It is often said that Exalted is a game where you, as the Storyteller, can’t plan for your players’ shenanigans. It is said that the player characters are too powerful to be contained within some kind of planned narrative. This is an exaggeration. Exalted is a very different game to storytell compared to many other games, but it can definitely contain a narrative with more or less Storyteller influence, depending on the game you want to lead.
ESTABLISH A SETTING
Before you sit down and start planning, and before the players make their characters, it’s important to have a basic understanding of what kind of setting you want the game to take place in. Does the game take place in Creation? If so, in what Direction. What is the general cultural themes? How does the environment look? What kind of climate is there? If you know the answer to these questions, it will be easier to build a story using that setting.
What kind of setting you choose can also be directly associated with the Exalt types the players are going to play as. Solar games can be widely spread, but they are usually held within the Threshold—especially for new players. Dragon-Blooded games can also be held in the Threshold, but the Blessed Isle is full of Dragon-Bloods and there are plenty of story opportunities there. Mixed games are trickier, and it’s nothing I recommend for new Storytellers.
I usually ask my players where they want the game to take place, but that’s not something I recommend for a new Storyteller with limited setting knowledge. If this is your first time storytelling Exalted, I recommend a starting location that requires little established knowledge. Keep it away from Realm politics and various important players, such as Ma-Ha Suchi or Lookshy, and just add your own land and culture to a random blank spot on the map (the Hundred Kingdoms is good for this). If your players are new to the game as well, and they are all going to play as Solars, it could be a good idea to keep them at a distance from the Realm so that they can be allowed to roam more freely with their powers.
You don’t need to design all the intricacies of your setting. Just a general idea of the environment and culture should be enough for now. If your game starts in a town, note some key locations or important details to make that town stick out. Perhaps there is a palace in the center of town. Who lives there? Is the town peaceful or at war? Is there a festival taking place? If so, why is it taking place? You don’t need to think too much about the actual narrative yet, but once you have a general idea of a setting, it’s time for the players to create their characters.
INCORPORATE THE CHARACTERS
I believe it is more helpful than detrimental to give the players more freedom to make the characters the way they want them to be. Since you’ve already decided on a starting location and you have some basic ideas of what’s important about that setting, ask your players to tie their characters to that setting in one way or another. This is something you can discuss with them depending on their character concepts. Are they native to the setting, or are they travelers passing through? If you have more than one player, try to build connections between them as well. It’s always easier for a new Storyteller to start a game with an established group rather than have them meet in game.
Once the players are happy with their characters, and you are happy about the location, it is time to start building a narrative that will connect with the players and the setting. I personally find this easier to do after the players have made their characters for one particular reason: their Intimacies. Exalted is a game where the player characters are powerful enough to take what you have planned and throw it out the window. If you want to tie those characters to a narrative, then you must be aware of the ties and principles of those characters.
Try to single out the Intimacies that your players care the most about—something you know that they can’t ignore, that will drive their story. See how these Intimacies can be incorporated in the setting you have created. Let’s take the example town mentioned earlier. There is a palace in its center and a festival that has attracted people from neighboring lands. If a running theme between the player Intimacies is a disdain for authority, use that and build a narrative where the local ruler is a tyrant who is going to execute members of a rebellion as part of a festival to himself. Try to connect the players to the rebellion by using their Intimacies to lure them in. It’s still important that you let the players make their own choices and have agency over their characters’ decisions. However, by appealing to their Intimacies, you can nudge them towards a narrative that they actually want to partake it.
There will be times when the players don’t swallow the bait and decide to ignore this narrative. If you want to avoid improvizing an entirely new narrative on the spot, it can be a good idea to figure out one or two backup lures that try to connect the players with the narrative in other ways. So the players don’t want to associate themselves with the rebellion, and they don’t care about the people in the town enough to want to challenge the tyrant. They are ignoring that particular story hook, focusing instead on enjoying the festival, and planning to leave the town once the festival is over. First, if your players aren’t at all interested in the story hooks you present them with, then you should listen to the players and see what they actually would like to see in game. It could be that your narrative just isn’t compelling enough for the players, who would rather do something else. However, it could also be that you’re too passive in your approach, and could benefit from a proactive approach. For example, perhaps have the tyrant’s soldiers single out the players for a crime they haven’t committed. As long as the players believe that it is their choice to take on the tyrant, they won’t see your red thread as a railroad (or they will see it, but they won’t mind).
The next step will then be to be aware of what the players can actually do to overcome or subvert challenges. Because depending on your players’ Charms, it’s possible that what you perceived as a challenge didn’t turn out to be a challenge at all.
BE WARY OF POWER
The biggest hurdle when trying to retain a narrative is player unpredictability. If one of the players is specialized in social Charms, maybe she rallies the people in the town in an uprising against the tyrant with a few choice words, or perhaps she talks herself to the tyrant’s side and convinces him to change his ways. If she’s a merchant with Bureaucracy Charms, maybe she navigates through the tyrant’s bureaucracies to end up ruining him and taking the town for herself. Or maybe she’s a combat monkey who just starts cutting down soldiers until she has the tyrant at her heels.
The Exalted are supposed to be powerful, and they are supposed to be able to do all of that and more. And more importantly, as their Storyteller, you’re supposed to encourage them to do all of that. The key to maintaining some kind of narrative through the Essence fever of naive young Exalts is to make yourself aware of what your players are capable of and planning for it. This does not mean that you should necessarily counter it. But you should know how to respond to it.
Make note of your characters’ Charms, spells, and Evocations so that you have a grasp of how capable they are within different areas of expertise. If your Night Caste is a stealth and larceny specialist, you need to know that the Night Caste should have little to no issues sneaking into the tyrant’s palace and assassinating him in his sleep. If your Zenith Caste can make people fall in love with her or worship her, then become aware that any mortal enemy you present may be turned into an ally at the whim of a few dice rolls.
You should never fear these powers as something that will break your narrative and force you out of your comfort zone. As long as you are aware of what your players can do—and what they likely want to do using their powers—incorporate those details into your plans. What would happen if the Night Caste sneaks into the palace and assassinates the tyrant? Perhaps the tyrants’ soldiers start lashing out at the people by breaking their doors and dragging them screaming out to the streets. What would happen if the tyrant is never alone, and if someone witnessed the assassination and managed to escape to tell everyone that super-powered demigods just murdered the boss? What would happen if the tyrant was charmed or manipulated to change his ways? Well, maybe he is a puppet controlled by a powerful demon? Maybe his palace is a manse with sorcerous defenses? Maybe the tyrant himself is some kind of Exalt. And more importantly, don’t be afraid to make things up.
What makes Exalted into such an interesting game to storytell for is that it is your players that drive the narrative. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a sustained narrative. What I want you to take with you is that the most important thing you can do as a Storyteller is to know your players and their characters. Know what drives them and know what they are capable of. The interesting part of the game is not the town and its tyrant. It is the choices your players make within the setting you present to them.
I usually write a page or so before each session where I note specific hooks for each individual player, based on their Charms, Intimacies, and what I know about their likes and dislikes. I try to cover something for each player so that everyone gets something to do and won’t feel left out. Sometimes it won’t work the way I hoped it would, but often times it is the surprises that make for memorable gaming experiences.
One thought on “Exalted: Planning Your First Game”