Fate of Falkenstein–Vancian Sorcery Without Hack

TL;DR: Castle Falkenstein was a hot mess of a game with a free-form magic system that cross-breeds with Fate to great effect, and if you don’t care for the setting, you can jump right to it.

Castle Falkenstein (CF hereafter) was a hot mess of a game. I owe it some of my best RPG experiences, including getting into Fate. CF had an adjective ladder, and instead of a character sheet, the first page of a diary ending with a shortlist of skills ranked on that ladder. So when I first read Fate rules, I was hooked by the similarities. And I stuck with Fate because game-mechanics-wise, it does pretty much everything vanilla CF did, only better, and then some.

Still, “pretty much everything” is not everything, period. CF had three subsystems that I enjoyed immensely but did not see immediately how to translate in Fate: vanilla Sorcery and Dueling from the core rulebook and the optional “Common Sense” random-less option from Comme Il Faut.

This post deals with Sorcery, but only a few basics. There’s optional reading about what I’m handwaving, but you can skip those details and jump to the mechanics.

Castle Falkenstein: A Gateway To Vancian Magic

Castle Falkenstein has rich magical lore. Morolan, the Greatest Sorcerer in the World, advisor to Ludwig II of Bavaria, is a personal friend to CF‘s game designer Tom Olam—a hero in the game lore. Did I mention “hot mess”? He is also a “theoretical Sorcerer” who construes Sorcery as a magic equivalent of string theory. The game design reflects that—because, you know, Morolan and Ludwig playtested the game with Tom and provided feedback on game mechanics (hot mess alright).

Also, Morolan summoned Tom Olam while seeking to recover (across time and space) Leonardo’s in-game-game-world lost codex on sorcerous automatons. Tom happened to carry a copy of a recently published “lost codex” when he visited in-game-real-world Bavaria and got caught in Morolan’s spell. The book did change a bit across dimensions, though. (You can get the post-dimensional travel version there, with Tom’s annotations in the margins.) Eventually, its content helped turn the tide of the Prussian-Bavarian war.

So there are time-, space- and dimension-bending spells and automaton-fueled Magick that can topple Empires. To that, CF adds fantasy species with special powers—elves, dwarves, pixies, and the whole gamut of the FaerieAnd dragons. They would be straightforward to capture in Fate because they mostly stick to fantasy stereotypes (though there are no orcs or dark elves, so less real-world racism baked-in, probably because, you know, Mike Pondsmith, not Tolkien or Gygax). 

As much as I’d love to deep-dive into Fate mechanics for all that nonsense, I’ll keep that for gaming (if ever). I’ve got a good idea of what in Fate hack for Magick (the thing) or Sorcery (the Skill) would look like. But “weaving knots in the ether” the Morolan way (Sorcery) or the Leonardo way (Lore and Craft) is going to be crunchy. Also, less general than what I’d like to focus on for this post: that Castle Falkenstein Magick is perfect testing ground for minimal Vancian Magic because the letter of Sorcery is Vancian, but its spirit is free. 

Falkenstein‘s Sorcery as Minimal Vancian Magic

Castle Falkenstein Magick had sort-of schools or domains, a mana system, and a catch-all Sorcery skill, all of which I’ll handwave vigorously because they can cause a shitton of problems (but see The Fine Prints: FATE). Instead, I’ll stick to basic assumptions: Sorcerers have access to spells lists through narrative permission, and spell names indicate their overall effect. There are nominal base costs for spells and, in standard Vancian Magic fashion, free parameters (called “Definitions”) that add to the base cost. 

The core system was remarkably flexible. Comme Il Faut extended the definition list (see slideshow below) and included a fascinating list of vanilla spells with set Definitions recovering some standard high-fantasy magic (including Fireballs, sheesh). And The Book of Sigils provided guidelines for calculating base costs for custom spells from the Definition list (p. 125). It involved reverse engineering, optimization, and, frankly, quite a lot of head-scratching.

