Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Spiritualism: A new discipline for Stars Without Number

Mark Gabriel
    Stars Without Number Revised is a fantastic game by Kevin Crawford of Sine Nomine that has one of the more interesting Dungeons and Dragons-adjacent psionics systems. Most such mechanics are very beholden to Gygax, Marsh, and Kask's original, even if they improve on it significantly. Others are far too enmeshed with awful 3rd Edition-ism, like True20's Adept. Various OSR creators, such as Lexi, Spwack, and Marquis, have taken the concept in less cumbersome and more interesting directions, but none of them really scratch the itch. 

    SWN Revised's version, on the other hand, really does. It gives each discipline a signature, recognizably-psionic power immediately and then every other power is a purchased extension for that. Telekinesis, for example, lets the Psychic move things with their mind, and with investment, they can make themselves fly, create walls of force, generate psionic weapons and armor, or shield themselves from the vacuum of space. All of these are logical extensions of the core power. It also dispenses with power points by replacing them with a very small pool of Effort that's spent in a regular pattern, it has a built-in means of pushing oneself, and it works as both a full class and with the game's sorta-multiclass Adventurer. Six disciplines appear in the core book and it seems ripe for creative additions.

    Between re-reading the Book of the New Sun with its enigmatic witches residing nearby to the Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence in the Citadel, thinking about Dune and its Bene Gesserit sisterhood, posts in the OSR about witches, playing Dishonored, and even discussions about how low-powered the original Star Wars trilogy is, (Emperor Palpatine is running around casting an electrical variant of burning hands and Obi-Wan's most famous trick is suggestion) strange, cult-ish magic users have been on my mind. What unites all of these is that witchers are something more fundamental and primal in a setting that had seemingly passed beyond such things. In a science fiction setting, witches wouldn't be needed as herbalists and midwives, and they wouldn't face myths and persecution for being in league with Satan in a generally atheistic setting. How then to capture that feel of unsettling mystique? Dungeons and Dragon's Vancian magic is perfectly fine for its intended purpose but I wanted something a little more mysterious. With the tools available in the core book, particularly telepathy and precognition, you could probably build something close, but then you obviously couldn't build a witch Adventurer. So here's a witchy discipline for characters who want to know more than they should and use it to get what they want.

    Several people on the OSR and SWN Discord servers helped with inspiration or critique. Thank you all.

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    Spiritualism grants access to extrasensory perception to perceive and alter both their own and others’ spirits. Closely related to the concept of “auras” or “souls”, spirits are reflections of the individual’s physical form but magnified and distorted by their desires, beliefs, and feelings. Mediums can alter their perceivable presence, alter other living being’s spirits, and eventually duplicate their own.
    Psychics utilizing spiritualism are known as “mediums” for their most infamous power, the ability to channel the spirit of the dead. Not every medium can access that power, but it remains the most impressively obvious display over the abilities. That their powers work entirely on a non-visual level grants them much mystery, and their subtle and coercive nature would engender great fear if their extents were widely known. 
    While representative of a more medieval worldview, changing the discipline such that it interacts with the brain’s bioelectrical wiring and referring to tulpas as “thoughtforms” would give it a suitably -pulp sci-fi gloss, essentially engaging in Van Eck phreaking of the brain.


