In light of trying to get more diverse set of opinions on various games, I’ve invited a few people to write guest articles for the blog. This one in particular is a review of Exalted 3rd Edition, from the point of view of a player. Rachel is a player in my first campaign for Exalted 3rd Edition and she was happy to share her thoughts on the game.
First, disclaimers: I had never played Exalted in any of its editions before 3E, but I did play World of Darkness a few times with various groups and friends. I also came into our game without reading the system, and only browsing the setting lightly to get a general idea of it. I did not really know the lore of Solars beyond the very general, and I had no background on how their quirks translated to mechanics. This was admittedly something of a lapse on my end — I was too busy in the weeks leading to our first session, and my GM gave constant reassurances that he would explain everything when we get there, which I suppose added to the laziness.
But I digress. My points is that this review is in no way representative of how others would see the game, only that it is a relaying of my particular experiences as a player. I am neither a GM nor an old-timer returning to a newly revised system, but someone completely new to the franchise.
While I had no idea about the setting of Exalted and how the system is different from the WoD franchise, the character sheet was easy for me to understand and fill out. All I needed was the point allocation for attributes, skills, and merits, and a brief on the small differences this sheet had from WoD.
Let me tell you: Wow, that is a lot of points to allocate. While our characters started out as mortals, we were making sheets as Solars and only marking off what dots would not be available to us yet before our Exaltation. I had never come close to 5-dots in an attribute before, let alone multiple skills. If the lore of being powerful beings capable of great feats did not hammer the fact home that our characters were basically supermen, the number of dots committed to paper certainly did.
In any case, I made a Solar of the Twilight Caste named Elise Maxwell, a young shipwright aboard the Sleeping Sand, a cargo sandship her father captains. This isn’t her first ship, either, having grown up in both sea and sand as the perpetual companion of her father through his different contracts and commissions. Her skills are primarily in carpentry and sailing. She’s superstitious but fearless, athletic and energetic, guileless in matters of bureaucracy, politics, and the upper echelons of society, and all in all just a young girl who wants to do good for the world. Elise is also, as it so happens, strong as an ox.
I had a bit of a conundrum in filling out my sheet in the sense that, because I had no idea what typical Solar sheets looked like, I tried not to max any of the skills out and strove to give my character what might pass for reasonable and not overpowered numbers. “I’m not gonna make her OP!” I said, full of innocence and good intentions. Remember this for the later sections, because this is also a story of how Elise was actually anything but not OP.
Anyway, there was a new part of the dots sheet that I had to fill in called Intimacies. To my understanding, these are the aspects and motivations of a character that defines them, so I started off by treating it like Aspects in Fate Core, and then moved on to list down personality triggers and the like. “Don’t touch my things,” was a big item, and so was, “A day’s work for a day’s pay,” referring to Elise’s attitude of expecting rewards directly proportional to work rendered — a very sailor attitude, really. Later she develops the intimacy of “My father is all I have,” to facilitate her narrative of protectiveness towards her father when the latter comes under threat, but this is offset by her tendency to turn her emotions into productive things. Instead of focusing on revenge, she instead gains the intimacy of, “I must fix what has been done to my father” as a motivation for her next actions.
This portion of the sheet was nice to do start off with, because immediately it gives the player a very firm directive that Roleplay Happens in This Game, Guys, and that roleplaying can be rewarded and is also facilitated to an extent through limit breaks. I like to revisit my intimacies after sessions, just to see if Elise changed in any big way as a result of the evening’s activities. In a way, they are to me like facts that I must remember or are developed as the character grows.
I like dice rolling here in that 0s count as two successes, rather than exploding, since that is actually statistically more flat out successes than rerolling 0s. On the other hand, I suppose that’s why some encounters can get really difficult, but you’re relying on those 0s to push you through a contest.
What I do notice is that like most other fists-of-dice games, figuring out how many dice you’re rolling, the adjustments due to charms, gathering them, rolling them, more adjustments due to charms, and counting your successes takes way more time than the resolution of what you actually rolled for. Our GM only asks for rolls when he thinks it’s needed and we’ve gotten fairly fast at it (after the initial round of, “how do you count x again?” that’s inevitable for games with oft long gaps between sessions), but I can see the system getting bogged down if you have to roll every little thing.
I think the most dice I had to roll was 21 for a crafting roll, which was perfect because I had exactly 21 d10s at the time (I have more now). The first roll gave me a total of 15 successes, which allowed me to fix a battle-damaged ship single handedly in a day. That was fun in narrative, especially because Elise thought nothing of it and was only surprised at the shock she received.
