"Before the world was bent but after the Great Contagion, there was a civilization built in the image of the First Age. It sought to emulate the splendor of the bygone Golden Age, but it was in all ways less. It was a time of sorcery and heroism, of fabulous wonders and treacherous betrayals. Ruled by a decadent empire, it slipped inch by inch into barbarism and darkness, until one last cataclysm blotted it out forever. Yet, in its sunset, it was a splended thing, and glorious were the deeds of the Exalted."
-Exalted 1e Core
Exalted is one of my favorite games of all time. I ran a first edition game for five years, plus an additional year of random fiction extras and discussions about where the game might have gone, and I'd dare say that almost everything I learned about running an RPG I learned over the course of that game. I bought Exalted 2e when it came out, but after a discussion with my group we decided not to convert over and so I skimmed the book, and never really sat down to read it cover to cover until now. I'll try not to do too much comparison with 1e as I write, but with the context above it'll be hard. But, what comparison I'm going to do I'll get out of the way in the beginning here:
--I really don't like the art. 2e's art has a few great pieces--the picture of the hiker seeing Mount Mostath in the distance on page 51, for example--but generally I was lukewarm on it, and a lot of it I actively disliked. It didn't seem as thematically or stylistically unified as 1e did.
--I prefer the writing style of 1e. 2e has the benefit of a lot more setting material to draw on, but that also means it goes into much more detail and feels more like a technical manual and less like weird fiction. 1e's sense of wonder was due to most of the setting not being fleshed out yet, but it definitely got my imagination working more.
--The chapter comics do a decent job of setting the tone, especially the very first one with the river god, but I prefer the chapter fiction from 1e.
--While I think the concept is fine, I hate the word "Magitech."
That out of the way, let's dive in.
Exalted takes place in Creation, bordered by the swirling chaos of the Wyld on all edges and anchored by the Elemental Poles. To the west is the Elemental Pole of Water and a vast sea broken up by occasional islands until the sea and sky merge into one. To the south is the Elemental Pole of Fire and balmy coastal cities that give way to trackless sands and broken ground until in the far southern reaches the ground is too hot to walk on and the very air bursts into flame. To the east is the Elemental Pole of Wood, where fertile plains turn to dense forests whose trees grow taller and taller until the ground falls always and it's nothing but vast trunks going up and down into the misty green. To the north is the Elemental Pole of Air, from the temperate cities on the coast of the Inner Sea to the icy wastes of the north criss-crossed by tribes of nomads and haunted by the dead until it all becomes a vast sheet of ice. And in the center is the Blessed Isle, the stronghold of the Realm, the greatest empire in the world, and towering over the Realm is the Imperial Mountain, the Elemental Pole of Earth.
The assumed heroes of the game are the Exalted, empowered by the gods to fight the ancient Primordials and rule Creation. The Solars--the assumed protagonists of this book--were the greatest, until their hubris led to debauchery and chaos and they were overthrown, hunted down, and slain in incarnation after incarnation. Their enemies are the Dragon-blooded, elementally-empowered Princes of the Earth who rule the Realm and brand the Solars as Anathema. There are also the protean Lunars, the manipulative Sidereals, and the sinister Abyssals, among other, stranger beings. Like the Fair Folk who lurk in the Wyld beyond Creation and feed on human souls, or the spirits of the dead who watch over their ancestors, or the myriad of gods who govern every principle and location in Creation, from the concept of justice or the movement of the moon to the local god of an individual river or arrangement of boulders.
I am an unabashed lover of Creation. I could write pages and pages of setting description about the various areas of the setting and the people that live there, but in the interests of not turning this review into a book in its own right, I'll leave it at that.
It is a great setting, though. It's huge enough that it's possible to have wide diversity in cultures and physical geography without even accounting for the mutating effects of the Wyld, but the parts that are detailed are far-flung enough that it's easy to drop in your own kingdoms and civilizations in almost any place on the map. There are some places where the writers seem to forget this, though, like when they talk about how the Linowan, who are several thousand miles from the ocean, and would have to go several thousand more miles out of their way to get there by river, have a sea presence. I get that it's only a couple inches on the map, but each of those inches is a thousand miles. Creation is big.
There are also points where it gets a bit tedious. It's true that the Realm is the greatest power in the world and the Dragon-blooded are extremely important to the setting, but I'm not sure that we needed all that info about the inner workings of the Realm in this book. The assumed default is that the players will play Solars, and since repeated mention is made of how Solars who Exalt on the Blessed Isle almost never live very long, it probably would have been better to put that wordcount into describing the places where the characters will be spending their time.
The assumed tone of the game is Bronze Age epic crossed with high-powered wuxia film, with a greater or lesser proportion of either depending on the location chosen and the preferences of the players. I've noticed that the Bronze Age part tends to get lost in a lot of the online discussion, but the book does provide support for it through the setting. For example, the bestiary is filled with prehistoric creatures like dinosaurs or megafauna. On the wuxia side, the main staple crop of most places isn't maize, it's rice. Minor things, sure, but it does a lot to set the mood if the characters are fighting giant insects and velociraptors and getting jumped by ninjas in tea houses instead of fighting goblins and getting jumped by bandits in taverns.
Though you can do those too, if you want. Creation is large. It contains multitudes.
