An Endzeitgeist.com review
This massive bestiary for Castle Falkenstein clocks in at an impressive 146 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a truly impressive 139 pages of content, so let's take a look!
It has been a long time since Castle Falkenstein, beloved by many, has seen any proper support - which is, in itself, a surprise, considering its presence among many a favorite RPG-list...but it is also not surprising: Pioneering high adventure in the Edwardian and early Victorian age of an alternate world, it managed to miss both the rise of grimdark aesthetics and preceded the latter steampunk boom, which provided a slew of ill-conceived fads and sloppy prose - prose that would, had more people taken the time, paled before Castle Falkenstein's merits as a novel as well as a game. Castle Falkenstein's framing narrative of Tom Olam being stranded in this allotopia has always been a great selling point, at least as far as I'm concerned; it made reading the books a true pleasure rather than a just a joy.
This book takes up this framing narrative seamlessly, taking "previously unpublished" accounts penned by Tom Olam and converting them into the respective books - and thus we begin with prose, which represents the journey to find the missing manuscript of none other than Dr. Dolittle. It is hence that Tom Olam comments on the material found and retrieved, his work on the conversion...and fans of Castle Falkenstein will indeed notice the seamless consistence of the whole sequence.
That is, until the introductory rules-section begins. Here, we can clearly see the influence of the current age, and I mean that in the most flattering of ways. If you've read my review of Castle Falkenstein, you will notice that I am very much in love with system and setting...but my criticisms towards the system are profound. I consider myself to be a pretty experienced RPG-player, but the presentation of the rules was at times at obtuse and inconsistent as the prose and setting were inspired. The book, in short, suffered from what I'd dub "90s-itis" - an age where a lot of amazing RPG-books with glorious prose, particularly in rules-lite systems, were released, but often suffered from a less than stellar editing and inconsistencies in the rules. And yes, particularly in relatively rules-lite systems, that can really grind the game to a halt. Castle Falkenstein suffered from exactly this phenomenon, and while it certainly is nowhere near the worst offender in that regard when compared to my gaming library's relics, it did, from a current point of view, suffer in this regard. (Ahem, can we have a new edition? Please?)
Anyways, this book begins with PRECISION. Creatures in the Great Game are categorized as natives, faerie pets and things from beyond the Faerie veil, which can be things from other worlds, darker places...or pretty much any setting/trope you can come up with. Furthermore, we classify creatures in 6 different sizes and a handy table categories damage inflicted by creatures with an easy chart, separate entries for partial, full and high wounds and harm ranks included - including notes that wounds and size must not necessarily correlate. The same holds true for creature health and size, strength and size...and the pdf goes through the Castle Falkenstein abilities and notes how they apply to creatures: Flying/Running/Swimming speeds based on physique, for example, can be found here. Oh, and the book provides 5 abilities for use around, with and by creatures - Animal Handling, Animal Speech, Creature Power, Outdoorsmanship and Poison. All of these abilities are concisely presented and, while precise, still maintain the levity in theme and tone that made reading Castle Falkenstein's rules interesting and...well, less dry than in comparable settings. The book provides quick and easy creature creation guidelines and also spends a whole page talking about the ramifications of pets, sidekicks, animal companions - you get the drift. And yes, since Dolittle, Animal Speech, et al. is part of the parcel here, the book does cover, extensively, I might add, the role of intelligent animals in the Great Game - but only after a nice piece of prose, which keeps the overall flavor of the book consistent and high-concept...which btw. would be a term I'll return to! Have I mentioned the clockwork self-destruct mechanism codified in a side-bar?
Speaking of side-bars: Whenever you would begin considering the array of rules-clarifications provided start becoming dry, you'll find one of them: Like Beth-Ann, San Francisco's gigantic bear that was gifted to Napoleon. So yes, this book retains a very nice and inspiring reading flow, as far as the blend of prose and rules are concerned. I was talking about clarifications: TER (Thaumic Energy Requirements) for creatures are easily and precisely presented, codified by creature type...and both giant animals and familiars not only exist as concepts now - they have actual rules governing them!
