After a whole lot of, let’s say, kerfuffles, the third edition of Exalted is now in layout and likely to come out later this year. I didn’t back the Kickstarter and I haven’t kept up with development except when some choice news, or reactions to that news, bubbled over into my own corners of the internet. But it’s safe to say it’s been a controversial project, and it’s so strange because it didn’t have to be.
I’m not going to address issues of content because I’ve only seen the reactions and not the content itself. My concern here is the unnecessary mechanical complexity of the system.
Exalted is a game known for its piles of dice, its array of modifiers, and the hours it can take to churn through very little combat. But it was a pretty neat game back in 2001. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything so big and weird out of White Wolf. All that UDON artwork, all those crazy non-Euro fantasy ideas crashing into each other, damn, what a breath of fresh air! Sure, it was a little clumsy on the mechanics, but we’d been playing the Storyteller System for years, so it wasn’t so awful.
Second edition took the property into some strange and complicated territories. So much so that the third edition’s pitch relied heavily on fixing the many excesses of second edition both as a game system and as a setting in which to play games.
The main problem with EX3, as I see it from my admittedly distant post, is that no one told its developers that it’s not 2001 anymore. Like, I’m sure they’ve done a boatload of streamlining, but what I’ve read so far makes EX3 sound like a game that has consciously ignored the most exciting RPG developments of the last decade and a half. I’m thinking specifically of the kinds of things so-called “story game” systems do to do avoid unintuitive and clunky simulationist rules by crafting their rules to emulate fiction/narrative which we all understand with little if any explanation.
The Charm list, I think, speaks most directly to the problem of an RPG being made in 2015 with 2001’s ideas. I’m not even talking about the Charms themselves, but the size of the list. There’s, what, hundreds of Charms in that leak from a ways back? And the thing that kept coming up in online discussion of those Charms, at least where I was looking, was this: “Why is there no Charm to do X?” or “It’d be cooler if Y Charm did Z effect.”
That’s sorta been a problem from the get-go. If Exalted characters are supposed to be everything the game’s own premise tells us they are, then there is literally no possible Charm list big enough to encompass everything cool they can do. In fact, the bigger the list, the bigger the problem, because any list of Charms will always fail to capture someone’s idea of how they want their character to be Exalted. Always. So, ironically, adding Charms doesn’t plug those conceptual holes, it just wastes more time failing to solve problem that we live in a finite universe and a team of developers is never going to think of everything. As a result, it’s going to leave every player wishing there were Charms for X, Y, and Z. It’s lose-lose.
The best you can hope for is to develop a core list of sample Charms that hit at the most iconic powers/abilities we’ve seen for each Caste across the previous editions. These sample Charms should be made with a system, and then that system needs to be in the book so players can confidently make their own Charms using the samples as a guideline.
The developer doesn’t need to waste precious resources coming up with a dozen Charms to swing a sword heroically — especially when about half of those Charms are going to be wasted on any individual player. You come up with a few Charms that communicate different ideas about heroic sword swinging, and then give the player the tools to invent ten more. You saved yourself the most time possible and gave every player exactly the suite of powers they wanted. It’s win-win.
Now, maybe none of this is actually a problem. Maybe I’m dumb and wrong. Maybe this is exactly what the community of Exalted players wants out of third edition. I am a different kind of RPGer than I was in 2001. I spent all of middle school and most of high school poring over Shadowrun, Battletech, RIFTS(™), and the like. So, yeah, I understand the appeal of a “shopping list” system. It’s just they give me some kind of minor brain hemorrhage these days. And I’m probably not the only one.
So! Here’s my take on creating an Exalted character using Fate Core. Specifically the iteration from our very own Atomic Robo: The Action Science Roleplaying Game (ARRPG) developed by Mike Olson, Brian Engard, and Morgan Ellis.
The following will probably make no sense at all unless you’re familiar with Fate Core, so apologies. Also, I banged it all out with about fifteen minutes of thought, so there’s a good chance it’s an utter failure and I will look like an idiot for posting it. Oh, and it assumes a straight up Solar Exalted for the most part as I’m only passingly familiar with the others as targets and NPCs.
Here we go.
Very Simple Exalted Character Creation via Fate Core’s Atomic Robo RPG
Okay, so first, come up with your character concept. This will be the basis for your, wait for it, Concept Aspect. You’ll have a total of five Aspects by the time we’re done. This one is like the first thing you’d tell someone about the character.
