Back to the Rule of Five – Setting in the Exalted RPG
A little over a week ago, I looked at Exalted in broad terms, defining what made it different from the more standard fantasy games and giving a bit of an overview of some of the mechanics. While I touched on some of the intricacies of characters, I tried to stay away from talking too much about the setting. At the end of the day, I want to keep these entries somewhere below 2,000 words, if I can help it.
As I mentioned, there are five basic types of Exalts in the setting. In order of general power, these are the Solars, the Abyssals, the Lunars, the Sidereals and the Dragonbloods. This is not to say that this is all that’s playable within the setting, but it covers the bases. The setting also allows for Fair Folk – based largely on some of the works of Neil Gaiman, fused with an Eastern sensibility – and Alchemical Exalts, whose existence is kept outside of the bounds of reality until Things Go Very Wrong. The Fair Folk are strange, almost meta-narrative creations whose very existence is something of a sentient tale. (They’re a little weird, and I haven’t heard of many people trying to actually play them as written.) Alchemicals, in the mean time, are akin to robot versions of the main Exalts. According to the setting, they were removed from reality when their Creator escaped a possible purge, and they only come back to the shores of Creation when the Creator in question is dying.
Second Edition also built books for the Jadeborn and the Dragon Kings, which served roughly as templates for life and Exaltation in the early days. Those that survive in the modern days are weird relics of the past rather than fully playable character types, but a skilled GM could make a go of it. It’s also possible to play stock mortal characters, but they tend to be very fragile in a game of Epic Heroes and Legendary Deeds. For my part, I’ve run a couple of Mortal Games, but they’re essentially the story of greater heroes before they Exalted. And finally, there are also the Infernal Exalts, but my particular distaste for them necessitates that I reserve later space to talk about that whole mess.
As such, the base character types reflect the Rule of Five. Each of these character types have five sub-types (with the previously noted Lunar exceptions), which then divide the skills into groups of five. It’s a very elegant system, and it adds greatly to the flavor of the setting. It was telling when a friend of mine spent a semester in a Muslim nation and was fascinated by the way the calls to prayer echoed the Solar Castes. (And subsequently, the Five Pillars of Islam further reinforced this perception.)
It should come as no surprise that the setting also divides itself neatly into five corners. (In fact, the books published for the Second Edition rules tended to follow a rule of five in their foci. There were five books that detailed the five Celestial locations, five for the Terrestrial locations, five books of magic, five books of esoterica, and five character books worth bothering with.)
The five corners of Creation roughly divide themselves according to the five Terrestrial elements, as defined by the Exalted universe – Earth, Air, Water, Fire and Wood. This got altered slightly in publication, as the Pole of Earth overlapped with the Blessed Isle, the central setting for the Dragonbloods and the Dynasty, so the line developers substituted in the Scavenger Lands, the implied default setting for the game. The Blessed Isle showed up in the Celestial Locations series instead. Otherwise, each of the cardinal directions took on one of the elements.
The North was the Pole of Air, dealing with the frozen wastelands and strange abandoned gods that ruled therein. The West was the Pole of Water, a series of scattered archipelagos with agendas far from the sight of the Dynasty. The East took on the Pole of Wood, with the dense jungles and lost civilizations of the past ages. And the South detailed the vast and trackless wastes of sand that stretched towards the hellish Pole of Fire. In the mean time, the Scavenger Lands dealt with the riverlands of the near East, where the main antagonists of the Dynasty built towards war. Given that the default assumption of the game was that most players would be running Solars, it offered a proper setting for the new heroes of the age to hide from their pursuers and build towards legend.
