Saturday, April 20, 2019

Exalted, 3rd Edition Core - Chapters 3-5

Must . . . resist . . . urge . . . to rewrite . . . Exalted.

It's not that Exalted 3rd edition is bad. In fact, it may well be the second-best version of the game ever written (admittedly, this sentiment may be the product of a personal bias). It's just that there are so many flaws.

Some of these flaws are legacies of the Storyteller system, like the half-assed approach to the skill list, which has ~25 skills, of which ~15 have rigorous mechanics attached, or the fact that extended rolls have dubious utility, for all the extra rolling they require, or that Appearance is basically an attribute in search of a niche, or the xp/bonus point split which can lead to dramatically unbalanced characters if the players don't spend their points in exactly the right order.

Other flaws are things that look like they might have been promising ideas that were underdeveloped. For example, the Project system is less a system for statecraft and bureaucracy, and more GMing advice for longer-term plots. And the Lore system takes a very ambitious approach to knowledgeable characters, giving their players some incidental dramatic-editing abilities and explicit co-ownership of the setting, but in the process introduces a new, fuzzily-defined category of trait that doesn't map to anything on a regular character sheet while simultaneously stepping on the already existing niche of Specialties, and having no counterpart in other knowledge focused abilities like Occult and Bureaucracy.

And the crafting system . . . I could write a whole post about Exalted 3rd Edition's crafting system alone. It fails in such interesting ways. It ties crafting to a meta-resource that has no clear analogue in the narrative, and is clearly meant as a pacing device for artifact creation, but then gathering this resource requires foregrounding crafting activities in such an obvious and intrusive way, but also, often in a manner that conflicts with the game's general heroic tone . . .

It's not totally unsalvageable. In fact, it kind of resembles the Quest system from Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, a mechanic on which I am prepared to heap limitless praise. It's just that Ex3's crafting is sort of like a Chuubo's quest done badly. Crafting projects are divided into tiers and for every tier past the first, you require increasingly-rarefied crafting xp in order to be allowed the privilege of making one roll in a high-threshold extended roll. You get these xp when a lower-level crafting project is plot-significant in one of three strictly defined ways.

It could work, but there are several problems. The first is that there's one too many tiers. Basic projects are free and earn you silver xp. Major projects require silver xp and earn you gold xp. Superior projects require gold xp and earn white xp. Legendary projects require white xp.

Yet the distinction between basic and major projects is poorly defined, and to the degree that it's intelligible at all, it's aggressively anti-fun. The easiest way to explain it - basic projects are ordinary, mundane items. Major projects are ordinary, mundane, and useful items. Want to forge a sword for your friend to carry into battle? Better hope you made 3-5 plot-significant horse shoes in the last month, minimum.

Which brings us to the second problem with the system. Crafting XP costs to complete projects are far too high, compared to the reward for completing crafting projects. Each advanced crafting roll requires 10 xp. Each successful project rewards a maximum of 9 xp (and the most likely result is closer to 2 xp). This is especially exacerbated by high-level projects that are certain to require multiple rolls. Building an artifact may well need 40-60 gold xp, every 5 of which will need 10 silver xp to earn (at least).

And that's as good a segue as any into the third main problem with the crafting system: the ways in which you earn crafting xp are excessively strict. You gain crafting xp if the project created or strengthened an intimacy towards you, the project produced a clear in-game benefit like a payment or Merit, or the project advanced or upheld one of the crafter's intimacies. For those who are not familiar with the Exalted rules, all three of those are kind of Big Deals. They don't necessarily have to be. Your GM can be generous with what counts as a "benefit" and you could pick an intimacy for yourself that would almost always be upheld by nearly any crafting project. But by default, each of those conditions is something you have to put some effort into.

If I were to "fix" the crafting system, I'd probably consolidate basic and major projects into a single tier, halve the xp costs of making high-tier crafting rolls, and change the xp reward requirement to "whenever something the character crafts is used as part of a stunt, they gain appropriate tier crafting xp equal to the stunt level, no cap, but max 1 reward per scene."

(Also, I'd chuck most of the Craft charms into the garbage, but I'm not supposed to know about those yet).

Although, the thing about fixing the crafting system is that it elides how weird it is that crafting is the only part of Exalted 3rd edition that works that way. It's a very meta mechanic in a system that ultimately is pretty concrete. No other Ability has its own special xp track that you fill by socially influencing people in tenuously connected ways. Nothing else requires you to dedicate a significant portion of your character's spotlight time to unrelated projects in order to earn narrative permission to do what you really want to do. It's not necessarily bad that Ex3 does this. Maybe the game as a whole would be better if it were more like Chuubo's. But it is . . . notable.

So why, if I've spent so much time complaining and nitpicking about Exalted 3rd Edition's system, am I willing to say that it's the best edition yet (setting aside my personal vanity)?

It's because, despite its shortcomings in other areas, it absolutely nails the two most important arenas of any Exalted game - social influence and combat.

The social influence system doesn't really do anything ground-breaking or surprising, but it is robust, functional, and complex enough to allow for multiple strategies. I have nothing bad to say about it.

Exalted 3rd edition's combat system, however, is a genuine accomplishment. I do have bad things I could say about it, but honestly, those complaints are only possible because the system itself is so uniquely inspired.

The way combat works is that every participant has an Initiative track that acts as a sort of abstract representation of the character's overall combat advantage. Most attacks you make will reduce an enemy's Initiative and increase your own. When you've accumulated enough Initiative, you can gamble it on a Decisive Attack, which uses your Initiative as its damage rating and potentially end the fight in a single stroke.

Overall, it very beautifully emulates the back-and-forth of a cinematic duel. No other combat system works as well at recreating the Westley-Inigo duel from Princess Bride, for example. And it's a very fruitful system for providing lots of different hooks for a ton of distinctive martial arts. And Gambits (decisive attacks that do things other than straight damage, like disarming your opponent) open up a ton of fun possibilities.

In fact, the system works so well for modeling dramatic back-and-forth between two opposing sides that I've been tempted to hack it into a generic scene-resolution system for things like heists, chases, and high-level business maneuvers.

I like the system so much that it feels almost churlish to point out that it doesn't really work for group-vs-group brawls, especially when there is a significant difference in combat ability between teammates. Or that the specific implementation in Ex3 does not mesh elegantly with the mass-combat system, leading to bizarre situations where even quite large armies are strictly inferior to 2-3 opponents, run as individuals. Or that the balance of weapon stats is out of whack due to the dramatically higher utility of accuracy as compared to damage.

That's probably why it's so tempting for me to rewrite Exalted 3rd edition. It has so many flaws, but each of those flaws, individually, is so small that it would be easy for me to correct them. It's an amazing game that is so close to being spectacular that the urge to tinker is never far from my mind.

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