Nephilim Chaosium (originally published in France) 230 pages + extra character sheets, perfect bound Price = $21.95
Reviewed by Lisa Padol
This review first appeared in The Familiar #1.
Nephilim is the latest rpg where Things Are Not As They Seem and the PCs are members of a powerful, inhuman race. It has similarities to White Wolf's Storyteller games, including the promise of supplements to deal with sketchy (or worse) material, and overprinting the text on graphics. The text is not rendered unreadable by the overprinting, as it is in some of the Storyteller books. The tone of Nephilim is more reminiscent of Illuminatus! than of Anne Rice's Vampire books. It's less pretentious than the Storyteller game and less dark than Kult. I enjoy both White Wolf's and Metropolis' games, but I'm glad to see something a little lighter.
The premise of Nephilim is that there is a civilization of spiritual beings, the nephilim, who try to possess humans to achieve Agartha, a state of extreme enlightenment, while avoiding the human secret societies that would destroy or enslave them. Again, this is reminiscent of the Storyteller games, but I found it easier to suspend my disbelief in the world of Nephilim than in White Wolf's World of Darkness. (There is, however, a substance known as Orichalka, which is to nephilim as kryptonite is to Superman. Both substances are incredibly rare, and both will, inevitably, be encountered everywhere.) While enjoyably surreal, the background is internally consistent. The rules of time and space cannot be suspended at random intervals, as is the case in Kult, which takes an extremely good gm to run well. Novice gms should not have a problem running Nephilim.
The first part of the book discusses character generation, although I'd suggest reading the entire book before making a character. The most important characteristic is Ka, used for magic and power (like POW of Call of Cthulhu). The value of a character's Ka is the same as the value of that character's Dominant Ka element, chosen from five Ka elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Moon. The remaining elements have lower values, calculated from the Dominant Ka. This five-fold division sets Nephilim apart from other rpgs. Spells require rolls against specific Ka elements. Astrology works, and nephilim need to be very careful on unlucky days. Different days are favorable to different elements, as determined by a simple chart in Part III. This gives the feel of Renaissance magic systems that the game is clearly trying for, without being too complicated. Since the choice of a Dominant Ka element has far-reaching implications that aren't always obvious, Nephilim gets extra points for providing a way to change one's Dominant Ka.
Nephilim also choose a Metamorphosis and an Arcanum tribe. Again, comparisons to the Storyteller system are inevitable. There are nine Metamorphoses, but the choice of Dominant Ka will narrow this down to one or two. There are 22 Arcana tribes, 18 of which are open to pcs. One of these, the Moon Arcanum, is made of nephilim who possess animals, rather than humans. However, I was disappointed to find that no rules are provided for playing Moon Arcanum. The game provides only human host bodies, known as Simulacra. Naturally, there will be a supplement detailing the Arcana tribes, but I hope that there will only be one such supplement, not 22! As for the Metamorphoses, remember how valiantly you struggled to hold on to your humanity in White Wolf's Vampire? Forget it. Nephilim don't agonize over turning their Simulacrum's life inside out, and they glory at changing into the shape of their chosen Metamorphosis. The less human a nephilim looks, the closer it is to reaching Agartha. Of course, this makes it harder to blend into human society.
Once the Dominant Ka element, Metamorphosis, and Arcanum tribe have been chosen, players choose past lives for their nephilim. This is another unique feature of the game, one I found delightful. A nephilim can have previously possessed up to 9 humans; in between lives, it returns to "sleep" in an artifact called a Stasis, whose shape is determined by the first life.
Eleven periods of history are given for players to choose from, with tables that are properly skewed toward interesting lives. Each life gives a nephilim more skills -- at the cost of Ka: The more lives you had, the more skills you have, but the less power you have. Each period provides only one culture, so players wanting a past life in medieval Spain, or nineteenth century South America, for example, will have to work something out with their gms. I don't mind this, since a whole book could be filled with past lives from different eras and different cultures, but I am worried about later sections which explain that the Nephilim have very different relationships with humans in places like South America, both because of the promise (threat?) of interminable supplements and because any gms who allow nephilim pcs from cultures such as this will run into trouble if they buy these supplements and discover that what they established in their campaigns is incompatible with the material in the supplement.
