Exalted 3E: Picking Your Battles

While Exalted Third Edition’s combat system is generally favored by many fans, most agree that it’s complex to a fault, and that its complexity can often be an obstacle in the way of engaging combat scenes. I want in this article focus on how to storytell combat in a way that can make it more engaging, more streamlined, and more fun. This will not include any homebrew or changes to the game’s system—only Storyteller suggestions that could make a difference if you find Exalted combat to be often tedious and underwhelming.

Because of the complexity of Exalted Third Edition’s combat system, the most important aspect of making it more fun and engaging is to make sure that it is narratively important. Of course, different groups will like different aspects of a game, but in my opinion, Exalted’s combat system doesn’t work well on an encounter-by-encounter basis. This is not the game where you want a complex dungeon crawl with different types of encounters in different rooms. This is a game where you want the narrative to bring the players to a single encounter that represents the climax of a story. There can be more encounters along the way, of course, but those need to be as narratively important as the climax itself. The players alongside their characters need to get something out of the fight; it cannot simply be an obstacle and nothing more.

By making sure that each fight has impact upon the narrative, it gives the PCs a reason to fight, which will make the players more likely to want to engage with the combat scene. If you’re creating a combat encounter out of a random situation, there’s no personal investment, and it becomes a waste of time. There are exceptions to this too, though. By presenting a few lesser combat encounters, you can allude to a larger threat. For example, the Solars could be attacked by a scouting patrol that allude to a larger Wyld Hunt. This makes the scouting patrol narratively important even though they are a minor threat. Additionally, these minor threats can be represented in a more streamlined fashion to avoid investing too much time on a fight that the PCs are very unlikely to lose.

Many of Exalted’s game mechanics are tied to specific and situational combat rules that will not be used in every fight, but that you may not want to remove from the game entirely just in case they would one day come up. My recommendation is to use advanced combat for climactic battles that present a meaningful challenge and simplified combat for lesser battles, like the one with the scout patrol.

One way to simplify a combat scene is to make it a withering-only fight. By incapacitating certain foes when crashed instead of setting them up for decisive attacks, you reduce the number of rounds required to defeat each enemy. Players who have invested in decisive-only Charms will still get to use those Charms in the more climactic battles when you’re using those rules. Additionally, certain fights with lesser opponents may be simplified even further, resolving them with a mere contested roll and nothing more.

If the PCs are sufficiently powerful, like some Solars are, you can even ignore contested rolls in certain situations, such as if the Night Caste is sneaking up on a lone mortal guard. It would be very appropriate for that Night Caste to easily dispatch the mortal guard. If you would have used the standard combat rules in this situation, it’s very likely that the Night Caste wouldn’t have been able to immediately dispatch the guard, be forced to wither them down, and give the guard ample time to sound the alarm. If the guard is a Dragon-Blood, then there should be a higher risk for the Night Caste. But presenting mortal guards and Exalted guards equally would be time consuming, vastly reduce the Night Caste’s chance for success, and make the Night Caste’s player feel like their character is less impactful in a situation where they should shine.

Let’s say a Night Caste wants to break into a palace and assassinate a feudal lord. The Storyteller should present some kind of challenge that they must overcome to enter the premises, another challenge to sneak or infiltrate their way to the feudal lord, and a third challenge to assassinate them. The guards that are described by the Storyteller as patrolling the various rooms and hallways of this palace are, in this case, challenges and not combatants. The Night Caste may decide to hide and study the guards’ movements and then sneak past them; this would avoid a fight. Alternatively, they could want to sneak up on a guard, break their neck, pull them into an empty room, and don their armor. In this situation, I would likely only have the Night Caste make a single Stealth check for them to succeed on the first three parts of that challenge: sneak up, break neck, pull aside. One roll. Then move on to the next challenge.

If you’d follow the rules as written, you’d have to make a penalized Stealth roll to sneak up to the guard, roll a contested Join Battle to get an Initiative rating, use that Initiative for a decisive Brawl attack (or possibly for a grapple gambit followed by a crush attempt if you want to be really specific). If you don’t have the Initiative, you’ll first need to make a withering attack to gain that Initiative, which will also let the guard respond with an action of their own before you can proceed to kill them. Managing to one-shot the guard is unlikely since the guard probably has seven health levels, you must acquire seven successes on a decisive damage roll, and have enough Initiative dice to be able to do this with a single Join Battle roll. If we assume that you incapacitate the guard on your first turn, there may be other guards present in the area that would enforce another Stealth roll when you drag the dead guard into another room. Then you would proceed to your disguise action as you don the armor, including looking up the armor’s stats to see how it modifies your traits. Or, you know, you could just make a Stealth roll because it’s just one mortal guard in between you and your goal.

To summarize, streamline the rules as much as possible to make the resolution as smooth as possible for situations that cannot be skipped entirely but that aren’t part of a larger climax. Once you get to the climactic battle, and once the players are immersed in their goal, then you can apply the rules as written to let the players make full use of all of their tricks.

One of the major hurdles of the Third Edition combat system is tracking Initiative. Even when you run a climactic battle with the rules as written, you’re going to want to ensure that the Initiative can be tracked quickly and easily. I’ve tried different ways of tracking Initiative in my years playing this game, and I’ve found that the most engaging way is to draw up an Initiative map. This is a numbered piece of paper from, for example, +30 to –10.

After everyone rolls Initiative, place a marker (such as a coin or a die) on that map, representing each participant in the fight and their corresponding Initiative. Because Initiative moves up and down quickly, you can keep track of who has had their turn by changing their marker, such as turning their coin upside down. If you’re using dice to represent each character, you can combine your Initiative map with a Defense tracker. Players and Storytellers alike often forget to keep track of onslaught penalties. By using dice to represent your characters on the Initiative map, you can let the die show your current Defense value. Once you suffer onslaught, you change your die to represent the new number. A die can also be used to represent a battle group’s current Size. Regardless of what kind of tokens you use and what you let them represent, this kind of Initiative map gives everyone at the table a better overview of the turn order as well as which characters are in strong positions and which ones are cornered.

