Tips for Storytelling Exalted
General Tips for Storytelling Exalted
"Just say Yes"
Exalted tends to be a lot of fun if you run it with a positive and permissive attitude to what the characters are capable of. Players who are confident of their characters' abilities are more likely to be proactive and heroic - so think carefully before shooting them down when they want to do something. Do they want to take over a kingdom? Do they want to capture airships and fly about creation? Do they want to crash Mnemon's coronation party and steal the Scarlet Crown from her head? What's it really going to cost you to let them do it?
This isn't to say you should let them do whatever they want with no effort or chance of failure - they shouldn't necessarily be able to do such things automatically (though that's not a bad technique - if they want to conquer a kingdom, and you have no objections to it other than not particularly wanting to devote gametime to it, why not let it happen in downtime and have the players narrate a few quick scenes of their victory?). It's more to say that in this game, it's reasonable for the protagonists to try epic, legendary feats, so you should be very careful about discouraging them from doing so.
This applies explicitly to more immeadiate actions too - in fact, there's even a special rule for it - stunting. Stunting mechanically rewards players for having their characters do proactive and cool things, which should give you an idea of the mentality the game encourages by default. A common technique is to treat any actions or effects that have no real benefit other than coolness as purely stunt - so if someone wants to skip across pieces of flying debris as he moves through the crumbling fortress to strike at his enemy, there's no real reason to say he can't, or force him to make athletics rolls, since he could have achieved the same benefit (reaching the enemy) with his normal movement. Of course, stunting is not just limited to physical actions - generally, any time a player makes an effort to have his character's action be more interesting and fun for everyone through description, it's a stunt.
In general, if your players are trying to do something with real impact, at least give them a shot at it. They're playing heroes, so unless they're just being silly, they can *try* just about anything in spectacular fashion. If what they're doing has not much more impact than being fun and making the player feel good about their character, just let them do it.
If you are going to prevent players from doing something, give them a good reason why (after all, you have a good reason for doing it, right?) - you don't have to spill your secrets, but make it clear to them you're not just shafting their characters for the hell of it or disenfranchising them. Alternately, ask them what they're actually going for, and negotiate with them so everyone gets what they want: "Sorry, guys, I really need Varang as-is for something later - but do you want to take over a neighbouring kingdom instead? Harbourhead's pretty good - big army, Jade deposits - you'd have to cut a deal with Ahlat, but you'd get to do the same amount of damage to the Realm as you were going after with Varang."
Challenge and conflict are good things. They are a fantastic source of drama - some say you don't have drama at all without them.
It's a natural tendency for STs to want to make things challenging for the PCs - that's where the interest, the drama comes in, right?
Well, it's not quite that simple, especially in Exalted, where the characters are often powerful enough to indemnify themselves against certain challenges. The girl with stacked persistent defences whose every combo includes Heavenly Guardian Defence is extraordinarily difficult to wound. The chap with Avoidance Kata is not going to get caught in a situation he doesn't care for, and his Shun the Smiling Lady pretty much shuts down a "romantic rivals" plot. Even the Dragon-Blooded with Effortlessly Rising Flame is not going to be stuck on the ground if she wants to get up.
The flipside is that mishandling the idea of challenge can make even Exalted characters feel powerless or unimportant. It's easy to have their personal power seem meaningless if everything they do just drowns them in hordes of foes or provokes powerful NPCs to shut them down. Even just consistently scaling challenges to the PC's abilities can seem contrived and become tedious and frustrating.
The first thing to remember is that you can't take away something the PCs didn't have in the first place. You may want them to actually feel the overwhelming challenge involved in a situation, and that's fine, but make sure they have a context for it. A challenging situation is much more meaningful and impressive if it exists in the context of a history of victories. Give your PCs plenty of opportunity early on to flex their muscles and see the extent of their capabilities - conflict with mortals or monsters, problem solving and exploration are great avenues for such things. This can even help the tempo of a game where concealing your Exalted nature is important (as is common in early Solar games) - give them some opportunities to cut loose, so they *understand* what it is they're concealing, why holding back is a significant choice.
