By Kevin Kulp

We’re moving towards the official PDF release of Swords of the Serpentine, so here are more examples of what’s possible with hero creation. These blog posts feature a sample Hero for each class (or a mixture of classes) to use as a good example, a pre-generated character, or an example of how to use the rules to create the hero you want. We’ll often break out from traditional sword & sorcery stereotypes, and heroes will usually be rooted in SotS’s city of Eversink, where the goddess of civilization and commerce holds sway.

This month features a god-made-flesh and several heroes with a huge amount of political power, created by allocating more of their Build points into their Allegiances. As always, these Heroes are built assuming a 5+ player game. If you have fewer players and want to use one of these heroes, add in more Investigative abilities, as noted under “Investigative Abilities” in chapter 2 of the rules.


Exalted Arbiter Tebriel, Head of the Church of Denari

Pompous, prideful, spoiled, worried, disguised, willing to learn

Drives (what is best in life?): Reacquiring your Goddess’s good graces; acting with humility; regaining what you’ve lost

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

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

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

Investigative abilities: Command 2, Liar’s Tell 1, Nobility 1, Trustworthy 1; Laws & Traditions 2, Spirit Sight 1

Allegiances: Ally: Church of Denari 5; Enemy: Church of Denari 1

General abilities: Athletics 4, Bind Wounds 8 (Plenty of Leeches), Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Sway 10 (Play to the Crowd)

Gear: Authority over the entire church of Denari (not that you can use it directly without revealing yourself); divine censure ordering you out into the dregs of humanity to learn humility; vast suites of rooms you’ve left vacant; a second-in-command who is probably betraying you even as you speak; a deep embarrassment about your lack of life skills; a deep and abiding desire to do the right thing.

Design Notes: What if you went out for an adventure with a group of friends, and then discovered one was secretly the Pope? That’s the situation with Tebriel, who I picture as a pompous and distant autocrat whose high-handed lack of humility offended his goddess. She gave him an ultimatum: disappear from the church, go among the common people, and learn humility – or perish. Tebriel was probably shocked, being someone who probably thought he was doing a perfectly fine job! So now he tries to learn what it’s like to be a kind and normal person with a modicum of humility, all while trying to use his secret to help those who really need it. Meanwhile, his enemies in the church hunt him and work to undo all that he’s accomplished.

You can do something similar by reducing the ranks of Ally: Church of Denari from 5 to 3 or 4, then put those extra points in other allies (showing who Tebriel has made friends with over the years), in more Social Investigative abilities, or more ranks of Laws and Traditions to represent his ability to literally define divine law.


Ctol-Cwogohatl (goes by “Catol”), flesh-bound divinity of the Tides

Changing, resentful, motivated, damp, adventurous, androgynous, responsible

Drives (what is best in life?): Ushering in change, sweeping away debris, taking vengeance

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3 to 6 (shield), Armor 1 (the fading memory of divine awe), Health 6

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1 (self-assured), Morale 12

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

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

Investigative abilities: Command 1, Intimidation 1, Nobility 1; Corruption 3 (Blood, Earth, Water), Forgotten Lore 1, Laws & Traditions 1, Wilderness Mastery 2

Allegiances: Allies: Guild of Architects and Canal-Watchers 1, Monstrosities 1; Enemy: Mercanti 1

General abilities: Athletics 5, Bind Wounds 3, Preparedness 4, Stealth 3, Sorcery 10 (Blast), Sway 5

Gear: An old unmarked shield you picked up somewhere; an ancient congregation of worshippers who once venerated you; a fleshy bipedal androgynous prison your divine nature seems unable to escape; the eternal responsibility of making sure the tides continue to rise and fall; a blue cloak that chooses to act as your armor (Armor 1); a gender that changes with whim and the tides; a hostile secret society who hopes to bind you to their will; very, very old eyes the exact color of the ocean; and a really nice pair of boots

Design Notes: The philosophy behind Swords of the Serpentine (that your power is measured by game mechanics, and you can describe those mechanics and that power however you choose) is never more clear than when you decide you want your hero to be a freakin’ god. There’s no reason you can’t; playing an old, small god trapped in a human form is a great roleplaying challenge and is easily covered by the rules with no rules hacking required.

In this case, Catol is an ancient small god of the tides, and believes themself to be responsible for the tides rising and falling each day. It’s automatic, caused by their existence; but for reasons they don’t understand they’re trapped in human form. A curse? A punishment by Denari? That’ll be discovered while adventuring – and in the mean time, they’re both hunted by a Mercanti secret society who wants power over tides to help their shipping, and troublesome worshippers who wish to venerate Catol.

