Monday, July 23, 2018

Beware the Telepath! Dangerous Psi abilities

In my recent fiction reading I've come upon some characters with some psionic ability or other. This has caused me to reconsider the way Traveller has handled psionics. In the Traveller Book, the psionics section mentions that the 3rd Imperium has a strong negative perception of psionics. There are nasty consequences for PCs with Psi talent who get caught using them.

When I started playing Traveller back in the early 80's, I thought that the rules about psionics in society were both harsh and arbitrary. I didn't think then about all the ways a psionic PC could cheat and sneak and cause trouble. The gang I played with back then wasn't inclined to thievery and vandalism. We wanted to be the good guys; and I still do.

I almost never played characters with psionic ability, so it didn't matter. I assumed that the OTU psi prejudice was included to explain the standoff between the Third Imperium and the Zhodani Consulate. I don't play in the OTU much either so I still didn't think about it much.
Perfect communication & perfect understanding
Now having read more stories that involve psionic characters, I can see more of why the general public worries about them. This is one more example of how reading the literature that inspired the game enlarges your understanding of it.

Why wouldn't normals view Psi power as a danger? Look at the examples we've got.

Take for example Leigh Brackett's Mars Minus Bisha from Planet Stories, (Jan 1954). If you haven't read it, go HERE and read it first. It's a good story, and not long. Bisha, a Martian, may have a psionic power that endangers all around her, even her friends.

Another recent read was Derai from E. C. Tubb's Dumarest series. The title character is a telepath. In a scene aboard a starship, she aids Dumarest in winning at a card game by reading the other people at the table, noting who is bluffing and who is not. No organized gambling establishment would allow such a person anywhere near the tables!

The title figure of C.L. Moore's famous tale Shambleau used psionic powers to influence Northwest Smith in a most, er, unhealthy way. (I wonder if others of that kind will ever show up in my TU? Hmmm.)

What about also the Mule from Asimov's Foundation books? He took over the whole galaxy, and threw the Foundation's plans for a loop. He was the unpredictable fringe element that had an extraordinary effect.

And these are but three examples from literature. I will mention in passing River Tam of Firefly, Talia Winters (PsiCorps) of Babylon 5, and Scarlet Witch of the MCU. All three were dangerous (at least to somebody). They weren't villainous but still caused a lot of trouble. Super-powers, whether 'psionic' in nature or not, represent a potential threat. Whether it becomes one is up to the character.

Psi power is disruptive.

Because you generally don't see it coming, and 'normals' have no defense against it.

Clairvoyants would be very useful spies, governmental or corporate. How can you keep secrets from people who can see inside your secret chambers?

Most of the Awareness talents are benign as they affect only the psi user. Even so, enhanced strength or endurance would give a competitor an edge in athletic competition. Or in a bar brawl.

Teleportation is great for theft and other purposes of intrusion. Locks and walls mean nothing when you can 'port past them.

Telekinesis? Can I quote “I find your lack of faith . . . disturbing,” and leave it at that?

The Special talent category causes even more worry because of the unpredictable nature of Special talents.

What should society do with Psi power then? Is the Imperium standard response (see TTB) the right one?
It's even more uncomfortable if it's you in the cross hairs. Some compassion please?
In an episode of Babylon 5, two characters discuss the necessity for controlling telepaths who don't work for Psi Corps. The non-telepath object to the use of psi suppressing drugs, because of their negative effects on normal brain function. This leads me to introduce a new category of psi-drug, the suppressor. At the end of the scene, the question is left open.

In Captain America:Civil War, Steve & Tony argue about Wanda, the Scarlet Witch. Tony calls her a “weapon of mass destruction”. This from Iron Man, the guy with an arc reactor in his chest! In his defense, powers in Marvel films, mental or otherwise, are always on a grander scale than what we find in Traveller. The whole film reflects a reasonable real world reaction to people who can throw cars around, sometimes with their mind.

Oh, and let us not forget River Tam's amusing warning, “Also, I can kill you with my brain.”

