In 2001, White Wolf was enjoying a renaissance, it had released revised editions of the World of Darkness rulebooks and looked set to challenge its main competitor, Wizards of the Coast, when they announced a fantasy RPG to rival Dungeons & Dragons. Exalted was released with great fanfare as a prequel to the World of Darkness, set in the ancient Age of Sorrows. The game eschewed the Tolkien milieu that had been the basis for a great chunk of modern fantasy literature and took inspiration from ancient myth and legend, Edwardian high fantasy, and modern manga and anime. Despite the mixed pedigree, the differing influences were woven together with no little skill to produce a complex and original world that felt new and exciting.
Exalted* uses a heavily modified version of the in-house White Wolf Storyteller System. The key differentiator from, for example, Vampire: The Masquerade is that instead of a system of disciplines that grants a unique power for each level you purchase, Exalted allows you to buy any Charm you like, as long as you meet the pre-requisites, which would be based on the players attributes, abilities and other charms. Each charm allows players to supplement or replace an action with a super-power or to perform an action many times after spending essence. There is a subset of charms, called Excellencies, that allow the player to add dice, successes or a re-roll to an action. Usually you can only activate one charm a turn, but after practice and spending experience, charms can be put in special combinations called combos, that allow the use of two or more charms on the same action. For example, you can use an action adding charm with a dice adding charm so that every extra action can be supplemented with extra dice. This simulates the increasing power of Exalted against mortals pretty well, in that Exalted quickly outclass mortals in almost every respect if the player is smart during character creation.
While the general Storyteller System is easy to explain, in practice it can get quite complicated. Combat in Exalted is painful. For each action the player wants to make there is a ten-step method for resolution**. At each step the player has to roll dice or add/subtract successes so each action could take a few minutes to resolve. This isn’t a big problem when only a handful of combatants are involved, but once you add a few extra action charms and a couple of extra bodies, things can get slow… very, very slow.
The Mass Combat system alleviates some of the problems that come from adding a lot of bodies, but it is only useful when you reach a certain size of encounter. One character takes the role of a General and uses his abilities to attack the opposing forces, who are divided up in to units. The General’s own abilities are enhanced by the unit he is with. This means that if a General is within a unit of Archers, he adds a number of successes and damage dice to his rolls when making ranged attacks based on the units potency. Other players can be nominated as Heroes or Sorcerers who can make melee or ranged attacks respectively for the General if they are better at that sort of thing. It’s a neat idea that really plays up the heroic aspects of Exalted combat and makes the General the focus of the conflict. It does, however, have the effect of sidelining players that aren’t Generals, Sorcerers or Heroes, as there is a limit to the number of special characters in a unit. Those without a role either have to act as Solo character, which can be risky, or hide within the ranks of another unit and effectively not take part in the conflict.
I think we can all agree that combat needs rules of some kind to determine an outcome, but determining the outcome of social conflict through dice rolls is still a relatively novel idea. In Exalted, social combat plays out almost exactly like traditional combat but with the names changed – instead of rolling join battle, Exalted jargon for initiative, you roll join debate; instead of aiming, you monologue or study. While this means that social interaction can be played out between those with charms equitably, it does mean that it leaves little room for role-playing. Even if a player makes a rousing speech that the entire group agrees is awesome, they can only receive a three-die bonus to the roll. A starting character with a social first excellency can easily beat that bonus with a small expenditure of essence. This is the equivalent of Obi-Wan Kenobi waving his hands and stating ‘these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.’ While it works from a simulationist point of view, in that it is clear who won and is based on the relative strengths of the combatants, it doesn’t necessarily feel fair to more narrativist players.
Pop quiz, and show your working, what’s the probability that a player will roll at least six successes with 10 dice? Okay, I’ll start with an easy one, what’s the probability that a player will roll at least two successes on three dice?*** Okay, I’ll start again, why do I need to know how probable things are, as a player or as a GM? As a GM I like to know how difficult something will be for a player in order to make it challenging enough for it to be exciting but not so difficult that it’s impossible. If I don’t have to worry about the mechanical challenge, it gives me time to think of other interesting and exciting things that could be going on in a scene. As a player I’d like to know the comparative worth of adding one or two dice to my dice pool; my choice of how much essence to spend boosting my roll or which charm to use is less meaningful if I don’t have adequate knowledge about the potential consequences.
While it is a good rule of thumb that you need about twice as many dice as successes required to have a 50% chance of success, that doesn’t help if you want to use more or fewer dice as it is extremely difficult to know how much of an impact adding or subtracting dice will have without using advanced statistical modelling or brute force calculation. If you’re trying to save essence for a later encounter, how much can you reasonably get away with not spending and still have a good chance of success? In games like D&D and Call of Cthulhu you have a very clear idea before you roll as to your chance of success, so you can make more meaningful decisions about your actions.
