Essence Rules

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Rodog
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First off some background. I have no experience playing 1e or 2e. I’ve read the books but mostly skipped the mechanical stuff so I can only compare Essence to 3e. I was excited about Essence because I fall in the camp of 3e rules being needlessly complicated and messy. I don’t necessarily prefer rules light systems like PBtA and Blades in the Dark but I’m also not a fan of needless complexity or obvious progression speed bumps and imo 3e is the best example of both problems I’ve ever seen in any rpg. So that’s where I’m coming from.

Character Creation

Character creation in Essence is fast and simple. There are now only three attributes instead of nine and 14 abilities instead of 25. I don’t think I would have reduced the number by that much if I had done it but I do agree that the number of traits should have been substantially reduced and I prefer what they did in Essence over what 3e has. I do feel that more time should have been spent addressing the possible consequences of rolling one attribute instead of another. They really gloss over that, and I think more direction for the ST would have been helpful but it’s hardly a deal breaker. There aren’t really any useless abilities anymore I feel although one could argue certain ones like Sagacity are now way too useful as it covers both rolls for sorcery, supernatural insight, introducing facts and general academic knowledge whereas in 3e this was split between Occult and Lore which individually were already powerful.

Probably the best change they made is with the merits. How merits worked mechanically was extremely vague in 3e especially in the case of Resources. Essence strips merits down into assets your character has access to either as artifacts or some form of social influence over an area, person or institution and quantifies the mechanical benefits of all of them. It also gives guidance on ST on how they should use a player’s merits something 3e notably does not do. Mutations and various situational bonuses have been removed from merits which makes since because many of them were overpriced, and they could be handled via other mechanics like charms already.

Overall my grips with character creation are minor and I think this is a huge improvement. Probably the best example of how Essence rules changes can help get newer players into the game. 4/5

Exalt Types

I personally think there are too many exalt types at this point but that’s not really a criticism of Essence in particular so I won’t hold that against it.
Exalted Essence gives Exalts two features to distinguish them from one another; advantages, which apply to all exalts of a given type and anima effects which applies to specific castes/aspects. The former works pretty well but I have mixed feelings about the later. The idea of building anime giving your character access to new abilities and effects is cool but I think the restraint of making it so that each caste/aspect has one that is always on, one that triggers at 3 anima and one that triggers at the iconic level limited the developers’ options. The notion that Eclipse castes for example need to be at iconic to trigger their signature “break a contract and your cursed” ability makes little sense because there aren’t many situations outside of combat you would be at that level. It also undermines an eclipse caste’s ability to use the ability in subtler ways.
I also think they should have figured out some way to replace caste abilities because as it stands there is no incentive to play certain caste/aspects over others mechanically given that they have less useful anima effects than others.

Back to advantages these are things like shapeshifting for lunars and sidereal astrology. I think this is one area where more depth would have been good thing. Making shapeshifting and sidereal astrology more involved would have been great. These are things you could easily house rule with charms though.

In short I think the exalts are a little too similar to one another and anima effects should have been fleshed out more but they are better balanced for mixed play so it’s an improvement. 3/5.

Combat

I know some people actually enjoy 3e combat mechanics. I can’t imagine for the life of me why but they exist. Let me explain some of my many, many problems with 3e combat.
  1. Too many charms are too complicated, situational, or just plain useless. Too many of them read like “add three or higher of essence dice, but only at night, during a full-moon, when the wind is blowing from North to South” or some such nonsense. (I exaggerate a little but not by much).
  2. Prerequisites for learning some charms are too strict.  “So I not only need this many dots in this attribute and ability but I also need to know at least this many charms and be at that particular essence level?”
  3. Many charms, evocations and martial arts have reset or utilization conditions that never come into play because they assume combat will last more than three rounds which is never the case. A perfect example is any evocations or martial arts that requires you to accumulate points to be expended to use.
  4. Resource management is insane. You have two separate mote pools, anima levels, initiative, evocation/martial arts specific points, health levels and the associated penalties that comes with and so on.
  5. The variables in damage calculation are a needlessly complex algebra problem. People complain about basic addition in D&D where you roll a d20 and add 1-3 modifiers. To them I say let me show you 3e. You have half a dozen different variables to worry about depending on whether you’re making a withering or decisive attack including DEX, STR, relevant ability, hardness, soak, weapon damage, weapon accuracy, initiative, defense (which is broken up into evasion and parry) etc.
I do get some joy out of combat as a player but as a ST I absolutely dread it and avoid it whenever possible. It doesn’t help that the mechanics make combat impossible to balance unless the ST strong arms the players into creating characters that are roughly balanced with one another and making sure they stay that way which is more micromanagement than I’m willing to do or most players will even tolerate anyway.

