Exalted 2: Still Extraordinarily Kickass, But Unfortunately Unrepaired
Exalted 2! Long-awaited, well-publicized! Was it worth the wait? More importantly, is it worth the $40 price tag? After long-windedly comparing it to the old edition, and trying her best not to cater to her biases, Shataina -- an unabashed fan, former White Wolf intern and late-stage (i.e. ineffectual) Exalted 2 playtester -- emerges with some cautions, and a yes.
I better warn you, before we start on this long reviewing journey together, that I've always loved Exalted. (Well, okay, that's not quite true. My initial reaction to the game -- way back in the day, a.k.a. 2001 -- was, "Christ, that's the stupidest, most hideously overpowered thing I've ever seen, and I'll never be caught dead playing it." A few months later, I was putting up delirious AIM away messages that said things like, "I ... SUMMONED ... A DEMON! AHAHA! A DEMON! HAHAHAHA, I SUMMONED A DEMON I SUMMONED A DEMON!" and confusing all my non-gamer friends. ... But I digress.)
I do indeed love Exalted 2... but it ain't perfect.
So, I do indeed love Exalted 2. The detailed, mystical, original, grand and gorgeous setting hasn't changed. The beautiful melodramatic tragic-heroic aesthetic hasn't changed. The system has changed a bit, but retains its general flavour, flexibility and neatness. My favourite author (Tanith Lee -- go read Night's Master and Biting the Sun right now) is still listed as the biggest literary influence. Life is good.
But it ain't perfect, and I'll be the first to tell you that. I had hopes for Exalted 2 that could be described as "spectacular", and though it's fine, it didn't match them. Don't be dismayed! It's still wonderful -- definitely better than the old Exalted core rulebook, for one.
Most of this review is going to be concerned with how this game is different from the old edition, and for that, I hereby apologize to those who haven't played it -- but hey, if you haven't been playing Exalted already, it's your own damn fault. Still, although you're misguided, it's not too late, and I'll grant you a quick, general overview. (Those of you who have seen the light can skip this next paragraph.)
The game is about playing a hero -- in the vein of Achilles, Cuchulainn, or (why not?) Xena -- from the dawn of history. You're a Solar Exalt: having distinguished yourself as a mortal, you have been granted special powers by the Unconquered Sun (greatest of the gods), and you are expected to reclaim a fallen world from various forms of madness, evil, darkness and corruption. On all sides you are surrounded by foes, and the hell of it is that, for the most part, they're just as heroically convinced of their righteousness as you are. Happily, you have a host of ridiculous powers that can do anything from sword-fight through an army -- to blow up an army -- to infiltrate the army and kill all its top brass in a day -- to convince its general to rally behind your banner. So you can focus on how awesome you are -- or you can focus on the real problem: "with great power comes great responsibility". Enjoy!
It is less a "fixed" version of the first Exalted than a re-envisioning.
I think that the most important thing to understand, before reading Exalted 2, is that it is less a "fixed" version of the first Exalted than a re-envisioning. This becomes obvious as soon as one looks at Rebecca Borgstrom's new Solar Charms, or at the new combat system. Almost all the Charms, and many of the actions, have names left over from the old game, but most of them do completely new and different things.
There's a ton of stuff that hasn't changed at all, though. And there are also a few examples of subtler "fixes", small changes -- for example, the former Medicine Charm, Body-Mending Meditation, is now a Resistance Charm that does the same thing; the Awareness Charm Surprise Anticipation Method now has higher prerequisites. But the Socialize Charm Wise-Eyed Courtier Method, say, which used to allow characters to faultlessly observe others' demeanours, now allows them to force a viewpoint on a crowd of people. It takes a bit of getting used to!
Still ... well, maybe we should start at the beginning. Let's try a fun chapter-by-chapter overview thing! (Can you tell I'm new to this whole "reviewing" thing?)
The very first thing you notice -- before you even see the Table of Contents -- is that Exalted 2 is in full colour (that's part of what explains the price). It's also huge: at 400 pages, it outstrips its predecessor and even early estimates of its own length. And that font size sure isn't large; you're getting a lot of information here.
In keeping with the game's anime feel, there is no introductory fiction: instead there's a lavish eight-page manga featuring the signature Solar circle on a quest to prevent a selfish river god's depredations. More (shorter) manga pepper the book, and some of them are inspiringly excellent. In fact, the whole thing is eye-poppingly gorgeous. And, again unlike the first edition, there isn't only art scattered here and there, but also individual illustrations for things like every set of armour, each Artifact, and each animal.
The Introduction does a decent job of describing the game for those just picking it up, and more importantly, has a Lexicon. This, I suspect, is going to be especially important for new players, particularly because the new book -- while chock-full of information -- manages to skip over or inadequately explain some very important things. The best example is the Five Magical Materials: the baseline stuff for the magical items of Exalted, each with a very different look and feel, they are not described in full ... anywhere. Mentioned in a few places, and granting bonuses outlined in sidebars at the end, you could still read this entire book and have no real idea of what they are or even what they look like.
Unfortunately, there are a number of oversights along those lines. However, the first chapter -- Setting, which clocks in at 48 pages -- is still incredibly detailed. It has benefited from the strong, flavourful work that characterized later Exalted 1 setting books, and features not only a clear and concise history of Creation, but an awful lot of information on the Dragon-Blooded (major antagonists of the Solar Exalted) and on a large number of cities and countries around the world. What it does talk about, it explains well, and the reader comes away with a much clearer understanding of things like the gods and their foibles, the world's politics, et cetera, than one did with the old edition.
