Thursday, June 05, 2008

So, Exalted.

It's my normal practice to blog about any rpg session I play a day or two after it's over. I didn't do that two weeks ago with session #2 of this new Exalted campaign. And I considered passing on it again this week with session three. I'm feeling very ambivalent about this campaign so far. On the one hand, I've had some great fun. I spent session #2 romancing Ice Princess Ariel and cutting her ex-boyfriend in half with my daiklave. And this week we threw down with the Dragonblooded Mounted Police. I had a slightly better grasp on the combat system this time, and even managed to use some of my charms defensively. Best of all I got out a fairly decent Badass Posturing One-Liner before the fight began. Officer Swordmaiden instructed us to "Leave the restricted area or prepare to die." To which my caveman responded "We choose to die. I'll give you a few minutes to array your troops." The GM was either actually taken aback or roleplayed the hell out of the NPC response.

Still, I got this nagging feeling about the whole affair. Something just isn't clicking for me and I can't quite put my finger on it. Once upon a time I quipped "If it weren't for the setting and the mechanics I would really like Exalted" and now I'm starting to wonder how much I was actually joking. Maybe I like the high concept pitch for Exalted, which Geoff Grabowski once described as "It's all about Jubei fighting M. Bison for the body of Patroklos, and dammit, they can do it on top of the blood-soaked temple of the Sleestaks." But so far the specific implementation of that ideal is not completely working for me.

For example, I find the Charm system to be a little overdone. Every Charm that does 'X' says to me that I can't do 'X' without that Charm. Like when the Mounties had us out-ranged and pulled out their bows. I wanted to throw my giant effin' sword at the mooks and tear through a passle of them with a bloody aerial buzzsaw. But I knew there was a 'throw sword' Charm and I didn't have it. Maybe I should have tried it anyway, but I felt discouraged. A couple of other times I considered trying some godlike shenanigans, but I kept thinking things like "If my caveman from the North actually has to roll my survival skill in the Arctic, then clearly my guy is not half as awesome as I think he is." Maybe the part where we break the setting in half and remake it in the PCs image comes later in the campaign. Right now crossing a few hundred miles of mostly empty wilderness is so hard it takes more sessions than we've played. I honestly expected to have burned down a city or accidentally committed genocide or opened Pandora's box or something like that by this point.

And maybe the whole problem is that this system is just too damn crunchy for what I want to do. I'd much rather roll around Creation like this:

Torgo the Mighty

Achilles with a Daiklave (4) Smooth-talking Ladies Man (3) Polar Bear-Riding Caveman (2) Chief of the Mammoth Tribe (1)

Or instead of Risus, we could use TWERPS and rename Strength to Awesome. That would work.

Maybe it's the setting. Some of it seems so coy to me. Probably I'm just spoiled by Encounter Critical and Arduin and stuff like that, where if the GM wants to put something awesome in the game, there's no need to be shy about it. "You kick in the door and see Cyborg Al Capone. He's got Stormbringer in one hand and a disintegrator pistol in the other. Roll initiative, motherfucker." The Exalted fluff seems to spend a lot of time trying to pretend that it operates differently from that. I don't get it.

I think that's what it comes down to, really. Doug's not doing a bad job. Exalted is not a bad game. I just don't freakin' get it. Maybe with some more sessions under my belt I'll feel less like a stranger in a strange land.


  1. "Leave the restricted area or prepare to die." To which my caveman responded "We choose to die. I'll give you a few minutes to array your troops."

    If that's not the best action hero quip I've heard from a RPG character in a long time, I don't know what is.

    I know what you mean about Exalted, though, and I say this as a guy who actually wrote official material for it during its first edition. The high concept is positively brilliant, but there's just ... something ... about its actual implementation that bugs the heck out of me. Part of it is the ludicrously complex mechanics and part of it is the way the game dresses up the tweaking of Middle American sensibilities as being a brave continuation of ancient Greek drama or Chinese novels. But it's more than that. There's something smarmy and puerile about the game and it's a shame, because there's a lot to like there.

  2. I have never played Exalted but I ran an Aberrant campaign once whose Novas ( some say) are sort of like Exalted running around in the modern world.

    It's impressive how Jeff's undefinable feeling playing that game resenbles what I felt as a GM for Aberrant.

    In concept, Aberrant sounds mighty glorious but you feel you are left with little more with a taste of what it is supposed to deliver.

    Good game, good setting, crunchy rules and then there's that *something*...or maybe a lack of something.

  3. Part of what might be bugging you about Exalted is a wall that I've seen several people hit.

    Here's the thing. Exalted is inspired (in part) by wu xia and anime. It is designed to allow PCs to do some tremendously cinematic things. That doesn't mean that just because something is cinematic, it will work (although stunts do help that). This is mostly supported through the charm system. Part of the problem is that starting characters - unless they are highly specialized - aren't that great. You start with 10 charms and half of those go into some really basic stuff.

    Similarly, Exalted is inspired by kitchen-sink settings. The setting of Exalted is designed with a place for things from a huge variety of genres. This isn't the same thing as saying that Exalted is a kitchen-sink setting. The Exalted setting is well-defined, and while it has room for a variety of things, those things have a specific way of fitting into the setting. It is more like Planescape than Lords of Creation, if that helps.

    I've seen people who come to the table thinking "Exalted is anime" or "Exalted is Final Fantasy" or something. This doesn't end well. They act on their assumptions, and it just doesn't match up with the assumptions of the other people at the table - or the game itself.

    There are also some serious problems with Exalted's design goals, which I've written about before. It wants to suppport cinematic, fast combat... while also supporting a CCG-like charm system with all kinds of optimizing strategies. I'm pretty sure these are incompatible goals.

    In terms of the game we're playing now, Exalted is at its best when stunts come into play near-constantly. In combat, anything more descriptive than "I swing my sword" should be at least a 1-die stunt. Stunts should also let you break the game mechanical assumptions of the game. This isn't really a part of the game that Doug has been supporting. If we move in that direction, it might alleviate some of your concerns, since the stunt system is what tempers the system's mechanical complexity.

  4. Or instead of Risus, we could use TWERPS and rename Strength to Awesome. That would work.

    Oh. My. God.

    If TWERPS had had "awesome" as a stat instead of strength, I'd still be playing it!

    Best idea I've heard all week.

  5. Or instead of Risus, we could use TWERPS and rename Strength to Awesome. That would work.

    Oh hell yeah :)

  6. Lawful Neutral9:46 PM

    Exalted has never lived up to the sales pitch in my experience. If you make characters following the standard rules, they're pretty tough, but definitely not godlike or anything. Yeah, you can start with more powerful characters, but you can do the same in practically any game, and the rules barely support ridiculously powerful, "attributes over 5 dots" kind of play.

    I remember making my first character - he was pretty badass, but when we ran a test battle for him vs. 5 plain old barbarians from the back of the book, they ate his lunch. The Exalted are definitely a cut above the common man, but no more so than a level 5 or 6 D&D character, at least to start.