Nobilis – The Review And The Brain

As for playing Nobilis itself… I suppose a bit of a review is in order.

Nobilis presents an animistic world reality where natural laws do not exist, where “science” is a comforting lie maintained for the benefit of humanity, and where the players take the roles of new powers – Avatars, Promoters, and Defenders of some concept. By most standards, rather minor gods. To hold the “political” infighting down to something bearable, there is a unifying foe – the Excrucians, who come from the void beyond the Tree of Worlds and wish to destroy it.

Earlier articles in this series include:

Those cover the conversion to d20 mechanics.

Which takes us to some evolutionary biology. You’ll see why in a few moments.

The human mind is a survival mechanism. It looks for patterns in what it observes because recognizing even very simple patterns – “anyone who eats mushrooms like these always seems to die a few days later” – can go a long ways towards keeping a human alive. That was especially important for a species that was spreading out; instinctual behaviors are less advantageous than the capacity for learned behaviors when colonizing a new environment.

When confronted with observations that do not seem to fit into a pattern, humans get a feeling of Awe (“reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder”) because human brains take such a mystery as something to be respected, feared, and examined. They do that because – as a survival mechanism – they classify anything that they don’t understand as something that might kill them, even if it’s just words. They go into overdrive, frantically trying to find a pattern. If they do, they trigger their internal “reward” system, making themselves feel good.

That’s the secret of a Zen Koan – an apparent contradiction meant to kick the brain into overdrive that leads to recognition and understanding of a deeper pattern coupled with a pleasant feeling of discovery. They’re teaching tools.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t have to be a real pattern. Given a bunch of randomness, a human brain will soon connect a few random points and then throw in some confirmation bias – looking for more points that fit the imaginary pattern and ignoring bits that don’t fit because that brain has hit the reward function for “finding a pattern” and does not want to give it up. Conspiracy theories rely on that same mechanism, which is why they’re so popular and hard to talk people into giving up. Most games have some of this quality, if only inadvertently. After all, space is limited, so any RPG is going to have lots of things that aren’t covered in much detail, as well as areas beyond its borders that are only hinted at, leaving lots of room for people to add their own notions and wild theories.

Nobilis is awesome, and mysterious, and provokes frantic thought and contemplation through that same mechanism – presenting contradictions. In fact, it presents LOTS of them. That’s why the book is full of utterly independent fragments that do not fit together. Unfortunately, a lot of them are genuine logical contradictions rather than apparent ones – which (depending on the readers psychology) can either sustain that sense of awe and fascination through a constant sense of being on the verge of “understanding” the patterns their brain is trying to pull out of all that random data or simply become irritating. For a common, physical, example of that process, almost any kid will find a kaleidoscope amusing for a bit – but most will soon become bored with the things. Still, there are always a few who will play with them for hours on end. Similarly, some people will find the Nobilis “setting” endlessly fascinating – while others will just find it irritating.

Next up, we need to consider what science is.

Let us say that you make a cup of hot chocolate and taste it. You say “I think that this would be better with a little vanilla!”. You put some vanilla in, stir it, and taste it again to see if it is indeed better.

Observation, Hypothesis, Experimental Test Of Hypothesis. Rejection or Provisional Acceptance of the Hypothesis depending on the result of that test. Congratulations. You’re a scientist, even if you call it “being a cook”.

The Nobilis author shows no comprehension of that of course. After all, they’re relying on a kaleidoscope effect to keep their audience interested, so they cannot afford to admit that almost any kind of cause-and-effect reasoning is basic science.

How can I be sure that I’m looking at a kaleidoscope rather than dealing with a work of genius?

Works of genius are self-consistent. It’s the ability to fit everything into a consistent whole that pretty much defines genius. But in Nobilis…

  • There are no underlying “laws of nature”, and everything is the result of conscious choices. Ergo, all the thoughts in your mind are the result of conscious choices. So there must be spirits making conscious choices about all the thoughts in your mind. But they must have minds to make those conscious choices with. So they must have spirits making conscious choices about all the thoughts in their minds. And those spirits must have minds, so THEY must have spirits, in infinite, ever-expanding, recursion.

That sort of problem was why naive animism like Nobilis presents was abandoned in philosophy a long, long, time ago.

  • Why are there rules about how many miracle points you can have, and how many must be spent at one time, and about skills and attributes and such? Which in-the-setting creature is deciding moment-by-moment to enforce such consistent rules on your incredible powers? “Science” is founded in “stuff that seems to work” and “stuff we see” versus “stuff that doesn’t seem to work” and “stuff that doesn’t seem to be there”, and all that theory comes LATER. Any even partially functional rules system is, at its heart, scientific.

