Chapter Five: Drama

While the basic rules given in Exalted still apply, this chapter calls attention to some of the differences that might result from the lower power level of the mortal heroes, as well as providing several optional rules to help groups customize the rules to fit the kinds of stories they want to tell.

Mortal Combat

While many elements of a series focused on the Exalted also apply to a mortal heroes series, some alterations to the dramatic conventions of the game are recommended to reflect the darker, grittier tone of a mortal heroes series.


The use of extras is usually inappropriate in a mortal heroes series. One of the keys to the tone of a story involving these characters is that element of danger that threatens to snuff out the heroes at any moment. Mortal heroes aren't sword-swinging, ass-kicking uber-butchers. They are talented individuals, to be sure, but they are still human. So, too, should their opponents be.

Senseless Violence

A lot of roleplaying games emphasize combat as a means of solving problems. As has been noted elsewhere, however, a group of mortal heroes who resorts to direct toe-to-toe combat on every occasion is not likely to last very long. Violence, as it is written in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, is the last refuge of the incompetent. If you draw your weapons, you are eliminating all other possible solutions to the current dilemma. As a Storyteller, there are many ways to discourage senseless brutality.

First, set the tone early in the series. Describe the blood, the agonized cries of the wounded, and the final defecations of the newly dead in vivid detail. If the heroes participate in a bloody melee in a community, see to it that their hands and clothes are damp with blood. People will notice these signs of violence and react accordingly.

The town watch will be around to ask questions. The heroes might even be forced to flee the area for fear of arrest and trial. Forensics isn't exactly an advanced art in the Age of Sorrows, but suspected criminals are less likely to be given a fair trial, either. Execution prevents criminals from committing new crimes. Once you've established that violence usually creates more problems than it solves, you don't have to beat the players about the head and shoulders with the gory details. After all, sometimes violence is the only option. Soldiers aren't often given the option of negotiating with the enemy, for example.

Second, make combat a beginning, not an end. Negotiations broke down, and the heroes were forced to fight and kill an agent of the enemy. What effect will his death have on his wife and children? On his liege lord? On his family and friends? Will someone seek revenge on the heroes, either by hunting them down personally or hiring a band of mercenaries or an assassin? It's likely that the slain agent's master will simply send another agent to continue the work of his predecessor, and this one will recognize the heroes as a threat.

A situation like this one makes violence a quick and temporary solution to a more complicated problem. It is trying to kill a tree by plucking off all its leaves with your bare hands. Worse, it creates new problems for the heroes to solve. If the heroes are forced to keep watch for knives in the dark, tire themselves fighting duels with the brothers of slain enemies, and hide themselves from the local authorities, they will have less time and energy to achieve their desired objectives.

Third, make combat expensive. Mortal heroes don't heal nearly as quickly as the Exalted do. Getting stabbed a few times in an altercation can give a hero plenty of time to see the error of her ways as she lies in bed waiting for the wounds to heal. Or not. If you keep the pressure on the heroes, they might not have time to recover from one battle before they are forced into another delicate situation pregnant with possibilities for violence.

Add in an infection and, if the Circle lacks a healer, the cost of hiring a doctor to reset a poorly healed injury, and the price of violence rises even more. And if that isn't enough to deter rampant stupidity related to random combat, perhaps amputation will curb aggressive tendencies. And if they leave the corpse to the crows, they might have to face their victim's hungry ghost, as well.

This is not to say the Storyteller should go overboard with punishing the heroes for getting hurt. Combat has a place in a mortal heroes series, too. A hero who bravely defends a doorway to give his friends time to escape, if he survives, shouldn't have a limb amputated as soon as he staggers into the heroes' headquarters covered in his own blood and the blood of several enemies.

Fourth, give the heroes options. Every opponent the heroes encounter should be as reluctant to initiate combat as you want the heroes to be. Even a gang of toughs who robs people at knife point is more likely to back down than attack if the heroes draw weapons. An unpleasant tyrant cornered beyond the power of his guards is going to parley, surrender, or attempt to flee, because he isn't going to survive a fight with four armed enemies with nothing more than his dagger and silk robe as armaments.

Most ordinary citizens will flee from anyone who draws a weapon unless they are defending something dear to them by staying and report any outbreak or threat of violence in the area to the nearest figure of authority. Any enemy that is outnumbered by two to one or more is going to have serious reservations about standing their ground in a fight, much less initiating one.

Only madmen and desperate people intentionally fight to the death. Local toughs are likely to flee as soon as they are injured. Even soldiers usually have their limits, either because fear and pain overwhelms courage or because they recognize that a soldier who can barely even walk is not particularly useful on the battlefield.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for how much punishment a combatant is willing to take before she flees, surrenders, or stops fighting. Every situation is different. A poorly disciplined but eager young soldier might not notice that he is injured until it is too late to retreat, while a desperate farmer might fight to the death against Wyld Barbarians when he is his family's only line of defense. A veteran soldier might have the discipline and courage to fight to the death when circumstances demand he make the final sacrifice, but he might also be the first one to fall back and let fresh troops replace him so that he can spend his life's blood when it is truly necessary.

