Mortal Rules

Understanding Mortal Rules

by Jim Henley (original post)


  1. It is not exactly a task resolution system.
  2. It is not exactly a conflict resolution system.
  3. It is not a long-winded way of saying, "It's all up the HG."
  4. It is an oracle in the form of a layer-cake of guarantees about Efficacy, Dignity and Productiveness.
  5. The cherry on top is a moral guarantee whose sweet taste we rarely get to experience.
  6. "How does that work, exactly" needs to be a real question. It fails when posed in the spirit of mere challenge.
  7. "You can try!" is a terrific invitation. It's a destructive taunt.
  8. You can get pretty far with the mortals rules thinking about how real people get through their ordinary days. In particular, think about where most people's real skill and passion levels rank, how Will points do and don't come back, and what that implies about the default quality of their work and relationships, and their background levels of dignity and success.
  9. It's also interesting to compare the Intentions system to things like Spoon Theory and various personal-organization systems, particularly the ones that emphasize the limits on the number of major accomplishments you can count on in any given day.

Let me unpack a few of these points.

Task resolution

I have a skill, "Chopping People Up with Big Axes." GM presents a villain holding my cousin hostage. We fight! (Me and the villain, not me and my cousin.) We apply mechanical subsystems and at the end of it I'm dead or incapacitated, the villain's dead or incapacitated, or one of us has fled or one of us has surrendered. My success or failure in the fight says nothing whatsoever about whether I save my cousin.

Conflict resolution

I have a skill, "Chopping People Up with Big Axes." GM presents a villain holding my cousin hostage. We fight! What matters is, I'm fighting because I have the goal of saving my cousin. We apply mechanical subsystems to directly determine whether I save my cousin. The system may or may not output my death, injury, surrender or retreat; it may or may not output the villain's death, injury, surrender or retreat.

It's All Up to the HG/GM

I have a skill, "Chopping People Up with Big Axes." GM presents a villain holding my cousin hostage. We fight! GM just tells me how it all comes out, as she sees fit: who wins, who dies, who embarrasses themselves, etc. The GM does this based on whatever esthetic, moral, generic, narrative or social principles move her in the moment.

The Nobilis Intentions system isn't task resolution because it never exactly determines success at a task. It's more of a scoring system like in figure skating. Compare:

  • I jump
  • I jump across the chasm

The Nobilis Intentions system isn't conflict resolution because it never completely guarantees fulfillment of a stated intention. Compare:

  • I jump
  • I jump across the chasm in time to save my brother

From either a task or conflict resolution perspective, the best the table guarantees you is, at level 7, that it "mov[es] you a lot closer to your goals."

It's not "It's all up to the HG." This is the rules. Most important sentence, from the paragraph after the mortal difficulty chart:

You also get the benefits of lower-level effects, at your option — for instance, a productive action is usually effective and can be “correct” or satisfying if you like.

Remember, not one word of Nobilis: The Essentials, Volume 1: A Field Guide to the Powers is directly addressed to the HG. Every bit of it, every "you," is written directly to the players. And when I say "not one word," I of course mean, not one word that I've noticed. The player gets absolute sway over whether she gets the benefits of lower-level effects.

The Layer Cake

  • 0/3/6: increasingly dignified;
  • 1/4/7: increasingly effective;
  • 2/5/8: increasingly productive;
  • 9: Inarguably commendable.

The Oracle

What the Intentions system does is give the HG wide latitude to preserve suspension of disbelief; generic consistency; narrative plausibility; and even, heaven forfend, his "plot," so long as he can satisfy progressively stronger and more sweeping levels of respect for the player and her avatar.

If you're the HG, you can totally have her clear the chasm with a jump of Intention 0, or fail to clear the chasm with a jump of Intention 9.

  • If you do the former, the default is to narrate how clearing the chasm was counterproductive - misguided, incompetent, pathetic. Somehow clearing the chasm screws things up for the player.
  • If you do the latter, your continuation needs to affirm, at the player's option, that the failure enhances her avatar's life, impresses the hell out of people, brings her much closer to accomplishing her intent than not trying would have, and underscores that it was mete and right for her to have made that jump.

