The thousandth cut is just as negligible as the first…
Nobilis’ combat is designed to model an epic action movie where a character can be covered with superficial wounds and bruises and be no more impeded or closer to dying than at the beginning of the day. However, once the character takes a significant wound, the story shifts to the injury and vulnerability, and new lesser injuries are a threat because the character is no longer at the top of his or her game. Essentially, characters get three different tiers of health levels, at least one of each, and cannot take damage to the easier-to-damage health levels unless the harder-to-damage levels are filled.
Dealing damage is a chart lookup. The amount by which the attack miracle exceeds the defense miracle is compared to the chart to see the maximum wound that can be inflicted by the attack. Characters can buy bonus powers, called Gifts, that make them harder to damage: in particular, the Durant gift is extremely cheap and a common place for players to spend leftover character points, and it shifts the amount needed to deal a major wound to a pretty drastic difference in attack vs. defense. The more expensive gifts make it even harder to deal damage.
Meanwhile, characters have an attribute called Spirit that makes them more difficult to hit at all with miracles (as well as providing a long-term ritual that, at even low levels of the attribute, makes non-miraculous damage negligible). In order to hit the character, the attacker must increase his or her miracle’s level by the character’s Spirit score. For example, against a character with Spirit 3, a 6 point attack becomes a 3 point attack: 3 of the levels of the miracle were allocated to penetrating the defenses. Specifically, this isn’t a reduction of damage, it’s a complete invalidation of the attack. If a character deals a 9 point miracle against a target with Spirit 1, and forgets to allocate for Penetration*, the target will ignore the miracle. There’s no straightforward indication that opponents are aware of a character’s Spirit score without trial-and-error; a savvy opponent will try free attacks with increasing amounts of Penetration until one of them succeeds, then try a big attack.
Ultimately, what this means in play is, in a fight:
- Characters make no-cost attacks on the target using their highest attribute, testing defenses until they ascertain the target’s Spirit.
- Characters see if no-cost attacks are sufficient to damage the target; they probably aren’t unless the target is already wounded.
- Characters unload huge value attacks to hopefully smash through the target’s major wounds (because there aren’t enough miracle points to test the target’s major wound threshold gradually, might as well spend heavy and all but guarantee a hit rather than slowly burning them to figure out the precise number). This is more complicated with some attributes than others (Aspect miracle levels are just an increase in power—level 5 is just a nastier version of level 4—but Domain miracles have prescribed effects at each level: it’s hard to figure out how to hurt someone with a Major Divination, even if that’s the exact level of power needed to hurt him).
- The target probably runs the hell away as soon as his or her major wounds are gone.
- The attacker has a min-maxed attack gift that always has maximum Penetration and huge damage, sufficient to down most targets (at one point, I costed out a maximum-Penetration attack with sufficient cost reduction to only cost as many character points as the damage intended to be dealt).
Ultimately, direct combat against a remotely comparably powered opponent is confusing, long, expensive, and unsatisfying. And, in a setting where characters are meant to snipe at one another and engage in long-term, subtle battles for power, this is not necessarily a bad thing: any character with a moment of thought put into defense is someone that you don’t want to engage in a giant anime battle if you can at all get what you want another way.
But when you’re playing a game with demigods as PCs, sometimes you’re in it for the knock-down, earthquake causing, building-destroying giant anime battles. Nobilis can do those, but it’s probably not what the system does best.
So the damage system is, though entirely arguably in line with the desired play experience, ultimately flawed.
* Yes, it’s just as snicker-worthy in play as it reads.