Shooting down the sun is no problem, but you’ll piss a lot of people off…
Nobilis is the kind of game that people think is more for looking at than for playing. I’ve had people see me in my Nobilis t-shirt at cons and make a point that they thought the game was unplayable. I wasn’t originally concerned so much about playability as much as how one might actually GM* the thing, until I was able to play in a con game run by someone else. I then ran a very successful game for over a year. The next time I tried to run it, I couldn’t actually come up with a plot that made sense for the characters made. Nobilis is like that: if you can wrap your head around a game session starring a group of dysfunctional modern demigods existing in a world of metaphysical philosophy made concrete, you can, in fact, play the game. If you don’t really have an idea for a session where the multiverse is your dungeon crawl, it’s a lot harder.
Part of what makes Nobilis both amazing and confusing is its game systems. This is not demigods writ with dice pools much larger than mortals and fantastic powers that do up to a dozen well-defined amazing things. Instead, the system is designed from the ground up such that mortal concerns aren’t even on the scale, and the limits of a player’s actions are based entirely around character concept and semantic creativity.
Plus, it totally was the first system I ever saw that paid you when your flaws actually hurt you in play rather than just giving you extra points at character gen. And all the cool kids are doing that these days.
Nobilis uses two fairly unique core mechanics: task resolution and damage. Of the two, task resolution is more complicated, but damage has some very interesting effects on the system. I’ll discuss them in detail over the next couple of weeks, but in a nutshell:
- Anything you might want to do is rated on a 0-9 point scale within one of four attributes. Whenever you want to do something, simply compare it to the other examples of actions and see approximately what number it fits at. The levels generally vary between “do something fairly impressive for a mortal” and “shoot down the sun” across 10 numbers, so there’s often a pretty clear distinction between whether what you’re trying to do is a 4 or a 5.
- Compare your attribute to that feat. If your attribute meets or exceeds the rating, you can do it for free. You could do that feat literally ever round for effectively forever with no problem. If the difficulty is 4 and you have a 4 attribute, game on. Player characters can have attributes up to 5, so that means there’s generally one type of thing that a character can do on pretty epic levels pretty much all the time.
- If your attribute isn’t high enough, you have to pay the difference from a limited resource pool associated with the attribute. If what you’re attempting is Aspect 5, and your Aspect is only 3, you have to pay 2 Aspect Miracle Points. If you pay the difference you can, again, perform the action without incident; but, since those points are limited, you can only exceed your limits so many times before looking to recover points.
- The difference between your attribute and your difficulty rounds up to the nearest of 1, 2, 4, or 8. If you want to do something that would cost you 3 miracle points, you have to pay 4. If you wanted to do something that should cost 6, it actually costs 8. Once actions get more than slightly out of your comfort zone, they can become very expensive.
- Characters have three categories of health level, from mortal injuries to flesh wounds.
- Characters cannot take flesh wounds if they have not taken major injuries: a totally healthy character must be seriously injured before being threatened by lesser sources of damage.
- There are many character options to make it very hard to deal a mortal wound to a character.
And I’ll discuss the ramifications of these systems in the coming weeks.
* or HG (Hollyhock God) in system terminology; the game in some ways justifies its accusations of pretension and obtuseness.