If you can accomplish these things in a way that makes the game satisfying for all of you, go for it. If not, you need to rethink. There's nothing wrong with falling back on, "Well, it's not a very wide chasm, so your Level 2 Intention is perfectly adequate to get you across." Or,

"I jump the chasm."
[Ignores the difficulties chart.]"Yes, and as you land, the hydra turns from your cousin to confront you."

Though by implication, the player could respond to this latter, with:

"Hang on a sec. I've got Passion: I love to hop about! (3) and I want to sink 4 Will into this. This is not just any old chasm-clearing here! This is me saving my cousin whom I've known since we were babies from certain, monstrous doom!"
"Oh! Sure! That gives you a Level 7 Intention to clear the chasm and save your cousin. Your leap looks damn good. Your cousin happens to see it, and visibly takes heart from the massive impressiveness of it. Your followers give a great cheer, and your subcaptain exhorts them to fire a precise volley of fire arrows at the hydras head, 'For whatsername!' And you land closer to the hydra than the monster believed possible, so it's going to have trouble bringing all its heads to bear on you."

So, if there's one person in Nobilis threads who is most consistently tiresome on the topic of Nobilis HGs and the nerfing of PCs, it would be - me! And from a task or conflict resolution perspective, my ladder for brain surgery is probably the most nerfed of them all. (SlyBen's is along the same lines, but cleverer.) The point to that was to emphasize what has to come bundled with that: genuine, material subsidiary bennies.


Mortals can have up to 8 points of Bonds; 1-3 is reasonable for your average Magician or Hero. Normal people have none at all.
Bonds are statements about your character that drives them, helps them or hinders them.
Example Bonds available here, but here are a few possibilities:

  • "[2] I want my friends to be happy!"
  • "[1] I want to defeat my nemesis, Charles."
  • "[3] I fight bad-guys with my axe, Headchopper!"
  • "[1] I can't enter a house unless I'm invited in."

Bonds and Obstacles.

If there is an Obstacle in the way of your Intention, and one of your Bonds could reasonably help or motivate you, you may invoke it to help you power through. This gives its point value as a bonus to your Intent. If the Bond is higher than the Obstacle, this may cause a greater effect than would otherwise be possible.
Note that Bonds can't make the impossible happen; they cannot help you build perpetual motion devices or have intelligent conversation with plants - unless the base Skill/Passion you are using makes this possible (Various forms of Mad Science / Inherent Superiority / Magic skill).

Wheelchairs and Woglies

Are the mortals rules robust enough to center a game around, maybe of disabled people in supernatural adventures? I dunno! Presumably PCs in that game could still avail themselves of Projects. What would change is the idea of what's impossible …

Default Obstacle Numbers

by Jenna Moran (original post)

Obstacle numbers will vary a little by the genre conventions at your particular table, but here, let me whip something up:

Ob. 1 - "this is going to be tough"
Ob. 2 - "this is going to be ridiculously tough"
Ob. 3 - "this is something real people can't actually do"
Ob. 4 - "this is just plain goofy"
Ob. 5 - "this is impossible without a hidden cheat or cost."

Examples include:

Ob. 1 - Christmas shopping without any money.
Ob. 2 - Anything Miles Vorkosigan or John McClane does.
Ob. 3 - Quick hack into the Pentagon to send a military unit to an address.
Ob. 4 - Installing lasers on a shark.
Ob. 5 - Building a perpetual motion machine.

Most things with Ob. 3+ are "magic," but that's not a hard limit—-for instance, I'd let you install lasers on a shark with Aspect, because the goofiness is more quantitative (the sheer number of technical problems and issues) than qualitative.

Extended Mortal Rules Example

by Lighthill ( Original Post )


Part 1: Mortals in Action

Roger is a bright American high school student.

Passion: It's important to be kind (2)
Passion: Punk rock is the best thing on earth (1)
Passion: I'm going to be important some day (1)
Passion: I want to find love! (0)
Skill: Student (3)
Skill:Trombonist (1)

The school day is starting, and Roger is taking a math test.

