“I think Foucault was an Excrucian anchor,” I used to joke with my old gaming group.
“I know that Foucault has convinced me that a lot of things don’t really exist,” said one of my fellow players, a dear friend who used to sit next to me in my philosophy classes and laugh at my stupid jokes about Kant1.
Now, Foucault probably2 didn’t contain a piece of the soul of a beautiful but terrible godlike being from beyond the Weirding Wall, nor was he known to wield a soul-cutting blade of heartbreaking beauty in the service of the Children of Harumaph. And the post-structuralists don’t exactly say that reality is a lie the way an Excrucian might. Nor is it precisely the case that they are saying that “a lot of things don’t really exist.”
But is the ontology of post-structuralism essentially at odds with the game of Nobilis? This might not sound particularly relevant3 to the modern feminist gamer, but some of its most influential intellectual products, i.e. the social and linguistic construction of race and gender, are deeply held convictions of many feminists4.
I’ll take a non-controversial subject to demonstrate where potential conflicts between the Nobilis worldview and the post-structuralist worldview might lie.
Murder is commonly understood to be an act wherein a person intentionally and maliciously kills another person. While a full-on post-structuralist analysis of murder is beyond the scope of this article, I hope it shall suffice for my purposes here to say that murder is viewed as a socio-cultural construct (as opposed to the killing qua killing). They would be interested in seeing how murder has been constructed both in the present and the past. They might ask questions the following: Who is a “person What is “intentional?” What is “malicious?” Who has, historically and in the present, decided what these things are? Cui bono?
Nobilis, of course, has an answer for all of these questions: the Power of Murder and Ananda, the Imperator of Murder, have decided all of these things. The Estate of Murder has a list of Properties that are written on the Power of Murder’s character sheet. Is abortion murder? Is euthanasia murder? There are definite, objective answers to these questions in the world of Nobilis. Murder has existed for as long as Ananda, the Imperator of Murder has existed. He (and by extension Murder) may very well predate the creation of humanity, and may continue to exist even if the last sentient being in Creation dies. 5 Human consensus is mostly irrelevant to the reality of the Estate — unless you’re an Excrucian attempting to subvert the Estate by using human proxies!
This is where things get tricky. Though the game presents authority figures in the Noble sphere (e.g., Lord Entropy) as the literal embodiment of evil or something very much like it, human criticism or revolution is almost necessarily a tool used by the Excrucian antagonists of the game. In the world of Nobilis, Foucault could have very well been an Excrucian anchor leading assaults against Estates like Imprisonment or Madness. His books and ideas could have been the linchpin of a Flower Rite.
There are exceptions to this, of course. A Noble who follows the Code of the Dark, which believes that humans have a right to define their own existences rather than be tossed about by the whims of Noble-defined Estates, may side with the post-structuralist. And it may be that post-structuralism is an Estate in and of itself (perhaps one that came into being following a failed Excrucian ploy, as the Estate of Punks6 did).
The ontology of Nobilis poses challenges in other ways. For modern feminists, the reclamation of identity by silenced groups and the transition from subject into object are crucial goals.
What is to be done, then, when the game world makes a statement about a player’s identity? (If this sounds farfetched or out of keeping with the game, consider that Nobilis concerns itself greatly with the mythic, and that gender occupies a significant amount of esoteric thought. Consider also that the Power of Physical Disabilities is given a full-page illustration in the second edition.)
So what happens when someone wants to play the Power of Masculinity, or the players meet the Power of Maternity? What if the Estate of the Moon has a Property that links the moon to femininity? What if one player is excited about playing the Power of Insanity and lists off Properties right and left, not realizing that another player at the table read Szasz while involuntarily committed at a psych hospital?
The HG could make a variety of assumptions about the cosmos to suit their own worldview, of course. The Estates of Femininity and Masculinity might have Properties like, “Masculinity performs whatever is expected of male-identified persons in the local social context.” This leads to a problem when the Power of Masculinity attempts a Persona miracle in a place devoid of males, or devoid of a social context. The player might just shrug their shoulders and take a suitable Affliction to reflect this — “I can’t use Persona miracles without reference to a local social context!” — but it also has implications for every other Estate that references masculinity as well.
So what is to be done about all of this?
If I have any practical advice from all of this (and I’m not sure that I do), it would be this: be careful when you’re building your Estates. Notice who you’re defining when you list their Properties. Inform your players that if anything makes them uncomfortable proactively, and give them space and time to seek you out privately. If they do tell you that something makes them uncomfortable, listen to them and take them seriously. No one likes having their creative works criticized, but swallow your defensiveness and work with your players. The game is all about collaborative creativity, and that means that you need to be quiet and listen to your players.
And always, always remember that the world can change. With a suitably advanced Project, even Imperators can.
- I know, the joke is obvious, but when your German philosophy professor says, “I’m going to give you the five minute Kant,” you’ve got to say something. ↩
- Probably. ↩
- Post-structuralism? Irrelevant? Surely not, you say. But suspend your disbelief, gentle reader, for the duration of the article. ↩
- Obviously, there are exceptions to this. ↩
- This is not to say that Murder or any other Estate is a static concept. Any player could change the Properties of their Estate with a powerful enough miracle, and its role in the cosmos may have been negotiated by any number of Noble or Imperial bargains. An Imperator could change their own Estates with Imperial miracles. An Excrucian ploy could warp or destroy the Properties of an Estate. But ultimately, an Estate defines human experience, and not the other way around. ↩
- See p. 90 of the second edition. ↩