Welcome back to Card Catalog here at Seize the GM! This time, I am taking the opportunity to talk about one of my favorite games that I rarely ever get to play and a literal game design Hall of Famer – Castle Falkenstein from R. Talsorian Games by Mike Pondsmith! Back in the heady days of the 1990s, Castle Falkenstein won The Best Roleplaying Rules Award in 1994 at Origins Game Fair and the Nigel Findley Memorial Award for Best Role PLaying Product of 1995. Mike Pondsmith himself, the creator of Mekton, Teenagers from Outer Space, Cyberpunk 2020 and Castle Falkenstein, is an Origins Award Hall of Fame member, inducted in 2006.
Castle Falkenstein is demonstrative of its era in many ways, but it is also groundbreaking and pivotal in ways that many R. Talsorian games are. Castle Falkenstein is a narrative focused game set in an alternate 1870. I have not covered a lot of narrative focused games, and I wanted to cover this exceptionally evocative game as a way to really get into the new year with a fresh start! In a trend from the late 1980s and the 1990s, the world of Castle Falkenstein is rich and fully realized with history and factions creating layers of complexity and an immersive feeling. The tension between the world as presented and some of the dark shadows in the game world stem from the rise of the cyberpunk genre, with games like R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk and FASA’s Shadowrun, through the World of Darkness series from White Wolf. Falkenstein broke new Steampunk ground, incorporated Live Action Role Playing potential with table top potential in a single book, and was also one of the major narrative focused games to balance rules structure with storytelling, or literary, concepts.
Moreover, the Castle Falkenstein Roleplaying Game is reflected in the setting’s story as The Great Game and the rule book is partially based around the idea that our point of view writer was making this Great Game available to the salons in New Europa to play “The Great Game”! While Steampunk has since become a common setting, Castle Falkenstein helped to popularize the genre as a game setting in the wake of The Difference Engine and Space 1889. You can see some of this setting’s enduring appeal in FASA’s recent 1879 game and setting! Honestly, after having a few days to once again immerse myself in New Europa with a battered old core rule book, I am off on a quest to get the supplements and send my mind back to the Victorian Era as it Should Have Been a bit more.
Castle Falkenstein has a very limited set of rules with the greatest opportunity for narrative play, and is especially well suited to Live Action Role Playing! Each player has a Dramatic Persona (rather than a character) which include not only humans, but also the potential for fae which have coexisted with humans for thousands of years, dwarves who rejected their fae nature to be able to work metals, or dragons which are magically active pterosaurs that survived the fall of the dinosaurs. You can already see how much fun we can have! In a world of steampowered victorian tech and spell casting dragons, there are few things left that the imagination cannot reach.
Your dramatic persona is defined, in statistical terms, mostly by defining what Abilities are not average. The Abilities are rated in a hierarchy from Feeble, Poor, Average, Good, Great, Exceptional, and Extraordinary. Each of these Abilities is listed with a relationship to one of the fours suits of a deck of playing cards, which becomes important in resolving the Heroic Feats described below. The book contains examples of archetypes or concepts that can be made, such as the Dashing Hussar, Consulting Detective, and Inventor, with examples of which abilities should be the primary for that purpose. When making your character, you choose one ability to be Great, four to be Good, and one to be Poor. The rest, when not noted, are considered Average; a simple and elegant way to handle characters! As an example, a Diplomat character is suggested to have strong ratings for Connections, Education, and Perception.
Resolution of challenges is handled by use of a standard deck of playing cards. Falkenstein is considered to be the game that actually popularized the use of a deck of cards, if not one of the first, for gaming purposes later copied with great acclaim by games such as Deadlands. You draw a card and add the value to your applicable attribute to see if you meet the difficulty rating assigned by the Host (GM) to your dramatic action. After the Feat, you draw another card to replenish your hand to four cards. This is complicated, slightly, by the use of the suits of the deck to add to the effect of the draw. This is the Fortune Deck mechanic well suited to Victorian Steam Punk Derring Do!
