Minor confession: I have another place where I talk about Exalted books. I know, I know, it's a betrayal, but I started that thread in 2014 and I feel like maybe it's earned the right to first dibs on all my new Exalted books from here on out. Call it sentimentality. Call it a commitment to order. Either way, once or twice a year, the blog is going to get the scraps.
But they're going to be good scraps! I promise. Don't think of it as me giving my best material to another venue, think of it as a dedicated thread allowing me to offload my petty and concrete observations in order to free me to think about more abstract matters.
Yeah. That's the ticket.
Today I'm going to talk about something strange I noticed while reading this book, and how I think it raises some important questions unique to tabletop rpg design.
First, though, a bit of background. This book is about a faction in Exalted called The Dragon-Blooded. There's several unique things about them, but the most important is that, alone of all the major Exalted types, they can pass their magical powers down to their children. The largest and most powerful group of Dragon-Blooded in the setting is an extended family, descended with varying degrees of legitimacy, from the Scarlet Empress. They're called The Dynasty and since the Empress' disappearance, they have been competing with each other to see who gets to rule the Realm.
The thing about the Dynasty is that they're ruthless imperialists, plundering the nations of the world to bring back massive amounts of tribute to support their bloated, parasitical lifestyles. The other thing about the Dynasty is that they are an authoritarian matriarchy, where women, especially mothers, have institutional, legal, and social privileges. The third thing about the Dynasty is that, due to new children being potentially new Dragon-Blooded (and thus wielders of incredible magical powers), they are obsessed with fertility and marriage. There's a sort of minimum quota of children that each couple should have if they want to stay in the good graces of their noble house.
The final thing about the Dynasty is that they're remarkably LGBTQ friendly.
They made an obnoxiously right wing society and then made them super casual about the one thing the right wing obsesses about above all others. It doesn't track.
But it makes perfect sense why they did it. They Dynasty is a player-character group. They're sort of the default group for you to be a part of when you make a Dragon-Blooded character. Even the other potential options are largely defined by their relationship with the Dynasty. So if you're an LGBTQ player and you want to create a character like yourself, you can, and be comfortable in the knowledge that nothing in the text justifies random NPCs acting like an ass towards you because of your identity.
I like that. It's a very humane way of handling the issue. Tabletop rpgs are a very immersive form of entertainment, and the fictional bigotry of the characters in the story can feel a lot more like real bigotry than it would in a novel (or, worse, be used as a cover for real bigotry from your fellow players - that's got to be the worst feeling there is). So to have the text give no excuses and no occasion for it, that's a useful thing to help marginalized people enjoy the game.
How much, then, does it matter that it's done in a transparently post hoc way? You'd never give the Realm that sort of easy-going approach to gender and sexuality if you were writing them into a novel, or a movie, or even a video game. Not only does it feel inconsistent with the society's other values, you'd also lose a whole bunch of potential drama, conflict, and social and philosophical speculation.
I think those are captivating conflicts and fascinating questions. What if you're trans or gay in a culture where heterosexuality is rewarded with super-powered babies and thus is mandated by state, society, and god? You could make a very interesting fantasy antagonist out of the consistently right-wing Realm.
But maybe, when we're talking about a game, there are more important things than being interesting. Maybe drama, conflict, and social and philosophical speculation should take a back seat to everyone feeling welcome and comfortable and able to indulge in high-budget fantasy mayhem without having to explore the limits of their identity all the time.
So there you have it. If you play Exalted and you wind up being chased by implacable religious fanatics who want to kill you over something you don't control, it will be because you have the wrong kind of superpowers, not because of who you love. There's something beautiful in that.