Exalted – Rules Versus Story

Hands down, Exalted is one of my favorite tabletop games. There’s a fantastic setting, all of the seeds for high adventure, and a system that often complements the feel of the world. As I’m sure you’ve guessed from the title of this post, it’s not just about the good times with Exalted. There are some serious issues with the way the rules are set up, especially in relation to having a fun time playing in the world of Exalted.

First, lets talk about some of the mechanics that make Exalted feel truly epic, just as it should. The stunt dice mechanic is simply brilliant. The ability to gain additional dice and mechanical benefits from cool descriptions makes the experience more fun for everyone involved. Creativity and keeping things interesting is rewarded – being boring isn’t punished, but you have to watch everyone else get rewarded for being creative, which is good motivation.

The sheer number of dice is another excellent factor. For anyone coming from World of Darkness games, seeing the number of dice a starting level Exalt rolls is staggering. Since the systems are extremely similar, you have a clear context for just what that amount of dice means. For those coming from DnD or other game systems, the number of dice being rolled by even a starting Exalt is nothing shy of obscene. And you know what? That’s a lot of fun. The scale of the game and the epic deeds of the Exalts that you’re getting to play as is directly expressed through the dice being rolled.

One last positive note: the Charms. The powers of the Solars are everything you could ever hope for. You can make all sorts of things out of pure energy, brainwash people, practically dilate time in regards to all kinds of tasks. The Charms flow very clearly from one to the next: calling your weapon back to you -> storing your weapon in a pocket dimension -> making a weapon out of energy. The progression is great, the powers are cool.

Now, I’m afraid it’s time to talk about the issues with Exalted’s systems. Specifically, there is one overarching issue that keeps cropping up all over the place: things are way too complex. When we play Exalted, it’s with a group of people that have varying levels of interest in the actual systems for the game, and in order for everyone to have fun, they all need a chance to shine. It’s hard for people to shine when only half of the people are able to keep track of most of the game systems (especially combat) are overly complex.

Combat, as the biggest offender and one of the most important systems, is the one we should look at first. The tracking of time does allow for characters to specialize in speed or outright power, but also quickly makes a mess out of combat. The best tracking system is a seven section wheel, characters moving ahead a number of spaces equivalent to the number of ticks their action takes. Even resolving actions when on a tick is difficult – technically the actions occur simultaneously, which is all well and fine in video games, but is annoying to have to track and resolve when playing a tabletop. Even better, the system rewards specifically tooling a characters combat abilities to favor speed instead of power. As long as you’re hitting the minimum power threshold, you can do damage significantly more often than someone just focused on power. The tick-based time system (rather than turn-based or initiative order) is a great idea, but better left to games that do all the tracking for you, not games where you and the group are desperately trying to keep track of everything that’s going on.

Truly, though, the issues with tick-based combat aren’t huge. They add a nice touch of realism, sort of. I say sort of, because ticks are roughly equivalent to a second. An intense combat for our group would last somewhere in the 40-50 tick mark. This means two things. One: you’re having to resolve out 40 to 50 actions, depending on how speedy the characters are, how many players you have, and how many enemies are being fought. Two: all that time you just put into 50 ticks equates to about 50 seconds. It makes action scenes feel like a flash in the pan rather than epic battles. This, combined with the sheer confusion caused by the tick system eats away at the intended feeling of Exalted – your characters are epic heroes, but you get stuck spending ages resolving the shortest of combats.

Okay, I’ve spent too much time just nitpicking the time mechanic of combat. We need to look at the actual resolution methods being used. Remember, this is a game about epic characters doing incredible things. A single attack action in combat is resolved in a simple ten step process. Did I say simple? Cause you’re also having to track changes to Defense Values (both yours and the enemy’s) based on action choice (if you’re doing more things than just attacking) and Charm usage. For fun, how about we list those ten steps really quickly:
1. Declaration of Attack
2. Defender Declares Response
3. Attack Roll
4. Attack Reroll
5. Subtract External Penalties/Apply Special Defenses
6. Defense Reroll
7. Calculate Raw Damage
8. Apply Hardness and Soak, Roll Damage
9. Counterattacks
10. Apply Results

It’s worth noting that step 9 can potentially cause you to perform steps 1-8 in for the enemy against the attacker. This entire sequence is performed for every single attack, with constant checking for effects of Charms and opportunities to activate Charms. Keep in mind that there are ways even without Charms to perform multiple attacks in a single turn. With a system this complex, how is combat supposed to be fast paced and high tension? The amount of dice you roll means little for the feeling of the game when you’re having to slog through nearly a dozen steps for every single attack that’s performed. Not to mention that the amount of health available relative to the amount of damage that can be done means that even for brand new players and enemies, a hit or two is enough to kill.