The Host shuffles the deck and deals a hand of four cards to each of the players with the face value and suit both mattering. For the purposes of Castle Falkenstein, a Jack is worth 11, a Queen 12, a King 13, and an Ace 14. Jokers have a value of 15 and may be any suit when played. When you attempt a Heroic Feat (an action that requires a test), the Host and Player determine what Ability forms the basis, defaulting to Average if not otherwise listed in the character Diary. The Player then chooses one of the Fortune cards in their hand to play and add to the value of the Ability being used. If the suit of the card matches the Suit of the Ability required, they are totaled while if the suit of the card does not match, it counts only as a one. The suits are:
- Hearts – Emotional and Romantic Activities
- Diamonds – Mental and Intellectual Activities
- Clubs – Physical Activities
- Spades – Social and Status-related activities
The Host will then play a card or cards for the Feat and the resolution to the Feat is based on comparing those results ranging from a Fumble, a Failure, a Partial Success, a Full Success, to a High Success. Simply beating the required number of the Difficulty plus Host’s Fortune Card is a partial success. It is only when you begin to beat it by time and a half you have a full success while doubling the difficulty results in a High Success.
Every roleplaying game has a fair share of combat, even the ones that are geared more to social aspects like Castle Falkenstein. This means that often the most rules and the most special rules revolve around that aspect of he game. For Castle Falkenstein, there are only two types of attacks – melee and ranged. There is a range table where you can exceed the “Effective Range” for a slight penalty to your Feat and a how many Wounds are caused at each level of success. There is a similar table of damage for the melee weapons. Combat is resolved by an Opposed Feat where the Combat Ability + Fortune Card is compared against the Athletics Ability + Fortune Card. If there is a fumble, the suit does have a special effect on how badly the attack goes, but generally it resolves as described above. Every Dramatic Persona has between 3 and 10 levels of Health based on the combination of their Courage and Physique Abilities so the grit and determination matters as much as the body’s resilience. This doesn’t touch the special rules just for dueling because of how integral dueling is to the world and the setting.
Any game with magic(k) has special rules for magic(k). Castle Falkenstein has a set of rules that mirror the regular rules but provide their own flavor to the “Scholastic Sorcery” that is evoked in this Steam Age High Adventure Game. Anyone, save Fae, may cast spell sif they learn how. The ABility Sorcery is the defining Ability and it is given the same weight as any other Ability. Once you have Good or better Sorcery, you can perceive the Etheric knots that make up the world and try to manipulate them through existing formula and rituals that are the spells of Castle Falkenstein. These spells are contained in ancient books and libraries that are controlled by Sorcerous orders. To be a spellcaster, one must be a member of one of these orders which limits the spell availabilities and may cause some political entanglements. To cast a spell that you have access to knowing, you will need a second deck of cards – The Sorcery Deck. From this deck, you will draw cards when you begin “drawing” etheric energy to create the etheric knot or spell at a rate of one card every two minutes or so of game time. This deck is what will be used by opposing sorcerers if in the same region to reflect the limits on changing the fabric of reality. The spell effect has a total amount required that is based on the spell itself as well as various modifiers based on the range, number of subjects affected, and other factors. You subtract the value of your Sorcery Attribute for the amount you need to draw. As you draw, just like the regular Feats, the amounts are totaled if of the suit required for the spell and count only as 1 if not of the suit required. The suits different associations for sorcery are generally:
- Hearts – Emotional and Mental Magick
- Diamonds – Material Magick
- Spades – Spiritual and Dimensional Magicks
- Clubs – Elemental Magicks, which means the Western Four Elements
If you choose to play something other than a human, there are a few special rules or concerns for each option. When we make those characters, we will go through them individually, but generally you have access to special powers through your Abilities not unlike many other Abilities.
Overall, the system is a very flexible way to create a narrative game which blends both the literary ability of a Host with enough structure and crunch to feel like a the group is not left out there with little more than an improv prompt. The way to resolve these conflicts and hoe the mechanics work very naturally flows from the setting and the feel that the game is attempting to evoke. Leaning into the literary conceits of the system, there are not really experience points in a way that other games would recognize them. Instead, the Host is given a great deal of leeway to adjudge when characters have made improvements in their abilities. This is tracked through the recording of the characters actions and life in their Diary. Similarly to how dice are not used and instead playing cards fill the role of a roll, there are not character sheets in this game but instead character diaries in which one records the descriptions of one’s dramatic persona as well as their history as it goes on. The game mastering, or Hosting, sections spend a great deal of time working through the tropes and beats that occur in a Victorian Story and encouraging a heavily literary take on the adventures. For the dramatic personae presented in this Card Catalog, I will reproduce much of the initial diary in the Character Notes sections, but also upload a PDF with a bit of formatting to make it look more like a good Castle Falkenstein Diary should.
