Some folks on SG asked about my Exalted hack, so I posted the playtest version we used for JiffyCon 2006. It’s up here if anyone else is interested. Might be playable? Not sure.
Archive for the 'Exalted Hack' Category
So yesterday I started chatting with Elizabeth (dissolvegirl) about my Exalted hack and also posted about how I could use The Keywork to make a game about Coheed & Cambria’s space-fantasy emo rock operas. Somewhere in the middle there, while I was thinking about both Exalted and the burning of Star IV, I experienced revelation.
As I told Elizabeth, I’m thinking now that each of an Exalted’s First Age crimes is both a chakra and a charm tree. So, as you process your misdeeds of the past, you unlock the dark powers that enabled you to perform them, but then you have to navigate the chakra to refine your powers and absolve yourself of the crimes, so that you will not simply repeat them in the present Age of Sorrows. So an Exalt is basically an assortment of chakra that intertwine amongst themselves like divine clockwork, the handiwork of the gods that created them, and a Circle of Exalts is likewise a larger essence machine, a reflection of the proper ordering of the world, though that machine is, of course, corrupted by numerous imperfections.
All that sounds great, of course, but now I have to figure out how to make that work, which probably means creating a chakra for each charm tree (each ability, basically) or at least creating rules on how to make them and giving a bunch of examples. The great thing, though, is if we tie crimes more directly to charm trees, you’ll be able to figure out an Exalted’s past crimes by looking at the charms they developed through the process of committing them, or vice versa (picking your characters charms based on their crimes, Poison’d-style).
Additionally, I think the way that a Circle is tied together is through shared crimes. If two characters have the same charm tree, then they literally share that chakra in play. Both their tokens are placed on the same map/dial and they are forced to resolve it together. So, when you look at the table that a game of the hack is placed on, you see a bunch of interconnected chains of chakra, perhaps all connected into the ultimate destiny of the Loom of Fate, the World-Encompassing Spider Pattern.
As part of a book club for work (don’t ask), I’m reading Pearl Buck’s out-of-print translation of Shuihu Zhuan (Outlaws of the Marsh, The Water Margin), which she arbitrarily decided to call All Men Are Brothers. It’s a 700-page, illustrated tome of awesomeness. But what I’m concerned with here is the structure of the narrative, which is something that I don’t think roleplaying knows how to handle very well.
Unlike the One Thousand Nights and a Night, the Shuihu Zhuan has no frame story on both ends. It does, however, begin with a tale very much like “Pandora’s Box,” in which the arrogant Commander Hong frees an entire horde of evil spirits out into the world. Each of these spirits, as we’ll discover later on, represents one of the main outlaws of the epic. The characters are loosed from their cage in order that the might perform their story for us. This is interesting, but not the part I want to dwell on.
Let’s talk about the first 2 chapters and the prologue. Like all Chinese epics of this period, each chapter has a title in two parts, each part describing one of the main plot points of that chapter. In Buck’s translations these are given as:
1. Chang, the Heavenly King, Chief of the Taoists, beseeches the Gods to drive away the evil flux.
2. The Commander Hung, in heedlessness, frees the spirits.
1. Wang the Chief Instructor goes secretly to Yien An Fu.
2. The Nine Dragoned makes a mighty turmoil at the Village of the Shih Family.
1. Shih Chin escapes by night from Hua Ying.
2. Captain Lu kills the bully of Kuangsi with his fists.
Simple enough, right? Okay, now watch who the central character of the narrative is as the story progresses.
