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Please note that we are using the Gentleman's Edition Revised (german edition, as far as I heard it contains some small things the english version doesn't) of Savage Worlds. The setting is a modern time setting. In this setting, the only "magic" that exists are psionic powers. I am no longer sure why I did it, but when I initially created the setting (it is completely created by me), I created the arcane background (psionics) as follows:

  • Casting is done with your Smarts (Attribute), not with a specific skill like "psionics"
  • You start with 10 Power Points and 3 Powers
  • If you ever roll a 1 when casting a psionic power, you are immediately shaken

So far, so good. My question is if the absence of a skill for casting, and instead using an attribute, makes a huge difference "balance-wise". The setting uses some Edges, Hindrances and Powers from Sundered Skies and Necropolis, but nothing noteworthy, and the differences to the original rules are rather small. Also, psionics is the only arcane background that is allowed. So I am not concerned about it beeing balanced with other arcane backgrounds, but instead with players who don't choose to be a psionic. To be a psionic, you only need to invest in one single Edge, which is not that much in Savage Worlds (sure, you don't have that many powers and points, but still you can "cast") and is pretty powerful, I would say. Am I right in assuming that this is a very good reason to reeimplement a "psionics" skill?

Another note: Good, experienced psionics are really rare and mostly work for the church, but mediocre psionics and especially those with just "a bit" of power are quite common.

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Having an "arcane skill" be an Attribute instead of a Skill is a bit unusual and something that neither the core rules, nor any supplementary setting that I am aware of, has ever tried to do. I think that you hit on one of the biggest consequences:

Why would anyone not take Arcane Background (Psionics)?

This is the biggest issue I see. Why would anyone not take Arcane Background (Psionics)? They could take an Edge like Alertness, giving them +2 to Notice checks, or they could take a single Edge and be able to cast 3 powers (including offensive powers, like bolt). While some players might want to not be Psionic for story reasons, I can't think of a reason that a player interested in making the most powerful character would choose not to take this Edge.

What's the point of increasing Fighting, Shooting, or Throwing?

Another issue I see is that there really isn't any point in taking conventional weapons. A character with the Arcane Background (Psionics) Edge can take an offensive power, like bolt, and deal damage. If they have average Smarts, they roll it at a d6.

Most Arcane Backgrounds have a skill to provide a tradeoff. You are good at Fighting or Shooting or Psionics, but generally not all of them. In core Savage Worlds, this tradeoff means that a character has to decide if they want to specialize in psionics or something else. As it stands, there is no tradeoff here, at least among skills.

You may argue that the Power Points would encourage characters to diversify. I think that in practice, players will just take the New Power Edge to overcome this issue. A starting HUman character with 4 Hindrance Points can take the Arcane Background (Psionics) and the Power Points Edge twice, starting with 20 Power Points, and then can gain another 5 each rank. If they have Edges like Soul Drain or Power Surge, they are unlikely to ever run out.

It's easier to get better at Psionics

Say that we are using the Psionics skill. A character might have a d6 Psionics and a d6 Smarts. If the character wants to raise it to a d8 Smarts, they have a choice. They can either spend 2 skill points and raise it (because it is above the linked Attribute), or they can increase Smarts to a d8, and then next Advance increase Psionics by 1 skill point (and use that other skill point somewhere else).

With your method, there is no opportunity cost. With a single Advance, you can increase a characters Smarts, and their psionic ability at the same time. Increasing Smarts has other benefits, like making it cheaper to buy Smarts skills, improving Common Knowledge rolls, and making it easier to deal with Smarts Tricks and Taunt Tests of Will.

Anybody, psionic or not, can make a Cooperative psionic roll

Cooperative rolls are permitted if a character is trained in a skill. Attribute cooperative rolls (e.g. Strength cooperative rolls) are always permitted because a character cannot be untrained. This would mean that anybody can assist in a roll to help a caster, with or without the Arcane Background. Now you could add a rule that only those with the Arcane Background can make a cooperative roll, but I think that this is another reason to wonder why anyone would not take Arcane Background (Psionics).

