I have a long-running love of Exalted. It provided one of my favorite games I’ve run, and one of my favorite I’ve played in. It is a big, beautiful mess, and I say that with all the love in the world. Exalted is easy to love, but also easy to find problems with, often passionately. It may seem odd, but I think that it’s one of its real strengths. There are settings that are comparably big, and settings that are comparably wild, but I don’t think there’s another game that is as big and wild. It is so big and wild that every group I know that has played in it has taken strong, personal ownership of it.
This is awesome. It is anti-canon. And it’s an invitation to bend, spindle and mutilate the game with vigor, whether that means carving out your own space in the setting hacking the mechanics (I have at various points played it with Fate, Weapons of the Gods and Risus) while still feeling right. It also means that it is a game that allows for STRONG OPINIONS in a non-negating fashion. The fact that I think Dragon Blooded are far and away the most fun of the exalts does not yuck anyone else’s yum. And when someone tells me how awesome Abyssals are, that does not intrude on my enjoyment. Obviously, there are always jerks, but largely, Exalted is a game that is easy to love, and fun to love.
And if you hate it? Cool. But the rest of this probably won’t interest you much. And if you have no idea what Exalted is, this is going to be a piss-poor place to start. This isn’t really a review in any real sense, just a conversation about a familiar product. If you’re curious about Exalted, I’d recommend checking the used books section for old hardcovers on the cheap. Third edition is interesting, but I have difficulty imagining it as something for a new player.
When Exalted 3rd edition was announced, I was leery. I had enjoyed some of the mechanical cleanup in 2nd edition, but I also felt like they had smoothed over too many rough edges that I had loved in first (and yes, the edition differences are one of those things people have STRONG OPINIONS about). What’s more, I’d had a very tenuous relationship with the various White Wolf reprints – they were invariably produced by people with a lot of talent and a lot of love for the material, but they often felt (to me) more targeted at the nostalgia market than anything else. Their pricing reflected that too, so I ultimately skipped the kickstarter for Exalted third.
However, it’s available for sale now, and after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I broke down and bought the PDF for $30, which I consider steep, but I get the idea that it’s luxury pricing. And I can only complain so much – DFRPG is only $5 less.
Part of the reason I waffled on the purchase is that this is absolutely the kind of book I’d prefer to read a physical copy of. Beyond a certain size, physical books are a bit more manageable for me, and this is a 650 page behemoth. That’s monstrous. And the hardcover is either $65 or or $115 – that is definitely steep for something unseen. Weirdly, I would have been much less hesitant to buy two books for a greater total, but that is a whole rabbit hole on the nature of pricing. Bottom line, I picked it up, and started reading.
The first thing to be super clear about, in case you’re wondering. When I heard how big it was, I thought maybe they had packed the whole Exalted line in there. They did not. This is a third edition of the core book, which is to say, with an overview on everything, but a focus on the Solars.
It’s genuinely a lovely looking PDF. The best of the art is amazing, and the worst of it is merely ok. If there are any real stinkers, I haven’t noticed them yet, but I’m still working through this beast. The page decorations are varied and lovely. The cover is striking.
I’d probably quibble about the font choice for the fiction. It’s a pretty drab sans serif that I’m sure Fred could name at a glance. I think it looks too boring for the material, but that’s just taste.
Two real disappointments though:
- First – the new map of creation looks FANTASTIC, so much so that I am incredibly frustrated to have gotten only a teeny tiny version of it. I understand i maybe they want to upcharge for a super high quality version, but they could have at least included an ok copy of it, rather than sending me off to google.
- Second – the index is not hyperlinked. I ranted about this a bit on twitter, but I should unpack this in a reasonable fashion. This is a 650 page book – it’s massive. That means the index is critical, and the prospect of scrolling 500 pages to go through the index manually, then scrolling 300 pages back is a giant pain in the ass, especially when trying to, say, look up mechanics. The file doesn’t appear to be bookmarked either, so navigation is…not great.
Now, that said, I do not want to suggest that hyperlinking this index would be a trivial exercise. Even with software to automate the effort (which might be dicey) this is a grind, and somebody needs to get paid to do it. But as noted, this is explicitly a luxury product – not only is the flat index inconvenient, it’s a rattling plastic cup holder on a BMW.1
Ok, so the book itself. Before I go much further, I want to give a big caveat – I am pretty sure I am not the audience for this book. There’s a strong element of nostalgia to a book like this, and the things that define the nostalgia for some are not the things that define it for everyone. The things that I would want out of Exalted are not necessarily the things they set out to make. So I’m walking a line here – I think they succeeded at what they set out to do, even if it’s not necessarily my bag. I will kvetch about all manner of things, but take all complaints with the important qualifier that it’s probably not for me.
