Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Where and When of Psi World

The setting of Psi World is an amorphous thing. The rulebook's fifth (and last) chapter – titled “The World” – provides setting information. The chapter begins, “It must be remembered that Psi World takes place in our own world, the Earth, in the not too distant future.” However, according to the book's introduction, “The game is set in a world (maybe Earth, maybe not)...” It is perhaps more accurate to say that Psi World represents a projection of what “our own world” might be, given the advent of psionic powers. Even so, the authors' campaign world was an alternate reality having nations different from our Earth. According to the first page of The Psi World Adventure...

The authors' playtest world is based firmly on modern-day Earth. Most of the people, societies, places, and events are derived from existing prototypes.

I think that 'analogs' is a more appropriate term than 'prototypes' in this context. Regardless, the authors' “playtest world” was was not Earth but it closely resembled Earth. 

Psi World does not postulate an exact year for its setting, that “is left to the Gamemaster.”  This represents a good try to avoid becoming dated.  (Make no mistake, Psi World is dated, but for reasons other than naming a particular year in its timeline.)  “The World” chapter explains that any given Psi World campaign should be set “in the next ten to fifty years.”

When describing their “playtest world,” the authors speak in terms of generations. Specifically, in the adventure book they say, “Three generations ago...” Actually, it should be two generations previous because the introductory scenarios transpire during 'the Third Generation.' Anyway, two generations prior to the current generation, 'the Bad Years' occurred. A small segment of the population developed psionic powers; these people became known as psis. Many became criminals or established themselves as petty rulers. “The world suffered a series of major sociological and political upheavals...” Eventually, people without psionics began to confront the 'Psionic Menace.' This was 'the Second Generation' (sometimes referred to as 'the Death of the Innocents'). Psis were egregiously persecuted. “Tens of thousands of psis or suspected psis died or were lobotomized...” With the onset of 'the Third Generation,' the government has stabilized. 'Normal' people discriminate against psis to such an extent that psis are segregated into ghettos.

Prior to 'the First Generation,' the authors' parallel Earth was loosely divided into three political factions: (1) the People's Confederacy (roughly analogous to Communist China) and its satellite nations, (2) the United Commonwealths (analogous to the U.S.), and (3) an association of “neutral nations” (similar to the European Common Market of the 80's). The People's Confederacy collapsed during 'the Bad Years' and has never re-unified. Although there is strong anti-psi sentiment in the United Commonwealths, many psis attempt to immigrate there “to escape the torture and murder in the world's divided and less-advanced nations.”

As hinted in an earlier post, Psi World allows for two types of campaign (or, as stated on the last page of the rulebook, “two basic types of worlds”).  In one type of campaign...

...ostracized and outnumbered Psis fight for survival against a paranoid and totalitarian government.

In the other type of campaign...

...valiant government agents battle cunning and vicious psionic revolutionaries and criminals...

Interestingly, the background setting that the authors provide accommodates both types of campaigns without any modification; the difference is subjective interpretation.  The adventure book contains two scenarios, one for psionic characters “or strongly in favor of the psionic position” and the other for characters who are “members of the Psionic Protection Agency” (the federal 'psi-police'). Both scenarios take place in Bishop County, which is in the “developing” commonwealth of New Arlin.  Bishop County includes Enclave, one of a few experimental communities – built “[t]hrough the use of funds donated by rich liberals” – where psis and normals co-exist in peace and harmony, working together to build a better society.  Neither of the scenarios actually takes place in Enclave, but psionic player characters for the first scenario are presumed to be Enclave residents.

The so-called “target” of the psi scenario is a safe house for the terrorist Psionic Freedom Organization; in essence, 'good psis' (the player characters) confront 'bad psis.'  The antagonist in the police scenario is a psi who is gaining control of an organized crime syndicate.  It seems there is good reason for normal people to be wary of psis.  (Even Enclave has a hidden agenda.)  While the United Commonwealths is not quite “paranoid and totalitarian,” other nations in the “playtest world” seem to fit that description.  In the U.C., the government poses less of a threat to psis than do certain extremist elements of society.  The League of Human Genetic Purity is an underground organization that is thoroughly intolerant of psionic society.  At clandestine League meetings, members wear hoods and frequently engage in “the burning of a large wooden trident (a stylized representation of ψ, the Greek letter Psi).”  How's that for heavy-handed analogy?

Psi World assumes two campaign types; either (1) psis persecuted by normal society or (2) “valiant government agents” who fight against a genuine psionic menace.  What about a third type?  What if a 'psionic elite' took control of the government?  The normals would be ruthlessly exploited by the 'privileged class' of psis.  The player characters would be part of the resistance movement.  In deference to the publication date of Psi World (1984), we can imagine the setting in Orwellian terms; the Thought Police would really be thought police.  Of course, who wants to play a game about psionic powers and not have characters with those powers?

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