An Endzeitgeist.com review
This supplement clocks in at 125 pages of content, already accounting for editorial, covers, etc. –so quite a lot of material!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange of a fair and unbiased review. This review is based on the print-version of the book.
All right, as you know by now, I tend to write Falkenstein-reviews in character, but here, this is not feasible, as the content within this book contains a plethora of metaplot spoilers. As usually, we have a book here that is written in character, which means that, in spite of having quite an impressive amount of “crunchy” (i.e. rules-related) content, this book ultimately is a great reading experience, though one that should be made available exclusively to hosts – or only as part of the plot of a campaign of the Great Game, for reading this can very much change the themes of the Great Game.
Structurally, the book can be roughly separated in two sections – the first pertains a history of the faerie, while the second presents a kind of bestiary/ecology for all the different types of faerie that may be found in New Europa and beyond – this is both a lore book and a kind of bestiary for the fair folk. (And yes, if you haven’t, I’d STRONGLY encourage you to get the amazing Curious Creatures-bestiary put out by Fat Goblin Games – it’s basically the bestiary that Castle Falkenstein really needed as a complement to this book!)
Anyhow, the frame of reference that contextualizes this book is clever – Auberon himself obviously has an agenda with this book, and there is an additional layer of unreliable narration here, as we have to rely on what we know about from the narrator. These two layers achieve, structurally, something I enjoy seeing – namely the option for a host to disregard components and chalk it up, even if the dramatic characters have found the memoirs in-game, to being the angle of Auberon, arguably one of the greatest tricksters in all of New Europa.
Now, Castle Falkenstein is no grimdark, grimy game – quite the opposite. The refreshing component of the game and setting is its emphasis on high adventure, on proper etiquette and manners and the like; after all “Comme il faut” represents still the best LARP/manners-guide I’ve seen for such a context. Castle Falkenstein, thus, is very much a romantic notion of days long past; not in the sense of romanticism, but in the sense of a certain degree of nostalgia.
In a way, this perception colors, obviously, the reception of faerie and how they are treated. As you know, the transition from the Middle Ages to the Edwardian and Victorian eras was accompanied by a plethora of monumental changes that swept through the social, geopolitical and also psychological spheres of our lives, changing radically how we think about the world. As such, when reading literature informed by these eras, we are faced with some components that are hard for us to grasp, but which are very much important, particularly in the context of the English-speaking parts of the world. While the class-system informed by Christianity’s divine right to rule as a justification for the privileges of the upper class (also called “Gottesgandentum” in German – roughly meaning “the state by which god’s grace bestowed the privileged position”) was slowly being disassembled, the structures and frames of reference still assumed distinct breeds of human and ascribed a sense of hereditary influence based on class. This tendency would have repercussions in pseudo-sciences like phrenology and the like; it also is mirrored in the structure of language itself, with e.g. “villain” in its meaning as we understand it nowadays once referring to someone “not of noble birth.” In a way, this tendency remains valid to this date, with monarchies around the world put on a pedestal as though these individuals were a breed apart.
What does that have to do with Castle Falkenstein? Well, in a way, Castle Falkenstein’s depiction of faerie tends to conflate them with romantic notions of the sophisticated (and decadent) aristocracy; it presents a justification for treating them as a breed apart – because they are. The tropes associated with aristocracy and gentlemen/lady-heroes as individuals of the proper pedigree make more sense and lessen the impact of a ludo-narrative dissonance that the players of dramatic characters might experience when immersing themselves in Castle Falkenstein’s setting.
This, however, has resulted in the Faerie as depicted in the core book, being pretty familiar; relatable even. Sure, there are plenty of customs that might seem odd, but with the strong grounding in folklore regarding their taboos and behavioral patterns, they conflate well the tropes we associate with their mythological past and the behavior we expect from a breed apart. This is more apparent with the regal types of faerie, but it also extends to e.g. brownies and the like – here, the folksy aspect of their mythology is a more relevant defining feature. This is further enforced by the dichotomy the faerie have presented to us – there are the “good” guys, the Seelie under the command of Auberon, and there are the bad guys, the Unseelie, under the Adversary’s command. Simple, right? And conveniently fits our age-old and religion-enforced tendency to think in absolutes of good and bad, black and white. Heck, this also is represented by the very NAME of the “Adversary”, which obviously is biblical in reference for players; in him having horns, in Auberon, in contrast, being this stunningly-handsome fellow.
Anyhow, this portrayal within the frame of established tropes and contexts has made faerie pretty relatable; easy to grasp and empathize with, at least in comparison. At the same time, this took away from the sense of threat, the sense of the alien that is a core component of what makes the Faerie compelling for many people. To me as a person, they always struck a chord because they seem to be like us – humanoids, with “passions” (or their facsimiles), obsessions and the like, yet totally different and alien. In a way, this book drives home that Castle Falkenstein’s faerie are not elf-like humanoids; they are not a slightly more magical version of humans. They are ALIEN. This book can drastically alter how dramatic characters, players, and humanity as a whole within the setting interact with the faerie, which is why I strongly encourage, once more, only hosts to continue reading.
