Originally published in Dragon magazine #255
Psionics in the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game
Whether it’s the matchless mind of Professor Charles Xavier or the tremendous telepathy and telekinesis of Nate Grey in X-Man, fantastic mental powers or “psionics” are a staple of the Marvel Universe. Psionic heroes and villains offer unique opportunities and challenges to MARVEL players and Narrators. This article looks at psi powers in the Marvel Universe and how to use them to add some interesting new twists to your MARVEL adventures.
The first question is: what are “psionic powers” exactly? Psionics (“psi” for short) are extraordinary powers of the mind, like telepathy and telekinesis, the two most classic psi powers. Generally speaking, psi powers have Willpower as their trump suit, and psionic heroes rely on having a strong Willpower to help back them up in mental combat. Some psi powers have Intellect as their trump suit, particularly powers that affect the physical world, like Telekinesis.
A psionic hero should have a strong Willpower and a selection of mental powers. The hero might have only a single mental power (like Justice’s telekinesis), several powers (like Phoenix’s telepathy/telekinesis combo) or many powers, like Nate Grey’s collection of psi abilities. The Mental Control skill is very valuable for psionic heroes, since it lowers the difficulty of all powers based on Willpower (not just Mind Control). Don’t overlook the value of a Psi-Screen for protecting a psionic hero from mental attacks and powers; most psionics have some kind of mental defense to protect themselves from the powers of other psionics.
Psi powers (particularly telepathy) are very versatile, and can be used for many different stunts by the heroes and villains who possess them. In addition to all of the various stunts described in the MARVEL Game Book, here are some other applications and stunts psionics might try.
Astral projectors can use Willpower powers while in astral form, allowing them to use powers like Telepathy and Mind Control on other people while they are out of their body. This is a powerful ability, since an astral projector cannot be affected or even detected by anyone without the appropriate mental powers. Narrators should beware of heroes who try to go into action solely in astral form, making them immune to counterattack.
Heroes and villains capable of astral projection may fight battles entirely on the astral plane (like Professor X against the Shadow King, or Dr. Strange and many of his opponents). In astral form, physical abilities like Strength and Agility are irrelevant. Willpower serves the same function as Strength and Intellect the same function as Agility on the astral plane. Physical powers have no effect, only Willpower-based powers work. Two opponents with astral projection can fight a battle without anyone in the physical world even noticing.
As mentioned in the MARVEL Game Book, illusion can be a very potent power when its true nature is concealed from others. A skilled illusionist can appear to have any number of powers, even Reality Warping, if the subjects of the illusion don’t know it’s an illusion. Moonglow (from the Squadron Supreme) concealed the true nature of her illusion powers and pretended to have powers of Flight, Phasing, Light and Gravity Control using an illusory image of herself. The super-villain Mastermind was an expert at using illusions to confuse his opponents and turn them against each other by twisting reality, such as when he turned Phoenix against the X-Men or the X-Men against Cyclops by convincing them Cyclops was actually Dark Phoenix reborn.
A skilled illusionist often mixes illusion and reality, using an illusion to conceal a real danger like a trap or an enemy.
If an illusionist can make you doubt your senses, a mind controller can make you doubt your own thoughts and memories. Can you ever really be sure you did something of your own will, or was there some outside influence? A subtle opponent with Mind Control can plant thoughts, alter memories and arrange things so it’s almost impossible to be sure.
Generally speaking, only villains use powers like Emotion Control, Hypnosis and Mind Control casually. Psionic heroes have a special burden on them to use their powers wisely. They are reluctant to usurp control of another person’s mind against their will. A hero who does so on a regular basis may need to consider a change of Calling. Even powerful psionics like Professor X and Phoenix are loathe to interfere with the minds of others casually, and there are often consequences for such actions. When Professor X used his powers to shut down Magneto’s mind, a portion of Magneto’s consciousness was trapped in Xavier’s mind. It loosed the professor’s own dark side and created the entity known as Onslaught, which nearly killed many of the world’s greatest heroes.
Of course, villains have no compunctions about using their powers to control the minds of others and super-villains like Mesmero and the Shadow King treat other people as little more than puppets.
Brainwashing: A mind controller can attempt to brainwash someone rather than control them short-term. This stunt requires a daunting Mind Control (Willpower) action. If it succeeds, the controller can implant certain commands that the subject must carry out at a later time. A hero can make a daunting Willpower (Mind Control) action to resist the effects of brainwashing.