The second part covers the mechanics of the game. The system is Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying System, with some new rules that can be retrofitted to their other games, such as using skills on the Resistance Table, and assigning Potentials for things other than poison. For example, a city can have an Occult Information Potential matched against the rarity of the tome your character is searching. The Relationship Potential of the nephilim's human host can be matched against the length of strange absences, or the emotional differences in personality to see if the Simulacrum's family (or friends) decides to do something about Cousin Sue, who's suddenly acting strange. It's an easy system to learn, and there's enough useful material that someone who owns other Chaosium games should at least skim through the Game System section to see what can be adapted for them.
The third section describes the magic system, which fits the mood of the game nicely. Certain kinds of magic are only available to nephilim with later past lives, although it isn't quite clear when they become available. All spells require a roll against one or more Ka elements. This means that players should at least skim this section before making characters. The fourth part provides more background on the world, npcs, and scenario ideas. The book also has an index, a bibliography listing occult texts and movies. No fiction is listed, even though this would be useful for players and gms.
Nephilim is not without problems. There are 2 categories: items needing more detail or clarification, and items that should have been caught by proofreaders. For example, starting Ka is 22. At one point in the text, it is said to be 20. This is inexcusable, especially given its importance. There are misaligned sentences, sentences with important words missing, and one sentence on p. 182 that ends in mid- word. Disgusting!
Then there are Athanors, ovens used in Alchemy. On p. 173, the Athanor is described as "a small, brick domed or square tower, about man-height or smaller. It contains an egg- shaped glass vessel lying in a sandbath over a fire." However, the individual descriptions of various npcs' Athanors vary greatly: "small ivory case," "enameled clay amphora," "Ivory scroll case," "gilded box," and "larger duplicate of Stasis," where the Stasis is a ceremonial knife! Athanors draw Ka from the Stasis, but I can't find any rules for determining the beginning Ka of a Stasis. Also, nephilim with skill in Alchemy must, logically, have created an Athanor in a previous life. If it was not destroyed, is there any reason it couldn't be found and used? Can one have 2 or more Athanors?
I stumbled across other problems while making up a character. To cast a spell, you must have a skill in the appropriate type of magic equal to or greater than the spell's "Threshold." For my first life, I put the maximum allowed, 50 points, into Lower Sorcery, which may or may not be the only type available in the era I chose. It's the only type listed as being available, yet the skills under the Simulacrum I chose included both Lower and Higher Sorcery. This, in turn, raises the question of whether I can circumvent the 50 point limit by using my Simulacrum's skill points for Sorcery and the rule that nephilim must have a skill of 90 in Lower Sorcery before taking Higher Sorcery.
I had several points left to use on occult skills, so I decided to Inscribe spells. An Inscribed spell is written on a nephilim's Ka, which means that the nephilim can cast it without bulky tomes, daggers with arcane symbols, or other foci. The spell is memorized. This costs Ka after character generation is complete.
I selected a few spells, and then realized that one of them had a Threshold of 70. My nephilim's skill in Lower Sorcery was 50. I still don't know if I can Inscribe that spell, which is not the same thing as casting it. I would think not, but the rules don't say.
For my nephilim's second life, I selected a knight who was killed in the crusade against the Cathars. One of his skills was Lance. There is no listing for Lance on the weapons chart.
Nephilim who choose to learn Summoning can make a pact with the being who rules the element of their dominant Ka. This being may agree to teach them how to summon a sentient sword that is "an essential element of some Third Circle Invocations." Three of these Invocations are given in Nephilim. None of them mention a sword as being necessary, nor does the description of the swords give any indication of what one is used for or how to determine when one is necessary for Third Circle Summoning magic.
There are more, similar problems, but you get the idea. Nephilim is a good game, but it is flawed by many problems that could have been easily fixed.
Re-reading my own words: I was correct about Orichalka showing up frequently in the supplements. There is only one, not 22, supplements for the Arcana. It might have been nice to see a more polished second edition of this game, but I doubt that will happen.
Style: 3 (Average)