be created using the Player’s Companion Spell Power Guidelines, which is nontrivial and why I haven’t gotten around to finishing it … Also, BX spells scale unlike later editions, so ACKs psionics co-existing with ACKs magic has some unique design challenges as compared to 2E or d20, I think.

Personally I’ve tried to tackle psionics a couple of ways too. The only existing Psion in my game is a telekinetic using the Stars Without Numbers (fights as a thief, d6 hd). It’s worked pretty well and by third level she had telekinesis at will. It’s occasionally annoying as they use it to circumvent traps all the time but I suppose little different from a cleric with Detect Traps or someone with summon berserkers.

All right, I tried creating some powers from scratch to adapt them, using the spell creation guidelines… I’ve got three levels of telekinesis:

Level 1: as the spell but instantaneous (you have to activate the power each round and can’t sustain it on anything; you basically get to push things around a bit, or perform simple manipulations).
Level 3: as the spell but you can’t designate a new target to affect (without re-activating the power).
Level 5: as the spell.

I have no idea what sort of source modifiers would be appropriate for Psionic powers, though. All spell types except Summoning fit my idea of Crimson Sun psionics pretty well (even blast, which could involve telekinetic detonations or waves of force).

Also, I have no idea how I’d re-construct powers similar to telepathy and ESP. Any tips?

I’m thinking of doing this in some kind of tracks for now; if you choose telekinesis (or psychokinesis, or whatever), you get these abilities in some sort of progression (say, at levels 1, 3, and 5, or levels 1, 4, 7, or 1, 5, 9…).

I’m definitely thinking of using psychic power throws: start at 10+, maybe treat the power level as its AC, add bonus from Wis, Int, or Cha, based on class.

I’m undecided on how to limit frequency. The options I’m considering are:

  1. Failures cause negative effects (e.g. temporary loss of Wisdom/etc. ability score, temporary inability to activate any psionic powers, etc.).

  2. Successes have a cost in some sort of psionic power points.

I think Wisdom loss would emphasize high Wisdom too much; I don’t want to emphasize high ability scores (quite the opposite, really). I think strictly level-based psionic power points might be better. Still, just giving the PC some kind of “psychic headache” for a while could work, too - you fail to activate a power, no more powers for, say, (power level) turns.

Frequency is limited by having a failure chance. Losing your action a few times to bad rolls would dramatically reduce frequency.

Alternatively the SWN method of burning psionic points permanently to master a power (and then use it freely) is another idea.

Variant source modifiers depend a lot on the campaign feel you’re going for, and how many paths to “FX” there are. If psionics is the only game in town, no worries. If arcane, divine and psionic all exist, that should be reflected in the system somehow, or no player (or NPC) will choose the “weaker” path.

Certainly, psionics should be good at mind-affecting effects, equal or occasionally better than arcane. Often, psionics can heal self-only effectively, or transfer damage to self, but usually not the unrestricted healing of divine. Psionics can be ineffective against undead. Psionics can do direct damage, but lean toward force or nonlethal effects over elemental effects. Arcane is usually best at area effects. Different worlds might shake this up.

The Spell Power Guidelines were developed by Alex by “fitting” back to existing legacy spells. Alex has mentioned that in some cases there are just not enough “data points” to fit a formula to all spell types. I hope this is something the ACKs community can address over time.

When I was working on my Level 0 Spells, I riffed off of the Detection Spells category for informational spells not strictly “Detect X”, like Read Languages. I worked on, but did not satisfactorily complete Message and Whispering Wind calculations. Sometimes you have to work out a new Effect and Base Cost, or borrow a modifier from another category that seems appropriate. (It’s great when you work out some numbers for a spell or two, and the third and fourth spells slide right into their expected level.) Oddly enough, Movement Spells might be a good riff for Telepathy (and maybe Whispering Wind and Message) … would have to crunch some numbers.

Of course, when going outside the existing system, I stick with legacy powers/spells and don’t open those categories up to player research until I feel comfortable with the results. Also, when converting from later editions, I try to limit scaling with level across all parameters. BX spells often have more fixed parameters compared to, say, 3.x.

I think casting/manifesting mechanics are largely a matter of personal choice and campaign feel, keeping in mind if there are multiple paths to FX, you don’t want to create winners and losers. I think you can make a case for magic being unpredictable, but 2E tells us magic is reliable and psionics is unpredictable.

So, Psionic Power Throws: I’m thinking there’ll be different progressions, much as with attack throws, but I’m not sure which progressions should exist.

If the basic mechanic is similar to an attack throw, with each power e.g. using its level as “AC,” and every starts at 10+ (50% chance to successfully activate a 1st-level power)… for now, I’ll assume new power levels are gained at every odd level, as mages:

1. The Hero and Monster progressions would get out of hand fast; at 11th level, with a throw of -5+, a 6th-level power would only require 1+. That’s not much of a limitation. Even with a throw of -3+ at 14th level, a 6th-level power would only require 3+.

2. The Fighter, Cleric/Thief, and Mage progressions would work much better. The Fighter progression would very slowly lower the throw required for each new level of powers as it’s gained; the Cleric progression would keep it a flat 11+ every time a new level of powers is gained; the mage level would have a slight increase. That seems fine. The best progression, at 14th level, would give a throw of 1+ for 1st-level powers, 7+ for 6th-level.

3. A throw of 11+ would mean an average of 2 successful activations in a row (with a 6.25% chance of 4 activations in a row, and a 6.25% chance of 5+ activations in a row).

