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Eric: The Aesthetics of Stupidity in RPG Development.

So, I'm writing this thing.

Like most of my RPG ideas, it came from having a bright idea and snowballed. It's how it works, for me. One day, something like "what if the paladins are really a divine secret police and the whole Lawful Good thing is just a front?" and a week later I have thirty thousand words on woods magic and the political evolution in Buttstonia's religious community. Or a comic strip. Or Websnark. But let's stick with RPGs for the moment.

A few days ago, I had a bright idea. It's occurred to both me and others before that Nobilis and In Nomine have some intriguing hooks into each other, conceptually, even though they're very different games mechanically.

However, in Nobilis, ordinary people are, at best, plot elements. At worst, they're cattle. In In Nomine it's somewhat better -- the Destiny and Fate of human beings is typically the point -- but the point's been made before that the humans really don't stand a chance in an angelic or demonic game, and... well, yeah. That's true. Dude, they're angels and demons. The guy from the 7-11 shouldn't be able to go toe to toe with them.

Well, one of my favorite games from the last couple of years -- which I've said to you guys before -- is Dead Inside. It's incredibly personal, incredibly evocative. The core concept of the game is the loss of one's soul, and what that one has to do to get it back.

I'm reminded, tangentially, of the old White Wolf jokes. The ones White Wolf developers are sick to God of hearing, I would add. The jokes that they should come out with a Role Playing Game called "Guy: The Slacking," about the one guy in the World of Darkness who isn't any kind of unusual being, isn't under the influence of some Cabal, isn't the cornerstone of some aspect of horrible reality... he's just this guy trying to make a living without noticing that there's packs of mages and werewolves and mummies and shit in the streets.

Well, Dead Inside almost comes from that point of view from the very beginning. Here's this guy, and someone steals his soul. It's like Midnight Nation, the Role Playing Game. It's horrifying without needing the apocalypse to do it.

And I thought -- that deadly thought -- "what if regular human beings have to cope with the Dead Inside issues on the human side, while angels and demons are dealing with the epic Nobilis scope on the divine side. What if it were all one thing?"

So, I wrote a Livejournal Entry about it. It went, in part, like this:

...there are ways to connect all three games if one can find a metasystem capable of handling the differences. Though the cosmologies are all independent of one another, that's not a dealbreaker if DI's spirit world was actually a Chancel, which itself had pathways to the Far Marches, which also had pathways interconnecting the Vale's two Chancels (Beleth's side and Blandine's side, which have an open border between them).

If you interconnected the Tethers to any given Word together into an interconnect web of entry points to each Superior's Tether, and made the Superiors and Ethereals on all sides Imperators, then the Magi of Dead Inside could become Soldiers, and the DI themselves would become proto-soldiers, but also one step away from being Undead -- which means Saminga is behind Magi and DI being able to crack humans and steal their souls. The human nature of Lilith (a Noble of Lucifer instead of a Superior in her own right, yet somehow able to act as an Imperator and create Lilim) implies that Lilim, in their dealmaking, might also be soulstealers.

What scares me most is how well all this works.

What scares many of you is how much of a geek I really am.

And I was right. A lot of people did think I was a geek. Because, well, I am. But they were also excited. Not because of the concept, mind. There are only five people on the planet, to my knowledge, who have Nobilis, In Nomine, and Dead Inside, and at least two of those people it's because I bought one or more of the above for them, goobing enthusiastically about how they're gonna love this game! No, they were excited because it's exciting to see someone make connections, get enthusiastic, and create. We love to see it, because it feels visceral to us. We feel like we're creating with them.

Over the next day, I wrote almost 5,000 words on the core concepts of this idea -- the very core ways the three extremely different systems fit together, and I posted that too.

And almost no one said anything.

Which makes sense. It's not mechanics or gaming. It's a process document. It's the detailing of standards. It's the outline you do before development, and it's unedited. And of course, there are only a tiny number of people who'll understand all the terms in it. I mean, I go from the assumption the reader will be familiar with "Impudite," "Imagos" and "Aaron's Serpent" right out of the gate. And that describes almost no one -- and almost certainly no one I don't actively know. Coupled with that is the fact that a standards document in gaming reads like stereo instructions, and what can you expect? Excitement?

Here's a thrilling example of what I mean:

  • Games that center on angels, demons, ethereals or other powers will be run under Nobilis's rules as modified below. This is an epic level of power -- far more powerful than core In Nomine. Human beings are significantly less powerful, but have a few avenues to approach celestials in power. (And the human Nobles of the few Aaron's Serpents on Earth equal it).

