Nobilis Playtest Review by Ben Lehman on 23/08/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
This is my Nobilis review. There are many like it but this one is mine.
Author: R. Sean Borgstrom
Page count: 304
Year published: 2002
ISBN: 9 781899 749300
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by Ben Lehman on 23/08/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Modern day Conspiracy Diceless Other
Introduction--Nobilis is an extraordinary game. I assume that most readers are familiar with the basic premise at this point, but I will give a brief description for those unfortunates who have not heard of the game. Nobilis is a game in which you play Sovereign Powers, humans (or animals, or fictional characters, or things) who have been appointed to guard a certain aspect of reality against destruction. Your powers are granted by your Imperator, an incomprehensible cosmic being (angel, demon, darklord, dragon, etc.) who has better things to do than protect it's Estates. It is an impressive concept and--while it is not without antecedents--it is quite original, rare in the largely derivative medium of role playing games.
This review will be broken down into sections: Introduction (which you're nearly done with, yay!), Presentation, Art, Writing Quality, Background and Setting, Character Creation, The Resolution System, and the results of a short (4 session) play test. If you are uninterested in any of these topics, you will probably be able to skip safely to the sections that interest you without missing much.
Presentation and Layout-- (4.5/5)Sadly, I am not a graphic designer and have little experience in the topic, so my comments will be limited and not particularly well formed.
The Nobilis book is big a 11" x 11". This makes it awkward (though not impossible) to fit on a shelf, and makes it very difficult to carry around in my small backpack without dinging the corners. On the plus side, this shape renders the book very striking, gives definite feelings of "this is different" and "this is quality." The feeling of holding this book on your lap is not to be missed. It feels very much like perusing an ancient tome of mystical knowledge.
The cover is eye-catching and very evocative of the setting. In honestly makes me proud to own this book. Responses from my friends ranged from "It's pretty" to jaw-dropped silence.
The inner pages are in a reasonably legible two-column format. Wide margins are used for quotes and flavor text-- a pleasant way of separating such material that I hope other designers will adopt. Errors are sparse. A golden ribbon bookmark is a very nice touch, and useful. The pages are glossy and generally turn well, although I have had some trouble with stickiness (I live in a humid climate.) The only annoyance I had with the inner layout is the use of script "n"s in the words "Nobilis" and "Noble." It just didn't work for me, and was often distracting.
On the whole, the outer layout was nearly flawless and the inner layout was quite spectacular. Neither were absolutely perfect, and both had annoying qualities. 4.5/5.
Art-- (3.5/5)As mentioned before, the cover art (a white statue of a woman's face, surrounding by golden armor) was very striking and evocative. I cannot think of a better image to express the game, and I am glad that Hogshead is considering keeping the "faces of statues" theme for future Nobilis supplements.
The interior art is spread rather wide throughout the book. Most pages feature only a small picture of a flower in the corner. The art that is present is black and white full page (and with 11x11 pages, that's HUGE) pictures, most of which depict some Power or another at work or play. Some of the pictures are extraordinary (the picture of the World Ash and the flower notebook particularly.) I particularly enjoyed the use of classical art, and wish that other game companies would follow suit. Some of the pictures, while not breathtaking, were clever (the Power of Noble Gases picture, for example.) Others were downright mediocre (none will be named to avoid offense.) I understand that no book can have perfect art on every page, but I did wish that the art was more frequent and that it was of more consistent quality.
One positive thing about the art is that it was largely connected quite strongly to the setting. None of the pictures seemed wildly out of place and all of them fit very well into the Nobilis world.
All toled, the art was good but, with the exception of a few pieces, not outstanding. The use of classical art bumps things up a notch, so the final rating is (3.5/5)
Writing Quality-- (5/5)The writing in Nobilis is smooth, consistent, funny and generally worth reading. The author writes in a casual yet clear style that makes you feel as if she is in the room with you, patiently explaining all the details. There are occasional moments where her language becomes a bit too florid, and requires a second reading, but these are rare enough to not be a bother.
The flavor text is very nicely evocative of the setting. Since it is mostly snippets, it leaves ideas for adventures and topics without restricting things by making them "canonical." Particularly exceptional were the "Book of Questions" excerpts at the beginning of each chapter (though read additional comments in "background setting," below.)
The Examples of Play are particularly well written, and really sound like gamers playing a role-playing game, complete with out-of-game teasing, pizza orders, "good God, the GM's screwed us this time" comments, and the like. They give a good sense of how the game actually plays out, rather than an abstract ideal.
All in all, the writing was excellent. While the prose stumbled a few times, there are too many gorgeous moments to give the prose anything by a (5/5)
Background and Setting (4/5)--The background setting, though described in brief in the introduction, deserves a larger explanation.
The Earth of Nobilis is split into two realities, Prosaic Earth and Mythic Earth. Prosaic Earth is largely similar to our own world, although from what I gather it is somewhat more dark in tone. Mythic Earth is not unlike Fairyland-- it is a place of dreams and imagination, where symbolism and narrative tension take the place of logic and common sense. In Prosaic Earth, you take a wrench to your car when it breaks down. In Mythic Earth, you talk to the car spirit. In Prosaic Earth, it takes you five hours to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles. In Mythic Earth, it takes a Journey.
