This article originally appeared in Pyramid #4
A Preview of R. Talsorian's New "Steam Age" Fantasy Game
By Mike Pondsmith
Castle Falkenstein is a sweeping fantasy adventure set in a world of Victorian "high technology" instead of the medieval setting of traditional RPG fantasy. In Castle, you'll take the parts of humans, Faerie, dwarves, or even dragons, adventuring all over a universe that is part Lord of the Rings, part Prisoner of Zenda, and more than just a little Grimm's Fairytales. Along the way, you'll be able to do many of the same things you might do in any other fantasy game, but with new spins thanks to the addition of steam-powered vehicles, gunpowder weapons, clockwork mechanisms and renegade inventors (just to mention a few twists). And of course, there's Engine Magic, the weird fusion of magical power and "Victorian" gadget-tech that allows you to create devices that can cast spells, or spells that can power gadgets.
Presented in the form of an illustrated journal written by a 20th-century artist shanghied to this alternate "Victorian" universe where magic is real, Castle mixes game rules, story and lots of background on the world of New Europa during its fanciful "Imperial Age." The book, lavishly illustrated throughout with color paintings, sketches and drawings, is designed to immerse you in a world that is not only fun to play in, but gorgeous to look at as well.
But First -- A Warning!
Don't expect the same old stock fantasy you've seen in a hundred books and movies. In Castle, magicians aren't old guys in pointed hats; they're debonair members of secret societies and lodges with arcane plans for world domination. The Wild Hunt of Faerie rides the moonlight in hussar's uniforms, dragons occasionally walk the streets as urbane gentlemen, dwarves have become burly engineers and inventors, and the nightmare forces of the Unseelie Court are everywhere, including your bedroom closet.
The tales of Castle Falkenstein are a blend of Grimm fantasy, Jules Verne invention, and Sherlockian mystery, with an emphasis on swashbuckling, larger-than-life action, duels, daring rescues, heroic feats, wondrous (and anachronistic) inventions, High Romance and equally High Magic.
But never fear: Castle is also a true fantasy adventure, with deserted castles, buried dungeons and the dark realms of the Faerie Courts to contend with. The element of High Fantasy is in every corner, from the brownies that clean your Vienna townhouse to the dragons that are masters of the highest peaks of the Alps.
In Castle Falkenstein, you can play dwarves and elves, sure. But these aren't the usual Tolkienesque figures of traditional gaming fantasy. From the hardheaded dwarf engineers (who consider invention, not skill with a battleaxe, to be the highest expression of dwarfhood) to the utterly unhuman, alien Faerie (cursed by their immortal nature to live bound to humanity's rise and fall), Castle pushes back the boundaries of traditional fantasy and roots it in the days when fairy tales were as scary and dangerous as any horror story. m
WELCOME TO NEW EUROPA!
For just a moment, imagine another world, where, for over 20,000 years, humans and the races of the Faerie have lived side by side in peace. This is New Europa, an almost-like-Earth world where the Faerie-controlled deep forests are rarely visited by humans, and where the many races of Light Folk scurry through human cities and participate in mankind's daily lives.
Now, the more advanced nations of New Europa are tearing up the forests to build new cities, ripping up the mines for more steel, and generally making a mess of things. In the more ruthless empires of the North, dwarves are even being enslaved and forced to mine ore, and the High Faerie are being driven out of their forests by encroaching railways and tank-equipped armies. Things are looking bad for the ancient peace Compact between Man and Faerie, and High Lord Auberon's rival Unseelie renegades are clamoring to wipe mankind out, as they have in several other worlds before this. Enter a new type of sorcery called Engine Magic, which offers an alternative to steampower; if Lord Auberon and his allies can just slow down the Industrial Revolution before it provokes the final war between humanity and the Unseelie Court . . .
History: The Way It Should Have Been?
While the world of Castle is based on the Europe of the Victorian Age, it's definitely not the same as our own history (although there is a London, a Paris, a Vienna, etc.). While there are many analogs to real historical characters and people, they are not necessarily the same characters you'll find in the history books (in fact, you don't need to know any history to play the game). Nor are you limited to mere reality: characters from all over Victorian fantasy and science fiction are woven into the fabric of New Europa, from books, films and even fairytales! There are new countries to explore and even a new world map (although we've skipped over Africa, Asia and the Americas in the basic book, leaving them to be explored in their own volumes).
