Ask The Readers: What’s your take on Exalted?

Exalted 2nd EditionWhite Wolf’s Exalted is one of the games that immediately piqued my interest when it came out. I’ve enjoyed several White Wolf games before and I was excited to see White Wolf’s version of high fantasy.

While I still leaf through the rulebook once in a while, I never have played or run that game. That has several reasons. I like a lot of the concepts of the world of the Exalted but for some reason I have some trouble “getting” the world completely. How exactly do the territories in the Treshhold look like? Is this supposed to be the GM’s sandbox or will everything I come up with be contradicted in later books?

The other thing that bothered me are the rules. As you probably know I prefer rules-light systems. And while the core rules are pretty easy, the charm mechanics, combos etc. can become pretty crunchy.

So, what’s your take on Exalted? Should I give it another look and can you give me any tips on how to get into the games’ setting easier? Any advice is highly appreciated.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

16 thoughts on “Ask The Readers: What’s your take on Exalted?”

  1. I've played several campaigns of Exalted. My friends seem to really enjoy it and love the world.

    But I've never really taken to it, the system or the world. 🙁

  2. Hey Michael!

    I'm actually on your boat on this game. I understand that when it was initially created, the Exalted setting was meant to be a massive sandbox with a little bit of everything epic they could think of somewhere in Creation.

    I try not to obsess over the combat rules, though I do have players who tell me that I don't "get" exalted because I don't play a certain way. These are the ones that enjoy the mechanical challenge of charm combos and mote management, things that I have difficulty with.

    That said I have run a few good sessions of exalted by focusing on the human condition. Much like my Mage: the Awakening games, the question is "You're a person given demi-godhood, how do you plan to change the world?"

  3. @Mark: If you didn't like it that much, why did you play it for so long?

    @Pointyman2000: Focussing on the human condition is what I would have done in my game, too. That's one of the most interesting aspects of Exalted.

  4. @Stargazer Because of who I was playing with. Old friends who I have gamed with for a long time.

    Initially I liked the idea of Exalted but I eventually I found it boring. I just never got into the game itself and the characters. Exalted lends itself to a certain type of gaming that I don't enjoy so much but my friends did. They liked the system while I found it hideously over complex and it's very easy to make a character that gets overshadowed by more well-crafted characters.

    The other times I played, I was bowing to the group desire to play, so that later we may play something I really want to play. 🙂

  5. I kind of had a love/hate relationship with Exalted. I like the general themes and style but I found the execution somewhat lacking.

    The world is huge and inclusive that I found it troublesome to actually latch onto any specific part of it. It was designed to house basically any sort of mythic folk tale, all at the same time. It was a case of to many choices.

    And the system is simple, in and of itself, but as you observe the charm structure is not. While I didn't have a problem learning it enough to create characters, a number of people in my group couldn't wrap their heads around it and found it to off putting.

    What I inevitably find myself doing wen I think of Exalted is taking some of the themes (the Dragonblooded vs. Solars, the gods walking the earth, etc.) and wanting to port it to other systems.

  6. I purchase Exalted when it came out but never played it. Like many White Wolf games I got it, but never played it. Even when the original World of Darkness was the cool thing I was the guy running the long AD&D 2nd edition campaign. For some reason I’ve never GM (Storyrtold?) a White Wolf game successfully. I love the esthetics of Exalted, but I have no experience with it. I’ve been a very traditional D&D (now Pathfinder) gamer as far as fantasy RPG goes.

  7. While I have only played one game of Exalted, so take my impressions with a grain of salt, I think it is a little over the top on game complexity. While I find the setting fascinating, and a wonderful source to pillage for ideas and inspiration, the intricacies of the rules has no appeal to me.

  8. Oh Stargazer, you shouldn't have started this topic. Prepare for some input, because Exalted is my most favorite fantasy setting ever created for a role-playing game!

