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Retro Review: Castle Falkenstein

April 3, 2013

Published in 1994 by R. Talsorian Games, Castle Falkenstein by Mike Pondsmith is a game of adventure in the sorcerous steampunk alternative reality of New Europa, a world as much of Victorian and Victorian-set fiction and fairytale-styled magic, dragons and fairies as of real history.

Castle Falkenstein was a game that I was very interested in when it came out, but although I enjoyed reading through an adventure for it in Roleplayer Independent, I never did get hold of it or have a chance to actually play it. With its focus on Faerie in the Victorian era, it is quite similar to For Faerie, Queen & Country from TSR (published in 1993 – obviously Victorian Faerie was flavour of the moment!), a setting that I rather enjoyed at the time. Where it is different is that it focuses a little earlier in the period and upon the continent, rather than Britain, primarily the German states: Bayern (Bavaria) is a leading member of the Second Compact that is battling against Prussia and their Unseelie allies.

Unlike many roleplaying games, Castle Falkenstein starts by building the world with the rules coming almost as an afterthought. Partly, this is due to the conceit that the book is actually the edited writings of a computer game designer, Tom Olam, who was ‘spellnapped into New Europe where he helped restore King Ludwig to the throne of Bayern and thwart the ambitions of Prussia to dominate New Europa, and who has sent back his journal and various notes to his friend, Mike Pondsmith, in our Earth. The rules, in turn, are supposed to be one ones he designed for his friends in his new home, hence some the variations from gaming norms. In some ways this conceit is useful, for example by allowing Tom to describe how things are different to our reality. Unfortunately, it does have its drawbacks, both in terms of the limitations of Tom’s knowledge (this is not a game for GMs who want to know every last detail about everything) and the increasingly irritating references to the way events are liable to turn out from the perspective of someone who has lived post-World War II – had these been in-universe statements, they would have been amusing in a ‘hilarious in hindsight’ sense, but Tom (as we do) already knows how things panned out in our universe, so the sly references are just annoying – you know about the war, we know about the war, why be so coy about it?

The basic idea of the setting is a great one and I really wanted to love it, but it doesn’t quite work. Although ‘it isn’t our world’ is invoked as an excuse for both designer and Host (GM) when things don’t quite match with real history – and, let’s face it, with fairies, dragons and weird science, you were hardly expecting an exacting historical simulation, were you? – I found the fact that it was modeled so closely upon real history, despite major divergences, distracting. It is not only the fact that the presence of Faerie, dwarfs, dragons and sorcery have failed to have much of an impact upon history, but that, in the one case where they apparently did, specifically a Faerie Lord transforming the middle of Germany into a sea, it has had no real impact upon the course of history! It’s not that I’m expecting a highly-detailed alternate history timeline, nor that I have a problem with the basic concept of borrowing from history and fiction, it’s just that I’d like to have seen the differences acknowledged more. If you can ignore such issues, then you will doubtless enjoy the setting without reservations, but I would have to rewrite a chunk of background, either to modify history to reflect the changes or make it so that the public appearance of Faerie and such like is more recent, allowing older history to remain much the same due to their influence being behind the scenes.

Plenty of information is included on things such as currencies, militaries and period culture, but there are some odd points. For example, rather than the 240 pennies to the pound of reality, the UK of New Europa has 200 pennies – yet the pound is equal in value to other currencies, making the British penny worth half anyone else’s pennies, rather than the pound being worth two of the other currencies; which is just so weird, especially as, in reality, the Shilling would have been the unit closer in value to the Dollar and Franc. As far as I can tell, the idea was to slip in jokes about stuffy old Brits and their odd currency without forcing innumerate Americans to actually handle a weird currency. The whole situation is further exacerbated by the frankly bizarre comment that the British insist that you convert your currency if you want to purchase things in their shops. So, not only is every other currency equal in value – no exchange rates in this world – but it seems that you can spend them freely anywhere in the world… Why not just state that a Single European Currency has been established, if that’s what you want? I know these are essentially minor, easily overlooked issues, but they are exactly the sort of thing that derail my enjoyment and make me want to throw the book across the room, as much for the way in which the author is insulting all the intelligent Americans I know by presenting a narrator who embodies the worst archetypes of idiotic American incomprehension of anything beyond their shores. Plenty of research obviously went into creating the setting – there is an extensive bibliography – yet utterly silly things like this slip through…

Which all translates into a feeling of disappointment as it’s a game brimming with great ideas that I want to use. The Faerie races are interesting and enjoyably close to folk lore whilst equally being reflective of the, more prevalent today, Faerie as fiction or dream made manifest. The dwarfs and their connection to the Faerie is unusual and, most of all, the dragons are a very interesting departure from the norm, being magic-using descendants of pterosaurs rather than the more usual giant-lizard with wings. I have a feeling that, as fun as it is to read, it might just have been better had Tom Olam not been the narrator…

As for the rules, they were the opposite of the setting in that they work, but did little for me. They use cards rather than dice and are a little too fiddly for my tastes. I just want to resolve events simply and a dice is perfect for that. Keeping track of cards is just too much hassle for the sort of run-of-the-mill events that are likely to come up and, whilst there are some interesting rules for dueling, which attempt to recreate the actual cut-and-thrust of a sword duel, they are even more fiddly and gimmicky, undermining their novelty. They do, however, evoke the intended feel of the period and are workable, so there is no real reason, if you can tolerate them, not to use them.

The one area, though, where the rules did shine was the rules for magic use. The use of cards works well here to simulate the way sorcerers build energy and the rules for Harmonics, where different types of energy (represented by different suits of cards) are woven together to power a spell, are interesting as they cause spells to go awry in interesting and imaginative ways, whilst still achieving their effect – and the likelihood that you won’t have all the cards to cast a spell without a Harmonic effect means that players of sorcerers will need to balance the risk of unintended side-effects against the necessity of casting a spell as soon as possible. If you want magic that works in this way, then this system may be worth importing to other settings.

Overall, Castle Falkenstein is a game full of neat idea that don’t quite add up, at least for me. it is a great read in itself and is well worth mining for ideas, but I’m not sure it is worth playing as it stands, although it would doubtless be an excellent setting if tweaked a little. Certainly worth a look if you enjoy mixing magic with the Victorian period!

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