I’ve Got Them in My Garden Now

So way back in my second review series, I covered Nobilis 2nd Edition. The 3rd Edition came out early last year, and I finally got a copy and got to do a brief playtest. This review will build pretty heavily off of the previous edition, so catching up on that review might be worthwhile if you find yourself lacking total context.

Nobilis 2nd Edition seemed to have a very strong late-80s-modern-fantasy feel. It was a lot Sandman and a little Prophecy and Hellraiser. Or at least that was how my group interpreted it. Nobles couldn’t really affect one another directly, using any obvious miracles was a great way to drive all mortal onlookers insane (the Dementia Animus), and driving mortals insane was one of several very serious prohibitions (another of which was that all love was forbidden). The Excrucians, the major villains of the setting, were overwhelmingly powerful in physical conflict, but they’d mostly attack you with a philosophical trap where you had to discover and unravel a paradox or other corruption within your Estate via an exemplifying situation. Most of the art was stately and classical, depictions of modern gods. It all led to a more introspective style of play (and, anecdotally, a hard time for a lot of people that tried to run it).

The new edition, even before the system, makes some very serious stylistic changes to the way the setting is framed. Nobles can now target one another directly. Dementia Animus is still a thing, but seems like it’s only meant for the most outrageous breaks in reality. Lord Entropy is framed more as a bully whose laws are nearly impossible to follow; it’s all about remembering to cover your tracks, not actually trying to follow the rules. The Flower Rite that the Excrucians used to unweave Estates is no longer explained in the core book; they seem like they’re just as likely to be foils as major antagonists. The art is manga-style and full of aggressive, active, smiling characters. It feels a lot more like modern fantasy anime (and the followup game in the same setting is a Miyazaki-inspired pastoral fantasy Kickstarting right now).

This is no longer primarily a setting of lonely gods trying to unravel metaphysical machinations while avoiding the lure of love. It’s now also a place where sometimes you might totally ninja kick a guy into the sun. And if nothing else, that might make it an easier sell to a people who couldn’t really figure out what to do with 2nd edition.

But does the system fulfill these goals?

Core Mechanics

The root mechanic hasn’t changed much since 2nd edition:

  • It’s still diceless.
  • You still have pools of Miracle Points locked to four attributes with a lossy conversion between them.
  • You still spend MPs (in stacks of 1, 2, 4, or 8) to add to your attribute level to achieve a difficulty level.
  • You can still do anything with a difficulty equal or lower than your attribute for free.

The major change to the system is an addition of concepts that make conflict more deliberately fiddly. In 2nd edition, conflict was basically just a game of cosmic chicken: will you bid enough MPs to have the higher total this exchange, and if you spend them will that wipe you out for minimal gains in the long run? In 3rd, there are more levers on a conflict so you have more options than to outspend your opponent. The three major additional levers are Edge, Auctoritas, and Strike.

Edge is the simplest and weakest of the three. You can get it from a variety of things as a one-off, and if you have a high Domain you can spend MPs to get several points of it that last a whole scene. When you’re in contention with someone, you can subtract your Edge from their Miracle total before comparing totals. For example, if you have 3 Edge on a level 5 Miracle, you can beat someone with a level 7 Miracle but no Edge. Edge is, thus, really useful, but it’s also fairly weak because penalties don’t stack; if you’re reducing someone’s Miracle level for other reasons, your Edge might replace the penalty, but won’t add to it.

Auctoritas used to be a persistent benefit from the Spirit attribute (which no longer exists). It still works mostly the same way: if a target you’re opposing with a Miracle has Auctoritas, you fail to affect it unless you can totally overcome its Auctoritas total. Against a guy with as low as 1 Auctoritas, even a level 9 miracle will just roll off if you didn’t work in a way to get past it. The new edition’s take on it is more interesting than the persistent, unvarying level you used to get. Now, while you can spend on Persona (one of the new attributes) for Auctoritas (similarly to getting Edge from Domain), you primarily get it from Afflictions. Afflictions (which are not always bad, despite the name) are basically truths about your character than the GM enforces, and if anyone tries to contradict them miraculously, they have to overcome the Affliction’s level. This means that you can’t just zero in on someone’s defense level, because it varies, which makes fights more interesting. However, since Strike is also pretty easy to come by, Auctoritas serves mostly to make fighters change tactics rather than being a universally strong defense.

Strike is how you get through Auctoritas. It used to be called Penetration in 2nd edition. It still works pretty much the same way: if you equal or exceed the Auctoritas rating with your Strike rating, your Miracle has its full effect; if you don’t, it doesn’t affect the target at all. However, Strike now also comes with equal points of Edge, so it is probably the most powerful of the three; if you have 5 points of Strike, you ignore nearly any Auctoritas and also reduce the opponent’s Miracle level by 5 for comparison. Like in 2nd edition, you can spend extra MP for Strike on a per-Miracle basis, but the best way to get it is through Bonds. Bonds are the counterparts to Afflictions, in that they’re negative or positive statements about the character; unlike Afflictions, the player generally chooses whether or not they apply. When they seem to indicate that you should be awesome at something, they give you Strike equal to their level.

Afflictions and Bonds ultimately work a lot like Fate‘s Aspects, and there were several comments in the playtest about Nobilis 3e feeling a lot like “Fate Diceless.” The traits are, like Aspects, player-written blurbs about the character that serve to constrain you to actions that support your stated characterization intentions: you get MPs when they inconvenience you, and can use them to gain Auctoritas and Strike when it’s in character for you to be awesome. Their interactions are a little complicated and mathy, particularly when you have a lot of players trying to decide what they want to do in a fight, but I feel like they’re a valuable addition of variability into an otherwise totally deterministic system.

In 2e, your Miraculous conflicts could wind up feeling a lot like unstoppable force vs. immovable object. In 3e, with the addition of these three new options, the trick is to convince one of the sides that they’re not really so unstoppable or immovable after all before they even collide.

In the coming weeks, I’ll talk about the attributes that let you generate said unstoppable forces and immovable objects, and the mundane actions system where sometimes you can skate under unstoppable and immovable things altogether.

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