Pelgrane Press writer and production apprentice Noah Lloyd readies himself for intrigue on twisting fantasy streets with his pick for favorite GUMSHOE ability.

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 Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. 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.

Kevin Kulp teases the upcoming Swords of the Serpentine as he reveals his favorite GUMSHOE ability. Or abilities.

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 Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. 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.

By Kevin Kulp

Along with political manipulation and potent social abilities, Swords of the Serpentine has four primary professions for your Hero: Warrior, Thief, Sentinel (think “city guard or inquisitor”), and Sorcerer. Let’s talk about that last one. If you’re wondering how you can rip a stone tower in two with a wave of your hand, or turn your defeated enemies inside-out just to horrify your remaining foes, read on.

Sorcery is Never “Nice”

“Sorcery is rare and dangerous, and seldom can be trusted. Sorcery corrupts and has a cost. Its rules and origins are little-known.” – A Swords of the Serpentine design mantra

Unless the GM decides otherwise, this game’s Sorcery (as in most swords and sorcery novels) is dark and dangerous. We wanted something that had bite to it, that was tremendously flexible (just as classic fantasy sorcery can be), that maintained a sense of wonder, and that relied heavily on player creativity and imagination. That said, I didn’t want rules that required their own sub-system. So how the heck do you allow for powerful magic that remains balanced with other GUMSHOE abilities?

The answer lies in both game mechanics and narrative fiction.

The Mechanics

Mechanically we pull this off with a General ability (Sorcery) and an Investigative ability (Corruption). You’ll use Sorcery like any other General ability; this is what you attack with, and a rank of 8 or more means that your attacks might affect more than one foe when you attack. In combat you’ll be spending Sorcery points to hurt your enemies, and then you’ll describe what those attacks look like by taking inspiration from your Spheres (see below).

Your Sorcerer has the Plant sphere. You attack a mercenary using the General ability Sorcery, successfully hit, and roll 5 points of damage (a number you could, but choose not to, increase at a cost). You describe how the vegetables this mercenary ate for lunch sprout in their stomach and send vines up their windpipe to choke them. You did enough damage to defeat them, so you describe how their corpse falls and quickly erupts into sessile vines. You leave it behind you as you head deeper into your enemy’s mansion.

The power of your Sorcerous potential is measured by your Corruption rank. Corruption is an Investigative ability, and the more ranks of Corruption you have the greater your potential for remaking the world around you. You can spend Corruption to do extra damage, or to create an effect that can’t be explained any other way. Stopping time, melting walls, flying – if the effect falls within your Spheres, you can spend Corruption (with the appropriate risks) and describe what happens on the spot. No spell preparation required. Of course, Investigative pool points like Corruption don’t refresh until the end of an adventure, so you’ll only be able to cast such powerful spells when it really counts.

You stand in a small city park and draw upon your Corruption points. You’re a plant Sorcerer, so you tell the GM that you’re animating every tree in the park and sending them to rip apart the front of the assassin’s guild stone by stone. You spend 2 points of Corruption (about right for a spell of this power that’s just meant to flush out your enemy in an incredibly showy way), psychically polluting the world around you as you do, and then follow the many trees down the street as you wait to pick off your fleeing foe.

A Hero with only 1 rank of Corruption but a high Sorcery rank has an excellent grasp of sorcerous dueling technique, but not much raw power. A Sorcerer with a high Corruption rank but not many points in sorcery can create incredible world-altering effects, but isn’t at all trained in combat. A Sorcerer skilled in both areas is one others probably find terrifying.

The Fiction

Your ability as a Sorcerer probably came from one of two sources. Did you encounter the ancient writings of the Serpentine folk, long-dead snake people who dwelled here thousands of years before humans arrived? If so, squirming writing leapt off a tablet and into your mind, where it coils and writhes and demands to be cast. If you’re a fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, this might be comparable to how Rincewind learned the impossibly powerful spells that he was in no way prepared to cast.

Or perhaps you made a deal with a small god or paid obeisance at a long-banished demon’s forgotten stone altar deep in the swamp. Now that unique entity has literally taken up residence within your soul, and in return for fear or prayer or respect, it grants you the ability to perform impossible magics. If you squint a little, Elric of Melnibone’s black soul-devouring sword Stormbringer could be compared to such a demon, granting Elric strength and power in exchange for victims.

