Saturday, July 2, 2016

Nobilis Analyzed: Passions and Skills

Having explored how to recreate my campaign and fill in the holes, the rest of my posts are simply my going over my notes, re-evaluating my old NPCs and making sure everything is in place.  That means the campaign will happen sooner than I think, once I have a clear vision of how the world works.

That means I need to reacquaint myself with the rules, which is a good chance for you, my faithful player, to also get re-acquainted with the rules and for you, my non-nobilis reader, to learn a little about how the game works.

I released Vancouver this week, which included challenges, and next week will feature the mortal NPCs of Vancouver, which makes this a good time to look at how mortals work, and that means analyzing Passions and Skills.


These transparent green inchworm-spirits assignpeople their dharma — the way they should bein life, the path that is harmonious with them,the “destiny” that is given them.  
- Nobilis, Dharma Worms

Before we get into the mortal rules, one must understand the Nobilis concept of dharma.  Dharma represents the "Destiny" of things, where they're going, and what purpose or role they serve in the world.  A super-villain exists to trouble heroes, to emphasize what evil is and how it contrasts with good, and to give heroes someone to punch in the face.  He has a great dharmic weight in that he exists and he can impact the world, but ultimately his impact exists to be undone by heroes.  His minions, by contrast, exist to get pummeled by heroes.  That's the role they serve in life, and little more.  A minion might have a wife and a child and dreams of finishing his GED, but these have little dharmic weight: he doesn't matter, and all of his hopes and dreams are sure to be crushed by the greater dharma he has of dying hopelessly in some firefight against a super-hero.

If that sounds very narrative, that's because it is.  The point of dharma in Nobilis is to represent the desire of players and GMs.  An extreme example of dharma might be a game master who railroads a game: If the GM is determined that the players will fight a specific villain on a stormy rooftop, then that is their dharma.  If he is determined that one of the players will fall for a femme fatale who will die, then that is her dharma.  A minor NPC has little dharmic weight because what he does doesn't matter for the story.  Ghost miracles have little dharma because they don't change the story.  If a male Noble peeks down the blouse of a female Noble, who suddenly yanks out a shojo mallet and brains the lech, he'll show a dramatic and repentant wound and weep for a moment, but then that illusionary moment will pass because it wasn't real.  It had no narrative, thus dharmic, impact on the story.  She did not draw a real mallet and really strike him with the force that would fundamentally harm or transform him.

Some things matter to the story, if it matters to the world, if it can shape events, shape characters, then it has great dharmic weight.  If it doesn't matter, if it can't shape events, then it has little dharmic weight.  The direction of the story, the intent of the Hollyhock god and his PCs, is that story's dharma.  It is Jenny Cho's dharma to be Jack Livingston's Anchor and foil, to push and pull him into growing up.  That's why she exists in the story, and thus why she exists in the game.

The railroading GM is a bad example because a Noble has transcended his dharma.  Whatever the world intended for a PC no longer matters.  Players make their own dharma.  Thus, the GM must work with them, as the PCs are sort of co-GMs.  Mortals do not make their own dharma.  This fundamental difference is fundamental to mortal passions and skills.

Passions, Skills and Mortal Difficulties

When a character faces a problem, he applies his passions and skills and Will against it based on the difficulties found on page 151 of Nobilis.  Passions are a one-sentence statement of belief, ideal or goal.  Skills are a one-or-two word statement of competence.  When a character attempts to do something, he "creates an intention", an intention he describes, by spending some Will. Every character has 8 will and they can spend 0, 1, 2, 4 or 8 (but the last causes a wound) to create their intention.  Obstacles represent penalties/difficulties to the task. Tools represent bonuses to a skill bonus.  Characters also have access to a few cool traits, like Cool, which penalizes people who attempt to oppose you, Shine which assists other characters, and Superior Qualities, which act as tools for your own skills (but makes you inhuman).  Characters can have a maximum of 5 in any trait, and may have up to 8 traits.

When a character attempts to do something, they declare an intention using their will.  They may have up to 2 intentions active at once (You can have two mundane actions active, or one mundane action and one miraculous action, though the latter doesn't apply to mortals, obviously).  You compare your resulting value to the table on page 151 and then decide, eventually, if your intention is a success or a failure, at which point you regain one point of willpower.  If someone opposes you, the person with the highest value "wins" and his results take priority over yours.

So, for example, if James Smith, Virginian, is fighting with the vile Jean le Blanc, he can use his Passion of "Justice always Prevails +1"  or "Fightin' Man +3".  If he uses the latter and spends 4 will to create an intention of "Defeat Jean le Blanc", he has a total value of 7. If Jean le Blanc has a total of 4 to with the intention of "Escape Justice's clutches" According to the table, this means he "greatly advances his goals, which probably means that James Smith will beat the hell out of Jean le Blanc and triumphantly defeat him.  Jean's intent to escape is overriden by James' desire to kick his butt, but that doesn't mean it goes away completely. He can declare it a failure, but we could make the case that Jean is trying to escape justice, so he might have been defeated, but since James didn't use "Justice Always Prevails," or an intention specifying that Jean would be brought to justice, he can make the case that, though beaten, he can still escape justice.  So, he is knocked off a cliff or whatever, but lives to fight another day, and the authorities believe him dead.

