Published on February 7th, 2014 | by Luke Turpeinen0
Top 5 Reasons To Like Exalted
The Exalted Roleplaying Game is a game of mythic fantasy and was originally published by White Wolf in 2001. Published fairly shortly after Wizards of the Coast revealed its first version (but the third edition) of the TSR classic, Dungeons & Dragons, the developers and writers of Exalted did a lot of things to make their setting stand out. Here are the top five reasons Exalted stood out, and why I like it so much.
Eastern Influences (both ancient and modern)
One of the first things to stand out when comparing Exalted to other fantasy role playing game settings is its lack of Tolkien-esque Northern European elements. Instead, Exalted focused its mythological underpinnings on influences from Greece and eastward. The setting’s mythic back story is based largely around a Hellenistic titan/gods usurpation scenario that gets echoed in later parts of the story, while the most powerful political faction in the game is modeled after Imperial China and the state religion of the empire is what would happen if Shaolin Monks ran an Inquisition.
Add into this the fact that your character abilities sound like moves from a shonen anime and that the world looks just as much like Journey to the West as it does like Tales of the Flat Earth. Exalted does a good job at incorporating various eastern influences together in a way that doesn’t seem fake or kitschy. The setting also doesn’t fall into the trap of imitating the original sources too closely (ie: pseudo-historically) in the way that Legend of the Five Rings does.
One of the good things about White Wolf books is that the authors usually include a list of resources they consulted while trying to achieve the particular look and feel of the book. I would just include the original first edition list, but I feel like the setting’s influences could be updated since it’s been out for about 13 years now. So here is the list of influences I’d use to describe the Exalted RPG setting:
- The Histories by Herodotus
- The Iliad by Homer
- The Ramayana by Valmiki
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong
- Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en
Modularity of Setting Elements
As Exalted’s first edition grew by defining more settings elements and incorporating new ideas to the mix, authors started writing about how to customize your game’s setting by turning up or down certain influences in your home version of the setting.
For example, our groups have never really experimented much with warstriders (magical mecha suits) or airships and other forgotten technology, though we have done quite a few stories based around the intrigues of functionaries in the bureaucracy of the empire. We delved into the political and economic ramifications of forcibly obliterating (literal) zombie labor from a region, and there was a book published that helped us do so. There are pirates, ninjas, robots, demons and more- and each of these subjects has had an Exalted book written about it specifically.
What’s great about this is that it lets everyone’s Exalted game be a bit different. There is content precisely written for the group that wants to run a Gurren Lagann style anime-reference-heavy story and one that wants to run more personal heroic dramas like the tale of Achilles or Rama. By allowing everyone’s Creation to be a bit different and calling that out in the rules, it created a fan culture that encourages “head canon” and personalization.
Large Variety of Character Options
One of the things that White Wolf apparently learned from the publication of their older World of Darkness setting was that their fan base really likes playing all of their different character types together. The Exalted core book is published with the rules to play what are arguably the most individually powerful supernatural (but mortal human) beings in Creation, known as the Exalted. In the first edition you could play as:
- Solar Exalted- the Chosen of the Unconquered Sun, and the most powerful but some of the least subtle character types.
- Lunar Exalted– the Chosen of Luna, these are fickle shape-shifters, fierce skin-changers and manipulative illusionists.
- Sidereal Exalted- the Chosen of the Maidens, the most subtle of Exalts despite also being masters of mystical kung-fu.
- Abyssal Exalted– the Chosen of the Void, the corrupted Solars who are cursed with undeath and controlled by dark powers.
- Dragon-Blooded- the Chosen of the Elemental Dragons, the heirs of a great political dynasty that used their strength of numbers to overthrow the vastly more powerful Solar Exalted empire long ago.
- Alchemical Exalted- the Chosen of Autochton, basically steampunk robots that live in the world of Big O.
- The Fair Folk- essentially manifestations of primordial chaos trapped in Creation and defined by our rules, which diminish them into physical forms.
As expansion content, each hard cover book that followed after the core book detailed the rules, powers and infrastructure of the other Exalts and let you play them. You could either mix and match these characters or play in campaigns with characters of only one type.
Well Thought Out Political Scenarios
One of the most engaging parts of the Exalted setting is the complex political scenarios that are arranged throughout the major power players in the setting. This holds true with the supernatural creatures and factions alike, and there is a true depth to all of the group dynamics that really works to the setting’s advantage.
There is the conflict of the Scarlet Empire and its tributary states against the yet-unclaimed territories, which mirrors the Roman Empire at the height of its expansion. Within the Scarlet Empire there is much maneuvering surrounding the sudden disappearance of the Empress, which means all of the Dynastic Houses are rallying resources in preparation for a civil war. In Heaven the Celestial Bureaucracy is dysfunctional and corrupt, while the Gold and Bronze factions of the Sidereal struggle against each other much like our gridlocked Congress.
By focusing on political situations that are relevant to our time, the setting allows the players to make commentaries on these situations in play and explore the consequences of altering society in a fictional world.
Acceptance of Modern Sensibilities
In discussion of both video games and tabletop role playing games the word verisimilitude is thrown around a lot. Verisimilitude refers to the appearance of realism in a work. In the case of role playing games this is frequently taken to mean that the setting accurately portrays what life would be like for medieval peoples and tries to consider what the real effects of having access to magic would be. Most fantasy expresses verisimilitude by relegating women to second class citizens or uses that as an excuse to under-represent people of color in the setting, intentionally or not.
Exalted handles verisimilitude differently by making magical birth control easily accessible by most citizens of the empire and subsidiary states, by explicitly making being gay accepted by the in-setting cultures, and by writing signature characters of many different ethno-cultural backgrounds and physical appearances. To my knowledge it’s the only RPG to have a woman of color on the front of the core book as well as the only RPG that makes the dominant culture of the setting matriarchal.
By explicitly addressing verisimilitude in the form of questions such as “what does sexuality look like in this setting?” or “in a fantasy world what does race mean?” and “what are common gender dynamics?” Exalted gave itself room in the text to make sure white-washing and hetero-normative perspectives didn’t happen to the same degree as other fantasy settings. When cultures aren’t modern/progressive in their social sensibilities they are shown to be places that the player characters are going to want to fix as part of their heroic journey.
That’s not to say that everything has always been tasteful or that there haven’t been mistakes made, or that there aren’t some total, nonredeemable freaking whack jobs writing for them now, but its first edition was conceived with a purposeful eye towards being inclusive and representative.
Well, those are the things I really like about Exalted (as well as some links to some of the things I really don’t). One other part that I really dislike about Exalted are the rules-as-written, and I highly suggest not using them. The second edition doesn’t fix the rules and it’s likely from what we’ve seen that the third edition won’t either. Have no fear though- I really like using Fate Core to run Exalted and I’ve found that it’s really easy to represent Exalts in the Fate system.
If you have something to say about Exalted or my take on it, please post in the comments or shoot us a response on Twitter (@board_crossing or @turp206) and I’ll do my best to respond to you.