Review : Exalted

by White Wolf, $14.98 PDF
White Wolf made their name with Vampire and its various offshoots. They are best known for their angst ridden World of Darkness and its protagonists. Last year they tried something new, a fantasy game. Now, there are a great deal of fantasy games out there, most of which are D&D with the serial numbers filed off. A new fantasy game has to find a different angle, and fortunately White Wolf were well aware of this, and have made Exalted’s focus a bit different to the normal Elves and Goblins template.

Exalted is a rather nice looking hard bound book, 350 pages in all. The first thing you’ll notice about it is the Manga style illustrations. These are obviously not going to be to everybody’s tastes, but they do give the game a distinct look and feel. Above all they give a feeling of consistency, something I’ve often found missing in White Wolf’s mix of illustrators. The layout is clear overall, there are a few typo’s and glitches (a number of miswritten passages for example), but there is an errata available for all of these. There’s a nice map of the setting on the inside cover, though this lacks a scale.

Exalted’s setting is could be described as a fusion of a manga animation, Michael Morecock’s young Kingdoms, a wuxia action movie and the World of Darkness. This is a game where mystic martial arts make for epic fights where characters can jump buildings, and wield improbably sized weapons to defeat hundreds of foes. An age of decadent empires and mysterious sorcerers, where a heroes can stride the world like gods. I like it quite a bit, as you can probably tell.

The book starts with a potted introduction to the setting, along with how to use the book and a Lexicon (A useful thing in any setting heavy game). It also gives a list of suggested reading and watching for inspiration. The introduction is great, as it sets the book up really well, and is ideal for giving to any prospective player.

The first proper chapter deals with the setting in more detail. It tells us what the Exalted are (humans gifted with powers greater than the norm, created at the dawn of time by the gods), and of the various different kinds. Solars used to rule the world, until their pride got the better of them and their servants, the Terrestrial Exalted, rose up and defeated them. The Sidereal were the advisors to the Solars, and were largely responsible for setting in motion that revolt, but have since hid themselves from view. Lunar exalted are shapechangers who left in disgust when the Solars were defeated, and now live on the edge of creation. Terrestrial Exalted are also known as the Dragon blooded, they took control when the Solars were defeated, and now rule the worlds largest empire. There are extensive details on this Empire, and the area around it detailed here too, as well as substantial information on the city of Nexus. Nexus is a good starting point for scenarios, as it is a free city with an “ask no questions” policy. Player characters are expected to be Solar Exalted, now hated and shunned by the world at large, and subject to an age old Pogrom by the Dragon blooded.

Chapter two details the game system. Exalted uses a streamlined version of White Wolf’s Storyteller System (similar to the one from the Trinity series of games). You have some attributes (three each for physical, Social and Mental) and abilities (divided up by Caste, five for each) rated from 1 to 5. To attempt an action, the player rolls a number of dice equal to his character’s attribute+ability, anything which is a seven or more is a success. The more successes, the better your result. If you roll a ten it’s counted as two successes. If you roll no successes and any ones, you botch. More difficult actions require more successes. This gets rid of the old Storyteller problem of duplication by having both difficulty and level of success modelled separately. Other useful additions are stunts, which give you extra dice for describing particularly cinematic actions, and automatic success for any action where your dicepool exceeds 7. As normal willpower can be spent for automatic successes. Overall the changes make for a much faster and more cinematic system in play (especially in combat, but more on that later).

After our rules rundown, we’re given an overview of character creation. The chapter steps nicely through the process, with boxouts giving useful advice and other options. Only Solar Exalted are given rules in the basic game (though supplements will expand this). Only basic descriptions of each step are given, and explanation of most of the traits/skills/etc is left ’til the next chapter. The chapter rounds up with an example of character creation. As character creation sections go, it covers all bases from concept to execution. You can pretty much play any fantasy style concept, though you have to choose a Caste. Your character’s Caste defines the five core skills which are easier to learn, but you can also choose 5 skills freely as favoured skills that work in a similar way.

The traits used in character creation are described in chapter four (new players will find themselves flipping forward to it while reading the previous chapter, which I can see as being a problem). First off is a list of “Natures”, the core of a characters attitude, and central to regaining willpower. These are nice broad Archetypes which can help focus the mind on the type of character you are playing, and how he operates. Next the five castes of Solar Exalted are detailed, giving general background and inclination of each group, as well as a nice “view from outside”. We have Dawn Caste (warriors), Zenith Caste (priests), Twilight Caste (scholars), Night Caste (Rogues) and Eclipse Caste (Diplomats). The castes are less prescriptive than character classes, but still give that nagging feeling of niche separation.

