Monday, November 16, 2020

Nobilis 3rd Edition

 Nobilis is less difficult than I remember.

I always feel a little self-conscious saying things like this, lest people are all, "ooh, John once thought Nobilis was difficult, what a dolt!" Or worse, "So John thinks Nobilis isn't difficult, let's double-check everything he says about it to make sure he's telling the truth."

But you know what, that's just my hang-up. I'm sure anyone reading this is a kind, generous soul who will give me the benefit of the doubt. Let's just say that the first time I read this book, I had a number of unanswered questions, whereas this time I didn't, and that's something that's probably attributable to reading Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine and various online conversations with people who had similar questions.

The thing that became abundantly clear to me, coming in to the book with this new experience, is that I was greatly overthinking it. A good many of my old questions would have been answered if I'd just taken the text at face value and interpreted it literally. In my defense, though, the writing here practically encourages overthinking.

Take this example from a section headed "Movements of the Soul"

The blueprint for a miracle is not in the Power's mind but in their heart and soul. It is not possible for them to plan out miracles of absurd elaboration; rather they make what is elemental in then, what is aesthetic to them, what is right to them. Their miracles are complete. They are things of incredible complexity and detail, for all things existing in the world are things of incredible complexity and detail. They are marvels, for to exist is to be a marvel.

But they are works of art and not design.

And so on, for another long paragraph. But the concept she's trying to get at is actually pretty simple - "Respect the social contract and don't waste your fellow players' time by trying to outwit the literal genie." It's a good warning, because you've got these godlike powers and there's going to be a strong temptation to try and get incredibly specific with them, but that's not to the game's benefit. Yet for all the utility of the rule, it's presented as a consequence of the setting metaphysics and given an ornate philosophical justification.

I don't want to come down too hard here, because this discursiveness is one of the text's best qualities, but it also means that when you have a simple question, you won't believe that it has a simple answer. Or, at least, I didn't. It's a very clever book, but I wasn't doing it any favors when I assumed that it must therefor have hidden meaning on every page. When it says "A game of Nobilis is a conversation" that's not a metaphor or an analogy, it's a specific and useful piece of advice.

I also think a part of what's going on is that Jenna Moran is getting better as a game designer. CMWGE was a revelation, but Nobilis 3rd Edition is merely very good. When I wrote about CMWGE, I talked about the actor/author split in rpgs, and the way Chuubo's straddled the gap, but Nobilis doesn't really do that. The characters are so powerful that they are able (indeed are obligated) to assume some of the GM's traditional authority, and as a consequence it works best if the players are willing to indulge in author-stance-type reasoning, but it does not yet have a core gameplay that encourages that kind of thinking. You've got certain traits that replenish your MP if they inconvenience you, but that's not at all unusual for an actor-stance game. Hell, I'm pretty sure even D&D is doing it now.

It's this relatively traditional structure that got me into trouble. You make characters in a very actor-stance type of way, with character points that can be spent on skills, magical traits, and special gifts and that lead me to assume a traditionally antagonist GM/player split, but I was overthinking it. The book never told me that I should GM like a Dungeon Master, and indeed counseled the exact opposite, but I never took it at its word. I assumed I needed to up my game to cope with the PCs incredible powers.

It was only on this most recent read-through that I realized I was still beholden to the psychology of the dice. The rules of the game are that you can do what your traits say you can do, but sometimes you can spend points to temporarily raise your traits. My brain initially interpreted this to mean that point-spending filled the same mechanical niche as dice-rolling. 

In a traditional rpg, if you want to do something contentious, the GM has you roll the dice and a successful roll gives you permission to say, "yes, I do that." But the other part of that is that a failed roll gives the GM permission to say, "no, you don't." And so my instinct was to look at the intention system and the miracle effects chart and think, "how can I make spending points feel more like rolling dice - how do I get to say, 'no'"

Yet Nobilis isn't the sort of game where the GM often gets to say, "no." The PCs power level guarantees that - "The Nobilis can shatter mountains. They can break or rebuild souls. They don't even have to work very hard to do it." - but it didn't emotionally prepare me for the reality of what that means. It's structured like a traditional rpg, but it can't play like one, and that's why I initially found it so difficult. But once you get used to the idea that you're supposed to be saying, "yes, you can shatter that mountain . . . let me tell you about all the interesting shapes you see in the dust" then it actually becomes a pretty simple game.

So I'm an unapologetic Jenna Moran fan-boy, but I am forced to recognize that Nobilis is a work in progress, an inchoate form of ideas that would be developed to greater sophistication in later works. Yet I still love it, because when it's not being ambiguous about its rules methodology, it's got that unique blend of whimsy, imagination, and horror that characterizes Moran at her best. Cute balloon people! They'll drop you from the stratosphere if you insult them! Wear a parachute when you go to visit.

This book is frequently funny, often breathtaking, and only occasionally frustrating as hell, and that's why it's one of the treasures of my collection.

Ukss Contribution: So many great ideas, so specific to Jenna Moran's sensibility. I liked the suggestion in the character creation section that you could play a five dollar bill that was awakened to consciousness and granted godlike powers.


  1. So, is there an awakened, godlike five-dollar bill in Ukss?


    1. It will probably be a coin, and it won't be quite so powerful as a typical Nobilis, but I will use that basic concept.