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.
In Nomine Satanis – Magna Veritas (usually referred to as INS/MV) is unquestionably the most famous French RPG of all time. This is largely due to the fact that Steve Jackson Games decided to produce an English-language adaptation in 1997. While the SJG version would turn out to be a bit of a disappointment, it was released not only within living memory of the anti-D&D moral panics of the 1980s but also at a time when White Wolf were making a lot of money selling urban fantasy-inspired games. The hype-game was strong, the game-game and setting design considerably less so but in order to understand the failure of In Nomine, you really have to understand what made INS/MV so memorable in the first place.
First released in 1989, INS/MV was the third self-published game to be written by the French game designer Croc. Croc is to French roleplaying games what Werner Herzog is to German cinema. What I mean by this is that while Croc may have started out as a brilliant and revolutionary creative force, he soon settled into an ironic and self-satirising public persona that is so engaging and hilarious that it somehow manages to warp perceptions of his earlier works. Look at interviews given by Werner Herzog around the release of Aguerre or Fitcarraldo and you’ll find a brooding existential tough-guy but watch any interviews the man gives now and you could be forgiven for assuming that he made his early films as part of some kind of elaborate troll on investors and funding bodies.
Croc poses a similar set of challenges as he has spent the last twenty years or so leaning into a reputation for being a heroically mediocre French buffoon who made stupid and violent games whilst listening to Slayer and cheating at paintball. In fact, his last major public appearance was an attempt to help crowd-fund a new edition of INS/MV by streaming himself eating a huge plate of braised endives (the national dish of mediocre French provincialism).
Croc’s reputation for producing entertainingly violent and stupid games was minted by his first game Bitume, a game set in post-apocalyptic France where a near-miss by Hayley’s comet reduced human civilisation to a Mad Max-style dystopia. Though undeniably both violent and punk rock, Bitume was littered with a darker version of the satirical humour that has come to be associated with the Fallout games. Imagine a version of Fallout where the satirical targets are 1980s French popular culture rather than 1950s Americana and you have the Bitume vibe. Croc’s second entertainingly violent and stupid game was produced in 1991 and goes by the name of Bloodlust. Inspired by the works of Michael Moorcock, Robert E. Howard and Brian Aldiss, Bloodlust is like an interactive Boris Vallejo painting; all dudes with heckin’ big swords and peckers posing next to chicks with chainmail bikinis. Though the rules of Bloodlust were nothing but critical hit tables and rules for producing magical swords with chainsaw attachments, it distinguished itself from all other RPGs by inviting players to assume the role of magical weapons rather than the people wielding them. In fairness, the game never made that much of the fact that you were called upon to play inanimate objects and most players tended to gloss over those aspects but the subtlety of the idea as well as the tendency to cloak said intelligence in amiable stupidity is very much standard operating procedure for a Croc game.
INS/MV is now on its sixth edition and, with the best will in the world, you can tell that the game pre-dates Vampire the Masquerade. I’ll unpack that remark: The older I get and the more games I read, the more I come to realise the difficulty of getting people to engage with an entirely new setting. This is one of the reasons why so much of the RPG hobby is given over to D&D and variations on its theme. Hand gamers a fantasy RPG and they will immediately know what to do with the setting. Hand gamers a game with an unusual genre or a setting not rooted in big pop-culture franchises and people will generally make a face suggesting that they don’t really know what to do with the game you’ve just passed them. Part of what made Vampire and the White Wolf games so special and so popular was the fact that, despite having incredibly complex settings, their rulebooks would leave you with a really good idea of what you were playing, what you were doing, and who you were fighting. Obviously, the games would expand as more supplements were produced but if you read Werewolf or Changeling, you knew exactly what kind of game you were going to play. INS/MV was very obviously written before Vampire as the setting feels really ramshackle and it’s not immediately clear what a game of INS/MV is actually supposed to look like.
The game is set in a broadly Catholic universe that is a few thousand years old. Having created himself, God created his chief angel Yves along with heavens and the angels that live there. Upon the emergence of the Dinosaurs, God sent some Angelic Princes to proselytise and provided them with a prophet by the name of Denver. Denver was then crucified in an effort to impress the dinosaurs but they turned out to be too stupid to have faith and so God decided to wipe them out.
When humans appeared several thousand years later, God tried to learn from his mistakes and sent a different group of angels including the Angelic Prince Samael who was so taken with humanity that he tried to convince God to let him fuck them. God inevitably turned him down but Samael started impregnating human women resulting in a race of giant Nephilim. When God heard about Samael’s disobedience, he demanded an apology and when Samael and his allies refused, God cast them out of heaven and into the multi-verse. After crash-landing on the lowest level of the multi-verse, Samael assumed the name of Satan, created Hell, and declared war on God. This war played out through biblical times until both God and Satan agreed to put away the pyro-technics, de-escalate and settle into a covert cold war they refer to as the Great Game. INS/MV begins in the present day with the players assuming the roles of either demons or angels. These demons and angels all work for Princes who each have their own areas of influence determining both the character of their agents and the nature of their supernatural powers. The angels and demons are then sent to Earth where they are decanted into human bodies and expected to help wage war on the relevant opposition.
