Nobilis Playtest Review by Brand Robins on 14/06/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
YANR, but a playtested one. 12 sessions up, 12 sessions down, and this is what I think of the game after having seen the elephant.
Author: R. Sean Borgstrom
Company/Publisher: Hogshead Publishing Ltd.
Page count: 304
Year published: 2002
SKU: HOG 600
Comp copy?: yes
Playtest Review by Brand Robins on 14/06/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Modern day Horror Diceless Other
Hogshead Press's game of "Unwilling Gods, Impossible Powers, Unearthly Dangers," Nobilis is a diceless RPG based around the concept that a class of beings, known as Nobilis or Nobles, are the embodiments of particular aspects of reality. From their portion of reality the Nobles draw near godlike powers, and are forced to use those powers in order to defend both themselves and the whole of reality from internal threats and the external danger of oblivion. Kenneth Hite described the setting and tone as "Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Clive Barker's Hellraiser on an absinthe bender, with flowers." The true joy of Nobilis is that it takes such a setting and makes a playable game out of it. Difficult, challenging, and unconventional Nobilis is none-the-less ultimately a playable game.
I was the lucky person chosen by fate, will, a bribe, and the good folks at RPG.net to get a review copy of Nobilis. I got the book weeks ahead of its general release, and was able to dig through its pages before just about anyone else. I wanted to put in a review of this product right away, but I decided to wait and to actually playtest the game before I reviewed it. I'd done a review of the first edition for Pyramid, and so I was familiar with most of the game and the game concepts. The second edition, however, was supposed to have made the game more accessible and more playable and in order to test whether or not it had met its goals I decided that I had to actually get a group together and play the thing. Not satisfied with running one game and phoning in the results, I went on to play a 12 session test campaign. This review is based on that campaign, as well as the book itself, in an effort to give a balanced and helpful review.
(Yes, I know that I'm probably a moron to even try it, but what the hell I didn't have anything better to do.)
JUDGING A BOOK BY ITS COVER
Nobilis is a truly beautiful book. Physically it is well made and put together, using smyth-sewn bindings, matte laminate covers with spot-varnish finish, and 80lb internal matte art paper. It also has a nice long bookmark, one that is solidly attached and big enough to actually stick a good distance out of the bottom of the book. All this technical mumbo-jumbo means that it's a good book with heavy, slick paper, solid binding -- though it might feel loose, it's actually well sown in -- and a durable cover with a very clean, sharp cover image.
And what a cover image it is, "Sphinx Mystλrieux" by Charles van der Stappen. This work is probably the best of the whole book, and with the elegant cream cover and large font cover text gives a feeling for what the game as a whole feels like elegant, classical, and oddly mythic. (I often sit alone at night, caressing the cover and whispering sweet nothings to it.) The interior art strives to follow this example, with some noted successes and a few notable failures. All the main pieces of art, as opposed to the occasional floral border piece, are full page works depicting some part of the game, or the game's tone. As such they generally do good work, even where they are not necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing works.
The true beauty of the book, however, is in its classical layout. It uses clear, simple fonts, consistent margins, elegant use of white space, as opposed to just lots of blank space that could be filled with material, and a clean layout aesthetic that never seems rushed, jumbled, or crammed together. In short, the book is pretty not because of large numbers of pictures rammed in every page, but because of the elegant, graceful, and apparently effortless layout.
If you're thinking that this makes Nobilis look more like a coffee-table book than a typical RPG book, you're correct. In terms of layout and physical construction Nobilis is closer to many art books than to most RPGs with their graphic-novel influenced design. Despite this, however, Nobilis is still quite packed with information and has proven to be fairly durable for use in play. My copy now has a slight crease in the spine, and a couple of dings around the edges of the cover, but is still solidly bound and nice to look at after over a dozen sessions of my none too careful friends passing it around the gaming table. Coffee-table book or not, Nobilis still fills the function of a gaming book, just one with a unique style. Its one real problem with that with its 11" by 11" size it can be difficult to open it with the bookmark, and awkward to balance in your lap it really is a book you almost have to read at a table.
