Nobilis 2nd edition
Nobilis 2nd edition Capsule Review by Joshua Symonds on 25/05/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
Nobilis 2nd Edition is a work of art and a masterpiece, required reading for any ambitious storyteller who wants to add remarkable depth and remarkable quality to their games.
Product: Nobilis 2nd edition
Author: R. Sean Borgstrom
Company/Publisher: Hogshead Publishing Ltd
Page count: 304
Year published: 2002
ISBN: 9 781899 749300
SKU: HOG 600
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Joshua Symonds on 25/05/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Science Fiction Modern day Historical Horror Far Future Espionage Conspiracy Superhero Diceless
I bet you're tired of Nobilis reviews, aren't you? Yes, it's second edition, you might think. Yes, it sounds just like In Nomine. Yes, people have already written about it three or four times, and there are already countless hundred posts in the existing reviews espousing its various virtues (or, depending on your point of view, multitudinous flaws). So why have I taken it upon myself to write another?
Because, after reading it two times, I'm convinced. I came skeptical, and I left a believer. If you are a serious roleplayer, if you want to take it upon yourself to truly craft a character and explore them, the world, and your beliefs, if you think that subtle and imaginative contests of divine might are the best things since bread and better, and if you want to have a seriously good time, then Nobilis is the game for you. And if you don't? Then you can [b]still[/b] use Nobilis for more diverse and wonderful ideas than I've seen before contained between two covers. I'm pretty convinced that it's a crime for a roleplayer to not own this game. Or, at the very least, read it.
So, why am I sold? Glad you asked. Let's start at the top.
The Book Itself
Ah, the book. If only all game books were like this. It's quite a beauty. The first thing you'll probably notice about it, though, is its strange size. It's quite a bit lengthier than most other roleplaying game books - take a White Wolf or D&D book and add four plus inches to the right of the cover, and you'll have an idea how big this sucker is. It looks more like a museum art book than a game book - and the similarities don't stop there. The pages are high quality, and a pleasure to handle. The binding is excellent: the book will lay flat without breaking the spine, and (for me, at least) there were no obvious problems with shoddy binding or warped covers. In addition, the cover illustration is understated and beautiful, as is the little blurb on the front. Most of the illustrations are gorgeous, particularly the ones by Michael Kaluta, who, if I remember correctly, also provided his skill to the cards of the beautiful Heresy, Kingdom Come. Some of the illustrations inside, admittedly, don't do it for me - Al Davison's work, in particularly, is a little bit too computer generated to turn me on. Finally, there's a nice little book ribbon, colored gold, which is great for saving your place. And you'll probably need to, given the length of the book.
The text proper is widely spaced, but there's a lot of it. A lot of it. Consider that there are about two to three novel-length pages of text on a single Nobilis page, and the book is 289 pages long, not including a comprehensive glossary and appendix. And be sure: there's a gaspingly huge amount of content here. The text is generally arrayed in two columns, with enough room for two sidebars on both sides of a page. The sidebars aren't what you'd expect if you're a GURPS player, but you'll come to enjoy them almost as much as the main text. They contain salient flavor text, thought-provoking or downright funny, always relevant to the topic at hand. I've read them all, and haven't found one I don't like. The sidebar content usually takes the form of either a thought-record or a book excerpt from (regrettably) fictional authors. By the looks of things, I would snap up work by Kneader Guy or Emily Chen in a heartbeat.
The writing itself is, in a word, wonderful. It perfectly captures the mood and essence of the game - stately, regal, and flowery. Simultaneously, it manages to not be too complicated or annoying to read. Poetry has its place, but so do direct explanations, and the combination of the two the book represents is handled artfully.
The book's organization is slightly confusing, at first. Terms and systems are bandied about in the text sometimes chapters before their formal introduction (though usually with a page number direction towards the relevant information). The first reading, I was hopelessly confused as to the actual mechanics of the game until chapter 13 (Resolving Conflict), even though the system specifics are discussed in some depth and detail in the chapters earlier, with an assumption that the reader knows what's going on. A second reading is well-advised. However, on the plus side, between most chapters are thought-provoking sutras by Vyasa, though they seem to be fictional. The seemingly paradoxical questions posed by Vyasa are answered later on in a sidebar of the text, and I was surprised by how powerful the answers were in terms of defining the game world. Vyasa's Questions definitely added quite a bit to the work.