This brings me to perhaps the most crucial component for you whether you like or dislike this book – do you want your faerie to be stranger, more alien, more than a second form of aristocracy steeped in mythology? Then you’ll like this book. Do you want them to remain more folksy, more human-like? Then there’s a chance you may not be as smitten with this book as I am.
This question is a bit tougher to answer than one would think, mainly due to another component of Castle Falkenstein that is in a way, tied to the Faerie – that would be magic. One of the things I very much love about the game, the byzantine sequence of presentation in the core rule book notwithstanding, would be magic. Magic feels like a science, and while exceedingly potent, it is also subject to a wide variety of rules and checks and balances, to methodologies. This, in a way, for me always conflicted with the portrayal of faerie, and this book, at least to me, remedies this aspect on a lore-level. Once more, this is a matter of taste, but personally, I very much enjoy that the lore of faerie revealed within helps make them make more “sense”. On another note, I could see some hosts argue that this is contrary to the point of faerie – once more, we have an important component of the lore here that is highly contingent on your personal aesthetics. Personally, I like the route taken herein. And remember: This book is Auberon’s perspective; he has an agenda. The host still has carte blanche to ignore any component herein, explain it differently, etc. – in such an instance, the faerie lord has simply lied.
Now, the book does include rules for elfshot and faerie gold, providing the other side of the material-side, contrasting these with the mechanical repercussions for star iron presented in The Lost Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. The book presents, as noted before, taxonomies for pretty much all types of faerie, which include, just fyi, Daoine Sidhe; vampires are codified as faerie as well, and we get stats and abilities for all of the respective faerie. More importantly, each creature receives what could be called “hooks”, notions that you can expand into your own Adventure Entertainments. The stats provided also include Auberon, the Adversary, Dracula, Morrigan, the children of Auberon, and more – in short, there are a lot of stats herein. Staying true to Castle Falkenstein’s traditions, the write-ups never become dry or boring, which is quite a feat, considering the length of this book.
Very important would also be the explanation of the modalities of a Wild Hunt, how one can resist it, how it feels being sucked into one, the buffs one receives when drawn into one, etc. – it is an interesting notion in how it is explored and explained. I really, really liked this and how it made sense to me.
Okay, this is as far as I can manage to dance around the subject matter at hand. MASSIVE meta-plot SPOILERS follow. Please, if you are playing as a dramatic character in a Castle Falkenstein game, or plan to do that, stop reading NOW. The following discusses HUGE metaplot SPOILERS. Only hosts should continue reading.
So, in the beginning, faerie were utterly strange – beings of pure energy. When they happened upon the first world, the inadvertently killed the populace, and destroyed the first world in essentially a vast sequence of events characterized by amoral debauchery, passions and drug-like intoxication. Oops. Bummed out and bereft of remorse that their playthings broke, they returned to their dimension, but that would not really change their approach in the second world – which, however, had one advantage for the locals: Magic. Magic that provided a fighting chance. The faerie still did bide their time, and agreed that stretching out the inevitable destruction would be kinda the better thing to do. In a way, this world is the origin of the main “split” between Seelie and Unseelie – Auberon, ostensibly, fell in love with a human, a narrative consistent with Castle Falkenstein’s themes of high romance, and yet one I never ever bought while reading this. In the end, the faerie disagreed not on whether to destroy/subjugate and ravage the world, but on how to go about it. The adversary and what was to become Unseelie would champion ravaging and annihilating everything in a vast assault, while the Seelie generally assumed a stance more akin to farmers growing cattle to lead them to the slaughter. While the narrative does a good job here of making Auberon and his ilk seem more sympathetic, I couldn’t help but feel that there is something fundamentally wrong here.
The justification here would be that faerie do not have creativity – they can only ever copy and appropriate. This aspect of their psychology makes a lot of sense and radically changes how the faerie are depicted, and the lack of creativity, of the means to create, also explains everything – from why they’d keep humans around to why they put such a high emphasis on manners, conventions, and why taboos have palpable power – the faerie internalize cultural topoi, and make them real. The embody, because that is what they literally are; violating a taboo ultimately is potentially lethal to a faerie because it represents a negation of the very fabric that makes up their being. This is incredibly clever, and incredibly twisted. Auberon’s claims notwithstanding, knowing this made all of his protestations of nobility ring…hollow. And yes, the second world was also destroyed in a massive war with the magic-wielding humans. Oops. This sheer feeling of being alien and not like us becomes particularly evident in the following worlds – the third world had humanity gain psychic powers, take to the stars – and guess what? Humanity kicks the faerie’s behind; many of the legendary first faerie to take shape perish in the war, as they have to realize that, you know, advanced laser weapons and stuff like that does permanently kill faerie. In a desperate exodus, the faerie were stranded in the 4th world – Faerie Hell. It is very much implied that this is OUR world – a world where much of the deadly iron/star iron may be found, where magic is nigh unknown or non-existent; and only after this did they find the 5th world – the world of Castle Falkenstein.
