Why GUMSHOE for Swords & Sorcery?

by Kevin Kulp

It’s not an obvious choice, but the new high-damage combat system makes Swords of the Serpentine work in some very interesting ways.

When I tell a Trail of Cthulhu player that there’s a swords & sorcery game using GUMSHOE, they sometimes look concerned and ask me “…Why?” I laugh every time, in part because the impetus for Swords of the Serpentine (SotS) came from a design exercise where I started off convinced that hacking GUMSHOE for classic fantasy was damn near impossible. I quickly realized I was wrong.

The problem isn’t fantasy mysteries. Mystery is everywhere in classic swords and sorcery stories. They aren’t usually classic “whodunit?” mysteries (although they can be, as in Terry Pratchett’s City Watch Discworld series). More often they’re heroes venturing forth into unknown danger and trying to figure it out before it kills them. Sometimes they’re mysterious power groups working against the heroes (as in Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch), and sometimes they’re heroes trying to survive in hostile wilderness or cities with mysterious dangers that they really want to figure out quickly (lots of Conan stories by Robert E. Howard). Sometimes they’re even gangs of thieves stealing things the heroes want before the heroes have had a chance to steal them themselves (such as in Claws from the Night, a Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser story by Fritz Leiber). Even adventures for games like D&D are full of mysteries, even if that mystery is “what happened to Keraptis 1300 years ago, and why did he steal these magic weapons?”

No, the real problem I had to solve was combat. Trail of Cthulhu is a game of horror against unspeakable odds, and so it isn’t tuned to give you powerful heroes succeeding through wit and strength of arm. Damage is low in ToC and investigators die quickly.

For SotS, I instead needed epic, cinematic combat, delightful banter that allowed heroes like Cugel the Clever (in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series) to succeed without ever picking up a dagger, and a rules structure that relied far more on the hero’s own capabilities than on their gear. If this game was going to work, combat had to feel great.

GUMSHOE turns out to be perfect for this, but not through weapons. Weapons in Swords of the Serpentine have very little differentiation between them (daggers do +0 damage and greataxes do +2 damage, and that’s not exactly splashy), so combat becomes far more about what a player chooses to do than about what weapon they’re using. My big question when designing was how to turn player cleverness and a hero’s standard capabilities into big impressive combat damage.

The secret is in Investigative abilities. Early GUMSHOE games hinted at the capabilities of Investigative abilities, asking GMs to give players more information when pool points were spent. Night’s Black Agents started to have Investigative points linked to action, where having Investigative ranks got you clues but spending Investigative pool points gave players narrative control that caused things to happen. I codified this into TimeWatch (where you can try things like thwarting a villain’s escape by spending a point of Architecture, going back in time, and altering the building’s blueprints so that there’s no fire escape for her to flee down). In SotS Investigative spends are even more flexible, and they’re the primary way you achieve flashy, cinematic combat in a fight.

In SotS if you can rationalize an Investigative spend to help yourself in combat, you can do it. Such spends can boost defenses or allow special effects, but they’re usually used to boost damage by one extra die per point spent. Sometimes the ability you’ll try is obvious…

“I’m going to jump off the balcony and bury my sword in his back. I’ll spend 2 points of Tactics of Death for an extra 2d6 damage.”

And sometimes – the best times – you need to be creative. If you can explain how an ability might be useful, you can spend it for combat effects or extra damage.

“Can I spend points of Nobility to do extra damage?”

“No, that’s stupid.”

“How about this? Growing up, my parents brought in a different fencing tutor every year, and they taught me dozens of ways to kill a man so that he suffered slowly and painfully.”

“Oh, in that case? Of course you can spend Nobility points for extra damage!”

You have control over your own burst damage and usually – by how you spend your General ability points – over when you hit while attacking. Are you going to save points for a final battle? Is it better to specialize in abilities (and increase how much damage you can cause at once during a fight) or spread your points out (becoming far more flexible while adventuring)? How are you creatively managing to find combat uses for less obvious abilities?

This creates a really interesting effect in play, where players feel like big damn heroes who often have to describe the cool thing they’ve thought up so that they can gain the benefit of those points. Players are encouraged to take risks and be creative because that’s the only way they’ll gain those resources. Add the ability to pass your damage to another player with a teamwork attack, the ability to attack a foe’s Morale just by using words as weapons, and newly-redesigned Maneuvers to disarm your foe or kick them off a roof, and you end up with memorable, fast but flexible fights.

As we move towards the end of the playtest period (end of February – fill out that Google form, playtesters, and thanks!), I’m really not surprised that GUMSHOE makes a good platform for Swords & Sorcery. I’m surprised that playtesters are saying things like “we felt like we were in a Lankhmar story” and that they’re making the combat system sing so quickly. As the game gets closer to publication, I can’t wait to hear what people have done with it.

Kevin Kulp is the Boston-based co-author of Swords of the Serpentine, and formerly helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.

3 Responses to “Why GUMSHOE for Swords & Sorcery?”

  1. Storn Cook says:

    As one of those playtesters, and the GM of our group, I thought combat was a blast. I don’t want to say too much, but the use of Social Skills in combat really makes sense and was value added to the combat scenes. Combat feels heroic, but not super heroic… and yet somehow, combat still felt risky.

    I can’t wait to play again this upcoming Thursday with my group. We’ve decided to make a campaign of it.

  2. Jenny says:

    I was not a fan of the combat in Night’s Black Agents. Cool in theory, but cumbersome in practice. Is this a smoother combat system that could be fitted back into NBA as well?

    • Kevin Kulp says:

      What an interesting question! My biggest quibble with NBA is the cost to do cool maneuvers is way too high. It’s simply not in my best interest to try really cool stunts because I burn through my pools too quickly.

      You could drop aspects of SotS’s system in with a little hacking:

      a. Cool combat maneuvers can probably be handled with SotS’s revised Maneuver system with no changes, or with Investigative spends.

      b. Use NBA’s Stability for Morale, add SotS’s Sway, and you get social combat.

      c. The core SotS combat mechanic of “Investigative spends equal bonus damage” will work but needs to be tightly constrained to a maximum of 2 pool points spent at once/maximum one ability spend per attack. This increases burst damage to a cinematic level, but stops agents from opening up a 25 damage can of whup-ass on a baddie who lacks any defenses.

      d. The “points spent = min damage”, crit rolls, and multiattack boosters can be brought over easily. It means foes will die significantly faster. Agents, too.

      e. Foes with fixed attack values can be brought over.

      In general, substituting SotS combat will kill your NBA mooks much faster, and you’ll see much more burst damage in a final fight. To adjust, give vampires (and baddies in general, except mooks) more health. If you try it, let me know!

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