In order to review the rest of the book - one introductory fiction, twenty-two chapters, and two appendices worth - I am dividing it into broad categories, roughly in the same way the book is divided. Or so it seems to me. I hope this will cut down on my tendency to be unbelievably verbose, but I fear you'll just have to stick with me to find out. So, with no further ado...
The introductory fiction and the first two chapters compose the Introduction. The fiction is good - it gives you a breathless introduction to the world of the Nobles, their enemies, and how wonderful and terrible both of their powers are. And how cool it can be to play one. Given the sample adventure later, it seems like the text isn't just flavor: things actually work out this way. Which is cool.
Chapter 1 is titled Ash and Chrysanthemum, and discusses the basic tenets of roleplaying games, who the players are, who the Hollyhock God is (the Gamemaster/Dungeon Master/Storyteller/Keeper/etc. analogue), and what their responsibilities and roles are. The players are Powers, or Nobles, or any of a half-dozen other names, if you'd rather - they compose the Nobilis. They were lucky (unlucky?) enough to be caught during the creation of a Sacred Place of the Earth, and just as the sacred place has a piece of Divinity in it, so do they - they are now a family of Divine Beings, the player character group. The Imperator who created the sacred place is their head honcho. The buck stops at him, and to him they are ultimately responsible. But with great responsibility comes great power - they have an Estate that they have dominion of, generally related to the nature of the sacred place. These Estates may literally be anything, from storms to love to imagination, and within them, Nobles have vast strength - even outside them, they are ridiculously potent. They serve the Imperators out of love, duty, or a mixture of both, and must protect the Imperator's sacred place on Earth, called the Noble's Chancel, as well as their own Estate. These sacred places, and the Noble's Estates, will almost inevitably come under siege from the hostile forces of Heaven, Hell, the Dark, the Light, the Wild, and/or the Excrucians. It's explained more in depth later.
In a move I've seen only before in Unknown Armies, the design conventions of the game are laid out immediately and responsibly - and I attest that they are kept to honestly. I'll hit them but briefly, since we have a lot to cover. First, direct physical or magical confrontation is rare. Nobles are ridiculously powerful entities, and honestly, many are seven different types of invulnerable. Second, death is not the end. Even if you do kack a Power, their Imperator can immediately move their soul-shard (the piece of the Imperator's soul that gives them an estate) to someone else, so it's generally not worth the time it takes to kill one. Third, there are no dice. Powers lose doubt about their abilities. They cannot fail at tasks unless there are forces opposing them. This, in particular, I like - it really makes the game deeper and more interesting, and somehow more competitive. Now it's not the forces of randomness you have to contend with, after all - it's someone else's direct will opposing yours. What will they do? How will they act? The dice can't help you guess their intentions or give you an advantage. This convention raises the place of imagination and creative thinking in the game, which, in my mind, is a good thing. Fourth, the players help to create the game universe. The players create their Nobles, the Nobles' Estates, the Nobles' Chancels, and the Nobles' Imperator. That's a lot of power, and it makes being a player significantly more interesting. Lastly, players can play in scenes where their characters are not present. Through the concept of Anchors - a mortal who Powers can directly or indirectly control - and through telepathic connections to the rest of their Familia, there should ideally be no scene where someone feels excluded.
The remainder of Chapter 1 is given over to various concepts of Nobilis. Imperators, Powers, and the major players on Earth are briefly detailed, as well as the major mechanisms of this fictional world. The setting is established firmly - Earth is just one of the worlds hanging from the branches of the World Ash Yggdrasil, and most of Earth's Imperators (who all are literal concepts of humanity) are engaged in the Valde Bellum, the fight to preserve reality against destruction. The different factions of Imperators are discussed: the Angels, who serve beauty, the Devils, who serve suffering, the Light, who serves humanity, the Dark, which attempts to destroy humanity, the Wild, who come from outside Creation, True Gods, beings who really are Gods, and Aaron's Serpents, the children of Yggdrasil. Finally, the enemy - the Excrucians. No one quite knows what they're here for, and stories differ, but what they do is clear: annihilate aspects of reality. To have this happen to your Estate is the worst thing ever. You exist to stop the Excrucians. However, you also carry on the mundane tasks of governing an entire mini-world (the Chancel), strengthening the power of your Estate, protecting your Chancel from attacks by the other Nobles, being social - just living a life, really.
