Thursday, July 14, 2011

Castle Falkenstein: RPGs I Like

Great Games of the Recent Past
Castle Falkenstein (CF) is my favorite game I’ve never actually played but that I’ve stolen from (others? Over the Edge and Unknown Armies). Originally published in 1994, it remains an incredibly well produced and designed game book. It is a transitional book- in between old styles of production and the rise of really strong DTP technologies. Stylistically, it picks up on ideas about story games brewing at the same time and moves them forward. Arguably, it is the first real Steampunk RPG. A case might be made for Space 1889, but that has a fairly narrow approach. CF brings those ideas together with high romance. In that way it represents a track for the genre taken up by more popular media (Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, Howl’s Moving Castle, Atlantis) rather than the darker tendencies seen in novels (diFillipo’s Steampink Trilogy, Blaylock’s Homunculus, Mieville’s Perdido Street Station). The former emphasizes possibility, romance and gleaming devices; the latter emphasizes gritty, decay and infernal machines. Castle Falkenstein differed from anything else of the time, something which probably hurt it in the long run. It was a historical fantastic game which arrived on the scene, ironically, too early.

The Book Itself
Castle Falkenstein looks great- I’ve owned both the soft and hard cover versions. The hardcover’s the better bet- as the softcover suffers from spine break if you’re not careful. The art’s consistent and interesting: a mix of simple line drawings and painterly style color images. Text design is excellent for its time- a little dense in places and a little heavy with grey screen in a few spots. The books split into two parts, with the rules section (the second half of the book) on heavier parchment paper That nicely splits the book.

Framing the Game
The first part, 128 pages, establishes the premise and sets up the background. Tom Olam’s a computer game artist from our universe whisked away to the world of Castle Falkenstein. That’s turns out to be a semi-historical, high-magic version of Europe in the 1870’s. It mixes idealized Victoriana, fiction of the period ,and real history- up to a point. It echoes Prisoner of Zenda (which may be a dated reference) and foreshadows League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in certain respects. Heroes are heroes, villains are dastardly, and "fates worse than death" get threatened. Tom Olam’s tour of the world takes up most of the first half of the book. He meets the important people, examines differences, gets involved in the big plots and revels in the wonder of the place. The book presents those ideas as first person vignettes which tie together into a larger story. In between those we get asides presenting details of daily life (the nations, the concepts of magic, bearing and grace, etc.).

The Difficulty of Game Fiction
The framing device is key to the book. I generally don’t care for game fiction. More often than not it feels self-indulgent or overdone. It might be a little hypocritical for me to say, but it seems to bask in its own cleverness. When I see a White Wolf book with fiction chunks longer than a couple of pages, I can be pretty sure I’ll hit some of that. Sometimes the fiction doesn’t do anything to set up the material it is placed with. Worse, sometimes the powers, tone and ideas established by the fiction don’t line up with the material and mechanics of the rules. I’ll admit I usually skim and skip lengthy bits when I’m going through a game book. I look to shorter bits to provide some ‘tone’, but avoid the rest.

That being said, CF’s among a handful of games where the fiction engaged my imagination and kept me reading along (two others off the top of my head would be City of Lies and Orpheus). The framing device isn’t a throw away trick. Instead the voice established in the first part carries through the rest of the book. Getting a natural and non-third-person omniscient viewpoint on the setting presents a challenge. It can feel clunky and artificial. A typical approach offers a foreigner or academic which can result in a mixed tone. The outsider/insider voice of the Tom Olam character, on the other hand, works here. It doesn’t feel too out of place and his comments on things help the reader understand differences without the technique feeling artificial.

Victorian Melodrama and Literary Traditions
We’re presented with Victorian world of battling nations with magical societies, dragons, dwarves, warring Seelie, wondrous steam technology and high adventure. The tone, as I said earlier, is upbeat. Olam describes this as a world as "it should have been." If you’re looking for grit, don’t look here. CF has a positive style reflected both in the fiction and in the rules. You can’t look too closely at the history. Readers with more liberal approaches may be a little put off by the white-washing of issues of the period. But the game presents itself as a literary romance, played out at the game table.

That literary conceit plays out in the rules themselves. The book stresses that each player have a "diary" instead of a character sheet. While the diary has the usual character abilities notes, equipment, hit points, etc, it should also be a place to describe character actions in the most glorious way. Players can write their own stories of what happens between sessions (the bluebooking of Strike Force worked into the system). CF has players work through another version of the twenty-questions often used by games as a tool for character description (most often seen in WW books). But here the questions are tooled to the setting and reflect the premise (Who is Your Nemesis? Describe Your Romantic Life). CF consistently maintains its atmosphere of Victorian Melodrama, even when we’re dealing with the crunchy mechanics.

