An Endzeitgeist.com review
And now for something completely different! The following is a review for a Castle Falkenstein supplement, yes, but I’d wholeheartedly recommend reading the following even if you don’t play the game.
I’ve noted below where the aspects of the review come into play that are not Castle Falkenstein-specific.
Comme if faut is a 130-page supplement, with one page cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 126 pages of content. This review was move up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy of the softcover of the book. While my review is primarily based on the softcover, I also consulted the latest iteration of the pdf-version – an important difference there would be the color scheme: While the pdf’s interior is b/w, the softcover actually is blue-white – not in the classic old-school blue, but in a slightly darker, richer shade. It’s odd, but this royal blue tint, reminiscent of the beautiful ink color I used to prefer writing in, actually made the softcover more pleasant to read for me, felt a bit more noble…but that may just be my own idiosyncratic chain of associations.
As far as organization is concerned, the book can be separated into roughly two parts – the first part very much applies to pretty much all settings that employ a sense of Edwardian or Victorian aesthetics, and takes up pretty precisely 2/3rds of the book, while the second part, around 40 pages, deals with rules and Castle Falkenstein-specific components. Let us start with this second part for now. We kick off with 8 new abilities that include Craftsmanship, Gambling, Invention, Leadership, Mesmerism, Motoring, Natural Sciences and Riding. 3 roles (barrister, clergyman and police inspector) may also be found, before we get a couple of alternate rules suggestions – though a few of them, like the suggestion of Tarot-substitutions, have since then been implemented in more detail and panache by J Gray in his Fat Goblin Games-published Variations of the Great Game-series. A quick and dirty Cyberpunk/Falkenstein-crossover guide, before providing something I very much enjoyed: One of the criticisms fielded against Castle Falkenstein would be that the spellcasting engine’s presentation is somewhat byzantine, and as such, having detailed examples and sample spells presented is helpful indeed. Once you grasp the entirety of the system, groups favoring a slightly more grounded tone might wish to limit the potency of spells, and as such, several suggestions are provided to limit spellcasting in various ways. Tables listing lore books and thaumic costs by book, a spell-cheat-sheet and a FAQ for spells further help you handle the perhaps most daunting component of Castle Falkenstein’s rules. (Indeed, in my book, the only component I’d consider daunting.)
Beyond that, we are introduced to the notions of cantrips and wards – the former being everyday magic, while the latter represent protective measures for the abodes of wizards, which includes warnings and automated counterspells. The supplement also presents a couple of different unaligned sorcery-groups, and then proceeds to dive one step further into the nit and grit of the sorcery system by examining harmonics -. A handy table on the page is basically a must-have for hosts – copy/print it out, tape it to your screen. You’ll thank me later.
A big plus would also be the advice provided for hosts to make the game less beholden to the rules – using common sense and how to use Player Rank in relation to Feats to determine success. The abilities all get their own write-up, with sample capability-levels for each Rank provided, as well as descriptions for the respective results – this type of thing is really helpful for not only hosts, but GMs, and is a type of teaching that I’d love to see more often in games.
Oh, and guess what? This book features LARP rules for Castle Falkenstein! Considering that there’s an annual Victorian picnic at the Welt Gotik Treffen, this really made me wish that the system was better known! But I digress. The last section here is basically a host-guideline that walks you through using mystery, science-fiction, romantic, secret agent, horror and faerie tale themes in your Castle Falkenstein game. A Who’s Who timeline and city maps for München (Munich), Wien (Vienna), Paris, London and Berlin represent the final part of this book.
UNIVERSALLY RELEVANT part of the review starts now! Please bear with me for a second.
So, we all know that history, in a sense, is a conventionalized narrative supported by facts that we’ve agreed upon; from our grasp of history, we have plenty of ideas about previous ages, and these ideas influence directly our roleplaying game experience. Of course, if you’ve ever been to a Renaissance fair, you’ll have noted plenty of people that obviously either consciously appropriate aesthetics, or that are simply ignorant of them. If you’re like me and very interested in history and culture, you’ll also have encountered a rather peculiar phenomenon: While it is rather easy to have a decent grasp of the politics of a given age, the same cannot necessarily be said about culture.
Most famously, the Middle Ages were indeed rather dirty and by today’s standards, probably rather smelly, but at the same time, hygienic, the black death etc. notwithstanding were not as bad as we generally tend to assume. Similarly, the appropriation of Victorian and Edwardian aesthetics by the gothic subculture and media inspired by the visual language that sprang from it, may have colored how we can think of these eras, but once we try to get into the details, things become harder to research.
This is where “Comme il faut” comes in, and it is why this book has appeal far beyond the confines of the Castle Falkenstein system/setting. Of course, it should be noted that Tom Olam once more provides the often humorous and fun to read in-character perspective that renders the book easy and fun to read. If you’ve read some old fiction and classics, you’ll be aware that the mores have significantly changed, and researching those, well, is not as simple as one would expect. We’re all cognizant of the classic notion of women not bearing their ankles in those times, of the posts of a piano being considered to be sexual and similar aspects that may seem abstruse by today’s hyper-sexualized standards, but how would all of that work within the frame of a roleplaying game without breaking the fun of the players involved, which are bound to include women?
