Okay, I’m probably going to go on and on about Nobilis a bit so here is a summary of the setting and concepts behind the rules so that people have some idea what I’m going on about.
It has been a long time since I’ve actually got excited by a roleplaying game. Recently only the new Vampire peeked my interest but the hints of the new Mage have sunk it. Nobilis on the other hand has really got me excited again about actual roleplaying!
One of the blurs at the back of the book describes Nobilis as “imagine Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser on an absinthe bender.” This describes the setting to a tee.
Imperators are powerful beings that are waging a war with the Excrucions in the Spirit World and therefore can’t focus their energies on Earth. That’s why they create agents from mortals, called Powers. That’s where the players come in.
A Power is a mortal who has the shard of the soul of an Imperator put inside them. Each Power has a domain over something such as Strength, Treachery, Murder, Desire, etc. (though Powers can have secondary domains) taken from their Imperator. (Don’t worry the domains of the Imperator do not have to be similar). The PCs are all created from the same Imperator forming a Familia Caelestis. In fact, the players get to create their Imperator and the realm of the Imperator called the Chancel.
(So the PCs are similar in power as Neil Gaimen’s Sandman, Morpheus of Dreams.)
Powers can have mortal agents called Anchors. Powers can control and communicate with these mortals and even enact miracles though them. And Anchors can send prayers to their Power. To make an Anchor, the Power must love or hate them, which is against Lord Entropy’s Laws (more on this in a minute).
The Excrucions are beings from ‘outside of creation’ that seem to wish to destroy everything. They are the major antagonists of the setting. Shards of Excrucions break through the Spirit World to Earth and so the Powers must deal with them but rarely (if ever) deal with a full Excrucion.
But they are not the only faction in Creation.
Creation is contained on the great ash tree, Yggdrasill, with Heaven at the top nourished by the Angels and Hell at the bottom fuelled by Demons and Fallen Angels. Earth (and other worlds) hangs from the branches. Earth is the home of humanity.
Angels put beauty above everything, Hell believes in corruption, the Light wishes to preserve humanity and the Dark wishes to see it destroy itself. Powers are aligned with one of these (or other) factions. (So Powers can be as dark and scary as ‘Pinhead’ or as beautiful as Angels.)
Earth itself has two ‘realities’. Prosaic reality is the Earth as we know it. Mythic reality is a WOD-Umbra-type-of-thing. Everything can communicate and is alive. A Power can see and interact with both realities at will.
Mythic reality is the weakest part of the setting. There are no examples of it in use in the book and it is highly interpretive. Anything can be alive, from gravity to cars. So it’s all a GM’s call about what can and can’t go in this reality and as we’ve seen from Werewolves’ Shadow realm, this isn’t necessarily desirable as players and GMs may have different and even conflicting interpretations.
Prosaic reality has its problems too. Apparently there are mortals that perform magic but how or what such magic is capable of is not explained. Though Powers’ miracles will always be more powerful, Powers can do anything mortals can and therefore cover magic from exorcisms to rain dances.
Mortals see only one reality. In fact if a mortal is witness to a Power’s miracles they may be able to see both realities and therefore go mad. How or when this occurs is left up to GM’s interpretation (again). This is against Lord Entropy’s Laws (more on this in a minute).
When a Power performs an action, it is generally a miracle. Prosaic reality will try and find a way to explain how this miracle came about in a mundane way and will even rewrite history to do it. Move a mountain and people will believe that the mountain was always there. Drag a star from the sky and the Earth will invent meteorites. I didn’t find this very well explained in the book or even how exactly this works. Powers have a special shield called Auctoritas that protects against other Powers miracles. So until a miracle becomes part of mundane reality, it may not be able to affect another Power so it can become crucial how this works. As far as I figure, this is pretty much up to the GM how this works in practice (“a bomb should go when someone remembers it should…”).
Earth is ruled over by the council of four Imperators but only Lord Entropy really counts. He is the Imperator of Corruption. He’s set down a number of laws; two of the interesting ones are that Powers are not allowed to love and Powers cannot harm innocents. The second one is interesting because it leads to the precedent of Seven Fold Vengeance, in that a Power can wreck seven times the vengeance on a mortal who is not innocent. A Power can circumvent the Laws by using Anchor (because a Power can’t be traced via an Anchor) of by using the mortal organisation called the Cammora. The Cammora were created by Lord Entropy and are as corrupt as he is.
