Swords of the Serpentine

A GUMSHOE roleplaying game of swords & sorcery!

by Kevin Kulp and Emily Dresner

When it’s summer, you smell her before you see her. As you come around the curve of the Serpentine river the scent of the open sea is replaced by the stench of low tide, of boat tar, of rare spices spilled from a smuggler’s ship; of cooking smoke and human waste. Bells ring out across the water and echo like the song of ghosts, loud enough to almost drown out the chanted prayers of your ship’s rowers.

You round the bend past the lower fort and there she is: the great city of Eversink, sprawled out on scores of islands across the sheltered water. Her jeweled and crystal turrets are reflected in a shimmering bay full of hundreds of brightly colored boats. Architecture from a dozen eras towers above a tangle of grand plazas and narrow canals. Temples to her goddess rise above the mansions and tenements, calling her people to prayer. She may be ancient and corrupt, slowly and inexorably swallowed by an endless bog; but she’s alive in a way most cities aren’t. She’s a melding of faith and stone and wood and water – and mud – that’s unique in all the world. 

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve come to kill a rival, earn a fortune, learn a secret, or hire an army. You’re home now, and the Sinking City will embrace you. All you need to do is survive.

Swords of the Serpentine is a sword & sorcery game of daring heroism, sly politics, and bloody savagery, set in a fantasy city rife with skullduggery and death. The rules adapt the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system to create a fantasy RPG with a focus on high-action roleplaying and investigation inspired by the stories of Fritz Leiber, Terry Pratchett, Robert E. Howard, and others.

Your characters will discover leads that, if followed, propel them headlong into danger and forbidden knowledge. A lead might point the way to sunken treasure, jungle ruins, the missing key to a sorcerous trap, or the true identity of a notorious murderer. The GUMSHOE game mechanics ensure that you’ll always notice leads if you look for them. It’s up to you to choose which one you’ll follow into whatever perils lie ahead, in hopes of fortune, glory, justice, or just staying alive another day.

If you want to track down foul sorcerers in a corrupt and decadent city, clamber through underground ruins to sneak into an enemy’s home and rob them, or wage a secret war against a rival political faction, you’re in the right place.

Swords of the Serpentine offers:

  • A fantasy city of mystery and magic inspired by Lankhmar and Ankh-Morpork
  • Tools for fast and effective character creation
  • A customized combat system that opens the door for cinematic, heroic battles
  • Social combat that targets your enemy’s morale, letting you defeat some foes through wit, guile, and threats
  • Sorcery that allows you to rip apart a tower with the flick of a hand—but are you willing to pay the price in corruption to body and soul?
  • Powerful allegiances that give you influence in one or more factions across the city, but which can earn you equally powerful enemies…
  • Streamlined abilities that power four distinct types of heroes, and which you can mix-and-match across professions to customize your character further
  • Gameplay and rules mechanics that encourage players to help build the world they’re adventuring in
  • Rules for death curses, true names, alchemy, sorcerous items, ghostly possession, political manipulation, and more!

50 Responses to “Swords of the Serpentine”

  1. Andy M. Young says:

    Yes, please. When may I give you all my money?

  2. Steve S. says:

    Looking forward to this!

  3. Raymond Bennett says:

    Can’t wait for this!

  4. Jason says:

    Oh wow.

    GUMSHOE just never stops being a pleasant surprise.

  5. Spence says:

    Sounds really interesting. I’ll be watching for more info on this one.

  6. Jakob says:

    This sounds exactly like what I’d been planning to home-brew a few years ago with gumshoe (I think I even have some .docs with untesteed ideas for how to handle fantasy armor, weaponry and magic). Nothing came of the project, so I’m really looking forward to this – sounds like I’ll get to play Gumshoe in a weird, sprawling fantasy metropolis after all!

  7. allan prewett says:

    Please include 1 on 1, thought.

    • Kevin Kulp says:

      Allan, you won’t see one-2-one rules there like you’d see in Cthulhu Confidential. I don’t see any reason you couldn’t play the game with one hero and one GM, though. I’ll go add some quick thoughts into the GM advice chapter on this, to make it easier for folks.

      • Stefano Gaburri says:

        Yes Kevin, do that please! I think Serpentine will be great with one GM and two players… I’m already channeling a Lankhmar vibe…

  8. Rich says:

    This sounds like a winner all around. I’ll definitely be looking forward to this!

  9. William says:

    Nice!
    How is this / will it be different from _Lorefinder_?

    • Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan says:

      Lorefinder just replaces a few F20 skills with GUMSHOE investigative abilities, but leaves everything else – combat, adventuring, magic, monsters and the like – unchanged. Swords of the Serpentine is GUMSHOE from nose to tail.

