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Wind in the Flowers: Re-inventing a Game

The Changing of the Guard

R. Sean Borgstrom
January 21, 2002  
I'd like to show you the backstage view of the reinvention of a game system and setting.

Nobilis became available to the public in late 1999, but a number of distribution and printing problems made it very hard to obtain. Hogshead Publishing obtained the rights to Nobilis and intends to release a new, better-distributed version in early 2002. As part of this transition, it seemed only appropriate to incorporate the feedback and reactions of those who did manage to get their hands on the game. Thus, the development of a new edition of the game began.

The Hogshead edition of the game is not a "version 2.0." The game spent eight months on the shelves between initial release and my diving back into the text. Although the new manuscript is extensively playtested, Nobilis hasn't had enough time out in the world to grow.

Rather than guessing at the future opinions of the gaming world, we changed the rules and setting very little, and only when necessary. We did not seek incremental changes but rather a transformation: from a difficult game to approach to an easy one. Most of the changes take the form of new supplementary material, intended to help people run the game smoothly.

This column provides an overview of the changes and what's going into Hogshead's Nobilis. I intend to write about five more going into detail about specific additions and modifications.

Looking over the online reviews of Nobilis, from the review on Pyramid to the reviews on, I see one fairly consistent complaint. I've been very pleased at the tone and contents of the reviews, and consider them quite favorable overall, but many reviewers noted that they would find the game hard to run -- that they aren't sure what to do with it.

We took a three-pronged approach to this problem. (In other words, we jabbed it with a pitchfork.) First, I've replaced the sparse advice on running Nobilis with a meaty section on the matter. It lays out what the player characters do with their time, what obstacles they face, and how to solve them. It discusses non-player characters, story plotting, and campaign development in depth. There's a lot more. Very little of this is standard boilerplate that applies in any roleplaying game -- I mean, yes, one has to go over keeping the players happy and standard descriptive techniques, but most of this section focuses specifically on running Nobilis.

Second, on the advice of James Wallis -- actually, a lot of this is on the advice of James Wallis, or Bruce Baugh; they're driving the new edition as much as I am -- I've added a sample campaign. Normally, sample campaigns are things that players shouldn't read, which made me nervous about including one in the core book for the line. The high concept for this campaign, accordingly, was a setting and storyline that the players could read without spoiling the game experience. I'll talk about how we tried to achieve that in another column.

Third, the old example of play was about 1250 words long, less than 1% of the length of the manuscript. I own up to an error, here. There are a lot of unusual concepts in Nobilis, and a fair number of unusual rules, and the example didn't suffice to show them off. The new example of play should greatly clarify how a typical game might go.

James Wallis, who runs Hogshead, requested that I write about using the Nobilis setting and general rules structure in a live-action game. As those who have involved themselves with LARPs know, this kind of thing isn't easy -- it'll take me a column just to scratch the surface of the issues involved in translating tabletop Nobilis into something suitable for live play. For right now, I'll just say that you'll be seeing the results in an early supplement, and that I'm happy with the translation.

Discussion on the Nobilis list suggested a few more areas meriting adjustment. Most of the things the player characters do using the Nobilis rules are called "miracles" -- and it's usually a pretty accurate term. However, the old manuscript shoehorned normal actions -- the things you or I do daily -- into the system as level 0 mental and physical miracles. Some people constructed fun metaphysics based on this, but most people felt it just complicated the world.

In the new system, mundane actions are just that -- mundane actions, normal things that people do. We've given characters a free mundane action to use instead of or together with their normal miraculous action; added a new defense against mundane attacks, since the standard defenses against miracles no longer work against them; and created a new very small sort of miracle for the level 0 mental/physical miracle slot. (If you haven't read Nobilis and the discussion above confuses you, don't worry. I'll hardly ever dip into technical issues of game mechanics without a more detailed explanation.)

Other people mentioned that the wound system confused them. We've replaced it with something cleaner. I'm not terribly big on combat, but I think that the new system is nicely dramatic and playable.

I won't go further into the rules changes here. Instead, I'll move on to some of the most important things: what happened after it left my hands. (Although my hands kept sneaking back in.)

Bruce Baugh, author, coauthor, or developer for a number of World of Darkness products -- including Wraith: the Great War, Ends of Empire, and Adventure -- agreed to edit the Hogshead edition of Nobilis. I will be frank: it needs, and has always needed, an editor. It didn't have one for the Pharos edition because of Pharos' limited resources, but every author needs a good editor looking over their shoulder. I'm fortunate to have someone so eminently qualified to perform this service. He's also going to handle line editing duties in general for future products in the Nobilis line.

Readers of the Pharos edition may have noticed that it had, essentially, no art. (To see this, flip to a random page. If there is no art there, take one gulp from your drink. When you are drunk, stop.) The Hogshead edition of Nobilis has art. Moreover, this art is good. I'm quite happy with most of the pieces actually used in the Pharos edition, but I'm looking forward to a richer presentation. James Wallis intends to produce a lush, beautiful book, and from what I have seen, he is succeeding.

In future columns, I intend to talk about the sample campaign; the rules changes; the editing and production; the major new setting element; and the live-action rules. Not necessarily in that order.

R. Sean

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