Friday, June 14, 2024

Exalted: 2nd Edition

All things considered, there was probably no better choice for my 500th book than Exalted, 2nd Edition. It defined my longest and most intense rpg epoch. It inspired me to write my first complete corebook. So many acrimonious internet arguments, snowdrifts of homebrew, and beautiful face-to-face gaming memories emerged from this exact book. Is it the best rpg in my collection? No. Is it my favorite rpg? No. Is it even my favorite version of Exalted? Sadly not. However, it is a strong contender for the most loved book in my collection.

At the risk of revealing too much of my personal psychology, love is a complicated thing.  The second edition of Exalted has a number of universally recognized flaws, and I can't really dispute them. The optimizers have solved the meta, and once you have that knowledge, you can never truly go back. The line's focus on completeness led to the setting as a whole feeling smaller than it did in 1st or 3rd edition. Some of the systems are fiddly for no obvious reason and others are half-baked. Social combat, in particular, never worked. Late 2nd edition was a game that was completely up its own ass, with both setting and mechanics that were tailored exclusively for the hardcore fans.

I can acknowledge all those things, I can even agree with them, but then there's this feeling that remains . . . It's a warm feeling, of comfort, of familiarity, and perhaps even a bit of hot possessiveness. It's a homesick feeling, of a lost and scattered fandom, made moribund, admittedly, by its own fractiousness, that nonetheless provided younger me with a sense of belonging. It's this feeling, this sense that Exalted 2nd Edition is in some way my rpg, that I'm choosing to call "love."

It is more or less exactly 9 years and six months since I last read this particular book. Before that, I probably read it in full at least once a year between 2006 and 2010, and in piecemeal another dozen times in that same period. Unlike, say, Exalted 1st Edition, there was nothing in this reread that surprised me.

Which makes my notes almost entirely useless. I reviewed them just now and with maybe one or two exceptions, each and every one was an observation I've previously discussed online. Some of them (like the book's relentless and offputting male gaze) I've complained about at length. We talk, sometimes, about things getting "burned into your memory," but it's a little strange to see it in action, to immediately fall back into an old pattern after years of interruption. The grooves this game left on my brain run deep.

The question I'm left with is how much I want to revive old flame wars. It almost feels safe to do so, now that most of the other most notorious combatants have dropped out of the fandom, but do I really want to reopen old wounds?

Let's do this tentatively, in service to an observation about my own personal growth. 

In years past, I had an intense dislike for the character of the Scarlet Empress, to a degree that would feel downright suspicious in today's media environment. The core of that dislike was a feeling that she was the focus of too much protagonist energy.

Looking back, I think that was a textually defensible reading of the character - just on a grammatical level, she is usually the actor or the subject whenever she appears and other people, nations, insititutions, etc are the acted upon or the objects, even when the text is trying to be critical of the character - but the level of venom I had in those old discussions was legitimately embarrassing.

It was out of that embarrassment that I took some time to reflect and made the conscious decision to chill the fuck out. I'd be like, "oh, I've mellowed on the character. Why shouldn't Exalted have a celebrity NPC? It will give the players a thrill to interact with her in the game."

However, upon reading the book for the first time post-Trump (he really did a fucking number on my political intuition, I'm telling you), I realize that chill me was also wrong.

See, one of the things that bugged 2010 me, that 2014 decided to graciously ignore, was that, in order for the character of the Empress to work, everyone else in her immediate orbit would have to be utterly craven shitweasels. Like, there would be some situations where she'd do something transparently manipulative, corrupt, and unjust and I'd look at the people disadvantaged or threatened by that action and say, "oh, come on, no one loves the taste of boot that much".

It turns out my experience with authoritarian followers was blessedly limited, because no, it does turn out that a cult of personality has no fucking rock bottom.  

Which you might think means I've turned a corner and am now prepared to admit that I was wrong to dislike the character because she's not nearly as unrealistic as I thought. But I'm actually much more ambivalent. It's become clear to me now that the specifics of the character don't really matter, what bothers me (and probably bothered me, subconsciously, all those years ago) is the way she was written.

And I have to tread carefully here, because that particular dodge is not unknown to the misogynists who just so happen to dislike a powerful female character, but I'm actually going to try and talk about the Empress as little as possible because I've noticed in my latest readthrough that my issue isn't really confined to her. It's just, because she shows up so often, in a very similar role each time, that this pattern of Exalted writing is most apparent with her character. But once you see it, you start to see it everywhere - Exalted is enamored with authoritarian grandeur.

That's really what's up with the Empress and the way the books present her as a masterful politician who created the Thousand Mazy Paths, never mind that "pitting your underlings against each other to win your favor" is, like, the first thing that every dictator thinks of doing.  The throne, the thoroughly cowed family, the weapons of mass destruction, the "expertly balanced bureaucratic factions," these are all part of the power fantasy. You don't see the Realm as falling victim to the same malady that bankrupted Sears, you see it as a product of a brilliant design. And in order for you to have that point of view, the people at the bottom (or even the middle) of the hierarchy need to be objectified by the people at the top. The story of the Realm is the story of the Architect of the Realm. . .

