Further thoughts on Exalted 3rd, and the lies that people tell…

I’d been planning on addressing some further issues about the release of Exalted 3rd Edition, such as it is.  It would appear that Ironbombs shares many of my numerous and multifarious dislikes about the direction that Onyx Path took with the game, and this lit something of a fire underneath my currently simmering discontent.

White Wolf (and their current incarnation as Onyx Path) is an interesting case study in the contrast between seemingly solid products and utter failure in delivery.  Their Kickstarter record alone paints a fairly awful picture of their actual reliability, and this is their main method of raising a dead company from the ashes of weird corporate shuffling.

Their very first Kickstarter was the V20 Companion, a follow-up to the massive 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, and this ranks as one of the worst products the company has ever produced in their otherwise agreeable history.  Luckily, it wasn’t a product that I bought into (I had been unaware of it, for whatever reason, seeing as I had lain hands on the V20 book itself), as it was a wildly overpriced and largely unusable product whose only interesting aspect was apparently the appendix that talked about all the interesting stuff that they hadn’t actually put into the book.

From there, they’ve made a regular practice of putting out new books exclusively through Kickstarter, following up later with POD versions through DriveThru.

There’s an entire subordinate discussion about the reality of POD-only books that I may or may not have already chewed apart, but the gist of my disdain* is this:  Without a market that caters to the hobby and gaming stores, these books are kept out of the hands of new customers.  Only the people that are already familiar with these games are going to buy them, and there’s an entire generation of gamers that is cut off from access to these products.  Even if they are introduced by some older veteran, their ability to purchase is limited to precisely one outlet, without any ability to find deals or discounts.  In a small and struggling industry, this is allowing the companies to only produce what they specifically have already sold even as they eliminate the warehousing aspect, but it eliminates many of the avenues of growth from the companies.

Anyway, Onyx Path has gained a deserved reputation for failing to meet deadlines on their products with an alarming regularity.  Before the boondoggle that was Ex3, there was the 20th Anniversary Edition of Werewolf that took eighteen months to fulfill, despite being wholly written at the time of the Kickstarter (and hilariously promising delivery within a month of the Kickstarter’s end).  Similarly, the Hunters Hunted II book took fifteen months to see delivery (again, fully written at the time of the campaign and arriving a full year after the promised deadline), which was a better turnaround, but still…  They were getting better about this by the time the W20 Changing Breeds book came around, in that it only took a year to deliver (still promising delivery about nine months before they were able to), but a pattern had been set by this point.

Onyx Path, as a company, is a weird successor to the highly regarded White Wolf games company that built a solid niche in the 90’s era.  The company was sold off to CCP, the Icelandic video game company responsible for the space spreadsheet MMO, Eve Online.  The idea, at the time, had been to vaguely merge the companies for the sake of developing a new MassMOG based on the Vampire property.  This product barely got past the ‘proof-of-concept’ stage of things before being ash-canned, and the fine print of the corporate hierarchy left the RPG licenses in the hands of a company that apparently had little interest in actually continuing the table top RPG lines.  (Go figure.  It’s a small, niche industry with narrow profit margins, especially compared to the weird financial juggernaut that is Eve Online.)

The result is that Onyx Path is licensing their products from CCP, with whatever fees that might entail.  In that way, it makes a certain sense that they are operating the way they are.

The reality is that they are a ragtag group of freelancers that are loosely tied to a central structure.  There are, perhaps, a half-dozen actual staffers that make up the company, and the rest of the writers are contract monkeys who turn in a manuscript and walk away.  And in essence, this loose structure is what is masquerading as an actual game company these days.  The sheer, obvious incompetence is hilarious in its audacity.  Because they are coasting on the reputation of a larger, better company (the White Wolf of the past), they are able to pretend that they are tapping into the same sort of permanent staff and accumulated expertise.  The truth of the situation is wildly different.  And no product better illustrates the level of incompetence nearly so well as Third Edition Exalted, or Ex3.

1.) Let’s start off with the unfortunate art choices.  Exalted has always been a game of evocative art, erring on the side of anime sensibilities.  Most of Second Edition’s feel was established by artists like Melissa Uran and the UDON Studio.  Some covers (for better or worse) contracted out to well-established and highly regarded artists like Adam Warren (of Dirty Pair and Empowered fame) and Kim Hyung-Tae (who did the character designs for Magna Carta, the PS2 game).  (Odd note:  Before they outsourced to Kim Hyung-Tae, I had picked up a Magna Carta art book as my handy reference guide for new players to show them how I saw Exalted.  It was actually sort of nice to be validated, even if his particular cover illustration was in questionable taste.)  It was colorful, high action, and gave a taste of how awesome the game could be.