1. Ch’en Tu, a Taoist hermit
2. Emperor Jen Chung
3. Commander Hung
4. Kao Ch’iu, a peasant who becomes a lord
5. Wang Ching, the head instructor
6. The two guards
7. Wang Ching
8. Shih Chin, a local thug
9. The Robber Chiefs
10. Shih Chin
11. The Robber Chiefs
12. Wang Shih, a servant
13. Shih Chin
14. Shin Chin
15. Lu Ta, a captain
16. Old Man Chin
17. Lu Ta
18. The people reacting to the butcher’s death.
19. Chief Wang and others
20. Lu Ta
What you have is a “rolling cast.” The story does not tarry overly long on any particular character, rather, it moves constantly, inventing minor characters and, just as easily, abandoning them as soon as they stop being the focus of the most interesting action. BUT! While it is focused on the two guards, those guards are the most interesting characters in the story, despite the fact that we’ll never see them again in the entire epic.
Also, note how there’s an overall sense of progress, how the characters slowly roll over and let new characters step to the front. The narrative spotlight is not going back and forth between several major characters (which is what roleplaying usually does). It does hover for a time around Wang Ching, Shi Chin, and Lu Ta, but you know eventually it will move on to other characters. Perhaps earlier characters will make appearances later on, possibly even be the spotlight character for a while, but the narrative is always looking for “new hosts.”
Also, look at the wide range of social positions among the characters. We have emperors and sages and we have average thugs. And the narrative flows easily back and forth between them, making no real distinction when it comes to deciding “where the interesting action is.” The plight of the local people is just as important as affairs of state or the emperor’s personal life.
Anyway, this is something I’m hoping we can try to emulate, possibly in a modified form in the Exalted hack. And more extensively in Four Nations.
In the comments, Shreyas said:
- “…set up scenes for which the choices other players have made for their character are important…”
I’m not sure, Jon. This still sounds face-injurious to me. It might be face-punchy instead of face-stabby, but it’s still violence to the face.
What about recognising and deferring when other players have something they want to say?
Which then led to the following important conversation:
ME: i don’t think i understand your comment
SHREYAS: i am not sure that i do too, anymore; i think it might have been like; ‘uh what why are you forcing mattering on me’; ‘i am the boss of the importance of my decisions’
ME: hmm; i saw it more as “taking somebody else’s flags and making them happen”; or sort of dividing up antagonism
SHREYAS: that is another angle on it; a lot of my thinking on games lately has been coloured by SI [Sol Invictus, the Exalted game in which he plays Birds-of-Trinity]; and i think um in that game; it would be v. weird for some entity to enslave my character’s mind in order for me to have a subplot about freedom from that; even though we all know that my character is about freedom from bondage and freedom from society and physics; does this make sense
ME: um, yeah; where did mind slavery enter into this conversation?
SHREYAS: okay, uh; freedom = flag; slavery = opposition to freedom
ME: yeah, but that’s not creating a scene in which your character can shine; that’s creating a scene that’ll suck; surely people know the difference? like, if I was creating such a scene, i might have a sorceror attempt to mind-control Birds or something, but the conflict would be about stopping that from happening; not about “ooo, Birds is mind-controlled”
SHREYAS: yeah, sure
ME: anyway, how do you folks handle scene framing?
SHREYAS: sorceror tries to mind-control me… that like sounds like it would hit my flaggish thing; but it’s weird; um; we have this thing; where basically; there is an elaborate ongoing plot; the guy that runs the game asks us, hey what are you doing next; and we have scenes about that; also; when we don’t need to participate in this plot; sometimes we just frame scenes for each other; like when birds realised that basically all the people in the world she might care about excepf five of them; are dead forever and their souls were eaten; i was like; oh, i need to have a scene with lucent where i tell him i am already dead and we need to have a funeral for all of us
ME: that’s cool; does the GM provide all the antagonism? unless you guys go look for trouble?
SHREYAS: i’m not sure in what sense of antagonism you are talking
ME: or do you do things like, “so Birds gets caught doing X?”
SHREYAS:he does handle all the characters that are not us
but we fight amongst ourselves
ME: i’m talking about fighting, mostly
SHREYAS: i think we have done like “hey let’s do a scene where we get caught doing x”; except not anymore simply as a consequence of being so good at whatever we do
ME: yeah, so i guess i’m trying to make this work without a GM
SHREYAS: so when we get caught it is a choice and a statement made by the characters
ME: or maybe a PTA style GM in the player playing the center
SHREYAS: rather than like, something out of their hands; mhmmmm
ME: so you don’t like the idea of players creating interesting situations for each other? you think people are likely to read each other wrong?
