Monday, December 21, 2015

Initial thoughts on Exalted Third Edition


One of my favorite childhood memories came when the library for the blind got the wheel of time series on tape. Back then, you were lucky to get big fantasy on audio—and almost never unabridged. I spent many hours lazing on my bedroom floor listening to my first exposure to epic high fantasy. From that moment I have been hooked on the series and the genre.

Unfortunately, I have not found many well executed epic-high-fantasy role-playing games. There are good epic games. There are good High fantasy games; but Good and epic and high fantasy?—not so much. It is difficult to build a setting that encourages legendary shenanigans. You need a provocative world that begs for stories to be told. You need an advancement system that allows for customization and character development. You need a combat system with flare. Many try—few succeed.

I discovered first edition exalted when a friend offered to run a new fantasy game system from white wolf. At the time I thought it was simply a fun RPG with some interesting setting elements. Later I ran several campaigns and played in a couple short-lived stories. Exalted was the kind of game I had always wanted. It was big. It was bold. There were magic, artifacts, swords, heroes, villains, heroic villains, and villainous heroes. Multiple editions and splat books have evolved the franchise to something beyond the hardcover that first won my heart; however, at its core, exalted is still that game I fell in love with more than a decade past.

I went into the third edition kickstarter dreaming of a beautiful leather bound tome of perfect story potential—gleaming mechanics—elegant pros—a product that innovated but kept all the things I loved about first ed and none of the things I hated about second. Now, two years past the expected completion date with at least another year before I see a physical product, my expectations have been tempered. I still want that perfection–but I am willing to overlook some beauty marks if it gets me a workable result.


Third Ed is a perfect illustration of how pen and paper gaming has changed since I picked up my first d20 25 years ago. Gamers of my generation remember when “games” were physical books marketed as any other retail product. The impression I got was that there was a brick storefront contracting, writing, and editing each tome before it hit the shelves.

Flash forward to white wolf’s acquisition by CCP and recent consumption by paradox, and things are a little different. Onyx path pays the licensing company for the rights to publish products in the legacy WW lines. They kick start their publications with a physical prestige copy. After the campaign ends, non-backers go to and buy the PDF.

Looking at the pre-publication backer copy of third Ed you can see what happens when you let artists run wild. This book is huge. Converted to RTF, it clocks in at more than 800 pages (something like 600 in print with all the art.) The writing varies between medium to very high quality. The rules are cleanly written. The writers’ voices are not blended as well as in previous editions. Some of the art is poorly executed. The overall impression is a book that delivers on content but lacks polish.


At a macro level the world of exalted hasn’t changed much—same back story—same old time of tumult. The section explaining the creation of the solar exalted and the fall of the first age could have been pulled right out of my first edition core book. Third edition retains all the familiar charm names, notable personages, artifact types, and nomenclature fans have come to expect. That being said, once you get past the exterior you can’t take anything at face value. I will detail individual items later; but for now I want to address the fundamental alterations.

First, the world is much more expansive. First edition left a lot of unwritten space. I think the idea was to leave room for future supplements and custom world building. 3E’s creation feels like the difference between color and high definition. Is there that much of a difference point by point? No. But the more I read the more I wanted to go to every location and build a story around every person. It feels like all that blank space is full of adventure-worthy material.

Second, the game is focused on telling big stories. You can see this in the depth of the charm trees, the way social challenges resolve, and the way characters advance. 3e is explicitly built to take a new exalted to the point where they challenge the fabric of reality. Previous editions tried to do this. The catch was that the mechanics didn’t scale well once characters started dealing with armies, nations, and gods on mass. The game now has defined mechanics for managing nations, for fighting armies, for waging a political campaign, for crafting first age wonders, for free handing magic, and on and on.

Third, role-playing is now fundamentally built into the mechanics. You can still throw a fist full of dice at problems but the game encourages players to build story concepts, play to those themes, and to collaborate. . There are tangible rewards for role-playing consistently well. Exalted 3e features an engine that bills combat and social interactions as equally viable problem solving methods.

