Nobilis 2nd Edition
Nobilis 2nd Edition Capsule Review by E. Burns on 19/05/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
A game of tremendous beauty, tremendous ambition and tremendous scope.
Product: Nobilis 2nd Edition
Author: R. Sean Borgstrom
Page count: 306
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by E. Burns on 19/05/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Modern day Historical Horror Conspiracy Diceless Other
I have always been attracted to scope. Back in the days of my youth, I found that scope in Traveller -- a whole galaxy, spread out along jumproutes, one system at a time, with years of travel implied to go from one system to the next. Like many people who liked the grand and epic, I found myself in absurdly high levels of AD&D, doing absurdly powerful things with the Fate of the Multiverse At Hand. When Champions came out, I glommed onto it and immediately began playing with Gods and Omnipotent beings, with the PCs caught up in the middle. In more recent years, I've found myself trolling the vistas of In Nomine -- the epic battles of Heaven and Hell, the Marches and Earth, all wrapped up with the Destiny or Fate of Mankind in the balance.
However, in all of those cases, scope was mostly available either by perverting the intent of the game (those high level AD&D games leap to mind) or as background material. As fascinating as I find In Nomine's Archangels and Demon Princes, the game is made up of Angels and Demons close to the bottom of the ladder -- the really epic things take place far away from the Campaign Table. Traveller might be the game of huge spaces and galaxy spanning jumps, but it's the grunt in the trenches cleaning off his FMPG-15 you're playing. (If anything, the attempt to broaden issues to the epic led to the Shattered Imperium of Megatraveller -- not the finest hour Traveller had, in my opinion.)
Further, there is a fine line of distinction between the Epic and Munchkinism. 30th Level Archmagi who use Staves of the Magi as toothpicks and tame Ancient Red Dragons to plow their fields are 'epic,' but they're also boring. Modern games -- with Vampire or Mage leaping immediately to mind -- couch the Epic in terms of atmosphere, but populate their backstories with forces beyond the ken of the Player Characters.
With Nobilis, for the first time, the Epic is the starting point. And I couldn't be happier.
The characters are Nobles, or Powers. Each is a former human (usually) who has had a fragment of a nigh-omnipotent god's soul slid into theirs. These Gods -- called Imperators -- are fighting a war to preserve Creation against those who would destroy it, and that War keeps them distracted away from the Real World. The Nobles, accordingly, are given charge both of protecting that Real World from the enemies of Creation and of administering the pocket worlds the Imperators have created. The Imperial Soul-shard within the Nobles grant them tremendous power, represented by the game's four attributes: Aspect, Domain, Realm and Spirit, each scored from 0 (normal human) to 5 (godlike). Aspect is the entire physical and mental capacity of the character. An Aspect 0 character is physically a normal mortal. An Aspect 5 character can lift mountains, outthink computers, and jog from New York to LA on their lunch hour. Domain represents a Noble's control over their Estate -- a Domain of 0 leaves a character the helpless pawn of his Estate, drawn to trouble spots but with no control. A Domain of 5 represents a true God on Earth, capable of miracles to put the Old Testament to shame. Realm represents the control the Noble has over his Imperator's pocket universe (called a Chancel). A Realm of 0 means the Noble is special only in name within the Chancel, while a Realm of 5 means a Noble can reshape the landscape at will, pull stars out of the sky and make them into glowing soldiers, and indulge their every whim without concern. Spirit represents the inner fire of the Noble -- their ability to work magical rites, command anchors, and shield themselves from other Powers. A Spirit of 0 means the Noble has little magic to command, and cannot easily defend himself from rivals. A Spirit of 5 means the Noble is a shining paragon, shielded from all but the mightiest miracles, able to take many Anchors (mortals made into servants), and able to work mighty rites. To fuel the different powers and miracles, Nobles have Miracle Points in each of the four attributes -- managing one's Miracle Points becomes crucial through the game.
One of the nice touches in the game are standard titles given to Nobles depending on their attribute scores. For example, if the Power of Speculation has scores of 2 in Aspect, 3 in Domain, 4 in Realm and 1 in Spirit, that character can -- in the game -- be known as Legendary in Aspect, the Marquis of Speculation, True King of his Realm and a Hearthfire in Spirit. This helps set the game's tone as lush and richly textured.
