“Yes, but you didn’t!” – the failed redesign of Stunts in Exalted 3rd edition

Exalted 3rd edition is out in PDF form to backers and all over the internets for everyone else. It’s being poured over by fans of the game as well as people that were inspired by 2nd editions mess to make other games because the older systems were so fucked up–yet some things were platinum awesome about it. I’ve got a long post coming about the new version, but today I want to blather about the failure of the game to address one of the terrible problems with Stunting in the old edition and it’s not what you think–mote retrieval for stunting– but something fundamentally worse:

If the dice say it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.

Exalted stunting works like this: You say what you are going to try to do and if excites people at the table and titillates the GM, you will get bonus dice or bonus successes on the subsequent roll. In theory, this seems like it will work well: players describe what they hope their character will do and it leads to descriptive flair at the table. However, in actual play it works like this:

  1. Players tire of it. Combats are long and Exalted combats are the longest there is (in 2nd edition) in RPG gaming. Creative juices break down after awhile and stunts become impossible to really impress. Out of sympathy, the GM will start awarding 2 dice stunts on everything partially to help the players stay interested and partially to keep the fucking game going in session long combats. Players also complain a lot if their stunts don’t get ‘accepted’ so it’s easier to let them have the fucking dice. I’ve been this GM.
  2. Since the stunt description happens before the roll, the stunt itself can be a botch or a failure and this grand description that everyone now has floating on their minds DOES NOT HAPPEN. This leads faster to point 1 above– players throwing in the towel on stunting and phoning it in for the rest of the combat session.
  3. Because descriptions of stunts are before the roll of the dice, even when the attack and stunt fails, players may cognitively remember that that stunt actually HAPPENED in the game, even though all facts point that it did not. Players may need to be reminded at the next session about stunts that their characters failed the die roll for that they actually thought succeeded. This is terrible.

Stunting like this seemed cool back when it was done in Feng Shui and copied around to other games. Feng Shui 2 has fixed this problem while still incorporating stunts fully into the combat and chase systems. First, stunts happen AFTER dice are rolled when a big success happens to ask the GM for a special effect– not more damage, not anything completely defined by rules, but something that is decided at the table like punching a guy so hard (the punch HAPPENS because the dice say so first) that his limp body knocks down a row of motorcycles like dominoes and pisses off all the biker onlookers! Second, there is the option to ask for a special effect before dice are rolled, at which time the difficulty of the roll goes up– letting the player know that he is trying something that could more easily fail.  This is simple on paper and PLAYABLE.  Players aren’t going to get fucking bored off their ass because yet another 30 dice attack failed to even hit the big bad guy since he has seven shadows evasion every round…

Because Exalted is a min/max’ers, system junky style game with very little narrative freedom during fights (stunting always translates into raw mechanics) I guess they had no choice to make stunts like they did, but they were rubbish in play in 2nd Edition and not just because they gave motes back.

6 thoughts on ““Yes, but you didn’t!” – the failed redesign of Stunts in Exalted 3rd edition”

  1. as the GM could you just decide to change the stunting into two types, one that impacts “to hit” that occurs before the roll and anything for damage or additional hit affect to occur after the attack roll? To keep down on confusion perhaps a player could choose to only stunt on one aspect or another, not both.
    So a player could decide hey, I really want to hit this douche and here’s my idea to improve my chance to do that OR yea I hit that bitch and here’s my stunt to make sure my punch makes her suffocate on her own tit.

    1. This might work… however once you layer in that there are two types of attacks in the new Exalted, one type which only destroys the other guy’s initiative and does no damage, it gets sort of difficult.

  2. I think this is an issue to sort out among the players and GM. It is up to both to tell the story effectively. Exalted is certainly not a beginner RPG. The thing is that any system is really only chosen for the style of interest. Do we want a dark middle ages style campaign where the characters are no better than normal people who have no business surviving? (Lamentations) Do we want high fantasy and survivability? (13th age) Or perhaps a game with more mechanics to inspire basic actions? (Runequest) There are many others that fit here and there and in between. Back in the 90’s we all tired of AD&D second edition because the rules did not inspire creative game play. TSR was releasing infinite product that was not needed and was poorly conceived, or offered very little to enhance creative game play. So everyone reached out to different ideas and options. Feng Shui came out and stunting was emphasized to encourage creativity (a good thing), inspiring the “medium attack to no specific location” quote. Pathfinder comes out, and creates an RPG that has a story telling component, but really is a tabletop miniatures game. This creates an intense emphasis on rule mechanics, which everyone must know, and was a catastrophe at a certain bachelor party (although I believe much fun was still had…). Ultimately, the system is just there to get the GM/players in position to have fun telling the story.

    What I’d say about Exalted is that the mechanics of the game are so sprawling that it can completely overwhelm the GM’s organizational skills with complicated and difficult rules. It is too much, and that gets in the way of the fun. I don’t think the stunting system is broken, but of course it can be difficult to come up with something interesting all the time. I’d get tired of the “my character will perform 3 backflips before stabbing the guy, how many extra dice does that give me?” as the GM. Perhaps stunt rewards should be more limited. I still think, as always, the game depends on having a good group that is engaged. If that doesn’t happen, then it may not be worth playing. Personally, were I running an Exalted campaign, I’d take out cumbersome rule sets all together. Maybe get some buy in from the players as to what they want to use. Yes, this can affect the balance as intended by the designers, but so what? Or, if no one wants to bother with this admittedly large effort (800+ page rulebook), than play something else.

  3. Ok, so I agree it’s not a broken set of rules for stunting, Exalted 3 is an improvement over 2nd edition. However, the idea of rolling BEFORE the stunt is described is a design aspect that Feng Shui 2 has and Robin Laws specifically notes multiple times not to describe stunts before the dice hit the table– otherwise it doesn’t work and time is wasted.

    So while Exalted 3 fixed the ‘motes-for-creativity’ problem from 2nd edition, they left this, to me, glaring issue that is a very easy fix– if you score MEGA successes on your die roll (determined by the GM), you get additional effects that you describe and then work out the mechanics, instead of describing something and getting a better chance at success at your roll (!?).

  4. Played since first edition; haven’t read the 3e edition yet so I dunno. My game’s scenario is very similar to what you described; we eventually got P.O.d if we didn’t get at least 2. But the game got interested because of two reasons:

    1) Everyone forgets that stunting is for all actions, not just combat. It encouraged creative ideas and RP in things like Socialize to get the players more involved. All of our scenes were pretty rich in description.

    2) Yeah, this is a mechanical thing…but the ever-elusive Three Die stunt. With the possibility of an XP point at stake, it was easy to keep going. While we did end up embellishing more than we should, if needless scene-chewing occurred the bored GM (and the rest of us) he would smack down the dice.

    We made stunting an impress each other/GM mechanic, and it helped it hold up fairly well.
    Again, though, I understand and agree on the points.

    1. Your #1 is really a good feature of the system, and really pushes the game into some new territory. I have no problem with any of the stunt stuff outside of combat, even giving extra dice to succeed in that instance; but, if the action fails, the problem is still there that players may remember that it succeeded of course.

      People get tired, and the combats, especially Exalt vs Exalt can go on for ages, to the point where the stunt is “a medium attack to no specific location” which is still technically worth one die per the rules. I really think it should be: Roll the dice, see what you get, describe the action to get a special effect knowing that you got more successes than you needed on the roll and the attack IS landing regardless. That’s how Feng Shui 2 works, and we just played Runequest last night and in a way, that is how that game’s special effect system works (description comes after everything though). Dice get thrown FIRST to decide the risky move or combat action, then the description happens.

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