Overcoming Suck: Geoff Grabowski’s Exalted

Originally published at Mob | United | Malcolm | Sheppard. Please leave any comments there.

Damn, Stew got there first. This was a lot like the kind of thing I planned to post, so y’all should pretend it’s part of the post-Suck canon. I plan on following the Suck Post along two threads. The first is more work on the Toy Dogma (which should respond some of Bruce’s concerns) and the second explores games that hit the spot.

So let’s talk about Geoff’s Exalted. (I don’t know much about post-Grabowski Exalted, so I’m not covering it, or much about the game’s earliest development, since I wasn’t involved and didn’t have “good seats,,” as it were.) Exalted is one of the big original successes of the 2000s, and it took licks for it. (Remember this hilarity?) In many ways, it isn’t my ideal game, but it demands attention to such an extent that even when I didn’t play (and yes, I did play it), it influenced other campaigns, design thoughts — everything. Here’s where I think Exalted avoided Fail Era trends and improved upon its evolutionary roots in White Wolf’s house style.

Exalted is about something . . . and that thing is not “Remember this other, cooler thing?” When Geoff was developing Exalted he started every outline with a short description of the game’s themes and where the step into the real world as allegory. Everything anybody wrote for the line was in some sense a response to that. I can’t tell you what it is (we were specifically told not to) but I will say that it brought more depth to the setting than it would have otherwise had.

Exalted is not confined to its central themes and allegories. Like I said, I can’t tell you what Exalted was about (unless this policy has changed — I don’t follow Exalted fandom because build-onsession makes me want to vomit). Geoff developed the game in a manner where he didn’t force compliance with his core ideas directly, but just laid them out on the table — deal with them, and see where you can go from there. This dialectical process generated a bunch of fruitful creative tension (and sometimes it was tense — Geoff was a bit of a hardass as developers go) and elaborations of the setting that are diverse without being arbitrarily so. And Geoff’s unwillingness to get to the point kept his own politics and game design concerns from crushing all difference.

Exalted doesn’t just reproduce tropes, it rationalizes them. (Note that I’m using “tropes” in the loose “recurring stuff” sense because that’s apparently what it means now.) Greek mythology! Anime! JRPGs! At first glance, Exalted looks exactly like the kind of elevator pitch mire I despise. Geoff put each of these in their place by teasing function out of each form. Exalts use enormous Buster Swords — because these are effective weapons after they’ve been magically modified. Solars suffer Greek tragedies for reasons that exist in the setting — and NPCs you can talk to. Geoff had quite a bit more worked out than got into the books, such as fairly concrete ideas about Realm military doctrine and baseline stats for a Wild Hunt party. Exalted does the trope equivalent of backronyms.

Exalted is post-metaplot, not anti-metaplot. There’s no metaplot in Exalted, but it’s not a stupidly static setting. The setting moves; the game introduces a number of possible stories that will move with or without PC intervention such as the Bull of the North, the Locust Crusade and whatever the Scarlet Empress is doing — more than simple hooks and triggers, but no definite events. It’s a good balance, though not the only one possible. This way, the game partly avoids metaplot’s problems without throwing out its ability to make current events as compelling as geography and backstory, or the power to immerse the entire fanbase. Exalted isn’t the only game (or supplement) that’s hit upon a solution like this, but it’s one of the better known.

There’s more in there to talk about (tell me about it!) but that’s what fits in this time and space. That’s Exalted, that’s  Geoff Grabowski, and that’s creative leadership.

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