Exalted: The Lunars
Exalted: The Lunars Capsule Review by Mel Wong on 13/11/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
Muchly hyped and quite anticipated- Exalted: the Lunars goes under the magnifying glass for review- and is unexpectedly rewarding to read. Another good addition to the Exalted line.
Product: Exalted: The Lunars
Author: Bryan Armor, Chris Hartford, James Kiley, Malcolm Sheppard, Ethan Skemp, Scott Taylor. Developed by Geoffrey C. Grabowski, Edited by John Chambers.
Company/Publisher: White Wolf Game Studios/ White Wolf Publishing
Page count: 254
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Mel Wong on 13/11/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Anime Asian/Far East Other
Exalted: the Lunars has been long-awaited by yours truly- even if I didn't quite expect to get my sweaty little mitts on it, the blurbs by developer (and all-round cool fellow) GCG on White Wolf's Jade City chats (which I used to Asst for) got me pretty hyped. Being a W:tA (and overall big hairy engine of anthropromorphic death)-hater, it was very amusing to find myself actually liking the ideas for the Lunars that got leaked. Then Art Director Brian Glass showed up and gave us a few preview art pieces, which jacked the anticipation factor very high.
By the time I got this book- it was being hyped pretty hugely in my head, so I may be a tad more critical than I normally am. Due to the generosity and kindness of Geoff Grabowski, I got a copy of Lunars very early for someone in my geographical location. (Gaming stuff takes two months to arrive, if ever) I will try to approach this review objectively. I do have a pretty pronounced dislike of Garou (and due to that, their proto-ancestors the Lunars, if you're going with the Age of Sorrows becomes World of Darkness theories).
I am writing this with a fever, due to influenza- I may not be as coherent as I would like; but it's a fun hour or three spent writing a review while flu-stricken and trapped at home by inclement weather. This is also my first review, so I may be inexperienced.
Firstly- it's a very handsome book on the outside, with the by-now familiar matte finish with signature character in gloss styles observed from Exalted hardbacks (Corebook and Dragonblooded), and while the preview cover left me lukewarm (big hairy bloke with hooves? Uh.), it actually looks a lot cooler right before me. The light blue background looks very nice, and kudos for the logo. I liked the Moonsilver-colored version of the Exalted line logo a lot more than the Orichalcum-gold tinted one. It's also a sturdy hardback and as its two hardback predecessors- contains a map on the inside covers. The map on Exalted: The Lunars illustrates the locations of barbarian tribes associated with the Lunars, and has claw-writing on it. Overall, very nice, and just as pretty as Dragonblooded.
Personal experience with the inside maps, however, tells me that I'm going to have to be careful with the inside covers- my corebook's map inside the front cover has needed emergency repairs with clear tape due to wear and tear. Heavy usage probably contributed to that, and my copy of Dragonblooded is as yet pristine, so I'm not sure if it's due to the heavier page count of the core, or a problem with the hardbacks. Binding is so far very strong- none of the page shedding issues I had with Vampire: the Masquerade second ed.
The intro fiction covers Lillith on a journey- I was fairly surprised by the identity of her former husband's current physical form. Aparently she was once married to Swan in the First Age. Or who he used to be in that very age, actually. Being a Swan fangirl- I was thoroughly amused, since if I recall correctly he's with Arianna. It's fairly well-written and details the way the Lunars are seen by the Little Gods quite well, as well as their confrontations with the Sidereal-led Immaculate Order. I do have a bit of fear regarding Lillith- namely that of Lucita Syndrome, where a badassed female character winds up from "fairly cool" (Dark Ages) to "fairly cliched" (Modern Nights- especially her "relationship" with Fatima, as she has Humanity 4. 4. Isn't that at the barely human level?). Still, that could also be said of Tepet Ejava, and as now she hasn't really shown any signs of such, so it could just be my paranoia. Also- I do trust the Exalted writers to do a good job.
