This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue.
The standard rules for psionics in Traveller (and in Cepheus Engine) implement a model that can best be described as ‘cinematic’, and of a type often derided as an attempt to put a veneer of ‘scientific’ respectability over what would otherwise be ‘just plain magic’.
The standard setting for Traveller as written discourages the use of psionics – getting the training is difficult, there is general hostility to the idea, even the Imperial services don’t acknowledge that they use them (and do so only covertly)…
It’s possible, however, to have psionics in a campaign without the cinematic effects, and without the difficulty of training – and, for the most part, it may not even be perceived as psionics. This is the premise of Low Psionics.
What is Low Psionics?
Low Psionics is a set of abilities or talents that don’t require the active use of psionic strength, don’t directly influence or affect anyone other than the psion, and, for the most part, only provide limited information to the psion.
How do Low and Standard Psionics Differ?
The main difference is active vs. passive: standard psionics require the psion to deliberately exercise an ability and expend psionic strength points to do it, while low psionics are ‘always on’ and don’t require the expenditure of any psionic strength points. The other important difference is range: low psionics operate only at a maximum of short range, and in most cases are most useful only at close or personal range.
Some low psionic abilities are similar to standard psionic abilities. However, the mechanism by which the low psionic version works is not understood, and generally does not provide the standard power’s level of detail.
What Are the Low Psionic Abilities?
Theorists looking at low psionics suggest that there may be some sort of field produced and emitted by minds over a certain level of complexity (all sophonts are sufficiently complex; there are unconfirmed reports of some ‘higher’ animals, mostly apex or near-apex predators, being detected), and the low psion’s mind has the ability to detect these fields. At higher levels of “training” or sensitivity, the low psion may be able to identify species (if not human) or individuals known to him/her, and determine the [relative] location of the mind[s] s/he is aware of.
Aura Reading/Emotion Detecting
These are two different names for the same thing, and some theorists suggest that it is ‘merely’ a refinement of Presence Awareness. This ability allows the low psion to know the emotional state of other nearby minds. In practice, large crowds seem to ‘blur’ or obscure emotional detail for all but the closest individuals; the best the low psion can do in such cases is note what basic emotion is prevalent in the crowd. (Deanna Troi, the “ship’s counselor” in Star Trek: The Next Generation, had an ability similar to this, but in her case it might have been an ‘active’ ability (standard psionics, not low psionics)).
There are no theories that purport to explain this ability. The low psion with this ability is capable of jumping to a correct conclusion from logically insufficient information. When asked to explain a conclusion, the low psion will either profess inability to do so, or the logic chain will be tight – but worked out after the fact. (Randall Garret’s detective Lord Darcy, working in a world where magic is real, seemed to have an ability akin to this, although his assistant/sidekick, Master Sorcerer Sean Ó Lochlainn, suggests that it was instead a ‘touch of the Talent’, meaning magical ability within the context of that world.)
Generating Low Psionics For A Character
In a campaign where Low Psionics is permitted, all characters should roll for psionic sensitivity during character generation. This is a roll of 2D, divided by 2 (drop fractions), and subtract 2 from the result (minimum 0). A character that scores 0 on this roll has no low psionic sensitivity. A non-zero result represents the character’s base low-psionic sensitivity (but see below, “Can Low and Standard Psionics Exist Together?”).
Characters that have achieved skill and discipline equivalent to the ‘black belt’ of many East Asian martial arts may raise their low-psionic sensitivity by 1, but only to a maximum of 4.
To determine which low-psionic abilities a character has, roll 2D for each, in order: Presence Awareness, Aura Reading, Intuition. Rolls are for 10+, DM +low-psionic sensitivity; each ability that a character is found to have incurs a (cumulative) DM -1 for the following roll(s).
What Does a Character’s Low-Psionic Sensitivity Mean?
The character’s low-psionic sensitivity defines what level of information they can get out of their ability. The lists below provide general guidelines; the referee should make the final determination on a case-by-case basis when the ability is actually used. Note that a low psion doesn’t have separate ability ‘scores’; the low psionic sensitivity defines what the psion can ‘get’ from each ability if s/he has it at all.
Level 1: The low psion can determine (yes/no only) whether sufficiently complex minds are within close range, even if concealed.
Level 2: The low psion can determine the direction of sufficiently complex minds within close range, but cannot distinguish the number in that direction, or the presence (yes/no) of sufficiently complex minds within short range.
Level 3: The low psion can determine the number and direction of sufficiently complex minds within close range, or the direction (but not the number) within short range.
Level 4: The low psion can determine the number and direction of sufficiently complex minds within short range.
Level 1: The low psion can identify the prevailing emotion within close range.
Level 2: The low psion can identify specific individuals’ emotion within personal range, specific groups of individuals’ prevailing emotions within close range, or the prevailing emotion within short range.
Level 3: The low psion can identify specific individuals’ emotion within close range, or the prevailing emotion of specific groups of individuals within short range.
Level 4: The low psion can identify specific individuals’ emotion within short range.
Level 1: The low psion can, when presented with a set of possibilities for a situation’s explanation, select the correct one. S/he cannot generate the possibilities intuitively, nor can s/he explain why s/he made the choice.
Level 2: The low psion can arrive at the correct possibility for a situation without prompting. Given sufficient time, the low psion can come up with a reasonable (but not necessarily correct) explanation of why s/he chose the indicated possibility.
