Author: Frederic Weil, Fabrice Lamidey, Sam Shirley, Greg Stafford
Company/Publisher: Chaosium, Inc
Page count: 227
Playtest Review by James McPherson on 07/12/98. Genre tags: none
First Impressions: Nephilim is a product of Chaosium, Inc., the makers of such fine, disturbing gaming materials such as Call of Cthulu and Elric. It comes as a fairly solidly bound softcover book that has a strong heft to it. The paper has a nice, thick feel to it that holds the solid black of the text. The artwork is crisp black and white, with few muted or uncertain tones. There is a very bold feel to Nephilim that is lacking in many other games.
Setting: This is a game unlike any other and what may be the most original game concept to hit the market in recent years. You do not play a hero or villian. You are not, really, even human. You are a Nephilim, part of a supernatural race that not only predates humanity but directly influenced its evolution. Reincarnating through humanity, your only goal to garner enough knowledge and power to reach the mystic realms.
The Nephilim were originally semi-sentient elementals that lived off the magickal energies surrounding Earth. Their contemporaries, the dinosaurs, were mystics so powerful they had no need for tools or even speech. The Saurians' experiments culminated in the creation of a new moon that began to taint the energies the Nephilim needed to survive, called Ka. The resulting conflict ended with the destruction of the dinosaurs and their new moon.
The Nephilim, now fully aware, began to search out ways to access Agartha, the higher realms of magick. They realized that their inability to harness the powers of the Sun was holding them back. Only living plants and animals could use this Solar Ka. Thus began their great experiment to breed a creature capable of tapping into the Solar Ka that could be controlled by the Nephilm. The result was humanity and they did what came naturally to all people: rebellion. The human revolt was assisted by a meteor that disrupted Earth's magickal fields and prevented Nephilim from manifesting without a living host, which brings us to current times.
Content: The rules in Nephilim will be familiar to all players of Chaosium games. Skills are expressed as a percentile rating and tests attempt to roll under that rating. Attributes are expressed from 1 to 18 like many game systems born in the late 70's. Nephilim seems to have avoided many of the mechanics flaws that plagued earlier books; It is not as sparse as Call of Cthulu nor as overwhelming as Runequest. All in all there are just enough rules to do what you want and not so many that you spend days flipping through tables.
Character creation is fairly quick, given that you not only create the character you play but also some basics of the lives they have lead. Plus, you have to create the person that the Nephilim is using as a host. All told, a player will wind up creating about 4 different characters before they are done. Even novice players can wind up with an incredibly rich and complex character in under a half-hour. The simplicity of the mechanics doesn't hurt.
Being familiar with the magic from several Chaosium products, I expected Nephilim to dust off the standard "Sorceror/Shaman/Priest" magics they used for years. Instead I found something completely different. While Sorcery exists, it has been updated. It is no longer just a matter of learning a spell, now there are minimal skill requirements for those spells. The Shamanistic path has been replaced with Summoning where various spirits and entities, some of whom may themselves be nephilim who've reached Agartha, can be called forth and commanded. The last form of magic is Alchemy, and is based upon the mystic distillation of power within items. Alechmists are the most modern mystics, using premises created in the dark ages.
Evaluation: The layout of this book is one of the better ones I've seen. It is ordered in a logical, if not instinctive, manner. Each section is clearly separated from the rest and contains the complete rules needed before moving on. Internal references include correct page numbers and seem free of "see page xx." The index is incredibly thorough and seemed free of errors.
The Chaosium mechanics are a tried and true system that has been used for years without fail. As indicated above, Nephilim has avoided the problems that troubled their other products. It is simple and internally consistent. Rules are clearly spelled out with few ambiguous terms. Even magic is a straightforward process.
The concept, it seems, is the one true weakness of this game. While I found it to be a wonderful world, neither incredibly dark nor particularly sunny, it has a glaring problem: characters. Nephilim are very rare beings, numbering less than a million or so. Only a small fraction of those are active at any given time and are scattered fairly widely throughout the planet. In a world of 4.5 billion people, even a hundred thousand active nephilim would have trouble finding eachother. Worse, they are portrayed as essentially solitary creatures. Even if they were not, you could not have a large number of these creatures active at any given time or else the modern world would notice them.
Conclusion: The whole effect of Nephilim is a good one. You have a simple, yet complete, set of mechanics tied to a fairly rich gameworld. There are no inherent benefits to being "good" or "evil" and the concepts are rarely used. Unfortunately this is not a game of socially-needy characters. These are very independent and headstrong individuals following their own plans. They do not congregate often or for long.
Nephilim have a place on par with Mummies in White Wolf's World of Darkness or Shapeshifters in a Shadowrun game. There should only be one around at a time. As such, Nephilim is better suited as a supplement for other games that need a not-quite-superhuman entity to round out the group. A nephilim would do well in many other Chaosium games and could easily be adapted for many other systems.
In the end, I have to give Nephilim an A for effort, a B+ for style and system, and a D+ for utility as a stand-alone system. Because it was such a very well done book, I couldn't bring myself to give it less than an "Average" rating.
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)