Original SA post
So, uh, Nobilis. It's a game that basically never pops up in my usual RPG circles, and frankly the only place I've ever even heard it mentioned
is this thread, so I'm not quite sure what to expect. Judging by the comments levied at me and mentions of the game, I strongly suspect it's one of those games that will make me roll my eyes so hard they almost pop out of my head and make phantom jerk-off motions, but you never know. I'm planning to give the game a reasonably fair review and to aim as little aggressive invective at it mostly just to spite the people snarking at me that I'm reviewing something a bit out of my usual regime.
We open up with the usual. A bit of art, the credits, an index that doesn't make me want to pluck my eyeballs out, so it's already better than Kult: Divinity Lost. In fact, it's got a really nice thing that I don't recall seeing in any other books, which is an index of the book's art, too, in case you want to look up a particular piece. Nothing to complain about there, it at least has a professional presentation. The font is fancy enough to give a bit of flavour, but not so fancy that it's unreadable.
What they, uh, write with that font, though... I'm not excessively sold on the opening fiction.
At the Shore posted:
Under the cliffs, near the rotted logs, at the edge between sand and water, something impossible happens. A man appears, standing, on top of the sea. His face is impossibly pure. His eyes are closed. Nevertheless, he looks at me.
“I wish to make you afraid,” he says. His hand closes. Trenches and pits gape open in the sand. The beach beneath me shakes and settles.
The scent of the sea vanishes. The waves crash against the shore, but their sound dies out.
I want to run. I don’t dare. I want to tell him that I’m just an ordinary person.
I marvel. All these years, the universe has sung out its secrets and its truths to me, and I simply failed to listen. I do not try and claim this music; it transcends what I have become. I only open up my spirit and hear.
Five strains, in harmony and dissonance. From the sky rains down the truth of Heaven. I hear the angels sing of justice, and beauty, and respect. Their song has no answer to a bullet, nor does it desire one. “You must have the strength to find your own answer to this,” it says, “for if you cannot create justice, what worth have you?”
So basically someone goes to the shore and then a mysterious stranger shows up and is mysterious at them and then suddenly the someone gets magic powers, he shoots her in the head, she doesn't die, he acts mysterious at her, she has a multitude of ephipanies, he threatens her and tells her that if she acts up with her new powers he's gonna show up and kill all her friends and family. Then she talks to the water. On the one hand, I feel like it tells us a decent bit about the mood to expect, but the style of writing is just... overwrought and flowery, pouring out a shitload of words to tell us barely anything at all. It's like reading someone's 3-dice Exalted stunt on a Dodge check to not die when someone shoots at them.
Chapter 1: Noun and Noun
In all seriousness the first chapter is called ASH AND CHRYSANTHEMUM which sounds very nice but again tells us jack shit about what the content of the chapter is going to be, thus rather ruining the point of a chapter title. It later turns out that this flowery(ha ha, get it, flowery, because chrysanthemum) term refers to the entire game world area. But since we don't know this yet, it's still stupid.
Chapter 1 posted:
It is said that there are no wonders and no horrors save those that man brings upon himself. It is said that butterflies were born of blind evolution and insensate Nature, that the sky is but a screen of molecules between humanity and the endless void. It is said that the highest form of life is man. People have looked for more, scientists and artists reaching for some hidden magic. They have found none … but it is there.
Hidden in the secret places, a twist of space away from the Earth that hosts them, reside the Imperators Occulte —the true gods, the banished angels, the great Lords of the Dark and of the Light. Beyond the edge of the Earth, the World Ash holds all the worlds there are. Its tender heights support Heaven. Its roots trail into Hell. And in a certain place where no mortal man has been, those branches twine and tie together to support the graves of angels, where the yellow chrysanthemums grow.
So from the intro fiction, or even just my short description of it, I'm sure you could guess that this is one of those games where the world is normal except there are supernaturals doing supernatural things supernaturally under the surface. The short intro description of what Nobilis is comes across as very Exalted in some ways, since the protagonists are, as far as I can parse this(it took me a few tries), chosen by COSMIC HAPPENSTANCE, to be henchmen for the Imperators, and get superpowers to accomplish that with. The density of Proper Nouns isn't quite as bad as, say, the Promethean stuff that's been posted recently, but it's enough to tell you a lot about what tradition of writing this game came from and that the author has almost definitely been having lunch with White Wolf employees. Oh and of course we've got to have a real special name for the GM, the "Hollyhock God," because this is the fucking thing that every RPG feels a need to re-invent the name of, god fucking dammit.
Oh and as per usual for these sorts of games the mythology/cosmology mashes a lot of real stuff together, like there's both Yggdrassil but also heaven and angels, and the first art piece features someone that sure looks Lucifer-y. Anyway, next we go into the "how does this thing actually play"-bit. Firstly, we're told, we're not meant to fight anyone, just to kill all the people they love and things they care about and laugh as they wither away. Secondly, if we die, we just respawn as another character with the same abilities, as our "shard" is passed on. Another mark for this being Exalted-esque(in terms of the shard-reincarnation, that is, not the mechanic). Oh and there are no dice.