The idea that science – letting survival-oriented brains look for patterns in the world – is an imposition is simply ignoring the fact that the rules of Nobilis are patterns, and scientific. Every animal that’s capable of learning is doing “science” in its own limited way.

  • Claiming that “Science!” insists that the world is round or that the rest of the observable universe exists, and so reality is accommodating it ignores the fact that people had to be compelled to abandon quick-and-easy explanations like “the world is flat” by observing too many things that didn’t fit in with those explanations. A flat earth is just as “scientific” as a round one; it just didn’t fit in with what people actually saw when they looked at things closely.

So “History” revises itself to account for each miracle? Aren’t those happening all the time? So there is no actual history, just an ever-changing now?

  • Yet… Nobilis gives us historical notes and reasons for things, playing up to that tendency to look for patterns while explicitly telling us that there is no meaningful history.

Nobilis tells us that people rely on real-world notions of modern “science” as a mental defense. They have to have it, so the universe is accommodating them. But… very few people actually pay any attention to science, and far, far, fewer than that understand it at all. Why is allowing a few humans to delude themselves a strain on the universe? For those few actual “scientists”… if an observation does not fit with current theory the theory gets discarded. If something is ever observed – such as the effects of magical skills, or miracles – it’s a part of science. The sole reason that science discarded most “magic” is that it never worked when it was tried.

  • Why do a scattering of humans in Nobilis have this need for an illusion of science anyway? It’s not like they’re an evolved species in the setting.

And the list goes on. Apparent contradiction is at the heart of every good murder mystery. The clues seem to fit together one way, but not perfectly – while another, far less obvious, way to put them together is the truth. A really good author can offer an honest chance to solve the mystery by providing all the right clues, but still keep the vast majority of the readers guessing until the final denouncement. Lesser authors have to hide critical bits to keep the readers from figuring it out too soon. Poor authors just leave in self-contradictions or unexplained pieces (popularly known as “plotholes”).

So the setting is a kaleidoscope. Each game master is extracting their own pattern from it – so the only thing that holds the game to a common pattern is the rules system used to run it.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that the author produced a high-quality kaleidoscope of a setting… that rules system is deeply problematic. Lets look at it step by step and see how well those rules make the setting function.

It says that there are only a few thousand Nobles on “Earth” and that the setting is pretty much the mundane world around the players – save for the influence of the secret supernatural. It makes some blatant appeals to “how things work” to limit human capabilities, despite “how things work” not being a thing in the setting. So what do the actual rules say that Mortals can do in Nobilis? That will tell us a lot about setting consistency even before involving “Nobles”.


Well… Mortals can have magical skills (and a set of bonds) with no questions asked. Presuming that they have nonhuman ancestry (since domains like “fatherhood”, “motherhood”, and “reproduction” are a thing and family trees do branch, that should be pretty universal) they can have Superior Qualities as well. The maximum objection that the universe puts up to a mortal doing something – however outrageous – with a supernatural skill is a “-5” and penalties do not stack. Bonds can negate part or all of that -5, and a mortal can spend up to 8 will.

Basically, any mortal who is aware that reality goes beyond science gets:

  • 8 Points worth of Skills, Passions, and/or Superior Qualities.
  • 8 Points worth of Bonds.
  • 8 Will.

So what skills are magical in Nobilis?

The book tells us that non-magical skills are used for mundane actions. You know. Mundane – in accordance with the laws of nature and the natural order of the world. Which doesn’t exist in Nobilis. So all skills are magical.

Er… never mind that.

Maybe the “a Skill without an ordinary mode of use – a Skill where everything they might want to do is equally a stretch” definition? But if I know “Card Magic” can’t I do the old “pick a card” routine as well as summon the creatures of the Tarot? Magical skills can have ordinary uses. My Alchemist passion can certainly be used to make potions, but I can quite reasonably blow glass vessels for my laboratory or try to talk someone into funding my elixir of youth research with it. That’s a part of being an Alchemist too.

Never mind that either! Moving on!

I’ve already discussed how a mortal with any combination of Hyperspeed Magic and a Bond adding up to 3 can spend 8 will to move faster than light (which has Superior Speed 5). That’s 3 + 8 Will -5 (penalty for going up against nonstacking -5 penalties for uncooperative reality and a superior quality 5) = 6, which beats out Light. If they have Magic-5 and a Bond-5, they can outrun light at will. They have to invest 1 Will in the project, but they get that back when it’s over.

