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.
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.
Man, the days just fly by around here.
I’m not going to bitch about Autocratik, since I barely know the guy, but it’s a little weird to go from the strictly defined criteria of the first few entries (“Most anticipated forthcoming,” “Favorite game of the past year,” etc.) to the rather ambiguous “Most Surprising” by the fourth entry. I had gotten quite used to the rails I was riding on, only to find myself pondering which direction to go with this new category.
Should I venture into territory of games that I assumed would be good, only to be surprised at their general awfulness? Or do I toss the ring at games I picked up for a larf, only to really enjoy them? Moreover, should these be current, relevant games (as the first three entries were generally required to be) or old relics plucked from the used bin at some increasingly ephemeral local gaming store? When should this game have surprised me? Recently? Back when I first started gaming? I mean, if we’re going to dig back through the mists of yesteryear, my threshold of surprise was a lot lower and easier to overcome, in comparison to my current jaded self.
Most Surprising Game
Let’s try this: The game I’m going to talk about is the game that has, most consistently, surprised me in terms of what the normal interpretation by the fans has been, in comparison to how I, myself, have interpreted the game.
The immediate question to resolve with this is how I define my terms. For the purposes of this entry, let’s assume that you’ve picked up a game of some sort or another. Let’s say it’s some iteration of Star Wars, be it original WEG D6, Wizards’ D20, or FFG’s DWhatever. You’ve seen the movies each a dozen times (except for the prequels, because seriously…), you had licensed sheets and pillow cases, and there may be a couple of Ralph McQuarrie posters on your walls. You regularly toss around favorite quotes, and the back of your closet hides a half-dozen broken lightsaber toys, rent from mock battles in the back yard. You know this stuff, backward and forward.
Naturally, when you sit down at the table to game, you’re going to build sagas of desperate odds, implacable and technocratic foes, and weird samurai mysticism. You know, the stuff you loved from the movies. One player is going to build the world-weary smuggler, another has the sheltered aristocrat, and a third has the wide eyed idealist that may or may not be an ace pilot in his spare time. There will be droids, starships, and guns. It will be recognizable.
And after you’ve played for a time, you start investigating the internet fan community. And none of it makes sense.
They’re playing Star Wars, but it’s not anything that you properly recognize. For some reason, they’re focusing on vampires, and most of their session notes make references to Meg Ryan movies of the mid-90’s, rather than science fiction. They’ve all chosen to set their games on a single planet, involve themselves in small retail concerns, and most of the actual role-playing involves their attempts to define their relationships in the face of a changing landscape of career options. None of these careers involve shooting guns or flying starships.
I’m not saying any of these games would be bad. But if I just got through a marathon of science fiction movies, capped off by the battle of the second Death Star, I’d have a hard time trying to reconcile any of these campaign ideas with what I want to play in a Star Wars game. These ideas belong in some other game that would be better suited for that type of play. I mean, play what your group wants to play, but there are better vehicles for such things. And none of the source material supports any of these ideas.
This is how I feel when I talk about Exalted. When I first picked up the original edition, it was a strange, barren land where the society was forged from a broken empire and the heroes of all the myths and legends had been killed. The implication was that they had made deals with darker powers, and their servants had risen up to destroy them, leaving a drifting and rudderless world of regional powers poised on the brink of unnecessary war. The default assumption was that the player characters were the lost heroes reborn, saddled with a destiny they couldn’t possibly fulfill in a setting that sought to silence their ambitions. Second Edition shifted a little bit of this around, but there was always the sense that things in the First Age had descended into madness, but the plots of the Sidereals and Dragon-Blooded legions were an overcorrection that doomed the world to a different misery.
For my part, I always ran my games with a heavy dosing of Greek Tragedy, as the mythic hubris of the Solars had caused the destruction of their great empire and works, and it was the role of the newly reincarnated heroes to try to forge a new world without the mistakes of the old. All of this bases on the mythic underpinnings of the game itself, which draws from the mythic traditions of the different cultures of the world. There is a lot of Western mythic tradition within the pages of the Exalted main books, but there is as much that draws from Japanese, Chinese and Indian sources as well. This is a game about gods and heroes, where the Solar Exalts play some version between Hercules and Sun Wukong.
This is not how the internet forums tend to run this game, however.
Exalted, for better or worse, used a lot of anime influence for their artwork. This attracted an audience of gamers, but these players and GM’s never seemed to dig beneath the surface to see what the game itself was concerned with. Instead of seeing the mythic structure beneath the initial impression, most forums appear to have stuck solidly with the anime ideals and used the game to run their favorite Naruto or Sailor Moon fanfic. All too often, horror stories would emerge from the different forums to talk about how one person’s experience of the game ran into how many quotes the players could wedge in from a particular anime or what ridiculous overpower build they could get away with. There was no divine consequence for their actions (as I would have inflicted in my games), and the characters were encouraged to play at being irresponsible powermongers because it was cool.
People will play the game they want to play. I understand that. But I feel a bit like the character of Mugato in Zoolander, like I’m the one taking crazy pills. People in the forums talk about how their characters are wildly overpowered this way or that, and I can only shake my head. The great and epic game that I ran, back in the day, had the player characters hedging their power against the grim outcomes that they saw lurking on the horizon. I once made the object of an epic quest turn out to be an artifact of world-ending potential. (The Five Metal Shrike. Look it up, if you’re so inclined.) My players’ reaction was to lock it away in a box to make sure that it could never be used, either by them or against them. This was an item of ultimate power and potential, and they saw how it could all go so very wrong.
And this is what is so surprising about this game for me.
The precepts of the game are spelled out in great detail, and there is little question to me as to what the central themes of the game happen to be. But none of these ideals translate into the normal experience of people playing the game. And judging from the drafts I’ve seen of the 3rd Edition rules (“The Most Playtested Game Ever Written,” my ass), the designers have no idea either.
Y’know, I try. I really do. When I sit down to comment on something, I figure that I’ll be able to throw some words down, offer a succinct reply to something that has been asked and go on with my day. Then I look blearily up, see that I’ve already gotten into the 500-word range of things, and I have to bury my head in my hands.
Honestly, I blame all those years of writing papers. And unpublished novels, probably.
Anyway. My man, Gregory, wanted to talk about where White Wolf had gone wrong. I”d recently talked about the new version of Exalted and how it was going to go in some particularly awful directions. It’s no secret that I’m pretty well disgusted with the way that the new company, Onyx Path, has handled the new game, and this was where I sat down and actually tangled with some of the things I felt they were doing wrong.