— o —

As I mentioned on social media recently, the only reason small gods and demons got included in the first place is so I had something snarky to roleplay in a voice only that player could hear.

Sorcerer player, to NPC: “Thanks, it’s been…”

Kevin, in a rising growl, RPing sorcerer’s demon: “Kill him! Flay him alive and dedicate his death to me, and I will promise you such delights as you can not conceive!”

Player: “…really nice to meet you. Shut up shut up shut up!”

NPC: “Wait, what, sorry?”

— o —

Either way, now you have access to Sorcery. Your Sorcery affects either a victim’s Health (it physically hurts people) or their Morale (it terrifies or mentally exhausts them), decided when you create your Hero. You’ll have one or more Sorcerous Spheres: themes you can make up that affect what your Sorcery looks like and what it’s capable of. Everything you do involving Sorcery needs to be described by you as fitting within those Spheres.

For instance, let’s take inspiration from the classic Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser short story “Ill-Met in Lankhmar” by Fritz Lieber. You decide you want to play a Sorcerer similar to Hristimilo, allied to the thieves’ guild, and you choose to have your Sorcery affects Health. With 2 ranks of Corruption (see below), you claim the Rat and Smoke spheres. Every bit of magic you do needs to be described as involving rats or black, clinging city fogs; you might describe your attacks as your enemies being gnawed on by a host of vermin, or black smoke wreathed into a strangler’s noose around your enemy’s neck. You’re inflicting the same amount of damage with your attack either way, but how you describe it is all about style.

And frankly, that’s important. Swords of the Serpentine’s rules dictate how much damage your attack does, and then you describe that attack however you want.  We want Sorcery to feel unique and mysterious, different from person to person. Allowing players to define their own Sorcery’s nature helps.

You can use Sorcery (no roll required!) to describe anything you could do normally – the sorcerer above could use rats or foul black vapors to fling a door shut, since he or she could just as easily get up and close it the old-fashioned way – and you can attack with it safely. If you’re trying to find a lead or a clue related to Sorcery, you’ll never even need to roll or spend points for that. You only put yourself or others at risk when you want to create rules-breaking effects that couldn’t be created in the game any other way. You’ll create these more powerful effects by spending Corruption Investigative pool points (again, see below), and the results can be remarkable. If you had the Stone sphere, for instance, you could spend 3 or so Corruption points to literally rip a stone building in half.. handy when you’re bad at picking locks. But you won’t be creating fire, because that doesn’t have anything to do with stone.

There’s a cost to powerful magic. As we said, Sorcery is never a nice thing. The power is channeled from a corrupt, unnatural reality that sickens and distorts the area around it. When casting powerful spells and creating Corruption, it’s always your choice as to whether you pollute the area around you (hurting your allies’ Morale and creating spiritual pollution) or channel the Corruption into your own body (changing something small about your appearance). If you’ve ever wondered why swords & sorcery sorcerers wear cloaks and sometimes have unnatural appearances, like Ningauble of the Seven Eyes outside of Lankhmar, this would be why.

If you like the idea of Sorcery but hate the idea of Corruption, look at the Witchery variant. This allows you access to the spheres of Alchemy, Poison, Disease, Mesmerism, and the like without any risk of Corruption. There are other rules if you want to get fancy: true names you’ll bargain with unnatural entities for, death curses, and sorcerous items. At its heart, though, Sorcery allows you to create unique effects you can’t get any way else. Just remember that you’re going to have to pay the price in Corruption.

Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, to be published in 2019. 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.


by Kevin Kulp

Swords of the Serpentine is designed to be a swords and sorcery GUMSHOE game that you can set anywhere, including your own home setting. Thinking of Thieves’ World’s Sanctuary, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s Lankhmar, or Locke Lamora’s Camorr, however, Emily Dresner and I love the game most when it’s set in a big city. As detailed in the core rules, that city is Eversink. Built on dozens of linked islands in the delta of the River Serpentine, Eversink considers itself the center of commerce and civilization in the known world.

So, what three things are most important to know?

The Buildings are Always Sinking

…and no one knows why.

