Oh, where to begin…
Once upon a time, there were games. They were fun, yes, but hitting the level of epic power was almost always out of reach of all but the greatest of characters.
And then along came Exalted. This was a game that drew on inspiration from everything that wasn’t Tolkien. However, the game faced an uphill battle. Solid rules were problematic, the game often haunted by mechanical quirks, and mathematical nightmares.
There is something truly amazing about the game.
I’ve waited years to write this review. So here it is. *Deep Breath*
Grab your daiklave, ready your kung-fu, and get ready for the fight of several lifetimes.
And the World Was Dark and Formless
The Exalted were made to kill things that made gods.
In the beginning…there was nothing. In the nothing dwelt beings of omnipotent power and might. They were eternal, outside of time, simply existing. But then, everything changed. The Primoridals formed Creation.
The Primordials, Titans of immesurable power, shaped Creation, gave it laws, formed life, created the gods to act as custodians and guardians. To the greatest, the Incarnae, were given the most power. Yet, they feared their creations, and thus bound them with the Great Geas, that none could raise a hand against them.
But the gods, for various reasons, sought to rebel. Autochthon, the Great Maker, weary of his Titan bretheran, aided the wayward gods, as did his sister, Gaia. In his power, Autochthon forged shards of power, then bestowed them to the Incarnae and Gaia. Thus, the Exalted were born.
Servants and weapons of the gods, the Exalted did the impossible: they beat the Primordials. For their ability, they were given rule of Creation while the gods dwealt in heaven.
Of the Exalted, the greatest were the Solars, chosen of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun.
However, in their death throes, the former Titans cursed the gods that had risen against them. While they were ready, they did not foresee that their curse would slide to their Chosen.
And the Exalted slipped into madness. The Solars bore the curse most heavily, and as a result, the Dragon-Blooded and Sidereals rose against them, slaying them and binding them into a prison.
Thousands of years have passed, and times have changed. The Dragon-Blooded, weakest of the Exalted, now rule the world. The Lunar mates of the Solars wage endless war against them and the Sidereal traitors. But the Scarlet Throne is empty, and the world is on the brink of destruction.
And the Solars, the mad God-Kings of a lost era, have returned. For salvation, or destruction, none yet know.
The story of Exalted hits a lot of the right notes: epic tales of heroism, the Titanomachy, fatal flaws, and a chance to truly make a difference. The setting and various Exalt types allow for a lot of diversity of play. Further, it gives a lot of weight to what you are. You’re not just some random adventurer, you’re the chosen of the gods, remnants of a struggle of a previous age. Further, you’re flawed, and that flaw is built into the game itself.
Ok, I will not lie, when I saw the cover, I was a bit…underwhelmed. The art itself wasn’t bad, just that the front cover of a game like Exalted should really wow people. Then I opened the book.
There is a lot to like about it. The artwork is, for the most part, simply amazing. It really evokes the concept of the mythic hero of old rather than the anime feel a lot of folks felt second edition was going for. The art feels like it’s a mixture of ancient myth and modern storytelling. The page design is also beautiful in a very subtle way. The page looks like papyrus with small art in the margins. That art is quite interesting itself, changing from section to section. Overall, it’s a beautiful design.
If I have some gripes, it’s the lack of style consistency. The art can be anything from anime to almost three dimensional art. As a result, it can be jarring going from one to the next.
I am Become Death…
So…making a super-powered demigod…shouldn’t be too tricky…
Character creation for Third Edition has a lot of familiar hallmarks, particularly if you’ve played Storyteller games in the past. The first step is your concept and caste, which are closely related.
Every Exalt (cept one, later) has divisions called Castes which are meant to evoke certain archetypes. For Solars, these are:
- Dawn: Warriors, champions, and generals.
- Zenith: Priest kings, prophets, and holy warriors.
- Twilight: Savants, occultists, and crafters
- Night: Spies, assassins, and scouts
- Eclipse: Diplomats, bureaucrats, and outriders
Some people want to read very quickly…like me..