Character Creation
The rules section opens with an overview of what that melodrama means, with literary and more modern examples. This moves into an examination of what makes up a "dramatic character," a more evocative way of saying Player Character. Before you know it CF provides templates and archetypes for various professions players can choose from. These serve as pretty guidelines, rather than specific classes. However certain choices (such as playing a non-human or a sorcerer) have some fairly tight mechanics tied to them. Players define their character’s strengths through abilities- essentially a broader form of skills and talents. There are no stats or characteristics. Abilities are rated in Quality, with a value associated with that quality (for example Poor (2), Average (4), Good (6), Great (8)). There aren’t that many abilities- each covers a wide area (Physique, Education, Fencing). Characters begin with one Great ability, four Good ones and one Poor. Anything else is considered average by default. The books spends about fifty pages setting up the idea of the melodrama, the character rules, typical adventures and associated tidbits (like equipment).

Resolution in the Cards
Finally at page 181 we get the actual rules for the game. Castle Falkenstein uses a simple system for dramatic action- a difficulty is set for the action and the player tries to meet that with the level of the relevant ability. Here’s where it gets interesting- the conventions of Victorian society exclude dice, so CF uses cards. Each player has a hand of four cards from a standard playing card deck. When taking an action, players may lay down as many cards as they like. Each action has an affiliated suit (Comeliness- Hearts; Fisticuffs- Clubs). If a player plays a card of the right suit, the face value of that card is added to the value (so a Good Fisticuffs has a value 6 and if the player lays down a 5 of Clubs, then she has a total of 11). Cards of other suits can be laid down as well, but with a value of one only for each. CF provides a simple resolution system, more than a little ahead of its time. But it still keeps some odd trappings of numbers, crunch and details. Interestingly, the Comme Il Faut supplement provides a number of rules options and revisions which do away with those- making it much more akin to a modern, indie storytelling game. Only nine pages of the rules actually cover combat and task resolution. Additional pages add options for war machines and other extras.

Swords, Steam and Magic: Three Great Systems

Beyond those simple and easy rules, CF has three unique and interesting sub-systems. The first provides great mechanics for one-on-one duels. It uses card play to match attacks, defenses, and rests. This great little approach could easily be lifted out into other games. The second is the method for handling gadgets and device building. This offers a simple and quick method for building such things. I’m usually pretty negative about item and vehicle creation mechanics- they often overwhelm and add unnecessary complexity. This offers an easy and balanced system- narratively simple. Again, the mechanics here could easily be ported over to another game.

But the most interesting thing is the magic system. Mages have great power and flexibility- but a small pool of spells (like Reign, L5R, Exalted or True Sorcery). These they can modify with increased difficulty to create new effects (unlike Exalted). Magic is learned in exclusive traditions, each with its own lore and politics. This provides all kinds of hooks for mages and makes the magic feel organic to the setting. Magic casting requires characters to draw power- taken from a separate deck. Each kind of spell has an aspect, represented by a suit. Once players determine the Thaumic Energy requirements for the spell (based on effect and modifiers) they have to draw that much energy from the area around them. Every minute they can draw two cards. Cards of the proper suit for the spell effect add their face value in energy; all others add one each. Using non-aligned energy creates harmonics which can cause the spell’s effect to go haywire or out of control.

There’s a lot to love in Castle Falkenstein. While I tend to look at setting books for what I can borrow for other games, I like the setting enough that I want to run it. Steampunk has evolved quite a bit since CF came out (Unhallowed Metropolis, Etherscope) but I think few if any have captured the idea of romance and optimism as CF has. That’s ironic to me in that it came from R Talsorian, who built themselves on the dark and sometimes nihilistic Cyberpunk 2020 rpg. If you’re looking for a lighter, more romantic rpg game and setting, I recommend Castle Falkenstein. It is a great "transitional" game in the history of rpgs- worth a first or even second look.

Castle Falkenstein as a setting could easily be translated over to another system. The only sticking points, it seems to me, would be adapting those three subsystems (duels, gadgets and magic) without over complicating them or losing some of their feel. GURPS Castle Falkenstein tries to do this with mixed success IMHO. Still the world itself is vibrant and interesting enough to be worth bringing over to a system your group likes.

