System Review: Nobilis 3e, Conclusion

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You Thought You Could Feed on My Soul

I never read Nobilis 1e; the “Little Pink Book” was well out of print by the time I got into the game. But I suspect a lot of the stuff in 2e’s “Great White Book” was revision, editing, and improvement on 1e; specifically, what I’ve heard about 1e doesn’t suggest there were nearly as many major additions and adjustments as between 2e and 3e.

3e is an ideas edition; the previous one was sufficiently stable that it made sense to add a bunch of new things rather than just refining what was already there. Some of the things that were added, like Treasure, are entirely workable, but could potentially be described more clearly and concisely. Others, like Persona, feel like a really cool idea that hasn’t been 100% finished yet. Still others, like the Mortal Actions system, are robust and immediately useful.

If I was to make up numbers, I’d say that 3e carved away the weakest 20% of 2e’s engine, and added maybe another 70% in updates, additional ideas, and entirely new systems. A lot of that wasn’t iterated sufficiently to feel done, but it’s still a much more robust engine than what was available previously. If the game eventually gets a 4e, and that’s to this edition what 2e was to 1e—a cleaning up of existing systems—it will be an amazing game. As it is, it’s merely really, really good.

The Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine looks to partially be that edition: it’s set in the same universe and has a chance to really expand on and test the mortal actions and advancement systems. As of this writing, it’s got only a couple of days left on its Kickstarter, and many of the reward tiers include the PDF of Nobilis 3e as a bonus. Anyone interested in the system after this review series would find it well worth his or her time to check it out.

There is really no other RPG on the market that compares to Nobilis. One of the biggest limitations of 2e (other than selling out every single print run its publishing houses could bring to bear so it eventually became very hard to find) was that it was hard to get started. It was a really engaging read in a really pretty book that was really hard to wrap your brain around and actually use at the table. I managed a fairly long campaign, but only after getting to play a one-shot of it at a con that finally made it click enough to run. I suspect many others got it, read it, and left it on the shelf.

3e is much easier to run. It encourages action rather than navel-gazing, provides context for cool things a god might want to do, and ensures that each PC rolls off of chargen with a pile of interesting quirks and hooks for the GM. It’s got a handful of systems that require additional research to clarify and others that might need a little house rule love to make them as useful as intended.

But doing so is worth it.

There are a lot of games on the market where you have fantastic powers. There are a lot where players get handed a lot of agency and narrative control. But none of them is Nobilis.

It’s a game where the hardest part about shooting the sun out of the sky is explaining why you had to do it to your angry friends, and the setting and mechanics completely back that up. It’s a game where all the Power of Rain has to do is convince people to start seriously using the phrase “It’s raining sunshine” to dramatically increase her power and not need you to kill the sun after all. It’s a game where the Power of Rain is only trying to do all this in the first place because the Power of the Sun was rude to her at a party.

Seriously, check it out.

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System Review: Nobilis 3e, Part 3

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Treasure

In addition to providing a ready source of Strike and additional MP, for each Bond a characters has, she can have one Anchor (ideally one that has something to do conceptually with the Bond). An Anchor is a living being, item, or more esoteric noun (such as a magic spell, a personal symbol, or even a group of people). These are important people, significant animals, personal items, etc. that make up the regalia of the Noble; the accoutrements that make up your myth. Many of them will be Ordinary; friends, relatives, and enemies from mortal life, possessions of significance to you, or your personal sigil. They become extraordinary by association with the Noble, exemplifying their skills or qualities. Often, a Noble will acquire Wondrous Anchors, which have an innate power of their own: magical creatures, items of power, and spells. Sometimes, Nobles will Anchor individuals or items of Miraculous power; other Nobles, or things of similar power. All of these things become background elements of the character’s story, and will, by default, avoid availing the character of their powers, or if they do so it won’t have a significant impact on the story. That all changes when the character uses the Treasure attribute to manipulate and empower the Anchor.

I write all of that in such detail because it took me the core book, the fifty page supplement on Treasure, and several detailed forum posts to understand what the Treasure attribute was for. One of the things you’re in for when reading a Nobilis book is that all the prose is beautiful and amazingly creative… but has a hard time getting to the point. The book really needs a small section (near the Bonds chapter, for preference) explaining the need for Anchors and giving guidance on how to invent interesting ones, because if you have a bunch of really cool Anchors, Treasure becomes an extremely useful attribute. If you don’t get the point of them and just put down “I guess, like, my parents?” you won’t be able to make full use of it.

