Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Exalted: Essence

If there's any one impression of myself that I hope to leave with my blog, it's that I am not, by nature, a grognard. I've got my preferences, same as anyone else, but I try and make a conscious effort to avoid reflexive edition conservatism. And the reason I do that is because it goes against my most fundamental creative philosophy - that the highest joy of creation is the potential for inspiration to grow and spread and mutate and take a thousand different forms, beyond the capability of any individual to predict. A great idea is like a torch, passed from hand to hand, its light spread without diminishment. It's like a seed, thrown to the wind, taking root in unknown lands, blossoming, over generations, into a boundless field of flowers.

And the thing I love about this hobby is that it's the only form of culture that actively encourages this as part of its very nature. Which isn't to say that sharing and co-creating are exclusive, or even universal, to rpgs, just that with other media and genres, that sort of creative activity is a function of the community, rather than intrinsic to the medium (the fandom encourages fics, even if the creators try to pretend they don't exist, that sort of thing). Whereas, with an rpg, the whole point is to share stories. Even the most heavily draconian, missing-the-point, IP-protecting zealot still makes an rpg with the understanding and ambition that strangers are going to use that rpg to tell their own stories set in that rpg's universe.

So it would be downright perverse to complain that a story changed in the retelling. That new storytellers did something unacceptable with your beloved canon. That one should be affronted by change, because it's an insult to what came before. 

And yet, Exalted: Essence brought me closer to that feeling than I've ever been in the past.

It's not that I hated it. Actually, quite the opposite. As a thing taken in itself, I liked it quite a bit. As a template for the potential direction of a 4th edition, I thought it showed promise. As a quicker-playing substitute for the full Exalted experience, I think it would serve admirably.

But also, there were times when I was reading this book where I felt an unaccountable sorrow, bordering on fear. Times when I looked at Exalted: Essence and saw the death of a thing I love. 

How can I put this?

"I'm in the mood to play Exalted, let's use the Essence edition rules" - a prospect I have absolutely no problem with. In fact, I actually think it sounds like a pretty good idea.

Contrast that with:

"Wow, Exalted: Essence has everything you need to play the game in one volume. No need for those shelf-busting hardcovers" - shut your damned mouth right this second, because I can't be held responsible for what happens if you continue this line of reasoning.

As an accessory to Exalted, a new way of engaging with the setting and a new set of mechanics for realizing Exalted powers, I think this is a good, possibly even great book. But the thought that someone is going to come into the game fresh and come away thinking that this is what Exalted is . . . distresses me.

Which puts me on dangerous ground, re: my self-image as an open-minded lover of creative explosion, but what can I say? I'm complicated. There's a thing people do, when they're under the mistaken impression that they're being conciliatory, where they try to give permission for a new thing to exist by saying, "It would be a perfectly fine X, my only problem is that it's claiming to be Y." Just a completely obnoxious habit.

So let me be explicit. Exalted: Essence is Exalted. It's even a very good version of Exalted. A version I would be happy to play, and if I did, I wouldn't need to much tweak the rules much at all, but for all its improvements (the venture system is a much-needed addition to the game's toolkit and actually runs the risk of making extended rolls interesting; the social influence system preserves the best aspects of 3e's while being easier to use, the streamlined traits are generally better as a set and more iconic individually, even if I think they should have done whatever they needed to do to bump the number of skills from 14 to 15, the charms I'm going to have to talk about separately), it also feels like it's missing the number one thing I love about Exalted, as both a setting and a system - its sense of overwhelming, possibly even decadent, abundance. At the end of the day, "one volume Exalted," as useful as it might be to have, goes against what I always perceived to be the spirit of the game.

It's like the difference between a tasting menu and an all-you-can-eat buffet. In theory, they're the same thing, or, at least, very similar, structurally. You can try a bunch of different things without committing too much to one dish or another, and a well-crafted tasting menu is going to be pretty close to as much as you'd reasonably even want to eat, so it's not even a matter of value. But they're not the same thing. Even when it fills you up, a tasting menu isn't all you can eat. The basic nature of the experience is different.

And that's why I felt sad when I flipped through the 4-page Exalt-type spreads that focused almost entirely on anima powers and only perfunctorily on lore. It never actually felt to me like this book gave me enough. There wasn't enough lore. There wasn't enough flavor (the lack of chapter fictions is the first thing I noticed and the thing I most miss). Heaven help me, there weren't enough charms.

Okay, that last one needs more explanation. I actually think, as a whole, Exalted 3rd edition has too many charms. The result is a bunch of fiddly effects that don't really add anything to a character concept, take up mental real-estate, and make character creation a complete chore. Fewer, more consequential charms, ideally between 6-12 per Ability or 150-200 per Exalt type, would be a much better way to go.

And that's what Exalted: Essence gives us, which is part of the reason I'm so open to using this book as an alternate system for Exalted. Not only that, the way the game presents charms is a pretty inspired idea - you've got a bunch of universal charms that serve to set a general level of competence, and then these charms are modified by modes, which customize them in ways specific to the Exalt type. So you get something like "Spirit Slaying Stance," which allows you to attack immaterial spirits. But if you also destroy their motes (mp), then that becomes Ghost-eating technique, a classic solar charm. By contrast, if the charm works just as well against Fair Folk, it becomes Demon-Drinking Fang, the Lunar Exalted's unfortunately-named equivalent.

This is a tricky area for me because, I think, in general, this is the right way to do it. But part of the decadence (and thus, for me, the appeal) of Exalted as a system is that each Exalt type gets their own thick hardcover in which they reinvent the wheel by having a comprehensive set of charms that cover all the bases while being arbitrarily different. 

