I've been a fan of Exalted from the beginning. I had the special edition when it came out, and I got 2nd Edition when it first came out. Mind you, my experience with Exalted was as a player. I'd really not run Exalted, and those times I did, I did fairly simple campaigns.
I love the characters I've played, I love the characters my friends have played. I love the world -- rich, complex, and filled with story seeds I can use (though I basically tore the world apart through running plots for my players, and used the seeds as inspiration for things as part of a larger, epic event).
Tonight, I crashed my Exalted game. I ran it for about six sessions, and have come to the conclusion -- I'm not having fun. This bothers me a lot, but it's a frustration that's been building up.
And I have to explain why:
As a player, keeping your character together is easy. Once the character is built, you can pretty much figure out what the character is capable of, and run the character more or less as a program. Roleplaying -- roleplaying is fine, this isn't about that. When you get into combat however, it becomes a very... mechanical... system.
Check Ticks. Line up Charms to be used. Calculate proper DVs and Dice Pools. Assign Essence. Stunt. Roll. Calculate Effects. Trigger Charms when necessary.
If you've got the proper mind for it, and you've got the proper notes on your sheet laying out what to use / when / how, that's all fine and good.
As a game master, you can't do that. It isn't possible.
I've been trying to run a campaign which involves the PCs eventually facing the Scarlet Empress. This involves getting in deep and dirty with the North, and trying to keep it alive. It involves another group starting in the South, plowing their way to the Blessed Isle, and trying to get some things shaken up there to draw Autochthon into Creation as a back-up. There's a lot going on.
There's no way I can keep track of the NPCs. There's canon NPCs first, then there's my NPCs, and then there's off-the-cuff NPCs. Not just the throw-away extras. I mean the Named NPCs that the PCs will be working with or against.
Now, don't get me wrong. I can throw together an NPC in an instant. Name, identity, look, attributes, all these I can do on the fly -- I've got over 20 years of experience doing that.
No. What's driving me bonkers is Charms. The way Charms are laid out, the way they're geared, the way they're listed in canon NPCs -- horrible. The sheer plethora of Charms is too much. The way they're written up on NPC sheets is horrible. The ideas behind these are awesome, but the execution is terrible.
A player can narrow down their options, and can focus and keep familiar with their character's capabilities. How do the Charms interact to get you where you want to go? Lay them out, and put them together, lock them into the proper patterns, and you're more or less set. It can be daunting, but you can build to concept and run with it after an hour's work or more.
As a game master -- I can't do it.
CAVEAT: DO NOT TELL ME TO IGNORE THE RULES AND MAKE STUFF UP. THAT IS NOT HOW I WORK -- AND THAT IS NOT HOW THE RULES SHOULD WORK, EITHER.
With Exalted -- if I'm throwing an actual, honest-to-god threat at the group... a group they have to think and focus on, team up, work together, aid one another, come up with clever plans, and actually put effort into beating? I can't do it. I can't do it regularly, I can't do it consistently, and I can't do it with any degree of skill.
1) I have to memorize what each individual's capable of. I have to know what their Caste gives them. I have to then keep track of their Charms and their Combos. I have to write down, and keep up to date, essence and willpower expenditure, which Scene longs have been activated, how their DVs are expended and refreshed, their dice pools, and what they can use to attack and defend against a plethora of effects. I have to keep in mind any artifacts or anything else they've got going or are using.
If the PCs are going to meet any opposition or any allies who are exalted, I can't just wing it. I've tried that -- the first time the PCs decided that, rather than investigate the goings-on of an Infernal Exalt in the city... that they'd raid the ship. I had to keep track of extras (easy), but I also had to keep track of demons, and the Infernal Exalt. This means I had to crack open the Infernal book, and flip back and forth as I tried to flash-memorize charms and combos for the guy, having never actually used the Infernal book before.
I was lucky. I put the fear of god in the PCs while scrambling to figure out what this guy was capable of. You know what? If it had been an Infernal circle? I'd have been screwed, because I would have not had the time, brainpower, or energy to run an entire circle off the cuff.
And you know what? There's no hope in hell that I'm going to be bothered spending hours upon hours building Circles on the off-chance the PCs might encounter them. And for the ones I know they'll encounter? I don't want to have to spend hours building these, especially if it is an enemy circle that the PCs may be expected to destroy at the end of the encounter.
Even if I had all the characters lined up in neat little rows, I have to keep track of combat, initiative on the battle wheel, essence reserves, ongoing charms, defensive and offensive charms, special abilities, and then have to STUNT each and every action these NPCs are doing to give them the essence reserves to survive and be a threat to the PCs.
And the pre-packaged NPCs to use may list charms, but they never list combos, and they don't list page numbers for their charms. So you've got to dig out the books, flip through to the proper sections, flash-memorize how all these Charms could work together, and then make up combos so that they can actually use their bloody charms in combat.
And of course, the charms are not listed alphabetically. They're listed in groups based on skills. But those aren't alphabetical... they're divided by caste. So you can't go through 'Athletics, Awareness, Brawl, Diplomacy', it's 'Dawn Caste... Eclipse Caste. Eclipse Caste / Presence...'. And of course, if you've not memorized which skills are aligned to which Caste for each exalt type, you're really screwed. And it becomes even worse when you're dealing with exalt types which don't sort by that method! (Infernal Exalts, Raksha, Lunars,Alchemicals...)
Exalted is the only RPG I have ever had to face this kind of problem with. In any other RPG, I can drop an NPC onto the grid in an instant, and have their sheet laid out in my head in minutes. Even (god forbid), D&D, I can have the NPC up and statted in no time. Special abilities? Not a problem. It may not be perfect, but I can fine tune as we go along, popping open a book for an instant to quickly catch up on a Feat or something, but all in all, the character's 90% done in a matter of a minute.
I can't do that with Exalted. And that is, I feel, Exalted's greatest weakness. A GM should not have to chore for hours statting NPCs. They shouldn't have to slow the game down during a session for half an hour because the PCs decided to jump the gun ahead of time and face a threat. The GM should never, ever, ever have to 'wing' it, ignore an entire book, and just make up the rules for an NPC when RULES EXIST.
And for the record: I'm glad the few times I did take the effort, pause the game, and slap a few Charms together -- one of the players knew what the group was facing, and could identify what Charms and Combos were being done by the NPC by effect alone. And he's in the same camp I'm in -- as a player -- If I'm facing an opponent, I want that opponent statted -- the NPC gets no advantages (no rule tweaks or rule ignoring), because as a player I'm not going to ignore any rules that involve my character.
Sorry about blasting with both barrels here. This has been sitting in my mind for a few months. I really want to like Exalted -- and as a player I do, but as a GM I hate the mechanics, I hate the Charms / Combos. And as a player, I don't think I'll ever, ever ask anyone to GM it ever again, because I know just how much hell they'll be going through.