Tuesday, February 07, 2006

RPG ARTICLE: Exploring Exalted

Game: Exalted

by Tobie Abad

Everyone has a way of approaching Exalted with the gaming style they prefer. Here are some suggestions or paradigm shifts to try to give the game a fresh or new spin on things. (Exalted Contest Entry)

Special Notes: This article assumes the reader is familiar with the Exalted game line and has attempted to play it at least once.

Everyone who has played Exalted has approached the game with his or her own desired gaming style. My group, for example, prefers to ignore the existence of the God-Blooded, the Thaumaturges, and the system’s willingness to introduce home-made charms and artifacts as well as the big-eyed small-mouth anime conventions that the game supports in some areas. Instead we approach it more with inspirations drawn from movies like Hero, Rashomon, Gladiator and videogames like God of War. We aren’t that excited about doing stuff that mimic scenes from Samurai X or Hellsing, but love the fact we can do stuff like those from anime like Ninja Scroll. Another group I know of ignores the drama of being a man hunted by the world that has been brainwashed to believe you are some form of demon-thing, and gives the game instead the action-packed adventure feel with inspirations drawn from Ragnarok Online and other movies. One group I know of simply uses the game to explore the many levels of dramatic gore they can accomplish with the best character builds.

Everyone simply has their own preference on how to use the Exalted game system and setting. And frankly, if you’re having fun, then no one has the right to say you’re doing it wrong.

This article is written with that in mind. Rather than try to say how a game should be run, or offer suggestions on what to do to make a game more fun, this article instead offers various ideas and seeds which you may or may not like to try incorporating into your games. There are no hard rules as to whether or not you must use one or all of the suggestions here because there are no such rules. But do read on and see if there are things here you’d love to try using for your next Exalted game session. After all, these, in one game or another, did work for me.

All Charms are Martial Arts Techniques
First, do NOT mistake this to mean all charms are Martial arts charms. What I mean is to display the use of any charm in the books as martial arts techniques the character knows. Examples of this approach include Naruto where special maneuvers and techniques, be it the ability to create multiple images of yourself, or the ability to see through another’s eyes to copy the answers of another person during a test are all various ninjutsu techniques they have learned. Make any uses of charms have a feel of a martial arts technique by adding some meditative or hand motion descriptors to your stunts. If you think about it, the names of the charms already suggest they are martial arts techniques.

The Solars Are Not Necessarily Right

Since Exalted was written predominantly with the Solar Exalted as the heroes of the game line, the rest of the game was written with that more or less as the accepted fact. But try having the Unconquered Sun being a tyrant who did get what was coming for him when he lost control of his Exalted when the Games of Divinity took over and see what direction it can take your game. Maybe the Maidens AND the Dragons don’t really want the Solar Exalted to return, but eventually realize they need them to eventually train one to kill the Unconquered Sun himself! Or maybe, the best to rule Creation would be those without the Malfean curse at all… .the Alchemicals. Try doing this EVEN if your game is predominantly Solar and see what new avenues to the plot it can take you.

Stunts Can Replace Non-Dice Pool Affecting Charms

Read that again. Yes, consider stunts to have the power to replace charms. Before you go “But I already allow that” consider if you’d let a stunt duplicate Cascade of Cutting Terror or Solar Blazing Bolt. Consider if you’d ever allow a stunt to duplicate Heavenly Guardian Defense. I suggest, yes let a stunt have the power to do that. After all, in some ways, a Storyteller does tend to shift the game environment around to help a player out at times when the character is having it bad. So why not let the player have some control over how much help you’re letting him have. Though possibly ripe for abuse, the best control factors you have for this include: Requiring successes more than 5+ for the charm. I’d even recommend one success for every tier the charm is upon, in addition to any actual successes needed for the charm. So to stunt running across treetops would require only 1 success (duplicating Graceful Crane, which allows the same thing without need for rolls) while duplicating something, while duplicating Heavenly Guardian’s Defense means scoring 4 successes (four tiers) over the needed successes to parry something normally impossible to parry. Another control factor is to limit this with charms you believe the character is “inclined to develop/remember later on”. With Solars begin characters attempting to relearn things their past lives know, stunts can represent the “instinctive” tapping into such charms while they have not been purchased.

Remove All Artifact Bonuses Except Those That Do Not Affect the Weapon's Basic Stats

For games which do not really go for the “giant weapon” feel Exalted espouses with their artifacts, one direction to try is to limit artifacts to objects that have other special powers besides their being weapons. This allows for normal swords that have special powers which can still be broken to disarm the user. Or gigantic deadlier weapons which do not necessarily allow a person to move faster or never be destroyed by magic-less yet inventive defenders. One big thing most overlook is the fact that Artifacts, at their most basic, are already more effective weapons (given the bonuses the material grants) which are also effectively impossible to break by normal means. Those two factors, already by themselves, are enough to represent a magical weapon. So try separating those which those kinds of enhancements to those that can allow flight, or change shape and so on and so forth. Bring into the game the need to make a choice between a normal sword that can detect the presence of ghosts or an unbreakable sword that can kill faster.