The problem with INS/MV is that it was never made clear how the war was supposed to be waged. I have seen people argue that INS/MV is best played as a kind of supers game in which demons and angels live under assumed human identities only to then go out and confront each other with flaming swords and jets of acid. However, I have also seen people argue that INS/MV is more like Vampire in that you’re supposed to spend your time wrangling souls and getting caught up in the impenetrable machinations of Princely powers. I seem to remember that the English-language version of the game looked a lot more like the latter than the former but both versions of the game suffered for the fact that that while you had a set of antagonists and a reason to fight, you were pretty much on your own when it came to ideas about long-term play. It didn’t help that INS/MV not only had an experience system but also a series of levels that you could pass through as a supernatural being. In practice, I seem to remember most of the sessions I played in would involve being handed a mission by a member of the clergy and then going to a squat where we’d spend ages beating up skinheads while cracking jokes.
INS/MV’s satirical reputation is due in part to the amusingly alt-Catholic backstory as well as the suggestion that the forces of Heaven and Hell are like Cold War-era intelligence operatives who loathe each other for tribal reasons despite the fact that they look, think, and act in precisely the same way.
Looking back over Croc’s career, I am struck by the fact that all of his games are characterised by moments of creative genius that never quite work out in play. For example, just as Bloodlust struggled to put mechanical meat on the bones of the idea of playing inanimate objects, Croc’s second game Animonde was an attempt to create a non-violent RPG. The idea behind Animonde was that humans lived in perfect symbiosis with nature and so had come to prize inner peace. Animonde viewed violence as such a threat to inner peace that you could lose SAN points just by witnessing an act of violence. This was intended to incentivise non-violent conflict resolution and the game provided quite an involved set of equipment-related buffs for social interaction but rather than having characters dress in colourful outfits and resolve conflict through threat displays that must have looked like gangs of 1970s drag queens vogue-ing at each other, most GMs tended to let their players lose inner peace by murdering their enemies and then immediately regain it by successfully completing the adventure.
The lack of connection between theory and practice became steadily more obvious as INS/MV made its way through various fresh editions and supplements. The third edition (the one I first played) was particularly bad for this as the space it could have allotted to GM advice was instead given over to a series of (admittedly hilarious) short stories filled with stuff like a drunken racist Pope doing huge lines of coke and refusing to sanction the use of condoms because it might negatively impact his stock portfolio.
With time, INS/MV also expanded beyond Christianity by introducing first psychics (direct descendants of Adam and Eve) and then Pagan heroes who drew their power from Pagan deities located in other corners of the multi-verse.
The lack of clear guidance on how to make INS/MV work in practice meant that the game was forever at the mercy of the person who decided to run it. In the hands of an intelligent GM, it could feel like a version of Paranoia that satirised Christianity and Cold War politics. In the hands of an amusing GM, it could feel like a game of Toon where you’d crack jokes about Jesus being hol(e)y and loving you long-time.
Like a lot of Croc’s projects, I think INS/MV is a game that fails to get to grips with its own more interesting ideas. Back in 1989, the idea of having a game that was not only satirical but which explicitly went after Christianity was a bold move especially when you consider the crude, rude and generally silly way in which it went about it. The problem was that while reading INS/MV supplements was a hoot and playing the game always resulted in a ton of laughs, none of that is connected to either the mechanics or the subject matter of the game and I suspect that this is where INS/MV really shows its age as while contemporary RPGs will often tailor their rules to draw the players’ attention to certain themes and ideas, 1980s RPG design aimed no higher than cobbling together a system that more or less worked meaning that the intended style of play was either scattered across the entire book or buried in GM advice chapters that were often not as well written as they should have been.
Re-reading INS/MV I am struck by the sheer scope of the task that Steve Jackson Games set themselves by trying to adapt it for English-language audiences. Unlike the French gamers who loved and supported the game, SJG would not have benefited from the process of cultural transmission whereby people would learn to run the game by playing it. Reading about the history of D&D, I am often struck by the extent to which the early RPG scene functioned almost as an oral culture and I think the same is true of the cult following that grew up around INS/MV. Nothing in the books ever told you how to run the game as issues of tone, structure and subject matter were things that you learned by direct experience of the game. You did not read the rulebook to learn how to play INS/MV, you experienced the game at a con or a friend’s house and then you went out and bought the books that allowed you to recreate that experience.
I would love to know how much direct experience Steve Jackson had of INS/MV as, given the differences between the French and English-language version, I have a sneaking suspicion that they never actually experienced the game directly. Locked out of the game’s primarily oral culture Steve Jackson Games were forced to create a game based on nothing more than some rather vague books and the absolute knowledge that those books sold well. That would certainly explain why In Nomine seemed to miss the entire point of INS/MV; the designers were looking for the game in all the wrong places.