People kept on warning me coming in that combat in Exalted can be really tedious with dice rolling and actions, but I found it be to fairly fast-paced and intense, over in just a few rounds. Maybe it’s because I haven’t fought in full force against another Exalt yet, but all my combat have been over in five turns or less.
Combat can get complex since you have to track initiative, and this initiative keeps on yoyo-ing up and down depending on the success of your actions. There are two kinds of rolls in Exalted: withering and decisive actions. Withering strikes are meant to raise your own initiative and lower the initiative of your enemy, whereas decisive actions take the gap between the initiative scores of yours and your enemy’s, and use that to score attacks against the enemy’s HP track.
In essence, Exalted combat is all about initiative, and setting up people’s initiatives so when you take decisive actions, it is to devastate.
I rather like the two-fold approach to combat, because it lends itself to different playstyles rather than favoring those with straight forward combat styles. It also allows for creative actions while fighting, because if you don’t want to or simply cannot directly damage an enemy, you can take up any other kind of action and still contribute to the combat by reducing the enemy’s initiative for your comrades. In the first combat scene I had for Exalted, I spent majority of it rolling barrels of burning pitch at bandits and their horses, and was able to do so to great effect.
Elise also has a hammer, which adds a whopping 11 dice to withering damage. I had no idea having a mallet would do such a thing, but now when Elise hits something for withering strikes, she really will hurt a lot. It’s always a bit of a point of hilarity because the image of a petite shipwright using physics against mooks to smash their jaws off is really awful. So much for not being OP, when Elise is actually this monstrous smasher of the unsuspecting.
Exalted also rewards players who describe their actions with embellishments and those who do creative and cool things by giving additional dice. I believe they called this stunting, which I enjoy a lot because it’s truly fun when everyone on the table makes an effort to visually describe what their character is doing.
I feel that I should take a moment here to appreciate naval combat in Exalted. I’ve only experienced it a couple of times (hah, my dots in sails getting use), but I can say that it’s fairly sufficient in its simplicity. It takes into consideration the appropriate modifiers of the ship its crew is handling as well as the captain’s stats for its moveset, without going into the bog of asking for specific stats for different aspects of the ship. I have a tendency to check out sailing rules for RPGs when they have it just to see how sailing rolls are treated, and Exalted is one of the few where I’ve been satisfied with it in relation to the rest of its mechanisms. Even the *World supplements that handle naval warfare have managed to be both really specific and really vague at it at the same time.
One of the things I have complained about to my GM is that the character sheet is frankly pretty deficient when it comes to charms and crafting. Charms are difficult to articulate with the format they provide, especially since in the books, charms have really lengthy descriptions of what they do. I had to first print all the charms and mark anything Essence 1 that seemed interesting to me, and then count and track prerequisites and other things. In my despair, I actually created a document just to reformat my Crafts charms into a table that is easy to peruse — considering that I have thirteen crafting charms that I all have to keep track off when building something, this was not just a nice thing to have but a complete necessity.
Now, I’ll acknowledge that I didn’t actually have to get thirteen charms for one skill, but Crafts have the most charms listed in the game under several sub-categories. At essence 1 I could choose among 15 or 16 already, and that’s not counting the higher-level charms I could get owing to my specialization. My friends who chose to have more social or combat-oriented characters had more diverse charms lists — some melee here, a few resistance there, a bit of persuasion — so I reckon it was easier for them to track the ones they could use for the situation. I sort of wish there were charm cards for Ex3, akin to D&D cards, but I didn’t actually have the time nor patience for it when a chart did the job just as well.
What I like about charms, though, is that they can really set you apart from other members of your party. I enjoy the reaction my fellow players have when I get to regale them with a charm that they didn’t know existed, and the surprise of NPCs is always a point of humour when we pull out small surprises on them.
Speaking of crafting in this game, my GM had mentioned crafting as being its own minigame in Ex3, and I had forgotten about it when making my character. I typically shy away from the heavier mechanics of any new system I’m entering due to having to learn everything about the system from scratch, but alas, here I am.
Like I said in the section above, the character sheet can be lacking when it comes to crafting. There is a lot to track when you choose to involve yourself with it seriously, and the sheet doesn’t facilitate it or make it any easier. For example, you can have anywhere from 3 to 5 projects at level one to keep track of, all with their own rolls, EXP expenditure, and EXP gains.
Apart from the EXP and Solar EXP everyone has, crafting gives you Silver, Gold, and White EXP, which you earn from completing crafting projects and achieving very specific objectives as dictated by the book.
There are two things I want to elaborate on there: EXP expenditure and book-dictated objectives.
