Monday, August 9, 2010

Burning Creation Experience

As the zeppelin takes a gentle left, you will see that we are now flying over Creation. Never a particularly stable place, Creation has recently taken a turn for the worse. As you can see, the East is burning, the North is practically lifeless, the Southern deserts have been replaced by fields of ash, and the Western Islands have been rearranged into a geometrically pleasing configuration. That, I think, is really the best touch. In the center we have the once-Blessed Isle, now surmounted by a cloud of nigh-impenetrable darkness. Try not to look too closely - we get complaints.

The newest Exalted supplement, Return of the Scarlet Empress, details the rise of Creation's demon empress and the fall of everyone else. In it, White Wolf's Exalted line continues to surprise me - first they made me like location books, and now they have convinced me to buy and like a bundle of adventure paths. What's next?

Ok, first a quick summary. If you know anything about Exalted, you know that the core of the setting begins with the disappearance of the Scarlet Empress. Big Red has been holding the fractious Realm of the Dragon-Blooded together with cunning, brutality, and singular dedication ever since the fall of the last Dragon-Blooded empire, the Shogunate. The Dragon-Blooded of the Shogunate - also known as Terrestrial Exalted - were the ones to overthrow their rightful masters, the Solar and Lunar Exalted, at the urging of their secretive viziers, the Sidereal Exalted. The Exalted are humans elevated to demigod status by the gods so that they could, at the dawn of time, help the gods overthrow their makers, the Primordials. Some Primordials died in the fighting, and their slowly dissolving ghosts have created the Underworld, the powerful ghostly monarchs called the Deathlords, and their servants, corrupted Exalts called the Abyssal Exalted. Other Primordials surrendered, becoming the twisted and vicious Yozis, and have since snagged their own servants, also corrupted exalts, called the Infernal Exalted.

Next time, on backwards histories: Japan surrendered on August 14th, 1945...

Anyway, it has been long-suggested that the reason the Scarlet Empress disappeared is that she finally reached too far in her quest for power and got herself kidnapped by the Ebon Dragon, one of the more unpleasant Yozis. Return of the Scarlet Empress takes that implication and runs with it, providing plot possibilities for the eventuality of the Empress's return. Her goal: to turn Creation into hell so that her masters can escape back into the world. To this end, she really tears shit up.

The book itself is divided into seven chapters detailing the progress of the Reclamation (of Creation, by the Yozis) in the Blessed Isle, each of the four outer regions of Creation, and other realms of existence (heaven, hell, the underworld, etc.), and a final chapter that details the final showdown between the Ebon Dragon and the forces of good, assuming that the players haven't thwarted his plans long ago.

In general, the supplement is very good, though somewhat uneven. Chapter One: The Cursed Isle, for example, is extremely well-done. The writer takes a very high-level approach, explaining in broad strokes how the Ebon Dragon's plans are likely to proceed given the most probable eventualities. For details, like Storyteller character game statistics and details about how various military and political organizations function, the book references other Exalted supplements and leaves it at that. The end result feels like an essay on the destruction of the Realm, which a knowledgeable Storyteller could easily detail where necessary to create a compelling chronicle. The second chapter, which details the same process in the Eastern sector of Creation, is similarly written.

Unfortunately, the chapters on the North and South aren't quite as good. Both of these chapters read more like minutely detailed adventure paths. Creative players and character-driven Storytellers will quickly go "off the map" or simply find the plot ideas inapplicable. This doesn't mean that the chapters are useless, but the useful ideas are buried in paragraphs of much chancier stuff.

Let me give you a practical example. In the chapter on the Blessed Isle, we are given a section about the final stages of the Reclamation, in which the Empress corrupts the Sword of Creation (enormous feng-shui powered cannon) so that her infernal masters can use it. This section gives a variety of options for character involvement, explaining how any kind of character might get involved, and then gives us several options for the speed at which the corruption proceeds. On the other hand, we have a section in the chapter on the South entitled "The Akuma Who Loved Me" (I don't know why, but many of the section headings are riffs off the titles of spy and heist movies) which introduces the character of Raia, a hopelessly enslaved Terrestrial Exalt who seduces one of the characters and uses the connection to manipulate the player's characters.

The former is a broad treatment of a series of events that anyone could get involved in, but the individual characters' hooks are up to the Storyteller. The latter is a narrow plot thread that only applies to characters whose players who are willing to roleplay romantic (or at least sexual) situations, are willing to fall for Raia's story and aren't already exclusively romantically involved, and for whom a romance with a secret villain would be an interesting challenge. I can tell you right off the bat that for the various Exalted characters I've played, this storyline would only be interesting - maybe interesting - for one of them.

The final chapters, however, pick up the pace and become much more interesting. Chapter Six: Other Realms of Existence provides a wide variety of plot ideas for characters who are primarily involved in one of Creation's other settings: Heaven, Hell, the Underworld, or the outer chaos of the Wyld. Some of these suggestions are merely interesting (I can take or leave the Empress as the 14th Deathlord) while others are brilliant (go on, tell me that the section on the Righteous Dead didn't send shivers up your spine). Chapter seven makes an excellent capstone on the book and lives up to its title: Endgame. I don't want to spoil this chapter for you, so that's all I'm going to say.

All in all, I would recommend the purchase, with the caveat that it doesn't do your chronicle-building work for you. The relevant sections for your chronicle are going to be either well-writtenly vague or overly specific, and you're going to have to do a lot of the statting, writing, and narrative shuffling yourself. What the book does do a good job of is providing interesting ideas for where to go and what to do, as well as a realistic treatment of how a divided and chaotic Creation would fare against the relatively organized might of Hell.

Finally, I'm going to add that I would love to see similar books for Creation's other Enemies. Return of the Scarlet Empress is good, but I'd also buy Rise of the Deathlords (for the forces of death) and The Second Crusade (for the forces of chaos).

And if any White Wolf dudes are reading this... I work cheap.

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