Essence combat is simpler, but I disagree with the notion that this takes away from it’s depth. The storyteller system is not DnD. It doesn’t utilize a combat grid or elemental weaknesses and resistances so the most optimal way to play is pretty much always going to be the same combination of abilities available to you that hit hardest and the only time you’ll ever consider doing something different is when your resources don’t allow for the most optimal combo. A more complex system is not necessarily a more tactical system and no version of the storyteller system will ever be tactical.

Essence combat mechanics are still more complex then a truly rules light system though. It’s not purely narrative based and characters invested in combat charms still have an edge even though non-combat-oriented characters can build power, a mechanic that replaces initiative for purposes of inflicting damage on enemies. Also, because the damage calculations for Essence are nowhere near as complex it’s much more obvious whether or not a charm is broken just by looking at it. I’m a lot more confident about custom content in Essence then I was in 3e.

Also can I just say I love qualities? The idea of giving npcs specific abilities that don’t work the same way mechanically as charms was a great idea. It can get a little complicated to keep track of when you start talking about battlegroups and what qualities they should have but overall I think the way they handled battlegroups here is better as well.
I can’t imagine anyone doing anything better about the combat without throwing the entire storyteller system out of the window. 5/5

My overall opinion is that outside of the overreliance of anima effects to distinguish between exalt types Essence is a great system and huge improvement. I know there are fans that don’t agree with that assessment and they are entitled to their opinions but I personally don’t see myself ever going back to 3e once the campaigns I’m in that already use the system are over.
 

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andrix
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Great review!

I really appreciate that Ess seems to be serving a lot of people's desires for the game. I share the feeling of Exalt types being far too similar and while some of this is by necessity the point on the anima restrictions is a great insight I'd missed and potentially somewhere I'd play around with if I was home-brewing some solutions that suit my preferences.

And also want to second the opinion on qualities, I think the more exalted does to not try and sim out mechanics for every PC and NPC is a good thing by me
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AutXAutY
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Rodog wrote: Wed Aug 11, 2021 8:27 pm I know some people actually enjoy 3e combat mechanics. I can’t imagine for the life of me why but they exist. Let me explain some of my many, many problems with 3e combat.
  1. Too many charms are too complicated, situational, or just plain useless. Too many of them read like “add three or higher of essence dice, but only at night, during a full-moon, when the wind is blowing from North to South” or some such nonsense. (I exaggerate a little but not by much).
  2. Prerequisites for learning some charms are too strict.  “So I not only need this many dots in this attribute and ability but I also need to know at least this many charms and be at that particular essence level?”
  3. Many charms, evocations and martial arts have reset or utilization conditions that never come into play because they assume combat will last more than three rounds which is never the case. A perfect example is any evocations or martial arts that requires you to accumulate points to be expended to use.
  4. Resource management is insane. You have two separate mote pools, anima levels, initiative, evocation/martial arts specific points, health levels and the associated penalties that comes with and so on.
  5. The variables in damage calculation are a needlessly complex algebra problem. People complain about basic addition in D&D where you roll a d20 and add 1-3 modifiers. To them I say let me show you 3e. You have half a dozen different variables to worry about depending on whether you’re making a withering or decisive attack including DEX, STR, relevant ability, hardness, soak, weapon damage, weapon accuracy, initiative, defense (which is broken up into evasion and parry) etc.
I do get some joy out of combat as a player but as a ST I absolutely dread it and avoid it whenever possible. It doesn’t help that the mechanics make combat impossible to balance unless the ST strong arms the players into creating characters that are roughly balanced with one another and making sure they stay that way which is more micromanagement than I’m willing to do or most players will even tolerate anyway.

Essence combat is simpler, but I disagree with the notion that this takes away from it’s depth. The storyteller system is not DnD. It doesn’t utilize a combat grid or elemental weaknesses and resistances so the most optimal way to play is pretty much always going to be the same combination of abilities available to you that hit hardest and the only time you’ll ever consider doing something different is when your resources don’t allow for the most optimal combo. A more complex system is not necessarily a more tactical system and no version of the storyteller system will ever be tactical.

