Monday, August 3, 2015

[Exalted] There and Back Again - An Origin Story

A long time ago, in a city far away, I ran a long-running Exalted campaign that straddled the first and second edition of that game. It was a great campaign that taught me a lot about GMing, but it was not without its weaknesses. One problem were issues with the rule systems, which hopefully the 3rd Edition will fix. Another was that I was not always as prepared as I should have - and preparation is rather important for a game like Exalted, where the player characters are extraordinarily powerful and can do lots of unexpected things. Of course, "preparation" should not mean "creating railroad plots", since the PCs are likely to take the railroad, tie it to an arrow, and shoot it into the sun with their bow (and Exalted is one of the few games where this could happen literally). But a good sandbox-style preparation, with lots of things to do in many directions like I have done for my Cold Frontier campaign, would probably work very well.

But let us first discuss the "origin story" of the campaign. I was rather impressed by the anime series The Twelve Kingdoms, where - like in many other stories - a Japanese school girl is brought to a strange and fantastic world and slowly discovers that she has an important destiny there. However, unlike in many other such stories by the end of the first arc she decides against returning to her own world (which would have killed her in the long run anyway, though to her credit that is not a major consideration in her decision) and instead remain as the queen of a major kingdom. Much of the rest of the story is about how she tries to deal with her new role.

Thus, I decided that the PCs should likewise start out as people from modern-day Earth - who are then exalted as Solars and transported to Creation (the province of An-Teng, to be precise). And, at least initially, they are stuck there. But now they can explore a world full of injustices that will offend the sensibilities of the average member of a modern-day democratic society - and they also have the powers to actually do something about them. Which will, of course, get them into no end of trouble - but since "PCs getting into trouble" is what most role-playing game campaigns are all about, I don't see a downside.

Of course, I needed to come up with an explanation for how Creation and modern-day Earth could exist in the same setting. And this was the result:

The Origin Story

"In the beginning, there was light.

The universe came into being. Energy congealed into matter, matter congealed into stars, and stars congealed into galaxies. Life flourished on countless worlds and winked out again. Civilizations flourished, only to be destroyed and forgotten.

And unseen from the physical universe there was another dimension that connected to every place at once. It had many names. Chaos. Hyperspace. Wyld. Many thinking beings accessed it and made use of its vast energies to travel to distant stars or create great works of magic. Yet this was never without risk, for the Wyld was populated by strange, chaotic beings both small and vast beyond comprehension – and woe to the astromancer who encountered one of the Great Unshaped in his journeys...

On one world, civilization reached such heights that its people attained immortality by transcending their formerly mortal bodies. Instead they formed new bodies, made equally out of physical and spiritual matter, and slowly the millions of individual souls congealed into vast mass minds with distinct personalities, taking on names such as Cecelyne, Authochton, or Ebon Dragon. In time, these beings would become known as the “Primordials”. They soon discovered that their new dual existence meant that they were constantly present in the Wyld, and constantly had to battle its entities – the beings eventually known as the Fair Folk, or Raksha – who regarded them as an irritant in their perfect Chaos. While the Fair Folk were no match for the Primordials, the latter soon grew weary of the constant fighting, and so set out to create a refuge – a place where the Fair Folk would not be able to go and fight them.

They thus created a vast realm of stability in the rolling Chaos of the Wyld. They formed five Elemental Poles – of Fire, Water, Air, Wood, and Earth – and set up the Laws of Nature that governed this new realm. Thus, Creation was born.

But they soon discovered that the Fair Folk, while unable to get far into Creation itself, would nonetheless continue to nibble at the edges and gradually erode this world’s stability. This was unacceptable. They thus created a large number of independent servitor spirits – entities later known as “gods” – and charged them with defending Creation. To provide them with an incentive to perform this task beyond mere survival, they made the gods dependent on the worship of mortal beings. The reasoning was sound – if the gods defended Creation well, then the mortals would prosper and multiply, and the gods would increase in power (though the Primordials put in safeguards to make sure the gods would never be able to attack them directly). Conversely, if the Fair Folk would be successful in their attempts to erode Creation, the amount of worship would decrease. This, the Primordials reasoned, would be sufficient incentive for the gods to do their job well.

