Sniffen Packets

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Nobilis and what to do

We tried out [Nobilis][] recently. It’s a very attractive game. We had some serious problems with it, though. Some are our own fault: character creation can take a long time, we knew it, and we still tried to do creation and run a short game in one session. Maybe with more emphasis on alacrity, we’d have had more luck. But some are due to mismatches between the game’s intent and the way we were playing.

For all that Nobilis is an avant-garde, indie RPG, it still uses a task-resolution system. The mechanics provide support for answering whether your character can perform particular miraculous activities, and for answering questions about resource management. They don’t provide good support for answering which of two debaters convinces an audience. I screwed up: I ran a game about convincing a doubting soul to either reject his faith or to confirm it. And I presented the central conflict as being about convincing him. This left us without mechanical support for the central question of the game. Whoops! Now we’re playing Convince the GM, a boring game at the best of times.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have left things there. I should have pushed the players harder—rather than letting the bad guys give them an easy time, playing by the rules, the bad guys should have cheated. Abduct the guy they’re all trying to convince and don’t let the PCs have access. Then I can assume that, if given access, the PCs will win the war of words—they just need to get there in the first place. That gets us out of Convince the GM, and into territory supported by the game’s system. From this experience, I set forth a law for conflict-based games with task-resolution systems:

The only conflicts playable in the game are composed of tasks supported by the game.

If something can’t be done with tasks supported by the game, it can’t become a subject of conflict within the game—it has to be resolved by GM fiat. For example, the ultimate outcome of a Flower Rite in Nobilis can’t be resolved with miracles. So it has to be done by fiat. Therefore, any conflict around the flower rite has to come from something else, like getting to the center, finding it, or removing opposing elements. No moves in the game can lead the players to occupy the winning position in the central conflict, so they must already occupy it—and the question becomes how to secure that victory.