A little while ago, I wrote a piece about how Nephilim – the game whose commercial failure is responsible for Chaosium no longer developing new games – is my all-time favourite RPG.
I wasn’t planning on writing anything else about Nephilim as I’m not currently playing it but then I happened to listen to a podcast that changed the way I thought about investigation-based RPGs.
The podcast in question is the French RPG podcast La Cellule. La Cellule is presented by Romaric Briand, a French designer of non-traditional RPGs and theorist in the grand tradition of the Forge. The episode I listened to is about five years old and it finds Briand and a few of his friends talking animatedly about their experiences playing through the fantastic Nephilim campaign Souffle de Dragon.
Listening to the podcast re-ignited by love for the game and I thought I would share a few of the insights it contains as I think several of them deserve a bit of attention:
Firstly, Romaric and his circle are all a bit younger than I am and most of them appear to have intersected with the hobby in the early 2000s. One of the really fascinating remarks to come out of the group’s discussion is that while Romaric was familiar with the rules of Nephilim from playing Call of Cthulhu, some members of the group found the game almost unplayable because they could not get their heads around the idea of a fixed percentage roll-under resolution system. Unpacking the remarks, I suspect some of the problems might have been down to players not knowing how to build BRP-based characters and the fact that a lot of published Nephilim adventures are full of fiendish plot bottlenecks but I also think that the group wanted to be able to either narrate their way through the plot or have the game respond to failed skill rolls with complications rather than having the GM simply shake his head. Traditionally, I would have thought this a really weird reaction but having now played a couple of indie games… I’m not sure that they’re wrong. I still think that plot bottlenecks are examples of bad GMing rather than bad game design but I think there is a lot to be said for the idea that ending a scene or an attempt to accomplish something with a stonewalling ‘you failed your roll’ is something that simply should not happen in play.
Secondly, when the group try to describe what happened in their game, their first thought was to talk about their characters and how those characters related to each other. So rather than saying ‘I played x and we did y’, the players say ‘I played x and because I believed y, I was in conflict with Bob and Fred’. This idea that characters might be defined by their relationships to other characters rather than what they know (skills) or what they do (plot) is quite common in non-traditional RPGs like Fiasco and it’s fascinating to see instincts formed in non-traditional play port over to traditional play. What’s also interesting is that thinking of the characters as being defined in terms of their philosophical commitments encourages players to think about how they relate to the world of the game. For example, one of the characters played a Nephilim who was an expert in Cabalistic ritual. Now… in the lore, Cabalistic rituals are like demon-summonings in Stormbringer in so far as what you do is raise a creature and bind it to your will. The more powerful the spell, the more powerful the creature, and the more powerful the creature, the more likely it is to be intelligent. As a result, this player saw magic as something to be seduced and bargained-with rather than controlled. The fact that the player chose to roleplay these negotiation sessions put their character at odds with the character that used a more traditional form of magic. All of these tensions are present in the text of the original rules but the fact that this group was defining itself in philosophical and political terms meant that the player wound up leaning into the lore rather than treating it as an aesthetic gloss over a form of magic operating under a slightly different sub-system of the rules.
Thirdly, Romaric notes that Nephilim is a game in which the players are incarnating characters that are themselves incarnated as different people. So all that stuff I mentioned about Nephilim having to manage their host body’s social entanglements is effectively someone playing the role of a character that is themselves playing a role. The group’s campaign also seems to have made quite frequent use of the rules according to which a critical failure could result in the Nephilim’s host body taking control over the Nephilim. Indeed, the discussion mentions that one particularly untimely critical failure resulted in the characters having to miss a pivotal scene because they were trying to barricade a character’s host body in a hotel room. As I recall, Nephilim losing control of their hosts is a bit like Call of Cthulhu characters entering a fugue state in so far as there are only vague guidelines telling GMs how to handle the event. I have played in games where a critical fail would take characters out of a scene and I have played in games where the host retaking control of their body resulted in plans being suddenly complicated but I have never seen it taken to the point of actually keeping characters away from the plot.
Fourthly, Le Souffle du Dragon is a campaign set in Brittany and it draws quite heavily on the kinds of historical sites and local legends that (literally) litter the countryside. La group that forms the backbone of La Cellule is based in St Malo, which is on the coast of Brittany and there is something really intoxicating about how excited the group seem to be playing in their local area. At one point they even admit to having taken a trip to a particular spot in order to soak in the atmosphere and get a look at the place in person. Chaosium have long edited Call of Cthulhu on the assumption that people want to visit exotic places in their RPGs but my experience has always been that horror and urban fantasy RPGs are a great way of meeting players where they are and encouraging them to re-enchant their own worlds.
Fifthly (and most substantially), the group talks at some length about how Nephilim’s use of real-world mythologies and conspiracy theories serves to blur the boundaries between game and life as knowing a bit about the lore of Nephilim means knowing a bit about the beliefs that helped shape the real world. Read a few Nephilim supplements and go for a walk through a city in Western Europe and you will be amazed at how you start to notice occult and masonic symbols carved into buildings and cathedrals. I remember disappearing a bit too far down this particular rabbit hole and being quite freaked out when I noticed a guy with spiked red hair in a new age bookshop. There’s a lovely bit when the GM admits to seeing the people he meets in terms of the humour-based personality trait system that features in the game.
As lovely as this type of thing may be, the innovation that prompted me to write this piece in the first place can be viewed as a combination of 4 and 5 in so far as the players were very much aware that they were dealing with real-world places and real-world myths. The group never make it clear how the innovation was introduced but at some point, someone had the bright idea of trying to get out of an impasse by googling some additional information about a particular place or local legend. This appears to have opened the flood gates as their Nephilim game soon saw Library checks being augmented by players surfing Wikipedia and literally walking across the room and picking up books in an effort to solve the puzzles presented to them by the GM. I must admit that I think this is absolute genius.
Back in the 1980s, there was a TV series in Britain called Treasure Hunt in which members of the public were given a riddle and invited to solve it by using a map and collections of reference books available on the studio floor. The players would read the books, solve a riddle and then direct someone out in the field to go to a particular place in order to find the next riddle for them to solve.
As soon as I made the link between Treasure Hunt and how the Cellule gang played Nephilim I was struck by a desire to run games in a library. To present players with mysteries and puzzles and have them move around the space in the same way as they might if they were running a big combat with a load of miniatures.
One of Romaric’s more interesting observations during the podcast is to say that while Forge-style Gamism is often understood in terms of people’s desire to engage in miniatures-based tactical war-gaming, Gamism can also be understood as people wanting to engage with and overcome the challenges posed by puzzles and mysteries. As to what puzzle and mystery-based Gamist play might look like in reality, I would imagine they would look almost exactly like an Escape Room.
Non-traditional RPGs can be understood as games that have been filtered and distilled down to the point where the text of the rules addresses nothing other than the game’s primary thematic focus. We are used to games that strip the RPG experience down to combat and story-telling but what if we did the same for investigation? I suspect that a properly focused indie-style investigative horror game would look like a cross between an escape room and the way that the people at La Cellule played Nephilim.
I so want to play that game.