Day 17 – Favorite Fantasy RPG
Gee, which should I pick? Something I’ve spent hours drooling over like The One Ring, or something I love to play like Dungeon World, or—
Hands down, gotta be Exalted.
I assume most people are going to pick some edition of D&D here (by which I also include Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and most retroclones). And as much as I enjoy that part of the genre and that style of game, I also get irritable that it’s often the only kind of “fantasy” out there. I’m less a fan of trad fantasy settings and would gladly hand in my elf ears and ten-foot pole for something that makes fantasy feel, well, fucking fantastic for a change. Knights-and-dragons fantasy starts to feel less fantastic when it’s both the Rolls Royce and the Wonder Bread of the genre. I want something new and out of the ordinary, like beings of pure id on your airships journeying over the crystalline plains of stasis to delay the cats of entropy. Y’know, something like that, only where I know how to play it.
Exalted invigorated me with its setting. It’s a mashup of classical myth (Greco-Roman alongside Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West) with Weird Tales-era sword-and-sorcery, painted in broad anime strokes. It is a game where you play an Exalt, ranging in power from the god-kings of old to the demigod-level footsoldiers of the god-kings of old. This is a world where one entire city is built in the lap of a buddha statue, and another is carved into living crystal. You don’t start by cleaning out a nest of goblins or killing the rats in the inn’s basement; it’s the game where you shake the pillars of foundation—your adversaries are lesser gods, Lovecraftian demons, and the local city-states.
I just can’t say enough good things about the setting; it’s my perfect blend of something that feels fresh and fantastic. Even the old cliches and tropes are given new garb, if only because the power scale of the game is so vastly different from your average D&D game (which tends to end when the characters get their own demesne and platoon of followers, while in Exalted, you can build that in your starting package).
The system is mostly straightforward White Wolf dice pools, though a few of the more epic elements suffer from clunky implementation. The charm trees (think feats or abilities) often intimidated new players, because they weren’t always as clear-cut as what you get in Edge of the Empire. The initiative system (battle wheel/ticks, meant to emulate fast-paced martial combat) is oft-reviled because its explanation in the book is shit; it took us months to figure out an implementation. Now that I’ve slogged my time in the trenches and understand it, I don’t see how people get confused by something so streamlined. Moreover, I’m reminded that there’s a host of “trap” options we never found to be traps (I needed every damn level of Ox-Body I bought).
So the setting is fantastic, and the system is a tried-and-true staple with some effective but awkwardly described rules bolted on. I’ve all but given up on Exalted 3rd at this point—those schmucks made it sound like it was almost ready to go back in the summer of 2012—but I still have a complete set of 1st and 2nd editions to hold me over for all of eternity.
Really, my only problem with the game is how people play it. Every time you hear about how it broke down and become some weeaboo fanfic of the group’s favorite anime, take a shot. Every time you hear how someone broke the cardinal rule of White Wolf and ran a “mashup” game where everyone played a different Exalt type, take a shot. Every time you see one of the devs’ idiotic choices (talkin’ bout the gratuitous panty shot cover to Savant & Sorcerer, or the sickeningly rapey bullshit with Infernal Exalts and certain charms), just sigh and walk away because you realize you can’t ever pitch this game to normal people.
Such is Exalted. Not that I’m bitter or anything.