It got a little lengthy. And then it spilled over into a second post. And I could have gone into more detail about even more issues that I had with the design team. But for the sake of readability, I cut it short and went about my day.
In the mean time, Gregory offered the following:
I must ask, “At what point does the attempt at horror break down into just sickness?” I wonder if White Wolf made an error in creating the World of Darkness. The angst and despair that was new and innovative in role playing with Vampire: The Masquerade seems to have led the folks at White Wolf in deeper and ever increasing darkness in all of their products. They seem to be seeking ever larger level of shock value and are ever desensitizing themselves to the horror and degradation they are promoting in their own works.
World of Darkness is an interesting study in how games divert from their original purposes. Vampire was based heavily on Anne Rice’s novels, with the original themes trying to capture the essence of what it was to be an impassioned creature trying desperately to hold onto a fading humanity. The modern metagame has little to do with this, choosing instead to focus on the political machinations of running a city. It’s way more of a Mafia simulator than a method of exploring what it means to be human in light of the horrible things you have to do to survive. (In its way, I guess it would be like falling down an infinite hole. Sure, it’s scary at first, but sooner or later it’s going to become a boring sort of experience that you have to look for ways to liven up.)
The same thing applies to all of their game lines. Werewolf has similar themes of trying to balance humanity and ferocity as a means of trying to save your broken world. Players tend to focus on the super powers you’re given, rather than the unfortunate aspects of being a wild animal that takes the form of a man. And so on.
From where I’m standing (and as a means of getting around to your first question), the weird descent into depravity comes as an attempt to shock the audience into seeing these games for what they are, namely RPG’s where you’re playing the monster. If players are complacent with the fact that they’re playing blood-drinking serial killers, then we have to make them … worse. And if the players are comfortable with playing horrible sociopaths, we also have to make the enemies … worse.
And then for some reason, they also delve into weird bondage stuff. Seriously. It’s all over the place.
I’m not really sure how all the rape stuff happened. There’s a fair amount of implication in the Vampire stuff, with the Disciplines like Dominate, but it pretty much sticks to the implications, rather than spelling out the awful aspects of the power. All of this makes sense within the tableau of vampire literature, where the undead are portrayed as being seductive and irresistible, and it’s left up to the player and the GM to define what is an appropriate use of the power at the gaming table. And that’s where it distills down to what everyone is comfortable with allowing to happen in play. If everyone in the group is okay with that sort of behavior, so be it. It’s their game, and it’s up to them to play it the way that they want to. Not my thing, and to be honest, I have no interest in hearing about it.
But the final books of 2nd Edition Exalted decided to dive straight into the weird shit. There’s an argument for the portrayal of the Infernal Exalts in this way as a means of firmly placing them in a spectrum of evilness and depravity, but this contention only holds water so long as they’re not playable characters. Which they very specifically are, and this makes them one of the most popular books amongst certain parts of the Exalted audience. Once they cross into the zone of actual playability, they lose the status of ‘antagonists that must be brought down at all costs’ and become something else entirely.
It’s showing my age, but I remember when the anti-D&D hysteria was at its peak. I remember reading articles about the woman that created BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons), Patricia Pulling, was hosting lectures at one of the local police departments and talking about how role-playing games were gateways to worse elements and modes of behavior. They tried to make the tenuous link that the demonic portrayals in D&D were a means of enacting weird Satanic rituals and swearing service to dark powers. Nevermind that it pretty clearly spelled out that such monsters were meant to be foes for the noble and forthright Clerics and Paladins that actually were playable. She argued that because such creatures are portrayed in the books, even as dire antagonists, this means that the books are trying to glorify them in some way or another.
In its own fascinating way, it actually got me branded as a Satanist in the small town where I grew up. I spent the entirety of my high school life as something of an outsider because I played a silly little game about wizards and knights and rogues. It got to the point that the high school counselor assumed I would be dead well before I was able to graduate, likely from suicide. (This was well before the events at Columbine, so at least they didn’t assume that I was going to shoot up the place.)
What’s weird is that White Wolf has made it a point to try to fulfill these expectations. In their own way, they’ve tried at points to become the game that BADD was trying to warn parents about, back in the day. It might be a thumbing of the nose at the general powerlessness of this movement to suppress the hobby, but it comes across as being less of a work of social commentary than an outlet for actual sociopathy. And where Vampire offers the tools for the players to make murderers and rapists and sich, Exalted took it one step further and encouraged the players to make even worse characters. Dominate suggests coercion and implies the possibility, where the Abyssals preview simply spells it all out, leaving little doubt as to what was intended with these powers. Indeed, there’s not much else that any of these could be used for.
So, where does it cross over from being horror into just being sick? I guess the answer would be ‘when they have to spell it out for the players’. It’s when they actively go out of their way to make sure that everyone’s forced to play the same awful game about date rape and snuff films. It’s when the toolbox comes with its own sidebar of suggestions of how to best go about using the tools to degrade another character and make them a puppet of your will in graphic detail.
Or y’know, when they include the powers that let you gain a benefit from raping someone to death, turn them into a rape ghost and send them out to rape in your name. That might be where it crosses the line. That might be the point where it finally goes just a little too far into the weird shit.
Or worse, it might just be the point where the people responsible for writing this come out with a defense of this sort of product, telling people to get a grip and deal with it. Because hey, if you don’t like games with that much rape in them, then it’s your problem for not understanding what a ‘mature’ game is all about. It’s not about the raw moral implications of your actions and their consequences or the price that must be paid for power. It’s about how many different ways you can rape someone.
In the mean time, they’re still smugly telling me about how much better a game this version is, about how much they have playtested it, and how the old edition is awful. None of which is actually true, but it’s their story, not mine.
So, let me see… I was working on a broad analysis of how Exalted took a serious turn for the worse, which led to the awful design decisions that led to the 3rd Edition philosophy. Where did I leave off last time … ?
Oh, yeah. Rape.
You know, I get it. White Wolf is edgy. They’ve spent a lot of time working on Mature Audience books. Hells, they have an entire separate imprint just to deal with things that they think should be left out of their core products. And they spent the better part of twenty years with vampires, werewolves and ghosts, the rough core of any horror based product line. Hells, they managed to base a sourcebook for Wraith around the Holocaust. Logically, they have a solid rhetorical base to work from when it comes to presenting adult oriented themes to a mature audience.