Castle Falkenstein is set all over the Europe of the late 1800s, in a mythical time we call "The Imperial Age." In Castle, your journeys will take you all over the globe: to the mysterious Russian empire and its anarchists, mages and mystics; to gay, mad Second-Empire Paris with its wild parties and glittering social scene; to the industrialized war machine of Count Von Bismark's Prussia (with its weird and wonderfully bizarre "high-tech" 1900s inventions), to the mysterious (and very sorcerous) "Dragon Emperors" of the Far East.
One of Castle's central plots revolves around the continuing battle between good (mad) King Ludwig the Second, ruler of the fairytale kingdom of Bavaria, and his more powerful neighbor (Chancellor Von Bismark of Prussia) who wants to forcibly annex Ludwig's peaceful nation. Thanks to Ludwig's alliance with the High Lord of Faerie, a wide array of fantasy creatures and races has been drawn into the conflict, as well as sorcerors, dragons and many of the other nations of the world of New Europa. When a kidnapped artist from our own time gives Ludwig a long-lost book of sorcery that taps into a new form of magic, the kingdom is suddenly catapulted into being a major player among the Great Powers. Since Bavaria is now in the position of being the most advanced nation in the world, hundreds of adventurers, agents, diplomats and so on descend on the small kingdom seeking fame, fortune and the secret of Bavaria's so-called "engine magic." Meanwhile, Chancellor Von Bismark is also scheming to get the secret (and control) of Bavaria once and for all.
High Adventure, New Europan Style
So what is Castle Falkenstein about? It's about Action, Intrigue and High Romance. It's one part spy novel, with intrigues and adventures that take place all over the great Courts of Europe, at embassy balls, exclusive clubs and the secluded haunts of the rich and powerful. It's one part retro fantasy, packed with weird steam-powered gadgets and baroque Victorian-tech devices straight out of the old Wild, Wild West TV show. It's part Prisoner of Zenda mixed with a little Sherlock Holmes, with daring rescues, hairsbreadth escapes and deadly saber duels atop thundering trains. It's part James Bond with evil geniuses, fantastic devices and fiendish Master Plans.
As a player in the world of Castle Falkenstein, you'll take part in intrigues and adventure all over the Great Powers of the "Imperial Age."
Whether as secret agents of Ludwig's secret alliance to stop Von Bismark, adventurers exploring uncharted realms, wizards battling evil Lodges and Sorcerous Brotherhoods, master criminals planning the greatest heists of all time, daring adventuresses shaping the fates of nations or dashing swordsmen duelling with pistol and saber against dastardly villains, you'll find high adventure everywhere you turn - and lots of places to turn as well, from the sunken Faerie cities of Eire, to the flying-carpet fantasy lands of the Ottoman Empire.
And along the way, you'll want to meet and visit -
SCENIC(And Dimensionally Unstable)
The last great castle of King Ludwig II (the Mad King of Bavaria). In our world, Ludwig is known for his strange enthusiasm for building fantastic castles all over southern Germany. His best known, of course, is Neuschwanstein, the fairy-tale palace that was the inspiration for the Disneyland castle as well as almost every other fantasy fortress of recent times. In the world of New Europa, Ludwig II is definitely not crazy (although he can still be pretty obsessive), and he still enjoys architecture. He's just a bit more restrained about it.
As a gift, Lord Auberon of Faerie raised Ludwig's dream castle by sorcery in a single night. Shaped into reality on the ruins of an old fortress that in turn was built on the site of an ancient temple, it is rumored to be a gateway to many other worlds and times. Huge, beautiful and unbelievable, Castle Falkenstein is a place of magic and mystery; it has rooms that change shape and location, secret passages that come and go, resident ghosts and even a few portals into other realities; just the sort of thing you'd expect when a "mad" king and an elf-lord with a sense of humor collaborate. The Castle has become the seat of the Bavarian throne and has become a symbol of human and Faerie unity throughout the land of New Europa.