Also the poor sidebars are being massively abused just to cram in literary quotes, goddamn. Some pages of this .PDF have four quotes in the sidebars.
Anyway, Imperators are Primordials, Shards are the formerly-human Exalts they create, Excrucians are Abyssals who want to destroy all reality by killing our hopes and dreams, Secret Places(for which we're given another dozen proper nouns to call them by) are the hidden clubhouses where the Imperators hang out, Lord Entropy and King Murder are the guys in charge of maintaining the Earth, the Camorra are the mortals who collect payments from Lord Entropy to do the things that God Law says the Shards and Imperators aren't allowed to do, Anchors are mortals that the supernaturals can use to whitewash their breaking of God Law by tossing their powers through them, the afterlife is primarily reincarnation, Yggdrassil also has paths to a bunch of alien worlds, science is very real and good but so is magic except sometimes mortals accidentally fall in a puddle of magic and go insane, Flowers are the angels' power tools and the Shards can use them as well(they're not actual flowers though because then it wouldn't be a Proper Noun but just a noun).
So far this is feeling like a weird Exalted/Changeling crossover where you must fight ~*banality*~ with legally ironclad(or obfuscated) magic so the bad fairies don't make the world dull and it dies and your boss Lord Entropy isn't able to toss you in God Jail.
Angels in Nobilis are divine handymen, eternally doing DIY in heaven to spruce it up and make it the coolest place ever. Some of them come to Earth to spruce it up or get banished to Earth for insisting that what Heaven really needs is a red-and-black bathroom to attract more females. Devils are kind of edgy morons that exist only because of Lucifer being dumber than the rest of them, and deciding for incredibly dumb and vague reasons that Hell was the realest place and also it should be full of suffering, now he and his devils are only allowed out if they promise to beat up Excrucians. Light Imperators protect humans, Dark Imperators want to destroy humans and the only reason they don't cooperate with the Excrucians is that they want an artisanally crafted, hubris-laden, ironic destruction of humanity rather than just large-scale butchery. So Dark Imperators are essentially hipster
Abyssals. The Wild are extremely vaguely defined but sound very much like proto-Exalted Fair Folk. True Gods are mysterious and unknowable and are thus completely undescribed because the alternative would be to drown us in prose. Aaron's Serpents, which is the funniest fucking name for a variety of immortal gods, are basically big ol' sea monsters that sometimes go walkabout on dry land at which point Lord Entropy and King Murder have to sigh and go butcher all the witnesses, because killing the Serpents themselves so they stop making a fucking mess is apparently impossible.
Excrucians don't just ride in there in sick soulsteel armor and start chopping people up, instead they connect Bad Human Things to the concept of that thing so the concept is destroyed as the Bad Human Thing gets worse. So presumably something like if a popular artist gets outed as a sex pest they can connect to that and use it to destroy the very art he performs/performed as he sinks more into self-destructive madness and the conflict around it gets more and more toxic.
So as much as it sounds like I've been shitting on the text so far, I kind of like the idea. Essentially you have ULTIMATE SUPERPOWERS, but it's more about employing them in creative ways than rolling a bucket of dice and declaring that the Power of Fish has resolved the situation. Rather it's about abusing gray areas in God Law and subtly influencing things with your narrow-yet-extremely-powerful skillset to resolve things and eat a chunk of your opponent's soul. Scrape away some of the prose and proper nouns and there's actually a really cool idea in here.
Next up: How to be a GM for Nobilis, no, I refuse to fucking call it a Hollyhock God. Goddamn.
Ye Propere Noune
Original SA post
Ye Propere Noune
So this next section is on how to be, motherfucker, a "Hollyhock God," which I will repeat is some aggressively twee bullshit in terms of naming, also yet another flower reference.
It is of course written in-character, because that's a great way to write one of the closest things this game has to something technical or rules-related. Or it claims to be written in-character, anyway, supposedly "Ianthe" writes it but it's in the exact same authorial voice as everything that's come before. So colour me fucking confused.
Anyway, as much shit as I'm starting out giving this chapter, the description of the GM's "job" is actually one of the better ones I've come across. Essentially: make sure people have fun, figure out what each player considers to be fun and what sort of treatment of their character they enjoy(i.e. some players will happily see their characters vaporized and roll a new one, others will be heartbroken if they suffer any sort of permanent or even impermanent damage), be ready to tell vast epic tales but also be ready to adjust your plans if your players go off the rails, your success is more in your players' enjoyment than in your getting to tell your big fancy story.
