There Were Gamers In the Earth Those Days…

One of the nice things about Chaosium’s fire sale following the ousting of the Charlie Krank regime by Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen was that it was a great opportunity for people to snag any Nephilim products they fancied which they hadn’t otherwise obtained. Unaccountably, the Krank regime still had boxes of Nephilim product uselessly taking up space in the warehouse, and the entire line could be bought in the fire sale for a very reasonable price. With the exception of the adventure supplement Serpent Moon (since prewritten campaigns often don’t do it for me), I gladly took the chance to fill the gaps in my collection, because out of all of the lesser, B-grade Chaosium RPGs, Nephilim is the one whose decline and fall I’m the most sad about.

Nephilim

Emerging in 1994, the English-language version of Nephilim was Chaosium’s big attempt to jump on the White Wolf-inspired bandwagon for modern-day occult horror games, though in a case of parallel evolution the French-language original from MultiSim came out at about the same time as Vampire. The titular Nephilim are disembodied Secret Masters, inhuman spirits who were involved in the fall of the dinosaurs and the creation of humans in a Blavatsky-esque alternate history of Earth, and who have lived multiple past lives in human bodies with the goal of raising their spiritual power, or Ka, to the point where they achieve a transcendent state called Agharta. They are also various types of mythical beats like elves and satyrs and serpent people and the like, though at low Ka levels this isn’t especially evident to those without the mystical capability to perceive this.

This is some absolutely off the wall shit – I mean, it’s Thetan: the Thetaning, for crying out loud – so it’s incongruous just how seriously the game takes this whacky Theosophy Gone Wild mythology. Indeed, it hypes itself as a specifically occult-themed RPG and has a quote from the back from an actual practicing occultist to say “Yeah, sure, this is the real shit alright”. I suppose the fact that the Satanic Panic was a) basically over by that point and b) a great driver of sales for games targeted by it made Chaosium decide that the more balls-out “this is the sort of game Jack Chick warned you about!” they could go with it, the better.

The thing is, though, there’s no Pope of Occultism, or even an ecumenical council setting what is and isn’t occult canon. Certain ideas keep cropping up here and there, true, but part of that is because even in esoteric philosophy there’s only so many ways to reinvent the wheel and likewise occultists are individually and as groups  fantastic magpies, with a grand tendency to grab at whatever bit of lore looks fascinating to them.

The result of this is that it really isn’t true to say that there is any one particular occult tradition so much as there’s a whole bunch of them, with great diversity of ideas and approaches in those traditions. As such, if you dig long enough you can probably find an occultist willing to endorse anything as a suitable game reputation of higher esoteric truths, because (especially given that it’s the sort of field that tends to attract flakes, blowhards and charlatans) if you work at it you can find an occultist willing to say anything whatsoever.

The particular hodge-podge of esoteric beliefs that Nephilim is based on doesn’t just mash up the weirdest bits of Theosophy and Scientology, though. It also embraces conspiracy theory like nobody’s business, stuffing the setting to the gills with secret societies who are either supportive of or inimical to the Nephilim and making it absolutely clear that the entirety of human history is completely shaped and controlled by the actions of the Nephilim and human occultists.

In some respects the game has this refreshing willingness to grasp nettles that other games of this style hestitate to – it is outright stated that Jesus Christ was a Nephilim, for one thing. In other respects, though, this is part of a trend which can make the game extremely alienating: this is a universe where ordinary human beings are meaningless beyond their roles as pawns for secret societies or meat puppets for Nephilim to possess. It’s more or less overtly the case that this is flat-out possession too, and it’s treated very callously; there’s references to Nephilim who want to adopt a different Simulacrum (human body) committing suicide because you don’t get to exit a Simulacrum until it dies, there’s a game mechanic for stealing your Simulacrum’s skills, your human’s personality reasserting itself is very much a failure state, and whilst there is a faction of Nephilim who deliberately believe that they can get closer to Agartha by attempting to identify with and advance the ends of the human personality of their Simulacrum, the game explicitly encourages players not to do that.

One of the common criticisms of Nephilim (at least in this edition) was that people weren’t sure what you were supposed to do with it, but to be honest the game does rather directly tell you its assumed mode of play – I suspect the real issue was that people flinched back from that and assumed it was kidding. The assumed mode of play is for your party of Nephilim to knock about chasing down occult secrets as hard as they can, so they can meet the requirements to ascend to Agartha, all the while avoiding the interference both of confused mundanes worried about this weird personality shift your human is displaying and the secret societies of human occultists who want to hurt, destroy, or manipulate the Nephilim for their own ends. (In particular, it’s very clear that humans can only really do magic as a by-product of their interactions with Nephilim and the traces Nephilim leave behind.) That’s cool, but requires a playing group willing and ready to buy into a potentially extremely callous and inhuman concept.

