The Gates by Murat Turan - art from Nobis © Pantheon Press LLC

The Gates by Murat Turan - art from Nobis © Pantheon Press LLC

Nobis is a game supplement about to be released by Pantheon Press for the d20/ D&D 3.x game system. Campaign Mastery was priviliged to be amongst a selected number of blog sites given a pre-release glimpse of the new release for review. Although this commentary will focus on the Background to the city-state that is at the heart of the supplement, its potential as the basis of a new campaign, and its capacity for integration into an existing campaign, I want to start with a couple of general comments.

General Concept:

Nobis is a world on the cusp of a paradygm shift in its social, technological, and philosophical foundations. Small pockets of civilization have suddenly made monumental advances, casting aside the feudal caste system in general usage and embracing democracy. They are “expanding rapidly, moving into uncharted territory with often violent and unexpected results,” to quote the supplement. New communities are being founded on the peripheries of old Kingdoms, sparsely populated nomadic lands are now home to thousands. Alliances have formed for mutual protection, for potential profit, or by conquest. More than ever, wealth equates to power, and once-important political figures find their authority waning. To some, ‘thinkers’ place the world in greater danger than it has experienced in living memory, as they meddle with powers better left undisturbed, while others see new opportunities opening before them; while the city-states offer “modern conveniences and access to information on an unprecedented scale, crime is rampant and organised guilds vie for control”. The campaign setting, in other words, is early Renaissance in nature, not the medieval background most common to D&D, but the old ways are not going to vanish without a fight.

Nobis cover art by Eren Arik © Pantheon Press LLC

Nobis cover art by Eren Arik © Pantheon Press LLC


Contents:

The Nobis supplement is divided into 18 chapters of varying length:

  • Nobis Calender
  • A Brief History Of The World
  • Map of Nobis
  • The City-States
  • The World Beyond
  • Major Guilds
  • Secret Societies & The Underworld
  • The Gods of Nobis
  • Magic & Spellcraft
  • Races of Nobis
  • Classes in Nobis
  • New Feats
  • Fencing Discipline
  • Firearms
  • Reputation System
  • A Nobis Campaign
  • Adventure Hooks

In addition, the chapter on Gods contains some new domains.

Utility of the setting

This is incredibly high – if your existing campaign is ready for firearms, and you’re ready for the politics to move beyond the standard feudal system of D&D into something with which a modern audiance will be more familiar. The utility is equally high if the campaign is to be a new one. The supplement is brimming with ideas – inspiration leaks out from virtually every paragraph.

Let’s look at a couple of concrete examples:

The World History

YR 6973 – The earliest records of elven society date to this period. The few tattered remnants depict a time of great darkness. Some speculate that the Elves of Illysium closely guard a more detailed history and a secret too dangerous to reveal to the world. Myth and legend are all that remains from the ancient world.

YR 7142 – Powerful Druidic sects, disciples of Derrin, band together, forming the first great Empire on Nobis. Isolated along the southeastern coast of the great continent, Sigrast would stand for more than 200 years.

Right away, ideas and exciting, unanswered questions erupt. What is the relationship between the Druids and the Elves? Did the Elves instruct them? Or did the Druids seek to emulate the elves? Multiple campaign possibilities quickly emerge – it would be quite easy to construct a campaign in each of these time periods, in effect writing parts of that ‘lost history’ with a succession of PCs taking centre stage. These don’t have to be long campaigns – two or three adventures might be enough – but by the time you’ve worked through 1220 years of historic “highlights” like this, divided into 86 key ‘snippets’ (the first two of which I’ve quoted), I would be surprised if you couldn’t get half-a-dozen or more linked campaigns from this section alone!

Alternatively, using all this as backstory (the way it’s intended) would give an extremely rich campaign, with sources galore for scenarios. What is the elvish secret – and can it re-emerge to threaten in modern times? What was ‘the time of great darkness’ – was it simply a time when societies were primal and primitive, or was there something more going on? Are there druidic secrets lingering from the time of the Sigrist Empire? Where does the dating system come from? “Year One” in any dating system usually commemorates something significant, though the likelyhood of that event being remembered almost 7000 years later (the earliest records) or 8100+ years later (modern game time) is pretty much nil. But the long-forgotten sometimes has a way of becoming significant, especially in a world where uncharted territories are being explored for the first time. Both high fantasy and low fantasy can work in this setting, with equal facility.