Each caste does something really well. If you want to put the hurt on, it’s hard to beat a Dawn. If you like to sneak, Nights are probably good. Want to be a consummate diplomat? Eclipse would be good.
These are flexible. There is nothing to say that a Dawn cannot be a sorcerer or a Night cannot be a warrior, but they have several benefits that others would not in their archetype. Each caste has a set of abilities you can choose. Dawns can choose any weapon category, Nights are adept at quickness and subtlety while a Zenith can give rousing orations and convince even the most hardened rivals to his cause.
Further, each has some abilities tied to their specific caste called anima effects. Animas are expressions of your soul made manifest when you use your power. Dawns can frighten anything, Twilights gain several mystic abilities, and Eclipses can seal oaths with supernatural consequences.
Ok…that’s step 1.
The rest of creation is more freeform. Attributes, like World of Darkness, are split into Physical, Mental, and Social, and you similarly choose a primary, secondary, and tertiary. The difference is…your tertiary is the secondary in Vampire. Yep, you’re a superpowered demigod: it has perks.
Abilities are like skills: more focused and refined and usually what your roll in conjunction with an Attribute. Abilities are also what your powers, called Charms, are keyed off of (at least as a Solar) and so it is important to know what you want to focus on. As I mentioend, each Caste has some abilities they’re better at. Unlike 2e, these aren’t set in stone. Caste abilities are selected from a group of 9, and you choose 5. It allows for some flexibility before choosing favored abilities, which are similar.
A new concept, and one worth talking about, is the supernal ability. Supernal abilities allow you to ignore Essence (think level) requirements for charms. This is…well, it’s what lets you do a lot of your nastiest tricks.
Merits are particularly interesting in this game. They encompass a lot of odd abilities. For example, Artifact gives you control of a powerful relic. It could be a sword, a set of armor, a globe which stabilizes reality around you, or a mech called a Warstrider. Another, more mundane example, is Backing, which represents an organization supporting you. Merits are small benefits, but measurable in how you build your character.
Last are some odd stats unique to this game. If you’ve played or know anything about the Storyteller system, the conecept of a Power Stat should be familiar. This game has Essence, which is a measure of your character’s inner power. This manifests as motes, your fuel stat. Third edition breaks from tradition a bit in that Essence is no longer a purchased stat, but increases as you progress in experience earned. Solars still have the best mote pools, so there’s that.
The last bit to discuss is experience, which is actually quite fun. You get normal experience points usable on anything, and then there is what’s called Solar Experience. Solar XP is…kinda like bonus roleplay XP. You can earn it in several ways, but the most common is good roleplay (including your flaws coming into account) and what are called role bonuses, which is doing something your caste is supposed to do.
With some bonus point spent, life is good, and your character is good to go!
Surviving in a World of Gods and Monsters
The system of the current Exalted is revamped from the old storyteller system. If you’ve played any White Wolf games in the past, the system will be familiar: d10 dice pool, success at 7 or higher, 10s are doubled. After this is where things get streamlined.
Combat draws heavily on inspiration from Dissidia: Final Fantasy of all things. Your initiative is built and acts both as a turn order mechanic and as fuel for launching an attack. When you build it enough, you can launch a decisive attack, which will damage an opponent’s health. It’s simultaneously intuitive while allowing for a lot of different tactics and strategies, particularly with the various powers of the Exalted. You can save up for one mega blow or do a ‘death of a thousand cuts’ strategy.
One aspect that (thankfully) got an overhaul is social interactions. Second edition had what was referred to by the devs as “yelling at each other until one person ran out of willpower.” It was boring, flat, and allowed for some serious abuse in the right hands. The current system plays off of what are called Intimacies. These are things your character cares about, be they people, objects, or ideals. They vary in strength and can mean a lot of things, but they are both your defense and weakness for social activity.