    Now, first of all, a word of warning. Getting into Exalted means work, both rules-wise and setting-wise. The game can be extremely crunchy, especially when you get multiple high-powered Exalted into the same combat and they start to pour out all their awesome, godlike powers. White Wolf has published A LOT of info when it comes to the world, its history and personas, so you have a lot of reading to do should you want to keep everything as canonical as possible (which I don't really care about).

    Once you're passed this threshold of Charms, spells and world-shaking characters, you will have a very vivid, dynamic and over-the-top world at your disposal. I would like to stress the over-the-top part here: if you do not like typical Asian action movies, dramatic animes and the epic stories that tell us the tales of Beowulf, Hercules, Gilgamesh and other fabeled heroes, this game is not the game for you. Where in other fantasy games it might be considered awesome to throw a rock at your opponent, Exalted actually ASKS you to not throw the rock, but the mountain! The game as mechanics built-in that reward extensive and thrilling descriptions, so players are encouraged to tell you more than the simple "I hit him with my sword" or "I bargain with the barkeep".

    I have GM'ed a few different Exalted chronicles, with the longest one running for a bit more than a half a year, spanning about 25 sessions. Should you decide to run a Solar chronicle (which is what the core book expects you to do), be aware that even starting characters can be ridiculous in their field of expertise. During the course of a chronicle, you will notice that characters become truly godlike in no-time, so don't be afraid to increase the dangers to put in their way. This is not your simple D&D where an Elder Red Dragon is considered a challenge. In Exalted, you pit the player characters against an entire empire of elementally-powered nobles, while the never-truly-dead creators of the cosmos send their undead and demonic agents after them and enigmatic, fate-bending Exalted try to change the whole course of history.

    Yes, Exalted is over-the-top and sometimes a bit silly, but heck…it is awesome!

    Considering the 1st / 2nd edition comparison. I only GM'ed a single 1st Edition chronicle, which was limited to three sessions. However, I like the rule changes in 2nd Edition. Combat is really dynamic, the addition of Excellencies gives players a set of really flexible charms, and the whole "engine" runs smoother. Sometimes clunky, yet a whole lot smoother.

  9. GM'd it three times:

    1) Played it one-on-one with a very experienced player. We had a decent time, but it ran out of steam fairly quickly. There were things to do in the setting, but nothing WORTH doing if that makes any sense. Since we both agreed he wasn't going to overthrow the empire or anything like that at the beginning of the game, it just lacked drive. No profit motive, no world changing motive, etc, etc, etc.

    2) Played it with some rank newbies. The poowergaming from a few was indescribable, and the combats bogged down into interminable slogs that had even our tabletop gamer bored. Dropped within 6 sessions.

    3) The most humiliating GMing of my life. Played with some of my regulars, and there was just no spark. Acting on a tip, I tried to inject more anime-esque aspects into it. One love-pentangle involving a large breasted amazon, a secretly lesbian princess, a dragon knight and the players later, and I hope nobody ever brings it up again…

    Bottom line: Interesting books to own and read, but the level of gameplay makes it hard for the GM to craft any control over the characters or motivate them in a way that does not run roughshod over the published metaplot. Other than the powergaming appeal, not sure why this is so popular.

    Note: I ran 1st Ed all three times.

  10. "way that does not run roughshod over the published metaplot."

    While somewhat true, the entire point of the game is to run rough shod over the metaplot. Exalted isn't about being heroes…. it's about being protagonists that shake the very foundations of the world. Like many WW games it's set up so that you never know 100% what is true and what is just true from the perspective being told to you. Whiel I don't always like that aspect, it pretty much gives you carte blanche to do whatever you like in the setting and just not care what the books say.

    It's not a game for you if you want to keep things small scale (well, technicality you could run it but it's sort of missing the point). In the default Solar game you are the second coming. If the survive, it's expected that they will raise armies, topple kingdoms, have epic battles that can change the face of creation, and quite possibly bring the Empire to it's knees.

    If you are going to play exalted you need to have buy in. You can play it low key, dungeon delving and exploring… but it misses out of what the potential of the story telling is about, and other games do that style of gaming better.

