|High Adventure In The Steam Age.
R. Talsorian Games, Inc., 1994
Castle Falkenstein is a tough game to categorize, because it has so many facets. It's a Victorian game, set in an alternate history Europe of 1870, with magick. It has faerie and magickal creatures. It also has steampunk connotations, with a plotline of the background fiction being the preservation of Victorian culture against overhasty technological development, albeit with steam technology. But it also incorporates Victorian fiction such as Sherlock Holmes and the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and adds a generous dose of 1960s secret agent style, borrowed from the old television series, The Wild, Wild, West. Most importantly, it's a swashbuckling sort of setting, where style is far more important than success or failure.
The physical layout of the book is also unusual. The first 128 pages are printed on glossy stock, about a quarter of them in color, and copiously illustrated. This part of the book gives background information on the setting, disguised as the story of "Tom Olam," a computer game designer who was magickally abducted from our reality into the New Europa of Castle Falkenstein. (Or was that the Castle Falkenstein of New Europa?) The remainder of the book is printed on a parchment-textured paper, and devoted to how to play the game, with a few reminders that the game comes from the pen of Tom Olam in his alternate reality.
Tom Olam's story is that he was vacationing in Europe when he found himself magickally kidnapped to become an ally of two prominent sorcerers in the eponymous Castle Falkenstein. The political situation is grim. Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Prussia, plots to forcibly unite the German principalities under Prussian rule. After that, he intends to spread out across Europe and possibly further, oppressing people and fulfilling the designs of the Unseelie Court of dark Faerie, which intends to slaughter or enslave humanity. Bayern (also known as Bavaria) is one of Bismarck's easy first targets, as King Ludwig II disappeared in a boating accident, and his barking mad brother King Otto has the throne. The regent of Bayern who rules for Mad King Otto is in Bismarck's pay. But sorcerers Morrolan and Auberon have managed to recover the lost king Ludwig II, or at least a King Ludwig II. In summoning something to help Ludwig's cause, they ended up with Tom Olam.
The rest of the book tells how Bayern thwarts Prussia, the story ranging across New Europa in such a way as to introduce the main points of the setting: geographical differences between New Europa and our own Europe (The Inner Sea that goes from the Netherlands to Nuremburg), the role of women in New Europan society (rulers of the all-important social scene), the major political players, historical and technological differences between that world and ours at the same time period, and so forth. The story ends in 1870 and a political stalemate. What happens next is up to the players.
The game section of the book attempts to keep up the illusion that Castle Falkenstein is in fact the creation of a man in another realm, but it doesn't try very hard after the first dozen pages or so. Tom Olam calls it The Great Game, and describes it as played in the salons of New Europa, championed by the Prince of Wales himself. As a Victorian game, it uses unusual terminology: the referee is the Host; the characters are Dramatic Characters; a campaign is a Novel or a Serial, depending on whether the individual adventures are all leading to a single conclusion or they are a series of unconnected stories featuring the same characters. Likewise, Castle Falkenstein doesn't use dice, because these are the mark of low-class riff-raff in Victorian times: people of breeding and taste play cards, and so do players of Castle Falkenstein.
Creating a Character
The game has a fairly simply system for character creation: come up with the character concept, flesh out his or her background, and finish by selecting abilities. These simple concepts are ornamented with considerable flash.
First, the character concept. As befits the Victorian setting, one is either a hero/-ine or a villain. Good and Evil are separated, with no shades of gray For example, one could play a Flawed Hero, who longs to do Good but lacks the fortitude to do it, or an Honorable Villain, who follows a moral code in his or her pursuit of Evil. But there is no room for a character who doesn't understand the difference between Right and Wrong. In fact, the game strongly implies that Dramatic Characters must be Heroes or Heroines, although it never comes out and says that villains are off limits (not that this would have made any difference, of course).