The problem is that I’m not really sure that White Wolf and I are working with the same definitions of ‘mature’ and ‘adult’ for these purposes. I define these terms along the lines of ‘having to do with serious and often horrific ideas that are inappropriate for minor’ or similar. Child abuse, prison conditions, human trafficking, and so on; these are the kinds of things that I would expect in an adult product. The Liberian Civil War? That’s an adult theme. Same with the Rwanda Genocide, the Rape of Nanking and the moral consequences of killing an innocent while a character is trying to defeat a powerful enemy. They’re mature subjects to be dealt with in an appropriate setting, and none of it really fits for a younger audience.
For White Wolf, it’s a lot of rape. And weird sex jokes. (For an older example, google: ‘tzimisce cover’. This was the kind of shit that they used to pull back in the day.)
So, I already went off on the rape bit for Infernals. The most depressing thing about this is that it made one of the more tragic aspects of the entire canon into a grotesquerie. There’s a complicated story that had been built up about the little girl, Lillun, who had been manipulated into entering the secret area that the Scarlet Empress held sway over. She vanished and was never seen again, with the central idea being that the Scarlet Empress was willing even to let her youngest daughter be sacrificed to keep her secrets.
Then they come along with this. Lillun is revealed as being the living storehouse for corrupted divine energy, and the means by which to reward the corrupted servants with this energy is through a lot of rape. So, rather than keep it as a grim parable or mystery, the books go into more detail about this aspect of the game. And I have no idea why. It literally serves no purpose whatsoever, other than to make obvious something that was already hinted at. Detailing her torture in text is gratuitous, and making a comic in the front of the book is wholly unnecessary.
Even if you were to make the argument that this is to drive home the vile and inhuman nature of the Infernals, that’s going to fall flat as soon as you note that this is one of the most popular books in the line, and the diehard fans will take great pains to defend it. Most of this has to do with the fact that Infernal Exalts are ridiculously powerful, and the audience apparently takes great joy in playing evil characters. I suspect that it all goes back to the adoration of Vampire characters from World of Darkness. My experience has shown me enough of the edgy fanboys that want to talk about the power and violence of their characters. I wouldn’t say that too many of them had ever advanced much beyond a middle school mindset of such things either, but this is only my experience of such gamers.
So naturally, this is the sort of idea that gets carried over into the 3rd Edition design. Many of the same people that are working on this edition are the same ones that were involved in the crappy final projects of 2nd Edition. One of the first things that showed up in relation to 3rd Edition was a design doc that went into the new powers of Abyssal Exalts, who bear the corrupted essence of a Solar Exalt in service of the lords of the underworld. In the Exalted world, they’re the fantasy versions of Vampires, and their popularity reflects this. In 1st and 2nd Edition, they were subject to the dark versions of many of the Solar powers.
For 3rd Edition, they’re all about rape.
There was a preview PDF that was released early on in the Kickstarter as an example of where they were planning on going with the later books. For the Abyssal Exalts, there was an entire page devoted to the charms that they could access which allowed them to rape weaker characters, turn them into slaves, rape them to death and use the power they had derived from the rape to fuel their own further schemes.
Needless to say, this PDF got pulled pretty quickly and is now ridiculously hard to find on the internet.
There was a lot of blowback from this. The article on Something Awful (which I linked to last time) went over the high points of the preview, but there was even more in the way of objectionable content that was left out. The writers had offered basic (and poorly conceived) apologies about the tone of the writing, but in the end, they largely shrugged and went back to doing what they were already planning on doing. The diehard fans felt that apologies weren’t really needed, and the casual fans that thought it was actually pretty horrible mainly forgot about it or were shouted down on the forums.
And here’s the thing: For the most part, I didn’t care a lot either way about this new rape aspect of the game. There were already some questionable bits to Exalted that I thought were in poor taste. Having fairly explicitly detailed new powers that served little purpose other than rape? Yeah, that’s weird and juvenile, but it’s not like I thought the Infernals sourcebook wasn’t equally bad.
What killed it for me was the general arrogance that surrounded the project. The rapey bits were stupid, but I have already left a lot of things like that out of my games. It’s the smug outlook that the new writers persisted with that all but killed my support for the product. The gist was that they were making a new product to fix all of the bad ideas that 2nd Edition had.
Okay, I’m listening. I know that there are a lot of bad and unplayable parts of Exalted. Take, for example, the whole powerset of the Sidereals. Sure, they’re fine for NPC’s that don’t need to survive outside of the GM’s spiral bound notebook, but they’re not terribly interesting and playable. And seriously, Social Combat needs an overhaul. So do the rules for Mass Combat. We tried them, and they were neither fun nor easy to use. There’s also the rules for the political machinations between regions and nations; those could use some work, since it was a neat idea that never really managed to pull off. Some of the different charms need balancing, martial arts needs a couple of revisions, and let’s trim back the bullshit like Infernals and the sixth Alchemical type. None of these things make sense.
Nope. First off, they’re taking apart combat, which was one of the high points of the edition. Combat in Exalted 2nd was one of the slickest systems I’ve ever seen, as it worked on a timed initiative. Different actions took more or less time than others, so the actual speed of using a given weapon type actually mattered. From what I have been very sternly lectured about, this was too complicated and boring. (From what I’ve been able to tell, the boring parts come from the seriously twinked out munchkin builds battling each other. All the years I’ve been running Exalted, there’s never been an issue, but other people play seriously different games.)
And from every indication, none of the other issues that I ran into in any of my games are being touched. Instead, they seem to be focusing on inserting their own weird ideas into the setting, none of which have any bearing. One of the theories involves all sorts of new Exalt types, including a variant based on the NWoD game, Promethean. This new Exalt is your basic Frankenstein’s Monster, for some damned reason, and there’s plans to toss in as many more as they can come up with. To borrow and paraphrase from The Incredibles, once everyone’s Exalted, that means no one is Exalted.
All of this is to fix a product that they have repeatedly claimed is bad, broken and unplayable. The general mindset is that 2nd Edition Exalted, the one game line that actually outsold their World of Darkness and Aeon/Trinity lines, is just an awful game and there’s no way they could revise out all the things wrong with it. It’s better to burn it down, salt the earth and build anew.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a hard time being all that enthused about being told that something that I love is objectively bad and implying that I’m an idiot for liking it in the first place. Especially when it comes from a guy that doesn’t really understand design philosophy and is a little too interested in raping children. And writing all new systems that allow for more rape.
Blogs are sort of weird.