He might be driven to succeed here by him Passion of "I'm going to be important some day", and his Skill as a student could help him finish the test. Only one of these can apply to the math test, though: he has to pick. The Skill's rating is higher than the passion's, so Roger's player decides to use it.

If Roger just uses the Student Skill alone, he'll succeed at a difficulty 2 task. Looking at the difficulty table on p. 151, difficulty 2 works out to: "Accomplish a task; have a tangible impact on the world". So Roger could breeze through the math test, answer some questions right, and hand it in. Since achieving a task of one difficulty gets you all lesser difficulties as well, Roger also succeeds at difficulty 1: "make yourself happy". He not only completes the math test: he feels good about it.

This isn't good enough for Roger. If he wants, he can spend some of his Will. Let's say that Roger hasn't been too stressed out all morning, so he has all 8 points of Will left. He can spend 1, 2, 4, or 8 points of will to create an Intention based on his Student skill, for a total Intention level of 3, 4, 6, or 10.

Now, spending 4 or 8 points of will would be a pretty big deal: it would take a lot out of Roger. He might wind up exhausted, short-tempered, or overstrained. If he used 4 or 8 points of will for *every* math test, he'd probably burn himself out and turn into a recluse or an antisocial Internet troll or something.

On the other hand spending 1 point of will is pretty safe, since you get 1 point back whenever an Intention succeeds or fails. Roger's pretty sure that he'll actually finish this test uninterrupted, and he really wants to do well, so he spends 2 points to create this intention:

Intention 4 (2 will spent, plus Student skill): Ace my math test.

So then Roger can succeed at difficulty 4. His test-taking will not only have an impact: it will be "something effective: something that moves [him] closer to his goals." Roger will do well enough on this test that his Math grade will rise a little, and he'll be that much closer to a good college.

(As above it also succeeds at difficulty 3 too: Roger's test-taking is not only "effective" but also "done correctly": people around him will be impressed with how well he did.) Roger declares that his Intention is successful: the test is done, and he aced it. Because it's over, he gets back one will. Now he has 7 Will.


Let's say that Roger is willing to risk his health to do better on his math test. Why would he want to do that? Maybe a good score isn't enough: let's say he did badly on his last test, and his parents hassled him about it and threatened to ground him. Now he wants to show them, show them all! So he concentrates for all he's worth, spends 4 Will, and forms:

Intention 6: Prove that I am great at math

Now, his intention will succeed at difficulty 6 ("something that looks damn good"). So let's say he'll turn it in with a flourish in half the time allotted, and stride back to his seat with a look that makes all his classmates say, "Wow, Roger's must have aced this test!" When the teacher grades it, he'll be impressed with Roger's work. And he'll get the effects of success at difficulty 5 too: it will actually make his life better — perhaps by getting his parents to respect him more.

Remember that if Roger only wanted the Difficulty 5 result, he can't spend only 3 will to get it: Will can only be spent in units of 1, 2, 4, or 8.

Of course, this takes a lot of Will out of Roger, and if he does it too often, it'll start to affect his health.

Part 2: Working together, multiple actions, interactions, and flurries

Carrie is another high school student. She's a charismatic computer nerd. She and Roger are trying to start a punk band called "Dillinger Death Cdr."

Passion: I want to be famous (2)
Passion: I want to experience something new every day (1)
Passion: I don't take crap from you (1)
Skill: Lisp hacker (1)
Skill: Punk vocalist (1)
Skill: Conventional singer (0)
Shine [2]

It's lunchtime, and they're sitting at the same table, with a bunch of other kids. Carrie and Roger are each sustaining an action:

Carrie: Intention 1 (1 will): Enjoy my lunch
Roger: Intention 1 (1 will): Enjoy my lunch

Eating lunch isn't supported by any of their skills or passions, and they want to enjoy it, so they've got to spend a will if they want to make themselves happy via lunch. They'll get it back when they're done. (Carrie started with 5 will, and Roger started with 7. Now Carrie has 4 and Roger has 6.)


