By Kevin Kulp

As we enter June 2020 and Swords of the Serpentine’s pre-layout PDF reaches everyone who has pre-ordered the game, we want to make sure you have examples of what’s possible with hero creation. With a limited series of blog posts entitled Four Heroes, we’ll feature a sample Hero for each profession (or a mixture of professions) to use as a good example of a pre-generated character, or an example of how to use the rules to create the hero you want. These will often break out from traditional sword & sorcery stereotypes, and will usually be rooted in SotS’s city of Eversink, where the goddess of civilization and commerce holds sway.

Sentinel

Sister Claris, Inquisitor of Denari

Cynical, stubborn, plain, righteous, proud, probably disappointed in you

Drives (what is best in life?): Addressing the wicked and vainglorious; changing the world; exalting your friends

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3 to 6 (shield), Armor 2 (coin armor), Health 8

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1 (high standards), Morale 10

Offense – Sway: Sway 10: Damage Modifier +1 (guilt)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 5: Damage Modifier +1 (flail)

Investigative abilities: Command 1, Intimidation 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Taunt 2, Trustworthy 1; Felonious Intent 2, Laws & Traditions 1, Spirit Sight 1, Vigilance 1

Allegiances: Ally: Church of Denari 2; Enemy: Sorcerous Cabals 1

General abilities: Athletics 5, Bind Wounds 3, Preparedness 5, Stealth 2, Sway 10 (Play to the Crowd), Warfare 5

Gear: Round shield with the heraldry of Denari; collection of astonishingly good tea; badge of authority; official letter from the Lord High Inquisitor assigning you to independent investigation; shining silver armor made partially of coins; your grandmother’s flail (Damage Modifier +1); Holy book of tax laws and prayer; keys to your mostly-empty room in the church dormitories; painting of you with your adventuring friends; a bright and shining holy coin

Design Notes: Don’t call the inquisitor a lonely and sour stick-in-the-mud. She is, mind you, but she’d look at you with disappointment in her eyes. Claris is a sentinel of the church, tasked with seeking out law-breaking sorcerers and their corruption. She’s hard to hit (especially when she hides behind her shield, although this penalizes her other actions), stubborn, and experienced at guilting her quarry into surrendering. Her capabilities as a sentinel are diversified, with a focus on detecting mischief, and she’s superb at social interaction. Just don’t expect her to be charming.

Sorcerer

Exorius of the Inner Eye, sorcerer, master of time and space

Pretentious, amused, spoiled, covetous

Drives (what is best in life?): Revealing your true power; having others indebted to you; being a key part of important events

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Armor 1 (entropy), Health 8

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1 (prescience), Morale 10

Offense – Sorcery: Sorcery 10 vs. Health: Damage Modifier +1 (aging)

Offense – Sway: Sway 3: Damage Modifier +1 (bombastic)

Investigative abilities: Command 1, Intimidation 1, Liar’s Tell 1; Corruption 5, Forgotten Lore 1, Prophecy 2 (talking to your future self)

Allegiances: Ally: Sorcerous Cabal 2; Enemy: Church of Denari 1

General abilities: Athletics 5, Bind Wounds 2, Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Stealth 2, Sorcery 10 (Blast), Sway 3

Sorcerous Spheres: Aging, Art, Decay/Entropy, Mirrors, Transportation

Gear: Shimmering robes that always look new; a pouch that leads to the pocket of a differently-aged version of yourself; dismissible mirrors that circle you and slowly spin, each showing a different time and place; throne that appears whenever you wish to sit; ever-present loneliness; several framed paintings with sorcerously-imprisoned enemies trapped within them; the worry of never being quite relevant enough; a key tucked inside an old, poorly-written letter from your late mother, addressed to your real name of Cosimo

Design Notes: Ever suffered from imposter’s syndrome? Yeah, so does Exorious.

Inspired originally by Ningauble of the Seven Eyes in Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, Exorious is a spectacularly powerful sorcerer, and he makes sure people know it. None of this whole “skulking around in the shadows” nonsense; he’s a sorcerer’s sorcerer, and he just makes sure never to let Corruption slip into the world when he is within Eversink’s city limits. Note how many of his signature gear simply explains his abilities; the pouch to a future or past self gives him an excuse for Preparedness, for instance, and the magically rotating mirrors are nothing more than a showy and ostentatious way to use his Prophecy.