For the past three months, I’ve been throwing 1,000 words at a given subject every single night; rain or shine, broad inspiration or not. Sometimes these entries shined, and sometimes they just managed to fill the space. Either way, I post something, some of my friends read them, and I go on with things. Every now and again, I get a comment from one of my regulars, but I have the feeling that my rate of word production has left some people in the dust. I have no one to blame save myself, since I came to realize just how unlikely it is that someone would actually be able to go back through the archives if they hadn’t been keeping up in the first place. But I’ll get into that in a couple of days. There’s honestly too much for a casual reader to get into.
And then, every now and again, someone will stumble onto something I’ve posted up and read through it, looking for the subject tag for the thing that interests them. I know this because I get new likes on fairly old entries, which I find both endearing and weird. In my own mind, there’s a perception that, once an entry has faded into the archives, it’s dead and gone, never to be seen again or commented upon.
A little over a week ago, my new friend Eric started browsing through the Exalted entries. I’d always intended to go back and throw a couple thousand more words at the subject, but it never quite happened. But since I’m planning on putting the blog on hiatus for a little while, I might as well get around to this promise, even if it has been one that I’ve largely made to myself.
I’ve already discussed the baseline setting of Exalted and the kinds of characters that can be made to adventure within the bounds of this world. I’ve also touched on some of the historical and real world elements that went into the complex mythological foundations that build the world.
What I haven’t dealt with is the point in 2nd Edition Exalted when the designers finally jumped the rails and started doing really stupid and offensive things. Nor have I gone into how this abandonment of solid design philosophy is what forms the questionable basis of the 3rd Edition rules.
First, a little bit of history: One of the very first supplements for 1st Edition Exalted was the rather weird attempt at an adventure module, in the form of Time of Tumult. Ostensibly, this was the design team’s way of introducing the White Wolf fans to a whole new concept of fantasy RPG, namely the ‘epic’ style. And by ‘epic’, I’m using the classical sense of the term, where it refers to the deeds of legendary heroes. Exalted dealt with the nascent god-kings of an ancient era, determined to reclaim their fallen empires. This was a good deal different from anything that White Wolf had done before, and it was a fair departure from games like Warhammer Fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons, which were the go-to games for normal fantasy.
Sadly, Time of Tumult didn’t really manage to pull it off. It had some interesting ideas, but the main adventure was a strange cross between ‘haunted mansion’ and dungeon crawl, managing neither with any grace. But one of the short adventures that was included with the book dealt with the broad sketches of an alien force from outside of Creation that threatened to take over the world. In Crusaders of the Machine God, the epic fantasy world of Exalted is being overtaken by what amounts to being cybernetic and robotic invaders.
The idea was that all of humanity was based on the designs of one of the Primordials (think Titans from Greek myth) who had prototyped the first men for the other Primordials to build from. When it became evident that these new creations (in the form of Exalts) were going to cast down their Primordial creators, the one responsible for the prototypes in the first place fled creation to avoid being defeated himself. After millennia wandering the void beyond Creation, he’s been forced to return. As the titular Machine God, his children are the robots and cyborgs that have come back to do his will.
All right, so this is how it makes sense in the scope of Exalted. These particular versions of the established Exalts are weird and machine-based, but that’s because they’re based on the original prototypes. Like their master, they exist outside of Creation itself, and accordingly they are the exception to the pre-established Rule of Five that forms the basic framework of the game. The different castes of the Alchemical Exalts fall in line with the five types of Celestial and Terrestrial Exalts, formed as they are from the Five Magical Materials, but they represent a strange sort of sixth type of Exalt in their way. Even so, they are specifically built on the archetypes of the normal Exalt they correspond with. Orichalcum Caste fulfill a similar role to Solars, Moonsilver have a similar function to Lunars, and so on. It all made sense and fit within the established hierarchy.
Until the tail end of 2nd Edition Exalted, that is.
I have no proof of this, but I think 2nd Edition started going off the rails when the lead designer, John Chambers, left the company for greener pastures. Up to a certain point, the design philosophy adhered to fairly strict guidelines and managed to streamline much of the rough material from 1st Edition. It had a different, more cosmopolitan feel than the earlier edition, which had touches of pulp fantasy and eldritch horror around the edges, but it didn’t try to contradict any of the established lore.
Then came the Alchemical book for 2nd Edition. And things started getting weird.
Represented were the same five castes of Alchemical Exalt that appeared in the original publication, with the strange addition of a sixth caste formed of a non-magical material that only really showed up in Time of Tumult. But not in the module that introduced the concept of Alchemicals. The material, an extremely brittle and lethal form of glass known as Adamant, was one of the few materials available that would inflict Aggravated Damage on its own. (For those unfamiliar with White Wolf, there were three basic damage types: Non-lethal, lethal, and aggravated. These differed mainly in how long it took to heal them.) It was a weird addition to the module, and it really never showed up anywhere else. Nevermind the fact that Adamant implies unbreakability, and the glass was almost impossible to use because it would constantly break.
This new caste combines all manner of nonsensical aspects, to the point that it comes across seeming like a power gamer’s wet dream. (This perception is not helped by the fact that the iconic Adamant character is a female that is incapable of wearing pants. The only piece of clothing she actually wears in a sort of shawl-like covering that only barely covers part of her breasts. Wet dream, indeed.) Adamant caste have the innate ability to avoid having any observer remember them, along the lines of the Sidereal abilities, but unlike the Arcane Fate of the Chosen, trying to resist this power of the Adamant Caste requires an inane amount of Willpower to be spent. And compared to the battle-oriented powers of the rest of the Alchemicals, this is particularly weird. In addition, they’re the angst-ridden loners who know more about the inner workings of their machine society, seeing fit to judge even the other Exalts for their actions. They are the ‘mysterious strangers’ and the ‘tactical lynchpins’ prone to ‘flamboyant displays of strength’ in their role as the ultra secret agents of … somebody. They wait in the shadows to ‘strike a blow that will break their own hearts’.
In short, they’re better than everything else. And filled with angst.
This was followed up shortly thereafter by the sourcebook for the Infernal Exalts, which were equally overwrought and unnecessary. They were so edgy and extreme that they might as well have been a Mountain Dew flavored bag of Jacked Doritos. And where the Adamant Alchemical was pure fanservice on its own, the iconic characters for the Infernals were particularly egregious. In no specific order, they were a pirate, a ninja, a Scotsman, a sexy nun and a mummy with an oversized eldritch claw grafted on his right shoulder. They were one step away from appearing on a middle school boy’s homeroom notebook.