And nothing illustrates that like how blithely I skipped the introductory fiction. Look, ever since the demon towel monkey experience, I give White Wolf fiction three sentences to grab me, and it usually doesn’t.2 I might come back to it later, but honestly, I’m a tourist in my home town here – I want to get into the meat and see what’s familiar and what has changed, especially mechanically.
So, ok, what follows all feels pretty familiar. High level overview of the setting, sure, great, then two page spreads on each of the Exalt types. These are lovely pages – the two page spreads make me wish for the book or a larger monitor than I’m using. They also contain the first real surprise – two new Exalted groups.
First, The Liminal have a strong Promethean: The Created vibe to them. Created beings born of death whose power use reveals them as monstrous, and who are tied to a creator. I admit, I don’t quite get them. I suspect someone has a really good idea got how they fit into things (as a foil to the Abyssals seems the most obvious) but it doesn’t really come through in the description.
I’m much more excited by The Exigents, who are effectively the Exalted of the lesser gods. Their powers and power level is wildy varied, and their relationship with their patron is super individual, and I love them. God blooded were always one of my favorite things in Exalted, and this idea builds on it in a wonderful way. It opens the door to a wide range of really neat, but still strongly in theme characters. It also gives the more powerful gods champions, which makes the potential interactions with them much more interesting.
Other than that they hit on the core 5 – Solar, Lunar, Sidereal, Abyssal and Dragon blooded. There is also a two page spread teasing other future Exalts.3 This is a little annoying – it’s a 650 page book, and they couldn’t spare another 10 pages? But, ok, whatever.
Next we have about 60 pages of setting information which I absolutely skimmed. Unlike the fiction, I actually look forward to returning to this, but it’s enough of a mix of familiar and novel that it’s going to take some brainpower to sift through. It’s fun to skim – the high level view of the exalted world, where descriptions are limited to a paragraph or two is a wonderful thing. It’s easy to open to a page and find a random thing you could absolutelyhang a game off of.
But then I got to character creation, and I slowed down. I admit, I had heard a lot of interesting promises about 3e really streamlining the Exalted system. That idea is really compelling to me for a lot of reasons, but the jury is still out on whether or not that succeeded. They absolutely did a lot of interesting things, but I’m not entirely sure how streamlined it is.
Chargen itself looks largely familiar – Attributes, abilities, dots, essence, willpower, freebie points and so on. Not much call to dwell on those, but the changes were interesting.
- In a nice touch, you can pick one of your skills as your “Supernal Ability” – for charms under that ability, you can buy charms as if you had an essence of 5. That is wonderfully liberating and (hopefully) reduces the pressure to just spend all your freebie points on Essence.
- Merits & Flaws are right there, but handled smartly. The merits are flagged so it’s clear what can be bought after chargen versus earned with play. They’re also priced very inexpensively, and they just come out and say that if you’ve got a weird situation like leading two armies, then just buy the merit twice, no biggee.
- Flaws delight me. You get no points for them, rather, they create well-articulated opportunities to generate extra XP. Obviously, I’m a big fan of this sort of approach.
- Yet for all that, the “no skills over 3 without spending Freebie points” limit feels absolutely vestigial. Yes, it’s twinky to be able to buy a bunch of 5s, but, well, Exalted.
- The virtues are gone, replaced by “Intimacies”. They reflect the things the character values,is driven by, or otherwise considers important. There is no limit to the number of them, and they seem quite freeform. I am intrigued to find out more.
- Limit breaks have been tweaked a bit, but the idea seems largely intact.
- There’s a large example of character creation, which is great to include. Viva examples!
- The Anima effects of the various castes are referenced but not described in their entries, which seemed weird, but skipping ahead, that seems to be because they have longer explanations, so it makes sense.
- The Attribute & Ability ladders remain somewhat spurious. It is rare that the number of dots actually feels like it’s description. But this is a very old problem.
- The ability descriptions do a very nice job of adding a single line, bolded note about what makes each ability important, such as “This Ability is important for combat” or “This Ability is necessary to create artifacts”. Not every ability has such a note, but this seems a nice, friendly reference for someone looking to fill in a concept.
