Monday, April 6, 2009

Issues I Have With Exalted and Their Fixes: Martial Arts

As I've explained previously, my current favorite tabletop RPG is Exalted. I started playing exalted back just before I graduated and fell in love with the epic setting and Wuxian feel. I've often gravitated to more restrictive rule-sets and settings where characters have to survive by their wits rather than any particular edge they might have, but Exalted is the exception to that, while you still need to survive by your wits, the main characters are often vastly more powerful than the average person in the game world, this new perspective was refreshing to me because it allowed me to escape into a power fantasy without feeling guilty for breaking the game. Over time I abandoned playing in Exalted games because those that I did play in felt like they were arbitrarily limiting what the characters were supposed to be doing with all that power, and I started running games that were as epic as I thought they should be.

One of the major Wuxian aspects of the game are the powerful martial arts available. Martial Arts meld mysticism and combat to create combat like Dragonball Z mixed with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Mechanically the different Martial Art Styles are available to a wider array of character types and offer exceptional versatility in combat while allowing for you to customize the style your character fights in with a particular weapon. The down-side is that the power trees are quite large and often to gain full effectiveness of a given martial art you need to spend more Experience Points to yield the same capabilities that would be gained from a more focused combat ability much cheaper.

Martial Arts are a pivotal part of the game and they add a lot of flavor, however Second Edition has a few anachronisms carried over from first edition that I think should have been addressed. One of them is the fact that a lot of Martial Arts effects step on other Ability's toes. There's a Martial Art that is based entirely on Singing, and some of the higher-level Martial Arts do Occult-Based abilities like countering magic far cheaper and more effectively than even the Occult charms can. The fact that Martial Arts also allows you to use particular "form" weapons with the Martial Arts ability means that it makes other combat abilities such as Melee, Thrown and even Archery and Dodge somewhat redundant allowing for min-maxing to an extent. There are also certain weapons that are deemed solely "Martial Arts" weapons for no reason other than common association rather than any particular ergonomic reasoning.

These issues though they might seem like they would require a vast overhaul of the Martial Arts rules are actually easily remedied with a few simple tweaks. One of the things I constantly preach is that game design needs to be based on solid fundamentals, and for the most part, Exalted's fundamentals are solid which means minor changes are often all that's needed. The first thing to do is change the Martial Arts ability to Unarmed and detach all the Martial Arts charms from any one particular ability. Martial Arts are depicted as versatile power sets that defy boundaries so we don't need to tie them to any one ability. With no Martial Arts ability anymore I have to reassign the Martial Arts weapons to other Abilities. I choose to make my choices based on ergonomics, any weapon that requires swinging like a staff or hook sword is now under Melee, weapons that are an extension of a fist or kick attack such as iron boots or tiger claws are still governed under unarmed, (knives too are part of this). And any rope or chain weapon are governed under the Thrown ability. Clinching attacks from rope weapons are rolled as unarmed attacks.

After those two solutions are implemented all that's left is to change the Ability prerequisites for the Martial Arts charms to whatever abilities are most applicable. If the charm supplements an unarmed attack then it's prerequisite is the Unarmed Ability, if it Supplements a Unarmed Attack and has an Occult-based effect as well then the prerequisites are Unarmed and Occult and so-on. The designations are pretty clear cut and don't require much interpretation, so they're quite easy to implement on the fly. Lastly while Melee, Archery or Thrown might not be part of the prerequisites, if the style has a "form weapon" that is governed under one of those abilities, to use the charms with that weapon the character must still roll the appropriate skill. This cuts down on min-maxing and allows for the ability charms melee, archery and thrown to be less obsolete and actually supplement the Martial Arts charms allowing to supplement the often more esoteric MA charms with the effective straightforwardness of the Ability specific charms, something the game designers always intended but has been a bit of a grey area within the rules.

These changes allow the Martial Arts to retain their significance and great Wuxian feel without making other abilities irrelevant but are by no means necessary to make the game fun. They do help though.

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