Can you name a sci-fi property where the main protagonist has some kind of psi power, and it is not considered a problem by groups in the setting? Or that the main antagonist doesn't have similar powers which are used for evil? (This covers Star Wars as far as I'm concerned)

What does this look like in my TU?

In my TU, only two star nations so far have an evident policy on psionics. They are very different, and fortunately, nowhere near one another.

The small star nation The Patrian Concordiat (Daktari Nebula subsector) officially and regularly uses telepaths as a secret police force to oppress the people. They are very good at rooting out dissent, because they can hear what you're thinking and do not respect personal space.

Opposite to this, the Solaris Alliance (my Zhodani analogue) have brought psi power into their culture in a positive way. It is still regulated both by law and cultural expectations but is generally viewed as a social good, and is not feared. Unless it gets out of control.

On most other worlds, I just haven't decided how people will react to psi powers. A rule of thumb is that the higher the Law Level, the more likely it is that psionics is controlled, registered or outlawed. Some societies will use psionics as part of the justice system; nothing like a mind-reader for getting at the truth of a crime. Or psi power is only illegal if it is used in the commission of some other crime.

What I have decided is that the Church recognizes that such abilities do exist; and that they can be wielded for both good and evil. Psi power is not the work of demons, but it can be a conduit for their influence if care is not taken with its use. Christians are not encouraged to seek out psi training, but if someone does have it, then regular consultation with a spiritual elder is strongly advised, to protect the psi from the temptation of power.

How do other non-OTU referees handle psionics in society? Share in the comments section.


New drug: Psionic Suppressor Cr 3,000 per dose.
A standard measure for controlling psionics without resort to incarceration or surgery. Psi-block is injected regularly or a subdermal implant emits the drug over the long term. A Single dose reduces available psi strength points by 1D+1 per dose. Available at TL10+. Each TL after introduction add one day to the time between doses. Double strength dosages are available, which reduce psi strength points by 2D+2. These are used only for the most powerful of psionics.

Each month of regular doses, the Referee should roll 2D. On a 2 exactly, the subject loses 1 point of Intelligence. If INT is reduced to zero, the character becomes permanently comatose.


  1. Hmm. MgT has an inhibitor drug available at TL9, It prevents regaining Psionic strength, and gives a substantial modifier to Psionic skills (-4). It's cheaper as well, at Cr 500/dose.

    1. I will ask my son (he's into the MgT rules) about that. I invented my psi-block out of mostly whole cloth, but with an eye to the B5 drug mentioned in the conversation I referred to. Changing the cost & TL is a simple matter.

    2. How long does a dose of psi-block normally last? One day? You mention how has TL increases dose length but not what the original length is. The "norplant" angle is interesting too. While psions would have physical implant which "trickles" out psi-block over a long (months?) period, that implant could also be a monitoring/tracking device.

  2. Excellent column as usual, Mr. Weaver. In all my years as a GM, I never had a player interested in psionics. In a few cases my players' reaction towards psionics more often veered towards a visceral loathing than tolerance, much like how some people react to snakes or spiders. In some of those cases it wasn't the player expressing their PC's opinion either, it was a personal revulsion. My players also encountered NPC psions, sometime knowingly and sometime not. Sometimes my players assumed a NPC was psion when they were not. In one case, a player's desire to perform a "field lobotomy" on a suspected psion sparked an argument which ended the session.

    I used psionics as a GM hewing strictly to Classic's RAW. I found the Classic rules very balanced. The psi strength costs and especially the duration of each talent all keep psionics on a level with more "mundane" skills. There's no psionic version of "caster dominance" as seen in many version of D&D.

    As for special powers, I stole ideas from a number of sources. Niven's Plateau eyes, database manipulation from that DGP adventure, healing by "transferring" wounds to your own body from TOS, and "borrowing" the body/perspective of an animal from Discworld.

  3. Telzey Amberdon from James H Schmitz is a protagonist in many of his short stories and also a powerful psionic. I wouldn't say there's no prejudice at all, but most people aren't bothered about psions as long as they're law abiding.