RPG Spotlight: Nephilim

Around the start of the 90s, we all went apeshit for modern fantasy-horror where YOU are the monster.


We all know Vampire, the painfully cool game exploring the angst of an immortal superbeing in a gothic-punk1 milieu. Shortly thereafter the me-toos like Nephilim (1992) and Immortal: The Invisible War (1993) crawled out of the woodwork, and towards the end of the decade we have what might be called the “second generation” of such games: Witchcraft, In Nomine, Nobilis – with less emphasis on personal horror and more on urban fantasy. Now we have a diverse and refined third generation with games like the Dresden Files, Sorcerer, and the New WoD titles like Scion (with White Wolf now having to differentiate itself in the market it helped create).

Continuing a theme of nearly unplayable games, Nephilim’s problem is one of occupying time. Sure, it’s great that you’re a reincarnated spirit who has possessed and corrupted borrowed a mortal for your simulacrum and is slowly turning them into a mythological creature in your image. You have all of these past lives, and frankly you’re not bothered about dying, or ageing, and probably not fussed about the lives of the ants scurrying around you. You probably have this spirit-quest for Golconda Agartha going on, so good luck with that. But at the end of it, when characters are fantastically long lived and death has no meaning, why act now? Why not just hang about in your castle or antique shop or wherever pouring over ancient texts for decades on end?


Actually, the Gamesmaster’s Companion has a section entitled “What Do You Do With Eternity?”. Of all of the supplements this offers the biggest bang-for-buck. The Campaign Design chapter is applicable not just to this game but any game in the genre – like the Superheroic Histories chapter in Wild Talents it’s a systemless commentary that’s probably useful to anyone – so if you see a battered copy going for cheap, I recommend it.

Incentive to act will usually come from antagonists – which for this genre2 broadly falls into two camps:

  • greedy, paranoid, vengeful or otherwise frightened humans
  • the supernatural’s own kind, participating in an occult Great Game


p>Secret Societies fill in the first camp, and seem to be universally composed of conspiracy theorists who are certain the nephilim are up to no good and want to rule humanity – never mind that the nephilim are so passive that it’s a wonder they can run an antique business, let alone pull the strings of world governments.

The second is covered by the Major Arcana – the 22 tribes of the Nephilim. These are barely sketched out in the first book, although they get their own supplement. Tribes is possibly the wrong word since they’re more like the nWoD Vampire Covenants. There’s quite a bit on how the Arcana interact but any real antagonism is understated. Overall it’s interesting and detailed, but it side-steps a number of questions it should be answering – namely what the Arcana look like in motion.

Major Arcana

Sadly I don’t own Secret Societies to compare it with the core book content or Major Arcana. However it does look like the core Nephilim book deliberately withholds content for later publication. That’s actually rather unusual for a Chaosium property, but note that this game was licensed from Multisim who have since released much more content in French that will probably never get an English translation.

The withholding of additional setting content is forgivable; but some of the other choices are questionable. Not one but two supplements actually change core mechanics, so I wonder why they weren’t in the book to start with. Firstly there’s the Chronicle of the Awakenings which mainly expands on past lives – including some detail on what some of the secret societies were up to during history – but also completely re-writes the rules for nephilim metamorphoses (changes in outward appearance from human to supernatural). The new rules base the metamorphosis not on a simple power increase but on changes in emotional personality traits – great for roleplaying but I’m not convinced it adds value. It’s just different.

Liber ka

But the most radical change comes in the form of Liber Ka. In the main book each kind of magic is given three tiers or circles, and covers Sorcery, Summoning and Alchemy. In Liber Ka there’s just three tiers full stop (Casual, Ritual and High magic). Possibly these simulate occult practice more effectively but I don’t think they really add anything to the game because, in the end, they’re just a different list of spells – and of limited compatibility with the core book. And my reservations about a game’s ability to simulate combat apply equally to magic. It’s only going to matter to a handful of people whether magic is truly representative of real-world practice. For everyone else magic should be intriguing, resonant, but ultimately a means to an end. It’s the results and how they affect the narrative that matters.

I think this is at the heart of the problem. Nephilim calls itself an “occult roleplaying game”, and it’s pretty uncompromising. I applaud that, I’m just not sure the way it’s been presented is workable. It’s too concerned with occult science and not enough with how humans respond to occult science.

As for the system, it’s Chaosium’s BRP tweaked for a rather complex magic system. All I can say is it differentiates itself strongly from the buckets-of-dice settings. The French 3rd edition has a different system.

Emily Dresner is doing a FATE conversion, although the latest blog post is 6 months old at time of writing. But I hope she sticks with it. Personally I can see a lot of the Unisystem stuff I bought recently being highly applicable – use the Ghosts of Albion or Buffy Magic Box magic spell building, all the ritual magic and rules for supernatural organisations and even the demon-building rules from Angel, or you could use the more authentic occult systems in Witchcraft.

