Swords of the Serpentine guidelines

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.

12 Responses to “Swords of the Serpentine guidelines”

  1. George says:

    I’m excited about this. i really like the genre, and the fact you’ve deconstructed it so well in the list above makes me hopeful this could be my go-to s&s game.
    (Simon Carryer’s Nod is another favourite).

    I can’t stress how glad i am that you included the “Adventures are episodic” principle in your design. This closely models the pulp adventures that inspired the first rpg. And will also make it easy to bring to the table. Maybe even with an inconsistent group?
    I’ll be looking out for the announcement that it’s open for playtesting. Keep up the good work!

  2. Jim V says:

    Those are some pretty good guidelines. From reading a lot of Fritz Leiber & Thieves’ World (and some Nifft), another big one I have noticed is “Heroes are already figures of consequence, frequently with a reputation (not necessarily accurate) at least in certain quarters” as well as “Sometimes, what seems Sheer Luck, or intervention by Inscrutable Powers, can count as much as talent” and “Sometimes Gods/Powers take a much closer interest in you than you wish”

    • Kevin Kulp says:

      All three of those apply! In fact, there’s an Investigative ability named “Ridiculous Luck.” It’s exactly as much fun as you might expect.

      It’s also a world of small gods. Try not to blaspheme too much.

  3. Allan Prewett says:

    Just an FYI; I believe its a bit of a mis-conception that magic in S&S corrupts etc. I am no expert and your setting may vary but maybe have a chat with this fella;

    For example look at blog posts; 137, 96, 95 90, and 88.

    • Kevin Kulp says:

      Allan, good blog! Thank you.

      It’s tricky. Not everyone wants to deal with dangerous Sorcery, but what are those people supposed to do if they want to play a sorcerer? In this case, I have an alternative. A variant “magic” ability that is a little less powerful but which doesn’t carry the same danger, and which is limited to alchemy, poisons, mesmerism, witchery – that sort of thing. So you can make the choice based on what you find fun.

      (There’s also extensive GM guidance for hacking this to whatever makes you happy.)

  4. Stefan says:

    Regarding Magic: Maybe not always evil or corrupt, just alien. Magic is something that makes little to no sense to common people and wizards and sorcerers are feared because who can understand someone who has gone down the path of magic? Probably the gaining of the terrible power (good or bad, or most likely neither particularly) always has some terrible cost and there must be something wrong with those who are willing to pay it.

    As for other suggestions I always enjoyed one trope of S&S which is the story starting in the middle. “You are running away being chased by crazy cannibals after killing their shaman/witch/priest and stealing his idol/sacrificial victim/etc”. I always liked the idea of maybe trying to play a scene that happened before and we know how it ends we just want to see how it happened. Maybe since you already decided that adventures don’t have to be chronological, scene don’t necessarily have to be either. Maybe a sort of Flashback scene at a cost, or maybe gaining a clue from “remembering” running through the much filled tunnels etc.

    Anyways, looks interesting so far. Looking forward to see more.

  5. gdave says:

    I’m very curious about this. I love the Sword & Sorcery genre, but it doesn’t honestly feel like a natural fit with Gumshoe to me. However, I also loved Kevin’s work on “TimeWatch”, and I’m a pretty big fan of Pelgrane’s products in general. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more.

    For me, S&S also involves three inter-related guidelines that I don’t see in the post.

    1. S&S Heroes are rogues and reavers, opportunists always with an eye on the main chance, not noble crusaders for justice. But they still have principals and codes of conduct that separate them from Villains.

    2. In S&S, “noble crusaders” always turn out to be fools, hypocrites, or zealots. Fools will get themselves killed as object lessons to the Heroes on what not to do; hypocrites will be exposed by the Heroes when they come into conflict; and zealots will wind up being the true Villains of the piece, and the Heroes will have to evade or defeat them.

    3. Although S&S Heroes aren’t noble crusaders and they won’t deliberately seek out Evil, their adventures will bring them into contact with true Evil much more often than one might expect, and when confronted by true Evil, Heroes will not shrink from it – they will engage and defeat it.

    • Kevin Kulp says:

      I’ll do a blog post on this. It turns out to be an incredibly good fit, somewhat to my surprise as well — with the trick being that you embrace the “really competent hero” vibe, you make combat really fun, and you swap out “finding clues” to “finding leads towards adventure.” If you like TimeWatch, I suspect you’ll like this.

  6. Emanuele says:

    Can’t wait for this!
    Regarding the S&S elements I’d like to find in this game:
    – A subtler, but safer, magic system for priest/scholar characters;
    – Guilds and associations, maybe with downtime rules. I love the idea of episodic adventures, with some (optional?) downtime mini-games to link them the city realism and atmosphere would certainly grow!
    – A bit of dark humour, like Leiber (and Pratchett too!), or the first edition of Warhammer frp (I don’t like the settings who take themselves too seriously! :P)
    Thank you!

    • Kevin Kulp says:

      Emanuele – you’ll get everything except downtime rules.

      Regarding magic systems, we have an alternative to Corruption in there (Witchery), but for priests and scholars you have an even more seamless option. In SotS (like in TimeWatch) it’s up to you how you describe an action, because only the mechanical effect is dictated by the rules. For instance, “Bind Wounds” is a General ability. We both have 5 ranks. I may describe mine as filthy poultices and leeches, and you may describe yours as golden light pouring out of wounds as they magically re-knit, but each spent point still restores the same amount of Health.

      That means you can describe anything you want as subtle magic as long as your Investigative or General abilities support you taking the action. An enchanter can be a guy with a ton of ranks of Charm, played by someone who decides their charisma is supernatural instead of natural. Same mechanical effect, different description.

      Unique spells and special effects that can’t be handled by existing rules (“I dangle her upside down by one leg 10 meters in the air”), are the exception, and that’s where Corruption (and the less powerful Witchery) step in.

  7. J.P. Brannan says:

    Is there a pre-order page or something?

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