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GM’s Blog – Exalted Easter Game

For many years now I’ve made a habit of taking a break from my regular weekly games to run something completely different during the University holidays. This began because even though I was not a student some or many of my players were, and they weren’t around to play during term breaks.

Even though most of my current players are also alumni and could keep on playing, I have maintained the habit. Running a different game for a while is a bit like eating a sorbet between courses; it cleanses my mental palate and satisfies my urge for novelty, allowing me to return to my regular games with gusto once they resume after the break.

This Easter I have decided to run a short Solar Exalted game comprised of four sessions that, I hope, will carry a single story.

I’m no stranger to Exalted. In fact I ran it continously from its publication in 2001 to the end of my last chronicle in 2010, and I’ve been playing regularly in a chronicle since then. I became a bit burned out on Exalted and I have no interest in running a long-term game of it right now. However White Wolf have recently been making a concerted effort to iron out the plethora of kinks that were introduced as a result of “supplement creep” and return the game to its roots as a heroic action fantasy game where the emphasis in combat is on fun rather than optimal character builds.

They have done this by releasing comprehensive “errata” which could be described more accurately as a version revision to Exalted 2.5.

I want to persuade the GM of my regular game to adopt the “errata” in totality, giving us a single set of rules once more rather than a mess of some corrected rules and some left as per the main rulebook. I thought the best way to do this would be to run a short game using all of them so that he could see how Exalted 2.5 compares with Exalted 2.

My Exalted games are, it turns out, fairly popular. I went from musing about what game to run over the Easter break to having eight confirmed players for a Solars game in just a few hours. I had to come up with a general idea for the game at the same time so that my players would know what type of characters to create. The premise I pitched was that the game would be set in the North (an area of Creation I haven’t used heavily since my first chronicle in 2001). Each of the characters would be drawn from their homes into the icy wilderness by vivid dreams sent by the Unconquered Sun.

There’s more to it than that of course, but I can’t go into too much detail without spoiling the game for any of my players who happen to be reading.

Part One – The First Session

Because I have so many players I didn’t want to simply throw them all together as if they’d known each other for a while and expect them to roleplay. In my experience players don’t cope well with a cold start like that; they need a while to warm up and inhabit their character before they’re able to deal with large social scenes.

With this in mind I began with one player at a time, establishing how they were travelling and a bit about their motives and intentions. As they are all converging on the same destination from roughly the same origin (e.g. travelling from inhabited lands to the south into the frozen northern wastes) I had each player randomly bump into one of the other players.

This went quite well in most cases, with a good bit of humour and roleplaying as each person got into character. The most memorable encounter for me was between the character with a horse but no idea of how to look after him, and the character whose mount was a large, metallic, rock and flesh-eating centipede thing called a Cthrita. I’d been a little uncertain about letting him have that thing as a mount during character creation but I decided that I had no compelling reason not to in the end. During this encounter that decision really paid off. The interaction between the two characters and the out of character reactions of the other players when they realised what the mount was were highly enjoyable.

The least successful encounter was between the Yeddim-riding warrior nomad and the Night-caste youth who met him. She was determined that her introduction would be to the whole group at a time of her choosing and instead of showing herself to the Yeddim rider she chose to remain invisibly perched on his howdah. This was fine narratively but it meant that the nomad’s player didn’t get to do much when I went to him as I cut between the pairs of Exalts to keep everyone active.

After forming pairs in this way I slowly aggregated the pairs into a large group by use of a convenient supernatural ice storm and cavern in which to shelter from the storm. We had quite a lot of fun as the pairs arrived and discovered their commonality of purpose with the others, and the exotic mounts chosen by some of the players provided some entertaining mental images.

The Night caste finally revealed herself and the whole group got to talk and banter a bit as the storm played out beyond the safety of the cavern.

When they journeyed forth the next morning it was not as an official group, but their common destination meant that they ended up travelling together for all practical purposes.

I rounded off the session with an obstacle and some combat. Initially I had planned for the obstacle to be a mile-wide chasm of apparently bottomless depth which would have to be crossed in some kind of imaginitive way. When we actually got there I had a better understanding of the group and each character’s capabilities and I realised that this would be a very difficult obstacle to surmount. To keep things flowing (we were running out of time) I put a large wind-blown rope bridge over the chasm instead.

