Aspect and Mortal Actions

Aspect is the attribute that you use to do things that mortals can do, if only when translated through the most permissive of fairy tales. The lower levels let you turn in feats of Olympic athleticism, Nobel Prize intellect, or Hollywood charisma. The middle levels let you pull off wuxia-style physical performances, computer-level mental calculations, and mythical persuasiveness. The top levels let you do crazy things like drink whole rivers, deduce the future from a mountain of disconnected data, or persuade the sun to set at noon. But it won’t let you do outright magic, because it has to have a basis in things that mortals can actually do, if exaggerated to ridiculous levels.

In 2e, the problem was that the things that mortals could do were pretty nebulous. Especially since the first few levels of the attribute were on a mortal scale, you could get into situations of “he’s supposed to be really good at this… so I guess he’s good enough to beat a Noble using Aspect 1?” One of 3e’s major additions was a system for using mortal actions, so you could actually resolve those situations.

Characters tend to get 8 points worth of skills and passions, which can go up to 5 like miraculous attributes. Passions are more like Fate Aspects: things you care about enough to do well no matter what your actual skill is like. Skills are things you can do well no matter how you feel about them. They don’t stack (even though my players desperately wanted them to); if you have Passion: Protect the Innocent 3 and Skill: Fighting 1, you fight with 1 point unless an innocent is in danger, then you fight at 3. You can also spend your points on Inherent Superiority traits instead if you want to design a magical but not miraculous creature, and they work like Skills and Passions for the most part (though are a little better).

Like miraculous actions, you determine the effect of a mortal action by adding points of an expendable pool (Will) to your relevant skill or passion. Like miracles, there’s a 9-point difficulty chart that you compare your total against to figure out what you accomplished (at 1 point you just make yourself happy without accomplishing much, while at 6 points you do something really impressive that makes your life better). If you’re in conflict, you compare totals and there are similar ways to apply penalties like with miraculous conflict.

There are also a couple of special skills: Shine and Cool. Shine gets bonus points from the Persona attribute, and represents your skill at leadership. Anyone who’s helping you can use your Shine instead of their own skill. Cool gets bonus points from Aspect, and represents your general awesomeness. Anyone who’s trying to hurt you has to take your Cool as a penalty. I’m not totally happy with Shine, just because there’s probably someone in the group with it fairly high and everyone else starts to ask if they can claim their action is for that person to use the higher total. I do like Cool, because it’s one of the whimsical, interesting things about Nobilis; the natural consequence of Cool is that large-scale non-miraculous attacks on civilians are rarely successful because the more people you target, the higher your chances that there’s someone really cool in the bunch that reality won’t let you take out like a mook.

Low-level Aspect miracles now hook directly into the mortal actions system. An Aspect 2 miracle will now give you a mortal action as if you’d spent 5 Will, so it can potentially peg out the scale if you’re already highly skilled. You can also use your magical Treasures to always take mortal actions with them as if you’d spent 3 Will. Since the action economy allows Nobles to generally take an essentially free Mortal action every time they do something, characters will wind up bothering with these actions a lot more than they did in 2e, since there’s a quantitative result for doing so.

The strength of the system is that a highly skilled mortal now has a system for defeating a lightly-invested god. It also does some interesting things with classifying mortal actions as “intentions” that may or may not succeed depending on effort and conflict, to contrast miracles that by definition always change the world (though possibly mitigated by other Nobles). And it actually gets players thinking about mortal actions in an interesting way.

The weakness of the system is that it’s kinda confusing exactly how it interacts with miracles. It also may work better when framing pre-written examples than guiding players in actual play (“My Intention is to study and enjoy lunch” is great for an illustration, but not something I’d see people using). Finally, it’s unclear on scope (even more than the player-written elements in the rest of the system); since you’re writing your own skills and passions, it’s easy to have one guy spend spend for Skill: Pistol while another buys Skill: Combat, one picks Passion: I want to be the best singer in my town and another picks Passion: I always win! Some more guidance would have been appreciated.

It seems like it’s going to be the core of the systems for The Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, so maybe without having to be a footnote to miraculous actions it will really shine there.

Domain, Persona, and Estates

One of the changes to the core of the game is that you’re now encouraged to make up several statements about your Estate (the noun around which most of your miraculous powers and duties revolve). This encourages you to give the GM ideas on exactly what about your Estate is important to you. One power of Fire focuses on the destructive qualities, one on the boon it is to civilization.

These are especially important because now there’s a new attribute, Persona, which lets you manipulate these individual qualities in a lot of ways, blessing or cursing various things with elements of your estate. This attribute now covers the more nebulous “cool things I should be able to do with my Estate” areas that aren’t directly related to Domain miracles to create, destroy, or move elements of it.

This is one area, unfortunately, where the game might need another revision cycle before the rules really feel robust and useful in all situations.

Writing Estate qualities becomes difficult. You’re not just trying to define how you conceive your Estate, but to do it in a way that gives you sentences that would be useful with the Persona attribute. The attribute can transform those sentences into Afflictions that benefit you or others.

Persona makes way more sense for tangible Estates than idea-based ones. It’s fairly easy to establish a difference between using Domain to create Fire and using Persona to curse someone with the metaphorical qualities of Fire. It’s much more nebulous what the difference is between using Domain to create Curiosity and using Persona to curse someone with the qualities of Curiosity.

Finally, the rules description itself seems to have run out of ideas past level 6; the rules text is just a single sentence for levels 7 and 8 that you can do things “more powerfully” or “on a larger scale” than the level 4 and 5 miracles. It’s hard to figure out exactly what cool things you could do with those levels they way you can with the high levels of the other attributes.

On the whole, Persona is a neat idea: it’s certainly more active than 2e’s Spirit attribute (which Persona largely replaced), and provides useful options that were previously missing to players that chose more tangible Estates. But I think it could do with a deeper look, or at least more robust examples, to make it as good a buy as the other attributes.