For me the most compelling content is not the occult stuff, it’s the past lives. The book has a load of time periods with a breakdown of careers and skills for each. Handled well, that could make for a mesmerising beginning, planning where the collected PCs’ past lives intersect. But it also makes for a slow start to the campaign; longer than the interminable wanking that is the Vampire prelude. And in the end you’re encouraging a player to add screeds of backplot. If you’ve got the energy for that, and if you subscribe to the Burning Wheel tenets of player belief and instinct driving the whole game, it could be a sublime experience. If you just want to take names and kick ass, possibly not.

  1. As in, despised by both goths and punks.

  2. Well, really any genre. Either an external agency who opposes your organisation, or an antagonistic subset of your own organisation. That’s it.

3 thoughts on “RPG Spotlight: Nephilim

  1. Just a minor correction, but Scion isn’t a World of Darkness game. It uses a similar system, but the setting is completely separate.

    You’re incorrect about Nephilim being a rip-off of Vampire. The 1st edition was released in France less than a year after Vampire 1st edition was released in the states, so it couldn’t possibly have been “inspired” by Vampire since that game hadn’t achieved its market base or been released in France at that time. If anything, Vampire is a rip-off of Nightlife, which was the prototypical urban horror game released in 1989; indeed, Mage: The Awakening, a new World of Darkness game, was written by some of the same authors as Nephilim, and it really shows *cough* Atlantis *cough*.

    Furthermore, your complaints about motivation and ethics apply equally to Vampire or Mage (or any game for that matter; take a look at Powerkill some time). Vampires are immortal cannibals constantly struggling against the urge to kill and eat the people around them, and mages are reincarnating spirits *cough* avatars *cough* who think they have the right to decide how physics should work for the rest of us. In comparison, Nephilim are positively saints, since they’re NOT predisposed toward trying to take over the world or using human beings as playthings and snacks; even the Selenim, the obligatory villain splat, are mediums who help the dead solve their unfinished business out of the goodness of their hearts.

    Though as far as motivation goes, having external antagonists coming out of the woodwork to move the plot I find to be a very clumsy method of getting players involved in the game; indeed, I find reactive (as opposed to proactive) protagonists not to be characters at all, but clumsy plot devices in general. Ideally, players should invent their own motivations and then move characters toward those motivations, with the GM sprinkling in some obstacles to keep things interesting. Nephilim lends itself particularly well to Indiana Jones-styled sessions.

    • Hi!

      I was being intentionally glib in the text–and you’re right, Scion isn’t technically WoD and Nephilim cannot technically be a me-too. Nonetheless, they represent the early 90s zeitgeist of urban fantasy supers (which is telling given that Scion comes 15 years after).

      Now I’m considering this game in isolation–any similarities drawn with other games is for context, not a peeing contest. I have no complaints about ethics here, but since we’re comparing Nephs with Vamps the relative goodness of one over the other is a matter of perspective. You could argue that Vamps are natural predators who kill quickly or feed painlessly, whereas Nephs apply long term, cruel and unusual torture to the minds and bodies of the simulacra they inhabit. The early 90s represents a romantic period in urban fantasy rpg (and fiction generally) where the human cost of being one of these characters is largely ignored. One could argue that Vampire does better than the rest owing to its specific reward mechanism, although in most of the games I played in Humanity was conveniently ignored.

      As for motivation, Nephilim does not have the same reward structure nor attention given to conflict or campaign present in 1e Vampire–and while Nephilim is not as superficial as Vampire, it is fairly aimless. The core book spends much time discussing the occult and then presents a laundry list of secret societies and sacred places without much thought as to how these might be relevant to the campaign. That’s why I think Nephilim is interesting, but an incomplete game–and just because we’re experienced GMs with decades of gaming under our belt doesn’t excuse that.

      Last, your preference for avoiding external antagonists is just that, and having an external force present a Call to Adventure does not preclude the characters from being proactive in following the Call. As for players inventing motivations for action, that’s a conceit of game design that comes after these games–it isn’t supported procedurally in either Vampire or Nephilim.

  2. That’s a good point. Back in the 90’s, the Nephilim mailing list often discussed the moral issue of Nephilim taking human bodies. Two points of view arose from this, the “parasite” and “awakened.” The parasite view assumed the Nephilim to be body-stealing parasites who saw humans as little different from monkeys, while the awakened view instead assumed that Nephilim were humans who spontaneously developed the ability to use magic and reincarnate rather than take new bodies (i.e. Mage: The Ascension), which really didn’t work with the cosmology presented. These two opposing viewpoints left little room for nuances like Nephilim being fundamentally nice people who are forced to take bodies because they can’t survive any other way.

    With the third edition of the game (the English version was cobbled wholesale by Chaosium), Multisim, the original French publishers, introduced a third character splat (in addition to Nephilim and Selenim) who were humans that had been empowered with elemental energy, making them more similar to Aberrant or other superhero games than traditional wizards. Maybe Multisim had realized the moral issues at that time, and maybe they even wrote articles addressing it, but I’m not French-speaker so I couldn’t know.

    Chaosium really dropped the ball when they were adapting Nephilim. Very little attention was given to telling GMs and players what Nephilim were supposed to do or how a campaign would play out. Although that might also be due to the premature cancellation, since a campaign book called the “Jason Factor” was going to be released.

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