The final thing is that there is a strong flower theme running through the book. Each flower represents the seeds of creation or something like that. All the Powers’ rituals are based on flowers, each of Lord Entropy’s Laws are named after flowers and each Power has their own signature flower (sadly there is no examples of these signature flower designs though).
The system is dice-less. Instead it’s all about managing resources and using your imagination.
The basic assumption is that a Power can do anything. They have complete power over their Domain(s) and their Chancel.
The Powers have a set of 4 attributes (Aspect, Realm, Domain and Spirit). These determine what they can do without spending Miracle Points. To do something beyond their rating, they must spent points.
Also to perform a miracle inside another Powers’ Auctoritas, they must perform the miracle at a higher cost (called the Penetration cost). So in combat this will suck up miracle points. In fact combat is (at least as far as the very good example in the book shows) how creative you are with your Domain, more than anything else. Brings back memories about why WOD’s Mage Spheres were so great, trying to imagine all the effects you could create. Of course Nobilis doesn’t restrict what you can do like Mage does. Only your imagination does that.
The attribute levels go from 1 to 5 with each level having a name (like Fudge traits) except each attribute has a different set of names. What makes it confusing is that once the attributes are described, the levels are referred to by name only in the text and with 20 different level names, which you won’t remember straight away.
I must mention the Aspect attribute just for coolness. It covers all mortal activities. High Aspect allows you do incredible physical feats such as dodging bullets and jumping buildings but it also includes social actions including manipulating people and controlling bureaucracy. You could use it to manipulate governments (but then you might have to contend with the Cammora).
The Spirit attribute is the weakest. What it covers isn’t really explained. It only provides two system benefits; the level of the Power’s Auctoritas and the number of Anchors they can have.
It would have been nice to have examples of how Powers use their Domain. I can imagine it is quite difficult for a GM to have an NPC Power or Excrucion take on the PC Powers as the players have had time to learn the advantages and limits of their Domain while it’s probably the first time a GM takes any one enemy NPC into battle.
Character creation is fairly simple but there are nice features such as a very powerful Gift creation process (immortality is one of the sample gifts for example) and Limits. Characters must also select Bonds, which are similar to goals and things that are important to the character. There are no rules governing Bonds and players can change the ratings when they want. They provide no system benefit as far as I can see except as easy GM hooks and targets of the Neetle Rite.
The wound mechanic though is very weak. While direct miracle damage causes certain wound levels based on the level of the miracle anything else falls down to a GM judgement call based on how he sees the events. IMHO that’s a bit arbitrary for our group. I guess that’s the cost for not using dice. In fact GM judgement goes into much of rules arbitration in-game: the GM must decide if any specific action is permissible such as performing a mortal magic ritual for example.
I must mention the book. It is quite a nice front cover but I was disappointed there wasn’t more art in the book. The art that is in there is good but its kinda abstract interpretations of Powers and Imperators and not characters in action. And there are no examples of the flower motifs.
It is also an awkward shape. It’s wider than longer which means it doesn’t fit into my backpack, is hard to hold when reading and the pages are a bit flimsy when flicking through it. While I understand the need to break from the tradition, it should only be done when it makes sense.
Still, it’s a book I would leave lying out on the table when I have non-roleplayer friends around and it does look like a book that could be sitting on a podium.
BTW it’s filled with examples. Many of the examples are based on actual myths but changed and twisted for Nobilis.
And also it has a ribbon bookmark. Every hardback roleplaying book should have one!
Nobilis has some great examples of moving from Out-Of-Character into In-Character and back in the flow of the story. I’d love to be able to emulate this with our group.
Most of Roleplaying in Nobilis is political manoeuvring between other Powers, building on PCs plans and managing their Chancel and Impetrator’s orders. Dealing with Excrucions is not a constant part of a campaign.
The nice thing is that you can be as pretentious as you like. Want to deal with the theme of greed? Introduce the Power of Greed and have him cross paths with the PCs. It something that White Wolf aspires to but never achieve.
In the end, I like it. I like it a lot. I’d love to play it and run it and bring back the fun of In Darkness.