Listen to the Return of Castle Falkenstein!

I’ve been a fan of Castle Falkenstein since 1994 when I grabbed a copy of the newly released role-playing game. I have run it straight at the table and online, I’ve adapted it for alternate systems such as Theatrix, PDQ, and Fate Core (though I’m still unenthusiastic about the spellcasting rules in the latter, need to think more about them). For many old gamers like me, R. Talsorian Games‘ Castle Falkenstein represented a sea change at the time, no longer concentrating on dice rolling and stat values as much as the fiction created around the player characters.

Although the original Castle Falkenstein books are long out of print, they were eventually scanned and released as PDF versions on DriveThruRPG. But until recently, the latest supplement released by RTG had been, if memory serves, The Memoirs of Auberon of Faerie in 1998; and a GURPS Castle Falkenstein supplement, The Ottoman Empire, had been released by Steve Jackson Games under license circa 2000.

This changed last year, when RTG allowed up-and-coming Fat Goblin Games to create and publish additional materials. Since last October, writer J Gray — long-time Falkenstein fan — has authored four supplements: Curious Creatures, a bestiary; The Tarot Variation, an alternate rule system for sorcery that uses a tarot deck instead of a regular playing cards; The Second Tarot Variation, which extends the use of tarot cards to all action; and Firearms and Margarine, an adventure.

J Gray is also a great person — and a great GM. Along with my husband, I’ve had the chance to play in J’s current online game. We’re alpha-playtesting a series of new alternate mechanic options that will allow customization of the Castle Falkenstein system for GMs who like to tinker. J has been recording the the episodes so far and releasing them as a podcast. You can see the campaign site on Obsidian Portal, and listen to the episodes on Fat Goblin GamesPresents. That will give you a preview of some of the rules we’re testing so you can try them too!


Matrioshka (Russian dolls)I’ve been quiet on the blog this month because (1) I just started a new full-time job with a long commute, (2) I’m taking a couple of online classes, and (3) my free time has to go to addressing the review comments on the alpha draft of the War of Ashes RPG.  Some things I have to write as soon as I have time:

  • Report of first playtest of Do: Fate of the Flying Temple.
  • Report of first playtest of my Fate of Falkenstein hack.
  • Review of the online classes, which are very interesting.

What I really want to write about:

  • My latest Fate hack idea, adapting the world of Dragaera from Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos and Khaavren Romances series.

Because I’m like that, always with more ideas than time…

Fate of Falkenstein: eBooks

Fate of Falkenstein: coverYeah, I’ve been hacking Fate Core (Evil Hat Productions) to play Castle Falkenstein (R. Talsorian Games), using the lovely Deck of Date Fate (see previous posts). I think it’s in pretty good shape so I give you: the ebook versions!

The .ePub and .mobi versions are zipped, along with metadata and cover image, and stored on Google Drive but should not require registration. The PDF is stored right here on WordPress. Let me know if you encounter problems with the files.

Cover by William Eaken and Mike Pondsmith, 1994, from Castle Falkenstein (R. Talsorian Games), with “Powered by Fate” logo from Evil Hat Productions. Used and modified without permission, no copyright challenge intended.

Fate of Falkenstein: Amazing Vehicles and Infernal Weapons

Dragon and airships, from Castle Falkenstein (Willam Eaken, 1994)More on hacking Fate Core (Evil Hat Productions) to play Castle Falkenstein (R. Talsorian Games) (see previous posts). In what is possibly the last item to convert, I’m musing about how to translate vehicles.

Amazing Vehicles and Infernal Weapons

If you want to use the rules from Castle Falkenstein pp. 190-191 and 208-215, the main change to make is to replace the damage system. In CF, the damage caused by infernal weapons and the number of “wound” points equipment receives is based on size and on building materials, as shown in the tables found on p. 191 of Castle Falkenstein.

Instead, I suggest using the advice sketched under the “Extras” section in Fate Core and under “Subsystems” in the Fate System Toolkit. In short, it means applying the Fate Fractal to these contraptions and treating them like characters by giving them aspects, skills, stunts, and even consequences.

Castle Falkenstein p. 210Here I’m going to leave things sketchy because, to be honest, I’m not interested in writing a series of rules for how many aspects vehicles should have based on size, or how many consequences they should be able to take based on construction materials. In truth, this is all irrelevant; what matters is how important the vehicle or weapon is important to the story—or even how important a particular characteristic of the vehicle or weapon is to the story. For example, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea features numerous ships, even war vessels, but it really doesn’t matter how big they are; what matters is that they are sunk by the Nautilus.

