IN THE TAROT, the Zero Arcanum is called "the Fool." At gaming tables, "session zero" has become a popular designation for getting the players together, creating characters, and talking about the game before actual play begins. The two concepts dovetail nicely, as the Fool is the card of initiation, of beginning from scratch, of starting from nothing.
Pre-pandemic I was running a Glorantha campaign, but that all went on hold last year, giving me time in the interim to collect that campaign and others into two books. I have never run a game online, and have been extremely resistant to the idea. As a means of sticking a toe into the waters of distance gaming, I decided to run a one-on-one session with one of my regular players. The game we chose was Nephilim.
I have already talked extensively about Nephilim here, here, and here, so I will spare you the introductions and just point you in those directions. Nephilim is one of my favorite pieces of game design in existence, but given its subject matter (and its extreme faithfulness to that subject matter), it is easy to see why many people just didn't "get it." Shams Shirley, one of the co-authors of the English edition, commented after my first Nephilim post;
The Chaosium edition of Nephilim was an alchemical work intended to catalyze gnostic awakening, or to move the (player) closer down that path. Not a great marketing strategy, & prone to misinterpretation because the reader sees into it only to the depth that they are able to understand.
I've had several discussions with Shams about that and I agree: Nephilim is hard to grasp if you come at it from the standard post-modernism of the 21st century. But then again, King Arthur Pendragon is hard to play if you don't understand concepts like chivalry, Call of Cthulhu loses something if you don't embrace the existential dread, and RuneQuest makes less sense if you don't grok the entire Bronze Age mythology approach. Nephilim is asking you to take a step that many find hard to do, namely to embrace the possibility that humans are not the pinnacle of existence, that there is a chain of being, and that humans cannot ascend it without help.
Fortunately that was not going to be an issue with my player, who, like me, is an occultist and an initiate in a Western esoteric tradition. So this time Nephilim was being tackled by two people who speak the language. My mission here, in these blog posts, is to try and make it accessible to everyone else, and show why the game is really not as hard to play as you might have heard.
The first English edition of Nephilim tapped heavily into the "millennialism" of that decade, with the Templar's "Plan" set to culminate in 1999 and waves of Nephilim awakening en masse to stop it. 22 years later, however, we are all still here. Fortunately, there is always an apocalypse somewhere on the horizon. For ours we need look no further than renowned mythologist and Traditionalist René Guénon, who wrote in his Les Quatre Ages de L’Humanité that the Kali Yuga, the Age of Kali that we currently live in, was due to end in 2030. In this campaign then, The Nephilim were unable to stop the Templars back in 2000, and the Plan has begun. It will reach its climax in 2030, and if the Nephilim cannot stop it before then the world will be lost.
However, at the end of session zero I had the player draw three Tarot cards for the past, present, and future. The final card was, interestingly enough, the Fool. In Nephilim, the Arcanum of the Fool are those Nephilim who believe in the coming of messiahs, beings that are born as Nephilim and do not become Nephilim via incarnation. They acknowledge four; Akhenaton was the Messiah of Air, Moses of Fire, Jesus of Water, and Mohammed of Earth. Rumors haunt occult circles that back in 2000 the fifth and final Messiah, the Moon Messiah, was born and will come into their full power at the age of 30. So the elevator pitch might be:
As the Templar Plan enters its final stages, whispers abound that the Last Messiah walks hidden amongst us. As the circle comes to a close, is it a new beginning, or the end of all that is...
When the idea to play Nephilim again came up my first impulse was to run it using Basic Roleplaying and "bolt-on" Nephilim elements. My previous posts had generated a lot of discussion in the gaming community and based on feedback the general consensus was that Nephilim had a lot of moving parts and could stand being streamlined a little. But it had been awhile since I had run it, and so the player and I decided to do it "as is" to make a fresh assessment of the game for ourselves. Going forward I will talk about some of the ideas for streamlining it, and what we ended up going with.
For the campaign, my conception was to run it from the point of view of the 21st century simulacrum. Incarnation occurs and the individual slowly starts remembering past lives and their Nephilim identity. In Basic Roleplaying, I would probably have had the players simply create a modern human character and as past lives came up in the game, add "Life Experience" for that particular period to the sheet. Life Experience already exists in Nephilim. It "is taken once for each historical period in which the Nephilim has lived. It deals with all cultural knowledge of a particular time and place..." (Nephilim, p. 98). My idea was to expand that to cover all skills the Nephilim might have believably learned in that past life. So if the Nephilim had been a medieval knight, horseback riding and the use of a long sword would be covered by the skill too. It would reduce all past life skills to just a couple of skills on the character sheet and eliminate the need for double skill columns (Nephilim and simulacrum).
As I said, we decided to play Nephilim straight up, however, so we created the character the standard way.
The player wanted an Onirim or Moon Nephilim, with a Serpent metamorphosis. We decided to use the Emotional Metamorphosis system from Chronicle of the Awakenings rather than the one in the core rules. With these choice made, the player selected Magician as the character's Arcanum, and we moved on to step 3, "past lives."
The player decided to go with two prior incarnations and we looked at the combined list of available periods from the Gamemaster's Companion for ones in which the Magician Arcanum was active. He decided to go with Thebes, 1350 BC (Akhenaton's Revolution) and London 1590 (The New Camelot). We read the descriptions of each period, which the player really got a kick out of, and followed the instructions in those sections. The first incarnation was a priestess, and he decided to go with Bast for her. The Nephilim's stasis was a statuette, so he made that of Bast as well. Jumping ahead, in London the player rolled an alchemist, and decided to make him Jewish.
The process of determining past lives is repetitive (find out how old the simulacrum was when incarnation occurred and generate skill points from their age, find out how long they lived as Nephilim and generate occult development points from that) but not difficult, and going through the process made be discard the idea I had had for a Basic Roleplaying adaptation. Reducing all past life experience to a single skill reduces these past incarnations as characters. Taking the time to assign points to their skills fleshes them out, gives them substance, and makes them more real. We both liked the past lives section "as is."
I should note that for the first incarnation in Thebes, the only form of magic available was sorcery, and we decided to use the alternate sorcery system presented in Liber Ka. In the second incarnation, all magic systems were available and the player decided to set a few points into summoning.
The final step is to select the modern incarnation. I compiled a list and added a percentile roll to it to make the process random, while making it clear to the player if he didn't like the result he could roll again or just select. The result was a doctor, a 42-year old forensic pathologist with a husband and child. He decided to keep the result but switched the gender to male.
It is never very difficult to create BRP system characters, and neither of us found Nephilim any exception. The rules are clear, and by the time we were done we felt we had a layered, complex character. The next session then will be about breathing life into it and the world.
I could never run a Nephilim game, the thought of alienating my friends by demanding they at the very least read Pauwells and Bergier was a non-starter. You're lucky to have a player that shares the foundations.