Okay, so now you’ll want some Skills. Skills come from Modes. We’re using the Modes from ARRPG but with different names because Exalted. Skills are divided up between Modes just as they are in ARRPG.
Banter is Diplomacy
Intrigue is Subterfuge
Action is War
Science is Sorcery
Okay, so pick two of those Modes and come up with an Aspect for each. These Aspects should speak to how/where/why your character got those skills, or tell us signature quirks about your character’s approach to them.
You get a third mode by using the Weird Mode rules and we’re calling it your Exalted Mode. This will define what kind of Exalt you’re making: Solar, Lunar, Sidereal, Dragon-blooded, etc. And don’t forget, you can’t have a Weird/Exalted Mode without an Aspect to slap on it! This Aspect is going to tell us what makes your character so goddamn Exalted. It could also be the place that separates, say, a Dawn from an Eclipse, but that might not be necessary.
Now rate your three Modes. You get one at +3, one at +2, and one at +1. These represent the ratings of the Skills found in each Mode. If a Skill appears in more than one Mode, it gets bumped up by +1 for each repetition.
For your fifth and final Aspect, think about what might get your character into trouble. Exalted don’t get to lead quiet lives. Maybe it’s an echo from the First Age, maybe it’s a motivation to change the world, or to just get rich. Whatever your character does, it’s gonna make enemies. This Aspect should help inform how or why you make them and/or who they are.
Pick four stunts. These are your Charms. You might have to make up stunts from scratch to better emulate the scope of Exalted Charms. The Inventing rules may help you to figure out what those stunts should look like.
Now create one mega-stunt from your Exalted Mode. This is probably your Big Deal Move. Maybe it’s a signature attack, maybe it’s where your Lunar’s shapeshifting comes from, maybe it’s your Martial Art, maybe it’s your Daiklaive, maybe it’s your circle magic, or your character’s supernatural affinity to manipulate bureaucratic systems. Since Aspects, Stunts, and Mega-Stunts have so much potential for overlap, and since the scope of what Exalts can do is so vast, and since there’s so many ways for you to use Aspects, Stunts, and Mega-Stunts to to describe your Exalt, it’s hard to say exactly what this should look like for you. But since Mega-Stunts are so powerful, it’s probably best to think of this as your opportunity to detail the most supernatural element of your character.
Use the Inventing rules for Crafting during the game. You can use the Inventing rules to design neato Artifacts from the First Age too. Damaged or clunky Artifacts are fine. Fixing them can lead to cool quests!
Actually, use Inventing rules for defining Circle Magic while you’re at it.
Brainstorming is called Divination. It runs off Sorcery most of the time, but you can use any skill that makes sense for the context of what your character is proposing. Whereas everyone can use Divination to figure out what’s happening as per an old fashioned Brainstorm, Sidereals should probably get something like one extra roll at the end to see if they can adjust the outcome pending GM approval. And, really, the whole group should help determine how that adjustment shakes out: everyone should feel free to suggest potential flukes, costs, unforeseen “Monkey Paw” shenanigans, etc. This way everyone gets input no matter what the Divination is.
Anima effects are simple. A Dawn is not going to fail to inspire his troops or to terrify the enemy. A Zenith is not going to fail to obliterate the undead or to purify corpses. A Night is not going to fail to be supernaturally stealthy. An Eclipse is not going to fail to make a pact or to potentially learn any Charm.
A player suggests or asks, “Hey, can my anima effect work here?” And if the GM goes, “Yeah, totally,” then you guys figure out a Situational Aspect that gets created. These effects are inherent to Exaltation, so there’s no risk of failure, so there’s nothing to roll. They just work. Maybe make them cost a Fate Point if you feel like they’re being overused?
Everyone’s thinking “What about Twilights?” since it so often turns into free armor. Let’s interpret their anima as a personal distraction-free zone. Twilights will still take stress and get slammed with consequences while their anima effect is in play, but the character can ignore them until after the Twilight has accomplished the task at hand. To put it into the language as the others above: A Twilight is not going to fail to finish a task.
I’m largely unfamiliar with the anima effects of other Exalted, so I’m sure there are others out there that could be similarly problematic. But I’m just as sure that you can come up with similar workarounds.