Next is Chapter 2, written in a quasi-in-character style by a Lady Ianthe, the Marchessa of Debate (a Noble whose Estate is Debate). It is a section on how to be a Hollyhock God, the first of many, and it is invaluable. These are generally done incredibly well, and, considering the vast scope and intimidating size of the game, are absolutely vital for any would-be Hollyhock God. Thorough study is recommended for all storytellers. We could all particularly benefit from Monarda's Law, which is simple and yet can increase the fun of a game enormously: never say "no." Trust me, it works.
Chapter 3 is entitled An Atlas of Creation. And, heavens, is it exhaustive. The Chapter begins with Lord Entropy, the de-facto ruler of the Council of Four (to whom are given all of Earth), and general badass. While the Imperators are all trying to defend reality as we know it against the Excrucians, Lord Entropy is given wide ranging powers across Earth over all Nobles, and these are represented by the Code Fidelitatis. It has four tenets: thou shalt not love another, thou shall harm none who has done no harm, treat no beast as your Lord, protect no power from the Justice of the Code, and serve thy Imperator before the war, and the War before thyself. Story ideas? Story ideas. The code is elaborated upon quite a bit (for example, treat no beast as your Lord means that Powers can never be beholden to regular ol' mortals), and it practically oozes with interesting things to get your innocent players in trouble with Lord Entropy. In addition, interesting and arcane rules make characters more interesting to play.
The Code also protects against excessive mucking around by the player characters in the mortal world. It is technically possible - and not that difficult, all things considered - to shoot the sun down. However, you'll send thousands upon thousands of mortals into dementia animus, where they no longer see the prosaic Earth - they see the Mythic one. This counts as harming them. Lord Entropy will come down and beat you with a big ol' stick. After a Trial, at least.
It is possible to escape the Justice of the code, but you probably won't elude it for long. In general, it is far in your long-term survival benefit to not defy the dictates of Lord Entropy. Of course, everyone will love anyway - in fact, Nobles love more brightly and more deeply than mortals. They simply can't express it.
Much of Chapter 3 is also given over to the difference between the Prosaic Earth and the Mythic Earth. The Prosaic Earth is the one we all know, with some interesting differences: for example, the judicial concept of "innocent until proven guilty" just never caught on. The Cammorae, Lord Entropy's agents on Earth, are the ultimate (and divinely-empowered) conspiracy. It makes the world darker, in a lot of ways, but more interesting. The Mythic Earth is the one where everything has a spirit that can be talked to, paths can lead to the moon and stars (and beyond), where fairy tales come true, and so on. Each exists simultaneously, and the game embraces this paradox. Nobles generally choose which world to see, but their interactions with one affect their interactions in another - in the play example, a falling Noble catches the tails of two air spirits, a perfectly logical thing to do in Mythic Reality, and hangs suspended unbelievably in midair in Prosaic Reality, obviously somewhat less believable. The differences between the two are simply clarified and well-elaborated, and, in general, I feel that some games would do quite well to learn how the dichotomy between that-which-is-seen and that-which-is-not is handled.
The conclusion to Chapter 3 is a discussion of the Spirit World, the place where the Imperators and Excrucians wage their war, the World Ash and why it exists, other earths, Heaven, Hell, Aaron's Serpents, the Weirding Wall, and the nature of Chancels. It's really impressively deep, and, in total, this chapter makes up a large amount of the Setting. Pretty much all of it, in fact. And it's comprehensive, complicated, rich, and gives you a feeling of being truly alive.
Chapter 4 consists of one page. It's part two of how to be a Hollyhock God, and it's named Genre. And, if you ever see Nobilis in a store, if you don't read anything else, flip open to page 43 and read this chapter in its entirety. It's so damn good, and it's really revealing as to what the game is trying to accomplish, and what you can use it for. (I'll spoil that part: anything.)
Next comes the Essence of the Nobilis, Chapter 5. It talks about how to actually play the game, what everyone's supposed to do, and details the beginnings of character creation. Quick and dirty: everyone gets 25 points to distribute among their four attributes, which all start at zero. The attributes are Aspect, Domain, Realm, and Spirit. Aspect is everything physical about you - how beautiful you are, how fast you move, how quick you think, and whether or not you can walk away from ground zero of an A-Bomb detonation. Domain is your Estate. At level 0, you only have a dim sense of the Estate you're a part of. At level 5, the Estate is you. You can protect, create, dismiss, or change your Estate at will. Realm is how much power you have over your Chancel, ranging from none at all, to being able to grab the moon out of the sky and use it as a discus. Spirit is the attribute that controls magic. It provides protection from miracles, allows you to claim humans as supernatural agents (Anchors), and perform rituals.