A game designer in 1994 is spellnapped and finds himself in an alternate Victorian era where magic, steamtech, and literary characters all commingle in New Europa. Inadvertently ending up as a secret agent for King Ludwig III of Bayerne against Count Otto von Bismark’s march towards unifying New Europa under his rule with the aid of the Unseelie Host of the Fae. In Castle Falkenstein, the world is clearly more than we thought possible. Thousands of years of cohabiting with Faerie on this planet have left more than a few differences than you may be ready for but New Europa, and indeed the entire world are rife for adventure and exploration in The Great Game.
For thousands of years, humans have shared this planet with Faery, the formerly faery dwarves, and the dragons. The world unfolded with the ability to harness magic and the Faerie’s Veil shaping imagination and to way the world would work leading up to the the modern world’s birth in 1870 when Count Otto von Bismark made the Prussian Reich known even as the Second Compact of Men, Dragons, Faery, and Dwarves beat him back at the Battle of Konigseig. Austria lay defeated even in victory, the paper tiger that it had become, and the spectacular aeronavy of Bayern was what turned the tide of the day against Prussian Land Fortresses. A new age dawned that day.
In a world where Jules Verne has a canon the size of a small castle to protect France and Professor Moriarty threatens the deposits of the Bank of England, few Feats seem unachievable. The industrial revolution brought about a host of modern miracles, and doubly so once the dwarven forges became automated, but intertwined with the Scholastic Magic that taps into the Etheric knots of power the world holds. Steamtech and Babbage machines proliferated over the last decades as well creating newfound productivity and avenues for exploration … and exploitation.
While no Faerie since the Tuatha de Danu in the Nightfall War ten thousand years ago have accessed this Sorcery, their glamours and powers keep them apart and in many ways above the mere mortals who populate the Great Game between the empires and industrial barons of the 19th Century. The faerie have been with us for thousands of years, and only through the First Compact and the legerdemain of Lord Auberon have the Unseelie held their glamours back and have we not been swept up as collateral damage in their own attempts to destroy the Seelie fae generally, or exact revenge on Lord Auberon with aplomb. Intermixing with humans ever since the Nightfall war from both the Tuatha de Danu and the Firbolg sides, the Faerie still encompass a host of types from the diminutive brownies to the dark Trolls.
The dwarves in their Dwarfholds continue to create in ways that only their souls can truly understand. They gave up their faerie selves to work with metal and gave up their ethereal nature to bind themselves to the Earth. This stands in contrast to the shape changing and flying dragons. Sorcerous and unique to this planet, unlike the faery, the Dragons long lives and ancestral memory combine with an innate ability to cast spells like no human has shown creates immense power that thankfully is rarely belligerent. Escaping the fall of the dinosaurs through luck and magick has made these rare and powerful dragon lords seek wives to continue their line on and on.
It is this brave new world of 1870 that calls to you in Castle Falkenstein’s home of the Second Compact and the spirit of adventure and derring do must be met.
Cabaret Cygne Dore’
While Munich and Bayern hold most of the attention of New Europa, it is Paris where our story unfolds. Napoleon III’s Second Empire continues to bring it’s beauty and modernization to the world. The beautiful city, the heart of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, and the home of the most glamorous life on New Eurpoa, is a sight. The Salons and Clubs of Paris have seen many a strange confluence, but as France tries to ready itself for the inevitable return of Prussian aggression, The Belle Epoque commences and Tout-Paris began their celebrations!
While many were struggling after the war, the nouveau riche and the expanding middle class of France under the technological leadership of Minister of Science Verne saw the rise of recreation and celebration in a fashion that would often put the staid British or formalistic Austrians to shame. The City of Light was ready for the new way of life with Baron Hussman’s architectural changes and redesign of the City. The wide boulevards and parks were playthings to the middle and upper classes belying the commuter class pushed to the edges of the City that supplied the workforce needed. At once, Paris is both the richest and poorest city in the Second Empire.
Taking a cue from a youth, Rodolphe Solis, who came to Paris after the Prussian 1866 defeat, a new kind of entertainment has spring up – the Cabaret. While Cynge Dore’ is not as rowdy or subversive as Solis’ Le Chat Noir nor as widely known amongst tourists and travellers as others, it holds sway over a fair share of the nouveau riche and provides a chance for the Tout-Paris to have the same nights out as the workers rarely seen save when they come to or from the dwarven maintained Metro for their daily toil. There are numerous attendees on a regular basis, including a young chef named Escoffier recently back from deployment with the military, Monsieur Flaubert the novelist, and others but they are not who we turn our eyes to in this story. A rather unusual group has seemed to make Cygne Dore’ their home, between salons, Clubs, Bistros, and travel to be true, but they are remarkable in the last several months for just such a reason. It is, it seems, the genius of the cabaret that such a circle may find themselves acquaintances and perhaps even friends late in the night over absinthe and champagne in La Belle Epoque of the Second Empire.
