by Stephen Kenson
The GURPS system draws a distinction between magic and psionic abilities. Magic channels the mysterious energy known as mana to achieve certain effects. It involves numerous skills (spells) and rituals and has a very broad range of possible effects, although each spell or ritual is very specific. Psionics calls upon the inner powers of the mind. Psionic abilities are no more difficult than any other act of thought, and psionic skills tend to be broader in scope than spells, but there are fewer of them and significant psi ability is quite expensive. Psi and magic are two different means to the same end.
Art by andi jones
In a game-world, however, there might not be as clear a distinction between magic and psi. Wizards might use both to perform their amazing feats. They might differentiate magic from psi, like in Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar series or Steven Brust's Jhereg books, or they might consider them two aspects of the same thing.
It is also possible to have a game-world where "magic" is based entirely on the use of psi. Some occult theorists and parapsychologists claim that magic is nothing more than a misunderstood use of psi cloaked in legend and superstition. Psionic powers can be focused and refined with training in concentration and meditation through the use of magical mantras, gestures and the other trappings traditionally associated with spellcasting. GURPS Black Ops takes this view of magic. "Mages" encountered by the Black Ops (like the members of the Lodge) are actually psionics. Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels are a good example of a race of powerful psis who treat their abilities like magic and use them accordingly.
The Psionic WizardAll psionic "wizards" possess one or more levels in various psionic powers (see pp. B165-176 or GURPS Psionics). Minor seers, healers, soothsayers and hedge magicians may have only one or two powers, while true adepts have levels in most if not all psionic powers.
The power levels available depend on the point-level and restrictions of the campaign. A modest level of Power in even one psionic ability can be quite expensive; while a starting mage may spend 25 points on Magery and another 20-30 points on spells, a psionic can easily spend 50 points on a single power! A campaign with powerful psionic wizards will require at least 250 points, if not more. The cost of some psi powers can be reduced using appropriate limitations (see below).
A low-Power psionic wizard can still be quite effective, but is forced to rely on subtlety. Low Power levels are especially appropriate for a "secret" magic campaign, where psionic abilities are hidden and used covertly, as well as a low-fantasy campaign where "magic" is not very powerful.
A psionic wizard's powers can be brought out of latency through long periods of training and initiation, using psycho-metabolic techniques such as meditation, hypnosis, drugs, and altered states of consciousness. Those with latent psi powers are said to have "the Talent" or "the Gift," the potential to become wizards. Occasionally rare individuals develop their Talent spontaneously, usually as a result of some psychic trauma. These individuals often have trouble dealing with their abilities and can be a danger to themselves and others if they are not properly trained.
People with psi powers may be considered specially blessed (or cursed), touched by the gods or spirits. In primitive cultures, psi ability is the mark of a shaman or medicine man. Psis may even be considered a separate race from "normal" humanity, strange and fey, like the aforementioned Deryni.
Individual psi powers and skills may go by different names in the game world, especially in pre-modern cultures. Each psionic power can be considered a separate branch of study, perhaps even an individual "college" of magic. The individuals powers and skills and their likely permutations are discussed below.
AntipsiAntipsi may be known as shielding, blocking or warding to a psionic wizard. A character with Antipsi cannot normally have any other psionic powers, so antipsis make good "warders" who protect others from magic. Antipsi is also common among skeptics, who point to the fact that psi doesn't seem to work around them as proof that it doesn't exist!
If the GM desires, he can lift the restriction on Antipsi and allow psis to possess it along with other powers. In this case, apprentices are taught to use the Psi Static skill as a means of protecting themselves and others from hostile magicians, and Neutralize is used as a means to rob another magician of his powers.
The Psi Static skill can also create an area that is difficult to penetrate with clairvoyance or astral projection, creating a "ward" that blocks the passage of psychic energy.
Antipsi is very limited at low Power. Neutralize cannot be used if Power is below 5 and Psi Static has a very limited range, requiring the psi to use it on a single target at a time (global range is only about one inch at Power 5). Within these limits, a skilled screamer can still quite effectively jam the psi skills of a single target he can see.
At the gamemaster's option, the Neutralize skill might be used to permanently remove a character's psionic powers (although it might still be reversible, perhaps using Mindwipe). This technique could be used as a punishment inflicted on wizards who abuse their "gifts" and by evil wizards to destroy the powers of their enemies.
Astral ProjectionAlso called spirit travel, or the Second Road. Psionic wizards use Astral Projection to travel in spirit form to spy or communicate over great distances as well as see astral forms that might be lurking nearby. Astral Projection can be used as a form of spirit combat, and individuals who lose their body while astral projecting may be the source of legends about ghosts and specters, especially if they have telepathic or psionic vampirism powers as well. A disembodied psi-vamp makes a very effective ghost.
