On What Are The Essential Features of Exalted

Exalted is an epic tragedy writ large. The very first words in the very first book (that wasn’t fiction) basically said “The world is doomed, but until then awesome happened.” Exalted is a setting about the dynamics of power and change. It is a allegory for the human condition. It is about the futility of violence and the glory of violence and the cycle of violence.

Exalted is a setting where 99% of everybody is a dirty peasant living a subsistence lifestyle trying to eke out a living from hard soil. They live in a world where a person with a sword can kill them dead very quickly, where even the smallest wounds will fester and bleed out and kill them without immediate medical care (and where most of them do not have that medical care). It is a world where the plagues that wipe out entire villages are cholera and malaria and black death. It is a world where the rich are rich on the backs of slaves and where everyone in power is an asshole who inflicts suffering and harm on hundreds, maybe even millions of others to support their lifestyle of decadence.

One of the developers (maybe even Grabowski) once described a typical battle in Exalted as the storming the beach of Normandy scene from Saving Private Ryan but with the soldiers occasionally looking up from the muck and offal to see glowing demigods flying back and forth across the battlefield engaged in wuxia kung fu duels and causing masses of soldiers to explode into fine red mist wherever they touched down.

Exalted is a game which hands your player this world and then allows you to rise above it. It makes you immune to infection and bleeding and disease. It makes you capable of facing down an army single-handedly. It allows your words to halt an army in its tracks and turn them to your cause within minutes.

And then the game turns to you and says, “So what now, genius?”

Because you have power, but that power isn’t actually good for solving the world’s problems. You can slaughter armies. Congratulations, you just butchered thousands of people for… what? A cause? A fit of pique? Because they opposed you? You can use social fu to turn people into your followers… though the way social Charms work what you are actually doing is engaging in mass brainwashing and mind control, turning people into your slaves. You can summon demons and bind them to service and it is 100% reliable and useful and… it makes you a slaver who is basically turning prisoners of war into your personal suicidal fanatics. Exalted is a setting where the moral choice is always always the harder choice and where every problem can be very easily punched in the face and butchered with glorious violence that will not solve a thing, ever.

Exalted is a setting that is very moral and the developers accomplish this by making certain that there is no morality in the setting. There is no “detect evil”, but there is “detect people the guy in charge dislikes at the moment”. No absolute good. No absolute evil. Even the biggest bad guys in the setting often have legitimate grievances and issues such as being trapped in eternal torment for all eternity and the greatest good guys may have overthrown the bad guys for the sake of justice… but they also did it because that left them in charge and gave them access to the equivalent of divine drug-induced euphoria.

Exalted has a very mythic setting that is very deliberately not Earth. It has the coolest Hell. It has a cool Underworld. It has a cool Formless Chaos Beyond Space. It has a cool Heaven and a corrupt divine bureaucracy to run it. It has a nation of ubermensch who are both Creation’s greatest slavers AND the only thing that prevented the world from ending for thousands of years.

Exalted is complex and offers no simple solutions. It forces you to confront questions of morality and the politics of power…

…or you can ignore all that and play kung fu Jesus teams up with Nikola Tesla, Lu Bu, Gilgamesh and Batman to fight Aku and Cthulu and punch them in the face! Which is just as fun.

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