The Swords of the Serpentine playtest is now live!

SotS is the upcoming fantasy GUMSHOE game from Kevin Kulp (TimeWatch) and Emily Dresner (the Dungeonomics column at www.critical-hits.com). The full game will be available in 2019, traditionally published by Pelgrane Press with advance pre-orders, and we’ll open up those pre-orders in the months before publication.

Meanwhile, let’s see what you think. There’s a lot in the playtest, so here’s what you’ll want to know to get the most out of the game.

Page 0. We open up with a quick note about how to give us playtest feedback.

Chapter 1: The Basics. Want to know if you’re going to like Eversink, the city where Swords of the Serpentine is set? Skim this short chapter. You’ll know by the time you’re done.

Chapter 2: Your Hero. This tells you how to create a Hero. All the Investigative and General abilities are described here, along with rules for advancement and Fledgling/Aged play (where you skip around in a Hero’s career from one adventure to the next).

  • This is a game where players have quite a bit of narrative control. You help create the world while you play, and you have some abilities that let you actively world-build when you desperately need it the most. For instance, spending a point of the Investigative ability Laws and Traditions allows you to literally make up a law or a cultural tradition that remains true for the rest of the campaign, which is handy when you’ve just been confronted by the City Watch and you desperately need a loophole.
  • You can attack Morale in addition to Health. It’s possible to defeat a foe without ever laying a finger on them. Thanks to Teamwork attacks, a Hero who never once touches a weapon and who gets by on their sharp wits is a perfectly viable build.
  • There are four loose classes – Sentinel, Sorcerer, Thief, and Warrior – and each class has four unique Investigative abilities that define it. For instance, thieves have access to City’s Secrets, Ridiculous Luck, Scurrilous Rumors, and Skullduggery; Sorcerers have Corruption, Forgotten Lore, Leechcraft, and Prophecy. Mix and match class abilities between professions if you don’t mind trading a little power for flexibility.
  • Investigative abilities give you leads and clues, and spending those Investigative pool points allow you to do some remarkable things, including inflicting extra damage in combat (sometimes a lot of extra damage).
  • We’ve got quick-start templates for both Heroes and campaign set-ups. There are a lot of ways to play this game – gang of con men and thieves? Officers in the City Watch? Roaming adventurers? Decadent nobility? Inquisitors? Desperate rat-catchers? Master Sorcerer and apprentices? – and we want to make it easy for you to choose.
  • Eversink is a city controlled by a dozen or so powerful factions. You’ll be allied with one or two of them – and you’ll have at least one as an enemy. The Allegiance system treats these allies and enemies as Investigative abilities, where the more ranks you possess the more you can guide or manipulate the faction. Pick up leads from your allies, and then spend points to influence the movers and shakers of the city. If you want to literally rule as a conqueror-king, it may take you a while, but this is how you get there.

Chapter 3: Rules. How to kill things and avoid being killed (amongst other rules.)

  • You can attack your foe’s Health with a Warfare attack or their Morale with a Sway attack. Sorcery might attack either, depending on what you pick when you create your Hero.
  • Combat encourages you to defeat nameless mooks quickly, because doing so gives you refresh tokens you can use to power even more attacks. We want it to feel like a great hero hacking their way across a battlefield, gaining strength with every foolish enemy they cut down.
  • Your minimum damage is the number of points you spent on the attack. Want to guarantee max damage? Spend 6 points to attack your foe – and hey, that’s likely to crit, inflicting even more damage in the process.
  • We’ve got sections on how to be as effective (and interesting) as possible in combat, and on how to avoid damage when it looks like you’re about to be skewered.
  • Traps in buildings or tombs are treated like puzzles, assuming you even spot them. Use your abilities to figure them out (or to bypass them) if you aren’t a fan of setting them off!

Chapter 4: Sorcery. Details on how to be a Sorcerer or an Alchemist, with all the tradeoffs this entails.