Fourth, “concept” is critical to chargen and character advancement. Previously you decided what kind of character you wanted to play, mixed and matched your choice of cast—charms—spells—equipment—abilities to represent that idea. Building a character was often more about making the numbers work than aligning your dream with the fiction. Now, exalted asks you from the very beginning; what kind of character do you want to play, what activities do you want to be doing for the rest of the campaign, what role do you want to play within the circle, what kinds of actions do you want to generate extra experience? Concept is baked into 3E at all levels—a change which I wholeheartedly approve.

What follows are some of my observations regarding particular aspects of 3E. They are neither comprehensive nor in any particular order. Please keep in mind that these are my opinions generated after a single reading of the first player draft of the text with no actual play time.


The defining aspect of 3E is, as the title says, those exceptional individuals the gods choose to elevate. Onyx Path added several new types of exalted in this edition including those crafted from the bodies of the dead, those who rip themselves free of the tapestry of fait, and those who the little gods raise up by petitioning the unconquered sun. The core book doesn’t give much detail beyond basic concept, a ruff mechanical outline for the antagonist chapter, and some fiction snippets; but I like what I am seeing. Alchemicals and infernals are not mentioned in this book. I have not seen anything discussing their future in 3E, but given the extensive list of exalted types for which OP already has to produce source material, I am skeptical.

While I like what I am seeing in new exalted types, the traditional flavors received updates as well. Lunars have a defined role as guerilla warriors and assassins fighting the realm. Solars, abyssals, dragon blooded and sidereal are unchanged in concept but are mechanically polished to better reflect their respective natures. Each type of exalted has been tweaked. Lunars are no longer invincible. Sidereal are physically less imposing than other exalted but make up for it by actually bending fait to their advantage. The net effect is that the exalted are much more flavorful and mechanically intuitive than in past editions.

Character creation:

Character creation is the chapter where I really started to “get” 3E. Players can take a mortal, play him/her for a while, exalt him/her, start out as a solar newbie, or begin play as a seasoned solar. Using this method you can easily see how solar exalted are picked from the ranks of the most exceptional mortals. It clearly shows how this edition has been built from the ground up with a unified design.

For me, the best part of making characters is the design process—how do I make an engine that will let me role-play and be mechanically functional? So I was pleasantly surprised when the more I read about third Ed chargen the more design possibilities continued to spark my creative juices. Each of the 5 solar casts comes with a “job”, a distinct set of useful powers, and a selection of 8 abilities from which to select 5 cast focuses. Characters select one of those five as their supernal ability—a skill group in which they can choose charms while ignoring essence minimums. On its face that may not sound like a big deal; but the implications are huge. Your choice of cast, abilities, and specialties can now align at no penalty. No more picking a night cast who specializes in sorcery because you don’t like the special powers of the twilight cast. Since essence levels are increased based on the amount of experience a character has earned rather than by spending experience and bonus points, this means that each cast can actually begin the game with more skill and charm development in their chosen specialty/supernal skill than a member of a different cast with similar interests.

Supplementing this development is the “intimacy” system. I’ll get to the social game mechanic in a minute; but in the context of character building, players pick a guiding principal, positive and negative personal associations and levels of importance at chargen. This means that even for the least fleshed out character, some attempt must be made to develop a back story, motivation, and important associates.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss advancement. As in the past, there is a set experience total for showing up. However, characters can earn extra experience for role-playing their cast, allowing other characters to role-play, role-playing flaws, and achieving significant personal objectives. Again, while this might seem like a relatively unimportant detail, it has a massive impact. Flaws don’t let you make a more powerful character; they let you advance faster by role-playing a less effective character. Character concept and motivations drive experience which can drive story choices. Group dynamics are even part of potential experience awards. While a player can certainly do the minimum required to get by, any motivated player is going to be looking at who their character is if for no other reason than to make sure they don’t leave experience on the table.

