Interview: ‘Exalted’ RPG Returns Via Kickstarter

The cult RPG “Exalted” has been brought back to life for a Third edition by Onyx Path Publishing, through a Kickstarter project. “Exalted” hit its goal of $60,000 in only 18 minutes and raised $380,000 in one week. I spoke to Richard Thomas, the founder and creative director of Onyx Path, about the resurrection of “Exalted” and the decision to use Kickstarter.

“Exalted” was first published in 2001 by White Wolf, famous for their line of World of “Darkness” games such as “Vampire: the Masquerade” and “Werewolf: the Apocalypse.” With “Exalted,” the company decided to do something different, a mix of Western mythologies such as the Greek epics and Eastern traditions like anime or martial arts sagas. The game would grow a cult following that would spawn two editions and dozens of books. And now, “Exalted” has returned through Kickstarter, from Onyx Path and creative director Richard Thomas.

MTV Geek: What’s your background with “Exalted”?

Richard Thomas: Back in the dim mists of time, I started as an illustrator for White Wolf Magazine and rapidly became its art director. When White Wolf the company was formed, I continued as art director until assuming the creative director role. But like all of us at WW, our job titles weren’t all that we did–a lot of hats were worn by our crew–and we all contributed to new game designs, marketing, and such. With “Exalted,” it was just so exciting to be able to create a fantasy world from scratch, and it was really important, I thought, to have our development team working from the beginning with myself and a couple of concept artists. We were able to define “Exalted’s” unique look that mixes the look of Bronze-age epic heroes and “Final Fantasy,” China and Gilgamesh, with a touch of Conan and the Monkey-King, by working hand-in-hand with the writing team.

I was really lucky to have a project like this to dive completely into, and while I did my normal job of working with the team and hiring illustrators to bring our ideas to life, and eventually establishing the look and feel of the books, I had the most fun indulging in some some of my inner geek passions by creating the first map of Creation (“Exalted’s” world), based on the idea of the five elements, as well as both the “Imperial script” and the earlier Glyphs of the First Age. ’Cause I always loved maps and alphabets as far back as reading Lord of the Rings the first time.

Geek: What is “Exalted” about?

Thomas: To pull from our Kickstarter because this really is a great description: “This is the tale of a forgotten age before the seas 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.”

For me, “Exalted” is a game set up to let the players impact and change their world. The Exalted run the gamut of any characters you can imagine, but what ties them together is this amazing potency. In a story sense, it means the Exalted stride across their world creating legends of their deeds- in a playing sense, the game is set up to let the players say “Yes! I can do that!”. I find that to be a powerful component of why the world is so compelling.

Geek: What was behind the decision to create a new edition?

Thomas: In the course of the life of an RPG game line, a lot of information is written: we have supplements that detail and expand on the world and the different kinds of Exalted that exist there, and we have done novels and a comic-book series, as well. “Exalted,” particularly its Second Edition, was being worked on through some of the most tumultuous times in White Wolf’s history as we were changing our publishing models and moving into more electronic products like PDFs. It became obvious to me after I took over as creative director that the “Exalted” line’s setting and rules had been patched together by basically well-meaning creators who both loved “Exalted” and wanted to make it the best it could be, but that the patch-work didn’t hold together. It needed to start fresh and establish a new, coherent take on both setting and rules that focused on those core elements that we all fell in love with originally. But that was a monumental task that WW simply didn’t have the bandwidth to handle at that time.

Flash forward to 2012, and I left WW to found Onyx Path Publishing with the license from WW (actually CCP, which is the company WW merged with) and the first thing I started talking about was a new edition for “Exalted.” I was supremely lucky to be able to get both Geoff Grabowski, who was “Exalted” 1st Edition’s developer and guiding force, and John Mørke and Holden Shearer, who had shepherded “Exalted” 2nd’s last few projects and really led the charge that kept fans engaged with the game, to join forces and take on developing EX3. They are the geniuses who are actually making this happen.

