Castle Falkenstein: The Original Vision

As I’m hacking Fate Core (Evil Hat Productions) to play Castle Falkenstein (R. Talsorian Games), I realise that I should have started at the start and celebrated the reason this game is a beloved memory for so many gamers 20 years later: author Mike Pondsmith and artist William Eaken.

Mike Pondsmith: portrait, work in progress by liquidcyberpunk

Mike Pondsmith

Mike and his family are R. Talsorian Games. That means, for you youngsters, the various editions of Mekton, Cyberpunk, Teenagers from Outer Space, and derived titles. And Castle Falkenstein. When Mike gave us Castle Falkenstein in early 1994, we had had some lavish games already, particularly West End Games’ Star Wars RPG and the black and white elegance of some of White Wolf Games’ main titles, but Castle Falkenstein was the most beautiful role-playing book I’d ever seen at the time. I fell in love with it.

Mike Pondsmith’s personal vision is all over that book and its supplements. His training and experience as a graphic artist in the video world gave him a very 3D, fluid, walking-through, you-have-to-be-there vision of game worlds, while we were still in static 2D in most of the pen-and-paper RPG community Mike did (and still does, as far as I know) most of the graphic design and layout work on RTG products, and in Castle Falkenstein he decidedly took his work to new places.

He also gave us a game that was neither a random-roll, crap-shoot heartbreaker character creation dinosaur like the ones we had grown up on, nor a point-based, accounting exercise like the second-generation RPG of the time. It was friendly, math-light system that cared about narrative first (you started by writing your character’s diary!) It turned out to have math problems anyway, but it was a good idea that only needed some tweaking.

The third thing that made the game stand out was the separation of fiction and mechanics; the game provided ample source material that was unencumbered with stats, so you could marry it to another system of your choice quite easily.

I have had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Pondsmith a few times; I’ve heard him speak at conventions, and I’ve had chats with him once he moved to the Seattle area when he would come into my favourite role-playing game and comic book store, The Dreaming on University Avenue. (I think I earned points by being one of the few people who enjoyed the Barbie art in Cyberpunk v3.)

Self-portrait by William EakenWilliam Eaken

Artist and illustrator William Eaken was a marvellous choice to give Castle Falkenstein its dream-like, heroic, refined look. Eaken was also from the video game industry, and had worked for Sierra Online, LucasArts, as well as independent contracts for Rhino Records, Paramount Pictures, Steven Spielberg, NASA, etc.

His pencil, oil pastel, and watercolour style was a perfect fit for the art of Christian Jank, who conceived the original (and never-built) Falkenstein Castle in our own world.

Since then, he has produced illustrations for a variety of video and tabletop games, as well as fine art pieces. But for me, he will always be “the Castle Falkenstein artist.” His impact on the wonder and affection which the game generated in the hearts of fans cannot be overstated.

Images: Portrait of Mike Pondsmith by Eduardo “LiquidCyberpunk” Santiago, and self-portrait by William Eaken.  Used without permission, no copyright challenge intended.

Fate of Falkenstein: Setting Notes

Schloss_Falkenstein_Planung_Gemälde_Historismus_LudwigMore on hacking Fate Core (Evil Hat Productions) to play Castle Falkenstein (R. Talsorian Games). Actually, this has little to do with conversion of game mechanics, and mostly to do with the published setting.

Overall, I really enjoyed the setting and the fiction, particularly in the main rule book and in the companion book, Comme Il Faut. The system was a good idea but not well executed mechanically  and mathematically speaking, so after a few tries I started looking for patches, hacks, and conversion; I think the oldest conversion notes I have (1995) were for Theatrix, a system I have often described as a precursor of Fate.