- At first glance, none of the merits seem particularly overwhelming or mandatory, though Artifact and Manse are still hard to argue against. There’s a Selective Contraception merit, but we’re just going to gently set that down and keep moving.
- Ok, so the Intimacies. They are generally categorized as ties or principals. The categories don’t matter much intrinsically, but some charms apparently depend on the category. Intimacies are minor, major or defining, and those tiers have descriptive and mechanical impact. It seems that they’re pretty easy to shift one step at a time, but there’s a lot of GM and player input on the process for PCs (for NPCs it sounds like this is a big part of social rules, but I haven’t gotten there yet). They also are tied to recovering Willpower. I am even more intrigued now – this seems nicely meaty.
At page 182, we finally start on the actual system. If you want a clear indication that this is a product for an established audience, look not further than this: the core mechanic (rolling dice, counting successes) is finally explained on page 185. It’s pretty clearly assumed the target audience knows this stuff.
It’s familiar enough – roll some D10s, 7, 8 or 9 is usually a success, 10 is usually two successes. Go forth and roll. The one interesting bit comes in the difficulties – they run from 1-5, and the descriptions really lay out a 5 as super damn heroic. Now, why does this matter? Tonally, it sets up very heroic play. It does not take a very big die pool to consistently get results that are narratively very impressive. In that sense, it’s a promise for the rest of the game about what the dice mean.
But this promise is fraught. It really depends on the rest of the mechanics to hold it up as true, and Storywhatever systems have consistently fallen down on this promise. So with that in mind, I accept the promise in good faith, but I am absolutely keeping an eye on it.
Nothing interesting about failure, which is not a criticism so much as a lost opportunity. Stunting is still baked right into things and looks comfortably familiar, though I very much welcome the sidebar that says “if a player stunts and fails, do not use their awesomeness to screw them over”.
But really, I was just digging through this stuff to get to combat. Exalted is fighty, so how fighty was this version?
Answer: Pretty fighty! One very substantial change has been made to the combat system, so give me a minute to unpack it. Of all things, initiative has moved to the center of combat in a very curious way. So, just to make some future things clear, your initiative value is A roll + 3, and action goes from highest to lowest. Simple enough.
Now, there are rules for moving and attacking and multiattack and they’re all well and good, but the really interesting stuff lies in the two types of attacks.
When you attack, you either make a withering attack or a decisive attack. Withering attacks4 are used to wear down enemies and take control of the tempo of the fight. They look a lot like normal WoD Attacks – Attribute + Ability + Specialization + Weapon vs defense, margin of success + some more dice vs Soak all to produce a damage number. But where it gets interesting is that the damage is applied to your enemies initiative value, and you increase your own initiative by 1 + the “damage” dealt.
If you make a Decisive attack, you are trying to actually do some damage in an attempt to end the fight. The attack does not use your weapon’s stats (so it’s just Attribute + Ability + any situational mods) and is a straight up success/failure. If it’s a failure, you lose a few points of initiative. If it’s a success you effectively cash out your initiative and roll a number of damage dice equal to your initiative rating. There’s no soak, though “hardness” can reduce damage. After you’re done, reduce your initiative to three.
Now, obviously the cadence of this is to exchange withering attacks to try to accrue enough of an initiative to land a telling blow. That seems pretty fun and interesting, but there’s more too it.
If you manage to knock someone’s initiative below zero, they’re on the ropes, in a state of “Initiative Crash”, which has some drawbacks, most notably that they cannot make decisive attacks. There’s also a lot of fiddly stuff about putting someone in initiative crash and coming out of it, and at least some of it seems to be there to prevent certain obvious abuses. You can be driven deeper into negatives, though if you hold out for 3 rounds, you get reset back to an initiative of 3. In fighting game terms, this feels like a juggle, a situation where the combination of attacks you are landing let you get off free hits without a counterattack. As with many Exalted mechanics, it feels like it might be a weird fit elsewhere, but having some video game tone in Exalted is kind of on point.
It seems pretty obvious that there’s a large benefit to building up a pile of initiative early up in a fight, which mechanically encourages engaging the mooks5 before you go after the boss, but given that this is Exalted, that seems more feature than bug. I definitely worry about the “initiative piñata” risk, where someone lays withering attacks on weaker targets to be abel to land more powerful decisive attacks on harder targets. It also feels like a fight that goes lopsided is going to stay lopsided.
