Nobilis: Session 3

Yesterday evening, we had the third session of Nobilis; and, as usual, I took a night’s sleep to let things settle and gather my thoughts before writing something up.

Setting and Style

The game is getting a little more settled for me now; there’s more grounding as we’re establishing more of the world. The characters themselves are also getting more settled, which is helping me find some handholds to engage with the game. My character, the noble of Fantasy, has taken on an otherworldly, only half-there half the time kind of attitude towards the fiction, which I’m enjoying to play. I’m glad to see that the GM is taken a bit of a Gaiman-esque approach to it as well, and the world he’s establishing is reminding me somewhat of American Gods. We went into the realm of another Noble by virtue of some manner of diner in the regular world, where somehow a 2.5m-tall figure could stride in without a problem. I’m enjoying this unheimlich aspect of the world, where everything is just a bit off somehow. I also appreciate that the GM leaned into what my character has been bringing into the fiction as well, but having the Lady of Mercury also hint at being a little odd. It’s always good when the GM understands where you’re trying to go with a character.

Comparatively, I’ve had some trouble communicating the same to the other players. I’ve been trying in-character to convey setting and narrative in a bit of that odd, fantastical manner, but I’ll need to work how on how to do that, as it hasn’t seem to have given the other players enough to latch on to yet. For example, there was a point where my character had knowledge of an NPC being connected to our murder suspect. While my character had mentioned it to one other character in-game, he didn’t act on that further; the other characters came in later, so they were as of yet unaware in-fiction. Sadly, dropping a hint to another character didn’t work to prompt that onwards. Later, whispering about a familiarity in the NPC to our suspect to a third character was sadly misinterpreted as assuming a familial connection rather than a metaphysical one, so again it fell flat. I just had to resort to outright mentioning it, after the scene had already exploded. I’m not sure yet how to rework my character’s interactions with the others to retain the otherwordly feeling while also offering more clarity for them.

Aside from being otherworldly and odd, I’ve been trying to have my character be nice, caring, and playful. In a sense, at its best, childlike, as some fantasy may be. At its worst, they’ve been playfully mean, teasing the Lord of Anxiety with fears of the unknown, as fantasy can equally show you things you don’t want to have happen. I’m trying to have the character just be very accepting. After all, fantasy comes in many shapes and forms, and the most important thing is to be welcoming of whatever may be presented. I’ve tried to put in small gestures like this here and there, such as sending out a random act of kindness in the second session, or letting an NPC go when they want to in the third.

Game experience

The pace of this session was, sadly, a little frustrating to me, to be honest. We ended the last session at such an interesting point: the characters had just received a formal invitation (with potentially a veiled threat? The GM did point out how in the phrase “cordially invited”, the word “cordially” was emphasized in italics) to a ceremony where the new noble of Coal would be instated, after the last one was murdered on our grounds. I remember the GM previously saying that, since everybody was a near-godlike being, most of the conflict in the game was diplomatic rather than physical. So, great! This emphasis-on-the-cordial invite must be the start of some interesting plot developments, and I was ready to get going. Personally, I would have wanted the session to pretty much start off with “so, you walk through the grand doors to the reception hall of the Chancel of Asphalt, Mercury, and Coal”.

The first forty minutes of the game, though, we’re spent in a long discussion on possible risks and threats. Do we need to wear formal clothing to this event? Can we get out safely if we go in? Would we be aware of the etiquette that we should observe? Should we scout out the place before we head in? To me, these seem like very gamist or adversarial GM concerns—ways to ensure that we don’t get penalized because we didn’t remember to bring a ten-foot pole, as it were. My reasoning, rather, was as follows: what happens if, in going to the ceremony of the new noble of Coal, we leave the murder weapon of the old Lord of Coal behind and it gets stolen? Well, the story clearly has moved in an interesting direction. What happens if, in taking the murder weapon to the ceremony, somebody spots it and makes a scene? Well, more interesting things happen.

Sadly, a similar thing happened soon after. The GM threw in what, to me, seemed like a small and interesting new lead to our mystery. A new character associated with our possible murderer dropped by our domain to give us a gift to smoothe some wrinkles. I initially tried to have my character push her towards the group as a whole, but the NPC desperately needed to get out and refused. My character had already been rude enough, so I saw no problem letting the NPC go. The way I figured it, either the gift that was given would provide us some clues; we also had the character’s name to follow up on; and, if there was more to find out, we could always schmooze at the reception later to try and find some more information. It really seemed like the GM just wanted to introduce a small new lead to help us along. Plus, if we solved the mystery from this one NPC already, that’d be no fun either, right? The rest of the party, though, was intent to latch on to the event and to interrogate this new character. The end result after half an hour was no more information bar the name of the associate, and one highly offended NPC out the door.