Enter this book, a comprehensive guide to all things proper and the less well-known components of culture that vastly enhances the roleplaying game experience. You see, we do know about despicable notions like those exemplified by the now notorious “Angel in the House”, but a) these only ever depicted the seeming portrayed, the ideal, and not the reality (otherwise, the world would be rather empty in the aftermath of the ostensible social mores of the age) and b) New Europa is not history – as such, indebted to the high-adventure aesthetics, this book strikes a fantastic balance by walking the tightrope between historic accuracy and the demands of fun in the context of a roleplaying game – as such, lady adventurers and the like are covered in detail, with the oscillation of Tom Olam’s narrative and excerpts from Lady Agatha’s writings on proper behavior providing a nuanced and enlightening reading experience that is great to read.
You see, there is a very distinct commitment to keeping up proper appearances, to not making a scene, to trying to appear/be actually good; in a way, this may be a romanticized notion, but it is one that enhances the fun that we have with the game. The commitment of explaining the details of everyday culture and social protocol, usually utterly dull, are handled in rather intriguing ways: We begin with the basic ideal behaviors for the genders, and an extensive guideline is provided for LARP games and how to get the proper attire if you are NOT living in New Europa, anno 1875! The well-dressed gentleman and lady are explained in detail – did you, for example, know that memorizing the knots that tie a Lady’s corset is absolutely crucial if you are planning a dalliance? They can be a kind of control mechanism to check for infidelity. Such dalliances btw. are covered in detail – after all, Castle Falkenstein is a game of high romance! These are, just in case you didn’t know, as Assignations, and there are plenty of unwritten rules governing how and when to properly conduct them.
When? Yep, and the book walks you, step-by-step, through a day in the life of a proper gentleman. The influence of the fantastic Steam Age is evident in details that extend, for example to the habits of decorating houses, and e.g. how to handle the Faerie. Indeed, fully-mapped country homes and what to expect, proper etiquette at balls and in clubs, parlor games, typical schedules – the supplement is suffused with details upon details, painting a vivid picture of a society that never was. Charitable works are also explained in their importance. Gossip and news are provided, with two pages of topics and headlines included for the inspiration of the host. Going one step further, we receive a great step-by-step explanation of the roles of different servants from butler to parlormaid – and whether to tip them, how to handle Assignations with them, if the like should happen, etc. – and who to bribe for what, who and how to tip them, and so on. Do you know whom to bribe for all-access? Did you know how an unmarried woman is supposed to dress for a ball? Well, after perusing this handy book, you will.
Dueling etiquette, proper addressing of royalty and aristocracy, currency and their conversion rates, formal courting – there is not a single relevant topic that is not covered within. Dealing with military men, how to conduct yourself in races and regattas – all covered. Beyond that, Victorian values are properly explained alongside the art of making a call: And yes, here it will be rather helpful to have understood the hierarchy of the help… The art of traveling by sea and air as well as railway is also depicted in surprising detail, with railway lines and sample maps provided for your immediate convenience…and yep, these can be employed as handouts.
An explanation of how the xenophobia of the age works in the context of modern sensibilities, and an explanation of the epoch’s zeitgeist concludes this section of the book. And before you ask: Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the book contains a metric ton of further-reading bibliography-suggestions, should you desire to dive further into the subject matters broached.
Editing and formatting are good on a formal level, very good on a rules-language level – I only noticed a few typos like a double “ii” and stuff like that. Layout adheres to an elegant, stylish 2-column b/w (or blue-white)-standard, and the book comes with perfectly-suitable, neat artworks by Charles Dana Gibson, who provides a unified and gorgeous, distinct aesthetic. The pdf’s scan has two thin scan-lines running down on most pages, so that’s a minor drawback. On the plus-side, the pdf does comes with extensive, nested bookmarks, allowing for easy and comfortable navigation. Personally, I’d advise in favor of the print version, as the softcover will be used a LOT; indeed, it is one of the few RPG-supplements I find myself returning to time and again – for details, for inspiration, or to just enjoy the well-wrought prose.
Michael Pondsmith, Barrie Rosen, Hilary Ayers, Gilbert Milner and Ross “Spyke” Winn – ladies and gentlemen, you have my utmost gratitude. Why? Because “Comme il faut” is one of my all-time favorite roleplaying game supplements, system and setting notwithstanding. If you even have a remote interest in Victorian culture, then consider this to be a must-buy offering that will inspire you for years to come; whether you enjoy the more advanced Ravenloft-domains, Cthulhu by gaslight or one of the countless other games set in a version of the age, this delivers information you never get to see in roleplaying game supplements, that you’d usually have to extract from often painfully dull books and then tweak to our sensibilities and use in the game. Here, all of this work has been done for you, and not in any old manner, but in a timeless way that holds up perfectly to this date. This may be an old supplement, but I’d consider it to be one of the very few truly timeless RPG-books.
In short: ”Comme il faut” is one of the best roleplaying games supplements I own; it is an inspired purchase for just about any GM, and an exercise in depicting a culture different from our contemporary one, which can provide plenty of inspiration when for example designing your own cultures. When extracting the design paradigm from these pages, you can benefit from this book in an enormous manner, even if you’re neither interested in the epoch or the game. Yes, that good.
As such, it should come as no surprise that I consider this to be one of the few books that deserve my “Best of…”-tag, that it is most assuredly an “EZG-Essential”, denoting that I consider it to be highly recommended reading for any host or GM out there, and unsurprisingly, my final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. If you want to get a good glimpse of why Castle Falkenstein is still so beloved by its fan-base, look no further than this masterpiece.