Levels 0-2 of the attribute let you improve ordinary Anchors and possess any of your anchors (something that used to be the province of the removed Spirit attribute). Levels 3-6 allow you to use your wondrous Anchors in various ways, activating their special powers for use with Aspect or Mortal actions or pushing them conceptually to attack and defend in high-end miraculous combat. At level 6+, it makes sense to have miraculous Anchors, as you can get them to use their own miracles for major effects (potentially replicating a huge range of capabilities with a single attribute), and even synthesize with your own Domain to pull off something amazing, possibly even beyond the fantastic power normally available to Nobles.

Treasure takes 2e’s Sandman-esque concept of investing some of your power in a focus item and its use of mortal anchors and combines them into something really neat. It’d just be cool if this fact was more succinct and obvious within the text.

Character Creation and Projects

At root, character creation for 3e is the same as 2e: you buy attributes, gifts, and additional MPs from a pool of character points, and pick all the other things (like skills, bonds, and estate properties) from a fixed total in each category.

But before that, you go through the new lifepath system.

This is a pretty fun and innovative way to get you into the right mindset for playing a mortal that has been turned into a demigod. You pick two “keys” from a list of 16. These are short concepts with a “heart” and a “shadow.” They’re things like Key of Something that Hasn’t Changed: My Identity vs. Crisis, Key of Rage: My Hatred vs. What Lets Me Oppose It, and Key of Something that Must Be Hidden: A Dangerous Secret vs. …That Hurts to Keep. During the lifepath, you fill in short blurbs when instructed under hearts and shadows, further defining them.

Over eight steps, you choose various things like your origin, your Estate, your contacts, and your affiliation. Each of these comes from a list of suggestions. The interesting feature is that each element of the list is mapped to one or more keys. If you pick a list element that synergizes with one of your keys, you get to add a blurb to that key’s heart section (defining the good things about your character). If you pick a list element that doesn’t synergize, instead you add a blurb to one of your shadows (further expanding and defining your character’s troubles). Ultimately, there’s no mechanical penalty for choosing one or the other, just whether you want to play a Noble that’s mostly in tune with her concepts, or deeply conflicted. But what’s cool about the system is that it results in really interesting character ideas that can easily make your modern demigod a more robust individual, with interesting backgrounds and quirks.

On the other end, Nobilis now has an advancement system. Called Projects, these system encourage you to think of your goals in a structured format, and tells the GM how to award progress towards them. This seems like it shouldn’t need a system, but for a game where your character goals are things like “let all the damned souls out of Hell,” “Break down the gates of Heaven,” or “Discover what’s really outside of reality,” it’s important to have rules that everyone can wrap their heads around. Nobilis can tend towards solipsism and too-small goals, where the characters just lounge around dealing with the small problems of their home until they’re forced to react to GM plots. Knowing that you can do really universe-altering things and the GM has a system to let you should encourage the players to be sufficiently proactive for a game where you play gods.

There are a couple of minor problems with the system. The first is that the lifepath system is supposed to output your first Project, and visually it creates something similar, but since Projects are points-based and lifepaths are not, it’s really unclear how a lifepath result becomes a Project. The second is that it’s also the advancement system, but doesn’t put any real mechanical diligence behind that goal. Specifically, there’s one section that mentions that you can buy any character trait as a 75 point or less personal Project (specifically calling out Immortality, which costs 6 points in character generation), which follows a section suggesting it’s a 150 point long-term project to grow “from Pawn to Baroness of my Estate” (something that would cost you 3 points in character generation). I know I come off like a buzzkill for games that want you to just do what feels right for the story, but the gaming circles I run in would generally prefer feeling like the system isn’t encouraging them to try to make optimized choices in character generation (e.g., “if it’s easier to buy gifts that attributes after chargen, I’ll buy all the attributes I might want now and save the gifts I’d rather have for later.”). Something on the order of, “if you’re trying to improve a trait, multiply its cost at chargen by 15 to figure out what size project improving it is,” would have been appreciated (and would be how I’d run it in practice).

But despite those issues, the Project system is a very welcome addition to the game. My 2e campaign tended towards reactivity, which isn’t especially desirable for a game where you start out being able to shoot down the sun. A game where you start the players off with amazing power to affect the setting from the word go comes with the expectation that they’ll be proactive in their use of that power. The Projects system, though I didn’t really get to use it in a short playtest, seems like it should be the impetus to get the players really thinking like higher powers.

