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RPG Review: Exalted

First article in a series of reviews of anime, manga and wuxia-related tabletop rpgs. This round: Exalted, from White Wolf Game Studios. Ninjas, pirates, dinosaurs, robots, zombies, tragic kung fu heroes and double fistfuls of ten-sided dice: Exalted has it all.
White Wolf Game Studios made their name in the 1990s with the World of Darkness line of tabletop roleplaying games, the most popular of these being Vampire: The Masquerade. In 2001, WWGS released Exalted, a fantasy rpg with heavy elements of fantasy anime, kung fu actioners, ancient mythologies and swords-and-sorcery pulp novels. For the past several years, Exalted has been one of the most consistently excellent tabletop roleplaying games on the market, and with its heavy anime and manga influences, is deserving of more attention from the fan community. Exalted describes a world of terrible beauty: a Creation-spanning Realm in decline, her Empress gone and her rightful kings returning to rule; wonderous magic of epic scale; gods and spirits in every river, rock and tree; and alien barbarians at the borders come to destroy it all.

Exalted describes the history and present details of Creation and the Realm, and provides rules for playing the game and creating mortal and Solar Exalted characters. Destined to lead and rule, Solars raise armies, overthrow corrupt kingdoms, uncover hidden cities and make pacts of power with the forgotten gods within. They wield swords that cleave mountains and bows that rain fire. In ages past, the Solar Exalted were the rightful kings of the Earth, but they were betrayed by their advisors and overthrown by their armies. Now, tens of centuries later, the Solars have returned -- but will they save Creation, or bring it to ruin?

The Solars are divided into five castes:

the Dawn Caste, the warriors, knights and generals of the Solars;
the Zenith Caste, preachers and kingpriests, the voice of the Unconquered Sun;
the Twilight Caste, sorcerers and sages;
the Night Caste, the left hand of the Sun -- thieves, assassins and spies;
and the Eclipse Caste, diplomats, negotiators, and explorers.

Charms are the powers of the Exalted: superhuman manifestations of skill and sorcery that allow them to lead, conquer and rule. At the top of his game, a Dawn Caste warrior will always hit and can never be hit, and an Eclipse Caste diplomat can corrupt a bureaucracy or reform it with a single phrase.

The system is a modified version of White Wolf's Storyteller system and is pretty straightforward -- roll one or more ten-sided dice, each die that beats seven is a success, more successes = more effect. Combat between mortals is a gritty affair, with rules for infections and crippling wounds that even the least-powerful Exalted can pretty much ignore in favor of a complex tactical subsystem of Charms and combos that results in huge fistfuls of attack dice being dropped on the table, only to be mostly negated by an opponent's defensive Charms. Sorcery is slow to use and hard to learn, but powerful -- no fire-and-forget magic missiles here, but try a storm of obsidian butterflies or summon a demon of the First Circle to protect you for a year and a day. But most Exalted are going to rely on their innate Charms and magical artifacts, like gigantic daiklave swords, goremaul hammers and powerbows crafted from one of the five magical materials and augmented with materia-like elemental Hearthstones. (Exalted's creators have obviously done their time in Midgard.)

Fantasy gamers who are used to having their morality spoon-fed to them by a white-robed wizard or a nine-point alignment grid will be making some adjustments. The Exalted are classical heroes in the vein of Gilgamesh, Achilles, Sun Wu Kong or Arjuna. They are defined by their excellence, not their virtue -- at least, not virtue as we'd think of it -- and while their abilities put them near or at the top of the curve in terms of prowess and intelligence, they don't always have the wisdom or self-control to put those abilities to good use. The Exalted have been cursed from the moment of their creation, and the Solars' curse is a hubris that causes them to act to extremes of virtue or depravity. When he reaches his limits, a valorous Solar might find himself unwilling to retreat from any conflict and a Solar with strong convictions will act on them with cold cruelty, while a compassionate Solar could be paralyzed with the pain of the world and a Solar known for his temperance could be driven to violent asceticism or overindulgence. With this poor impulse control combined with their world-shaking power, it's easy to imagine why the Solars were overthrown and exterminated with nearly all records of their existence expunged from history.

At its heart, Exaltedis a pulp fantasy running wild in an anime- and wuxia-colored playground, owing as much to Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard as it does to Ninja Scroll, Aura Battler Dunbine or The Bride With White Hair. Creation is a place full of wonder and terror that has forgotten far more of its history than it remembers and has room for nearly anything a gamer's imagination can come up with. If tabletop gaming is your thing, and you haven't given Exalted a look for whatever reason -- the Western manga-style artwork, the White Wolf pedigree, the fantasy genre -- you're missing out on a unique experience that this review has barely scratched the surface of. Give it a shot.

Where to buy:
Hardcopy at Amazon.com
PDF at DriveThruRPG.com

Free downloads!
Promotional flyer!
Playable quickstart rules!
Free basic ruleset and adventure!
A map of Creation!
Character sheet!
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