BREAK IT DOWN
In Nobilis the PCs are the Nobilis, beings who were once human (usually there is room for Nobles who were animals, or aliens, or odder things) who then had a shard of an Imperator's soul grafted to them making them demi-gods and defenders of reality. When an Imperator makes a Noble, the Noble comes to be an aspect of reality, and becomes responsible for that aspect of reality, which is known as their Domain. Thus if the Imperator of Dogs, Horses, and Dawn makes a Noble of Dogs, that being is Dogs the fundamental ideal of reality that makes dogs exist and all dogs everywhere are an expression of the Noble's existence. It's something of a heady concept, and takes a bit of time to wrap your mind around but the book helps a lot in that. There is a vast weight of explanation, example, and explication to help get the concepts clear. The GM is called the Hollyhock God (HG), though in game my group always ended up just saying GM. We're old fashioned like that.
Character creation is point-based, and uses four attributes with resource pools and an open-ended gift and limitation construction system. The attributes represent various aspects of the Nobles godlike existence, and as such they are slightly different than most games attribute sets. Rather than defining specific aspects of body, mind, soul, social ability or whatever, the attributes in Nobilis cover vast categories of power. Aspect covers all things physical and mental, Estate covers all power and control over the Noble's domain, Realm covers all power within the Noble's home ground, and Spirit covers all things having to do with spirit, mystical potency, and protection from the miracles of others. All attributes are rated 0 to 5, giving a scale that goes from very little (a 0 being nearly human) to vast and godly amounts (a 5 can alter the course of the world with little effort). This scale means that even a single point in an attribute is important, and gives a flexible yet focused frame for determining the powers of characters. The one problem I had with it in play is that, from a purely numbers perspective, a lot of characters start to look much alike. This, however, was a minor issue in the campaign because even characters with the exact same numerical stats often had different capabilities based on what their Domain was, what their gifts were, and how they applied their powers. With such a broad scope and scale conflicts between opposing characters come down to a matter of who has the better plan, rather than who has the better stat. (This is of great comfort to me, and doubtless many other men. It is NOT how big it is, it is how you use it.)
Each attribute also has a pool of Miracle Points that act as a resource pool. Characters can use Miracle Points to exceed their normal limitations, so that even a weak character can occasionally beat a powerful character if they are willing to put the power into it. Every attribute has its own pool, and all pools start at 5 but can be bought up with character points or by taking restrictions. Pools can be lowered through use and through being victimized by certain mystical rituals and can be regained at the start of a story, by victimizing others with mystical rituals, or whenever a character's limitations force them into inconvenience.
Gifts are created using a guided, but very freeform, construction method. There are ample examples provided, and enough guidance and context that I never once felt uncomfortable going through and tweaking gifts with players. Limitations and restrictions, which give Miracle Points (restrictions give points when they come up in play, limits raise the MP pool), are done even more freeform. Restrictions are non-problematic because of their mechanics, they only give points when they come up in play, and only then in measure with the amount they inconvenience the character. Thus HGs don't have to worry about players getting points from disadvantages that aren't disadvantageous it simply doesn't work. Limits, however, with their hard wired bonuses, can be a bit more problematic. There are a large number of examples provided to give context, but Limits lack the kind of guided creation process that Gifts have, and so come down almost completely to HG and PC negotiation.
In an unusual, if not completely original, move Nobilis players don't just create their own characters. They also jointly create their Chancel their base of power and central home. An entire chapter is devoted to Chancel building, using a points system based on the sum of the Realm attributes of all the characters. Thus if all the PCs bought up their Realm they can make a powerful Chancel, if they did not then their Chancel will be weak and susceptible to enemy infiltration and attack. In my game we had an issue where one PC put in nearly half of the Realm points, and then grew annoyed when the others wanted him to allocate points to things he did not want. In the end we had to make a "point vote" system, which led to a good deal of compromise. Everyone ended up happy, but potential HGs might want to be aware of the possible issue.