Memory Alteration: Similar to Mindwipe, except the hero alters the subject’s memories instead of erasing them by making a daunting Mind Control (Willpower) action. The subject can be made to recall things differently from how they actually happened. The subject believes the memories are real and acts accordingly until the effects are reversed using this power.
In addition to simply using Telekinesis to lift and move things, a hero can use it to manipulate things at a distance: pushing buttons, moving levers, pulling (or jamming) the triggers of weapons or even pulling the pin from a grenade. A hero can telekinetically wield objects as weapons, either actual weapons (like swords or knives) or anything the hero can mentally lift.
Telekinesis can grab objects (like weapons) out of an opponent’s grasp with an average Telekinesis (Strength) action. Telekinetics are also fond of grabbing opponents and lifting them off the ground, an easy Telekinesis (Strength) action, requiring an easy Strength (Telekinesis) action for the target to break out.
A telekinetic can manipulate machines with moving parts; releasing the brakes on a car, hitting keys on a computer keyboard, and so forth. The difficulty of the action depends on how complex the machine is.
Clothing Change: A telekinetic hero wearing clothing made of unstable molecules can change the color, style or fit of the clothing with a challenging Telekinesis action. This does not alter the clothing’s protective value, only its appearance. Telekinetic heroes may use this stunt to quickly change into their costumes.
Internal Attack: The hero can telekinetically attack a target internally, squeezing the trachea, a blood vessel or something similar. The attack requires a daunting Telekinesis (Strength) action and ignores the target’s defense, doing Intensity damage directly. A telekinetic might also use this stunt to damage machines by affecting their internal parts.
Manipulation: The hero can perform very fine manipulation with his or her telekinesis. This stunt is useful for doing things like typing, operating controls or even picking locks telekinetically.
Reflection: The hero can catch and reflect physical weapons (even bullets) back at an attacker with an average Telekinesis action.
Telepathy is perhaps the most versatile psionic power. A telepath is an invaluable teammate, able to keep everyone in contact using the Team Link stunt, which allows for instant and silent communication. A telepath can link the minds of others to share knowledge quickly, and allow someone with Teleportation to see through another person’s eyes to teleport safely to an unseen location.
Telepathic heroes can use their power for several stunts other than those listed in the MARVEL Game Book, including the following:
Gestalt: The hero can function as the coordinator for a telepathic gestalt, the mental combination of multiple psionic individuals. This works just like the Gestalt power from the Game Book. The mental gestalt’s combined Telepathy power intensity equals that of the most powerful hero in the gestalt, plus that of the coordinator (or the next highest character, if the coordinator is the most powerful). A telepathic gestalt often has tremendous mental power.
Mind Meld: The combination of the telepath’s mind with another mind. This is a total sharing of information and a considerable intimacy, so it is not entered into lightly. It requires a daunting Telepathy (Willpower) action. The telepath and the subject know everything the other knows, and it is impossible to lie to each other while melded.
Mindscape: The telepath can enter the “world” inside a another person’s mind and interact with the things and people there. This is most common as a means of mental combat, similar to astral projection. It can also be used to “go inside” the mind of an unconscious or comatose person to attempt to bring them out of it, or to enter the dreams of a sleeping person and interact with them. You can have an entire game based around a trip into someone’s mindscape, like the time Professor X and the New Mutants traveled into the shattered mindscape of the Professor’s son David.
Personal Rapport: This is a permanent telepathic link between the hero and another person. It requires a daunting Telepathy action to establish and the other party must be willing. From then on, each individual can always sense what the other is feeling and knows immediately if the other person is in danger or hurt.
Of course, being psionic isn’t all cool powers and stunts. Psionics, especially telepaths, have some drawbacks. These are not Hindrances exactly, more unique problems encountered by psis. Psionic heroes can also have Hindrances based around the unique nature of their powers.
Feedback: A psionic hero whose power is resisted or fought against may suffer some kind of feedback, like a telepath attempting to control someone’s mind while they fight back furiously, or a telekinetic whose mental grip is broken by an opponent. The hero suffers damage points equal to the Willpower, Strength or other Ability of the target, reduced by the hero’s own Willpower.
Overload: A telepath’s senses can be overloaded by the presence of too many minds or very powerful emotions or thoughts if the telepath is unprepared, or scans a more powerful subject than expected (like a telepath who encounters a cosmically powerful alien mind or who tries to probe one person just as a New York subway lets out dozens of people out onto the platform). This causes damage equal to the subject’s Willpower or an intensity chosen by the Narrator against the telepath’s Willpower. A Psi-Screen helps protect against this damage and many Telepaths develop Psi-Screens simply to screen out mental “noise.”