Though it makes bold claims about being based on real occultism, the extent to which this is the case is highly variable. The magic system comes in three flavours – sorcery (generic spell-slinging), summoning and alchemy – with varying levels of tenuous connection to real folklore and occult practices. The Nephilim’s factions are falled the Arcana, and are all named after the Major Arcana of the tarot (or rather, in this setting the tarot cards are named after these factions), though they’re all a bit odd and several of them are called out as being not for PCs or apparently nonexistent and it really isn’t clear how they interact with each other. Perhaps the most impreseively nutty concept in here is the astrological modifiers that come into play each and every day, which adds fiddliness but also flavour (since it gives characters a reason to plan major workings for specific days when they can anticipate that the flow of Ka-energy will be optimal).

One nice thing about the game is that it completely accepts and acknowledged that it’s riffing on Western occult concepts which are not culturally universal, and doesn’t invalidate other cultures in doing so; it specifies that the Nephilim seem to be bound to cultures in some respect, and that in other cultures the experiences of the Nephilim, their approach to magical power, and their interactions with humans are fundamentally different (and in some cases are way more equal and consensual).

The major bad guys in the setting are the Templars, who naturally existed thousands of years prior to their exoteric foundation during the Crusades, with a good cross-section of the most malevolent secret societies being offshoots of them. The emphasis on the Templars having a Grand Plan tied in with the flow of occult energy for the sake of taking over the world puts me in mind of Umberto Eco’s amusing and erudite Foucault’s Pendulum, to the point where I question how seriously the game is meant to be taken; if the original core book is more humorous this wouldn’t be the first time a Yankerdoodle translation of a French RPG failed to convey that (it happened to In Nomine), though the wild paranoia of the book’s discussion of secret societies and the over the top secrets and campaign premises suggested at least nudge the setting in the direction of the delirious fractal conspiracies-all-the-way-down high weirdness of GURPS Illuminati.

Nephilim is a weird core book, and could do with a thorough layout revision and a really comprehensive set of cheat sheets, because it has a slightly bad habit of distributing little bits of important game mechanics across the text rather than, for instance, covering all the things you need to bear in mind when making a skill roll all in one place. (In particular, it’d be too easy to miss rules like how if you roll a critical success on a skill belonging to your Simulacrum rather than your Nephilim, you get a chance to steal the skill, transposing it from the Simulacrum column to the Nephilim column on your character sheet and keeping it when you transmigrate to a new Simulacrum.) Still, there’s something about its weird mixture of actual occult beliefs and totally off-the-wall nonsense that I can’t quite completely write off; whilst it would take the right group and a bit of work and patience to get the best out of it, it seems to me like it would be worth the effort to do so.

Chronicle of the Awakenings

This is an odds-and-sods collection of various bits and pieces likely to be of use to players and referees alike. As the first supplement to be mostly put together by Yankerdoodle game designers as opposed to the original French designers, there’s points where the book edges away from the gleeful transgression of the core book. In particular, in discussing Hitler it refuses to commit to Hitler being a Nephilim. I can absolutely see why there’s good reasons to tread cautiously if you want to avoid the pitfall of the Holocaust as being the outgrowth of supernatural evil that ordinary folks couldn’t have been expected to stop, as opposed to decidedly human evil of a sort which absolutely could arise again under the right circumstances. However, if you’ve already said that Hitler was under the absolute control of the Thule Society and the Third Reich was designed to serve their occult agenda, you’ve already gone there; you might as well own it at that point and pursue the angle to its wildest and most exciting conclusion, rather than simply wimping out and only going halfway.

How does Hitler become relevant? Why, because Germany in 1933 is one of the new past life eras for use in character generation that this supplement adds, expanding your range of choices on that front substantially. This section takes up about half the supplement, but there’s so much fun to be had and so many great bits of history worked in that it’s absolutely worth it.

The second major addition to the game offered by the supplement is an alternate system for handling your Nephilim’s physical transfomations – whereas previously you just accumulated points and attained changes as the points increased, this time around each Metamorphosis type is associated with a brace of five passions – and the more you play to those passions, the more points you get in your passions and the further your transformation progresses. This is a great way to get more of an emotional handle on your Nephilim – it means that one seeking to attain Agharta cannot be the sort of cold, unemotional accumulator of power that the core rulebook might suggest, but instead needs to develop and master the particular set of emotions associated with their type.

The last thing the book offers is a big stack of Simulacrum stats, which nicely serve a dual purpose – not only are they fodder for possession, and thus a great expansion of the available character generation options, but they’re also a brace of handy NPC stats with it.