Mechanics

I’ve learned that I’ll need to engage with the mechanics more explicitly. As another player mentioned yesterday during the after talk, it’s fine to sit around chatting together but we’re also here to play a game, so that means interacting with the rule system as well. I’ve been unsure of exactly how to engage with it, due to my ignorance and unfamiliarity with the system. So, I’ve been low-key acting on the theme of imagination, fantasy, and the fantastical with my character, but I don’t think that’s led me to where I need to be. In one instance, I was trying to get my character to somewhat daze another character into a dreamlike state, so as to move them towards the rest of the party, but that didn’t work out much.

Another player, later, ran into that same character (quite literally), and showed me an example of what I could have done, as he explicitly stated “I want to create a sense of anxiety in her”. The characters in Nobilis have powers to do miracles, and I see I may need to use some of these more triggering verbs in what I’m doing: “I evoke”, “I create”, “I preserve” and so on. I think that will also help my GM latch on to what I’m doing and guide me around the mechanics of how whatever I’m trying is supposed to work. Later on, I had another moment of dissonance, as we needed to overcome a small challenge (walking a tightrope), which I assumed would be no problem for a near godlike being. However, the GM kindly reminded me that my character’s Aspect statistics was 0, which meant that they would not be able to properly walk that rope—a good lesson on what that stat actually does.

Overall, I’m enjoying that the mechanics are coming into play a little more. I understand that the GM has a difficult task here: one of the players is not a fan of systems at all, feeling that rules only need to be implemented when there’s some conflict, whereas I enjoy seeing systems at work and enjoy how restrictions encourages my creativity. That’s a hard set of extremes to balance! I think the GM did really well in this session, though, to gently introduce some mechanics in there while also keeping it light. A particular point that I appreciated in the system is that there was something of a gamble involved when one player wanted to impose their powers over another NPC: every character has something of a resistance to influence, and the player just had to guess what that NPC’s resistance would be. He’d either guess right and win out, or guess wrong and likely be exposed for what he was doing.

Overall

It’s still been a lot of setup so far, so it’s still too early to come to any conclusions about the game as of yet. I’m eager to get into Act II of this story to see about getting into some conflict points, which is where I’m assuming the system will start showing off its strengths. It does seem like the rest of the group is looking for a different experience than what I’m looking for, though, which is somewhat disheartening.

The characters also seem like five separate characters related purely by chance but little else, so there seems to be something of a lack of cohesion. I wonder if a more explicitly defined hierarchy in character creation could have helped; for instance, we could have had two players play more senior Nobles in the Chancel, with three other characters being newly appointed Nobles subordinate to the two. Alternatively, a more pressing unifying concept might have worked as well. For example, if the murder weapon was discovered, and all five of us were now being investigated as a band of suspects, we would all have a clear motivation to work together to overcome this challenge.

Having said that, as I mentioned before, while the pacing may be slower than I enjoy, the world-building is setting up an interesting cast right now. In particular I’m looking forward to what can happen in the next session, as we start off at the formal reception. Our characters have literally just discovered that they were invited to the ceremony privately, which is already mysterious enough—why them? Why now? Moreover, there’ll now be a whole cadre of Nobles around to interact with. So far, our supposedly noble characters have aggressively harangued everybody who’s dropped by, which seems at odds with surviving in a society hinged on mutual toleration. We may encounter a slew of new enemies or allies at this reception, or build some bridges here or there.

The next session is on the 30th, so we’ll see what the GM has come up with by that time.

2 thoughts on “Nobilis: Session 3”

  1. Thank you, once again, for sharing your thoughts with me.
    On the setting: Yes, it is very much like Sandman. It is an explicit inspiration for Nobilis. It’s less American Gods, because the Nobles exist regardless of whether they are worshipped or not — most Nobles are not!
    I do want to shake the players a bit up, to drive home that there is a lot of stuff going on at any moment, but our of your field of vision. One way to show how the society of Nobles is different from what you are used to, is to create slightly odd or unsettling situations — I use things that would make me uncomfortable, in hopes of eliciting this same feeling from the others. I’m glad that is coming across.
    I am very much enjoying your characterisation of your character. It subtly reminds me of Sandman’s sister Delirium — easily dismissed as an unstable child, but often with wise words and keen observations.
    The other players are (still?) in “problem-solving mode”, and some of the events are my attempt to move away from that and go into more of a “character-motivation mode”. That’s also what I’m trying to accomplish by getting the characters out of their Chancel and into the wider world. Maybe I should bring that up at the end of the next session (where I expect many new acquaintances are met, giving opportunities for socializing).

