One of the best parts about RPGs is that you get to feel like a badass and some games, like Exalted, let you be a badass on a world-shaking scale. For those who don’t know, Exalted is a game by White Wolf where you play as literal demigods having adventuress in an extremely high fantasy world. Traditionally the player characters are Solar Exalted, children of a god called the Unconquered Sun and the most powerful variety of demigods in the game, but there are rules for playing as all sorts of kick-ass heroes including basically dragonborn, Fae creatures and even heroic mortals.
I had always wanted to run a game using heroic mortals, with artifacts and special abilities to bridge the power gap, with the idea being that the badass stuff would be even cooler if the people who were doing it got there through training rather than superpowers. I never ran that game for various reasons, but that desire is why when a friend of mine told me he was running a heroic mortals game I jumped at the chance. This is the story of a game that I was super excited to play in and how it all went terribly, terribly wrong.
Okay, so since I usually talk about D&D and Pathfinder I’m going to go over some of the important details of the Exalted system as well as important concepts in the game. One thing that is crucial to this story is that, more than your character’s overall experience level, the amount of investment you have in a skill determines how good you are at it. Whereas in a Pathfinder a level ten wizard will probably be able to bludgeon a level 1 fighter to death in melee combat, it’s possible to have maxed out Melee and Dodge skills at character creation in a White Wolf game. You won’t be good at much else, but you’ll be damned good at fighting.
The game in question had a few custom things. First, there was a caste system in the game and it was presumably based on birth. At character creation we picked whether our character was a Commoner, Noble, Lord, or something else but I don’t remember what it was called. They all had an inherent benefit, but Noble and Lord were just a lot better than commoner, which I picked to fit my character concept (I think it gave you extra connections, whereas Lord gave you a very powerful artifact and was the only way to get that ability in game). It wasn’t balanced at all, but it seemed like an interesting idea so we all went with it.
The premise of the campaign was that the kingdom had been in a long period of peace and prosperity under the guidance of a wise and power god king. The story kicked off when the king disappeared, with no one knowing where he went. The player characters were a group put together to go find him. Each of our characters had different strengths and, as was pretty normal for the system, we all had at least one thing we were beyond superhuman at.
I had designed my character around the idea of a lowborn fighting prodigy who had risen to become a royal enforcer. All of his combat related abilities were maxed out and he was publicly known as the Fist of the King. He was a dex-based fighter with all of his combat stats maxed out. One of our other players was a member of the nobility who was not only a towering giant but who also had charisma out the wazoo. There were other characters at first, but we were the only ones who stayed past the first session.
Where It All Went Wrong
I said at the beginning that one of the best parts of RPGs is getting to be a badass. Even in Call of Cthulhu, where your characters are squishy and mortal, they have things that they excel at and they get to excel at them. With Exalted, though, it’s ALL about being a badass. You play Exalted because you want to punch people in half or give speeches that shake the earth or call down plagues down on your enemies. Our characters were mortals in this game, so we expected things to be scaled down a bit, and for us, the player characters, they were. For the NPCs (also mortals, by the way) that was very much not the case.
Our characters, a royal enforcer and a lord (which was, somehow, different from a noble, but more on that later) got no respect from anyone because everybody that we ran into had a different arbitrary title that made them able to talk down to us with no repercussions whatsoever. There was one very memorable interaction with an NPC that stuck with me to this day, I’ll see if I can recreate it for you.
Me, to an NPC: I need you to tell me everything you know about what’s happened here.
NPC: How dare a commoner speak to me.
Me: My name is (name) and I am the king’s personal enforcer.
DM: You’re still a commoner, he can have you arrested for disrespecting him.
Me: Fine, [Other Player] can you talk to him.
Other Player: Hey, you need to help us.
NPC: How dare you, a LORD, talk to me, a HIGH GENERAL, like that!
“High General” was a title that had never been mentioned in the world or game before. But wait, you might be thinking, both of our characters were badass and I was playing an overspecialized melee monster. If people wouldn’t listen to us we had the option of roughing people up, right? Well, wrong. Relative to every NPC we ever came across, our characters SUCKED at fighting. I’m not even joking. Every NPC we ran across whom the DM had troubled to name was apparently not only light years ahead of us in status but also in combat prowess.
Our first fight against named opponents was against a trio of martial artists: two little guys and a big heavy hitter. Neither one of us could reliably hit any of them, even the big guy. Now, you may be thinking “Well if it’s a boss fight you should have trouble hitting them!” but we’re not talking “trouble hitting them” we’re talking “Needs 90% of my dice to be successes to hit” and being able to reliably make damage happen was my character’s specialty. To make matters worse, the GM seemed to put a lot of effort into describing just how ineffectual we were. Characters wouldn’t just talk down to us, they would insult us and one of us got thrown up on by an NPC. We didn’t just miss attacks, but lengthy descriptions were given to how effortlessly the enemies dodged our best efforts and threw one-liners back at us.
Instead of capable heroes having heroic struggles and triumphs we were petty fools muddling through a world that we clearly had no place in. Every encounter was demoralizing and sad and eventually the game just sort of fizzled out.
This game may have been one of the least fun experiences of my gaming life, but I got some really important lessons out of it. I learned a lot about the way games create not only atmosphere and excitement but also feelings of empowerment or dread. I had played games where the difficulty level was punishing before, with encounters being built on so much synergy and with such high CR that only the most cheesed out characters had any hope of survival, but those were different because the difficulty of those encounters was considered exceptional and winning them, while exhausting at times, gave both the players and the heroes bragging rights. Yes every fight was punishing and sometimes we felt useless, but we were also in those fights because no one else could handle them. This was the first time I had ever witnessed just how much power a GM has to make a player and their character feel useless in the game’s canon.
I learned about the power of description. There’s a huge difference between telling your players that an enemy narrowly evades their strike compared to describing the effortless deflection of a hero’s best offense, not just for aesthetic reasons but because of the emotional response it can create in players. NPC attitudes are as important as their actions for putting the players into the world and helping them find their place. This was something I had never given a ton of thought to before.
The last thing I learned about was the importance of giving the players protagonism in the adventure. One of the things I didn’t talk about directly very much but that came about as a result of the elements I did discuss is that it never felt like we, the players, were the focus of the story. Our contributions to the plot always seemed negligible and we didn’t have a lot of agency to drive the story, partially because our characters commanded zero respect and partially because we were given no room to off the rails at all.
Looking back at this game I’m glad I got the chance to play in it because there’s no telling if I would have ever learned these lessons nearly as effectively without it. It made me think about elements of storytelling that are, I believe, entirely too easy to take for granted if you don’t see just how hard they can go wrong.
Do you have your own sad tabletop tale of a game that got you excited only to let you down? Talk about it in the comments. For more stories and game mechanics updated semi-regularly, follow me on twitter, facebook or wordpress using the links to the side!