Last night Doug, one of my regular players for the last two or three years (or is it longer), ran session one of his new Exalted campaign set in the northern reaches of Creation.
Before we began play we spent about an hour gossiping about 4e and looking over Pat's new D&D Minis set. You'd have been hardpressed to find an upbeat opinion at that table, which is pretty damning. The four of us may be all D&D players, but we're all over the map in terms of playstyle preferences. Not a man jack of us is convinced that Wizards can deliver a decent online product and no one seemed real enthused about buying the corebooks next month. Doug even discussed getting off the D&D train altogether. Grim times. I hope we're all wrong.
Let me tell you about our characters. Stuart is playing Blindclaw. I don't know much about his PC other than he's some sort of witch-hunter/occult investigator and he's got kung fu with his bow. Pat's PC is modeled after his favorite 3 Kingdoms era scholar-general (Pang Po? I probably got that wrong) and goes by the name Reaper Elkwitch. Here's a dramatization of our discussion of that PC moniker.
Stuart: Reaper Elkwitch? How did you come up with that?
Pat: I plugged my own name into an online anagram gizmo. "Reaper Elkwitch" was one of the few names that came out that didn't have "Hitler" in it.
Stuart: I'm surprised you didn't go with one of the Hitlers.
Me: Uhhh, I have this rule at my table. No Hitlers.
Pat: Yeah, we see a swastika, we punch it.
Stuart: What about the swastika as used in Native American art?
Me: We'd punch it, just to be safe. Then we'd apologize.
Pat: There was one guy up on Red Lake that was a Nazi, but he offed himself.
Me: Well, yay for that.
Stuart: Alrighty then.
My character is Torgo, Chief of the Mammoth Totem Cave People and Foe-Hammer of the Wizard-Kings of the North. My destiny is to unite the twelve tribes of the cave people and overthrow the Wizard-Kings. I've got this pimped out black orichacalum grand daiklave with the pommel from Hawk the Slayer's sword.
A lot of my stats and charms go into kicking ass and taking names, but I am not playing a Dawn caste, the premier warrior class in the game. Instead, my guy is an Eclipse. Torgo was sort of a tricky Odysseus/omega wolf type prior to his exaltation, which turned him into this badass warrior. But he's still glib when he needs to be, even preternaturally so. Early in character conceptualization I considered riding around on a war-dinosaur named Boo-boo, but given the more arctic clime proposed I instead opted for a polar bear named Ooklamok. My dude also has a Manse, which is the Exalted term for your own personal Batcave. I call my place the House of Bones. It overlooks the Mammoth Graveyard, where wooly mammoths go to die, and is made out of tusks and mammoth skulls and bigass ribs and stuff.
I know what you are all thinking right now. Jeff, that is the single coolest character in the entire history of roleplaying games. And of course you're right. How could I disagree with all of my readers, who are classy sophisticates like myself? Unfortunately, I couldn't quite shake the feeling all night that Torgo was an utter fraud. I kept thinking to myself that Torgo is awesome by rules fiat, not through any accomplishment on my part. My gut keeps telling me that the only way I could really make Torgo work would be to start out with a first level Cave Man Rogue (or whatever) and to earn all that awesome-osity. Anything else feels like cheating.
Anyway, the session itself was a fairly standard "let's get the PCs together and try out the combat system" affair. Traveling north to investigate rumours of rogue occult activity, Reaper and Blindclaw began the session aboard an airship. A pair of Dragonblooded warriors riding a flaming pterodactyle or something like that intercept the ship, forcing it down where they have a large group of chump soldiers gathered. At one point Doug couldn't decide whether to call the soldiers "mooks" or "extras", so he invented the new term "mookstras". One of the Dragonblooded, who I imagined as Darth Vader in Red Jade armor and on fire, leaps onto the gondola of the airship and starts kung fuing with Stuart and Pat.
My dude comes riding over the hill and sees the soldiers approaching the airship. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I'm just a cave man. Your modern Exalted world frightens and confuses me. Cave people don't have "soldiers", we have "warriors". The only guys I know who keep soldiers on the payroll are those pesky Wizard-Kings. So I decide they need to be killerfied. While I am slaying the mookstras with only half-hearted effort, the second Dragonblooded (an archer chick riding the phoenix or whatever) starts peppering me with arrows. So I use one of my Charms to anime leap from the back of my warbear up to the roc flying overhead. The gal with the bow pulls out a sword and we proceed to have a swordfight on top of the flaming thunderbird.
Now Stuart, who has played Exalted before, was so kind as to build my PC for me. He noted on my charsheet that my un-Charmed defenses were weak. Man, he was not kidding. This dame started whupping on me pretty bad. But for her part she ended up hurt bad enough that she decided to brick and pulled her fiery battlebird into tricky maneuver to attempt to throw me. I opted to bail rather than play that game much longer, landing on the gasbag of the airship and neatly rolling onto the back of my bear, who spent this whole time mauling soldiers. Meanwhile, Stuart and Pat had worked out the teaming-up rules sufficiently that Darth Jader was in a world of hurt. He tried to flee on foot but Stuart's bow has way to much range for that to work out. At that point we packed it in.
After one session of this stuff I still pretty much believe that dice pools are the Devil's game mechanics, but rolling big handfuls of dice can be lots of fun. The Charm mechanics were fun, very reminiscent of the kung fu powers in Feng Shui. My biggest problem with the system is that to-hits and damage both involve rolling die pools for successes. That tended to muddle the operations in my mind. I didn't have that problem with In Harm's Way: Aces in Spades, but here I was constantly tripping over myself.
Overall I'm not yet sold that this game rocks as hard as its promoters claim, but I'm willing to give it another session.