Essence combat mechanics are still more complex then a truly rules light system though. It’s not purely narrative based and characters invested in combat charms still have an edge even though non-combat-oriented characters can build power, a mechanic that replaces initiative for purposes of inflicting damage on enemies. Also, because the damage calculations for Essence are nowhere near as complex it’s much more obvious whether or not a charm is broken just by looking at it. I’m a lot more confident about custom content in Essence then I was in 3e. 

This can mostly be summarized by "Different people want different things out of RPG combat systems" but I'd like to try to explain why I think I prefer 3e combat to Essence.
Mostly, it's that combat in 3e was full of back and forth, and taking action to prevent yourself from dying, in a way that Essence has a lot less of. In 3e, excellencies are cheap and default to applying to attack and defense, so "how much effort do I need to put into defending" is a decision you often make, while in Essence you only get to do that if you buy a specific charm for it - and with 5 charms as a starting character, devoting one to defending and nothing else is a big investment. 20% of your cool stuff is tied up not just in fighting, but in specifically the defending part of fighting. And several defensive charms offer scene-long boosts, which don't have this kind of decision making.
The fact that withering attacks in Essence don't remove Power is another example - in 3E, you can actively prevent an enemy from being able to kill you by withering away their Initiative, but in Essence unless you have one of like 3 charms you have to either kill them first, or hope either miss or roll poorly and the attack gets soaked.
Crashing also feels somewhat similar - "How can I avoid being crashed" is a different sort of question you have to ask from the rest of the fight, in a way that causes multi-dimensional thinking - initiative is both your kill-people pool and your not-get-crashed pool, and you need to make trade-offs between optimizing efficiency for both of those.

I appreciate Essence cutting down on the number of resource pools, but I'm a little upset that a) they made anima even more important, and harder to track and that b) because motes are harder to spend (Fewer charms/character, no excellency on defense, excellency caps at the same as your motes/round regeneration instead of twice that, max 1 charm/step) it's rarer (in my admittedly limited experience of 1.1 3e campaigns and like 2 Essence sessions) to run out of motes, so the balance of preserving motes/dealing/prevent damage is less there. Event though you still have to keep track of motes, it's just unlikely to come up.

Withering attacks in Essence also feel too stable to me? Like, when a battlegroup or someone with an artifact weapon attacks someone with decent defense, there're really 2 options - they miss and gain (overwhelming) power, or they hit and gain (overwhelming+1) power or very maybe they roll really well and gain (overwhelming)+(2 or 3) power. Which feels a) boring and b) like you could skip the whole rolling thing and just gain (overwhelming)+1 power

Also the lack of medium weapons boosting defense, weapons adding successes instead of dice, weapon math I think being weighted towards high-accuracy weapons, aim and rush being easy ways for extra dice, and weapon accuracy adding to decisive attacks makes me feel like having a high defense is less able to make attacks miss. Which both makes active defense harder (since the outcome of investing in defense is "they get fewer extra successes" instead of "they miss" and makes the stability problem broader because most attacks leave open the question of "how many extra successes will I get" instead of "will I hit"

I am glad there're fewer fiddly numbers, and I agree that a lot of 3E reset conditions are a pain to keep track of without adding much to the gameplay. But I feel like Essence lost a lot of the counterplay and interesting decisions that 3E had. I agree that Essence doesn't seem behind most RPGs I've played, (or read, but I'm less able to judge an RPG by reading it than playing it), but I think 3E was in some senses ahead of them, so I'm sad Essence doesn't manage to preserve that.

Part of what makes me sad about Essence is that I think I agree with you 80% on the problems with 3E, and most of my complaints about Essence are only a little related to them? Like, if you naively changed everything I listed as liking in 3E but not Essence to like it is in 3E then you'd add a bit more fiddly stuff and numbers to keep track of, but less than half of what was removed for Essence, and if you trying to get the actual experience I liked while minimizing fiddliness you could do better than just "add 3e rules back into Essence"

I maybe disagree with you on reducing the number of attributes? I feel like 3 attributes is a weird spot where they're too broad to do much with, and it's not often you can clearly define a character as being "good at force" or "good at finesse", but still limit you such that you sometimes have to roll fewer dice and it doesn't feel so much like "I'm not doing well because I'm trying something I'm not as good at" as "I'm not doing well because the game is being picky about what attribute I used and what I wrote on my character sheet" and wish they had either kept 5-9 attributes, or removed attributes entirely (which could be phrased as reduced the number of attributes to 1)
Rodog
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andrix wrote: Wed Aug 11, 2021 10:01 pm Great review!

I really appreciate that Ess seems to be serving a lot of people's desires for the game. I share the feeling of Exalt types being far too similar and while some of this is by necessity the point on the anima restrictions is a great insight I'd missed and potentially somewhere I'd play around with if I was home-brewing some solutions that suit my preferences.

