One of the first things I did when I got it into my head I wanted to re-make my RPGMaker game from scratch was come up with a set of rules governing what, exactly, a cipher was and what they could do with psionics.
Except you’ve never played my RPGMaker game so you don’t know what I’m talking about. So let’s back up.
The heroine of the game was, in D&D terms, a psionicist. WordPress’s auto-spellchecker tells me that “psionicist” isn’t a word, but as far as I know there’s not a generic and instantly-recognizable term for a fantasy character who fights with her mind. Mentalist, psychic, hmm… what were they called in Firefly again? I don’t remember. You kind of get the idea, though; this is a character who is using magic-which-is-not-really-magic, by tapping the power of her brain.
The reason I didn’t like that was because magic-which-is-not-really-magic is still pretty much just magic after all if it’s not backed up by science. Since this game was a work of fiction it was okay if it was worthless junk science, just so long as it sounded pretty good and I was consistent in my application of the rules. By having rules and forcing the heroine to stick to them, it opened up a few weaknesses that wouldn’t be there if everything could just simply be explained away with “well, it’s magic!”
Since there isn’t a generally accepted fantasy/sci-fi term for psychic warriors, I decided to go with “cipher”. So the heroine of the story is a cipher, and now I needed some rules to govern what the heroine could do with her kinda-but-not-really magical powers.
I thought this was going to be an incredibly complicated process, with lots of retconning and doubling back, but once I seriously sat down and thought about it things fell into place pretty easily. Here’s the set of rules:
1) All psionic powers must be able to be reduced to telekenesis. That is, moving or manipulating objects, even if said objects are individual molecules.
With that one rule everything else just kind of clicked. The hero isn’t really calling a lightning bolt down from nowhere at all; she’s just manipulating a series of atoms in such a way as to give them an electric charge and cause them to strike her target. She’s not really pulling a fireball out of thin air, she’s causing dust particles to rub together at light speed, the friction of which causes them to ignite. See?
More interestingly, the human body is just a collection of cells, organs, bones and other things which certainly qualify as “objects.” So a cipher can manipulate his or her own body in ways normal people can’t. If you break your arm, for example, you go to the doctor and get it put in a sling until it heals naturally. A cipher in the same situation couldn’t make the bone heal any faster, but their “sling” is an invisible pair of hands that can hold the bone together as though it had never been broken, achieving the same effect while allowing them full mobility. To an outside observer it would look like the bone had snapped and then miraculously stitched itself back together.
Taking this even further, a cipher could control the electrical synapses in her own brain. Her body wouldn’t produce chemicals or hormones she didn’t want it to produce. She would still need to eat and sleep, but she could do away with the physical sensation of feeling hungry or tired. The danger here being, of course, if you don’t feel hungry and as a result don’t eat anything, you will eventually starve to death. (I’ve had weekends like that. Heh.)
The caveat is that it takes some amount of concentration to keep this all going. A good cipher could train herself to the point where all this is automatic, but at the most basic level if you disable the cipher’s mind you disable the cipher. Of course, all that mental training leaves little time for martial training, so ciphers are by nature weak and frail. Theirs is a very all-or-nothing combat style; they can sustain and keep up with any amount of injury, even things that would kill regular folks, until they were knocked unconscious — at which point every broken bone, severed limb and contained illness would quickly reassert itself.
The other weakness is more of a philosophical one. Before you can learn to create fire, you have to understand what that fire is made of and how to piece it together from the atoms you have laying around. This fundamental understanding of the world causes ciphers to be almost creully logical, and since they can eliminate sensations and emotions they don’t want to have, this can lead to a downward spiral in their personality. A perfectly logical person might deduce that anger is a worthless emotion that leads to poor decisions, and eliminate it entirely. The less brain power a cipher is devoting to base things like feelings, the more she can devote to kickass things like fireballs, so the more of her humanity she sheds the more powerful and fearsome she can be.
Eventually this leads to a tipping point where the cipher has to leave her humanity behind altogether in order to advance in power. The closer a cipher got to that point, the easier it would be to rationalize logically that they should approach it. This is something the heroine was going to have to struggle with the entire game. Of course, the bad guy ciphers would already be on the wrong side of this tipping point; practically emotionless and driven by nothing but blind ambition.
Of course some contrivances still had to be put into place for the sake of gameplay. For example, shouldn’t a cipher be able to just lift herself into the air and onto a higher ledge? Well, sure, but that would make most of the puzzles pointless, so I solved that little inconsistency by just ignoring it. Hmm… so maybe my rules didn’t achieve their goal after all, and in the end the whole thing really was just magic-that-is-not-magic-but-actually-really-is.