The other main part of the concept is the character's occupation, such as wizard, soldier, diplomat, detective, hussar, etc. Players could choose one of the twenty-nine character templates based on different occupations, or come up with their own idea. The rules encourage players to modify the templates as they see fit, providing for a great deal of guidance and flexibility at the same time. These templates are hardly rigid to begin with: they mainly provide a description of the sorts of things a character of this occupation would be interested in, skills they are likely to be good at, and suggested role playing hooks, such as why they would be part of an adventuring party.
Fleshing out the character is more work than in most RPGs. First of all, Castle Falkenstein doesn't use character sheets: players are expected to write detailed descriptions using diaries. Pondsmith repeatedly recommends using ornate blank books, but some loose sheets of paper will do.
Secondly, rather than first picking skills and then filling out the character based on their skills, Falkenstein has players thoroughly flesh out their character before choosing abilities. The rules provide a long list of questions for players to answer about their character, in writing. The sample character's beginning diary is about a full page.
Questions the game provides can be broken down into basic background information, personality features, and role playing hooks for the host to pull on. Background information questions include name, appearance, preferred clothing and stylistic quirks, biggest regret in life, and so on. Personality feature questions include virtues, vices, most valued principle in life, goals, and so on. Role playing hooks include the character's nemesis, allies, and romantic attachments.
The character's nemesis and goals are important for the game. Pondsmith says a feature of period literature was that main characters usually have a sworn enemy that they are expected to oppose with all their strength. As for goals, Castle Falkenstein has players select three for their character: social, professional, and romantic. Pondsmith notes that a savvy host will set up conflicts among these goals to give players richer role playing opportunities.
Finally, players choose their abilities. There is a list of twenty-one abilities, and players are encouraged to create new ones with their host's permission. Abilities are rated on a descriptive, six point scale: Poor, Average, Good, Great, Exceptional, and Extraordinary. Characters get one ability at Great, four at Good, and one at Poor, with all other abilities scored as Average. Players may choose more high-rated abilities at a cost of more Poor abilities.
As one may expect for a Victorian type setting, the genders are expected to choose different careers, and thus, different character types. While Falkenstein allots women more power and influence (and probably, more freedom) than historical Europe did in that period, female players may still prefer the more active roles that would be traditionally reserved for males. This is not a barrier in the game, as Pondsmith mentions that on rare occasions, women cross the gender line and take on male roles. In fact, one of the main characters in the background story is Marianne, who is unquestionably female yet acting as a hard-hitting adventurer. (There are a couple of historical examples, too.) We assume background characters would make comments, but this is up to the individual hosts.
There are two ways to go about improving an ability in Castle Falkenstein, and both revolve around the character diary. One is for the player to negotiate with the host over what ability he or she wishes to improve, and how the character is going to go about it. The player and host come to an agreement over what tasks need to be accomplished to improve an ability, and players note their character's progress in their diary. After all of the tasks are accomplished, the character gains a one step raise in their ability. For example, a player may choose to improve their character's charisma score. Host and player may agree that the character needs to obtain social skills training, from a friend, instructor, or finishing school; the character needs to have four opportunities to practice what they have learned, and then successfully give a speech to an audience of more than six people who are neither friends nor relatives. The player will note each accomplishment in his or her character's diary. When all are accomplished, the character's charisma score is raised by one category.
The second method is referred to as the Secret method. The host simply decides the means for advancement on his own, noting in his own game diary which events the character has accomplished, and then simply treating the character's skill as a point higher than it used to be. The player will not be told directly of the improvement, but should gradually come to notice that he or she is succeeding more often at a skill than before, at which point the Host will confirm the improvement.
Before Pondsmith discusses actual rules, he spends some time discussing diaries, both for players and for the host. For players, the diary serves as a well-fleshed out character sheet and a way to record game events. Player diaries are also used for "sub-creation." During down time, when their character is not involved in an activity, players can use their diaries to record their experiences while "offstage." This has players serving, in essence, as their own referees for their own characters, so long as this doesn't disrupt the game. In practice, this may drag a game out, but it may also help maintain player interest if there are long stretches where they are not involved in the scene.