Abilities and Charms:

The basic list of skills hasn’t changed much. Martial arts is a merit dependent subset of brawl. Endurance is folded into resistance. Taking their place are war (the skill of organizing and fighting with troops) and integrity (internal focus and spiritual strength.) Lore and craft require a qualifier such as a course of study or a particular trade. Each martial art must be learned as a separate application of ability dots. Leading and convincing through force of personality uses the presence skill while social niceties and rhetoric falls under socialize. Linguistics is skill at written expression and versatility—languages are learned via merit. My only head scratching moment came when I found that performance encompasses *all* forms of performance—including sex. It is the only ability that covers a huge range of specific skills and disciplines without qualification. In general the ability tree is cleaner than past versions.

Moving on to charms—hoo boy. Charms operate largely as they always have—starting off small and scaling up to finishing moves. At the very bottom are Excellencies—free charms that let you boost a die pool or static value derived from the associated ability. Die pool maximums are atribute+ability and half atribute+ability rounded up for static values. The key thing in that description is “free.” If you have dots in an ability you probably qualify for an Excellency. This means that even before exalted buy charms they can throw a lot of essence at problems—even ability checks that they wouldn’t otherwise bother investing charm slots to improve. Some charms grant periodic free full Excellencies in the associated ability—making more advanced exalted powerful and more efficient when using their signature skills.

Combos are gone—thank god. As near as I can tell, the book isn’t clear on this point, unless it says otherwise you can’t stack charms of the same name, can only use one “simple” type charm per action, and can’t combine bonuses based on charms from different abilities save those that allow for such. That sounds like a lot of restrictions but in practice it means you can use one simple and any number of reflexive and supplemental charms in the same round at no penalty. The lack of clarity regarding essence expenditure and timing is one of my few major criticisms of the system—there seems to be a lack of granularity in this area.

There are a lot of charms. You can tell that what with the starting essence of base exalted pegged at 1 (this goes up to 2 if you make a slightly more experienced solar) essence isn’t a limiting factor for most of the charms that experienced players will remember from previous editions. Each ability tree scales up at a slightly different rate with a wide selection of engines, bonuses, and enhancements. Many charms are simply permanent upgrades to prerequisites. At the upper end charms act more like old school sorcery spells than the essence techniques of yore. One of the lore charms—lore mind you—lets a player role a number of dice and predict a cataclysm. Depending on the result, a number of days later will see the destruction of an area as small as a city to as large as an entire region. War and Sail have charms that let exalted command armies and armadas. An exalted willing to commit a significant portion of their starting charms to their supernal ability is a force to be reckoned with—and then only by gods and celestial exalted of means. The charm trees feel like players are expected to build entire campaigns around their signature abilities—the kind of campaign that gives birth to epics like the Iliad.


One of the things you could count on with WW products was the core engine of ability plus attribute. Third edition nominally holds to that tradition, but adds in multiple specialty systems. None of them are particularly complicated, but taken in total they represent an intimidating pile of rules.

E3’s social mechanic is…odd. Every character and NPC has a list of important associations ranked from minor to major to defining. Each level provides a bonus based on whether it is enhancing or conflicting with the modified action. There are different rolls for intimidating, convincing, determining motive, assessing emotional state, instilling passion…and so forth. In theory I really like the idea of defining everyone’s influences—the things that make them who they are. In practice it looks unwieldy. There is a long decision matrix regarding how to affect a person’s opinion, how to combat someone else’s attempt to do so, how to retry the attempt…and on and on. It looks like it would be easy to fall out of character arguing over intimacies and modifiers.

