In Nobilis, players take the role of the incarnations of abstract ideas (or sets of concrete objects reified as abstract principles), such as Love, Wine, the color Yellow, and Death. The immediate inspiration for this concept is Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, an epic comic book series that chronicles the adventures of a pantheon of the Endless who incarnate seven key dimensions of existence.
Nobilis, like the Sandman, is profoundly Platonic: ideas exist as transcendent concepts, independent of human beings. Moreover, the number of ideas in the universe is near infinite: implying an animistic worldview like ancient Roman belief, yet without the localization of Shinto. A spirit isn’t tied only to a particular river, but to the essence of all Rivers. Nobilis is also achingly modern, set firmly in the present day of consensus reality in 2014.
In my favorite illustration from the second edition rulebook, two powers (dressed impeccably in leather trenchcoats and chic, haute couture dresses) phase out of their alternate ethereal dimension into the stark and unaesthetic reality of a Burger King restaurant. The combination of digitally manipulated photographs and delicate pencil drawings juxtaposes the sheer mundane ugliness of fast food menus and trash cans with the baroque filigree of enchanted elegance. Borgstrom/Moran leaves open the question of whether this encounter degrades the Powers or elevates the Burger King, to comic or tragic effect. The answer is almost certainly both, and the precise tone of the encounter inevitably depends upon the imagination of the Game Master (known as the Hollyhock god) and her players.
If all magic systems are languages (an argument whose practical consequences I argue at length in my forthcoming book, Game Magic), then Nobilis offers a combination of a universal grammar and a dizzyingly specific vocabulary. A Power with Domain over a particular Estate can work an infinite number of possible effects upon it. (One suspects that Borgstrom/Moran’s computer science background as much as The Sandman influences the concept of Domain, which in computing refers to the sum total of logical expressions possible in a given subset of a particular programming language).
In its handling of magical powers, the Nobilis system is closest to Mage: The Ascension, in which magicians wield power to change nine aspects of reality called Spheres. In the case of Nobilis, the number of these aspects of reality (called Estates) that can be changed is infinite and limited only by the imagination of the players. Indeed, because the player characters are the incarnations of these aspects of reality, skillful play consists in creative manipulation of the Estate over which a player character has domain. Players
manipulate these facets of reality through five basic miracle types, which are the verb sets of the system: divining, preserving, creating, destroying, and changing. Figures 1 and 2 below depict Realm and Domain miracles respectively.
The culture of Nobilis is rich, varied, and quirky. The Powers communicate and perform magic rituals through flowers, based on a fusion of the traditional European language of flowers (cf. Ophelia’s “rosemary, that’s for remembrance”) and a mythology that the angels built the world through the building blocks of symbols. Consequently, the key rules of the Nobilis world, which are both mechanics and fictional laws, are given the names of particular blooms, such as the Monarda Law (the Hollyhock god may never say “no” outright to a player) and the Chamomile Law (there is strength in adversity, so that a player gains Miracle Points whenever fettered by their character’s handicaps). Figure 3 is a list of the peculiar flower-fueled spells, somewhat archly called Simple Rites, by which the Nobilis work their abstract transactions of spirit and social climbing.
The cultural and historical background of Nobilis fuses ancient Roman concepts of genius loci and household gods (the characters’ fellow Powers are known by the Latin term of Familia, and all Powers wage a Great War with the Latinate title of Valde Bellum), as well as French aristocracy (Powers of various levels bear titles like Marquis and Marchessa). The lore of the world, delivered through masterfully concise fragments of flash fiction in the second edition’s margins and introductions, bristles with modern versions of Zen paradoxes known as koans as well as Vedic parables that would feel at home in the Upanishads. Like Emily Short’s Savoir Faire with its ancient Roman and French aristocratic magic system of semantic linkages called the Lavori d’Arachne, Borgstrom-Moran’s world is both mind-bendingly, metaphysically abstract and hauntingly specific.
Nobilis is sometimes a target for hate amongst role-players who favor a more traditional dice-based, epic fantasy affair of the hero’s journey of young stablekeepers’ transformations from zeros to heros. Charges levelled against Nobilis include the “not a game” accusation that plagues nearly every experiment in ludological innovation (including, ironically, the original Dungeons & Dragons).
Yet, Nobilis does something truly rare: by granting its players almost infinite power, it renders power fantasies null, demanding instead subtlety and imagination. Players of Nobilis can’t fall back on the staple mechanics of choosing from a pre-defined list of spells to fight with each other, or raising Pokemon with elemental powers to fight with each other, or accumulating stockpiles of weapons to . . . fight with each other. Direct combat between powers of overwhelming mythic stature is pointless. As Borgstrom remarks, “By the time two Powers come to blows, both sides have already lost.” Like all enthralling game mechanics, this is a metaphor for an aspect of life: the uselessness of direct confrontation in a world of mutually assured destruction.
Below are some snapshots of tables taken directly from the second edition Nobilis book, which will serve as a game master’s reference screen in the Nobilis campaign I’m running in my Contemporary Myth and Media class.