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Psionics and Spellpoints, or how I learned to love spell slots.


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I’ve been running D&D games for 30 plus years and occasionally someone will ask to play a character with psionic abilities. I usually resist allowing this; I don’t want peanut butter in my chocolate. I view psionics as a science fiction component rather than fantasy, the theory that science fiction is a form of fantasy not withstanding. I generally prefer my fantasy to focus on magic and medieval European settings, and leave other historical cultures, aliens or technology out. Over the years I’ve mellowed and come to accept that players just want to enjoy the fantasy of taking on a role they do not (or cannot) partake of in real life. So I’ve come to accept ninja, psion or steam punk peanut butter in my European medieval fantasy chocolate.

 

A bit more than fifteen years ago I ran a D&D 3e game set in the Diablo 2 video game world of Sanctuary, using setting and adventure supplements published by Wizards of the Coast. Included in the setting book were rules for the Diablo 2 character classes. I allowed a mix of D&D and D2 characters, but required the player to chose either the D&D spell system or the D2 spell point system, choosing spells from only from the appropriate list. One of the players chose the D2 Necromancer and used the Diablo 2 spell list and spell point system.

 

This player was a bit of a power gamer and focused on how to maximize the spell point pool, basically never running out of spell points. The character was able to always contribute in a meaningful was to every encounter. I’ve never been a fan of the 15-minute adventure day, so I usually enforce travel time and backtracking, with the commiserate chance for creatures rising the alarm, ambuscades or random encounters. The spell point pool this character had helped this character be less of an liability in these circumstances, but for large or long fights resource management was still important. I was struck by how the spell point system and the psionic power point system were the same, just using different wrappers (terminology).

 

After the end of that campaign we were looking for a new setting, and the magazines Dragon, Dungeon and Polyhedron did a cross over adventure called “Incursion!”, featuring Githyanki invaders. It was a precursor to the modern Adventure Paths, and it included psionics. After having run a spell point system in the D2 campaign I was more open to psionics and bought the psionics handbook. Some of players had their characters take levels in psionic classes, and it worked out fine for most.

 

The same player that played the necromancer wanted to play a Psion, and was keen on creating new powers. His approach was with psionics anything that one could think of could be accomplished with the mind, as opposed to magic which was limited by codified spells, rules and tradition, and relied on an outside source of power. My approach was that both systems use intellect or force of personality to access and control another source of power; the mind is not powerful enough to affect the world directly. We clashed a bit as I was using existing powers to set the power level and point cost of new powers and he wanted to create custom powers with specific effects, so limited in application that he felt the level and point cost should be lower. He was of the opinion that psionics should not be limited, essentially viewing psionics as superior to magic in every way. My concern was that if psionics were always the “better choice”, why would anyone ever play a spell-caster?

 

Around the time we were finishing that campaign, D&D 4e came out and we switched over to that system. I won’t go into my opinion of 4th edition here other than to say I think it is a fine game system, just not D&D. The new daily, encounter and at-will power system precluded spell or power points and I gradually returned to my dim view of psionics. I’m of the general opinion that there is no need for competing power systems in the same game, such as spell points as opposed to spell slots, or psionics to magic. It is difficult if not impossible to balance to power systems across 20 plus character levels. Melee combat and magic systems are difficult enough, but adding another system will only make it even more difficult.

 

The Vancian spell system has serious flaws, but its history and well established structure provides built in limitations and guidelines on creating new spells. That same structure is not unjustifiably viewed as restrictive by some, but inserting another, subjectively “better” system will imbalance the overall game even more. If and when psionics are added to 5e, I hope they reconsider power points and stick with a Vancian system. Or rewrite magic with spell points. Keep the peanut butter and chocolate separate. Sorry fans of Reeeses Peanut Butter Cups.

Edited by DocPiske
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Very interesting take on the two, thanks Doc!  It seems to me your player would have found a way to power game just about anything, magic or psionics aside.  It seems to me like he was looking for a way to simply be a _god_ in the game.  As a DM, I would have limited this just like you did.  I often let my players go outside of bounds, but if its clear they are doing it to break the rules, I go back to strick book observance.

 

Take a look at the mystic class for DnD 5E.  

 

https://media.wizards.com/2017/dnd/downloads/UAMystic3.pdf

 

I found that it still has resource limitations that work and require decisions, but because of its sheer versatility, the class can do almost ANYTHNIG - damage, resistances, breathe under water, fly, read minds, sing and dance, heal and pick locks.  Its not unbalanced from a damage or healing perspective, and still can run out of juice, just super versatile.

Edited by edz16
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I've used Psionics a number of times in D&D games.  It can be fun having both systems in play at the same time.  But I think it's important to have the flavor of each be kept distinct.  So, I've always made sure that the backgrounds and goals that go with each point the characters in very different directions.

 

The last time I did this (running D&D 3.5) I had magic as being derived from the memory of the world and psionics from the thought of the world.  Memory was much older so magic had been around for a very long time.  Thought was more recent so that psionics were only developing during the course of the game.

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I'm ok with either system as long as it is internally consistent within the game world.  An balanced appropriately. 

 

When we were designing our home-brew game system, my friends and I looked at various systems and went with a "if you know a spell, then you can cast it" method.  Since at will casting was available, we had to make sure that it was balanced with the abilities/attacks of non-casters.  We did this in a couple of ways.  For example most weapons were 8 point weapons; sword had a 4/4 (to-hit/damage) stat.  Thus, an attack spell was also an 8 pt spell (add to the fact that some of those points would got into range and AOE).  Casters also had a Magic stat that they had to put points into (the Magic stat also controlled the number of sustained spells- armor, fly, invisibility- that a caster could keep active at one time).  So a particular spell wasn't necessarily more powerful than any particular weapon; this allowed the caster to be able to cast throughout the entire adventure and not have to save their spells for the 'right time' or be relegated to throwing darts/daggers when they ran out of spells/points for the day.

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IMO, the D&D3/Pathfinder sorcerer (and others with similar mechanisms) are just really simple spell-point systems. (They're certainly not standard Vancian "fire and forget" magic.) I like the ability of players to pick which set of restrictions they would like to deal with and have found that the varying feel makes for an interesting addition to the game.

 

YMMV, of course.

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