  10. gdave says:

    Are you planning a Kickstarter for this?

  11. Colin Chapman says:

    Does the Sinking City or game itself have a particular iconic symbol, e.g. a sword crossed with a snake? Just thinking ahead to ordering some custom d6s.

    • Kevin Kulp says:

      This is the coolest question I’ve been asked all week. Eversink’s flag is a blue pennant with a swan swimming over a golden coin (that might also be a pond). So a swan (you can see an example on the tower above!) or a coin would be *perfect*.

      • Colin Chapman says:

        Thanks, mate. So, I’m thinking that Chessex Gemini Blue-Gold with White ink, the 6 replaced with a swan symbol, would be ideal.

  12. STORN COOK says:

    Color me very intrigued!!!

    I would love to have a great S&S system to delve into as I’m a fan of the genre. I look forward to a corruption/sorcery system, that seems very in-genre.

    And if ya need art, I always love doing S&S art and don’t get the chance at it very often. (stornart.com)

    • Kevin Kulp says:

      Storn, you have no idea how delighted this makes me. Your work defined more than a decade of monthly superhero (MnM and ICONS) RPGs for us; you have art of one hero in a robotic body with a fishbowl for a head (Dr. Pisces, maybe?) that inspired one of the funniest games we ever played. So thank you.

      • Storn says:

        Awww… that is so nice to read! Yeah, fishbowl head guy was for a private commission and it came out really fun! Love hearing that my art helped inspire others in their games.

  13. STORN COOK says:

    One thing I was musing on, is that culture is a big deal in the Conan books. A Pict is different than a Cimmerian. An Aquilonian is different than a Hyrkanian. Now, I contend that REH was painting with a big brush in his stories to get across the idea of what a Pict or Cimmerian was with broad strokes in the sake of economy of words.

    When I was thinking of doing an S&S based game, I came at culture in this way. It is what the rest of the world thinks of your tribe, country, city-state etc…. not necessarily what the character thinks/feels. This allows the players to play against type. I could play a Cimmerian who has wandered south, who loves art and draws/drafts well, keeps a travelogue and likes “civilization” and the conversations with folks that would drive our prototypical Cimmerian, Conan, to boredom.

    Lastly, when it comes to social conflict, I think culture can play a HUGE part in that. (and I love me some social conflict, loved Burning Wheel for precisely that!).

    I’m wondering if culture is going play a part in Eversink?

    • Kevin Kulp says:

      Culture (and more importantly, loyalties) is a Big Damn Deal ™ in this game. Who you’re allied to, and who hates you, comes into play in every game. The culture for Eversink itself is really well defined. It’s further reinforced by Drives, which are expressed by answering the question “what three things are best in life?”

      As a default, foreign culture is lumped into the category “Outlanders” (in part because that’s how ‘Sinkish citizens tend to see anyone from outside the city — either you have friends with those damn foreigners, they have a grudge against you, or you don’t care about them either way). “Outlander” comprises folks from more than 8 detailed countries, and I have really easy guidelines that show you how to break out Allegiances with specific countries when you need to be more specific.

      Emily and I haven’t specifically broken down personality and cultural traits for each foreign country we talk about; that might be fun fodder for a supplement.

      • STORN COOK says:

        Awesome!!! Sounds like you have a track that I am very interesting in seeing. I really look forward to reading your game.

        I have a follow up question; is there a quick and easy way to handle npc followers, companions and hirelings?

        The reason I ask is I’m musing upon doing a Sword and Sorcery mercenary campaign… a way to have my 3 players lead a band of colorful characters into various scraps… somewhat influenced by Battle Brothers PC game… but not get bogged down in too much dice rolling and tracking.

        • Kevin Kulp says:

          Yes, although I don’t specifically address it in the book (I may want to). You’d build a hireling or companion the same way you’d build a supporting character or an adversary – a pretty simple stat block that only requires tracking one ability instead of a bunch. Supporting characters use fixed attack bonuses that can be supplemented in a pinch, and have a handful of special abilities that represent their capabilities. You’ll be left with someone as capable as you want them to be, but with no risk of getting bogged down in minutiae.

          Neat question.

  14. STORN COOK says:

    That one thread was starting to run off and get some words cut, but I just wanted to say that your last reply seemed very promising in terms of tracking and stats for allied NPCs.