And also want to second the opinion on qualities, I think the more exalted does to not try and sim out mechanics for every PC and NPC is a good thing by me

Thanks for your input. I also believe Ess will expand the Exalted fanbase once it comes out. The trend in the industry is for lighter systems for better or worse and for my personal taste Ess is just the right balance between crunch and narrative play.
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AutXAutY wrote: Thu Aug 12, 2021 5:37 pm
I maybe disagree with you on reducing the number of attributes? I feel like 3 attributes is a weird spot where they're too broad to do much with, and it's not often you can clearly define a character as being "good at force" or "good at finesse", but still limit you such that you sometimes have to roll fewer dice and it doesn't feel so much like "I'm not doing well because I'm trying something I'm not as good at" as "I'm not doing well because the game is being picky about what attribute I used and what I wrote on my character sheet" and wish they had either kept 5-9 attributes, or removed attributes entirely (which could be phrased as reduced the number of attributes to 1)

It makes things weird for Attribute-based Exalts, but I kinda wish they took out Attributes and went the Part-Time Gods route (which is another system that makes pools of 10s and you count successes), where everything is just based on Ability+Ability rolls.
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ffanxii4ever wrote: Fri Aug 13, 2021 3:55 pm
AutXAutY wrote: Thu Aug 12, 2021 5:37 pm
I maybe disagree with you on reducing the number of attributes? I feel like 3 attributes is a weird spot where they're too broad to do much with, and it's not often you can clearly define a character as being "good at force" or "good at finesse", but still limit you such that you sometimes have to roll fewer dice and it doesn't feel so much like "I'm not doing well because I'm trying something I'm not as good at" as "I'm not doing well because the game is being picky about what attribute I used and what I wrote on my character sheet" and wish they had either kept 5-9 attributes, or removed attributes entirely (which could be phrased as reduced the number of attributes to 1)

It makes things weird for Attribute-based Exalts, but I kinda wish they took out Attributes and went the Part-Time Gods route (which is another system that makes pools of 10s and you count successes), where everything is just based on Ability+Ability rolls.

I'm not sure if you're saying that the current system is weird for Attribute-based Exalts, or that attribute-less alternative systems are weird for attribute-based exalts, but both seem true.
It's often really hard for me to guess which attribute a given Lunar/Liminal/Getimian/Alchemical charm is just from reading the name and rules.

Ability+Ability could work if you like having multiple inputs. Straight (ability) could work if you're ok with smaller pools, as could (ability+4). You could also ignore some of my complaints by making everyone choose 3 adjectives of their choice as their attributes. Or maybe 3 archetypes. Or maybe 2 and have the last category be "everything else".
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Having no Attributes would have been weird for Attribute-based, though actually, making them operate sorta like 2E Infernal Excellencies would be an idea, where you have a few different large arenas, then divide up Charms into each areana, and you could have different arenas appropriate for each splat would be an interesting way to do it. And I agree, some of the distinctions of which Attribute is which seem really arbitrary.

I have contemplated maybe hourseruling the number of Attributes up slightly, to be more like FATE Accelerated (Quick, Careful, Forceful, Sneaky, Flashy, Clever), just to give back a little granularity
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ffanxii4ever wrote: Fri Aug 13, 2021 3:55 pm
AutXAutY wrote: Thu Aug 12, 2021 5:37 pm
I maybe disagree with you on reducing the number of attributes? I feel like 3 attributes is a weird spot where they're too broad to do much with, and it's not often you can clearly define a character as being "good at force" or "good at finesse", but still limit you such that you sometimes have to roll fewer dice and it doesn't feel so much like "I'm not doing well because I'm trying something I'm not as good at" as "I'm not doing well because the game is being picky about what attribute I used and what I wrote on my character sheet" and wish they had either kept 5-9 attributes, or removed attributes entirely (which could be phrased as reduced the number of attributes to 1)

It makes things weird for Attribute-based Exalts, but I kinda wish they took out Attributes and went the Part-Time Gods route (which is another system that makes pools of 10s and you count successes), where everything is just based on Ability+Ability rolls.
I've been thinking the same thing.
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I definitely noticed that awkwardness in making a Lunar.

A lot of their Attribute Charms are extremely weird, like all the charms about making your territory and turning people into Beastmen are Force, while they lack any real feeling of a 'personalized' combat set-up that other types of Exalts have even in just having a couple of combat charms.
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