Even with the help of stunt dice and huge die pools, combat doesn’t feel like a fast paced and adventurous affair. It feels like doing your income taxes by hand – you have to read every single box, even if they don’t apply, and then fill it out, double check for exceptions, and finally get an answer that you potentially don’t like. For the amount of effort being put in, the chances of having an attack that doesn’t even hit is through the roof. With combat dishing out epic damage against un-epic health, combat spends most of its time being about lots of rolls and very few hits. Once again, this runs counter to the story of Exalted.

How about Mass Combat, or Social Combat? Mass combat is very similar to regular combat, but with more confusing rules, and some really strange abstractions. Your troops act like health (which sort of makes sense), and their combat effectiveness is determined by the weakest troop in a unit. You need to make sure you have ways to communicate your orders to your entire force, formations become relevant, and morale plays a large role. Bigger combat doesn’t feel larger, just largely difficult to track and resolve. And social combat? Oh, social combat. The abstractions of mass combat are crystal clear and perfectly sensible by comparison. I guess the most important note is that social combat attacks are resolved in the exact same ten step method as physical attacks. The system certainly has some very interesting ideas, and has a fair-ish way to resolve characters attempting to exert mental influence over other characters. Unfortunately, it’s very confusing, more susceptible to luck than to the quality of your ideas, and due to some of the rules in place to prevent a character from just spamming the same social attack over and over until the other cracks, it almost always turns out to have been a complete waste of time.

Non-Solar Exalts suffer from their share of issues as well. In an effort to prevent them from feeling like slightly powered-down versions of the Solars with a few additional powers, they have a completely different set of Charms. I actually really appreciate the spirit of this idea: I love that all the Exalt types feel very distinct. Sadly, in a lot of ways this turns non-Solars into a total mess with a senseless hodge-podge of powers and little ability to impact the world in the same way the Solars do. Especially outside of combat (and to be fair, there’s a distinct lack of good Charms in some of the non-combat abilities for Solars), non-Solars vary wildly in usefulness, resulting in some serious issues. There’s nothing worse than having a character designed to do some specific interesting things, but there are simply no Charms to support it, so all they can do is roll lots of dice. And I’ll be nice and not even talk about the issues with the Abyssal Charms and letting fluff writers create game mechanics.

Finally, there’s the way expending experience to become more powerful works. This is an issue I’ve had with the World of Darkness games in general, and while I understand how it adds to realism, it highly detracts from the actual flow of the story that a group is telling. In Exalted, raising your “power stat,” Permanent Essence (also, shame on you for calling both the power stat and the expendable energy Essence), is a long term task. When a game is built around constant events and incidents, without a huge opportunity for characters to just wander off and meditate on a mountain for months on end, raising any stat can be difficult, let alone Essence. When flow is a slave to the ability of characters to actually grow and develop, that’s a rules versus story problem.

Alright, lets take a minute and look at the system with a less cruel eye. Honestly, the systems for Exalted tend to be a lot of fun. They let you resolve things that a lot of other games don’t even account for. As I said before, this is one of my favorite tabletop games, and I’ve played a lot. I guess the real point of this write up isn’t to cast a poor light on Exalted: it’s an attempt to analyze what it does in regards to the interaction of rules and story, and highlight some of the issues in an effort to learn from them. This is the kind of game I want to design: one with an exciting setting, tons of opportunities, and rules that make the game feel the way that the setting says it should. Unfortunately, it’s simultaneously the kind of game I don’t want to make: one where the rules directly inhibit enjoying it and prevent it from feeling the way that the setting says it should. End of the day, though, the fun certainly outweighs the trouble. If you learn nothing else from this, just remember that you can have all sorts of troubles, but having a game that is at its heart a ton of fun is what counts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>