Journeys to the inner astral plane (GURPS Psionics, p. 51) are a common means of introspection and initiation for psionic wizards. Such a journey is virtually required for a neophyte-shaman. The astral plane in the game world might be inhabited by various ghosts, spirits and other psychic entities to challenge wizards, or it may be largely empty, save for astrally projecting wizards themselves.
The astral form of a psi with low Astral Projection Power tends to be slow (low Speed) and cannot project as long, but skilled astral projectors can still remain outside their bodies for some time. Astral sight remains quite useful despite its more limited range.
Related to astral projection is the Dream Travel power from GURPS CthulhuPunk. Psionic wizards might interact with each other in a dream world of some kind, not unlike the inner astral plane. Of course, there may also be various creatures that live in the dreamlands as potential allies or enemies of wizards.
ElectrokinesisElectrokinesis is poorly understood in preindustrial cultures, since there is no real theory of electricity or electromagnetism. Most Electrokinetic skills are not very useful until electricity comes into widespread use.
Confuse can stun opponents and disrupt another psi's concentration. Confuse has a limited range and duration at low Power but is still quite effective. The Lightning skill (coupled with Energy Sense) can direct discharges during thunderstorms to attack certain targets (although the wizard wouldn't be able to summon thunderstorms). Energy Shield can protect against such lightning attacks as well as natural lightning strikes. Energy Sense provides the ability to sense magnetic north and provides a +3 to Navigation skill, keeping a wizard from getting lost.
Photokinesis can create illusions or render the user invisible, although telepathic invisibility via Illusion will probably be far more common (see below). Photokinesis needs Power 3 to produce an image 1 hex in size, up to 9 hexes away, a very useful ability for a low-Power electrokinetic. A low power photokinetic can only blur his image, not become invisible (which requires Power 10+). Since photokinetic constructs shed light, they can also be used to create globes of cold "flames" that shed light, like the "handfire" of the Deryni.
In a modern or futuristic setting, Electrokinesis becomes much more effective, allowing psi wizards to control and influence electrical devices of all kinds. Dampen can shut down many types of machines (including computers and robots), Surge can cause overloads as a "poltergeist" effect, and, with Cyberpsi, "net wizards" can hack computer systems using only the power of their minds! (see Joan Vinge's Catspaw for an excellent example of this application of psi).
Cyberpsi requires greater Computer Programming skills to use it effectively at low Power. Most low-power cyberpsis prefer to touch their subject, gaining a +2 bonus to skill, rather than relying on their limited range.
ESPESP is commonly referred to as "the Sight" or "Second Sight" by psionic wizards, and it is one of the most common psi abilities (along with Telepathy). In a psi-wizards campaign, anyone with Danger Sense has ESP Power 5. People with ESP are regarded as seers, mediums, sensitives and visionaries. Many consider it a primary ability for becoming a wizard, although many people may have ESP as their sole psionic ability. Skilled users of Clairvoyance, Psychometry, and Precognition can gain a reputation as soothsayers and fortunetellers. Many (if not all) seers may have a Limitation on their ESP skills, requiring them to use of some kind of focus such as a crystal ball, mirror or deck of tarot cards to gain a clear "vision." Some wizards only have visions while in deep trances.
Clairsentient abilities can be used for scrying and information-gathering. Low-Power clairvoyants have very limited range, a matter of inches. Enough to see inside envelopes, closed drawers or the like, but not much else. Long-distance seers use Astral Projection rather than ESP. Combat Sense is useless without at least Power 10, unlikely in a low-Power game. Precog limits on range make the ability weak in terms of range and time at low-power. Psychometry, however, can be quite effective at low Power, except with regard to very distant events.
HealingHealing is a highly prized ability in low-tech settings and even in high-tech ones. In a fantasy campaign, psionic healers are probably the pinnacle of medical "technology." Healers tend to combine their psionic powers with practical skills such as Physician and Diagnosis, along with a knowledge of herbal remedies. In a more technologically-advanced setting, psionic healing is a formidable a complement for other forms of medical treatment. The campaign world may feature a prominent "order" of healers, such as the Healers from the Deryni books.
Metabolism Control is a basic ability for any healer, as instructors begin by teaching a student how to understand and control his own body. A knowledge of biology and anatomy can allow psychokinetic healers to do considerable damage if they chose to use their psionic abilities aggressively (p. P35), but professional healers most likely take oaths not to use their abilities to cause harm (a Vow and/or Pacifism).
