Thursday, June 24, 2021

Exalted (1e Core)

 This one should not have taken as long as it did. I mostly blame the hectic schedule at work (seriously, we're getting full houses mid-week now, which is unprecedented, even for summer), but I'm also going to put a little bit of the blame on the fact that I'm reading the basic Storyteller system rules for what must be the hundredth time in my life and it's getting harder and harder to muster my enthusiasm for the chore.

So you're not going to get me rapturously describing the experience of having target numbers explained to me, but if you can live with the disappointment, I'd be happy to share my feelings about the Exalted-specific stuff.

It's actually a harder task than I anticipated, though. Primarily because at this point in my life "Exalted" is less a specific game and more this seething mass of lore from a hundred different sources, of which only two-thirds or so are canonical. There's this urge I have to really narrow-focus on fantastically minor details - there's at least one flame war out there that I'll need to retroactively concede because it turns out that a part of the setting I didn't like was, indeed, in the core book from the very beginning (I mean, how can the regent of the empire of super-powered warrior-aristocrats not, himself, have superpowers, considering said superpowers are the primary theological justification for the regime's legitimacy - even so, Fokuf was a mortal, my bad).

However, I ultimately decided that I didn't want to do that as a post, because who the fuck cares, right. It was shortly after writing "Forest Witches, whoa!" that I resolved to just stop making those kinds of notes entirely. What I want to talk about, instead, is the experience of having a franchise that I truly, genuinely love, and then going back to the very beginning, before it truly became itself.

And the nitpicking is part of it, to be sure. Like, you could interpret the various dangling plot hooks as predictions - what did the authors of the first Exalted book think the fans would be interested in? What did they get wrong?

Except that Exalted has a pretty good hit rate. Something like 95% of the stuff name-dropped in the core gets expanded later on, usually into something pretty cool. There are a couple of places here that feel like they're initially pitched as villainously fascist that I know will later suffer from depictions that are a bit too close to "fascist apologist," but even so, they're good locations that are fine additions to the world of Creation . . . in the hands of writers who understand how horrible they're supposed to be. There's one location, Port Calin, that I like to pick on for being oversold, despite getting absolutely no traction with any subset of the fandom, but it's not actually in the core. I believe it's first introduced in one of the novels . . .

And OMG, I'm doing it. The thing I said two paragraphs ago that I didn't want to do (and yet, I'll be damned before I go back and edit them out, the only pedal in this car is an accelerator!), but that's the temptation of being a super fan. So . . . many . . . details.

But despite my endless appetite for discussing them, that wasn't my main experience with the book. Maybe it's all the draining emotional labor I've had to do over the last few days, but what was really going through my mind was a question - "why isn't this making me feel the way Exalted used to make me feel?"

I'm lucky in that I have clear documentation of the last time I read this specific book. However, I'm unlucky in that my old take was almost exactly the sort of post I didn't want to write. Damn you, young(er) John, talk more about your feelings so I can mine them for content!

But honestly, that's an unfruitful source of drama anyways. The only real objection I'd take with my old post is that there's a certain trope I called out as unsatisfying that I would, today, consider "highly problematic."

2014 John:

I finished my reading for today with the section on Wyld Barbarians, and again, it is an example of strong material that nonetheless makes the setting feel smaller. Basically, I feel like most of the example wyld barbarians would have worked better as normal cultures that existed in the blank areas of the map. I think it would have served to make the directions more diverse.

I'm not loving my use of the world "normal," but this is pre Complete Barbarian's Handbook me, so I didn't think of "barbarian" as a racial term (I know, I know). I can reconstruct my line of reasoning here - the key word was "wyld." That's the setting's term for land that existed outside of the physical laws of Creation, and thus "wyld barbarian" really means "expatriates in faerieland." And I think what young me was picking up on is that these people, who the book calls "wyld barbarians" are actually described in unusually . . . anthropological terms.

Like, what do we know about these people? Well, there is a lot of talk about their crafts and their religion, so much so that I know more about the specific tools made by the Northern Barbarians than I do about the ones made in Nexus (a city that gets 5 pages to itself). And when the book says "Southwestern warriors believe that if they eat the brain and liver of fallen foes, the foes' ghosts become the slaves of the tribesman's ancestors" that's just a specific and interesting cultural belief (that the book infuriatingly refuses to confirm or contradict, because while ghosts are definitely real in Creation, we can't be sure that "barbarians" know how they work).

So I can see how younger me might have thought that there was no reason to make any of these people into faerieland mutants. If a group of people wants to make deals with spirits or wear pangolin scales as armor, that could just be part of the cultural tapestry of Creation.

What I didn't pick up on is that this is a trope. The cultures we're talking about are thoroughly depraved. The best of them raid their neighbors for resources, the worst are cannibals and rapists. They're basically orcs. I used a term "the blank areas of the map," and that's exactly what this is - the inhuman denizens of terra nullius that exist only as a threat or an obstacle, and whose cultures have nothing worthy of respect.

The fascinating thing about Exalted is that this is clearly a dodge. All that ugly D&D colonialist subtext is there, but you must understand, it's not that "tribesman" are the problem. It's only when they become corrupted by this alien magical force, the wyld (which can do all sorts of fantasy-radiation things like create animal human hybrids or make animals grow two heads) that they become irredeemable. Even as early as Scavenger Sons, the third book printed for the line, they were drawing a distinction between Icewalkers - a nomadic rural culture of loose clans that worshiped animal totems and occasionally raided cities - and the Northern Wyld Barbarians - pitiless murderers who cannot be reasoned with who are described (and this is me being generous with the book's intent) as neanderthals. 