If you've played any of the other Storyteller games, you know the basic way the system works. A bunch of attributes, a bunch of abilities, add them together to get a dice pool, and try to beat a target number. A 7 or more is a success, and a 10 is two successes. Characters have Willpower that they can spend to increase their odds of success and Health Levels that stand between them and death. All that's the same.
There are some major differences between this and the various other Storyteller games, though, mostly relating to combat. For one, combat doesn't involve initiative and going around the table in turns. Instead, it's tick-based--each action a character can perform, including doing nothing, takes a certain number of "ticks" and reduces your ability to defend yourself by a certain amount until those ticks have gone by and you can act again. Similarly, defenses are no longer rolled out. Instead, everyone has a Defense Value that's automatically applied against incoming attacks. Damage and soak are still both rolled out, though, and damage is successes from the attack plus the weapon damage as is typical for Storytelling games. In addition, characters can move on every tick, which seems like it would help prevent the problem of people tuning out when it's not their turn, since they can block enemies, jockey for position, and so on even while they're waiting for their next action to come up. It does seem a little complicated, but I know there are fan-created accessories called Battlewheels to keep track of combatants' ticks-to-next-action, DV penalties, and so on.
Then, having created this elegant system, they created "flurries," a type of action that let people take multiple actions on the same tick, which seems like it gets rid of the whole point of having a timing-based system.
Combat is brutal, with rules for wounds becoming infected, bleeding to death, taking permanently crippling and disfiguring injuries, getting thrown to the floor or through walls, having armor and weapons smashed, and then the Exalted get to ignore almost all of those because they're just that awesome.
Each character has virtues as well: Compassion, Conviction, Temperance, and Valor. These have more of a mechanical effect in play, because a character has to fail a roll in order to go against any virtue rated 3 or higher. Failing a Valor roll to run from battle, for example, or failing a Compassion roll to execute a prisoner, or failing a Conviction roll to change their plan if ambiguous evidence of its failure comes through. It's not entirely a disadvantage, though, since characters can spend Willpower through a virtue to get bonus dice to appropriate rolls.
The main thing that makes the Exalted awesome is their Charms, and Solar Charms take up the single largest chunk of space in the book. Every ability, from Melee to Bureaucracy to Ride, has an array of special effects that can be invoked, letting Solars throw people across a football field, jump over mountains, raise a mob with a rousing speech, walk through walls, keep a ship from capsizing, survive a blow from a mammoth, or any number of other powers. There's a system of keywords for the Charms, like Obvious, meaning that it always causes some kind of physical manifestation that makes it easy to spot, or Emotion, meaning it affects the target's feelings. There's also sorcery, which lets the Exalted summon demons, teleport in the blink of an eye, part vast seas, or call down an acid rain that annihilates everything within its area of effect.
Two additional subsystems that weren't in Exalted 1e are the mass combat system and the social combat system. The mass combat system is a bit strange, because armies are modeled as essentially another piece of equipment that modifies the stats of the commander. It's a reasonable abstraction, but when mixed with the Charm and sorcery system it leads to weird effects. Some Charms have notes of how their usage change in mass combat, and some don't. Death of Obsidian Butterflies summons hundreds of razor-sharp butterflies and should carve a swath through any mortal army, but has no stats for mass combat. Adamant Skin Technique, which lets the Exalt stop all damage from an attack on them, can be used to block massed arrow fire because the army is an addition to the Exalt's stats. It does say that the GM should use their judgement, but I can see a lot of things that would get odd.
The social combat system is tick-based like physical combat, and involves making arguments and then either making a counterargument (social "parry") or stubbornly refusing to listen (social "dodge"), plus other actions. It also allows the recipient to spend a Willpower point to just say no and block the argument there, but the problems come in when supernatural persuasion is taken into account. Many supernatural powers require more than one Willpower to resist, and sometimes it has a periodic resistance cost. Furthermore, the book says: "Never forget that characters can flee the presence of individuals attempting to engage them in social combat or attack them in an attempt to cut short the conversation." Now admittedly, if someone can rewrite my beliefs then stabbing them in the face is a legitimate response for them trying to do so, but the image this conjures, of people running screaming from itinerant preachers or stabbing merchants who try to sell them goods they don't want to buy, is really odd.
The point of this is to affect the target's Intimacies and Motivation, which are a mechanical representation of their beliefs. They don't have much of a mechanical hook into the system, but they provide a basis for determining how characters are played.
There are some sloppy parts, though. The Fair Folk are supernaturally charming and can beguile the unwitting into believing in and accepting them, but there's no tie in with the social combat system. Buck-ogres have a note that they can "split their dice pools," even though that's a relic of the old Storyteller system and has been replaced by flurries. The aforementioned lack of interaction between large-scale battle sorcery and the system to handle large-scale battles. The listing of languages in NPC writeups has languages that aren't listed anywhere in the languages PCs can take, like Sijanese or River Valley.
And I won't even mention the errata. I have both the hardcopy and the PDF, and overlaid the errata as comments on the PDF, and some pages have up to a dozen comments on them. It's probably the most extensively-errataed RPG I've ever seen.
Exalted 1e has given me more fun than any RPG I own and I have a lot of love for the franchise because of that, but while this book does bring a lot of that to mind and even kindles it again in its own right, there are just too many small niggling things that bother me for me to give it five stars. A lot of that has to do with the system, though, not the setting. Creation is one of the most compelling fantasy worlds I'm familiar with, and I'd say Exalted is worth reading just for that.
[4 of 5 Stars!]