And when you actually try to delve into the lore of these Exalts it gets even squirrelier. All right, so we have the appearance of the Adamant Alchemicals, with their non-Magical Material basis. All of the other Alchemical Castes correspond directly with the Exalts that are roaming around Creation. Does this mean that the material that’s associated with the previously unknown Infernal Exalts is Adamant?
No. That would almost make sense.
Instead, they have access to a weird substance called Vitriol, which forms the basis of Infernal item crafting. It’s said to be a demonic acid of sorts, but it ends up just being Evil Lacquer that you soak all of your gear in. There’s all sorts of gnarly, wicked prose to explain the demonic and awful processes that it’s supposed to represent, but the simple truth of the matter is that it’s just Evil Lacquer. No more, no less.
There’s a relatively solid reason for the existence of Infernal Exalts, tracing back to the various plots that set the whole Age of Sorrows setting in motion. It’s not a bad idea, overall, but the implementation of it gets stupid pretty quickly. They have clear antecedents in the Abyssal Exalts, but where the Abyssals have to atone through self mutilation or the sacrifice of something they love, Infernals have to undertake acts of mustache-twirling evil, the kind of which echoes Dr. Evil from Austin Powers.
And that isn’t even to talk about the systematic rape of a young girl as the basis of the characters’ power.
I think I can safely finish the rest of my complaints out in the next post. Those images should be enough to get most of my current points across.
Lying tangent to the idea of Earning Your Legend is the idea of becoming the Legend and learning what to do with it. There’s a point in every heroic progression where the character has the ability to succeed at most mundane things that he sets his mind to. For a lot of gamemasters, this is the point in the game where the characters should just be retired and a new campaign gets rolled out, as the focus of a lot of systems covers the lower range of experience, when the characters have to struggle to accomplish specific goals. Or maybe it’s just my experience to have GM’s declare that a Pathfinder game is over once the characters hit 12th level or so.
With skill based games, the line is a little harder to delineate, but there’s still a point when the challenges become that much easier to overcome, and the campaign either has to shift the focus or be put on a shelf.
Over the years, I’ve found that the easiest way to handle this sort of predicament is to offer radically different sorts of challenges for the characters to overcome, specifically ones that take the power back out of their hands and away from the narrow band of things that the characters are unbeatable at.
A lot of this stems from my years with WEG’s D6 Star Wars. In the system, there’s a fairly well known breaking point that the dice system hits, at which point only equivalently powerful NPC’s pose any sort of threat. When a character is able to throw 9D on any given skill, the threshold of a 30 Difficulty Number (noted in the rules as Heroic, after which there are only magnitudes of specific impossibility for tasks) is almost always within reach on an average roll. Combined with the ludicrous power levels that a competent player can pull from a Jedi character, there’s a hard limit on the game’s challenge. Once this has been hit, there’s very little that will offer any real significant obstacle to the characters’ goals.
This is commonly when I would push the narrative toward the idea of moral choices and the consequences that these choices would offer. The game is already built with moral boundaries, as represented with the Dark Side of the Force and all that implies, and the smallest amount of tweaks move the normally black and white morality of the galaxy into varying shades of grey. Once these have been established for the player characters, all that remains is to follow the obvious consequences to the choices that the characters are forced to make. For a lot of games, Stormtroopers are simple cannon fodder, so simply exploring the lives of those that were casually snuffed out in a pitched combat is enough to drive the point home.
Another easy example would be White Wolf’s Exalted RPG, where the characters are expected to become gods in their own right over the course of the game. Unlike Star Wars, where it takes a relative amount of time and effort to be able to accomplish truly impressive and game breaking feats of skill, Exalted moves the characters in that direction almost immediately. It’s expected that the characters are going to be dealing with threats relative to their power level, but even so, it’s not difficult to kit a character out so that such threats are minimal anyway.
In both of these games, I’ve made it a point to allow the characters their own lead on what sort of direction the game takes, so as to not invalidate the choices the player has made in their skills and powers. If one of the characters has gone out of their way to become the greatest warrior that has ever been, I’m not going to take that away from them. By all means, if they need to take on a bar room full of heavily armed thugs on a regular basis to maintain their image and reputation, I’ll make it a point to set these sorts of conflicts up.
In the mean time, I’m not going to assume that these are anything more than a diversion, given their skill level. What I will do, however, is give them challenges as whether this fight is the right thing to do. One of my players noted that at a certain point in the game’s timeline, the characters could pretty much do whatever thing that they set a course toward. Whether it was a good idea or not was the actual question that had to be asked. In Star Wars, it might come down to a moral choice. In Exalted, it could come down to a decision on whether or not their current scheme was going to come back to bite them in the ass somewhere down the line.
In some ways, this gave them an unrestricted amount of freedom in where they were to take their characters. In others, it set a very specific line for them that could not be easily crossed, mainly because their awareness of this limit caused them to draw the line for themselves. They were given to understand the ramifications of their various decisions as characters, how these decisions shaped their overall world and what they would have to do once the dust settled in the aftermath.
I suppose, reduced to its simplest terms, that the implications of consequence were what ended up driving all of these games, once they passed a certain point of competence. Being that most of the time, they’d followed a standard progression from that of incompetence to the makings of true legends, they’d had plenty of time to consider what direction they were heading in. They had willingly taken on the sacrifices that were required for the power they sought, and when they finally achieved it, they had to determine whether or not any of it was worth the cost they had paid along the way. Some games I ran made it more evident, as the mental or spiritual compromises were spelled out at the time they made the choice. In others, it only became obvious in hindsight.
Over the years, I’ve come to a strange epiphany on things, when it comes to the individual passions of gamers. If the game in question is the one system or world for which they exist as a gamer, I’m probably not going to want to play in their sessions. On the surface, it would seem like a great idea, being as they know the ins and outs of the dice and the world better than pretty much anyone around, but the reality is that they’ve gone beyond what can be gleaned from the actual text of the rules into a strange and shadowy underworld where only they know The One True Way. Their various years with the source material have given them a very particular view on how things need to be done within the scope of the game, and woe betides any who stray from this.
Naturally, none of this applies to me. If I love a game, I’m obviously the best person to run it.
All joking aside, this particular phenomenon is one that I’ve run into more times than I really want to admit to, and each time it crops up, I quietly sidle away from the conversation and make a dignified retreat. There’s nothing that I can add to the discussion, and the longer I manage to linger on the periphery, the more likely it is that I’m going to just advance an unpopular theory.
I’d edged around the subject with my post on Werewolf, but in its way, I ended up actually first encountering the idea with a group of Axis & Allies players, of all things.
