So I promised a while back I would talk about Exalted a little bit, and explain why I like some of the things I like and why I dislike some of the things I dislike. Then like a month went by, and now I feel guilty, so, anyway, this. First thing I like about Exalted is the setting, because it sidesteps some things I don’t like about other fantasy settings. Mainly I’m thinking of D&D-based gameworlds here, but that’s because it’s what I know best, in terms of fantasy settings. I’m sure Tekumel and Glorantha and Harn all do what Creation does, but better, but I don’t know them (and what little I’ve learned about them doesn’t make me want to learn more).
Things I Don’t Like About a Lot of Fantasy Settings
1) Physics. It really rubs me the wrong way when I read online arguments about how such-and-such campaign world must have a low-density core because it’s bigger than Earth but has Earth-normal gravity, or the elaborate hoops that people jump through to justify their aesthetic dislike of firearms, or how one rules system has a more realistic treatment of, say, disease, than another rule system, et cetera. Exalted sidesteps all this. The world is flat and its cosmology looks nothing like the heliocentric solar system. Things are made up of air, fire, earth, water, and wood, not hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, iron, et cetera. Organisms may or may not be made out of cells, but their genetic material almost certainly isn’t DNA and the mechanism by which diseases attack involves evil spirits of infection rather than microbes. Characters get bonuses for attempting crazy stunts, rather than penalties, because the spider-gods which control fate and destiny like to be entertained.
2) Religion and ethics. Again, it bugs me how many settings treat matters of faith as purely mechanical enterprises. The gods exist, they give you the heal spells. Goodness is what the gods love, evil is what the gods hate, never mind every philosopher from Socrates on demolishing divine providence as the basis for an ethical system. In Exalted the gods exist, but they’re pretty much dicks one and all. Even the all-too-human best hopelessly mired in Heaven’s institutional corruption. There are mustache-twirling supervillains, yes, but the setting also provides genuine moral quandaries, banal evil in the form of the slave and drug trades, and no easy answers. Creation’s largest religion, and the one that might arguably lead to a less bad world if more people lived by its precepts, was invented out of whole cloth in a feat of social engineering.
3) Culture and scope. This is something that was more true early in the game’s history, but I think it still applies — Creation is big. The central island is roughly the size of the continental United States. Given the global level of technology and communication, nation-states can’t get too large (though some of the later books make some countries way bigger and/or way more organized than I’d expect, I’m looking at you Halta and Varang), so you have a setting that, no matter how detailed it gets, contains big tracts of undeveloped geography ready for the GM to create in. If I have an idea for a city-state of poets ruled by a delphic oracle constantly hopped up on drugs, I can put that city-state nearly anywhere on the map without worrying about disrupting geopolitics — that’s simply untrue for Eberron, Greyhawk, the Realms, et cetera.
4) Starting/low-level player-characters aren’t special. I know this is subject to a lot of debate. A lot of people enjoy asserting that player-characters aren’t special snowflakes, that they can and should suffer all the random humiliations and losses that mark most people’s day to day lives, but in point of fact, even the lowliest first-level PC has an advantage that no NPC, no matter how important in the gameworld, has — he or she is a PC. There are, say, five people sitting around the table, all contributing to the shared imaginary space, and one of those people is wholly dedicated to that PC. It’s absurd to pretend that the six billion NPCs in the world, all of whom get a fraction of the attention that the actual human beings playing the game are lavishing on the PC, are as important as the PC. I demand to play characters who decisions matter, and life is too short for me to pretend otherwise. In Exalted, the player characters have been Exalted; they’re filled with more divine energy than a mortal was ever meant to contain, they’re one of only a few hundred, and their decisions matter.
5) Boring parts of the setting. Okay, I can’t actually think of any settings that go out of their way to have boring regions (though I remember reading “Four from Cormyr,” the introduction to which was a surprisingly harsh rebuttal to a straw-man argument that Cormyr is a boring region in the Realms). But something I like about Creation is that every aspect of the setting that does get written up, at least, that I can think of, is an interesting place to visit. There’s a mountain that’s been carved into a gigantic statue of a reposing Buddha. There’s another mountain that flies (okay, it hovers). There’s a city of morticians and a nation that’s equal parts Renaissance Florence, Water Tribe, and [something with a lot of zeppelins in it]. It is, generally speaking, cool.