Core Technique—Open Third Eye

    The Medium can access extrasensory perception that grants her greater knowledge of living creatures. Called the third eye and classically pictured on the center of the forehead, it sees the spirit or aura of living beings. The spirit is an exaggerated and impressionistic reflection of the target, although as she gains in skill she can glean a greater amount of information from it. This perception is unusually focused in that the psychic cannot generally "look around” with it. Instead, she can focus on a specific target and Commit Effort as a Main Action to activate it. Her eye stays open as long as she likes but focusing on a different target requires a new action. While it is active she struggles to see anything physical, especially if it moves.
Level-0: The adept can see the spirits of living beings and can see their longing. That which the target covets most is apparent. Long-held desires are more obvious than immediate lusts.
Level-1: The image of the spirit is now clear enough to the psychic's practiced eye that she can gather a good deal about their true physical form. Mundane deceptions, both disguises and intentional lies of commission, are apparent.
Level-2: The psychic can now detect traces even after a spirit has left. Following a person who has moved through an area recently is trivial, and sustained presence or contact is obvious.
Level-3: The target's spirit is now a truer representation of the target than their physical appearance. Magical invisibility or psychic glamour no longer hides or disguises the target. If she focuses on the location of someone hidden, they are revealed.
Level-4: While seldom leaving obvious signs, sins of the target mar their spirit. Those who knowingly break the Authority's divine plan are marked by their iniquity. Guilt, penance, and reconciliation leave no sign.

Astral Projection


    For most, the spirit is bound to the body. Mediums, however, can temporarily detach their spirit from their corpus and walk it about. It is invisible to anything that cannot see spirits and incapable of effecting the world in any way, and it cannot utilize psychic powers but is otherwise identical in ability to the psychic. Astral Projection can be performed as a Main Action that required the Commitment of Effort for the day. If the psychic possesses Tulpa Independence, their body retains some awareness as per that power; otherwise, they must sit helplessly for the duration. If she is attacked in this state, either to her body or her spirit, the effect is immediately negated.

Channel the Dead


    The most infamous power of the Medium, Channel gives the psychic the power to interrogate spirits of the departed. It requires a relatively intact piece of the body and Effort Committed for the day as a Main Action. Spirits start to fade upon death and thus may not remember minor details or specific numbers unless they were truly important during life. She can commit additional effort to extend the effect but it otherwise allows her to ask a number of questions equal to her Spiritualism rank after which the spirit departs forever.

Tulpa Independence


    Through effort of will, a Medium can create a facsimile of her own spirit, known as a "tulpa". This entity resides in her mind, quiescent until called upon. It lacks the capacity of speech or the use of psychic abilities but is all other was identical to the Medium. In situations where the psychic is not consciously present, such as when asleep, or utilizing another power, or rendered unconscious, her tulpa can take over, leaving her capable of nonPsychic actions. Activation is an Instant Action that requires a Commitment of Effort for the day.

Astral Sight


    To the vision of the trained Medium, spirits shine like a beacon. Using a Main Action and Committing Effort for the scene, a psychic can use Open Third Eye even through static physical barriers. The psychic chooses which direction they peer and the GM tells them the approximate appearance and quantity of the spirits within 100 meters. Dynamic barriers, like flowing water, and magical barriers of any sort block this vision.

Obscure Spirit


    Advanced control of one's own spirit allows the psychic to draw it inside themselves. Since intelligent creatures rely to some degree on unnoticed recognition of other's spirits, this renders the Medium effectively unnoticeable to anyone not specifically interested in looking for people which includes those in combat. Upon Committing Effort for the day, as long as they take no aggressive actions, creatures with spirits simply fail to notice the psychic. Since the spirit is hidden in their eyes, the Medium can use no powers that require eye contact while this is active.

Spirit Whisper


    The Medium isn't limited to seeing spirits; by pressing upon other spirits, she can instill her words with supernatural persuasiveness. With a failed Mental Save target regards her as a good friend and is unusually, but not suicidally, suggestible. This mental clout requires that she first gain eye contact and then Commit Effort for the scene, after which the target will only remember any unusual actions if actively questioned.

Sever Possessor


    While modern apothecaries may claim otherwise, Mediums know that diseases are caused by spiritual pollution: they can see the parasites. Diseases, possessions, and madness are all apparent to their Third Eye. With the Commitment of Effort for the day, the psychic can strip these corruptions from the target, healing them, and can choose to retain the interloper. The Effort is Committed as long as the Psychic chooses to hold the contaminant, and she can later inflict it upon another with eye contact and a further Commitment of Effort for the scene.