The looseness within the descriptions of events not only leaves the GM free to devise his own answers, lending a uniqueness to each campaign set within Nobis, it makes it much easier to integrate Nobis with an existing campaign. The names of places may have to be changed (either in the supplement or in your world) to make them fit, but there is almost always a way. Show me a campaign that isn’t either set in a period that could be described as “a time of great darkness”, or doesn’t have such a period in it’s history, or both! Heck, that’s where the adventure comes from!

With so many ideas bursting from these pages, you don’t really need the campaign suggestions on pages 78-79 or the Adventure Hooks on page 80, but they are the icing on the cake. This section ALONE is enough to justify buying the supplement just to strip-mine it for ideas and inspiration!

The City-States

The supplement only presents one of these in full detail, known in modern times as “The Gates”. It includes a detailed map, descriptions of key locations, and details of the High Council that rules the city-state. In fact, everything you need to base a campaign from the location is provided; given the right style of campaign, PCs need never leave to have a full and entertaining career. The supplement uses 14 pages of its 80 in describing The Gates; only three more are dedicated to the other city-states and points of interest within the area collectively known as “The Advancement”. I got the impression that further supplements will detail other city-states and locations in as much, if not more, detail, and this was later confirmed by Pantheon Press.

Old Rules Expanded

It’s virtually an unwritten rule of the 3.x supplement market: You don’t have to include new spells, you don’t have to include new domains (but Nobis does), you don’t have to include new classes, but you virtually ALWAYS have to include new Feats. Nobis has 4 pages of them, falling into three broad categories: Feats associated with the new rules for fencing & firearms, feats relating to the higher educational standards achieved by ordinary citizens within the City-States (but not those beyond it), and general feats. The first two are so intrinsically linked with the new rules that they can’t really be considered in isolation, though perhaps some of them might be adapatable as general feats even if the adventure-setting and its implicit foundation assumptions are not taken into your campaign. In terms of the last category, there are some ideas that I’ve seen before (because they work) and some new ideas that were exceptionally good. There will probably be one or two that I don’t like – that’s the usual mix – but I didn’t notice any. I’ll leave it to others to cover the feats in more detail, and to the judgement of the audiance what they like or don’t like.

New Rules

More significant than the expansions of the new rules in the supplement are the new rules for Fencing, Firearms, and Reputation.

I have to admit that I was very pleased to see these included. It’s my personal philosophy that Campaign considerations trump Rules system (and are trumped in turn by playability); House Rules are, or should be, an integral part of any campaign setting, to emphasise and control those aspects of the game that make one setting different from another. The rules should evolve to match the campaign, instead of the campaign being constrained within the existing rules. The authors of Nobis seem to share this philosophy.

Fencing

It took only a quick glance to tell me that this subsystem add-on to the rules needed closer inspection than a quick glance! Which it should; it has a difficult job to do. Not only does it have to be balanced in its own right as a widespread combat system, it also has to capture the flavour of Fencing – preferably with the swashbuckling style of the Pirates Of The Carribean movies – and, thirdly, it has to integrate with the existing styles of combat without giving one side or another too much of an advantage. At the same time, it has to present a clear advantage over the old style of heavy armour and heavy weapons, or it would never have displaced those techniques. This is a fine line to tread, and an in-depth analysis of the attempt presented here should be left to a dedicated blog post – hopefully, someone else reviewing the pre-release will be doing just that. I can state that a few minutes contemplating the problems started giving me my own ideas for achieving them, so it’s fair to say that at the very least, Nobis has fired my imagination in this respect as well, and I look forward to reading this section in greater depth.

That means, of course, that even if the rules the supplement offers don’t work for my campaign, they can still contribute material towards the system that I ultimately employ, so Nobis won’t be wasted, either way.