And that pattern is repeated in every other part of the game. Every time there is a significant difference in power between two characters, the more powerful character is the actor and the less powerful character is the acted upon. Exalted bureaucrats and socialites can reshape whole societies, exalted warriors are strategic level threats, exalted inventors are the only ones who can create the most powerful technologies. And this extends within the hierarchy of exalted types - solars > celestials > dragon-blooded > every other miscellaneous supernatural, with the caveat that age can trump type and certain notable exceptions (like the Empress) break the pattern. To some degree, that's just the mechanics of the game, but there is an ideological element - the ability to exercise power is what makes you a protagonist. Our viewpoint is always from the perspective of the oppressor.*

(*On a local level. Like, one of the chapter comics focuses on the Lunar Exalted, Strength of Many, and his ultimate goal is liberatory - he wants to end Creation's slave trade - but in the confines of the comic itself, he is a horror movie monster, tearing through the slave trader's guards with no noticeable resistance. Though he is using it for good ends, his power is inherently oppressive. Those guards would no more be able to resist him if he were robbing the caravan instead. He answers only to himself, always.)

I don't necessarily want to make out like this is something exclusive to Exalted. It's endemic to genre fiction. Paul Atreides ruthlessly objectifies the Fremen. Likewise the noble characters from Game of Thrones. And so on. But Exalted is unusual for the degree that it revels in the spectacle of power. The oppressors are generally cunning, unless they are honorable souls who sometimes feel conflicted about it all (Don't listen to your wife, Cynis Avaku, you should feel bad about killing that child to protect your family's opium profits). The disfunction of the Realm is only apparent after the Empress disappears.

It's actually going to get worse before it gets better (2nd edition's depictions of Lookshy and Paragon veer into the openly authoritarian-apologist), but even at its best there's no denying that Exalted is basically "Authoritarian Grandeur: the RPG." 

The standard defense is that it's actually deconstructing the genre's more typical power fantasy, but I think that defense is actually pretty weak. The central satirical element is supposed to be the fact that "the power of the gods" has no moral component, so your "shining champions of the Unconquered Sun" can be utter bastards, but as a critique it's relatively toothless because "give godlike power to any random goon, 'so long as the chosen one is of consequence to history and will put its might to use'" is not something you'd even expect to have a good outcome. The reason so many exalted suck is because the exaltation has no means of filtering out people who suck . . . an incisive commentary on power fantasies, I guess.

I'm not sure there's any cure for it, though. The very premise of the game is "filtering out special people from among the rabble and giving them superpowers" and that is aristocratic to the core. My general thinking on the issue is that the patrons should be more personally involved so you can explore the various ways that well-meaning people can misuse power. Like maybe in the First Age, the Unconquered Sun gave his blessing exclusively to the great - mighty warriors, successful generals, brilliant scholars, etc - and the fall of the age was the result of the curdling of greatness. People who had been praised and affirmed for their "brilliant accomplishments" have all of their brakes taken off . . . and nearly destroy the world as a consequence. So the Sun turns his face from the world in disgust . . . and the world very nearly ends because it had no great champions to defend it. And in the Third Age, the Unconquered Sun tries something new, selecting champions from among the oppressed, the neglected, the forgotten who know from first-hand experience what it's like to live under the boot of power . . . and that eventually sets up the prequel to the World of Darkness.

I mean, if you're going to go bleak with it, you might as well go all the way bleak, right?

Of course, this digression where I focus on the game's worst quality is mainly a distraction from the fact that I completely fell for its aristocratic glamour (if not the full-on authoritarian grandeur). You're shiny superheroes wielding giant swords and calling out the names of your secret techniques. There are a hundred canon locations, each with its own unique fantasy hook. Giant power armor. Airships. Explosions. Perfect defenses. Pure spectacle all the fucking time!

It got its hooks deep into me, and while this specific book only has a fraction of all the stuff I mentioned, it has enough to remind me why Exalted remains my most essential game line, the one I would part with last if, god forbid, I had to sell off or give away my collection. However problematic it can be at times, it also manages to dial into my exact frequency, in all of its editions.

And if it seems weird to you that I can profess such an open and unreserved love for the series in the same post where I call out its central premise as being hopelessly flawed . . . well, welcome to the Exalted discourse, c2006-2010. It only gets weirder from here.

Ukss Contribution: The city of Gem. Forget the meme of it being doomed (oh, yeah, that was a big in-joke in the fandom), the initial pitch - a city inside a dormant volcano where you can buy all sorts of rare minerals in underground markets carved out of the mountain's many lava tubes - is just such an interesting and memorable location.

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