A friend of mine had been talking about how he had a steady group of Axis & Allies players that met on a regular basis to play, managing to keep a monthly game going on since high school. They’d played all sides so many times that they tended to shortcut a lot of the opening moves and knew each others’ strategy well enough to plan out most of the game from the first selection of armies. Since I’d wanted to hang out and casually throw dice on a game that I had only played once or twice, this pretty well killed my interest. I was looking to sharpen up my understanding of the rules, and they were debating higher philosophy.
Now in this instance, it was a case of skill and experience that scared me off, as much as the ingrained ways of playing the game that the group in question had settled into. For RPG’s, similar principles apply, but the practice delves much more into the thematic outlook of the play group.
In the case of my Werewolf game, I ran into conflicts on a couple of occasions, when the players felt that the way the game unfolded was at odds with their perceptions of things. One player, in an earlier game, ran headlong into the general incompetence of the other characters. I’d specifically gone out of my way to allow the players to build their PC’s in whatever ways made sense to them without any experience with the game. I would answer questions, but the larger issues and game essential tweaks were left out. This was to attempt to get an organic character out of the new guys, rather than one that was optimized for the system. I wanted a group of largely unaware Garou that had no idea why they were being initiated into the World of Darkness, rather than one that mysteriously knew all of the skills that were necessary for Being A Werewolf.
This meant that skills like Primal Urge were left at zero, in favor of skills that actually made sense for the mortal life of the character. (For those who are unaware, Primal Urge serves as the skill that allows the Garou to physically shift into, well, werewolves. Without this skill, it’s a lot harder to transform.)
This fit with the scope of the game, where the characters are the scattered foundlings that were largely ignored by the greater Garou society. To the experienced player that knew how to best build a character for the game, this was wholly maddening. He had a narrowly ascribed outlook on what was needed for a workable character, and to watch the new guys flail around without better direction was almost unthinkable.
Then there came the player I referenced in the previous post. He’d come at the game from a Live Action perspective, and the ways in which I put together an end-times game made absolutely no sense to him. He’d come in with the idea of a lot of inter-tribal conflict, and when it was a weird conspiracy to herald the Apocalypse, he was pretty well lost.
The worst example, however, came with the locally based groups that focused on Legend of the Five Rings.
I like L5R. But since I’ve actually spent time in Japan, my outlook on the game is nothing like the local perception of things. The local people sink into the novels and the fanfics that arise out of the game, to the point that its lore has become integral to every aspect of the game. If a newly built character doesn’t conform to the carefully defined history that the rest of the people know backwards and forwards, it’s pretty well unacceptable. (“Obviously your ancestor wasn’t at the Battle of the Three Rivers, since my old character was in that game and the official fiction tells us that there were no other members of the Unicorn Clan that survived.”)
It gets a little weird.
At the same time, it’s what works for that group, and the way they play isn’t wrong. My group has spent a lot of time with games like Exalted, to the point that they know the particulars of that setting better than most. They would be unable to drop into a new game of that, since their ideas of the way that world works would set them at odds with most. It’s just how it happens.
In the midst of unapologetically ragging on Savage Worlds, I noted that one of the drawbacks of the system, in my mind, was the lack of Social Interaction rules in any significant form. It was only later that I realized that I was likely speaking some form of Greek to the average role-player.
It’s been my experience in most games that the first section that needs to be scrutinized in the system is the way that Combat is conducted. The flow of conflict is an important aspect of any game, as it determines how much time and effort needs to be devoted to resolving an encounter. If the system is filled with charts and derived numbers, the combat might be extremely detailed and realistic, but it’s going to take the better part of the night to deal with a single fight between reasonable sized groups. If the game is slanted towards tactics, there’s going to be a need to have map grids and miniatures to better visualize everything, else it’s all going to go awry. And if everything is pushed in a more story-driven direction, combat is likely going to focus on abstract narrative elements, leaving the damage tables and the grid maps completely out of the mix.
The amount of options a given system has for combat also factor into how the game is supposed to be run. A game like Savage Worlds tends towards fast and loose arbitration, where the player characters are generally expected to be able to win any given encounter without a great deal of worry. Exalted offers a rather detailed combat system, but it allows a fair amount of narrative freedom, which lets the godlike characters slide through harder encounters if they have a stylish reason to be able to pull off the maneuvers well enough. On the other end of the scale, you find yourself in systems like Call of Cthulhu, where the characters aren’t optimized for combat and the scale of the enemies simply dwarfs their capabilities. The emphasis in games like this shifts toward being able to think your way through a situation, rather than rush blindly into a fight. And given the source material, it only makes sense.
So how does the Social angle of things work into this?
A little bit of personal history, if you would. Much of my narrative GM’ing style comes from the games of the early to mid-90’s, when the miniatures-oriented game design of the early years started to be expanded. Whereas many of the early games were derived from miniatures combat (and therefore tended to be combat driven), the games of this era started working toward the idea that non-combat characters could have roles within the context of battle, even if they weren’t worth a damn swinging a sword or firing a gun.
For me, the eye-opener was Torg, where non-combat actions were rolled into combat through the use of the Drama Cards. If a character were to stand on the sidelines and taunt the villain, the distraction of their commentary had a concrete effect on the villain, making it easier for the other characters to be able to defeat him. This showed up in subsequent games, here and there, to the point that it started a sort of sub-system in some RPG’s, where there were additional rules for ‘Social Combat’ in other areas of the game.
The other notable aspect of Torg was that, because these rules were in place, a combat-focused character was still able to be defeated by other means. Even if they’d maxed out the requisite stats in a way that made it impossible for regular mooks to do real damage or even hit the character, they were still vulnerable to Mental and Social attacks that could incapacitate them. The best example of this ended up being the ridiculously powerful Tharkoldu Cyber Demons, who combined the unbalancing effects of cyberware with … well, being demons. They had extremely high physical stats, armor and spiritual powers. What they didn’t have was any way to cope with being taunted, to the point that a character with sufficient skill and luck could theoretically put them down for good with a well timed and deeply personal verbal assault.
Up to this point, a character was either built to be worth a damn in battle or built to be useful in the library. To have both was generally unthinkable and / or the realm of pure munchkinry. With Torg (and many of its descendants), it was possible to have a bookish character that could hold their own through their smarts or a social character that could use their persuasion in a wider venue of circumstances.
Exalted took this entire theory to its logical conclusion, putting together a system that paralleled physical combat by codifying social maneuvers in a similar manner. Where a duel between master swordsmen would entail a certain amount of circling and testing for weakness before striking at a vulnerable point, the Social Combat rules tried to put these same sorts of actions into play within the realm of conversation.
