Exalted is a tale of a forgotten mythic age, a time when spirits walked openly among men, the world was flat and floated atop a sea of chaos, and the restless dead roamed on moonless nights. Heroes granted power by the mightiest gods war and intrigue against one another for the fate of the Realm. These are the Exalted, and their one-time rulers, the mighty Solar Exalted, have recently returned to reclaim the world from those that betrayed them. The Solars can slay gods with immortal blades, balance on a drifting feather, master all-powerful sorcery, walk unburnt across endless deserts, and outwit the demon princes of Hell.
This is how Onyx Path Publishing presents their tabletop roleplaying game Exalted, licensed from White Wolf Publishing. This is a game that doesn’t come without flaws, but that is very near and dear to my heart.
My experience with roleplaying games started back in the mid-90s. I was eight years old and was invited to my twelve-year-old neighbor’s house to play the fifth edition of a game called Drakar & Demoner, back then by Target Games. It was not a very sophisticated gaming session, and no one really understood the rules, but I was immediately passionate about anything roleplaying related. I tried to write my own games by hand in various notepads from school, but it always became poor copies of that one game I had played with my neighbor. I bought some games of my own as years passed, but, unfortunately, I didn’t know people interested in playing anything other than video games at the time. So I nearly forgot about roleplaying games after a while, and it was first when I was 19 or 20 when I was invited to a game of Exalted Second Edition. Perhaps it was the fact that it was the game that pulled me back into the hobby that made me especially passionate about Exalted in particular, but I have played many games since then and it is always Exalted that I come back to. It is always Exalted that I keep thinking about; that I keep wanting to play.
But what is special about Exalted? Like mentioned in Onyx Path’s presentation, Exalted is a tale of a forgotten mythic age. It is an animistic world where gods are everywhere, and the greatest gods of all have chosen you, the player, as their champion. It is heavily inspired by myths and cultures from around the world, trying to steer away from the Medieval Europe fantasy that’s been common in roleplaying games since their inception. This does not mean that medieval tropes don’t or can’t exist—because the setting is huge, and it is what you make of it.
When you play Exalted, you play someone chosen by the gods. You are the mortal hero who caught the gods’ attention and was given tremendous power to wield as you wish. You come into the game stronger than everyone, better than everyone, and much more important than everyone. At least until you learn that there is always a bigger fish in the sea.
Some would call Exalted a game about hubris, and this is something that is addressed in the game itself. The Exalted, and the Solars in particular, are mighty, and it is an easy thing to think that you can wield that might with impunity. Many compare playing Exalted as starting a Dungeons & Dragons game at high level. I agree to some degree since you are often already an established hero from the get-go, and few things can challenge you. The key to challenge your Exalted players is more often through the consequences of their actions than to try to suppress their power by presenting even larger threats. And that makes those larger threats much more interesting when they finally reveal themselves. To me, playing as an Exalted is to be able to escape into a fantasy where you can be someone greater than life itself. But being able to wield that greatness also teaches you things about yourself that you may otherwise be ignorant of. Will you be consumed by hubris if you have the power to go unchallenged? Or will you use your great power to help others? I think Exalted is a game that can make you very aware of the importance of humility, all the time while tickling your desire to be a cool badass. And you do get to be a cool badass.
Exalted is not an easy game to learn. It offers a complex game system that can be off-putting to new players. The core book itself is a massive tome of more than 600 pages, comparable in size to the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual combined. What makes the book so thick is the hundreds of Charms, the Exalted’s magical feats and powers, that are available to you. And these hundreds of Charms are only for the Solar Exalted, the only type of Exalt playable in the corebook. In supplements, such as Dragon-Blooded: What Fire Has Wrought, there are hundreds of more Charms to choose from. The sheer number of Charms are the main reason why many are put off by Exalted. I understand that they are overwhelming, but my personal opinion is that the number of Charms only add to the possibilities and replayability of the game. Where Dungeons & Dragons present you with classes that have a few options with fairly restrictive customization, Exalted is such a wide system that no character is another alike. However, it is a game that is best eased into by a Storyteller already familiar with the system who can help you along the way when you make your first character. If you want to become a Storyteller and learn this game together with a group of inexperienced players, then you must be prepared to overcome the great obstacle that is the complexity.
The system itself is similar to other White Wolf and Onyx Path games, where you use a number of d10s that represent your character’s skills. After rolling a certain target number, most commonly 7, you roll a success, and a number of successes are required depending on the difficulty of the action. Exalted also has a stunting system where you’re rewarded additional dice or successes for your actions if you, the player, presents your action in a cool and visual way. This is meant to encourage players to be descriptive in their narration, and to try to be that cool badass that Exalted can and should be. The combat system tries to emulate cinematic combat as seen in many martial arts movies and anime. You wither your opponent’s Initiative in order to get an upper hand in combat, and then finish them off with a decisive attack. There are no real narrative differences between these withering and decisive attacks, since you are trying to defeat your opponent with every attack you make. The difference is in how the action is translated by the system in order to make the fight as cinematic as possible.
Exalted is a niche game that appeals to those who are interested in something different. It is a game with high stakes and high power, where you can defeat armies and outwit gods as soon as you have created your character. It is a fun and rewarding game with a huge setting and with endless opportunities for unique and memorable gaming experiences.