Thief

Vincenzo, town crier (and hereditary King of Eversink?)

Friendly, inquisitive, helpful, polite, honest

Drives (what is best in life?): Staying alive; spreading the truth; protecting your friends

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Armor 0 (threadbare clothes), Health 8

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1 (incredulous), Morale 10

Offense – Sway: Sway 12: Damage Modifier +1 (convincing)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 1: Damage Modifier +0 (unarmed)

Investigative abilities: Charm 1, Command 2, Liar’s Tell 1, Servility 2, Trustworthy 1; City’s Secrets 1, Scurrilous Rumors 3

Allegiances: Ally: Commoners 2; Enemy: Triskadane 1

General abilities: Athletics 4, Bind Wounds 4, Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Stealth 1, Sway 12 (Play to the Crowd), Warfare 1

Gear: Clean but thread-bare clothing; list of today’s stories to announce; a daily route through The Tangle; a small bag of coins; a group of Royalist nut-jobs who keep claiming your great-great-grandmother was Queen of Eversink; an invitation to “meet your destiny (i.e. “commit treason”) that you’re studiously ignoring; a really annoying birthmark you try not to think about; a warm and much-loved hovel; a true bounty of trusted friends

Design Notes: Vincenzo is an unusual thief. By setting him up as a friendly and mild-mannered town crier (with a large amount of Scurrilous Rumors) we give him an excuse to be unusually convincing. He lacks classic thief skills such as Burglary and Stealth, but Vincenzo knows almost everything that’s happening in the city, and if he doesn’t he knows someone who does. We make sure this doesn’t get boring by establishing that Vincenzo is also technically the heir to the crown, which doesn’t help him at all because Eversink hasn’t had a monarchy in five generations. Vincenzo is a nice and simple hero at the center of people wanting to manipulate him, and that’s bound to make him fun to play.

For anyone who’s a fan of the TV show Galavant, we picture Vincenzo as played by Darren Evans, the same actor who plays Chef.

Warrior

Foyle, Professional Monster Hunter

Pessimist, cheery, planner, thorough, insightful, pious, proud

Drives (what is best in life?): Eradicating the inhuman; a great plan; a narrow escape

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4 to 7 (dented great shield), Armor 2 (heavily scarred chainmail), Health 10

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Grit 1 (focus), Morale 8

Offense – Sway: Sway 5: Damage Modifier +1 (prayer)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 8: Damage Modifier +1 (Trial, ancient battleaxe)

Investigative abilities: Taunt 1, Trustworthy 1; Know Monstrosities 3, Leechcraft 1, Prophecy 1, Spot Frailty 2, Wilderness Mastery 1

Allegiances: Allies: Church of Denari 1, Monstrosities 1; Enemy: Monstrosities 1

General abilities: Athletics 8 (Dodge), Bind Wounds 4, Preparedness 4, Sway 6, Warfare 8 (Cleave)

Gear: New but heavily scarred chainmail (Armor 2, Swim penalty -4); new but badly dented great shield (+0 to +3 for Hit Threshold); Trial, an ancient battleaxe once belonging to your grandfather (Damage Modifier +1); the resigned annoyance that no one ever wants to believe you; two dozen conspiracy theories about monsters in Eversink, all true; a depressing lack of close friends who are human; a deep and abiding faith

Design Notes: Foyle has a few cross-profession Investigative abilities that give him prophetic hunches and a knowledge of disease and poison. He’s a monster-hunter in a city where the most dangerous predator is usually human, and that means that most people aren’t quite sure what to do with him. Foyle is actually friends with a handful of monstrosities he hasn’t tried to destroy (as per his Allegiances), and he’s one of the few people with access to the inhuman demimonde that exists in Eversink but which no one in authority cares to admit to. One thing is certain: Foyle notices the mental and physical weaknesses in everyone he meets, and he’s happy to exploit that if it gains him an edge in combat.


Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, to be published in 2020. Kevin previously 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.

 

In the latest installment of their play by clip game, Gar’s character makes a shocking discovery upon making his rendezvous with the Thing in the River, and Robin breaks down the fine art of the auto-success.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

In the latest episode of their heavily footnoted podcast, Ken and Robin talk gamifying Das Boot, RPG prose tips, scientific paper identity theft, and the manifold wonders of Davenport Iowa.