After designing their Chancel, the PCs then design their Imperator. As it is assumed that the PC group are all Nobles created by the same Imperator, they all have to work together to determine exactly what their god and master is. Imperator creation works off a zero-sum points system, where players must accept a disadvantage for every advantage their Imperator grants. It's a nice touch, as it enforces from the start the double edged nature of serving an Imperator they can grant great boons at will, but can cause just as much pain and sorrow without a thought.
Nobilis's system is a diceless system that uses miracle points and narration to achieve suspense and uncertainty. Though a character with a higher attribute will win in the absence of point spending, or a good plan, there is enough room for characters to manage and strategically plan their use of resources, and to intelligently and tactically use their strengths that the game stays well away from the often debated diceless fault of "GM fiat." Because PCs have control over their points, and have enough power to literally change the whole world, they remain firmly in control of themselves, and can actually have a good bit of say over the course of the whole game. My biggest problem as a Nobilis HG wasn't worrying about not railroading PCs, it was keeping them from railroading me.
The sections on character creation and rules take up about 100 pages of the book. The rest is divided between setting and vast amounts of advice, explanation, and tips to make the game work and work well. The setting of Nobilis is actually fairly minimal. There are cosmology issues addressed, setting up the place of the PCs in the great scheme of things, and there are a good number of NPCs shown and statted. Mostly, however, Nobilis concentrates on theme and tone more than setting detail. The game goes to great lengths to set up a feeling and tone for a game, rather than a single pregenerated world to stick characters in. The result is that while HGs will have to work out their own setting details, they have a lot of resources to draw on to make it work. The line between not enough setting support and too much pregenerated setting is carefully drawn, and Nobilis stays carefully on the side of "not too much." The one area of the setting that is well developed is that of the Excrucians, the ultimate enemy of all creation. As these beings are the mysterious and utterly deadly foes that all Nobles fear, it is only right that they be given as much detail as they are.
Several chapters are devoted completely to HG advice, giving the guy running the game tips on how to make it all work. Several of these were actually of small interest to me, especially the game contract chapter, as they simply went over issues I was already familiar with or not interested in at all. Some of the others, however, such as the one on making effective challenges for the godlike Nobles, were brilliantly done. Before setting up adventures I would often skim over relevant sections, as they are not only good general advice, but often contain crunchy nuggets that can easily be turned into full fledged challenges. The king of these sections, however, has to be "A Manual of Persuasion." This chapter spells out, in good detail and with careful attention to things useable in an RPG, the basics of social rhetoric and advanced manipulations that are necessary to making a political/social RPG run. What Robin's Laws and Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads do for other games, "A Manual of Persuasion" does for political and social games it gives you effective tools to make things that look hard easy to play in game. (This was nice for me, as lacking all social skills I needed a guide to help me fake them.)
THE GOOD This game has a lot of good going for it, and in order to keep from rambling all day I will try and confine myself to the real highlights of the work. The three high points are the system, the look, and the writing. I've already talked about how pretty the book is, and so little more needs to be said about that. The writing is quite amazing, but is also very linked to taste. There is a lyrical, epic quality to the prose that made my brain burn in a most pleasant fashion, and the epic, beautiful, and humorous nature of the little stories found in the sidebars were truly remarkable. However, people that like minimalist prose, careful understatement, and such like will probably be less enthused with the writing than I was. Checking out the examples on the Hogshead website will let you know where you fall, I'm sure. So we're left with the system. Nobilis is, by far and bar none, my favorite diceless system. One of the main reasons is because of the Miracle Point system. The variable size of Miracle Point pools, and the strategy of managing them, that brings uncertainty (if not randomness) to the game. Because Miracle Points can fluctuate during a game it is hard to be sure how much another character has to give, and how much they will be willing to push. It was unusual, but not unheard of, for our game's Aspect 5 bad-ass to get beaten in purely physical matches by inferior foes, and it was even more common for the PCs to be able to pull out actions that surprised the NPCs. Miracle Points also combine well with the heavy powered nature of the Nobilis to make an effective method of PC control over the story. If a PC really, really, really doesn't want some single action from happening, chances are they can stop it. They might not be able to do much afterwards, but they can stop that one thing. It's choosing whether it's worth it to stop or not that is the main question. This also leads to a certain feeling and tone in the game as NPCs possess the same abilities. Conflicts between Nobles tend to become careful and measured contests, each side trying to feel out and push their opponent to the line without going over it. Take them to the line and you can get them to surrender, push them over and you assure a great deal of pain for everyone involved. As the game says that most confrontations in the game world work that way, I can only conclude that the mechanic is successful it encourages play that fits the game's genre and tone.
