Exalted Primer: What is Exalted?

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What is Exalted?

This is the tale of a forgotten age before the oceans were bent, when the world was flat and floated atop a sea of chaos. This is the tale of a decadent empire raised up on the bones of the fallen Golden Age, whose splendor it faintly echoed but could not match. This is a tale of primal frontiers, of the restless dead, of jeweled cities ruled openly by spirits in defiance of Heaven’s law. This is a tale of glorious heroes blessed by the gods, and of their passions and the wars they waged in the final era of legends.

This is your tale.This is Exalted. What legends will they tell of your deeds?

Exalted is a fantasy roleplaying game intended for 2-8 players. It is set in the mythic prehistory of the world, a time when gods still walked openly among men, the world was flat, and the restless dead roamed on moonless nights. Players take the role on the Exalted, heroic men and women granted blessings of power by the mightiest of the gods. The Exalted can slay gods with their blades and arrows, leap across vast canyons, master ancient and miraculous sorcery, endure the burning heat of the desert or the killing cold of the tundra with only their natural resilience, and outwit demons using their razor wit.

Using the Exalted core rulebook, players are able to take on the role of the Solar Exalted, mightiest among the ranks of the Chosen. The Solars were once rulers of the world, but were betrayed and banished for many centuries. Now their power has come back into the world, imbuing men and women with divine might. They are stalked by the Wyld Hunt and feared by gods and men for their incomparable power, which will only grow in the fullness of time. Will your characters attempt to rebuild the glories of ages past, or remake the world according to a new vision? Will your power save the world—or destroy it?

Exalted draws inspiration from three primary sources. Pulp fantasy such as the works of Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany, Michael Moorcock, and Tanith Lee provide the underpinnings of the game’s style, while classical epics such as the Illiad, the Odyssey, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms are sources of inspiration for the game’s scope and sophistication. Finally, Exalted draws stylistic touches from modern anime and manga to lend an active, high-power, high-energy feel to the Exalted and their supernatural allies and enemies.

To learn more about the Exalted and their world, read on!

The World of Exalted

Exalted is set during the Age of Sorrows, also known as the Second Age of Man—a time long before recorded history. Once, long ago, in a time almost forgotten by the inhabitants of the Age of Sorrows, there was a great and glorious First Age, vast and splendid beyond reckoning. In that time the mightiest of the Exalted, those blessed by the Unconquered Sun, ruled over a world-spanning empire and a host of their fellow Chosen. The world belonged to the Solar Exalted by right of conquest, for they had used their divine might to rise up against those wicked Ancients who made the gods and forged Creation, and deposed them and bound them away forever.

However, it came about that the Solar Exalted were in turn betrayed and deposed themselves, bound away into the darkness of death by their Exalted advisors and soldiers. Rule of Creation passed into the hands of a vast dynasty of elementally-powered Exalted known as the Dragon-Blooded. After many wars and a great plague wiped away most of what the Solars had built, one Dragon-Blooded officer stepped forward, tamed the age of strife into which she had been born, and claimed rulership over the world. That woman is known as the Scarlet Empress, and the Realm she raised up stands astride Creation as an unstoppable colossus.

However, the unassailable edifice of the Realm is beginning to fracture. Five years ago, the Scarlet Empress mysteriously vanished, leaving her dynasty to turn upon itself in bloody contest for her empty throne. Meanwhile, the Solar Exalted have reappeared in a world that has either forgotten them, or been taught to fear their return.

The Scope of Creation

Creation is the world and everything in it. It is bordered on its edges by elemental Poles which stabilize reality and suffuse Creation with their all-powerful energy.

The East, influenced by the Pole of Wood, is the breadbasket of Creation, a land of fertile hills, mighty rivers, and a dizzying array of powerful city-states united only by their opposition to the Realm; as one moves toward the world’s edge, thousands of miles of unbroken forests become mighty cathedrals of impossibly high trees in whose branches savage tribes live, never glimpsing the ground.

The South, influenced by the Pole of Fire, is a land of long summers and scorching winds. Mighty, wealthy trade cities decorate its coasts, while the Southern interior is dominated by a massive furnace desert, braced by arcs of volcanoes. Beyond the desert it becomes too hot for any but spirits and Exalts to venture, and the world eventually dissolves into the purity of flame.