Mapping Definitions to costs on the Ladder is feasible but unnecessary. There is a better approach with more storytelling, less arithmetic, and no copy-and-paste poorly OCR-ed Falkenstein books (or, in the case of The Book of Sigils, not OCR-ed at all).

The Base Cost Conundrum

The first spell from the core CF rulebook is “Mental Command” from the Manuscriptum Mentalis. It is only accessible to the members of the Illuminated Brotherhood of Bayern (Morolan’s a member, so I guess that’s how Tom Olam knows about it). The capsule description is this:

The discipline of Mental Command allows for the sorcerer to give simple or complex mental commands to others.

CF, p. 199

Fig.2 Sigil of the Illuminated Brotherhood of Bayern.

There’s a base cost associated with Mental Command, but there are also free parameters. The tables from the slideshow indicate how to tally modifiers for the number of subjects, how many tasks they should perform, and how well the Sorcerer know them to obtain a base cost. But, again, I think there is a better option, based on Dexter Magic.

Let me first re-phrase the basic write-up for Dexter Magic with setting-specific narrative permissions and the catch-all “Sorcery” Skill:

“Because I belong to [Order] and want to use Sorcery to [Spell Name and other Definitions], I will need [Conditions & Component(s)]. The caveat to my spell is [possible Fallout].”

Mental Command is, by CF lines, a cheap spell because it has almost no pre-set parameters, which leaves a base spell write-up as follows:

Because I belong to the Illuminated Brothers of Bayern and want to use Sorcery to Issue a Mental Command to [Name(s) or Description(s)], I will need [the name(s) or description(s) of N/PC(s)]. The caveat to my spell is [possible Fallout].”

For definiteness, assume that the Default Rating for Magick is Great (+4)—I’ll argue later for that number. This immediately gives me the difficulty to Mental Command (+4) but not the other parameters, which will be set based on contextual determinations relative to the Dexter Scale:

  • Spell Effects & Trappings: +0/2/4/8 to Default Rating if altering an Exchange/a Scene/a Session or Episode/a whole Campaign.
  • Components: from +1 (unchallenging to procure) to +4 to Sorcery (a dangerous side-quest).
  • Caveats: from +1 (1-2 Stress) to +4 to Sorcery (fallout might spur an entire storyline).

Without any other constraint, the Base Price for any spell is just the Default Rating for Magick. It could not be simpler. By-passing the standard CF tables immediately corrects the arbitrariness of not knowing that Street Urchin whom a PC want to Mental Command to stop mid-run, so they can get their wallet back (a scene-changing spell at best). It also makes it difficult for a PC knowing Ludwig II intimately to prevent him from signing a peace treaty with Prussia (a possibly Campaign-breaking situation).

Fine-Tuning A Lorebook

Dexter Magic is the way to go if you want D&D Magic but don’t want the ontological head-scratching that goes with it (see that post for an example). Yet, lower-end base costs for Dexter Magic may lead Spellcasters to invade other characters’ archetypes’ niches. Vancian Magic may be an efficient solution to the Sorcery-is-my-skill-list hurdle that results from that.

A common assumption of Vancian Magic systems is that researching a spell takes time and effort and mages don’t bother with trivial stuffCF lore includes this assumption and reinforces it mechanically with the time it takes to gather mana and the cost of Definitions—hence the Base Difficulty to Great (+4), making Athleticism a better option for the Street Urchin.

Even so, I cannot shake the impression that the mage who researched Mental Command may have had too much time on their hand. If you concur, you might prefer the following alternative write-up.

Because I belong to the Illuminated Brothers of Bayern and want to use Sorcery to Mentally Command [Name(s) or Description(s)] to [Do Something Contrary To Their Inclination], I will need [A Personal Belonging of] [Name(s) or Description(s) of N/PC(s)]. The caveat to my spell is [possible Fallout].”

