This game is an attempt to make Nobilis, specifically the GWB, more easy to facilitate. To make it easier for the Hollyhock God.
It does this in two ways.
First, it rewrites everything that is Nobilis into the shape of Apocalypse World. This means that the mythology is much less explained and defined, and much more built by all the players, collaboratively, during play. This means that there are HG principles and moves, and fronts, to set up all the trouble the PCs are going to get into in a fair way. In GWB, when someone does something outrageous, who will react? In what ways? That is the HG's responsibility of coming up with, on her own. Here, she looks at her fronts and makes a move.
Secondly, it rewrites the setting in order to apply the one principles that serves most to make AW play as smoothly as it does: make apocalypse world seem real. The Nobilis world is not real, and shouldn't seem real. What it should do, is seem consistent. It should seem real in the sense that there's an actual coherent world in the fiction, and if the players probe it and pull it, it will react as expected, as opposed to the players probing and pulling the HG and see how she reacts, and from there see how the world reacts.
The Nobilis world can be made to seem real in this way, as written. It's just pretty damn hard. It is, at least to me, too fantastic, too out there, breaks too many boundaries. Remove too much of that and yes, it will not be Nobilis but rather World of Darkness, but some of it has to be removed before I can HG with confidence. And that is what this hack does: it does away with most of the Aspect rules and the vast interlocked high-power intrigue of imperators and familias. If you play and enjoy Nobilis by the Great White Book, then you won’t need this hack as I do. You’re welcome to enjoy it, though.
If you do pick away some of the hardest-to-grasp setting elements, what's left is a world that's in ways very resemblant of the GWB, but plays a lot differently. There are still nobles, they still do fantastic things, the scope of the game can still be the entire Valde Bellum... these are two main differences: the nobles cannot, with their bodies, easily excel at anything a mortal can do. And the nobles don't always have a guiding Imperator and familia; most nobles might not even know what an Imperator is. They're on their own.
Here emerges a new life for the powers. Find yourself at the wrong end of a gun and you might die same as anyone else. If your killer was learned in the ways of the mythic, he might take your estate and ennoble himself. Nobles cope with this in different ways. They might build a power base in the mortal realm, they might arm themselves with mystical artifacts, they might actually infuse their bodies with miraculous force at the expense of everything else... and in the end, the nobles will be a bit above the level of mere mortals, but not completely. And if caught at the right moment, even the noble who rules an entire Chancel will be threatened by a lone gunman with a vision.
What every single power has, is this: an estate. A piece of reality is lodged inside them, giving them an auctoritas and some degree of control over that estate.
What every single power had in the GWB, that is not as widespread here, is the following:
Maybe every noble does have an Imperator. Maybe there are familias, powers that are connected to the same Imperator. If they are, however, that it what the players find out in session six or so when one of them hits the roll when listening to the world with a 12+. Defined in the setting is that there’s something called imperator, and there’s this crazy dude claiming to be carrying out the direct will of one (you can even play that dude, it’s the Servant), but who knows, really?
Same deal here. Familias, in my view, is a construct to facilitate traditional role-playing story structure. Sure, it doesn’t completely lock you into the excrucian-of-the-week, adventuring party style of play. And sure, it’s not as if it’s tacked on afterwards to do this, mucking up the mythology and coherence. No, it’s well-grounded in the fiction, and very nicely ties a world that could include any story about nobles together to include mainly stories of groups of three to five nobles – just like a typical RPG group! But AW taught me that play doesn’t need that structure to be engaging. And I think that it’s possible to create a world that is alike the GWB, and as coherent and making as much sense, but without the notion of powers always joining together in groups of 3-5. Jenna even does this herself; check out the rules for playing with just HG+one player.
Same thing. Chancels are intimately connected to the whole one imperator-one familia thing, so with that gone there’s no good reason to mandate that all groups (they might not even like each other) or all nobles (that would be too much) should have a chancel of their own. Their still in the world, but due to the laid-back nature of the imperators they are created by a single noble (maybe with help). So not everyone goes through the hassle, and those who do are the Wardens.
In GWB, every noble had at least Aspect 0, and had at least 5 AMPs to spend. This meant that at the very least once per story, everyone could punch through the head of a mortal. Or a tank. I want a base level on which to place the harm rules from AW, and Aspect isn’t that important to me – so it went away. Most nobles are on the level they were before ennoblement. There are character moves that allow hem to do crazy things, and even ones (for the warrior for example) that allow them to do almost anything that qualifies as a crazy thing. But I see no need for every single noble to be able to jump over a helicopter from time to time.
If you desperately want that base level, you’ll have to play with another set of rules. We couldn’t have made these rules without the assumption that most people are human, physically.