Usage Limitations
I’m still undecided on whether a failure should cause a temporary “psychic block” (simple, straightforward, most annoying to players) or a temporary penalty to psionic throws (the most fiddly), or if I should just use some kind of point cost (probably the players’ favorite option, no more difficult than hit point bookkeeping).

I think power points may be the “safest” option, despite not being very exotic compared to the other options. It’s a good starting place, anyway. I could crib power activation costs from Stars Without Number and D&D 3.5 - that’s 1 point for 1st-level powers, +2 per level.

I’m also thinking I might make both tracks and powers improve: as you advance a track, you get new powers, but the existing ones also get stronger (e.g. your first-level power is a weak telekinesis, but it gets stronger). In this case, I’m not sure if any costs should increase or not… I’m thinking not, from a simulationist sense (you improve your control of your power, with no extra cost), but I’m not sure if that would be over-powered… a nominally 1st-level power functioning as a 5th-level power once you reach 9th level? It could work out, though, since the psionicists would have fewer different powers (basically, your repertoire would never have more than, say, 2-3 powers of any given level). This really seems like it would work best with something other than psionic power points.

I’m not sure how to do multiple tracks. It seems like you should start with one, and get new ones at later levels, but it doesn’t seem sensible to e.g. immediately learn a new track up to the 5th-level power just because you got to 9th level. Maybe something like SWN: at certain levels, you get to choose which track to advance; your first track must always be highest, your secondary track must be one lower than your primary, and your tertiary track one lower than your secondary.

All right, here’s what I’ve got so far; some basica, and a Telepathy track. It’s all “beta”; I’d appreciate feedback. I’m especially curious as to whether the Telepathy track seems too complicated to manage, or too powerful.

For now, assume that the absolute fastest progression available is Telepathy 1 at 1st level, Telepathy 2 at 3rd, Telepathy 3 at 5th, Telepathy 4 at 7th, Telepathy 5 at 9th, and Telepathy 6 at 11th.

I’m slightly leaning towards limiting even the best psionicists to one track, or maybe one full track and one or two at level 1-2.

For now, assume that once you fail to activate a power, you can’t use that track (or maybe any psionic powers) for a number of turns.

Psionic powers are activated with a psionic proficiency throw. All characters succeed at using psionic powers on a throw of 10+ (modified by the level of the power) at 1st level. The psionic proficiency throw improves either by two every three levels, two every four levels, or two every six levels, depending on character class. Psionic proficiency throws are modified by the character’s psychic ability score, which is one of Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma: for a psychic class, the prime requisite is used; for characters with a psionic talent, use the highest ability score at character creation. (This ability score’s modifier is used even if the ability score is lowered later.)

Wisdom modifiers apply to saving throws against all psionic powers, as with magic.

All telepathy power use requires full concentration, precluding movement and other actions. Once activated, telepathy can be used for as long as concentration is maintained; if concentration is broken, telepathy must be reactivated. Concentration is automatically broken if you are damaged or fail any saving throw. All powers use the same range. If a target makes a saving throw, the power must be re-activated before it can be attempted against the same target again.

Undead, constructs, plants, and other creatures immune to charm, hold, and sleep spells are immune to telepathy (at the Judge’s discretion).

Telepathy 1: Range 60’. The telepath can send thoughts into the mind of one living target. These thoughts can take the form of words or images; in the case of words, the telepath and the target must share a language. A saving throw vs. spells allows the target to consciously block the communication.
The telepath can also make a psychic attack: this requires a psychic attack throw, using the telepath’s psionic proficiency throw; treat the AC of the target as ½ its HD or level (rounded down). At this level, the psychic attack can deal 1d6 damage (modified by the attacker’s psychic ability score), or stun the target for 1 round, rendering them unable to act (saving throw vs. spells negates). Each time a psychic attack is used, the attacker must decide which of the available effects to apply.

Telepathy 2: The telepath can read the surface thoughts of one living target, allowing for two-way communication. The target can block this reading with a successful saving throw vs. spells. This can also be used to e.g. detect lies.
The telepath’s psychic attack can now inflict 2d6 damage, or stun the target for 1d6 rounds.

Telepathy 3: Range 90’. The telepath can concentrate for 1 round to detect and locate minds within range, except for those that make a successful saving throw vs. spells.
The telepath’s psychic attack can now inflict 3d6 damage, or render the target unconscious for 1 turn (saving throw vs. spells negates).

Telepathy 4: The telepath can affect multiple targets, up to HD equal to the telepath’s level (or a single target of any HD). Weakest targets are affected first. The telepath can also probe minds, reading deep thoughts and memories; each specific memory takes 1 round to read, and the target can make another saving throw for each (a successful save ends the probing until telepathy is re-activated).
The telepath’s psychic attacks can also affect multiple targets, as above, and can now inflict 4d6 damage, or render the target unconscious for 1d6 turns.

Telepathy 5: Range 120’. The telepath can use mind control, controlling the reactions, actions, or perceptions of targets. These effects end when the power ends.
The telepath’s psychic attack can now inflict 5d6 damage.

Telepathy 6: The telepath can re-write minds, altering the memories, attitudes, and opinions of targets. Each alteration takes 1 round, and allows a separate save to resist. These effects persist after the power ends.
The telepath’s psychic attack can now inflict 6d6 damage, or burn minds, killing targets who fail a saving throw vs. death.

That telepathy track looks pretty good. Did you get anywhere with other powers?