Success, Failure and Dharma

If we look over the success chart, something interesting pops up: They don't talk about "success or failure."  In a game like GURPS, if I wanted to steal some jewels, I might roll Filch to snatch them.  The GM will assess an appropriate penalty, and if I roll right, I succeed, and if I roll poorly, I fail.

There is no "success or failure" on that chart.  Instead it has:
  • 0 or less: Make your life worse somehow
  • 1: Make yourself happy
  • 4: Advance your goals
  • 9: Do "the right thing"
and so on.  4 looks like success, but it doesn't explicitly say that it is.  What if I try to steal something and get a 1.  Then I "make myself happy."  What does that mean?

The truth is, the results mean what the GM wants them to mean.  A mortal cannot control his dharma, therefore, the GM decides what happens as a result of someone's actions.  He is guided by the suggestions in the player's intention and in the results of his value, but in the end, the GM's word is law.  The mortal does not control the outcome of his actions, only how he relates to that outcome.

Let's return to our battle between James and Jean.  Let's say that the GM has decided that Jean is the big bad villain, and will reveal some grand plan in a few sessions that the players must then foil.  This is Jean's dharma, and nothing mortal action can do will change that.

But let's say that James fights fate.  He takes his Fightin' Man skill and spends 4 will with the intention of "Kill Jean le Blanc" and gets a 7.  Assuming this is enough, this gives us the result of "Greatly advances James' goals."  But what are James' goals?  What is the nature of "Fightin' Man?"  What does the GM want to happen?  If Jean cannot die, then Jean won't die.  But clearly James greatly advances his goal which is, ultimately, to defeat Jean, to save the world, to get the girl, etc (usually, these things are defined during the project portion of avatar creation).  So, we have a dramatic moment where James shoots Jean, Jean falls through a window and vanishes.  James saves the girl, learns something important about the Jean's grand conspiracy, and when Jean resurfaces, he'll be missing an eye, or otherwise badly hampered, or perhaps even dying, doomed to die by James' intention, but not dead before he can complete his dharma.

Miraculous action doesn't work like this.  Miraculous action can rewrite dharma.  It can take a GM's plans and throw them out the window.  Even greater things, like an Imperial Miracle, are the dharma of the world.  But mundane action doesn't.  That's fundamental to how mortal actions work.

What's the Point?

Every game has the core gameplay that it turns around.  A D&D game is about killing monsters and taking their stuff using clever tactics, position and resource expenditures.  A GURPS game is often about formulating good, realistic plans to overcome a particular conundrum.  Nobilis is largely about creating a discussion and shaping a story.  Players state truths, and those truths must be interpreted.  We'll return to this theme again and again.

Mortal actions don't change the world.  They don't state truths about the world.  They state truths about how the character relates to the world and to his own actions. Thus, it isn't true that a character's actions don't matter.  Mortals can definitely impact the world (it's right there in the results chart), but it's in careful negotiation with how the GM sees the world.  A mortal can petition God to change the world, but he cannot bypass God and change the world directly.

When a player engages in a mortal action, it creates a discussion point, and by discussing the intention, the nature of the skill used and the current dharma of the game (as decided by the projects in play and the GM's narrative desires), a new outcome to the story is created.

Thus, ultimately the point of mortal actions is to serve as inspiration for where the story goes next.

What do Skills Mean

So what skills should you choose for your characters?

0 or less: Any character can have a negative skill for free.  They represent things that tend to cause the character trouble.  For example, if you have "I want to find love" at -1, when you go to find love, you're probably going to end up with a stalker or something.  Even with Will, you won't get very far.
1: For free, this skill will make you happy.  It represents stuff that your character might enjoy doing, and might even achieve something meaningful with 4 will.
2: This skill level makes a meaningful impact on the world.  This might be a professional skill level.
3: This skill level effortlessly creates impressive results. This might be your minimum for a certain level of mastery.
4: This skill level effortlessly advances your goals.  A character with this skill is profoundly successful at what they set out to do.
5: This skill level effortlessly improves your life.  Such a character might not always do what they want to do, but they'll do what they need to do.  For 4 will, they can achieve "Doing the right thing."  This is the minimum level for doing the right thing without injuring yourself.  This level of skill is singular: A character with this skill level is likely the only such character in the world at a given time.

Tools that improve your skill level don't actually improve your chances at success so much as how meaningful and impactful your actions are, which is an important distinction.  Thus, a sniper rifle lets you do things you could not do with a fist, and it might give you Edge in a contest, but it won't make you happier, or help you do the right thing, so it doesn't actually improve your action itself.   
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