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Nobilis: The League of Extraordinary Americans

Started by Jonathan Walton, May 14, 2003, 08:50:30 PM

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Jonathan Walton

So, after seeing the trailer for "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" during one of the early showings of X2, I decided to finally pick up the infamous graphic novel by Moore/O'Neil and see what all the fuss was about.  My girlfriend and I curled up in a hammock and read it out loud to each other.  I got to do the voices for Allen Quartermain, Capt. Nemo, and Edward Hyde.  She got Mina Murry, the Invisible Man, and Henry Jeckyl.  Great fun.  It was a riot every time I tried to do Sean Connery impressions for Quartermain.

Anyway, later in the week, the local gaming group in Oberlin decided to host a "Playday" during reading period, so people could have a study break before exams started.  I was planning to run Nobilis, simply because I owed my players one more game before the year ended, but I was feeling more in a pulp-action sort of mood.  Thus was born...


The initial email I sent out advertising the event read:

QuoteIn the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, President Grant forms a para-military unit to combat the evils that are plaguing American Society.  Immoral industrials run rampant.  Bankers and monopolist entrepreneurs are destroying our way of life.  Inventors and mad scientists are turning out creations that defy the laws of God and Nature.  Foreigners and immigrants eat away at American ideals.  The remnants of the Confederacy still run amuck.  Discontent among Indian tribes has lead to raids on the frontier.  Outlaws and gangsters bring entire regions under their boot heel.  The rise of secret societies like the Ku Klux Klan, the Freemasons, and various devil-worshiping cults corrupt the minds of our citizens.  Who can stop this madness?

There have been a few great heroes in the history of America: Paul Revere and the Minute Men, Molly Pitcher, the legendary female cannoneer of the Revolutionary War, generals like Washington and Jackson.  But there has never been anything like the Liberty League.  Founded in the early 1800's by Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Mike Fink, Febold Feboldson, and Capt. Alfred Bulltop Stormalong, the League put fear in the hearts of all those who opposed Justice and Freedom.  However, the old league has long since disbanded, it's members scattering to the four winds.  But President Grant has decided to form a new League, bringing together the greatest heroes (and anti-heroes) of this generation.

John Henry, Calamity Jane, Jesse James, Casey Jones, Joe Magarac, Crazy Horse, and an undead pirate by the name of Blackbeard.  Together, they will return Liberty to this land.

I ran the game using a modified version of my already-modified house rules for Nobilis.  I should probably discuss my house system some other time, but here's the version I whipped up for LXA:

FACULTY (basically, Aspect)
IDIOM (a mixture of Domain, Realm, and a resource trait)
LEGEND (Spirit, though defensive alal The Rite of Holy Fire)

Attribute Levels:

0 - Normal                0 - Nuke
1 - Expert                1 - Missile
2 - Legendary             2 - Heavy Fire
3 - Improbable            3 - Guns
4 - Astounding            4 - Blades
5 - Impossible            5 - Fists
6 - Awesome               6 - Insults
7 - Anything              7 - Gossip

As in, "There's a man of infinite faculty!"  It's just a general measure of character power, physical, mental, and social, all wrapped up in a single attribute, very similar to Aspect in Nobilis.  It's what you'd use to chase down a speeding locomotive or build a steam-powered robot.  The more impressive the feat, the higher your attribute needed to be (and you could push attributes by spending points just like in standard Nobilis).

Each character had a specific Idiom that they embodied.  They were: Undead Pirate Captain (Blackbeard), Tough-as-Nails Cowgirl (Calamity Jane), Insane Engine Driver (Casey Jones), Fearless Sioux Warrior (Crazy Horse), King of the Wild Frontier (Davy Crockett), Infamous Outlaw (Jesse James), Steel Drivin' Man (John Henry), and Kung-Fu Physician (Wang Fei-Hong).  Whenever a character wanted to do something that was a clear part of their Idiom (Davy Crockett wrestling a bear), or wanted to possess a resource that should rightly be a part of their Idiom (rocket engines on Casey's train), or wanted to make something occur that fit into their Idiom (Crazy Horse having a horde of Sioux warriors suddenly arrive to save the day), they'd use this attribute, spending points if the feat was beyond their normal attribute level.

Never really got used in the game (like Spirit in most of the Nobilis stuff I've run), but it was intended as a defensive attribute parallel to The Rite of Holy Fire, which affords Nobles protection from non-miraculous damage.  Legend measured how "mythic" the characters were.  I explained it using examples from movies, where the heroes would charge through a firefight and never get shot, just because they were mythic.  At the lowest levels, it protected heroes from getting killed in ways that would be "fair or fitting," like being Nuked.  At higher levels, it would keep people from even slandering your name.  Like all attributes, it could be pushed to afford more protection.


I told all the players to choose a character and divide 8 points up among their attributes.  Then I gave them all 10 stones to use to push Feats (my equivilent of Miracles) during the game.  This was a general pool and not divided among attributes like it is in standard Nobilis.  That, I think, may have been part of the reason that nobody used Legend and Idiom was more popular than Faculty.  Seperating them into distinct groups makes people strategize and balance their spending more, something I'm playing with in my own game, Ever-After.


Since I was trying to replicate a specific feel (LXG + American Myth), I decided the cheapest and easiest way to handle it was through a little bit of Illusionism.  Here's the basic plot I had sketched out:

Quote0.  Briefing by President Grant about a disturbance in Sleepy Hollow, NY.

