Saturday, October 13, 2012

A review of White Wolf's Exalted


Exalted is white wolf’s signature fantasy offering. Players take on the personas of mortals chosen by deities to act as their agents. While this “choosing” gifts the character with the powers of a demigod, the status of “exalted” comes with a great deal of historical limitation. The setting is lavishly set forth with everything an epic campaign requires. Though there are many enemies set against the fledgling characters, their destiny is to do great and terrible things.


The world of exalted is built upon the bones of an empire carved from chaos. In an age long past, the gods rose up against ancient beings called primordials. Those gods imbued a select few of their followers with a measure of their essence, creating heroes to help fight their war. With their help, the primordials were cast down. Some were imprisoned in a demon realm of brass and iron. Others were left to slumber in the shadows of the underworld. A few lie outside the ordered bounds of creation. But, even as they fell, those dark gods reached out to reap their vengeance. They laid a curse upon the gods’ champions. A golden age ensued, overseen by the exalted. Great works of science, sorcery, art, and scholarship were commonplace.

Then, the primordial’s’ curse manifested. The solar exalted, those chosen by the unconquered sun, lapsed into madness and excess. The children of the four maidens cast a great divining and found that two paths lay before the world. They could prop up their cursed rulers and risk eternal destruction or they could bring them down and follow a less catastrophic road. The children of the maidens chose the second path.

The solar exalted were hunted and destroyed. Their consorts, the lunar exalted of Gaya, were driven beyond creation into the chaos of the wilde. The sidereal exalted, children of the maidens, withdrew into the shadows to pull the strings of the surviving empire.

The dragon blooded, the children of the elemental dragons, were comparatively weak but plentiful. They remade creation in their image. They rewrote history to reinvent the other exalted as demons. A soldier of surpassing guile and power rose to become empress. The empire prospered.

800 years later, the empress is missing. The empire is crumbling as its great houses fight amongst themselves. Few are left to hunt the reincarnations of the exalted. Dark fae wait at the edges of creation. Abyssal knights rise from the underworld to command the dead. The little gods have forgotten their duties while they play cosmic games. Demons plot their escape from the infernal city.

Into this time of tumult come the exalted, chosen by the gods to wield their power. Hated by many and feared by all, new heroes are selected to shape the age.

The World:

The world is bounded by the five elemental poles. At the center of “creation” is the blessed isle, a huge island which is both the seat of the dragon blooded empire and the pole of earth. It is surrounded by a small sea which expands to the western pole of boundless ocean. To the North lies the pole of air, where if one goes far enough the world becomes limitless tundra. To the East lies the pole of wood, where reality transforms into endless forest. To the South is the pole of fire, where the terrain turns to unending desert.

Beyond the poles, a formless chaos of improbability is called the wilde. Here dark fae dream themselves as pristine creatures while they wait to sup upon the memories of unfortunate mortals. Warped beastmen, outcast lunar exalted and ancient mysteries dwell within the chaos.

Inside creation, various city states, towns, villages, ruins, and remnants of the first age weave a beautiful tapestry of mundane and fantastic. The world is pre-built large enough that there’s lots of empty space a GM can fill in, but there are also enough landmarks that the setting doesn’t lack for character. The core rule book provides a basic overview for the major cultures and geography. There are several regional folios which are useful but not required. White wolf does a great job of giving GMS enough information to create excellent stories, but without backing them into a corner with metaplot.

Epic Sword and Sorcery:

When I think of sword and sorcery, I turn to Robert E Howard’s Conan and Glen Cook’s Black Company. To me, sword and sorcery is a bit of high fantasy, tempered with some swashbuckling, and finished with compelling character generation. Exalted is one of the few RPGs where the characters, mechanics, and setting are blended well enough to exceed all my expectations.

The setting has enough Meta underpinnings that a GM can run to a true epic campaign. That said, the world is big enough that a group of exalted can still do great things without saving it every day. The balance between these two stylistic choices makes for a very fulfilling experience.


Those familiar with the classic world of darkness products will be right at home with exalted. Players add their skill value and related attribute to determine their die pool. The GM then determines the level of difficulty. Then the player rolls a number of d10 equal to their die pool. Sevens and above are always successes. Tens count as two, except with damage. Ones do not count off the total unless there are no successes, in which case a result of at least one causes a botch. If the character’s roll results in at least as many successes as the difficulty rating, then they succeed.