Castle Falkenstein p. 211When you think in these terms, there is no point in trying to anticipate everything that will be created in a game with lists and tables. As an alternative, I offer you the following rules of thumb:

  • Assign two to five aspects to vehicles and infernal weapons that are important to the story, starting with a High Concept and a Trouble. The Castle Falkenstein pp. 210-215 vehicle and weapons creation rules are well-suited to suggesting some aspects.
  • An oft-used vehicle with story value that can act independently might be assigned appropriate skills such as Motoring or Helmsmanship, Marksmanship, Stealth, or Perception.
  • If there is going to be combat with other vehicle or weapons in the same general class size, give one or more consequence slots. I recommend using the advice in the Toolkit: an average vehicle—3 or fewer aspects—can take one mild consequence; an exceptional vehicle—4 or 5 aspects—can take one mild and one moderate consequence; and a vehicle with an aspect like Rugged or Military Grade may be able to take one severe consequence.
  • If the vehicle is going to be the player characters’ mobile base or one of their important advantages, for example if the heroes are going to be ruling the skies on their own airship and fighting Robur the Conqueror and his air pirates, the skill ranks, stunts, refresh, and aspect slots can be invested by invested by several characters.

Size as described in Castle Falkenstein can be ranked on the Fate ladder. The numerical modifier may not be used depending on the way the vehicle is treated in the story, but at least it provides a relative comparison between different vehicles.

  • Tiny = Poor [-1]
  • Small = Mediocre [+0]
  • Medium = Average [+1]
  • Large = Fair [+2]
  • Huge = Good [+3]
  • Immense = Great [+4]
  • Gigantic = Excellent [+5]
  • Titanic = Extraordinary [+6]


The group wants to play the crew and passengers of an airship from the Free State of Orleans. The airship is going to be important to the story and PCs so she gets a good deal of attention.

The private merchant airship Nuage d’Or is the pride and joy of her captain, Jean-Michel du Pont-de-la-Vierge. She’s one of about 30-40 merchant class ships built by the North during the American Civil War. Some of them were captured by the South and after the war a few were bought by folks in the South. Number 24 of the series, the Pride of Akron, was confiscated when her owner neglected to pay certain “taxes, fees, and considerations” (read “bribes”). Jean-Michel paid what was necessary and renamed her Nuage d’Or.

After purchasing her, Jean-Michel brought a few modifications to the Nuage d’Or: three Gatling guns (one forward starboard, one forward port, one aft centre), and light armouring overall (including some on the external gasbag envelope). “Light armouring” would normally stop smaller calibre bullets, probably Gatling gun bullets as well, but definitely not an artillery shell. The armouring is concealed and the guns are kept very low profile.

A modification added a bit later was to section off part of the cargo area into rooms which could serve as either smaller, securable cargo areas or else as very modest passenger quarters. The Nuage also has more winches and secondary mooring points then would be found on most merchant ships; since she frequently goes to primitive areas where there are no mooring towers, Jean-Michel has had to tie off onto whatever’s in the area. This includes: trees, large trees, very large trees, cliff faces, a sunken riverboat, houses, large boulders and combinations of the above. Passengers and light cargo can be lowered in a basket or, for the truly adventurous, a harness rig where a person can slide down an inclined rope (very much like what you see in an Army obstacle course). It can be done solo, in which case the traveller had best be aiming for loose sand or something to cushion their landing, or else someone on the Nuage can control the descent by paying out a line attached to the harness. For something to really write home about it can be done between two airships at several thousand feet. Not recommended for the faint of heart…

The Nuage d’Or is sketched using the method for Amazing Vehicles in Castle Falkenstein, p. 210:

  • Function: A hydrogen-filled airship with the ability of controlled flight that can be used to explore distant regions safely and swiftly.
  • Looks: Metallized fabric stretched over thin metal and wooden ribs; hissing steam vents and huffing pistons; ornate gilded scrollwork and glossy hand-rubbed paint; lots of shiny brass knobs and fittings; large brass dials and gauges.
  • Powered by: Boiler powering a Steam Engine.
  • Controlled by: A complex arrangement of Levers, Cables and a Captain’s Wheel.
  • Moves with: Shiny Propellors on Intricate Shafts.
  • Armed with: Three Gatling guns (one forward starboard, one forward port, one aft center.)
  • Size: Large (crew of 21), a.k.a. Fair [+2].

Based on this thumbnail and the background description, the GM and players agree on the following stats:

The Nuage d’Or

Permissions: None; understood as part of the game’s premise.

