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Exalted 2nd Edition Review

Posted on September 14, 2007 by Flames


Available at RPGNow.com

Introduction
From first edition Vampire through to about a year or so before the end of the Old World of Darkness line I was a bit of a White Wolf fanboy. Not a drooling fanboy, they still did things that annoyed me, but by and large I agreed with their design philosophy and found that their games appealed to my style of play and the sort of games I wanted to run. With their cackhanded interference in their LARP society (not that it could have made things much worse than they already were) and their wrap up of the oWOD I fell out of love with them for the most part and aside from the occasional bit of curiosity I haven’t really followed their games.

Except for Exalted.

I like Exalted, I have a weak spot for Exalted and even though attempts to play it has all ended in world class levels of failure I still bought the books because there was a charming level of full-on gonzo-ness about them (the antithesis of White Wolf’s other lines) and their system and company attitude weren’t quite as obnoxious as Palladium’s. Thus I ended up with copies of all the main Exalted books and a couple of extras here and there that I thought seemed actually useful or needed.

Exalted definitely had problems though, and so I picked up the second edition mostly on a whim (a local book store was closing and it was cheap) to see if things had been tidied up and improved.

Overview
Exalted remains the big beast of a game it always was and the Solar exalted book (the main rulebook) has to both present the Solar Exalted in all their glory AND to introduce the world, the antagonists and so forth. The later books for the other Exalted types (the sort of superheroes of the game world) have an advantage in that they don’t need to do this, so the main book has, I think, suffered in both editions from having to cram a lot in to a little space – and yet still remain pretty much incomplete.

The book is hardback, full colour, glossy paged and you feel like you’re pretty much getting your money’s worth for the cash. The book covers the history of the world, combat (in full) the powers of the Solar Exalted, magic, a scattering of antagonists and the basic set up of how things are, but it is scant on gameplay details concerning the other Exalted types and the other enemies the heroes will face, giving barebones info on a lot of the world and that which is in it, thereby necessitating heavy supplementation.

Artwork
The artwork in the second edition is a step up from previous editions, even the scratchy, weird-looking angular artist (whose name escapes me at the moment) is cleaned up in this addition and coloured, marking a vast improvement. Somehow, at least to my eye, it seems to have shifted somewhat from a more Japanese-styled anime look to a more Chinese influenced look – more Weapon of the Gods than Robotech.

From my point of view the most positive change in the book is the greater use of comic book panels (in two page spreads throughout the book) which I like – as a comic book fan – which tie in with the new Exalted comic book series quite nicely and which serve to set the mood, pace and setting of the world far better than single drawings or screeds of text can.

Finally the artwork in the new edition is much more polished and consistent. There are very few jarring images that make you wonder why the hell they’re in there, and instead far more that make you ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ in appreciation.

Writing
There’s not so much of the trademark fluff fiction in Exalted as has previously been the case with White Wolf books, that seems to have been largely replaced with the comic book spreads, thankfully, pictures really do say a thousand words. The rest is a primer on the world, the various forces at work and the history of the setting, bringing it up to the present day. That is all pretty straightforward and on the level and the indexing is good enough to let you find just about anything you do need to reference. I’m very impressed with the much clearer writing in this edition, particular in regards to the various Exalted powers and charms which, while still complicated, are made much clearer this time around.

Background
The background of Exalted is a mash-up of every overblown anime you’ve ever watched, along with Greek myth, Indian mythology, bizarre and paranoid ‘history’ conspiracies, magic, gods and just about anything else you want to throw into the pot. Its like Journey to the West on a potent mix of PCP, acid and crack.

The history runs something like this, in shorthand…

* Ubergod things called Primordials arise out of nothingness and forge creation out of that chaos. A solid place of reality amongst the swirling chaos – though their creation is constantly confronted by agents of that chaos.
* Sick and tired of constantly fighting chaos and disorder they bugger off into their own little world for a godly form of self indulgence called the Games of Divinity. To look after the world in their stead they create the gods.
* The gods take over defending the world and get a bit narked at the Primordials for, basically, jerking off while they take care of reality. Unable to directly rebel against their creators the gods imbue mortals with special powers and these become The Exalted (of the various kinds).
* The Exalted rise up en masse at the behest of the gods and lay the proverbial smackdown on the Primordials, exiling some, destroying (but not exactly killing) others. In their defeat they lay down a massive curse on the ungrateful sons of bitches who interrupted their deified circle jerk, twisting their virtues, creating an underworld and disrupting the natural process of reincarnation.
* What could have been a golden age is abused as the Exalted of the various kinds abuse their positions and ultimately betray each other with the highest caste, the Solar Exalted, being wiped out by the combined effort of the others – who settle into an uneasy truce.
* The Terrestrial Exalted (the lowest caste) empowered by dragons and in cahoots with the Sidereal Exalted (empowered by the stars) settle into a sort of uneasy truce and smack down any reincarnating Solar Exalted before they can get up to mischief.
* Now the Terrestrial Exalted empire is a house divided and reincarnating Solars are slipping through the net and reaching dangerously god-powered maturity.
* Let the games begin!

So, you (in the main book at least) take the part of surviving Solar Exalted, hiding out from the fractured Empire and trying to regain the knowledge and artefacts of your past lives and restoring your power (and truth, justice and so forth) to the world around you, even though you’re still cursed and things can get out of hand. Throw in a few Dragonball Z level superpowers and you’re good to go.

Its a sweepingly huge world where just about anything is possible and where games should be write large, city changing, world spanning, roleplaying epics, suitable for widescreen.

Rules
Exalted is a rather schizophrenic game, on the one hand all the text, all the background, encourages over the top, frenetic, frenzied and action style combat and involvement but the only rule that really represents and enforces this is a relatively weak stunt bonus that ranges from one to three bonus dice upon your dice pools (which can get so enormous in some instances that this bonus isn’t even worth trying for). While the basic Storyteller system (from which Exalted is based, part old WOD and part new WOD) is, generally speaking, a fairly intuitive and simple system the problem with Exalted (and the old werewolf) is that it superimposes so many special clauses, exceptions and complicated interactions – in the forms of magic and Exalted special abilities – that that simplicity is, essentially, completely buried under clauses and subclauses that begin to resemble d20 Feat interaction or Magic cards more than anything else.

While the new rules have addressed some of these issues – charms etc are much more clearly defined and easier to understand – the base problem remains of the multi-layered complication. For all the talk of story and high action this will inevitably lead to, and appeal to, rules lawyer munchkins which seems, to me, to be the opposite of what the game is trying to achieve.

Combat doesn’t seem to have been simplified or made more straightforward at all. While the tick system would probably work very well in a modern, street level game here it feels extraneous, over complicated and feels like it slows down combat an extra degree. I can’t help but think that a more Feng Shui style approach to the whole thing might have worked better, or even the HeroQuest conversion of Exalted I saw on the net at some point.

The rules, to me, just don’t seem to go with the setting or to fulfil their stated aim.

Upsides

* Wonderfully madcap, gonzo setting with big heroes, writ large.
* Compatible with 1st Ed material with very little work.
* Great presentation and art.

Downsides

* Rules do not fit the setting.
* Supplement treadmill.
* Main book lacks antagonist depth and statistical information.

Score
Style: 4
Substance: 4
Overall: 4

Reviewer: James ‘Grim’ Desboro

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