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The Mutant Question: Psionics

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2015 issue, and reprinted in the September/October 2022 issue.

For me one of the joys of a setting is imagining what life within the setting would really be like. That’s the whole impetus for the “Slice of Life” series of articles. For a science fiction setting like the Twilight Sector we’re taking a look at how technologies (and sometimes other things) would affect the lives of people (including player characters) within the setting.

In the Twilight Sector setting, “Mutants” is a rather broad category, ranging from natural mutants ostracized because they look different, to humans whose DNA has been intentionally altered to allow them to adapt to any number of environments that humanity has encountered during their migration to the stars. Because it’s such a big question let’s focus on just one group of mutants: Psions. You might be surprised to find Psionics listed as a mutation at all, but in the Twilight Sector, psions are classified as mutants both legally and by public perception. It’s just an unseen one, called “The Hidden Mutation” by the popular press. Let’s take a look at Psionics and how it might be perceived by a society in which it exists.

Consider the girl next door. She looks like a baseline human. Oh, her parents probably gave her a few beautification gene tweaks, but that’s just good parenting. What if she’s psionic? You’ve got no way to tell. She could even be reading your mind as you pass her on the street! How would you know?

This fear, of someone being able to know your thoughts without your knowledge, is perhaps the most visceral anti-mutant/anti-psionic fear and drives many baseline humans’ negative reactions to psionics. It is based in fact, which makes it all the harder to shake. (It should be noted that this is also the fear used as the basis for Psionic suppression in the Imperial portions of the OTU. This type of fear and the reactions it engenders would be applicable to the border areas with the Zhodani in the OTU. I’m looking at you, Spinward Marches.) That fear is tempered in the Twilight Sector setting by the positive contributions that psionics have made to society.

In heavy industry (including manufacturing and construction) and cargo handling, for example, Telekinesis allows material to be moved and positioned with more precision and less danger to workers and property than purely mechanical means such as cranes and scaffolding. The result has been the reduction (to the point of near-complete elimination) of certain classes of accidental death or injury, or property damage.

Emergency responders also benefit from having Telekinetics on staff; moving debris or victims where there is insufficient stability to mount purely mechanical clearance or evacuation operations has saved many lives that otherwise would have been lost after such disasters as building collapses, multi-vehicle collisions, and so on. Clairvoyance and Telepathy/Telempathy also have roles in such rescues, making it possible to find victims before they die – possibly even before the rescue operations are fully under way.

In many environments where non-psions are necessarily exposed to danger to do necessary and important jobs, higher-level psions can reduce or eliminate such exposure. Examples include handling radioactive materials (for example, refueling fission reactors: Clairvoyance to look in to the reactor vessel to see what’s going on, and Telekinesis to move the fuel rods) or dangerous chemicals (Telekinesis and Microkinesis virtually eliminates the danger from spilling them on the chemist), undersea and space construction (similar benefits to ground construction, plus the Telekinetic not necessarily having to leave a rigid craft for a flimsy, comparatively easily-punctured personal suit), and so on.

Medicine has unquestionably benefited from psionics: Surgery has become less damaging (“traumatic”, in the medical sense) because of Clairvoyance, Telekinesis, Microkinesis, and talents involving metabolic control; Clairvoyance, Telepathy, and Telempathy have contributed to increases in accuracy of diagnosis, and earlier detection of some conditions; and the use of Telepathy and Telempathy in mental health has increased our understanding of the human psyche and allowed treatment of disorders that haven’t been amenable to “traditional” therapies. Even the rare person whose blindness or deafness proves uncorrectable can live a nearly normal life with a telepathic companion/assistant willing to “share” vision or hearing with them.

Where fraud is a concern, telepaths and telempaths can have roles in investigation, both covertly and overtly, as customer-facing “clerks” before the fraud actually occurs and as investigators afterward. In these roles, they have contributed to companies’ bottom lines and to reduction of government “waste”. Governments have also found that they’re better able to prevent undesirables from entering their jurisdiction, while being able to reduce barriers for those who have honest purpose.

Corporate interest in telepaths and telempaths extends beyond fraud protection – psions with those talents make excellent recruiters, sales representatives, hiring interviewers, and negotiators. Governments can also benefit from psions in similar roles.

