Exalted is a strange beast. It manages to be one of the most fascinating, in-depth, and compelling setting I have seen, yet is absolutely marred by its system.
When Third Edition (3e) was announced, I was quick to back it, hoping that the new system would fix it. After a very strained and painful development cycle, it…simply was not worth the wait. It is a gigantic book with over-complicated rules that is an absolute mess to actually play.
Exalted Reincarnated aims to fix that. I will not claim that it is a perfect system, but at least I can make a better one.
It can be easy to get sucked down into a hole of relentless negativity, so I want to point out what Exalted, and the 3rd edition does right.
As stated above, the setting is one of the most compelling that I’ve ever seen, and 3e continues to improve on it. There are a great many evocative themes of the power to change the world, while needing the responsibility to handle it correctly. That, while wrapped in a distinctly non-Tolkien setting, sets it apart greatly from the standard RPG fantasy, bringing to mind endless character stories.
As well, the 3rd edition writers have completely disregarded the horrible aspects of previous editions that have existed. In 2nd Edition, it seemed there was an amount of shock-value placed into the setting. Whether it was to be purposefully controversial, a misguided attempt to emulate old-age mythos, or to express actual more horrible impulses, I cannot say. But there were dark aspects of 2e, such as their pointlessly cruel takes on “love” and sex, and the first two chapters of the Infernals, that thankfully have been completely scrubbed and removed. 3rd edition has none of that. In fact, it is gone out of its way to correct for those mistakes, and has even gone the extra mile for LGBT inclusion, which I personally appreciate.
The only current criticisms I have of the setting are more of personal taste: such as the deeply-involved story can sometimes become stifling.
I will not try to replicate the setting of Exalted in my writeup, only including and changing what is directly attached to mechanics.
The idea of “Stunts”, or ways to break the mechanics in a limited way, is absolutely fascinating and a great way to encourage people to roleplay. I disagree with having “levels” of stunts, but the idea is solid.
The Social Influence system is actually quite nice. Light enough to be flexible, while having enough depth to provide interesting mechanical hooks. There is a bit of unnecessary complication I’ve trimmed off, but for the most part the social influence has been incorporated directly into Exalted Reincarnated.
Combat (like most everything in this system) is over-complicated. However, the base idea of it is not bad: it focuses more on what the characters are doing in the scene, introducing some rising and falling actions.
Alright, now that I’ve solidified my praise for Exalted, I need to talk about exactly why I am going through the trouble of writing a new system for Exalted: what exactly went wrong, and how I intend to fix each point.
Normally, I don’t pay attention to the size of a rulebook–it’s as long as it needs to be. However, the sheer size of the Exalted core rule book breaks this. This nearly 700 page monstrosity is a pain to look through, and it is clear it does not use its gluttony of words well. I feel I could cut 1/3 of the books size down and not lose anything at all.
My suspicion, which seems to be anecdotally backed up from the grapevine, is that Exalted simply didn’t have a proper Editor—someone to analyze and reign back enthusiastic writers. I suspect this is the root cause of many of the other issues as well.
There are so many Charms that a character can take, but the vast majority of them are simply boring. There are a significant portion of the charms that only do “dice tricks,” such as making 9’s and 8’s count as double successes. The sheer number of charms and their very technical nature turns the game into a bookkeeping nightmare.
I intend to shorten the number of charms, while condensing the effects. As well, the free-form nature of Strifes should allow people to create charm-like effects, opening up the field for creative expression that a designer could never account of.
One thing I notice when browsing the rules is that everything is overcomplicated. It’s not the worst I’ve ever seen, but there often seems to be rules for the sake of rules.
One of the most annoying things about 3e is not what it did, but what it didn’t do. Exalted has a huge problem with “siloed” play, where one and only one Player gets to play for large periods at a time.
This is an emergent property from multiple aspects of the game, none of which are individually wrong or bad, but together they pose a problem:
There is not a central method of “interacting” with the game. For contrast, think of DnD: It is primarily a combat simulator, and so all of its characters revolve around combat in some way. In Exalted, you can truly have characters of nearly all types: socialites, combatants, artists, detectives, etc.
There is a sub-system and rule for pretty much everything. Craft, Leadership, Social, Sailing.
Most of the sub-systems are quite complex, and require time and effort to interact with it. Often, combat can last an entire session.
The mechanics encourage specialization of characters.
All of this together means that there is a decent chance a Player will come into a session, spend hours in a session, yet have nothing their character can do. This disengages players from the actual game, and is simply not a good outcome to have.
Fixing this is not an easy issue. I am attempting to make sure that every character has at least a base-level competency in the game and each sub-system, while making sure that different Players shine at different types of scenes. Socialites can beguile, distract, and otherwise harry enemies in combat, but do not have the raw destructive power of a combat character. Tinkerers can talk fast and with gusto in a social scene, but will not be able to manipulate and wrap characters around their fingers like a socialite.
Another way to help ease this problem relates to the next issue:
3e has a sub-system for everything, and they are all very self-contained. In the gaming industry, there is something called “The Decker Problem,” which is named from Shadowrun’s Decker class. The problem arises because the “Decker” character is a hacker who remains behind and helps the party remotely. The idea for asymmetrical play is not bad, but in practice it means that the Decker Player is playing one game, and the rest of the party is playing an other. Balancing those two “games” properly is nearly impossible, and will often leave both groups dissatisfied.
Exalted is filled with the Decker Problem. Almost every ability has its own sub-system, and each one is independent of the main group. Some are fine, like Larceny and Investigation simply being small details of the established core rules. Others, like Craft and Sail, go completely off in their own direction leaving all other players behind.
3e’s Craft system is an abomination, and fails at all levels. What is 1/25 of the game is given 5 filled pages just to explain the base rules of Crafting. It operates completely independently of other rules, with a completely different mentality, and introducing three new tracked resources. If this was a game dedicated to crafting, it might be acceptable, but this is just one ability among many.
What is worst is that the Craft system introduces the very problem it is trying to avoid: players generating artifacts for free. With the right powers, this becomes trivial.
For my solution, Crafters will operate just the same as every other ability, and long-term creations (such as artifacts) will be handled through the Project system—just like any other creation.