As far as the Celestial settings went, the books vaguely corresponded with the Exalt types that based themselves there. The Blessed Isle, which was also home to the Pole of Earth, had been taken over by the Dragonblooded Exalts around the time they overthrew the great Solar Empire. The Wyld is a place of ever-changing chaos that forms the borders that surround the vastness that is Creation, and it is established as where the Lunar Exalts hide in exile. The Fair Folk also live there, being creatures of primal chaos, but there’s something of an established peace. Yu Shan serves as the heavenly realms, playing host to the various gods of Creation as well as the Sidereal Exalts, who oversee the Loom of Fate itself. The Underworld hosts the dead, the Deathlords that serve as the main long-term antagonists (being that they are the embittered ghosts of the Solars of the first age), and the Abyssal Exalts who exist as the mirror opposites of the Solars themselves, controlled by the dead Primordials known as the Neverborn. The final book of the original five Celestial Directions deals with Malfeas (pulled directly from the Werewolf books in the original World of Darkness), which serves as Hell. When the Infernal Exalted book was published, this housed those characters, along with the Yozi (pulled from Kindred of the East) that sought to bring the end times to Exalted. Once the line was pretty well dead, a sixth book was released to deal with Autocthon, the home of the Alchemical Exalts.
The history for Exalted serves to tie all of this together, as it details the High First Age, where the Solar Exalted ruled Creation from on high with their Lunar mates. Given heroic flaws by casting down the Primordials (the Titans of the setting, who would go on to become the Yozi (if they survived) or the Neverborn otherwise), the Solars saw their great empire decline into decadence and madness. A prophecy pulled from the Loom of Fate showed the Sidereals that Creation was approaching a tipping point, and if nothing was done, a World of Darkness would follow the fall of the Solar Empire and Creation itself. (Oddly, it is implied that the Exalted setting exists because White Wolf’s long running World of Darkness setting was prevented.)
In order to prolong the existence of Creation, the Sidereals worked through Fate to assist the Dragonbloods in their overthrow of the Solar Empire. As Terrestrial Exalted, the Dragonbloods were vast in number, serving as the foot soldiers in the Solar Legions. Striking on the local equivalent of a combined New Years/Halloween, the Solars were murdered, their Lunar mates fled, and the Sidereals enacted a complex plan to keep the circle of reincarnation from allowing the Solars to return. (Have I mentioned that there’s specific Eastern influences on the mythology?)
The great capital city is left in smoking ruins, the Dragonbloods take the Blessed Isle as their own, and the Sidereal Exalts fade back into the shadows to manipulate events from there. The Lunars, unable to stop the massacre of their mates, flee to the borderlands to avoid the Dragonblooded hunting teams. Some centuries go by, and the Terrestrial Shogunate gives way to a powerful dynasty ruled by a single Empress, the only one in their ranks who was able to activate First Age weaponry to drive back a Fair Folk invasion, and the veneer of stability begins to crack, ever so slightly.
By dealing with the Yozi in order to lay claim to the First Age weaponry, the Empress allowed the slow ascendancy of the Yozi themselves, who sought to escape their hellish prison. Working with their Neverborn brethren, the Yozi hatched a plan to break the prison that held the upper souls of the Solars and take them for themselves. Instead, only half of the Solar essences were claimed, leaving the other half to escape back to the circle of reincarnation.
This is the point when most Exalted games are set, at the dawn of the Age of Sorrows, when the Solar Exalts return to Creation, the corrupted essences that were captured are used to craft the Abyssal Exalts, and the Dragonblooded Dynasty is on the threshold of falling to civil war now that the Empress is revealed to have vanished.
There are very few published adventures for Exalted, most of which were done during the First Edition. Only the final end-of-the-world book offers much in that way, and there isn’t much love thrown around for that book, given the various assumptions that it requires. (Personally, I’ve run the basics from the book and its supplemental module from Free RPG Day, and the module text was frankly unable to deal with their power level. It sort of assumed that the characters were little more than starting builds, which is weird in an epically scaled game.)
Speaking as a veteran GM with plenty of years under my belt, the setting for Exalted is a good place to start. The main problem that I found with it is that at no point does much of it make sense. Over the course of approximately 200 sessions devoted to the game, we managed to house-rule in a number of crucial changes, but in the end, we had to simply shrug at some of the contradictory parts that were taken for granted and move on.