    As to the 1st/2nd. I'd say go with 2nd if you are starting from scratch. On the whole I preferred it, though I had a problem where I was so familiar with 1st that I found myself making assumptions that were not true from time to time.

  11. Thanks everyone for your great comments! I think I will give Exalted 2nd Edition a proper read and then talk to my players if they are interested.

  12. Ah exalted… a fun game. It's the only game I can run that gets guaranteed turnout on a sunny weekend with 3 hours notice. So that says something.

    You know I like complex games more than you, but I also like to run games with as little baggage as possible. The PC's can have their uber cool charms and artifacts, I like to stick to just raw dice bonuses and stunting and sometimes that can be hard with Exalted… so here's my advice.

    Understand the laws of the setting more than the setting it's self. While the setting can be busted and twisted and rode hard and put away wet with no guilt whatsoever, the laws of the setting (how spirits work, what happened to the primordials, how the planes of existance interact with each other), these things are the foundation that everything sits upon and they need to be solid, breaking them requires a lot more work. Be warned though that the laws of the Exalted setting are not the laws of most Fantasy games so it's a good idea to discuss them with a seasoned GM to make sure you don't miss anything.

    Next, DO NOT stress the numbers when it comes to NPC's and enemies. That way lies madness. When you come up with a nasty boss, just look at the three things he's supposed to do, then consider a way to put enough things between the PC's and him so that he can attempt to do them before he gets eviscerated.

    Next. Style over substance. This will actually protect your sanity. One time I threw down a 10 mile long 30ft tall serpent as a minor road block for my PC's. They warbled and then ran in swords swinging. The numbers of that massive creature weren't as important as the intimidation and significance of it just being there. I could have made it have stats of 3 with 2 health levels and my PC's would have loved it. Keep this in mind, exalted is fun because it's about breaking the rules, so why should you as the Storyteller be exempt from that fun? Anal Storytellers will not have fun with exalted, Storytellers that can let down their hair and shake their junk will have their players just happy to watch the glorious trainwreck.

  13. Helmsman:

    So what you're saying basically is that the game is great if you like crunchy rules and dice rolling, but feel free to discard / run roughshod over the setting.

    Then, with your snake example, you recommend running roughshod over the rules as well, as long as it's dramatic.

    This is exactly my problem with the game, and one of the main problems I've had running it. Actually PLAYING Exalted, as opposed to using it as high-priced inspiration, is frustrating…

  14. @ RTM
    I suppose what I’m saying could be interpreted that way, but what I was intending to put across moreso was that Exalted is so BIG in setting and system that it allows you to pick and choose what you want to do with it.

    A lot of Exalted advocates will try to tell would-be GM’s that “Exalted is a game about…” and try to explain some high-minded way to “make it work”. It’s not that they’re wrong, but there’s really so much to the game that it’s only what works for them.

    Perhaps I can offer another example to illustrate what I’m saying. One arguement I came across in an old forum was a GM lamenting that he had a player who “only wanted to play Elven Rangers”. Now canonically there are Fair Folk but they’re a far cry from traditional fantasy elves, and there is no “ranger” class as such in the game so the short answer to that sort of player would be: “You can’t, go back to D&D.”

    But there’s so much to the game that making the PERFECT elven ranger is so very possible. It wouldn’t break anything to say that this character is from a nation of pointy-eared forest people (there’s even rules for giving people the pointy ears mutation if the GM is the type that MUST have a rule for everything). As for cool ranger stuff… Bow, Two Swords, Animal Companion… that’s too easy. How about we try to build a character that can do everything Legolas did in the lotr movies – running up Mastadon’s trunks and that sorta stuff – well all that’s doable with a few charms easily attainable for a starting character. No game breaking necessary and you’ve just helped a player get exactly what he wants.

    That’s what I’m trying to say. Take what you want from the setting and do what’s fun. When you find a set of charms you think are cool build a character and situation around them. Tell the story you want and wrap the Exalted loosely around it like a baby blanket. The game is durable enough to take that sort of treatment and really you can do what you want without having to worry about “doing it right”.

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