Call Essence Chi

Somehow, something this simple can greatly give the game an Eastern feel which some groups might crave.

Allow Totemic/Iconic Images to Change

Have any 16+ motes of Essence be displayed in appropriate imagery based on a) What charm was used, b) the Nature and character of the user and c) the situation that is happening. For example, if a Jester Zenith had to use Heavenly Guardian’s Defense, and by doing so hit the 16+ mote mark while tracking his anima flare, and the usage was that of five towering Hyenas bowing their heads to parry the blow... and in a later scene, used enough motes again for an iconic flare while making fun off the Mask of Winters, have the second flare match the scene: perhaps the five Hyenas leaping around the Deathlord as they laugh their mad cries. Keep the iconic imagery interesting enough and you might even have players who’ll TRY to intentionally spend enough essence just to watch how you’d display the next iconic anima flare.

Make Artifacts Rare

In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, how many artifacts existed in the movie? One. The Green Destiny. All other weapons, no matter how super-sized they were simply normal ones. In Hero, there weren’t even any special weapons. Though the use of signature weapons was enough to identify who used them. Consider keeping the presence of artifacts special and rare in the game to give a more realistic feel to it.

Or Make Them Very Common

Maybe everyone in the Realm has at least one. There can be very many First Age artifacts that have possibly been found, reverse-engineered or duplicated. Perhaps some as simple as a many-bladed knife (Swiss knives) or portable light sources (flash lights) and clunky but common heaters. After all, if they weren’t that common, then merely bringing a few artifacts should stand out terribly obvious in the realm.

Make the World Round

Seriously, the Exalted world is canonically Flat with the four Elemental poles at the ends. Try breaking that mindset away and making the world round with the Elemental poles instead being poles that eventually warp to the opposite pole. So the Elemental Pole of Wood eventually becomes an underwater forest submerged by the Endless Sea. The Endless Sea remains Endless for it continues to flow through the many roots and channels now shared by the woods. While the Elemental Pole of Fire dissolves everything until it becomes the bottomless winds of the Elemental Pole of Air. Make it around world and give the concept of crossing through one pole to reach the next to the players as something to try.

Make All Abilities Catch-All

Strange as it is, the game system treats Melee to apply to ANY weapon used as well as Athletics to any form of athletic action and yet forces gamers to restrict Linguistics, Crafts and Performance to apply to certain areas of the skill only. Do away with such unnecessary complications in Solar Games and simply have the ability apply to all areas of the said ability. After all, Solars are meant to be universally versatile enough to be masters of all fields in time.

Make the Most of Past Lives

Have the character’s lives intertwine with NPC lives with the complexities of Television Soap dramas. Have one character have a former life as the wife of another character who cheated on him and hid an affair with an NPC who is now the current character’s enemy. You get the idea. For more fun, reveal such ties and truth slowly, gradually uncovering layers by layers to maximize the shock value. Even better, have all the past life relationships end horribly with lots of deceit, poisons and the like. Consider deceiving flashbacks too with sorcerous mind-wipes, masterful disguises and possibly even Lunar-assisted gender changes to keep them guessing!

They Need Not Be the First Reincarnations

Like the idea above, consider toying with the fact the players may be controlling characters on their seventh or more reincarnation. Have them recall a great honorable past life, only to learn that was but the most recent past life. Then have them uncover deeper memories of a tyrant. And deeper still, a penitent saint. Consider running game sessions with them portraying a past life, or even a later past life going through the last few days before death. Maybe you can even use this technique to explain new purchases for Artifacts, Manses and the like without resorting to actually building the said things.

The Realm is Right

Consider the final twist for any group long used to playing Exalted. Have the Immaculate Order’s preaching be true. The Solar Exalted are demonic servants and blasphemous beings that seek to overthrow the Elemental Dragons. The Unconquered Sun is a demon now locked in a prison that crosses the sky. The Dragon-blooded are true heroes who have faced against legions of things far stronger and better than they can ever hope to be. And have won.

Give your games a new twist. Try approaching the game with a different direction and see how far you can take it. Role-playing games have always offered a world to explore. Why not try exploring a familiar world even further by twisting a thing or two around.

Nikki Alfar
Tobie Abad
Gabby Lee
Andre Mischa Cleofe
Cathy delos Santos

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