Then the system is very briefly detailed. Every attribute gets a pool of temporary miracle points, which by default has a maximum value of five (though this may be increased). Every action that you may want to make, as a character, has a miracle value between 0 and 9. If your attribute plus the miracle points you spend equals or exceeds this miracle value, you do it. Simple as that. Well, sometimes. Nobles, Imperators, Excrucians, and other Wily Forces Of The Beyond get something called an Auctoritas that protects them from miracles. You have to give miracles you want to affect these sorts of people a Penetration equal to or greater than their Auctoritas. Otherwise, the miracle can't touch them. Think of AT Fields, except only towards spiritual things, and you've got an Auctoritas. And, just as a note, nothing of a Power's is part of a domain. Their emotions are free from the claws of the Power of Emotions, their love is secret from the Power of Love, and so on.
For a brief example. Let's say my character is Annabelle Lee, the Power of Swords, and she has an Aspect of 4. She is ambushed on the street by a group of (incredibly foolhardy) thugs. I tell my Hollyhock God that I intend to use a miracle of killing them all without being touched. Consulting the book, the HG would probably reply that this is a level 4 Miracle, roughly translating into a very improbable feet. Since my Aspect is 4, I can do level 4 miracles for free, and so they're all dead. Simple as that. If I wanted to do the impossible for anyone (local effect) miracle of eating them all, I'd have to do a level 7 Aspect miracle, which is a deep miracle for me. Four aspect miracle points later, they're all dinner.
However, let's say Annabelle Lee runs up against her arch nemesis BeeJee, the Power of Guns, and, as per usual, they get their mojo on through a duel. Annabelle knows that BeeJee has an Auctoritas, and a simple level 4 miracle won't pierce it: her attack will simply fail by default, turned aside by BeeJee's force of will. So, she adds in two levels of Penetration, giving a final miracle level of hard, meaning she has to spend two temporary miracle points on it.
Of course, two Nobles actually dueling it out in such a blatant way would probably not happen, considering how grossly powerful Nobles are, how difficult they are to damage, and the possibility of mortal (and, thereby, Lord Entropy) involvement. But, it was a good mechanical example. More likely, Annabelle Lee and BeeJee would have engaged in a series of ghost miracles, which can affect other Powers (and even move inside their Auctoritas), but which don't really exist.
Happily, another part of Ianthe's continuing narrative is next: Chapter 6 is also part three of how to be a Hollyhock God (appropriately dubbed "What do Nobilis Do?"). And it's so full of story ideas and interesting character developments that you have to be willfully ignorant in order to come up with an insipid campaign, flat and lifeless characters, or nothing to do during downtime. Lists upon lists of possibilities are provided for hobbies, responsibilities, generally ways to make your character more alive. What are they interested in? What do they do for fun? What do they feel compelled to do? Taking care of this stuff would make an interesting campaign in of itself. That it's essentially tertiary to the system shows just how strong the book itself is.
Next, we have an interesting, revealing, and humorous short story that also happens to be a sample of play. It's quality stuff, but I was slightly disappointed - I would have enjoyed more an example that contained somewhat less combat. The Interludes in the middle more than made up for the relatively abundance of violence, however: I'm tempted to adopt it as a narrative style for my players, passing out little interludes at the beginning of every game session to read. Another slight quibble is that an example of play should really come after all the rules are discussed. References are made at the beginning of the story towards the relevant parts of the text, but it still kind of sucks to flip through the book, look something up, come back, look something else up, come back AGAIN, and finally start to read the story. This is only really a minor quibble of organizational difficulties, and it detracts only slightly from the story.
Finally, the Setting section concludes with part four of how to be a Hollyhock God, the Play Contract. This is pretty standard schpiel about how HGs and players should sit down and hammer out the comfort levels of all involved, especially regarding sex, violence, and religion. Considering how deep to the bone some of this stuff cuts, it's necessary, but you'd think people could figure this sort of thing out for themselves...
More System Nitty Gritty
The next chapters are about how Nobles are created: their attributes, gifts, Estates, Chancels, Imperators, and Designs. These chapters are gigantic, the quality uniformly high and the information uniformly exhaustive.
First, Noble information. Each of a Noble's attributes is given a different name based on its level, enabling a Noble to be called by as many as four different titles. So, an Aspect 2, Realm 4, Spirit 2, Domain 3 Noble may be called, in-game, the Legendary of Aspect, True King of Realm, Incandescent Flame Marquis of Vases. The latter is obviously somewhat more interesting. In addition, each level of an attribute is provided with one sidebar of flavor text, and two example concepts of Nobles with that level of power. The examples are sometimes obtuse, and it isn't always clear how they have the level of power being described, but they are always an entertaining read.