It's an attempt to solve "the orc problem." Nobody is intrinsically an orc, but if you happen to live too close to the orcforce, well that's just what happens. And the fact that you call the orcforce victims "barbarians" and the settler-colonialists "civilized" is just a coincidence (oh, and no joke about the colonialist part - "Most barbarians in the West are concentrated in the Southwest, where the volcanic and coral islands offer poor harborage, and have thus never attracted settlement by more civilized inhabitants. Not that driving out the natives would be an easy task . . .")

Okay, so obviously it's not a coincidence. Exalted draws from the same well as early D&D. Just for fun, I cross-referenced, the "suggested resources" with Appendix N . . . and the crossover wasn't as thorough as I might have hoped, due to half of Exalted's suggestions being written post-1979, but Lord Dunsany was on both lists, Michael Moorcock was on both lists, and Lieber, Vance, and Howard all get call-outs in the Storytelling chapter. 

This is pulp fantasy, and that kind of colonialist bullshit is just deep in its DNA. Wyld Barbarians are just Exalted's way of trying to get around it - how do we make the leering cannibal natives that are a genre staple not seem quite so racist, well maybe if "leering cannibal" was a circumstance instead of a race. A stereotype can't be racist if it's not applied to a race.

Except, in practice, Wyld Barbarians were almost always treated like a race, thus negating the entire point.

Now, I don't want to pick on Exalted here. Or, at least, I don't want to single it out. I didn't pick up on any of this even as recently as seven years ago, and in a lot of other ways they were trying, but I know for a fact that this "civilization vs barbarism" theme is going to repeat a lot over the next few dozen books, and it's distressing that a book that so openly prides itself on not being D&D somehow managed to keep the one thing that was worst about it.

Although, if you want a nuclear-level take, I don't think Exalted does as great a job as separating itself from D&D as it thinks it does. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that Exalted was the first OSR game.

Not mechanically, I'll grant, but the setting, for all of its boldness, it's also weirdly Gygaxian. It tries to be "not-D&D," but in practice, that winds up being "D&D minus Tolkien," a figure whose influence Gygax himself famously resented. It's humans only, with no demihuman peoples except oddities like the Mountain Folk (faeries petrified by elemental earth), big, dangerous sorcery, and pulp influences galore. Playing it is like starting an AD&D game at level 9.

Which makes me extremely curious how well a synthesis would work. Exalted without Exalted. Set in Creation, but with an OSR ruleset. Scavenger Lords - a team of mortal savants, warriors, and adventurers who loot Solar tombs and First Age ruins, fighting bound demons, disarming cunning traps, and carting off extravagant treasures . . . despite not loving the style, I'm intrigued.

So, the thing I didn't appreciate in 2001 or 2014 or any of the years in between is how D&D's long shadow fell across Exalted as a game, but my shit-stirring notwithstanding, the things that I love about this game have a lot to do with the ways it broke from D&D (as young me understood it at the time). I love the way Exalted says "yes," even when, as a highly tactical rpg, it shouldn't. You can buy a Gem of Incomparable Wellness as a starting character and be basically unkillable by conventional means. It's not even that expensive. And it's not an accident. Making people unkillable is what the gem is supposed to do.

Or the Rune of Singular Hate. This was the spell that sold me on the game, though it was banished from later editions. It just straight up mauls any enemy you use it on, permanently reducing their stats and changing even terrible dragons and ancient ghost-kings into (metaphorical) pussy cats. And the only thing stopping you from using it is its ridiculous cost (a bunch of trait points that might add up to a hundred xp or more). A single use will absolutely wreck the setting, and there was none of that mealy-mouth Wish spell nonsense about "interpreting" it to minimize the damage. A player wants to burn their character out of spite for the big boss, you let them.

That blew my mind. I didn't know that rpgs could do that. It completely shifted my perception of what power levels meant and (eventually) the PCs' role in ownership of the setting. 

Although, I have to admit, I'm saying that mostly from memory. It's what I was expecting to feel while reading the book. It's what I wanted to feel while reading the book. But I was much too stressed to actually connect with it in that way. What I mostly wanted was more and deeper lore. Mainly because I know it's forthcoming and the stuff I'm seeing here is only the beginning.

Ukss Contribution: The tricky part here is keeping the proper objectivity to choose something based on what it is in the book, rather than what I know it will later become. A lot of stuff doesn't really become super interesting until it gets the spotlight in a later book. The Forest Witches are described as "bandits." The demon hierarchy is clearly not yet established.  Tepet Ejava is only a little bit Julius Caesar.

So I'll pick something that gets less interesting when it's expanded in a future supplement - the city-state of Paragon. It's ruled by a tyrant called "The Perfect" who extracts magical oaths from the citizens to always follow the laws. Second edition would become a little too enamored of the Perfect's authoritarian charisma, but for now it's just a neat fantasy idea.


  1. But see, Fokuf is regent exactly *because* he's mortal, because the powers that be insisted on a compromise that included an obviously feckless temporary head of state, and... Right, then. Stopping.

    Did the first book include the Perfect's use of an artifact to extract those oaths (complete with embedded magical surveillance), or was any of that added later?


    1. With regards to Paragon, the oaths are not yet artifact-driven, though that may just be a result of only getting a paragraph to establish the whole town.

      With Fokuf, my position is that the whole of the Realm's society revolves around the supremacy of the Dragon Blooded. The regent, even as an expendable cuttout, is technically giving orders. Immaculate theology is very clear that dragon-blooded instruct mortals, not the other way around. Thus to have a mortal regent, even if he is a puppet, flies in the face of the essential values of the Realm's government, religion, and society. But what gets me is that Fokuf is *such* an eccentric character that he doesn't really need a second axis of unsuitability. If he were Exalted, it would still be the case that he was obviously temporary. And if a mortal could be regent, it would be trivial to find someone less embarrassing.