It actually has some solid advice on how to describe and set a scene, lead with the big fancy description as the players arrive(so they know what they're dealing with and what props are there to interact with and bounce off), and then keep descriptions during the action more concise. There's more to it than that, of course, but I think this is the first RPG book I've come across that actually offers advice on this side of GM'ing. Usually the advice is almost purely concerned with the mechanical aspects, balancing loot, balancing encounters, how often to call for rolls, the appropriate lethality, etc. which are, to be sure, vital points. But being able to bring players into the mood of a game is just as vital, if not more. Players who are enchanted with the mood and setting will more easily forgive a rules kerfluffle or disappointment than someone who's only barely tolerating your description of Snacklord Retchup's Orichalcum Hotdog.
It addresses what's frankly very basic shit like how to deal with split parties and apportion screen time appropriately(i.e. evenly) to players which other RPG's seem to completely ignore. This chunk of text, I'll be honest, feels like it badly needs to be copypasted into every "how 2 GM"-section in every other RPG book out there.
Accordingly, you control how the story begins. However, you cannot control where it will go from there.Dictating the pcs’ choices is the canonical sin of the Hollyhock God. It will sentence your soul to the ninth circle of Hell.
It's funny to me because Moran wrote for Exalted which to me is a terrible game for precisely this reason, that it's laden with chances for the GM to interfere and tell players what their characters do. But I agree with this, I agree with this eight thousand percent.
So long story short, this part is well-written enough, and even has a joke or two that I actually smirked at, that it almost makes me forgive the idiot name for the GM that the book insists on using.
So, the setting. We've already hit a few pieces of it, this is simultaneously Real Earth and Occult Earth, also there's Yggdrassil, of which the topmost realm is Heaven and the bottom-most realm is Hell. And if you walk too far from Yggdrassil you enter the LANDS BEYOND CREATION which are probably a bad place to be. Then we're treated to a description of the four supergods that rule Earth.
They're Lord Entropy(whose description is hilariously edgy. "The touch of Lord Entropy is corruption, and so dark have been his deeds that his hands drip forever with blood." Is just the start of it. Ananda, who doesn't do anything but is real pretty. Ha-Qadosch who always votes for more stuff for himself. And Surolam who always votes for stuff to stay the same. Lord Entropy's the guy to blame for the GOD LAWS which are as follows: Don't fall in love, don't kill innocents, don't take orders from dogs(okay, it's "treat no beast as your lord", but that's basically the same. it's supposed to be an edgy way of going "don't do what humans tell you to do"), don't hide anyone from the god cops, do as your boss tells you, and don't sell out reality to the store-brand Abyssals.
It's actually kind of a shame that Nobilis is about playing the GRAND HIGH CONCEPT GODLORDS because buried in like, one incidental paragraph of text is a pretty cool game concept, Ananda's "Ombudsmen," basically a bunch of divine civil servants whose job it is to ensure that human society moves forwards and not backwards, wallpapering over cracks between the mundane and mythical, dunking on those who sabotage scientific progress(like anti-vaxxers and those who claim to have made advances they have not) and hunting down supernatural beasts that prey on those beneficial to the world. There's basically a role for every safeguarding any given part of society, and it seems a lot more approachable and playable than so many other things in this setting, with far more clearly-built goals and tasks.
An awful fuckload of words are spent on going: "the world is both as myth would have it and as science would have it at the same time, but no matter what happens in the myth world, it's always happening by-the-scientific-rules in the mundane world, unless a PC-tier or higher god does it, because then it happens in both worlds at once, is patently impossible and probably drives most of humanity immediately insane from having witnessed something supernatural. Also the dinosaurs were destroyed because one of them pooped near an angel which made him so angry he destroyed them all. I have no idea why the setting needs this little anecdote.
THE MYTHICKE WORLDE is basically like the world of Exalted where every object and force in the world, whether animate or not, has a spirit and some degree of sentience and personality as a result. Better hope your burger is into vore or that's gonna be one real fucking awkward dinner.
Also in Nobilis, all cops are evil, this is written two lines before insisting that most cops truly do just want to "serve and protect." Also in Nobilis people, are more religious and by default this leads to more wars. That's one fuck of a spicy take.
Now, part of the problem with this setting is that Nobilis is, at least as it has been pitched so far, all about protecting Earth from the evil Excrucians that want to melt it all down for their ????? reasons. Except the writing also basically does its very best to make Earth sound like a shithole not worth saving. All cops are bastards, all religions are bad and promote wars, all human governments are corrupt because Lord Entropy sold them evil magical powers(and thus they're part of the Camorra) or the Excrucians control them. It's like, grats, you take down the Excrucians, that just frees up Lord Entropy to make the world shit on a regular basis. The game seems to be missing the elephant in the room which is that most players I can think of would go: "hm, this Lord Entropy fucko seems like an intense jackass, the world isn't really worth saving while he's around" and would definitely do their best to try and dunk on him and his plans, somehow, and the writing so far barely even seems like it acknowledges this as a reasonable or expected goal.