  15. Stefano Gaburri says:

    STORN, you an press CTRL-U to view the source and look for the post in the resulting jumble (I looked for “supporting character” with CTRL-F and found it right away). Anyway, here’s Kevin’s text in its entirety:

    (quote)
    Yes, although I don’t specifically address it in the book (I may want to). You’d build a hireling or companion the same way you’d build a supporting character or an adversary — a pretty simple stat block that only requires tracking one ability instead of a bunch. Supporting characters use fixed attack bonuses that can be supplemented in a pinch, and have a handful of special abilities that represent their capabilities. You’ll be left with someone as capable as you want them to be, but with no risk of getting bogged down in minutiae.
    (end quote)

  16. Jenny Twobit says:

    As much as I’m looking forward to this game I’m hoping that Pelgrane can do it justice with regards to the art. Some Pelgrane books have been a bit hit or miss and, as someone who can be put off by the look of the book, I really hope they get this one right.

  17. Bradley CLARK says:

    I am looking forward to this. I haven’t been able to determine if this is “flintlock fantasy” or otherwise and if not will there be any sort of ruleset to allow black powder into the game? My other question is when…..when….whemn???

  18. Nicholas Fagundo says:

    I agree with @Andy M. Young.
    My family were some of the playtesters and we had a blast. When can we give you our money? When this comes out it’s definitely going into our collection. An awesome game

  19. Ben says:

    Can I run a “Dishonored-y” game with this?

    • Kevin Kulp says:

      Hey Ben —

      The world of Dishonored is far more steampunk and industrial than Eversink is. You could easily run with the concept of stealthy magical assassins who can sense thoughts, and that character concept is really easy to build, but you’d need to hack the setting to get the right world feel. (If you haven’t, do take a look at John Harper’s superb RPG Blades in the Dark. I understand that the setting is far closer to Dishonored.)

      • Colin Chapman says:

        Hey Kevin. Will be getting some gold plastic swan-shaped tokens to use with SotS. They’re super cheap and come engraved with a short sentence of my choice (they’re actually intended as wedding charms/scatters). I was thinking, “Gold is Denari’s Fortune.” Does that sound appropriately Sinkish?

        • Kevin Kulp says:

          Colin, that’s amazing. I’d love to see the link!

          I like your saying, too. I’m batting around “Every coin is a prayer” or something similar, but I think I like yours more.

          • Colin Chapman says:

            Thanks, Kevin. Let me know what you go with and I’ll create the tokens with the phrase on them. I found them on AliExpress with the title “60 Pcs Personalized Laser Engraved Gold Silver Mirror Swan Customize Baby Shower Birthday Wedding Party Table Decor Centerpieces” and the price and option to have them inscribed seemed too useful to ignore. Gold-backed plastic swans with a short prayer to Denari just struck me as perfect tokens for the game.

      • Ben says:

        Thanks, Kevin! My question was less about the setting and more about if characters such as Corvo, Emily and Daud are plausible, such as their powers. Like sorcery in SotS is, the gifts of the Outsider are forbidden and dangerous. I’m very interested in perhaps, if possible, running a 1-on-1 game featuring a highly skilled (and possibly magical) thief. And I do know Blades very well! Thank you for suggesting it nonetheless.

        • Kevin Kulp says:

          Ben, you’re right on track. The setting would fit really smoothly into what you’re describing. That 1 on 1 game with a magical thief seems incredibly fun. I’d probably build them with high Stealth and Burglary, and with ranks of City Secrets, Scurrilous Rumors, Skullduggery, Forgotten Lore, and Corruption (including the sphere of shadow). Maybe a rank of Ridiculous Luck as well? That’d be incredibly fun in a one person game, especially if you invest some ranks in Allegiances so you can single-handedly manipulate (or ask favors from) the power groups who are running the city.

      • Ben says:

        Thanks for the reply, Kevin! I should elaborate and say that I wasn’t expecting (nor wanting) a full-on Dishonored feel in the setting but in the characters, which you answered in the affirmative it seems, so that’s awesome! In my mind I see more Gentlemen Bastards/Dusk City Outlaws in the criminal aspects of SotS and characters can be like Garret or Corvo sans The City/Duskwall insofar as incredible skill and dangerous magics. Am I off here?

  20. James Walker says:

    I am interested in pre-ordering this because it sounds awesome, but you have gotten on rpg.net and other sites I think extolling this game’s system and interactions and hacking it for superheroes or other genres.

    How is it to hack this for other genres?

    • Kevin Kulp says:

      Thanks! We’ll open up pre-orders once we know exactly how many pages it will be, so that won’t be until it’s laid out in the first part of next year.

      And the answer is “quite easy”. I hacked it for 1930s Pulp heroes this summer by changing a few ability names; I skew towards designs that are easily adaptable. And you can adapt this for a different fantasy setting with great ease, just by changing a few core assumptions.

  21. John Ward says:

    Kevin, you are killing me. My money is RIGHT HERE! Just take it!

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