SHREYAS: i don’t dislike it; i just think that it falls in face stab land; that’s not a value judgement
ME: hmm; i’m not so sure; i do think forcing people to make choices is part of the face-stab thing; but like, “Birds is bad in polite company, let’s have her invited to a ball and see what happens”; that doesn’t seem face-stabby; it seems more, exploratory or something
SHREYAS: hmm; yeah; maybe i am just drawing the line differently; it’s not super important, i’m just trying to feel this out
ME: i think the key might be not having a specific conflict in mind, but a situation ripe for conflict in which the player and character can choose where the conflict is or if there even is one; like: character in an arranged marriage; character goes to visit relatives they barely know; character slumming among the locals; character meets someone they knew in the First Age
SHREYAS: mhm; i’m thinking about, how do you differentiate inflicting conflict from offering conflict; which is what you’re up to right
ME: i think so, yeah; i think i want to avoid the “so what do you do now” thing
SHREYAS: and it seems like, that’s going to be something you need to talk about in detail
ME: i want to find a balance between players creating situations for themselves and creating situations for the other players
SHREYAS: because like, in the specific case of birds – the way the social contract of that game works, if someone offers a conflict, you are pretty much obliged to engage it
ME: like the difference between a player framing a scene in PTA and the Producer framing a scene; both of those are important, i think
SHREYAS: so it’s inflicting no matter what the intent is behind the move
ME: well, you have to accept some aspects of the situation
but if there’s no specific conflict aimed your way; you’re not obligated to accept it; like, sure, you get invited to the ball; but then you concoct some elaborate scheme to get out of it; that would be okay
SHREYAS: sure; but you observed how in that case; you selected a conflict out of some set of hypothetical conflicts
ME: right, the conflict you chose is “getting out of this obligation”
when the conflict could have been “finding something to wear” or a million other things
SHREYAS: so what the obligation is is ‘engage in a conflict’; with varying degrees of decision about what the conflict is depending on the descriptive context
ME: it’s more “react to this situation in a way that is expressive (of your character) and entertaining (to everyone else)”; there’s not necessarily a conflict there; i mean, those are two of the main points of play, right? expression and entertainment?
Before I wrote the previous post on Circles, I had a pretty decent chat with Ben Lehman about Polaris‘ approach to the distribution of NPCs and player responsibilities. I think the hack should be somewhat similar, but I didn’t quite nail it yet in the last post. Inter-player antagonism is what’s going to make the game really work, so here’s what I was thinking about today…
Each orientation is associated with a particular virtue:
It is the duty of a player, in framing and taking the lead in the scenes for which they are responsible, to challenge the other characters when it comes to their associated virtue. For example, a Center gives others the opportunity to demonstrate their compassion or heartlessness. And, like in a Dogs in the Vineyard game, doesn’t let them get away with an easy answer. “So in situation X you did Y? Well, what about situation Z?”
This is made more interesting because each Exalt will have a Virtue Flaw, a virtue with which they are obsessed and, occasionally, over-zealous to the point of losing it and hitting Limit Break. Each player should DEFINITELY be aware of which characters have Flaws in the virtue for which they are responsible. If I’m playing a Center, I take particular interest in the characters which have Compassion Flaws and make sure to push them especially hard.
Still, I like this, but I’m slightly dubious about the language I’m using to describe it. “Push them especially hard” makes it sound like crazy Yang face-stabbing and that’s not quite what I mean. I mean, “set up scenes for which the choices other players have made for their character are important,” which is really much more cooperative and collaborative as the description above makes it sound. After all, if a player chose a particular Virtue for their Flaw, they are likely to want to demonstrate that Flaw.