So there are also some non-Earth worlds to explore. Abaton
: a hollow Earth whose gods experiment with weaponized words. The Acmonion Wood
: where angels and devils handle their booty calls, excrucians try to burn it down to turn them all into incels and thus destroy their morale. Aelfscienne
: it has elves. Dionyl
: an early alpha for Earth full of sentient clothes. Jotunheim
: a world of backwards farming giants that forge magic items, also the excrucians have almost destroyed them. Serpenthane
: it's a big branch full of pretty things to keep Aaron's Serpents from trying to climb up to Heaven which isn't well-engineered enough to support their weight. There's some sort of joke in there, it feels like. Hell
: is an unimaginatively bad place(lakes of bad, demons whip humans a lot and laugh, etc.), ruled by a truly incoherent philosophy that I can't tell whether is incoherent on purpose or the author trying desperately to make Lucifer sound cool. Heaven
: is a Minecraft server for angels, forever chipping away at their voxel wonderland trying to get it just right and occasionally griefing each other when they disagree about it. they're much too busy to house any dead people, though, and just tell pure souls to go away, plz. also you can't get in unless you're like an 11 on the 1 to 10 scale of being pretty. The Wyld
: Whoops sorry I mean "The Lands Beyond Creation," you find a way through the WEIRDING WALL of BLUE FLAME around all Creation and then you're in wacky chaosville where things are disordered for ???? reasons.
Exciting setting, isn't it? Honestly I feel like some parts of it are interesting but a lot of it rather just makes me feel "why bother?" and I don't feel it really conveys any of the sense of magical wonder that I feel it wants
to convey, considering how often it harps on about the cool things the Powers can and do, do. The parts that try to be weird feel like cheap knockoffs or wackyrandom, and the parts that are interestingly
weird, like Aaron's Serpents and the Divine Ombudsmen don't really feel like they've had a decent amount of detail given to them so far.
Next up: The book deigns to tell us what we're actually supposed to do in this setting.
How Play Game
Original SA post
How Play Game
You can think of Nobilis as a paperless writer’s workshop. You and the other players work together to tell a fun, engaging, and even meaningful story within constraints provided by the rules and setting.
If one of the other players messes up the grand story you’re trying to tell, just enjoy their contribution to the game’s play. It’s a game, an exercise, not a contracted novel.
As much as I like a lot of the actual play and GM'ing advice in Nobilis, the second line here bugged me a bit. Everyone should get screentime when you're running or playing a game, and especially in a game with few-to-no mechanical constraints, people running roughshod over each others' ideas isn't necessarily a "contribution." It can just as easily dishearten someone, considering how hard it is to encourage some people to step up to bat, it feels like this should have been paired with advice about asking or engaging others before you add a potentially disruptive element or story direction. Everyone's got a different storytelling style, and someone who's a less confident storyteller could easily be scared back into the shadows rather than just "rolling with the punches".
The rules are also established as "can't conjure story elements out of thin air, have to be consistent from one scene to the next, can't magically make anyone fall in love with someone else." And the last one feels kind of out of place and like a result of some playtester decided to get Romance Weird or something. "Look, Jeff, it's in the book. You can't just write that she wants to marry you now."
As someone who's usually the GM, though, I appreciate that it's enshrined in the rules that people must fete me with drinks, snacks and free dinners. Does need a line saying that pizza with pineapple on it doesn't count, though, before some fucker poisons me with that shit.
We get exactly two columns of "how to play" before it, in the "how to play"-chapter, segues into setting details that should perhaps have been in the previous chapter, that being the actual setting chapter, then it gets back on track with telling us what a character is made out of besides a name and a description. We have our Aspect(basically how good we are at human stuff, like running, shooting, punching, thinking and smiling, ranging from "just human" to "superman"), Domain(how good we are with our specific superpower), Realm(how good we are at using our magical spirit clubhouse or protecting it) and Spirit(a catch-all for whatever other magical things we want to do).
The book then makes the brave and wonderful decision of putting the rest of chargen 40 pages down the road after giving us this and some general rules for conflict resolution(whoever has the highest stat wins, always) and a general idea of how difficult it is to blow supernaturals up with magic powers. The difficulty descriptions of how to do things with magic powers, i.e. how high a stat you need or how many miracle points you need to spend to do it, are also exceptionally vague, defining difficulty levels with stuff like "make big things."
Like, I think I'd almost prefer no rules at all than rules this vague.
Wait, So What's The Point Again?
Also known as "what do Nobilis actually, like, do?"
Firstly, you might be tasked with maintaining your Imperator's Chancel, his magic pocket dimension or whatever. Mostly you beat the locals around the head until they obey and generally try to run the place like an actual government but with wizards. Now you can nerve staple the drones with magic wands rather than machines. You can attend to the overall mood as a distant dictatorial council handing down decrees or you can run around at street level snooping into everyone's business and kicking over their trash cans and doing all the work yourself. Supposedly the main challenge here is deciding when the needs of the many override the freedoms of the individual.
