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Wind in the Flowers: Re-inventing a Game

How to be a Hollyhock God

R. Sean Borgstrom
March 13, 2002  

As mentioned in passing a few columns ago, Nobilis has its own unique term for the person running the game, to wit, the Hollyhock God. Historically, there have been endless variations on the language of flowers; in the game's dictionary of floral symbolism, the Hollyhock stands for ambition, glory, imagination, and perhaps a little touch of vanity. A Hollyhock God, then, has decided that to build a new Creation from their own imagination and share it with their players. I approve.

Since James wanted a significant amount of advice on how to run the game, I set out to provide it. As in the Pharos Press edition, it's narrated in character. Some of this is just me: I don't feel comfortable telling people, as me, how to run their games. However, there's a more important reason.

This is the section of the book most directly aimed at the reader. It is not just presenting information; it's talking to the prospective Hollyhock God, presenting directed advice on how they---the reader---should proceed. In my head, this leads to a large section of the book that breaks suspension of disbelief. Not that I expect people to believe Nobilis, but I do expect them to see the world as they read.

The character creation rules are written carefully to promote this, to show the players how the subject matter plays out in the setting. The setting material, of course, presents something to visualize directly. Spending too much time talking about how to run the game, however, breaks the vision and makes the reader think about gaming, not Nobilis' Creation. Narrating it in character helps avoid this. It's a character from the game world talking, and that reminder of how the game world works is always there.

The advice in this book is much more detailed than in the previous edition. Accordingly, I chose a narrator, Ianthe, with a relatively unintrusive voice. Readers can concentrate on absorbing the material, with Ianthe's presence as a grace note---but an important grace note.

Ianthe's advice comes in nine parts. Six cover a basic introduction, genre, play contracts, rules interpretation, characters, and stories. All of these are heavily optimized for games of Nobilis. Some of these are interesting from the design perspective.

I've never actually been in a game that had a formal play contract, covering how the game handles sensitive topics, describing the level of control players have over their characters, and laying out rules for player conduct. However, like any sane person would, I want Nobilis to reach a large market that includes huge numbers of gamers and a substantial number of previous non-gamers. I also know that its subject matter can be fairly extreme. There is no sexual violence in the book, because of my personal hot buttons, and perhaps two uses of foul language.

But there's some torture, some murder and maiming, a lot of moral corruption, some horrible curses and massively ugly images, plus a huge amount of blasphemy. This is a game of wonder and horror, and the horror includes just about every kind that isn't one of my personal hot buttons. Resolving the conflict between "a game for everyone" and "a game of intense wonder and horror" isn't easy; the best solution I can find is to recommend that the players and HG (Hollyhock God) sit down before the game and figure out what's in bounds and what's out of bounds.

Besides, think how many RPG horror stories this kind of thing avoids.

Playtesters rightly pointed out that most of the rules interpretations in the section on rules interpretation could have gone into the rules themselves. I'm still not sure whether I was right to leave things as they were. My concern was fairly straightforward: first, I integrate these into the rules, and then I write a new section of rules interpretations; and then I integrate those into the rules, and so forth, until I find myself with a set of rules optimized for my running the game instead of the average HG. Opinions on this are welcome, although I'm not able to change it now.

The section on characters represents a detailed guide to the entities of the Nobilis world, a discussion of typical social relationships therewith, and advice to the HG on building and exploiting those relationships. This was not so much design choice as organic evolution; as I wrote about each of those three things, I found myself wanting to define the other two more.

To finish up this column, I'll discuss the three remaining sections of Ianthe's advice, all wholly Nobilis-specific. They cover, in order, what Nobilis do all day, how they solve their problems, and what makes their lives difficult. In my head, these are probably the most important sections of the book, since they spell out so precisely how Noble lives work.

The Pharos edition represents early work of mine, when my tendencies towards vagary, imprecision, and hinting rather than defining were operating at full force. I've learned better since then, and a great deal of the new material represents me nailing down things that might otherwise have rattled in the wind.

The first of these sections, on typical Noble activities, had one primary purpose: free the players to act, rather than restricting them. Working from this principle, I included a large subsection on the personal projects of the Nobilis---their extracurricular activities, as it were---and made an effort to make these as extreme and varied as possible. Examples of this sort of project include freeing the souls in Hell or sleeping with every man, woman, or adult human in general before they die.

I stretched this idea a little bit with subsections on more dutiful projects that nevertheless had a unique and personal character. One of these subsections, for example, included a depiction of the Power of Chaos' typical activities in service to the Chaos in his soul, which include sowing disaster and trouble throughout the world, gambling, and studying mathematics and quantum theory. There were discussions of relatively standard activities as well.

The second of these sections discussed how Nobles solve their problems. This represents, in essence, a guide to playing either a PC or an NPC in the Nobilis world. This sought to preserve two game conventions: first, the notion that characters don't arbitrarily fail, and second, the idea that violence is fairly rare.

To protect the first, I highlighted the ease with which the characters can use casually excessive force---not just violence, but also extreme mental, social, and miraculous solutions---against problems in the mortal world.

To preserve the second idea, I then spent time building mechanisms by which the Nobilis could manipulate or oppose one another without engaging in all-out miraculous combat. (It honestly is supposed to be rare, despite the Example of Play---it's just something that I had to cover there.)

Finally, the third of these sections discusses the opposition---the ways the Hollyhock God can deal with the high power level and flexible abilities of the player characters. This section was fairly straightforward; my only purpose was to create obstacles that would remain fun for the players rather than frustrate them.

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