Fixing Exalted

I'm in a sizable Exalted game which runs several times a year over the course of a weekend. It's a fun-ass time. We started the game in 2e, and transitioned to 3e as it became available. The campaign has been going since...Jesus, 2010, and I love the game and the people I play with. The system, however, could...use some work.


If you're not aware of Exalted, it's a game built on top of White Wolf's Storyteller system, ostensibly about larger-than-life heroes inspired by mash-ups of eastern and western mythology, and their adventures. 1st edition was published in 2001 (I've not played 1e), 2nd edition in 2006, and 3rd edition as a Kickstarter project in 2016. It is well known for its extremely in-depth setting and a wealth of lore to inspire stories.

I'll be talking about 3rd Edition mostly in this piece. I would have MUCH heftier criticisms for 2e and its 7-10 step attack resolutions, but we're going to dig in on the latest and greatest, and what I would want to change, and what I'd try to retain, for my own tastes, obviously.

Pros

Here's the good shit.

  • Extremely in-depth and unique setting, with a plethora of lore for the people who like that stuff to hook into
  • High degree of character customization, including types of exalts, skills, charms, spells, and more
  • Extremely flavor-filled text, especially with Charms, the primary special abilities available to Exalts
  • A plethora of interesting sub-systems including crafting, artifacts and their special abilities, different types of attack maneuvers, a social combat system, and dynamic initiative

The Pros are fairly self-explanatory. Since this is about what I would change, I'll focus more on that.

Cons

Here's the stuff that causes me issues.

  • Complicated systems, leading to retention issues and long resolution times
  • Special Case Syndrome
  • Lack of brevity and clarity in the text, in favor of verbosity and flavor, leading to poor "at-a-glance" usefulness of the book

Let's look at a few of these.

Complicated Systems

There was a time in my RPG history where I would decry almost all crunchy systems. There were a number of contributing factors. I wasn't terribly good at power-gaming, and could feel inadequate at tables with people who were. I was inside my own asshole when it came to "games as stories," and would scoff at the idea of a sandbox game, without a GM meticulously planning out story beats.

I've come around some. Crunch can be good. Crunchy systems can hook people who are interested in mechanics, and how they work. Crunch can provide interest and excitement for advancement, looking forward to that next power or level up. Crunch can add to the simulation aspect of a system, and the satisfaction of executing within a system.

But, BUT. My favorite crunch is front-loaded crunch, which means crunch performed during character creation and advancement. As an example system, Anima: Beyond Fantasy, is quite crunchy, but that crunch is mostly done at character creation and advancement, and during play, you roll that d100 and see what happens.

I am against crunch that gets in the way of the game.

In a very broad sense, game systems are there to provide a framework to resolve uncertainty. A character declares an intent to perform an action, the outcome is not certain, so the system is invoked to determine what happens. There are many ways to do this, from "flip a coin" to any of the complex game systems out there. I lean toward a system that requires referencing books as little as possible, and rules that are consistent enough that they can often be inferred if forgotten.

Exalted isn't this. Since we play it only a few times a year, it feels like I need to re-learn how the game works every time, and that process is never easy. There is a high degree of system mastery required, and players for whom this is not their forte are, I feel, unduly punished.

Exalted is complex. As I stated earlier, it has a lot of built-in systems. Some of them are optional. For example, there is no requirement to engage with the Crafting subsystem, unless you want to build a character who does. You can ignore sorcery if you're not a sorcerer. But there are some systems that every player will eventually need to use, namely Combat and Charms.

Exalted 2e combat had every attack as a 7-10 step process.  This is too much. Exalted 3e helps the process out, but does so by introducing new systems. Attacks are split into Withering and Decisive attacks, with withering attacks being used to build advantage, and decisive attacks to go for blood.  It does help with EVERY ATTACK being an ordeal, but introduces complications, as many charms only affect withering or decisive attacks, or work differently depending on which attack you're using. Oh yeah, let's talk about...

Charms, Verbosity, and Special Case Syndrome

Charms are Exalted's special sauce.  They are your special powers that can do all SORTS of bullshit. On the dull end, they let you pump up your dice pool by being supernaturally good at things. On the more interesting end, the exalt can PUNCH REALITY INTO THE SHAPE THEY WANT. They're broken up into skill categories, and often have prerequisites of stats, skills, or other charms.

Charms are really cool, and are also one of the game's biggest problems. On the plus side, Charms are unique, they add flavor, and offer players quite a bit of customization options. On the minus side, there are a LOT of charms, charms are overly verbose, quite complex, stackable, and often require taking charms you don't want to get the ones you do.

The Flavor of charms is a double-edged sword. Their verbosity means that each one helps fill out the setting, which is good. It also means that instead of "The charm costs this amount of resources, can be used in this way, and has this effect", Charms weave that information into a verbose paragraph or two. A quick trip to the book to check on a Charm's effect turns into a speed-reading comprehension exercise.

Charm prerequisites are also a pain in the ass. If you find a charm that you want your character to have, it may have a prerequisite charm, or two.  Those charms may ALSO have prerequisites. And while some enterprising individual made Charm Cascades to make the process easier, you will still likely end up needing to take Charms that you don't want or won't use, to get the ones you do.

