How to Run:Exalted
This is the post that started the original thread, posted by DivineCoffeeBinge on the Roleplaying Open board.
How To Run Exalted
Part the First: Permissiveness
The word "impossible" must be excised from your mind.
Exalted is a game about myth, first and foremost. Your group's player characters are legends, or at the very least, legends-in-the-making. The easiest mistake for an Exalted Storyteller to make - the one I've made all too often, I admit - is to think in terms of "keeping it under control."
To illustrate, let's compare and contrast with other games. Let's say one of your players has created a character whose explicit and stated goal is "carve out an Empire from the ashes of my conquered foes." Now, in Vampire:the Masquerade, the logical reaction from an ST is something along the lines of "Well, that'll piss off all kinds of uber-powerful NPCs. Isn't HE in for a nasty surprise." In AD&D, it might be "Shyeah right - not at first level, pal! I better send him through some dungeons first and see if he grows out of it." In Marvel Super Heroes, "Dude, that's what the BAD GUYS do."
I would submit that an Exalted ST's proper response should be "Okay. How?"
In many a game, the Game Master or Dungeon Master or Storyteller or what have you is working with a setting in mind, and the widescale altering of that setting is seen as something to be avoided (it's a rare Forgotten Realms DM that will let his players sack Cormyr or kill Elminster, for example). Exalted also has a specific setting - but don't let that stop your players.
Any flavor of Exalt - even the comparatively weak Dragon-Blooded - has immense personal power, even as a starting character. Their deeds can literally shake the world. Let them.
Part the Second: Flexibility
In many games it is perfectly acceptable - even necessary - to begin running with a distinct plotline in mind. In Exalted, one can easily do the same - but rather than keeping that plot set in stone, a successful Exalted GM must be willing and able to adapt his plot to the desires and actions of his players.
Now, this sounds like pretty standard advice for any game, so hear me out while I explain why it's so important for this game in particular.
In a Mage:the Ascension game, a Storyteller may have in mind a plotline involving the eventual discovery and liberation of a Technocratic "education center." The PCs, however, may show more of an inclination to engage in a more personal quest for Ascension, concentrating on awakening the minds of several Sleepers at a time, raising awareness of magick one by one. In such a case, the ST can have some of these acolytes dragged off to the Education Center, gradually bringing the plot to their attention without railroading them.
In Exalted, however... a ST may have a near-identical plot in mind, involving the liberation of a "finishing school" operated by the Realm that routinely brainwashes its students to make them better subjects of the Empire. But what to do when the PCs take one look at it, decide that they'd be better off leaving it be for the time being, and going off to conquer the Hundred Kingdoms? You've tried nudging themn, you've dropped subtle hints - in short, you've used every trick in your ST arsenal to get the PCs to go where you want, and just can't seem to interest them?
Let them go, of course. This doesn't mean that the ST can't bring the finishing school back in a later adventure - or, more elegantly, have the PCs encounter "graduates" of that school at a later time, who have since Exalted and are now implacable foes that the PCs could have had as allies had they shut down the school immediately - but when your PCs are all essentially demigods, the only truly effective way to get them to "follow the plot" is to railroad them - and railroading characters of this power level breaks the suspension of disbelief.
This can be one of the most frustrating aspects of being an Exalted ST, in my opinion - sometimes you have great plot threads that the PCs just refuse to follow, and that story falls fallow. Don't worry about it.
In Exalted - arguably more than many RPGs - the PCs are perfectly capable of manufacturing their own plot. Most players, when they realize the immense potential of their characters, will want to use that potential - so let them. Leading into the next part...
Part the Third: Donning the Striped Shirt
You know those guys who stand around at football games and tell 350-pound linebackers that they can't hit as hard as they want? That's right, the referee. Being an Exalted ST is a good way to train for this job.
If you've been paying attention, you'll notice that a goodly portion of the advice given thus far involves letting the players do what they want. This is the part where I amend that statement - let the players do what they want, within reason.
Let's take the above example of the players who want to conquer the Hundred Kingdoms. Your task is not to tell them "No, you can't." Your task is to give them a good chance of doing it, and keep things interesting while they do.
