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Fathoming “Nobilis”

December 6, 2011

Nobilis 3rd editionSomewhere, sometime, I fell to the Dark Side, and became interested in narrative storytelling roleplaying games. I still emerge into the light from time to time, for a good crunchy sesh filled with dice rolls, range estimates, searching for secret doors, and miniatures; but, equally, I’ve become fascinated with games with a much less traditional take on what an RPG is.

I think it’s the variability of storytelling games which draws me in. The more trad RPGs all have very much a single, monolithic take on how we “do” roleplaying games: you have a character, which represents “you” in the make-believe world, and that character has attributes like Strength and Intelligence and skills like Search or Hide or whatever, plus tons of equipment to allow him to do special stuff. Then you play the game by attempting to do stuff – “tasks”, loosely speaking – by rolling dice. Up until about 10 years ago (or a little more… how time flies), 99% of roleplaying games did just that.

I discovered Hero Wars in 1999, quite by accident – I’d been expecting it to be a kind of “super RuneQuest”, and had ordered it on that basis. It wasn’t, of course: it was one of the early games which have since been variously called “indie”, “narrative”, or “story telling” games. Games where the structuralism of traditional RPGs doesn’t apply – maybe no tasks, or no attributes, or no dice – and where the “reality” of the game experience is divided up and quantified differently.

Just for shorthand, I’ll call these games “modern”, rather than try and adhere to any other label – “modern”, as opposed to “traditional”. I think I get a similar buzz from reading and playing modern RPGs as I do from reading (or writing) speculative fiction – experiencing a different and unexpected way of viewing the world, discovering a completely alternative take on the assumptions and hidden truths which lie beneath the surface of (game) reality. Hero Wars, then HeroQuest, allowed for the resolution of “contests” – absolutely any contest, from a singing contest to a mass battle – with its resolution system, and allowed anything at all to be a character ability, and assumed there were tiers of ability – called “masteries” – in the world. FATE, my current go-to system, focussed on descriptive phrases to define a character – not numeric, but literary – and built a system around that which allowed for a vast array of scales to interact, where a hero really could single-handedly bring a kingdom to its knees, or a lucky shot by a farmboy flyer destroy a space station. Lots of other games have led me down similarly fascinating paths – so, like many modern gamers, I’m hooked.

Now – Nobilis. I’ve just discovered this game, after some creeping gradual interest and a definitive chat with Ken Hite at Dragonmeet a couple of weeks back. I bought the PDF of the 3rd edition rules last week, and will be opening the hardback on Christmas morning. But, for now, I’m puzzling my way through this fascinating, and – I must admit – damned hard to understand game!

First up, you play godlike characters, with miraculous powers, who can do pretty much everything. It’s a modern-day, magical reality setting, a la Sandman, or The Dark Is Rising, or Jacob’s Ladder. But it’s also the most (and I use this word with great caution) feminine RPG I’ve ever come across. OK, feminine’s the wrong word: I’m just being provocative. 😛 But, in the face of pretty much all RPGs being about rampaging around attacking things, hard statistics, and plenty of artwork showing unfeasibly pneumatic females, Nobilis comes across as the most New Agey, “soft-brain”, and frankly self-consciously literary and even psychological game I’ve ever seen. And I still don’t know if I can play it.

OK, I’ll probably work it out. For now, I’m in borg-mode, assimilating everything I read, trying to identify which bits are rules and which bits background and setting. It’s that kind of game. Happily, there’s a character sheet, which I expect will shortly be my big crutch for working out how to actually run a game. But a lot of what I’m seeing is completely unfamiliar: no dice, a resource management resolution system, earth-shaking powers in the PCs’ hands, and, it seems, the power to alter reality at will. Kind of like Exalted, if Exalted was played after smoking lots of weed, taking all the rules out, then dialling everything up to eleven.

So – can anyone give me pointers? How do you play Nobilis? How much power do your PCs have in your games, and how do you structure scenarios and plots when the characters can do almost anything? I think I’ve found me another modern RPG to bend my brain, and am looking forwards to getting started! 😀

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2013 9:50 pm

    I realize that this post is from 2011 so Nobilis may be far afield at this point, but if you’re curious I put together a setting reference document some time back to help me wrap my brain around 3rd edition. It’s illustrated and about 120 pages, but I can’t put the link up here. if you’re interested, drop me a line at gameraspinning@gmail.com and I can send you a link to it.
    Nobilis is kind of like my white whale. I’ve been chasing it since the first edition. I fell in love with it initially because of the microfiction that peppered the text, the art nouveau,illustration (there’s a lot of Mucha and Rackham in the first edition), and the scope of the setting.
    I’ve never encountered two people that run it the same way. It’s kind of like jazz – very improvisational, and depending on your players, it can be mad and beautiful and amazing, or it can be a bad session of Toon.
    One link I can include here is a Pinterest Board I keep for Nobilis inspiration: http://pinterest.com/gameraspinning/nobilis-inspiration/

  2. December 6, 2011 5:30 pm

    I hear you on the difficulty of running a game – I can see that it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Hopefully, though, when you’ve assimilated the rules, it looks like the sort of game you should be able to run with relatively little prep. These days that’s always a plus with me – one of the reason’s (among others!) I love Fate so much, and am developing a soft spot for HeroQuest! 🙂

    Having said that, I do love sandbox playing. If characters are interesting enough, and the background deep enough, scenarios kind of write themselves. Back in the day we had endless sessions of RuneQuest and City State of the Invincible Overlord simply travelling around the cool maps doing stuff. I like mission scenarios, but I find they’re more necessary in investigative games, where you often have to think through clues, etc, in advance. In general though I’m definitely tending more towards low prep, improv games.

  3. December 6, 2011 12:07 pm

    I wish I could give you pointers, as I’ve been fascinated by the game for years. I have 2nd edition and bought it back when £30 seemed like a lot of money to drop on a game (how halcyon those days seem now ;¬) ), having been utterly sold on the concept by the quote on the back about it being like Sandman and Hellraiser going an absinthe bender… with flowers.

    Unfortunately the group I game with has never been keen, Eve aside, and its been reduced to the “keeping it for the art” shelf. It’s probably just as well as I’ve shifted slowly to running games that have easy to understand mechanics and mission based scenarios because they’re easier to set up, run and don’t cut into writing time so much.

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