Friday, March 31, 2023

(Exalted 3e) Adversaries of the Righteous

I'm not entirely clear on the dividing line between this book and Hundred Devils Night Parade - like, what gets to be an adversary of the righteous and what has to be a night-parading devil, but lack of a clearly defined niche isn't a terrible flaw in a monster manual. Maybe I should just think of it as two overlapping spectrums - Adversaries of the Righteous has human-like foes such as mortal sorcerers and rival exalts and Hundred Devils Night Parade has monstrous foes such as giant spiders and hundred-headed giants, but in between those two extremes, you've got things like lesser elemental dragons and scorpion folk that could have gone in either one.

But that's just the way of things, isn't it? Half the stuff in D&D's Monster Manual can talk, and we just politely pretend that doesn't mean anything. Oh, of course the manticore lives in a cave in a dank swamp, just because it's intelligent doesn't mean it has any interest in culture, industry, commerce, or politics. 

Maybe that could be a niche for Adversaries of the Righteous, all the enemies in this book do have an interest in at least one of those things. It certainly makes for some interesting encounters, even when the so-called adversary would be barely a threat for a regular mortal warrior, let alone a powerful exalt.

Seriously, it would be difficult to make a starting PC who wouldn't eat Omerek, the Scarlet Egg Player, alive, whether on the field of battle or in the social arena. You'd actually have to work at it. But he's got a good story attached to him. He was a servant to one of the Dragon-Blooded, but when his master died he stole his clothes and ran away to join a troupe of traveling actors. Now, he uses stagecraft to pretend he's a slumming Dynast, and his knowledge of the inner-workings of the Realm's nobility to help his theater troupe secure more lucrative contracts. Aside from perhaps running a mortals-focused game, the only conceivable challenge presented by this character is to help him keep getting away with it . . . but the book isn't called "Escort Missions of the Righteous," so I don't know. I guess we can chalk a few of these entries up to setting flavor, rather than potential adventures.

That's always been a strength of Exalted, though - combining setting flavor with mechanics. Throughout the book, we're repeatedly introduced to new locations, new plots, new fantasy possibilities, even as a particular entry is ostensibly about a single NPC.

Which is good, because I have my doubts about this book's utility for its stated purpose. You can definitely encounter all of these NPCs, and undoubtedly interact with them in entertaining ways, but if things go sour and the dice start hitting the table . . . who knows. Everyone's functional, at least at first glance, and they've got the numbers necessary to run them in combat, but are they easy, are they deadly, will your party be able to handle them? Good luck. 

But ultimately, if that sort of thing was a problem for you, you'd probably not be playing Exalted. Realistically, an Exalted monster book should probably just give you broad guidelines for powers (i.e. Siakal, the goddess of slaughter, can control and summon sharks; the lesser elemental dragons have deadly breath weapons, etc) and then just invite you to come up with statistics that suit your players' capabilities, but I can't say that would actually be better. This is a game that absolutely needs a challenge rating system, and which is almost entirely unsuited to have one. You're going to have to go full sandbox mode, no level gating, and hope the players enjoy discovering their limits the hard way.

So let's just write the mechanics off as a loss (though I say that in an affectionate way, I actually really enjoy Exalted's mechanical complexity, even as it makes me want to tear my hair out as a GM), and focus on this book's flavor. And from that perspective, I have to say that Adversaries of the Righteous has done a great job reminding me why I love Exalted.

I don't think there was a dud entry in the entire book (although the Liminal Exalted, as a whole, have so far felt like they're all hype - a casualty of 3rd edition's glacial release schedule, no doubt), and the best entries are entire campaign pitches all by themselves. Like all the best Exalted writing, this book combines weird fantasy with interpersonal drama with high magic spectacle with international political intrigue to come out with the purest strain of epic swords and sorcery adventure.

The entry that most typifies the book's strengths is probably Iron Tiger, the Wyrd of the Broken Sword. A young man was destined to take up his ancestral sword and become a bandit, a prince, and eventually an emperor who would unite the Hundred Kingdoms. But on the day of his first battle, the sword broke, and derailed destiny. Now, the spirit of the sword has taken the form of a young female warrior, and is encouraging the now foppish young man to seize his kingdom . . . whether he wants to or not.

It's not quite as perfect an odd-couple anime as you might think, because it turns out she is unprincipled and bloodthirsty and he's lazy and entitled, so neither of them capitalizes on their obvious main character energy, but even that's probably for the best, given that they're meant to be antagonists.

There are quite a few entries that sidle up to the line between "complex NPC" and "PC backstory" (including at least one character, Fehim, who was explicitly a legal starting PC in his first appearance back in Castebook: Twilight), but I count it as a strength that the book will expand your ideas about what's possible for a player character. And the pure antagonists, like the doomsday prepper god or the cursed Exigent who turns into a giant bug monster, incidentally benefit from having complex, nuanced portrayals.

In the end, I kind of resent this book, for whetting my appetite for more Exalted when the next print books are still months away (I suppose Essence Edition may be coming up soon, but that's something I'm highly ambivalent about). On the other hand, I wouldn't have that resentment if I didn't love this game so much, so overall, it's a net positive. It captures the best part of the Exalted feel, and thus can truly be said to be MOAR EXALTED! And that's all I ever really wanted.

Ukss Contribution: I would be terribly remiss if I chose anything but the most purely "Exalted" detail in the entire book, but lucky for me, it's also my favorite (have I mentioned how much I love Exalted?)  - the Daiklave Frozen Heart. A mercenary betrayed her Deathlord employer, he "forgave" her, but "then he turned her over to his torturer-artisans; they drained her of all her tears, from which they forged for her a daiklave of ice."

Metal as fuck.

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