The city was founded almost a thousand years ago by refugees fleeing downriver, and since that time most buildings sink into the soil by about 8 centimeters a year (although iconic buildings sink much more slowly and unmemorable buildings sometimes sink more quickly). That works out to most buildings losing their bottom floor underground every fifty years. Some buildings sink slower than this, some sink faster, and rarely one drops several stories in a single afternoon, but just about every building eventually settles out of sight. No one knows why. The Church claims it is the Goddess Denari’s will, but theological scholars don’t necessarily believe that. Over the 40+ generations that Eversink has been settled, huge numbers of buildings have entirely vanished. They’re still down there somewhere, most of them. Know the undercity well enough, and maybe you can find their ruins.

The City and the Goddess are One

Except when she takes on human form once a year, the buildings and islands of Eversink are the body of the goddess Denari Herself. You literally live inside the Goddess. As the goddess of commerce and civilization, Denari blesses the trade that occurs within her borders. Every coin exchanged is a prayer, and every transaction a sacrament. Worship her with soft words in the honeyed darkness of a garden at a masquerade ball, whispered to a fetching stranger; worship her by outwitting a dullard who wouldn’t know the best place in the world to live if it invited him in.

The aura of her Blessing doesn’t reach everywhere, though, and it’s burned away by sorcerous corruption – enough careless sorcery could literally kill the Goddess. She’s not omnipotent or omniscient, and only knows what her faithful tell her through prayer. The Church claims that it’s Her Blessing that delivers prophecies, but that’s clearly not always true; small gods and ancient demons lurk everywhere, clamoring for their own power by creating faithful worshippers of their own.

Statues are Everywhere, because Statues Represent Souls

Burial in Eversink has always been a problem; you can’t bury your dead below ground when floods are commonplace, not unless you want coffins and corpses floating through flooded streets. Nowadays, the poor slide corpses into one of the swamps and the rich opt for air burial on stone plinths upriver. But what happens to the flesh isn’t nearly as important as what happens to the soul. As long as a memorial funerary statue is made for someone deceased, whether a tiny statue out of clay or a huge magnificent statue out of cast bronze, the departed’s soul is guaranteed a place in Denari’s heaven. If that statue is ever destroyed, either the soul disintegrates and ceases to exist – or it returns to the spirit world as a ghost. There’s a heretical theory that ghosts are actually Denari’s memories of the once-living, and that when priests walk through the spirit world they are literally walking through the memories of the Goddess. Regardless, funerary statues quell unquiet spirits and keep your living loved ones from being possessed by the dead.

This means that in Eversink, statues are everywhere. Hundreds of thousands of statues. They’re in canals, on roofs, filling homes and staring out from niches in walls. It’s illegal to destroy a funerary statue, because that could destroy a soul, so families put the statues of their dead anywhere they can find space. A surprising number of crimes in Eversink involve funerary statues.


Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, to be published in 2019. 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.

by Kevin Kulp

Swords of the Serpentine is a swords and sorcery game that’s fundamentally about your actions changing the world around you. One of the ways it does that is by giving you tools to manipulate political factions in your fantasy city or world.

Politics in Fantasy Literature

Every fantasy setting has political factions, even if you don’t immediately think of them as such. Glen Cook’s The Black Company has factions such as the Dominator, the Taken, the Lady, Mercenaries, and the Circle of Eighteen. Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora has Thieves’ guilds, Nobles, Secret police, Commoners, the Grey King, and more. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series set in Ankh-Morpork has the City Guard, Nobles, Lord Vetinari, Dwarves, Trolls, the Assassins’ and Thieves’ Guilds, Unseen University (and the Wizards), various foreign countries, guilds, and even the witches.

Political factions are the movers and shakers who drive plot, and the heroes in these stories may be allied to them, neutral to them, or have them as deliberate and implacable enemies.

Political Allegiances

SotS works the same way, working from a list of 12 pre-defined political factions that can easily be customized to your own setting; they’re the less-iconic equivalent of 13 Age’s Icons. The game represents political factions as Investigative abilities, and your new Hero starts with two ranks in Allegiances (either both in the same ally, giving you a reputation, or one rank each in two different allies. You can increase this quantity with standard build points if you wish).

As a result, you can use your ranks in these Allegiances to gather information about their accumulated knowledge or political activities any time you’re on an adventure. If you play other GUMSHOE games you’re probably used to Investigative abilities to be tightly focused on What You Know; Allegiances instead cut across multiple Investigative Abilities, but only on a very specific topic.