Law enforcement and the justice system can use many psionic talents, from Clairvoyance and Telepathy in criminal investigations to Telekinesis to aid in capturing and restraining “guests of the system” to Telepathy and Telempathy to help determine the truth to just about any talent to help manage those “guests” who are “invited” for an extended stay.

Most game masters will likely not have to spend much time to add to this list. It also should not be forgotten that less savory types would have an equal number of job openings for psions, doing many of the same activities for less than honorable purposes.

All that being given, still, no one wants to have their mind read without their knowing it. In the Twilight Sector setting it has led baselines and even non-psionic mutants to take up training in how to shield themselves from psionic mind reading. There are legitimate methods that can be learned but there is also a plethora of kooks and charlatans offering “psionic protections” on late-night holo-vid channels, ranging from talismans to hokey so-called “yoga exercises for the brain”. A technological solution exists for people equipped with wafer jacks. Similar to a husher it is a chip that can be plugged into the wafer jack and makes the user’s mind next to impossible to read. The chip can also be plugged into any personal computing device, but unless you hold it next to your head, it won’t offer the same level of protection.

In the Twilight Sector Setting there is a wide range of reactions to telepathy. Some nations, like the Archenar Peoples Republic and the Oster Republic, mercilessly hunt down telepaths. They would see any uncontrolled telepaths as a threat to state security, and would attempt to convert the telepath to state use after capture, but they do not want to let “wild” telepaths roam their societies. In those same states, psionic mind readers are heavily used by the State’s internal security police. The existence of mind readers and even more so the fact no one can tell who a mind reader is, is an important tool for these regimes to keep the populace toeing the party line.

Legal systems have long struggled with the issue of admissibility of psionic evidence. In some stellar nations, like the Orion Confederation, independently corroborated mind reading is admissible as evidence in legal proceedings in some jurisdictions (there are no absolutes in the Confederation), and even between jurisdictions that allow it, the rules for doing so may be widely variable. Other stellar nations, like the UUP, won’t allow it in any fashion. In still others, like the widely disparate Oster Republic and the Free Peoples Republic, mind reading by a specially trained court investigator is required.

So how does this affect my game? Well, it explains all the fear and loathing around psionics in most Traveller games. At the same time, it potentially offers characters additional tools to use during adventures, as well as offering opportunities to build adventures around.

New Skill: Anti-Psi

The character is trained in special mental thought techniques which make it very difficult for a Psionic individual to read their minds or use any other psionic mind affecting talent. There are two levels at which a character can employ this skill, passive and active. Using the skill passively takes a minor action, using it actively takes a significant action.

When used Passively, the telepath attempting to read a mind employing this skill finds the task difficulty 2 levels more difficult than normal and the psion’s skill check for the talent suffers a negative die modifier equal to the Anti-Psi skill level of the character. Actively using the skill makes the task difficulty 3 levels more difficult and the Anti-Psi skill level is again applied as a negative modifier. Note that any difficulty levels beyond Formidable still incur a -2 die modifier per level.

Any psion attempting to use their telepathy talent on someone employing this skill will immediately become aware that their intended target is employing Anti-Psi techniques. There is no characteristic check that substitutes for this skill and when used it should normally be paired with Endurance.

New Technology: Anti-Psi Chip

Anti-Psi Chip, TL 14, Mass: 2 grams, Range – Personal, Cost: 12,000cr

The Anti-Psi chip offers the same level of protection as though the individual was actively employing the Anti-Psi skill (3 task difficulty levels), albeit without any further negative modifiers for the telepath due to the target’s skill level. If the chip is deployed anywhere outside of a six inch(15 cm) distance from the head but still somewhere on the body it presents a 1 task difficulty level increase for the psion attempting the read the wearer’s mind.

Adventure Seeds

There are any number of adventures you can build around psionics.

The players could be hired to go to that planet they’ve been avoiding because a fruit grows there that their patron wants. It temporarily suppresses psionic abilities. Alternatively, the fruit could enhance existing psionic abilities, or even temporarily confer them on a non-psion.

The spy/thief/fugitive they are pursuing is a telepath and is using their ability to stay one step ahead of the players.

A telepath is on the run from the government/the mob/a secret organization, and turns to the players for help. Once they agree, she’ll know their every thought and if they decide to turn her in for the hefty reward they just found out about.