But the thing it, I might be wrong. This is definitely super interesting, and it’s different enough from other systems that I am confident that certain properties will emerge in play.6I definitely want to try this out, even without introducing charms (which I’m sure really mess with things).
So while I quibble about some things, but this in unquestionably a very clever and in place elegant mechanic, one that I cheerfully look forward to borrowing in the future.
One other bit with a lot of potential are Gambits. Conceptually, they’re straightforward enough – want to make an attack that is really neither withering nor decisive, but rather trying to change the situation, such as with a disarm or knocking someone off their horse? No problem – it’s handled like a decisive attack, but the damage roll is instead roles against a difficulty. Easy peasy. By itself I kind of shrug – disarm rules don’t move my needle much. However, a throwaway comment reveals something very potent – these gambits can be situational. That is, I can frame a fight in such a way that there are special activities you can take that are expressed as gambits. This offers a nice mechanical hook for fighting a mountain, or having an MMO style boss fight where you need to, say, hit the crystals before you can attack the boss7. It’s very explicitly gamey, but so is the whole system, which is fine because it’s Exalted.
There is also the clash, when two characters attack each other on the same initiative number. It’s a contested roll with higher consequences than a normal attack, and that’s cool. It would have been easy for it to have been really overwrought and dramatic, but I think this will happen often enough8 that it was good they went with something quick rather than have it devolve into a mini game every time.
I also want to call out one wonderfully subtle mechanics that provides a pile of genre enforcement. Ranges are nice and abstract – Close, Short, Medium and long. If you want to make any sort of ranged attack from Medium or Long range, you must take an aim action first. I’ll be curious if charms mess with it, but the upshot of it is this – if you want your ranged character to be at parity with the melee characters, you need to be in the mix. Staying at short range leaves you exposed to people rushing you, but it gets you into the ebb and flow of the fight. That’s a clear genre declaration of what archers should look like, and I love that kind of subtle, yet potently opinionated mechanic.
I also like an addition to the injury rules, that you can clear big injuries by taking a permanent injury instead (though it’s still pretty harsh, mechanically). However, I’m not 100% sure how that ends up working with Exalted, since they are supposed to be super awesome at healing.
There are grappling rules, and about them, I will say this: there are definitely grappling rules.
There’s an interesting bit in stealth – in addition to sneak attacking (which works largely as you’d expect) you can “Hold at Bay” – roll to attack, but instead of attacking, you effectively hold the target at knifepoint for a number of rounds equal to the damage you had done. If the target opts not to play along, they will end up on the receiving end of a very unpleasant attack. Definitely a fun addition.
Anyway, that gets us to about page 200. I will be shocked if I have this much to say about the next 450 pages besides “Oh God, so many charms”, but to find out, I’m going to have to actually go look at those pages, so until then, g’night all.
- That said, I should add, that the Table of Contents and cross references all seem well linked. That’s awesome, but it made the index thing even more noticeable. ↩︎
- Usually because those first few sentences are usually some kind of evocative prose rather than the start of a story. It’s a style thing, and I get that some people dig it, but I’m super impatient that way. I think the last time I was really grabbed by the opening fiction was….Changeling: the Lost maybe? So I’m a curmudgeon. I own it. ↩︎
- Looking at them, I inferred Alchemical, Fae, Infernal and God blooded. Not sure about the last one – might be new, but more likely I have forgotten something. ↩︎
- I do not love this name, but I am sympathetic. It has the feel of a name picked because it was the least objectionable option out of many, many tries. ↩︎
- Curiously, if there are extras rules, I haven’t gotten to them yet. Very curious. ↩︎
- Consider, for example, the thee rounds of Initiative Break recovery. If I push you into initiative break with a Withering attack, my best course is to make a decisive attack, another withering attack, then a decisive attack. Assuming I don’t drop you, on the round that you come out, we are both at Initiative 3, and have been set up for a Clash. Elegant. ↩︎
- On some level, they are a compelling answer to the problems with Skill Challenges in 4e. ↩︎
- There’s even a mechanical trick that makes it more likely – if you choose to delay your action, it costs you two initiative, no matter how much you delay. So it is not expensive to hold until your opponent’s turn to try to force a clash. My only concern is that it introduces a bit of a race condition. ↩︎