You’re playing a Hero who’s an accomplished thief and con artist. You have 2 ranks of Allegiances, 1 in Outlanders and 1 in Sorcerous Cabals. During an adventure you can find out quite a bit about foreigners who wield influence in the city, or about the secret cults of sorcerers who carry out their vile plans right under the Inquisition’s nose. When you are looking for clues or leads, Outlanders or Sorcerous Cabals will get you the information you need.

For example, when on an adventure to con a prominent Mercanti Guildmaster, your Allegiance in Sorcerous Cabals might inform you that she has a membership in a Sorcerous Cabal – and thus is likely far more dangerous than she appears.

As Investigative abilities, however, you can also use your pool points in these factions to manipulate factions or to gain favors that aren’t related to leads or clues. This is how you demonstrate your political weight and set your political allies against your enemies.

You need that Mercanti Guildmaster to feel nervous and off-balance in order for your con to succeed. You spend your pool point in Sorcerous Cabals to call on a favor from your allies, and temporarily have the Guildmaster’s cabal accuse her of a false crime within their order. The accusation doesn’t have to be true, and it doesn’t have to stick for long, but when you approach the Guildmaster she’s going to be distracted and worried. Like with any Investigative ability, in this case you’re spending the pool point (instead of having it work automatically) because you’re gaining a special benefit instead of a lead or clue.

Political Enemies

In addition to starting with 2 ranks of Allegiances, you start the game with 1 rank of Enemies. This can be in the same faction you have Allegiance ranks with, if you wish. That Investigative ability rank of Enemies will still gain you information, but the pool point gets spent by the GM (not you!) in order to thwart you or work against you.

Your enemies won’t come into play in every adventure, but Enemy ranks give a nice method for the GM to complicate your adventures. Enemy pool points might represent rival adventurers trying to thwart you, enemy factions throwing obstacles against you, or your informants passing you false information for their own purpose. Just as in any swords and sorcery adventure, you’re not always sure who to trust, and Enemies ranks gives the GM a tool to make that fun and effective.

You have 1 rank of Allegiance with Sorcerous Cabals, but you also have 1 Sorcerous Cabal rank of Enemies; you decide you have enemies in the city’s sorcerers who would just as soon see you dead for what your father did to them a generation ago. The GM secretly spends that Enemies pool point and declares that Cabal members are arriving to warn your mark, right in the midst of your con. Jerks. Now you and your fellow Heroes need to plan on the fly and find a way to deal with this interference, even as you’re trying to keep your mark on the hook.

Temporary Allies and Enemies

As you adventure, one form of reward you’ll receive is temporary pools of Allegiances and Enemies points. You can’t use these pools to investigate (they aren’t ranks), and when they’re gone they’re gone, but these points represent the temporary favor or hatred you acquire from factions you run up against.

Your con job against the Mercanti Guildmaster goes off gloriously, and you leave with a lot of Wealth and some very angry people trying to find you. You gain two Enemy pool points for the Mercanti, representing the Guilds’ fury at your interference, and one Allegiance point from the Church of Denari for exposing a hidden sorcerer at the head of a large guild. You can spend this temporary point when you need a favor from the Church; it calls in the favor you’re owed when you do so.

Over time your Heroes may acquire quite a bit of influence, as represented by these temporary pool points of Allegiances. Spending these points to maneuver your way to political power can be a really fun style of adventure when you decide it’s time for your adventurer to become a conqueror or king instead.

Customizing the System

Setting a game in your own unique city? Using the city of Eversink as an example, create between eight and twelve of your own factions for your game’s Heroes to ally with or oppose. This can be as detailed or as general as you want. If you’re focusing a game on rivals in a neighborhood turf war, you’re going to zoom in to less powerful and very specific factions. If you’re focusing the game on a world-spanning adventure with the Heroes traveling internationally, the factions are going to be city-states or nations. It isn’t until you settle in a location and get involved with local politics that you return to a standard level of more specific factions.

There are guidelines in the rules for swapping out factions when the Heroes travel, making sure the system stays useful even when you’re not currently near all the people who owe you favors.

As a designer, I love this system because it anchors the Heroes to the game world. It gives them a palpable way to change the world around them, and it ensures that they’ll start the game with someone already wanting to thwart them.

Go build your reputation.. just watch your back while you do!

Kevin Kulp is the Boston-based co-author of Swords of the Serpentine (to be published in 2019), 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.



Social Combat in Swords of the Serpentine

When words cut as sharply as a knife, you don’t actually need to carry a knife.

