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 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.)
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.