The FaerieThose we call the Faerie are a race of powerful magical beings (possibly from another world), who have been living with humanity for thousands of years. There are four groups of Faerie. The High Faerie (also known as the "Gentry," and including Elves, Mermaids, Selkies/White Ladies, etc.), are humanoid and associate with humans occasionally. The "Little People" (leprechauns, pixies and so on) live in and around humans and have many complex social interactions with them. The dwarves also interact with humanity; they are consumate engineers and artificers, who trade their skills for the human things they dearly love (like beer). All of these groups are gathered together into a loose monarchical structure called the Seelie Court, ruled by High King Auberon of the High Sidhe.
The other side of Faerie is the Unseelie Court, a huge assemblage of nightmarish and bloodthirsty creatures (Redcaps, Kelpies, Goblins, Boggarts) that hate humanity and derive their greatest pleasure from tormenting mankind. Tricked by Auberon into signing a Compact of Peace with humanity, the Unseelie are just looking for an excuse to wipe mankind from the face of the earth, something they have already done before in several other worlds bordering on Faerie, and are eager to do again. Since the only thing that can kill these inimical creatures is cold iron (a rare type of metal, often confused with mere wrought iron which only causes them pain) humans face a dangerous and relentless foe with very little to defend them.
In Castle Falkenstein, players can take the roles of members of the Seelie court: Dwarves, High Faerie, or the Little People. Each group has its own powers - not always the traditional ones of recent fantasy literature, but instead those of earlier, darker legends.
The other powerful magical race of New Europa are Dragons. Descended from a race of ancient pterosaurians who have developed magical powers to prevent their extinction, these great creatures now make their homes among the highest peaks of the land (although they occasionally take human form to walk among people). Dragons in this world (called Pterodraconis sapiens), consider themselves to be more ancient than even the Faerie. But, with their very low birth rate, they have taken to breeding with human women to carry on the line. As with other non-humans, players will be able take the part of these dragon/human crossbreeds; while smaller and less powerful than their sires, they are still potent allies (or enemies).
Then, There Are the RulesBut the best part of Castle is its unique new rules "system": a freeform structure where skill and strategy are as important as your character's abilities, a system where the rules only appear when you absolutely need them, and where you don't need to juggle numbers or memorize tables. Castle's rules are designed to flow with the storyline and to make strategy count over statistics. When you fence in Castle, you really "fence" -- reading your opponent's moves, psyching out his strengths and weaknesses, and using what you learn to defeat him. When you cast a spell, you don't just pick a "spell" from a list; instead, you Summon Power, search the world for lost Artifacts, and even invent your own spells and arcane creations. In fact, every time a spell's cast, it's different, with different elements, casting times, and even results. Castle doesn't rely on stats, skills or dice rolls - it's designed for maximum roleplaying with almost no need to refer to tables and charts. Instead, the system is fluid, simple and intuitive; you concentrate on changing the plotline to your advantage, instead of making a lucky die roll. It's easy to use Castle's rules because they work like real life does. Castle Falkenstein is also designed as a perfect live-action game as well. (In fact, we like to call it "a Victorian Parlor Roleplaying Entertainment.")
The Age of Steam & Magic!So grab up your saber, spellbook and cloak -- it's time to pit all your cunning and skill against the Forces of Evil, be they Evil Genius, Scientific Madman, Unseelie Demon or Imperial Agent. The night is young, the game's afoot, and only the arcane powers of the Dark Lodge itself can stop you now! Open the door to the Age of Steam; Castle Falkenstein awaits!
SidebarsDragons | Dwarves | Engine Magic | Characters | Human/Faerie Relations | Rules
DRAGONSWhat we know as "Dragons" are a highly evolved form of the ancient reptile Pterodactylus, which has survived in the present day though a canny combination of intelligence and the ability to use magic. There's some evidence in the extensive oral tradition of Pterodraconis sapiens that an early offshoot of the Pterodactylus clan used an enhanced sixth sense to detect thermal currents; this later evolved into an ability to manipulate the etheric energies required to keep a multi-thousand-pound animal in the air. It is even theorized that by the late Cretaceous, Pterodraconis had actually evolved limited shapeshifting abilities which allowed it to escape the mass extinction that wiped out its dinosaur relatives.