 Whenever Smaug’s roving eye, seeking for him in the shadows, flashed across him, he trembled, and an unaccountable desire seized hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug. In fact he was in grievous danger of coming under the dragon-spell…

…That is the effect that dragon-talk has on the inexperienced. Bilbo of course ought to have been on his guard; but Smaug had rather an overwhelming personality.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit


You know what you don’t see too often? Robust and fun social combat systems that lets you defeat a foe without laying a finger on them. You know what we really wanted for this game?

Yeah, that.

Classic fantasy is full of examples of morale-based social combat. In Tolkien alone you’ll see Smaug trying to intimidate an invisible Bilbo (above), Frodo and Gollum’s riddle game, the One Ring trying to corrupt mortal hearts and minds, terrified orcs breaking ranks before the charge of the Rohirrim, and the paralyzing fear caused by Nazgul. Other fantasy and Swords & Sorcery novels carry on that tradition; Stormbringer used Morale combat to try and manipulate Elric. Most of Terry Pratchett’s characters use intimidation, groveling or clever wit to get what they want without ever lifting a weapon. Cugel the Clever in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels lives on his wits alone, confident that he can talk his way out of any situation. Robin D. Laws’ Dying Earth Roleplaying Game, also published by Pelgrane, is one of the few RPG systems that makes social combat a joy.

So our design goal was to let you play a Hero who’s completely viable and effective without ever needing to pick up a weapon. How do you make that feel amazing in a game where epic and cinematic combat is one of the whole points of the game? The answer is a five-piece puzzle: Morale, Sway, Social investigative abilities, Maneuvers, and Teamwork. Let’s take a look.


In most GUMSHOE games, you have one defense pool (usually Stability) which measures how well you can keep it together when everything around you is going to Hell. Swords of the Serpentine has Morale; a high Morale usually means you’re stubborn, confident, and relatively self-assured. Overcoming someone’s Morale is handy because it defeats them without leaving a corpse, and you’re not going to get tried for murder if you just clashed with someone socially important.

As long as your Morale is above 0, your willpower and courage won’t break. If it drops below 0 and continues downwards towards -12 you become first Unstable, then Panicking, and finally Broken. Your foes may try to defeat you by using Sway attacks to reduce your Morale, and lots of other things might reduce your Morale: terror, curses, Sorcerous Corruption, ghostly possession, poison, and more.


Sway is the General ability you’ll use to socially attack someone’s Morale, just like Warfare is the General ability you’d use to physically attack someone’s Health. A Hero with a high Sway is incredibly good at manipulating the people around them. Whether they beguile foes, terrify them, or taunt and belittle them, they’re probably capable of getting enemies to surrender or flee without ever causing physically harm.

You can describe and roleplay your Sway attack however you want – witty repartee, terrifying intimidation, subtle terror, veiled threats, social blackmail, whatever seems like the most fun. If you successfully hit your foe’s Morale Threshold, you inflict damage that comes off their Morale. You can score a critical hit that does an extra die of damage, and there are rules for affecting more than one foe at once with your Sway attack.

Reduce your foe’s Morale to 0 (or -12, depending on the importance of the enemy) and you defeat them. You’ll also get to describe the consequence, whether that’s surrender, swooning, fleeing, or just giving you what you want. Mind you, a defeated and humiliated foe probably has a long and bitter memory for revenge, and repeated rivals or enemies make for fun games.

Social Investigative Abilities

Want to do more damage with your Sway attack? After you hit, you can spend points from an Investigative ability to inflict extra dice of damage on your Sway attack.

For instance, mock someone with a Sway attack and then spend two points of the Investigative ability Taunt, and you’ll deal two more dice of Morale damage by making them incoherently furious at you. It’s up to you to describe or roleplay the extra damage. You’ll refresh these spent points in your next adventure, but it gives you tremendous flexibility when you really need to succeed.

As in other GUMSHOE games, you can also spend Social Investigative abilities to manipulate the supporting characters around you. Want people to trust you so you run a scam? Spend a point of Trustworthy. Want people to ignore you while you slip into their mansion? Spend a point of Servility.  You get the idea.

Sometimes, though, you want to manipulate people socially without spending an Investigative point – and that brings us to Maneuvers.


In the quote from The Hobbit that opens this article, Smaug is using a Morale-based Maneuver to convince Bilbo to show himself.