For each attribute, the miracles that can be achieved with a certain level of that attribute are listed and elucidated upon. The descriptions are initially somewhat unclear and rather confusing, mostly due to their open-ended nature. It can be difficult to determine when one miracle ends and another begins, and what exactly determines, say, an Improbable Miracle of Aspect versus a Very Improbable Miracle of Aspect, or a Lesser Creation versus a Major Creation. I guarantee, however, that after some degree of thought and reading, the (really rather simplistic) differences between all these will become clear.
It is probably, while reading this chapter, that you will finally understand how powerful Nobles actually are. (If it's not here, it'll be in the next chapter.) With a level 3 Miracle of Lesser Preservation - easy for a starting level character - the night may be elongated, it can be made to rain for days, and people can be made resistant to weaponry. With hard or deep miracles - also within the reach of a startling level character - the Noble of Storms could make it rain blueberries. The Noble of Sleep could make the entire world stay asleep. The mind boggles. Generally, there's a pretty good system of checks and balances to make sure people don't go around blowing up the Earth and shattering the sun and such (named Lord Entropy), but if you're leery about giving your player characters power, this is not the system for you.
Also, the characters have a lot of flexibility and power within their domain. You won't find worthless magic spells here: instead, very general rules for power levels are given, and the Hollyhock God is expected to sort all the possible miracles of the player into an existing category. Generally, this works pretty well, it seems, and it really enhances the feeling of being a practically unbounded character. But, again, this doubles both character power and the responsibility placed on the Hollyhock God. Make sure you're up to the task.
But, regarding power: the very power and flexibility of the characters also makes them very interesting. It makes the game have a truly epic scope - the Nobles really are Gods. They make legends. Their very existence has a profound impact on the world, and their interactions with mortals are the things of the ancient Greek stories of the Gods cavorting with men. No other system has captured this power, the ability to turn a character into a God, with overwhelming power for good or evil, and no serious constraining force on their judgment. It truly redefines what storytelling game is, because, literally, new stories are being invented by the characters and their actions every moment.
But I digress. Onwards, to Chapter 10 - Gifts and Handicaps. The first part of this chapter looked like a page lifted straight from Godlike - the Gift Creation System smacks of the power creation system in that game. Which is a good thing, because, again, it's open ended, not formulaic. There are, however, a great number of stock Gifts, sorted by the attribute which they affect, and boy, these Gifts can be whoppers. For example. Immortality! You can't die. Well, maybe if something like ten atom bombs were thrown at you - at once - THEN maybe you could die. Maybe. Mythological Beast! You're not actually human. You breathe fire. Or are invisible. Or can petrify with a look. Or can shape shift. (Yes, petrify with a look is really a gift. It's damn cheap, too.) Sacrosanct! Screw with THIS Noble, and you'll be cursed. Oh, and they heal ultra-fast and are neigh invulnerable, too. And that's just a small selection of Aspect Gifts. There's still the Domain, Realm, and Spirit gifts, which I won't touch on, for the sake of brevity. (Which is a cause I seem to have given up long ago, all things considered.) Every gift has a pertinent example linked to it, which is helpful in understanding the effects of a given gift when they're not entirely clear.
Rites are included in this chapter. Almost all Nobles know some of these rites. With a rite, you can make an Anchor, switch around temporary miracle points (at a generally awful ratio), steal miracle points from someone else, and other various and sundry effects. Considering you generally have to invest nothing in order to perform a rite, they're very, very powerful. But they're also very, very useful, and enhance the flavor of being a Noble: their inclusion, I think, makes the game much more interesting, particularly the Nettle Rite, which practically engineers conflict. And conflict is good. Nobles will almost certainly use them quite a bit during the course of play.
Then there are Handicaps. (Flaws, if you prefer.) Handicaps are handled in a rather novel way, however; you can either select a static Limit that will give you a set number of points then and there (things like Dead, Uninspiring, Hated), or you can take Restrictions. Restrictions will give you miracle points when they become handicaps, but otherwise just sit there doing nothing. For example, you don't get any points for the restriction Cannot Cross Running Water - until you [b]need[/b] to cross running water, in which case you pick up a miracle point for your troubles. Obviously, over the long run, Restrictions will pay off far more than Limits, but Limits are easier to anticipate and deal with. It's an interesting and well-handled trade off.