Secondly, and this is an extension of "Just Say Yes" above, think carefully about what constitutes a challenge. The Exalted rarely outright fail, in or out of combat - getting a success on a dice pool is trivial, and even extreme, high-difficulty tasks can be achieved with charms. The most frequent cause of a failed action will be opposition (mechanically speaking, opposed dice rolls where the opponent rolls higher), so if you want the principle challenge to the characters to be the threat of failing their actions, you will need to drag out opposition of near or above their level of prowess all the time. Better to leaven this approach with a more varied pallete of challenges and complications. An excellent source of this is consequences of success. For example, let's say a Circle of Solars decides to take over one of the Hundred Kingdoms. In terms of challenge, this is a joke - a Solar could do this by themselves, a full Circle is something a small agrarian kingdom couldn't hope to withstand in a million years. You *could* drag out a Wyld Hunt or similar to stop them, but why not just let them have the kingdom? They now own a kingdom. The five of them are now the government. This is an incredibly rich source of challenge, because they are now responsible for that kingdom, and they are now a political entity, treated as a power in the region. Diplomacy is suddenly a huge deal - you don't want the other kingdoms uniting against you in fear. You need to look after the people or face the consequences of not doing so (serious revolution is unlikely, but you don't even need to bring in Hungry Ghosts if characters with reasonable Compassion are letting people die in the streets).
- Kasumi's Opnion:
- Personally, I like to go carrot over stick wherever possible. I'd never want to bludgeon the characters with consequences after they completed an action, because I never want them thinking "well, I just screwed myself, yay for being proactive". Better to lure them into chasing challenges and dealing with consequences proactively - I like to present opportunities and threats that are unlocked by the actions. So in the Kingdom example, rather than invading them, I might actually present them with a few tempting targets for invasion in their region, of varying levels of challenge and reward, while floating the threat of a regional alliance to oust them, and the displeasure of Lookshy - threats they can deal with in a variety of ways, and if they're clever turn to their advantage (potentially they could convince everyone they provide such sterling governance that the Hundred Kingdoms could be united under their banner).
- Opportunities and Threats ignored by the PCs are also great story ideas, because you can usually have them evolve into situations the PCs are more interested in, not only heightening their interest but showing how the setting is affected by both their actions *and* their inaction.
- The best kind of challenge, I find, is one the PCs seek out for themselves, rather than one dropped on top of them from the sky by the ST because she thinks one should be there.
Rivals are different. Rivals are great. They're challenge with personality, and they can wring great narrative fun out of the sort of stuff that would be just painful from faceless foes.
For instance, if Uninhibited Spider has just developed Iron Kettle Body, giving him an instant source of hardness, and the ST then ensures that every source of damage in the next few sessions is in excess of that hardness, making the charm useless, Uninhibited Spider's player is going to get ticked off. However, if Beastly Smile, his wicked arch-nemesis, is forced to flee from an encounter with Spider because he's unable to damage his foe, it makes sense for him to find the means to defeat Spider's new technique - just as Spider is undoubtedly developing yet more charms to counter Beast's own strategies. It's a staple of the genre (well, many of the genres Exalted draws from) and a great storytelling tool.
In combat, this is highly enabled by Exalted's focus on defence. Powerful foes can engage each other with a fair expectation of not actually dying. This not only provides the opportunity for a lot of talk as they fight (since against a significant opponent, you'll be exchanging a lot of blows), and the opportunity for a rival to come back again and again without contrivance, but also means the surest chance of achieving a decisive result in battles against a powerful opponent involves virtually anything but attempting to cause them health levels of damage. That means foiling their objectives, working with the terrain, engaging in social battle or what have you - which either the players will love for being cool as-is, or they will love as a satisfying way of engaging with a foe they have some sort of emotional investment in defeating (plus it lets them score significant wins against the opponent without killing him, since his purpose is unlikely to be restricted to wounding the PCs by the same principle).