System Review: Nobilis 3e, Part 2

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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.

System Review: Nobilis 3e, Part 1

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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.

Nobilis 3e Chancel: The School

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Might this be a hint at the return of system reviews? Stay tuned!

Locus Aphrodite

Chancel of Desire, Discord, Fear, Retribution, and Youth

High school is a dangerous place. It seems like tragedies and lost lives are becoming more and more frequent. Sign of the times, maybe, but also cover for the hundred deaths necessary to create a Chancel.

Across the world, schools are missing hallways, rooms, and exterior spaces. The connections are still there, though they’re hard to find. But if you take a wrong turn on the way to class, you may find your way into Locus Aphrodite.

Most visitors don’t pay much attention to its sheer sprawling size: a high school a big as a city. If you’re just in a rush to get to and from your class, you might never notice the endless corridors. After all, there are no improbably long stretches. Instead, the halls bend and twist, hundreds of missing wings spliced together. Everywhere there are nooks and corners. During the day, they’re perfect places for hormonal teens to hide for a romantic interlude. At night, they’re shadowy hazards where any kind of monster could dwell…

There are fields and quads and all the other kinds of outdoor areas you’d expect a school to feature. But if you really look around, you’ll realize they’re all courtyards: no matter how big the playing field, if you walk a little ways past it in any direction, you’ll hit another section of school building. If you could fly high enough, you’d realize that the “sky” is essentially a fancifully-painted auditorium ceiling; the “sun” is just a row of stadium lights, turning on and off in sequence throughout the “day.” Nobody knows what you’d find if you could punch through; maybe just more school.

Most of the daytime inhabitants are unwitting visitors. If you take a wrong turn looking for an unknown classroom at any high school on Earth, you might just find your way into the Chancel. Maybe it’s an honest mistake from a freshman or transfer student, or maybe the school’s class scheduling system hasn’t quite forgotten the now-missing rooms. Thousands of these visitors bustle in and out of the Chancel every period; they take their class and then find their way back to the real world. Maybe they see a window and briefly wonder why it was a cloudy morning out the window of their last period, but now it’s a clear afternoon. Maybe they notice that all the teachers in this hall look so young they must be just out of teaching school themselves. Maybe they stop to note that their mono-ethnic school gets weirdly diverse during this one period. But they will usually live out the semester and then never find their way here again… as long as they don’t get detention.

The Vice Principals roam the halls at all times, looking for troublemakers. There aren’t nearly enough of them for the thousands upon thousands of students cramming the halls between periods, and you might not even notice them since none of the authority figures here appear much older than the students themselves. But they have little tolerance for horseplay, and can appear with a frightening alacrity behind troublemakers. Sometimes, it seems like trophy cases and other golden adornments are left out precisely to tempt clowns to become vandals and call down the swift retribution of the enforcers. They’ll hand you a detention slip, and this room you won’t have any trouble finding.

Detention is the path to full citizenship in the Chancel. Over a mind-numbing few hours staring at the walls of the library or empty classroom, your recollections of life in the real world become fuzzy. Over the next few days, there may be some confusion as you vaguely remember that you were attending other classes, sometimes left the school grounds, and, most likely, weren’t at a boarding school. But you quickly start to make all new relationships with your culturally diverse schoolmates (it really is weird that they all speak your language, you might consider once or twice before it becomes just part of the background). Some of them will become terrifying bullies, but there seems to be a string of torrid high school romances for everyone (not that all coed boarding schools aren’t supposed to be like that). After a few years, you’ll probably forget that you were meant to grow up and get a job some day, or that it’s weird at all that “Freshman” is just something that can happen to Seniors who fall from the top of the social pecking order.

Of the potentially hundreds of thousands of students that pass through the Chancel every day, perhaps ten-thousand make up the true citizenry. More are, of course, added every day, mysteriously finding a bed in a bunkroom that they don’t precisely recall but which clearly has their name on the tag and desk and chest full of their favorite things. The numbers would certainly swell, except for the attrition rate. During the day, students safely walk the halls, but, at night, it’s unsafe to venture far from your room. Some students sleepwalk, or on a dare travel into the darkened corridors (on the opposite side of the school from where the Eastern visitors are having their morning classes). In the dark, there are terrible, fearsome things that no two students ever describe the same way twice. Those that even return to describe them are the lucky ones; few return to their beds at all, and their possessions will be quietly claimed by new students a few days later (who will insist they’re prized belongings brought from home).