The result is Pterodraconis sapiens, which can reach lengths of up to 30 feet and wingspans of over 120 feet among ancient specimens. Over the millennia, Pterodraconis sapiens has learned better than any species alive to utilize sorcery to its advantage. When humans first appeared, Pterodraconis considered them only as prey, a light snack, but requiring a tribe to make a full meal. But as humans evolved, Pterodraconis also evolved new ways to use them. Pterodraconis' biggest problem had always been its low birthrate; so, instead of merely eating the sacrifices left outside of its lairs, it began to use its shapeshifting powers to take humanoid forms and impregnate female captives. The resulting half-human, half-dragon crossbreeds began to filter into human society (especially in the Eastern Lands, where this practice first started), halting the decline in numbers and allowing Pterodraconis to move freely among the more numerous humans. When the Faerie entered New Europa, the dragons began to throw off their disguise more often and walk openly humans. But even now, Pterodraconis still prefers a human form when in human cities. Pterodraconis can be told from regular humans from their extreme height (all dragons are at least six and a half feet tall), their slender, double-jointed build, and their catlike pupils.
Dragons still fly in the world of New Europa, and their slim, reptilian forms are still seen among the highest peaks. But in this world, they also walk among us, watching and learning, the Sixth Great Power of the Imperial Age, rare, mysterious, and keeping a counsel that was ancient before mankind existed.
DwarvesIn Castle Falkenstein, dwarves are among the most numerous of the Faerie races. Although they are technically Greater Faerie, they are of such importance to the world of New Europa that they are normally treated as a separate group altogether. Unlike other Faerie, dwarves can't use magic, shapeshift, fly or cast glamours. This may be due to their closer ties to the material world; in any case, their "grounded" nature makes them immune to the effects of iron (which is an advantage when working with humans and the machines dwarves are so fond of).
True dwarves live only in continental New Europa, in the mountainsides and hill country of the Germanic states, the northern wilds of Scanda, or the upper alpine regions of Italia. All dwarves are powerfully built; although they are not all short, all of them are nearly as wide as they are tall. Most are bearded. There are no female dwarves; instead, dwarves marry females from other Faerie races, often driving distracted human males to wonder, "What on earth could she (a beautiful naiad or silkie) see in him (a short, bristly-bearded dwarf engineer)?" The offspring always take after the parent of the same sex: slender, beautiful females go off to live with their mothers while short, dwarfish males head into the mountains with their fathers.
Unlike the "dwarves" of Tolkien fiction, New Europan dwarves don't dress like Vikings, and aren't especially known for their combat abilities (although they can swing a mean wrench if properly provoked). Immensely strong, fond of beer, and compulsive tinkerers, dwarves have made themselves a niche in human society as consummate engineers, artificers, craftsmen and businessmen. You're more likely to see a dwarf wearing a three-piece suit or an engineer's coverall and cap than the furs and chainmail of fantasy art, and he's more likely to mutter darkly that "these engines just can't take it anymore . . ." than he is to swear an oath "on his grandfather's beard." The only well known dwarf fetish is about their feet; they are inordinately embarrassed by their appendages (which resemble those of ducks or chickens) and take great pains to cover them with natty shoes or huge workboots. So don't ever tease a Dwarf about his feet; it may be the last thing you do!
The original concepts of Engine Magic are derived from Aristotle's Treatise on Paranatural Cosmologie, a seminal work which described the nature of "bound force" and its natural outcome, magic. Aristotle had more than a touch of the Gift, and was quite adept at reading the shapes of magical "knots" in living things (although he was a philosopher, not a practicing sorcerer).
In the Treatise, Aristotle proposed that the universe was made up of a vast web of energy, invisible, intangible and omnipresent. All material things were created by binding this energy into reality through a series of complex constructs or "knots." Living things were even more complex "knots," and death was the result of the natural tension of all of these knots tugging on each other until one or more unravelled. Those with the ability to see these knots could grasp the weaving of the universe, gathering power to themselves to reshape the world as desired. The big drawback was that these alterations were only temporary; the natural tension of reality pulled "knots" apart, and the bigger the knot, the faster it unravelled.
