Nephilim, published by Chaosium in 1994, is one of the handful of French roleplaying games which have been translated or adapted into English-language editions — Steve Jackson Games's In Nomine is the only other one I'm familiar with. Compared to Anglophone games, the French ones all seem more cerebral, more mystical, and much more closely-coupled to real-world religious and occult beliefs.
When you pass a French occult roleplaying game to the American genius game designer Greg Stafford — who is also a scholar and devotee of shamanic spiritual practices — you get something strange and amazing. In the American version of Nephilim, the player-characters are ancient immortal spirit beings who have lived through multiple previous lives in human form, who are striving to gain magical knowledge and power in order to attain supreme enlightenment and transcend the material world. The feel is very much like its near-contemporary Vampire: The Masquerade, from White Wolf. (The Chaosium version of Nephilim came out in 1994, three years after Vampire.) You've got powerful supernatural beings with an array of different types and factions, living in secret among modern humans, and fighting against a variety of powerful conspiracies and ancient secret societies.
The main difference between the two is one of tone. Vampire is a horror game in which the characters are, frankly, monsters, and the main conflict is just how monstrous they allow themselves to become in the course of their intrigues and infighting. Nephilim is more straight-up urban fantasy in which the characters are trying to be morally better than ordinary humans. Guess which one found a bigger audience?
The underlying game engine of Nephilim is Chaosium's sturdy and reliable Basic Role-Playing system, with a few modifications for the elemental affinities and mystical powers of the Nephilim. The fact that the characters can have multiple past lives across human history creates a nifty bit of game balance mechanics: your past lives give you both mundane skills and mystical knowledge, but each incarnation reduces a character's magical power level. You can be wise but weak, or strong but naive. Having past lives also offers the gamemaster the chance to run "flashback" adventures set in the past, in which players can game out episodes in their characters' backstories.
The strong historical and "real occultism" focus of the game means the book is packed with (mostly) accurate info about mystical conspiracies and secret societies, ancient esoteric traditions, and things like Tarot and alchemy. Unsurprisingly to Those Who Know, one contributor to the game was a Chicago upstart named Ken Hite, who thereby kicked off a long career of Getting It Right in historical/occult gaming.
One lovely feature of Nephilim is its magic system. Not the system itself, actually, but the names of the spells that characters can learn in the game. While many of them are pretty straighforward ("Choking Vapor" creates a cloud of pungent smoke), the category of Summoning spells have wonderful names like "The Jade Flowers, Mysteries of the Dark Forests" or "The Spirits of the 24th Part of an Instant" or "The Powerful Pale Queen of Torment, With Tears of Flame." To be candid, the spell list was the primary reason I bought the game, as I was interested in maybe adapting some of the Nephilim material to Call of Cthulhu, as they have (sorta) compatible mechanics.
Nephilim is not without its flaws. The biggest one is simply the literally arcane nature of the game world — it has no easy point of access for players and gamemasters. For Call of Cthulhu, the hook is simple: you're characters in an H.P. Lovecraft horror story. Even if the players aren't familiar with Lovecraft's work, "characters in a horror story" gives them a lot of information about what the characters are likely to be doing. For Vampire, the hook is equally accessible: you're vampires. (And Vampire: The Masquerade even conveniently populates its game world with versions of all the popular fictional vampires, just to make it easier.) Whereas in a Nephilim game there's a lot of made-up cosmology the players have to digest just to create a character, let alone play.
The second is a problem shared by nearly all of the wave of what we can frankly describe as "Vampire knockoffs" of the same era: the designers wanted to contrast the superhuman powers of the characters with their status as powerless outsiders in society. The sample characters in Nephilim, for example, are a goth rock-band leader, a bike messenger, a "loser," a con man, a graduate student, and so on. There isn't much wish-fulfilment fantasy in any of those roles. And more integrated, socially-powerful roles just tie the characters to jobs, family responsibilities, and all the other things people play roleplaying games to escape. You wind up with all the bother of real life and Templar assassins.
I bought Nephilim in North Carolina in 1995 or thereabouts, but never played it. I created a couple of characters to try out the system, but never got the spark of inspiration to write any adventures. Now that I've re-read Nephilim for the first time in twenty years I actually do think it would be an interesting game setting, but not in the way the creators intended. Suppose that, instead of immortal superbeings living as bike messengers, the player-characters were ordinary humans, possibly with an interest in the occult, who become aware of this secret world and get swept up in its conflicts. That way the players can learn the game's cosmology bit by bit rather than in an appalling dose right at the beginning. Maybe give them one sympathetic Nephilim as a mentor, but otherwise play up the literally inhuman nature of these beings, and their indifference to human concerns. The villainous secret societies may still be bad guys, but they can be open to temporary alliances and "nonaggression" agreements with the heroes. That might be a fun game to run . . .
For stories of strange creatures in the modern world, buy my new ebook Monster Island Tales!