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A 1933 teletype machineVirtually every group of player characters in The Wars possesses a boîtenoire, a wireless teletype machine that enables swift communication between the unit and headquarters – and, perhaps, other channels.

Even setting aside any supernatural elements, military communications are a rich source of horror. When encountering someone face-to-face – say, a commanding officer ordering you to advance into the teeth of enemy guns – you can quibble, plead, challenge, or otherwise appeal to one fellow human. A typed message offers no such leeway. All the players have is the brute text, unyielding, as cryptic or as unambiguous as the GM desires. Are the commanding officers coldly cruel, clueless, deranged or actively sadistic? Or have they been taken over by Carcosan horrors? The players can’t tell from the text…

The boîtenoire’s a great way to deliver handouts to the player characters; send them briefing documents or orders as boîte-noire messages. You can even do in-character session write-ups in the form of dispatches sent by the squad in the field.

Getting Technical

The operation of the boîtenoire is simple:  type your message, press send, and off it goes. One key question that the Wars is silent on, however, is the question of addressing – how do you tell the box where to send the message? Some options:

  • Closed Channel: Your boîtenoire only communicates with headquarters. There’s no addressing; it’s fixed when the box is constructed. Maybe headquarters has a master box that can communicate with multiple subsidiary units, or perhaps the devices are constructed in pairs, inextricably entangled with one another.
  • Frequency: A boîtenoire has a frequency selector; send a message, and any boxes set to that frequency receive the message. Does each unit have an assigned frequency? Do enemy boxes work on the same frequencies (requiring coded transmissions – which, of course, in the parlance of boîtenoire operators, are referred to as ‘masks’), or does physics now bow to different national flags? Picking up messages meant for another unit lets the GM hint at horrors elsewhere on the battlefield.
  • Code: Each box has a unique identifier; any message tagged with that code gets delivered to that box and that box alone. Messages cannot be intercepted – but anyone with your code can send you messages, and you have no way to reply or verify their identity unless they include their code in the message. What form does this code take – a string of digits? A passphrase? A cryptic sigil?
  • Addressed: For something more overtly weird and surreal, the boîtenoire works like a post office run by unseen angels. You literally address your message like a conventional letter (“Room 239, Hotel Splendide, Rue Jaune, Arles”), and if there’s a boîtenoire there, it gets the message; otherwise, it’s lost in the ether. While in the field, units must find semi-valid postal addresses to receive messages. (“Quick! What’s the address of that bombed-out hovel?”)
  • Desire: The box just… works. Enter a message, and it’ll be delivered to headquarters, or to the squad in the next valley, or to the spotter dragonfly circling overhead.

Getting Scary

For more overt supernatural weirdness:

  • Messages Out Of Time: In my campaign, the first boîte-noire showed up in Paris, as a gift to the characters from their unwanted new patron Cassilda. She communicated with them through the box – but they also got a bunch of meaningless messages about troop movements and artillery bombardments which made no sense to them at the time. Later, in the Wars, I intended to reuse those messages as transmissions to the second set of player characters. Messages from the future can hint at dire fates or give the players a chance to avert some catastrophe. (If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could even take the conceit of the Armitage Files and feed it through a boîtenoire.)
  • Messages From The Dead: From the classic “the guy in the other trench we’ve been talking to all session – he was killed in action a year ago” to using the machine to conduct seances, there’s a lovely creepiness to early telecommunications. Did Thomas Edison invent the boîtenoire through his research? Might the player characters pick up unsent letters from their Paris incarnations?
  • Messages From Beyond: Of course, any Carcosan technology falls under the dread rule of the Yellow King. How can the players trust what they receive from the box? What happens if the boîtenoire clatters, and the message begins: STRANGE IS THE NIGHT WHERE BLACK STARS RISE, AND STRANGE MOONS CIRCLE THROUGH THE SKIES…

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In the latest episode of their awesomely helmeted podcast, Ken and Robin talk automatic successes, imperiled Czech mayors, the secrets of Valhalla Cat, and Nicolas Roerich.