This chapter also gives a description of virtues, a nice way of modeling what your character cares about and believes in. Each character must also choose a flaw related to his highest virtue, and samples of these are also given. Virtue flaws are ticking timebombs of emotional energy. If these build to breaking point, the character snaps and will have to suffer the effects of his flaw for a scene. For example, a compassionate character might gain limit break for seeing people suffer through no fault of their own, when his flaw is activated he’ll throw himself into intervening. There are a variety of flaws for each of the major virtues (Compassion, Temperance, Valor and Conviction), and these add a solid emotional core to the characters.

The chapter also discusses Attributes, Abilities and Backgrounds (things your character has access to, like allies, backing, resources, followers etc). One nice note about this section is that WW have finally avoided repeating how talented each level of an ability makes you, for every ability. We also get discussion of Willpower (mental strength) and Essence (mystical strength), both of which have a base value and a temporary value which can be spent to power mystical abilities. Essence is divided into personal, which you get a little of, and peripheral, which you get more of. Personal essence can be spent with impunity, spend too much peripheral essence and you light up like a solar flare. Not a good thing when your character is likely to be hunted if anybody finds out they’re a Solar Exalted.

Charms, which are an Exalted’s mystical abilities, are described in chapter five. There are loads here, each a mystical enhancement to a particular skill with an evocative sounding name. Each set of charms is divided into paths, from basic abilities to amazing powers. These are a lot like the martial arts paths in Feng Shui, and help give the game it’s very oriental theme. Most are wonderfully thought out, and provide a good dose of setting colour and game mechanic oomph for the PCs. What’s nice is that every skill has a selection of powers attached to it, not just the combat ones, as is the case with some games. Want your character to cause a bureaucracy to fail just by your will, you need “foul air of argument technique”, want to get rid of a mob, your need “unruly mob dispersing rebuke”. All of these powers can make Exalted pretty powerful, but the essence of the game is to run with it, and enjoy being truly epic characters in a cinematic setting. If you don’t enjoy PCs having an awesome amount of power, then this definitely isn’t a game for you. A slight problem with these is that in your first few games you’ll need to reference the charms section a lot, and this can put a strain on the pages.

Chapter six deals with drama, and is a more detailed look at the rules. Here we get given a rundown of combat, which has again been streamlined from the normal storyteller system, mainly by making rolling damage less involved. There are also rules for Extras, faceless goons whose soul role in the story is to turn up and get beaten easily by the characters. Exalted can take on multiple Extras without much difficulty, which again adds to the cinematic and epic feel of the game. The chapter also covers what you’re likely to need to roll for certain actions, common uses of skills and other miscellania like environmental damage.

Storytelling is the next topic up for discussion, and this chapter gives a nice broad overview of the responsibility of the Storyteller (Gamesmaster), such as preparation, tricks to make the game feel cinematic, how to arbitrate stunts, and other general advice. The only downside with this chapter is it’s length, at only eleven pages, there isn’t much in-depth coverage. For a game that claims to be a storytelling game, this is a real shame.

Chapter eight details all sort of antagonists for your characters to meet, with stats advice for each and general and specific example of each. We get details on each of the other kinds of Exalted, enough to stat them effectively in the existing system. There’s also information on a variety of beasts and monsters, spirits, fae, elementals and undead. Oh, and a variety of diseases likely to show up in the world.

The final chapter covers equipment, weapons, mystic items and other resources. Buying equipment is handled nicely thorough the resources background. Weapons are as excessive and epic as the rest of the system, and starting characters can get hold of some very powerful weaponry, each with some wonderful setting flavour attached.

Overall: Exalted is a lovely setting, with a nicely streamlined version of the White Wolf system. The mechanics really evoke the subject matter and help encourage a style of play which fits the genre. If you’re not keen on White Wolf’s normal fayre, you will probably be very surprised by it. If you’re looking for a different angle on fantasy roleplaying, then it has that too. The manga stylings and powerful characters may not be to everybody’s taste. If you want your games to be epic from the start (rather than eventually), then it’s well worth checking out.

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