The Viewpoints of Sapient Devices

And for today it’s another question…

So something I have always done in games where I was DMing was to houserule that sights like Dark Vision, Psicrystal Sighted, Sentient Magic Items, all work like regular sight, they have a first range in which for most practical thought they need no light source. They then have another from the first range to 2x range that is “concealment” just like bright vs shadowy illumination works for normal and low light vision.

I am curious as to your thoughts on that houserule and on how you handle the oddity of a type of “vision” having a set range where it suddenly stops being able to see anything, but an inch closer can see normally.

I would also be curious how you interpret the Sighted ability of psicrystals in general, given they seem to be a bit confusing at least to my read (a sense of hearing with a static range for one?).


A simulationist question! Welcome, most welcome! They’re getting kind of rare these days…

And you’re quite right. The rules, as written in pretty much every edition are very awkward and even self-contradictory in spots. For example, in 3.5 a Psicrystal has the “sighted” ability. According to the wording of that ability…

Sighted (Ex): Although it has no physical sensory organs, a psicrystal can telepathically sense its environment as well as a creature with normal vision and hearing. Darkness (even supernatural darkness) is irrelevant, as are areas of supernatural silence, though a psicrystal still can’t discern invisible or ethereal beings. A psicrystal’s sighted range is 40 feet.

So… it’s as well as a creature with normal senses, but has a sharp cutoff – which is certainly a lot less effective than normal senses. On the other hand, if it’s in a zone of silence – cutting off all incoming sound – it can still hear sounds that occur outside the Silenced area but within it’s range, which is a lot more effective than normal hearing. Could it “hear” someone trying to speak inside a Silenced area? If it’s picking up a telepathic impression, rather an actual sound, why not? At least it would explain why a sound coming from outside it’s range is impossible for it to detect no matter how loud it is. On the other hand, if it’s picking up a telepathic impression, why can it “see” OR “hear” things that are mindless or otherwise immune to mental powers? Does it only detect things that should be radiating light in range, but not actually sense light – thus being unable to detect light coming in from out of it’s mental range?

Now from a Gamist prospective this is just fine; your crystal can’t carry a torch, but you can still send it out to scout for you. If you set it on guard while you sleep, it has a pretty good chance of picking up things that come within 40′. HOW it works is quite irrelevant; you have what you need to run the basic game smoothly. Unfortunately – as shown in the article on Infravision versus Darkvision – the Gamist approach runs into a problem as soon as someone starts experimenting and asking questions. You wind up either trying to figure out how it does work – and getting lost in a maze of house rules – or falling back on non-explanations like “it has the ability to pick up information being generated within a radius of thus-and-such”. Presumably it radiates some sort of detection field which isn’t a “supernatural ability” because this is d20 and rather a lot of things which are clearly magically based (such as bearing the child of a mass of fire) aren’t considered supernatural abilities. This has it’s own implications – similar to those in the Illusions-Undead-and-Lifesense article – but works well enough. You have to be careful not to trip yourself up though, since this no longer bears any real similarity to the actual real-world senses of sight and hearing.

Unfortunately, these problems go right back to the original game, when the rules on senses (along, of course, with the rules on many many other things) were virtually nonexistent. A few things had odd senses noted or could see in the dark, otherwise you needed torches or lanterns or some such. Questions like “how can a skeleton see without eyes?” were never even considered; all that was important was that they came and attacked you.

Later versions of the rules built on those underlying assumptions, with the most formal statement being something to the effect that “everything is presumed to work like it does for a normal person unless there’s a specific note saying otherwise” – which amounts to “just wing it based on your personal experiences”.

Overall, your house rule – which basically sounds to me like “these items have relatively poor but conventional senses, and if you’re awake you’ll probably get more yourself anyway” – seems like an excellent compromise, trading a bit of extra range for something much more easily understood than the original rules.

Now as for how it works in my games… for the most part it doesn’t come up. Worries about visual ranges and such tend to matter most in tactical combat situations and dungeon-crawling, and most of my d20 games tend to be heavy on investigation, figuring out what’s going on, politics, negotiation, and manipulation. Combat does happen – but it commonly focuses on “who has done better at arranging to have overwhelming force” and “mobility” rather than “balanced encounters”. Just as importantly… On Shandar intelligent items tend to go mad and most characters use glowstone alchemy rather than magic items. The Cemar and Atheria games don’t have conventional magic items – and the Federation-Apocalypse characters usually rely on Smartclothes and companions since magical items rarely work outside their worlds of origin. The d6 Star Wars game used Droids instead of sapient magic items, and the Verdan game used mad science under the Baba Yaga rules set. Finally, the Exalted game… honestly, the Exalted rules are so fouled up that we mostly run that by ear anyway.

Now, I don’t know if that will help, but I hope that it will at least inspire some ideas.


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