In all seriousness I could see the appeal of this, but I feel like the book kind of sabotages itself by giving you such a wide swathe of different things to do. Like, the Chancels are so incredibly varied because the Imperators are, so it feels like it's just missing some sort of guiding thread to give it some flavour. Most books, when you read them, they make stuff pop into your head about what you want to do and where you'd take it, but this part just leaves my brain a blank gray slate for the most part.
Alternately can focus on personal projects, which are basically hobbies but with divine hubris. Rather than breeding a nice rose you breed a nice rose that's also sapient and can do your taxes. You were also a mortal once, so you can go back and turn all your bullies or the guy who trolled you on twitter into pillars of salt. It kind of runs the gamut from "extremely petty shit that most mortals would do if they were suddenly demigods" through "become a shadow dictator" or "find a loophole to get into Heaven" and "actually use your powers for good and stop reality from melting."
There's also a suggestion that you could attempt ethnic genocide and WHY THE FUCK IS THIS EVEN A SUGGESTION IN THE BOOK
Arranging or preventing the genocide of some ethnic subgroup without violating the Code Fidelitatis.
Yes, I'm aware it also says you could be trying to prevent it instead. But what the fuck, Nobilis
I also want to point out that the book keeps hammering on the "romantic" options. Like how the Chancel management can lead to romances. How your personal goals can be to romance someone or fuck literally everyone in existence. More like Nobilis, the Game of Sovereign Boners, amirite? Though honestly I feel like I'd rather deal with that than some player attempting to genocide the Kurdish people.
So aside from impregnating half the human species and murdering the other half, you can go socialize with other Nobilis and ask them how turning Billy Jenkins into a pillar of salt full of spiders is going and how many minorities they've gunned down in back alleys today. Okay, I'll stop it. I just fucking can't get over the genocide thing. How am I supposed to skip from that to a paragraph about how you can arrange a cool fairie rave or whatever? You can also meet up to arrange a lynching or to have military maneuvers at the bottom of the sea or a cave where mortals can't see but where you can prepare to fight some bads with your armies of stuff.
You've also got your Anchors to attend to, they've been mostly mentioned in passing so far but as far as I can tell are mortals that you can use as relays for your divine powers so you don't actually have to be around to torture the guy who called you a "fuckbird whoremonger" on Twitter, you can just use his boss as an anchor and fill his desk with ants through that every day. But this means you A) need to keep your anchors cooperative and B) keep them alive since a bunch of unfortunate things tend to happen to them often, and enemy supernaturals might well try to fuck with them to fuck with you by proxy. This is, so far, probably the part that sounds like it has the most potential for fun and also the most... evocative suggested scenarios. It feels like it has a sense of whimsy about it that works well with Nobilis and... it generally feels like the game works better with the smaller scales, despite what it seems to want to do. Like... the whole war for all of reality is so abstract and is apparently occurring in five different ways and also there are internal wars among the Nobilis and etc. that it feels like a muddle. Like it doesn't feel like the game needs LIGHT NOBILIS vs DARK NOBILIS. Just make us oppose the Excrucians and those Nobilis who are selfish dicks, boom. Clear concept, no splat bloat.
Then there's Serving Your Estate, which is basically the idea that if, say, you're the Power of Rivers, you need to protect and further your core concept. This is a decent idea, and thankfully free of roleplayed sex or genocide. You spread your Estate and make it pervade more things(for instance, the Power of Rivers might try to encourage more hydro-electric power usage so she could use her control over rivers to, one step removed, affect mortal infrastructure). It's actually a pretty nice idea but kind of clashes with the bit where nothing seems to really compel the Nobilis to give a fuck about mortals unless their existence is directly tied to them(like, say, if you're the Power of Video Game Consoles, probably cave olms won't give much of a fuck about the Playstation 4, so you need to keep humanity alive and thriving or you're out of power and influence).
Next there's Serving Your Code, which is kind of what I mean with too many criss-crossing lines. Just being a Power and having a theme/realm that you needed to defend and empower, a Chancel to manage, Anchors to protect, old mortal grudges to settle, a reality to defend, etc. is already enough but then you also
have responsibilities towards: Heaven, Hell, Light, Dark or Wild. It doesn't help that Hell and Dark are basically the same, except Dark prefers self-destruction to lakes of sulphur, and Light and Heaven are also identical outside of Light being more concerned with structural inequalities and Heaven is more concerned with personal failings. Wild, meanwhile, just breaks down walls and kicks in doors while getting drunk.
Lastly there's something that feels like it should have fit under the Chancel Management which is the category of "taking orders from your Imperator and doing what he damn well tells you to do." Mostly bullying other chancels, protecting your own, or burning down thousands of human homes. Because we just needed yet more war crimes in there for the PC's to commit because why the fuck not.