Character Creation, Chapter 2, is straightforward, providing the usual list of questions to answer about a character, walk-through and sample character. Chapter 3 -- Traits -- will disappoint those who were hoping for the new edition to be much redone -- say, using the traits from the World of Darkness. Very little has changed; the two Abilities that have been shifted were things that most fans had already houseruled, which is always a good sign. The major thing is the new Motivation and Intimacy mechanics replacing the old Nature stuff. You now make up an overriding drive for your character, as well as a lot of little drives; Virtues -- general emotional tendencies -- remain as well, and these all come together to create a really flexible, comprehensive system for describing a character's personality. I personally hate it when games try to systematize a character's personality -- I think it's quite misguided -- so when I say that this is pretty good, you know it has to be! It also actually comes in mechanically useful for things like social combat (coming up). It's impossible to argue that the game would be better without all these personality mechanics, especially since the excellent Limit Breaks -- tragic flaws that grow from the Solar Exalted's greatest passions -- have survived and even been improved, leaving Exalted as, still, one of the only games out there that really encourages character-driven drama.
Chapter 4, Drama and Systems! Most of it hasn't changed; a lot of stuff that used to be scattered through supplements -- mass combat, for example, and basic thaumaturgy rules -- is now here, and that's cool. Combat, however, is definitely different: rounds have been abolished, and it works on a more realistic, linear "tick" system. It's also cleaner and quicker, mostly because people now roll attacks against a static value (Defense Value) calculated from the opponents' scores rather than having a roll-off, as with the old system. So: strategy has changed a lot, and I'd certainly say that it's better now. But it's hard not to think that maybe the game would have benefited more from just fixing the old system instead, and I'm sure some people will.
Oh, and another of those oversights I mentioned afflicts the combat system: it appears that not even the writers are sure whether effects that add to Defense Values add straight to the DV itself, or the scores used to calculate it. This makes a big difference, and there are attempts to address it, but it ends up as one of the most confusing points in the game. With luck, there'll be an Errata to deal with it, but it would have been nice if it were clear from the start!
Mass combat has been changed some, but not as much as it should have been.
Mass combat has been changed some, but not as much as it should have been. Now that the game has an actual Ability for leading armies -- War -- it would have made sense to base the system more on that Ability, right? Instead, mass combat continues to mostly be a kind of mirror of the small-scale individual-person combat system (though it does at least insert War, even if it seems like an afterthought), which continues not to make enough sense. When you have a system that calculates how well your character's troops can resist attacks with your character's personal parrying skill and armour statistics, rather than her ability to lead and deploy them, you know you're in trouble.
The newest thing in this chapter is social combat, which was never once printed in the old game or its many sourcebooks. Now, I'll admit that -- just like with personality statistics -- I'm biased against the very idea of systematizing this, but it could have been worse. The rationales behind it are obvious, and the section is careful to address some potential fears, although I frankly don't think Storytellers are cautioned not to control their players enough (notwithstanding a sidebar that is actually named "Stop playing my character!"). Sadly, basing the system for social interaction on the combat system is just too flawed a metaphor, and it shows in the occasionally-strained rationales and awkward turns of phrase. (What most expresses this inherent problem for me is the following direct quotation: "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." Is this really the model we want our courtiers and courtesans following? -- I mean, think about how ridiculous that is for a moment.) I comfort myself with the knowledge that there are pieces of it that are useful for everyone (now we know what it takes to convince the NPC to help you, after all); that it will make it easier for people to effectively play social characters; and most importantly, that it's completely unnecessary -- those who don't want to use it don't have to.
Now for Charms, Combos and Sorcery, Chapter 5. Like combat, these are just plain different; some interestingly, some rather misguidedly. Dice-adders, the most straightforward and useful Charms in the game, have been straightened out and standardized across the board, which is awesome ... but that's the best part. It's great that there's an obvious push to explain Charm design in a transparent and accessible fashion, and stuff like the Strategy notes are a good thought. But these things don't make up for a lot of the Charms being ... well ... frankly unbalanced. Again, it's hard to argue that these wouldn't have been better off fixed rather than "reimagined". But they're not bad -- they're just not really that much better than they used to be.
Like Character Creation, Chapter 6 -- Storytelling -- is much as one would expect. It's certainly well-done, and has some touches that were definitely needed (travel times? finally? yaaaay!). And the Antagonists in Chapter 7 are also predictable (at least, if you knew the old game), but that doesn't stop them from being good. Like the concluding chapter, 8: Panoply (economics and equipment!) and the rest of the book, the NPCs are both extravagantly flavourful and just plain well-done. With only a few big blips (like a so-called "mortal hero" with absurdly high statistics that blow past starting Solars and rival those of an ancient Exalted warlord), this brings us triumphantly to the closing manga, whose humour will probably be opaque to those who don't know the game but made me, at least, laugh out loud in sheer delight.
Exalted 2 is still a fantastic game -- the best on the market, if you ask me (granted, it would have been hard to change that). And this core rulebook is way more complete, informative and pretty than the first edition was. But I wouldn't be surprised if a few fans kept to the old system, all houseruled the way they like it. After all: the new game still has a lot of flaws; there are some really stunning oversights; it doesn't include much new setting information that couldn't be had if you've already got all the old supplements; and although it's definitely way better overall, that may not compensate for the rage and despair some will feel at its lack of, well -- significant fixedness. Still, it's worth giving Exalted 2 a chance; it will take you some playing to get used to, but that shouldn't be too onerous. Keep an open mind, don't expect it to be a repair, but a retelling -- and you might even enjoy yourself!