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Wind in the Flowers: Re-inventing a Game

The Emperor to Come

R. Sean Borgstrom
January 31, 2002  

Much of the Nobilis setting draws its passion and temper from the character of Lord Entropy, the anointed ruler of the material Earth. Callous, oppressive, and indisputably malevolent, he has created a government and code of law that reflects his own nature. He sanctions sevenfold vengeance, extends the protections of his law to the enemies of all Creation, and forbids the Nobilis love. He embodies the concepts of Destruction, Desecration, and Scorn. Because of his existence, these things afflict the Earth.

Nobilis pursues a value-neutral approach towards such entities as Lord Entropy. Destruction, Desecration, and Scorn are ugly things, but also a part of the natural order of Creation. For player characters, loyal in some sense to the universe, Lord Entropy is not the enemy -- he is a cruel lord, but not an inadequate one. He makes a fine villain for characters who simply must foment rebellion -- but in most games, he is not a villain at all. Rather, he represents an unpleasant part of the order of things. He is a natural force that one cooperates with or works around.

Nobilis is not a horror game. I've always intended that it be a game of wonder and horror, balancing the ugly elements of the setting with beauty. Getting strong reactions out of players -- terror in a horror game, fascination in a game of mystery or conspiracy, romantic fantasy in a romance, the spiritual experience in a religious game -- depends entirely on the person running the game. I can't directly put wonder and horror into Nobilis. Instead, I must produce a toolkit that the player group can use to evoke those reactions. That's one of the central purposes of both mechanics and setting.

In this respect, placing Lord Entropy alone at the pinnacle of Earthly power was a mistake. You can use him easily to invoke a sense of horror, but he just won't take the players' breath away with the beauty, wonder, and scope of his nature. He is a single point of darkness in a key area of the setting, with no brightness to mitigate it. At the same time, I found his place in the world a very useful tool during game design.

For example, Lord Entropy's code of law forbids love. (Specifically, to the Nobilis -- half-divine beings and the default character type.) This isn't a physical law, nor is Lord Entropy omnipotent. Characters can break the law, and can even get away with it. At the same time, Lord Entropy is powerful and cunning, providing powerful incentive to follow his code. This combination of traits gives much more significance to the decision to love. Every time one of the Nobilis gives their heart, even in relative secrecy and safety, it forms the core of a powerful and dynamic story. Weakening Lord Entropy's power base weakens that story.

Similarly, because Lord Entropy extends the protection of his law to the enemies of Creation -- the Excrucians -- launching a preemptive strike against that enemy takes on new significance. Instead of a tactical decision, the choice whether to gather evidence against the enemy or attack prematurely becomes a real, meaningful choice.

In the Hogshead edition, therefore, I set out to create a thematic balance for Lord Entropy in the topmost levels of Earth's power structure -- without balancing his temporal power. The first edition offered a useful tool: the "Council of Four," an august governing body to which Lord Entropy belonged. The combined decision of the three other members could thwart him -- although this didn't happen very often.

The new edition introduces the character of Ananda, who sits on the Council of Four. He shines with a terrible glory. Humans and the weaker Nobilis cannot enter his presence lest his countenance drive them mad with joy. The world sings in his presence. Grass and trees become crystal instruments. Concrete buildings clamor out hard-edged refrains. Birds pour out symphony after symphony, until their hearts burst from the strain.

Some of you may wonder why we would choose such a stark and hostile form of beauty for a character intended to balance out a monster. In fact, in his original conception, Ananda had a kind beauty, a tame beauty, a loveliness to put one in mind of rainbows and waterfalls. From the perspective of my injecting beauty into the game, that would have worked. As soon as the first words went onto the page, though, it became clear that, as part of a toolkit for creating wonder, that idea didn't work at all.

The members of the Council of Four, I discovered, need stark detail and absolute magnificence. Anything less would less would compromise the feel of the game. Nobilis postulates that many of the player characters have personal presence exceeding that of Napoleon or Elizabeth I. Ananda stands several steps higher on the ladder of authority. Further, members of the Council of Four must play a small role in the game. (Why overshadow the player characters?) Since Ananda should rarely appear "on screen," the person running the game has very little time to make an impact with him. Thus, his beauty strikes like a thunderbolt; it does not drift to the senses in gentle waves.

Ananda is a creature of conscience. In this, he is unique on the Council of Four. (When creating Ananda, I did not know this for sure -- but, in response to a playtester request, we've added a short box describing the other two members. Now, I know.) He represents a court of last resort -- a final hope for Nobilis desperate for justice or succor. He is a benevolent administrator who might take action in a worthy character's name.

So that Ananda does not become a panacea, an escape from all the terrors of the setting, we limited his authority. Ananda knows of an "unacceptable" horror that will come to pass if he casts his vote directly against Lord Entropy's in Council. His greatest protest against Entropy's actions is an abstention. Ananda must abstain, and the other two members of the Council vote against Lord Entropy, for the Council to overrule Lord Entropy's decisions. Ananda remains one of the four Imperators directly charged with governance over the Nobilis and the mortal world, but his inability to vote his conscience limits his power base.

Ananda, like the other members of the Council of Four, is an Imperator -- a great spirit, the essence of several fundamental concepts of the world, served by several of the Nobilis. He embodies the concepts of Murder, the Infinite, and the Fourth Age. The Fourth Age immediately follows the current era; when the very nature of the world next changes, Ananda's essence will pervade reality. For this reason, many call him the Emperor to Come.

Nobilis does not insist on an explanation for the groups of concepts that the Imperators embody. However, one might reasonably believe that Ananda is the essence of murder because the Excrucians seek to murder Creation -- the Third Age, the current Age, could end with the death of all worlds. Similarly, the Third Age could end with the Excrucians' utter defeat. The universe could then, in theory, endure indefinitely; this would explain why he embodies the essence of the Infinite.

Since Nobilis detailed Lord Entropy's home -- his "Chancel," a pocket reality he created -- the new edition also describes Ananda's Chancel. This is the Cityback, a vast world hidden behind modern cities. The Cityback is home to wild flora, fauna, and urbana (living elements of urban life, such as scavenger shopping carts), as well as Ananda's "ombudsmen." These ombudsmen help the modern world function. For example, Ananda's ombudsmen protect and facilitate the mysterious process by which cows become packages of plastic-covered meat at supermarkets across the world.

The Council of Four remains a dark and oppressive institution. Ananda's addition to the world does not change this. Still, by taking his place on the Council, by building the Cityback, and by being Ananda, he brings hope to the world.

R. Sean
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