But if you can resist the urge to explore the darker reaches of the school and find a group of friends that will protect you from the abuses of your peers, citizenship can be an exciting time. Eternal youth in a school boiling over with teen romance is clearly something that many adults in the real world would sell their souls to obtain.

Some say that the teachers and staff already have.

Properties of Locus Aphrodite

  • Don’t trust anyone over thirty;
  • Rulebreakers are punished;
  • It’s dangerous to walk the halls at night;
  • Apparent age is simple hierarchy;
  • Kids will be (and remain) kids;
  • Of course it’s dreamlike or nightmarish: it’s high school

Many entrances and exits; Auctoritas varies based on maturity (0 for kids and teens, 1 for young adults, 2 for adults, 3 for middle aged, 4 for old, 5 for ancient)

Don’t Lower Your Auctoritas

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So of course, when Fred asks for DRYH hacks that don’t use existing IP, that’s all my game design muse wants to give me. Here’s one for Nobilis. Note that I don’t have the new edition yet, so it works off of 2nd edition’s assumptions.

Enchancelment

It’s all over the news. There’s been another bizarre death. There’s been one every day. What the news doesn’t say is, with each one, the city gets a little weirder. Most people haven’t yet noticed that it’s getting harder and harder to get out, but they will. The roads are turning in on themselves. The ties to the rest of the world are slipping away. Somehow, you’re one of the few that have noticed. There’s something behind it all, something far more than human. And it’s watching you. It’s judging you. It’s changing you.

You’ve started to notice that you can do things. Things not human. Things not even superhuman. And with the powers of a god come the trials of one. You’re being challenged. Threats are seeking you out. But nobody will tell you the rules. Your powers grow the more you use them. What are you getting yourself into? What happens if you pass these tests? Even worse, what happens if you fail?

Growing Power

This system serves as a way to play out the Empowerment of Nobilis PCs. It postulates a situation where an Imperator is gradually determining which of the citizens of a new Chancel will be its Powers by slowly extending them capabilities during the 100 day ritual to make the Chancel. If they prove competent, they’ll be awarded soul shards… if they don’t, dementia animus is possibly the best case scenario for a mortal that tasted the powers of creation and then had them taken away.

Players have three types of dice: Competence, Passion, and Miracles.

  • Competence is similar to Discipline. Every PC starts with 3 dice in the Competence pool. It represents anything that a pure mortal could do, if only in movies with a very liberal view of physics and other sciences. When Competence dominates:
    • The success or failure plays out with the precision and order of the truly skilled.
    • The player should make a mark next to Aspect.
  • Passion is similar to Exhaustion, but represents the power of the character’s will and soul. It starts at 0 dice, but a player can take on one die of Passion before each roll. As the Passion pool increases, the character becomes increasingly “real” and noticeable, giving all the impression of a colored image against a desaturated background. When Passion dominates:
    • The success or failure is strongly influenced by the character’s overwhelming emotions or force of personality. If the result was a success, and any kind of supernatural effect was in play, onlookers will notice a “bubble” around the character, about the diameter of her own height, where her own reality is imposed on the world.
    • The player should make a mark next to Spirit and reduce the Passion pool by 2 dice (to a minimum of 0). Passion has no technical cap, but will become increasingly likely to dominate and reduce itself the higher it gets.
  • Miracles is similar to Madness, in that it is a fast surge pool where the player can add from 0 to 6 dice on any roll. Adding these dice represents warping local reality to produce a result, and the player should describe what is being attempted. When Miracles dominates:
    • The result of the miracle is very obvious, and may cause mortal onlookers to go mad.
    • The player should make a mark next to Realm (unless using her Affinity, as described below, in which case make a mark next to Domain).

Players also have a Skill and a Domain.

  • Skill represents an area of mortal concern that the character is particularly skilled at. It is mechanically about as broad as an Exhaustion Talent. Whenever using the Skill, the player may choose to turn any or all Competence dice into 6s after rolling (i.e., the player can all but ensure that Competence dominates).
  • Affinity is the miraculous concept with which the character is becoming increasingly associated. It is a single word that will eventually become the character’s Domain. Whenever Miracles dominates, if the result is within this affinity, it increases Domain instead of Realm.