Make it hard for them, without making it impossible. Throw obstacles in their path. Give them foes to battle, quests to undertake, gods to appease and hearts to win. And when they do something you'll never expect - and they will, because players do that sort of thing - your job is simple.
Step back, blow the whistle, and adjudicate. Don't think "is this good for my story?" That's what you do for other games. Instead, think "is this possible?" If the answer is yes, let it happen.
That's MY two cents, anyways. How about yours?
How To Run Exalted: Details, Themes, And Ideas
Part of the Advisory
At my table, the storyteller (ST) is a stint. This is because they are serving one. Notice how similar the words stint and stunt are? There is a reason. When I stint, I keep a pad handy for notes made and those that will come. I keep it so the players can not see it and doodle little reminders. Short-hand works well as encryption for those not savvy.
Echoing the above sentiments, flexibility is important. The best corollary that I can think of for Exalted as a role-play game is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Book. It's an adventure based around themes that the players themselves selected. I keep the list of themes at the top of my pad for quick reference. Any theme that has been explicitly refused ( read: "I can't stand pygmies!" ) by a player's first interview, I avoid like the plague. This is where wearing that white-and-black striped shirt comes in. Also, I tend to conduct more than one interview because players will usually have improvements, additions, and addresses after the first one.
I basically choose one grid from the map ( 6400 square miles! ) and set-up local stuff for each character at the start of the game. Then, I let them choose which direction they want to go. While the players have their characters direct the game itself, my job as a stint is to keep things in perspective. Here are some of the things I try to do for Exalted campaigns:
1-A. Start Small.
Stay small as long as you can. Any chance that you have to focus on small instead of big, do it. That war between Lookshy and Nexus that so-and-so has always been wanting to play out? Well, one of the non-player characters has a fourth cousin in Nexus. Ready to break the Guild into quarters? The plan falls out on the day of a Sister's friend's recital.
Tomorrow, a Scarlet legion will arrive in the player-characters' hide-out village, but right now, little Sipping Water needs help to find his teddy bear.
1-B. Casualties Are Not Numbers.
That bloody revolution that your players just pulled off for the good of the region? A familiar non-player character refused to evacuate. That wound that the circle member suffered? It still hurts, and the locals express their sympathy. The subversives are planning a gorilla attack? Little Sipping Water has gone missing.
The long and the short is that everyone knows everyone through someone else. Vast as Creation is, it's really the confined space of one little planet.
The practical application of this rule is so very important. The saying goes, "...lots of fish in the sea." This is how it should be for the stint. Set plot hooks. Set them every-where. Keep the diversity of the hooks, and where they lead, high. One of the purposes of the stint is to make the plot interesting. The players get to choose which hook to follow, when, how, and why. Let them.
Along with this is an often unspoken rule for hooks. The players ( due to character ) retain the prerogative to ignore a plot hook. This means any plot hook and for any reason. This can be difficult for the stint after all their hard work and thought about plot. But Exalted is based around character-shaped campaigns. As long as the players and characters remain in theme with the game, and in type, do not bring out the Mighty Staff of Moderation. It will be important for any stint to learn to tough it out.
2. Material Aids.
2-A. Charts And Graphs
Make a copy of the map. This is very important to keep in mind when dealing with sweeping political or geographic campaigns. Not only are the players' characters going to want to rename the cities they conquer, they are going to want to rename the streets. They also will want to build their own city-nations and name them. In this kind of campaign, keeping things straight through notes is important, but so is that drawing of the enemy's battle line. Depending on who your players are and their tastes, it might be prudent to have a way to draw ( and re-draw ) the invisible borders that your players' armies will shape.
2-B. Quick Reference Sheets
I keep a short-cut sheet in front of me for non-player character to non-player character interactions. I keep mine in short-hand, but you will want to ask your players if it is okay to use First Edition rules on that sheet for game mechanics. Frankly, Social and Physical Combat are chores to calculate when they do not involve the players' characters. I call my sheets Stint Action Cards, or STACs. They're handy to have around for when the stint actually wants to calculate a sub-plot inside the campaign.