Anyway, this is still developing, but I like where it’s heading.
When the gods created the Exalted, they pulled handfuls of simmering essence from their own bodies. The essence that dripped off each finger became a single Exalt and the five made from the same handful of essence became linked by fate and destiny, united by bonds of love and hate, to achieve greatness and misery as one. They become, in other words, a Circle.
However, during the First Age, the various types of Exalted intermixed, loved and hated outside their Circle, and, though their own agency and the lingering effects of the Wyld, manipulated Fate. Circles were broken and reformed, often with different members, often combining Solars with Lunars or Sidereals. In modern times, when the Dragon-Blooded are ever so numerous and the Abyssals have risen from the Underworld, sometimes one’s fate is inextricably mixed with someone stranger still. There have even been rumors of Circles containing Dragon Kings, Fair Folk, Malfean agents, and other abominations, but we will not speak further of such things.
It does seem to hold true that Circles generally follow the patterns set forth by the gods in the dawn of time, based on the five cardinal directions, the five poles of the world, the five maidens, the five dragons, the five castes that govern every type of Exalted: East, South, West, North, and Center. There have indeed been Circles composed entirely of, say, Night Caste Solars. However, in those cases, the Exalts still clearly fall into the Pattern of Five Directions, that is to say, each Exalt takes a role in the group as if they were a Dawn, Eclipse, etc (despite remaining a member of their actual Caste).
When beginning a game, each player chooses to represent a unique orientation in the Circle. You can have two Night Caste Solars (or all Night Caste Solars). But you cannot have two Easts. Now, naturally, each Castes is specifically designed and better suited for a particular orientation. This is their natural orientation, the one intended by the gods before the Exalted took their fate into their own hands.
The characteristics of each orientation are described below, along with a list of Castes naturally oriented to that direction.
Eastern Exalted are subtle, fickle, hidden, and changing. More than anyone else, the embody the Yin forces of the world. Within a Circle, they are tasked with challenging the rest to be wary, to remain paranoid about the dangers that may be lurking around them.
Southern Exalted are bold, resolute, loud, and boisterous. More than anyone else, they embody the Yang forces of the world. Within a Circle, they are tasked with challenging the rest to be headstrong, daring any feat that might bring them success or honor, to not let fear rule their lives.
Western Exalted are thoughtful, watchful, inquiring, and patient. They embody righteousness, even if it is sometimes self-righteousness. Within a Circle, they are tasked with challenging the rest to possess a purity of purpose and a relentless desire to see things through to the end, wherever that may lead.
Northern Exalted are sorcerers, shamans, healers, and witches. They are in touch with the mystic arts that others shun, fear, or covet in vain. Within a Circle, they are tasked with challenging the rest to know the ways of power, to not trifle with things they don’t understand, but also to seize what is rightfully theirs.
Centered Exalted are those who dwell in-between, those who are never at home in a place, those that are always traveling. They are the strands by which the world is bound together. Within a Circle, they are tasked with challenging the rest to be mindful of the connections between things, how they can be used for one’s purposes, and how ignorance of them can lead to unforeseen disaster.
I’ve done about 6-7 cover drafts of the Exalted Hack and I think I’m starting to get close. Jennifer’s color scheme is so broad and complex that it’s hard to create a background that’s gels 100%, but I’ll get there eventually. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m partially red-green colorblind…
Here’s the most recent version, with the new title: O How Glorious Thy Resplendent Transmigration You Children of the Undying Sun, or UNCONQUERED.
I have Harvey-nominated coloring on the cover of my free, fan-created netbook. That is SO COOL! Jennifer Rodgers is clearly the bomb-diggity.
The hack tells the story of a Solar Circle of 5 characters, one of each Caste. If you have something besides this, that’s okay. But it means your story is partially about completing your circle. Like, “We had two Twilights so obviously one had to die” or “We’re searching for a Zenith” or “Our extra Eclipse was a Dawn back in the First Age.”