Sense Aura is also be a basic healing skill, allowing the wizard to read a patient's emotional state and providing information on the subject's state of health.
Wizards may use Life Extension to lend truth to stories about wizards being immortal or having very long life spans. This can create awe and no small amount of jealousy on the part of normal people and could lead to very old and powerful wizards who accumulate skill and power over the centuries. Perhaps legends of liches and similar "undead" began this way.
Psychic VampirismPsychic Vampirism can form the basis of vampire legends, as well as necromancers who use magic to steal the vitality of others. Perhaps vampires are not undead at all, but powerful psis using Psionic Vampirism to steal life from others and extend their own lives.
The Steal Power skill can also be used somewhat more humanely as a means for several wizards to freely give some of their power to another for a particularly difficult psionic feat. In this case, a successful Steal Power roll is all that is required, the subject does not resist. Less scrupulous magicians can, of course, still use unwilling subjects for this purpose. If everyone is latently psionic (p. P102), then even normal people can be drained for 1 point of Power each!
PsychokinesisPsychokinesis (aka "fetching" or "shaping") is the "workhorse" power of the psionic wizard, used to perform virtually all physical feats of magic, from levitation to spontaneous combustion. Telekinesis is used to move objects, deflect attacks and strike at foes, allowing a wizard to do things like crushing a victim's heart or choking them from a distance. Using a focus like a voodoo doll to obtain a Telescan "lock," a psionic wizard can even inflict harm on a target from afar. Levitation allows a wizard to fly, and PK Shield can deflect many physical attacks (especially in a low-tech campaign, where a little DR goes a long way). Wizards can also use Telekinesis to deflect missile attacks like arrows and thrown weapons.
Some of these abilities may be considered the work of invisible spirits, leading to legends of magicians with numerous spirit helpers to carry out their will.
A powerful psychokinetic wizard can be a terror in combat. A low-Power psychokinetic has some strong limitations. Cryokinesis and Pyrokinesis require considerable time and patience to be effective. They are virtually useless in combat. Levitation needs Power 5+ to work on an average human adult, and even then is slow. PK shield provides some protection at low levels, but not enough to deflect most weapons. Telekinesis can move only very limited weights, but is still capable of great precision with sufficient skill. Direct TK attacks (p. P35) are still quite effective if the telekinetic pinches off a blood vessel or the trachea.
TelepathyTelepathy allows psionic wizards to perform all the classical feats of mental magic: mind reading, charms, illusions, mental suggestion, and psychic attack. Most "wizards duels" are in fact mental struggles of telepathy or combats carried out on the astral plane; or even both, with astrally projecting adepts using psychic "weapons" against the Mind Shields of their opponents.
Mind Shield is a wizards first-line defense against most hostile magic. Apprentices are always taught the Mind Shield skill if they are able to learn it at all (psionic wizards should probably be allowed to purchase Mind Shield as a single-skill Power). Powerful wizards are able to extend their psychic shields to protect others near them (p. P38).
Psionic "signatures" will be used to trace the work of particular wizards, and individuals with Signature Sniffer and Psi Sense skills may be employed as "witch smellers," either to find potential candidates for training or to hunt down anyone with the Talent for the Inquisition!
Low-Power sharply limits the range of telepathic skills. Aspect is quite useless at low-Power. Mental Blows of low-Power can stun, but cause no real damage. Mental Stab needs a Power of at least 5. Mind Shield is less effective at low-Power, but a high skill still makes the shield quite useful. Other telepathic skills are limited almost solely by range -- skill is more important than power for abilities like Telereceive, Illusion and Telecontrol.
TeleportationTeleportation gives psionic wizards the ability to appear and disappear at will, perhaps in clouds of smoke or sparks, as well as "walk through walls" at low Power and escape from various forms of bindings and traps. They can use Exo-Teleport to make items, creatures and even people (if they have sufficient Power) appear or vanish out of thin air, useful for conjuring tricks as well as "banishings." Some or all wizards might even have the World Jumper advantage (see GURPS Time Travel) and be able to travel to alternate dimensions or times.
Teleport is a weak ability at low-Power, which greatly limits its range. Combat Teleport requires Power 10 and Exo-Teleport is quite weak at low levels, able to move less than an ounce. Low-power Auto-Teleport can still allow a teleporter to "walk through walls" or escape "impossible" traps in the manner of Houdini.