Not every power makes anchors. That’s simply the truth in this game. Some do, like the Spirit, and everyone who picks the anchor move as an advance.
So not every power is even able to anchor a mortal? Well, if someone were to, in-game, study the bond that is created when someone does that, I don’t know what they’d find. Maybe metaphysically, every power can do it, and rules-wise this is reflected in everyone being able to choose the move as an advance. Maybe not everyone can; that the miraculous energy bestowed on a noble from having their estate inside them manifests as qualitatively different abilities.
In GWB, there were different types of beings. There were imperators (in a few flavours), powers, spirits, creatures from outside creation, and mortals. In 3e, we could count actuals as well. And there were some edge cases in the examples, like conscious songs or fictional characters.
In this game, this may be the truth. But it also may not. This is another one of those things that might be revealed to someone listening to the deep mythic. Maybe the imperators aren’t set apart from the nobles, but simply nobles who grew so powerful their estate widened and had to be outsourced to new bearers? Since there are creatures from outside creation that aren’t excrucians, how do we know they are different? Before creation, everything was outside creation, so who’s to say we don’t share a genesis with them?
This is why this game uses the term power so broadly. Anything above a mortal but below an imperator or full excrucian is called a power – nobles, sure, but also spirits, golems, excrucian shards (though often called unholy powers or powers of the void), the human incarnation of the World Ash and that mortal the noble of rivers infused with the force of the Nile. They are all powers, and nobles are the special case of anyone (or anything) that has an estate stuck in it.
This has gone without saying since it’s an Apocalypse World hack, but for the record: there’s no character creation where you pick and choose what foci, bonds and afflictions you want. There are playbooks designed to cover the archetypical player characters, or, failing that, archetypes of the Nobilis world that lead to interesting play. If there was a gift in the GWB that you badly want, you’ll probably have to either choose a playbook whose moves and gifts offer it, or work your way towards it in play. Tough luck. You could always design a new playbook, if you want it badly. It’s not impossible; it’s how the playbooks already in this game got there.
The fact that a lot of the things every single power did before breakfast in original Nobilis is thrown out the window here has one great effect on the game world. It becomes more mythic and incomprehensible, while not being less playable. A noble who can possess a mortal and use her body as his own, that’s one neat, and also a bit evil, ability! A noble who has a door in his basement that leads to a fantasy kingdom he rules, that’s wicked! Every single move and gift a character has in this game is a choice that noble has made, or at least something unique to that noble. He doesn’t have an anchor because everybody does them, but because he needs a mortal servant he can trust with his life. He seeks the guidance of his Imperator because his orders are the highest possible mission for him.
When starting play, you don’t need everyone of the players to read up on all the simple rites, the attribute miracle levels, the imperator and chancel rules, the gifts-bonds-afflictions system and the atlas of creation (the parts of it that “every power should know”). You sit down and play, and if at least one of you have read it I bet some of the setting elements will sneak in anyway - but for the HG to be able to ask “Rook, you follow the voice of an Angel. What do you know of heaven, is it real?” and then have the group commit to the answer is a freedom that doesn’t diminish the setting.
The world of this game is very different from the standard Nobilis world. It is the product of a number of thoughts, ideas and pieces of old-fashioned laziness.
First I thought, I want to play Nobilis. And AW is a really good system I want to play in. So combine. Then I realised, Nobilis has a few things I don’t want in AW, or that I can’t figure out how to make work in AW.
Firstly, the Familia Celaestis and the Imperator, meaning the PCs have to be best friends and work together. Sure, they can be mad at each other, but it’s such a ridiculously bad idea to actually hurt your Brother Celaestis that it won’t happen. I want it to be the other way around, like in AW - they have circumstances, ideally dictated by the Hx rules, that make sure their story is one story and not four separate ones, but if one of them kills another off in session 3, then that’s what happens.
So the familias were scrapped, and thus the imperators too. Now we have to redefine the world of the Nobilis. A noble is a mortal who gets an estate stuck inside him somehow. These estates aren’t distributed by a centralized anything, but just find their way around. If the Power of Fire dies, the estate is left to the mercy of the world, and will hopefully wind up being found by another mortal. Maybe the previous Power managed to write a will or appoint a successor, and his friends carried it out. Maybe he passed the estate on to his daughter before walking to the fatal confrontation with a hole in his chest, meaning he’d have died hours later even if he hadn’t been killed.
Then there’s this part about the AW setting that makes it work, and that’s the combination of scarcity, lawlessness and free-for-all feeling. I’m not saying that I can make a Nobilis games that plays as fun as AW, but I’m pretty sure I can’t do it if I don’t pay heed to this. So Nobilis’ world has to go dirty.