White wolf enhances the epic feel of the game by adding the option for players to perform “stunts.” “Stunts” occur when a player describes something particularly well. Depending on the awesomeness of the action in question, the gm awards 1-3 bonus die to the related roll. Stunts replenish lost power points equal to the associated die bonus. This makes for a game that encourages heroic displays and outside the box thinking. Though it’s not the game’s biggest mechanical feature, it is one of the defining elements.

The largest mechanical feature by far is the use of “charms.” Charms represent the exalted’s ability to channel magic through their body to affect the world around them. Each charm has a cost to activate. They add dice to die pools, provide the exalted with supernatural abilities, protect them, give them insight, and allow the exalted to perform tasks with greater skill and efficiency.

Certain exalted can use sorcery. Sorcery is to the use of charms as charms are to the abilities of unexalted mortals. Like charms, spells can be selected at chargen and require the expenditure of magic points. They are divided into three circles, which generate progressively more spectacular effects and cost proportionally more magical resources. Access to each successive circle is increasingly exclusive, with the first circle of magic available to all exalted and the third circle only available to the chosen of the unconquered sun. Since the ability to draw from each circle requires the use of a separate charm and each spell also takes up a charm slot, sorcery is a major commitment. That commitment can pay great dividends, especially for those who actively search for more occult power, but it does mean that being a sorcerer comes with some hefty limitations.

First edition, player’s guide, and second edition:

There are effectively three versions of the game. The first edition was published in 2001 and comprises the main rule book as well as a selection of setting folios. These books are run on a modified white wolf engine as described above.

In 2004, white wolf published their exalted player’s guide. This book addresses some of the first edition’s mechanical weaknesses while adding alternative systems for combat, items, and character creation. The book is meant as a supplement for the previously published products and doesn’t replace them. However, the remaining publications in the first edition line assume use of the player’s guide where the power combat rules are concerned. I don’t find this to be an issue as the player’s guide is an improvement over the first edition rules, but your mileage may very.

Finally, in 2006, white wolf published the exalted second edition rule book. Updated product supplements to replace most of the first edition line followed. Second edition modified the range of available skills to make them more distinct, standardized charm selection, and significantly changed the way combat works. On the one hand, second edition is a unified product line that doesn’t suffer from the half and half syndrome that the player’s guide created. The standardization of charms and skills creates mechanical consistency and fixes some glaring imbalance in the range of abilities. That said, second edition doesn’t fix anything that required republishing the entire line. I find the revised combat rules to be needlessly complicated while still not addressing the single biggest problem in first edition, the sheer number of dice a player is required to roll.

I admit that starting with first ed biased me against second ed. Second ed provides plenty of new options, including an updated selection of martial arts styles and revised rules for playing sub-races. The reprinted world books were updated and fleshed out, resulting in lots of new setting material. Even so, second edition was originally billed as a simple update, much like the player’s guide. It isn’t, and the subsequent requirement for me to purchase virtual duplicates of books that I bought before sticks in my craw.

The Good:

Exalted allows players to run demigods in a beautifully written setting. The world is packed with wonderful detail. The customized character creation process, anime overtones, and use of stunts personalize rp to a degree that I haven’t encountered with any other RPG.

Exalted start off as mortals who are selected by their respective god. This choosing gifts the exalted with the spirit of all the mortals who previously held that particular incarnation. The result is a many-layered character with present and past memories.

While individual exalted are mechanically powerful, the game adds levels of risk the more power they expend. Using their charms past a point causes the mark of their exaltation to burn with magical radiance. Since they are feared and loathed, this limits just how much power an exalted may wish to spend in public. Add to that the rate they run through their reserves when they are in crisis mode, and the abilities of a demigod become something of a limited and risky resource.

The Meh:

Exalted is a challenging system to get into. Like a lot of games I’ve played, its dense setting and character generation mean that players and GMs need to read through a few hundred pages to truly appreciate the Game’s potential. The investment is well worth the time, but I’ve found that most people require some prompting before they buy in.

Like many of white wolf’s products, the mechanics aren’t always written clearly or with ease of play in mind. For example, the vast selection of charms can be combined into special maneuvers called combos. The rules for creating these combos are so fiddly that after three reads I still had some trouble explaining to my players how they worked. Likewise, the sheer number of charms makes the process of selecting a functional set of powers daunting for those not familiar with the options.

