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Wind in the Flowers: Re-inventing a Game

Art Notes

R. Sean Borgstrom
February 27, 2002  
James Wallis had promised a significant amount of cool art for the new edition, with well-respected artists from both inside and outside the gaming world. This meant working out what I actually wanted everything in the world to look like. I'm not a very visual person, and my imagination is mostly full of abstractions and words, so this was an interesting challenge.

I'm not going to discuss the art itself, because, hm. Because it is wonderful and amazing and it makes me huddle over the pictures and say, "This was drawn for my book." But it's not my work, and I don't think I can get 10-20 artists together to write a column for me. I just contributed the stuff below, so that's what I'll write about.

Not all of my art notes actually reached the artists. James ultimately decided that 9,000 words of art suggestions might daze, restrict, or even offend some of the artists we had on board. So he trimmed them down somewhat. I'm going to discuss the original document, however, since it wound up establishing some subtle things about the setting that either worked back into the text of the book or influenced the canon for future supplements. I think that's a very interesting process, even when it didn't affect the art.

One of the key design principles for Nobilis is empowerment. I do not mean that it's a high-powered setting. It is, but that's not the point. I mean that it's very much a game about allowing the player's picture of their character to drive that character's destiny.

When applying this to the art notes, one of my primary concerns was a tendency in gaming art to depict females in submissive and exaggeratedly sexualized poses. Such images of women, when common in a book or game line, implicitly categorize female characters as weak or sexual, which is bloody rare in the Nobilis setting. This led to an immediate secondary concern: I didn't want men depicted in submissive or exaggeratedly sexualized poses, either. Any such image, basically, detracts from the overall thematic point of empowering both players and characters. This led to frequent comments of the sort "no breasts bigger than the woman's head", "no underdressed nymphlets if you can help it", "all nudity should be artistic and justifiable", and, most importantly, "The Nobilis, the main characters of the game, almost invariably give an impression of power and competence." I don't know just how many of these James relayed, but the art turned out well in this respect. Go us.

Another fundamental idea in Nobilis---probably the most fundamental---is that of an animistic world. My personal motto for the game, not currently appearing in any ad copy, is "every concept has a human face." Cars have spirits. Storms have spirits. Even massive ideals like Time have spirits. You can interact with almost everything as a person.

The principal characters of Nobilis, though born mortal, have a piece of the divine embedded in their soul. This is an elemental piece of reality---Fire, Maps, Automobiles, Trees, Waves, or somesuch thing. This is what makes them "Noble" or "of the Nobilis". As the centerpiece of the game, they needed both their animistic nature and their empowerment front and center in the art as well.

Defining their basic appearance from here was pretty straightforward. As humans touched by the divine, they should never look ordinary. They could be rugged, handsome, or pretty. Some would be interestingly ugly. The rest, though plain, should be fascinating in some way unrelated to attractiveness, perhaps possessing a profoundly honest face, an inscrutably bland demeanor, or phenomenal grace in motion. Simply ordinary Nobles would undermine the idea that they represent natural forces, and it also suggests a more mundane environment than I wanted for the game.

Most Nobles have an appearance reflecting their Estate---that elemental piece of reality I mentioned earlier. The Noble governing Shadows (the Power of Shadows) might have obscured features and elongated fingers. Static might crackle in the Power of Television's eyes. The Power of Mazes might lounge on an Escherian throne. A few pictures used distinctly supernatural elements for this. Most of the artists instead captured the elemental nature of the Nobilis through clothing, setting, and pose. Both worked awfully well.

The art notes are the first place I established what the Nobilis actually wear. I'll be covering the topic in more depth in A Society of Flowers, an early supplement, but it boils down to three styles. Two reflect opposite ends of empowerment.

First, the most important part of a Noble's duties is defending reality from a pretty vicious enemy. This leads to workmanlike, casual, loose-fitting, tough, and respectable clothes. They don't have to look hot, and they don't have to look professional, because they don't have to care what people who look at them think.

Second, there are occasions for regalia, a classic sign of power: gorgeous, amazing, ornate clothing, possibly including face-painting and equally impressive headwear. In addition, as animistic representatives of their Estate, some should be drawn with clothing that reflects it: the Power of Water might have flowing garments, and the Power of Time almost certainly has a conspicuous pocketwatch. Examples of all three styles appear in the book.

Other creatures of note in the game include Imperators, creatures wholly divine. Where a Noble has a piece of reality in their soul, Imperators are pieces of reality. One Imperator defines and embodies Words, Doorways, and Bronze; another Parasites, Passivity, Mistrust, and Growth. They are creatures of what the game calls spiritus Dei, the divine breath, the first and uncaused cause that makes other things to be.

One of my mistakes here was defining the appearance of the Imperial "True Gods", the deities more of Earth's primordial soup than of humanity. The true gods exist in the setting to capture a certain element of inhumanity in the divine. Of the seven forms of Imperator discussed in Nobilis, four resemble humanity in general appearance. These are the Angels, the Fallen, the Magisters of the Light, and the Magisters of the Dark. The Aaron's Serpents, children of the Ash that holds worlds in its branches, are unsurprisingly, ophidian.

I didn't want the divine to be too anthropomorphic, however, so there are the Magisters of the Wild, capturing a certain essence of mental inhumanity, and the true gods, inhuman in all ways. I described them for the artists as glorious monsters, amorphous and nightmarish but not bestial. They are not icky, but rather majestically awful. They are horrid things, but they induce more awe than revulsion.

No one drew one. Possibly James just left this bit out, but on reflection, I wouldn't want to try and draw something from that description, even if I were a living god with the pencil and the pen.

To close the column on a high note, I'll talk a little bit about locations. Although I didn't expect anyone to draw them for the main book, I wanted the art suggestions to stick around as a supplement bible, so I had to work out what Heaven, Hell, and the World Ash looked like. It's not that the characters regularly visit Heaven or Hell, but it's an established feature of the setting that the angels' work in Heaven constantly rains new glories down on every world. Conversely, corruption seeps ever upwards out of Hell. As for the World Ash, you pretty much need to climb it to get anywhere but Earth, so I do expect fairly regular visits. These are all important places.

Thinking about how to describe them led me to a peculiar realization: Heaven and Hell are easily as fundamental as the angels. The World Ash is as real as the Serpents that are its children. One of the most important things to understand when drawing them is that they are more than places---they are things of spiritus Dei, and therefore concepts as well as places. Heaven is not beautiful; it is Beauty. Hell is not a place of suffering; it is corruption and suffering. I am not entirely certain what the World Ash that spans between them is; I think it may be Life. That's perhaps the strongest case of art suggestions influencing my perspective on the written setting, and so I stop there.

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