A fair guideline, however, is as follows: A combatant with a Valor of 1 will quit combat when he suffers his first health level of lethal damage. A warrior with a Valor of 2 will cease hostilities after suffering enough lethal damage to impose a -1 wound penalty. A warrior with a Valor of 3 will give up when she suffers enough lethal damage to impose a -2 wound penalty. A warrior with a Valor of 4 will fall back or surrender after suffering enough lethal damage to impose a -4 wound penalty. A warrior with a Valor of 5 will fight to the death if it is required of him, and any retreat or surrender on his part is a tactical decision, not an instinctive reaction to fear or pain.

Victory seldom requires slaughter. Retreating enemies don't need to be chased down and butchered. Usually, they present no further threat once they no longer stand in the heroes' way, whether it is because they have fled or because they have simply stopped fighting due to being wounded.

Enemies should treat the heroes similarly if the threat level is minimal or the enemies have more important worries. Sometimes, escape is not an option, either because the losers are surrounded or because it would mean leaving behind something of great value. In these cases, surrender is a feasible way to admit defeat. How the Storyteller's characters treat prisoners will impact whether or not the players consider surrender a viable option and thus, how they will treat any prisoners they might take.

Here, too, combat should be a beginning, not an end. Imprisonment is likely in certain situations, but it need not always be the result. No one wants to play out several episodes during which the heroes sit around in their cells and wait for the inevitable execution. Even imprisonment should be interesting. Daring escapes, miraculous rescues, fascinating fellow prisoners, and whispered secrets about the enemy that no one outside the citadel and its dungeons know are all exciting parts of many fantasy stories. So are interrogation sessions and negotiations made in the moment of the heroes' greatest weakness, to say nothing of decisions to join sides with the enemy, either sincerely or with the intention of infiltrating the organization the better to learn their plans.

Perhaps the captors aren't as interested in the heroes as they are in someone they serve or associate with. The heroes might be released after a tense night in a cell and then followed or given a message to deliver to someone their captors consider more valuable. The world is a harsh place, but the protagonists of a story shouldn't die an ignoble and decidedly unheroic death when they can instead live on to overcome even more incredible obstacles.

A Note on Stunts

People often seem to forget that stunts don't just work during combat. Whenever the heroes attempt to do something cool or make a sincere effort to solve a problem creatively, they should reap the rewards of playing well. If a hero's player makes a really great case in a debate with a Storyteller character, award a bonus to the roll to see if the listener is swayed. After all, nothing is more lame than hearing a player say "I'm going to try to convince him that attacking the town is a bad idea. What should I roll?" The same goes for mental tasks. If the player puts a bunch of seemingly random clues together to form an incomplete but generally accurate picture, give her character a few bonus dice on the Investigation check to draw correct conclusions from those clues.

By the same token, though, don't let the players ignore low Attributes and Abilities, either. Let the dice fall where they may when, say, a character with a really poor Manipulation and no supporting Abilities attempts to talk his way out of the situation. In a perfect game, all the players whose characters had low Social or Mental Attributes would not play their characters as though they were master manipulators or clever problem-solvers, and all the players whose characters had high Social and Mental Attributes would be miraculously granted incredible charisma and genius-like intelligence. Unfortunately, the former is not always the case, and the latter never is, so sometimes the dice and the dots have to give the situation a little push to reflect high or low Social and Mental Attributes and related Abilities.

Rolling for every conversation gets ridiculous very quickly, of course, so here is a little trick for adjudicating Social situations. Write down the dice pools each of the heroes has for various social tasks (Charisma + Presence, Manipulation + Presence, Charisma + Performance, etc...) for easy reference during social scenes. Then make the Storyteller characters more responsive and attentive to those heroes with high dice pools than they are to heroes with weak Social pools. Adjust the reactions of the Storyteller characters based on the Social pools of the heroes they are interacting with.

If a player comes up with something really clever or compelling, grant her character a stunt bonus. Use this as a broad guideline for interactions with Storyteller characters instead of rolling dice to see who is impressed and who isn't. It will eliminate the distracting clatter of dice in the middle of an intensely roleplayed conversation without penalizing players whose characters possess large Social pools or ignoring the good roleplaying of players who become deeply involved with in-character interactions.

Toning Things Down

This guide adopts the dark and gritty optional rules for breaking and lifting things and eliminating extras mentioned in Exalted but does little to further reduce the potency of mortal heroes as compared to their Exalted counterparts. Storytellers who wish to run an even darker and grittier game are welcome to impose additional limits on mortal heroes. Many of these are provided in Exalted - no specialty taken more than once, elimination of stunts, etc... - and are not repeated here in any detail. Some additional ideas follow:

Getting Extreme

Of course, some groups will want to make mortal heroes who are just a step below the Terrestrial Exalted. Here are a few ways to toughen up the heroes:

The True Purpose

The point is that while we'd like to believe everyone will love the rules we've come up with for mortal heroes, taste is subjective. Some groups will want heroes who can aspire to be on the level of the Chosen. Others will never want any mortal, no matter how clever, to outshine or even hold a candle to the Exalted. It's your game, and the Golden Rule still applies. Keep what you like and discard the rest, and don't let anyone tell you that you're playing the game wrong as long as everyone is having a good time.

Chapter Four: Heroic Traits Chapter Six: Storytelling