Combat is greatly improved. The essential mechanism requires a player to accumulate initiative equal to the damage they are dealing to their opponents (the opponent loses that much initiative.) Once they have a large enough pool of initiative points, they then spend it all as damage in a single “decisive” attack. There are provisions for “gambits” like disarming and unhorsing. Weapon and armor statistics are standardized by type and modified by tags. Combat looks to pace out better than in previous editions—largely due to the consolidation of the dramatic arc. There are no more split die pools or multiple actions unless allowed through charms—there are some combinations of movement, action, and combat which feel like multiple actions but aren’t. The result should be shorter more direct combat turns.

Group combats have been simplified down to a single stat line for a battle group of anywhere from a couple to a thousand individuals. Their stats are modified by skill, numbers, morale—literally cutting through filler with a series of straight forward rolls. I really like the idea of being able to condense an exalted VS. An army down to a couple rounds of abstract contest. It allows for some dramatic scenes that otherwise would require ridiculous amounts of book keeping.

At first glance sorcery hasn’t changed much—spend willpower+essence for the spell, three circles…etc. The difference is as with most abilities the change in scope. Sorcery is now a process by which one shapes essence using different methods such as potions, worship, or an elemental affinity. Sorcerers are no longer just exalted with access to expensive inefficient charms—they are legitimately wielders of the very fabric of the universe. The book takes pains to describe multiple methods for casting and learning sorcery to the point where it is a profession in its own right.

Crafting is possibly the most interesting new mechanic. In any system it is a challenge to balance the ability to build wondrous items with the need to make the cost of their manufacture somewhat prohibitive. I am not sure how well this system achieves those goals but it is…interesting. Characters earn points by completing projects. At the basic level they get a couple points for building a simple tool. Once they have enough of those points they can spend them to undertake a larger project. This escalates from building trivial items (a couple hours of work at most) to a larger project like a suit of armor (a couple of days or weeks) to a significant project such as an artifact weapon ( a couple weeks to a couple of months) up to world changing items that presumably take months if not years to finish. Depending on how far down the charm tree a character wants to go they can turn the construction of wondrous items into the focus of a campaign or a hobby for off moments. The point based mechanic means that craft is an all or nothing deal. I am curious how this mechanic plays out with other systems as theoretically one could build a mirror that lets one look back in time or a floating palace or a chalice that would exalt anyone who drank from it to say nothing of “mundane” artifacts. It is very much an open ended engine.

There are other systems such as how to administer fiefdoms, ship-to-ship combat, building a mance, and how to build magical workings—sort of like crafting items but for magic affects. If all of this sounds complicated that’s because it is. Towards the end of the text I, an experienced exalted storyteller, was thinking I have no idea how I am going to remember all of this stuff. None of this even takes into account that a couple martial arts operate under their own distinct sub-combat mechanics and several charms modify systems—effectively creating a sub-system in-and-of-themselves. In theory I love the way OP has built a system that addresses every little detail a character might want to utilize. In practice I am concerned at the sheer weight of the material and the bar to play that weight represents.


This book is ruff. It is a good editor and a unified art director away from exceptionalism. Even so, it has a lot to offer—especially for those already addicted to Exalted’s call. It is not without flaw though. The point of a RPG is to create a system and setting for people to act out stories. For an experienced player or storyteller 3E is a valuable resource. For a new gamer it is lacking. There is no chapter on storytelling and very little practical discussion of role-playing. This may be the product of the developers focus on the system and setting. It may be an intentional oversight intended for remedy in a later supplement. Regardless, in a core book anchoring a signature line from the largest grossing tabletop RPG kickstarter campaign of its kind, this is an unforgiveable deficit. The next 4 publications in this line have nothing to do with a story teller’s guide or a player’s guide. As a result, while I love 3e for what it is, I have to seriously question OP’s competency, editing, and professional vision.


Every gamer has “their game.” Exalted is mine. I like what I am seeing in this draft in the sense that there is a lot of material for me to work with. I am less pleased with the lack of attention to fine detail and production values. 3E looks like it has reach and breadth. It looks to allow for beautiful characters and lush campaigns. It also looks to be complex enough that I will have to pick my group very carefully. Here is hoping for the future.