"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Friday, August 12, 2022


The wind told me once that everybody gets to play a game of Nobilis before they die. Maybe it’s in their secret dreams. Maybe it’s in real life. But everybody gets to experience the world of the Nobilis once—to leave behind the dead world where things don’t talk to you and nobody knows the purpose of the world, for at least one night, and see the truth...

Nobilis, p. 7

When all else fails, start with a Kenneth Hite quote:

Imagine Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Clive Barker's Hellraiser on an absinthe bender, with flowers. That's Nobilis.

Hite wrote that twenty years ago, but it still is the best summary of the game I can think of. Nobilis is about mere mortals who have a god bury a piece of its soul inside them, transforming them into quasi-divine beings connected to one of the fundamental building blocks of creation. Whatever you were before, now you are Gravity, or Longing, or Autumn, or War. You are a "Noble" or "Nobilis," the heart and mind of the Estate stuck inside you. Your job is to govern it, to protect it, to serve it.

This is not just a superpower. Sure, the Power of Architecture can conjure buildings up from the dust, plant blueprints in an architect's mind, or create a secret floor in that skyscraper that no one else can find, but it's deeper than that. When the newlywed couple in Boise remodels their kitchen, you feel the tickle as they apply paint to the walls. When that earthquake in Japan levels a village, you feel the sting of every collapsed wall. You are Architecture, from that tree house in Oregon to the silver palaces in Heaven. The very concept lives inside you.

And this is why a god handed the Estate to you. See, the world is not what we think it is. Earth is just one of a billion worlds hanging in the branches of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. That Tree is surrounded by a wall of blue flame and beyond it...is Nothing. The Void. That is where they come from, the Excrucians. Appearing as impossibly beautiful men and women, mounted on pale horses and with black eyes filled with falling stars, they are the emissaries of oblivion. They have come to erase the cosmos one concept at a time. The "gods" (more accurately the Ymerae or Imperators) are at war with these Excrucians for the fate of all existence. To keep the Estates an Imperator embodies safe, they create Nobles. For example, when Baraqiel the Imperator of Thunder, Terror, and Reversals went to war, it likely created three Nobles: Thunder, Terror, and Reversals. As Baraqiel fights the Excrucians, those Nobles govern and maintain the Estates. If Baraqiel falls, those Estates are not erased from existence, but remain alive so long as the Nobles do.

Imagine the Imperators as crystal snakes: blue crystal, green crystal, red crystal— every color in the world. Where do the snakes come from? They create themselves, pulling themselves by force of will from nothingness. The snakes writhe one about another, a blind, squirming, undulating mass. From above, there shines a light.
It passes through the crystal snakes and forms a pattern of shifting, mixed, twisted colors on the void. 
That is Creation.

Nobilis, p.  17

So what do they do, these Nobles? 

Aside from defending and furthering their Estates (the Power of War, for example, runs around the globe or sends agents to undermine peace treaties and ignite conflicts), a Noble works with their siblings to run their Imperator's chancel. The chancel is a sort of "pocket dimension," the seat of the Imperator's power, and the Imperator's Nobles must run it together. In the example above, Baraqiel's Nobles (each a player character) work together as a kind of Noble family to rule the chancel. Chancels might appear as anything--a Renaissance Italian city, a castle in the clouds, a fortress on the back of a giant turtle--but they are usually inhabited by subjects and worshippers of the Imperator and need to be managed just like any mortal realm. Side note, the players will create the chancel, and their Imperator, as part of the character creation process.

Aside from Estate management and chancel governance, the Nobles thwart the machinations of the Excrucians and their agents, navigate Noble politics, and explore the Mythic Realms. They also pursue their own "projects." Perhaps the Power of Architecture wants to push 21st century humanity to create the first Arcology (a joint venture, perhaps, with the Power of Ecology?). Perhaps the Power of Reassurance wants to ensure no child ever again fears the monster in the closet or hidden under the bed. 

How do they do any of this? Let's talk system.

In the First Age, we lived in harmony.
In the Second Age, we were at war.
It was not until this, the Third Age, the Age of Pain, the
Age of the Excrucian War, that anyone seriously considered the possibility that the world itself could die; but now we know it likely will.

Nobilis, p. 154

Nobilis eschews dice. Play is driven by resource management and improvisation.

At its core, all characters have various statistics rated 0 to 5. When tested, they use the appropriate trait and compare it to a difficulty between 0 and 9. If the trait is equal to or higher than the difficulty, the character succeeds.

