The game we will be looking onto today is sort of unique. For the better part of four years in the early 2000s this was the only game I played. I played it nonstop, every weekend and sometimes during the week after work. I loved this game. Then a new edition came out and I played it very often, but eventually I stopped playing it for a while. Finally the third edition was announced and I got super excited about it again. But as time moved forward I saw that the game design was moving in a direction that ran against my preferred play style I do hear that it is pretty good, but I don't think I will ever play it. Lets dig into...
Exalted is an odd duck. I loved the game even though it had mechanical issues. Then as the designers repeatedly tried to fix the mechanical problems I loved the game less and less. they kept adding more complexity and more options. It got confusing and far more detailed than I what I had loved about the first few books. For this review I will be looking over 1st edition, though I will be making mention of the other editions as a comparison. Lets get started.
The exalted books always had a good look but inconsistent art. Sometimes it was awesome and sometimes it just didn't quite work. First edition had a very manga feel to it, and it was back in 2000, so it was influenced by older styles of anime and manga than we currently have access to. It is two column, black and white with some cool designs in the background of some of the text and a decent number of pieces of artwork throughout. Each chapter starts with a big piece of art and a short story. Second edition was far more stylized and uniform in appearance, with comic paneled short stories at the beginning of each chapter and full color high gloss pages. Second edition has some of the most consistently good art of the series, not to say that it is all great, but it is mostly adequate. Third edition is a much more professionally laid out looking book , but the art is very inconsistent. Some of it is fantastic, and some of it is...less than good.
MechanicsFor all three editions the basics are the same. You have nine attributes rated from one to five and 25 skills that can be from zero to five. When you take an action you roll a number of ten sided dice equal to the combined rating of the appropriate attribute and the appropriate skill. You are aiming to have as many dice as possible show a 7 or higher. These are called successes. The difficulty of the roll is the number of successes required to succeed at the task. OK, can I rant here for a second? Good, glad you approve. Couldn't they have come up with a different name than successes for rolling higher than 7? Because to succeed you need successes, but you can get successes and not succeed. Its the whole level, level, and level thing all over again. Sorry, rant over. In exalted you also have a number of charms, which are godly powers that let you do impossible things. These are powered by your essence(special points for doing magic). There are a bunch of other subsystems and such, like sorcery, thaumaturgy, magic items, and all that. But at the core that's it. You roll your dice, check it vs a target number of success's decided by the GM or by a GMC's roll against you. You then add in whatever charm you need to make something cool happen. Exalted also introduced me to a neat idea that I initially loved and then as time wore on I began to dislike. The idea is stunting, it works like this. You describe your action in a new and interesting way and you get a bonus die or two or three(based on a set of rules in the book, its pretty simple). It is a simple add on that works, however I just can't bring myself to be in favor of this mechanic anymore. As the years have moved forward I have lost my liking for creativity bonuses. It always ends up being too subjective and it ends up penalizing those who are not as forceful or creative. What is cool for one person might not be for others. I have actually had players breakdown crying in tense scenes where they needed to stunt and they couldn't come up with anything. That is not an exaggeration, I almost lost a friendship over the stunting rules. I used to think they were cool, but its hard to see them that way any longer.
As far as rules problems, there is just one really big one. It tries to be able to handle everything from regular joes to godlike beings. It cannot do that. If a regular person can have a 5 in strength and a godlike being can have a 5 in strength and there is no mechanical difference between them then there is a bit of a scaling issue. I really think the game would have been better served by making the game just about godlike beings and scaling the game to that rather than to try and be all things to all people. As this game system is designed using rules first implemented for Vampire the Masquerade, it has a bunch of legacy issues from older games. Some small issues are the Bonus Point/Experience Point split(can lead to odd min maxing issues)
And there is the third game of Christmas. Tomorrow...
Mutants & Masterminds