Copied by other philosophers, the Treatise became the foundation of the current ritual and practice of the Art. It is a body of work that is so complex that groups of wizards eventually evolved into "Lodges," "Brotherhoods," and "Orders," each studying a specific form of construct. Their collected research soon became codified into books of lore and oral tradition, jealously defended against rival orders by each branch of magecraft.
Around 1495, Leonardo DaVinci was given a copy of the Treatise by a philosopher acquaintance. DaVinci was intrigued by the concepts involved, and having some measure of the Gift himself, began to study the principles. As an engineer, however, Leonardo's thoughts soon turned toward the idea of an inherent "knot" involved in the actions of machines, a knot that could replicate other knots in an automated fashion. By 1500, he had actually designed a series of small theoretical devices - magical engines that could weave their own spells. He published 25 copies of his Notebook on Constructa Automata the following year, with the idea of constructing a physical model as soon as a sufficiently advanced metallurgic science could be developed (Leonardo had no truck with the dwarves, whom he considered clannish and dull).
Upon publication, the Notebook caused a tremendous uproar in the Church - it didn't take much to imagine the effects a magically driven industrial revolution would have on Rennaissance Europa. The Pope promptly had all copies of the notebook rounded up and burned, arrested Leonardo on heresy charges, and exacted a promise from the inventor to cease his research under pain of death. Leonardo, who had had no luck devising craftsmanship of the level needed to make a working model, agreed grudgingly and went on to develop more mundane inventions, such as the submarine, the helicopter and the tank.
A freak spell and the principles of magical resonance have once again reconstructed the long-missing Notebook, however, and the concepts of Engine Magic are now the ultimate state secret of the Kingdom of New Bavaria. Only three people know how to reconstruct the "knots" of Engine Magic. But those three plan to use their secret to reshape the fate of all New Europa.
"CHARACTERS" IN CASTLE FALKENSTEIN
Brace yourself. There is no character sheet in Castle Falkenstein. Instead, when you start a character in Castle, you're encouraged to use a small notebook (one of the really nice bound blank books is nice) as your character sheet. And you can leave the dice and calculators at home; there are no numbers to crunch and no cubes to roll. The closest thing to a traditional character sheet is the bookmark, a slim strip of paper that encompasses some of the elements of a character sheet. Even these are reduced to the most elemental mechanics; fifteen small boxes list critical "abilities" of the character (with room for others to be added); players choose which of their skills are Poor, Good or Great, with all other remaining skills defaulting to Average. The bookmark doubles as character record and placeholder in the Journal, and has the added advantage of being a perfect "character name tag" for live-action games (it can be folded, laminated, or worn on a string around the neck).
Since almost all of Castle's character creation is narrative, players work from a short list of questions instead of rolling dice, determining such things as their personality, appearance, background, personal attachments, romantic entanglements, secrets, alliances, possessions and even a personal nemesis (Hosts are also encouraged to add any questions they personally feel will be important to playing the character to this list). Players write down their answers in their notebook, as well as using it to keep a short "diary" of their activities. (Everyone in the Victorian Age kept a Journal. It was a compulsive sort of thing, like twelve-step programs today.)
One of the nifty things about each player's Journal is that it is considered to be a "real" thing in the context of the game. Players must secretly tell the Host where they have stashed their Journal in the game world, and it is considered to be hidden there for other players to find (and read)!
HUMANS AND FAERIE
The Faerie are a powerful race of inherently magical beings, who seem to have entered New Europa several thousand years ago. As along as any human record or legend shows, the oft-misnamed "Kindly Ones" have been living side by side with mankind, pursuing their ways as we pursue ours. Since the Compact was established some 2,000 years ago, altercations between the two races have been rare, but when they occur, great harm usually befalls the human side of the exchange.