Morale-based Maneuvers are what you’d use when you want to manipulate people socially but spending Investigative points would be overkill. Maybe you want to avoid a government bureaucrat, or convince a passer-by to lend you his boat, or simply lie about something fun. Make a Sway attack, and instead of taking damage, your opponent needs to then match your result on a d6 roll or accept what you’ve told them. The higher you roll, the more likely they are to fail.

Your opponent can spend their Morale points to add to that die roll before they roll it, effectively inflicting Morale damage on themselves in order to resist your suggestion. There’s a chance your Maneuver will fail, sure – but if it does, your opponent still paid a price.


Hang on, what if you’re the only person in your group with a high Sway and everyone else wants to stab your enemies in the face? Does it do any good for you to attack your foe’s Morale, since their Health is likely to hit 0 first?

In these situations, use a Teamwork attack to give your damage to any other Hero to inflict, as long as their attack lands successfully. If you’ve spent Investigative points for extra Morale damage, that bonus damage goes too. You’re effectively distracting a foe long enough for an ally to get a more effective physical attack in. Teamwork attacks work both ways, so a Hero specializing in Warfare could also use Teamwork (and the threat of physical violence) to make your successful Sway attack do more damage than normal.

Playtesters really liked Teamwork attacks; they involve other players in your own success, and they ensure that no one gets left out of a conflict.

Putting It All Together

You’ve decided your Hero is an incredibly popular thief and con-artist (well, popular in the bad parts of town among the Commoners, at least) with a strong aversion to violence. You don’t carry weapons, but all your combat skills are focused only on Sway. With a heavy focus on social Investigative abilities, you figure you can use Maneuvers or Sway attacks to convince just about anyone of anything. If you run across an inhuman foe (or heavens forfend, one who can’t hear you), you’ll use Teamwork attacks to assign your Sway damage to your friend the Mercenary. Time for adventure!

It’s worth noting that I have a secret plan to run a SotS game where physical violence is either impossible or is strongly discouraged, and so all of the real combat is done through subterfuge or through social, Morale-based combat. I probably wouldn’t want that for every game, but I can’t wait to see how it goes.

Kevin Kulp is the Boston-based co-author of Swords of the Serpentine, and 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.

by Kevin Kulp

Pelgrane Press’s upcoming fantasy GUMSHOE game, Swords of the Serpentine, has any number of ways to be a hero.

Investigative abilities define the knowledge and abilities you use to gather leads and clues while adventuring. Swords of the Serpentine has shared General and Investigative abilities that are available to any Hero, but your character’s specialty is defined by their unique Class Investigative abilities.

The scale for Investigative abilities looks like this:

  • Rank 0 in an Investigative ability means you cannot use it to gather leads
  • Rank 1 in the ability makes you proficient at it
  • Rank 2 makes you an expert
  • Rank 3 indicates remarkable knowledge or talent
  • Rank 4 suggests you’re one of the best in the city
  • Rank 5 indicates you are one of the best in that ability that most people will ever meet

There are four loose classes: Sentinel, Sorcerer, Thief, and Warrior. Each class has four unique Investigative abilities each, and your choices here define what your Hero can do. Here’s what they look like.


As a Sentinel you may be a Church Inquisitor, a member of the City Watch, an informer for Eversink’s secret police, a scout for smugglers, or an inspector for the Mercanti. You typically have an eye for detail, an exhaustive knowledge of rules and regulations, and a keen sense for criminal activity (whether you encourage it or try to stop it!). Some Sentinels can sense ghosts and see into the spirit realm that overlays the true world.

Felonious Intent: you can spot warning signs of crime and criminal behavior

Laws & Traditions: you know the (often obscure) laws and traditions of wherever you live

Spirit Sight: you can see into the spirit realm, and may sense ghosts or Corruption

Vigilance: you notice tiny details others might miss, making you seldom surprised


Sorcery may take a hundred different forms, but tapping into your true power is dangerous to your allies and deadly to Eversink’s patron goddess. Powerful sorcery causes Corruption, and Corruption is illegal in Eversink. If you wish to avoid persecution, you may have to limit your power or keep your skills secret. There’s no “good” magic when it comes to Sorcery; whether true power stems from the writings of the ancient and inhuman snake-people or as a gift from forgotten demons, the source of all sorcery is foul and corrupt.