Another resource that’s often annoying to keep track of are motes. I’ve never been a fan of the mote system, and would have preferred if Exalted Charms functioned differently. But since motes are part of the game, I do use them. Sometimes it works to just scribble down your mote pool on a piece of paper, but you can also use something like beads or Poker chips to represent them. If using Poker chips for example, you would have piles representing your two pools, and then you’d have some 1-mote chips, some 2-mote chips, and some 5-mote chips which you draw from your piles when using Charms. If you expend Peripheral motes which should add to your anima, you could put one of the chips aside to a smaller third pile that represents your anima level. You could also represent your Willpower in similar ways if you feel the need to.

It will take some trial and error before a Storyteller can confidently put together challenging fights for the players. Because of how powerful Solars can be, the antagonists in the corebook can often feel underwhelming if you’re using them as written. It’s important to make Solars feel powerful, but once you’ve set up a climactic fight, you’re going to want it to be at least somewhat challenging to the players.

The most important lesson I’ve learned from Storytelling this game is that what makes a fight challenging is how well the opposition can affect the PCs Initiative. This is often accomplished through numbers. If a single player is having a solo encounter against a single opponent, then the fight can often become challenging based on the dice rolls and the opponent in question. But since PCs often come in groups, a solo enemy is hardly ever a threat to them without some tweaks. The reason why solo opponents, even the stronger ones, are rarely a threat to a PC group is because the PCs can easily wear down their Defense through a barrage of attacks that, once they reach a low Initiative, tend to stay at a low Initiative. And without any chances of retaining a higher Initiative, the PCs will never feel cornered or threatened in return.

Battle groups are great opportunities for PCs to feel cornered and threatened because they cannot be withered for Initiative. If you don’t have access to battle groups, multiple lesser antagonists can present a challenge to one or more PCs by wearing down their Defense instead. If you have a climactic fight where you want the PCs to feel challenged, one way of doing so is to have the big bad there alongside goons, so that the PCs must choose whether or not to focus on the big bad or focus on the goons.

Another thing that I’ve noticed when looking at the published antagonists, and this includes the ones from Adversaries of the Righteous and Hundred Devils Night Parade, is that many of the writers tend to put more effort into the antagonist’s offensive traits than their defensive ones. The more recently published antagonists are better than the corebook ones, but there are still situations where you want your antagonists to have more opportunities to retain a higher Initiative long enough to feel threatening.

I think that while QCs can be easily thrown into a game when you need something to fight, a more meaningful big bad needs to be modified into a more appropriate threat. Alternatively, the combat scenario needs to be set up in a way where the big bad has the upper hand in some other way. Even though Solars are often individually more powerful than many of their enemies, letting a big bad have some kind of upper hand or leverage is valuable from a narrative standpoint. Like mentioned, one such form of leverage is to be surrounded by goons. Another type of leverage can be a moral one.

For example, in the fourth story arc for my campaign Dawn of the Chosen, the big bad was the ghost of the PCs’ friend who had been fettered to her duties to her Queen—though how she perceived those duties had been corrupted and she was committing atrocities in the Underworld. While the PCs could have destroyed her in combat, that alone wouldn’t have been very engaging for them. The players wanted to save their friend’s soul rather than destroy it to win. This was a form of narrative leverage that they eventually overcame by letting the ghost see her Queen through a mirror so that she could be relieved from her duties and allowed to rest.

Something else you can do when presenting bigger threats such as gods or behemoths is to apply something similar to legendary or lair actions from Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve tried this to great success in some of the games I’ve ran, and it worked flawlessly to make a single enemy feel like a major threat. One type of a legendary action can be some kind of situation that happens once every round regardless of the big bad’s Initiative placement. This can help to emulate the threat of multiple enemies through a single enemy, just to put more pressure on the players.

In the fourteenth story arc for Dawn of the Chosen, the climactic fight is probably the one my players have said felt the most epic. The PCs were Essence 2 Dragon-Bloods of each Aspect alongside an allied thunderbird. They had spent two story arcs trying to get to the inner sanctum of a lost First Age orichalcum factory hidden underneath a volcano. A corrupted god lingered in the factory and sent lava elementals out into the wilds unless it was given blood sacrifices by a surrounding civilization led by a volcano Exigent. The PCs had to first defeat the volcano Exigent who had taken control over the factory’s defenses and managed to compel the elementals into attacking the PCs. Once the Exigent and the elementals were defeated, they proceeded to the vault where the god was lingering, taking the guise of a golden dragon.

A Smaug situation ensued, and while the PCs could keep the god’s Initiative fairly low throughout the fight, I introduced a lair action each round—either a terrifying roar, a breath weapon, or taking flight. This effectively gave the god two actions each round, which helped to make the fight more intense and the players had to be more creative. In the end, the players ended up stunting, using the environment, and making clever tactics together in order to eventually take down the god for good. After the fight was over, they all celebrated by making the kinship oath together and naming their kinship after that particular event.

In conclusion, there are plenty of approaches to combat in Exalted Third Edition that makes it much more fun and engaging than what the system makes it out to be. Remember that the story you tell together should always trump the rules you think you need to tell that story. In the end, the rules are only there to facilitate the storytelling. By choosing when to apply the rules as written, when to streamline them for narrative flow, or when to ignore them altogether, you can make even a complex system like Exalted Third Edition feel easy to use.

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