Indeed, unlike in most bestiaries for roleplaying games, this is no mere accumulation of critters and stats; rather than that, we have vivid pieces of prose leading into the respective entries of creatures, elaborating upon them: Did you know, for example, that sphinxes are aliens, captured by faerie and thus particularly ill-disposed to their ilk? Did you know that true unicorns not only receive their bestiary entry, but also can act now as proper dramatic characters? And yes, this is still not the bestiary section, but rather the section leading up to it, telling us about the kingdom of Kongo in Castle Falkenstein's world, wild children and more.
Now the book does, obviously, begin a section clearly denoted as bestiary, providing creatures in alphabetical order, but unlike bestiaries provided for other systems and settings, the bestiary here takes its debts and associations with our own real world myths very seriously, retaining a mythology-enhanced plausibility: In a world where faerie is a very real force, it's not too hard to picture the existence of the amphisbaena or basilisks, correct?
Each of the creatures herein is not simply presented as a statblock, if you will - instead, the respective entries come with detailed ruminations on the creature, a brief cliff-notes version of it and detailed ideas for the host to employ the creature in question - often as basically a rather detailed adventure hook. The book's selection of creatures, as a whole, resonates very well with real world myths and contextualizes them properly in the allotopia of Castle Falkenstein.
Now, I have called this a bestiary and the moniker is truer than in pretty much every reference towards any Monster Manual-like book for other systems: Let me elaborate. Back before the period of enlightenment, when superstition and make-belief and the dogmatic realities constructed by the church still held sway over our cultures and science was indistinguishable from fantasy, there was a class of book called "Bestiary" - a zoological treatise on various creatures, both real and imagined: Think of this category as basically a category of literature resembling a blend of zoological encyclopedia and travelogue, one in which the fantastic and real blended into what we'd nowadays consider a form of magical realism, a representation of a form of weltanschauung that is in equal parts informed by a harsh reality and vibrant fantasy, by innocence and grime, if you will.
However, with the advent of a progressive secularization and ever more accumulating rebuttals to the world-views eschewed by organized religions, the scientific method began cleaving apart the previously existent "science" and founded the concept of a rationally definitive reality. Now, one accomplishment of this book is that it exists in the strange intersection between the grand psychological traumas mankind experienced in the transition to its (relatively) enlightened state and a more innocent or ignorant world-view when the world was defined by what we can now consider to be fantasies -in this strange no-man's land of transition that is quoted by Castle Falkenstein's allotopia, the question ultimately remains how this strange world, in this transitional phase, would behave if there actually was magic, if there actually existed faeries. Basically, if the medieval superstitions made the transition into a more enlightened era BECAUSE they turned out to be true...and what would happen if these moved with the times, how they would react to the transitional era in which Castle Falkenstein is set.
This is relevant for this book, because its sensibility is not merely that of a basic monster manual, but of a book that takes the established traditions of bestiaries and logically evolves them in a manner akin to how the core book managed to logically develop the campaign world under its chosen premises and contextualize the culture of these days. The book not only manages to retain the feeling evoked by the original Castle Falkenstein books, it progresses them organically and in a manner that bespeaks a deep and abiding love not only for the concept of the age of high adventure Castle Falkenstein depicts, but also for the magical realism and historicity demanded, nay, required by the setting.
This tangent may sound weird to you, but it carries more significance than me just listing critter upon creature and commenting on how they are well made; sure, I can tall you about hippocampi, hydras and the jabberwock - but what help would that be? We all have absorbed these mythological creatures via our collective canon of literature and media productions over the years - or so I hope. More interesting would be how they are depicted, how they are contextualized - as something more plausible and real than current-world cryptoids, as beings fantastic, yet real. The very existence of one such being can potentially radically change the ways in which aspects of culture and society evolved and it is the book's most impressive feat that it manages to retain the plausible consistency the beings require without losing their mythological impact and significance.
Scholars of mythology will smile, from kraken to mi'raj (also known as al-mi'raj or, more colloquially as "that weird unicorn bunny from myths around the Indian Ocean"), from monoceros to pushmi-pullyu to sapo fuerzo and yale - indeed, if you consider yourself a scholar of myths, even a casual one, you'll recognize many of the creatures...but chances are that several of the more obscure ones will surprise you indeed.