The characters in Nobilis were, generally, people from Prosaic Earth. Some of them, however, were animals, or objects, or fictional beings, or even songs. Nobles exist in both Prosaic and Mythic realities because, for whatever reason, they were chosen by a cosmic power (called an Imperator) to manage some portion of reality (called an Estate) in the stead of the Imperator. Nobles are also responsible for managing the Chancel, a small pocket reality which must be formed (at some horrible price--the book mentions 100 nights of human sacrifice) before Imperators can come to Earth. Imperators are, in a very real sense, made up of these Estates. But caring for them is an endless and thankless task, and the Imperators have better things to do (more on that later.) So they leave such mundane affairs to their Nobles (that's you.)
The Imperators have been drawn into a cosmic war with creatures called the Excrucians, who have the power and the desire to destroy reality. Once they've destroyed something, it ceases to ever have existed, and the only people who will remember it are those that were ennobled before its destruction. Exact details on the Excrucians are thankfully sketchy: Their purpose and nature is left largely to the individual GM, though suggestions are given.
Nobles, in turn, do a lot more with their lives than govern chancels and promote Estates. The Noble social scene is a big deal, and there is all sorts of political intrigue between at least five factions (Heaven, Hell, Dark, Light, and Wild.) Many Nobles have Anchors-- mortals bound to them through bonds of emotion and blood, and Anchors have notoriously complicated lives. The Nobles of Earth are ruled by the cruel Imperator Lord Entropy, whose laws forbid both humility and love. And sometimes a "shard" of an Excrucian will pass through the Imperator's defenses and fall to Earth. When this happens, the Excrucians will attempt a "flower rite," a method of destroying a Noble's Estate by subverting its meaning. Stopping Flower Rites is a great old past time of PC Nobles, and earns you lots of credit with your Imperator, to boot.
There are many other tidbits of the setting which I have left out. Flowers, for instance, are a sacred language, and Nobles use flowers for communication, magic, and symbolism. Ultimately, though, it suffices to say that the setting is rich in detail, and not try to cover the entire 300-some page book.
In my opinion, the setting is largely good and generally clever. There are a lot of things for the PCs to do, and it is a rich world with a lot of variety to keep you and your group amused. It is chock full of potential conflicts, ranging from fights within the Familia Celestia (the PC group) to great world-spanning conflicts about the Nature of Reality. At times, setting material is cleverly not presented in a "canonical" format, instead encouraging the GM to make her own answers (though suggestions were included.) I wish more gaming books would take this flexible approach, and I wish that it was more frequent throughout the book..
However, I had some problems with the setting which simply would not go away, no matter how hard I thought around them. The most primary of these is that so much of the history and structure of the world (The World Ash and the Timeline in the back of the book come to mind) is detailed very precisely, giving the impression that all these things are well known. Though the material itself is intriguing, its definitiveness removes much mystery from a setting that wants as much mystery as it can get. Thankfully, there is still a lot of mysteriousness out there, but I wish that I could put the genie back in the bottle and leave my players guessing at things like "which came first, Heaven or Hell" and "Is Heaven a real place or is it a Metaphor?" Particularly irking is that the gorgeous, zen-like "Book of Questions" excerpts are all explicitly explained and answered in the text itself. For me, at least, a good unanswered question is ten times as useful as an answered one.
Another major problem I have with the setting is that, though the setting is clearly world-spanning, the setting is strongly dominated by Indo-European traditions. God, Angels, Lucifer, Heaven, Hell, Eden and Christ, to name a few, are all clearly defined in the setting. Are Amaterasu, Lao Tzu, The August Jade Emporer, Maasaw, White Buffalo Woman, the Five Suns, Heart of the Sky, the Rainbow Serpent, and other great figures simply to be left in the dust? As frustrating as this is, I imagine that it will be rectified in later supplements, and I am confident that it will be handled in a way that puts the other religions on an equal footing with the Indo-European themes.
Perhaps related to the above is another frequent complaint about the game: that the Noble factions are too easy classified as "good" and "bad." Though there is some attempt to give darker aspects to "the Light" and "Heaven," there is no attempt at all to justify "the Dark" and "Hell." Now, I realize that this might be a difficult topic to write about, especially for a public audience, but I cannot believe that Nobles and Imperators would willingly work in the service of Hell, doing evil simply because it is evil. Nowhere in the book (that I can find, at least) is there any attempt at justification or reason for Hell, it is just simply accepted that some people are "evil." Further problems emerge when you realize that the Light and Dark don't serve any particular cosmological purpose and, quite honestly, Hell doesn't either. This all strikes me as horribly unplayable and, in preparation for my game, I had to do major revisions on all five of the major factions until I got to the point that I believed they were all playable. Of course, if you are interested in running a game largely focused around Heaven or the Light, this will not be necessary.