    • Nobilis is diceless, of course. At the level these games take place, there is little chance for randomness and every chance for metaphor.
    • Soldiers (made by becoming Anchors or rarely by soul cultivation or soultaking by Dead Inside) are more powerful in their own right than both In Nomine and Nobilis would normally allow, but far less so (generally) than angels or demons (referred to in this text as Celestials) or Ethereals (capitalized to echo Celestials). However, Soldiers can potentially become Sorcerers, whose power approaches that of their former masters, and it is rumored become Immortals whose power would equal that of a Celestial or Ethereal. Some say this is the way that Lilith, a human, became a Superior. Others say she is some kind of Anchor of Lucifer's, and her Word of Freedom is bitterly ironic. Generally, Soldiers will be NPCs or act similarly to Anchors in Nobilis (under the control of players, allowing Celestials to see what is happening in more than one place, and the like), though their ability to affect the Spirit World with Miracles and the like without Disturbance or causing humanity to freak out is extremely valuable to all their masters.

    Exciting, isn't it? I bet you'd be even more excited if you knew what a Noble, Soldier, Celestial, Ethereal, Anchor or Word was, in these contexts.

    Part of the problem of reconciling these three cosmologies is they're at diametrically opposed levels of power and scope. Let's take Nobilis and In Nomine for a moment. Let's say you make two basic starting characters, and make them focused more on the physical than anything else. In In Nomine, your corporeally-focused character can smash his opponents really well, hurling them across alleyways and making them hurt. At the same time, even a human being could fire a 16 mm shell at them, and if they hit, the demon's vessel would be paste on the side of the road.

    In Nobilis, on the other hand, a basic starting character focused on the physical (or Aspect) could potentially hurl a hand-to-hand combatant from the Earth to the Moon, and if a human fired a 16 MM shell at them it would miss, or it would have no effect at all (through the Rite of Holy Fire), or, if the Noble wanted to show off, he could catch it, turn it around, and throw it back. Down the barrel. At any range where they had line of sight.

    Get into the mystical power side of it, and In Nomine Servitors of Fire can produce green flame from their hands or possess fires or scour cruelty with purifying flame in a given room. A Power of Fire, on the other hand, can engulf entire cities with flames that they decide will only actually burn left handed seamstresses, or trivially fill a paper bowl with an eternal flame that doesn't actually consume the paper.

    It's a question of scope. Now, look at Dead Inside, where the average starting character would be disintegrated by a starting Calabite from In Nomine... well, pretty much ten times out of ten. And you see the essential difficulty.

    So. Here we have a project of appeal to almost no one, to reconcile three diametrically opposed cosmologies, worldviews, and power levels into a single conception, with tremendous levels of work that need to be done to it, for almost no reward, recognition or even players. The cost of entry for any outside person is high (they would need to buy Nobilis Second Edition and Dead Inside at a minimum for system details, and should get at least the In Nomine core rules and possibly various other guides for background details).

    It is, in other words, a wholly worthless project. A realization I came to, almost bitterly, on Saturday.

    It is now Monday, and I have written 5,000 words on the Nobilis implementation of Angels.

    This is not a standards document. This is full on development, written in a decent, readable style and detailing actual, practical mechanics. As an example:

    Resonance Limit: Inhuman (a limit of Spirit): Seraphim, more than all other Choirs, are removed from humanity. They can perceive the Truth of the Symphony far clearer than any other beingĖs Second Sight, and they have far less ability to empathize with mortal (or even lower angelic) shortcomings or compromises. This intolerance makes it hard for them to deal with humanity or understand their limitations, and causes human beings they deal with to react badly to them. In particular, it is significantly harder for a Seraph to develop the love necessary to form a bond with an Anchor. (Hate, on the other hand, comes easily... but given how little Seraphim consider human frailties to begin with, a hated Soldier of a Seraph has a hard row to hoe indeed.)

    THE DISSONANCE CODE OF THE SERAPHIM
    1. Deception is a Stain on the Symphony.
    2. The Most Holy do not Stain the Symphony.
    3. One cleans the Stains others leave as well.

    You see the difference, of course. You might not understand much here, but you almost get the sense that you should understand it. And you get the feeling (I hope, anyway) that if you had the full document in front of you that you could work out contextually almost everything I said.

    So. Why? Why am I writing this? Why am I writing a merging of three incompatible games, including significant mechanics work, to develop a setting that no one will ever use?

    Because I want to see it done.

    This is exactly the same urge as computer scientists have when they decide to wipe out the core memory of their brand new Sony PSPs and install BSD on them. This is the urge to prove it could be done, to build something that makes aesthetic sense to you. To nail something that seems impossible and to make it work well.