In addition to these traits, characters will have a pool of points available to them that they can add to these traits to beat higher difficulties. If a character with a trait of 1 is facing a difficulty of 5, they spend 4 points from their pool. 

There is a catch. These points must be spent in the following increments: 1, 2, 4, or 8. If the difficulty above was 6 rather than 5, the character would need to spend the full 8 points.

In any contest between two characters, the higher total wins.

Now, what these traits are, and what pools you can use to augment them, will vary based on the kind of character you are playing at the time. Yes, you heard me right: "at the time." There will be times when you are playing your Noble and other times when you might be playing one of your Noble's human (or inhuman) agents. 

Mortals, for example, have Passions and Skills they use in tests, augmented by a pool called Will. Two characters get into a brawl in an alleyway. One has the skill "Boxing 3" and the other has the Passion "Win at any cost 2." Boxing will win the challenge unless the other character spends Will, and Boxing could also spend Will to come out on top. Other factors come into play, though, including situational ones. "Win at any cost" looks at her GM and asks "we are in an alley, is there a bottle I can break and use as a weapon?" The GM might say "yes" and her character now gets a +1 or +2 boost. Or, her opponent might have "Cool," a catch-all defense trait that subtracts from opponents' attacks.

Nobles are of course more complicated. The game is about them, after all.

Nobles have four core traits. Aspect is body and mind, and as a sign of their power, the scale is utterly different than what a mortal has to work with. A mortal might face a difficulty of 9 to perform like an Olympic athlete. A Noble faces a difficulty of 2 or 3. Past 5 they perform physical and mental feats no human could dream of. At difficulty 6 a Noble could defeat 500 armed men armed with only his bare hands, or at 7 drink one of the Great Lakes dry. 

Domain and Persona both govern use of the Noble's estate. Domain governs the Estate itself, the "substance" of it, while Persona governs how the Estate interacts with the world. The Power of Fire could use Domain to cause a mortal to spontaneously combust, but Persona could make a mortal more fiery tempered.

Treasures governs a Noble's Anchors. These might be NPC servants, mundane objects, or at higher levels magical objects or wondrous beings. In Neil Gaiman's Sandman, for example, Dream's helm, bag of sand, and ruby amulet were all Anchors.

Each of these comes with a pool of 5 points to spend on that trait alone. These pools can be increased with character points or later over the course of the game.

Nobles will have both Bonds and Afflictions, flaws or vulnerabilities that help characters replenish their point pools (humans can replenish Will similarly or through sleep). Bonds are triggered by the player, while Afflictions are the province of the GM.

They rode into the world at the beginning of the Age of Pain. They rode pale horses and carried these horrible weapons—these soul-cutting atrocities that can destroy even nominally immortal things. They broke down the gates of Heaven and slaughtered amongst the Angels before the Angels gathered and threw them back, and since that time, their assault has not relented, but rather only dispersed, with the Imperator-Excrucian War being waged at any given time on dozens of the endless worlds upon the Ash and occasionally slipping upwards to Heaven, downwards into Hell or sideways onto the trunk of the World Ash itself.

Nobilis, p. 160

So what is different about this, the 2022 Rerelease?

Visually, in terms of layout, graphic design, and tone this is a return to the 2nd edition, the Great White Book. At the same time it has all the innovations of the 3rd. The setting is more clearly defined and explained, the material is more approachable. There is a terrific "lifepath" system (totally optional) that guides bewildered new players through the maze of Noble character design, and the rules for mortals are a terrific innovation. I had serious reservations--the 2nd edition sits high in my pantheon of the greatest games ever--but the 2022 Rerelease supplants it hands down.

Author Jenna Katerin Moran's prose (the 1st and 2nd editions were written under the name R. Sean Borgstrom) has never been better. One does not often read games for pleasure but Nobilis is hours of pure delight: 

You can survive anything. You don’t need air. You probably don’t even care whether you have air. You don’t need food or water. You can handle being thrown in a giant blender. Maybe the blades break on your legs, maybe you reflexively turn into protoplasm and reform, maybe you emerge on the other side with a torn sleeve and a dramatic nick on your cheek. It’s just being thrown in a giant blender, so, you know, whatever. There’s no point stabbing you. There’s no point nuking you. If someone throws you out of an airplane without a parachute you are going to be upset about possibly missing your connecting flight.

from the "Active Immortality" Gift, p. 128

All in all this is a masterpiece edition of the game. Go. Go and buy it now (as off this writing it is available at a sale price).

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