GHR: Nephilim

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

Nephilim is and always will remain my all-time favourite game.

Despite this blog being at least partly devoted to looking back over the several decades I have spent in gaming, I don’t fuck with nostalgia. I try to live my life according to the maxim that one should ‘hold on tightly, let go lightly’ because I recognise that I change, people change, things change, and that there always comes a moment when it is best and easiest to walk away.

When I do revisit things I used to love, I am always happy to be disappointed because I take it as a sign that I have grown or at the very least moved on. I am not the person I was, so why would I continue to like the same old things? Nephilim is a weird exception to this rule as while I have undoubtedly grown and changed in the twenty odd years since this game was first published, my appreciation for its eccentricities only ever seems to grow.

First published in 1992 by the then-small French games company Multisim, Nephilim can initially be understood as an urban fantasy RPG comparable to Vampire the Masquerade and the rest of the World of Darkness.

You play as one of the Nephilim, a race of elemental magical creatures who ruled the Earth from the city-state of Atlantis. While masters of Atlantis, the Nephilim spent their days conducting magical experiments including increasing the intelligence of apes until they achieved sentience in the form of Homo sapiens. However, this magical golden age came to an end when a meteor filled with a strange metal crashed to Earth and destabilised the planet’s magical fields to the point where the original Nephilim could no longer maintain a physical form, forcing them to possess the bodies of human slaves who would soon use the strange metal to overthrow the Nephilim and assume dominance over the Earth.

While outright killing Nephilim turned out to be surprisingly difficult, humans learned that they could force Nephilim into inanimate objects. These inanimate objects would then store the Nephilim until they were released by some random fluctuation in the magical fields, at which point they would emerge and possess another human body.

The inability of humans to destroy the Nephilim combined with the decades and centuries of sleep forced upon individual Nephilim resulted in this history of the world being forgotten. Over time, humans managed to hold onto ancient magical techniques through the use of secret societies while the Nephilim sorted themselves into broad philosophical tribes modelled after the Major Arcana of the tarot with each tribe representing a different path to enlightenment.

Set in the present day, the game revolves around a group of Nephilim who have already lived through several periods of human history. Periods that allowed them to make contacts, learn magic, and acquire mundane skills. This means that, at the start of play, each Nephilim will be able to draw on the skills of their current host but also on skills learned in previous incarnations. This also means that when a character’s current host is killed, they can move to another host taking their accumulated skills with them. You do not play the host, you play the Nephilim. Each host represents a new set of skills that can be learned but also a new set of real-world entanglements.

In play, Nephilim was always presented as investigation-based. While the characters were invariably highly-skilled and were often backed up by serious magical powers, most adventures involved the group trying to unravel a magical mystery from which they would learn and thus advance their quest for enlightenment. While this path to enlightenment could often bring you into conflict with other Nephilim, most adventures seemed to involve weird magical phenomena and humans trying to use that power for their own ends. In practice, most adventures tended to be quite low key as doing anything particularly blatant or showy ran the risk of detection by a secret society such as the Templars.

While I said that Nephilim could “initially” be understood as an urban fantasy game, one of its more delightful eccentricities was the way that the game’s background would melt into real world mysticism and conspiracy theories. For example, the game’s major human antagonists were the vestigial remains of the Knights Templar but also Rosicrucians and the Mystery cults of ancient Greece. While the idea of using real world conspiracy theories may now be fairly commonplace, back in the early 1990s it seemed revolutionary as it meant that you could walk into a new age book shop, pick up a weird book about the Templars, and have a load of material that could be directly imported into your campaign. In fact, as was common with many game designers in the 1990s, the writers of Nephilim had a tendency to fill their book with over-elaborate back story meaning that the contents of your average Nephilim supplement looked almost exactly like the stuff you’d find in the New Age section of your local bookshop. This made the setting for Nephilim feel both oddly real and oddly present.

Another interesting aspect of that first edition of Nephilim is that it was very French. While the first edition rulebook may have included an adventure, the game’s tone was set by Les Veilleurs, a stand-alone adventure set in what could be any one of a thousand French villages. You had medieval ruins, an aristocratic family living in a few rooms of a ruined chateau, gangs of hunters who behaved like they owned the entire countryside, squabbling xenophobic cafes, weird local legends, and a slate of NPCs drawing upon archetypal figures of French rural and life. This engagement with provincial France became even more evident in the (superb) full length campaign Le Souffle du Dragon that starts with provincial lawyers acting for old families before opening up into an exploration of local myths set amongst the run-down tourist destinations or North West France.

While it never quite tips over into outright satire, Nephilim’s sense of humour does serve to keep the game firmly anchored in the real world. Many urban fantasy games treat the real world as nothing more than a portal to some hidden realm whereas Nephilim’s fantasy elements are as embedded in French society and culture as they are in French history and Geography. This sense of connection to the real world would pose some real challenges for the game’s eventual translation into English but it also opened up a much under-appreciated arena of play.

One of the game’s less widely-appreciated mechanics was the way that it made it somewhat harder to gain and hold a more powerful host body. The game represented this by having some hosts have more ‘Sun Ka’ than others and more ‘Sun Ka’ tended to mean more skills and better stats. The rules themselves suggested that Sun Ka might have represented something like willpower but a better way of thinking about it was how well your host happened to be living their life. In other words, if you wanted to incarnate your Nephilim in a soldier, you could either have a fairly mediocre soldier whose host would disappear into the background or you could have a really good soldier whose embeddedness in their own life resulted in them having better stats, better skills, and more reason to live. The reason the game associated this with willpower was that a critical failure with a host’s skill would result in an opposed roll that could see your host’s personality resurface: The stronger the host, the stronger the personality, and the stronger the urge to live. While Sun Ka usually related to better stats and skills, it could also translate into greater wealth and prestige. This is where things start to get interesting.