    If you think about it, I'm even handicapping myself. I've decided to run angel/demon style games using Nobilis, and human level games using Dead Inside. I know both games and would be comfortable running both games, but I'm probably about as expert as anyone on Earth in In Nomine. I can generate mechanics for that game in my sleep. I even wrote an entirely new Word system for In Nomine once, designed to bring Nobilis-style flexibility into In Nomine's power level. To do this thing in the other two game systems, instead, means doing a ton of research, of testing of concepts, of development work.

    And that's the point. Maybe this is proving to myself that despite largely sliding out of the RPG world, I could still do core mechanics development. Maybe this is like doing a Masters thesis in RPG game design. Maybe this is just the project car I have sitting in my garage. I dunno.

    All I know is, when I'm writing the mechanics, I have a smile on my face.

    Is there ever a better reason to do something stupid?

    Posted by Eric Burns-White at April 4, 2005 10:45 PM

    Comments

    Comment from: Sahsha posted at April 5, 2005 12:06 AM

    Nope.

    Do it! It may even lead into something else ;)

    You'll never know if you stop now.

    Comment from: DarkStar posted at April 5, 2005 12:11 AM

    I think I need to buy all of these games now. I've wanted Dead Inside for a while, but... damn.

    If my head din't feel as if it was about to explode (before reading your post - need Advil!) I'd be a lot more excited. Honest. This stuff sound REALLY cool. But I'm a junkie for stuff like this.

    -D

    Comment from: cartoonlad posted at April 5, 2005 12:33 AM

    The reason why I didn't mention a thing about it is because you posted it to your LJ account on Saturday and I didn't get to read anything on my friends list until Sunday or today, so it was buried.

    That said, it looks pretty cool.

    Comment from: Doc posted at April 5, 2005 12:34 AM

    Just for the record, I've wanted to buy In Nomine for a while (the politics side of the game makes me tingly with ideas for overly complex storylines), but I've never RPG'd before and neither have (most of) my friends and I lack scratch, so yesterday I bought Dead Inside instead.

    The point? I've been reading Dead Inside and comparing it to what I know of In Nomine (lots of background not much mechanics) and I've been sorely wanting someone to do what you are doing now. Because even though they are totally different systems, somewhere deep down I feel it would work

    You are like a geeky Da Vinci sir, what we mere mortals can only barely percieve you paint in full colour murals of on the freaking roof.



    Oh just for my geeky curiosity how do you fit Imagos in? Ethereals would be my guess, but they'd have to be fairly powerful.

    Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at April 5, 2005 12:35 AM

    Right now, I'm currently writing, I am utterly convinced, the worst review of my entire life. It's for something I've built up in my head for so long, and something that actually exceeded my expectations. I'll never make it satisfactory for myself.

    But yet, I'm going to keep doing it anyway. Even if it comes out flawed, you can't just abandon a dream, not one you believe in. If nothing else, someone will come along and refine it for you, because it's partly their dream too.

    Comment from: cartoonlad posted at April 5, 2005 12:37 AM

    Wait. Over the next day you wrote five thousand words? You put all of us at 24hourrpg.com to shame, sir. To shame.

    Comment from: Eric Burns posted at April 5, 2005 12:48 AM

    Doc: Oh just for my geeky curiosity how do you fit Imagos in? Ethereals would be my guess, but they'd have to be fairly powerful.

    Superiors, actually -- so, Archangels, Demon Princes, Ethereal Gods and Aaron's Serpents. They represent aspects of the world via their Words, at least as far as the Dead Inside are concerned.

    Cartoonlad: Wait. Over the next day you wrote five thousand words?

    Yeah. Um... Heh. I do that.

    Comment from: Minivet posted at April 5, 2005 2:23 AM

    Being uninitiated, my eye just sort of passes over your excerpts, reminding me of the experience of reading Ray Smuckles's mental emissions.

    Comment from: Secretland posted at April 5, 2005 2:40 AM

    Wow. I mean . . . wow! I'm a huge fan of both Nobilis and Dead Inside. I'm less familiar with In Nomine, but, if you ever wanted to do an online playtest of this game, I'd totally be in for it. It sounds very cool, and finding anyone to play anything other than D&D is a challenge sometimes.

    Comment from: miyaa posted at April 5, 2005 3:05 AM

    I'm reminded of a White Wolf published d20 series (well, it had an interesting blend of White Wolf and d20 rules) called Engle. It's about a post-apocalyptic world (specifically Europe) where somehow parts of the Catholic Church (which apparently weren't able to keep parts of the Bible from disappearing, so its "laws" have an old testiment feel) survive to essentially run post-apocalyptic Europe. Players play Angels. They choose the Angelic faction they want to play which each has their own little sect. There aren't any other kind of heroes, and people are just mooks in this game more or less. They fight evil demonseed things that are essentially really mutantized bugs. But there's a secret that the players/Angels don't know...