In the other direction, CF offers a complete and simple RPG system which could be used for other genres. I suspect you’d really only want to use it for games with high drama or melodrama (say a Pirates or Pulp action campaign). The card system is interesting and fun and certainly had some effect on our house rules. A number of the mechanical systems I mentioned as sticking points above could stand on their own in other games. Duels feel different and focused in this system- beyond the "I go, you go" approach of some systems. The magic has a lot of potential and, with some modifications could serve as a great universal engine. It is worth noting that the game gets some significant and interesting optional rules in Comme Il Faut and The Book of Sigils which makes those worth picking up if one is thinking about lifting parts of the game.


  1. I love this game too and while I have played Castle Falkenstein, I have never used Castle Falkenstein to do it.

    CF suffered from one major marketing flaw, especially at the time it was produced, which was that it didn't use dice. Most gamers I've encountered, by and large and even to this day, don't want to use cards to play an RPG. They want dice. I remember when I bought the book and read through it I thought, "My lord this is awesome. Damn. I need to buy playing cards. I'm an RPG gamer. I don't have playing cards."

    Another odd thing about it was that it was yet another game by game genius Mike Pondsmith and the amazing R. Talsorian Games that didn't use their house system. Not one of their 'Interlock System' games truly interlocked and than they kept making new games that didn't use any variation of Interlock at all! ~_^

    Still and all this is a brilliant game and a beautiful book, published both far ahead and slightly askew of its time.

  2. Spot on overview of perhaps my favorite RPG product of all time! And a very astute observation that it it came out too early. I hadn't thought about it that way but you are probably right. I think the game would have done very will in Story Game circles these days.

    @Barking: I bought my first two decks of playing cards as soon as I read the game. :)

  3. I could kick myself for selling this game a couple years ago.
    Now I can't find a copy for under &50.
    I'd never heard there was a hardback edition.
    Now I must have it!

  4. @Nemo235: Yeah, the hard-back is essential (and beautiful). The soft-cover came unbound in short order.

  5. Great overview of one of the most criminally underappreciated (and underplayed) RPGs of all time. Great point on the book's transitional nature. The mechanics, in particular; the simplified system in Comme is a godsend and my go-to choice. Absolutely agreed that it came out too early. I remember when steampunk started gaining traction in certain geeky circles a few years ago, I thought to myself, "But steampunk is so 1994!" entirely because of CF.

    I ran a brief single-player campaign of CF a couple years ago. I actually just ran across the campaign diary from that campaign and have resolved to pitch CF to my group for our next campaign. We'll see if I can sell them on it.

    As for cards, I've always had a deck or two laying around, so that wasn't an issue for me. However, for the aforementioned campaign I did pick up a couple decks from my local game store, which carried a wide selection. I bought reproduction decks of 1860s-vintage playing cards. They really added to the experience!

  6. I've certainly borrowed significantly from CF for the Steampunk Fantasy game I've been running. It is also worth nothing all of the nods to props and live-action in the CF book. Given the emergence of Steampunk cosplay as a "thing," I'd say that's another way in which it was ahead of its time.

    As to why Falkenstein didn't take off, I'd point anecdotally to a couple of things (based on trying to get people interested in our group and trying to sell it as a retailer at the time).

    1. R Talsorian fans, of Cyberpunk and Mekton, weren't interested in CF. They wanted more sci-fi, anime and/or gritty chrome. I think that distinctly cut a segment out. It meant it also ended up in the same shelf space usually, IMHO.

    2. Fantasy gamers thought it was a historical game and historical gamers thought it wasn't historical. And there's a certain amount of truth on both sides there. And historical games, with rare exceptions, don't do all that well.

    3. Some people complain about alignment systems or games which legislate morality. In most games GMs fall back to playing out the repercussions of bad choices, if something's out of genre. But Castle Falkenstein embraces a particular shiny ethos, where players don't kill their enemies. Where mortality, decorum and bearing matter and you don't go outside of those conventions. I'd argue few games before this had those kinds of mechanics (using alignment and personality traits as beating sticks instead). The exception would be humor games like Ghostbusters and Toon which made the genre tropes clear. I know, in speaking to a number of peope, they felt CF to be restrictive. Now, this would be fifteen years ago and I think gaming has moved forward from that to an acceptance that embracing those kinds of limitations (obstructions) can create other interesting game situations.

  7. I was very much impressed by the freeform magic system, and also by the way that the pace of the game's magic was rather slow - a wizard had to have several minutes to prepare. This slow pace gave the game a very pre-modern feel.

    Unfortunately, I never actually got to play the game - I discovered it long after I left my long-term gaming circles.