So… How about a mortal who happens to have some supernatural bloodlines? Lets give him…

  • Superior Quality: Embodiment Of The Storm 5. Magical Skill: Nibelungian Artificer 3.
  • Bonds: Demonstrate The Power Of The Storm 5 and Aid Humanity 3.
  • Tools (from Nibelungian Artificer): Bracers Of The Storm (+2 to using Embodiment Of The Storm), Advanced Medical Kit (+2 to healing people). The game doesn’t really say anything about how you can get tools, so getting a few with a Superior Quality of being able to make tools sounds pretty reasonable. (They’re not required, but they do save on the use of Will when using his powers for really absurd stuff).

This hero (“Stormlord”) can easily move faster than light (Racing The Lightning), hurl mountains into orbit (Strength Of The Hurricane), withstand the greatest nuclear weapons or asteroid strikes (Endurance Of The Great Red Spot), blow tidal waves away from the coast (Hurricane Breath), cause solar eruptions (Solar Storms), and lots more. He can fly, hurl lightning, bring rain to farmers, speak louder than thunder, smash cities, hold off alien invasions, rescue sinking ships, build cities (“aid humanity” with his super-speed), and more. Anything he can’t fit into “storm” powers he can whip up a gadget for. Need to cure cancer or deliver a baby? That’s easy too!

Stormlord probably can’t travel through time (unless “time storms” are a thing or he spends a lot of will on a gadget), make or negate earthquakes without gadgets, or generate illusions without gadgets – although he might be able to use lightning to raise the dead. He can’t oppose “Miracles” (even if he can easily match some pretty high-order Miracles). Still, why would he need to? Nobles are supposed to be very rare.

And there’s no reason why the world shouldn’t be full of such mortals. Fortunately, Nobilis is a narrative game that focuses on the player characters – so the actual consequences of the rules are not really relevant.

Cool And Shine:

Cool and Shine are special mortal qualities that not all mortals have but that many Nobles will. I’ve already covered how they break the game over HERE at more length – but to summarize… a Noble’s Shine can be used in place of a mortal’s ability whenever a mortal wants to honor you or implement your agenda. And somewhere out there… there is pretty much sure to be a Noble with Shine 5 with an agenda to suit any desired action. So all mortal skills and qualities are irrelevant, infants are as good as trained experts, and there is no point in studying or training; everyone is at the limits of mortal potential already.

A Noble’s Cool acts as a penalty on penalty on “mundane actions that cause problems for, injure, or influence someone cool or an organization, person, or situation that the Cool person is actively watching over”. This has more wiggle room to it – but if my Estate is “Depression” (“Depression is not doing anything”), anyone who actually does something is injuring my Estate/Self. If I have Cool 5, as long as I am watching over my estate… all mundane actions everywhere in the Nobilis multiverse take a -5 penalty.

Net result? If Cool and Shine apply to all those NPC’s, all mortals are effectively absolutely identical. Fortunately, in Nobilis… rules only really apply to player characters.


Next up, it’s describe your domain. Perhaps I will pick Fire, and decide that…

  • Fire is friendly and obliging, it helps out when asked and would never hurt anyone (3).
  • Fire is the element of change and transformation, reshaping and recreating what it touches (1).
  • Fire can appear anywhere, for all things contain and understand fire (1).
  • Fire is a magical gateway to a beautiful non-euclidean wonderland land full of fire spirits (see #1) that are friends (1)!
  • Fire Provides endless life and energy, for it is an eternal force and makes up every soul (1).

And now that I have defined my domain… it has always been that way, for that is the nature of Fire and “history” changes to reflect such supernatural imperatives.

So… no creature has every been injured by Fire (or, for that matter, by cold since they can always call on Fire). Everything can call on their inner fire to transform themselves and other things so long as it does no harm. Fire is always everywhere, even if it’s well hidden. You can pass through a fire to travel to anywhere or visit the fire spirits in wonderland. You soul is part of the eternal fire, and so people can spontaneously heal or resurrect themselves. Everyone knows all about this, and so is free to call on fires aid at need. Human beings have ALWAYS been unaging, self-resurrecting, capable of shapeshifting at whim, able to create whatever they need, and able to transport themselves across reality in an instant.

Oops. I think I broke things again. Still, that’s one reason why each Nobilis game has its own unique flavor; what aspects of the world are important, and how they work, are defined by the players when they make their characters. It’s just assumed that no other Nobles have ever done much of that, just as it’s assumed that whatever Estate a player wants is going to be available. The NPC’s don’t matter.

