Traveller 1977: The Psionics Institute


“At the time in which Traveller occurs, however, universal psionic training does not exist; accurate information and quality training are available only through branches of the Psionics Institute, which is wholly devoted to the study of mental powers. Unfortunately, some prejudice exists, and the Institute maintains an extremely low profile.” – Traveller, Book 3

If the Travellers’ Aid Society is a mixture of the Youth Hostels’ Association, American Express and the Continental Hotel from the John Wick movies, the Psionics Institute is a combination of the Bavarian Illuminati, Columbian drug cartels and the KGB.

Why do I advance that theory? Read on…

From Book 3, we know the following about the Psionics Institute:

  • The Institute is a single organisation (it is always referred to in the singular, and its facilities are called “branches”).
  • It is devoted to the study of mental powers, but is very secretive due to widespread public prejudice. (Why do people hate psionics enough to lynch them? In the 1977 rules, that’s just how it is, but the reasons always seemed obvious to me; psions are different, many of them are telepaths who could easily find out your deepest, darkest secrets, and anybody could be one – you’d never know.)
  • It has branches on some high-population worlds which exist to test for, and train, psionic abilities. (Depending on world density, a subsector has roughly a 20-30% chance of having an Institute.) However, these may not be the only facilities; psionics can be found anywhere, and branches are vulnerable as they have to interact with mundanes, so might well be isolated by cut-outs.
  • 97% of people, thus 97% of psionics, come from worlds with population level 9 or 10, but only about one such world in six has an Institute branch. Therefore, psionics must travel widely to find training, which may explain why a disproportionate number of those who can afford training are spacers.
  • New members have either a high psionic strength (in which case they are no older than 30 as untrained strength degrades with age), or at least Cr 105,000 in disposable assets (which suggests a high social standing, or possibly a combination of determination and resourcefulness). Statistically (you can check this in Supplement 1: 1001 Characters), about 1 PC in 36 musters out with enough money to pay for testing and training – although a member of the TAS who lived frugally could raise that much in about two years – and about 75% of those made their money in a spacefaring career.
  • About 1 NPC in 36 encountered by PCs is psionic, and a like number are informants. So, either psionics are relatively common, or for some reason PCs bump into them a lot – possibly because a lot of them are career spacers, possibly because you need to travel widely to find a branch to train you. (Since being a psionic and being an informant are separate rolls for an NPC, there are some psionics who are also informants.)
  • Psi-drugs must be located and bargained for, and in many cases are illegal; however, they too can be found on any world. No other use for psi-drugs is mentioned, so one could assume they are made specifically for psionics, implying a link between the Institute and illegal drug manufacturing.

So: The Institute wants to study psionic abilities. It needs sources of new talent and money, because every organisation does, and testing and training psionic wannabees helps with both. Its members would prefer not to be lynched by the mundanes, so are likely to set up escape routes and safe houses. Access to (illegal) psionic drugs is a bonus, and presumably so is the ability to exchange research data and findings with fellow psionics on other planets.

Some of those who find the Institute and can pay for testing won’t have the money for training – and how could they know how much they need without finding the Institute first? Some of these will turn to crime to fund their training.

Meanwhile, those with power, money, and flexible morals long for the edge that the generally-despised psionics can offer; spies, crimelords, drug kingpins cultivating the market for their Psi-Double, nobles on the make. The drug kingpins in particular must know about the Institute before they start making psi-drugs, or why bother doing it? Some Institute branches are no doubt seduced by the offers of funding, pharmaceuticals and protection, and once you’re working for such a boss, why not become the power behind the throne or even take over their outfit? You can read their minds, after all.

Thus, any world with an Institute branch also probably has an ongoing covert struggle, in which the Institute, criminal organisations, noble families and local counter-intelligence apparats try to infiltrate and control each other, the Institute to get early warning of (and protection from) crackdowns and pogroms, and the others to gain access to their unique abilities. Potentially, other worlds have this sort of fun and games underway as well. At an interstellar level, the Institute benefits by manipulating governments in much the same way that the TAS manipulates the stock market.

If you want to be seriously paranoid, some TAS members are also psionic. Maybe they’re all in it together and have decided to divide up human space between them. Maybe the TAS is really a front for the Psionics Institute.

Working for the Institute

The Psionics Institute operates much like – and may even be – an organised crime cartel or a spy network. It needs a number of services PCs can provide, even if they’re not psionic themselves; actual psionics are too valuable to risk on minor errands. PCs are, of course, expendable, deniable, kept completely in the dark, and on their own if they get caught. Dust off your conspiracy theories for commission inspirations.

While the TAS hires military veterans for covert ops that steer the stock market in the direction they prefer, the Psionics Institute hires deniable, expendable mules, bagmen, drug manufacturers and other low-level assets, and perhaps, occasionally, more capable adventurers for more daring schemes.

Lesser Known Aspects of Psionics

How do you lie to a telepath? You don’t. You lie to somebody else and let the telepath read their mind.

How do you find a telepath? Use another telepath. If you can see someone with your eyes, and they are not wearing a psionic shield helmet, but they don’t show up on Life Detection, then they are a telepath. (You might want to wear a psionic shield helmet as a disguise; it’s no use just letting your Shield down, because then a telepath could read your mind and find out that you’re one as well.)

One randomly encountered NPC in 1,296 is a psionic who might also inform on the PCs to the authorities. Why would they do this? Well…

  • Psionic abilities are an edge that no criminal or intelligence organisation can afford to ignore. Maybe they are recruiting, and you work for them now – or if you prefer, you can be lobotomised; brain-dead men tell no tales.
  • Maybe the reward money is too tempting.
  • Maybe the informant is being hunted himself, and wants to divert the authorities’ attention elsewhere.
  • Maybe your Institute branch and his don’t get along. This is especially likely if you’re using the Freemasons as an analogue, see below.
  • Maybe the informant is just a jerk.
Maybe There’s Another Way…

If you don’t like the galactic domination conspiracy version of the Institute, probably the closest historical analogue is Freemasonry and the various similar organisations which grew up around it, in particular the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. If you go down that route, branches are much like Masonic Lodges, and the Institute as a whole has the following attributes:

  • Members have to find the Institute’s branches, ask to join, and pass certain tests. We know this is true.
  • Members must keep the Institute’s secrets, aid each other where practical, and contribute to charity. We might reasonably infer these are true, especially the first one.
  • While nearby branches might coordinate their activities, there is no overall “grand branch” which directs the Institute as a whole; branches may have different interests, secrets, training methods and so on, and need not necessarily recognise each other as legitimate. If they do, however, the implication of the duty to aid each other where practical is that visiting members of recognised Institutes could count on some help from the locals. If they can find them.
  • It’s still reasonable to infer the Institute is linked with positions of power. In the real world, a large proportion of British police and judges are Freemasons, and roughly one-third of US Presidents to date are known to have been Freemasons.
  • The question with this approach is, why do Institutes on different worlds communicate? Sharing research data and training methods is possible, but with the next nearest Institute three subsectors away (and potentially compromised) is it worth the cost and risk?

That last point is what tipped me towards a galactic conspiracy, but hey, it’s a big galaxy; why not have both kinds of Institute?

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Staff member
Gosh that's a wonderful extrapolation from the rules and the probabilities. I have never really known what to do with psionics and especially the Institutes. This and the TAS article are really going to help.