Review: Exalted 2nd Edition
When it was announced that White Wolf was releasing a second
edition of it’s Anime-inspired High Fantasy game, I was not among those cursing the Wolf for “making” us buy the game all over again.
I’ve been down this road with many of my favorites over the years. I was among those who looked at the existing source material, as well
as White Wolf’s track record with new editions as evidenced with the Second/Revised editions of the old World of
Darkness games, and said “Hmm. This could be good, or it could be ugly.” I’m happy to report that it turned out for the best indeed.
Exalted, Second Edition shows where White Wolf learned from past problems when putting out new editions of old games, and most of those lessons were learned well. It’s not the perfect game for emulating the Anime, wuxia, and Sword-and-Sorcery genres, but it’s one of the best currently on the market.
Exalted, Second Edition is a 392 page hard cover book. The cover depicts the five “signature characters” of the game clearly, with faded images of many other characters scattered across the backdrop of the book. The art is clearly more in line with the “manga” aspect of Exalted’s source material than the first edition. The Second edition book seems to have fallen prey to the same binding problems that plagued it’s predecessor, with a large number of complaints of torn or even disintegrating bindings lodged on the White Wolf forums, and one I have seen with a tear through the binding about three pages into the book. Other coppies of the book, however, have no binding issues, so it is simply something to be aware of when purchasing the book.
The interior text is in a clear font, on a clear background. The chapters are separated by two page “manga” or comic book spreads in good, if not top quality artwork. The interior artwork is generally good to very good, with few low quality pictures. The UDON pieces especially stand out to me as good work. All of the interior art is full color.
The first thing I noticed about the interior of the book had little to do with the actual content of the game. Rather, it was a very nice touch. As mentioned above, the signature characters of Exalted are depicted on the cover, and a second picture of just the circle, with a plain white background, is inside the first page. Inside the back cover is another picture of that circle, but as they appeared in the first age. The second thing I noticed was the re-drawn map, which also changed where some things were from the first edition of the game. The map is, in my opinion, a better quality map than the first edition, and it includes a scale bar.
The Manga comics take the place of the traditional short pieces of prose that occur in most White Wolf products as the chapter breaks. The stories are interesting, and the few pages of comic certainly provide as much information as the short vignettes that normally appear. The artwork, as I said above, is good. However, as more of a writer than an artist, I miss the prose to a certain extent. Yes, manga has more of an impact on Exalted than Homer, at least in terms of the images that the writers and designers are trying to invoke, but it’s still nice to trust to your reader’s imagination.
The introduction itself contains the traditional “what this game is,” “what Storytelling is,” and “How to use this book” segments. One of the statements about the game, however, really does ring true. Exalted is set apart from other high fantasy games by a very strong, very rich setting. Traditional High Fantasy games use worlds inspired as much by Chaucer and Mallory as by Beowulf and the Kalevala (in the form of Tolkein.) Exalted takes it’s setting from an older time, more in tradition with Conan than Aragorn, with a healthy dose of the ancient east as well. They successfully explain this world well enough that there is a limited “disconnect” between the typical player and the world that they are presenting. The introduction also includes a lexicon of terms and a list of suggested resources that are varied and yet all true to the setting, ranging from The Bible to InuYasha.
The Setting Chapter takes up forty-five pages, and explains everything from the history of creation to the way creation exists at the start of the game. One significant thing to note in the setting is that, unlike with the second and revised editions of the old World of Darkness line, the second edition book takes place at the same time as the first edition book. People starting with second edition will not feel that they were missing some event because they came into the game late, nor that they can’t find that event because the book where it would be found is out of print. While those who have read the books may feel a bit “spoiled” by the meta plot, knowing what is likely to come, the writers of Exalted have kept to their word of a minimum advancement of the meta plot, something of a necessity in Exalted where your characters are expected to be the movers and shakers, rather than the pawns and peons.
Character creation takes up a mere fifteen pages, but this short chapter is very connected to the following chapter about traits, which is another eighteen pages. The basics of characters are very similar to the first edition of the Exalted game, with nine Attributes, including appearance, and twenty five abilities divided thematically (as opposed to usefulness) among the five castes of Solar exalted. Nature has been replaced by Motivation, which is supposed to be the core driving ambition of the character. Unfortunately, the directives for making a motivation boil down to “Make it Epic and Cool.” While yes, the Solar Exalted are supposed to be capable of changing the world, it’s sometimes, even often, difficult to pinpoint what a character’s “Epic and Cool” motivation might be until after some, sometimes extensive, game play. That modifying your motivation costs Experience points, unless you manage to complete it, seems a bit rough, and I might be inclined to house-rule that everyone would be allowed one or two changes in motivation in the first few sessions until after the characters have gone through a “Shakedown” period. Motivations and Intimacies (which are smaller level motivations) can play a significant part in the game, and it’s a shame that they’re not better explained and that the rules for making adjustments include spending two experience points. It may not seem like much, but at low levels, it can be rather expensive if it takes a while to get into your character’s head enough to really understand what her motivation might be. Despite my issues with Motivations, I do think that the layout and explanations of Virtues and virtue flaws is a significant improvement over the previous edition.
