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Reviews - Nobilis
by Matthew Pook

Nobilis cover Title: Nobilis
Publisher: Hogshead Publishing
Written by R. Sean Borgstrom

Cover by Charles van der Stappen
Illustrated by Charles Vess, Michael Kaluta, Bryan Talbot, Al Davison, Denise Garner, Ralph Horsley, Frazer Irving, Martin McKenna, Rik Martin, Raven Mimura and Lee Moyer, and Arcimboldo
Price: $42.95

In 1999, I was handed a book to read by my boss. The small, pink-covered volume had all the appearance of a lady's notebook and contained a density of text laid out in the simplest of fashion. Over the next few days of reading, it was obvious that I had something special before me, but exactly what was far from being clear. Although the author's wondrous vision shone through, it felt trapped and desperately needed releasing. I agreed with my boss, James Wallis, the head of Hogshead Publishing, that it needed both the eye of a good editor and reformatting. The book was Nobilis, released by Pharos Press at the time, and he informed me that Hogshead wanted to publish it themselves.

Wind forward several years and a flat, heavy package landed on my doorstep. This was the new second edition of Nobilis that everyone had been waiting for. The wait has been worth it, as this edition is dramatically changed from that little original book. It has been expanded and improved tremendously into a book you'll be proud to have on your coffee table. Almost eleven inches square, it has the image of the Art Nouveau sculpture 'Sphinx Mysterieux' by Charles van der Stappen on the cover. With its stark beauty, this hardback looks more like an art book than your traditional RPG. Inside this stark look continues, with easy to read text set played against full page illustrations by some of the best known artists in the comic and gaming industries. Some of this is art that I would seriously like to have on my wall!

As a game, Nobilis is unlike almost any other RPG to date. It shares similarities with the Amber, Everway, Nephilim and In Nomine RPGs, but its scope is much more than that. It draws upon Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, and the fantasy novels of both Stephen Donaldson and Roger Zelazny (amongst others). Yet for all its inspiration, the scope of Nobilis is far more than that.

Imagine that you are a mere human, sliced open and your soul replaced by something more powerful than you could believe existed, a soul fragment gifted to you by an Imperator. In this way you have become a Noble, the personification of a single thing or concept or aspect found within reality – love, murder, fire, screws, the wheel, small print, commerce, the deal, truth, murder, and so on. As a Sovereign Power, this is your Estate and not only do you personify this aspect, you embody, love and are responsible for it as well. In this way, you are no longer of our Prosaic Earth, but able to comprehend the Mythic Earth also. You are aware of the World-Ash, Yggdrasil, upon which your Earth and many other others like it hang. Far above in the crown of this tree is Heaven, while Hell sits in its roots. Yet outside of this are the Excrucians, who work to bring an end to Creation and replace it with something more terrible and beautiful. Standing against the Excrusians are all the creatures of myth: gods, angels, devils, giants and others, all willing to work together were it not for ageless rivalries.

Sovereign Powers can switch back and forth between the Earths, perform miracles and pursue both their own agendas and those of their Imperator Lords. They can also take allies or Anchors upon the Prosaic Earth, mere mortal humans whose souls are bound to that of the Noble. Through an Anchor, a Noble is able to both watch the Prosaic Earth and perform miracles, the latter in such a way that the presence of the Noble remains hidden and untraceable. When all is said and done, Nobles have access to a sanctuary known as a Chancel, a hidden place where their rule is law and reality can be of their choosing.

Recipe for a Noble
Character creation in Nobilis is simple in terms of mechanics, but a player does need to have a concept in mind before proceeding with the process. Characters purchase levels in the game's four attributes: Aspect, Domain, Realm and Spirit. Aspect is the physical nature of a character (speed, fitness, willpower), which at Level 0 represents an ordinary human, and at Level 5, an extraordinary specimen capable of catching bullets, splitting mountains in two and wounding the Sun with an arrow shot. Domain is a character's affinity with their Estate and the degree to which they personify it – for example the Duke of Famine is always remembered for the air of hunger that surrounds him. Realm is the degree of control that a Noble has within their Chancel, and Spirit their power and ability with all things magical, as well as the strength with which they can resist the miracles of others. Spirit is also a measure of their ability to create Anchors.

Characters can be further modified with gifts and handicaps that are tied into the four attributes. Thus immortality is a Gift of Aspect and that of walking between worlds a Gift of Domain. Handicaps come in several different types: Limits, Restrictions, Virtues and Affiliations. Light Touch is a Limit of Spirit that reduces effective control of a Noble's anchors; Cigarette Bond and Honest are both Restrictions; Virtues include Cruel and Reckless; and Affiliations are code of conduct which a Noble decides to live by – these can be that of Angels, the Light or of the Wild. Additionally, Gifts and handicaps allow players to create non-human characters, such as the examples the book presents of merfolk, lycanthropes and dragons. Every stage of the creation process is explained and accompanied by an example (sometimes more than one).