These difficulties with the system were amplified with every supplement published; like many (most?) systems of its day, it was not robust enough to survive the splatbook “Newer, Bigger, Better!” treadmill effect. I still own, in addition to the two key books, The Book of Sigil, Steam Age, a PDF copy of the GURPS supplement Ottoman Empire, and I think I may have The Lost Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci somewhere in a box. (I pasted the complete list of supplements at the end of this post for reference, in order of publication.)

But the setting, the setting idea, was so much fun! Continue reading “Fate of Falkenstein: Setting Notes”

Fate of Falkenstein: Weapons

Illustration from Castle Falkenstein by William C. EakenMore on hacking Fate Core (Evil Hat Productions) to play Castle Falkenstein (R. Talsorian Games) (see the last three posts for more). I’m musing about how to translate weapons and harm.

How It Worked Before

In the original Castle Falkenstein book, weapons did a certain number of damage points which were automatically dealt on a success. There were three ranks of success:

  • Partial success, when the attack action result was equal to or greater than the defense action result;
  • Full success, when the attack result was equal to or greater than half again the defense result; and
  • High success, when the attack result was equal to or greater than twice the defense result.

Armour was described as rarely used, providing at most one point of protection and restricting movement.

Then in the excellent supplement Comme Il Faut (essentially the player’s guide to Castle Falkenstein), an alternate harm system was offered. Different types of attacks were assigned a harm rank, which was cross-referenced with the ability rank, range, or feat difficulty and, optionally, the hit location, to determine the narrative result (wounded, incapacitated, etc.)

A new option provided light, medium and heavy armour ratings which would stop all hits up to a certain harm rank (B, C, and D respectively), but for anyone but dragons or people inside vehicles, armour remained pretty much non-existent for most player characters.

The charm of this approach, however, is that it provided a us with a table that neatly groups weapons according to a ladder and compares to the damage value from the original system, thereby providing possibilities for use in Fate:

Harm Rank Typical Attacks Partial Full High
A Small hatpins, needles, darts, stumbles, most animal bites, blows, clubs, life preservers. 1 2 3
B Daggers, large hatpins, knives, bayonets, arrows, falls>10 ft, large bites, EXC/EXT blows, trampled. 2 3 4
C Small swords, small pistols, large arrows, fire, acid, electric shock, falls>20 ft, being hit by automotive. 3 4 5
D Heavy swords, light rifles, heavy pistols, spears, PR/AV Dragon breath, very large bites, reciprocators, falls>35 ft, crash damage. 4 5 7
E Heavy rifles, shotguns, GD/GR Dragon breath, falls>50 ft 7 8 9
F Artillery, shrapnel, bombs, being crushed, falls>100 ft, EXC/EXT Dragon breath. 8 9 10

How Should It Work in Fate?

Castle Falkenstein was intended to be swashbuckling and dramatic, which is a perfect match for Fate Core; but I’m not sure it can be done in the same way here. Yes, we could assign damage point values to weapons like the option discussed in Fate Core, pp. 277-278, but in Fate this would give a much deadlier result, especially without armour to counter the damage.

The harm ranks from Comme Il Faut suggest use of the Fate ladder, but their description is also non-linear. We could skip a couple of rungs on the ladder and establish a correspondence like this:

Harm Rank Fate Rank
A Average [+1]
B Fair [+2]
C Good [+3]
D Great [+4]
E Fantastic [+6]
F Legendary [+8]

But I’m really wondering whether this will help or hinder, whether it’s too lethal, and whether it’s an unnecessary complication added merely because it was there 20 years ago. For one thing, the harm rank table from Comme Il Faut describes action results, not just intrinsic values. It could certainly serve as a useful guideline for creating a new weapon damage table, and I can see why we wouldn’t expect damage landed by a hatpin, a pepperbox revolver, and a sabre to look the same. But we could also handle that through consequences, couldn’t we?

What do you think, how would you choose to handle damage in your own “Fate of Falkenstein” game?

Image by William Eaken, 1994 from Castle Falkenstein (R. Talsorian Games). Used without permission, no copyright challenge intended.