Finally, there's Virtues and Affiliations. Virtues are things that pervade the essence and soul of a Noble. No trickery will get them to move against their virtue. No force can move their hand when the strength of a Virtue backs it up. And a Virtue can be anything - cruelty, deceit, love, beauty. It's a way to add depth to the character, just like Affiliation. Affiliation is simply the faction you belong to, the Angels, the Demons, or one of the other myriad players. Besides giving you a code of ethics to live by, it also gives you a way to regenerate miracle points - or, depending on how grossly you violate the tenets that you should hold dear, a way to lose them. Both are entirely optional, depending on the outlook of your character, and you can even create your own Affiliations.
The penultimate part of this section is Chapter 11, dealing entirely with the creation of Chancels and Imperators. And you can, literally, have any sort of Chancel or Imperator you'd like. There are over twelve attributes that a Chancel may have, most of which have a varying scale of power and worth, from very positive to very negative. The players come together, using a variable pool of points, and hammer out both the background and location of their Chancel, as well as all the properties it contains. You want your Chancel to have an Auctoritas? Fine. You want it to link to every city on Earth? Sure. How about it links to every element of your Imperator's Estates on Earth? That's okay, too.
Chancels, then, can literally be anything - huge, with an unbelievably large number of dwellers, to small, containing only the player characters and a small support staff. The Death Star could be a Chancel. So could a never-ending circus. The possibilities are limited, literally, only by the character's imagination.
Imperator attributes work much in the same way as Chancel attributes, allowing the characters freedom in designing both the mechanics and the style of their Regent/Regina. There's a catch, however: whereas you had a pool of points to spend on your Chancel, you get nothing to spend on your Imperator. All the merits you take must be balanced out by flaws. Your Imperator can be sickly, fading from this Earth due to a wound in the Spirit World, but, to counterbalance that, he loves and attempts to protect his Nobles in any way he can. Or, maybe he's spent a full day utterly mastering a skill of your choice - but he's a mean hardass, and expects you to excel always.
See? The game told you the players get to create the universe. And they do. The degree of power the players have is just wonderful. And, as per usual, for every attribute that a Chancel or Imperator may have, there's an example and a sidebar of flavor text. All this content can get pretty overwhelming, sometimes.
The last part of the character creation process is Designs. All Nobles can get a Design, if they like, since heraldic traditions never died out amongst the Powers. Generally, a Design is two flowers on a field of some color - but the complexity! The entire symbolism of flowers is discussed, with three huge tables giving ways to detail and customize the creation of your own Design.
Flowers, it should be noted, can have great power among the Nobles - you can cast miracles through flowers, and they will disguise your hand on events. Other things, up to the Hollyhock God's opinion, can be used in the same way: Tarot Cards are given as an example, but really, it could be anything. This unbelievably enhances the flavor of the game. With symbols being thrown around all over the place, it's difficult to feel like you're not part of some overwhelming mechanism of fate.
Finally, mechanics ends with two chapters detailing the Resolution of Conflict. Combat is handled... well, novelly, and in a way that fits with the diceless mechanic of the system. The Hollyhock God decides on the order of turns in combat. Miracles with higher values win over miracles with lower ones. The order in which Gifts versus Miracles go off is discussed, and wounds are detailed. There are only three wound levels: surface, serious, and deadly. If you have deadly wound levels remaining, surface and serious wounds will do nothing to injure you. However, if a couple buildings have fallen on you, you're going to be much more vulnerable to gunfire. Nobles are varying levels of invulnerable, generally speaking - even the weakest among them can withstand a deadly wound. Gifts like Immortal and Durant move characters up the damage chart. So, while a character with no extraordinary protection will take a deadly wound from machine gun fire, a Durant character will take only a serious wound, and an immortal character will only be annoyed.
It really says that the reaction of an immortal Power to machinegun fire is annoyance. Heh heh heh.
an example combat is discussed, that shows just how fluid this system is. And it really shows that Hollyhock God wusses-of-heart have no place here. Literally everything is left up to the Hollyhock God's resolution. It's a lot of pressure, but I really like the freedom it gives the storyteller. Not being hampered by dice has the possibility to turn a game into something grand and epic - and, true, it can sink a story immediately, but think of this as the true test of your meddle as a storyteller and creator.
Finally, various methods of regaining miracle points are discussed, as well as experience gain. A method is recommended for experience gain expenditure, but, generally, it's left up to the Hollyhock God. (Seeing a pattern?) Finally, death is discussed - and it really isn't the end. Don't expect killing things to solve much. You have to be smarter than that.
