Thursday, April 07, 2011

F is for Falkenstein

There is a special place in my heart for R. Talsorian's Castle Falkenstein. It is the mother of all Steam-Age RPGs (though I suppose that would make Space: 1889 the grandmother). Created at a time when Vampire: The Masquerade and other dark games were all the rage (and enjoyed by yours truly), Castle Falkenstein went in a completely different direction. Where Vampire was tragic and moody, Castle Falkenstein was bright, heroic, and a little bit silly.

It was also the simplest rules that I had yet encountered. Characters were defined by a mere handful of broad traits and you only had to specify what differed from the heroic norm of the age. It was love at first sight and I immediately began adopting the system for defining NPCs for my Gurps games. I even used it to home-brew a "diesel-punk" game similar to Lady Blackbird years before I had ever seen another reference to the term "diesel punk". Castle Falkenstein was my roleplaying master-key in the interregnum before I discovered Risus.

Castle Falkenstein was unusual (at the time) in its presentation. The entire first half of the rule-book was presented as a diary of game designer Tom Olam's fabulous adventures after having been transported to an alternate history world where famous genre characters of the period actually existed. The conceit was that he developed the RPG to entertain his Victorian-era friends and he used his fictional exploits to illustrate setting details for the benefit of those of us living in this world.

The game resolution system was diceless, but not in the Amber way. It used playing cards as a "randomizer" because Victorian gentlemen don't play dice! While it looked good on paper, I found it was less than ideal in practice and I reluctantly ditched it when Steve Jackson Games released a Gurps version of the rules (though I did keep cards for the fabulous magic system).

Castle Falkenstein is also noteworthy for its spectacular supplements.

  • Comme Il Faut is simply the best resource for Victorian-era gaming that I've ever seen. It covers all aspects of daily life in the era and does it with style. 
  • Sixguns & Sorcery is a Western supplement that details Tom Olam' adventures as he tours a very different American continent (with many digressions into game rules). How can you beat Spellslingers and Emperor Norton? 
  • The Book of Sigils takes an already excellent magic system and makes it outstanding. An essential resource for any game that uses Falkenstein-style Sorcery.

While I am still in love with the Castle Falkenstein setting, I think I would run it with another rules set these days. Risus is an obvious choice and I have a conversion document that I hope to post soon (I was hoping to post it tonight). Other fine choices would be PDQ/PDQ# or Spirit of the Century. I think you could easily hack up the old WEG Star Wars (or Mini Six) and I often fantasize about a Falkenstein hack of Old School Hack.


kelvingreen said...

I never played Falkenstein, but I understand how you feel about it, as it's how I feel about Feng Shui. I adore the setting, but the game system itself is too wonky for my liking, so I'd run it with something else nowadays. Savage Worlds would be my first choice, but now I'm thinking about what could be done with Risus.

Risus Monkey said...

Feng Shui is one of those games that I always wanted but somehow never came to possess. I'd still like to get it at some point.

And oh yeah, Savage Worlds is pretty cool. I went through a Savage Worlds phase and still think it's a fun system. It would work well for Falkenstein, though I'd probably want to do something to to retain the feel of the Falkenstein magic system (something I'll address when I post my Risus reskinning).

Tim Brannan said...

I have always wanted to like CF, but something about it never quite set with me. No idea what really.

GeneD said...

I've also held on to the original and GURPS versions of Castle Falkenstein, and I still referred at them for last summer's D20 Etherscope miniseries. "Gaslight Grimoire" and "Arth" live! Since my groups have been fond of FATE lately, I've thought about incorporating steampunk elements into Spirit of the Century or Legends of Anglerre.

Risus Monkey said...

@Tim: I have a lot of games like that. I wanted to love In Nomine but it never worked out. And I wanted to love MAGE and Werewolf but they really didn't sit well with me.

@Gene: Oh yes, I have very fond memories Arth and Gaslight Grimoire. I'm a bit envious of your group's infatuation with FATE games. To this day, I've only played one game of Spirit of the Century.

sirlarkins said...

CF is one of my all-time favorite RPGs, but I've run very little of it. I still vividly remember picking it up and reading it straight through. The look of the book was so ahead of its time!

Funnily enough, in the 90s I ran the game in GURPS straight off, years before the official books came out. I tried doing a "by the book" CF campaign a couple years ago, but it didn't get far. I like your idea of porting the card magic system into whatever system one's going to run it with.

Comme Il Faut and Sixguns and Sorcery are two of my all-time favorite supplements, period. My by-the-book campaign made use of the simplified resolution mechanics in Comme, the ones that use a single table for everything. Made a rules-lite game even "liter" and seamless! I'd actually consider trying a by-the-book campaign again (particularly to make use of the GURPS Ottoman Empire supplement); it was mainly trying to keep character and campaign journals that sort of killed it for us rather than the rules.

Dariel Quiogue said...

Loved Castle Falkenstein too! Though I would not introduce it to new gamers as "A game of sophisticated magic, international intrigue, and great balls ..." :) Which a friend once did.

CF also had the distinction for me of having an intro viewpoint character in Tom O'Lam that I could really sympathize with and liked.

Linda - Nickers and Ink said...

Not really a gamer, so F is for Fairly Foreign ...


Linda Ann

I stopped by via the A to Z Challenge for April, and I invite you to visit my blogs at:

NICKERS AND INK – poetry, humor, inspiration and more

PRACTICALLY AT HOME – inspiration, humor and how-tos for family, home and garden, and more

THE MANE POINT – a haven for horse lovers

MEME EXPRESS – daily blogging prompts for the A to Z Challenge and more

Risus Monkey said...

@sirlarkins:The Ottoman supplement is really good. I love how they did CF stats in addition to the Gurps stats, even though it was a Gurps product.

@Dariel: "A game of sophisticated magic, international intrigue, and great balls ..."

Hee hee! That's hilarious. :)

@Linda: I'm loving the A to Z challenge for all the non-gamers who are passing through. I do blog about non-gamer stuff occasionally, and I welcome the chance to visit the blogs of folks outside of the community. Nickers and Ink is a great name for a blog, btw. :)