The West, influenced by the Pole of Water, is a vast ocean dotted by distant island nations. The great nations of the West are so remote as to be legendary in the eyes of much of the rest of Creation, who know the West as a land of exotic customs and incredible wealth, of savage pirates and sacrifice-hungry volcano gods. In the utmost West the isles become fewer and stranger, until sea and sky become one.

The North, influenced by the Pole of Air, is a frigid and unwelcoming land of chill mountain winds and long, dark winters. Its people are proud and clannish, raising high stone walls to keep the dead and the Winter Folk at bay, or moving with the migrations of vast herds of elk, caribou, or mammoths. Farther North lie the lands where winter never ends and the land is forever clasped by snow and ice, hiding lost and frozen First Age cities and the gleaming palaces of soul-hungry faeries.

At the center of the world is the Blessed Isle, an enormous continent surrounding the unimaginably huge Imperial Mountain, also known as the Pole of Earth. The Blessed Isle is the heartland of the Realm, a vast Dragon-Blooded empire which subjugates the other Directions and grows fat off their tribute. The Blessed Isle was once the safest and most stable of all the lands of Creation, but is now riven with strife. In the cities the scions of the Great Houses accelerate their intrigues and assassinations, and in the hinterlands there are rumors that troops have already begun to mobilize. Civil war looms over the homeland of the Realm.

The Exalted

The greatest men and women of Creation are those divinely blessed heroes known as the Exalted. Most of the Exalted are inheritors of the power of ancient, deceased heroes, passed on from incarnation to incarnation in an unbroken chain dating back to the First Age of Man. The mightiest among these are known as the Solar Exalted, Chosen of the Unconquered Sun, Lord of Heaven and first among the gods. The Solar Exalted are playable with the main Exalted rule book.

Solars are individuals of unbound excellence and holy might, capable of impossible deeds. Players may create characters of one of five Solar Castes:

The Dawn Caste are warriors and generals without peer, the greatest fighters Creation has ever known.

The Zenith Caste are priests and holy men, living exemplars of righteousness and strength.

The Twilight Caste are savants and sorcerers, bringing the light of discovery into a benighted age.

The Night Caste are the hidden hand of justice, spies and assassins wise in the ways of the wicked.

The Eclipse Caste are ambassadors and conciliators, able to walk through the courts of kings and the halls of the dead to forge harmonious accords.

Creation also hosts a number of other prominent Exalted who may be allies or enemies to the Solar Exalted. These other Chosen will become playable in future supplements:

The Dragon-Blooded have the power of the five elements running in their veins. They pass the power of Exaltation to their children rather than through reincarnation, and rule the world in a vast dynasty. They are the weakest but by far the most numerous of the Exalted.

The Lunar Exalted are the Chosen of Luna, goddess of the moon. Talented warriors, mystics, and shapeshifters, the Lunar Exalted were once the guardians of the First Age. Since its fall, they have been locked in bitter warfare with the Realm of the Dragon-Blooded.

The Sidereal Exalted are the Chosen of the five Maidens of Destiny. They are star-gazing seers and prophets, and masters of the martial arts. It was due to the omens and plans of the Sidereals that the Solars were originally betrayed and the First Age cast down; some among their ranks have come to regret that betrayal, and now attempt to assist the return of the Solars.

The Abyssal Exalted are a new and terrible force unleashed upon Creation. Pale and beautiful and deadly, these deathknights ride forth from the Underworld bearing ornate armor and relic blades. Some reap a great slaughter among the living, while others only speak of the hallowed joys of death. These unearthly warrior-poets bear blackened markings identical to those associated with the Solar Exalted.

The Exigents are a scattered host of Chosen of many lesser divinities, from gods of mazes and masks to gods of field, hearth, and blazing volcano. Each is unique, born of desperate circumstances in which Creation needed a hero.