When the Nephilim take control of their host, they supplant the old personality completely. The Nephilim can delve into the memories of their host but they do not maintain their emotional bonds to the world around them. While this might have posed minimal difficulties in the medieval period, today’s world does not really tolerate people who decide to get up and walk away from their jobs and families. People worry and call the cops. When people call the cops, there’s a distinct possibility that a Templar might get wind of someone walking away from their life and take an interest. As a result, Nephilim involves a degree of life-management in that the characters either need to decouple themselves from their host’s life or find a way to maintain that set of dependencies without giving the game away. For example, one of our games saw a player out himself to his family only for his family to have him immediately sectioned. This prompted an entire session devoted to breaking him out of a psychiatric hospital and establishing a new identity for the host. Meanwhile, another player decided to have his character incarnate themselves in the body of a French TV personality resulting in the character being hounded by tabloids and ex-wives until he hit upon the idea of making TV programmes about conspiracy theories as a cover for his real-world investigations. Another fun scheme was when two characters decided to work together to leave their host’s wives by having them both come out as a gay couple. People who have played the old science fiction game Traveller often speak with real fondness about the episodes set on-ship whilst travelling between star systems and I have very similar memories of adventures devoted to managing the life of my character’s host. While I unabashedly adore Nephilim’s commitment to remaining embedded in the real world, I would argue that this embeddedness accounts both for the game’s towering success in its native France and for its failure to find an English-language audience.

To say that Chaosium’s version of Nephilim was unsuccessful would be something of an understatement. The exact financials may be unclear given that the decision to translate Nephilim dates from the same era as the similarly cursed decision to launch a collectible card game but I suspect that the critical and commercial failure of Nephilim goes some way towards explaining why Chaosium now appear to be mostly in the business of re-packaging, re-printing, and re-editing old material.

Looking back over the US version of Nephilim, I am struck by the fact that the book itself is a lot clearer and the rules are a lot tighter. While the first French edition ran on Chaosium’s BRP it lacked an integrated skills list and had a load of quite abstract rules about dealing with the police and authorities. Chaosium improved the game immeasurably by exerting some control over the range of skills and allowing groups to hand-wave stuff that was probably getting hand-waved by people playing in French. However, while the game felt much tighter on a mechanical level, it struggled with backstory and setting.

Nephilim worked in French because France is littered with history and traces of old conspiracies. Everywhere you go there are old Templar strongholds and laws allowing the for the creation of clubs and societies means that every village has a backroom or an old building professing to be a meeting place for the society or brotherhood of such and such. While the backstory of Nephilim may be all about enlightenment and high-octane magics, the bulk of the game is played in a world that is barely any different from our own. The problem is that while all of these things are part of the background radiation of living in provincial France, they simply do not have an American equivalent. For a French person, the Knights Templar are real because you walk past one of their old commanderies on the way to work. For an American person, talk of the Knights Templar might as well be talk about aliens or vampires.

While cultural differences made it hard for American players to imagine themselves in the world of Nephilim, the decision to not include a starting adventure made things even worse. Many early reviews of the game involved people being largely unclear as to how this game was even supposed to be played. If ever a game needed a scenario like “The Haunting” to teach people how to play, it was Nephilim.

Chaosium managed to make matters worse in the way that they approached their support for the game. One early supplement tried to localise the backstory by forging thematic links between the contents of the French game and the types of conspiracy theories that would have been recognisable to American audiences. So while the French edition suggested that the Templar hierarchy were a bunch of aging billionaires recruiting white supremacists to be their foot-soldiers, the American edition involved not just actual Nazis but also UFOs. While I personally think that embracing this style of weird Americana would have taken the game in an interesting direction, Chaosium decided to lean into the occult side of Nephilim by putting out a supplement that replaced the game’s perfectly serviceable tri-partite magic system with an new system rooted in real-world occult practice thus managing to make an already obscure game feel almost completely impenetrable.

Another reason for the failure of the American edition is that by the 1990s, you already had gamers who were effectively Chaosium fans. What this meant in practice is that a large chunk of the people who bought the American edition of Nephilim came to the game with a head full of Cthulhu. Indeed, re-read the opening sections of this piece and you will notice that Nephilim draws on tropes that also feature in a couple of Lovecraft stories. What is the vision of humanity as a rebellious slave race if not a riff on the Shoggoths of At the Mountains of Madness? Similarly, the idea that Nephilim can effectively possess humans, drawing on their memories and resources before skipping to another host recalls the soul transference mechanism that features Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep”. Despite 90s gamers falling over each other to assume the roles of vampires and werewolves, many Chaosium fans struggled with what they perceived to be a game that asked you to assume the role of a Lovecraftian horror.

Looking back over the history of Nephilim it is interesting to note that the bulk of my experiences with the game come from its first and second French editions. Later editions of the game aped the World of Darkness in allowing people to play different kinds of magical entity but this shift, accompanied by a change in art style seemed to move Nephilim away from investigative domesticity and towards the kind of super-powered urban fantasy that already held sway over the World of Darkness. To this day, I find it deeply frustrating that contemporary paranormal games come in only two flavours: Capes who save the world, and pawns that get manipulated and devoured. Nephilim was a really interesting game because it sat between these two arenas, it was a game about magic and mystery, but it was also a game about the real world.

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