Now the only thing missing was the mortal worshipers. The Primordials abducted thinking beings from a number of worlds, but the best candidates were a race of barely sapient hairless apes from a world that would eventually be called “Earth” by its inhabitants. They were a weak and feeble race, and obviously unable to pose much of a threat to anyone, least of all the Primordials. At the same time, they had a high fecundity and a strong disposition towards religious worship even on a world where there was no one to answer their prayers. So groups of humans were introduced to Creation (as well as a myriad of plants and animals to provide a suitable environment for them), and everything went as planned – under the tutelage of the gods, they expanded rapidly, and the borders of Creation even expanded somewhat as the gods raided into Fair Folk territory to provide more room for their followers! Highly satisfied with this state of affairs, the Primordials retreated to the celestial city of Yu-Shan and concentrated on refining arts and games incomprehensible to mortal beings to stave off boredom.

Of how the gods eventually grew jealous of their creators and created mortal champions to fight them, much has been said elsewhere, and it shall not be repeated here. But it shall be mentioned that while most of the Primordials either allied with the gods, were killed, or banished to the infernal realm of Malfeas, not all shared one of these fates. The Primordial known as Yaldabaoth was the one responsible for discovering the planet Earth and abducting many of its inhabitants to Creation – and in desperation, he set out to flee there. He faked his own death while in combat with the Exalted, and then split himself up into five component souls which tunnelled through the very fabric of Creation to Earth. The tunnel entrances were concealed with its mightiest magics to hide them from its Exalted pursuers.

The ruse worked. While some Exalted wondered that the fight against Yaldabaoth was easier against those against his fellows, the giddiness of victory overwhelmed all doubts – and since no one had heard about the Primordial ever since, any doubts about him eventually vanished entirely and the matter was forgotten. In the meantime, Yaldabaoth had been busy – remembering the betrayal of the gods and the humans, it wanted to make sure that no one on his new hideout was capable of defeating him again. To do this, he attacked and destroyed the most powerful centers of magical learning, which later gave rise to legends about the Wrath of the Gods and sunken continents such as Atlantis and Lemuria. He then merged with the planet itself, and reduced his Wyld presence as much as possible, leaving only a strong barrier between the Wyld and the physical world surrounding Earth – including him. While this effort protected him from the Fair Folk this imbalance also cost him most of his awareness – now he was only be able to exist in a half-slumbering state, barely aware of events elsewhere. But given that his enemies might have been able to track a fully aware and potent Primordial, he considered that to be a price he had to pay. This barrier also prevented most humans from accessing Wyld energies at all – only those who had learned to fully channel their essence were able to practice magic, and Yaldabaoth sent some of his component souls after those who did so too often. As a result, the true Arts and Sciences of magic all but died out on Earth or were relegated to the realm of superstition, and Yaldabaoth – who eventually only became known as the Demiurge by those few who were aware of him at all – slept and dreamed secure in the knowledge that he was finally safe from harm.

Millenia passed. In Creation, the Solar Exalted were betrayed and slaughtered. Creation suffered under the Great Contagion and dwindled under the onslaught of the Fair Folk. While their assault was stopped for some time by the intervention of the Scarlet Empress, the rise of the Deathlords meant that even worse was to come.

One of these Deathlords was the Dowager of the Irreverent Vulgate in Unrent Veils. When she created a Shadowland far in the East of Creation, she discovered one of the escape tunnels created long ago by Yaldabaoth, possibly because the concealment powers were weakened now that the tunnel entrance was out of synch with Creation. Naming it the Well of Udr, she studied its secrets, and eventually divined its purpose. Her early forays into Creation through the Well were short, since she was attacked by Yaldabaoth’s component souls whenever she used Essence (and she was unable to regenerate Essense on Earth), but she had some early successes – there were plagues rampant on Earth to which the inhabitants of Creation had never been exposed before, and after magically enhancing them she was able to create the Great Contagion to ravage Creation. Her Neverborn masters were pleased.

