Everyone should play Nobilis, really


Nobilis is a weird RPG currently on its third edition, though this post mainly concerns the second edition which is the only edition I have experience with.

If there was a Sandman RPG, that game would be like Nobilis.

The Setting

There is a secret war between creation itself and malevolent outsiders, Excrucians, intending to erase reality. Humanity as a whole is not aware of it, since their mortal minds would never be able to handle the spectacle of divine miracles. Think of it as the masquerade in Vampire. On the side of Creation stands united the Angels, the Fallen Angels, the True Gods and more. They form a sacred hierarchy, at the top of which stands, supposedly, God (though the rule book hints that he is missing), and beneath him are the Angels and everyone else. Certain divine creatures can ascend to the role of Imperator, a kind of protector of elements of Creation and each Imperator has under them a group of ascended mortals, the Nobilis. A Nobilis has been granted a fragment of their Imperator's soul, making their Imperator and their Nobilis part of a Familia.

Being a Nobilis, which is what all the player characters are, means that you are responsible for some element of Creation, some element that you need to protect. Failure to protect it will likely lead to your existence being erased, so you better not fail. When you make your character you decide what this element of Creation actually IS. It might be something vague, like Rebirth, or something more concrete, like Cubes or Dogs. Whatever it is you now have some rudimentary control over this concept, I will get to it in more detail later.

Each Familia (essentially a group of Nobilis and their Imperator) shares a Chancel, which is kind of like a demi plane. The design of this is up to the players. You spend Chancel points at character creation to build it and you can give it various features like strong defenses, magic cults, portals to anywhere on earth or even negative things like technology not working there, or revenge demons out to kill you. Negative properties give you extra points to spend on good properties. The players also collectively create their Imperator, a process which is analoguous to the Chancel creation system. There are good and bad qualities that can be purchased. Want a Cruel and Demanding Imperator who punishes failure and sends his Familia on impossible missions? You can have one.

A Nobilis Character
A character in this game is defined by 5 primary characteristics. First is their Estate, which is the thing that they are protecting. Rebirth, Dogs or Cubes. It can be anything and it's up to you to pick one when you make your character. The sky is the limit (not literally). The remaining four characteristics are the attributes, Aspect, Domain, Realm and Spirit. Think of each as the ability scores from D&D except a lot more important. Interacting with the world on a level beyond common human capability requires using miracles of the appropriate type. Aspect, Domain and Realm. Each type is associated with an attribute, and the higher your score the greater your discount when paying for a miracle of the appropriate type.

Aspect determines how far you are from a mortal. The higher this is the more advanced you are on a physical and mental level. If you want to outthink a supercomputer, drink a lake, swallow a city, or jump to the moon this is the attribute you need. These are all aspect miracles.

Domain determines how much control you have over your Estate. The higher this is the more advanced things you can do with your miracles. A Nobilis of Destinations could remove the destination from a road such that it does not go anywhere, a Nobilis of Books could translate all books into Esperanto (instantly, that is). These are domain miracles.

Realm is pretty much identical to Domain, except it allows you to use any miracles on anything as long as you are inside your Chancel (the private demi plane shared by the player characters). These are called realm miracles.

Spirit is the final attribute and it governs how difficult you are to manipulate with miracles and how many mortals you can transform into your own servants (kinda).

You can also purchase gifts, which are bonus properties of a beneficial kind, like being Immortal, Glorious (everyone is inspired by you) and more.

How It Is To Run And Play
If you didn't skip the previous section you've probably already figured out that characters in this system are overpowered compared to pretty much every other system. This means that you cannot possibly have absolute control over the game like you can have in D&D. If you send them on a mission to plant a flag on the moon all they need to do is take their flag and jump up there, stick it in the moon, and jump back down to earth. The characters and the setting are so enormously flexible that you unless you insert specific complications, they cannot possibly fail.

A lot of the joy of play comes from finding out what ridiculous things you can do with your miracles and the strange situations that can occur.

I find that when I GM this system I have a list (i use Emacs with org-mode for organisation) of important characters, imperators, npc nobilis and locations for reference which I refer to whenever necessary. I try to avoid having anything specific planned out, though I have an underlying "plot" going on. There is no point in planning for a specific "combat encounter" because quite frankly it's likely going turn out completely different from how you planned it.

Another excellent thing about this system is that the setting is basically designed in a way that encourages you to make stuff up, and there's basically no limit to it. It means that you can go completely crazy with your plots to a level that I haven't seen in any other system. The book is really good with this stuff, providing strange plot ideas: The Excrucians have cursed several trade routes such that all coffee beans transported that way dies, an Imperator wants the players to help move New York because it's blocking his view, an Excrucian is trying to destroy the concept of Treachery using the dark Flower Rite. etc. etc. It's completely bonkers in a great way.

I almost forgot: The game is diceless.

How The Book Is To Read
In terms of language, the book is amazing to read. It's full of small and often highly inspirational pieces of text and adventure seeds. In terms of organisation you will probably find it wanting. The book is very messy, and it can often be a pain to find particular pieces of crucial information. The designer is creating a 4th edition as I type this and I hope that one fixes some of the structural issues.

And The Verdict?
It's amazing, but the book is badly organised and in many cases unhelpful. I would recommend to anyone who wants to try playing something that is more focused on narrative and less on combat. It has a reputation for being unplayable, but I don't think that reputation is very accurate.

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I've heard of the game before but outside of a few of the concepts didn't know much about it.

Based on your description it sounds like something I'd be interested in checking out and maybe playing if anyone ever does a play by post version of it.

Thank you very much for your write up!

I had a copy of the first edition, don't know what happened to it. Didn't read very far into it. The line that said that Stephen R Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant was an example of the kind of story the game was for put me right off it.

I’d love to hear peoples experience playing it. At the time my friend that bought it struggled to come up with an adventure/ campaign idea he liked enough to run it. Which is why it’s always been my RPG ‘white whale’.

I think as mentioned in the original post, Sandman is a great source of inspiration to use. I remember thinking of Nobilis a lot while watching the Netflix series.


učim hrvatski
Reminds me of Nephilim and Immortal: The Invisible War, two games I also never got to play. I suspect I'd have to do some work to find a group who'd all be on the same page about playing, but it looks pretty far-out and interesting.

I'm currently in a Nobilis campaign and I hate everything about it except the diceless resolution. IMO the setting is so incredibly detailed, unfamiliar, and non-intuitive—with tons of accepted protocols and rules your character risks breaking—that you really have to develop setting mastery. That means navigating the author's firehose of wacky cosmology, which includes an infinite number of dimensions filled with anything you can imagine—sentient toasters in one, cartoon devils in another. And PCs are the gods of anything, no limits, no thematic connective tissue. You're the god of swords you buy in the mall? Ok, I'm the god of people who love candy corn. What do we do during a given session? The sky's the limit, so really, who knows?

It's Sandman filtered through Toon, basically. I get the appeal for some, but I'd recommend checking out Jenna Moran's later games that use the same system, but are way more coherent about what PCs do, and that don't feel like you stepped into someone else's annoying LSD trip.

(Also there's a PbtA hack where you play mortals in the setting, which I think looks way more manageable if, unlike me, you really fall in love with Moran's setting.)

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