Chronicle of the Awakenings is a bit of an odds-and-sods supplement, though it remains of substantial use; there’s just about a connecting thread between the sections since they each in their own way are important elements of character generation, and provide additional options and depth there whilst, crucially, not particularly increasing the complexity of the game. Each section offers a clear improvement over the core book, so on the whole it’s an excellent addition to the product line; my main complaint about it is that it started the unfortunate tendency of Chaosium’s Nephilim supplements towards having absolutely terrible cover art.

Secret Societies

Sporting somewhat better cover art and mostly credited to a single writer – the ever-capable Kenneth Hite – Secret Societies drills down into the Nephilim setting’s… well… secret societies. As well as providing deeper writeups of their structure, agenda, and notable NPCs associated with them, Hite also takes the time to give a more generalised look at how secret societies operate in the setting – a discussion of enough general value to occult conspiracy games that it’s effectively Ken’s own personal take on GURPS Illuminati, and therefore well worth the price of entry.

One thing I particularly like about the book is how Hite seems to have picked up on the same Foucault’s Pendulum angle as me. Of course, he may be partially responsible for it, having been one of many contributors adding polish here and there to the core book, but it’s in this context that he goes for it really hard, with quotes from the book popping up with near-comical frequency. I cannot for the life of me blame him, because the overall temperament and sardonic humour of the Nephilim setting seems to fit the tone of Eco’s novel markedly.

Gamemaster’s Companion

1996 found Chaosium back on the awful covers and releasing this, a weird grab-bag collection of little articles with no immediately apparent overarching theme. That in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem – Chaosium kind of has a tradition of putting out Companion volumes for each of their game lines along similar lines.

Some aspects of the supplement do indeed stand alone – there’s quite a nice magic item creation system which is quite good because, as is appropriate to the setting and cosmology, magic items are never simply cool toys in this setup. (Stats for various items, including literal, actual Excalibur, are provided.)

However, looking closer at others, it feels like a reasonable number of these articles are actually framed as an attempt to fill in gaps and respond to customer feedback. There’s a decent summary of the timeline of the Nephilim universe, which should probably have been in the core book, and a table summarising the important details of every past life era from the core book and Chronicle of the Awakenings, which should probably have been in Chronicle. At the back there’s a brief discussion of the Nephilim community of the San Francisco Bay Area, clarifying how the various sample NPCs in the core book fit together in that, which again should probably have been in the core book.

On top of that, you also have an extensive section explaining best practice for setting up and running a Nephilim campaign, and what sort of scenarios you could populate that campaign with. Whilst I personally think that the core book more than adequately communicates its assumed mode of play, evidently the wider audience badly needed help there, which I guess explains this supplement; whilst most of these articles could quite happily just gone in one of the various Nephilim fanzines that were in circulation at the time, putting this stuff out in a supplement is a somewhat louder and more official way to answer the “What do you do with this game?” question which was haunting the line.

Liber Ka

Helmed by John Snead and released in 1997, this provides as an appetiser an overview of traditional Western occultism and the modern day occult scene from the point of view of the Nephilim, and then as a main course offers a wholesale replacement of the Sorcery system from the core rulebook.

Whilst the Summoning and Alchemy systems from the core book were pretty flavourful, the Sorcery section was notable for being a bit flavourless and tending more towards typical RPG magic system wackiness. The system offered here simultaneously makes the most baseline uses of sorcery a bit more broadly applicable (simple casual magic being largely an exercise in applied Ka-vision), whilst more substantial workings involve quite involved rituals that are time-consuming and may well require help from others. Magical outcomes here tend to do the Mage coincidental magic thing of having their outcome arise through apparently natural circumstances.

Personally, I quite like this because it further embraces Nephilim‘s core schtick; I’d put it alongside the retooled Metamorphosis system from Chronicle of the Awakenings when it comes to really nice refinements of the system which add a lot if you implement them.

In fact, it’s evident that Chaosium stood by the magic system here and the Metamorphosis system from Chronicle much more than they did the core book system; Major Arcana, which would be the only supplement put out for the line after this, assumed that you were using both systems. This makes them seem more like mandatory patches than supplemental systems, and whilst they are enough of an improvement to make it seem worth it, I do wonder whether this exacerbated the game’s sales issues.

Major Arcana

Helmed by Ken Hite, this provides a badly needed expansion on the details about the Major Arcana, the key organisations in the Nephilim world. Most of them are covered to a decent level of detail, with a basic explanation that expands on the hyper-brief core book description that covers what rank and file members of the Arcanum in question would know and deeper secrets for the higher ranking members, along with associated scenario ideas. (You also get those very White Wolf-y sidebars where you get quotes expressing what each faction thinks about every other faction’s schtick, though to the credit of Hite and his co-authors these are actually much more direct and to-the-point and generally useful than the vague nonsense that White Wolf tend to offer in those.) On top of that, you also get little essays on their origins, the general principles of their internal working, and how they interact with each other.

