Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Exalted, 3rd Edition Core - Chapter 6

Whew, this was a tough one to get through. Not because it was tedious (it was, but that doesn't bother me in and of itself), but because this is the part of the book I have the biggest disagreement with. The fundamental design philosophy behind this part of the game is one that I think is severely misguided, and it was difficult for me to read through even a dozen pages at a time without grumbling about how I could do it better and then getting sidetracked for 20 minutes while I daydreamed about how exactly I would execute my vision.

It feels a little weird that I spend so much of my time reading my favorite version of my favorite game in ripping it apart and pointing out its flaws. It makes it seem like I think the game is bad, and by and large, I don't (though don't ask my opinion while I'm reading the Craft tree). I think it's more that I am both highly familiar with the ins-and-outs of Exalted and highly motivated to "improve" it. I think back to a game like Heroes Unlimited, which was worse in just about every way, and I didn't spend even a tenth the time in trying to come up with fixes.

So how would I "fix" Exalted 3rd Edition's charm chapter? Is burning it all down and starting over an option? No? Sigh.

Okay, so there's a lot of good stuff here. Some charms that have really fun ideas behind them, especially in the combat abilities, where the designers manage to squeeze some interesting tricks out of the nuances of the system (like the Brawl charm Solar Cross Counter, which breaks the normal Initiative economy to let you counter a withering attack with a decisive attack whose power is based on the amount of Initiative you just lost).

Where the chapter goes wrong is in the curation of the set as a whole. Because for every fun charm that lets you assess a chef's emotional state by tasting their cooking, you've got another that is actively anti-fun, like any one of the fifteen that give you "double 9s" on some task of varying interest.

Like, I get what double 9s are going for as a mechanic. It's easily described - all of the 9s you roll count as two successes instead of one, automatically scales with your dice pools, and has a high potential variance. Adding double 9s to your roll is roughly equivalent to increasing your dice pool's size by 20%, but maybe something weird happens and you roll six 9s. Suddenly that 1 mote you spent is responsible for changing a good roll into a legendary one.

And I really have no problem with double 9s as a mechanic. It's a nifty little bonus that you can add to a roll that will probably not do much of anything except in the rare instances when it dramatically blows up and creates a memorable event. That's fun. What's not fun is that every double 9s charm has its own poetic exalted-style name. Squint at your character sheet. What do Impassioned Orator Technique, Perfect Harmony Technique, and Graceful Reed Dancing do? Trick question, they all add double 9s to a different subset of your Performance rolls. All three charms are from the same Ability! They all do the same, not very powerful and only intermittently interesting thing, but you have to buy them separately unless you only want to focus on one particular Performance specialty. They exist less to make your character more powerful and more to force you to invest more resources if you want to exploit different facets of an overly broad Ability (actually, Performance is probably fine as it is, and it's more like the designers are passive-aggressively complaining about verisimilitude "having a high Performance automatically makes you a great singer, dancer, and actor?! What if you want to play a performer who's not a triple-threat?!")

And another thing about double 9s - every time you use one of these barely-a-charm charms, it costs you a mote. That's a mark on your character sheet. And a thing you have to remember to do in the first place. And an additional thing you have to factor into your overall strategic considerations ("is a most-likely 20% boost to my dice pool worth potentially being 1 mote short of using a stronger move later in the scene?"). The idea is that you can pull together all these little charms around your bomb moves and unleash an out-of-control Voltron of Solar magic, or just use them separately for the occasional nudge in the right direction, and that is the essential strategy of the game. But it's just too much.

Far be it for me to begrudge tedious number crunching and obsessive optimization. Those are central pillars to some of my favorite video games. But this isn't a video game. It's a tabletop roleplaying game, and it's not just your time you're wasting.

Maybe it's just residual trauma from being the GM of a dozen or so different games where I was the only one at the table who knew the rules, but I really resent when a game's basic mechanics send you running for the rulebook every time a player takes a turn.

