Nobilis (2nd Edition)
Nobilis (2nd Edition) Capsule Review by Carl L. Congdon on 19/05/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
The deep end of the RPG pool. Not for casual gamers, new gamers or people put off by high concept. But a high-water mark for the industry, bordering on being a classic in it's own right.
Product: Nobilis (2nd Edition)
Author: R. Sean Bergstrom, Bruce Baugh
Company/Publisher: Hogshead Publishing
Line: Nobilis 2nd Edition
Cost: $ 42.95 US
Page count: 304
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Carl L. Congdon on 19/05/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Science Fiction Modern day Historical Horror Far Future Espionage Conspiracy Post-apocalyse Gothic Superhero Diceless
Dear Gods, what a huge, complicated mass of game this is! And it is to the authors' credit that they were able to simplify it as much as they have.
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
A question a child might ask, but not a childish question. In Nobilis, your character was an ordinary human, until one day when a divine embodiment of the universe (called an Imperator)conscripted you into a huge, surreal battle for the very fabric of reality (called the Valde Bellum) by investing you with a fragment of it's essence, thus making you a Noble or Power of...some noun. The noun in question could be Blueness, Music, Geometry, Mazes, Death, UNIX, Storms, Sex, Illusion, Treachery, Love, etc. You must defend your place, thing, or concept from assault by rival Powers and beings known as Excrucians, who want to devour your noun and thus deny it to the rest of reality, thus weakening reality and eventually destroying it. Why the Excrucians want to do this is unknown; it is enough to know that they are doing it, and that reality without such concepts as Gravity, Oxygen, etc. is going to seriously suck. And since even the nouns we dislike have some purpose in our existence, they must also be defended. So every Power looks out for every other Power in theory, but in practice rivalries, power plays, and outright feuds get in the way, thus making life for the Nobilis (Powers) very interesting, to say the least. Oh, and did I mention that all of this is supposed to go on out of sight of humanity, otherwise humans tend to go nuts if their concept of reality is seriously messed with? And that that's a big no-no as far as the reigning Powers-That-Be are concerned, so be subtle and strategy-oriented? And as if this weren't enough on your character's plate, you also have to defend this little pocket reality called a Chancel, which surrounds, envelops and defends your Imperator's physical essence on Earth, so don't screw up! This pocket reality can be just as messed up and weird as Earth is, if not more so, so have fun keeping things running smoothly!
Nobilis uses a diceless system ranked 0-10, of which your character gets permanent scores of 0-5. 0 is either "pathetic" or "near-human", depending on what it governs. The four attributes your Noble has are as follows:
Aspect: Your character's body, mind, and skills of persuasion among ordinary humans. The higher the score, the more exaggerated your accomplishments can be, until you get into the realms of myth (picking up a mountain with your pinky finger, juggling chainsaws with your left foot while writing a novel with your right foot, shooting down the moon with an arrow, etc.) Yes, your character can do all that. Whether or not it's wise to do that is another subject entirely. (you know, that whole humans-going-nuts thing...)
Domain: Your control over your noun, or Estate. The Power of Blankets could, at Rank 0, sense when Excrucians were attempting to engulf and destroy his Estate. At Rank 5, he could use his Estate to wrap up and suffocate someone in blankets, or destroy a whole bunch of blankets. With a great expenditure of power, he could turn every blanket in the world into a flesh-eating monster. (Can't sleep, blankets will devour my flesh, can't sleep, blankets will devour my flesh...) You may laugh, but a clever Noble could use his Estate as a lever to gain a great deal of power in the world, even if his Estate is Blankets. All it takes is some savvy and imagination.
Realm: How much power the Noble has in his Imperator's "private Idaho." At Rank 0, Nobilis know when their Chancel is being threatened. At Rank 5, the Noble in question is a miniature god(dess) within the Chancel, being able to create, alter, and destroy almost anything of (or in) the Realm. With higher expenditures of power, it only gets uglier.
Spirit: The miscellaneous magical abilities of the Nobilis, including their Auctoritas (defense against mundane and magical attacks), their ability to Anchor (make mortals into conduits for themselves, the better to monitor and act in the mundane world), and the various magical Rites available to all Nobilis.
In an ordinary contest, Nobilis with a lower Rank in conflicting attributes will lose to higher-Ranked Nobilis, tie with equal Nobilis, and triumph over lower-Ranked Nobilis. This changes, however, with the use of Miracle Points. Miracle Points are temporary units of mystical power the Nobilis has that can fuel his attributes above and beyond what s/he can normally accomplish. Each point temporarily boosts the attribute beyond normal, all the way up to 9, at which miracles are possible. Some of these Miracle points may be used for Penetration, to punch through and negate another Nobilis' Auctoritas. (Without the right amount of Penetration, most miracles and attacks simply don't work against the targeted Power.)
Other attributes, beyond the basic four, give the Power Gifts or Handicaps, which are just what they sound like. The good news is, the only time characters can refresh their Miracle Points in game is when their Handicaps actually hinder them dramatically. No more min-maxing for points here! Theme is given importance above everything else.