In contrast, Ex3 has already hit a wall with their art, being as it looks like it hit the high points of a DeviantArt search.  There are some arguably good pieces (such as the homage to the Kowloon Walled City illustration of Wu Jian), but there are plenty of awful Poser illustrations to offset the good stuff.  One egregious example of poor choices incorporates a recycled image of the Scarlet Empress from a previous book, with a half-assed PhotoShop attempt that makes Creation’s Greatest Enemy look vaguely pregnant.  There’s even a weird depiction of one of the better established Sidereal antagonists looking like the head of Onyx Path and stealing a half dozen pieces of art from other sources.  (This one has already been stricken from the eventual book, even as the near-plagiarized images are allowed to remain.)  And none of this is to get into the truly bizarre and obnoxious piece that one forum termed “Banana Hammock Exhibitionist Display!”  (I feel that description speaks for itself.)

There’s also the issue that the weapons section of the book looks like some trashy late-90’s videogame render.  These entries are supposed to represent the panoply of Exalted power that a player character brings to bear upon their opponent.  Instead, it looks like these images were edited off someone’s Geocities page, just above the 3d spinning envelope that represents the email link.  In comparison, Second Edition looked like it was modeled on a Prima Guidebook for a videogame.  It worked.  This, in comparison, looks like canned ass.

I don’t think it needs to be re-stated that this is a game that raised $700K for development and artwork.  The head of the project is the former Art Director for White Wolf.  There is literally no excuse for this book to look this bad, especially when much smaller companies with far less of a potential art budget are able to produce better and more stylistically appropriate art for their games.  (Seriously, do a Google Search for Enascentia.  It’s an Italian game for Savage Worlds that follows similar design principles, being a high fantasy RPG with anime influences.  It raised a little over 1% of the money that Ex3 raised, and it is doing a better job of looking like Exalted than Exalted is doing these days.)

2.) The backer PDF is being treated like a Beta.

Swirl that around in your mouth for a moment.  Let it reach the back of your tongue and soft palate.  This is a game that was “The Most Playtested Game Ever” when it was being pitched to a skeptical public.  This is a game that ostensibly took some 30 months for development and layout.  (The truth is, for whatever reason, the actual layout process was done last, rather than being developed in parallel.  You know, like a professional company might try to do?)  This is a game that was supposed to revitalize the industry and the company and excite all of the former skeptics and naysayers in the ranks.

And yet, the most recent updates on the Kickstarter are trying to “encourage all backers […] to send notes on any technical mistakes you might find” to the company to fix the errors that still remain in the book.  Yes, this is a game that charged over $100 to anyone who wanted a physical book, took two and a half years to get to this point, and now wants its backers to work for free to fix the errors that still remain in the text.

Keep in mind:  This text is the same text that was leaked by a playtester back sometime around late February of 2015, meaning that, in the intervening eight months, this is all the better job they can do of editing this mess.  By all accounts, the minor tweaks that have been done to the text are negligible, and the whiny “damage control” that a couple of the writers engaged in (noting that the release of an unfinished game would diminish the impact of the final product) was nothing more than an exercise in casting themselves as martyrs.

3.) The backer PDF is weirdly pre-final.

I would suppose this is a nitpick, but I’ll stand by it.  For backers, this is the first chance that they have to read through the book, gather ideas and set about working up their first stab at a newly christened Ex3 game.  By rights, this should be a real product.  Even setting aside the final editing pass that it needs, this PDF lacks a number of necessary tweaks to be final.  For one thing, it lacks a bookmark system, which would allow users to quickly move from section to section.  Logically, this would have the different chapters, as well as specific sub-headings dealt with (I’m thinking of the bloated Charm section, specifically; given that this is over 200 pages alone, it’s hell to try to find a charm set without a lot of paging and searching).

The official response (apparently) is that this will be added in later, since it would otherwise be too much work.  In response, one backer took about three hours and linked a full bookmark index into their PDF, posting it on the web for other users.

So, yeah.  Two and a half years to put together a semi-final version.  At least eight months with this text.  And nowhere in this time period could anyone spare three damned hours to make this product accessible to the people that had already put their money down on it?

In the mean time, there’s an extra page thrown in after Chapter 5 which throws off the two-page layout.  This borks it for anyone wanting to use two-page view on their PDF viewer, which again makes it difficult to use for a game, especially if you’re reading it off a decent tablet.

4.) Twenty-one pages of Backer Names.