This write-up would generally crank up the difficulty of Mental Command a notch or two. Contrary-to-inclination behavior may cause ripples translating into fallout for the caster. Trying to cast Mental Command without a personal belonging, could justify an extra cost. With proper bells-and-whistles for casting downgraded versions, pre-defined write-ups may lower base costs of Lorebook spells without compromising niches or incurring too much bookkeeping (see The Fine Prints: By-the-Book). 

The Fine Prints

FATE. Castle Falkenstein‘s Sorcery has domains, called (in-game) “Aspects”—namely: Emotional, Material, Spiritual, and Elemental—indexed on suits of a deck of cards (acting as both game-system randomizer and mana pool). Collecting Aspected mana (called in-game “Thaumic Energy”) takes time, particularly if one discards energy that does not match the spell’s Aspect to prevent the occurrence of side-effects (called in-game “Harmonics”). Translating Aspected Thaumic Energy (ATE) and Harmonics would require a Fate hack waaaaaay beyond this post. But I know how to do it and may do it one day. Then again, Harmonics are also critical-failure (“fumble”) mechanics that 1990s (and 1980s) game design seemed obsessed with. Fate, fortunately, does away with all that crap. The small list of four ATEs is also a transparent attempt at mitigating D&D’s magical ontology issues (which I touched on a bit here). But it may not be very successful in practice if one allows for custom spells. I could see arguments about borderline cases between Emotional and Spiritual or Material and Elemental. So I don’t know how much of CF ATE would be worth keeping in a “Fate Aspected Thaumic Energy” hack—which, amusingly enough, has FATE for an acronym—because, to me, ontology is a job thing, not a hobby thing.

By-the-book. A Lorebook spell’s pre-set parameters determine its base cost on the Ladder. In principle, upgrades should costs extra and downgrades should be worth a discount. But “upgrade” is, contextually, whatever increases costs: casting a spell short of some components is an upgrade—and should increase the Base Cost by (say) the Component’s Rating on the Dexter Scale. Now, Vancian Spells are also a way to limit the Sorcery-is-my-skill-list effect. And The Book of Sigils briefly handwaves niche-threatening “low-cost” custom spells (“a sorcerer is not going to use his limited time and energies creating trivial, or marginally useful, effects,” p. 125). This amounts to an implicit “Magick Bogus Rule.” A PC wants to Open a Lock rather than letting the Dashing Hussar bash the door in or the Gentleman Thief pick it? Call it bogus without ontology arguments! (Actual play example here). Now, a spell to Open All Locks within a large-ish radius would be worth the hours spent to learn tying etheric knots. So, you may still want to impose conditions under which a Sorcerer could downscale a spell. My own take would be an Overcome action against Open All Locks‘ Base Cost on the Ladder. Still, I’d waive the roll (incidentally, these waiving rules are a partial transposition of the randomless resolution from Comme Il Faut).

Wrapping Up: GURPS’ Falkenstein

Castle Falkenstein was a hot mess of a game with one foot still in the 1980s game-design swamp, and the other hovering over still-not-there-just-yet solid ground of collaborative storytelling RPGs. In the early 2000s, Steve Jackson Games published GURPS Castle Falkenstein and followed through with a dual-stat GURPS Castle Falkenstein: Ottoman Empire. Twenty years after its publications, two lines of skill ratings for CF stats, followed by a half-page of GURPS stats still make for a bizarre reading experience.

Of my favorite CF subsystems, Sorcery alone was not lost in the GURPS translation. Duels are a rock-paper-scissors affair that GURPS could not handle, and “GURPS Diceless” would be an oxymoron. By contrast, CF‘s mana system and Definition-arithmetic fit the GURPS hard-number model. (Lorebooks translate into skills, base spells costs, in maneuvers modifiers for those skills, and definitions, in modifiers applied to the maneuver).

There is a way to hack the GURPS translation in Fate with Extras—suggested to me by Marion G. Harmon, author of the Fate-Powered Wearing the Cape RPG, in another context. I love it, but I think I’ll stick to artisanal, Dexter Magic write-ups for Lorebooks for a while, because it’s a great excuse to dive back in the lore.

And that will be all for today, folks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s