What is Nobilis?

Once, a man was so well-loved that he set the fields ablaze and the peasants didn't mind. He killed all the animals, and gave his folk dust to eat, and they didn't mind. He dirtied the water with blood from his wars, and they didn't mind. Then they tortured him slowly to death on the Stone Wheel, and when his heirs asked the peasants why, they said, "We thought he liked that sort of thing."
-- from "Parables for Our Modern Age," by Jackie Robinson, as recorded in Nobilis.
 

Overview

Nobilis is a diceless roleplaying game. In it, you play one-time humans who guard the concepts that define the world. You serve a great spirit, called an Imperator. You govern a pocket universe created by that Imperator. You venture into the outside world to fight a behind-the-scenes war for the fate of Creation.

Nobilis focuses more on social interaction than combat. Even in the war, most battles concern themselves with a handful of human destinies, rather than violence and raw power. The sympathetic magic employed by Creation's enemies makes a loss on these battlefields a blow against reality. Outside the war, characters spend their time engaging in politics within the supernatural society, managing the affairs of their pocket universe's inhabitants, and protecting the interests of their mortal loved ones. The system provides support to make all of these activities interesting.

Characters in this game operate at a very high power level. Experienced characters or characters with a strong leaning towards one flavor of power can change the whole world in a matter of moments. Mortal antagonists are virtually nonexistent, and most supernatural beings in the world are comparatively insignificant. However, characters have a limited supply of "miraculous" energy and must often conceal their powers to avoid harming the humans around them. Moreover, the principal antagonists equal or exceed the characters' competence.

Details

This is taken from the author's post to rec.games.frp.misc announcing Nobilis' release.

Nobilis (a Pharos Press 7/99 release) is now available from http://www.amazon.com and http://www.barnesandnoble.com. Barnes & Noble has a faster ship time as of this writing. If you want to order it through an offline bookstore, it's available from the distributors Ingram and Wizard's Attic, ISBN 0967318017. Some bookstore chains may not have procedures for handling print on demand titles at this time.

Here's what Nobilis is about. If you look behind the scenes of Nobilis' reality, you'll find a group of about two thousand people responsible for keeping existence running. They represent the "human face" of the major elements of the world -- things like time, fire, magnetism, automobiles, caves, death, and colors. The person responsible for a particular element is the "Power" of that element (e.g. the Power of Time). As a group, these are the Nobles, aka the Nobilis.

Powers begin their lives as ordinary humans. When an Imperator, a spiritual being of immense force, descends into the human world, it transforms a piece of land into a "Chancel" and a number of humans into Nobilis. The Chancel, a pocket reality tailored to the Imperator's specifications, becomes its home. The new Nobilis become its agents, united under the Imperator's auspices into a "Familia Caelestis" -- a celestial family.

Imperators serve as the standards about which the Nobilis rally. Each embodies in itself a set of key elements of reality, and creates one Noble responsible for each. Whether Nobles love or hate their Imperator, the Imperator represents the absolute bond between them -- their nature stems from the same source.

Typical Noble Activities

  • Governing the Chancel. 99% of the time, an Imperator directs its attention toward spirit realms outside the Nobles' scope. As long as they don't screw it up too badly, Powers have a free hand when it comes to ruling their Imperator's pocket world.
  • Intrigue. Nobles intrigue among themselves inside and outside of their celestial family. In general, a Noble can count on the support of her Familia when severely threatened by an outsider's ploy, and on the support of any Noble when the health of reality is at stake. The game mechanics reward humbling your enemies, and acquiring allies is its own reward.
  • Protecting the Anchors. A Noble's "Anchors" are ordinary humans bound to the Noble by an unbreakable bond. A Noble can step into an Anchor's mind and body pretty much at will, allowing her to manage situations scattered all over the world. Naturally, this makes Anchors valuable -- so a Noble must ensure that her Anchors remain healthy, sound, sane, and in a good position to pursue her interests. Unfortunately, as the Nobles say, Anchors "tangle the skein of Fate" -- the magic that creates them makes each one a nexus for bizarre, improbable, and almost tabloid-like events. In order to make an Anchor, a Noble must first love or hate the mortal candidate.
  • Gardening. Player characters probably won't do much of this onscreen, but every Noble needs a diverse flower garden. The first symbols, used by the angels in the creation of the world, were flowers. A Noble's heraldic Design almost invariably features interwoven flowers -- the book fully describes the Nobles' system of heraldry -- and Nobles can use blooms with appropriate connotations to fuel or disguise a variety of magics.
  • Protecting Reality. This is harder than it sounds! An army from outside reality -- the Nobilis call the soldiers Excrucians, and the soldiers call themselves Harumaph's Children -- plans to erase existence. Worse yet, they can -- using a form of symbolic magic known as the flower rite. To use the flower rite, an Excrucian constructs a situation in the mortal world that "mirrors" certain aspects of reality. Specifically, it must match the targeted element of reality and, if the relevant Noble has a heraldic Design, the connotations of a flower from that Design. The Excrucian then systematically degrades the situation it created toward monstrosity. If it uses the proper ritual, and if the relevant Noble doesn't find and stop the Excrucian in time, a little bit of the "essence" of that part of reality fades away. Enough failures and it dies completely. Hundreds of the key elements of reality -- including physical laws, classes of objects, and abstract concepts -- have already been deleted.

    A typical Noble-Excrucian conflict requires the Noble to work out the nature of that mirror-situation, anticipate the Excrucian's plans, and then outmaneuver it. Neither side can afford overt use of power unless the other stands on the brink of victory -- when miracles start flying, the mortal situation usually spirals out of control.