If someone wants to influence you, they have to play off of an intimacy. They might try to convince you to betray your friends with the idea that they have your spouse. However, you can also use them to defend, so you can invoke your principle of “I can’t abide a traitor” to defend against it. This system is interesting since it encourages players to be inventive. Intimacies are simultaneously your biggest weakness and only defense.
Crafting is also it’s own minigame. Basically, doing crafting activities earns crafting experience in a few flavors. As you build bigger projects, your experience type goes up. It eventually allows you to build artifacts, including the coveted N/A (or beyond the normal 5 dot) artifacts. These can potentially change the world. So…better start crafting those horseshoes.
There are systems in place for mass combat, combat on ships, raising animals, poisoning people, surviving in the environment…just about anything that might go crazy.
I’ve made a lot of references to it, so here’s what Charms are. Charms are, more or less, your supernatural powers. They range in potency and effect, but generally start simple and grow in power, expanding on the simple to be more potent. As an example, let’s go to my favorite of the combat trees: brawl. Brawl is unarmed combat, and more brute force than anything. One of the starting charms gives minor bonuses to grapple a foe and some extra initiative. This leads into charms that let you secure a foe with strength, maintain you grapple longer, grab foes well outside what you should be able to, and shake a foe the size of a mountain to death. That’s not even the apex.
There are other powers you can access, including supernatural martial arts such as the iaido based Single Point Shining Into the Void and the insidious Black Claw style (use love as a weapon!). The last is sorcery, which is powerful even by Exalted standards. At first, it lets you summon swarms of obsidian winged butterflies that cut your foes apart. It goes up from there. These powers require a bit more in terms of rules and investment, but allow you to pull some interesting tricks.
Lunars can sometimes have a temper
All of these powers are designed so that your character will grow in power. You start potent enough, but can get even more so over time. Of note is essence, a stat which increases slowly as you gain experience. This is what locks most powers. However, your chosen Supernal ability lets you bypass this, making you gain potentially hugely powerful charms from the onset.
One last bit is equipment. Equipment in the game is a bit more abstracted than usual. Weapons and armor fall into light, medium, and heavy with unified stat blocks. Adding tags is what makes weapons unique. This works well enough, though I’m waiting for more armor tags than the two that currently exist.
Artifacts are far more variable and far, far more potent. Each is simply superior to the various counterparts. Further, artifacts grant access to evocations, powers unique to the weapon which can do things ranging from generating deadly poisons to protecting the user from harm to generating active volcanoes when striking the ground.
Crunch-wise, the game does an admirable job on a lot of fronts. Overall, the game makes you feel properly powerful, but has it’s own limitations. Combat can go a lot of ways, but can also lead to potentially slow combat.
The Good Fight
What do you send against characters that gods fear?
Amusingly, despite what you might imagine, the Exalted have no shortage of foes lining up to knock them around. The myriad of enemies the Exalted Host face are diverse and ever present. To be certain, your characters are never without someone to face.
Tradition holds that there are four main types of antagonists: character vs. character, character vs. the supernatural, character vs. nature, and character vs. self. All of these are possible in Exalted, and all of them have their place.
The most important conflicts are Exalted vs. the problems around them. These could be several things, ranging from a petty tyrant to a rogue spirit to another Exalt. Let’s cover a few.
Not pictured: the Exalted about to try to fight these things
Mortals aren’t overall powerful…but there are a lot of them. A lot of the people you will encounter are mortal. They may not be powerful, but they are numerous, and, on occasion, break into some crazy territory. In this edition, mortals can cast sorcery, a departure from previous editions. Some can grow potent in combat. That said, most of the time, they’re there are background, NPCs, and for them the setting is less ‘crazy awesome’ and more ‘cosmic horror.’
There are creatures slightly above mortal. Giant man eating boars, sharks that swim through mists, mortals crossed with animals, and mutants from the Wyld. These are usually threatening…but might also be allies. Often, an exalt will befriend (or perhaps tame) such entities.