All right, so I get it.  People want to be credited for their participation.  I can’t blame them for including this information in the book, as it offers a Kilroy bonus to the people who pledged and want to be recognized.  I mean, hey.  I’m in there, and everyone who bought this book has my stamp on their copy, however small.  (Stupidly, they managed to miscredit most of the backers of the book.  I am amongst the vast multitude who pledged for a physical book yet get credited for pledging for a PDF.  The difference of cash outlaid is about three to one.)

My problem stems from the base idiocy of having to splay this information across four damned columns.  I guess I should be glad they didn’t use 12-point font, but in comparison, the KS version of Ryuutama displayed their backers in a single column, small type, and only took six pages to do it.  And this is in a 6×9 book, rather than tome that Ex3 will arrive as.  They could have cut the “end credits” section of this book by half, minimum, allowing more space for additional content.  Or as a counterargument, this could have been one of many attempts to bring down the rather sizable bloat that this game ended up with.

5.) Charms.  The fucking Charms, man.

Along with being “The Most Playtested Game Ever,” this edition was supposed to fix the problems of the Second Edition game.

I will say this again.  This was a massive warning klaxon for me, the Cloister Bell of how bad things were going to get.  (And you, right there?  The guy that got that reference?  Nerd.)  I knew that, as soon as anyone came out trashing a wildly popular game as being awful, unplayable and the only people qualified to fix it were the ones hawking a new edition.  It didn’t help that one of the largest problems that was pointed out was Combat, which our collective group had managed to figure out and houserule enough to make it fast and easily dealt.

Another distinct problem was the Charms.

I’m not a banner waving champion of First Edition Exalted, as many of my peers tend to be.  I liked it well enough, but I never had any proper chance to play it to the same extent that I played Second Edition.  I spent more time with Second Edition, I had a great time playing it, and I will defend it on those merits.  That said, I understand completely many of the arguments against Second Edition from those that had been long time players.  The crux of many arguments came down to the Charm bloat that came with the revisions.

Rather than offer broad, customizable Charms that would offer a range of options and outcomes for the Second Edition version of the rules, the decision was made to try to account for every single possible outcome and nuance.  This meant that the number of charms skyrocketed, and the Charm Trees (essentially the flowcharts that allowed a player to make sense of their advancement options) grew huge and weird.  A given ability might have a dozen Charms associated with it, depending on what sort of flavor you wanted to attempt.  Not only was this a headache for players trying to make sense of where they needed to end up for their vision of their character, it was made things immeasurably more difficult for GM’s to cope with.  Not only did they have to keep some idea of what the player characters were capable of, they had to build workable and challenging NPC’s for their campaigns.

Given that each book had a set of new and distinct Charm Trees to properly model specific powers of the given Exalt type, a game of mixed types might have the GM tracking literal hundreds of Charms at any given time.  (For the maths portion of our lesson, let’s consider:  There are 25 separate Skills.  Each Skill has something like ten to fifteen separate charms, not counting Excellencies.  Some range closer to twenty.  Therefore, in a given Exalt type, there may be upwards of 300 Charms.  There are, as of the final books of Second Edition, seven discrete Exalt types.  This is not to mention Martial Arts Charms, which are multitudinous.)

Logically, one of the core goals of making a game more playable would be to address this particular issue, ne?

That, my child, is where you would be dead wrong.  Not only does Ex3 do nothing to deal with the issue of Charm bloat, it makes it far worse.  Looking through my copy, the Charm Section starts on page 250 and runs through page 423.  Further, the Martial Arts section (along with Sorcery, which might as well count) runs from there to page 491.  This is nigh on 250 pages of Charms, which is only made worse by another fascinating design choice, which I will cover in my next bullet point.

In glancing through the book again, as I write this, I realize that they couldn’t even manage to make the Table of Contents right.  There are errors abound in this section, which would seem like five minutes work for anyone with two screens and a modicum of ability.  Seriously, how hard is it to get page numbers right?

6.) There are no Charm Trees.

Yeah.  This is one that’s getting under people’s skin already.  For better or worse, Exalted has always required Charm Trees to navigate the intricacies of advancing a character’s special abilities and powers.  It’s one of the notable features of the game, and over the years, I’ve gotten quite fond of it.  I feel that it says something that Fantasy Flight Games has adopted a similar model to their character advancement in their various Star Wars lines.  It’s quick, visual and allows the players to easily reference what their options are as they go along.

According to Richard Thomas, the head of Onyx Path, the game developers made the decision to “streamline the Charms to no longer need Charm Trees” and hence, there would be no option to add them to the book as it stands.  (This is a direct quote on the Kickstarter update page.)  It’s really hard to come up with a response to this that doesn’t range into absolute profanity.

Condescension is one thing.  This is a clear case of pissing down my back and telling me that it’s raining.