The small number of attributes also helps keep the game flowing and narrative. There are few numbers to track, and within a session most players will know every number on their character sheet without even having to look. The most time that was ever eaten out of game flow by system matters was players thinking through their strategies for spending points, and that was often in the context of "how do I use a clever miracle, rather than a powerful one, to accomplish my goals." As a result everything in Nobilis, combat to socialization, happens so quick and smooth that the game aspects become transparent. While I don't think that's always a good thing (I love me some number crunching when I play Champions, for example I am the terror twink who can blow up planets with a 125 point character) it fits the goals and tone of Nobilis with perfect sangfroid.
The "bad" aspects of Nobilis are less objectively bad than they are problematic or difficult, especially for certain gaming styles. There is, in all honesty, nothing that I found about the game that was broken or unusable, and very little that was unclear enough to cause problems in game. The issues that the game does have are ones of reference, start-up work, and the necessity of cooperation and reasonability to make the fairly light system work smoothly.
The first issue, that of reference, is a matter of book layout more than gameplay. Because of the nature of Nobilis it is fairly rare that anyone needs to look up some exact rule or quote in the book during play. This is a very good thing, because in the times when you do have to do it can become mildly frustrating. Nobilis does have a decent index, but because of the nature of the material and the way that concepts are often spread out over the whole book, it can be a chore to find one specific reference. Take the Cammorae, for example. The Cammorae are one of the few mortal groups that can majorly hinder or majorly help just about any Noble, and so they have an important role in many games. The information about them, however, is split up over multiple sections. You get an introduction to the group on page 13, an explanation of their ties to Entropy on page 26, a fairly complete write up of their history and goals on pages 35 36, and then a section about using them as a HG in plots and as interesting NPCs on pages 231-232. This split up is due to the fact that HG chapters are separated out from "normal" chapters, and information is often unequally split between. Add to that the fact that the HG chapters are spread out across the book, rather than clumped together, and you have a problem quickly finding information. As I said, this often does not become an issue in game, but it's still a minor annoyance.
The second difficulty of Nobilis is one of inertia. Put simply, Nobilis is not an easy game to start or to get into. HGs wanting to start out a campaign are going to have to put in a good amount of work in backstory, NPC design, and most especially consideration of how the PCs will interact with the world. The game does give lots and lots of advice, resources, and tips for doing all of this, but there is still a lot of elbow grease required to get it all in line and working the way each individual HG is going to want it. Getting players' heads into the game can be just as difficult, especially if they are being brought in rather than wanting to play of their own accord. Working out the dynamics of PCs, their estates and powers, how they work together (or don't), how their Chancel/Imperator/whatever fits into the world and so on all flow most smoothly if a good deal of thought is put into them before game. It is possible to start playing without talking about how the Powers of Moths and Teeth work together, or how and what their powers can do, but it is a sure way to headaches. Having a full length, or even extended length, session to create characters before the HG even starts up major campaign plans, is nearly required. You could skip it, but I wouldn't. The good aspect of all this start-up work is that once Nobilis does get going it gains inertia of its own. All the initial work we did in my campaign, setting up what the Nobles did and why, how they worked together, what they wanted to do with the game, allowed the game to start generating its own energy, ideas, and adventures once we got under way. Really, it's much like trying to roll a heavy boulder down a hill it's hellishly hard to get the thing moving, but once it starts to roll it'll crush anything that gets in the way under its own weight. Nobilis is not easy to start, and will take a lot of work on everyone's part for several sessions, thus DQing it for most beer-n-pretzels or "Friday night and everyone just wants to chill" RP. Once things get going, however, it becomes easier to play with every session. In fact, the hardest part about our campaign was ending it despite the climatic final scenes, we still had so much other fodder for further mayhem that facing the idea that things could be ending was very difficult. (It was helped by the fact that I slept with one of my player's wives, and now am too afraid for my life to go back to group.)