Costs: Skill ranks, refresh, and aspect slots, invested by several characters.

Aspects: High Concept: Private Orleanese Merchant Airship; Trouble: Her Previous Owner Wants Her Back; other aspects: Gatlings Guns; and Extra Compartments and Passenger Quarters.

Skills: Good [+3] Flight (equivalent to Helmsmanship); Fair [+2] Marksmanship.

Stunts: Park on a Dime. The Nuage d’Or gives +2 to Flight or Helmsmanship tests to access and moor in difficult locations.

Stress: Two minor consequences (thanks to the armouring), one moderate consequence.

Finally, if you want more detailed rules for large vehicle combat, I recommend you read Rob Wieland’s rules for mech armour in “CAMELOT Trigger,” one of the settings offered in Fate Worlds Vol. 2: Worlds in Shadow (Evil Hat Productions).

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

Fate of Falkenstein: Gadgets

Camera pocket-watch More on hacking Fate Core (Evil Hat Productions) to play Castle Falkenstein (R. Talsorian Games): Victorian gadgets!

Castle Falkenstein pp. 190-191 and 208-215 covered engines of war, gadgets, anachrotech, inventions, mad science, Engine Magick, and vehicles. In addition, the supplements Steam Age and The Lost Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci expanded considerably on this. These rules are actually quite simple and can be used without much change; however, they are not very “realistic.” Do we care? That depends on the group.

Simple Gadgets

Castle Falkenstein p. 209: Gadget constructionIf you want simple plug-and-play gadgets that have limited use in the story and are just the means to an end, you can get them off the rack, or just about, by using the rules from Castle Falkenstein p. 209: pick a common gadget container from the left-hand column, and pick one or more off-the-rack gadgets from the right-hand column to fill the available spaces; pay the required price.

If you want to be fancy about it—usually when a player character is making the gadget—have the maker test Tinkering to overcome a Fair [+2] difficulty; rushing the work raises the difficulty to Good [+1]. Succeeding at a cost means the gadget will have a special flaw. Succeeding with style means the gadget will have the aspect Fine Workmanship. Continue reading “Fate of Falkenstein: Gadgets”

Fate of Falkenstein: Duels!

Yevgeny Onegin, by Repin

More on hacking Fate Core (Evil Hat Productions) to play Castle Falkenstein (R. Talsorian Games): time for a swashbuckling duel!

Castle Falkenstein pp. 192-196 offered extensive duelling rules; they would take a while to explain so instead I will link to these pages and you can read them if you are interested (click to enlarge):

CF-duel-p192 CF-duel-p193 CF-duel-p194 CF-duel-p195 CF-duel-p196

Duel rules are optional and it’s entirely possible to play “Fate of Falkenstein” without ever using them. However, here are two options in case you want the added drama, pomp, and circumstance. Continue reading “Fate of Falkenstein: Duels!”

Fate of Falkenstein: Hack and Slash

Marianne, by William EakenMore on hacking Fate Core (Evil Hat Productions) to play Castle Falkenstein (R. Talsorian Games): gear, weapons, and armour or lack thereof.

As I discussed a couple of days ago, I’m not enthusiastic about just assigning damage point values to weapons. While it’s a fitting approach for a number of games—David Goodwin gave us an overview of a D&D-type approach yesterday—I don’t think it fits with the spirit of the fiction of Castle Falkenstein, regardless of whether it fits with the feel of the system in CF.

The key, of course, is to go back to Fate’s Golden Rule:

Decide what you’re trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules to help you do it.

The meaning of weapon rules in New Europa is very different from what David used yesterday for his discussion, for example. They’re not about the players’ shopping experience (to use a simile from Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering), nor realism, nor even much about tactical play.

What are the reasons to differentiate weapons in the Falkensteinian world? As we might expect, they’re all about supporting the fiction.

  1. To provide the appropriate sense of danger whether threatened by a reciprocator pistol, a hatpin, or a sabre.
  2. To differentiate character concepts in action: the duellist from the suffragette from the anarchist, for example.
  3. To provide a sense of the disparity between the very large and the very small which marks the setting, from ancient Dragon Lords to gallant pixies and from weapons of mass warfare to single duels.
  4. To provide variety in the Grave Perils faced by the heroes.

Because of this, I want weapons to make a difference, but it must be swashbuckling and exciting. The best match I found was in the Fate System Toolkit‘s “Armor and Weapon Aspects” section; here is my adaptation to Fate of Falkenstein. Continue reading “Fate of Falkenstein: Hack and Slash”

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.