There's the usual White Wolf How to Use This Book section, and a lexicon once you turn past the brief intro paragraphs and fiction. In pale gray on the textured-print pages are the various Caste signs- similar to Dragonblooded and the core, then it moves on to the Setting proper. I was pretty disappointed that there was no Recommended Reading section- considering how richly the book details Lunar culture- I would have preferred more resources to hunt down for my perusal.
Chapter One: Setting
There's a pretty nifty sidebar on the definitions of "savage" and "barbarian" for the purposes of this book, and moving on it describes technology levels, nomadic life, various aspects of such, such as settlements and leadership. Songlines (verbal history) are covered in a sidebar, as are the taboos the tribes observe to fuel their leading Little God, or Exalt, with Essence (See the Cult background in Games of Divinity). So far, so good. The paragraphs on medicine, witchcraft and shamanism are fairly interesting and necessary if you're to play a PC of the appropriate traditions in Exalted, and I particularly like the idea of various Exalt types and Fair Folk being totems and gods for a tribe. Warfare, honor and morality have an interesting section, to say the least. It goes on to define worship and rites of worship, and after that is a fairly juicy chunk that describes the various barbarian cultures of Creation. I especially like the Pelagothropes and the Dune People.
So far, the art is unremarkable. Tracey Yardley is getting better- less Generic Sailormoon-ish, and Ross Campbell is as always excellent. Melissa Uran's art shows up- but I don't see her name in the credits. Seems to me that she constantly gets stiffed credits-wise.
Chapter Two: The Lunars
Fairly long explanation of the Lunars- and their way of thinking. Something I especially liked was the intro fiction in this segment, about a newly Exalted Lunar, Muan, and an older Exalt, Uka the Boar. To cut a short story shorter, Muan is Exalted in the attack that Uka led against her tribe, and as he seeks her out to bring her to the No Moons for her initiation, she warns him that if she is taught to fight and kill, he will be her first foe- and so he should kill her right there. His response encapsulates the Lunar way of thinking fairly well- I found the ending of this fiction piece lingering with me through the whole book.
Luna is described in fairly good detail here- s/he apparently appears both as male or female (retconning that illustration in Games of Divinity?), something that threw me off a little until I read the bit about hir. Lunar society is described fairly exhaustively in here, especially the Silver Pact- a living brotherhood of Lunars who cooperate with one another to promote the welfare of the Lunars as a whole. It's fairly interesting, and the similarities with the Werewolf archetypes are there- but also quite different enough.
Also- Lunars may be fairly scary combat creatures, but combat among their number is ritualized and they have a complex blood debt system- interesting. There's also an entire section of Where Beastmen Come From, and a hefty sidebar on the thorniest issue involving the breeding of beastmen. That is, forcible rape of human females. It's respectfully treated, and the option is there (thankfully) to soften that aspect of canon. With underage gamers in my group, I'm rather leery of covering that aspect.
Spiritual aspects of the Lunars are covered after that, as well as the forging of Moonsilver, and the Unfettering- a meditative process for regaining Essence, which could be a precursor to Gnosis regaining in W:tA. I like the little bits of continuity- even if I'm not running anything which suggests that Exalted later becomes the World of Darkness, the continuity of archetype and tropes involved are rather fun to catch, like a whole lot of Easter Eggs.
It then moves on to discuss Castes. Due to their exile in the Wyld, the Lunars have no fixed Caste on Exaltation. Three of their old Castes, the Half Moons, the Waning Moons, and the Waxing Moons, have been fused into one Caste due to limitations of the Caste-fixing tattoing process- something which has been discussed in both the Exalted ST guide, and Castebook Twilight. Each of the Castes is given quite a bit of attention in this preliminary writeup.
The Full Moons are the warriors of the Lunars, ferocious trophy-takers. The Changing Moons are scouts, tacticians and illusionists, rather analogous to Night Castes- except less surgical. If a Night Caste is the scalpel of the Unconquered Sun, the Changing Moons (and Lunars, by extention) are the blenders and weed-whackers. The No Moons are sorcerors, and also the lorekeepers of Lunar society. Due to their unique roles and their ability to fix the Castes of newly Exalted Lunars, their lives are often protected beyond those of other Castes- something that leads to interesting practices on Lunar blood-debt accounting.