Next: A fucking 20-page "example of play," what the hell, that's a small campaign.
20 Pages of Wasting My Time
Original SA post
It really took me a while to get back to this. Sorry, but I haven't given up yet.
20 Pages of Wasting My Time
So the 20-page example-of-play.
It has issues.
Now, generally an example-of-play should A) give players and GM an idea of the atmosphere they should expect and B) hopefully help clarify some things like order of resolution, give some suggestions for descriptions, etc. etc. You know, be an example of how the game runs that clears up some commonly-asked questions and stumbling-blocks, like a FAQ for running the game.
This example-of-play has two issues. Firstly, there's the fact that it feels extremely like something that's written by just one person who writes like an Exalted author, very rarely does the dialogue from the players or their OOC chatter feel much like anything you'd actually expect from human beings. It also contains the usual serving of extremely unhelpful prose like "a clawed finger that can cut through anything, including light and beauty." Well play, that sounds very dramatic, but what does "cutting through beauty" actually mean
? Congratulations, you've wasted everyone's time with something poorly-defined. Which seques nicely into the second issue, about poor definitions, which is that basically every time the GM rules on something it feels like an extremely hasty off-the-cuff adjudication, only rarely like something founded in listed mechanics(and even when it is, it's not really explained. occasionally a page is referenced, but if anything that's vaguer than anything in the example-of-play). At one point the GM says "glick" in response to something that's probably supposed to be funny and my brain just got stuck on it because who the fuck uses "glick" as an expression of mirth?
In short, it's not exactly a good use of anyone's time to read this.
It also doesn't help that for every page of example-of-play there's a half page of dense purple prose fluff.
Don't Traumatize Your Players Non-Consensually
Joking aside this part starts pretty okay, by basically going: "don't creep someone out or poke at their trauma, not even if it would be 'in-character', jackass." A general plea towards making playing the game as enjoyable as everyone, and pointing out that your GRAND ARTISTIC VISION is less important than everyone having a good time.
It doesn’t matter if the discomfort is reasonable. If a player is severely arachnophobic, you may have to abandon your grand giant spider-based plotline. It doesn’t matter if you find the idea uncontroversial; it makes the player nervous. That’s all that matters.
It's slightly sabotaged by suggestion that a variation on this for a "mature group" where everyone would just have to "grin and bear it." Which, uh, I don't like. These limits are specifically meant to be for stuff that someone can't "grin and bear" because it's something that touches them in a place they're fundamentally uncomfortable with, where it isn't just a mild inconvenience or a thrilling play with boundaries, but something that absolutely weirds them out or recalls trauma.
On to the next page where I actually really, really agree with the Nobilis author on something, which is that you never take away player autonomy or control over their character. You can describe that they have an urge to do something, or describe something in very favourable terms that make the player want to do it, but if the player says that's not what their character does, then that's not what their character does. The book also suggests that you shouldn't have rape in your games, and if you really think it's a good idea, for God's sake vet it with your players first, you jackass. Same goes for excessive gore, violence or torture, or sacrilege. No comment on whether "ethnic cleansing is your hobby" should be vetted with players first or if people should be free to start loading Albanians into furnaces on day one, page one of the game.
No, I'm still not over that fucking part of the book, and I don't think I ever will be.
Oh Shit, It's A Rule
Or, Chapter 9, where we actually get some rules and numbers defined in anything but the most vague ways, though honestly still in some pretty vague ways a lot of the time. This is where we actually get started on the building blocks of making a character: Aspect, Domain, Realm and Spirit being the main mechanical traits, their ratings affecting both what you can do with them, and how many points you have to burn to do extra cool stuff with them, if I'm reading these rules right. I confess that I may miss some parts because the rules really love to repeat themselves and cram in large amounts of barely-related fluff and examples in between every two paragraphs of text.
Firstly, there's the Aspect, your physical capabilities(both intellectual and raw power), which honestly feels like an early write-up of Solars in that it covers "how to be human except better at all things humans do."
"If a human can do something, Aspect can do it … a thousand times better."
"If a mythical character can do something without magic, Aspect can do it."
The first two rules on Aspect are very good rules of thumb, really, and come with decent examples. Then there's the third one...
"If it makes good myth, and fits Aspect’s style, then Aspect can do it."
Which isn't really a guide in any way except "if it's cool let the player do it," kind of undermining the two previous points setting up limitations. There's also a huge list of extremely specific limitations on things that Aspect can't do:
0 Aspect cannot silence a gun.
It's funny that the first thing is literally one of the ones I could totally see justified by rule three as "rule of cool" where the superstrong, supertough guy wraps his hand around the end of the gun barrel, muffling the noise of the shot with his own meaty muscles.
0 Aspect cannot douse an area in darkness.
0 Aspect cannot make a painting one can walk through.
0 Aspect cannot grow a tree from an acorn.
0 Aspect cannot provide ‘magical’ healing to others.
0 Aspect cannot put a new sun in the sky if some idiot shoots it down.
Some of them feel like they're just there to shut down one specific player who tried something.