Prejudice: Psionics are often mistrusted because of the nature of their powers. A psionic who uses his or her powers responsibly won’t have a lot of problems, but a psionic who doesn’t will be mistrusted and hounded by the public and the authorities.
Narrating adventures for heroes with psionic powers like Telepathy, Precognition and ESP can be difficult. With one successful action, the hero can know everything about your carefully-prepared plot and jump right to the end, spoiling the fun for the other players. It’s your job as Narrator to make sure that doesn’t happen, without frustrating the player with the psionic hero all the time.
The first thing to keep in mind is that psionics don’t make a hero omniscient. Even if he or she can read minds, that doesn’t have to give things away. Telepathic heroes should be wary about invading other people’s privacy casually, and some people may refuse to have their minds read even if they’re innocent. A strong Willpower can sometimes make it too difficult for a telepath to read someone’s mind.
Powerful emotions triggered by certain situations (especially violent crimes) may cause a psionic to suffer from overload (above) if he or she tries to scan the crime scene or someone involved in it. These feelings may also conceal or obscure any information associated with the crime.
Psionic information is also highly subjective. There’s no guarantee that the future seen by a precognitive hero is the only future, merely a possible one. The information gained with telepathy is only as reliable as the subject’s thoughts and memories. What if they don’t remember something correctly, or what if their memory has already been tampered with by another telepath?
A rival psionic can use his or her powers to hide things from the hero; use the rival’s power intensity as additional opposition to the hero’s actions. You don’t necessarily have to tell the hero who the attempt failed unless the hero is specifically checking for opposing psionic interference.
The scientists of the Marvel Universe have developed different gadgets and equipment that affect psionic powers and psionics. Some of these devices are used by the authorities while others are used by villains or secret government organizations (like “Project: Wideawake”).
Psionic Detector: A device (usually hand-held) that picks up psions (energy particles that psionic powers use). It provides Psychic Detection 8 (higher for more sophisticated and sensitive detectors).
Psi Amplifier: This is a device like Cerebro or the PAM (Psionic Amplification Machine) used by the ESPer division of S.H.I.E.L.D. It provides Ability Boost for all Willpower powers while a user is hooked into it. A psi amplifier can (at the Narrator’s discretion) make certain mental powers suffer from the limits Masochistic, Uncontrolled or Unpredictable while they are amplified.
Psi Nullifier: This device blocks the use of all Willpower and Intellect powers with an intensity less than the Nullification power of the device. A psi nullifier is a collar or headband the subject wears or a device that projects a ray or field that affects the subject for an aura duration (or as long as he or she remains in the field).
Psi Screamer: A terrorist weapon intended specifically to harm telepaths, a kind of telepathic “grenade”. It creates a powerful (intensity 15+) mental shock, affecting any telepath within firing distance. A Psi-Screen helps protect against the damage of a screamer. Physical defenses have no effect.
Here are some adventure ideas involving psionic powers for your game.
- A telepathic hero or character catches a stray thought from someone planning to commit a serious crime. The trouble is, the thought came from someone in a large crowd and the hero can’t be sure who it was. What if someone in the crowd is not what he or she appears to be?
- A hero “hears” a telepathic cry for help. It comes from a boy who is a telepathic mutant whose powers surfaced early. He ran away from home and is afraid of being attacked by mutant-haters. Unfortunately, the boy has no training in controlling his power, so he can’t shut out the “noise” of other people’s thought. He also randomly broadcasts his own fear onto other people, causing a rash of random “panic attacks” throughout the city. The heroes have to find him before a group of disguised mutant-hunting Sentinels do.
- A friend or ally of the heroes is left in a coma by an illness or the attack of a villain. The heroes (perhaps with the help of a telepathic character like Professor X or Dr. Strange) must travel into the mindscape of their friend to help bring him or her back to consciousness.
- A villain is kidnapping psionics to hook them up to a powerful psi-amplifier that will channel all their power into the villain, giving him or her tremendous psionic power. Perhaps the villain is building a mind-control machine, powered by telepaths, to take over the world.
- A telepathic or astral projecting villain is committing crimes by possessing other people, then releasing them once the crime is done. The victims have no memory of what happened and no alibi to prove their innocence. When the villain uses one or more of the heroes as pawns, they have to figure out a way to prove their innocence. How do they find and capture a villain who’s never seen, and can change bodies at will?