Level 3: Given sufficient time, the low psion will come up with the correct explanation for a choice, even though s/he may not have all of the possible information.
Level 4: The low psion knows the correct explanation immediately, even if there is logically insufficient information. With appropriate skill sets, s/he will be able to “work backward” to gather the information/evidence.
A low psion with multiple abilities will be able to use them together, e.g., drawing a correct intuitive conclusion based on perceiving a suspect’s emotions.
Using Low Psionics In Play
What Can Low Psionics Do?
Low Psionics can give a character an edge in many situations – not a large one, but enough to make a difference. For example:
- The Low Psion in a combat situation might be able to tell that s/he’s approaching an ambush – or, once in it too far to avoid, might be able to determine how many opponents there are, and where. An experienced one might even be able to know what the opponents are doing, or who they are (specific identity) if they’re know to the Low Psion. Knowing who or what doesn’t automatically mean being able to get out of the situation, but proper skill sets plus the additional information could be enough to prevent disaster. [Presence Awareness]
- In a social situation, the Low Psion may know whether the person they’re dealing with is friendly, neutral, or hostile, or might have a ‘knack’ for smoothing over a potentially bad situation. Maybe it won’t change a bad situation into a good one, but it might change ‘if I or my people see you in town, you’ll be shot on sight’ to ‘stay clear of my territory and my people, and they’ll stay clear of you’. Again, merely knowing the details doesn’t get the psion out of the situation, but the information may be enough to allow the low psion to use his/her social skills more effectively. [Aura Reading/Emotion Detecting]
- The Low Psion might well be a Sherlock Holmes or Lord Darcy type of investigating agent – able to come to a correct conclusion almost instantly, and then working out the explanation ‘backwards’.[Intuition]
- A low psion acting as a therapist or other psychology professional may always seem to have a good handle on a patient/client’s emotional state, even if the patient isn’t talking about it. [Aura Reading/Emotion Detecting]
“Training” Low Psionics
The only way for a character to “train” his/her Low Psionic ability is to use it. The “Black Belt” martial artist gets the +1 benefit because many martial arts include training in being aware of one’s surroundings using all of one’s senses, and if there is an additional meditative component to the study, it allows the student to focus on what s/he perceives in any way. However, the maximum benefit that a character may realize from this sort of training is +1, regardless of the amount of training taken or the character’s starting Low Psionic sensitivity, and even with the martial arts benefit, a low psion’s maximum Low Psionic Sensitivity cannot rise above level 4.
Refereeing Low Psionics
It was mentioned previously that Low Psionics is ‘passive’ and ‘always on’. Treat it as though it’s a ‘normal’ sense, like sight or hearing, and describe things in the same sort of general terms: “As you approach the copse of trees, you hear a little bit of rustling, but you don’t actually see anyone. However, you somehow know that there is a small group near that big tree to the right, and they’re hostile (though they don’t seem angry).” You don’t need to ask the character if they’re using their Low Psionic abilities.
If the character wants to focus on one of their Low Psionic abilities, handle it the same way you would if the character wanted to focus on hearing or smelling: “You listen carefully, and can tell that the rustling is made by three people, one of them with a heavier tread than the other two”. There isn’t actually any more information available, but the character becomes more conscious of the details: “When you concentrate on the prevailing emotional atmosphere, you still see that there’s only one person who actively hates you, but now you can tell that he’s behind and to the right of the rest of the group of hostiles.”
Don’t require any rolls that wouldn’t normally be required – if you wouldn’t require a roll for the character to see or hear something, don’t require a roll for them to perceive something with Presence Awareness or Aura Reading.
Situations where a character can’t concentrate on using their normal senses are also situations where they might not be able to concentrate on using Low Psionics. Any DMs imposed against the characters being able to gain information from their normal senses should also apply to gaining information from Low Psionics.
Can Low Psionics Be Blocked?
Sight can be blocked by opaque objects between the viewer and the target. Sound can be blocked by sound-absorbent materials between them. Low Psionics – specifically, Presence Awareness and Aura Reading – can be blocked, too – by anything that would block standard psionic talents such as Read Surface Thoughts or Life Detection. Since Intuition doesn’t actually involve a target mind, it can’t be blocked. In fact, the conclusion-drawing part of Intuition at level 2 or above doesn’t actually need detailed consideration, so it will continue to work even in stressful situations where the characters don’t actually have time to think or plan before reacting – the character with good combat skills and Intuition will have a better chance of getting him/herself and his/her compatriots out of a firefight safely than someone with identical skills but lacking Intuition, because the Intuition will allow him/her to know the “right thing to do” at the right time, even if s/he can’t explain how s/he knows.
Can Low and Standard Psionics Exist Together?
That depends on what the question means.
If it’s asking whether a campaign can have characters with standard psionics and other characters with low psionics, then the answer is “Yes” – there’s no reason why the two can’t coexist. It’s up to you, as the referee, to decide whether to allow it; it’s neither mandatory nor prohibited for the two to appear in the same campaign.
If, on the other hand, it’s asking whether the same character can have both standard psionic talents and low psionic abilities, the intent is that it should not be possible: to the extent that standard psionics and low psionics allow similar capabilities, the standard psionics – plus the standard psion’s natural shields – would ‘swamp’ the low psionics. However, you, the referee, are the final arbiter of the question, and if you feel you have workable rules for handling a character having both standard and low psionics, there’s no real reason not to try it.