  • Sorcery is powered by Investigative ability named Corruption. Invoking Corruption is never a good choice, but it’s the only way to power your really damaging or unique spells. Spending Corruption either pollutes the area around you or permanently changes something minor about your body.
  • Every Sorcerer is themed with Spheres, one for each rank of Corruption they have. For instance, a Sorcerer with the Time sphere might describe their attacks as aging their defeated foes into decrepitude or leaving them wandering around as toddlers; a Sorcerer with the Water sphere might drown their foes on dry land or hideously dehydrate them. There are dozens of suggested spheres, and it’s simple to make up your own.
  • There are two types of Sorcerers: those who learned their magic when ancient Serpentine writings squirmed off a stone tablet into your brain, where they eagerly wait to be cast; and Sorcerers who have a demon or a small god bound to their soul, exchanging power for attention and veneration.
  • Don’t want to fuss with Corruption? The Witchery rules allow you to be a classic Conan-style sorcerer, one who focuses on alchemy, poisons and mesmerism without the benefits or trade-offs of Corruption.
  • You’ll find rules for true names (useful when facing powerful foes, even if they come with a horrible price), curses, sorcerous glyph traps, and for creating your own Sorcerous items. If you’ve ever wanted to curse a tower to be overrun with vines while everyone falls asleep for a century, you’ll find out how to do so here.

Chapter 5: Wealth and Lifestyle. Find Wealth! Spend Wealth! Live the astonishing lifestyle of an adventurer who doesn’t know how to save their treasures for tomorrow, and gain mechanical advantages for doing so!

  • The loot you bring in is measured in Wealth, not coin, and there’s a simple system for spending your Wealth to determine your Lifestyle for the adventure.
  • You can sometimes spend Wealth to boost Preparedness tests, but usually you’ll be using it to fuel your Lifestyle. A Squalid Lifestyle is going to create some challenges as others discriminate against you, while living Richer Than the Goddess for the adventure gives you bonus Investigative points you can use to manipulate others.

Chapter 6: Gear, Both Sorcerous and Mundane. Here’s where to look for weapons, armor, and Sorcerous items.

  • Your Hero’s innate abilities are a lot more important than their gear, but it’s always good to know what’s available.
  • Sorcerous items aren’t always kind, but there are grimoires, staves, weapons, runes, protection, and more. They’re heavy on flavor, and every good item should tell (or create) a story.

Chapter 7: Adversaries. You may want someone to stab. Here’s where to start.  

  • Easy-to-read Stat blocks for Adversaries from every faction.
  • 25 sample non-human monstrosities to fight including serpentine monstrosities, winged apes, skeletal giants, and flocks of carnivorous seabirds. You know. The usual.
  • Powerful and interesting Special abilities to customize your adversaries, powered by a special General ability named Malus.

Chapter 8: GM Advice. If you’re running the game, it’s useful to read.

  • You get guidelines for Customizing the rules for your own group and play style. Want no physical combat, or a different setting, or one-on-one play? Can do!
  • Character construction tips are included to help players prevent analysis paralysis.
  • You’ll find tips on running fights, making monsters more effective, creating great mysteries, constructing adventures, and more.

Now we dig into the setting.

Chapter 9: Introduction to Eversink. Everything you need to know about the city at a glance.

  • Why is the city so famous? Why are the buildings all sinking? What’s with all the funerary statues? Is it safe to drink the canal water? What do you mean, the city and the Goddess are one?
  • Quick summaries of the twelve factions and of daily life in Eversink – the food, the politics, the sports, the customs, and the architecture. If you want to play eelball (hint: you don’t), understand how small gods work, or buy suspicious food from a street vendor, read this first.

Chapter 10: The City of Eversink.

  • We give you guides to 7 major neighborhoods, loaded down with a huge number of plot hooks.
  • Knowledge about Eversink’s government, committees, laws, and punishments (otherwise known as “hey, why is that handless and tongueless man hanging in a crow cage over the harbor, guarded by church inquisitors?”)
  • You’ll learn about History – with an emphasis on encouraging you to make your own.
  • We talk a fair amount about Eversink’s economics and trade. This game is a bit unusual in that if you want to play kingmaker, you can rule kingdoms or topple economies with the same core mechanics you use to seek out adventure. Here’s what you need to know if that’s a thing you find fun.

Chapter 11: The Factions. This is a detailed look at all twelve factions that you can use as allies and enemies to drive (or solve) adventures.

  • Dive into a class struggle with the Ancient Nobility, Mercanti, and Commoners, with hired Mercenaries to provide the muscle.
  • The Church of Denari hunts down the Sorcerous Cabal and non-human Monstrosities, while visiting Outlanders ignore the laws to do what’s right.
  • The Triskadane runs the government from a secret council, the Guild of Architects and Canal-Watchers keeps the city upright, the City Watch keeps it safe, and the Thieves Guilds try to rob it.