0 Aspect cannot provide social influence among Powers.
0 Aspect cannot change history.
Others, again, sound very much like the fundamental guidelines for what a Solar charm should and should not let someone do.
0 Aspect cannot provide planning intelligence above the player’s.
And this, I gotta say, rankles me a bit. Like what's the harm in the HYPER INTELLECT GUY getting a small hint from the GM if he overlooks something obvious that his character logically wouldn't? As long as it doesn't turn into the GM handing him a fully-fledged plan out of the blue, this one just feels a bit mean-spirited.
0 Aspect cannot make someone’s head explode by looking at them.
0 Aspect cannot create things from nowhere.
0 Aspect cannot make someone like Chinese food who doesn’t.
0 Aspect cannot read “impressions” from objects.
0 Aspect cannot prevent busy signals (or voice mailboxes)
Ah yes, the great heroic spirit stymied by a busy phone line. Some of these specific "no, you cannot do this"-examples continue to baffle me.
For some reason Aspect, the great "MORE HUMAN THAN HUMAN"-stat, also defines your ability to shapeshift into something appropriate to the local environment(like a giant in Jotunheim, a giant squid deep under the sea, etc.), which feels odd. Unless "cosplaying very convincingly" is a fundamental human ability.
Anyway, next up is Domain, which is your magical magic tied to your estate. Essentially you get one or two key words and with regards to them you can: Divine, Preserve, Destroy, Change(Destroying and Changing are somewhat interchangeable since you can "Destroy" specific parts of a thing rather than the whole thing, like you can Destroy the part of the Tree estate that allows Trees to be flammable) or Create, with Divining and Preserving as the easiest, while Creating, Changing and Destroying are hardest. This leads to a situation where until you're above rank 2 in Domain, you get to perform amazing feats like "reading a closed book," knowing when it's going to rain or protecting a single tree. Not exactly vast, evocative powers of legend. At this point, with Aspect, you're already able to, say, out-calculate computers and punch rocks apart with your bare hands. Obviously at high levels, your Domain lets you do stuff that no level of superhuman power lets you do, really breaking the conventional rules of reality, but in simple terms of "able to do stuff that contributes to the story," Aspect pays off much more quickly.
Realm is specifically being able to control your boss' little pocket dimension. This means you can be real powerful as long as you can hide in there and lure enemies in there, but once you actually leave, Realm is a completely useless stat that serves no purpose. Earlier parts make a big deal of how adventures could be set entirely inside the pocket dimensions, but if that happens then you run into the issue that Realm trumps anything else
Spirit is a weird combination stat of Magic Resistance, Magic Stealth and how many closely bound mortal servants you're allowed to collect. Since there's no random factor involved in using your magic powers, you basically "bid" a number of miracle points equal to how much Spirit you want to kick through in case anyone supernaturally protected is in the AoE of your miracle, and hope you sacrificed enough to kick through their spirit shield(yes, it has a proper noun name, no, I'm not going to write it out). This, of course, gets a bit odd with regards to the player characters since the GM will always
know what their magic resistance is, and I'm not sure whether the GM is just supposed to occasionally low-bid to keep up a pretense of NPC's not being omniscient or what. The writing seems to imply that PC's should not specifically know what they're
bidding against. Your magic resistance also helps you resist various snooping ritual magic trying to figure out if you're
the one who replaced an entire forest of redwoods with stop signs and similar shenanigans.
Chapter 10 is where the remainder of chargen hides, which is where, rather than vague guidelines on what coolstuff you can do, you actually have defined powers. So rather than having Aspect 9 and waving aside swords because that's what you do with Aspect 9 among many other things, for instance, you have a power specifically called Durant that specifies that it's for ignoring swords and chainsaws and healing real good, even if your Aspect isn't specifically high enough to make you functionally immortal. Some of these are more evocative and interesting than the extremely vague things that the Domain words provide, but also feel tied to more conventional fantasy since they explicitly call out stuff like "this is what a Vampire" would have or "this is fire breathing for a dragon specifically," etc. A few are pretty creative, like the ability to always be just in time, which is kind of a neat narrative power, where reality will make sure you're never too late to accomplish something(even though you might fail after you arrive), so you can theoretically take on endless sidequests and fate will just keep delaying the main villain's plot to destroy the world(it's not an infallible power, some things can prevent it, but it's still a funny one).
Some of this also feels like it was designed entirely separate from the Domains part, or by someone else since, for instance, there's a specific Gift that gives you Domain-esque powers, just at a middling level. It's effectively useless if you ever plan to invest even slightly into your Domain, but if you don't, partially replaces what you'd want to be using your Domain score for. Also, these various "Gifts" are each related to a character trait(Spirit, Aspect, Domain, Realm, etc.) and there's all of one
for Realm, kind of hammering home how vestigial this stat is.
