The Miracle Scale is a lot like the Richter Scale

As summarized last week, the core mechanic of Nobilis is, in some ways, not that revolutionary. It could be described in terms of any roll-and-add system: GM sets difficulty, player attempts to meet or exceed difficulty with result + modifier. The difference is that the result is generated by spending points, not by rolling a die. In theory, you could do something similar in d20: +8 vs DC 15? Spend 7 points.

In practice, the Nobilis system has some other interesting things going on beyond replacing dice rolls with resource expenditures.

Firstly, the game’s scale is of sufficient low granularity that points remain relevant to base modifier in a way that can’t easily be replicated by dice: attributes are on a 0-5 point scale, so even the smallest commonly available die, the d4, threatens to overwhelm the trait with randomness. In my experience, only FATE is on a similar low-granularity scale and has to use special Fudge dice to account for it. Even in FATE, a discrepancy of 2 levels can often by overcome by a dice roll; in Nobilis, having a trait two higher than your opponent is a significant, possibly even overwhelming advantage. An attribute of 4 isn’t just twice as good as 2, it’s almost on a Richter Scale degree of improvement: the character with a trait of 2 can maybe pull off a half dozen of the miracles a character with a trait of 4 can do every round forever.

Secondly, the 1/2/4/8 minimum for expenditures creates some very interesting effects on the game. Not mentioned in the summary, and germane to the damage discussion next week, is that spending 8 points also requires the character to take a major wound. This breakdown essentially means:

  • Characters with a 0 attribute cannot use level 9 miracles at all, and have to spend massively (and take damage) to do things that characters with a 5 attribute would consider trivial.
  • Characters with a 5 attribute reach a level where they can do level 9 miracle without taking a wound or spending massively, unlike every lower attribute.

Really godlike miracles start happening around level 4 and 5, and truly world-shattering effects are possible at 7+, meaning that a high attribute, coupled with the way the cost minimums work, set definite tiers of magnitude between attribute levels. Higher attribute characters can do things trivially that lower attribute characters have to work for, they can accomplish things with mild effort that require great expenditure from lower attributes, and they have a higher threshold for miracles that are hard but not exhausting.

As an added wrinkle, miracle points are intended to be fairly limited and hard to get back. Most characters start with twenty of them: five for each type of miracle, and a lossy exchange rate between the categories (i.e., a normal, fresh character can probably only bring up to 10 miracle points to bear on a single category before being completely out). By the book, miracle points mostly only come back from being hindered by flaws or some fairly labor intensive rituals (which will often piss off rivals). A miracle point is intended to be a precious resource: you don’t spend them unless you really care about an outcome. Otherwise, you just try to figure out how to get what you want using miracles you can do for free.

Ultimately, a character’s attribute level becomes a bright line that is unusual to cross. In actual play, characters are constantly doing all variety of miracles within the scope of their attributes, and only very rarely going beyond. When a character does start spending miracle points, it’s either a point here and there for important things where the character’s attribute was just shy, or a short series of overwhelmingly flashy miracles attempting to utterly annihilate the challenge.

And the scope of what “annihilating the challenge” means will be covered more next week.

Part 3