The problem was that it didn’t quite work, as written. Over the years, I’ve made a point of testing social builds in the various RPG’s that allow it, and while Exalted made a fine go of it, there were very specific problems. For one thing, it tended to abstract the flow of conversation to the point that actually using the rules while role-playing required the player and GM to pause in the midst of witty repartee and roll dice. In that way, it felt like the only real way that the Social Combat could be used would be in a completely abstracted way (“I’m going to verbally attack him, using my Investigate Skill to probe for weakness.” – “Roll your Manipulation and Investigate. If you get three or more successes, you’ve discovered his love for horse racing.”), and this idea struck directly against the more narrative aspects of Exalted, with its Stunt System. While it was an interesting idea overall, it honestly felt like there needed to be another pass of playtesting before releasing it into the wild. And considering that there’s a whole tree of Lunar Social Charms that take advantage of these rules, the unfinished nature allows the system to break entirely, handing a stupid amount of power over to competently built characters played by people who know what they’re doing.
Finally, there’s Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, which tries its damnedest to replicate the intrigues of the books in its Social Combat system. While I love Exalted in unnatural ways, I have to note that this is a system that has managed to do it correctly. The intrigues in ASOIAF are both simply designed and effective, as they can cause characters to act against their own best interests because they were seduced into a course of action by a skilled master of deception. The system has layers of complexity as needed, but compared to the vaguely disruptive ways in which Exalted handled it, it makes a lot more sense.
To my perspective, this is the way modern games are structured. When combat was all that mattered, that was the only focus that skills and attributes got. Over time, however, game design came to reflect the subtler nuances of the gamer palate, where talking to ones adversaries became less of an outlier and more of a commonplace act. Yeah, combat is still the core of any system, as there needs to be a mechanic of some sort to resolve conflict, be it physical or otherwise, and this often serves as the skill resolution system as well.
As such, the throwback nature of Savage Worlds continues to mystify me, as it presents itself as a modern game for the current generation of gamers, even while it ignores the innovations that have come about since the early days of gaming. It’s only made worse by the fact that Deadlands itself had built in enough variance that a Social character could easily hold his own in combat in that system. And that aspect of the game design was completely lost when the new system took hold, meaning that it had to have been a conscious decision.
If anyone was paying attention, this entry marks my first month on this blog. It’s an interesting goal to have achieved, in that the goals that I set for myself were a little strange – post an entry every single day, make sure that it was more than 1,000 words, and hold to a particular level of quality for the topics. I can’t claim that I hit the last one out of the park each time, but at least I gave it a shot. It’s good to have goals. We’ll see where I’m at with the daily postings within a year, but for the time being, it’s going well enough.
So, what in an RPG relates to a milestone, even one so minor as this one?
How about that game that people talk about for years after the end? You know the one, whether it’s the one that just wrapped after two years of solid play or the one from back in high school that was so much lightning in a bottle. What was it that made that game stand out over all the other ones? What was it that made that game come up in conversation with new gamers, especially when your old players talk about the kind of game they want to see in their new group?
For me, there are a scattering of epic games, ranging over a spectrum of gaming experience and widely disparate systems. For the purposes of dissection, I’ll stick to the ones that I ran, as I have a better idea of the common threads that wove through the lot of them. If nothing else, I know what sort of things I tried to hold fast to over the course of the game and how I think they added to the overall game.
In specific, the campaigns I’m going to be referencing were played in Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, Torg and Exalted. Each of the games were played with groups that I had established some time before I launched the game, so I knew the players well enough to be able to play to their specific strengths within the game.
Ascension of Darkness: For Dungeons & Dragons, it was a 2nd Edition game set in Ravenloft. The game actually started as a regular hack and slash sort of game that was drastically altered when the group was pulled into the Mists. Once there, they encountered a number of strange horrors and watched as their wizard was slowly pulled into darkness by the Powers of Ravenloft. Advised by an ally, they sought an ancient machine that was said to be able to pull the darkness directly from her soul.
Death of Shadows: For Star Wars, it was an old WEG D6 game set in the outer rim during the rise of the New Republic. The characters began to encounter the machinations of a shadowy Dark Jedi who sought to enslave the uncharted territories and cast entire systems into darkness. Along the way, the characters were forced to act as agents of an Imperial Inquisitor and put an end to the Jedi’s plans.
The End Days: For Torg, the game was set before the invasion of Earth had started. The characters were FBI special agents tasked with investigating the stranger cases to cross their director’s desk. Sold as an X-Files game, things devolved rapidly when the agents ran afoul of cyberdemons in disguise, invading agents seeking to plunder rare archaeological treasures, and pacts with dark powers. While they managed to thwart one of the invading forces, they were caught in a warzone when the full force of an invading reality dropped into New York city.
Oblivion’s Talon: For Exalted, the game started off as a Mortals game, with the characters being pressed into a Legion culled from the prisons of the Blessed Isle. From their origins as the lowest of the low, they discovered an untouched city from the First Age, learned the cursed history of the former rulers, and found themselves ascending as Solars, reincarnated from the histories they were studying.
1.) The conflict was fully sketched out at the beginning.
This is one of the largest pieces of this particular puzzle. Whenever I sat down to plan a game of particular scope, I tried to nail down what the stakes were for both sides. Often, with games of a large enough scale, I tend to work backwards, planning out the final battle as best I can and figuring out how to get the characters to that point. Sometimes, it’s just a single scene I’m working towards, but I know exactly how I want to have that moment play out, so I have plenty of time to lay the groundwork to get everyone there.
In Death of Shadows, the nascent empire of the dark jedi was already in full swing, and the characters were slow to get the memo. They were coming at the plot unawares, and every weird event that was encountered reinforced the growing dread. I already knew how the final battle was going to be staged, so I could push the characters towards this final destiny.
2.) There was enough foreshadowing to establish that things were going very wrong.
For me, planning out the conflict has a secondary objective in giving me an idea of what sort of background events are moving things to their inevitable end. If there’s any sort of mysticism in the game (pretty standard, given), this can take the form of prophecy. Otherwise, there are going to be inexplicable events that will tie together once the characters have a better idea of the plot that’s already in motion.
In the Ascension of Darkness, the characters were given a scattering of prophecies and weird dreams that spoke of the coming betrayal and fall of the party. Being that this was the first time any of my players had ever been confronted with something of this sort, they were vaguely horrified by what they were piecing together, and it drew them into the plot even in their down time.
