Just Like Magic

Ritual Psionics in GURPS

by Stephen Kenson

Art by Dan Smith and Colored by Phil Reed

Isaac Bonewits' book Authentic Thaumaturgy describes the author's own views on fantasy and roleplaying magic, based largely on the use of innate psychic abilities, focused through certain rituals and the application of various magical laws. In GURPS terms, the system of "magic" Bonewits describes more closely resembles psionics rather than the standard magic system. However, the psionic abilities Bonewits describes are much more limited than the standard psionics rules, requiring considerable effort and focus. Standard GURPS psi powers are more like super-powers, always reliable (so long as you make your skill roll), and requiring no more effort than thought.

This system provides a setup similar to Bonewits', where psi powers exist, but are generally unreliable without the use of magical lore and rituals to focus them. The system is based on a new psionic limitation that encourages characters to use many of the trappings of magic to improve their psionic abilities.

Unfocused -75%

Your psionic skills are in need of a focus of some kind, a ritual. You suffer a flat -15 penalty to effective skill applied before any active psionic skill roll! This makes active use of your psionic abilities extremely difficult, without the use of any sort of focus (and quite dangerous as well, considering the possibility of critical failures). Note this penalty does not affect "passive" skill rolls; those abilities work normally.

If the GM allows, characters can take differing levels of this limitation. The modifier is -5% per -1 to effective skill. Note that the lower the penalty, the fewer rituals required to compensate for it and the more characters begin to look like super-powered psis rather than psychics or ritual magicians. It also quickly increases the cost of psionic Power, which may make characters too expensive for the campaign setting. A reduced limitation can represent more "enlightened" (or powerful) psis who have overcome some (or all) of the limitations others operate under.

Focusing Techniques

How do psis with the Unfocused limitation overcome the tremendous difficulty in using psionic skills reliably? They make use of certain "focusing techniques" to enhance their concentration and create an altered state of consciousness, allowing them to more easily tap into the latent powers of the mind. These techniques are the familiar trappings of the magical arts and many psychic practioners.

When using a psionic skill, a character can choose to perform any combination of the techniques below, gaining the listed modifiers to effective skill. The character's effective skill can never be increased above the base skill level, the foci only serve the overcome the Unfocused penalty, they do not improve the character's chances beyond that.

Distance: Psi skills have a normal distance at which they function. Operating at a lesser distance makes the skill easier to use. For every halving of the skill's normal range, the character gets +1 to effective skill (up to +3). If he touches the subject, the character gets +4 (note this is in place of the normal +1 to skill for touching a subject on p. B167.)

Fatigue: A psi can spend additional fatigue to enhance the use of a skill. Each point of fatigue spent, in addition to the skill's normal fatigue cost, adds +1 to effective skill. Note the Extra Effort rules (p. B166) work normally for psis looking to increase power rather than skill.

Location: Consecrated areas are places where psychic energy flows more freely, unrestrained by the wrong "vibes". Most places are not consecrated, and offer no bonus. A character can perform a brief (1d minute) ritual to quickly consecrate an area, providing a +1 bonus. A true consecrated area (requiring a week's worth of rituals to prepare, and regular maintenance), gives a +2 bonus. A consecrated area at least 20 years old gives a +3 bonus, 50 years old +4, 100 years old +5, 500 years old +6, and ancient ritual sites over a thousand years old provide a +7 bonus. GMs can use GURPS Places of Mystery as a guide to ancient mystic and ritual sites, likely to be quite important in a setting with ritual psionics.

Materials: Psis can use various objects to enhance their connection to the target of a skill. A small object (like a piece of clothing) adds +1, fingernail or hair clippings add +2, photographs or blood samples add +3. Having the target physically present and in the psi's line of sight adds +4.

Symbols: Symbols of power help enhance the use of psi. A simple amulet, talisman, or the like adds +1 to skill, while more detailed symbols, created using the Symbol Drawing skill (p. CI147) add +1 for every 2 points the skill roll is made by, to a maximum of +3. Characters with the Mystic Symbol advantage (p. VO60) may add their bonus to their effective skill.

Rituals: Speaking words of power (mantras) and making certain gestures (mudras) can provide focus. A few soft words or a quick gesture with a couple fingers adds +1, both adds +2, speaking and gesturing clearly adds +3, while elaborate movements and loud incantations add +4.

Time: Activating a psi skill normally takes one second of concentration. For every doubling of the time required, the character gets +1 to effective skill, to a maximum of +5 (requiring 30 seconds of concentration). Alternately, the character can choose to prepare for a skill use by meditating, performing rituals, etc. Once prepared, the skill can be used immediately (with one second of concentration) and a bonus based on the preparation time. One minute is +2, 10 minutes is +3, an hour is +4, and a full 8-hour day of preparation is +5.

Examples of Ritual Psi Use

Just Like Magic

Mr. Black, mystic detective, wants to locate a kidnap victim using Telescan. He has Telepathy Power 16 with the Unfocused limitation and a Telescan-15. He also has a small lock of the girl's hair (+2). Mr. Black goes to the back room in his office, which he uses a ritual space (consecrated ground, +2). He performs a 10 minute centering ritual to prepare himself (+3), then lights some incense and concentrates on the hair, chanting and weaving gestures through the smoke (+3), he does so for a full 30 seconds (+5), then reaches out for the girl. The various rituals provide a bonus of +15, enough to overcome the skill modifier and allow Mr. Black to roll against his normal skill.