And rumors say that there are still stranger or more reclusive Chosen yet abroad in the world in addition to these…

Still want to know more? For a vibrant example of the world of Creation, read on! The story below originally appeared in the first edition of the Exalted core rulebook:

Aesha raced through the ruined streets of the city, and the imperial infantry’s hobnailed boots hammered on the cobbles behind her. She was giddily aware of the world around her, laughing inside that she should notice how the air that rushed past her smelled of jasmine and desert sand. The breeze blew from inland tonight and carried the stink of Chiaroscuro out to sea with it. Such winds were thought unlucky by the people of the city – the sirocco could blow ceaselessly for weeks, shortening tempers and bringing sand and spirits of madness with it from the southern deserts. Sometimes, it even brought sandstorms, ruining crops and choking the air with grit.

But whatever sort of luck this wind brought Chiaroscuro as a whole, it was the favor of the gods for Aesha – it was a beautiful night for running. The stiff, dry breeze carried the sweat away from her skin, and the cool air added to her endurance, rather than sapping it. Behind her, the armored infantry crashed and labored, cut off from the cooling wind by their protective gear.

The infantry were nothing compared to her power, but they were spreading systematically through the streets. Aesha could defeat any one of the detachments with almost casual ease, but the troops were merely the hounds of the Wyld Hunt. The Dragon-Bloods of the Hunt trailed behind the foot soldiers – resplendent in their jade armor and bearing wicked daiklaves, they stood ready to converge on any sign of the fleeing Solar. The Dynasts wanted her to fight, wanted her to burn Essence until she could no longer conceal the divinity within her. Or to run, flying heedless and instinctive through the night, until she fell into some ambush they had laid.

****************

Minutes later, Aesha stopped her flight, and sweat instantly coated her body. She looked behind her and heard the distant clatter of the imperial troops. She had drawn up short before one of the city’s haunted districts. Even centuries after the Contagion, the streets were still strewn with shattered glass and thick with hungry ghosts and wicked spirits bred by the horrors of the plague. She walked forward, until her toes almost touched the place where the Tri-Khan had ordered a groove cut into the cobbles and filled with cake salt, to contain the evil of the place.

There were several such districts in the city, and the barriers around them were inspected daily for breaks by the city’s Immaculate priests. Even with the safety of the city at stake, that much salt would have attracted thieves, except that Grandmother Bright and the other spirits of the city were as concerned with Chiaroscuro’s safety as its mortal inhabitants.

Twice in living memory, salt had been stolen from the wards, and twice, Grandmother Bright had left her plaza and walked up and down the streets, sniffing for the thieves. One thief had been a beggar, who had stolen the salt to feed his wife and children. He and his family were driven mad as punishment. After running through the streets, they had plunged heedless into the same neighborhood the beggar had stolen the salt wards from. Those who lived near the area reported that the family’s ghosts could be seen stalking the streets at night. The other thief had been a greedy merchant, who sought to evade the city’s wrath by sailing away in a fast galley. Grandmother Bright had spoken with the spirit of the city’s waters, and the ship had been drawn instantly to the bottom of the harbor.

Aesha had been a teenager then and had seen the ship go down. She had watched the crew attempt to escape, swimming desperately for the shore. And one by one, whatever force had destroyed the ship pulled them down as well. Grandmother Bright claimed that the souls of the drowned were given to the Fair Folk to use as playthings, and Aesha knew in her heart that the spirit’s words were true.

The fugitive stared down at the salt barrier glittering whitely in the pavement before her. She remembered a childhood playmate, Clove, who used to skip back and forth over the barrier. She would laugh at the other girls in the neighborhood and tease them from hiding places in the ruins. Eventually, Clove had stopped going home, and her mother had stood at the edge of the ward for days, calling out her daughter’s name. The other mothers shook their heads and looked away, and even the other children knew that Clove belonged to the ghosts now.

Aesha had heard Clove’s voice now and again in the years since, calling out from this ruin or that, chanting her name in childish taunts. Such sounds were common in Chiaroscuro, and Aesha sometimes laid awake at night and wondered if each of the voices had once been a person like Clove or if some or even most of them were just sounds the place itself made, the way the ocean roared as the waves crashed into the beach.

There was only one way to find out. If the Dragon-Blooded wanted her, they could come find her in the belly of the beast. Aesha wiped a nagging bead of sweat from the tip of her nose and stepped deliberately across the warded line. She took a deep breath and then was gone, running deep into the ruins – her tread as light as a feather and as fleet as the wind.