First, yes, you actually have to spend crafting EXP for some projects. How it works is like so:
1. Do basic projects or repairs for free to earn silver exp.
2. Spend 10 silver exp for every attempt at completing a major project and earn gold exp.
3. Spend 10 gold exp for every attempt at completing superior projects (artifacts), on top of the 3 – 5 gold EXP you spend based on artifact rank, and earn white exp. It sounds easy, but it actually has a whole list of requirements and skills as well.
4. Spend white exp for legendary projects.
Completion is basically succeeding at your rolls, and while the successes are cumulative, every roll is counted as an attempt. At the current level I’m at, I haven’t actually figured out how to do major projects that give me back more silver EXP than I was required to spend on it. I have been earning some gold EXP every project, which I know will be helpful later, but it seems that the only way for me to reliably generate silver EXP is to do a lot of basic crafting and repairing a lot of things. Basically, you have to roleplay the grind for silver EXP!
I make it sound tedious, but in truth I actually have fun with it. It helps that my character generally tends to also destroy things by accident, or tries to fix things unsolicited, and so her obsession with fixing things is just another intimacy to enhance narrative. But I do feel that the creators of the game put a lot of crunch into crafting to dissuade the abuse of artifact creation, which I understand to be very strong tools in the setting.
Crafting an artifact, for example, also requires the following apart from the gold EXP: “Lore 3, Occult 3, a relevant Craft Ability rated to at least 4, and must then purchase dots of Craft (Artifacts)”. Crafts is a skill you can buy over and over, one per craft you have under your belt. For example, I have Craft:Carpentry at 5 dots, and Craft:Weaving at 2 dots (those sails don’t make themselves). Creating an artifact means you need to get Crafts:Artifact on top of everything else, and dedicate three major project slots for the six weeks to two years (depending on rank) it will take you to complete the artifact.
It seems like an interesting if a little grindy system to facilitate crafting, but I can see issues with being able to complete anything more significant than a major project for groups that don’t play frequently. The amount of in-game time invested into creating artifacts is huge, and this on top of the dots, slots in charms, and EXP you need to gather and spend to complete something. I haven’t actually begun to craft artifacts, but it’s next in my list of things to do in the game for Elise’s father who recently lost his eyesight. Being truly specialized in crafting works for Elise because I can get really creative in combat and other situations, though, so I don’t think I have a lot to worry about.
Now that we’re done talking about EXP consumption, let’s talk about basic objectives. This is actually where I have issues with crafting, because the book dictates that you can only get EXP for completing projects if the following objectives are fulfilled, as defined by the book:
1. When finishing your project causes another character to gain or strengthen an Intimacy toward you (for example, a Solar craftsman strengthening a young soldier’s armor on the eve of battle, producing a minor Intimacy of gratitude in the man), you gain crafting experience.
2. When finishing your project produces a clear in-game gain for your character, such as a monetary payment, or a new Merit like Allies or Contacts, you gain crafting experience.
3. When finishing your project upholds, furthers, or protects one of your character’s Intimacies, you gain crafting experience.
It seems flexible enough at first glance, but it doesn’t actually apply to a lot of the basic or even major projects you do, even when the context of the projects are reasonably important in the storyline. I understand that this is supposed to encourage or inspire a certain type of roleplay when it comes to crafting — another attempt, perhaps, to link it to narrative — but I find it to be rather constraining instead because it implies that only certain kinds of crafting are worth doing. When the crafting system can become a grind for EXP, I feel that the conditions for gaining this currency will inevitably lead to crafters trying to make their creations “count”.
Wow, I didn’t expect to get long-winded about crafting in Ex3, of all things, but it does have its own system within the game itself so it’s a big aspect of the game to tackle.
As an aside, I did figure out on my own how to use crafting for combat: Using Shattering Grasp, a charm, allows Elise to basically destroy things with her bare hands (or a tool, as in the case of her mallet). I’ve stripped enemies of weapons with this, as well as destroyed major enemy arsenal and fortifications with high rolls.
I like the Ex3 system a lot because it encourages play that appeals to my visual imagination. From things like describing the destruction of walls to swinging a hammer around in a mighty blow, it’s all very vivid imagery in my head that really adds a lot of fun to the game. There are other systems that inspire the sort of animated and elaborate explanations I tend to give in Exalted narration, but Exalted I feel rewards this the most and is the most fun.
Apart from that, I find it to be a system with well-thought out mechanics for pretty much all encounters, though I do think in many instances that it can go overboard with how much you have to do mechanically to actually act on something in the game. It seems to be a system that is very particular about balance, which is funny in retrospect when I think about how the characters — Solars, in the case of my game — are capable of god-like feats as new Exalts.
Would this potato recommend the game? Yes, it’s a lot of fun, and can support many different play styles. It can get a bit number crunchy at some points, but depending on how the GM treats the game, that isn’t necessarily a truth for all Exalted games.