Nobilis: The Game of Sovereign Powers
Nobilis: The Game of Sovereign Powers Capsule Review by Conan McKegg on 20/08/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
While not necessarily the game for everyone, this is simply perfect. There is no other way to describe this game.
Product: Nobilis: The Game of Sovereign Powers
Author: R. Sean Borgstrom
Company/Publisher: Hogshead Publishing
Page count: 304
Year published: 2002
SKU: HOG 600
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Conan McKegg on 20/08/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Modern day Horror Conspiracy Gothic Asian/Far East Diceless Other
“Imagine Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN and Clive Barker’s HELLRAISER on an absinthe bender, with flowers. That’s Nobilis” – Kenneth Hite
IntroductionThere is an ongoing argument within certain roleplaying industry circles about the likelihood of roleplaying games as art. Mechanical Dream, Tribe 8 – these games are being described as attempts to elevate roleplaying above the simple state of being games into being a form of interactive, playable literature. The current view seems to be more one of cautious scepticism. Enter Nobilis: The Game of Sovereign Powers, which seems to challenge many of the preconceptions we have about roleplaying games.
How to describe the setting? Essentially our world – Earth – is actually only an illusion around another Earth. Ours is the Prosaic Earth, a realm of science and reason. This is actually an illusion that the spirit of the Earth has created to explain the actions of those who exist in the true reality – The Mythic World.
In the Mythic World Earth hangs like a fruit from the branches of Yggdrasil, The World Ash; yes – to those who know their Norse Mythology it is indeed that Yggdrasil, The Tree of Life. Hundreds of other worlds hang off the tree – appearing to be planets in space to those living on Prosaic Earth. Beneath the Tree burns Hell and supported on the uppermost branches is Heaven. All of Creation is surrounded by a blazing wall of blue flames called the Weirding Wall and powerful Gods, Angels and Demons – all known as Imperators – exist and shape the elements of Creation. However there is a little problem of these beings from outside of Creation called Excrucians.
The Excrucians seek to destroy all of Creation. No one exactly knows why, but these immensely powerful beings ride into Creation and begin to lay waste to reality one concept at a time. The Imperators head off these beings in a vicious spiritual war on another plane of existence. This means that they are unable to continue their work within reality… thus they create the Nobilis. These are the PCs in the game.
Nobilis are essentially Demigods – humans who have been elevated to almost God status and set in charge of a specific concept or element of Reality. Each World has its own Nobilis – and the system works fairly well. Except for when the Excrucians manage to sneak past the Imperators and enter reality. Then the Nobilis must battle to protect their Domain of influence.
This is one heck of game – both from its unusual presentation to its massive meta-setting. Yet the author not only manages to express this bizarre world in a succinct and easy to digest manner – she also presents an elegant game system that allows players to indulge in truly miraculous roleplaying.
Graphics and LayoutThe Nobilis core rulebook is one big sexy beast to look at. Rather than follow the traditional format Hogshead publishing has produced a massive hardbound coffee table book. This white giant has an attractive photo of the Sphinx Mystérieux by Charles van der Stappen – on display at the Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Belgium.
The interior is attractively laid out with only a few examples of art – all of these full-page plates within the book. The quality is mixed – some of the art is fantastic while other examples are truly ugly to look at. Two favourites are those of the Power of Murder (a possible PC character) and of two Nobilis entering the Prosaic Realm where part of the picture shows a luxurious interior of a castle interspersed with a Burger King. (No, really.)
The general layout is varied – depending on whether the rules are aimed at the players or the GM (referred to within the game as The Hollyhock God.) Both the text and general layout are easy on the eye – and also makes the rules extremely easy to find. After only a single reading of the book I found myself easily able to find necessary chapters and pages without having to refer to the index. I also noted that the sparse artwork tends to also help as a guide to where in the book you have reached.
The GameLiterally oozes with atmosphere. From the beautifully detailed setting descriptions and ingenious use of repetition – which actually helps rather than infuriates – to the HG’s sections which are written as if a Nobilis is explaining to a GM how to accurately portray Mythic reality within a roleplaying game. Also worthy of note are the sometimes amusing, always entertaining quotes that are peppered throughout the margins of the book. While some are simply there for amusement value – many help to expand upon concepts described within the main text.
Essentially the game works a lot like Amber – the old diceless roleplaying game that shares much with Nobilis’ concept – essentially each PC and NPC have four attributes and the character with the highest level wins. Yet PCs also have what are called “Miracle Points” which can be spent to raise attribute levels temporarily – thus adding a strategic level to the game as well as making combat become a little more unpredictable – and makes the GM and PCs become the random element within the game rather than dice.
The BadSo, what is wrong with Nobilis?
Um… Not much at all really. Despite some extremely rare typos and the need to get your head around a few concepts – this is, well, nearly flawless.
Okay – it won’t appeal to EVERYONE. (Although to be fair, I find it hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t like the chance to play a god…) But there may be some people who will find the setting too large in scope, or the concepts too hefty for their style of play. But this is more a case of personal tastes and not really a flaw in the game itself.
The GoodDamn impressive setting. Some people may take issue with the use of this term – but Nobilis IS original. There is quite simply nothing like it. Sure, there are some games that have similar elements – In Nomine, Whispering Vault – but nothing that really meets the same level or style of Nobilis.
This is first game that manages to be diceless while remianing as a game WITH RULES! The structure of the system lowers the possibility of the usual chaos that diceless games can degenerate into. I can’t stress this enough – the system is very, very playable. More so than other systems such as Theatrix which initially used a similar bidding system. Nobilis provides a dearth of examples and rules to help with most situations that may arise during play.
Sexy, sexy, sexy setting. The whole self-deprecating tone is fantastic. This is a very stylistic game that manages to avoid being pretentious by making fun of the very style it exemplifies. There are some torrid pieces of prose, particularly the metaphor laden opening piece of fiction that was turgid to read – but these are often counter-pointed by some beautifully wry comments in the margins.
Heaps of examples that really help the GM to get their head around the setting. Also a FANTASTIC chapter that is simply a detailed transcript of a complete adventure – both shows how the game should play as well as puts EVERY nuance of the rules to the test so you can really grasp how it works.
SummaryIf you don’t have Nobilis you are missing out! Even if you never play the game, the book is a damn good read – and a very, very beautiful book. Personally, I suspect that after reading the book your head will end up swimming with a multitude of ideas for adventures, and the dry sardonic tone of the book will help keep you reading the more concept heavy segments.