**********

Aesha crouched in the darkness, peering down at the street below. She was almost 40 feet above the pavement, lurking in the darkness behind a half-pane of shattered glass, with the shadows pulled tight around her like a robe. Somewhere out in the night, the Wyld Hunt was paying for its pride. It must not have had a guide, or must have ignored her advice, to have pushed into this area without waiting for dawn. The shrieks and hisses of the hungry dead mixed with the shouts and screams of the hunters. The battle had been going on for minutes now. Aesha suspected that the dead couldn’t triumph over the hunters, but every second of combat tired her foes.

There was a flash of light bright enough to show through even the panel of black glass she sheltered behind and a clap of thunder that brought momentary silence – one of the Dragon-Bloods must have used a Charm that called lightning, or perhaps, one had discharged some powerful First Age weapon. Whatever it was, it signaled the end of the battle. The laughter and wailing of the dead was suddenly gone, leaving only a single human scream, going on and on until it faded with the dying man’s life. Another ghost for the ruins.

**********

It hadn’t always been like this. Once, Aesha had been nothing more than a master criminal, a thief and kidnaper earning a fast fortune and looking for a path to legitimacy. As a successful criminal, she had been hunted as a matter of course – but only by the Tri-Khan’s troops and a virtual army of bounty hunters, not by Dragon-Blooded troops from the Blessed Isle. The Wyld Hunt came only for the Anathema, and Aesha had joined their ranks just a year ago.

And the hunters would be here soon. She could hear them, moving through the ruins outside – infantry – maybe as stalking horses for Dragon-Blooded killers, trying to spook her into moving where they could see. Aesha didn’t spook – she waited. She waited and turned the memories of her Exaltation over in her mind again and again. The head-pounding pressure in her head from hanging upside down, the terrible joy of knowing that the rope around her ankles was too short but feeling the perfect rightness as she reached for the gem anyway. And then it was there, in her hand, and she was tugging for her assistant to pull the rope up.

Aesha had been able to feel the Caste Mark, then, burning on her forehead under the robber’s hood. But when she had arrived home, it had already faded away. That day, as she slumbered, the dreams had come. Scattered fragments of the time before, of towers and lovers, intrigues and whirling battles. Awakening, she could remember nothing, but some part of her said that this was her inheritance, and she accepted it without question.

**********

The recruiter had come almost before the dreams subsided. Aesha’s newfound senses had told her he was mortal, acting for some cult he fervently believed in. She couldn’t tell if the beings who controlled him were others like herself or some other power, and she didn’t want to know. Whatever they were, they had been able to sense her emergence and send a servant from the Lap almost before her powers had manifested. From the messenger, she learned a new name for herself, Solar, and had a fear confirmed – her kind were labeled Anathema by the Immaculates.

The Immaculate Order was the imperial cult of the Realm. It taught obedience to the social order and venerated the Dragon-Blooded as spiritually elevated over mere mortals. Those faithful to the Immaculate Philosophy did not pray to spirits or gods, instead delegating such matters to the priests of their faith. Here in Chiaroscuro, only expatriates and toadies paid it more than lip service, but on the Blessed Isle, its words were holy writ. And among that holy writ was an injunction to destroy the Anathema, the incarnate devils who had ruled the world centuries before the Contagion. The mightiest among the Dragon-Blooded faithful scoured Creation for Anathema like Aesha, banishing them to their next incarnation.

Doubtless, they would have arrived before even the messenger had, save for the disappearance of the Scarlet Empress. The immortal ruler of the Realm had vanished almost five years earlier, and the empire was preparing for its first civil war. Dragon-Blooded powerful enough to serve in the Hunt were important personages, and the affairs of house and nation preyed on them. Their political maneuvering left them little time for personal crusades, and so, Aesha had been given time to hone her powers. She had no illusions of her ability to defeat the Hunt, but it had brought her to bay, and she could only hope that a few casualties would send it in search of weaker prey.

**********

And so, Aesha waited as the sounds of the Hunt grew closer. She flexed her hands, shifted her position and listened to the sounds of the spirits as they roamed the ruins. They were attacking the hunters again, and there were more of the hungry ghosts this time. She smiled in the darkness as the ghosts shrieked and howled and the thunder and fire blossomed. Let the hunters waste their power in the dark, she thought. I will be here afterward.