As for the host, Castle Falkenstein goes into some detail on how to write the adventure up as a pseudo-Victorian book. To prepare the adventure, the host is advised to first write a splash page for the adventure. This features a showcase scene and a plot summary. Pondsmith says not to worry if the splash page doesn't end up corresponding to the adventure. The main idea is to get hosts to sketch out the main plot of the adventure and get their blood and creative juices flowing.
After the splash page, the cast of characters should be introduced. After that, chapter one has the backstory. The remaining chapters are reserved for the actual game. Each chapter begins with a short plot summary of what should happen, new characters are introduced if necessary, maps are prepared and pasted into the book, and then after the adventure has concluded, the host writes it up in the book.
At the conclusion of the series, the host should have an attractive little volume to pass around to stimulate players' memories of the game.
But first, there needs to be a game. As mentioned above, Castle Falkenstein uses cards instead of dice. The game requires two packs of poker cards, jokers included. One deck is the Fortune deck and the other becomes the Sorcery deck. Dramatic character abilities are translated from descriptors into numbers: Poor equals two, Average equals four, Good equals six, up to Extraordinary, which equals twelve. Feats are given a difficulty rating by the host, first by descriptor (Good, Excellent, and so on), and then assigned a number using the same translation that characters use. Players and the host each have a hand of four cards drawn from the Fortune deck. Both player and host may add one or more cards to their listed ability, and totals are compared. There are five levels of success: fumble (player score half or less of what's needed), failure (player score less than what's needed), partial success (player beats the needed score), full success (player's score is half again or more of the needed score), and high success (player's score double what's needed or more). It's completely up to the host as to how to interpret these levels of success, as only one example is provided.
Abilities and feats are classified into suits: purely physical challenges and abilities are clubs; mental abilities are diamonds, emotional abilities are (of course), hearts, and spades refer to social abilities and status. If the card played has the matching suit, it adds the full value of the card. If the card is not of the matching suit, it's only worth one point regardless of its value. (Incidentally, Jacks are worth 11, Queens 12, Kings 13, Aces 14, and Jokers 15.) Discards are shuffled back into the Fortune Deck, and everybody refills their hand.
Conventional combat follows the same procedure, although the effects of the various levels of success are clearly defined. A fumble means the top card of the fortune deck is flipped, and a bad thing happens to the attacker based on the suit of the card revealed. A failure means no effect. The three levels of success correspond to three levels of wounds: partial, full, and high. Damage is found on a table, where you cross-index the weapon type with the level of success. Dramatic character hit points are based on Courage and Physique.
Character hit points range from a minimum of three to a maximum of ten. Weapon damage ranges from a minimum of one (a partial wound by cudgel or fist) to a maximum of six (a high wound from a sword or saber). Characters can be felled in two good blows, or a flurry of minor ones. Castle Falkenstein has little use for armor: cuirasses and helmets are mainly for show. Still, combat rarely leads to death. A character reduced to negative health points is unconscious or otherwise incapacitated. To kill a foe, the character must first reduce their opponent to unconsciousness, then deliver a deliberate killing blow. Needless to say, player Dramatic Characters should not resort to this unless absolutely necessary, as it goes against type.
If the ref prefers a bit more risk, when a character is incapacitated, they can flip the top card of the Fortune deck. A draw of a spade means the character dies, but hopefully not before uttering some pithy last words.
Complying with Victorian tradition, women are not attacked physically by anybody with any sense of honor. Women may be legitimately reduced to a swoon however. A swoon is induced by foul language, environmental extremes (heat, cold, an overly tight corset), or rough treatment, such as shoving, grabbing, and so on. Each of these "attacks" does special "constitutional shock" damage, and when the woman's health points are exceeded by them, she swoons.
The difference between constitutional shock, wounds, and non-fatal blows is in how fast those injuries are recovered. Shock damage is healed in minutes; blows in hours, wounds in days or weeks, depending on whether they are treated.
This system is not used for the crucial battles of the Victorian melodrama, the scene where hero and villain lock swords for a fencing match to the death. Castle Falkenstein includes a separate, more detailed combat system for this, called Dueling. Dueling is a strictly one-on-one combat, where position can be at least as important as the weapon used.