Competent psionics will be more common than you intend

Another note: Good, experienced psionics are really rare and mostly work for the church, but mediocre psionics and especially those with just "a bit" of power are quite common.

As it stands, anybody with Arcane Background (Psionics) and a character with d6 Smarts (average for a Human) will be able to cast their powers about 50% of the time (an average roll on an exploding d6 is 4.2). If they are a Wild Card, that number is even more likely. This doesn't seem to mesh with your idea of those with just "a bit" of power being quite common, as it would mean that those who are of average intelligence are pretty competent psionicists.

If instead you used the Psionics skill, then having Psionics who are untrained or have a d4 Psionics would be easier to justify as having mediocre or "a bit" of power.

What does this fix over the core rules?

The core rules contain a version of Arcane Background (Psionics) that is so far identical to what you have, except that it uses Smarts instead of Psionics. Why was this change made? By understanding the rationale, you may be able to find alternative solutions that aren't so much balance breaking.

What alternatives might there be?

Let's say that your intention was to make it so that those with psionic ability can tap into power with little only a little training. I think we've established that having this happen all the time is a bit game breaking compared to those who don't have it. So maybe this is something they can do some of the time but not all of the time.

In that case, you could add a rule to Arcane Background (Psionics) that the character can spend a Benny in order to use their Smarts instead of their Psionics for a limited amount of time (either one time, for a number of rounds, or for the duration of the scene). Thematically, a psionic character "taps in" to their ability. By spending a Benny, there is a cost associated with it, meaning that they will be less likely to reroll and soak, while those who are not psionic will have more Bennies to do that. This will better balance those who are psionc with those who are not.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The Fantasy Companion has rules for racial Arcane Backgrounds that use an attribute as the arcane skill die, Agents of Oblivion has an Innate Power Edge that uses Spirit, and I'm sure I've seen others. Although it saves skill points, this approach does also prevent you pumping up the arcane skill (a character with Smarts d4 or even d6 may decide psionics aren't worth using), so some may even view it as a drawback. \$\endgroup\$ – Zadmar Aug 1 '15 at 9:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Zadmar In both cases, those are for a single power, rather than an entire Arcane Background. I think that an Attribute in place of a skill can be justified for that, but not for a whole Arcane Background. \$\endgroup\$ – Thunderforge Aug 4 '15 at 3:51
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To answer your specific question about the impact on game balance, my suggestion would be to first break down some of the core Arcane Backgrounds into their component parts to provide a better point of reference. The way I handled this in Savage Arcanum was as follows:

Magic

  • 3 Powers (+2): You begin with 3 powers instead of 1.
  • 10 Power Points (+1): You begin with 10 Power Points instead of 5.
  • Strong Backlash (-1): Become shaken if you roll 1 on the skill die (can cause a wound).

Miracles

  • 2 Powers (+1): You begin with 2 powers instead of 1.
  • 10 Power Points (+1): You begin with 10 Power Points instead of 5.
  • No Backlash (+1): You don’t become Shaken if you roll a 1 on your arcane skill die.
  • Vows (-1): You suffer penalties or can even lose your powers if you break your vows.

Psionics

  • 3 Powers (+2): You begin with 3 powers instead of 1.
  • 10 Power Points (+1): You begin with 10 Power Points instead of 5.
  • Subtle (+1): You don't need to speak or make gestures to cast a spell.
  • Explosive Backlash (-2): Your explosive backlash blasts everyone within a LBT.

Super Powers

  • 20 Power Points (+3): You begin with 20 Power Points instead of 5.
  • Unlinked Skill (+1): Your Arcane Skill is no longer linked to an attribute.
  • No Backlash (+1): You don’t become Shaken if you roll a 1 on your arcane skill die.
  • Separate Skills (-3): You have a separate Arcane Skill for each power.