Other gripes with the setting are minor, and are more matters of personal taste. I find that Excrucian Shards are far too easy to fight without doubt or guilt, for instance, but this can be fixed. It's just yet more work.
All in all, the setting is largely exemplary, and can be played as is without difficulty. But there are significant oversights and flaws that are hard to fix off the cuff, dragging down the score to a (4/5).
Character Creation and Advancement-- (5/5)The character creation system is flexible and very well done. You must divide your CP between four attributes and any special abilities (gifts) that you want to have. You are provided with just enough CP that you can't be extraordinary without some serious weaknesses, but you won't be totally helpless. The gifts system is largely flexible, fair and easy. A huge pile of premade gifts is available to those that don't like building their own. As with any simple character generation system, this can be minmaxed, but it is actually very difficult, and tends to rewards strong concept over anything else.
There is a limitations system to generate some extra CP. I'm not sure how I feel about this, because limitation systems are so often arbitrary ways to get more points. But the limits do seem genuinely taxing, so it shouldn't be totally horrendous. I would say, though, that an inexperienced GM, or one whose players are prone to minmaxing, should disallow the use of the limits. The restrictions system, on the other hand, has a wonderfully self-balancing mechanic (a restriction only benefits you if it comes up in play) and is a clever bit of game design.
The second half of character creation is very interesting: The players work together to create their Imperator and their Chancel. The Chancel creation rules are again a little frightening, especially considering that the Realm attribute can be used to carry magic and technology outside of the Chancel, but they are generally well rounded. The Imperator creation rules are a thing of beauty. You buy traits for your Imperator like "Kind," "Generous" and "Wise." But, if you want those, you are required to take flaws like "Lazy," "Demanding," or "Corrupt." All bonuses and flaws are directly applicable to the Imperator's Nobles in concrete ways, so don't worry about "flawless flaws" here.
The advancement rules cover Imperators, Chancels and Nobles, and are very simple. The only thing worth commenting about is that the costs are identical to those in character creation, a great relief for those of us who are frustrated by the often mismatched advancement systems in other games.
The creation and advancement systems are extraordinary, and among the best I've seen. They are wholly deserving of a (5/5)
Resolution System-- (5/5)The resolution system is very impressive. It is diceless, but unlike the other diceless game that I am familiar with, it is a resource-allocation system, which means there is considerably more dynamism and uncertainty in the game than in a "static" diceless system. In the context of the classic "Karma, Fortune, Drama" breakdown, it is the magical fourth move that is "None of the Above."
Before I go on, I must say that I have been a long time fan of the idea resource allocation based systems (having used them for a long time w/ my friends.) Therefore, I am inclined to see the Nobilis system as particularly good, largely because it is the first published system, that I am aware of, that wholly uses resource allocation techniques.
Essentially, you have a base score in each of four attributes. Any action (called a "miracle" in the system) is classified into one of these four attributes. If the action is easier than your rating, you can do it without a problem. If it is more difficult than your rating, you can spend from a finite pool of points to accomplish it anyway. You can replenish your pools between sessions or by having your restrictions come up in play, stealing them from someone else, or accomplishing something great for your Imperator.
Nicely, the game has very good definitions of "miracle difficulties." Unlike most diceless system, which rely strongly on GM fiat, Nobilis works on, essentially, player fiat. Players can do anything, given an expenditure of MP, and the GM is responsible for figuring out how their actions effect the world.
The resolution system is very simple, well done, and the first of its kind to be published (that I know of.) It rates 5/5.
Results of Play--I ran a short two sessions of Nobilis to test out the game. Sadly, the game didn't proceed longer (I left the area) so I can't comment on the advancement system or other parts of long term play.
I thought that the hardest part about Nobilis would be introducing PCs to the setting. However, I found that the central concepts of Nobilis were very easily grasped and once they got the basic idea (okay, we each have a word, and we can do anything relating to it?).
Play mostly went very smoothly, without much need to use the system at all. However, we hit a few bumps with both the system and the setting.
The first problem was one of GMing. When running a group of other nobles against the PCs, I had some difficulty keeping track of all of their capabilities. Further, some aspects the system relies imperfect knowledge of your opponent's attributes and so, as a GM, I had difficulty keeping my knowledge of the PCs attributes separate from my NPCs. I think that this would have been helped by employing another player as the "antagonist" and I'm going to try that for future games of Nobilis.
The second problem was one of PC attitude. The PCs seemed to overspend their points early on, leaving themselves helpless to meet later challenges. This led to them being very inactive in the game as a whole, which was a serious problem. I am at a loss as to how it could be solved, and it is possible that more experienced players would not run into this problem.
Nonetheless, despite this bumps, the game was overall a great experience, and a good time was had by all involved.
Conclusion--In all, Nobilis is a very good game, which has some problems with both setting and system. The setting problems are fixed with a few hours of work, but I have not yet found a resolution to the system problems.
Nonetheless, it is an extraordinary and one of a kind game, and worth every penny that I paid for it. Final Rating: Style 5, Substance 4.