In recognition of the need for concrete action in response to the murder of George Floyd, the latest in a long list of Black people unjustly killed by police, Pelgrane Press is donating $1000 and 10% of all our webstore sales in June to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Police impunity remains an ongoing and powerful force, creating selective authoritarianism within systems worldwide. It is just one component of the systemic racism that oppresses Black people every day, disenfranchising them from equal access to basic civil rights such as education, housing, employment, and voting.

The Legal Defense and Educational Fund addresses these global structural issues through litigation, advocacy, and public education programs. In solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, we have chosen to support and spotlight it.

Our virtual panel series cleans ichor from its blades as very special guest Sandy Petersen joins Swords of the Serpentine designers Kevin Kulp and Emily Dresner, along with Kenneth Hite, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and moderator Robin D. Laws to provide tips and hooks for mixing swords and eldtrichery.

“My shadowy visage, grey with grief,
In sunken waters walled with sand,
I see — where all mine ancient land
Lies yellow like an autumn leaf.”

— Clark Ashton Smith, “The Kingdom of Shadows”

Robin has staked out Paris with his customary élan, and Robert Chambers has toured us through Brittany, but there’s at least one more stretch of French countryside redolent with time-slips, dangerous romances, and werewolves. I speak of course of Auvergne, nestled atop the Massif Central, a volcanic upthrust covered even in 1895 with forests as deep as they were two thousand years ago when the Arverni arrived from the east.

Chromolithograph of Tournoël Castle, c. 1895

Even in 1895, the railways connect only the bigger towns: Vichy (pop. 12,300) in the north, St.-Etienne (pop. 133,400) in the southeast, Aurillac (pop. 16,500) in the southwest, Clermont-Ferrand (pop. 51,000) in the Allier valley in the middle. Although Michelin’s tire plant in Clermont-Ferrand and Thiers’ knife factories bring outside investment, art students in The Yellow King RPG know the region primarily as a source of mineral water, charcuterie, cheese, and a very affordable vin gris. (Americans might appreciate Chavaniac-Lafayette, named for its most famous son, in the forested southeast.) It hasn’t been really fashionable for painters since Theodore Rousseau and the Romantics two generations ago — although a few Barbizon school devotees still chase the region’s ineffable dapple of trees and mountains. The rich and the elderly take the cure in springs at Vichy and Mont-Dome; nothing could be less au courant.

People

Edgar Degas, 61 (1834-1917; Paris p. 117)

In August 1895, Degas takes the water cure at Mont-Dore. While here, he continues to practice photography, including experimenting with moonlit exposures using “panchromatic plates.” He may bring the characters along as assistants, or they may hear of strange yellow streaks appearing in his images — Degas writes home to Paris complaining of his many spoiled prints and negatives.

Armand Guillaumin, 54 (1841-1927)

An o.g. Impressionist and friend of Pissarro and Cézanne, Guillaumin wins the lottery in 1891. He quits his job at the railway and retires to Creuse, just west of Auvergne, to become the center of the Crozant School in that town. He paints in Auvergne in 1895, as might other Crozantistes such as Maurice Leloir, 41 (1853-1940) who avidly researches and photographs ancient and medieval costumes; and the occult-minded Swedish lithographer and painter Allan Österlind, 39 (1855-1938) who embraces Spiritism while on an island off Brittany in 1886.

Auguste and Louis Lumière, 34 and 32 (1862-1954 and 1864-1948)

In 1895, the Lumière brothers of Lyon experiment with their new motion picture camera, and with color photography, before triumphantly debuting their movies in Paris that December. History does not record whether they venture into Auvergne for some nature shoots that summer, or why they abruptly abandoned motion pictures and refused to sell their camera to other film-makers.

Auguste Michel-Lévy, 51 (1844-1911)

Geologist, Inspector of Mines, and director of the Geological Survey of France, Michel-Lévy develops the interference color chart, using birefringence of cross-polarized light to identify minerals. In 1895 he studies extinct volcanoes in Auvergne; minerals from the region such as amesite and pargasite both display as yellow in cross-polarized light. (A newly discovered mineral, lawsonite, also displays as yellow; it first appears in 1895 in Marin County, California and soon after in Brittany.)