GMs roll two types of dice:

  • Tribulation dice are rolled when the GM believes that the situation the players are dealing with was engineered by the Imperator to challenge the characters. This might be an overt manifestation of the Imperator’s domains and operatives or may be a situation that was socially engineered (e.g., clues that lead the PCs to a tight spot). Tribulation ranges from a minimum of 1 die (to some extent, everything the characters encounter is being monitored and allowed to happen by the Imperator) up to 10 or more, and should generally increase over the course of the 100 days as the Imperator tests the PCs more thoroughly. When Tribulation dominates:
    • The seams of the challenges become obvious: it is metaphorically like a trap suddenly springing shut.
    • Mark whether the PC succeeded or failed on such a roll, and record a mark next to Approval or Disappointment for that Imperator’s subsequent dealings with that PC.
  • Bane dice are rolled whenever the situation involves dangerous elements that aren’t directly under the Imperator’s control. That is, the PCs are in more danger than just failing their future master’s tests. This can be anything from conflict with citizens of the soon-to-be-Chancel, to environmental difficulties, to the involvement of supernatural elements beyond the Imperator (rival Powers, future Chancel Banes, or even Excrucians). Bane dice range from 0 to 6 based on the severity of the situation. When Bane dominates:
    • The PC is injured in some way; if the roll was a success for the player, this injury is superficial, but failure can bring actual life-threatening problems.
    • It is up to the GM and players whether death is on the table from too many failed Bane dominations.

Questions

In addition to choosing a Skill and an Affinity, each player should answer the following questions for her character:

  • What is your name?
  • Why is this happening to you?
  • Who do you love most and why?
  • Who do you hate most and why?
  • Why should you have power?
  • What just happened to you?

Ennoblement

Once the group is ready to proceed to their characters becoming Powers (everyone agrees that they’ve been sufficiently challenged for the Imperator’s satisfaction or the 100 days run out), convert the characters to Nobilis rules via the following method:

  1. Total all marks made across the four scores for each player (e.g., 5 Aspect, 6 Domain, 2 Realm, 7 Spirit is 20 total).
  2. Divide the game’s character creation point total by this number to create a multiplier (e.g., in a 30 point game, 20 marks means a 1.5 multiplier).
  3. Apply the multiplier to each individual category so the marks turn into character points with as similar a ratio as possible to the original marks (e.g., in the above examples, the player would have 7-8 Aspect, 9 Domain, 3 Realm, and 10-11 Spirit).
  4. Spend each category to buy the related trait levels, bonus miracle points, or Gifts related to that category (e.g., 9 Domain points buys 3 levels of the Domain trait, 9 bonus Domain Miracle Points, 9 points worth of Domain-related Gifts, or some combination of the three).

System Review: Nobilis, Conclusion

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Nobilis seems to be pretty confusing for most players. It’s a beautiful coffee table book that segues seamlessly between rules and setting description, most of it delivered to at least some degree in-character, detailing a completely fantastical take on the modern world in which players are expected to portray modern godlings that participate in a war for reality via their mastery of metaphorical concepts and skill with semantics. That is, there’s a lot going on.

The system for the game is entirely purpose-built for its task, and, in many ways, must be understood as an integral part of the hard-to-fathom setting. You’d have a hard time running the setting with another system, and you’d have a hard time using the system for any other setting (though I’ve heard tell experiments were made with Justice League-level superheros). Ultimately, the reality of the game world is so completely defined by the system that it’s hard to figure out when an issue with the system isn’t just an issue with the setting itself.

That said, perhaps what is most interesting about Nobilis is that it seemed to ride in ahead of the wave of indie game design that took off over the last decade via the help of the internet. Was it just an early adopter of some of its features, or did it actually inspire some degree of change in how certain things were handled? As mentioned previously, Nobilis is the first system I encountered that suggested rewarding players when their flaws caused the character grief in play, rather than giving an up front bonus that encouraged players to actually take flaws that they hoped wouldn’t ever hurt them. Most systems I’m aware of that were released since Nobilis do it that way. While less completely innovative, the focus on assembling abilities and environment as a form of player and GM collaboration (Nobilis’ Gifts and Chancels) seems to have taken off since its release.

There’s a new edition of Nobilis due out soon, and I’m interested to see whether it will involve more refinement of 2nd edition (the same stuff, only easier to understand and play) or whether it will lay out another series of innovations that will be confusing at first, but gradually come into common use over the next decade.

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