Nobilis Capsule Review by Christopher E. Meadows on 22/05/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
Ambitious in scope, astounding in its setting, and very classy in its layout, Nobilis provides an astonishing amount of value as a book, object d'art, and game.
Author: R. Sean Borgstrom
Company/Publisher: Hogshead Publishing
Page count: 304
Year published: 2002
SKU: HOG 600
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Christopher E. Meadows on 22/05/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Science Fiction Modern day Horror Conspiracy Gothic Diceless
A few years ago, some friends and I who wrote for the same Internet fiction forum got together on Internet Relay Chat, at first to enjoy the novelty of "talking" to each other in real time...and then we started roleplaying as the characters from our stories. One thing led to another, IRC gave way to a private chatserver (fewer netsplits and morons there), and we have continued to this day.
What we do on this server is partly roleplay, partly improv theatre--we come up with a mental tally of our characters' skills, abilities, personality, and appearance, then we get inside their heads and play them. Our interactions are on more of a collaborative basis than ordinary roleplaying games; it works by "yes-and" rather than by third-party arbitration. When there is a question of competing abilities or powers that "yes-and" can't resolve, then the people who play the affected characters get together by private message and hash out what happens.
Much of our in-character interaction takes place in a common area (a bar/lounge with plenty of seats and sofas), but sometimes one or more of the people will run "plots" ("scenarios" or "campaigns," in role-playing parlance) set outside this area. The plot-runners act as the storytellers and the rest of us the players, but that is as close to GM-run gaming as we get on that server. We're all friends, and we trust each other, so there really aren't many unresolvable conflicts. It is quite fun, but quite unlike the way most people roleplay outside of MUSHes. (In fact, it is not quite like MUSHing, either, because all play effects are described by the players instead of relying upon coding and building.)
Of all the roleplaying games I have ever seen, the new edition of Nobilis comes the closest to encapsulating that form of play--as I first read through it, I kept thinking that Ms. Borgstrom had managed to write about our chatserver without even knowing about it. There are some profound differences in setting and execution, of course, most notably in terms of power level and in having solidly-defined statistics on paper, but the style of play for which Nobilis seems to be striving is very similar.
The central conceit of Nobilis is that you play one of the Nobilis--godlings, demigods, or the nearest equivalent. There is a war constantly being fought among different factions of greater powers--true deities, who are as far beyond humans' comprehension and understanding as humans are beyond insects'. Whether he wants to be or not (and probably not), one of these deities has claimed your character as its own, and rudely stuffed a spark of godhood into his soul. Along with that spark of godhood has come the full, uncontested and uncontestible control and domination of a concept (or perhaps more than one), called an Estate. Your character is bound inextricably to that concept--he has full power over it, but his very existence is also tied to it. For if that concept is sullied, corrupted, destroyed...so is your character.
A starting character is given 25 points. There are four attributes and a number of gifts the character can buy with these points, and a number of handicaps and limitations that characters can take. There are no "skills," as any human skill can be performed to perfection by even the wimpiest Noble. There are, however, levels of Miracles, or power feats, that can be performed by Nobles, depending on how high they rank in a particular attribute--for instance, a Noble needs a certain power level of the Aspect attribute in order to be able to "take down a blimp with a thrown hatpin" (or, conversely, "a thrown courthouse"). Nobles can perform Miracles that are otherwise beyond their means by making use of pools of Miracle Points that are refreshed at the beginning of each scenario.
There are rules for opposed Miracles (that is, attempts by two Nobles to use their powers against each other) and combat (though it usually is not strictly necessary) but by and large, the above covers much of the core of Nobilis's rules. The most vital parts of the rules can be picked up in a matter of minutes, which is good for first-time players.
The mechanic is diceless, which means that things tend to be decided collaboratively and through discussion and interaction. This is nothing new to me--as I said in the first few paragraphs of this review, that is the style of play I am used to. There seem to be enough people with objections to diceless games that diceless discussion threads seem to turn into flamewars; there is some concern that without a randomizer, the gamemaster can be totally arbitrary in his decisions.
However, the conflict resolution system of Nobilis is actually not totally arbitrary. There are certain types of Miracles set down in the game, available at different levels of power. For the Attribute of Domain, these include:
These Miracles have more full descriptions, and some examples, in the book. They can be performed at certain levels of power, 0 through 10 (though most types have a minimum level at which they become available. For instance, Ghost Miracles are available at Level 1; Lesser Creation Miracles are available at Level 4).
A Noble can have a Domain Attribute of from 0 to 5; in order to cast a miracle that is at a higher level than his Domain number, he must spend Miracle Points from his Domain pool to increase the level he can cast. When two Miracles oppose each other directly, the higher level Miracle wins; if cast at the same level, they cancel each other out. When Miracles oppose each other indirectly (for instance, water from a Miraculous rainstorm falling upon a Miraculous fire), the HG must adjucate the overall effect. The object of Miraculous combat is, of course, to make your opponent spend more points than you, so that you have power left over after he has run dry.
As for setting, the setting of Nobilis is difficult to describe. It incorporates elements that have also been used by other games, such as Nexus, Feng Shui, and Amber, and some things that haven't been any games I've ever seen. As Ms. Borgstrom explains in the preface to the first edition of the book, it came to her in a dream. I'm not surprised; it has a very dreamlike quality about it.
Nobilis is set in the realm of Yggdrasil, a giant ash tree, surrounded by a wall of fire to keep out what lies beyond. At the top is Heaven, a realm of utter perfection; at the bottom is Hell, a realm of utter corruption. On the tree's branches hang the various worlds, including Earth; great serpents roam the tree's branches. The players' characters have been plucked from Earth by vastly powerful beings and given dominion over a certain facet of creation. They will "mind the store" back home so that those powerful beings are free to fight a war against forces external to creation who would destroy it.