The asymmetry between the character types is a selling point, but the need to relentlessly tweak even workhorse effects, just to achieve the sense of asymmetry has contributed to a lot of the previous editions' mechanical problems. There's probably a balance between extremes, and as a tool for finding that balance, the universal + mode system of charm creation seems like it should work really well, but I don't think Exalted: Essence actually finds that balance.

The problem is that modes seem to be applied haphazardly. Not every charm has a mode for every exalt type, and it's not always clear whether the presence or absence of modes is being used in an illustrative manner, as in you could come up with a Lunar specific mode for Monkey Leap Technique, but this book doesn't in the interest of not being 1000 pages long or whether the gaps are intentional, to create different strengths and weaknesses for different exalt types. 

I suspect it's probably a combination of the two. The book seems intent on flattening the power curve enough that differences in Exalt type mostly wind up being down to preferences for a particular style or aesthetic. 

Which is something I'm ambivalent about. I don't object to having a specific mechanical interpretation of Dragon-Blooded and Solars that are roughly equivalent in power. Because that's always something you could just chalk up to an overlap in the power curves. At this particular snapshot in time, they're equivalent, with the understanding that the Solar is much younger than the Dragon-Blooded. But Essence purports to cover a whole career arc, from Essence 1 to 5, and that becomes harder to reckon with.

Each Exalt type does get its own section of exclusive charms, and that helps, but the sections themselves are only 7-8 pages long and the curation is similarly haphazard. I never really got the sense that the Exalt types were properly asymmetrical or that their charm sets were designed as a whole set. For example, every single one of the Infernal Exalted's exclusive Presence charms was just an alternate prerequisite for a charm from another ability. The sets in this book work fine as substitutes and stop-gap measures, but they don't feel real to me, in the way that the individual hardcovers' sets do.

It also doesn't help that the charms' condensed descriptions don't leave a lot of room for flavor text (also, I think the format where you put all the activation and cost information inside the charm description, rather than in a header, may save space, but it makes each individual charm harder to use).

The way I'd do it, in a notional 4th edition based off this book's approach, would be to get rid of exalt-specific modes entirely. Instead, optimize it for Exigents (the "miscellaneous" exalted), but making the modes general descriptors like "luminous," "water-elemental," "fated," "unholy," etc. Then, you could build up an approximation of the major exalt types by making exigent approximations (this would, of course, necessitate making Exigents, rather than Solars, into the core Exalted, which is definitely something I have mixed feelings about, but since it's never going to happen, it's fine to speculate). Later on in the line, when it comes to the fat-splats, you could reprint the entire universal set with the appropriate modes (suitably tweaked) factored into the text, and supplemented by Exalt-specific charms, in order to create the semi-cores that have been so long a staple of the series.

And if that seems like kind of a long digression, let's call it a testament to the true Exalted nature of Exalted: Essence - I couldn't make it through the entire book without giving in to the urge to tinker. Beyond that, I'm not sure how I'm going to wrap this post up. How do I feel about Exalted: Essence as a whole?

As a whole, I kind of hate it. But that's neither an accurate nor fair impression of the book. I liked all the individual parts. I liked the way those parts came together. The whole is the only thing I have any objections to. I remain unconvinced about the book's very conception, its central pitch and very reason for existence. I can accept "one-volume Exalted" as a supplement, a tool, but my mind rebels against the thought of making it a goal. It's the "Reader's Digest condensed books" version of Exalted, which means it's more accessible, more respectful of a newcomer's time and budget, less of a commitment or an investment, but it also means that much of value was lost.

When I first heard about this book, I was worried it would create a fatal edition-split, dividing an already-dwindling fandom into two incompatible camps. What I didn't anticipate was that I could potentially land on the Essence side of the split (what I'd need is a complete set of powered-by-Essence fatsplats which include all the excised lore and a more carefully curated set of modes and unique charms). However, I find myself filled with a new and unanticipated kind of dread. I can see how Essence is a more accessible entry point into the series, and I can see how Essence can be useful to experienced Exalted players who can bring the 20 years of lore into more streamlined mechanics, but I don't think those use cases entirely count as the same game. And given Exalted Essence's bare-bones presentation of the series flavor, I'm not sure that the book alone can act as a bridge between the two. I'm not sure this book is capable of turning the Exalted-curious into Exalted fans.

Sigh. I really should GM a few games, spread the word. That's how stories stay alive, by being told.

Ukss Contribution: Volcano Cutter. It's a sword, you stick it in the ground, mini-volcanoes erupt from the earth. Exalted-style nonsense at its best.


  1. I'd be interested to see what you thought of Golden Calibration, the rewrite and expansion of the core Solar Charmset I made. In short, I don't actually think the original vision for Exalted had "too many Charms", it just had poor organization, bad layout, and insufficient editing. It's amazing what you can do if you actually use tools like "tables", "Charm trees", and "layout that doesn't make every Charm twice as long as it needs to be."

    1. I took a look at it, but did not do a close reading of the text. From what I saw, it looked like a dramatic improvement. Certainly more usable. I appreciated that you combined the three double-9s performance charms into one. If I run mainline exalted again, I'll definitely be using it.

    2. Always good to hear!

      Sadly, the days when you could post long Exalted projects on forums and have people do deep dives telling you exactly what you need to fix are long gone (I am not actually sad about this).

    3. Oh, it's less that I'm unwilling to put in the effort and more that it's been so long since I read the 3e core that I'm not sure I'd fully appreciate the nuances.