Her careful and systematic studies eventually allowed her to gain access to parts of the sleeping Primordial’s mind, and she gradually wrested his secrets from his mind, gaining vast knowledge of primordial sorceries. Recently she has learned how to protect her and her servants from the component souls, and currently she is infiltrating some of the nations of Earth with her servants. The astonishing technologies developed on Earth without the use of magic will give her a huge power base and enormous advantage over her fellow deathlords, and once she is able to control the planet entirely, she might even be able to usurp the power of the Primordial, thus breaking the bonds put on her by her Neverborn masters.

Her meddling has had some unforeseen side effects, however – the concealment of the other escape tunnels, or Wells, weakened and eventually vanished entirely. Still, there was and is so much Chaos among the powers of Creation that their appearance in remote regions was only noticed by few, and their nature became known to none – until recently.

One of the Wells was located in the jungles of the Southwest, and a circle of young Solars – freshly exalted after the Scarlet Empress vanished – discovered it and went off to explore it. However, they were ambushed and killed by an experienced Wyld Hunt group while within the well. This was duly reported in the Celestial Hierarchy and got no further comment from anyone except a few expressions of relief from members of the Sidereal Bronze Faction. However, when a member of the Gold Faction named Yabok reviewed the paperwork, he noticed something very disturbing: The Solar shards of the killed Solars had not reappeared in Lytek’s office for reassignment, and indeed seemed to have vanished entirely.

Worried, Yabok travelled to the known location of the Solars’ demise, and was astonished by the Well he found. After some examination and experimentation, he discovered that with a certain Celestial Circle spell allowed him to travel through the Well – and to a world different from anything he has known before...

He soon figured out that he should keep Essense expenditure to a minimum to avoid attracting strange spiritual entities – the component souls of Yaldabaoth. And though it took him some time to adjust to this new world with its strange cultures and languages, he eventually pierced the truth together – the Solar shards had been sucked through the Well and appeared on Earth! With no divine guidance, they had attached themselves to random people during a moment of personal greatness. He attempted to find those new Solars before they were killed by the component souls. The first few times he came too late, but eventually, he succeeded and either convinced them to come with him “to a place of safety” or overwhelmed them through force, for they were still very inexperienced and he was a master of the Martial Arts. He gathered them at the Earthside entrance of the Well and prepared the spell to send them through.

But thanks to her connection to Yaldabaoth, the Dowager had now learned of these intruders – and now she sent her own servants after Yekob as well. He finished the spell just in time, sent the Solars through, and turned to hold off their pursuers for long enough, intending to follow after them – but just before he left, he was killed by a surprise attack, and the spell ended. And now the new Solars are stranded in a strange new world with strange people and customs, with only their status as accidental Chosen of the Unconquered Sun and age-old memories not their own to help them.

For the first time ever there is a circle of Solars on the loose in Creation which is ungoverned by Fate. Will they use their knowledge of Earth to reshape Creation in a new image, or will their ignorance of the ways of Creation kill them? Will they forge new nations in Creation or will they desire to go home again – and if they do go home to Earth, what will they find there as the plans of the Dowager ripen?

What legends will be told of their deeds – on both Creation and Earth?"

And now...

I don't know if I will run Exalted 3E at any time in the next few years. But I didn't know I would be running my Cold Frontier campaign either when I started preparing it - but when the decision came, I was very glad indeed for all the prep work I had already done, since it helped me set up the campaign quickly. Therefore, I will give my old Exalted campaign a "do-over" and prepare it in the vein of a sandbox campaign. As long as I am not committed to running it, I won't be in a hurry to fill out all the blank spots on the map, since later publications for the new line (such as the new varieties of Exalted) could give me new ideas for stuff to put there. But it won't hurt to have lots of details already before I get to that point.