Saturday, April 14, 2012

Role Playing Game of Psionic Powers

A multi-sided game system in which the players may choose to belong
to either side in a sociological and genetic clash of power.
                                                        -- From the Introduction

Science fiction fans and RPG enthusiasts are doubtless familiar with the word psionic.  The word ultimately derives from psi (ψ), a term for 'psychic phenomena' which apparently was first used by Robert Thouless (What? No thoul?) in a paper published in 1942.  The -onics (as in 'electronics') came from science fiction writer/editor John W. Campbell, Jr. in the early 50's.  Campbell applied the term "psionic" to a 'Hieronymus machine,' a pseudoscientific gadget.  Unlike Hieronymus, Campbell believed that in order to generate the effects of the machine, a person didn't need the actual machine, just a symbolic representation of it.  Powers of the mind would do the actual work.  Personally, I think a better word would have been 'psitropic,' but there's nothing I can do about it.

Psi World was published as a boxed set in 1984 by Fantasy Games Unlimited. (This was back in the day when publishing a role-playing game as a boxed set was standard practice, not a 'retro-novelty.') Included in the box were: a 32-page rulebook, a 20-page adventure book, a Game Master's screen, a master character sheet, and dice (2d10 and 2d6). Evidently, box sets are still available from the publisher, as are two of the three supplements. Otherwise, PDF scans are available from RPGNow.

The game was designed by Delbert and Cheron Carr (or, as they are credited, Del Carr & Cheron). Prior to Psi World, they both worked on some of the early Role Aids books from Mayfair; after Psi World, they lack any RPG credits.

Art was provided by 'Bain Sidhe Studio.' Among the studio's members were Bill Willingham and Matt Wagner. Willingham's art is, of course, familiar to aficionados of 'old school' role-playing games. Both Willingham and Wagner would go on to achieve remarkable success in the comics industry. (By the time of the publication of Psi World, Wagner's signature characters, Grendel and Mage, had both seen print, but his fame was still accruing.) Other listed members of the studio were Bill Cucinotta and Rich Rankin, whose accomplishments in the comics industry have not managed to rival that of their onetime colleagues.

Psi World may not have been the original name chosen for the game.  In Section 1A (Scenarios and Design Ideas) of the adventure book, we find the following sentence:

It is the wish of the Authors that players and referees should have FUN in their quest to fulfill fantasies and live out dreams in all potential worlds of Psi Wars.

So, the working title for the game may have been Psi WarsPsi World is certainly more appropriate; Psi Wars sounds like...well, a war game.

I find the above quote interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, the word 'authors' is capitalized while the words 'players' and 'referees' are not.  In the dedication, the Carrs seem to be more humble; 'authors' is not capitalized.  Also,  the term Gamemaster (thus capitalized) is more often used in the rules as opposed to 'referee.'  'Game Master' (as two words) seems to appear only on the back of the box. The other reason I find the sentence interesting is that it emphasizes the concept that games should be fun.  Nearly every game contains this exhortation in some form or other and, sadly, it is often overlooked or misconstrued.  Enjoyment is the entire purpose, not some ancillary effect.  Sometimes, it seems to your humble host that certain prominent entities within the OSR do not truly appreciate this or, perhaps, they have forgotten it.  I'm sorry...was I ranting again?  Let us move on.

Psi World is described thusly on RPGGeek:

Heavily influenced by such classic science fiction as Van Vogt's Slan and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep [sic], the PCs are Psis in a world where they are hunted by an oppressive government. Alternatively, the game allows the players to take on the rolls of the hunters, as well.
Upon reading this description, your humble host thought that it must apply to an edition of Psi World with which he was not familiar.  Alas, there is only one edition of Psi World; the breadth of knowledge of the person writing the description seems to have been inadequate to do justice to the game.  I cannot discount A. E. van Vogt’s Slan as an influence – it is a science fiction classic – but I would hesitate to say that Psi World was heavily influenced by it.  More direct influences certainly include motion pictures such as Scanners and The Fury as well as various works by Stephen King.  Otherwise, there is definitely a PKD vibe at work in Psi World, but it emanates from works other than 'Androids.'
Additionally, the RPGGeek description states that player characters are Psis "hunted by an oppressive government" or they "take on the rolls of the hunters."  This is the 'multi-sided' aspect referenced in the introductory quote; however, the implication in the RPGGeek description is that the government is oppressive regardless.  This is simply not the case and I hope to show this as I continue my analysis of the game.

1 comment:

  1. That's wild, I just started reading Slan over the weekend. I'm curious to see what you say about Psi World, I don't have it but have considered picking it up. I'd be particularly interested in how adaptable the powers are to other systems.