    (pause for spoiler space)

    ...they're not angels at all, but children that were taken when they were very young (called "tithing" where mysterious knights on horse take a tenth of the children in a city, village or burg) and are genetically enhanced to become what the Church views angels as (while genetic manipulation is either illegial or impossible to do since the post-doomsday world hates the tech that caused this). Most of the angels die (forced on by the Church in a rather gruesome "head towards the light" kind of death) before they reach puberty, less they really realize they're not really angels.

    The series is based from a German comic book series. So here we have a concept of angels that tries to combine the two worlds, but in a way that does not allow the players to realize what really happened to them unless the DM wishes to let them explore their origins. Granted, it's not a good example of trying to combine both the supernatural and natural worlds because quite frankly this game went way over the top and roleplaying a child who is brainwashed to believe he's a mature angel sounds really bizarre, even by White Wolf standards. It is as bizarre as Krypto: The Superdog (God, what's next: Justice League Babies?).

    And come to think of it, that's my basic problem with In Homine and Nobilis. They are both over the top in their concepts and their ideas of how to play angels and demons are very bizarre. Nobilis is gorgeous to read and the book itself is very heavy and awkward to carry.

    Comment from: Major Teroh posted at April 5, 2005 5:10 AM

    A Freind of mine has both Nobilis and In Nomine so he's two thirds of the way there, he raves about both games, by the way. Also whenever we want to do a system conversion, it always seems that it is possible with GURPS. I beleive that there's already a GURPS In Nomine but I've never played it.

    My current aim is to convert Exalted to GURPS, I'm a long way off but I will do it.

    Comment from: JoeFF85 posted at April 5, 2005 6:37 AM

    Sounds like an interesting project. I don't really know anything about any of the games beyond what you rave here, but I still find that sort of exercize interesting. Then again, I just spent a good bit of time figuring out how to impliment Rifts in a Forum setting with no dice, for players who didn't have any of the books and knew nothing of the setting. I guess I just feel like I understand the whole bit about working on things that you know noone will understand until you refine it further.

    Comment from: Chris Anthony posted at April 5, 2005 6:50 AM

    miyaa: "In Homine"? Angels and demons at war over Southern cookin'...

    Also, it's worth noting that Engel was originally a German game (just as In Nomine was originally a French game, In Nomine Satanis/Magna Veritas - hm...), which White Wolf (specifically Arthaus, I think) imported and reworked for d20.

    Major Teroh: yes, there is already a GURPS In Nomine, although it hasn't yet been officially updated for 4th Edition.

    Eric: I'm going to hold off on putting this on the INC until I know where you're going with it - don't want to hamstring you if you decide to finish it and push it through e23 or something. (And I do owe you some comments - I have that entry del.icio.used, and I'll be getting back to it as soon as my schedule stops being "work - sleep - repeat".

    Comment from: Wednesday posted at April 5, 2005 7:21 AM

    This is exactly the same urge as computer scientists have when they decide to wipe out the core memory of their brand new Sony PSPs and install BSD on them.

    WHAT NOT DEBIAN

    Is there ever a better reason to do something stupid?

    A world of no.

    Comment from: elvedril posted at April 5, 2005 8:54 AM

    That sounds like a really great idea. I've friended your livejournal just so I can read up on it when you mention it on there.

    Then again I'm rather predisposed to liking your idea, I'm actually (in spare moments, curse my need to work on a master's thesis) working on a roleplaying world which is partially influenced by Nobilis. As part of it I'm also combining rules systems (mostly Nobilis, Exalted, and Legend of the Five Rings, though I'm itching to reach into Dead Inside as well). So the idea of somebody doing something even more ambitious is a good motivator to slack off a bit more and develop the places where the realworld and the dream interact in my concept

    Comment from: Reave posted at April 5, 2005 11:47 AM

    If I may shunt this topic aside for a second...

    Eric... really... come one man. "Secret police?" "Lawful Good is just a FRONT?" I mean - what's next? Chaotic Evil isn't really evil, just misunderstood?

    Please... you seem like a better guy than that to throw yourself in with the "good is actually evil" crowd. Or are you writing for anime series now?

    ZING!

    I kid, I kid - but as long as you're keeping good, evil, and evil-on-a-budget... I mean... neutral as they are INTENDED to be, then Paladins really can't be all that secret.

    Lawful Good as a front. Puh-leeze.

    No biscuit for you!

