1879: Actual Play NYC: Session Zero

This post begins a new Actual Play series, set in New York City in 1881. The Union is still recovering economically from the War of Secession, and from the breakaways of the Indian Territories, Deseret, and California. The nation that saw itself becoming the new powerhouse of the world, rising in might to challenge the British Empire, has suffered mightily, much of it at its own hand. Far be it from Americans to recognize this, though, oh no, they’re not to be humbled. The Union will rise again. They’ll find enough scapegoats and straw men to keep the population focused, put their raw inventiveness and determination to work, and one way or another the United States of America will rule the continent, and then the world.

In the meantime, the railroad barons, electricity moguls, and agricultural kings have divided the nation between them, establishing their territories, cooperating with or attacking each other economically (and sometimes physically) as the winds of profit shift. Congress and the President have been reminded which side their bread is buttered on, those who are not already members of the business elite, the upper class of a society that pretends it has no aristocracy. There may be no titles left over from feudalism, but there’s an order to things, and the lower classes damn well better touch their caps and say Sir and Ma’am with their heads bowed if they want to keep their menial jobs.

The players have agreed that they will set their adventures in New York City, or at least based therein, giving them a metropolitan milieu equal to that of London. The steamship docks disgorge thousands of immigrants each year through the filter of Ellis Island, its only concerns being that the arrivals are free of disease, able to give a name that can be written down (approximately) in English lettering or willing to accept being yet another Smith or Brown, and have enough money or goods to their name to not end up on the street on their first night. Uptown, the great town homes of the Vanderbilts and Roosevelts and Astors rival those of Chelsea and Westminster, elegant steam-coaches pulling up to the curb where doormen wait with umbrellas so that these rich will not get soaked. Across the Brooklyn Bridge, the tallest structure in the city and the pride of two boroughs, lies Brooklyn with its brownstones and cobblestones, its Jewish communities with the eruv wire strung high enough it won’t take hats off from passing cart drivers, its Hungarians and Poles and Jamaicans and all the other ethnicities recently arrived, a mishmosh analogous to London’s West End. Queens to the north, the Bronx further and across the Harlem River, and Staten Island a ferry ride away, the city continues to grow and expand and fill the available space, pushing out daily toward some type of critical mass as the tenements of Lower Manhattan pack tighter.

Into this bustling, crowded, frantic urbanity descend our player characters. Jennifer has decided to continue playing Bethelie Lepercq, French Aristocrat and remittance woman, whom she has declared has had a falling-out with Sam Ridley, British Airship Pilot, over her tendency to resort to gunfire when diplomacy fails. She is French, it is the way of things. As they say, in the French novel, the man and woman love each other, they want each other, they get each other, and then for two hundred pages they fight. She is done with this book, and ready to open a new one. Bethelie needs a new character sheet, to reflect a bit of advancement here and there, although not to a new Tier or Professional Rank – she remains at PR 6, a Journeyman in her Profession. Her AP total of 210,000 sets the bar for the rest of the party.

Rachel chooses to be the party’s Byron, and gives her character a background from her own ancestry, that of a Slavic Jew who escaped the pogroms of the tsar and fled with her family to America. Rivka Khavkin lives with her mother, Dvora, who takes in embroidery work, her father Isak, a factory weaver, and two younger siblings, Tsilia and Abram, in a two-room apartment over a buttonmaker’s shop on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side. The family attends synagogue with the Chevra Anshei Chesed of Bialystok on Orchard Street because they’re Polish Ashkenazim and within walking distance, but the Khavkins are looking for a less strict congregation so that the family can all pray together instead of the women being sent to the other side of a curtain from the men. While Rivka is of marriageable age, she’s kept herself busy enough with her studies and keeping the Engines that run the looms at Konoff’s factory in the Garment District, where her father works, in repair, that she’s avoided the subject. Isak does not quite approve of a daughter working with machines, but she brings in money the family desperately needs if they will ever move out of the tenements and into a better community, and Dvora argues gently that this is America, and the rules are a little different, and the law of the land is the law. If they knew what sort of company Rivka keeps and the type of work she does when she’s not at Konoff’s, maybe they would change their minds. Rachel goes with a base point-buy, and decides to make Rivka elven, having suffered through LGF on the ship to America the week the Rabbit Hole opened. This gives Rivka one more point of difference with her family, and one more issue to be considered any time the subject of marriage is brought up. Yes, the Boojums are still Jews, but there’s been no ruling yet as to whether a Boojum can marry a non-Boojum, especially one of the Cohanim, and Dvora still thinks Rivka would make such a good rebetzin for Schmuel Cohen.

Rachel works through the basic Attribute buys, applies the Elven racial mods, then allocates AP Increases to bring her character up to Professional Rank (PR) 6, even with Bethelie. This gives her base Attributes of DEX 14, STR 11, TOU 11, PER 16, WIL 16, and CHA 15, brought up by 5 points of AP Increases (one per PR increase) to DEX 16, STR 11, TOU 12, PER 17, WIL 16, and CHA 16. That’s two points to one Attribute for 2100 APs, and 1 point to three other Attributes for 800 APs each, for a total of 4500 APs spent so far.