Mrs. White wants to heal an injured friend. He's been shot and is down to 6 HT (from 11). She has Healing Power-8 and a Healing-13. She performs the ritual in her house, which is consecrated ground (+2), using some herbs she's gathered (a symbol, +1). She can also see the subject as she works on him (+4). She works quickly, taking about 10 seconds (+3), and humming a soothing song while she weaves symbols through the air and sprinkles herbs (+3). Mrs. White gets no bonus for touching her subject, since the Healing skill has no range. Her total bonus is 13, leaving her with only a -2 modifier, making her effective skill 11. She decides to put a little more omph behind it and spends 2 fatigue, making the modifier +0. She rolls against her normal skill and succeeds, healing 5 hits and spending another 2 fatigue.

Ms. Gray needs to fend off a serial killer she's been tracking. She has Telepathy Power 12 and Mental Blow-15. The killer is close at hand, well within a quarter of her normal range (+3), and Ms. Gray can see him clearly (+4), she's wearing an amulet, and concentrates on it (+1), then levels a finger at the oncoming killer and speaks a word of power (+2). She doesn't have the luxury of time for any other rituals, so she also spends an additional 3 fatigue, on top of the 1 fatigue Mental Blow requires. That makes the final modifier a -2 and her effective skill a 13. Better hope it's enough.


The basic ritual psi system presented here can work in pretty much any setting that accommodates magic or psionic powers. Overall, the system tends to encourage subtle power use with a fair amount of preparation time and planning, or short bursts of power that leave the user exhausted, not unlike many fantasy magic systems. It tends to be better suited for settings where magic is expected to work similar to how modern occultists and neo-pagans (like Isaac Bonewits) believe it works.

Fantasy: Ritual psi can serve as an alternate form of magic in a fantasy world like Yrth, from GURPS Fantasy. The modification from the Unfocused limitation makes psi nearly as affordable as magic, and psis still need fewer skills compared to the average mage. There will certainly be those interested in finding out more about this "new" form of magic, and there will likely be "wizards" on both sides of the fence looking to suppress the rival form of magic, while others seek to learn both! Psi abilities could certainly revolutionize things in Low Mana Caithness, for example, which relies on its magic-poor nature to protect it from the fearsome sorcerers of Megalos.

Alternately, ritual psionics could be the only form of "magic" in a fantasy game. This is particularly well suited to alternate historical games, as well as modern "urban fantasy," where magic and psychic phenomena tend to blend together. The system could be a type of alternate initiation in GURPS Voodoo, similar to (but not the same as) the ritual magic used by initiates. It also works well for modern Cliffhangers, Horror or Illuminati campaigns where magic needs a "scientific" basis (or, at least, some scientific trappings). Researchers can say "magic is just a form a psi" and they're right! GURPS Y2K suggests psi might become a "magic system" for certain types of post-holocaust settings, and ritual psionics helps to keep such abilities subtle and mysterious.

Science Fiction: Science fiction settings often include psionic abilities, and ritual psi allows the GM to "tone down" psionics without limiting power or skill levels as much. It also permits the inclusion of "magic" in an otherwise technological setting. For example, the GM can set up primitive worlds where psis are considered "witches" and "magicians." Psis in the GURPS Traveller universe, especially those who are untrained or were trained at an eccentric psionic insititute, might have the Unfocused limitation. Functional psionic abilities might be brought out by alien intervention, genetic engineering, cybernetics, or industrial accidents.

Cyberpunk: A cyberpunk setting like GURPS Cyberworld might feature ritual psi abilities, sought after by the government and the korps, and used by punks on the street. A "psionic revolution" can turn a cyberpunk world into something similar to FASA's Shadowrun. The GM can focus on the psionic technology (particularly biotech and implants) from GURPS Psionics, combined with the Unfocused limitation and focusing techniques. Perhaps the first generation of psis needs a lot of rituals, but later "upgrades" continues to get more and more proficient, eventually building towards super-psis with complete control over their powers (shades of the classic anime Akira).

CthulhuPunk: Ritual psi abilities (particularly ESP and Telepathy) fit well into the GURPS CthulhuPunk setting, since they make the powers less accessible and reliable, and more mysterious. They also help keep the cost down, allowing characters to have a single power (or even a couple powers) without breaking the point bank.

Black Ops: The setting in GURPS Black Ops already assumes that all "magic" is really just psi. PsiOps are very likely to have the Unfocused limitation, cutting the cost of their powers and making them more subtle, particularly when compared to the full-blown psi abilities of rogues like the Lodge or Mind. Lower-level psis in those organizations might also require focusing techniques, until they are initiated into the secrets of the inner orders and their minds are "opened up" to their full potential.

Alternate Earths: Psionic abilities are known on some parallel Earths of the "Infinite Worlds" setting. Ritual psi could be a tool in the arsenal of Infinity Unlimited or the Centrum (or both). It fits in just fine on Ming-3 and Midgard from GURPS Alternate Earths 2. It could also show up on Shikoku-Mon or Reich-5 from GURPS Alternate Earths. GMs can even apply the Unfocused limitation to the World Jumper advantage from GURPS Time Travel, forcing psionic world jumpers to use different focus techniques to help them reach other parallel worlds. For example, "consecrated ground" may be places where the barriers between worlds are the thinnest, making ancient ruins and neolithic sites major "way stations" for world-jumping travelers.

Article publication date: February 18, 2000

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