Grey Morrolan, Master Wizard of the Illuminated Brotherhood, has theorized that the Faerie may be denizens from another "dimension," unlike our own, comprised of pure luminous ether; the races we call the Faerie are merely magical "stuff" wrapped around a core of sentient will, appearing in forms that most interest them or have been chosen through long tradition.
In general, there are three types of Faeire. Lesser Faerie are small creatures of limited power, who live in human households, fields, mines or factories (where they can help or hinder those humans they encounter). Typical Lesser Faerie include Leprechauns, Goblins, Knockers, Kobolds, Pixies, Redcaps and Faeries (the type with wings).
Greater Faerie are larger, more powerful creatures, who live in the wilds, away from men. They wield terrible power over nature magics, and have imical ways. When humans are encounter them, the result is usually dangerous or deadly to the people involved. Phookas, Pucks, Trows, Guardian Spirits, Mermaids, Naiads, Kelpies and Green Ladies are only a few of these creatures.
High Faerie are the high rulers of the two Courts, Seelie and Unseelie. Possessed of terrible beauty/hideousness and unbelievable powers, all of the Seelie Court's High Faerie tend to take humanoid forms, while the Unseelie take nightmarish forms with some naturalistic elements. Examples of this group include the Daoine Sidhe, the Tuatha De Dannan, and the Dark Elves.
Other than legends and scattered observations, little is actually known about these beings, but what we do know about the Faerie is fearsome enough. They can change shape or size at will, appearing as tiny humans in one instant and gigantic monsters in the next. They can make themselves invisible to all but the Talented, fly, and even pass through walls. Their most terrible power is that of the glamour, the ability to create fantastic illusions in the minds of others. These are only the powers of the race as a whole; each species seems to have its own specific powers related to its personal mythology, Brownies can do incredible feats of work, Banshees know when humans will die, Leprechauns grant luck, Boggarts bad fortune, Green Women creativity . . . the list of powers is as long as the members on it.
What stops them? One answer is, "very little." Each species has its own dislikes and taboos; some fear water, others holy symbols. The presence of cold iron seems to repel them, but only recently has it been determined that contact with so-called "cold" or meteoric iron will truly kill them.
ABOUT THE RULES
Castle Falkenstein's rules work around several interlocked Mini Games; tiny micro-systems that are used to propel the action without getting in the way of playing. Mini Games are designed to lurk quietly in the background until the player actually wants to change the outcome of an event. Here are just a few of the highlights:
- Playing Fortune involves a combination of cards (proper Victorians didn't use dice) and a simple chart called the Fortune Scale. The Host uses a combination of Environmental, Conditional and Intensity modifiers to come to a final result. The process takes seconds and can be performed without even telling the player unless he wants to influence the outcome. By using combinations of cards in a personal "Fortune" hand, players can also alter the course of an event. Of course, some cards are worth more than others, or are worth more in certain circumstances . . . Outcomes can also be altered by changing the Environmental, Conditional or Intensity modifiers as well, which encourages players to really describe in detail their actions and preparations for a task.
- In the Duel, players set up combination attacks and defenses, probing for holes in the opposition's defense. The element of strategy is moderated by the skill of the player's "character'' and the addition of feints that must be played throughout the Duel. Duelling can be used in almost any one-on-one confrontation: swordfights, brawls, even chess games! The action is organized so that players can actually act out their duels in a live-action setting, and all damages are determined instantly without resorting to rolling dice. A variation of the Duel is the Sorcery Duel - a face-to-face power contest between two wizards, in which magical energies are used in place of swords or fists.
- High Sorcery is used for casting the large and powerful ritual spells favored by Victorian magicians. A second deck of cards, called the Sorcery Weave, is used. Players create Spells and draw upon the Sorcery Weave to build them. The process, called Drawing Power, simulates the preparation a mage must undergo before sorcery can be performed. Depending on the combination of cards, a spell can take on strange side effects, go berserk, or even harm the caster. Since the combination is different every time a spell is cast, the outcome will be different both in casting times and effects! Since all wizards in an area draw from the same deck (non-player characters included), this means that Sorcery is a limited commodity, and gaining enough Power may require finding your rival, defeating him in a Sorcery Duel, and taking the Power he has gathered!
Article publication date: December 1, 1993
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