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From the Basement: Castle Falkenstein

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Hussars in dashing uniforms, swords always ready to duel over an affaire d’honneur; dainty noblewomen in proper décolletage with tiny pistols hidden in their petticoats; enchanting faerie lords seeking the excitement of love among mortal passions; stalwart dwarven craftsmen seeking that great masterwork that will earn them their second name; willowy tall, cat-eyed dragon lords, resplendent in silk robes from far Cathay…

These are staples of R. Talsorian‘s Castle Falkenstein, an RPG set in a Gilded Age that never was.  Here you can step back into an alternate version of the Victorian age where magick works side-by-side steam technology and faerie lords rub shoulders with both real and fictional characters from that era. What other game could see your character having High Tea with both Dr. Jules Verne (France’s Science Minister) and Captain Nemo? Or solve mysteries with a still little-known Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Steampunk only begins to describe the setting of this game.

The first almost three-quarters of the full-color rulebook immerses you in the world of Castle Falkenstein, via a story narrated by Tom Olam, a computer game artist who finds himself spellnapped into an alternate history version of Victorian Europe, called New Europa. The story is entertaining and makes a good introduction to all things Falkenstein. In addition to describing the politics, history and geography of New Europa (which differ fair amount from our own European history), he gives you an introduction to important NPCs, magick and techology, as well as glimpses of society and the rules that govern it. And does it in a way that makes it very accessible and far more entertaining than most settings rather dry description of details.

Character Creation

In Castle Falkenstein you create a Dramatic Character, which can be anything that would fit into a Victorian setting, and then some. You can play anyone from an anarchist, to a nobleman, adventuress, explorer,  scientist, or writer. You’ll want to be careful to create a character that has a reason for exploring the unknown and participating in Great Adventures, though, because it would be to create a character extremely appropriate to the setting, but who has no reason to venture beyond his or her drawing room. If a more exotic character is to your taste, with your Host’s (the game’s term for GM) permission, you could play a member of one of the fey courts, a dwarf, a sorcerer, or even a dragon.

No need to track down fancy character sheets here; your Dramatic Character is described in words, rather than numbers.  The game suggests you write your character’s backstory before you worry about mechanics. You’re expected to keep a character Diary, a “logbook of the Character’s lives and times in the world of the Steam Age, a storybook in which he or she is the Main Character,” (pg. 154). This can be daunting to players without a writing bent, but the book tries to make it easier by giving you a list of questions to answer in your Diary. By the time you’ve worked your way through the list, you should have pretty good handle on your character concept.

After that, you go on describe your character, both in looks and in abilities. You also need to chose a Grand Passion ( something your character would pursue above all things), a Nemesis (something (s)he  battles, such as a sworn enemy), and a Goal (something (s)he strives for). Finally, you choose three goals: one Social, one Professional, one Avocational.

The actual mechanics of character creation take up less than half a page and involve picking abilities that your character is Great, Good, and Poor at (these are official game terms). Any other ability you haven’t named is considered to be Average, the default level. The abilities are divided into groups that correspond to playing card suits. And that leads us to the…

Mechanics

Because no respectable Victorian Age person would ever play at dice, the game uses playing cards to resolve combat and skill challenges. You’ll need two complete decks (including Jokers) of regular playing cards. One is the Fortune Deck, the other is the Sorcery Deck, so the two should be easy to tell apart.

Each player begins the game with a Fortune Hand of four cards. Players play cards to increase their chances of succeeding at any particular action (called “Feats” within the game). The process goes like this:

  1. The player describes what her character is trying to do. The more vivid the description, the better the Host can resolve the Feat.
  2. Next the player decides what ability she’ll need to use to perform the Feat (with Host’s approval). If the Feat calls for an ability her character doesn’t have, she uses that ability at Average level, with some exceptions. For example, if the PC is trying to fly a airship, the Host may decide that she can’t fly it without some kind of Piloting ability.
  3. Every ability level has a point value from 2 (Poor) to 12 (Extraordinary), with Average being 4. The player then chooses one or more cards who’s total is added to the ability score. But there’s a catch: if the card used is of the same suit as the ability, the card is worth its face value. If it’s of a different suit, it’s only worth one point. Jacks, Queens, and Kings are worth 11, 12, and 13, respectively.
  4. The Host decides the Ability Level needed for the character to succeed at that Feat, plus he can play cards from his own hand to represent situational modifiers. This creates basically a difficulty level that the player has to beat.
  5. If the PC’s total is less than half the Feat’s total, it results in a Fumble. If it’s less than the Feat total, but more than half of it, the Feat simply Fails. If the PC’s total is equal to or greater than the Feat’s total, it’s a Partial Success. And if it’s equal or greater to half again the total, it’s a Full Success. Finally, if the total is equal to or greater than twice the Feat’s total, it’s a High Success and the Host describes what happens in each case.

The cards of a Fortune Hand can’t be discarded–they have to be used in a Feat to get rid of them.  Once cards are used, they’re immediately shuffled back into the Fortune Deck and the Host deals the player new cards to replace those used.This system allows for some strategy when it comes to resolving Feats, which is great for players with really bad dice luck.

The combat system is basically a series of contested Feats and I won’t go into it or the Sorcery mechanics here. The mechanics may feel a little weird at first, but are easy to catch onto once you’ve been through them a couple of times.

Where to Get It

As far as I can tell, the core book is out of print, as are most of it’s supplements. Used copies are going for $50 on Amazon, but you can get PDF versions of the core rules and all six of it’s supplements from DriveThru RPG at $16 for the core rules and $8.50-$10.00 each for the supplements.

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