Lastly, there's part five of how to be a Hollyhock God, entitled "The Fine Arts of Rules Resolution." It's a little bit duller than all the others, as it's essentially phrased as a FAQ, with certain rule quibbles being asked and then explained. It's necessary, but a little on the dry side.
The Books of Beasts
More setting stuff. There are three Books of Beasts, each separated by a section of how to be a Hollyhock God. First, the Book of Beasts: Imperators.
Every Imperator's affiliation is discussed here, starting with a section on generally handling Imperators. Remember, Imperators aren't - and have never been - mortal. Interacting with them should be both scary and amusing. (Remember Rule 3 of a Sovereign's Survival Guide to How to Handle Imperators: surprise parties are verboten. Important guests may be vaporized.) The values of the different affiliations are laid out, an Imperator and their chancel of a given faction are described, and then two story seeds featuring Imperators of that affiliation are detailed. There are seven sections like this, one for each affiliation. Seven. That's a lot of history, examples, and story hooks. If you're ever out of story ideas (which should honestly never happen anyway) then there's more than enough to give you fuel for a couple good campaigns here.
Ianthe presents part six of how to be a Hollyhock God next, entitled, "How do Nobles Solve their Problems?" There's a brief section on how casually excessive force plays into the lives of Nobles (being Gods, even casual force would be, to our interpretation, excessive), and then social action is detailed. First, the importance of social action is discussed in Nobilis society, and then a long section on the how to play social games is laid out. This part is incredibly instructive, both for players and Hollyhock Gods. It really gives an excellent primer on how to manipulate people to achieve your ends, and how to interact with other people in such a way that they'll treat you favorably. Hell, it's almost useful in the real world. And, just in case social actions don't work, there's a short section on peaceable conflict resolution, discussing dueling methods and contests that Powers can use to solve their problems.
Of course, problems aren't limited to violence. Ianthe presents a number of ways in which Powers can investigate, track, and generally sleuth quarry - from questioning spirits in the Mythic World, to Aspect-based eavesdropping. After all, finding someone becomes substantially easier when you can hear them speak from across the globe. Concluding chapter 16 is a short section on Out of Character negotiation, which essentially tells you that you can skip through time if things are taking too long and summarize long actions OOC. For an experience storyteller, it's almost sad to see this here: the rest of the chapter is so novel, new, and interesting, and it has to end on what seems like a fairly obvious note. Regardless, the rest of the information presented here is invaluable.
Ah. The enemies of reality. I've always had a soft spot for Nephandi deep in my heart of hearts, and the Excrucians really appeal to that same part of me. Not the stupid "I HUR7 UR MOM" Nephandi, but the sort of one who genuinely wants to save the world. Exrcucians are like that, to me. Beautiful and terrible, they're the ultimate preservers - and chapter 17 details their workings. There are four different castes or ethos of Excrucians, and each uses different methods to achieve the ultimate Excrucian end - Warmain, Mimics, Deceivers, and Strategists. All are deadly, but all in different ways: the variety they give during play is enormous, even inside the castes, and the possibility of using different ones means you should never be without ideas for interesting conflicts.
But, in case you are, there are special Gifts that only Excrucians get. Ranging from Blight (corrupt local reality) to the World Breaker's Hand (turn anything nearby except Anchors, Powers, and great beings to dust with but a wave of your hand), there are many myriad ways to customize your Excrucians, making them continually unpredictable and interesting to your players. In addition, each Gift will require a change of tactic. Obviously, players who just fought a Warmain with Blight will have to take a different tactic entirely when they come up against something that can impersonate them directly. Oh, and, as per usual, for every Gift, there's an example and a flavor text.
Excrucian motives and methods comprise the penultimate parts of the chapter. A number of means and ends are listed, and it's up to the Hollyhock God to determine what the enemies of reality are really trying to do, and how they're trying to do it. Finally, the seven most infamous Abhorrent Weapons are detailed. Seeing an Excrucian with one of these puppies sends Imperators running, and their histories are both tragic and interesting.