Stuffed Animals…

  • Come To Life As Mighty Guardians To Do Battle With Nightmare Things (2).
  • Stand Upon The Boundaries, Holding The Gates And Powers Of Dream (2).
  • Are Knight-Errant Guides And Rangers Of The Eternal Dreamlands (1).
  • Are Wise Protectors And Teachers Of Children And Adults Who Still Remember (1).
  • Are Always There For Any Child Or Remembering Adult Who Needs Them (1).

Remember! There are no laws of nature and the “past” is a fiction that changes at whim – so all those places where the game appeals to “how things work” to describe mortal limitations or how difficult various miracles are… are irrelevant. Why is hot snow difficult? It’s not like there’s any law of nature stating that it cannot be hot and cold at the same time.

Well, lets try creating a Noble.

  • The Passion “I am a dance instructor *****” Costs exactly the same as the Superior Quality “I am an ancient d20 gold dragon *****”.
  • Bonds allow you to ignore penalties (referred to as “Obstacles”), such as realities objections to the use of your more magical Passions and Qualities. “I love teaching children to dance! *****” costs just the same as “Dragons overcome all obstacles!”.
  • The Affliction; “Small children always learn to dance beautifully when I teach them! *****” will be useful to the dance instructor (although it might do some pretty weird things to the kids), but will it be as useful as Affliction: “My draconic abilities are powerfully miraculous! *****” which will make every use of that “ancient d20 gold dragon” quality (sorcerous powers, vast strength, near-invulnerability, etc, etc, etc) into a level six miracle? After all, they cost the same.

Now lets add a Bond to Mr Dragon: Something philosophical and generic, so that I can pretty much always apply it. Maybe “Demonstrating My Might” or “In The Service Of Sapience!” or some such. Now all those draconic tricks have a baseline of Miracle-6 with Strike-5 and are protected from interfering miracles with Auctoritas-5 – before Mr Dragon uses any miracle points.

Use the other three points of bonds for ways to get more miracle points. You may not need them for anything much, but they’re always nice to have.

OK, the game has broken again and we haven’t even spent any character points yet.

You can also pick one to three contacts – entities who have made an important difference in your life. This won’t break the game because they don’t’ really do anything, but they’re there if you and the person running the game cares.

As for spending those points… A lot of people buy “Immortality” or some such, which is nice if they run out of miracle points and don’t have a relevant affliction like Mr Dragon – but honestly, the “combat system” outright states that characters can’t be killed without the players consent. They always come back if the player insists (the “Damage System” is examined in much more detail in the comments over HERE). All that spending those points gets you is a way to avoid being temporarily inconvenienced. Since the game master is encouraged to just make up NPC’s as needed, any game statistics used against them are simply a way of telling the game master how determined you are.

The Attributes are actually fairly balanced in isolation – but Mr Dragon doesn’t really need Aspect. He is already vastly superhuman in pretty much everything and has vast miraculous powers of magic to boot. Persona and Domain both let you control your estates attributes in yourself and the world – but a “1″ in each will do. That will let you enact level five stuff for 4 miracle points on those rare occasions when your dragon powers will not do.

Treasure though… Treasure lets you access other domains entirely. With each miraculous piece of treasure… you can define another chunk of the game reality to suit yourself. You can get some Treasure to cover anything you think you might have problems getting your dragon powers to do – or add some dragon power boosters. That way you can bump those dragon power miracles up to even greater heights. So Treasure 5. That breaks the game much more subtly (it just makes any other characters far less important to have around), but still leaves four character points to spend – enough for a +1 to either Persona or Domain, an Aspect of 1 if you want to bother just in case, or four points worth of Gifts. Perhaps more defenses, just in case?

I never did pick his actual domain, but so long as it’s abstract enough the details don’t really matter unless you’re buying something like “Domain of Destroyed Domains” or “Acausality” or some such. How about “”Realms that haven’t been extensively damaged by the Excrucians, and so still have natural laws and systems independent of the Nobles”? Or perhaps “Nobles”, and then go around creating new Nobles. Why not take “Miracles” and just hand out “Miracle Points” yourself?

Admittedly, Nobilis revolves more around your ability to talk persuasively than character statistics, but it would be nice if it’s mechanics actually worked properly.

Finally, we have Destiny.

Destiny is actually fairly simple. You decide on something you want to accomplish – and if you talk about it enough, and occasionally try to work towards it… it will eventually come to pass. It will even come to pass if you just endlessly try stupid stuff, since being told “that will not work” moves your project along quite effectively.