Okay, let’s try this. Nobles are humans who get ennobled, maybe often by mistake. No-one takes care of them, though often someone finds them and maybe tries to recruit them or kill them. They’re drawn into this other world of supernatural intrigue, where nobles, angels, devils and excrucians fight a completely free-for-all. I’m thinking of having a Lord Entropy that doesn’t care, but if I leave him out too we can really get the vibe - there’s no authority for what you do. You nobles are a law unto yourselves, and just like Roark can decide to just go burn the neighbouring hold down, Arikel the Power of the Night can try to kill the Power of the Sun to increase his own influence.
At the same time, the mortal world is still very un-apocalyptic, with functional society and everything. The trick here, I think, is to make this only a backdrop. The mortals that matter to the nobles should immediately be drawn into the game of Powers, and the nobles’ affairs down on earth should be taken for granted, overlooked, managed between sessions. Or at the very least be treated in very broad strokes - either you have a functional mortal role, with a job and a house and a a family, or you’ve withdrawn and have neither, or one of your enemies decided to wreck it now they’re all dead. No fiddling around - broad swipes or don’t care about it. That way the focus can stay on the part of the world that does have the AW feel of everything goes.
The world in general is loosely defined, just like AW’s is. Anything that anyone’s read in the Nobilis books or florilegia goes for inspiration, but for starters there’s the Earth, and everyone probably knows that there’s a World Ash and a lot of other worlds. There’s a Traveller playbook who, just like the Driver, makes the world bigger through his existence alone.
The mythology is pretty much the same - undefined from the start, but standard Nobilis rather than anything else. The affiliations are present in the Devoted playbook, so they could bear some explanation.
Heaven and Hell exists, governed by Angels and Fallen Angels respectively. These are not Imperators and (mostly) not nobles, but simply a kind of entity on the same level as nobles and mighty spirits. Same goes for the creatures of the Wild - the spirits you reach through High Summoning and the Wildlords of the standard Nobilis are kinda mashed up to form a being that isn’t more clearly defined than: creature from outside creation who settled in here, values freedom above all and follows their own, hard-to-understand rules. Defining them more closely is up to your group.
The Dark and Light might stem from the Garden of Eden and might even be conscious forces, but what you most often see is simply philosophers, scholars and preachers who follow the Principles set forth about how to treat humanity.
Apart from that, I think a very convenient way to shove this stuff is where you peek when listening to the world, especially the advanced 12+ one. My favourite idea is to have the Imperators be like the maelstrom in that everybody has a notion of them and that they exist, but few make contact and only one or two per campaign understand what they actually are. This means that the truth behind their existence and nature needn’t be defined until it comes into play, and needn’t be the same in different groups or even different campaigns. Maybe one time you find out the Imperators are large-scale estate spirits - the imperator of Water is responsible for the existence and spiritual guidance of the Powers of the Sea, Rivers, Rain and Soft Drinks. And then in another campaign the Imperators are just shadows cast by Cneph the creator. And in a third they’re a ruse from the Excrucians.
On the subject of making it a bit dirtier, the power level of this game is way lower than Nobilis. Every noble can excel at the mundane, just as any character can use a high-level Aspect miracle even if it’s not really their schtick, but the kind of play you get from Aspect 5 characters doesn’t happen. Even when excelling, the nobles of this game don’t go higher than Aspect 4-5 as described in the GWB
The other AW mechanics I’ll try to keep as wholesale as possible. Harm and armor should work, except that it’s not that improbable to have 4-armor temporarily, or inflicting 4 harm with your fists. Improvement is given. Gang and vehicle rules too, in the extent that they’ll be needed at all.
Barter is harder - as stated the ordinary money and favors of the mortal world should be treated as a backdrop, so that’s not what I’m talking about. Rather, barter (another name pending) should be what nobles, angels and spirits use to pay each other; an economy that is definitely based around bartering rather than actual currency. In AW, the players are most commonly presented with a choice at the start of first session: should we just call the oddments “oddments” or should we define what they are? Is it important that Gritch has a car battery and Momo has a can of fuel, if both are worth 2-barter? For some groups it is and some not, but I personally have always thought it isn’t.
In Nobilis though, we believe it is. There are no barter rules in this game, since bartering follows no rules. If you want something someone else has and you want a fair trade, you have to haggle with them. If they think your flying rhino is a good offer for the keys to the gates of Atlantis, then hey. If they don’t, maybe you could convince them to give you a discount (manipulate), or maybe you’ll have to find something else. The value of a service owed, for example is deliberately impossible to determine.
Core of gameplay:
What replaces fundamental scarcity?
What is the geographical scale of things?
What brings PCs together and what shoves them into the action? What do they care about, what is worth fighting for, defending, changing?
- What part plays mortals in this?