On attempting to cross the chasm I launched the combat; a large number of relatively weak demon-bat things that emerged from the black depths of the crevasse to attack the players. This was designed to be a relatively quick and straightforward fight so I used relatively weak stats for each bat and put them in groups of six. I then used Exalted’s Mass Combat system (in a very simplified form) to increase the power level of each group to represent that there was more than one bat in each.

This brief combat was enough to give players a slight feel for the effect of the Exalted 2.5 rules in combat, specifically the effect of allowing combos of charms to be used freely without needing to pre-buy them. To me it seemed that players had more control over their tactical options and felt a lot less limited. For example they could use powerful attack charms like Peony Blossom Attack without having to worry about leaving themselves undefended. This had the effect of making the fight more dynamic in my opinion, though of course it’s early days yet.

The fight slightly outlasted its welcome because one player was more keen on making his character appear weak during the fight so that others would underestimate him than on finishing his attackers. We got right to the end of the session and he was still mopping up the last bat, causing a small amount of frustration for the players who wanted to pack up ready to go.

So that was the end of the first session. The players had not yet finished crossing the bridge, giving me a useful place from which to pick things up next time.

The players’ reactions on leaving seemed generally positive, so I believe the game is going well so far. Hopefully next week we’ll really be able to get our teeth into the plot and I’ll have more to report on the experience of playing with all of the Exalted 2.5 errata.

Part Two – The Second Session

So on to the second session. At the beginning of the night we were on schedule as far as my expectations for the plot. I didn’t have too much planned for the evening except that they would arrive at their destination and receive the invitation to adventure. Spirits were generally high with a lot of banter and conversation before the game began, though one player had been on a night shift the night before and was exhausted.

I began by introducing the two players who hadn’t been able to make it to the first session. As with the first session I did this by having them encounter each other on the way as they investigated signs of recent activity in the cavern where the rest of the party had sheltered from the storm. They found common purpose and went on together, which made my life easier.

The rest of the group was camping at the chasm, planning to cross over it the next morning when, perhaps, the bat-demon-things would not attack. After establishing who had the watch I described how a mammoth, his rider and a group of people and oxen emerged from the early morning mists to meet them at the chasm.

Things took a bit of a downturn here because the roleplaying didn’t flow very naturally between the arriving players and the ones who had been camping at the chasm. The player who’d been on watch did her best to encourage introductions and conversation but things here were somewhat stilted and I quickly moved on to their chasm-crossing efforts.

One of the players tittered when I described the chasm as a ‘gash’ in the land, so I somewhat stupidly made a few similar descriptions over the next few minutes; this probably wasn’t conducive to player immersion and the mood I wanted. “An axe-wound, if you will, in the landscape,” for example.

The next scene was quite amusing. Initially planning to call for Athletics rolls to safely navigate the bridge, one of the players negated the risk of ice on the planks by describing how he took salt from his supplies and scattered it across the slippery surface. Instead it became more of a challenge for players to encourage their mounts on to the wide yet unstable bridge.

I think I managed to introduce a fairly decent sense of tension as the heavier mounts traversed the chasm. A moment of drama was provided in counterpoint to this by a player botching his Ride roll and being dragged on his backside halfway along the bridge. Midway across another player realised he’d only taken two allies as backgrounds but had described three in his retinue; I fixed that by having the extraneous ally grabbed by a dark tentacle from the abyss and pulled to his doom.

Overall I was quite pleased with this scene.

We moved on, and I described how the group passed into an area of morraines and valleys left by glaciation. Soon after a Frozen Fog descended, restricting vision and causing them to need to wrap up warm due to its supernatural chill. I stumbled a bit here when I mentioned that some of those who enter the frozen fog exit somewhere completely different. I had meant that they were magically transported across large distances but one of the players took it as obvious and literal: “Ooh, who’d have thought! Somewhere different!”

This slightly disrupted the mood for a bit, but things improved during the next scene. I described how they exited the fog to a plain of jagged ice crystals ranging between a few feet and a dozen metres in height. I had to describe this scene at least three times due to various players not paying attention, which was a little annoying. From the fog behind them emerged a Snow Wyrm – a flying, burrowing white-furred serpent with multiple fins and dagger-sharp teeth. Weakened by its sudden disconnection from the Wyld I planned for it to be quite a tough fight, but one with a time limit of 25 ticks. At that point the worm would have collapsed and begun to die, weakened by the static nature of reality outside the Wyld.

