So, now I had learned about Exalted. It was a slow boiling love that would one day culminate into a pitched fever, though it started out lukewarm. My favorite GM introduced out group to it, and we were all reluctant. Our first game might have lasted about 3 sessions, not including the tedious first time character creation. We were all new to it, and we hadn’t jelled to the thematic just yet, but all the same, it took us that first bit of stumbling to see what the game could be, and to shake off the dust of standard fantasy gaming and realize the potential of a gonzo mythical setting.
Much as with all things, I threw myself into Exalted headlong once I saw that it was more than just a repainted fantasy setting. It was a dynamic, exciting and organic world that was still growing out of the heads of people who had inherited it from the original authors. Those initial authors had at first seen it as a prequel of sorts to the World of Darkness at large, and thought to treat it as a Hyborian Age style survival conflict epic; a more bare and honest treatment of their current lines. Similar to Systems Failure*, the premise was changed for the better, and the result was phenomenal.
What could not be predicted was the way in which Exalted evolved from a primitive survival drama into a fantastic animistic epic of mythic proportions. And neither could they have controlled the colossal scope that sprung from a fertile concept that begged to grow into absurd proportions. Every encouragement was there to simply cause the setting to burst into a myriad of wonderful directions. This did not always happen**, but Exalted did its best to self-correct towards its disastrously gonzo path.
This having been said, I was at the margins of the community for quite a while. I had done some time at the first iteration of the Exalted Compendium, which did a good job of attracting some of the more corrosive personalities attached to Exalted at large. There were also side projects and contests in which I participated, but a lump sum of my involvement saw fruit in the official White Wolf forums. From here I made friends and enemies through the naturally socio-anthropological discussions that were (and likely still are) inseparable from the zeitgeist of the Exalted community.
That having been said, I was a fairly polarizing individual within the community, as I had been in the Palladium Books forums as well. However, while I held a position of infamy within the Palladium forums, the actual creative minds behind the books were less involved with the fan base. Through the development of Exalted into its current iteration, the fan base and the creative teams were so intertwined as to be indistinguishable.
And perhaps I am wrong, but I will state my opinion without hesitation; I believe that the creative team behind Exalted suffered for being so close to its fan base. I was too close to see it then, but I can look back clearly to several events that intensified the metamorphosis of Exalted. The game switched subtly from being a very vibrant setting about greatness and tragedy, to being an abstracted thought exercise about trans-humanist philosophy and moral relativism.
Where once you could expect to play an analogue of Alexander the Great or Hercules, the expectation shifted into a navel gazing exercise that favored ambiguity over excitement. This is not at all a bad space to explore in role-playing games, but the fundamental alteration had forced the game to surrender its identity.
Worse still, there was a surging and eminently vocal portion of the fan-base that espoused the need for the rules to be “realistic”, a term that I maintain was not understood at all by this subset. I’ll humor the concept for sake of fairness.
In brief: if there was a way to win the game through a combination of abilities and powers, it was unrealistic for anyone NOT to immediately secure these combinations, even if that skewed the balance of the game towards a resource-grubbing tedium.
It was perhaps one of the most baffling instances of meta-gaming I had ever seen, at once favoring the realism over meta-game, but also wielding the meta-game unfairly against the game itself.
This poisonous perspective wrought much havoc throughout the community. On the one hand, some aspects of the realism stance were valid. For instance, characters could accrue so much experience that optimization was inevitable. Higher level play tended towards insurmountable defenses that could last until one side was exhausted of energy points. This was not ok, but it represented only a segment of play. What this “faction” accomplished was to take the problems on the back-end, and convinced people to apply them universally.
In short, a game that was at least functional 70% of the time now became non-functioning 100% of the time. There was a great call for the game to be fixed, but each successive fix was informed by the same group that cleaved to some twisted sense of realism in a game about glowing godlings. For that reason, the fixes were flawed in the extreme, as the collective community fragmented further.
The game’s philosophy and underlying mechanics were so warped that it undermined the very experience of playing the game. The change came late for the poor majority that was not plugged in to the strange commune-like atmosphere that decided what was best for those who didn’t speak or know to be informed, in an almost eerie Orwellian way. And while I might have been initially fooled by some of these changes, I soon began to do what I could to counter the worst of the assertions, only to be challenged or ignored by the actual staff in charge of the game line. I quickly realized that the fight was neither winnable, nor legitimately mine. The game that I loved was lost in a procession of egos.
I could still play MY Exalted, even if it was considered “wrong” (a concept that rankles me to this day). No one could take from me the vision of the game to which I held. Conversely, the true tragedy was that organic nature that initially propelled Exalted was now its undoing. Some could blame the merger between White Wolf and CCP, but the writing on the wall was evident that Exalted was being upended by its fanbase.
Even though I had written for Exalted in an extremely limited capacity***, nothing came of it. As a freelance writer, this would be a time of dearth and unrealized potential. Though I painfully learned many valuable lessons, my writing was stunted. I had written campaign notes, but I wrote very little that I could consider professional or polished. Crushed as I was by my prior freelancing experience, Exalted was at once the balm and bane to my creativity.
I’m aware that there is a new edition. I’m not interested in the slightest. The new architects are the very people who had, in some way or another, sent Exalted careening into a direction from which it can hardly be recovered.
Though the game had really consumed nearly 8 years of my attention, it was not the only game that I read or played. In the between times, I played an ample amount of Rifts, Heavy Gear (Dream Pod 9), Dungeons and Dragons, and even Pathfinder. And from the otherwise badly apportioned time taken by Exalted, a number of events would change my perspective for the better.
I was starting to fall in love with Pathfinder, and more importantly, I met and married the love of my life. Both of these events would spur my muse to consider two important decisions. First, I needed to write, and be published, even if it was primarily to sharpen my skill. In the next post, I will discuss the details of these endeavors.
* See part 1
** see Exalted: the Lunars, first edition
*** I never got credited, and I probably can’t give details as such, but I did.