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 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
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.
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.
- 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).
- 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?”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.