The first couple of attacks merely grazed the creature, doing minimal damage. The next two attacks however completely obliterated it, leaving four players having been unable to take part in the combat. The total duration of the fight was five ticks.

While the bat-things had been a quick test fight to get people comfortalble with combat, I’d intended for this to be a bit more of a challenge. I admit that I underestimated the power of basic combat charms allowing successes to be doubled for purposes of calculating damage pools. I don’t regret that the beast was so easy to kill, but with hindsight I should have provided more than one target to ensure that everyone had a chance to take part in the fight.

Having said that, the novice Exalted player who helped to take down the serpent was obviously impressed with the way in which he’d been able to achieve such horrendous damage with use of so little Essence; He had obviously enjoyed the moment and perhaps this was a real taste of the power of an Exalted.

We wrapped up the session as the group drew near to their destination, a manse of ice crystals and light surrounded by a moat or chasm crossed only by bridges made of filmy rainbow light.

I’d expected to get a little further than this and to have them meet who was inside the manse, but this was perhaps an even better place to end the session.

Next week my plot could radically diverge depending on the players’ actions and it will be interesting to see which way things go. I am looking forward to dropping hints to the nature of their situation and what choices the characters will make. The potential combat scenarios I have planned should give the opportunity for everybody to take part, with the potential for some more threatening opponents that can give challenge to the more combat-effective members of the group.

Part Three – The Third and Fourth Sessions

Since I wrote part two of this series I have run the final two sessions of the game. The overall feedback from my players was positive, though I think the game suffered to an extent from the large group size. I ended things in a very open way – a cliffhanger almost – and intimated that I may be willing to run a sequel in the next vacation.

So the group finally got to the shining rainbow manse of my plot giver (for want of a better term), who told them that he had been uplifted by the Unconquered Sun and given the task of welcoming them as a proper Circle of exalts. He went on to tell them that he had been given a task to pass on to them by the Sun.

The group were immediately a bit on the suspicious side, though primarily this was due to the fact that they were put out at the idea that their god would deign to speak to this mortal when he had not spoken to most of them.

Anyway, the task was quite straightforward. A short distance away was a human village that had been attacked by marauding polar bear beast-men. The humans were imprisoned and ready for the slaughter, the bears planning to devour their corpses. Could the circle free them from this terrible fate?

After some discussion the group agreed to go and at least investigate this. On arrival they found that there was indeed a village with a palisade fence and an internal stockade in which a couple of hundred dirty humans were being kept prisoner (or was it a few dozen? Apparently my notes were insufficiently detailed on this and the situation got a mite muddied between sessions three and four).

The village itself was indeed populated with polar-bear beast men. After a bit of investigation the group came up with a plan. The Night caste would sneak in and free the humans using a hole gnawed into the palisade by the Cthrita mount of one of the group. Meanwhile the others would approach the main gate of the village and issue an ultimatum, requiring that they hand over their prisoners.

Narratively I was really pleased with how well this scene went. Almost everyone was involved and the interactions between the circle, the bear-men and the prisoners were highly entertaining.

The plan went without a hitch and the Night caste tied up the guard on the stockade and successfully freed the humans, sending them off to the merchant member of the circle to arm themselves before returning to gain vengeance on the polar-bear men. At the same time the more martial members of the circle intimidated the leader of the bear-men into handing over the prisoners.

The leader had 10 men with him and sent five of these to fetch the prisoners, leaving him with five warriors. After some quiet discussion in a language not spoken by the bear-leader, the circle decided to attack and destroy the bears.

The session ended with combat, then, this time against multiple enemies of a slightly tougher disposition than the bats from earlier.

The very first blow of the session was struck using the Solar Hero Style, in particular a charm called Hammer Fist Punch. Using it to punch the bear leader into the wooden palisade wall, the player inflicted 128 dice (or thereabouts) of bashing damage upon the bear-man. This turned him into a fine red mist and completely destroyed the main gates of the village.

Another bear man was cleaved in twain by a grand grimcleaver in a single blow.

Meanwhile the Night caste discovered that the (newly freed) humans were bandits who had come to try and steal the village from the bear-men and were in fact justly imprisoned. Hearing the slaughter at the village’s gate she ran back to stop the massacre, leaving the humans to their own devices.

The last action of the session was a player attacking another of the bears, only to be blocked by the heroic defence of the returning Night caste.