Since you're only given 5 Miracle Points per attribute, more if you spent points during creation, choosing when or when not to use your MPs becomes a crucial bit of strategy, especially since if one of your attributes has no more MPs, you have to wait until your Handicaps come into play, or you have to switch MPs from another attribute, at a 3:1 cost ratio. Ouch!
And that's just the mechanics.
Hoo boy. Here's where it gets deep. The universe is animistic; everything seen in Prosaic Reality (aka Ash, the ordinary world)is governed and represented by a spirit in Mythic Reality (aka Chrysanthemum, the symbolic world). You, as a Nobilis, are in effect the representative of a group of these somethings, under one label. You have to defend your Estate from Excrucians as well as from being run roughshod from rival Powers.
The normal world isn't quite the same as the one we know; for shorthand, I'll call it the Gothic-Epic world. First, the Gothic side. Evil is not just good people doing nothing, it's alive, sentient, and has plenty of motivation. Magic is recognized as real, although not by most, and flowers contain some of the strongest magics of all. There are more wars, crises, and faith than in out world, because the touch of the Nobilis, while subtle, is not completely unknown. Governments and police forces are more corrupt, being controlled by the Cammorae, a conspiracy/mystery cult in the service of Lord Entropy who operates as a cross between the Mafia, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the Bavarian Illuminati. They are dangerous for even Nobilis to cross, as they have many favors owed to them by many powerful beings. Also, any blatant miracle used in their service, any crime they commit, cannot be used against them by any Nobilis, including Lord Entropy. Thus, they have enormous freedom that Nobilis lack. Beliefs such as "Innocent until proven guilty" died before they were ever attempted, thus the world uses the Napoleonic code of justice. (Perhaps the Imperator of Liberty, Individuality, and Equality was killed by Excrucians?) It is highly possible that slavery still exists as a legal institution. But still, in parts of the world, there are places known as Refuges, places of pure air, utter peace, and magnificent beauty, places controlled by Angels and Powers of Light, places with, needless to say, potent defenses and powerful patrons. Other than those minor things, of course, it's just like the world we live in.
Now for the Epic side. The Mythic Reality contains beings who are as gods in power and as children in impulse-control. Curses are world-shaking and centuries-lasting, and justice is biblical in scope. Worlds beyond comprehension exist alongside ours, and the Nobilis can visit these. Trolls, centaurs, elves, sprites, etc. exist in the Mythic World. Nobilis have a feudal, Dark-Ages type of society where they are the aristocracy, and thus they have plots, intrigues, duties of their station, vices, romances (imagine the Noble of Love having an affair with the Power of Suicide!), rivalries, and hatreds. Thus, life is never dull, and the greatest challenge a Power might face is breaking away for some rest and relaxation! Time is not one-way, so problems may be occuring in the past or future, and the whole of existence is a very, very large Tree named Ygdrassil, with it's roots in Hell and it's uppermost branches supporting Heaven. Imperators (the embodiment of many somehow-united concepts who gave the Nobilis their power)follow strange, arcane codes of conduct to which their Nobles should also subscribe (and do, usually). Does it sound complicated? Guess what: I haven't even scratched the surface.
THE GAME ITSELF
The good news is, they've managed to at least make the vast majority of the concepts playable or at least comprehensible. This was not an easy task, given that Nobilis is one of the most expansive, concept-heavy, and interesting games to come out in a long, long time. They have seven chapters devoted to GMing Nobilis; all were good, but maybe even one or two more were needed.
Make no mistake, folks: this is the deep end of the pool. Hell, if other RPGs are backyard pools to splash around in for a summer or two, Nobilis is the seashore, where you could spend your entire life and still not see all of it. For some hardcore RPers, this is just what you've been waiting for; for others, it's a big, heavy, unwieldy mess that's more trouble than it's worth for entertainment value, much like the coffee-table books it appears to emulate. Both camps have their points, and I for one am willing to wait until Nobilis comes out with some supplements before I even attempt to run it. (Prosaic Reality, f'rinstance, could use a bit more fleshing out than it's given in the main book, as well as a bit more advice on how to help players and Hollyhock Gods (Game Moderators)deal with running the more abstract Estates and set guidelines and difficulties for them.) Also, there are too many Special Capitalized Terms in the game (Hollyhock God being one of the more annoying)for my tastes; coming up with cute names for Game Moderator, Pocket Reality, Player Character, etc. in a game already packed with atmosphere when more plain, everyday words might help people with the game is overkill, IMO.
But this game is awesome, no matter how you look at it. You have near-limitless possibilities, a truly unique setting, some clean, crisp, well-laid-out rules, fiction (that actually contributes something!), and art to help you get into the game. Buy the game for the fiction even if you don't play it. Hell, this game has atmosphere to spare and muscles it hasn't even flexed yet! (And I could care less about art and layout, except for Tables of Content and Indices, which this book has.)
And I don't care what anyone says: This book does one hell of a job wrestling the ideas of this game into a playable format. The fact that they only give you a rough idea of where to go with it, even after 304 BIG pages, is not though any lack on their part, but a testament to how big this game is. If you do decide to play it, join the mailing list and hammer Hogshead for supplements, especially supplements of adventures to give you some idea of how to run it. But be warned again: it's not a game for the faint of heart, or for just killing a weekend or two. You're in the deep end, folks.