This is probably going to sound weird and a few people may even find it off-putting, but I tend to see the Exalted setting as existing on four layers, with different bits of literature inspiration contributing to different layers, one atop the other. This is just how I process things. Note that any given piece of literary fiction probably contributes to more than one layer, and in practice they're not as segregated as this post might suggest.
Layer 1, The Absolute Rock-Bottom Foundaton of Verisimilitude
is history, anthropology, politics, and economics. This is so basic that I actually fuckin' forgot it existed and built up a three-layer model and had to slot this in at the end. You can get some of this from stuff like Three Kingdoms
and Outlaws of the Marsh
, specifically the bits about life in Imperial China (to the same extent the bits about life in ancient Greece in The Iliad and the Odyssey
), and also a lot of the basic mercenary slice-of-life material from The Black Company
fits here and, I guess, the political machinations in Game of Thrones
(if you must), but generally for this your best bet is to read Seeing Like A State, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, 1491,
and a lot of National Geographic and history and military theory textbooks -- all this informs the basic human experience in Creation that other RPGs tend to gloss over.
Layer 2, Weird Fantasy Fiction
here we go here we go here we go. The weird fantasy surrealism of Tales of the Flat Earth,
the dying earth post-apocalyptic landscapes and cities built around crashed spaceships of The Book of the New Sun,
the actual dying earths of Jack Vance's Dying Earth
and Clarke Ashton Smith's Zothique, The Gods of Pegana,
any given shot of weird post-apocalyptic fantasy landscapes in Vampire Hunter D
or Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust
, to some extent the first chapter of Journey to the West
with Monkey exploring Heaven (although for tone that's layer 4), and a lot of the setting of Bridge of Birds
(though, again, for tone that's layer 4). The setting of The Compleat Traveller in Black.
The Bible also goes here, weirdly enough. Robert Howard's Hyborean Earth. Lovecraft. This is the setting
, but it is not the Exalted
, who stride across it like titans. The game is about the Exalted, and the Exalted themselves make the setting be about them
through the weight of their influence, but it exists apart from them and these are the things you should check out if you want to understand what it looks like by default, whether due to their legacies or just intrinsically, because magic is a thing in Creation and it looks like this more than it looks like D&D (I would say "or Sanderson," but I haven't read any of his stuff; I've just gotten the impression
that his detailed magical systems and politics tend to be, yeah, sanitized, and magic and politics in Creation really really
Layer 3, The Exalted
is to some extent fantasy, action movie, wuxia, and shounen anime protagonists and to some extent the larger than life figures in The Black Company, Tales from the Flat Earth, Three Kingdoms,
and Outlaws of the Marsh.
Holden once told me that the main thing that drew him to Exalted is that a) it has the best fantasy setting in RPGs, but then b) on top of that
it gives you completely broken overpowered h4x shounen anime protagonists to rampage around in it. For personality and drive and motivation the Exalted tend to be like Conan; the heroes of Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh, The Iliad,
or The Odyssey;
Master Li or Number Ten Ox; Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad or Ezio Auditore; Genghis Khan, or Julie d'Aubigny;
or for that matter Batman, but for power level they do tend toward the Lieutenants and Captains from Bleach
. This keeps hanging people up! When we say things like "Conan is a great example of an Exalted protagonist" people hear "Solars in 3e won't be any tougher than Conan," which is not what we mean.
Layer 4, Whimsey.
Okay, look. Creation is not a sentimental setting. People die of sepsis. Love doesn't conquer all, though rulers do occasionally put nations to the sword over a romantic infatuation. Genocide and ethnic cleansing happen, and atrocities accompany the sacking of cities. Creationites find themselves living in sitcoms about as often as people do in real life, and I think the "real" (whatever that means, in this context) experience of life in a Realm secondary school is not so much Ouran High School Host Club
as it is "Life in a 19th century English boarding school" with accompanying power politics (and, er, sodomy). And yet, it is totally necessary that Realm boarding schools allow people to play Dragon-Blooded Ouran High-School Host Club,
or Solar Utena,
or whatever. Exalted: The Boy Bands
is a supported mode of play. So here's where the wry humor of Bridge of Birds
or the beginning of Journey to the West
come in. This is why we have Beasts of Resplendent Liquid. Holden accused me of disliking these elements of the setting the other day, which is not accurate -- I prefer to see them as a light seasoning atop the rest, rather than really baked-in, but they're a full layer of the setting's tone rather than an afterthought, and every bit as worthy of attention as the other layers.
I think there are a lot of people in the fanbase who assume the layer 4 is as foundational as the layer 1 or 2 material, or who only engage with layers 1 and 3, or who don't see a separation between layer 2 and 3, or who basically swap out layer 1 and 2 for bog-standard fantasy cliches. Those people are consistently confused by things like The Book of the New Sun
being a primary source, or us disliking the DoTFA portrayal of First Age Ma-Ha-Suchi.
Tales from the Flat Earth
is absolutely the best source for layer 2 inspiration, and one of the best sources for layer 3 inspiration in that it tends to have high-powered history-shaping characters with the drive and vitality of pulp protagonists but who, unlike Conan, don't need a shot of Bleach
to reach the appropriate power level.