Here we're also introduced to the RITES which can be summarized as "rite of mild magic detective work," "rite of magical torture" and "five different rites for Nobilis versions of Diablerie."
You also get to pick some limitations during chargen, half of them are stuff that give you a permanent chargen point boost, while the others are stuff that recharge your miracle points whenever they inconvenience you. An example is "cannot cross running water," if being unable to cross a river actually makes you late for something or otherwise makes you miss an opportunity, it gives you a free recharge on miracle points. I like this approach to limitations, carrot rather than stick, it's quality. You can also choose to have an alignment. Angels(pretty is good, justice is pretty, mortals should serve you), Hell(corruption is good, suffering is corruption, power is good also), Light(protect humans), Dark(convince humans to kill themselves) or Wild(I'M CHAOTIC NEUTRAL! RAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!) and like the various limitations, "high service"(undefined or vaguely defined, of course) to your alignment gives you a free miracle point.
Next: Secret Clubhouse Design
Original SA post
It turns out that about the entire second half of the book is really just an appendix. Where it isn't, it's just writing things we've already been told with twice the word count and purple prose. Like, I think everyone already got the idea of what Light, Dark, Heaven, Hell and Wild are, but here the book is, wasting another chapter telling us about it.
There are some additional sections on how to stat up a Chancel or your Imperator, but I have to say, for a "rules light" game, I feel like I get more lost in Nobilis' rules than I do more conventional, rules "heavy" games. Maybe it's the excess of Proper Nouns, maybe it's the absolutely horrible editing/formatting of the pages, maybe it's the lack of a core mechanic which is instead replaced by a GM fiat where you're encouraged to hurt your players and waste their resources when they guess wrong on a solution, rather than having it fail-forward, fail-interesting or in general be anything other than a "no, you moron, you should have known better, sheesh."(and yes, that is pretty much how the writing presents it in given examples).
So I'm going to throw in a few closing comments and then consider this review Completed
, not Abandoned
, because there isn't really anything else of any substance in the .PDF to talk about as far as I can tell from skimming it, it mostly just got close to putting me to sleep.
So Nobilis, What Do I Think?
I feel like I've generally done my best to be generous towards the game, praising the things I felt were actually well-thought-out or in any real sense evocative and making me want to tell a story or play a character.
Unfortunately the game just didn't give me much to work with, the problem is that it feels like an Exalted Fair Folk/oMage crossover fanfic run through a purple prose generator and played as a freeform RPG on a circa 00's internet forum. The lack
of limitations is what makes the game completely uninteresting. You start out at a divine power level and then throw huge miracles at other gods and they always succeed and then you write how cool it is that you won. It's supposed to be a modern occult sort of setting, but the power level and breadth of the world just makes Earth and the mundane reality seem uninteresting, rather than a backdrop where stuff happens.
Now, personally, I can see the seed of a good game in there. It just requires deleting a hell of a lot of pointless cruft. Scrap the world ash, scrap half the factions(dark and hell are the same, light and heaven are the same, Wild is just Chaotic Neutral. The simple choice between "humanity needs to be protected, at any cost" vs "humanity needs to be free to fuck up, at any cost" would be enough of a philosophical divide to drive internal conflicts), completely dismantle the whole mythic reality thing. Make mundane reality the only thing there is, and Earth the only world we deal with, so it actually feels like it matters. Just make it a straight game about power on Earth, and Earth's survival. Now there are stakes I actually give a shit about. Also maybe stop trying so damn hard to make the Powers and Imperators VAST AND INHUMAN because the next line is always "except they're really not their boss just says they have to be." Stories are more interesting, personal and driven if the player characters actually care about Joe Average on the street or fall for the girl who delivers the paper, than if they're EMOTIONLESS MEGAGODS who only fight for reality's survival because it's in their job description.
The attempts at making things epic and magical just unmoor it from anything that has any sort of emotional connection or in any way at all makes me think "this is cool, this is worth fighting for." I have a way easier time giving a shit about trying to avoid the EXCRUCIAN DARKSHARD OF BAD killing those nice guys down at the corner store than the fact that he might chip away 0.1% of the colour in a butterfly's wings, thus making the world a less magical place.
Heck, having a small selection of narrow, narrative powers like "can talk to plants," "can turn liquids into solids on touch" or "can curse someone to never tell the truth." and needing to use those to stymie someone whose power is "can stab you real fucking dead" would be something I'd actually be totally hype for playing. It'd be a real fun creative exercise forcing you to do some lateral thinking. And theoretically you could probably run that with Nobilis, but it feels like the game actively scoffs at trying to run anything with anything approaching vaguely parseable stakes or limiting powers.
So in short: It's a game that's sabotaged by its own power level and attempt to be WEIRD and EPIC. Keep it more down to Earth as a misfit superhero game and there's actually something playable in there.