Expatriot of the Russian Empire and secret Footpad
The Madam Petrovna has been in Paris for several years and is known to have left the Russian Empire behind. She has told the tale of alternately being a lost noble whose family fell from favor of the House of Romanov and also being a descendant of the first tsarista of Peter the Great hunted by the Russians to find her and end that line. For all her brazen living in La Belle Epoque Paris, she seems to not want for money though she lacks the easy money of the nouveau riche. What few know, save perhaps her growing confidants at La Cygne Dore’, is her involvement with the World Crime Congress as a footpad and the amount of her money that comes at the expense of unlocked doors and questionable morals.
Haunted Consulting Detective
Recently returned from the United States of America, having trained with the Pinkertons and aided Pres. Abraham Lincoln in establishing the United States Secret Service. The growing tension between the 20 Nations, the Bear Empire, and the United States had finally grown old and it had been a decade away – Anatole returned home to Paris. It hadn’t been since his wife died that he had seen the City of Light. It hadn’t been since before the Prussian’s were rebuked by Bayernese Aeonavy dreadnaughts that he had seen New Europa. While the rest of the world held wonders, and friends, it was in Paris that he had to come back home. As a Consulting Detective, trained by Monsieur Dupin with connections across the globe, Anatole has a great number of clients who find his skills remarkable, when not dulled by the absinthe.
Lord Kaornik Ladoni
Dragon Lord & Worried Father
The Second Empire has a long history with the Dragon Lords. As you well know, there are two different and distinct dragon lords with which one must truck – those that rule the Dragon Lands in the South East Indochine and those that live in the mountains of New Europa in pockets of independence they protect against the great nation states of the Age. Even an Empire must worry about a single dragon – no other creatures possess their connection to magic and their Sorcery seems not to follow the rules other Scholastic sources prefer. They are given a wide breadth for that and a great respect from the sheer wealth of their Collections. A decade ago, or so, Lord Ladoni left a wife in Paris with an endowment to birth and raise his latest child. As custom went, he left the child with his mother to come of age before he returned. And yet now they are missing. The war delayed his return and once in Paris, it seems that they have disappeared. Engaging Anatole was but the first step while the time amongst the humans new ways has been its own seduction.
Mary Louise Barton
Daoine Sidhe Duelist
Not all fae seem to alight between the different temperaments. Mary Louise falls heavily on the martial traditions that her forbears held – The Tuatha de Danu fought and how can a Daoine Sidhe do less regardless of whether she comes from one of the Tuatha or from other faery blood! Her grounded nature left the Fae Courts and frivolity a bit unsettling. It was after the Battle of Konigseig that Lord Auberon himself recommended that she seek humans out for what she lacked and to get distance from growing feud with Lord Dracula. His own time with the humans and his son’s rather glowing description left her inspired … but little did either know she would end up in the City of Lights. It was the perfect time for her to find bravos on the street and company across the city. Her lithe beauty and remarkable prowess with a dwarfsilver sword have earned her a fearsome reputation. In Cygne Dore’ , she realized that there were humans who felt as displaced from their world as she from hers and with Lord Dracula hounding her for his own sport and amusement, friends were good to have. It wasn’t merely the Fae Veil that separated realities, and in the Cygne Dore’ she could come closer to sharing realities with her boon companions.
French Mastermind and would-be radical
Even the enlightened Second Empire couldn’t always see how a woman may succeed. Name’s highest achievements in academia were not a matter so much as her feminine form, and this drove her further. These laws and rules stifled where humanity could go and what humanity could achieve. By edict of Napoleon III, the College de Sorbonne had accepted those females who showed scientific and artistic promise. Louise took full advantage of such edict as hers is a mind that comes along only once every generation. She was forced from the Sorbonne as she was outstripping the noble scions of achievement and of their pride but it didn’t stop her mind. She had already begun work in her apartment on CASH, and though she often spent her francs faster than she could earn them on this goal, the Clockwork Autonomous Simulacra Homunculus, or CASH, would show them all! Paris deserved it’s own leadership and it’s own egalitarian democratic socialist leadership! Napoleon’s own edict would be his downfall. The CASH would free the working people from their toil!