Design Goals

In designing the overall structure of the game, I tried to integrate the characters as far as possible into the game world. Every Noble is an integral part of reality -- the Power of Storms has as much relevance in Nobilis' Earth as rain and snow and lightning and clouds have in any gameworld. That's kind of abstract, though, so I tried to make sure every Nobilis character comes into being with a full suite of relationships. Each has a permanent bond to the other player characters -- no matter how fierce the infighting gets, it's in everyone's best interest to drop it when outside trouble threatens. Each character has a personal relationship with the characters' Imperator -- which the players design, both conceptually and using a point-based system -- and some number of Anchors. Almost everyone takes on a personal allegiance to one of the great forces contending for the world -- be it Heaven, Hell, the Light, the Dark, or the Wild. The Nobilis aren't necessarily social characters, and can be isolationist, brutal, or contrary by nature, but there'll never be a problem running a social game.

At least, that's what I'm aiming for. :)

Rules

Here's how the rules work. A Nobilis character has four Attributes, describing her skill with the major magics ("miracles") of the Powers. Players design their own miscellaneous powers ("Gifts"), using a very simple point-based creation system. Players can add and remove character disadvantages more or less at will -- they yield specific long-term benefits when they cause short-term problems in play.

Attributes have a rating between 0 and 5. Things a character might want to do have a rating between 0 and 9. When a character attempts some miraculous feat, the player compares the Attribute rating to the difficulty. If the difficulty is higher, she makes up the difference using a small pool of "miracle points." (This pool can be replenished in several ways, including intrigues against rivals and suffering from a character disadvantage.)

The Aspect Attribute governs human abilities taken to superhuman extremes. Level 0 Aspect feats include dancing and cooking. Level 9 Aspect feats include shooting the sun from the sky. A Power can extrapolate any human ability to any level using an Aspect miracle.

The Domain Attribute describes a Power's control over the aspect of reality they command. For the Power of Roads, Domain miracles include wishing roads into being, making people lost, cutting off cities, adjusting distances, and so forth. The general character of the miracle (does it create? destroy? preserve? divine? modify something?) and its magnitude determines its difficulty level.

The Realm Attribute measures a Power's control over her Chancel. This functions almost exactly like Domain.

The Spirit Attribute provides protection against hostile miracles and skill with a variety of lesser abilities associated with the Nobilis. (Sensing miracles, creating Anchors, mastery of all languages, and so forth.)

When two miracles come into direct conflict, the miracle of the higher level prevails. When they clash in indirect conflict, the Game Master -- called here the Hollyhock God, hollyhock being the flower of vanity and ambition -- arbitrates the outcome.

I wanted, here, to make sure that creativity plays more of a role in conflict than either chance or mechanical complexity. In fact, most formal duels use illusory miracles rather than substantive ones, eliminating even the miracle point cost for Nobles with Domain 1 or higher -- accounting goes by the wayside.

Players choose the properties of their characters' Chancel and Imperator using a simple point-based system. Although inspired by the old Ars Magica covenant design system, this also resembles the merit/flaw systems of other modern RPGs.

Setting

Most of the book deals with Nobilis' setting. On Nobilis' Earth, animism and science are equally but not simultaneously valid. You can survive in the world by dealing with the souls of people, animals, and objects -- or by working with the hard sciences. Nobilis and Anchors, among others, can switch back and forth at will, and who can therefore repair a car with either a wrench or a persuasive argument.

"Prosaic reality," on Earth, looks almost exactly like our world. "The mythic world" operates at a slightly deeper level, and functions on the animistic principles described above. Deeper still, you can find the Spirit World -- a place defined by characteristics outside human perception, where the Imperators contend directly against the Excrucians and the Ages of the World are as much places as times.

The Earth hangs on the World Ash, one of thousands upon thousands of worlds nestled among Yggdrasil's branches. Heaven rests atop, and Hell sprawls under its roots. According to one philosophy, beauty cascading down from Heaven and corruption snaking upward from Hell provide the essential dynamic essence that keeps the Ash alive.

The Weirding Wall surrounds the Ash, rising like an open cup from Hell to surround Creation. Beyond the Wall are the Lands Beyond Creation -- incomprehensible even to the Imperators.

I've also included, by the way, much of the legendry of the Nobilis, descriptions of the seven forms of Imperator commonly seen on Earth, philosophy and history for the various factions of Imperator and Noble, and the philosophies of the Excrucians. I tried hard to provide a deep and compelling world, and I've yet to encounter someone who complained that it's shallow.

Related Works

My other works include the revised Via Diabolis from White Wolf's Cainite Heresy, the freeform psi system from the Trinity Player's Guide, and portions of SJG's Liber Castellorum and Liber Servitorum (as well as forthcoming products from White Wolf, SJG, and Gold Rush Games.)

Works by other people that inspired me during Nobilis' development include Neil Gaiman's Sandman, the works of Charles de Lint, Amber, HERO, Everway, Ars Magica, and a number of modern games. I'd like to thank them all.

Summary

Nobilis (ISBN 0967318017) is written by R. Sean Borgstrom and retails for $28. The book is 204 pages, hardcover, and includes everything needed to play -- rules, character generation, a full description of the setting, and examples.

The first supplement, A Society of Flowers, scheduled for this winter, will provide an in-depth study of the culture in which the characters operate, descriptions of various factions and power groups, and information on the eccentric creatures that share the characters' world.