And the Undying Bell Chakram, then, is the order of scene framers. It’s determines the rotating GM for each scene. You could start off with Dawn and to to Night and then back to Dawn, the daily cycle. But there are clearly ways to make it work if you have something besides one of each Caste. You have two Nights or no Dawn or whatever. But the group has to build a cycle for itself if the default one is inapplicable. And I think Eclipses are naturally unnatural. Like, you have to specifically choose how to handle them, where they fall in the cycle. And if you have a mixed Celestials game, it gets even weirder. You’re intentionally perverting the cycle.
I also think the stuff on the Sea/Loom are really the titles of scenes. The Glowing Gate In The Forest and Falling Snow are great titles. So I think the rotating GM is also the titler of the scene. Like maybe you pick an existing title to be the title of the scene and then, when the scene is over, you make up a new title to give it, writing it down below the original, or maybe a different player gives it the new title. Like “I’m framing a scene called Falling Snow and this stuff happens! …okay, this scene is really called A Duel Amidst Snowflakes!”
So say that happens, and I want to frame a scene to connect to Snow/Duel (which are both on the same scrap). I have to start out calling the scene Falling Snow or A Duel Amidst Snowflakes and frame things likewise. Maybe you could combine titles on the same scrap to frame scenes, such as A Duel Amidst Falling Snow. And then, once the scene is over, someone adds yet another title to the set. So I guess the way you connect things together is by using one existing title (or remix of associated titles) to frame a scene, and another existing title (or remix of associated titles) to name it. And then you stick those scraps together.
1. Currently, the hack creates badass narration, but is less good at letting people play through it. It became Exalted-meets-Once-Upon-a-Time, which was hot, but definitely more “story game” than “rpg” in that sense.
2. The character sheet is not a powerful enough tool to do all the things I need it to do. The hack clearly needs new and exciting tools.
3. As Shreyas pointed out, most of the tools I’m developing for the hack (the open/close structure, re-naming things, shot framing, cycle-based pacing, the ‘sea of images’) are techniques that could be applied to all sorts of games. I’m sure most of my regular blog readers who don’t care about Exalted have probably bailed by now, but that means they’ve missed some pretty neat stuff. I guess I’ll have to have a “What I Learned from the Hack” post eventually.
4. The hack is definitely one of those games that requires a whole session to make characters. Creation + Exaltation could easily take 4+ hours by itself. This isn’t a bad thing, but it makes it pretty different from a lot of indie games (except, of course, Burning Wheel).
5. Shot framing needs to come back (sorry, Thomas). The original form — ordering the shots before the scene is run — won’t work as is, though. I need some variation on the Arthouse Wuxia system that lets you escalate, but maybe not more than once or twice. Maybe you can escalate, but have to wait until the next scene to do so? So you have a cliffhanger while you cut to another location?
6. Rolling for ‘fallout’ may not be necessary if consequences are a built-in component of narration. We simply decided that every use of Charms had to have a bad side, which seemed to work okay, but was a little too arbitrary me.
7. The ‘sea of images’ is OHMYGOD HAWT, but needs some concrete guidelines to function properly. And a stapler. I wonder if I can find a stapler that looks sorta like a Pattern Spider. Or maybe you could use special stickers that would hold the world together. Stickers sound pretty cool actually. Or you could use scraps of cloth that you actually stiched together. But you’d have to be able to write on the cloth. Here’s the basic premise:
- a. You have lots of scraps of paper or cloth.
b. You write cool images on them, maybe based on traits.
— “a glowing door in the forest”
— “a far off scream”
— “falling snow”
c. During each scene you either:
— Learn more about an image.
— Connect images together.
d. You write down new stuff or stick scraps together.
e. When all the various images are connected as one mass, the story is over. You can start a new story or you can quit for the night.
f. Check it out, you end up with a physical record of each session of play! How cool is that?!