- The role and power level of Imperators and other supreme beings
The five stats obviously stem from AW’s stats: cool, hard, hot, sharp and weird. Hard is gone, replaced with noble, but noble does almost none of the things associated with hard. In this game, threatening people and forcing your will on them isn’t based on a stat of your, but one of theirs - vulnerable. This stat changes with the amount of harm they’ve taken, and harm includes both damage and the non-physical turmoil. This means that someone who’s off their balance, or someone you’ve just beaten up, is easier to force your will on.
Hot is called radiant, but does about the same things. Same with weird, here called mystic and used to listen to the world. Everyone is assumed to have and use the Sight described in the GWB as needed, so listening to the world means looking deep into the mythic reality and talking to the spirits there. Sharp is completely unchanged.
The last stat, noble, does pretty much what domain does in the GWB and what domain+persona do in 3rd edition. The moves for this aren’t finalised yet.
When you demand service of your estate, roll+cold. On a 10+, choose 3; on a 7-9, choose 2:
- You don’t suffer side effects
- It reads your will subtly
- The effects can’t be traced back to you
- It can act against its nature
Example 1: Say your estate is the sea, and you want it to rise up and wash away a group of gangsters bothering you by the docks. On a weak hit that will happen, and you’ll either choose to suffer side effects (becoming soaked yourself), to be obvious and bellow “I COMMAND THEE TO RISE AND SMASH THESE PUNY MORTALS” rather than just raising an eyebrow, or for the effects to be traceable, which matters if someone comes by the shore later and listens to the world.
However, if you wanted the sea to rise really high, and come bellowing down the street several blocks from the harbour, then you’d have to make it act against its nature. On a 7-9, that’s all it does: it’s traceable, you are being obvious, and you suffer side effects. On a 10+, you do away with one of them, but if you want to be tidy and discreet about sending the sea on someone, you’d better actually be by the sea.
Example 2: Say your estate is dogs, and you want it to spy on the presidential meeting behind locked doors where the power of television, your contender for political power, is sure to be present. Succeeding the roll will make it so that maybe the first lady’s little doggie happens to be present, or one of the suit gorillas has a guard dog with him.
Not choosing to have the miracle untraceable means someone can follow the trail either by mystical means, or by following the trail of dogs barking to each other until it reaches you. The side effects in this case would be that dogs would be very interested in both you, the president, his secret room, and anyone else present at the meeting for some time afterwards.
Your estate acting against its nature would be to have a dog steal the minutes of the meeting, or operate a CCTV central to get a tape of the thing, and bring it to you without chewing on it much.
When you instill your estate in someone or something, roll+noble. On a 10+, choose 3; on a 7-9, choose 2:
- It stays with them for a long time
- It influences them deeply
- The influence may reach a wide area
- The effects don’t drive mortals insane
Not staying with them for a long time means just this scene, maybe even shorter if it’s an immediate effect.
Not influencing them deeply means, for people, that it may only affect them purely physically, and if it’s detectable they will recognize it as a foreign influence. A deep influence passes through their defences and they’ll only acknowledge that it’s not coming from within if you point it out really clearly to them.
Not influencing a wide area means that the thing you’re influencing can’t cover a wide area, not that the person you made like the arrow can’t run far away. It’s more like, you can’t decide that the sea shall be like a road and safe to walk through, or that the mountains shall be like television and shift when you press the remote, because those things in themselves cover a lot of ground.
Driving mortals insane obviously only applies if mortals actually are in risk of noticing it, so subtler miracles like “you shall be like the sun and bring warmth to everyone you meet” is safer than “you shall be like the sun and shine with a light that blinds all”, if you don’t pick this option for either of them. Picking this option means that even the latter miracle will seem ordinary and real to them, though very odd and unexpected.
Turn their move back on them
They will often try to solve their problems this way, using their estate.
They might learn of a spy in their chancel, and say “You three are my loyal servants. Your loyalty shall spread like Fire to everyone else.” When they fail that roll, you twist their words, and the servants’ loyalty becomes like fire in that it consumes all other priorities in their lives, making them starve; or maybe it becomes like fire in that it burns their hearts and bursts out of their chests.
This incidentally works when they demand service of their estate too. They might say, “I am Trains, and Trains bring people to their destinations. My destination is the lair of this treachery, and I demand this train take me there.” When they fail, you tell them they arrive at an empty platform and find the train back has just left, the train taking the saboteurs – intent on burning the power’s home – to their destination.
Deal poetic justice (as established)
Look through crosshairs? It’s not as central in AW, where it’s a big point the game is making that it’s easy to destroy, kill, maim and tear down things while it’s harder to build, create, heal or bring things back. This isn’t necessarily as true in nobilis. I’m thinking of partially replacing this principle with one that’s about thinking mythically, being poetical, making connections metaphysically.
The Great White Book, meaning Nobilis 2nd edition