There's a sidebar after that detailing various beastman types- and a description of the Chimerae, Lunars who have lost all sanity, form and Caste due to overexposure to the Wyld. The Chimerae were apparently lost in the period before the No Moons learned how to fix castes- and while the Lunars consider it a mercy to hunt one down and slay it- the danger involved in such a hunt means that many Chimerae still roam the deep Wyld. From them comes a taboo- in which a Lunar is discriminated against if they change their totem animal, or their true animal form- the one they Exalt as.
The Lunar relationship to the Wyld is also detailed here, as are their relationships with other Exalt types. Beasts of the First Age describes ancient Lunars, such as Lillith, Raksi, Queen of Fangs (who rules the ruins of Speremin), Ma-Ha-Suchi (The one Dace faces in combat in the corebook), Leviathan (Yes he's an ancient Lunar- not a Behemoth), and Tamuz of the South. Fairly interesting, in all, considering the 3000 year lifespan of your typical Lunar.
Chapter Three: Character Creation
Now we get to the crunchy bits, or at least the beginning of such. Character creation is fairly standard for WW. Lunars get 9/7/5 for attributes- something which is even more intimidating considering the fact that they also favor Attributes by Caste. Favored Attributes cost less to raise with Freebies, and don't have a waiting period for XP gain- which means canny players will most probably put their Caste Attribute as Secondary or Tertiary, and then use the cost break to their advantage. Not really cheating- but min-maxing could be a bit of a problem.
However, Lunars do get pretty shafted on skills and backgrounds. With 4 favored and Survival- and 25 skill points, I may be overused to Dragonbloods, but I considered the increased point cost for a lot of skills pretty painful. Backgrounds wise, Lunars have extra backgrounds to take, such as Heart's Blood (different animal or human forms gained by devouring the heart's blood of a creature) and Renown, without any additional points. I actually found myself quite hurting for freebies when I made an example PC or two- but that's the nature of the beast.
The Casteless are also detailed here- they are freshly Exalted Lunars who have not undergone the Caste-locking tattoo process, yet, and therefore wind up shifting shape with the moon. They get really really stiffed- no favored attributes and less Charms. Still, if you wish to run a prelude for a Lunar PC that ends in his Caste-locking, like a Rite of Passage for W:tA, this is pretty handy to know. In fact, I like the idea of running the first half of the campaign as a rite of passage- only increasing the characters' stats and Charms lists after I figure their Castes by roleplaying.
This is where I see my first piece of Rather Bad Art- a Josh Gabriel Timbrook piece was unfinished. (page 90). I don't know if he meant it that way, but it was pretty glaringly half-done, or looked like it. Since I was fairly used to his WoD Second Ed inked art, and his wonderful first ed DA pencils- this was like a poke in the eye.
Chapter Four: Traits
Fairly short bit about Backgrounds and traits that change with the Lunars- of note is the new background Heart's Blood. With it, your character can have up to 36 animal forms- I started running out about a dozen. There is a limitation, though, with animal forms. Size increases and wild decreases (Normal range: Housecat to PC's body mass, I'd suppose) can only be taken with Charms. So if your PC has drank the heart's blood of a Tyrant Lizard- he won't be able to become one until he gets the charm that allows him to do so. Similarly, for human forms, special Charms have to be taken. Cult is dusted off from Games of Divinity and placed here- makes sense, considering that some Lunars do lead tribes who do worship them as gods.
There is an immensely handy sidebar about the different forms a Lunar would take by region, and beyond that, this is a fairly brief chapter.