8. The ‘sea’ still needs a way for images to be inspired by previous sessions, especially loose ends that haven’t been tied up, since it was originally supposed to be a system for generating subplots. But there needs to be new, new things as well. It may take some playtesting to come up with a good mix and the right number of images.
9. I love, LOVE super-fast, super-short scenes. They rock my world. They are sex in a pan. I’m kinda wondering if this structure can work for game sessions too. Like maybe you run a game session in an hour or two. And then, if you like, you run another one. It’s like ADD roleplaying. But it makes you run on crazy creativity without suffering from burnout. We were all feeling drained after a couple hours of real play and I doubt we could go much further. I think I really had something when I wrote Waiting/Tea to play in a half-hour. Yay for more super-short games.
More thoughts later. And probably a playtest report.
Specifically, I just realized that the Exalted Hack is doing a lot of the same things that I described Shreyas doing with The Golden Chain. It’s just that, instead of consuming external evils and trying to safely digest them, the protagonists of the Exalted Hack are trying to digest the ugly evils of their past lives, the crimes they committed during the First Age.
This is interesting because it’s not a metaphor for dealing with ugliness in the world but for dealing with ugliness within yourself, coming to terms with things in your past. But it’s also exploratory, because you start out with Jason Bourne amnesia and don’t know that much about who you once were.
It’s gonna be a difficult thing to model properly, especially in the 24 hours I have before shipping out for JiffyCon, but I’m going to do my best to pull all these threads together.
We (Shreyas, Ashvin, and I) have been brainstorming about how to make the Exalted Hack more about its core principles, which I feel is like a standard indie game concern. If we want to make the game tightly focused, so it does a few things really well, how do we make the mechanics focus on those concerns? In this case, we have some amazingly cool answers. We’re not there yet, but getting closer all the time.
– every scene is a Memory, either of the present age or the First
– these are collected into chains that show progress on these paths
– completed chains advance various traits
– showing either your development or an awakening to your past
– present age development is controlled by individual players
– First Age awakening is controlled by the other players
– the Great Curse tied the Solars’ power to their horrible deeds
– you don’t learn Charms, you remember them from the First Age
– a Solar’s Charms embody the crimes they committed long ago
– Charms are inherantly VERY BAD, EVIL things
– Charms can be refined to be less evil and, eventually, neutral
– unrefined Solars cannot help but create evil everywhere they go
– evil created by refined Solars is of their own doing, not inescapable
– Solars are pressured to use Charms by a semi-“Say Yes Or Roll”
– free narration, but if they don’t like it, they can use Charms
– each Charm has a number of dice associated: “Bloody Wake” 2
– Charm use is a declaration, supported by the dice rolled
– for example: “My Ship Will Endure This Tempest” 3, 7
– declarations have a strength equal to the highest number rolled
– declarations stand unless a higher number is rolled in opposition
– at the end of a scene, all dice rolled create negative consequences
– refined Charms create consequences that are not necessarily negative
– before a scene begins, players declare appropriate traits
– each involved trait adds a die to a communal pool
– this represents the potential inherant in the scene
– all dice used in the scene are drawn from this pool
– when there are no more dice, no more Charms can be used
– the dice don’t have to be used at all, but they are there
Chronicle Creation goes like this:
1) Brainstorm the unthinkable glories of the First Age.
2) Ask why they are no longer.
3) Describe the flaws of the 4 Virtues that led to the Fall.
4) Extrapolate specific crimes.
5) Assign these crimes to each other, up to a certain number.
6) From your crimes, distill your Charms.
– every scene is a chance at atonement for a particular Virtue Flaw
– a step in the right direction can be made
– but also steps backwards or wasted opportunities
– Solar crimes are of hubris and pride
– Lunar crimes are of failure, debts of honor
– Terrestrial crimes are the betrayals of their ancestors
– Sideral crimes are?
– Abyssal crimes are of subserviance or something similar
– Robot crimes are?
– Fair Folk crimes are BEING ALIEN CTHULOID MONSTERS
– Demons don’t have crimes, they ARE warcrimes