Carrie starts working on her history homework. It's due right after lunch, so she needs to finish it. She doesn't care much, but she'll be damned if she's going to let her history teacher sneer at her for missing another assignment, so let's say her "I don't take crap from you" passion helps her out. She'll spend 1 will, too:

Intention 2 (1 from her Passion, 1 will): Get this homework done

Carrie is now sustaining two actions: That's the most anyone can do. She's not talking to Roger, not focusing on her surroundings, and not really getting much else done besides eating lunch and working on her history assignment.


Now Garrett shows up. Garrett is an awesome bass player, and Roger wants him to join Death Cdr. What Skill or Passion can he use to do this? His best bet among his own Passions would be "Punk rock is the best thing on earth", but that's only at level 1. If Carrie weren't busy, Roger might be able to use her Passion of "I want to be famous" to infect Garrett with her contagious ambition, or her skill of "Punk Vocalist" to impress Garrett, but she's too busy — you have to be interacting with somebody to use one of their Passions or Skills for your own actions.

But fortunately, Carrie has some Shine! Basically, she's so charismatic that it's easy to do stuff to help her out and do what she wants—even if she isn't there and doesn't know you're doing it! So Roger spends 2 Will more, and takes the action:

Intention 4 (2 Will, Carrie's Shine 2): Get Garrett excited about Carrie's awesome band!

This meets difficulty level 4, so it moves Roger closer to his goals: Garrett will seriously think about joining the band!

(Note that this assumes that Garrett doesn't mind getting excited about Carrie's awesome band. If he didn't want to get excited about Death Cdr, this would be combat. We'll talk about combat later.)

Roger finishes talking to Garrett, and regains a Will point. He started with 6, spent 2 on the action, and regained 1: now he has 5.

Kendra overhears Roger talking about the band. She wants to join too! Roger starts to chat her up, not knowing that Carrie really hates Kendra's guts. (They're rivals in the computer club.) Carrie's Shine won't work unless Carrie's okay with how it's being used, so she's safe there… but what if Roger spends more will? What if Kendra is trying to mess with Carrie's band?

Carrie is sustaining two Intentions, so she can't take another action without dropping one of them. If she wants to recover a point of will from it, she's got to declare it to be successful or failed for now. So Carrie's player could say any of these:

Okay, looks like I failed at enjoying my lunch." She'll regain one point of Will.
"I'm not going to get this homework done today!" By declaring her attempt at getting the homework done to have failed, she recovers a point of Will.
"I'm dropping my 'Enjoy My Lunch' Intention so I can tell Kendra off!" In this case, Carrie doesn't regain Will. She can form a new Intention to enjoy her lunch again right after she chases Kendra off, if she wants, but she won't regain the Will that she spent on her first Intention.
"I'm dropping my 'Get My Homework Done' Intention to tell Kendra off. " Same deal here as with the last one.
"I'd like to do something about Kendra, but I'm sustaining two Intentions that I don't want to drop. Too bad for me!"

So here we are: Roger's player says, "I convince Kendra that she should come to our rehearsal in Carrie's garage tonight! Will 2, using Carrie's Shine 2." And before Carrie's player can say anything, the Hollyhock God says, "Great! She says she'll be sure to make it."

Carrie's player doesn't want this, so she calls for an Interrupt (p.113): "Hang on, I want to do something about that."

HG: "Okay, that didn't actually happen. Roger is _about_ to tell Kendra that she should come to the rehearsal. There's a flurry. What do you do?"

A flurry means that a bunch of PCs are about to act at the same time. Everybody can declare actions, and change their actions based on what other people have said, ad infinitum, or until everybody is satisfied with what they're about to do, or until the HG decides that everyone is deadlocked and starts untangling the logjam. See p.311 for more info.

One wrinkle is that if you declare an action that requires a resource (like Will or Miracle Points), it's okay to do minor revisions to it… but if you decide during a flurry that you want to do something else entirely, you don't get that resource back.

Carrie's player: "It looks like Carrie's not going to enjoy her lunch. That fails; I regain a Will. I use my body language to make it clear to everybody, especially Kendra, that I am *NOT* okay with having Kendra in my life. I spend 2 will, with my passion of Not Taking Crap From You, for a level 3 Intention: 'Make it clear that Kendra's not welcome.' Also, Roger _doesn't_ have my Shine for this."

