I like to think about ways a story or idea could be made better with as few changes to the original as I can manage. The original doesn’t neccessarily have to be bad enough to need the change, it just needs to be an improvement. I had a rather nice one recently regarding Abyssals from Exalted.
Before I get into the dirty details, a little background for the uninitiated (you can probably skip past the next section if you’re already familiar with Exalted):
Abyssals, or Deathknights, are a type of character class in the roleplaying game Exalted. They are the black knights, champions of darkness and death itself. Their powers originally were Solar, of light and life, but were stolen and turned into powers of darkness and death. (it’s a little more complicated than that, but it’ll do for now) A Deathknight gains their powers when they’re about to die: a Deathlord (or Neverborn, I’ve never been clear on which) speaks to them and offers a deal: give up your name to serve Oblivion and bring about the end of all Creation, or die. The Deathknights are the ones who decided that yes, their life was more important than the entire rest of Creation and their very identity.
Of course, this makes it utterly impossible to be a hero with a Deathknight, since you’re basically a slave to the Deathlords, who are themselves slaves to the Neverborn (Dead Titans, basically – we’ll skip over them for now) who want nothing but Oblivion for all the world. So there’s also the option to play a Renegade deathknight – an Abyssal that decided Oblivion wasn’t worth serving and ran off.
Of course, this incurs the wrath of your masters, building a stat called Resonance. Resonance builds whenever you do something to Creation that has an overall positive effect on it and doesn’t help further the cause of Oblivion. It essentially causes any friendship, love or even just acquaintanceship you have with anyone that isn’t a servant of Oblivion (or your Lunar bondmate, but don’t get me started on Lunars) to turn sour and things around you to suffer and die. The exact effect varies from GM to GM, but they include things such as animals dropping dead, a blight spreading wherever you walk, a cloud of darkness filled with screams, ice freezing everything you touch… Ya know, typical champion of death stuff.
Now, there’s only one chance for an Abyssal to be redeemed: it’s possible, after a fashion, for an Abyssal to turn into a Solar (champion of light, law and life). However, canonically, it hasn’t happened yet, so your character would be the first, and it is a very difficult journey. In the meantime pretty much anything you do to try and be a hero will result in everyone you care about (and everything around you) suffering.
(Ok, Exalted fans, you can tune back in now)
One criticism I’ve heard levied at Deathknights in Exalted is that they basically have only two options: journey to redemption, or omnicidal monster. I disagree with this but I understand the argument, and especially why this would be a problem: Exalted is supposed to be a universe where heroes and heroism matter, but why would an Abyssal’s acts be worth anything if you’re playing out the same two paths as anyone else? A solar could start a kingdom, save all of Creation, go on a personal journey of redemption, restore the first age… pretty much anything a hero from our own world’s legends could do. An Abyssal’s storylines, however, (so goes the argument) are limited to omnicidal monster… and trying to gain redemption to become a Solar in which case you might as well have built a Solar in the first place.
We’ll ignore for the moment that becoming a Renegade Deathknight, breaking the bonds of slavery, (oh yeah, forgot to mention, the Deathknights are basically slaves in 2e) as could being a dark knight for Creation, or fighting the Deathlords on their own turf, or a myriad number of other characters and storylines could be heroic in their own way. Let’s look at the other major complaint: Resonance.
A big problem with Resonance is just how easy it is to gain. You have a track of 10 for Resonance, which is supposed to go up when the Neverborn get pissed at you. That much is fine – Limit has a 10 track too, and with no Great Curse (which I won’t get into here) the Abyssals need something to balance it out. The problem is that, by strict word of the story, Resonance can be gained by sneezing in a crowd of people because you’re not killing that crowd of people.
Exalted’s 3rd edition (yay Onyx Path!) has altered the Deathknight’s relationship with the Deathlords to master/apprentice, and that works fine in my opinion (Gives the Deathknights more breathing room to carve out their own story while keeping the whole ‘dark solar’ feel) but I had another idea that I felt at least deserved a mention: Houserule that Deathknights have their knowledge about Resonance sealed away by a dormant spell that activates when they turn renegade, so that Renegades don’t know about Resonance.
Hear me out.
Resonance, at its core, is supposed to represent how an Abyssal is trapped by their destiny as a creature of unending death and destruction, right? And the (alleged) problem with Abyssals is that they have only two real storylines, right? Well, losing the knowledge that their actions are being watched and reprimanded by the Neverborn means that the Abyssals lose incentive to work for them. This means that, if your Deathknight goes renegade, he doesn’t have to seek redemption or be an omnicidal jerk if he doesn’t want to. So a deathknight not only can go for the redemption or omnicide storylines, but can also be a dark knight in service of good, a warrior who uses the tactics of the enemy… it gives the character a lot more room to act, to be! It also implies that each deathknight knew that Resonance would harm those around them and chose to leave before the knowledge was sealed anyway (meaning they either trusted themselves to find redemption or just didn’t care… and the latter’s already there with the way abyssals are chosen).
But there’s one other storyline opportunity that this opens up with plenty of room for drama, and it’s the main reason I’d like to see this done.
Imagine this scenario, if you will: A deathknight has been fighting for a city or village or something for years. Found friends, found love, found a place to protect and call home, a la a standard superhero. But the universe itself seems out to corrupt, destroy or just plain hurt everything she cares about. Everywhere she goes, despite all the people she helps, tragedy befalls her and her friends, and the darkness swells in her heart. We’re talking Spiderman levels of suffering here: people she cares about die, suffer, are turned evil or even have their souls eaten, and usually through her own actions (albeit indirectly and by accident). She’s constantly tormented by the desire to do evil, but she tries her damndest to be a hero. She assumes that the massive releases that come from Resonance are just side-effects of her death powers, and she does her best to minimize their impact.
Now picture her defeating another Deathknight, with similar powers and the whole omnicidal maniac thing. And during the fight, she learns that because of her powers, everything good she’s ever done has caused harm around her.
As long as she has her powers (and once Exalted it can’t be taken away, save through death) she will either serve Oblivion or everyone and everything she cares about will suffer and die right before her eyes.
Now, Deathknights become deathknights by basically saying that their life is more important than everything else in Creation. So she suddenly knows now that not only is she an utter monster, but it is her fault that everyone she loves is suffering and dieing around her. And whenever she tries to help, her Resonance will only grow, which will just make the situation worse.
Imagine the sheer horror of this kind of revelation to a character. The Deathknight would be shocked to her core.
So, you may ask, what happens next?
I don’t know. And that’s what I love about this idea.
The character will show so much about who she is and what she wants by how she responds to this revelation. Will she go back to the deathlords, her last hope shattered? Will she go into self-imposed exile, afraid to so much as touch the people she loves? Will she go onto the road of redemption at long last, desperately trying to make herself into something other than a spectre of death? Will she not change her lifestyle at all, showing she much prefers the thrill and glamor of heroism to the reality? Will she commit suicide, unable to cope with the utter lack of- Okay probably not that one, since you’d have to roll a new character, but you get the idea! There’s so much room for drama and growth there, imho.
Of course, I have little experience with Exalted or Abyssals (definitely less than I’d like =( ), so maybe this idea is actually incredibly stupid/impossible because of some other detail i missed.
I’d love to here your thoughts on this, too. What ideas would you implement to help Abyssal mechanics/characters? What problems to Abyssals have in your games? Does 3e look to be fixing those problems? Do the Abyssals not have any problems at all and I’m a dumbass for even bringing up that they might (look, I’m just countering an argument presented to me, okay?! 😛 )
(Also, something funny i noticed: ‘General Motors’ is one of the recommended tags for this post.)