Exclusivity vs. Access
True story: In college, I bought a backpack for the purposes of carrying my books to class, and the brand name was (and I bull you no shit) Boondoggle. It even had a little subtitle on the logo of “Look it up.” It’s around here somewhere, buried in some dusty and forgotten reliquary, awaiting rediscovery and attendant confusion.
Boondoggle is generally defined as such: (noun) 1. work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value, (verb) 1. the act of wasting money on unnecessary or questionable projects. This is your educational moment for the day. Soak it in.
With that out of the way, I recently got the link for the Exalted 3rd Edition rulebook in my email.
For those of you playing at home, this was a Kickstarter that was put together in May of 2013 (making this almost exactly two and a half years from launch to finally seeing a product) and promised delivery of the physical books in October of 2013 (which puts us exactly two years behind schedule for that). White Wolf’s ephemeral successor, Onyx Path, is known for being hilariously bad with their deadlines, but this one is the worst by far. Most of their Kickstarter projects are pitched with the idea that most of the text is already in hand (many of them even offer doc files to the backers, if they’re so inclined to peruse the extant rules and setting), and the implication was that Ex3 was in a similar state of readiness.
Literally, this was the game that was supposed to fix all of the problems that were inherent in the game’s Second Edition rules by throwing out most of the contentious aspects and replacing them with entirely new, untested mechanics – all while claiming that this game was the “most playtested game” they had ever done.
Now, I grant… I seem to be in the minority amongst internet commentators, in that I actually quite liked Second Edition. As noted elsewhere, I’ve put some time into this game. I ran one specific campaign for over 1,000 hours, and that was hardly the only foray that our group had made into the game, with multiple GM’s and nigh on a dozen linked campaigns of varying length to add to the total. The only thing that our collective ever found unplayable were the Sidereals, and even then, we might have been able to make a go of it with some serious tweaks. People point to the combat system as being largely incomprehensible, but my experience with has been that minor revision and clearer examples would have done the game a world of good. Once we were able to make sense of it, we were able to run fast and loose combat without any actual problem.
In contrast, the new combat system has the characters scuffling about using a system of Withering attacks while they try to optimize their Initiative value for a Decisive attack. There was a lot of noise in Second Edition about “mote attrition” and the like (boiling down, essentially, to whether or not you could exhaust your opponent enough to land an attack), and this was the odd choice to replace it. I can’t see how this is particularly better, being as it’s far more abstracted (making it a lot harder to convincingly Stunt an attack, when it’s just another attempted feint) and concerns itself a lot more with numbers rather than style.
The idea behind a Withering attack is that the character harries his opponent and wears him down (see above: “Mote attrition”) until such point as there is a weak point in their defense. This is calculated with the bewildering Initiative terminology. A successful Withering attack adds one point to your Initiative, plus whatever would have been taken as Damage after Soak. Okay, fine. Then your opponent gets to do the same damned thing. Each attack subtracts from the opponent’s Initiative, until such point as someone chooses to make a Decisive attack and try to end it all. Granted, I haven’t tried to dice this out, but it seems like this is a process that’s going to go back and forth endlessly, with some variance based on who gets to go first or who gets a lucky roll. This is nothing like the previous system (making comparisons into “apples vs. oranges” arguments), and I don’t see any logic as to why this inane tracking of Initiative is better than the fluidity of the much maligned “Tick” system from the previous edition. (Also, not a big fan of the “I hit you good, so I go first next round” mechanic. Just sayin’…)
There’s also a weird disconnect that is noted in the very rules themselves. This abstraction between Withering and Decisive attacks does not exist within the context of the game world itself. The designers specifically note that the characters would view all attacks as being “made in deadly earnest.” In a literal sense, the player is making a choice for the character to miss, even as the character is trying his damnedest to hit, because missing is more numerically useful. There’s something about this whole idea that rubs me the wrong way, especially in a game that should otherwise be “cinematic” in its action sequences.
And yet, this was supposed to be the great and powerful solution to a system deemed broken. I’m not seeing it, but I’m intending to give everything a closer read-through as time goes on. I can’t see this being something I embrace, necessarily.
So, to sidetrack for a moment.
When 4e D&D came out, there was an interesting thing in the character creation section that defined a lot of what I thought about the game initially. Here was an edition of the RPG mainstay, which was supposed to follow up on the overwhelming success of D&D 3.5, and the races section not only started out with an obvious sop to the middle school kids coming off World of Warcraft (Dragonborn) but emphasized this aspect with “Play a dragonborn if you want … to look like a dragon.”
I’ve seen commentary elsewhere that calls this entire methodology into question. In the past, elementary and middle school kids picked up D&D manuals and puzzled them out over long weekends (or in the case of 1st Edition, were forced to rely on in-text glossaries to make sense of things), learning a lot about medieval society and weaponry as they went along. There was no hand-holding in these earlier editions, and the learning curve could be extremely steep without a larger group to learn the ropes with. But when things finally fell into place, there was a definite sense of real accomplishment.
With that in mind, choosing to play a given race so you can “look like a dragon” is some lowest common denominator stuff. This is a game company trying to appeal to a demographic that would not have been able to clear the original thresholds to play in earlier editions. I get it, you want to sell to as wide an audience as possible, but the eventual failure of 4e speaks to how well this particular strategy ended up playing out.
That said, would you like to guess how the overview of Exalted types in Ex3 reads? Seriously.
“Play a Solar Exalted if you want … to be a reborn hero of legend, forging a new destiny.”
Here is a game that literally will never be sold in stores. This book that will be available only through DriveThru for over $100 (probably closer to $150, given that any sane buyer will need to get the Premium upgrade to have it be worth a damn), which makes it appealing only to the diehard fanboys that have already put out close to $700K to bring it to market in the first place. By all accounts, the only people that are going to own this game are the ones that have already bought it.
So, why in six hells are they writing it to appeal to the uninitiated? Who thought this was necessary?
These are the sorts of questions that plague me. This game was written as a solution looking for a problem, and it’s already taken some thirty months to see anything of substance. There was supposed to be a certain amount of transparency to the process, and the company is trying its damnedest to quash any negative feedback they receive (do a Google search for “exalted rape charms” to get an idea of how this has gone) or play it off as insignificant. Since the release of the PDF, there’s been a telling amount of backlash against the artwork and layout (there’s a fair chunk of text, several pages worth, that’s hidden underneath the artwork), and from the look of things, only the things they would get sued over will be actually dealt with. The particularly awful Poser art seems locked in place.
There’s far more to deal with than I have actual time for at the moment, but suffice to say, the wait has not been worth it.