Roger's player: "Hm, okay. Roger can take a hint. Instead of _convincing_ Kendra to come, I'm just going to convince her that the rehearsal will be completely rockin'. And since I can't use Carrie's Shine, I'll use my punk rock Passion. Do I lose the 2 Will I said I was using before?"

HG: "It sounds like the same basic action to me, so that's a level 3 intention. Kendra is going to make a really hurt face at you, though, Roger. She's using your own 'It's important to be kind' Passion against you{*}, and spending 2 will, to form a level 4 Intention of "Make Roger feel guilty for not inviting me." Does anybody want to change what they're doing?"

Carrie's player: "No, I'm good."

{*} You can use other people's skills and passions for your
Intentions if it makes sense. (p.152)

Now the flurry resolves. Carrie's got a level 3 Intention of something like 'Let everybody know Kendra is _persona non grata_' and Roger's got a level 3 Intention of 'Convince Kendra that the rehearsal is going to rock' and Kendra's got a level 4 Intention of "Make Roger feel guilty.

None of these actions actually conflict, so they all happen. Carrie and Roger will succeed at level 3: "correct and impressive," and Kendra succeeds at level 4: "actually effective, moves you closer to your goals."

Let's say that the HG decides (as is her prerogative, p.156) that this stuff is great drama, and grants all the characters the results of a level 6 success instead. (6 is "really impressive", and includes 5 "makes your life better".) Carrie delivers the best snub in the history of their high school, and drives Kendra wild with envy. Score! That'll knock her down a few steps in the computer club! Roger makes Death Cdr sound great: people start thinking of him as a punk rocker and a couple more students come up asking if they could maybe audition for the band. And Kendra makes Roger feel positively,impressively terrible. He's going to have to do something to make this up to her.

Part 3: Mortals combat: Opposed actions and Obstacles

Let's cross the Atlantic, and forget about high school students for a while!

Genevieve is a deadly and self-centered Parisian assassin.

Passion: I never back down from a mission (1)
Passion: I'm more important than other people (2)
Passion: I am proud of what I do (0)
Skill: Assassin (4)
Skill: Negotiator (1)

Genevieve is really good at killing people. If she really wants you dead, all she needs to do is wait till you're a little worn down, then form a "Shoot you dead" intention based on Assassin (4) + 4 will. Additionally, she'll be coming after you with her collection of scary weapons, which will give her some Edge.

Unfortunately for her, Genevieve is not trying to kill anybody right now. She is trying to get lunch from one of the worst waiters in Paris!

Claude a terrible waiter who moonlights in a heavy metal band.

Passion: Customers deserve nothing but contempt (3)
Skill: Inappropriate flirtation (1)
Skill: Drummer (1)
Skill: Hard to find (1)
Skill: Waiting tables (-2)
Cool [2]

(Note that Claude's incompetence as a waiter doesn't give him extra points to spend on Passions/Skills or elsewhere. It's just a charming character quirk.)

Now, Genevieve would like to use her Negotiation skill to convince Claude to bring her some lunch, but first, she'll need to get his attention. Right now, he's loitering at an unoccupied table behind Genevieve's, with his back to her, listening to his MP3 player and sustaining a level 4 Intention of "Ignore the customers for as long as possible" (using 1 Will and his customer-contempt Passion).

Genevieve doesn't know this, so she tries to get his attention with nothing more than a level 3 Intention to "Snap my fingers, clear my throat, and get the waiter's attention" (using 1 Will and her "I'm more important than other people" passion).

Their actions conflict! It's not possible for Claude to ignore everybody if Genevieve has his attention. Claude's Intention is at level 4 while Genevieve's is only at 3, so Claude's is successful: it is productive, impressive, effective, and makes him happy. Genevieve's Intention fails.{*} She regains one will.