In addition to the indexing of powers, many desirable items and charms are spread through different supplements. You can play with the main rule book without penalty, but if you buy into the larger product line, building characters quickly becomes a scavenger hunt. It isn’t as bad as hunting through 50 rifts soft covers, but the feeling is similar.

The bad:

Being honest, exalted is my favorite RPG. There really isn’t anything “bad” about it from my perspective. But there are some things that new players will want to consider.

First, exalted is a very crunchy game. The mechanics encourage players to min-max. The cast system, favored ability characteristic, backgrounds, and other mechanics all push players to make synergistic characters. All exalted are powerful, but a properly built character with judicious charm and artifact selection can overshadow their less min-maxed peers.

In a similar vain, this is not a game where you role 2 or 3 dice and plow through combat in an hour. Players are rolling at least 6d10 at a time on average and often as much as 15 or more. So if rolling fist fulls of d10s isn’t your thing, then this game isn’t going to satisfy. Likewise, combat is an extended process as players use multiple actions, stunts, and charms. Everything about exalted is big, from the die pools to the scope of combat.

From a GM perspective this game isn’t for the weak of heart. White wolf’s point by chargen and experience advancement lead to very competent characters. They are truly demigods, with a commensurate ability to mess with the world. This can make it difficult to challenge groups. I’ve found that the makeup of the group has to be taken into account to a greater degree than in other more story oriented systems like Spirit of the century and savage worlds. GMs who manage towards the mechanics of the game rather than the plot will quickly become frustrated with the monster of the week style of play that this will create.

Further, exalted characters are really good at the tasks they decide to specialize in. A dedicated exalted warrior is a force to be reckoned with. An occult master can often ferret out information with no effort at all with a single die roll. In a game a friend ran, the other characters were combat competent while my character was a roguish combat monster. One of the other characters was focused on social interactions while the other was very intrigue centric. This caused some issues for the GM, who wasn’t always sure how to challenge each of us in our given specialty while not rendering the rest of us irrelevant to the action. For this reason I say that exalted isn’t for beginning GMs. Combat can be balanced even at high levels, but it takes a deft hand, and the effort that requires will not be for everyone. There is a distinct requirement that gms manage to story, and that’s difficult for someone who’s just finding their GM footing.


Everyone I’ve ever played with or run for has enjoyed exalted. At some level I think all of us want to be a legendary protagonist. Very few RPGs fully deliver on that desire. I’ve found that the pulpy feel that other high fantasy systems create tends to detract from the sense of grand destiny the settings are reaching for. So far exalted is one of a very few games that achieves its objectives with style.

Part of that success is do to the wonderful writing. Locales jump out at you from the very first lines through the last page. The world has a certain style that sets it above other fantasy settings.

Another component of the game’s appeal is the fact that characters are inherently flawed. Especially in white wolf games, one comes to believe that flaws are ways to bring your character up to snuff. There is a system of merits and flaws in the player’s guide; but beyond that book every exalted has a personal flaw based on their highest governing virtue. The character accumulates limit points as he encounters situations which try his conviction, compassion, valor, or temperance. When he reaches his limit, the character falls pray to an excess of his highest virtue.

While fait acts to bring the exalted to a great destiny, the books take pains to stress that characters have free will. The gods choose them because of their goals, personality, and potential and then set them free. To reflect this, players don’t choose classes or professions at chargen. Instead they choose a cast. Casts represent how an exalted goes about accomplishing their goals in life. For the dawn cast, it as champions and generals. For the night cast it is through stealth and trickery. Each cast has its own purpose. Each of the five casts compliments each other such that a full circle of all five casts is a fulcrum upon which destiny turns.

Beyond the cast system, characters pick favored abilities; essentially non cast specialties that help define them. For example, an eclipse cast who is naturally skilled in social and burocratic matters might also be a capable healer, sorcerer, and thief. This means that exalted characters are truly individuals. They aren’t tied to their cast as their single defining role, but rather are conceived as three dimensional personalities within the story.

Finally, though combat is sometimes complex, it’s also very rewarding. Players are encouraged to be flashy and inventive. Stunts make fights into as much a story as a math-fest (think crouching tiger hidden dragon here.) The charms and choice of weapon an exalted chooses are more than just numbers. Played well they speak to the character’s beliefs and goals.

So, great characters, check. Setting without peer, check. Excellent and consistent writing, check. This is simply the best RPG I’ve ever encountered.