The three Castes (and the casteless) are detailed after that. The sigchar art is fairly well-done, but I don't recognize the signature, and it follows fairly standard format for WW character splat descriptions. Lunars' Great Curses reduce them to animalistic instinct- fairly appropriate, and I especially like the Conviction one. Essence spending has an interesting effect on Lunars- if they burn peripheral Essence, they are locked into their True Forms. That is, their human form, their warform, and their Totem forms. That should make sneaking and subterfuge a matter of utmost care with the Lunars- and it fits the flavor which they're written in.
After this is a long treatment of Status and Face- I quite like the Renown categories and rank increase criteria. Rules of conduct regarding status are also covered here. There's also an oddly placed sidebar on Lunars and regeneration- yes, they do have access to Charms and a Warform Gift that allows them to heal at an accelerated level- they're insanely hard to kill. The placement is odd, but it was a nifty thing to know.
Chapter Five: Charms
This chapter isn't just about Charms- it also describes the shapechanging abilities of the Lunars, with a rather interesting side effect- Lunars cannot be affected by shapechanging effects outside of their Charms and native abilities. Invulnerable Skin of Bronze won't work on a Lunar, nor will Disguise of the New Face. Also detailed herein is a Lunar's Tell- a Tell being the one feature in a Lunar that remains constant through shapeshifting. A Lunar's Tell increases in severity (and noticeability) the more times the warform Charm, Deadly Beastman Transformation, is taken.
Charms are entirely Attribute-based. While that seems pretty obscenely powerful considering their huge attribute points pools, it isn't really. A Lunar starts of much scarier than a Solar does- but he stays there. While a starting Full Moon would probably kick a starting Dawn Caste's bum from here to Malfeas, 50 XP on, the Dawn should win. Their Charm trees are huge, dense, and sprawling. Not all of the combat Charms are physical attribute-based. Surprisingly, a lot of the Charisma Charms are fairly mean- one of the distinguishing traits of Lunar Charms is how far and long you have to go up the tree to get the really nifty Charms- you can't really expect to master a Charm tree at chargen like you can with a Solar. No Moons get fewer Charms than the Changing Moons and Full Moons do- mostly explained because they take Sorcery as in-Caste Charms.
While they may seem (and are) quite powerful in focus, Lunars are also so narrowly focused that they get fairly stiffed outside their realms of specialization- that's handled and approached in a sidebar, and helps explain the philosophy. Unlike the Dragonbloods- who do get fairly efficient bang-for-buck Charms, the Lunars tend to have Charms that are extensions of their innate shapeshifting powess. The Solars may be the Unconquered Sun's idea of an ultimate weapon, but the Lunars are Luna's idea of a weapon and therefore work by different rules.
Charms of Note:
Deadly Beastman Transformation: Lunar warforms are constructed like Demon Shintai is in Kindred of the East- you get a pool of attributes and warform-specific Gifts that affect your form. Quite similar to the Mokole, come to think of it. This, of course, leads to some really endless customization, and it's my favorite aspect of the Lunars to date.
Ox-Body Technique: My word- I don't know how to describe this, but Lunars get either 3 -1 health levels, or 4 -2 health levels. They're tanks. And that sort of explains the huge health tracks on their character sheet.
A lot of the art on the Charms section rocks- I especially liked Ross Campbell's skunk Lunar on page 164. Are Lunars supposed to be cute? This is also- possibly the largest Charm section in a book to date. Pages 119 to 193 are devoted to Charms- testament to the huge, sprawling Charm trees the Lunars have. It's, sadly, also a little intimidating to read, due to the sheer amount of crunch in here.
Chapter Six: the Wyld
Firstly- the fiction bit about Kajeha Lef, a Bride of Ahlat who Exalts as a Lunar, is really good- I like the visceral nature of a Lunar's relationship with Luna, and a lot of the fiction addresses that.
