Exalted And Mature Elements

Oh God that article. I've been dreading typing this post since I realized we'd eventually get someone whose first exposure to the game was that article.


Exalted 1st Edition, released back in 2001 (it was originally due for release in 2000 but they delayed for a year so it wouldn't compete directly with D&D 3rd Edition; this let them apply a level of polish the game's benefitted from ever since) is a high-action "anime fantasy" game written by an economics major with a major resentment toward D&D, and toward the pervasive influence of Tolkien on all Western fantasy written since Tolkien. When asked about its influences, the chief developer posted this:

Anyway, I felt there was a clear line of inspiration that ran like this:

                              Dinosaurs Rule The Earth!
                               /                     \
                              /                   Eastern Epic +
                  Western Epic             Chinese Novels
                 /           \                 |        \
                /           Classical          |         \
      Lord Dunsany       Histories             |     Floating World
                \            /                 |         Prints
                 \          /                 Wuxia       |
                 Pulp Fantasy                    \       Anime
                /           \                     \     /
      Riverworld*    Pulp Revival                  CRPGs
               \             |                       /
                \            v                      /
                 +-----> Exalted <-----------------+

* Tom Mix pwnz j00.

And that I could steal from basically every point along those trails, and as
long as I didn't try to emphasize mututally contradictory elements. People
who hate Ninja Scroll but think Red Blades of Black Cathay is elevated
entertainment, or who find the Ramayana thrilling while dismissing Final
Fantasy as overpowered crap often pick part of the tree and use those
elements exclusively. I generally find the differences illusionary -- I don't
really see very much space between Cloud Strife's sword and the ox-goad
of Shamgar of Anath, other than one being more legitimate in the eyes
of the person doing the imagining, which is what matters, but I like to
steal omnivorously.


So, in summary, Exalted is a game where you play powerful characters who are potentially world-shaking from character creation on, in a setting that is first designed to draw inspiration from fantasy other than Tolkien (mostly stuff that predates him or that was done by other cultures while he was hugely pervasive in this one), and second, is designed to hold together politically and economically in a way that most fantasy settings don't.

(Geoff actually likes Tolkien; he just wishes Tolkien's influence hadn't become so pervasive.)

This all sounds very pretentious! And indeed it is very pretentious! Fortunately, the aforementioned economics major, Geoff Grabowski, the guy put in charge of the game during the year-delay (original dev, Rich Dansky, went to do other stuff), had the chops to walk his talk, so the end result was a largely successful implementation of those creative goals.

It's also a game by White Wolf.

Keep in mind that White Wolf is the company built on Vampire, which, during the 90s, generally saw no division between progressive politics and licentenious content — they consistently both included content with a lot of over-the-top violence, nudity, and sex, and regularly attempted to responsibly deal with themes of political corruption, environmental crisis, and social justice. (If often clumsily.) They often even tried to put their sexually controversial content in service to their politically controversial content. (With mixed results.)

Exalted has historically had a lot of sex in it because:

a) It's fictional and mythological influences included a lot of sex…

b) …because in real life, people are heavily motivated by sex, and Exalted also draws influence from history.


c) Sexual content sells books. Or did, in the 90s, when "Edgy" and "Wicked cool" were the in-vogue aesthetics and RPG stores were still a thing and people could pick up books and page through them and make impulse purchases.

I don't want to make apologies for that last point. By current standards a lot of what White Wolf did in the 90s was irresponsible. I have a hard time blaming them because I was a major White Wolf fan in the 90s and I was heavily into "Things that are edgy and wicked cool," but looking back, ugh.

Still, Exalted 1st Edition consistently handled things in a genuinely mature fashion, not overdoing it on the sexual content (every picture in that Something Awful article comes from a 2nd edition book) and generally delivering on the promise of sensible sociology and economics for your high-powered characters to crash into. One of the benefits of basing your world on somewhat realistic economic and social models is you can actually figure out how it reacts when a person who can single-handedly win the Normandy landing knocks over a local ruler and sets herself on the throne.

Geoff left the line shortly after the publication of the 2nd edition corebook. The developer who followed him, John Chambers, was more hands-off and involved in other projects, and writers were left mostly to their own devices. The result was much less responsible use of sexual and violent content. I am not a fan of Exalted 2nd Edition, and I say that as someone who worked on it — I wrote chapters in a few books and developed a few more, and in the books I developed I found John's hands-off approach liberating, but in the books I helped write, I found it a source of stress, because when I and another writer had a disagreement about direction, instruction as to which approach would better suit the book was light or absent.

(I should note that about a third of that Something Awful article, though, is devoted to pages from the, like, five page April Fools' joke supplement, the Scroll of Swallowed Darkness, and that the illustrations from it that they sampled, here and here were done by an artist named Melissa Uran who thought the whole thing was hilarious, so.)

The final page of the article deals with Lilun, arguably the very worst piece of content White Wolf ever published. I don't really want to get into it, except to say that it's as bad as they say it is, and the reason we're not disowning it entirely is because we believe it's important to take responsibility for mistakes. Suffice to say Lilun will not be making an appearance in the upcoming 3rd Edition, at least not in anything resembling that form.

In short, Exalted is a game that tries to be genuinely mature, but had an edition that didn't manage that.

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