What Is It?
A sourcebook of magickal societies and magick across the whole Castle Falkenstein setting.
As with the reviews of most of these Castle Falkenstein
products, I need to assess the book on two terms. First, does it work
as a CF supplement? Second, is this something which would be
useful/worth reading for other gamers? On the former, I can say
sincerely that The Book of Sigils
is a major success. It echoes the best of the structures from previous
books and provides new rules and ideas about magic. These ideas fit well
with the systems of the main book. The expansion feels natural, that
discussion about magic has been broadened, rather than that new
mechanics and details have been added to create a salable book. On the
latter point, I can attest to my own use of many of these ideas and
concepts from this book in other games. There’s rich material to be
mined here- especially for GMs fond of rich, consistent and interesting
tapestries of magic.
The Book Itself
The Book of Sigils
follows the same general layout as the rest of the books in the CF
line. That’s both for good and a little ill. The good is that for the
time, R Talsorian did a great job with the mid-1990’s DTP software.
There’s clean layout, nice icons, and solid use of fonts (rather than
going overboard). On the other hand, they use a grey-screen behind most
of the pages which can make the reading less than ideal in places. I’d
be curious to see how the pdf version of this would look on a mobile
device. This 128 page softcover also falls into the same trap as the
other CF books. Where they have a lot of information to present, they
give it to you- at a much reduced font size- the section on Voudoun and
Zombies is particularly egregious in this regard. That’s both an
artifact of the technology of the time and editorial decisions. But it
does mean the font size shifts from section to section.
interior artwork in the book works- done for the most part by a single
artist (I believe Mark Schumann, but I can’t tell from the credits or
images). These are pencil sketches, in some cases oddly full-page, which
fit with the book’s presentation. However the graphic images- such as
the front cover, and some of the sigils inside, look really dated given
modern graphics programs. They look very, very 1990’s. The book’s
credited to a team of writers, including Mike Pondsmith, but it doesn’t
feel like a product created by committee. The tone and presentation
remains consistent throughout.
Weaving the Structure
Most Castle Falkenstein sourcebooks split into a handful of sections, with different kinds of material in each (Steam Age, Auberon's Memoirs, and Comme Il Faut split into two parts like this). The Book of Sigils is the exception which proves the rule. Like the core book and Six-Guns & Sorcery, The Book of Sigils has a strong narrative running through it- and like the game fiction from the main Castle Falkenstein
book, this story works. In fact, I actually think it works better. I’ve
said before I dislike most game fiction- it so often fails on both its
purposes: illuminating the game world and providing a narrative I want
to read more of. That narrative provides the story of a protagonist with
many names, but primarily as known as Anthony Savile. His story of
involvement with many magickal orders takes him across the globe. The
division of sections is primarily geographic, as his tale moves from
country to country, continent to continent. It is presented as a memoir,
a device which again reinforces the central conceit of CF which has the
PCs writing their own heroic memoirs.
don’t want to give too much away about the story running through this
book. Suffice to say, we get an on-the-ground perspective on the
Magickal Orders, the life of magicians, the interactions of wizards
among themselves and how they fit into the larger world. The first fifty
pages tour New Europa, hitting many of the major locations. This
connects up neatly with the material from the core book which focused on
European mages and chantries. There’s great material on the necessary
rituals for mages- including discovery, recruitment, and how they
function as a kind of gentlemen's club. For GMs running campaigns with
magic-using characters, these kinds of details will be invaluable,
offering new kinds of plots and details to throw in for verisimilitude.
Some sections of Europe don’t get individual treatment (I would have
like to have seen something on the Russians) but overall there’s enough
material to fuel many campaigns.
The following sections move the
action further afield. We begin with Africa and the Middle East and
then cross the ocean. Over fifty pages, Savile crosses the New World
from Boston to Canada to the Indian Nations to New Orleans to South
America to the California Free State. Some of this fits nicely in with
the later Six-Guns & Sorcery-
though it also has to take a detour to reference Wild, Wild West as
well. The authors set up a nice contrast between the Chantry and
Brotherhood structures of Europe and those of these regions. Each of
them feels right- doing a remarkable job of avoiding too much goofiness.
At the same time, each feels interesting within the context of the
game. Dealing with the other, with marginal groups in historical games
can be tricky. Following too much the sentiment of the period feels
offensive, but going too much the other direction makes these groups
overly powerful or cool. There’s the risk of liberal guilt payback
(which I say as a liberal). The Book of Sigils strikes a great
balance- with the non-western magical societies offered appearing just
as interesting and just as problematic as those of the west. The last
part of the book hits the Pacific Islands, China (quite nicely) and
India before wrapping up the story in a way which feels right and yet
leaves me wanting to know more.
The Game Material
of the material presented is narrative- either the first person
narration of Savile’s story or discussion of setting elements. But the
book also offers solid new rules and systems. Probably the most
important for a GM will be the detailing of thirty new Magickal Orders
across the globe. Most of these figure into Savile’s tale. As with the
presentation of Orders in the main book, each offers a discussion of
philosophy and structure, followed by a number of spells unique to the
group. These are usually tied to a pair of grimoires. Spell effects
don’t dwell on the minutiae- instead they simply present what it does,
leaving the interpretation to the GM ( "...imbues the caster with the
strength of a herd of buffalo," or "...allows the minute perception of
the condition of a body.") The book illuminates the hows and whys of
Orders, and presents mechanics for creating your own. In addition, the
book lays out and examines some of the basic concepts of magic,
clarifying some of the cosmology of the New Europa setting.
of note covered in the book include Women’s Sorcerous Orders;
hospitality and rules; making a living as a wizard; philosophical
debates; order oppositions; gaining membership and so on. Book of Sigils
also touches on a number of other important mechanics: learning from
spell failure; sympathetic magick; spirit combat; handling the undead;
magickal potions; custom spells; wizard duels, and so on. In short,
there’s something for everyone- a useful book for player and GM alike.
For Castle Falkenstein gamers, this ought to be a must-buy. This would be my third suggested purchase, after the core book and Comme Il Faut.
For anyone else, that's another question. Here’s the thing...Book of Sigils offers serious exploration of the magickal side of the Castle Falkenstein
world. That makes a good deal of it apparently setting specific.
However, I’ve found it useful on several counts. I brought the ideas of
the Sorcerous orders, especially in tone and approach, over to my own
fantasy steampunk game. My players found that structure particularly
useful in getting a handle the world of magic. In many cases I tied them
to sympathetic clubs, which provided a ready set of alliances and
battles. Book of Sigils offers a neat and portable concept. But
it also presents a broader lesson- an excellent look at a functioning
magical society from the inside. For GMs world-building with magic, BoS
serves as a great touchstone. I've reread this a couple of times when
I've been thinking about how to make issues of magic more vivid and
interesting to my players. (There's a reason CF's so high on my list of evocative magic systems).
I said above, I think the general ideas of BoS can be transformed and
used elsewhere. On the flip side, BoS doesn’t add a lot of complexity to
the Castle Falkenstein system. If you wanted to use CF for another
game, these mechanics could easily be brought over. If you’re doing CF
with another system, BoS doesn’t add any major barriers.