Spirits are another matter. “Spirit” is a somewhat nebulous term in Exalted, but a few commonalities are that they are non-mortal creatures which are normally insubstantial but can manifest. They embody many types, ranging from elementals to demons to gods of Yu-Shan. Spirits are numerous, varied, and thus can be a varied foe. They range in power, with the least being slightly more dangerous than, say, a bear, and the most dangerous being deadly even to a full circle of Solars. Basically, think animism: if there’s a concept, there’s probably a god attached to it.
Fair Folk are…odd. They’re from entirely outside of Creation, and thus are…kinda nothing given form. Think Lovecraft elves…which is basically what they are. They have varied goals, but they tend to mess with reality in a lot of ways. Like spirits, they’re a varied and strange lot. They tend to be more perfect than mortals, but they’re also empty.
Some entities are powerful that simply…exist. Behemoths are one, giant monsters empowered beings of great potency. Other creatures, strange and powerful, exist throughout Creation, the giant living mountain Juggernaut and the strange Mother Bog, a living swamp.
One nugget of wisdom for RPGs: nothing tests any character quite like one of their own. This is every bit as true in Exalted, perhaps even more so. Exalts come in several flavors, and more are being revealed. Here’s a breakdown:
- Solars: Not every solar works at the same goals…in fact, many will disagree with one another…and they’re every bit as powerful as you.
- Lunars: These are barbaric shapeshifters seeking to topple the Realm. Oh, and one was probably your spouse in a past life. How that will play out is a bit…ambiguous…
- Sidereals: Over half of these guys want to kill you. The others mostly just want to control you. All of them have been the secret masters of Creation for thousands of years…and most likely won’t want you to interfere.
- Dragon-Blooded: The least powerful, but by far the most numerous, of the Exalted, whose power is passed through bloodlines. They run the Realm, and are what most people think of when they hear “Exalted.”
- Abyssals: Deathknights who fight for the Deathlords for the Underworld…the DeathWorld! Dark mirrors of the Solars that draw power from destruction.
- Liminals: Exalts created from the madness of a driven mortal combined with a strange force known as the Dark Mother, these Exalted often work as ghost hunters and mercenaries.
- Exigents: New to this edition, these are Exalted powered by the Divine Fire channeled through a god. They are a wide and varied lot, each one ranging in power, abilities, and purpose.
These are those found in the core book. More exist, including the corrupt Infernals, the mysterious Getimian, and the steampunk Alchemicals. Each offers unique challenge, methods, and dangers. Further, each has a unique take on the setting. Sidereals are most often thought of as a mixture of spy stories with martial arts epics and legal thrillers, as an example. Each can do many things, but their powers and abilities all drive them in slightly different directions.
I have made mention of this, but it bears repeating: Exalted is a different beast from a lot of games. Most games have you focused on advancement. Don’t get me wrong: upward drive is a thing in Exalted, and the more powerful you get, the more the world bends to your will. But…that itself becomes the question and the main drive of the game.
You are powerful. No mortal can hope to challenge you. Even from the start, you are well beyond mortal kin. With the simple application of an excellency, you are scores above others. Supernal abilities, martial arts Mastery, and sorcery simply make that all the more distinct.
Exalted, then, becomes about the story the character will tell. The characters are powerful, larger than life, and, in the end, their actions will have greater consequences. Much as with Greek tragedy, the flaws of a character can (and likely will) lead to their downfall, and that fall may well take the world with them.
But…here’s the thing. It doesn’t have to. The Exalted are every bit capable of seeing the way out of things. They could, potentially, save the collapsing world and restore balance. Just as easily, they could tip the balance into the fire.
Some Closing Thoughts
Third Edition has done a lot of good for the Exalted franchise. The battle system is a lot cleaner, the various abilities are far more streamlined, the various types of exalts feel good, and the look and feel of the game is fantastic. If you’re an old fan of the game, I suggest picking it up. If you’re new, then it’s well worth a look.
At the time of publishing, I’m using an advanced preview for the book. Some errata and additional charms are soon to be out with the full release.
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