It is always better, when applicable, to calculate sub-plots outside of session time. Keep focused on your players while they are there and mess around with less-than-important material at other times.
2-C. Working The Mojo Out of Paper
Did one of the circle's characters hear that the enemy was marching? Where were they marching to? What speed? What morale? Do they have materials for fortification?
Conversely, one of the characters wants to found a village! Where is this village? What topography is in the region? What resources does the area have? How will the new village effect the neighbor civilizations and the region as a whole? What is the political climate of the village leadership with the nearby major powers? ( Does the Mask of Winters want to stop by for tea? )
3-A. Campaigns; Not Soap Operas
The general flavor of traditional Exalted settles around greatness. Not necessarily heroes ( I wish there were more ), but people destined for huge reputations. These are characters who are capable. They accomplish. Their goals drive them forward and they use all of the means at their disposal to achieve their desires and dreams.
This does not mean that we want to watch them earn Experience Points through an hour of role play about brushing their teeth. While such brief additions or stunts add a bit of flavor, the stint wants to see where they are going. The players want to see what the characters are doing. If the characters are just loafing around drinking wine, eating cheese, and training to be the next Gateway master, I use the Time-Skip rule until something more interesting comes up.
3-B. Get A Room!
The Real Life Table doesn't want to know about a single character's flirtatious escapades ( and inevitable failures ) with the five-gender species the party just encountered.
As a stint, I have a Fade To Black rule. It is admirable that the courtesan decided to protect little Sipping Water during the raid, but this is not an excuse to bog down the entire session with rolls on every possible sound uttered in the building following the characters' learning of her generosity. ( No, it is not a good reason to ask for her address. Or her phone number. You know who you are ).
4. Know Your Audience.
4-A. Never Use The Same Formula Twice.
Ideas are like atoms that when combined in a certain way produce a certain chemical. Changing ideas around is fine, good, and expected, but getting caught in a familiar formula makes a game boring. The players and the stint will get up and walk away if they are bored. The point is to not be in a rut so I keep random words and names handy on the pad to pull out if it looks like the players are merely grinding.
The list of themes I use is divided by players and barring the use of the Do Not Insert rule, all kinds of random things are liable to pop up. This is one of the ways to make the lives of the characters interesting ( either being harmed, helped, or avoided ) and the players interested. I used to use a secret Random Wheel which would rotate through events. Immaculate monks, natural disasters, traveling merchants ( or wanderers ), other Exalted ( one each for Solar, Lunar, and Dragon-Bloods ), were all listed there so that the same thing was not done over and over.
4-B. Alternate Universes Are Good!
I can not stress this enough. The source material, diverse as it is, may not suit all the tastes of the players. One of the best ideas for a game that ever crossed my table was, "Can we do a Stargate theme game?" Most stints would balk at this and say, "No! Stay in canon!" But knowing my table and how much they liked the idea, I bent with it. Before it was all over, the players had gone to another dimension, procured technology from the First Age that never fell, and came back to enact their characters' plans of liberation. Their characters had met themselves, talked to themselves, and fought themselves. It was a blast, but it was a game based on what the table wanted. Keep in mind that every game is different because every table is different.
5-A. Every Story Ends.
Remember those clearly defined rules you set-up at the beginning? One of them was the long-term goal of the game. It is the event or ( set of ) condition(s) that passes to announce the successful completion of an Exalted campaign. You did set a clearly defined goal for the end of the game, right?
There is a difference between the characters' motivations and the goal of the game. The goal always comes first. It is okay to get the group together and pow-wow to hammer out a new goal if it somehow gets lost in the weeds. But never get caught up in what the characters are trying to do. They will do anything they want because that is the selling point of Exalted. My job as the stint is to keep track of the objective and once it is a achieved end the game.
5-B. Do Not Over-Stint.
The reason man-kind calls it a stint is because it is temporary. No one will care if you are the best storyteller in the world if you are tired of doing it. Let someone else run a campaign. Let them get their feet wet. I tend to have more free fun as a player because being the stint means I have to keep focus with the campaign.