(And to be 100% fair, this is not a problem I particularly solved with my version of Exalted 2nd edition, but you have to keep in mind that that version of the game was personally optimized for my brain, and so its various complexities were no problem for its audience of one).

A lot of ink has been spilled in the rpg community over the difference between "rules light"and "rules heavy" rpgs. There are important philosophical differences between the approaches, and the classical gaming canon has plenty of examples of both types of game. However, I think when you compare rules-light to rules-heavy, you're mostly making an aesthetic argument. Neither approach is intrinsically superior to the other. I think if you're going to have a discussion about good design vs bad design, then what you should really be focusing on is cognitive load.

(This is actually A Thing in psychology, and my apologies in advance to people who are familiar with it from there, but I'm going to use the term in my own idiosyncratic way).

What I mean by "cognitive load" is "the number of individual things you have to remember at any given moment before you're able to move on with the game."

Rules-light games have an intrinsic advantage here, having fewer rules overall, but there are nuances. You can have a small number of rules total, but even a few rules interactions can lead to out-of-control complexity. "Use rule 1 all the time, but add rule 2 in situations A,B,and C and rule 3 in situations B, C, and D, and though for most B and C situations rules 2 and 3 are compatible, sometimes they contradict, in which case use rule 4 instead." Suddenly, you're going through a whole flow chart every time anyone wants to do anything.

Or maybe it's like the old Storyteller system's multiple action rule - simple enough to remember, but requiring significant math every time it's invoked (and it was invoked all the time, because taking only one action per turn was suicidal).

Similary, there are tricks you can use to reduce the cognitive load in rules-heavy systems. Mnemonic devices like keywords and tags. Or being super consistent with your roll modifiers (this was one big flaw with the d20 system - plenty of modifiers to your basic attributes, which would have cascading effects on derived statistics) Or siloing your subsystems so that you only have to reference a small portion of the book at any given time. Also, and this isn't going to apply very often, I admit, but I can tell you from experience that writing the whole book yourself gives you a huge discount on cognitive load (despite appearances, that's more of a warning than a brag - always get a stranger to playtest your work, people, and remember that your playtesters will become acclimated to your complexity in time).

Personally, I enjoy rules-heavy games, but because I've played quite a few of them, I can tell you that managing cognitive load is more of an art than a science. There's a huge mental difference between a game that has 100 different rules for 100 different things and a game that only has rules for 10 things, but requires you to memorize 10 sets of 10 rules to do them. In practice the second set-up tends to feel a lot more onerous than the first. Or, at least, it does to someone who's brain works like mine.

If you disregard the charms section, Exalted 3rd edition is more like the good kind of rules-heavy than the bad. But, look, when I was complaining about double 9s, that was only the tip of the iceberg. There are charms that require you to reroll 5s and 6s until 5s and 6s no longer appear. Charms that take the 1s and 2s on an opponent's roll and add them as 10s onto yours. Charms that add dice based on how many penalties your roll is facing, and which require division to use. And in a lot of cases, these charms can be used together. (This is the main driver of my distaste for the craft tree, which has both more unique dice tricks and more opportunities to use multiple tricks on the same roll than any other Ability, and when you add on top of that the three extra resources it adds on top of an already fiddly resource management system, it quickly becomes an exemplar of everything I hate about rules-heavy design).

There's always going to be a tradeoff. You can't give people more options and more strategic depth without also increasing their cognitive load, and no version of Exalted is ever going to be breezier than the best rules-light games. That's fine. That complexity is part of the whole reason people play Exalted in the first place. But you have to think in terms of a complexity budget, and spend that budget effectively. And the charms chapter simply doesn't do that. It gives you a lot of stuff to write on your character sheet, but most of those things make the game experience worse.


  1. The lists of Charms without any useful knowledge on how to use them has always been the worst part of Exalted NPCs.


    1. Ironically, that's something that 3rd edition has improved upon, at least as far as the core is concerned.