It’s in your best interest to use your skills subtly or be so powerful and politically connected that few dare challenge you. As a Sorcerer you may know rare and hidden secrets, know how to heal the sick (or how to kill more quickly), be able to prophesize the future, and know the corrupt keys to sorcerous power.

Corruption: you can tap into the foul source of Sorcery for knowledge and power

Forgotten Lore: you know facts, legends, and trivia others have long forgotten

Leechcraft: you can diagnose ailments and know how to cause or heal diseases, injuries and poison

Prophecy: you can prophesize secrets from the past, present or future


You specialize in secrets. Thieves may attack with word or blade, and they’re equally treacherous with either. You probably know the alleys and canals of Eversink better than anyone else. You may be incredibly lucky, you’re likely skilled at gathering information through illegal means, and you are tied into the web of gossip and scurrilous rumor that circulates throughout the city.

City’s Secrets: you know the back streets and hidden truths of cities

Ridiculous Luck: you’re far luckier than most people, and stumble on clues others might miss

Scurrilous Rumors: bribery, gossip, and whispered secrets help you learn what others might have done

Skullduggery: you can find out hidden information through blackmail, spying, shadowing, and other reprehensible methods


You’re an expert at the art of warfare. As a Warrior you primarily make your way through the world by force of arms, whether you’re a duelist, a brute, a mercenary, or a foreign barbarian. You are likely skilled at surviving in the wilderness, battling monsters, spotting your foe’s weaknesses, and understanding deadly battle tactics.

Know Monstrosities: you know legends or secrets about non-human creatures, including their tactics and motivations

Spot Frailty: you notice and exploit weaknesses in armor, objects, and structures; and you might even see weakness in peoples’ personalities, allowing you to manipulate them emotionally

Tactics of Death: you can read fight scenes and understand military tactics

Wilderness Mastery: you can navigate, survive, and even thrive outside of cities


For a small price you can match abilities from different classes to end up with exactly the Hero you want. There’s a balance between raw power, influence, and flexibility.

  • If you spread your Build points out between lots of abilities (including your Class abilities, Shared abilities, and Allegiances, things we’ll talk about in the coming months), not putting more than 1 or 2 points into any one ability, you’ll gain tremendous flexibility. In exchange you limit how much damage you can do in any one attack, and you probably aren’t renowned for being astonishing at any one thing.
  • If you focus your Build points into just a few abilities, each with more ranks, you’ll gain quite a bit of power in that area and be able to inflict some considerable extra damage in a fight. You’ll also develop something of a reputation. In exchange, you’re going to lack flexibility while adventuring.

It’s the classic tradeoff with specialization: is it more fun to be really good at fewer things, or solid at a lot of things? Your answer to that will change from Hero to Hero. Both approaches have advantages; in one playtest adventure, a player put 5 ranks into a single ability and immediately established herself as a legendary expert in that area. That creates its own source of adventuring plot hooks! In actual play, we see a mixture of these approaches from different players, and the resulting balance works well.

There’s one other feature that balances flexibility and power:

  • If all your Class abilities start with the SAME class, you’ll lack flexibility but gain an extra Build point.
  • If you select Class abilities from more than one Class, you’ll have flexibility others will lack, but you’ll be a little bit less powerful.

In practice, this means that you’ll have a mechanical encouragement to really be a Warrior, or a Thief, or what have you, just like in many Swords & Sorcery novels. If you spread your points out to really customize your Hero, like the Gray Mouser or a young Conan (a mix of Warrior and Thief abilities), you’ll get the Hero you want and just miss out on the bonus Build point.

None of the Above

Interestingly, a perfectly viable character might be one with no (or almost no) Class abilities at all. We haven’t talked about Shared abilities (your social skills) or Allegiances yet, but if you want a Hero who’s tremendously well-connected and socially adept, you might not be focusing on the Classes at all. That will get you a Hero who’s astonishing at moving through Eversink’s society, even if they aren’t inflicting a lot of damage in anything but social combat.

Okay, that’s the basics of the Class system. Next up we’ll look at Shared abilities, Allegiances, and how you use them to shape the Hero you really want. We’ll also look at what happens when you spend these Investigative pool points – because that’s where the game’s true magic lies.

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.


The Swords of the Serpentine playtest is now closed – please check the latest See Page XX for current playtesting opportunities.

SotS is the upcoming fantasy GUMSHOE game from Kevin Kulp (TimeWatch) and Emily Dresner (the Dungeonomics column at 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.

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