This entire section details the Wyld Lands- and isn't just for Lunar players and STs- a lot of it could be handy in Artifact Quests for Solar or Dragonblooded players. It starts off with a fairly basic description- and apparently time flows differently in the Wyld. One of the sidebars warns about the use of time lapses with regards to a storyline, as there is no way to go back in time, in Exalted. The Wyld Lands wax and wane in strength with the moon, and there's quite a bit of crunch in this chapter. The various Wylds of the World are put in fairly good detail- I particularly liked the sidebar on Wyld Cults, especially considering an SL with them as antagonists.
Wyld Addiction is touched on, as are power quests, Wyld exposure and vision questing for shamanistic PCs. Also included are various Poxes, Blights and Afflictions- even if you didn't play Lunars, this would be a reason to buy the book. It's rather well done- some of the Taints (Defects from Wyld exposure) made me go ewww, especially the illuatraion on page 221- of a man's arm decomposing off as he lifts a tankard.
As an ending note, Spirits in the Wyld are handled on the last two pages- Not really vital, but quite nice to know. I'd already made such up using Games of Divinity, but some canon addressing of Wyld Spirits is always handy for comparison.
Chapter Seven: Storytelling
The Storyteller chapter is rather sparse compared to Dragonblooded- I wonder if it's due to the fairly linear nature of a lot of Lunar storylines. Not given over to intrigue like the Dragonbloods are, I suppose. The notes on differentiating pack members are very handy- as an ST who has dealt with fairly inexperienced players, it's a handy thing to have printed in a book. Pacing- almost every novice ST's bane- is covered here, too. I quite liked the approach they have- if a player's long stunt description slows the play down in a bid to grub for extra stunt dice, STs are encouraged to stiff the player slightly on stunt dice. It also covers the thorny issue of exposition- a lot of this chapter is common sense.
Various approaches to a Lunar game are also aired here- while not as nifty as the Dragonblooded Generational Chronicle concept, there aren't any stinkers. The issue of making a Lunars game unique is dealt with fairly well- not a problem on an experienced ST's end, but it could be a problem with a novice. There is a pretty nice treatment of how to match the wild "barbarian" life with the heroic tone of Exalted, and suggests using Wyld and setting to distinguish a game. Pretty much stuff I already know, but I do acknowledge that it's a handy thing to have about for newbies.
The funnest thing about this entire chapter is the section titled The Barbarian Hero, which tracks a Lunar's achievements from Exaltation, all the way up the Renown charts- including responsibilities of high-ranking Lunars, various story ideas for packs of different ranks, and the issue of rulership. Taking over and ruling a tribe is detailed rather nicely in here- I quite liked this bit, as well as what happens when a Lunar grows so powerful and aged that it moves beyond tribal politics. While the default option for most PCs is graceful retirement at the pinnacle of their achievements, there are ST options to run elder games for Lunars.
After that is a bit on feuds, what to avoid in Storytelling for Lunars (Very important), and how civilization factors in. City Lunars are discussed- with the associated gains and losses from such a setting outlined in detail. Crossover options for most Exalt types are briefly touched on after- with a couple nifty plot seeds in the Solar/Lunar crossover arena.
Thoughts So Far
I started reading this with a fairly "eh" mindset- not really being a fan of Werewolf, and expecting similar from Lunars. I finished reading this with a character sheet printing, pretty revved up to play. Lunars is a very good fatsplat- up there with most of Exalted's good quality. While I found the art ranging from "nifty" to "disappointing", it was respectable enough- just without the awe-inspiring standard of Games of Divinity, and overall rather serviceable.
While I could be biased in favor of this, considering I am quite the Exalted fangirl, I think the quality of Lunars speaks for itself- and it's a very worthwhile buy for anyone who wants to involve Lunars in their games.
There's a couple oddities- like no Suggested Resources section, and the labyrinthine Charms section could have done with a little more organization- I got pretty intimidated by that significant chunk of pages- but it's a solid book that I won't hesitate to recommend to anyone else interested in Exalted. The conversion factor of this game is fairly good- someone who might not like the Solars at all might actually enjoy a Lunars game, especially with the vastly different tone of characterization and setting.
-Mel Wong, 13th November 2002.