Finally there is the issue of player and HG cooperation and reasonability. Nobilis's system is very simple and streamlined, and much given to interpretation and cooperative gaming. There are hundreds of examples, guidelines, and clarifications throughout the book, but in the end the game deliberately leaves a large amount of wiggle room and place for individual interpretation in how the exact levels and fine details of things work. This is a good thing for the feel of the game, and works wonderfully so long as everyone in the group is on the same page, or is at least willing to pretend they are the same page for long enough to play. We all know, however, that players are not always "reasonable," that HG's are not always cooperative, and that RPG groups often aren't even in the same book much less on the same page. In times like that having very specific, precise rules can be a game saver, as you can point to table XVI on page XXX and say, "Look here, this is the rule for what happens in this exact situation." Nobilis doesn't offer that kind of support it leaves it to the group to sort out many of their own specifics within the frame of general guidelines.
Luckily for my group, that style of rules fit our play style quite well. That is not to say that there were not occasional issues, however. The biggest problems we had tended to be with Limitations. Often as the game approached dramatic and climatic moments the PCs would be low on Miracle Points, and would want me to invoke their Limitations so that they could get some back. Most of the time this was not a problem, but at times where every PC started clamoring for Limitation Attention and, because they were worried about their characters' chances of victory, became very insistent that their Limitations come into play, things got quite convoluted and occasionally difficult. In the end I forced PCs to come up with their own reasons why their Limitations would come into effect, and that was mostly successful. Even so, any group of people who feel pressured may become less than completely cooperative, and Nobilis offers little system help, no "this is thus," aids for the times when "work together" just doesn't work. Thus if your group works together well you shouldn't have many problems, but if your group is one that only feels comfortable with secure and certain rules, you may have to do a good deal of extra work to provide them. (Though there is going to be a more specific and detailed system in the upcoming LARP guide The Game of Powers, which may be worth checking out for the detail, even if one is not interested in LARPing.) THE UGLY
This is a traditional slot for my reviews, but the truth is there really isn't much ugly in Nobilis. The Noble of Putrescence would undoubtedly be linked to all sorts of ugly things, but none of them are brought up in the book, so it hardly counts. In fact, that is one aspect of the book that bears mentioning, though there are lots of unpleasant concepts in Nobilis none of them are handled in an unpleasant manner. Yes there are devils who live to torture human souls and do all sorts of nasty things to them, and agents of the Dark who revel in mass slaughter and misery. The game acknowledges that they exist, and even gives some tips for how to deal with them as characters, but at no time does it go out to wallow in the mire. Unpleasantness, ugliness, and brutality are acknowledges and given place in the game's framework, but they are never glorified. In contrast with many "adult" subject media that sometimes seem to revel in the brutality and show perversion for perversion's sake, Nobilis manages to deal with such issues without ever once stooping to their level. It really is a remarkable balancing act, and one I'd like to see done with as much class in other works. (I couldn't do it as you'll have noted by this point I have no class.)
FINIS, NOBLE OF CONCLUSIONS
Nobilis is beautiful, Nobilis is playable, Nobilis is packed with useful information. Nobilis is not without faults, but those faults are small ones and mostly issues of information organization and the assumption that RPG groups will work together more cooperatively than is often the case. Nobilis is also not for everyone, it is heavily based around social interaction, transparent mechanics, and story over game. If the idea of playing godlike beings tied to an aspect of reality in a war for existence, using diceless mechanics, and working in a social manner aren't grabbing you then you won't be grabbed by Nobilis. If those things sound good to you, however, Nobilis may well be something you've been searching for without even knowing it. In the end Nobilis is a triumph not because it is all things to all people, but because it focuses very specifically on what it wanted to do, and then did it with aplomb.
Overall grade: 96%