R. Talsorian Games
[sterling]19.99 - 224pp
At a time when other games companies are scrambling onto the gravy train with
"dark" fantasy RPGs and Magic look alike card games, the release of Castle
Falkenstein at US GenCon came like a "breath of fresh air,"
according to our editor.
How can I convey Castle Falkenstein to you? The designers do it with
delightful full-colour artwork and a crisp, humorous short story, filling the
first 130 pages, along with short witty articles that fill in geography,
history and politics. Fictional(?) games designer Tom Olam is
"spellnapped" while touring Neuschwanstein Castle in Barvaria. A Faerie King
and an Illuminati sorcerer have cast a spell to summon help, Thomas Covenant
style, to save their world. Tom recounts his exploits in the alternate
world of New Europa. He goes on to help Prince Albert design a Victorian
role playing parlour game with playing cards (dice are totally for cads!) and
this is what you hold in your hands.
The world of Falkenstein is similar to Europe in the Victorian age. You
get to attend balls, thwart anarchist plots, cross swords with Bismark's
Prussian henchmen and romance and intrigue at Ludwig II's Barvarian court. Aha!
So, it's a historical RPG then is it?
Not really. This is the "Age of Steam." Automotives, velocipedes and
ornithopters chuff across the cities, lumbering Prussian land fortresses chug
over battlefields; Babbage machines, clockwork cybernetics and heliographs are
typical of the weird "steamtech" existing here. Ah! So, it's like GDW's
Space 1889 then is it?
Well.... no. There are these Faeries, y'see? The Seelie like humans: High
Faeries attend balls or serve in the glamorous cavalry regiments, Dwarves are
master gadgeteers (stuff your horned helmets and battle axes - these Dwarves
wear top hats and dinner jackets) and dragons mingle with high society to play
the stock market and add to their burgeoning "collections." Naturally, there
are Unseelie Faeries too - horrible Trolls, Goblins, Vampires, and their ilk.
Since they're prevented from mashing humanity outright, they have to be subtle.
They're manipulating Bismark's Prussia, promoting global warfare and reckless
Steampunk technology. Hmmm, guess it must be like for TSR's Faerie, Queen
and Country, then?
Except for the Illuminated Brotherhood of Barvaria battling it out with
the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in a behind-the-scenes magickal
war, with sundry other Orders and Lodges wading in when the opportunity
presents. Err.... is that like Mage the Ascension, then?
In fact, it's only superficially like any of these. This is an RPG with no dice
and no character sheets.
In place of character generation you start a "journal" for your Dramatic
Character (PC). Write a self portrait: your history, your appearence,
goals, virtues, loves and enemies. Describe one thing you're great at, four
things your good at, and one thing you're lousy at. That's it. As play proceeds
you keep track of your character in this Journal: what you do, who you meet,
what you learn and how you feel about it. There are a few numbers, but
the Host (referee) records them in her Journal and the players never need see
Playing cards instead of dice? Sure, everyone gets four cards from the "Fortune
Deck," replace them as you use 'em. Cards have numerical values (1-14) and a
suit: Hearts are "trumps" for emotional and romantic activities, Diamonds for
mental activities, clubs for physical work and Spades for social doings. High
value cards of the right suit re worth holding on to for that pièce de
There's a degree of strategy in handling your cards. You may choose to flunk a
feat (at some dramatically opportune moment) t o get rid of a duff card. In
most games, players only role play successes and avoid "failure" at any cost.
You can also make sure that, with the right card, you do well at a feat when it
really counts. Since the referee's using cards too, a degree of fudging is
"built in" to the game. Play low cards when you'd like PCs to succeed, high
cards when you want them to fail.
Magick works in a similar way. Spells are "built" using a cost point system,
you then draw cards from a Sorcery Deck at a rate of one every two minutes
until you've gathered enough "power". For quick 'n' dirty magick you can use
cards of inappropriate suits, but watch out for the Harmonics (side effects).
for the desperate, skip cards altogether and unravel your own life force to
power the spell. The emphasis is on strategy and forethought with lots of
colourful side-effects. Magick is usually slow and thoughtful, but potentially
I particularly liked the duelling system - a card game combining character
skill with player tactics as you size up your opponent, feint, bluff and go for
their weakness. The section on designing your own Gadgets, Infernal Devices and
Astounding Engines is also full of charm and imagination.
Lots of character templates are provided as springboards for your Journals:
Secret Agents, Hussars, Steam Engineers, Adventuresses, Mad Scientists,
Dwarves, Dragons, Faeries, and various Secret Orders of Wizards (Templars,
AAAARRGHGHGHGHGHG .... band of magickal lore.
The game encourages stereotyping. Everyone believes in Honour, Virtue, Fair
Play and so on. On the other hand, the Journal lends characters a depth,
complexity and introspection that few other RPGs can provide. Moreover, since
the players don't get to see their stats, they've no choice but to play the
character rather than playing the game. Even character improvement expressly
avoids experience points. You record in you Journal what you've been doing and
the referee modifies the numbers - you may or may not find out about it. This
is not a game for minmaxers.
Overall: I loved this. It's full of originality, learning and real wit, and
positively bristles with scenario ideas. The heroic stereotyping won't be to
everyone's tastes and some players will hate handing over all the number work
to a referee (though it would probably be good for them). If you're sick of
being tragically hip, buy this game.
Review by Jonathan Rowe
Product supplied by R. Talsorian Games