Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: Castle Falkenstein

Castle Falkenstein
by Michael Pondsmith
R. Talsorian Games
Rating: ★★★★

Castle Falkenstein was a game I first encountered way back in the early 2000s.  I was not quite that interested in steampunk games (and admittedly, I've never heard of steampunk back then) and thus this game pretty much zipped past my radar.  It wasn't until my friend Adrian brought over his collection of books one day to have me hold on to for the time being within the last two years or so that I found myself having a chance to explore the game at last.  And man, I have to say, this game is very impressive, and on first glance, extremely intimidating.

How Can a Game be Intimidating?
Well, first of all, the game does not use dice.  Now at this day and age, many gamers out there are probably not as fazed as I was to hear about a role-playing game that does not use dice.  But for old timers such as myself, not that many games back then were brave enough to enter a diceless approach (I can only recall Psychosis and Amber to be diceless systems during that time.  I'm certain there were probably others, but I was not aware of them.)  In Castle Falkenstein, two decks of cards are used - because you see, Gentlemen and people of Nobility play with cards, not dice.

What?  Why Should That Matter?
Oh, sorry.  Let me back up.   Castle Falkenstein is an incredible role-playing game set in a mythical Victorian Age New Europa where Dragons exist, Steampower fuels the world, Sorcery shapes fate and Swords clash in the name of High Romance.  In Castle Falkenstein, a world of swashbuckling adventure crosses paths with exotic Faerie powers and Fictional Characters come to life.    The main book contains 224 pages, with many of the pages beautifully rendered in full color as the narrator, a computer game designer named Tom Olam attempts to explain to the reader the magical world he has been pulled into, and how everything he has learned in this world is now the game which you are being invited to play.

Character Concepts for Dramatic Characters (their term for Player Characters) in the game range from sword-dueling Gentlemen to Criminal Masterminds, from Sorcerers to Faerie Lords, from Secret Agents to News Reporters, with character sheets being small notebooks that are intended to be updated as the players explore more New Europa and write down their diary entries of their experiences.   At the very onset, players are asked to decide if they are Good or Evil, for in Castle Falkenstein you are either one or the other.  A very generous list of questions follow, to help you get a better grasp of your character concept, appearance, and experiences even before you consider the character's stats.  Then, from a list of over twenty abilities (more if you add the other source books), players choose the skills that will have ratings.  One ability is given the rating of Great, four then have it at Good, and one is at Poor.  Everything else remains at Average.

These ratings are important in that the game's system relies on seeing if the appropriate ratings plus a played card to match the difficulty of an attempted action. Poor equals two, Average equals four, Good equals six, up to Extraordinary, which equals twelve. For example, a Dramatic Character might attempt to leap from a zeppelin to the roof of a tower.    If the act was deemed to have a Difficulty of Good , and the Dramatic Character had an Athletics of Good, then the played card becomes tremendously important in determining whether or not the character will succeed.    

Sounds Very Interesting!  So, you mentioned Cards?
The game uses a standard deck of cards (not a Tarot deck) and the first deck is intended to be used for all resolutions necessary save one:  Sorcery.  For Sorcery, a second separate standard deck is needed.  The suit of the card is tremendously important, with each suit allowing you to add the face card's value to the ability rating if applicable.  Diamonds apply to Mental and Intellectual challenges, Spades apply to Social challenges especially when social status is vital, Hearts apply to most Emotional challenges, and finally Clubs apply to all Physical challenges.   So if you were attempting the said leap above, playing an eight of hearts only adds one to your final result, whereas playing a five of clubs would add the full value of five.  For face cards, Jacks are 11 points, Queens are 12 points, Kings are 13 points, Aces are 14 points, and Jokers are a whopping 15 points.

There are five possible levels of success in the game:  Fumbles are when the player has half or less than the needed number.  Failures are when the player merely has less than the needed number.  Partial Success happens when the player beats the needed number.  Full Success happens when the player's total is half again or more of the needed score.  And finally, a High Success is when a player's score is double the needed number.

Since a player can only have a hand of four cards, and all players and the Host (the term for the Game Master) all draw from the same deck, some level of tactical planning can help you calculate the risk and chances of winning.

For Sorcery, the cards work in a similar matter, but the suits determine instead the type of magical effects the cards resonate with.  Drawing more cards for Sorcery takes an amount of time to "gather up" the energy, and using cards of the wrong suit can "taint" the final manifestation of the effect.

Combat Is A Tad Tricky


At its most basic, the game uses the same system for combat, however, the amount of damage dealt depends on the weapon used and the level of success accomplished in the attack.  It is not uncommon for Dramatic Characters to possibly be felled by two or three good hits.  But working with the genre, felled characters are not dead unless the attacked then delivers a deliberate killing blow (similar to how in DC Heroes, Killing Combat has to be declared).  Given the genre, women are also typically not attacked physically.  Instead, they are subject to being disabled by making them swoon, which happens due to rough treatment, intense social confrontation and the like.

For duels, the two characters have a hand of six cards (made of two red cards, two black cards and two face cards, their values here are irrelevant).  Each beat of the duel, both reveal two of the six cards, with red cards representing as attacks, black cards representing defenses, and face cards as rests.    The Fencing skill of the character determines how often a character must take a chance to Rest after a number of exchanges.  As part of the fun, it is recommended that players stand up during duels, and take positions as appropriate during the exchanges.  Once one does not have enough room to move back, wounds can then be dealt.


Adventure!  Ambition! Action!Castle Falkenstein is definitely a game that will thrill you in more ways than expected.  And while the book is filled with lots of character concepts and pre-written templates, players are welcome to come up with their own spin on how to stat the sky pirates, arcane wizards and the like.  The book even specifically suggests that players talk with the Host on coming up with their own Abilities to fit their own games better.


Rating Breakdown:Concept: A definite win.  I love how the game nicely mixes mythology, fiction and real world touches.  This is literally a game where you might consult with Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  In this game, you might duel with a Daoine Sidhe while atop a crashing zeppelin that is being flanked by fire-breathing dragons.
Crunch: There are a lot of concerns in reviews online about the rankings being confusing for the player to connect to the numerical ratings, but I personally feel this is a tiny concern.  The bigger concern I feel is on getting used to a game where dice aren't rolled, combat is different depending on actual combat and dueling, and where men and non-heroic women approach damage differently.
Layout: The book needs an index.  I am not sure if the Drivethru PDF versions finally have an index added to them, but it really is hard to tell for certain.   It can be a tad challenging also to go through the book to learn the system since the book wasn't laid out the way most books are with the crunch in one area and the fluff in another.
My favorite part: I definitely love the Dueling rules.  They very nicely capture the feel of a duel, with moments of wondering if its time to strike, defend or take a breather.    The "larp" aspect makes it even more awesome as the player has to be sure there's enough space to maneuver and adjust when necessary.
What I wish was better: The support the game got.  Really.  This game deserves more love.

Are you ready to face those dastardly scoundrels?
Available at Drivethru rpg.
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