Monday, November 8, 2021

(Exalted 3e) Heirs to the Shogunate

Heirs to the Shogunate is the longest overflow book I've ever seen. It's more than 250 pages! It's longer than some full core books. Maybe that's just Exalted 3rd edition's signature style - it's the really long roleplaying game. Or maybe it's a consequence of being a kickstarter reward book. People gave Onyx Path a lot of money to make this thing, and so Onyx Path made sure they got their money's worth.

The most intuitive use for all this material is just to think of it as more pages added to Dragon-Blooded: What Fire Has Wrought. That does mean that, in this construction, the 3rd edition Dragon-Blooded book is a 600 page monstrosity, but honestly, that's what reading this felt like. There were multiple times when I had to stop reading and go back and consult What Fire Has Wrought to remind me of some necessary context. This was especially necessary when it came to expansions on some of 3e's new material - like the Cult of the Violet Fang, an Outcaste group of Exalted who have unholy and incestuous ties to the Fair Folk, a pretty darned cool group of rpg characters I'd entirely forgotten about because their canon thus far has been one paragraph in a book I last read 2 years ago.

As much as I enjoyed it, large portions of this book feel like picking up in the middle of a conversation, and ironically, the more space devoted to a subject in What Fire Has Wrought, the less well it works here. I think probably because the stuff that got a lot of wordcount has already had its strongest material see print. Lookshy got the bulk of a chapter and so when they pick up talking about it here, it feels like we're seeing stuff that was expendable enough to get cut from the chapter. This is less of an issue for Prasad, a new region that has gotten little development, almost a non-issue for Heaven's Dragons, a group that was little more than a pitch, and a complete non-issue for modular setting elements like NPCs, Artifacts, and Charms.

It's that last bit that most gets me. One of the best parts of an Exalted 3rd Edition book is the charms! Wild. I credit the Kickstarter backers. A lot of these were specifically requested as part of a reward tier (and then, presumably, the others were added to fill out the charm trees) and it wouldn't be a much of a reward if it wasn't a cool signature move. I especially liked the charm that allowed you to enchant magical masks, the one that let you create cool clothes out of elemental energy, and the one that let you drag your enemies into the earth. The non-backer charms are pretty good too, and I'm just going to assume that the authors were inspired to raise their game. Plus, there was no need to resort to the apocryphal keyword, which is a nice change of pace from 3rd edition's other book of kickstarter reward charms.

I think where I'm at is that this book of odds and ends is at its best when it's sticking to odds and ends. I loved the entire artifacts chapter. The NPC chapter was a source of much-appreciated gossip. The expansion of miscellaneous outcaste groups worked pretty well. The chapters devoted to larger groups . . .

I don't know. I guess the thing that bugs me about them is that they all seem to dive right in and start talking about large extended families, and somewhere around the fifth or sixth overly-controlling aristocratic family with an elaborate web of alliances and rivalries it starts to feel a bit repetitive. I may, at one point have exclaimed, "Lookshy's Gentes are just the Realm's Dynastic Houses with weaker branding!" (And if I didn't exclaim it, I was certainly thinking it very loudly).

It makes sense. The Dragon-Blooded are the type of Exalted that have hereditary magical powers, and so they've automatically got all these siblings and ancestors and cousins and whatnot who have similar magical powers and you're going to want to know about their goings-on. I don't want to be a grump and complain about yet another well-worked-out fantasy genealogy, but I wouldn't mind seeing more structural variation in the different groups. Lookshy is a militaristic bureaucratic state with a very modern presentation (it's ruled by "The General Staff" and has an "Operations Directorate"), so maybe it could place less emphasis on lineage.

Or maybe not. "Magical Aristocrats" is practically a genre all its own, and so why not have more than one way to do it? I think I'm just cranky because apparently I have a hitherto unexamined "maximum density of aristocrats" that has been reached for the first time ever (someone remind me of this joke when I read the Game of Thrones rpg, though).

Actually, I think if you use this book in its most relevant context - as reference for building a game around one of the example groups, it will largely be fine. No real need to read them all back-to-back unless you're writing a blog post about the book.

The only thing I'd really count as a flaw is more of a meta-issue. The Lookshy chapter talks about their relationship with the Forest Witches. The Prasad chapter talks about their ambitions for the Dreaming Sea and antagonistic relationship with Ysr and Volivat. The example scenario "The War in the West" features a naval campaign where House Peleps goes up against Azure, Skullstone, and the Wavecrest Archipelago. 

Those locations are all thousands of miles apart. It's one of those things that's a common understanding in the community - that the Exalted map's scale is so huge that there is room in the blank spaces for entire regions of multiple countries, each as important as anything in canon. And yet, when the game gets concrete and talks about things like international relations or Big Plots, the same set of canon locations keeps coming up. This is regarded by many as one of the great failings of second edition, and it's a little weird to see it crop up again here.

Then again, what are they going to do, invent a whole bunch of new places we have zero investment in, just to fill out space in some fairly conventional setting and campaign descriptions? It's unclear how much of its own thing Heirs to the Shogunate is supposed to be, so it may not be worth the effort to put in novel information that could better fit inside its own dedicated product. An upcoming Dreaming Sea supplement may well have a dozen new locations for Prasad to antagonize.

Overall, I liked this book. I like Exalted, and this is more Exalted. It's not complicated. I actually have no problem with the Dragon-Blooded book being 600 pages long.

Ukss Contribution: I really love the whole vibe of the Forest Witches - here are a bunch of magical mysteries all stacked on top of each other and there's a cult of arrogant hedonists who are camped out nearby to take advantage of them. But a "vibe" is a vague thing to try and appropriate (plus I'm going to get another bite at this particular apple when I read 1st edition's Outcastes book).

I could also choose one of the new artifacts. I loved all of them, especially the way that each one came with its own built-in story. The magic whip that thwarts cattle rustlers and the mysterious orb that teaches sorcery and leads its wielder to lost treasures were particular standouts.

However, I think the thing that's going to linger longest is just an incidental scrap of information - one of the various heroes who owned the magical courthouse boat defeated a pirate named "Jill-of-the-Nine-Lives" and even though we know very little else about this battle (Jill apparently captained a living ship and captured slaves), I just happen to think that's an awesome pirate name.

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