{*} Partial successes are possible. For example, since Genevieve _does_ have a level 3 Intention, we could say that she has snapped her fingers with impressive condescension… or even that she has succeeded at level 1, and made herself happy somehow by doing a good job of trying to get Claude's attention, even if it didn't work. But those don't seem to plausible, so let's not.

Now Genevieve is really annoyed! What can she do?

At this point, Genevieve's player doesn't necessarily know what she's up against, so she switches tactics. To a PC with "Skill: Hammering (4)", a lot of problems start to look like nails, so she decides to have Genevieve "accidentally" stretch backwards and kick over Claude's chair as she does so. This is close enough to a surprise physical attack that her Assassin skill applies, so she spends 1 will and forms Intention 5: "'Accidentally' knock this bozo's chair over so he has to admit I exist and take my order." (Assassin 4 + 1 Will).

This would beat Claude's level 4 Intention to ignore Genevieve, except for one thing: Claude has Cool [2]. The "Cool" skill applies a skill penalty to any mundane action that tries to mess with Claude. That means that Genevieve's level 5 intention only counts as level 3!

Genevieve's Intention fails! She regains the will she spent on it, but and now she's hopping mad. The HG says that Claude nonchalantly stands up just as Genevieve is sweeping the chair from beneath him, and saunters over towards the restaurant door as if he's about to go on a smoke break.

At this point, Genevieve's player has a few options:

She could give up and go to a different restaurant.
She could give up on conflict with Claude and just go into the kitchen and see if the cook would give her better service.
She could try to get Claude fired.
She could spend 4 will on some crazy assassin trick. This would risk her health, and make her less effective for the rest of her day, but it would sure beat Claude's Intention. Let's say that she has important business affairs later in the day, and doesn't want to neglect them.
She could spend 2 will on a slightly less crazy assassin trick that (with Claude's Cool taken into account) will only be able to hit Intention 4. (That is, Assassin 4 + 2 Will - 2 Cool). That's a tie with Claude's Intention. But Genevieve has another trick up her sleeve. Let's see what happens!

Genevieve picks up the fork from her table in one hand, and a wicked-looking throwing knife in the other. (The throwing knife is what was up her sleeve.) Before Claude can leave the restaurant, she hurls the fork to catch the cord from his MP3 player and yank the headphones from his head, then brandishes the knife at him meaningfully. Let's call this Intention 6: "Intimidate this loser into taking me seriously and getting me a bowl of soup or something."

There are a few possible Obstacles that might apply here. Obstacles are a another kind of skill penalty, that applies when the facts of the world get in the way of your Intentions. These could include stuff like:

Obstacle [1]: The fork is not a traditional weapon of the assassin.
Obstacle [1]: That isn't even a throwing fork!
Obstacle [2]: Your target is ridiculously tiny.

But let's not consider those! Remember, skill penalties don't add up. Since Claude has Cool [2], we don't need to consider any other skill penalty of 2 or less.

Let's also consider Genevieve's wicked-looking throwing knife. It's a useful tool for intimidating people! Claude is outgunned here, so let's say that the knife gives Genevieve 1 Edge{*}. Edge is another kind of skill penalty: and this time it applies to Claude! So now Genevieve's intention level is 4 (reduced from 6 by Claude's Cool) and Claude's intention level is down to 3 (reduced from 4 by Genevieve's Edge).

{*} A knife vs an unarmed person would probably be Edge 2 in a knife fight, but here the knife is only being used as an attention-getting device. Remember, Genevieve isn't trying to kill Claude: it's unprofessional for an assassin to kill people for free!

At last, Genevieve has Claude's attention, and moreover, she has intimidated him into bringing her soup or something! Her day can only improve from here. She regains one will of the two she spent.

ASIDE: What if there had been a tie?

If Genevieve hadn't had a scary intimidating knife, her Intention would tie with Claude's. Therefore, they would both succeed, to the extent that was possible!

If I were the Hollyhock God in this case, I'd probably say that Genevieve had indeed successfully intimidated Claude, but that Claude was successfully able to maintain his air of contemptuous indifference and hide his fright… if he chose to do so. Claude might instead decide that it's unwise to ignore somebody who is throwing cutlery at him, after all.

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