WAKEMEUP

The abundance of special abilities also means that, for the most part, "regular" actions are rare to non-existent. "I hit the bad guy with my sword" or "I check under the bed for clues", while totally things you can roll, hardly factor into a players' mind, with so many available special enhancement charms. Additionally, these enhancements all have their own rules that modify how dice work. You might be able to lower the threshold for success, add automatic successes, double any 9's rolled, re-roll any 1's rolled, all sorts of stuff. It's interesting, but also a problem. You're always keeping in mind a lot of special cases, which take time to recall and implement.

The spread of special cases sort of suggests, true or no, that there's little point to attempting actions without enhancements. A character with a decent attribute and skill would barely think of just rolling that flatly, instead ALWAYS considering what special supernatural abilities are there to aid them. It's something I think tends to stifle creativity a bit. Rather than considering how to creatively navigate situations, it can be straight-up more effective just to look for your biggest hammer to apply to the situation, and apply the SHIT out of it.

The Evocation system is another example of complexity, but it is unique in that it is free-form. Evocations are abilities tied to artifacts, that can be learned or developed, to drastically change how a player's fighting style works. They're something that the GM develops, or that the player and GM work together to develop, with no framework as to how to do that. It's another layer of special cases, on top of more special cases.

How I'd Fix It

Ok, time to be constructive.

Keep in mind, I'm an amateur designer at BEST, so these are broad strokes and generalizations. The goal would be the following:

  • Retain a high degree of character customization
  • Re-work charms in favor of ease-of-use, and reduce their availability such that a standard resolution mechanic can be the rule, rather than the exception
  • Simplify the mechanics, while still retaining enough mechanical crunch to be tactically interesting
  • Keep the highly flavored setting

Character customization is good. The Caste system is loosely your class, and it can stay roughly the way it is. The storyteller system does well with skills and traits, offering you a good spread of options out of the gate.

Charms need the most work. I think I would first reduce list of charms in the base book. As it stands, it is a rather paralyzing list to read through and choose from. I'd also change how prerequisites work, probably with some sort of tier system, where higher tier charms require a certain number of lower charms to purchase, but don't usually require specific charms as prerequisites.  Kinda like how Payday 2 does skills.

That middle bar going up unlocks the tiers as skills are taken.

Excellencies would need to change as well. Since they're a rather dull thing anyway, I might tag a skill with a level of mastery, and afford a number of bonus dice per scene that could be spent for that skill, or something similar to that.

As far as presentation, I'd stress readability and at-a-glance usefulness. I don't mind cool flavor text, but I want to take as little reference time as possible at the table. Maybe print a quick-reference for the charms, and provide page references for more detailed descriptions. When I look up a charm I want to know

  • What it does
  • How much it costs to use
  • When I can use it

Any more than that can go in the fluffier section.

Next thing, One Charm At A Time. Under most circumstances, this should be standard, in the interest of making a special-case system a little more manageable. If you're looking up a single charm to use, that takes some time. If you're looking up potentially INFINITE charms to stack, well, I guess I'll go to the bathroom, get a soda, pet the dog, read a book, and re-drywall the office.

2nd Edition had a Combo mechanic that allowed you to specifically purchase combos of charms, and I might be ok with that coming back. Combining effects can be neat, but doing it regularly is asking for long delays and over-complication.

Pair down the list of available resources. Tracking Motes of Essence, Willpower, Anima levels, Initiative, Sorcerous Motes, Craft Points, Project Slots, and more, is a lot to deal with. It's a lot of moving parts that can change a whole lot, and I would prefer if it were fewer, in the interest of being less overwhelming.

On to Combat Changes.

First, I'd develop a consistent philosophy on attacks. Put the onus on the attacker to hit, or the defender to dodge, but not both. I'd lean into flat defense values, especially ones that cannot be buffed after dice are rolled. The fewer opposed rolls, the faster things go, and I am all about the speed. Gotta go fast.

I'd keep Withering and Decisive attacks, but simplify them even further. Withering attacks should have no damage roll, and should always be against a flat number, which can only be pumped up before-hand in rare special cases. Margin of success determines the initiative gained and lost.

I'd also re-balance combat, such that a non-enhanced attack is a reasonable and viable thing to do in many circumstances. Sure, there are going to be fights that require more mojo, but even then, probing your opponent with "normal" attacks should not be worthless.

As far as Evocations go, I'd work out some sort of point-buy system that can be changed by GM permission. Part of the draw of this system is the customization, but I think a framework of points here might help people work out some general power levels of artifacts. I recognize this is another system to add on a number of existing systems, but I think this is a place where it could help a lot.

Conclusion

There's a lot of cool stuff in Exalted, but the actual process of playing it can be frustrating, considering the required mastery of the system, the constant referencing of an overly verbose rule book, the norm of special cases, and the surprising amount of time between declaring intent and resolving an action.

3rd Edition is definitely an improvement over 2nd Edition, but in my opinion, the system could probably do with a complete rebuild from the ground up. I think that Exalted stands on the cracked foundations of older editions, and it could do with a complete teardown.

All that said, the next session is coming up, and I'm excited to play with all these nerds!