    Comment from: Eric Burns posted at April 5, 2005 11:58 AM

    Man, teach me to throw out a one-off example I figure people will generally understand.

    I'm now overpoweringly tempted to go ahead and write up the Stalinist Paladin Corps.

    Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at April 5, 2005 1:05 PM

    I have mine too. See, I have this Excel spreadsheet...

    In the mid-70s when I was an adolescent M*A*S*H fan and an adolescent STAR TREK fan, I played this game with myself which I still call T*R*E*K, which answers the question no one but I would ask, "What if James T. Kirk never existed - but Hawkeye Pierce was born 300 years late?" Back then it was a way of creating new STAR TREK when no one else was. Now, of course ...

    I consider it a game with no right or wrong answers but answers which work better than others, and most of the answers that stand after thirty years work rather well. In my spreadsheet I have notes on characters of importance ranging from Radar's mother (Vulcan in T*R*E*K) to post-op patients dying redshirt deaths.

    Sometimes when I discuss this, people object, "But STAR TREK's heroes are its ranking officers and M*A*S*H's aren't." Or, "But STAR TREK's characters are career officers and M*A*S*H's are reluctant draftees." But these issues I dismiss as cosmetic. For both starship captains and MASH surgeons - like all heroes - spend their careers cheating death.

    And if someone were to object that there was never any practical worth to the exercise, I could just point to Arthur, King of Time and Space.

    Comment from: jpcardier posted at April 5, 2005 1:19 PM

    "Exciting, isn't it? I bet you'd be even more excited if you knew what a Noble, Soldier, Celestial, Ethereal, Anchor or Word was, in these contexts."


    Celestial: Angel or Demon. In Nomine.


    Ethereal: Pagan god, goddess or totem spirit. In Nomine.


    Word: Both concept and title. A Celestial with a Word is tied to that Word. He or She (or they in the case of Kyriotates) rise and fall with the rise and fall of the concept. General concepts are more powerful than specific ones. The Angel of Forest Fires is less powerful than Gabriel, Angel of Fire. The Demon of Razors is less powerful than the Demon of Media. In Nomine.


    Soldier: A mortal ally of a Celestial. In Nomine.


    Noble: A Power, I believe. From Nobilis.


    Anchor: My guess, this is a tie to the mortal realm for a Noble. Nobilis.


    You might be able to tell that I love In Nomine, and do not own Nobilis. The entry cost was a little high for a game I would never play. But I do love Rebecca's work. I was blown away by her Exalted stuff. She has a voice like no one else.


    Eric, as someone who forcibly married Rifts and GURPS Supers, go for it. The reason why we hack systems is work out a cool concept, not for market share or even for mind share. Disparate power levels are hard.


    But you should do this. Because it speaks to you. The last concept that spoke to me sparked a game that lasted 3 years.

    Comment from: Reave posted at April 5, 2005 1:26 PM

    Eric,

    Only if you then write an impressive essay on the poorly-treated Mind Flayers and their ages-old culturally-synced concept of eating brains.

    Tastey, tastey brains!

    Comment from: Copper Hamster posted at April 5, 2005 11:04 PM

    I follow your LJ as well as websnark. I find this intruiging, however I don't have much ability to comment as a) I am completely ignorant of the mechanics or full depth of any of the settings you are using, and b) really, my critical skills are... lacking.

    It did however make an enjoyable read, and I gleaned quite a bit of info 'between the lines' as it were.

    Keep it up. I'll never play it (my rpg group works hard to get a session that stays together more than 3 weeks these days...) but I enjoy reading the stuff almost as much as playing... if it's interesting.

    Comment from: miyaa posted at April 5, 2005 11:51 PM

    Chris, okay, okay. I was writing this while watching the grits/palenta Good Eats episode.

    Comment from: Sempiternity posted at April 6, 2005 1:53 AM

    I love this stuff! Arcane game design makes me all warm and fuzzy inside (well inside my spreadsheets anyway...)

    It seems every other Gamer (me included, if you count miniatures games) is also an amatuer game designer - if only more people would publish their complete or semi-complete ideas we might be able to solve some of these problems...

    Go for it! >_>

    Comment from: Nerrin posted at April 6, 2005 12:10 PM

    ... I now think I need to run and get copies of Nobilis and In Nomine (I already have DI; actually, the recommendation here is what finally tipped the balance and made me get it). Just so I can understand all this. And then try to run a game with it. Because it would be insane and sprawling and damn cool.

    Comment from: Alec posted at April 6, 2005 2:57 PM

    As a new reader to your forum, I would like to point out that I also own all of these books/games, and I like your ideas. I'd be interested in seeing the full product. Good luck with your designs. =)

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