Nobilis 2nd Edition
Nobilis 2nd Edition Capsule Review by Gary N. Mengle on 01/06/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
I'm sold. This is a great game, and is absolutely unique among RPGs. Make it your next purchase.
Product: Nobilis 2nd Edition
Author: R. Sean Borgstrom
Company/Publisher: Hogshead Publishing
Page count: 304
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Gary N. Mengle on 01/06/02
Lest I be accused by the anti-everything community of some kind of nebulous partnership or collusion with the publishers, or of frothing fanboyism, I should point out that I was [i]not[/i] particularly interested in [i]Nobilis[/i] before the first reviews started getting posted and the flamewars erupted over them. The game seemed unbearably pretentious, and I am emphatically not a fan of Hogshead Publishing or the Big Cheese thereof, or of the games they produce. I'm on record in the forums as having stated on several occasions that I couldn't see what the fuss was about, though I didn't press the point as some others did. In addition, I am not a fan of diceless and strictly narrative games as a general rule - I'm more of a Rolemaster/Hero 5/Traveller kind of guy.
Also, the attractiveness of an RPG is not generally a factor when I'm building my opinion on it. I am, after all, a fan of such art-free, minimalist-layout games as Classic [i]Traveller[/i]. I also own many excellent GURPS sourcebooks with lousy art and shoddy bindings which began to fall apart during the first leaf-through. So the quality of the presentation, as long as it's not so bad that it interferes with my ability to understand the game, is not something I'm likely to consider when evaluating it.
That said, the physical presentation of R. Sean Borgstrom's [i]Nobilis[/i], from Hogshead Publishing, is really, [i]really[/i] nice.
For starters, it is sturdily bound in an unusual 11" x 11" format, which [i]will[/i] fit on most shelves, though it might jut out a bit from the 8.5" books surrounding it. The cover is a striking image (which I imagine to be a photograph - if it's a painting it's so good as to be indistinguishable from an actual photo) of a white marble statue wearing a metal helmet and breastplate. No art expert am I - but it is, at the very least, a big departure from what one expects from the cover of an RPG rulebook. There's also a sewn-in cloth bookmark, which serves little apparent purpose given the dimensions of the book, which is a bit difficult to handle given its size.
All of the illustrations are full-page, and vary rather widely in quality. Some of the artists are names that just about everyone should recognize, like Mike Kaluta or Charles Vess; others are lesser-known, but I got the impression that the lesser-known people were the folks who actually based their art upon the game - most of thier stuff is highly appropriate to the game and looks nice as well. The Vess pieces look like they're either reprinted or out of his slush pile (though still very good) and the Kaluta stuff looks like rough sketches that he pounded out in a couple of minutes, far, [i]far[/i] below the standard of his best work. The art has been described as mind-blowingly good by some others - I'd say that much of it is [i]fairly[/i] good, but what really helps is that at least some of it provides imagery for the very abstract ideas in the game.
The presentation of [i]Nobilis[/i] is something everyone who's so far reviewed the game has remarked upon. Yes, it's nice. No, it doesn't improve or enhance the content one bit. I'd have been happy with a normal, serviceable hardcover. But it [i]is[/i] awfully nice. When I showed it to my seven-person gaming group the first thing three of them said, just before or immediately after opening the book, was "Wow." Another said "What the fuck is [i]this?[/i]"
Other reviews have given you the basics of the [i]Nobilis[/i] setting and system. I doubt I can whip up a detailed overview of these things that provides you with anything you don't know already, if you've been keeping up with the many reviews. So I won't bother, and I'll move to my opinion of the game and some analysis thereof.
So here it is, sitting in front of me: the much-vaunted second edition of [i]Nobilis[/i], a game whose earlier incarnation I was not familiar with, and I am absolutely thunderstruck by its scope, its elegance and its vision. It is a beautiful game, not only in the impossibly high standard to which the book was put together physically, but in the writing. The snippets of flavor text and fiction (which do not bury the meat of the book, as they do in many of White Wolf's products) are the best that this industry has ever seen. This game does things no other game in the history of the roleplaying hobby can do.