The reason that Charm Trees aren’t included in this book is because they would be impossible to create with any logic or coherency.  Given the snail’s pace of development, the incompetence of the layout and markup, and the rank idiocy of the editorial staff, simply trying to make sense of the Charm Trees would have delayed the book another year.  I’ve seen attempts at the Charm Trees on the forums, and they are awful, mainly because the source material is incoherent and nonsensical.

It is, in fact, the exact opposite of what Richard Thomas blithely offers as a reason.  The Charms were not streamlined.  They were made worse, by an order of magnitude.  By way of example, the Archery Charm Tree from the 2nd Edition main book had some 13 Charms, not counting associated Excellencies.  Another four were added in the First Age boxed set.  In Ex3, we’re already looking at 26 distinct Archery Charms.  And this isn’t to get into the new pseudo-charms (Evocations) that you can acquire for your legendary weapons.  (I will admit, this is a neat, new mechanic where every artifact has the potential to get its own Charm set.  It would be actually worth implementing if they hadn’t gone stupid with the base Charms.)

Another example, picked somewhat at random.  In 2nd Edition, the skill Performance had five Charms.  Another five were added in the First Age set, and Abyssals offered two more.  So, twelve in total.  In comparison, Ex3 goes absolutely stupid with things.  They put forth 36 gods-damned Charms for Performance, dividing them into Music, Dance, Acting, Oratory and … Sex.

Yeah.  Sex.  The edition of the game that was first brought to people’s attention with their Rape Charms has decided that they needed to throw this particular twist into the game.  Apparently this is an attempt to drive home that Exalted is a “mature” game for discerning individuals.  Or some shit.

There are some vaguely hilarious subtexts to this, which only make the idea even more stupid.  For example, a Solar getting his groove on can invoke the Masterful Performance Exercise as part of his “performance,” allowing him to re-roll and eliminate all results of “1” in the process.  Combined with another Sex Charm, this makes their Social Influence (on the specific target, naturally) ridiculously effective.  This almost begs for a late night infomercial.

Another Sex Charm offers up this particular gem:  “This intense lovemaking lasts at least three minutes […]”  Whoa there, big guy.  Let’s not get crazy here.

Solar Exalts, the Three Pump Chumps of the gaming world.

The worst part is that these complaints are just the start of things.  I’ve glanced at different sections and read through parts, trying to find improvement, yet all I’m faced with is continuing disappointment.  I’d gone into the entire endeavor with a guarded skepticism, hoping that I would be proven wrong along the way.  Instead, I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth and the growing dread that my fallback plan – scavenge the text for useful nuggets to convert back to Second Edition – was going to fall flat.

I wanted to like this book.  I did.  But three years of anticipation (the Kickstarter was announced well before it actually launched, at least six months in advance; there used to be a calendar on the Onyx Path site that outlined their unlikely and overblown plans for future products) have have not been bourne out to any satisfactory extent.  Instead, each new update has hardened my basic cynicism toward the game, and every snotty and self-important post by the line developers has shown that this was handed to the exact wrong people.

There had been a point where I had been tempted to build out a PDF to detail the epic Exalted campaign I ran back in the day.  I had wanted to share this vision with a community and offer something back to a group I had assumed would be a like-minded collective.  Instead, I realize that the fanbase of the game, such as it is, is heavily populated by tiresome fanboys who crow about the things in the game I find awful, and the reigns of control of this property have been handed to the loudest of these idiots.

Instead, I made a point of not detailing our campaign.  It has become a legend within our small and closeknit group, a private experience that can be shared with other people while still being kept out of the public eye.

If this is the shape of Exalted these days, I shudder to think what the gibbering masses would do with it anyway.

 

*Mind you, The Gist of My Disdain also happens to be the name of my Stabbing Westward Tribute Band.

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Posted on October 26, 2015, in Current Games, Review and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I got the reference and I am a nerd. I’ve never played EXALTED, so I cannot fathom the depths where Onyx Path went wrong, but the disaster of their kickstarters tells a tale on them. I may be obliged to stick with Monte Cook’s Cypher System and D&D.

  2. Well done, my man. I figured I would snare at least one peer with that reference. (Of course, knowing this blog’s particular content, it may be a high percentage.)

    For whatever it may be worth, a lot of my close criticism is fueled by dashed expectation and abject disappointment. I had wanted this to be better, and it simply isn’t. This was promised as being groundbreaking for the industry in general, and instead it’s just a poor attempt at the game that was.

    And honestly, I need to get into a group playing Numenera or Strange. I love most everything about the games (that I have seen), but something about the system eludes me. I figure that I will come to love the system, once I sit down at a table, but browsing the rule books has yet to spark anything.

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