Each combatant in a duel has a hand of six cards: two red number cards, two black number cards, and two face cards of any suit. For each exchange, the player puts down two cards. Reds represent an attack, black a defense, and face means a rest, neither attack nor defense. Cards are revealed simultaneously, and the players match them as they choose. Defenses always negate attacks. Unblocked attacks always get through. Cross-indexing attacker fencing ability to the defender's on a table shows how severe the wound is, using the same partial, full, and high system used for the main combat rules, and damage is calculated accordingly.
A character's fencing skill enters into the battle in two ways. One is that damage from an attack is based on a cross-index of the attacker's and defender's skill. The more skilled a character, the more damage he gives out and the less he receives. The other is that fencing skill dictates how many rests a character needs after every three exchanges. A poor fencer must rest for five of those six cards played, while an extraordinary fencer needs only rest once. As rests are neither attacks nor defenses, the main tactical point is to guess when your opponent is resting, and attack then.
The other tactical point is careful use of space in the dueling setting. Position is important because matched fencers frequently obtain a "push back" result on a successful attack rather than wounds. These "push back" results become wounds if the defender has nowhere to retreat to. Therefore, it would be a good idea for the host to either bring out miniatures on graph paper, or (as recommended in the rules), the players engage in some live-action play, where they position themselves around the room as they trade cards.
This dueling system permits for the cinematic duels, the opportunity for the villain to back the hero to the edge of the crumbling parapet, have the hero fail an agility check and fall, only to catch the tree branch out of sight of the villain.... Pondsmith also recommends using the duel rules for any tense and cinematically important contest between two characters: chess, wrestling, and so on.
Sorcery in Castle Falkenstein is flexible, yet limited. For starters, spell casters have access to a small number of spells, about four to eight. But spells are broad, and for each cast, the sorcerer decides the specific effect wanted. For example, your character may know a mental command spell. But this single spell may be used for a very minor effect, such as forcing a foe to drop their weapon, or it could be used to force the inhabitants of an entire city to form citizen's patrols to seek out all individuals with blue hats and bring them to the palace, with the spell lasting for months or years. Spells are practically limited by their cost, which, in turn, becomes a question of time.
Spells have a "thaumic energy" cost to cast. This cost is based on the specific spell used, and then modified by duration, range, complexity, number of targets, and so on. This cost is reduced by the sorcerer's personal Sorcerous Ability, so that powerful wizards have a slightly easier time casting than beginners.
Once the energy requirements are known, the sorcerer must begin to accumulate energy to cast it. Players draw cards from the Sorcery deck, one card for every two minutes of game time. As for the main task resolution mechanic, the suits of the cards matter. Spells have one of four Aspects: emotion and mental effects (hearts), physical effects (diamonds), the elements (clubs), and spirit, including other dimensions (spades). Cards drawn from the Sorcery deck of the matching suit are worth their face value, while unaspected cards are worth only one point each. When enough energy has been accumulated, the spell is cast.
While this is interesting enough, Castle Falkenstein adds another dimension that adds great potential to the game: harmonics. If a spell is cast using unaspected energy, the host picks the highest-valued non-aspected card from the pile. That card's suit determines the unwanted additional effects the spell has, and the value determines how strong the effect is. Hearts have emotional effects, so that a Mind Control spell might come across more strongly than desired (do you want the villain that you ordered to drop his sword to swoon with love for you, too?), or the rest of your party may be influenced by unwanted emotions. Diamonds have material harmonics, so a physical manifestation may occur: the sword may wrench itself out of the opponent's hand and dance about the room. Spades produce a spiritual harmonic: the villain or party may have a crisis of spirit, or a peace-loving demon may appear to disarm everyone. Clubs have an elemental harmonic: the villain's sword may transform into raw earth. Spell casters may choose to discard unaspected cards while summoning energy to cast a spell, but that will slow casting considerably.