By now I’ve probably lost about half of you. What type of boring nerd wants to know this? In the heat of battle, with stunts and descriptive storytelling, who cares about the probability that you’ll hit that dude with that sword? You’re probably right, players are less likely to care about this sort of thing, but as a storyteller, I think it is important to have at least a good understanding of the difficulty of the encounters you’re building. Herein lies my second problem. What is a challenging difficulty for a player who can roll between 10 and 20 dice on a given action?
If you have players who love to min-max their characters, Exalted is great, and it’s a fun game in itself to determine what gives you the ultimate build in a particular skill/sphere. But, if you haven’t got a group of players who want to do that, or worse you have a mixture of power-gamers and normal players, how can you balance encounters? One character will have five ten-die attacks that can hit for 14 dice of damage, a Defence Value of 9 (meaning you require nine success to hit them) and a soak of 13 (Meaning you get rid of 13 damage, to a minimum of one), the other has one 6-die attack that can hit for 5 dice of damage, a Defence Value of 5 and a soak of 4. If you make it challenging for the first character, there’s a very real chance you’ll kill the second, and if you make it challenging for the second, you risk killing the former with boredom. Balancing encounters is made all the more difficult because there is a staggering lack of a decent bestiary or ‘monster manual’ to throw at players.
The argument follows that the GM should encourage players to take combat skills to ensure they reach a minimum level, but that involves taking choice out of the players hands and reducing the number of interesting decisions they can make about their character. The rulebook recommends that players should all take at least one level of Ox-Body Technique, a power that increases the amount of damage that can be taken, why not just make it a standard power and reduce the number of options available?
Given the dizzying number of charm choices, and the way that the castes have been designed, players are more inclined to roll up characters that excel in different roles. But, instead of the traditional fighter, mage, cleric, thief set, Exalted is geared around players dominating particular spheres, so you could have a character that is a combat monster, a social monster or a crafting monster. Each of these roles complements the other in general, but in specific situations, there is little opportunity for synergy. What effect can a social or crafting character have in combat situations? What does a combat monster do in a social situation? While they may be able to make minimal contributions, a bruiser might be able to intimidate an underling, they are relegated to less than secondary roles during those encounters. While the players can make contributions before the event, social characters can try to persuade the group to lay down their arms or crafters can create better weapons, once the fighting starts they are left with little to do. Again, the argument would be that players should be encouraged to create rounded characters, but this just means that they end up being uninteresting clones of each other.
Perhaps you should ignore the rules you don’t like and play Exalted a bit more loosely? Concentrate on the story and it’ll all work out, right? The problem with this is that the players abilities are so closely tied to systemic enhancements it is difficult to describe player powers in any other way. Because the game is built around Exalted characters who are defined by their charms to a great extent, removing the ability to use those charms makes it impossible to play an Exalted character! There are charms for each step of the combat sequence, so if I take out certain steps to simplify combat I’m potentially hobbling someone’s character. If I try to ignore the rules for social combat I have to judge myself whether or not a player can influence an NPC. There is always the temptation to rig the encounter, depending on how the encounter is ‘supposed’ to go, whereas the more fair solution is to let the dice fall where they may.
The other problem with simplification in favour of quick and easy gameplay is that the Exalted world has been designed from the ground up with the idea that the Exalted have the power to shape and define Creation. Once you start chipping away at the edges you start removing some of the most interesting and fun narrative ideas in the system. If I say that Sidereal martial arts are too complicated and difficult to manage and get rid of them, well, then I’ve taken away one of the defining traits of the Sidereal Exalted. It’s one of the great successes of Exalted that every aspect of Creation can be influenced by the player characters, and the system is detailed enough that those interactions are fairly arbitrated. The detail in Exalted, it’s greatest strength from a storytelling point of view, make it complicated and difficult to run. Removing or altering elements to make it more manageable actually makes the setting less interesting at the same time. If you want your character to have interesting and unique charms, then you need a certain level of detail to ensure that not every charm is essentially ‘does x damage and has minor side-effect’.
Exalted is roleplaying without the training wheels, turned up to 11. It is no wonder that White Wolf challenged players to ‘Graduate’ their game from D&D, as Exalted is orders of magnitude more complicated to play than the offering from Wizards of the Coast. Whereas D&D has a reputation for complexity it is relatively easy to play, especially 3.5 and 4.0, and only character creation is moderately difficult, Exalted is exactly the opposite, character creation is a breeze, but resolving anything can be soul-crushingly time consuming. For those willing to put the effort in to learn the system, this time is reduced enormously, but it is a very steep learning curve.
*I’m largely talking about 2nd Edition throughout.
** This can go up to 16 steps if a counter-attack is involved.
*** It’s 0.46.