Part 7 of how to be a Hollyhock God may be the most directly useful for all prospective Hollyhock Gods, as it explains what makes Noble actions a challenge. After all, it may occur to people that, since the player characters are unbelievably powerful, it is a challenge to come up with things that are difficult for them to accomplish. Never fear: many such things and general methods for leading even the most powerful Power into adversity are listed. First, ways to engineer conflicts are discussed, as well as the agents of those conflicts - and then ways to sow discord inside of specific attributes are revealed. If you need to know how to handle a Power with incredibly high levels of Aspect, well, the book has got you covered. And it has you covered it pretty much every other respect, too. Even players with massive defensive gifts, offensive gifts, and informational gifts won't escape a Hollyhock God's wrath after reading this chapter.
The last Book of Beasts lists stats and general rules for NPCs in Nobilis. Lord Entropy and Lord Ananda are dealt with in specific, but chapter 19 gives a wealth of general information about archetypes for Sovereigns (Reluctant Sovereigns and Joyful Sovereigns being two examples), rules for Anchors, and personalities for Commoners, ranging from humans to spirits. If you need to come up with an NPC on the fly, just have a list of names handy and know this chapter passingly well, and you'll be able to create convincing personalities and portrayals of people with a minimum of fuss.
Of course, a passingly good personality just doesn't cut it, sometimes. For those of you who want more depth, there's chapter 20, Ianthe's discussion of characters in detail. This chapter gives a ginormous load of information on what might concern specific types of people. Chancelfolk, humans, abnormal humans, spirits, Nobilis, Imperators, NPCs in general, mentors, favors, alliances, grudges, and the different sorts of Bonds that character can have to each of them are all given depth and clarity. Even ways to create certain Bonds are discussed. This chapter is much bigger than any of the chapters on the Books of Beasts, and it gives you many methods in which to draw the aforementioned Beasts into your campaigns in a natural fashion. While the information on NPCs, Excrucians, and Imperators was helpful, this chapter really ties what came before together, in an eminently coherent fashion.
The Final Chapters
Only three chapters left. Stay with me for just a little longer. Chapter 21 is the sample campaign, Treachery, and, obviously, I won't talk about it at any great length, to save spoilers from possible players. However, be assured that it is excellent. It works in a way that no other sample campaign in any book I've seen does - it's genuinely and honestly open-ended. Any sort of character can fit into it. There's no railroading in plots, no events that have to happen. A good way to describe it is that it's more of a setting than a campaign. You plop the characters down into the middle of it, and then things happen naturally. The sample campaign is huge (on the order of 30-ish oversized pages long), and could certainly provide your players with more than enough interesting conflicts and things to do for as long as they wish to play the characters.
Next comes the last chapter by Ianthe, part nine of how to be a Hollyhock God, stories in detail. This, together with the sample campaign and what has come before, should really solidify a potential HG's grasp on what sort of story they want to run and how it should be handled. A sample story is given, and then different ways to run it are provided, in order to illustrate the differences in theme that can be emphasized in Nobilis. Broad thematic conflicts are given, as well, ending with a section on how to handle campaigns and what sort of campaign to run. As before, the information in this chapter runs the gamut between helpful and invaluable.
And, ultimately, the last chapter is comprised of a final three thought provoking sutras by Vyasa.
The book contains two appendices. The first is a glossary of terms, summarizing quickly some key concepts of Nobilis, and the second is a long list of flowers, their meanings, and their uses. Both will undoubtedly prove to be useful resources to both Hollyhock Gods intent on symbolism and players who want to add more depth to their characters. If there's one thing this system really lends itself to, it's character depth.
Concluding Thoughts and Remarks
This review is very, very, very long. This book was similarly very, very, very long, and I have done my damndest to do it justice by covering it in almost exhaustive detail, answering every conceivable question, while trying to spare the reader enough so that they are still as surprised and excited as I was when I first opened the pages of Nobilis. It is my ultimate hope that you find my exuberance for the system almost as much an endorsement as my continual comments as to its high quality.
And, believe me, the quality is high. I feel, having simply read this book, that I have become both a better player and a better storyteller. The wealth of creative information and fascinating setting supplied perfectly sets the stage for epic wonders and terrible defeats. The power and scale of the game lends itself to stories and stories-within-stories in a way that few other games do. The mechanics of the system effortlessly and flawlessly support the mood and atmosphere. But I can wax eloquent on the virtues of Nobilis as long as I want, and still not convince you of anything.
So, if you take anything away from my review, let it be this: Nobilis is fun. Thinking about it is fun, dreaming about it is fun, reading it is fun, and I hope that my players find it to be as singular a joy as I have. I am confident when saying that I have never read a better roleplaying game book, and I cannot recommend this book enough to my fellow gamers. Read it and understand it, and become a little more enlightened.