Weird Science

  • Separate Powers (+3): Each of your powers has its own set of Power Points.
  • Easy Maintenance (+2): There is no penalty to arcane rolls for maintained powers.
  • 10 Power Points (+1): You begin with 10 Power Points instead of 5.
  • No Backlash (+1): You don’t become Shaken if you roll a 1 on your arcane skill die.
  • Major Malfunction (-3): A roll of 1 on the skill die results in a major malfunction.
  • Device (-2): Your powers require physical devices that can be stolen or broken.

Each Arcane Background adds up to 2 points, with each point worth an Edge (this also fits with the New Power and Power Points Edges). You then need to determine the cost of an arcane skill.

Pricing an Arcane Skill

The race creation guidelines in SWD price a d6 starting skill as half the value of a Novice Edge, from which one could extrapolate that a starting skill of d6 is worth half an advance. On the other hand, using the standard character creation and advancement guidelines, each die step increase below its linked attribute would be worth half an advance.

By combining those two guidelines and merging them with the earlier Arcane Background breakdown, one might reasonably argue that an arcane skill of d6-d8 is usually worth about one advance, and therefore using an attribute instead of an arcane skill might also be worth a +1 ability if that attribute is d6-d8.

Of course an attribute can be raised to d10 or even d12, so some might argue that using an attribute is potentially worth +2. However there are also some inherent limitations in using an attribute - skills can be raised above their linked attribute (and some arcane skills are unlinked, making this route particular cheap), and you can only raise one attribute per rank.

If I were playing a character with Smarts d4 for example, then using Smarts as the arcane skill would make the Arcane Background feel like a poor investment. Even Smarts d6 would be borderline. In order to be an effective caster, I'd really need to invest in Smarts - and that would be at the expense of other attributes that I might require for certain Edges or other skills crucial to my character.

On the other hand, an arcane skill could simply be pumped up with my starting skill points, regardless of my attributes, allowing me to ignore Smarts and concentrate on my other attributes and abilities. For many builds this would actually be the preferable option - and if the skill is unlinked that would be even better still!

Summary

Using an attribute instead of an arcane skill could be worth one or two advances to some characters, or be viewed as a drawback to others. Personally I tend to average it out, and rate it as being worth one advance.

The New Power and Power Points Edges are also worth one advance. Thus if I were creating a variant of Psionics that didn't require an arcane skill, I would probably reduce the number of powers by 1 (reducing the number of Power Points by 5 would also be an option, but I feel that 2 Powers and 10 Power Points is more playable than 3 Powers and 5 Power Points).

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If the psionic powers supposed to be commonplace then it looks fine as is, but if you want it to be rare, then having the powers tied to a skill makes more sense.

I'm not the most well-versed in Savage Worlds, so someone else may chime in to point out if I'm wrong.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ in the middle of that. Good, experienced psionics are really rare and mostly work for the church, but mediocre psionics and especially those with just "a bit" of power are quite common. \$\endgroup\$ – Patta Jul 31 '15 at 13:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, I don't think this really answers my question, but I adressed the point of how common they are in my question. \$\endgroup\$ – Patta Jul 31 '15 at 13:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ My answer was to leave it as you have it. \$\endgroup\$ – Parker MacInnis Jul 31 '15 at 13:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh, I understood that, no problem ;) But you only adressed the number of psionics there are, but I asked about the consequences regarding balance and rules. \$\endgroup\$ – Patta Jul 31 '15 at 14:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG Stack Exchange! I think that the downvotes to your answer are because those who are more familiar with Savage Worlds don't think that it is correct. Don't worry though, you can always try again. Also, you can get a badge for deleting an answer with a score of -3 or below. Hope that this doesn't discourage you from participating in the future! \$\endgroup\$ – Thunderforge Jul 31 '15 at 16:11

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