Terrifying Presence


    Further refinement of her abilities allows the psychic to gain a frightening aspect. With the Commitment of Effort for the day as a Main Action, the Medium becomes terrifying to all foes in sight. Lesser humanoid foes of less than the psychic's level suffer 1d6 damage and must move at least 60 feet away. Worthy opposition can roll a Mental saving throw to resist the compulsion but still take damage as long as they remain in range. Expired creatures appear to have had a heart attack.

Tulpa Sapience


    Her tulpa takes on an independent life, operating as a secondary mind within the Medium's own. Since it doesn't have to deal with the operating of a body, it is focused entirely on perception. This tulpa-mind grants the Psychic enhanced recall, equivalent to a +1 to Know, as well as rendering her immune to surprise as long as she has Effort Committed. Even asleep, it watches. Since it reflects her own mind, it can be sacrificed as an Instant Action to negate--and thus automatically succeed on--any Mental saving throw, although this exhausts Tulpa Sapience for the day.



    With great effort a will, a master Medium can temporarily displace the spirit to take control of their body. The psychic must make eye contact with the target, spend a Main Action focusing, and Commit Effort for the day. The target can make a Mental saving throw to resist. Failure allows the psychic to define the target's action for the round in lieu of taking an action themselves, unless they have Tulpa Independence and unspent Effort, in which case they can choose to take basic, non-psychic or spell actions with their PC. This effect lasts as long as the psychic chooses to keep the Effort Committed. Suicidal actions break the effect.

Tulpa Reincarnation


    The master Medium unconsciously leaves seeds of their spirit in those she touches. Upon dying, she can choose to permanently possess a living humanoid who has been the previous target of her Medium powers. If the target has fewer HD than she has levels, this happens automatically, regardless of range. If not, the target is entitled to a Mental Saving Throw, failure meaning that the Psychic dies. Tulpa Reincarnation doesn't gain her any special knowledge of the newly inhabited creature. Effectively their species/race becomes that of the target and she is transported to their location. If it's unclear if any such creature is available, choose randomly from nearby humanoids.

Yuri Shwedoff

Additional Information



The concept of "tulpa" is incorrectly believed to come from Buddhism. Instead, it arises from 20th-century occult beliefs, who in typical Western religious fashion mish-mashed Eastern religious beliefs (Tibetan Buddhism), with their own existing occult beliefs. In this case, it's the "egregore" from 19th-century occultism, which was a collective thought mind constructed by a group of people, which has been compared to the modern concept of "meme". Tulpas, or "sprul pa", may have had a physical existence, according to practitioners, while tulpas (or "thoughtforms" as there are often also translated) are believed to be entirely mental creations. Modern chaos magicians take it even farther, referring to such ideas as "servitors" and recognizing them as intentional, not-real things, that nonetheless are helpful by focusing and anthropomorphizing will, sort of.
It's all quite complicated and I don't claim to be even remotely knowledgeable on these subjects. Instead, they serve a purpose as popularly understood signifiers that aren't ever meant to represent real-world beliefs. If you'd rather use "thoughtform" or "servitor" for this class concept, by-all-means do so. They might even be more appropriate for a science fiction or fantasy setting.

Occult Sisterhood

Initially inspired by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood of Dune, mediums are either going to be outlawed and feared occultists or too-useful-to-outlaw sanctioned psychics. Don’t have an occult sisterhood of mysteriously-puissant puppet-masters in your setting? The best thing about hidden groups is that they don’t have to exist until you need them. Your new power players have a secret goal:
1.        Realize the culmination of their breeding program.
2.        Spread their rites beyond the reach of the inquisitors.
3.        Integrate themselves into the Imperial Apparati and render themselves indispensable.
4.        Root out the infiltration of the vaylen/cacogens/thalusai who are secretly replacing/subverting the powerful.
5.        Find the body of the Empire’s founder for its secrets.
6.        Hunt down the spirit parasites imprisoned on this planet, that influence men to atrocity.

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