Saturday, March 12, 2022

(Exalted 3e) Hundred Devils Night Parade

 All hands on deck, there's a new Exalted book! Truthfully, I think at this point I'm still coasting on the memory of being deep in the fandom around ten years ago, but those memories are still fond enough for me to make Exalted a high priority. Hundred Devils Night Parade didn't rekindle my obsession with the series, but it was a worthy entry, and I enjoyed the detour.

Of course, monster books are usually pretty easy. They're just a series of cool fantasy ideas, each individually short enough that even the duds don't wear out their welcome. I suppose you could screw one up by having long stretches of picayune variations on a small number of generic templates, but I'm hard pressed to think of any examples of that particular error. Most of the time, it's damned near impossible to get bored with a monster book.

Hundred Devils Night Parade is better than most, because it's beautifully illustrated in full color and because Exalted, as a game line, prides itself on not doing the obvious. Sometimes, they'll do the second-most-obvious thing, as with this book's bloodthirsty unicorns, but with the exception of some of the animals (especially spiders and giant constrictor snakes, which are so obligatory to the pulp genre that it's a wonder they weren't in the core), nothing in here feels obligatory. Everything feels like it had to survive a pitch.

Maybe that's down to the book's origins as a series of small pdfs, each featuring a pair of creatures. If it's not interesting enough to secure 50% of a sale, just by name, then it was never going to see print. I can't say I've warmed to the format, now that I've seen all the entries, but luckily, I don't have to. I bought the compilation, and it feels like it's assembled from nothing but highlights.

Depending on your disposition, you may or may not consider that a weakness. In addition to being generally pretty interesting, it also feels like a deliberately broad cross-section of the setting's non-human antagonists. It has five chapters, and it could probably be spun off into at least 3, maybe 4 books. "The Dead" could anchor a whole monster book. "Demons" (one half of chapter 3) could anchor a whole book. "Strange Beasts" and "Animals" could be a full book together. "Elementals" and "Creatures of the Wyld" feel legitimately like partial books (because there's never been a great setting reason for distinguishing elementals from gods or creatures of the wyld from Creation's general fauna), but it wouldn't seem outrageous to try and stretch them out. There's an admirable diversity here, providing something useful, no matter which direction you want to take your Exalted game, but it also means that if you warm to a particular subject, and are inspired to start, say, a demon-hunter campaign, then you don't have a lot of guidance to expand outwards.

As far as the mechanics go, I'm long out of practice, especially with 3e, but I'm going to say that they mostly look fine, in the sense that the typical creature has 2-3 tricks that will make its combat interesting before they are inevitably slain by the PCs, though I also did not get the impression that 3rd edition has fully solved the problem of making non-Exalted opposition truly feel like credible threats. 

This is a subtle issue, and maybe a lot of Exalted fans are going to disagree with me here, but historically, "group of heroes take on a big, dangerous monster and it is only by pushing their abilities to the limit that they were able to prevail" has been the one thing that's both ubiquitous in its media inspirations, and also nearly impossible to model with the rules. What it comes down to is that Exalted's charm system is a complex minigame where PCs and PC-analogue enemies, have a plethora of options, and non-Exalts, as creatures who do not have charms, have few, if any, answers to those options. The monster can roar all it wants, but it's going to be limited to single digit accuracy while PCs can drop +5 to defense whenever they are targeted with an attack, and even a single solar is able to break the action economy over their knee.

Third edition's Quick Characters are a step forward, in that even normal animals have a variety of special actions (I'd reckon that an auroch is as complex as any non-spellcaster from AD&D's Monstrous Manual, for example), but while the fight's more interesting than before, it's still incredibly one-sided.

Of course, maybe a demigod should have a relatively easy time taking on an angry cow, but it becomes a bit more problematic when you have Keregost, the hundred-handed giant, and he's only rolling 9 dice to attack, and can, once per scene, make a second attack in a single round (for 15m, 1w, making it by far the worst extra action charm I've ever seen - on a creature defined by its unnatural capability for taking multiple actions).  It can also detach its arms to form a battle group, but that's just a good way to lose a shit load of arms.

I probably shouldn't complain too much about a single understatted monster, but it's kind of emblematic of Exalted's worst tendency - the way it can sometimes act like the main characters being the top of the human power curve means that nothing should be able to threaten them. Call me naive, but I don't think it really reduces the mystique of the Dawn Caste if an experienced solar warrior could be put on the back foot by a behemoth so horrifying it can't even be depicted on the page (Keregost has 8 visible arms on his right side and one visible left arm in his art, and even if you assume symmetry, that's 84 short). "You're such a badass that the sorcerers had to give this guy 49 extra heads to be able to beat you," sounds plenty epic to me.

Another issue is that they didn't make these simplified creatures quite simple enough. The ones who can use magic are still left tracking motes. In a character without a full charm suite, this is a completely vestigial mechanic. You've only give them a half-dozen charms, to represent the tricks that they're going to pull out in the 3-5 rounds they're estimated to live, you don't also have to budget their whole day. It's just an extra layer of tracking that obfuscates the fact that you want to treat these fights as asymmetrical challenges. If you're not designing your boss encounters to be able to tank a full party's action economy, then the fact that you've attached a 5m cost to their basic defense charm means only that it now has a hard deadline before the PCs mote tap it and take it apart.

Don't get me wrong, Hundred Devils Night Parade gets closer to getting it right than any Exalted book I've seen so far (and I've seen all of them), but it still has a long way to go. 

Anyway, with all that said, I'd count this one as a top-tier monster book. Sometimes it's not going to matter that the PCs will utterly destroy a monster. Sometimes, they might have bad builds, or be mortals, or maybe you'll just be inspired by the amazing flavor. My notes are four pages long, and approximately three of those pages are me just copying down something I liked - Ankou, the first death of the year who gets conscripted to act as the grim reaper until the next Ankou is chose, incredibly pretentious cloud people, you can go full circle with the Final Fantasy inspiration and ride a giant terror bird,  unless you prefer an enormous stick insect, plus I suspect the author of the elephant section was almost as impressed with them as I am.

Ukss Contribution: The toughest part of this entry is going to be narrowing it down. I wasn't kidding about my notes. I think I'm going to go with the Cloud People, though. And my reason for this is purely pragmatic. I have a certain region on Ukss, the Funnelcloud Plains, that I've been having a hard time developing, but between the Storm Kings, the lightning people, and now the cloud people, I'm starting to get some ideas for how it might work out.

1 comment:

  1. My Exalted days are mostly done, but the Ankou sounds pretty cool.