Geek: What is new in the 3rd edition?

Thomas: Let me throw out some examples: Creation has become bigger, and the map of the world has expanded. But with that we’re adding new locales within that bigger world: for example, there’s treacherous Port Calin and “the frigid plains and forests of Medo, held in check only by the iron hand of the Realm”. New Merits for more customizable characters, new Charms that retain many of the powers of previous editions but also add new ones, and Evocations, which are Charms and other miracles that can be gained by a rapport with mystical artifacts. A much more cinematic Combat system, all new original fiction by Geoff Grabowski, all new beautiful and evocative art by a horde of talented new artists as well as the appearance of several classic “Exalted” artists. And new Exalted types never before seen in Creation.

Geek: Who is the audience for the new edition?

Thomas: Our intention from the start was to create a 3rd Edition that would evoke all of the coolness that fans loved in the earlier editions, but would unify and simplify the whole darned thing so that all of our old fans would love it. We also hoped that this focusing would make “Exalted” easier to dive into for gamers who hadn’t yet become “Exalted” fans. “Exalted” is like nothing that exists as a setting for truly mind-blowing adventures in a world that has mixed all these cool aspects of ancient myth, wuxia, pulp sword and sorcery, historical empires and cultures, anime, and of course the brilliant imaginations of years of writers and artists who have shaped it. We want to give folks a chance to discover that magic with this new edition.

Geek: Why did you turn to Kickstarter?

Thomas: The “Deluxe EX3” Kickstarter is the sixth (and currently the most successful) Kickstarter Onyx Path has done in order to create Deluxe editions of our projects. We would have published them in PDF or physical book Print On Demand versions with our on-line sales partners at DriveThruRPG.com anyway, because that’s our current publishing model, but Kickstarter lets us do these extra special versions. See, we had basically stopped producing traditionally printed books that were shipped from some warehouse to distributors and stores. That was the old way for the tabletop RPG biz and WW, and now Onyx Path, has found that its not a particularly good method for us.

Kickstarter provides Onyx Path with a platform to bring fans and backers together with the project, mitigates the financial drain and risk of trying to get these traditionally printed Deluxe editions created, and gives us their infrastructure so that we don’t have to invest in credit-card approval software and all that and can focus on doing what we do best: creating immersive and beautiful worlds. And let me emphasize that very first Kickstarter aspect: there is nothing more vital to one of our Kickstarter campaigns than the amazing community of backers who get involved, provide us with feedback and great ideas for how they would like a project to develop, and just generally share their love of the game. The community building that happens is often overlooked in the whole race for funding and cool Rewards and Stretch Goals, but it is the very best thing to come out of our Kickstarters. It so happens that the “Exalted” fans turn that up to 11.

Geek: What are your thoughts about the success the Kickstarter has had?

Thomas: It’s okay if you like that sort of thing. :) What can I say? We were all optimistic about it being a success as we knew we had great fans who were just waiting to pledge. But we never expecting the sheer velocity these folks would rocket towards. I feel like we just set up the Kickstarter, the fans have OWNED it!

Geek: What are your future Stretch Goal plans?

Thomas: We can only do so much with the book itself because so much was pre-planned, but we’ve already increased the art budget and we’re adding some extra text and bookmarks, so the real fun is going to come from the extra projects connected to “Exalted” that we can now do. As examples: we’ve already added a fiction Anthology, Charm Cards, a Music Suite, and a Retrospective book of Essays on what “Exalted” has meant both personally and to the gaming community.
Moving forward, we have some very fun Stretch Goals already arranged and specced out that will take us a long way through the next 20+ days that still remain, but one of the cool aspects of these things is that we can get a surprise opportunity to work with someone not yet involved with the project and add their ideas to the goals we’ve already put together. An “Exalted” comic is in serious discussion, as well as electronic game aids that were completely outside our scope of making a beautiful “Deluxe EX3,” but which can now be discussed.