1879: Actual Play: Boss Confrontation

In our last episode of Actual Play, Sam Ridley, airship pilot, Bethelie Lepercq, aristocrat, and Thierry Dessalines, Byron, and their hired Mage Eike Wertheim, had discovered the why and wherefore of Otto von Schmerz’s plaguing them so badly. The Austrian nobleman that von Schmerz works for, Eduard Egon, Graf von Fürstenberg-Weitra, had tasked von Schmerz to obtain the specially-prepared Zener tubes that Anatole Le Comte de Deschardin had ordered, so that he might produce an heir to his line without having to actually touch a woman, an action whose very idea fills him with disgust. (Eike has expressed some interest in obtaining this technique, as she’s not particularly fond of contact with men, but would like to bear a child of her own someday.) The problem being, von Schmerz didn’t try to outbid le Comte, or buy the tubes from him. No, he stole them, not once but twice, the second time after Sam and Bethelie had recovered them and delivered the box, as contracted, to le Comte. In the process, one man has died, and several people have been critically injured, le Comte himself being currently in hospital recuperating from gunshot wounds incurred during the theft.

Our heroes are not, as a result, in the best of moods in regard to von Schmerz, and not likely to view his employer in a friendly light. They’ve already broken into the Graf’s schloss, taken down three of his guards, and rifled through his office. Now they know where he, and von Schmerz, are, and have decided to proceed down to the cellar to confront the cause of their problems, and demand redress.

All four of the party make a Stealthy Stride Test to get out of the office and down the servants’ stairway without alerting the guard down the main stairs that there’s rather more people above him than ought to be. Sam has already managed to bluff him once with a story about a rat, but sooner or later that fellow’s going to realize the guard upstairs sounded a bit different tonight, and come looking. He’s certainly going to be alert at this point, giving the party no chance to ambush him. Besides, if a fight can be avoided at this point, that’s all the better, as the party will be in better shape when they reach the cellar.

Again following the map of the schloss, they make their way down through the back passageways. The schloss has two areas that could legitimately be called “the cellar”. One is below the kitchen, and has the cold room, the dishware and kitchenware storage area, and the presumably locked entry to the wine cellar, to which the butler would have the key. Not wanting to deal with the kitchen staff or the butler, and assuming that the Graf would not risk his wine collection by putting a Weird Science experiment in the same room, the party has chosen to try the other option, the schloss general storage and the location of the single holding cell, where prisoners awaiting transfer to the authorities or (in the old days) the Graf’s judgment might be kept. There was a building permit on file at the same archives that provided the map, that described an expansion of this cellar for shelter of the Graf’s family and household staff during the Austro-Prussian War a generation ago, but as with much that happened during that time, the paperwork was incomplete or otherwise missing. Our heroes have no way of knowing what might await them.

As it turns out, there’s a large armored hatch set into the stone wall at the back of the storage room, past the out of style furnishings that aren’t worth enough to sell, the holiday decorations that haven’t been taken out since the last time the dwindling and financially-strapped family could afford to put on a ball, and the accumulated bric-a-brac of the last few hundred years. It’s standing wide open, revealing a stairway leading down lit by electrical bulbs, and smelling of that peculiar mix of damp stone, niter, hot metal, and ozone that people associate with Weird Science. There’s no discussion. Sam goes down first, then Bethelie with both pistols drawn, then Eike, and finally Thierry, who’s taken the painted wooden shield off a lifesize figure of a Habsburg soldier from the Imperial period. Who knows, the oar he seized on the spur of the moment aboard the airship turned out useful, maybe this will too.

The stairway, surprisingly broad and well made for something hewed out of solid rock in the middle of a war, empties out into a large chamber, part man-made, part natural cavern, with a strong odour of brine telling our heroes that the schloss sits atop a salt dome, a bit unusual this far from Poland. Wires have been strung on spikes hammered into the walls and ceiling, with bare electrical bulbs throwing a glaring illumination, the shadows crisp and overlapping. Shelves of wartime supplies, some of the jars and tins badly in need of being rotated out, line one wall, with a half dozen rickety metal-frame bunks, scarcely more than stacked military cots, shoved up against them to make room.