Aesha saw the Wyld Hunt approaching long before it came into view. The Dragon-Blooded had spent far too much Essence fighting their way through the ruins to conceal their animas. There were only two of them, but they were impressive enough for that. One was clad in red-jade armor and carried a jade-tipped spear. His anima roared red and orange, billowing around him like a bonfire. The other’s armor was of green jade, and he carried a double-bitted axe with a black jade head. His anima was the vibrant green of growing things in spring, and it flowed like a field of grass in a stormwind. From the sheer power of their auras, it was clear why the Dragon-Blooded did not fight mounted – no horse could have survived the displays that whirled around the two Exalted.

Their escorting infantry had been thinned out considerably – most showed signs of injury, and they all looked skittish and haggard. They shied away even from their Dragon-Blooded leaders, and peering into their hearts, Aesha could see nothing but terror. In the shadows, Aesha smiled and tensed into a crouch. She waited, as the hunters passed below her, and now was the time to strike. She slowly drew her throwing knives from her belt and sprang upon the hunters like a cornered lion.

Aesha fell from the darkness like a star, streaming golden fire as she burnt Essence to fuel her combat magic. Her anima was a blazing sunset fading into night, all gold and purple and full of dying-fire reds and flickers of black. She released her knives in midair, and her magic multiplied them so they fell like rain upon the soldiers below. The armor of the Dragon-Blooded would surely turn her blades, and so, she aimed her fury at the soldiers who accompanied them. If her enemies were hunters, then let them hunt her without hounds.

Six soldiers died instantly, torn to pieces by the hail of blades. Aesha’s knees flexed slightly as she landed, and the Dragon-Blooded looked at her through narrowed eyes. The street was wet with blood and day-bright with the glare of the Exalteds’ animas. She assumed the fluid postures of the snake stance, and then, the Dragon-Bloods were on her. The fiery one struck her with his spear, but Aesha turned from the blow, and her skin of iron deflected the lethal jade. The other swept his axe at her knees, but she leapt above it. She kicked off from the wood-dragon’s axeblade and struck him with fingers like a serpent’s sting. Her blow slipped between the plates of his jade armor and stung him deeply. Blood welled up through his body armor, and he stumbled backward with the shock of the blow.

The Fire Dragon-Blooded’s spearhead struck Aesha in her shoulder, biting deep and drawing streams of blood. The stab threw her backward, and she smashed through a ruined window with crushing force. The bottom floor of the ruins burned gold and sunset with the brilliance of her aura. She shook, and the shards of glass scattered from her shoulders like great flakes of snow. The fire-wrapped Exalted plunged toward her, spear ready to impale, but she twisted, ducked and used the lance as leverage to leap backward. Her feet struck the unyielding surface of an unbroken window, and she bent her legs. For a moment, it seemed as if she was standing on the horizontal surface, then she sprang forward, tumbling. In midair, she straightened and plunged like a burning golden javelin toward the Wood-aspected Dragon-Blood. Fingers extended, she struck him in the chest, and her hands plunged through his armor and ribcage alike. She pushed herself off of the still-upright corpse and twisted in midair to land facing her remaining opponent.

In the purple-golden light above Aesha towered a great burning lion, and her fire-wrapped foe’s eyes glittered hatefully at her in the sunset radiance. He tensed and sprang backward several dozen yards. He struck the ground running, and as Aesha laughed in victory, the lion above her roared its triumph.

She did not pursue him – there were sure to be other Dragon-Bloods about, to say nothing of the hungry ghosts, and she had no desire to fall into an ambush like the one that she had executed. Better to go to ground until her anima faded, then slip quietly from the city while the hunters turned the ruins upside-down in search of her.

Aesha willed it, and the bleeding from her shoulder wound became a trickle and then stopped. She dropped her hand and grabbed the jade-headed axe that lay on the pavement, near the Dragon-Blooded corpse’s feet. Even if she had little use for it, such a weapon would surely command a high price from interested buyers – perhaps from the cultists who had attempted to recruit her? Whatever may have come from the evening, it was clear her life in Chiaroscuro was over. Having something to pad her bankroll wouldn’t hurt a thief on the run.

And then, Aesha was gone into the ruins, fleet as a doe, silent as an owl.