Estates can be anything -- a player can be the Power of Books, Water or Life as easily as he could be the Power of Spam, RAM or Basset Hounds. Even the weakest of Powers has profound abilities in their Estate. With a high Domain, a Power can create and destroy in his Estate with near impunity. The Chocolate's Regal (a Power with Domain 5 in Chocolate) can relatively simply cause the entire city of San Francisco to be drowned in hot fudge, with a huge dark chocolate dike keeping the fudge from flowing into the sea.
Obviously, the game sounds like a Powergamer's dream. Right from the beginning, your character can potentially shoot the sun out of the sky with a bow and arrow, throw Mount Everest at his enemies, or change Stephen King's past books from horror to romance novels. In practice, the game doesn't suit Powergaming at all -- first off, because the other Nobles are as powerful (and hard to kill) as the characters are. A Power caught at Ground Zero of a thermonuclear explosion will have one Deadly Wound ticked off on their sheet (and depending on their Aspect and Gifts will probably heal that wound back by the next day), brush themselves off, and proceed to make the attacker's life a living Hell. Further, Nobles are bound up into a robust society -- and are expected by both their Imperators and their fellow Nobles to abide by that society's rules. Further, all characters have to select a certain number of Bonds -- things, people or achievements they have invested emotionally in -- which can be used to indirectly attack the character and steal energy from him. Of course, it also ruins a Noble's day to have his beloved aged Aunt tormented and perverted all to have the Noble lose some Miracle points to an enemy.
Because overkill rarely solves the problems the Nobles confront, there is a huge emphasis on actual role-playing in this game. The setting is lush with social opportunities, and players are encouraged to explore every role playing possibility. By building a network of social contacts, the character gains advantages -- when trying to keep an enemy from escaping on a plane, it can be useful for a PC to call the Duchess of Fog and ask a favor. This in turn leads to game potential as the PC's acquaintences call upon them in equal measure.
The book itself is gorgeous. This second edition was almost comically late, in large part because Hogshead refused to compromise. It is oversized at 11 inches by eleven inches, composed of high quality paper and stitching, and even includes a bookmark ribbon. The layout is extremely clear, and the text is easy to read and look at. Artwork is extremely well done and reproduced, and very fitting of the material. The artwork also doesn't overwhelm the text.
And what text it is. Borgstrom is a phenomenally good writer, and the text is filled with flavor while remaining clear and easy to understand. Complex concepts are quickly explained, and multiple examples (including an example of play that covers an entire adventure's worth of material) keep things rolling. Fiction and flavortext are woven throughout the material, adding a huge amount. This book is a thing of beauty in almost every concievable way.
Campaigns are enjoyable, and involve the players in the very fabric of the game. Players create their own characters, of course, but also collaborate to design the Imperator who empowers them and the Chancel they administrate. The combination helps to ensure the game is one everyone wants to participate in. And that might be the strongest point to recommend Nobilis for -- this is a *mature* role playing game. Not 'mature' in the shallow 'sex and violence' sense, mind, but the real deal. This is role playing that adults (in temperament, at least, if not age) can enjoy -- far beyond mere task resolution or dungeon crawling. This isn't a knock on other games or styles of gaming, but acknowledgement that Hogshead has chosen to release a game that doesn't pander. This does mean that some players won't enjoy Nobilis, and should bear that in mind. However, the majority of role players -- especially those looking for new depth in their roleplaying experience -- will grab hold of this game with both hands.
The largest knock this game has is one of its advantages too -- the big, beautiful coffee table book is perfectly at home on display. It is beautiful, but it's not particularly convenient. It doesn't fit easily on bookshelves or in backpacks, and when opened up needs 22 inches of room to be read. Plus, between its broad size and the ribbon, my Cat takes to it like I take to my PS2.
Still, this game's beauty makes up for it. It's worth the price tag just for the sheer aesthetics of appearance and readibility it brings to the table. Add in its playability, and it's a welcome addition to most experience role players.
And if you're looking for scope, look no further. Nothing's ever done it as well.