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How do you handle decisive damage in cases where one party is totally unaware that they are being attacked and the other person has time to prepare?

The problem is that a prepared ambusher will not have had any withering attacks to increase their initiative prior to the ambush decisive attack. And it does not make a lot of sense to ambush someone with only your join battle initiative.

I'm looking for a reference to the rules explaining this situation, or a solution you have tried. personally all I could find in the book is that if you ambush someone they have a lower defence depending on whether or not they are in combat or totally unaware that they are in danger.

Just to make it clear what I'm trying to solve I'll give two cases that came up in a game:

  1. Someone (a mortal) is sneaking up on a exalted that is sleeping and trying to kill that person. This is very unlikely (or maybe I don't want it to) to outright kill the exalted, but how much damage does the mortal actually do?
  2. In a form of duel one party say, I'll stand still and give you a first free shot. Do your best to hurt me. This is assuming there is only ever going to be one strike. This came up when someone wanted to test an armor.
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The rules covering attacking an unaware target are the same ones you found on page 203 of the Exalted Core Rulebook. The first situation is the clearest one, but I feel it applies to the second as well, as both are situations where someone is either unwilling or unable to defend themselves in any way at all.

Assuming that the attacker makes a Decisive Attack on an unaware target, it counts as an Ambush.

An ambush is defined as an attack against a target completely unaware of the attacker’s presence—generally only possible during the first round of a fight, against a target with a lower Initiative value than the attacker. An ambush attack completely ignores the target’s Defense; the target is considered to have Defense 0 against the attack.

This is the only modification that is made for an attack on a target not defending themselves in any way, so the flow of things proceeds as normal.

  1. The would-be ambusher rolls Join Battle (Wits + Awareness) and adds three, giving them their Initiative Score. Your target doesn't know they are in a fight, so they don't roll Join Battle (yet...unless they have Charms that make them immune to ambushes)
  2. If the attacker has time to prepare, they should take the Aim action to get a +3 bonus on their attack.
  3. You now make a Decisive Attack, rolling Dexterity + [Weapon Skill] [+3 if you aimed].
  4. The target is Unaware, so they have a Defense of Zero, so if you rolled any successes at all, you Hit.
  5. You roll damage as normal--roll Initiative (your Join Battle + 3 roll) and apply any successes as damage, reduced by Hardness

An Option...

The rules above, by default, are rather underwhelming, but then we move to page 204 and see an additional ambush option: Hold at Bay. While not directly applicable, it provides us with something to work with to make executing a target possible.

This mechanic provides a means for carefully aiming a weapon at someone's vital organs so that if they do a thing you don't like while the Hold at Bay mechanics are still functioning....

the character may make an immediate decisive ambush attack against him with onerous results: not only is the target’s Defense set to 0, but his Hardness is set to 0 as well, and the attack gains +5 automatic damage.

Now, these are rules for a much more dramatic event--holding a hostage at blade-point while you talk...but I don't think it would be unreasonable to apply the "+5 damage from precisely targeting vital points, attack ignores Hardness" to an execution attack like trying to slit someone's throat while they are asleep.

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