It is a game of ideas and concepts and the personifications thereof, not of concrete reality and the mortals or superhumans which inhabit it. It is absolutely unique in the roleplaying hobby. It is difficult, both to fully comprehend and to play to its fullest potential.
[i]Nobilis[/i] is dense. There's a lot here to conceive of and think about, and it's not always easy to do so. I found myself needing to put the book down every hour or so to let my brain wrap itself around the material it had just absorbed. I'm [i]still[/i] digesting it, but I know for sure that I want to run it, and my group is interested.
The way in which is is played is radically different from that of any other game, all of which attempt to be simulations of reality to one degree or another. [i]Nobilis[/i] on the other hand, deals in metaphor and symbolism, not just as touches a GM can add to his game to add depth, but as the cornerstones upon which the game is built. It is the most profoundly [i]unrealistic[/i] RPG ever designed. It couldn't be otherwise.
And no, the game is not really very pretentious, though it took actually reading the book to realize that - the online excerpts certainly came across as somewhat pompous to me. The only near-exception I can note is the term "Hollyhock God" for [i]gamemaster[/i], and even that is kind of an in-joke within the game's symbolic cosmology, so I can forgive it, even if it seems overly indulgent.
There is a fair amount of Judeao-Christian imagery woven into [i]Nobilis[/i], but there's something here from virtually every religion on the planet, from the Norse faith to animism to Australian aboriginal myths. This is something that could have been an utter mess, but everything is woven together beautifully into a consistent whole.
The best comparison I can make is the one many others have made - to Neil Gaiman's [i]Sandman[/i]. The closest comparison I can make in the RPG hobby is to [i]Unknown Armies[/i], though I think [i]Nobilis[/i] is vastly more successful at what it tries to accomplish.
As I already said, I don't like diceless games. Primarily this is because all such games that I've seen, including [/i]Amber[/i] and [i]Everway[/i], both of which I admire greatly, basically boil down to GM fiat as a resolution system. There's nothing wrong with that, but it takes a different sort of GM than myself to make it work.
But [i]Nobilis[/i] does not fall into the same category. While it is diceless, it is not [i]rules-free[/i]. There is an actual system here - it's not just "make stuff up," and the game is not run by GM fiat any more than, say, D&D is.
Not everybody is going to like [i]Nobilis[/i]. That says nothing about the people who do or don't - it's merely a matter of taste. There are those who won't get it, and there are those who get it but find it unappealing. Good for them, with no sarcasm intended. But I think this is the most innovative game since [i]Ars Magica[/i].
I judge games based on the idea that how 'good' a game is is based on how well it accomplishes the things it sets out to do. I'll not say that I am always completely unbiased and objective in this, but I do try. I can admit that a particular game (like, say, [i]Deadlands[/i], is a great game, but I don't like it at all.
But if I had to objectively judge [/i]Nobilis[/i] by this standard, I'd be forced to say that it's the most perfect game I've ever seen. It does exactly what it means to, and does it perfectly based on the needs to the play environment it postulates. It has no serious flaws in this respect.
Which is not to say that I think it's now my favorite game - there's still [i]Ars Magica[/i], which I figure is a lot easier to run and to assemble a group willing to play. And Hero 5, which I really like and intend to use for every game I run [i]except Ars Magica[/i] and [i]Nobilis[/i]. But yeah, [i]Nobilis[/i] is every bit as good as people are saying.
If you like diceless gaming, buy this game. If you like narrative storytelling, buy this game. If you're even a casual fan of [i]Sandman[/i], buy this game. If you like [i]Unknown Armies[/i] or at least the ideas behind it, buy this game. If you'll buy a game because it's unique, but this one.
Yes, it [i]is[/i] that good.