That’s right. There is no provision for the characters ever actually failing in the long run. If they talk enough, they succeed!

Admittedly, that success is limited. According to Nobilis….

It is, by rule, ambiguous. You have to leave wiggle room for the HG. You can’?t say that you win, or that things go down a certain way. Like Imperial miracles, Destiny leaves the world more than a little space for interpretation. But the thing that happens is something that matters. It says something real.

And no. I can’t break that any more than it already is.

Like it or not… Nobilis really does not function as a game. What it does function as – and quite well at that – is a piece of RPG performance art or a set of Rorschach Ink Blots for gamers. If a group picks it up, and examines it – and if enough of them are pulled in by the kaleidoscope effect – then they will soon pull a setting and a crude set of rules customized to work for them out of it. It gets everyone invested in the game by getting them to build it. It focuses on the characters because they really ARE at the center of the game and setting that the group has just created.

If it works, you will get an enthusiastic and deeply involved group playing their own personal variation of Nobilis. If it doesn’t… then the game bombs and Nobilis goes back on the shelf. That’s why “Examples Of Play” are so scarce, and rarely make a lot of sense to anyone except the author when they do appear.

Fortunately, poor or simple mechanics don’t necessarily prevent you from having a lot of fun. For that I’ll just reference the “Magic Prairie Dog” games over HERE. It’s the background and setting that really makes or breaks narrative systems since, in order to make them work, you really have to buy into their version of the world – and Nobilis wins on that front, since it neatly maneuvers the players into designing the setting for themselves.

Personally… As a game collector, I own copies of both the second and the third edition of Nobilis, but I just mine the interesting bits to port over to any rules-light game with mechanics that actually work. That’s why we played considerably more Exalted games using the Baba Yaga rules than we did with the Exalted rules – and why the one long-term Exalted game we played using White Wolf’s rules wound up rewriting the system anyway.

Role-playing doesn’t depend on the system, or on dice or the lack thereof. I’ve role-played plenty of games that don’t normally have any role-playing component – ranging from Chess (sometimes as the kings, sometimes as the pieces as they moved, sometimes alternating between both) to the Ecology board game (roleplaying a civilization as it moved through the Hunting, Agricultural, Industrial and Atomic ages). I’ve played in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns where months of weekly sessions might go by without checking character sheets. The wind-down of the second Federation-Apocalypse game continued for several years that way. For that matter, several groups have had a good deal of fun playing Spades with Magic cards – narrating why they thought one card or another should be a trump, and awarding tricks by consensus.

Narrative systems back off on the “game” aspect, so that the characters, story, and players take priority over the setting and mechanics.

That means that the setting and the number of important actors in it has to be fairly small. After all, if you admit to the existence of a lot of other groups who are changing the setting in their own ways, and driving their own stories… then the players efforts are going to be lost in a sea of effectively random events. Think about trying to set up Amber or Nobilis as a MMORPG. Would that work?

Given that there are plenty of MMORPG’s out there, and none of them use narrative systems, I’d say that the observed evidence says “no”.

Now there is nothing at all wrong with that limited focus. Narrative games can be all kinds of fun. That’s one reason why there are a couple of Amber character diaries up on this site.

Amber was entertaining. It took a lot of work and manipulation to wind up in total control of the universe with all the other characters as pets while following the rules of 1) Always tell the literal truth. 2) Give anyone who asked whatever they asked for, and 3) never do anything to anyone that they did not ask for. It was even more amusing that it took more than twenty sessions after the conquest before any of the other players figured out that anything had happened.

D20, however, has it’s roots in Wargaming. Settings where you are presented with a situation and a certain set of resources and must deal with it as best you can. Everything that exists in the setting follows rules. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fence-post or Azathoth, a group of clever players can put together a plan, gather their resources, and beat it, even if they’ve got to grind a lot of levels first. Even in games like Call Of Cthulhu, where the “true” (offstage) Outer Gods are eternal forces of nature… you can destroy or banish their local manifestations. Sure, it’s inevitable that someday someone will fail and the world will end – but it need never be now. “Not today” is always an option.

There’s an earlier article on the distinction between the implied rules of the source material and the actual rules of the game over HERE.

So why all this converting? Well,..Jirachi wanted to know how to convert some ideas from Nobilis, it’s always an interesting puzzle and test of Eclipse to try to convert specialty games into it’s mechanics, and there’s nothing wrong with promoting a playstyle that’s focused more on politics, manipulation, and building up the world than it is on killing things. So why not convert some Nobilis ideas?


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