Which brings us to a good point - combat can sometimes take a long time in Exalted. This isn't a shortcoming of the system, it's because fighting powerful opponents is a big deal. These opponents should never be faceless, they should be dripping with character - if they are, and your combats take place in interesting contexts, the *combat* will drip with character and you won't *want* to do them quickly. Combat is fun when it's important, emotionally important for preference. Having the greatest combatants of either side at no great risk of health level loss is no obstacle to the importance and emotional engagement of combat.
This is all true for non-combat challenges as well. Make the drama of your game happen in interesting contexts with interesting people and the challenge will provide itself.
So what exactly is a Hero?
You might find it a little strange to find a discussion of heroism specifically in the GM tips section - after all, aren't the PCs the heroes? Wasn't that what we were trying to drill into your skull with the "just say yes" thing?
Not really - and the root of the problem lies in the fact the word "hero" is bandied about in too many contexts. In Exalted, it doesn't just mean the PCs, it doesn't have any moral implications, and it's definitely not "ordinary person doing something that's difficult for them". In Exalted, to be Heroic is to be mighty - to rise above the squalor and grit of the world and change it with your deeds. It is about doing great things, being larger than life, being above the great masses of humanity. Heroes are epic people.
You're going to need to get very intimately acquainted with them, because you will be dealing with many, many Heroes, far more than those lucky players who deal with one (or a few, if their main character has Heroic retainers). It's easy for them - all they need to do is be bold, sweeping, epic and proactive. You need to create many, many heroes who are interestingly heroic without muscling the PCs out of the picture - these will be the majority of your significant NPCs (after all, significant and Heroic are pretty much syonymous in Exalted). Luckily, that's not too hard in this game, for the very same list of exclusions I listed above. When we say heroes do great things, we mean they're epic and impressive, deeds of might that are exceptional - not that they are necessarily nice, helpful or particularly wise. Exalted's canon is full of intelligent and powerful heroic beings who do amazing things, yet have no hope of saving Creation because they are flawed, deluded, misguided, fixated upon petty matters that they adress in epic fashion, ignorant of vital matters, hopelessly mired in tangental conflict, and entirely decadent and self-interested. They are all heroes, but it is patently obvious why there's immense scope for the PCs taking a hand in the destiny of the setting: the canon NPCs are going to bollocks it up in singularly epic fashion.
They are thus perfect models for NPCs in your game. You should never have the "nailed to their chair" NPC-quest-dispenser problem, because your players will see (or will be able to find out after being legitimately confused about it in or our of character) *why* your heroic NPCs aren't addressing a problem. Lysander, Hammer-of-the-New-Day, Zenith Caste Solar Exalted and peerlessly virtuous rising God-King is undoubtedly heroic and does and excellent job of making himself look perfect, but his overwhelming passion for Mirror of Disharmony, the Moonshadow whom he hates and desires in equal measure, shows the cracks in his armour - if he went anywhere near the interests of her Deathlord, you'd get a gut-wrenching tragedy that would do Shakespeare proud. The PCs can either act decisively and proactively to solve the problem before he makes a torrid mess of it (and as their greatness increases, sooner or later Lysander is carrying *their* banner), or they can decide freely that they don't even like Lysander, and let his spectacular tragedy play out as a counterpoint to their own epic deeds. Or you can have an NPC that is peerlessly victorious, but constantly makes moral judgements with wilful disregard for consequence. The key is to have these interesting and mighty beings (not necessarily more mighty than the PCs, they should span a range, ideally) make unwise choices for what seem like very good reasons to them, or to act in a fashion that is nowhere near objectively good for all, stirring up conflicts and clashes, not solving problems and making the PCs look redundant. It doesn't matter whether they're allies or adversaries (though it's less necessary for allies acting under close PC direction). This is what seperates interesting NPCs who enhance story from pet NPCs who look great at the expense of the PCs and achieve little more than pissing the players off.
Of course, once you've used their heroic flaws to save them from the danger of disenfranchising the PCs, you're free to make them as heroic as you like!
Original Author: Kasumi on RPG.net