This hero’s Investigative abilities come from the Sorcerer, Sentinel, and Warrior classes, creating a unique mixture. Their sorcerous spheres of Earth, Blood, and Water are everything a god of the tides could ask for.


Mother Silgada, Grandmother of Thieves

Elderly, humble, hidden, manipulative, inquisitive, powerful

Drives (what is best in life?): Solidifying your influence; protecting your many many “children”; leaving a legacy

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Armor 0 (threadbare clothes), Health 6

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1 (self-assured), Morale 12

Offense – Sway: Sway 11: Damage Modifier +1 (persuasive)

Investigative abilities: Charm 1, Intimidate 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Servility 2; City’s Secrets 1, Scurrilous Rumors 1, Skullduggery 1

Allegiances: Ally: Thieves’ Guild 5; Enemy: City Watch 1

General abilities: Athletics 3, Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Stealth 8, Sway 11 (Play to the Crowd)

Gear: a magnificent guildhouse beneath the city streets; hundreds of thieves, all loyal to you and your lieutenants (or pretending to be); rooms of beautiful objects you largely ignore; a keen awareness of how easy you’d be to topple; a hidden family you can’t expose; a running tab at the best food-cart in the city.

Design Notes: What if your grandmother ran the thieves’ guild? That’s the idea behind Mother Silgada, a charming little old lady who (with 5 ranks of Allies: Thieves’ Guilds) controls a surprising amount of Eversink’s criminal activity. She rules primarily from behind the scenes, with a charismatic underling to act as figurehead; meanwhile, people die at her word. That gives her the freedom to go out on adventures and amuse herself with normal folks, all while keeping an eye on the underworld to make sure no rivals attempt a coup. If you ever read Lies of Locke Lamora and thought “I want to run a thieves’ guild,” this is one way to do so. I love the idea of a charming and self-assured little old lady with such hidden power; not only do her Allegiances gain her tremendous information, she can spend those point to orchestrate crimes anywhere she wants within Eversink.

For a more “thiefy” thief, reduce the ranks of Allies: Thieves’ Guild to add more Skullduggery; and reduce Preparedness to add ranks in Burglary.


Hessia, Mercenary and liaison to the City Defense Committee

Aggressive, stubborn, funny, loyal, vindictive, imaginative

Drives (what is best in life?): Crushing your foes; supporting your allies in times of danger; making the world a better place

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4, Armor 3 (engraved ceremonial plate mail), Health 10

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

Offense – Sway: Sway 8: Damage Modifier +1 (persuasive)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 8: Damage Modifier +1 (Bargainer, official symbol of her role as liaison)

Investigative abilities: Charm 2, Command 1, Intimidation 1, Liar’s Tell 1; Tactics of Death 1, Spot Frailty 2, Wilderness Mastery 1

Allegiances: Allies: Mercenaries 3, Triskadane 1; Enemy: Outlanders 1

General abilities: Athletics 8 (Dodge), Preparedness 3, Stealth 3, Sway 8 (Play to the Crowd), Warfare 8 (Cleave)

Gear: Beautifully polished and engraved ceremonial chain mail that is bound to drown you some day (Armor 3, Swim penalty -6); exceptional grooming; subtle, expensive perfume; Bargainer, the symbol of your role as Mercenary liaison to the City Defense Committee (Damage Modifier +1); memories of two dozen different battles, up to your knees in blood and mud; an experienced orderly who handles your gear; boredom at the thought of yet another interminable meeting

Design Notes: Hessia is a soldier thrown into the role of a diplomat, something she’s not entirely prepared for. I’d argue she’s the person appointed by the freelance mercenary companies to negotiate with the unreasonable demands from the Triskadane, Eversink’s government. As such, this (as modeled by 3 ranks of Ally: Mercenaries and 1 rank of Ally: Triskadane) she has the ability to decide whether the mercenary companies come to Eversink’s aid, and at what cost. In truth, this will seldom come up in a game; her joy is in adventuring, and this backstory is nothing more than a great supplier of political schemes and enemies for her to fight. But wow, if she needs military force to back of her boasts or threats, she sure has it.

And that’s really the point of Allegiances, right? You can use them as chess pieces to try and influence others, but they establish your role in the society and the city, giving you a place of power from which to adventure.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

By Kevin Kulp

There’s value in seeing how a hero you know translates into Swords of the Serpentine, especially when that hero changes over time.

SotS lets you play fledgling (less experienced) and sovereign (exceptionally experienced) versions of the same character, jumping back and forth in time between adventures in the same way a collection of fantasy short stories might jump between different eras of the same hero’s life.