Another unlooked-for side effect is when a spell caster draws a joker while drawing in energy. The joker means the spell goes off immediately and in an uncontrolled way. The spell goes wild, and the host has a free hand as to what happens, usually with dramatic results.
Accumulating energy is the safe way to cast a spell. (Obviously, "safe" is a relative term.) But a caster in a hurry can use her own body as an energy source, "unraveling" her substance to feed the spell. For every health point spent, the caster produces two points of energy for the spell. This unraveling is healed as a wound.
The magick system is colorful, flexible, and unique. Players have real choices in the effects of their spells, and can reliably perform great magicks, if they have enough time. (Woe to the party that has a well-hidden sorcerer for a foe, and no magickal back-up of their own!) If players want, they can work spells to affect an entire city or nation--and if they can convince brother or sister wizards of their lodge to cooperate, great spells can be worked in a relatively short period of time. (Each spell caster in a group accumulates magickal energy separately, combining it all into a single pool.) Best of all, the spell harmonics leads to a great deal of color for the game, leading to interesting moments.
The book closes with a sketched out adventure, a number of adventure seeds, and a rather nice bibliography.
Castle Falkenstein was an innovative game. In its day, the background was unique and innovative as well. Today there are a number of Victorian games with a twist out there. Unfortunately, like many others in the Museum, it never really took off.
While we are very fond of this game, we note some problems that could interfere with play. One is the mismatch between the use of descriptive levels for abilities and the numeric system for resolution. Players will eventually memorize the numeric value of descriptors, but we feel that players should convert the descriptors to numeric values immediately after character creation to speed play and reduce the chance of errors.
The second may turn out to not be a problem in play, and that concerns the power of dragon characters. In the setting information in the story, dragons are portrayed as fearsome beings that should never be approached lightly, although they have some weaknesses. As dragons sometimes take on human form and walk through the societies of New Europa, the rules permit for dragons as player characters. To reduce the chance that they would dominate the game, dragon characters are weakened to a more human level. But from our reading of the rules, we feel that dragons have been weakened too much. We would have preferred that dragons remain powerful and mysterious, and if play balance was a problem, we would have simply removed them from the list of player character options.
The third is the weak index. Like other games that put their setting information in a narrative, it can be difficult to find information in a hurry, although sidebars are clearly labeled. You just need to flip through the book to find them. And while we're discussing the background, why "New Europa"? What was "old Europa"?
The final error is the most critical, and that is that we feel the primary game mechanic is broken. As written, players are encouraged to save their cards for crucial contests. But the mechanic encourages players to play all of the cards in their hands in every challenge, since their hands are replenished immediately, and the discards are shuffled back into the deck. The only reason to save a card is if you have a particularly high-scoring card in a suit that doesn't match the current challenge, but you believe that card will be needed soon. We are sure others in the Castle Falkenstein fan base have discussed this; our solution would be to deal players six cards, but not permit replacing cards during the game session.
There are sourcebooks available for GURPS, 3rd edition, by Steve Jackson Games (click here: http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/books/castlefalkenstein/) . Steve Jackson also published an Ottoman Empire supplement that R Talsorian never got to. We wish the GURPS version well, but we wonder how much of the original flavor is lost in the translation. Dice? Gentlemen don't play at dice...
Prowl around the web a bit for this one. Castle Falkenstein, as a literary-based game, does well on-line. There are some interesting resources out there.
As for many of our games, my direct experience is limited. I received my first real exposure to Castle Falkenstein in an adventure published in Pyramid, when it was a paper magazine. I was enchanted by the scenario: a sleeping princess trapped on a glass mountain, who must be rescued by a prince...how would this have been handled in a mid 1800's setting? As a tourist attraction and goal for a race, of course!
I got my chance to play at a minor game convention, where I had a wonderful time, although I was puzzled by the incentives to work through your cards as quickly as possible. "That can't be right!" I thought, but sure enough, that's the way the rules are written. I actually won my copy of the book at that conference...because all of the other players already owned a copy, and I didn't.
As is often the case, after doing this review, I am hoping I'll have a chance to play this game again. It's time to crank out a scenario.