Exalted, in extremely general terms
As an exercise, I started listing out all of the different directions I could go when talking about Exalted. I sketched out the things that I loved about the game, of which there were many. I discussed the things that I hated about the creative directions that it appeared to be going in as a result of the oft-rumoured and wholly funded Kickstarter project, a product that I would not assume will actually make the light of day. I put thought into all of the references that I recognized within its dense and heavily sourced world set, and how these mythological bases tended to get ignored by the broad communities of Exalted players that I encounter on the internet and in real life. And I looked at how the rules worked and how they fell apart, depending on what was being done.
And at the end of about 1,000 words, I realized that I had managed to list all the things that I wanted to discuss while having not been able to actually say anything concrete. It was a little like reading a laundry list of topics and never actually getting to a point.
I’ll go ahead and spare you that experience.
At its heart, Exalted is a game of high action and mythic adventure. Its art style evokes Japanese Anime, but the actual text of the world draws its references from sources like Journey to the West and the Bhagavad Gita. Player characters are designed to be the epic heroes like Hercules or Gilgamesh or Sun Wukong, all of whom have the power to shake the very pillars of Heaven even as they work to overcome tragic flaws. And while the core rulebook for the setting offers the option to play the newly reborn Solar heroes, the different sourcebooks allow the option of being able to play wholly different powered character types, all of whom exist in different sections of the setting with wildly different motivations and play styles.
The world itself is vast, divided into regions of extremely varied environments and ecosystems, with a range of political divisions that reinforce the vastness of the setting. Each area has different concerns and characters could easily settle into far reaching plots that never escape a given compass direction. From there, regions outside of the broadly drawn Creation are available for the characters to explore, reaching to the lofty heights of the Gates of Heaven itself all the way to the abyss within the Underworld.
As far as rules go, the systems are derived from the recognizable Storyteller System that White Wolf used for most of its game lines, modified slightly to reflect the high power levels that the Exalted characters were capable of working at. Most notably, Exalted codified a system of narrating a character’s actions to better fit the action oriented vibe that the world required.
There’s an old axiom that compares Dungeons & Dragons to Exalted. Consider the following scene:
The hero crouches on the top of a speeding carriage, the driver having bailed out and the horses running free in panic. Behind him, the local militia is in hot pursuit, firing their bows at him. Ahead lies the bridge that our hero destroyed in his earlier conflicts with the militia, its broken span no longer offering passage to the other side. His only chance to escape and survive is to leap and grab an overhanging vine, swinging to safety over the chasm.
Cinematic, yeah? But how well does it translate into the different systems?
So in 3.5 D&D, the GM would start assigning modifiers. The carriage that the character is on is an unstable surface. That’s going to count as a -2 modifier. If he chooses to fire back, that’s going to give him another -2 modifier. And he’s going to have to leap from the carriage without a sufficient running start, which is going to … well, you get the idea where this is going.
In Exalted, the player describes how his character is going to fire a couple of warning shots at the pursuing guards, mainly to warn them off, as he has no desire to kill fine men that are only doing their jobs. And with a rakish tip of his hat, he leaps from the carriage at the last moment, grabbing a vine and diving into the void as he offers a final taunt to his nemesis, the captain of the guard. And since the GM rules that it sounded properly cinematic, the player is given a number of extra dice to roll for keeping in the spirit of the game.
Exalted stakes itself closer to the end of the spectrum where the player and the GM work to negotiate a story between themselves. While it isn’t wholly in the realm of story games, it does offer a certain amount of narrative flexibility to the players when they use the scene to their best advantage.
The long out of print AEG game, 7th Sea, was one of the first to cede this control, allowing players to come up with broad stunts so long as they didn’t contradict the GM’s description and were properly action driven. Exalted took this idea and encouraged players to run with it, rating their efforts with rewards of up to three bonus dice for their actions. In addition, characters were able to recharge the energy or willpower that fed their inherent abilities, which encouraged further use of this ability.
One thing that offered a brilliant symmetry to Exalted was its inherent symbology. While the Solar heroes were the default characters for the world, there were several other playable options. The Lunars existed as the echo of the modern day Werewolves and changing breeds, the Sidereal Exalted represented the Mages, and the Abyssals were tied to the Vampires. In addition, there were the Dragonbloods, originally established in the setting as the armies of elemental soldiers, whose modern day World of Darkness equivalent lay in the Kindred of the East.
Broadly, this allowed for five different types of Exalt. Within each type, there were five discrete castes. (Except for the Lunars, whose caste system had been broken in backstory to only have three. This was a mechanical decision, as Lunars worked differently.) In Solars, there were the Dawn, Zenith, Twilight, Night, and Eclipse. For Dragonbloods, it divided between the Asian-influenced elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Wood. The Sidereals divided their castes based on the five planet incarnae, and the Abyssals were dark reflections of the Solar castes.
Because of these caste divisions within the different Exalt types, each caste had different associated skills. The skill list for Exalted was limited to 25 skills (which was a nice change from the inevitable skill bloat of the various World of Darkness games), which allowed each Exalt type to divide the skills differently between the different castes. Where a Sidereal Exalt would find the Archery skill within the purview of the Maiden of Battles, a Dragonblood would know that it was associated with the element of Wood. And a Solar Exalt would know that it belonged with the skills of the Dawn Caste, the great generals of Creation. The different types of Exalt offered different flavor and play styles, starting with the foundations of the character sheets themselves.
Within the context of the setting, the different Exalt types also offer wildly different models of play. As established in the backstory, the Solar Exalts were cast down at the end of the first age, and only now at the dawn of this new age, some 1,500 years after the ruin of their glorious empire are they starting to be reborn in mortal form. They feel the pull of greater destiny, but they are held by the sins of their past selves and the great curse lain upon them by the setting’s version of Titans. They start from nothing, but time and heroism may allow them to write their names across the heavens as their sagas are sung for ages.
In comparison, the Dragonbloods are lower powered, with a decidedly more martial bent. They are born into the great houses of a decaying dynasty, elemental warriors whose ambitions are caught up in political maneuvering in a society carved from their own lineage. Their stories reflect the samurai epics of duty and ambition, as balanced by their own too-human passions. And even though they are the scions of royalty, they are crowded by some several thousand cousins, all of whom vie for scraps of power against them.
From there, you have the Sidereals, the chosen of the five maidens (the incarnations of the five planets, as they exist in the setting), who play a game of whispers and secrets, plots and intrigues, all of which derive from half-understood prophecy and centuries old paranoia. The Lunars, for their part, dwell on the very edges of creation, stewards of strange social experiments and wanderers on the outskirts of Creation itself. And Abyssals exist as the broken and damned versions of the Solar heroes, bound in service to the bitter wraiths who well remember the betrayals of the first age and wish to bring all of Creation to ruin.
And none of this is to mention the farther edges of what is possible within the setting or characters.
Broadly, Exalted is a fairly immense toolbox to work from. There are countless options available, beyond what I’ve glanced over here, and the rules have a complexity and denseness that can open up a wide vista of play styles and narrative direction. The Second Edition rules alone cover around thirty books, most of which build up and expand the possibilities that are available to the GM. The problem is, depending on the skill of the GM and the dedication of the playing group, there is something of a steep learning curve. For my own experience, it took a couple of years to fully integrate all of the rules into my games, and there are still systems I have not managed to use.
And now that I have an overview in place, I can start looking more closely at the specifics. But not tonight.