For comparison, a sovereign Hero has about 16 adventures worth of experience over a standard Hero, and a standard Hero has about 17 adventures more experience than a fledgling Hero. That’s enough of a power and capability difference to feel like you’re at very different stages of the Hero’s career. A fun scenario might be to run three adventures: one at standard level to showcase a threat or problem, then one at fledgling level to show how the threat or problem originated, and finally one at sovereign level to let your Heroes crush the threat once and for all.

For a look at how you might translate this concept into a game character, let’s look at an iconic barbarian modeled on Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Note that we don’t pick Conan so you can play this exact character; there are plenty of really amazing RPGs that let you do exactly that, including one by our friends from Modiphius. Our goal here is to show you how a Hero might change between stages of their career, not to capture the literary Conan perfectly.

As always in Swords of the Serpentine, you should be able to know a character just by reading their Adjectives, Drives (or “what three things are best in life?”), and Gear.


At fledgling power, we have is a Conan who is more thief than warrior. He’s adept at breaking and entering, good in a fight (especially if he fights unconventionally) but without tactical mastery. He’s young, and only knows how to relate to others through posturing and insults.

Conan, fledgling thief (as in The Tower of the Elephant)

Naïve, adventurous, hostile, greedy

Drives (what is best in life?): To stand alone against danger, to gain another’s wealth, to buy respect with blood and steel

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

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Grit 1 (stubbornness), Morale 7

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

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 6: Damage Modifier +1 (sword)

Investigative abilities: Intimidation 1, Taunt 1; Skullduggery 2, Spot Frailty 1, Vigilance 1, Wilderness Mastery 1

Allegiances: Ally: Outlanders 2; Enemy: City Watch 1

General abilities: Athletics 8 (Dodge), Burglary 4, Stealth 4, Sway 3, Warfare 6

Gear: Loincloth, well-honed sword, stolen dagger, rope and grappling hook that need only survive this one adventure, empty coin purse, empty skin of wine, empty belly, but a full and endless supply of disdain for the soft and the civilized.


At the power of a typical Hero, Conan excels at battle. His charm is more evident now, although he still excels at terrifying or angering his enemies; he sees the weaknesses in his enemies’ defenses and he’s quick to exploit any advantage this gives him. His allegiances have shifted due to his life of piracy, and his skill with a blade now allows him to cleave his way through foes with nary a pause.

Conan, barbarian conqueror (as in Queen of the Black Coast)

Confident, canny, territorial, vengeful

Drives (what is best in life?): To risk all for an ally, to conquering the weak, and to uncovering that which is hidden

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4, Armor 2 (chain, assuming he’s bothering to wear a shirt at all), Health 10

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

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

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 8: Damage Modifier +2 (great sword)

Investigative abilities: Charm 1, Intimidation 1, Taunt 1; Spot Frailty 2, Tactics of Death 3, Vigilance 1, Wilderness Mastery 1

Allegiances: Ally: Outlanders 1, Ally: Pirates 1; Enemy: Outlanders 1

General abilities: Athletics 8 (Dodge), Preparedness 3, Stealth 6, Sway 5, Warfare 8 (Cleave)

Gear: worn chain armor, great sword, smoldering blue gaze, panther-like demeanor, full skin of wine, urge for adventure, and still a full and endless supply of disdain for the soft and the civilized.



Late in life, Conan is almost unmatched in battle and tactics. He may sit in a throne room uneasily, as his skills are meant for the battlefield. He’s cleverer and better at threats than he was in his youth, and his ability to conquer is buttressed by good luck and a lifetime of battle. One thing is for sure, though; enemies from multiple nations want his head, and more than one sorcerer falls asleep at night dreaming of the tortures they wish to inflict upon him.

Conan, sovereign warrior (as in The Scarlet Citadel)

Masterful, impatient, driven, vengeful

Drives (what is best in life?): To crush your enemies, to rule your conquered nations, and to put your enemies to the sword

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4, Health 10

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

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

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 10: Damage Modifier +2 (great sword)

Investigative abilities: Charm 1, Command 1, Intimidation 1, Taunt 1; Ridiculous Luck 1, Spot Frailty 2, Tactics of Death 4, Vigilance 1, Wilderness Mastery 1

Allegiances: Ally: Outlanders 2; Enemy: Outlanders 2, Enemy: Sorcerous Cabals 1

General abilities: Athletics 10 (Dodge), Preparedness 4, Stealth 6, Sway 5, Warfare 10 (Cleave)

Gear: rich robes that seem out of place, disdainfully-worn crown, look of boredom, the hatred of treasonous nobles, nostalgia for the battlefield.

In a campaign, the GM can flip back and forth between heroes of different abilities, just as the stories in a fantasy anthology may jump back and forth in time. It’s a nice way to emphasize how a hero grows over time.


Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, currently available for pre-order. 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.



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

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.

Previous Entries Next Entries