One of the main features of the world is Lord Entropy, the ruler over all the Imperators, who has decreed (among other things) that love is forbidden. Some have called him the setting's equivalent of the bogeyman--someone the Hollyhock God (Nobilis's somewhat florid, floral term for the gamemaster) can use as a club to scare recidivist players into line. While this use is certainly possible, depending on the individual HG, I would tend to agree with R. Sean Borgstrom's explanation, instead--that he's part of a specialized toolkit the HG can use to create a sense of wonder. The allure of the forbidden is a powerful one; how better to entice characters into falling in love (and opening up vistas of romantic roleplaying interaction) than by making that love forbidden?
The setting seems to be geared toward allowing tragedy (the dramatic style, that is, not just having bad things happen) in play, and the play and campaign examples tend to bear this out. I suspect that this was intentional, that the author and developers enjoy reading and playing tragedies. Of course, just because the game supports tragedy does not mean that it can only be used for playing it exclusively; how games play out depends largely on the style of the gamemaster, and the play contract he makes with his players.
Speaking of play contracts, a large, large portion of Nobilis is advice to prospective game masters. And the first time I read through all this in the playtest file, I was amazed. There was stuff here that I knew, rationally, but I had never seen set down into words before. For instance, from my experiences in improv roleplay with my friends, I knew that we made agreements with each other about what kind of things to do or not do in our sessions...but I hadn't twigged to the idea of formalizing it and writing the things down as a play contract to which all parties could refer. Perhaps some people out there who play a wider variety of games than I do were already aware of this idea, but I wasn't.
The advice is phenomenal,and much of it is good to take to heart for other sorts of games as well. Ms. Borgstrom offers tips for making the setting come alive, laying out scenarios and campaigns, and dealing with the motivations of the characters. One fascinating thing about the advice chapters is that they are written in-character, from the point of view and in the voice of one of the Nobles. This helps to keep them from seeming like impersonal, dry and dull advice; Ianthe has a lively voice and a wonderful, understated sense of humor. These are sections I can and do reread for simple enjoyment value.
And speaking of reading for enjoyment value, the book is sprinkled liberally with quotations and epigrams from writings in the game world's setting. Some of them are witty, some puzzling, some deep, and some downright disturbing; they help to explain and illustrate ideas put forth in the text, and to set and maintain the dreamlike tone of the game.
The dreamlike tone is further aided by the art, starting with the color photo of the statue on its cover. Nobilis has 37 full-page illustration plates, illustrating various Nobles, worlds, concepts, ideas, and so forth. There are occasional small pictures of flowering plants in the margins, but other than that, no art. Some may feel that this leaves the book overly sparse. On the other hand, the art that is there is wonderful, and the text's legibility is in no way threatened or overwhelmed by it the way some games (such as 3rd Edition D&D) can be.
In fact, the book's production values in general are top-notch. It is bigger than any roleplaying book I can remember, it lies perfectly flat when open, contains an astounding amount of text without making it hard to read, and its gorgeous cover will look beautiful on anybody's table or bookshelf. And it has a bookmark ribbon? I would not be surprised if it proved able to interest people in gaming just by lying around where they could page through it.
To be fair, Nobilis may not be to everybody's taste; some may not like the Gaiman/Zelazny/Dunsanyish setting, with its strictures against falling in love and harsh punishments for characters who fail to toe Lord Entropy's line. One of my friends has said that Nobilis is a beautiful work of art, but that he has no interest in playing in its setting because it is darker than he would enjoy. Even I have some doubts about the darker aspects of the setting, though I am willing to give it a try. Others may be unable to get past the dicelessness of the system, and their belief that games have to have dice to avoid being "deterministic."
Still others may dislike the free-form nature of Nobilis's powers. Many games provide a ready-made list of powers, skills, abilities, and the like to take. Nobilis, on the other hand, allows players to choose literally any Estate. A character can be the Dominus of Guns, the Dominus of Waves, of Music, of Illness, of Greed, of Imagination...or of Belly-Button Lint if that is what moves the player. Many players will be fascinated when given this kind of blank slate, but some of those who are used to picking elements from carefully-delineated lists may find themselves at a loss. They may also be at a loss when it comes to the kind of Miracles they can perform; the book only has a few examples given for each level, and coming up with Miracles specific to one's Estate can require a great deal of creativity.
In fact, a great deal of creativity in general is required of the players, for they have as significant a role in creating and running the world as the Hollyhock God: they will determine the nature of their characters' Imperator, describe the creation of their Chancel--the pocket dimension where they live, over which they have a godlike degree of power--and may even be called upon to run NPCs over the course of play. While many players will jump at the chance to be just as involved as the gamemaster in creating the world in which they play, others may not be willing or able to do that kind of worldbuilding.
For that matter, a great deal of creativity is expected of the Hollyhock God as well. It is one thing to create a scenario for a game where the objectives are material things--killing enemies, taking treasures...but coming up with ways to imperil a concept could be more difficult.
I have to admire the sheer ambition of Nobilis's scope. It is certainly a novel solution to the problem of "powergamers" to create a setting where the power is the game. It's hard to see just how someone could "munch out" when what would be considered munchkinism in other games is the entire point of this one. The game's resolution mechanic might also make for a decent generic system if the power level of the attributes were adjusted; as it is, it's perfectly suited for almost any setting of godlike scope--be it the one included, or Zelazny's Amber or Jack of Shadows, or something else entirely.
But don't just take my word for it. Here are some links where you can read more about the game: