Epic adventures of larger-than-life heroes... if this is what inspires you, this game is worth a look. Now matured into its second edition, this fusion of many ideas drawn from heroic and pulp fiction and Japanese manga rises above all of these to create a world in which characters stand ready to defy the gods themselves if they step out of line.
The Introduction describes these influences and the development of the game, and - for those new to role-playing - provides a brief note about how one participant is the Storyteller and the rest players. The core White Wolf 'Storytelling' game mechanic is used, but in an exotic and fabulous setting rather than against the backdrop of today's Earth. It rounds out with a lexicon of terms commonly used within the setting, a handy reference guide to understand what comes next.
The first chapter describes the setting of the game in great detail. It's all rooted in Essence, the force that is the very heart of everything, both the physical material and the breath that gives some of it life. An immortal being able to wield Essence is referred to as a god, a mortal is an exalted... and these are, of course, the player characters in this game. There is a sweeping mystical early history of the creation and past times, riven through with selfish powerful beings content to rip creation itself apart in their squabbles, that serves as a backdrop for the times in which the game itself is set. And now, all again is in flux and power is there for the grabbing. As exalted, the characters have the ability to participate in the power struggle - but will it be for good or for ill?
The chapter then moves on to more practical matters, a discription of the physical world in which the characters will operate. There's plenty about the gods, too, who operate a Celestial Bureaucracy to keep everything going - their primary purpose, as they were not the creators themselves, but were made to keep the world running. Gods are powerful and immortal, but have no innate virtue or desire to care for less-powerful creatures although some, of course, do. Exalted are chosen mortals with sufficient power to take on a god whose actions they disapprove of, chosen from the best, perhaps most ambitious, mortals that can be found. Some view them as blessed and semi-divine, created by the gods (which is in fact the case); others hold that their powers are derived from evil spirits. The current rulers of the mortal world are the Dragon-Blooded or Terrestial Exalted, who are shorter-lived than other Exalted but do have the advanage of being able to pass on their powers to their offspring. However, they seem to be as conniving and self-serving as anyone else - so there is plenty of scope amongst their ranks for those who enjoy intrigue in their games! Indeed, there would be a whole game within the complexities of Blessed Isle politics alone, and just reading through this chapter spawns many ideas for adventures that characters within that arena could enjoy.
The scene set, Chapter 2 looks at character creation. Whatever sort of hero you choose, you are going to be a hero capable of epic feats from the very outset of the game. It's necessary for the whole group and especially the Storyteller to have a clear idea of what the main theme of the campaign is going to be so that suitable character concepts can be chosen. It is important to know your character's background, as the assumtion is that they have only recently been Exalted so most of the influences will stem from their ordinary mortal life beforehand. The intention, for the core rules at least, is for the characters to be solar exalted. Opportunities for those wishing to be other types of exalted can be extrapolated from the antagonists section of this book and will be developed in other works. From reading the background, this of course means that your character is unusual and quite unpopular both with the ruling terrestial exalted and with the general populace!
Once the ideas have formed, you need to start putting the numbers in. It is the standard White Wolf point-based system, where you decide which areas your character is strongest in and this determines how many points you have to spend on specific details within those areas. Remember all along, your character was Exalted because he contains the seeds of greatness - but the form that greatness will take is in your hands as you design and then play him.
You start off by distributing points to the character's Attributes, choosing whether Physical, Mental or Social Attributes are his strongest. Next come Abilities, the things he knows and can do. Here, you need to decide the character's caste - the time of day at which he was born - as this determines the character's natural affinity for certain areas of endeavour. Naturally, you might want to be good at something completely different as well, and this is accommodated by allowing the choice of up to 5 'favoured abilities' chosen from all those skills not associated with your caste. You can also add Advantages, which take the form of beneficial Backgrounds, Charms and Virtues. The chapter rounds out with other details to help you fine-tune and develop your character, including the concept - originally introduced in Vampire: The Masquerade - of playing out a prelude showing how the character came to be exalted, and develop some of his background personality before the game proper begins.
Chapter 3 looks at Traits. These detail your characters strengths, weaknesses and capabilities. An interesting discussion on character motivation (defined as your overriding ambition, the thing you really want to accomplish) brings home the genuinely epic nature of this particular game. The 5 castes are gone through in some detail, as it is core to each character, defining his role and outlook. The chapter goes on to discuss Attributes and Virtues in some detail, empowering choice and enabling a character to be fully aware of the mechanics underlying their use of these within the game. Drawing on the early history of the world, each solar exalted carries within him a curse-driven flaw, linked to one of that character's virtues. All the Abilities are gone through in similar detail, these are the 'skills' that a character has acquired through training or experience.
Next, Chapter 4: Drama and Systems examines the actual rule mechanics in detail. Put simply, to accomplish a task, the player needs to roll a number of d10s determined by the character's rating in the appropriate Attribute and Ability for what he is trying to do. For each die roll that is equal to or over a target set by the Storyteller based on the difficulty of the task being undertaken, a success is scored - and the more successes, the better you do. Naturally, all manner of modifications can come into play, and that's the gist of the rest of the chapter. While it helps if everyone knows how the system works, the Storyteller needs to understand it well. Overall, the system is both straightforward and comprehensive, with quite a lot of detail provided for common actions such as climbing or fighting, and sufficient information for the Storyteller to extrapolate when characters want to try something new. If you are unfamiliar with the system, particularly for combat, it could take a long time to resolve a fight; even with familiarity it could be a bit laborious if you choose to follow every nuance of the sequence mechanically.
While rules for doing things and fighting, and even mass battle, are to be expected; an interesting addition is a system for 'social combat' - the use of diplomacy and debate to sway the opinions of others. It's an interesting concept, although it is quite difficult to see just when it will replace role-playing as a way of one character to be convincing - perhaps when speaking to a large audience in a formal setting - and even harder to accept that there will be times when your character can be forced by the rules to change his mind against his will. But it does, on rare occasions, happen: and these are the kind of occasions when the system can be brought into play with effect.
Chapter 5 brings the mystical into play, as it deals with charms, combos and sorcery. Charms are the regular magical abilities that solar exalted can learn (other types of exalted have their own charms, but it is the rare person who can learn the charms of other exalted), while combos occur when two or more charms are strung together. Most charms require the expenditure of essence (raw magical power) to work, but may require other things as well. They are quite complex, and each player needs to understand at least the charms he selects for his character to be able to use them effectively - don't rely on looking them up only when you need them. Many of them are combat-related, improving and enhancing your performance... but I really must learn the 'Husband Seducing Demon Dance' - which renders your target helpless with starry-eyed infatuation!
Charms are relatively easy to learn and apply, and all exalted are capable of them. Sorcery is a different matter, however, it's hard and few people have the talent or are prepared to put in the effort to master it. Moreover, when casting a sorcerous spell you cannot do anything else and it is pretty obvious what you are doing (as in, spellcasting rather than the specific spell you are using). A handful of the most basic spells are included but those who wish to specialise will need to pursue this in later books.
Next, Chapter 6 concentrates on the art of Storytelling. It's full of advice and ideas: what sort of questions you need to answer when starting off a game, how to change rules if you so wish, the general types of campaign that are possible, and so on. A lot of the material here focuses on what makes Exalted unique as a role-playing game, rather than the more general 'how to run a game' that many RPG's GM chapter in the core rulebook presents. It's all about bringing the epic scope of the game to life, providing dramatic situations and conflicts, and ensuring that the players are made fully aware of just how powerful their characters are, even as they begin their careers as exalted, never mind as they develop with experience.
Chapter 7 provides Antagonists. These range from ordinary people in the street to powerful monsters than would make anyone pause in their tracks. There are also guidelines for creating your own beasts of suitable ability and style to fit in the Exalted setting. Even gods turn up here, as given the power levels of even newly exalted characters deities are fair game as opponents. Material about the other kinds of exalted, and in particular terrestrial exalted - the Dragon-blooded who rule the Blessed Isle - is also provided, as they will provide much of the opposition to many characters. After all, the Dragon-Blooded overthrew the solar exalted in the past and regard their return, their very existence, as anathema! The chapter winds up with a discussion of some of the diseases you can catch, if the monsters don't get you.
The final chapter, Panoply, looks at money and wealth and what you can acquire with it. Money is quite complex: while there is a 'jade standard' for currency, jade itself is far more valuable for magical and other purposes, so a 'jade scrip' has been devised, copper coins and paper money which are worth a certain amount of jade. In other parts of the world, silver or cowrie shells rather than jade are used - jade tends to attract the attention of demons and similar if you aren't very careful. There is a basic banking system and even stock markets. After this analysis of financial affairs, the subject of communications is examined before one gets on to the important matter of what equipment characters can buy and how much it will cost them. Rather than dealing with actual prices, items are rated by what level of resources you need to have for that item to be affordable - if you could afford it and it's available, you are deemed to have it if you so desire. It is an abstraction that reduces bookkeeping, but which may reduce the pleasure of going shopping for some players. Weapons and armour come next, complete with the necessary game statistics for you to be able to use whatever you decide to equip your character with. Then come the delightfully named 'everyday wonders' - magical items which most people will be aware of, and may even own; followed by good luck charms and more powerful items which are expensive and difficult to obtain. The book rounds off with a comprehensive index, a character sheet and a map of the world.
Overall, it is an impressive and comprehensive introduction to Exalted, both setting and rules, conveying the broad epic sweep of action and the rich, detailed history on which it is based extremely well. I think that all participants in a game would benefit from possessing and studying this book, it would be difficult for the Storyteller to paint an adequate picture for players who were not familiar with the broad background and history, or the powers granted to a solar exalted.
Return to Exalted 2e Core Rules page.
Reviewed: 24 February 2007