Firearms

This faces essentially the same problems as those raised in discussing Fencing, with the added complication of achieving balance with the Fencing system as well. Again, it took only a couple of seconds contemplation of the problems entailed to appreciate that this was another subject that needed to be dealt with in some depth, an impression confirmed by a preliminary glance at the rules pages on the subject in Novis. In fact, everything that I wrote about the Fencing rules applies equally to the Firearms rules.

But I’m particularly interested in this section because Pantheon Press claims that they have taken a radical new approach here, simply because they were not very satisfied with any previous attempt on the subject. I have also been underwhelmed by the techniques offered elsewhere in this department, so I’m going to be approaching this chapter of the supplement with considerable curiosity. There’s one fairly obvious technique that’s occurred to me after glancing at the chapter in question, but it hasn’t been tested as a concept, never mind translated into functioning rules; it will be interesting to see how closely my undeveloped & untested idea matches their fleshed-out and tested one!

Reputation

If there’s one part of the Novis supplement that I approached with some apprehension, this was it. I’ve tried in the past to adopt a reputation system, and to integrate it with a social class system, and while it was not an abject failure, it never quite satisfied, either. I’ve also tried to adapt the Hackmaster reputation system into a Piety system, and it was a near-total flop, not only failing to completely achieve its intended ends (though it might have done, with a little more tweaking), but also being completely unworkable in terms of playability, slowing play to a crawl despite my best efforts at streamlining the system. The good news is that the Nobis system completely avoids the pitfalls and traps that I had previously tripped over.

I’m also of the opinion that no game system should give any subset of characters an advantage without conferring a matching disadvantage; otherwise, internal game balance can be too easily disrupted. For all that a reputation system gives characters with a good reputation an advantage, it should also give characters with a bad rep a disadvantage. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the Nobis subsystem meets this test, though I would have to examine it more closely to be certain.

Even that failure, if present, is not necessarily a rejection of the system; if the Nobis system disadvantages the characters it subsequently advantages in equal amounts, it might still be viable. The final criterion that I will be examining closely is how well the system projects into epic levels; some perfectly viable rules systems can only work for a limited number of levels, and some of my campaigns are projected to run to characters of 60+ levels.

Flaws

The biggest flaw not already discussed is what the supplement doesn’t contain. I would have liked to have seen a larger map, or series of maps, at a scale intermediate to that of the whole World and that of the City-state.

I would also have preferred the map that IS there to preceed the history section, or even for a series of reduced-detail single-column outline maps to help establish the relationships between the entities being discussed in the reader’s mind. How big was Sigrast, for example? You can’t tell.

That’s my biggest gripe, and it’s relatively trivial. What’s more, Pantheon Press have advised that the map will be available from their website as a free download in both high-resolution jpg and campaign cartographer formats!

Production Values & Conclusion

I could not end this review (and I know it’s gushed with praise at times) without mentioning the production values. I don’t know what sort of paper the supplement will be printed on, but in every other respect the production is first-class. I particularly want to mention the artwork, some of which is (deep breath) simply the most beautiful and inspirational illustrations I’ve ever seen anywhere, never mind in a game supplement (something you buy mostly for the words). PDFs of some of the illustrations in A4 size or even poster-sized prints of things like the panorama of The Gates on page 17 (reproduced in reduced size at the top of this blog) or the seascape on page 8 would be great extras to make available to the public (even if they charge for them). [I've been told that Artwork may be made available in several possible forms at a future date, as downloadable content, individual prints, or in a future book "The Art of Pantheon Press" (working title). If there is sufficient demand, a limited number of high-quality posters suitable for framing are also possible.] Not all the artwork was included in the review copy, but what was included said that this alone is almost worth buying the supplement for!

With so much useful content, and so few flaws, this is a supplement that is worth buying for ANY fantasy campaign. What will vary from campaign to campaign will be the manner in which you extract a return on the investment.

Want to learn more about Nobis? Read on…

Drop by Pantheon Press and pre-order Nobis today!

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