Systems make up the next chapter and take up some fifty-seven pages. Exalted uses the Storyteller System, and much of the basics remain the same. There is an extensive list of example dramatic actions and what the exact system is to accomplish those actions, and the list covers much of the basics. The combat system has undergone a change, eliminating the Initiative roll, except for one at the beginning of the combat, and actions progress in “ticks” after that. While I have no inherent problem with the new combat initiative (it is somewhat like Champions’ initiative, except that it does not reset at 12), I do have some issues, mostly of a personal “that’s not how I would have done it” nature, with the speed of some weapons. The question of some weapon speeds has also been brought up as one of the pending questions about Exalted, and as of this writing has not yet been addressed. The Tick based was touted as being simpler and more streamlined, which I disagree with, however I will concede that it is faster. Exactly how much faster depends on how much combat was taken up by getting everyone’s attention when initiative was called and how much combat was taken up by calculating costs. Combat also truly takes it’s place as the heart of exalted with the inclusion of Social Combat, affectionately termed “social-fu.” Mechanically, it works much the same as regular combat, but with each tick taking longer. Initially, I was disappointed that the Diplomat Eclipse Caste was required to go “out of caste” to have any skills useful in one-on-one Social Combat, but upon reflection, there is only one skill so required, and just about all the castes have at least one “out of Caste” skill that really is required for the character to perform in accordance with the description of the Caste in the traits chapter. Something that I would have liked to have seen is a sample of combat for each of the different combat levels (Melee, Mass, and Social), though I admit I don't know what could have been cut to include it.
Charms and sorcery are found in the next chapter, and these are the Exalted’s “Kewl Powerz.” Despite my teasing use of the term, cool is a good description of many of these abilities. All abilities have three basic Excellency charms that enhance a roll, plus two advanced Excellencies, which affect how the basic Excellencies are used. Then each ability has a network, usually called a tree, but sometimes looking more like a spider web, of charms that are particular to that ability. The tree has a visual depiction, including being able to see at a glance the minimum required traits for the charm. Also scattered throughout the chapter are sidebars on strategies for using various charms, which can be helpful for those of us less tactically inclined. Many of the charms have been changed in ability, power, use or some grouping thereof from their first edition counterparts, and some of the charms initially published in supplements have been imported into the new core book, so finding a charm in second edition may require looking a little bit more
The next two chapters are Storyteller’s eyes only, to a certain extent, covering advice on how to run a game and the opponents that the player characters might face. While some aspects of the Storyteller chapter might be useful for the players to know, the only part that is a must for players is page 274 where the Experience chart can be found. The antagonists chapter covers a wide range of opponents from the basic townsfolk to demi-gods to other exalts and beyond. The statistics are nice and useful for quick combats, though many of the opponents are missing Motivations, presumably because Motivations need to be more personalized than the generic stats of the characters in the back of the book. This chapter also has more information on the hierarchy of spirits, the nature of the underworld and the unpredictability of the Wyld, providing enough information for a storyteller to make a cohesive campaign even if they do not choose to purchase the Storyteller’s Companion. Creatures can also be found here, each with a nice picture of the creature in question (providing answers to what sort of bird, exactly, is a ration? I had pictured them as more raptor than raven, but the reverse appears to be true.) Non-physical threats such as diseases finish up the chapter.
The book’s final chapter is the nearly ubiquitous equipment chapter. It starts out with an explanation of the monetary systems of Creation, something that was relegated to a supplement, and one of the later supplements at that, in first edition, including banking and accounting. The list of mundane equipment is almost exactly the same as in the first edition, with prices being reflected in dots, however with the information available in the preceding section on money, the conversion is very easy. The weapons, armor, and artifacts sections use a format more like the creatures section, with clear high quality pictures of all of the weapons, excepting unarmed attacks, which have a blank box. I still have issues with the aesthetics of the magical weapons of Exalted, but that’s a purely personal quibble.
Over all, Exalted Second Edition is an improvement over the first edition, as a second edition should be. However, it is not as significant or obvious an improvement as, for example, the new World of Darkness was over the old one. Conversion between first and second edition is certainly possible, with anywhere from 75% to 90% compatibility, depending upon the original build of the character. Current Exalted players will be pleasantly surprised at how just enough extra information is there to make the purchase not seem like a complete waste of their original money, and new players won’t feel overwhelmed by the extensive backlist, most of which will doubtless be covered by future releases. My main quibbles with the book are mainly personal issues of aesthetics, including a few gratuitous boob shots in the artwork. Exalted is a solid product that stays true to it’s source material, and is still accessible enough for those who aren’t interested in Asian mythic images. It claims to be a game of Kick-Butt combat performed by larger than life classically flawed heroes, whether that inspiration is Gilgamesh or Genji, and it makes very good on that promise.