3.) The campaign was built around the characters.
In some ways, this is probably the most important thing, as far as the players are concerned. If there’s any perception that things would happen the same way without these specific characters, the players don’t have the same investment. But when it’s noted that none of this would have happened if the characters hadn’t gotten involved, the players dive directly into the plot to try to take control of things. There was also a very specific character arc that each player engaged in for their character. In each of the games, the characters started out as fairly basic archetypes that grew into their respective destinies.
The strongest example of this was the Oblivion’s Talon game, as the characters had First Age antecedents that they were learning about. There was some question as to which living character corresponded with which ancient Solar, but it was pretty clearly drawn that they were revisiting the hubris and character flaws that had doomed their predecessors.
4.) The characters were faced with difficult moral choices, to the point that whichever direction they chose would influence both the course of the game and the evolution of their role-playing.
Going hand in hand with the previous bit, the characters directly alter the direction of events by choosing their own moral compass. If they choose to play the moral paragons, the game shifts to reflect that in the way things move forward. Or at least, I would assume so. In all of the games I’m using as examples, there were multiple points when the characters chose an easier path, and the plot reacted accordingly. By choosing an evil direction, they made things easier in the short term while watching the long term struggles grow harder.
The End Days game had pretty clear examples of this, either in the form of the FBI agent who got involved with the high school student at the cost of his engagement, or the other agent who sought eldritch power through ritualistic sacrifice. There were notable short term advantages to both of these character arcs, but the end result was that these choices doomed other aspects of the plot. This was also very clearly drawn in the Oblivion’s Talon game, as they knew what mistakes had been made in their previous incarnations, and they could see the parallels in their current characters.
5.) There were pervasive themes that endured throughout the course of the game.
Consistency in setting has always served me well. By establishing the feel of the world and sticking to that feel even as things began to go off the rails, I was able to build a world and a plot that held together well enough that the players could concentrate on playing their characters and fitting them into that world.
With the Death of Shadows game, there was the establishing theme of the Star Wars universe, balanced against the recurring elements of a growing darkness. Since they were dealing with dark jedi, part of it was symbolically reinforced and part was the actual effect of darkness on the characters they encountered.
6.) The setting was fully established before anything else happened in the game in terms of the larger plot.
This goes back to my post on Establishing the Color of the Rug, but it’s worth repeating here. In each of these games, I made a point of getting all of the players on board as far as the world that they were adventuring in. In some games, it was easier than others, but no matter where things started, I made a point to have everyone comfortable in what the world was supposed to be before larger concerns started to manifest themselves.
As far as The End Days game went, I had sold the game as being fairly X-Files in nature, which allowed the players to create the characters as archetypal FBI agents. They knew that things were going to reflect the weird of the source material I’d given them, so their characters were credulous of occasional weird things, even though they had no idea how far the plot was going to take them.
7.) The prologue of the game lasted long enough that it seemed like it was the focus of the game.
Part of the ability to establish the world was due to the fact that the players believed that the game was much smaller in scale than it really was. If I had made a point of selling the game idea as being the vast and epic adventure that it became, there would have been far too much anticipation on the part of the players to allow them to immerse themselves in the mundane aspects of the world. And by doing so, they were allowed to have characters of relatively humble origin that became heroes of legend.
When I first proposed the Oblivion’s Talon game, it was taking the idea of reinforcing some of the mechanical aspects of Exalted by forcing the players to create wholly non-powered Mortals in a meat grinder setting. If they didn’t learn the mechanics the way they needed to, they stood no chance of survival whatsoever. And while their time as Mortals before they became Solars was relatively brief overall, it was long enough to make them think it was a permanent thing.
8.) The course of the game played to the strengths of both the players and the GM, in terms of knowing the setting and the characters.
Over the course of the extended prologue, the players grew to know their characters and what made them tick, moreso than if they’d been dropped into a huge and unknowable plot with freshly generated characters. As a counterpart to this, I made a point of running games in settings that I knew backwards and forwards. There was a lot of planning as far as the plot went, but since I already knew the setting, I could add necessary color and believability to things, allowing the characters to sink into the world that much easier.
With Death of Shadows, it was a matter of knowing how the plots I had in mind fit into the Star Wars milieu and making them work along those guidelines. Knowing the Star Wars setting as well as I do, I made a point to breathe life into the setting at every turn, making it so the players could easily envision what they were dealing with.
9.) The NPC’s had very specific agendas, making them realistic enough that the PC’s understood them even if they didn’t trust them.
Sooner or later, I’ll have to dedicate an entry to the golden rule of villains – in my games, they never lie to the player characters. In addition to that, the NPC’s, villains or otherwise, have fairly carefully constructed motivations that drive them through the plot. Whenever the PC’s encountered their nemeses, they’d be able to gain an understanding of why the character was acting the way they were, even if it was directly counter to the efforts of the player characters. In some ways, the arguments would be persuasive enough to cause a moment of doubt or worse within the characters. (Hence the difficult moral choices above.)
This was a necessity in the Ascension of Darkness game, as the main villain was also the closest ally of the characters within the setting of Ravenloft. The twist came in the fact that, by dividing the wizard’s soul into good and evil manifestations, the evil half would instantly ascend as a Dark Lord. And by manipulating the characters to this end, the ally guaranteed his own ascension as well. In the Oblivion’s Talon game this took the form of an Abyssal Death Knight that the characters encountered. He bore the corrupted essence of one of their First Age allies, but he had no compunction to help them in any way that didn’t benefit himself.
10.) The game ended.
In some ways, this is the part that mattered the most for several of the games. There were other games that I could have placed in the tally sheet for legendary games, but for one reason or another, they never got to satisfactory point where they could end. There is also the danger in games like this for a game to persist after the main plots have been brought to an end. This runs the risk of ruining a game’s reputation by having it linger too long, undoing the epic nature of things by involving the characters in plots that aren’t of the same scale.
Each of the games I referenced ended, and in doing so, the players were free to narrate their places in the new world that dawned on the aftermath of their deeds. In each of the games, there were vague efforts made to continue the adventures of the favorite characters, but this was more because of the desire to keep these old friends together than anything else. There was a definitive closure to their tales of heroism, and in doing so, there was a sense that it could take its place with any conceived work of fiction. And as they always say, it’s best to leave the audience wanting more. The same thing applies to games.
And for my one month milestone, a double-length post to commemorate it. I shudder to see what a year will bring me, if it isn’t inevitable burnout.