It should also be noted that a ton of regular, less fantastic animals receive their stats...but that, once again, would not even be close to encompassing the book, for there is also a chapter on characters and it is here that the ardent and diligently performed process of myth-weaving is exemplified even better: Obviously careful historic research and similarly careful thought has went into the respective representations of real life persons and fictionalized characters: You can find Black Beauty herein alongside famed naturalist Amalie Dietrich; Dr. John Dolittle is just as real here as Fantomas and Moriarti indeed has reason to fear M, the hidden paw. Dr. Jekyll and Mowgli are very real...and Mendel, understandably, is conducting experiments on faerie pets...with Auberon obviously interested in keeping the knowledge about DNA hidden...but why, what's his agenda? See what I'm meaning? We have a logical, and yet inspiring blend of fact and fiction, but one that very much is indebted to the concise realism of historicity as well as that assigned, constructed array of rules generated by the collective of mythology, literature and Castle Falkenstein's own established cultural pastiche.
Indeed, the research that went into this book is as evident as the obvious care and love that went into these adaptations - from Mme Pauline de Vere to Eliza Carpenter, the book presents a truly amazing array of beings for hosts to employ: And it also has no less than 10 dramatic characters, from true unicorn to paleontologist, from falconer to jockey. They universally are well-balanced within the context of CF's rules.
Editing and formatting are excellent, particularly for a book of this size. The rules-language and prose is vivid and I noticed no serious hiccups. Layout adheres to a drop-dead-gorgeous 2-column full-color standard, with the artworks employing public domain stock art...which, for once, does actually enhance the feeling of the book more than original artworks would have managed. The artwork makes it feel...more consistent. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience with detailed, nested bookmarks.
So, the authors Mister Thomas Stubbins, Captain Thomas Olam and Doctor John Dolittle obviously are legends in our world as well as in others; the transcribing scribe, one mister J Gray may have so far received less universal renown, but one should indeed not remain silent regarding his accomplishments. I have read a lot of RPG-books, many with a quasi-historic context/setting; at one time, you begin to perceive the lines that separate the wheat from the chaff, the books that were made as tasks in opposition to those born out of true and honest passion and love. This book is such a book. From the rules-clarifications to every single entry, the vast array of in-jokes for history- and culture-buffs, the commitment to consistency... to both CF's style and its type of mythweaving, is not only commendable, but exemplary.
The first bestiary of any given setting, by any publisher or licensee, is a risky book and one hard to get right; more so in the case off a setting with such a distinct and hard to properly pull off thematic identity and theme as Castle Falkenstein. This pdf manages to accomplish exactly that feat with flying colors, providing excellence in all categories I can measure. How deep does the thematic consistency go? Well, look at the dinosaur section: Know why there's no T-rex inside? Because the first skeleton was discovered by Barnum Brown in 1902. I am SURE that someone is going to complain about that, but me, I applaud this adherence to truth, as it enhances the myths laid upon the history, as it adds a dimension, and, or so I hope, knowledge to those inclined to read...and pursue the handy bibliography included in the back. And yes, this big book is FULL with decisions like that and feels like it is extremely cognizant of its responsibility to the high concepts of the system.
In short: This is a phenomenal continuation of Castle Falkenstein, an excellent addition to this often overlooked gem of an RPG, a book that brings modern precision to the narrative gravitas of CF's mythbuilding and a book that makes me seriously hope for a 2nd edition, for more Castle Falkenstein books. This breathes spirit, love and soul in all the right ways, represents a carefully-constructed labor of love and is an amazing deal, even if you just get it for the purpose of idea-scavenging. In short: This very much represents a gem in Fat Goblin Games' library as well as among the books available for Castle Falkenstein and should be considered to be a must-have addition to any fashionable CF-host's library. Get this. 5 stars + seal of approval + candidate for my Top Ten of 2016. Regardless of system, this is the best book J Gray has penned...eh...transcribed so far and sets an incredibly high bar for the product line.
[5 of 5 Stars!]