As a Byron, Rivka gets a free Rank in Engine Programming. All characters get a free Rank in each of Speak Language and Read/Write Language, which Rachel uses to give Rivka her native language, Russian. Rachel then distributes her ten free Skill Ranks, one each to all ten of the possible starting Core and Optional Skills, deciding to go for a well rounded character instead of a hypercompetent but possibly overly focused one. She opts to spend her free Knowledge Ranks on Knowledge (Judaism) and Knowledge (New York), to reflect her character’s background. She spends 4 of her free General Skill Ranks buying up her Speak and Read/Write Language Skills, so that Rivka can speak and is literate in Yiddish and English, again bending the mechanics toward the character she wants to play. The last free Rank goes into a Conversation Skill, so that she can win people over by talking with them.

Rachel then builds the framework for her character up to PR6, laying in the Skills that she will later buy Ranks for. At PR2, she selects Graceful Exit, a Core Skill, and Knowledge (Mathematics), an Optional Skill, from the Byron Profession list. She adds Entertainer as a Free Skill, and explains that Rivka learned it from Moritz Trachtenberg from the Yiddish theater company that rehearses in the empty shop next to the buttonmaker’s, thus building her first Connection. Rivka now has a link with the community and with the Yiddish theater scene in the Lower East Side. Rachel also adds Melee Weapons for her other Free Skill, and decides that someone is teaching Rivka how to fight with a knife, but she doesn’t quite know who yet.

At PR3, Rachel selects Lock Picking and Streetwise from the Byron Core Skills list. Rivka’s shadier side is beginning to develop. Leaning into it, Rachel selects Espionage and Flirting as Free Skills, and discusses with the Gamemaster her idea that there’s a woman teaching Jewish women skills for resistance fighting. They work together and come up with Rivka’s second Connection, Peshe Grajek, a woman from Bialystok that Rivka met at synagogue, who’s a resistance trainer teaching Jewish women the skills they will need when the pogroms come again. This leads to PR4, where Rivka learns Knowledge (Telegraphy) as a Core Skill, Research as an Optional Skill, and Surprise Strike as a Free Skill. Isak and Dvora are a bit concerned over Peshe’s influence over their daughter, but it’s hard to argue with Peshe when she can point to the pogroms in Russia as the reason why the Khavkin family is in New York.

At PR5, Rivka makes Journeyman. She gains +1 to her Social Defense, can spend Karma on any Perception-only Test, and her Karma bumps up from the D6 that elves get to a D8, putting her on the same level as humans. She also gains the Codespeak ability, and can converse with other Byrons in impenetrable jargon when they might be overheard. She learns Forgery from her new Core Skill list, and First Impression and Unarmed Combat from the Journeyman Byron Optional Skill list. With three new Free Skill slots, Rachel opts to fill them with Peshe’s training and takes Disarm, Anticipate Blow, and Swift Kick. Rivka is quickly becoming a serious fighter as well as a clever-boots.

At PR6, Rachel chooses Conceal Object and Disguise from the Byron Core list, and Sprint from the Optional list, on the premise that hiding and pretending to be someone else are primary approaches, but if those don’t work, Rivka needs to be able to run like hell. She takes Spot Armor Flaw and Second Attack as her Free Skills. When the tsar’s men come, or whoever it is this time around, they’re going to find a woman ready to gut them like a fish.

Now Rachel spends some serious time filling in the stats for all these Skills, and buying Skill Ranks. She’s got a base of 210,000 APs to spend, equal to Bethelie’s total, but has already spent 4500 on her Attributes, and needs to have some left for buying Durability. Rachel decides to get that out of the way, and buys a Rank of 6 in Durability to match her PR. With her Toughness Step of 5, that gives her 30 points to her Unconsciousness Rating and 36 points to her Death Rating. That’s 3200 APs, so Rachel has 202,300 APs left for Skill Ranks. She buys a Rank each in Speak and Read/Write Language to cover her Hebrew studies, and another Rank each to learn Polish from Peshe, then works through the framework she’s built, making sure that at least 8 of her Core Skills are at Rank 6 to justify her being at PR6.

Assembling her character sheet, Rachel finds that she has 63,400 APs left over from character build, a nice sum in the bank for buying Karma or later advancement. She buys a medium revolver, a knife, and a quarterstaff, figuring that nobody’s going to think much about a young woman carrying a stick, and that the revolver can be kept hidden in her toolbag. Her one big expenditure is a silk ballistic jacket. Peshe has made it clear, you don’t skimp when it comes to protection. That takes a big chunk of her accumulated earnings as a Byron, but still leaves enough that she starts with £3/14/9, enough to cover her family’s rent and groceries and let her father and mother put their earnings in the moving fund. Sure, they worry what their daughter is up to that makes that much, it can’t be legal, can it? Rivka shrugs, and tells them, you know Konoff is underpaying me horribly for fixing his Engines, right? Oh yeah, Isak agrees, he’s such a gonif, you should quit working for him entirely and take your skills where they pay you properly all day. She laughs, and says, but then when would I see my father other than at dinner? And they agree to talk about what she’s doing to earn that much some other time.

Next time on Actual Play: Thomas builds a Galvanic Mage!

Tally Ho!