Chapter 12: The World. A city like Eversink can’t exist in isolation. Here’s what to know about the world, geography, and rival nations.

  • More than eight other countries for international intrigue, dangerous exploration, or potential armed conflict.
  • We talk about the ruins of the Serpentine Empire atop the Destroyed Plateau, where magic runs wild and ancient demons stalk the wind.

Chapter 13: Corpse Astray is our sample adventure. Want to see how an adventure works? Want a fast and easy way to play (we’ll provide sample characters as well for an even faster start.) Here’s where to go!

  • Designed for just about any campaign set-up or types of Heroes.
  • Relatively fast (3-4 hours), with unusual roleplaying and a very memorable fight.
  • A good introduction to Eversink.

 

So, that’s the playtest, and we hope you love it and give us feedback. Talk about it online using the hashtag #SerpentineRPG, and talk to the authors on Twitter at @kevinkulp and @multiplexer (or at @pelgranepress). You can weigh in on Facebook’s GUMSHOE forum or here in the See Page XX comments.

 

 

Swords of the Serpentine, by Emily Dresner and Kevin Kulp, is Fantasy GUMSHOE as seen through a lens of classic swords and sorcery. That means different things to different people, though, so we wanted to share with you the set of collected guidelines we’ve used when writing the game.

  • Adventures are episodic. Months or years may pass between when adventures are set, and a Hero’s fortunes may rise or fall from one adventure to the next. Adventures may occur out of chronological order.
  • The actions of Heroes change the world around them in fundamentally important ways.
  • A Hero’s own abilities are far more important than their gear. Gear gets lost, abandoned, and stolen, but when you’re shipwrecked or taken captive, you can always rely on yourself.
  • The gear that’s most important is the gear that’s named.
  • Sorcery is rare and dangerous, and seldom can be trusted. Sorcery corrupts and has a cost. Its rules and origins are little-known.
  • Not all secrets in the world should, or need to, be known.
  • There are few, if any, non-human societies. Those that exist tend to be horrific or alien.
  • A Hero’s motivations may start out simple: survival, vengeance, and wealth. Motivations and Drives likely grow more complex and sophisticated over time.
  • The world is hard and seldom fair. All too often, “justice” varies based on your wealth and importance.
  • The world (and Heroes) are filled with moral shades of gray and are seldom black and white.
  • The great Heroes carry their reputation before them.
  • The phrase “mighty thews” shows up way more often than you would probably expect.
  • Quests tend to be small, personal, and centered around self-interest and small groups instead of saving a nation or the world.
  • Wealth is transitory. Heroes live for today; they may find great wealth, but they’re impoverished again before you know it. Money slips away or is squandered, and Heroes must seek risks to capture more.
  • The sly and clever villain is not necessarily puissant in combat. That, of course, is why they hire protection.
  • Villains linger, as do their plans.
  • The unknown conceals horror, and is seldom safe.
  • The boundaries of kingdoms are fluid and are seldom set in stone. They vary based on the actions of the strong.
  • The world is old and crumbling, and lost history abounds.
  • Whimsy lurks in unexpected places, and cleverness is everywhere.

In the comments below, let us know if there are aspects of swords & sorcery in your own game that you’d add or change on this list.

In the coming months we’ll talk more about what Swords of the Serpentine does, including the Sorcery rules, a brand new combat system designed to make fantasy combat as exciting and cinematic as you’d dream it could be, player narrative control, and how the core mechanics handle everything from dungeon crawling to manipulating the most important people in the city. Thanks for staying with us.

For more information, follow Emily (@multiplexer) and Kevin (@kevinkulp) on Twitter at #serpentineRPG or #gumthews, and look for more articles in See Page XX leading up to next year’s release.

We’ve worked with Jérôme Huguenin on many of our covers, and he never fails to amaze and astound us with beautiful art. His latest creation is the cover for the upcoming GUMSHOE core game Swords of the Serpentine, by Kevin Kulp and Emily Dresner, which you can see below.

To see more of Jérôme’s art, like and follow his Facebook page, and check out his Patreon Architecture for Adventure, where he posts his hand-drawn isometric RPG maps.

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!