Taking up most of the space are two surgical tables of the latest make, all gleaming stainless steel and fitted with a spigot at the head end and a drain at the foot for ease of cleaning, and a surrounding clutter of apparatus. There, in between the tables, glowing a faint green, are the Zener tubes, installed in a bulky machine connected by massive cables to a pile of netting on each table. There also are Otto von Schmerz and a few of his henchmen, looking a bit fidgety as if they’d like to be gone now they’ve been paid, several technicians in laboratory smocks, goggles, and rubberised gloves fussing over the apparatus, a few of the Graf’s household guard looking decidedly uncomfortable at being this close to the machinery, and the Graf himself, a trim and fighting-fit Austrian in his late thirties. The House of Fürstenberg-Weitra might be in decline, but there’s obviously still enough in the budget for a very nice bespoke suit.

With the party badly outnumbered, Sam and Thierry defer to Bethelie, who takes point with a Social attack. Her player makes a First Impression (10) Test against the Graf’s Social Defense, and throws in Karma because this could make or break the scene. Even with Bethelie’s Charisma Step of 8, her First Impression Rank of 7, and Karma, for a total of D12+2D6+D8, the player only rolls an 11. That is however enough to move the Graf from Unfriendly (he’s never met her before, but she’s not supposed to be here) up to Neutral.

“Your pardon, your Grace, but we must interrupt.” She keeps one of her pistols down by her side, and points the other at the ceiling, visible but not directed at anyone just yet. The guards level their rifles and look to the Graf for orders. “We represent the rightful owner of part of this equipment, and need to discuss what I believe the English call a case of adverse possession.”

Von Schmerz draws a pistol, and his henchmen all pull weapons, but the Graf, while not caring for female company, is a gentleman. He holds up a hand, commanding a pause, and raises an eyebrow at Bethelie. “We haven’t been properly introduced. The least you could do is present yourself before calling me a thief.”

Bethelie’s player goes for a Diplomacy (10) Test, and again throws in Karma. With D12+3D8, the result is a 23. This moves the Graf up from Neutral to Friendly, at least toward Bethelie, and the GM rules the two extra successes can be applied to a Conversation Test. Bethelie’s player rolls a 19 without Karma, and tosses in a point of Karma to guarantee a second extra success, getting a 17 on the karma die with two rollups for a total of 36, and thus holding the attention of everyone in the room. The player and the GM play this out.

“I am Bethelie Lepercq, of the Lepercq family of Cambrai, and quite able to tell a Prussian” – she waves a pistol in the general direction of von Schmerz – “from an Austrian nobleman. I must respectfully question your Grace’s judgment, though, in retaining such a person. From what I know of Fürstenberg-Weitra, you could yet afford much better.” She looks him over, obviously referencing his attire. “If there is a thief in this room, it is not your Grace, but the Prussian brigand who attends upon you.”

“Brigand, fraulein?” von Schmerz retorts. “You’ll keep a civil tongue in your head when addressing your betters. Lepercq lost its holdings in Cambrai, and you have no house as a result. You may have noticed the von in my own name. Show some respect when addressing a nobleman. If anyone is guilty of brigandage here,” and he directs this to Eduard, “it is the Frenchwoman who has brought guns and armed compatriots into your home!”

“You can tell that to Le Comte,” Sam rejoins, “maybe he’ll forgive you for the two bullets he had to have removed after your last meeting.”

Sam’s player makes a Charisma Test, targeting not von Schmerz, but Eduard, and having to default to the raw Attribute because Airship Pilots learn the Diplomacy Skill at Master Tier, a long way away yet for Sam. With a 12, Sam scores a success.

Eduard turns his attention to Otto, and raises an eyebrow. “Von Schmerz,” he says, in an annoyed tone. “Did you really go and shoot a member of the French aristocracy?”

Von Schmerz shrugs. In for a pfennig, in for a mark. “Not me, but one of my henchman, ja, he did.” He shrugs diffidently. “The frog wouldn’t hand over the tubes until he had a choice of letting them go or bleeding out on the cafe floor.”

“I did not hire you to commit murder,” Eduard says, slowly and precisely. “You were to obtain the tubes, and to bring them to me.”

Von Schmerz shrugs again, obviously well past the point of caring. “You paid for efficiency. You knew my history when you contacted me for the job. You got what you paid for.”

“Zum Teufel mit dich!” Eduard exclaims, losing his English. “Wachen!”

And everybody rolls for initiative.

Will von Schmerz make a getaway? Will our heroes bring him to some form of rough justice? Will the Zener tubes survive? Tune in for mass combat and the final resolution next time on Actual Play!

Tally Ho!