The Fourth Session

We picked up with the combat next session, having saved the exact combat state with my Conflict Manager (a Java program I wrote for the purpose of managing conflicts – social and physical). I should have made a few notes as well though, or rather made more detailed notes on the actions I listed in my manager, because I was a little hazy on what exactly had happened at the end of the previous session.

Faced with the terrifying Solar exalts the remaining bear-men surrendered and put down their weapons. The circle found it difficult to justify attacking considering this and so the combat fizzled out somewhat.

Meanwhile drama did build on the far side of the camp as the bandits thought they might stand a chance at robbing the merchant of ALL his goods, not just the weapons. He managed to make them believe he could defend himself, however, and not knowing the situation continued to arm them as planned so they could “take back” the village.

When the rest of the circle realised this their greatest general went to confront the marauding bandits and used his War charms to first rout them and then to rally them to his banner, their leader having been blinded in his remaining eye by one of the other warriors in the circle.

Having realised that they were duped by the old man the group considered how to proceed. They spoke with the bear-men’s shaman and found out about a god they worshipped called the White Walker, but most of them considered this likely to be a Lunar exalt. The first plan they considered was stealing the village from the bear-men and making it theirs, with the bears as their servants.

Before doing this however they decided to get revenge on the mysterious old man who had misguided them while claiming to speak for the Unconquered Sun. With three bears and the remaining bandits they returned to the manse and entered to get some answers.

After a brief interrogation they realised that the man was clearly deluded and genuinely believed what he had told them. They deduced that another god must have been claiming to be the unconquered sun to mislead him – but why?

To get the god’s attention they decided to damage the manse, which they presumed was a valuable asset for him. This involved having one of their warriors smite a vulnerable spot in the hearth room with his grand grimcleaver.

The result of this was a little more effective than anticipated, due to the multiplying effects of the geomantic survey and the fact that the weak spot chosen was in the hearth room – this added a multiplier of six to a multiplier of five to the damage, meaning that the strike inflicted something like 136 damage to the manse.

This instantly reduced its rating to 0 and destroyed the manse, causing a dangerous essence vent to flare in the hearth room. The group fled even as the axe-wielding warrior suffered rainbow-hued burns to his face and body (inflicting 15dice of bashing damage).

This scene was a lot of fun too, and a clear example of how sometimes being too good at something can be a bit of a problem…

The old man, cut off from the life-sustaining energies of the manse, collapsed and died. On investigating his corpse the group found the sigil of a god named Rastus, god of Light and Illusion tattooed on his chest (bit of an obvious clue I know, but this was getting near the end of the session)!

The group decided to pray to Rastus to call him to account, sacrificing the bandits (by flinging them into the moat around the manse, which was filled with jagged crystals) to do so. Meanwhile random bursts of essence vented around the manse, killing one or two of the bandits (and leaving behind valuable rainbow-stained bones which were collected by the merchant for sale).

Rastus answered in the form of a glowing illusion in the sky, where he told them that they had fallen entirely into his trap by demonstrating that the Solars are too dangerous to leave alive. He said they had hastened their own end by giving him the evidence he needed to arrange for the Aerial Legion to be sent against them.

Despite further sacrifices he refused to be drawn any further and, being in Heaven, there was little the group could do to stop him. Or was there?

The Zenith felt himself touched by the Unconquered Sun, energy flowing through him and crackling into the air as the Calibration Gate took form before them, opening the way to Yu-Shan.

And I ended the game with them stepping through the gate to take up their issue with Rastus personally.

So there we go. In general I felt that this four-part game was quite satisfying. Nothing I threw against the players was much of a challenge in combat, but more importantly fighting them was a lot of fun.

With the new combo rules and the errata’d charms, I think that only very powerful creatures and Charm users are likely to pose any kind of challenge to Exalted. Running Exalted-level combat however would have taken entire sessions and I didn’t really have the time to do that for this game, especially not in numbers enough for the whole group to be involved in the conflict.

On the whole I feel that the changes to the combat system and the charms in the Errata have improved Exalted quite a bit, allowing players to use more of their charms without leaving themselves undefended and therefore actually letting them enjoy the magic they’ve bought. Social Combat is also made more significant, with attacks being much more expensive to resist.

Exalted 2.5 has more of an epic feel that might make it more difficult to run the game in the long run, but I am impressed so far.

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