With 22 Arcana to detail, the job at hand is a tricky one, but Hite and his co-authors by and large do a decent job. (They do end up “going there” in terms of riffing on the idea of Roma people as being mystical fortune-tellers in their discussion of the history of the Tarot, though this is in the context of a single paragraph discussing the folkloric history of the deck so it’s nowhere near on the level of White Wolf’s treatment of the subject.) Only two Arcana are given short shrift, mostly because they aren’t really for Nephilim PCs; the 21st Arcanum, The World, consists of those who have attained Agharta, whilst the 13th Arcanum, pretentiously called “the Unnamed” one because for some reason either Chaosium or MultiSim wussed out of calling it the Death Arcanum, is for the Selenim. The Selenim are ex-Nephilim who have become actual, honest to goodness vampires, and who operate on a fundamentally different metaphysical basis; MultiSim did an entire big fat supplement on them and Chaosium promise one here, but of course the cancellation of the line put paid to that, which is a shame.

On the whole, Major Arcana is another extremely useful supplement for Nephilim, providing substantial support for the organisations in question which ideally should have been in place long before. I have to wonder whether a lot people’s “What the fuck am I meant to do with this?” issues with Nephilim would have been substantially alleviated had this information been in the core book.

Gamemaster’s Veil

This is your GM screen, combining a rather uninspiring design with a cheeky introductory scenario which has the player characters Awakening in the British Museum and having to escape a Templar trap set up there and a really fun little component – an Astrological Wheel that can be used to work out the various penalties and bonuses to magic based on astrological factors with great ease.

Another Shuffle of the Cards?

1997 was the end of the line for the English Nephilim line. Whilst the French line had become a cornerstone of the national RPG scene – MultiSim only being brought low by a generalised crash of the French RPG industry in 2003, and Nephilim being one of the games which soon got picked up by another publisher – the English line simply never took off to the extent that Chaosium had hoped for, and poor sales led them to bring the line to an untimely end.

That’s a shame, because in retrospect, looking over these books, it feels like the line was really coming into its own. In fact, I tend to put Nephilim into the same category as Demon: the Fallen in terms of being a game line which only really came into its own in the light of its later supplement line. It’s not quite the same because Demon‘s core book was flat-out broken and needed its supplements to fix it; conversely, the core Nephilim book is a perfectly cromulent gaming manual, but the various additions and changes made in the supplements add improvements to it which are so major that I would be disinclined to run Nephilim without them – especially when it comes to the emotional ties to Metamorphosis from Chronicle of the Awakenings, the expanded details on the Arcana from Major Arcana, and the more flavourful Sorcery system from Liber Ka.

I genuinely think that a second English language edition that integrated these updates and went out of its way to provide a loud and clear answer to “what do you do with this game?” could have a real shot at providing something really meaty and useful for the Anglosphere RPG market. Now that the fad of modern-day occult games has died down, I think Nephilim could offer something that has a distinctly different flavour from the main surviving expressions of the idea. Both Mage: the Ascension and Unknown Armies are big into the whole postmodern magic/chaos magic dealio, whereas Nephilim offers something much more rooted in traditional ceremonial magic, even more so than what I know of Mage: the Awakening. (Atlantis is also a big deal in Nephilim, but Nephilim actually integrates Atlantis into its mythology quite nicely rather than having it be a big fuzzy indistinct enigma.)

The major barrier seems to be the “possessing entity” angle, which may make it hard for some to sympathise very much with their Nephilim. As I understand it, Chaosium had issues with it at the time and kind of wanted to nudge the interpretation of the game towards Nephilim being enlightened human spirits to make them a bit more relatable. I could definitely see a possibility in a variant of the system where a “Nephilim” is simply someone who has attained a point of enlightenment where they get total recall of their past lives, or at least that subset of their past lives where they reached this level before; you could have the “Stasis” be a repository of the memories rather than the soul, the acquisition of one’s own Stasis being a prerequisite for attaining this status, and then all you need to do is work out what to do with the “possessing other people when you die” angle. (My inclination would be to either run a less fatal game but work on the basis of “when you die, you die”, or do some sort of cosmological “all souls are really one soul so it’s not so much possessing people as giving them a form of enlightenment in their own right” dealio.)

That said, that would very much be an alternate fan canon; the whole “inhuman possessors” thing was so prominent in this edition that I suspect a second edition that dropped or removed it would run into issues where it didn’t feel like a good faith continuation of the original line. Still, given all the entities that White Wolf/Onyx Path have asked us to accept as player characters over the years, it doesn’t seem like it’d be impossible to get a wider audience to love the Nephilim on their own terms.

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