Games I Never Played: Mage and Castle Falkenstein

My last post was about the role-playing game that my friends and I have played on and off for some years now. But what began to change my attitudes about table-top role-playing–and what it is actually about–was something else.

For years, I’d played Dungeons and Dragons. I was typically a mage character that backed up the warriors and clerics in my group of friends. We fought generic monsters and all that lovely stuff. Basically, I was used to the Nordic medieval model of what a table-top role-playing fantasy world usually is: often taken from the influential J.R.R. Tolkien model of Middle-Earth. This was often augmented with my own readings of Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance series as well as those strange and multifarious wonders found in Forgotten Realms.

White Wolf’s Mage series also changed my attitudes about what I thought a game should be. Mage–as part of White Wolf’s Old World of Darkness line–introduced me to a lot of metaphysical concepts as well as new ways of looking at what a mage should be.

In the Old World of Darkness, a mage was much more than a person in robes, with a spell book and a staff: they could be wuxia-adept martial artists (wuxia being a fictionally depicted form of martial art that lets its practitioners unleash supernatural feats), mad scientists, Matrix-like computer-hackers, secret adept societies, shamans, pagan witches and all the different interpretations you could get away with. They even had these people called The Hollow Ones: essentially magic-wielding Goths that delved into countless different sources of knowledge from the Romantic period to the present time while taking their joy as the world burned.

I was in a very pessimistic and cynical mind-set in those days and the idea of a World of Darkness: where everything was degrading and there were secret fonts of knowledge intrigued me a lot. The esoteric and abstract rule-system also fascinated me: by having dots in various skills and attributes and Spheres of Magic. You also had something called Arete–the Greek word for honours or excellence–which was a dot-metre that determined how much of reality you understood and how much enlightenment you had. The more dots you had, the more Sphere dots you could get. That said, it also relied a lot on actual role-playing: on acting out your character.

I did have issues with the fact that there was this thing called Paradox. Essentially, a Mage affects Reality with their power, but Reality is made from consent: Consensual Reality being created from what a majority of people unconsciously believe in. So if you used a blatant display of magic in a reality that did not accept that such a thing could happen (like throwing a fireball from your hand), you would suffer Paradox and if you gained enough of it bad stuff would happen. Of course, this was not counting the fact that some of your spells might not even happen at all because reality doesn’t except it.

So I had issues with that. In retrospect though, the impetus on making subtle magics: on combining minor spells with major overt actions and creating some plausible deniability towards reality is really cool.

But it wasn’t always a very positive world-view and after a while I started to think back on another strange role-playing world I was introduced to. A friend introduced me to a world called Castle Falkenstein. I found it … really bizarre at the time, but in a weird way that was very compelling. Bear in mind that I had up until that moment never even heard of steampunk or understood what it was.

In Castle Falkenstein, I found an alternate Victorian world where fictional and historical characters existed side by side along with magickal lodges, secret societies, spies, mad scientists, Dwarven engineers, Faerie Lords and Dragons. The core book introduces you to the world through a character from our own–Tom Olam–who was a computer game designer and was essentially kidnapped by a wizard and a Faerie Lord to save their version of Earth. Tom Olam actually makes it his duty to make sure that the alternate Earth in Falkenstein does not enter into two World Wars and become like ours. He attempts to save magick, the Faeries and even the Victorian societies and utopian ideals that he sees there.

The plot and structure of Castle Falkenstein is heavily influenced by Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda: a story about a man who poses as a king to save a kingdom and a whole lot of other goodies. It does take a very unrealistic view of what our Victorian Age was like–with emphasis on “the good old days where science was always considered good and there was a strong honour-system in place” and ignoring things like the vast divide between social classes and other such lovely things–but it is also an alternate world where these noble things may have actually happened. I like the continent of New Europa and the nation-state issues between Bayern (or Bavaria) and Prussia. Also, America is divided into different nations as well: which is a really cool thing to see.

Castle Falkenstein also had its own unique playing system where you used playing cards instead of dice. Apparently among the upper elite, a die was considered a vulgar form of entertainment while playing cards were perfectly acceptable. I even tried learning and adapting their system to some games I tried to make: with varying degrees of results.You could also be a great many things: various forms of Faerie (including the Daoine Sidhe that looked very elven), a Dragon Lord, a Dwarf inventor, an adventurer, a scientist, a mad scientist, a mage (whose magick actually seemed to involve something like String Theory with its subetheric knots and what-not), a journalist, a diplomat, and all that fun stuff.

But I think the real reason I loved this game so much–one I never actually had the opportunity to play–was because of its emphasis on hope and the alternative ways history could have turned out with fantastic elements. It also showed me that fantasy games could occur in other eras besides a medieval one and also alongside some elements of history.

Where Mage was delightfully dystopian, Castle Falkenstein was unashamedly utopian, swashbuckling and romantic in all the connotations you can take. And there was greater emphasis on role-play and creating a three-dimensional character. You were encouraged to keep journal entries of your exploits so that other people could see them. It was just an awesome idea and I actually all the books long after the series went out of print. I felt a lot like Don Quixote: like a person who wanted to be part of something that no longer existed, that was lost over time, but felt like it should. There is your romanticism again for you. Maybe I also liked having these game books because I needed something good and positive in my life at the time.

I think it says something that I went back to collect the Falkenstein books instead of the Mage ones: though those are awesome as well. I think that in some ways my change from thinking about fantasy as D&D to looking at it from the perspective of these books began my change in how I looked at writing in general. I also think I need to play more games to talk more about them. But I will say that each of these had both their time and their dream.

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