Finally characters list their bonds (the things that they hold important) and create their Design or coat of arms that gives clues as to the nature of an Estate. Designs are built around the symbology of flowers, which play an important part of Nobilis. Every type of blossom has a meaning, many of which are listed in an appendix. In the Mythic Earth, that meaning has a reality and each flower plays an integral part in the magic of Nobilis. Indeed, the Excrucians have found a way to strike at normally inviolate Chancels through the use of magic involving flowers.

Collectively the players work together to both create their Chancel and decide upon the nature of their Imperator. Though within the setting it takes the death of a single human each night for a hundred nights, in game terms the players pool their levels of Domain attribute and spend these upon the design. As their Chancel is the primary location within which a game of Nobilis, the players must carefully consider what properties, blessings and resources to build into it as they prepare to play. Chancels can be found almost anywhere on Earth, though all are hidden from the Prosaic world. An example given (one of many) is actually placed within the body of an oil tanker! The creation of an Imperator is not as easy, since there is no free pool of points with which to buy their characteristics. Players choose the various aspects of their Imperator, at the end of which, the actual cost must equal zero. Once they have been created, it will be up to the referee to breathe life, expression and sometimes motive into the Imperator.

Nuts and Bolts
The game engine is quick and simple: compare the rank of an attribute with that of an opponent or against the difficulty of an action. If it is higher than either, then you succeed. Thus, if you have the ability to do something or bring about a miracle, then it is a done thing. If not, or if it is opposed, Miracle Points can be spent to raise the attempt so that it succeeds, but these are only temporary. More points can be bought during character creation, and they are replaced at the beginning of each adventure. Characters will also recover Miracle Points when their various Handicaps come into play. Each character receives just the basic twenty Miracle Points, split equally between the four attributes. Thus Domain Miracle Points can only be spent on miracles of Domain, Aspect Miracle Points can only be spent on miracles of Aspect and so on.

Nobles literally have the ability to fashion great changes upon the Prosaic Earth for they are almost but not quite gods, able to shoot the Sun from the sky (this would be seen as a solar eclipse to us of the Prosaic Earth). Yet the limits upon the number of Miracle Points each Noble has available means players will often be more conservative in their play and look to other means of achieving their aims. Instead, they will interact with other Nobles or spirits of the world (everything has a spirit that can be dealt with) to persuade them to grant favours, to turn the servants of their opponents against them and to undermine that which an opponent might hold dear. This is not a game of out and out physical confrontation -- social skills, politics and people are far more important. Indeed, Nobles will find themselves serving their Imperator and managing their Chancel and Estate, or even repaying favours owed, more often than they will directly face a threat from outside reality. Even when they do, Nobles will find that the reality they are protecting is dark, corrupt, filled with a living, palpable evil – and all of this reaches to the very top of the feudal structure of Nobles and Imperators.

Much of the onus for running Nobilis will be upon the referee, or Hollyhock God, as they are known. Writing in the voice of a character named Ianthe, author R. Sean Borgstrom provides plenty of advice on how to run the game, as well as quotes in the sidebars relevant to each chapter. These are all taken from works found only within the libraries of the Mythic Earth, but they add wonderful depth to the writing. Just as the player is given example after example of concepts with the game, the Hollyhock God is provided their own, though some, such as the lengthy twenty-page example of play, are useful to both. Guidelines are provided on how to handle Imperators, conflict, Excrucians and other NPCs, as well as how to create them and build stories. To get the Hollyhock God started, a sample campaign is provided entitled "Treachery," towards which many of the game's preceding numerous examples has been geared.

If there is a weakness to Nobilis, it is one of concept – not a lack of strength, for the vision of the author shines from every page, but rather the potential inability of the reader to grasp it. There is a lot to take in and understand, but where this was a real problem with the Pharos Press edition (as much from the format as from the writing), the difficulties have been greatly reduced in the second edition. Much of this is due to the efforts of both the publisher and particularly the editor, Bruce Baugh, who deserves no little praise for setting Borgstrom's vision free.

Nobilis will not be an easy game to run or play; it's not so much a game itself, but a set of tools and guidelines to run a narrative within an incredible setting. That said, the act of setting up a game is very much an interactive venture between the players and the Hollyhock God as they create Sovereign Powers, Chancel and Imperator together. The diceless mechanics lend themselves to other gaming avenues outside of the traditional tabletop – games of Nobilis could be run by mail or e-mail or just as easily online.

Nobilis is unlike anything you've seen before. This is a book that looks like any other game, but contains within its beautifully stark pages a vision of ardent passion and majestic splendour.


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