1.  Confront the Headless Horseman, who seems to be seeking his head.

2.  Follow the Horseman's head to New Bern, NC, where a bunch of Klansmen honor it as the head of Sir Walter Raleigh (the first white man to set up a colony in the new world).

3.  With the help of a tribe of Sasquatches (the remnants of the Lost Colony), liberate the skull from the KKK and reattach it to the Horseman.  It regrows flesh and soon makes it obvious that the Horseman is actually Blackbeard, who was decapitated, but whose body was rumored to have survived afterwards.

4.  The Klan has ties to a mysterious industrialist who is trying to gather important artifacts from American Myth.  The headquarters of this industrialist seems to be Homestead, Penn.

5.  On the way to Homestead, Casey's train raided by outlaws or indians, to have the token "fight on top of a moving train."

6.  Giant "Freedom" Mech, powered by the American Artifacts (a pit from Washington's cherry tree, one of Paul Revere's Horseshoes, a tea crate from Boston, a shard of the Santa Maria, the beads that bought Manhatten, and the American goddesses, Lady Liberty and Blind Justice), being built by a young Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie.

7.  Heroes' attempt to stop the mech and are confronted by a steam-powered cyborg made from the remains of President Lincoln.

8.  Machine comes to life and advances on Washington DC.

9.  Thunderbirds arrive to help Crazy Horse and carry the heroes to fight the automaton.

10.  Climactic finish.


The whole thing went pretty well.  It was definitely a ton of fun in many places, but some parts of the story seemed to drag.  Part of the problem with Illusionism, I think, is that the players get used to not providing any motivation for the happenings (since the GM is often feeding motivation to them), so it can get bogged down when my brain needs to take a rest and let the players drive the action for a while.  This could also just be me, because I haven't run a real Illusionist session since back when I used to play Rifts.  Out of practice, and it was my birthday, so I was already tired from what had happened earlier that day.

There were some classic quotes, mostly from my friend Will, who had a ball playing John Henry.  Will would just sit around thinking up clever things for John Henry to say and wait for a perfect moment to say them, sending us into fits every time.  He was like Issac Hayes meets Mohammed Ali.  Some choice bits:

"The only things I like are drivin' steel and kickin' ass... and this town's already got a railroad."

On asked by a Klansman where the Grand Wizard was (John Henry had already thrown him several miles out into the Atlantic), the 9-foot tall black man disguised in a white robe said: "He had to go to a... to a... lynchin' or something."

Davy Crockett, on having to take the Horseman with them to New Bern: "What are we going to do with a headless body besides get it drunk?"

Blackbeard's player, on discovering that she was an undead zombie pirate: "So... can I eat brains?"

Davy Crockett, when John Henry shook his badger-containing-bag, which the woodsman was about to fling open in the face of cyber-Lincoln: "Thank you.  I can rile my own badger."

There were also guest appearances by the Pinkerton Detective Agency and Virginia Dare's great-great-grandchildren among the Sasquatches.  Despite the fact that Blackbeard was being played by my girlfriend, the old crotchety pirate insisted on looking up the skirts of Liberty and Justice, and kidnapping Justice off to Washington where they would "retire to a little house with a white picket fence."

Near the end, the session seemed to get more and more freeform, as the mechanics mostly dropped out and most of the players started merely narrating their own actions in detail.  This left me with a somewhat unsatisfied feeling, because there really wasn't any sense of risk or opposition.  I hadn't had time to properly prepare how I would handle the villians or the giant mech, so I think I let the players get away with too much.  They left without a feeling of challange or accomplishment, and so did I.  It was fun, but in a way that was mostly was mostly silly, with a little bit of true adventurous spirit throw in.  Not quite what I was aiming for, but good all the same.

If I'd had time, I would have taken the time to learn Adventure!, which I'd purchased a couple days before, thinking I wanted to run something pulp-ish.  However, with exams and all, I thought it best to go with what I knew.  Nobilis worked okay, and many people swear that they use it to run superhero games, but it wasn't quite what I was looking for here.  If I was running a longer campaign, I'd definitely look into using Adventure!


This sounds awesome.  I wish I'd been there.

As somebody who's planning to do something similar in the Victorian era, I'm sort of wondering:

1. Anyone else got suggestions for a great system for this?

2. Jonathan, what do you think would have happened if you'd run it No Myth, just kind of letting them loose and throwing wackiness in the way of their rampage?
Chris Lehrich


For my money, you really can't do better than Adventure for things of that nature. I dig the sound of Mr. Walton's game and would do something much like it for heroes-writ-large, but Adventure's got that thing that works well for lower-powered but still astounding pulp of any sort.

The game lends itself to unique schtick, both through the knacks (if you're the finest shot in the world, you get a bigger dice pool bonus for overwhelmingly tricky shots than you do for simple ones, thus pushing a player whose character has the Trick Shot knack to shoot his opponent's gun-belt off rather than simply shooting him in the face) and the Inspiration Pool setup (which rewards big pulp action with the ability to perform more big pulp action).

So, yeah. If I ran a game of Iconic American Heroes, I'd probably use Adventure and ramp up the power slightly... that's my general plan for the High Seas Steampunk thing I've got brewing. Of course, that's five or six games down in the queue, so who knows what I'll end up using.