RitualsPsionic wizards still use the ritual trappings of traditional magic, as a framework for focusing and intensifying their innate psionic abilities. Wizards may have Limitations like Preparation Required on some or all of their psi abilities to reflect the elaborate rituals needed to activate the ability. This is especially true of many ESP abilities (especially Precognition) which are not usually performed on the spur of the moment.
A ritual circle of telepathic wizards can form a psychic gestalt to increase their power (p. P37). This would requires all the wizards to enter into telepathic rapport, and each must have the ability to be augmented in order to add to the power of the gestalt. A large enough circle of wizards could extend their power over a great distance and perform massive feats beyond the ability of any of the individual members.
FociMagical items in a psionic wizardry campaign are exceedingly rare, because magic does not reside in objects, it exists solely as a product of the human mind. This limits magical power primarily to wizards.
Wizards might use items to focus their concentration and improve their own abilities. Such an item is called a focus. A focus has no power of its own, but because of its form, or something inherent in its structure, a focus improves and strengthens the wizard's concentration. The most common foci are crystals, which are believed to amplify psionic energy. Examples include the shiral crystals from the Deryni books and the "mage stones" used by mages in Valdemar.
A focus usually provides a boost to the user's Power. An example of this is given for the crystals used by the Disciples of Change (GURPS Religion, p.151): each 10 carats of flawless crystal adds +1 to one Power if the user is in contact with the crystal and makes a successful Meditation roll. If crystals are useful as psionic amplifiers, it explains the tendency for fortunetellers to use crystal balls and the craze for crystals in the New Age movement.
PotionsEven primitive psionic wizards may discover and use plants and herbs that have natural psi-enhancing properties, similar to Brainstorm, Mind Hype, or even Blue Fire from GURPS Psionics (p. P78-79). Enhancing drugs can be used to bring out latent powers or simply enhance weaker power levels for wizards attempting more powerful effects. Likewise, those seeking to restrain those with psionic powers may discover a natural extract that functions like Shatter or Monobloc (p. P79-80). The anti-Deryni drug merasha is one example.
FamiliarsAnother potential focus for a psionic wizard is some kind of catalyst creature (p. P54). Certain animal pets or companions might a psi's inherent powers while they are present, others might have a tendency to bring out latent abilities in their masters. Catalyst creatures can take the form of familiars, and might be attributed greater powers than they truly have, considered to be spirits or demons in animal form.
There is also the possibility of non-human psionic wizards in the campaign world. If a fantasy world includes races like orcs, elves and dwarves, they may all have psionics powers of their own. Perhaps some races are inherently better at certain powers than others: elves are excellent empaths, while dwarves are stolidly anti-psionic (or have high levels of Psionic Resistance).
Other psionic creatures and "monsters" may exist. For example, dragons may have evolved from psionic dinosaurs that learned the use their inborn psi powers to survive the extinction of their cousins and evolve greater intelligence. A dragon wizard might possesses tremendous psionic power, using pyrokinesis to "breathe fire," levitation to fly in defiance of the Laws of Aerodynamics and life extension to live for hundreds or even thousands of years. Other creatures may possess natural psi abilities they use to stalk and capture prey, or for defense. Creatures may also have Psionic Resistance, making them difficult for psionic wizards to deal with.
Ghosts And SpiritsA psionic wizardry world can also feature beings of pure psionic energy, like a Being of Pure Thought or an astral entity. Some may be psis whose bodies died but whose minds lived on, creating "ghosts" (like the ghosts from GURPS Black Ops). Other entities may come from elsewhere on the astral plane, perhaps even from the mysterious "inner" plane (or the Collective Unconscious).
Immune to physical harm, these spirits can only be dealt with using psionic abilities like Telepathy and Psychic Vampirism. Anitpsi can also keep them at bay.
Psychic Magic CampaignsIn a psionic wizardry campaign, magic becomes a somewhat less "mechanical" force than it is in some fantasy campaign worlds. Wizards must rely entirely on their inner abilities and resources. Magic items are extremely rare and generally not useful for non-wizards. This means psionic wizards can become very powerful relative to other characters in the campaign, especially in a low-tech fantasy world. In such a setting, gamemasters may wish to impose an Unusual Background cost for psionic powers. Very high power levels (10+) in a specific psi power might also call for an Unusual Background, unless the campaign has characters built on 200 or more points.
Psionic wizardry can also add an element of fantasy to a modern or futuristic setting. Characters in a GURPS Space campaign can encounter a primitive world where the inhabitants have refined their native psi talents into a complex system of magical rituals, and many of the local life-forms have "magical" abilities. Is it "real" magic or just an application of psi? Keep the players guessing.
Article publication date: January 21, 2000
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