Émile Munier, 55 (1840-1895)

A great friend of Bougereau with many American clients, Munier has painted in the Auvergne since 1886. His Academic paintings increasingly depict angels and cupids, possibly an attempt to domesticate Carcosan figures he perceives — he dies of cerebral congestion in Paris on June 29. His death might be what points the group to the Auvergne influx — or perhaps he makes an abrupt “recovery” and returns to Auvergne a changed man.

Felix Thiollier, 53 (1842-1914)

After making his fortune in ribbon manufacturing in St.-Etienne, Thiollier retires at 35 to take photographs in the Auvergne. He lives in a former Hospitaller commandery in Verrieres; his many interests include Celtic archaeology and medieval art. Perhaps he notices towers or hillsides changing in his photographs, or sees carnivorous toads labeled SADOGUI in an illuminated manuscript.

Other artists painting in the Auvergne in 1895 include the painters Adolphe Appian, 75 (1819-1898) and Victor Charreton, 31 (1864-1936), both based in Lyon. If you’re looking for some meddling kids, you have your choice of the odious, spoiled Pierre Laval, 12 (1883-1945) in Chateldone near Vichy, and the mystical Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 14 (1881-1955) home for the summer at Orcines near Clermont-Ferrand from studying mathematics at a Jesuit college. At a remove, two native Auvergnois might send home a useful or terrifying discovery: the diplomat Henri Pognon, 42 (1853-1921) unearths Aramaic manuscripts and Assyrian tablets while consul in Baghdad and Aleppo; and the engineer Nicole Auguste Pomel, 74 (1821-1898) excavates giant rhinoceri in Algeria that remind him of the woolly rhinoceros that roamed Auvergne in the Ice Age.

The Occult

Characters looking for the Rosicrucians and other occult societies should look to Lyon (pop. 450,000), 165 km east of Clermont-Ferrand and several hours journey by train around the black-forested Monts du Madeleine between them. Rich and sociable, Lyon boasts several flourishing, bickering secret societies, tracing themselves back to Cagliostro, Saint-Martin, or even Agrippa. The AGLA society, if it exists as anything more than an old printers’ guild, claims all three as members.

Though Aurillac produced a sorcerer Pope (Sylvester II) who read mysterious Arabic books, Auvergne doesn’t hold with such citified occult fripperies. The Auvergnois hold to the Old Ways. Here, the Druids outlasted the Romans, and country folk still follow old customs at standing stones and deep wells — lighting fires to Grannus, singing to Pan, leaving offerings to Sadoqua.

A Rendezvous in Auvergne

Sadoqua, or Sadogui as the inquisitors referred to him while hunting the stubborn witch- and werewolf-cults of Auvergne, may have been a local version of Sucellus, a god of wine, or the name under which the Arverni and Averones worshiped “Gallic Mercury,” a shape-shifting god of prophecy. Under those names or another, he sees Carcosan energies fracturing reality, and presses his bat-like ears and toad-like tongue to the cracks. Clearly the multiplicity of images — of rocks under cross-polarized light, of anomalous photographs, of paintings iterating the same dark valleys for decades — speak both to Carcosan unreality and to Sadoqua’s plasticity.

Is the sudden phylloxera outbreak in Auvergne’s vineyards a Carcosan strike at Sadoqua’s vintage? (The blight had avoided Auvergne until 1895.) Can the AGLA cult tempt the players with a quest for the lost monastery library of Abbot Hilaire, broken up after the Revolution but rumored to contain a book of Hyperborean rituals that can re-make an un-made world? Does Carcosa manifest here through the seductive world of Sylaire, visible in lenses that have read the birefringence of Druidic menhirs or the gargoyles atop Notre-Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand? Do the lamias and succubae that lurk in Auvergne’s ruins serve Cassilda or Sadoqua? Or is Carcosa actually Cykranosh, sacred planet of Tsathoggua? When the players emerge, will the maps have changed: Le Puy become Ximes, Clermont-Ferrand become Vyônes, the Allier flows as the Isoile, the sparkling water labeled Ylourgne instead of Vichy, St.-Etienne now St.-Azédarac, and Auvergne rejoicing once more in its true name of Averoigne?

 


 

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In the latest episode of their hellhound-haunted podcast, Ken and Robin talk PC endgames, folk horror 101, Symbolist painter Odilon Redon (as seen in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game), and saving Robert Johnson.

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