Now, an important aspect here, and what genuinely made this book chilling and the faerie frightening to me, would be that Auberon took a book of human history from the third world. With this book, he is basically trying for a kind of guided human evolution, ostensibly to facilitate a kind of co-existence between humans and faerie. Yep, the faerie are actually manipulating societies and politics on a global, vast long-term agenda, attempting to steer humanity’s course. Sounds an awful lot like becoming domesticated to me, and made a genuine shiver crawl down my spine – particularly since he is constantly evoking love, the fact that he “diminishes” himself by fathering children (which requires that a faerie invests their essence); it constantly made me feel like a bug, looking up at a bug-collector with poised needles to transfix me, who was trying to convince me how much he has my best interest in heart. And, perhaps more chillingly, actually believing that. Why, when they had to evacuate from two realities? Because this sense of superiority, this arrogance, is what they assumed, what they became. It’s hard to explain how chilling this book can be, in spite of its conversational tone – and not because the faerie are alien, but because you realize that they are, in a way, like us…and in a way, they are utterly unlike us.
Like things engaged in a vast masquerade (that suffuses character as well!) that actually defines their very being. Even when typing these words, a shiver ran down my spine – the faerie here are not amoral, as in so many myths; they are moral; in fact, they have internalized our morals to a degree; and that makes them scary, for they do not have the species-bias we do; they have filtered our morals through their own perspective, and the result, even if less far out than e.g. the Changeling-games, is utterly horrifying to me. The closest analogue would probably be a cold and unfeeling AI not guided by logic, but instead by cultural conventions and the approximation of emotion. In a way, all the protestations of high romance and love that ostensibly guide Auberon? To me, they felt phony, chilling and genuinely creepy – unlike vampires in their eponymous masquerade, there is nothing even formerly human here, just an imitation. The lord dost protest too much, methinks. The whole book reads like an elaborate and insincere attempt at vindication.
Don’t like any of that? Really dislike it? Well, the finale adds yet another narrative layer that you could plausibly use to make this book behave as a plot-point of unreliable information, but I’m not going to spoil the nature of this plot-point. While I saw it coming, I liked seeing it.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard, and the pdf features plenty of b/w-artworks. Now, as for these artworks, they are actually my least favorite ones in the Castle Falkenstein supplements I covered. The key-NPCs and their depictions are nice, but the artworks presented for most faeries were not particularly to my liking – a little bit too gnarly, pulpy, fleshy. The more humanoid ones tend to be nice, but plenty of them do look a bit goofy and not as compelling. Compared to “The Lost Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci”, this falls pretty flat in the aesthetics department and is a long shot from the stunning artworks littering the Da Vinci book. The print version is a solid, perfect-bound softcover with name etc. on the side.
Master Jeffery Grubb and Lady Lisa Pondsmith’s take on Faerie in Castle Falkenstein was not what I expected it to; in a way, I expected a more light-hearted romp of fey trickery and passions flaring, and while there are plenty of apocalyptic conflagrations are far as passions are concerned herein, the book caught me by surprise, big time, and radically changed how I think about the faerie in Castle Falkenstein – or at least, how I think about them in the context of how Auberon, with his agenda, depicted them herein. There are plenty options to interpret the material herein, particularly considering the multiple layers of potentially highly unreliable narration, to ignore components of the material within or make any component wholly or partially true or false, which is an exceedingly clever move that saves this book from being a highly-divisive offering for Castle Falkenstein hosts.
How to rate this? Well, more so than most roleplaying games supplements I review, this book’s merit stands and falls with how you (want to) envision faerie within the context of the setting. I can see hosts really loathe this book, its subdued scifi-aspects, etc.; as a person, I absolutely loved what this brought to my table. I probably wouldn’t elect to make everything presented within true in my game, as I like Castle Falkenstein to be a bit more lighthearted (Yes, believe it or not! Castle Falkenstein is the one game where I prefer my game to be less dark!) than the potentially truly grim repercussions presented within do imply, but there are plenty of unique psychological aspects touched upon herein that make the faerie stand out more. And I love that.
No matter whether you like what’s presented within or decide to treat it a s a grand trick or move in the Great game, this book has a lot to offer; if you dislike the narrative angle, this’d probably be a 4.5 stars file, rounded down. If, however, you’re like me and value the implementation of the angle and an increase in strangeness, then you’d probably round up instead. My final verdict hence will be 4.5 stars, rounded up, and this does get my seal of approval.