One Hit Wonders: Castle Falkenstein

This is another game that was inspirational in me wanting to do One Hit Wonders. One of the first steampunk games that came out, it seemed like it had a flash of cult popularity (enough to get a GURPS adaptation), and then fade from view. I dimly recall that it’s been re-released, which makes me feel better about the world.


Our GM for this had a lot of experience with Falkenstein, having been an early adopter and reviewer for the game. Characters were made the day of. He also indicated he had a house rule that he was using.

Character Creation
As described by the GM, character creation was “dirt simple.” We skipped some of the campaign level elements (allies, nemeses, etc.) and instead focused on basic abilities. Abilities were rated on descriptors: Great, Good, Average, Poor. We had one ability at “Good,” one at “Poor,” four at “Good” and everything else was expected to be average. Abilities could be anything we wanted them to and were pretty fast and loose. The main sort of weirdness was that there were some mechanical effects that required a certain ability. Initiative in combat was based off of “Perception.” In theory you could have some cute name that meant the same thing, like “Keen Observer” or “Clever at Noticing Things.” But in the end, Perception was still Perception.

The question came up during character creation whether there was a system for more narrow skills being more potent than skills that were not. The response was, “This is not a game of rhetoric.” Which delighted me and was a line that I feel I should remember in future games. The main hesitation I have is that such a philosophy provides little incentive to put any extra thought into your abilities, except to make them broad as possible.

In Play

There was a numeric value assigned to each rank of ability. The house rule the GM used was to increase the margin between point values. In order to explain the rationale, let me explain the basic mechanics.

Each player had a hand of four cards. For a given task, a player could play as many of those cards in order to meet a target number for the task. If the suit corresponded to the task you were trying to accomplish, you added the numeric value to the amount associated with your ability. Otherwise the card was worth just a +1 to your skill. Face cards covered 11-13. Aces were high with a value of 14. Jokers counted as any suit and were worth 15.

With a range of card results from 1-15, a difference of two between “Average” and “Good” was pretty meaningless. We upped it to four, but it still resulted in some pretty weird results. Because your success was determined by the suits in your hand, you knew going into a situation whether or not you would succeed. It sort of encouraged you to either steer your choices in favor of your cards or flop in your opening approach by dumping out a bunch of cards that were worthless to you, hoping that the next round of action gave you better cards. In terms of game… I guess it was interesting. But as a general mechanic, I was underwhelmed.

The main benefit I could see with the card mechanic is that knowing that you are going to tank on an action means that you can attempt to “fall with style.” It’s a huge buzz kill to play Exalted, score a three-dice stunt, and then have it not do you a lick of good. At least with the card mechanic you know when you’re going to not do so hot, and you can narrate yourself a reasonable reason for failure. But, you could also just tank the action and grumble about lousy cards. =P

Compared to the Leading Brand

I haven’t played another steampunk game, beyond a couple steampunky games at Ambercons and a couple installments of Girl Genius using Spirit of the Century. But I’ve played some high action/adventure games.

Savage Worlds springs to mind, as does PDQ and Spirit of the Century. All of those move pretty fast and capture that fast-paced action you’d want in a game. The card mechanic seems to just add a level of “game” to the game that I think doesn’t do the game any favors. It is perhaps a bit unkind to compare it to games that have had a decade of game design follow them. But I haven’t played White Wolf’s Adventure! game yet, or TSR’s For Faerie, Queen and Country using the Amazing Engine, so that comparison will have to wait.

Final Verdict

While the system in general ran pretty quickly and had a fun, cinematic feel to it, I wasn’t sold on the playing card mechanic. Overall I’m not a big fan of “new cute ways to roll dice” as a cornerstone of game design. (*cough*Earthdawn*cough*) The playing card mechanic had much of that feel to it. The conceit of the game, I’m told, was that this was supposed to be a “story adventure game” from inside the game setting itself. The sort of thing ladies and gentlemen of the period would play in a parlor. Which has a certain charm to it, much like Baron Munchausen, but the actual play of it just didn’t win me over.

The setting is awesome, and the whole blurred line it tries to draw between fiction, game and reality is pretty fun. But the game designat an initial pass doesn’t delight me. Over play I may warm to it, especially if the advancement is pretty neat. But from a one-shot I didn’t have any huge crush on the system.

I’d be fine with poaching the general character creation, using it as a standard for a diceless mechanic. But there’s nothing that I encountered in the setting that seemed to require the mechanics it used. It seems like any of several generic systems could easily work for this. And, heck, they’ve got a GURPS book for it.

This weekend I’ll be back on the hot seat, trying out Seventh Sea.

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