    On the gameplay experience: I did want to shake up the characters somewhat with the old fisher’s wife with her gift — not really important (at that moment) but perhaps this could become a meaningful gesture in the future. I had not expected the characters to jump on this the way they did (again: ‘problem-solving mode’). I tried to get her out of the door ASAP, but alas.
    It should be clear that the murder weapon is very fearsome indeed, and that many different groups may have different attachments to the object. Being a bit cautious with it is probably a good idea, and I did not think that we spent that much time on it?

    On the mechanics: Nobilis is a very ‘mechanics-lite’ game — or at least, that is how I interpret the game text. Using explicit phrases in the fiction to show that you want to engage with the mechanics. I can be a bit dense and not pick up on subtleties, so borrowing this technique from PbtA games is a good idea.
    I use the following cheat sheet to gauge what a certain level (and thus what a certain level of miracle) would be able to do: https://cammy.redbrick.dcu.ie/moc/wp-content/Nobilis%20-%20Cheat%20Sheet.pdf . Perhaps it can serve you as inspiration as to what you can/could do too.

    Overall: Yes, the characters are all separate individuals — that is by design. But there is a connection (you all share your soul with the same Imperator, after all), but that hasn’t really come into play yet. Perhaps if we’d create a different set of characters, we’d come to different conclusions, but I don’t think it’s a bad set of characters for a first-time game!
    The game is meant to have the characters ‘loosely coupled’, as each Noble can forge their own connections and pursue their own interests and projects — while also giving them a reason to cooperate when one (or all) of them are in trouble. At least, that’s what I’m expecting/hoping to happen.

  2. Thank you for the interesting perspectives there too. I wanted to say a couple of things during the feedback moment, but the other players were also so enthusiastically engaging already. Either way, I’ll continue to take some more thought and post on the blog here with more measured considerations each time anyway.

    I’m happy that the unheimlich feeling is what you’re going for, because that is certainly what I’m getting, as I wrote in the post, so that’s coming across great for me! The way I figured it is that beings of such impossible skill, knowledge, and abilities must have an utterly alien conception of reality, and yet being human in origin, they must also be deceptively familiar. It actually reminds me a lot of studying the Middle Ages, because all the individuals you read about are the same way: intensely familiar, because they’re still human and have all the familiar emotions and reasons, and yet at the same time there will be utterly bizarre moments in history because their society works just so differently from ours.

    Your comment on “problem-solving mode” is interesting, as I hadn’t looked at it from that perspective yet. That might, perhaps, also be a flaw in assumption on our part. The plot started off as a murder mystery, so quite naturally we can veer into a detective narrative where everybody is out to get us, and the goal is to solve this large puzzle of which everything we encounter is some sort of puzzle piece. Rather, I figured that a group has an internal power struggle, and for some reason the reckoning of that happened on our turf. We’ve had people drop by to basically say “Sorry about that! Please don’t worry about it, it was our mess”. From a royal diplomacy setting it makes perfect sense: you’ve committed a faux-pas, and want to make sure the other doesn’t come at you for it. However, in the detective narrative it’s sleight of hand as part of the larger intrigue: they’re trying to hide something from you, because there’s something secret and dangerous going on! So, I think you’re right, the problem-solving mode leads you to take everything as a clue which must be examined carefully.

    Oh, by the way, the hand discussion wasn’t that much of a bother to me; it was just another example of that same drive to avoid mistakes and minimize damage.

    Thank you again for that cheat sheet, by the way. You’d, of course, presented it at the start of the campaign, but as I wrote I now see how I have to signpost certain actions more strongly. That was, of course, because of my lack of knowledge about the system, but now that I know what I’m gearing towards, I can use the cheat sheet more effectively to act. I think I’ll put it up on my second screen while we play so I have a good reminder.

    I actually realize, as I’m writing this, that the metaphor of a noble family makes a lot more sense to keep in mind while playing (as if the title of the game wasn’t a hint enough). The Imperator would be the head of the household, and the individual Nobles would be the children. Each, of course, has to do something and will carry some responsibility, but they’re also lords and ladies (or otherwise) in their own right with their own agendas.

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