A group of people in silhouette at sunsetFour Six Heroes #3: Swords of the Serpentine pre-made adventuring party

By Kevin Kulp

This month we’re cheating and giving you six heroes instead of four; these are the pre-generated heroes used in The Dripping Throne adventure at Gen Con Online 2020, playtested with four or five different player groups. Most of the Heroes have excellent niche protection in their profession. They’re intimately tied to the city of Eversink using the “Freelance Slinks” origin (p. 29 of the SotS Adventurer’s Edition), and can be transplanted to a different setting with only a small amount of work.

The Heroes include an inquisitor with imposter’s syndrome, a sorcerer who’s been shunned by their family, an extremely likable (and lucky!) thief, a warrior who apparently doesn’t age, an elderly prophet forced out of the church, and their young acolyte with big secrets and big plans.  These Heroes are built assuming a 5+ player game. If you have fewer players and want to use any of these heroes, add in more Investigative abilities, as noted under “Investigative Abilities” in chapter 2 of the rules.

Sentinel

Name: Inquisitor Hastus

Inquisitive, Suspicious, Intimidating, Over-prepared, Insecure

Drives: Punishing the iniquitous; Catching others in a falsehood; The respect of your friends and peers

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Armor 2, Health 8

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1, Morale 10

Offense – Sway: Sway 4: Damage Modifier +1 (threats)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 8: Damage Modifier +1 (sword)

Investigative Abilities: Command 1, Intimidation 2, Liar’s Tell 1, Felonious Intent 2, Laws & Traditions 1, Spirit Sight 2, Vigilance 2

Allies and Enemies: Ally: Church of Denari 1; Ally: The Triskadane 1; Enemy: Sorcerous Cabals 1

General Abilities: Athletics 5, Bind Wounds 2, Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Stealth 3, Sway 4, Warfare 8 (Cleave)

Gear: Shining chainmail and inquisitorial uniform; badge of authority; sword (dmg +1); Imposter’s syndrome about whether you have what it takes to be an inquisitor; holy coin of Denari; multiple fallback plans for any eventuality; impressive shield; the dried hand of your father, severed after he was convicted for spreading Corruption, and somehow you never noticed while there was still time to save him

Design Notes: Hastus is a good solid Sentinel, loaded down with the authority of the church and the government, and yet second-guessing his authority until he figures out this role in the world. He has enough Vigilance to notice most hidden details without having to roll, and enough Spirit Sight to rip open the space between worlds and walk in the land of ghosts and memories. Relying on his Flashback ability for backup plans, he uses his Intimidation to scare the truth out of people the group doesn’t feel the need to befriend.

Sorcerer

Name: Amadeo (“Deo”) Iaconi, disinherited nobility

Charming, Presumptuous, Genteel, Manipulative, Socially disgraced

Drives: Repaying any who have wronged you; Defeating your enemies with STYLE, not just raw force; Being worthy of your friends’ trust in you

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Health 7

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1, Morale 11

Offense – Sorcery: Sorcery 8 vs. Morale: Damage Modifier +1

Offense – Sway: Sway 1: Damage Modifier +1 (dismissive)

Investigative Abilities: Charm 1, Command 1, Intimidation 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Nobility 2, Corruption 3, Forgotten Lore 2

Allies and Enemies: Ally: Mercanti 1; Ally: Sorcerous Cabals 1; Enemy: Ancient Nobility 1

General Abilities: Athletics 5, Bind Wounds 2, Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Stealth 3, Sorcery 8 (Blast), Sway 1, Warfare 3

Sorcerous Spheres: (Affects Morale) Illusion; Memory; Secrets

Gear: Sketchpad and paintbrushes; this season’s most stylish sword (never used); stylish clothing you can barely afford; the (justified) hatred of your parents; Mercanti contracts for negotiation; the unfortunate attention of the inquisition; a demon squirming inside your soul who offers you true power; debts you can’t currently pay; party invitations you can’t afford to turn down

Design Notes: Deo is a thoroughly flawed hero with the chance to redeem himself. He was forced out of his family when they realized he could manipulate secrets and memories, and you really can’t blame them. So now he ekes out a living working for his family’s enemies, and he is what you might call conflicted. How he uses his abilities, and how he treats his family, determines his fate as a hero.

If you prefer sorcerous spheres that affect Health instead, these mental spheres are easily swapped out for spheres that affect Health instead. Go with something like Stone, Water, and Air (or Fire) for a terrifying elementalist; or Flesh, Ghosts, and Necromancy for a much-reviled necromancer.

Thief

Name: Talia Songward, everyone’s friend

Likable, Funny, Bold, Lucky, Rude

Drives: A cold drink with good friends; Tricking someone you don’t trust; Helping people who can’t help themselves

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4, Health 10

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Grit 1, Morale 8

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

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

Investigative Abilities: Charm 3, Liar’s Tell 1, Servility 1, Trustworthy 1, City’s Secrets 1, Ridiculous Luck 2, Scurrilous Rumors 1

Allies and Enemies: Ally: Commoners 3; Enemy: Ancient Nobility 1

General Abilities: Athletics 5, Burglary 5, Preparedness 3, Stealth 8 (Where’d She Go?), Sway 8 (Play to the Crowd), Warfare 1

Gear: Instinctive knowledge of what makes people tick; an amazing smile; friends in low places; a huge bar tab; a stolen sword you haven’t used in months (dmg +1); curiosity about others’ secrets; a snazzy hat; scars you probably deserved; a good singing voice; a hearty dislike of bullies

Design Notes: The goals here were “make a clever thief who feels like a bard” and “local hero makes good”. Talia covers most of the Thief abilities (with a healthy focus on Ridiculous Luck, but no Skulduggery, an ability covered by Greca below) and is otherwise is focused on social abilities that say “I’m likeable, I’m immensely popular with Commoners, and people trust me.” She’s designed to be a hero of the people, with no social pretensions other than being naturally charismatic and particularly convincing. As she advances in experience, she might add ranks in Command or even more ranks of Ally: Commoners to emphasize this aspect of being a neighborhood hero.

Warrior

Name: Niccolo Acaldi

Ageless, Steady, Welcoming, Encouraging, Surprisingly deadly

Drives: Turning enemies into friends; Killing enemies who stay enemies; Turning a profit

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4, Armor 1, Health 10

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Grit 1, Morale 8

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

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 10: Damage Modifier +1 (antique sword)

Investigative Abilities: Charm 1, Command 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Servility 1, Trustworthy 1, Spot Frailty 2, Tactics of Death 3, Wilderness Mastery 1

Allies and Enemies: Ally: Mercenaries 1; Ally: The Triskadane 1; Enemy: Monstrosities 1

General Abilities: Athletics 8 (Dodge), Preparedness 2, Stealth 2, Sway 8 (Play to the Crowd), Warfare 10 (Cleave)

Gear: A comfortable sense of style; very well-worn leather armor; a favorite pipe; a sword as old as you are (dmg +1); a good smile; very few living enemies; an unexplained (and secret) inability to age (you’re 600? 700? You forget); surprisingly few memories for someone as old as you are; a well-established career of helping people who need help but can’t get it officially

Design Notes: Niccolo is a nice, unassuming guy who also happens to be one of the most deadly warriors you’ll meet. He stopped aging more than half a millennium ago, but he’s not wracked by angst; instead, he’s a happy, settled ex-mercenary with a successful investigative practice and few regrets. Why he stopped aging all those years ago is up to the GM and player, but in my own head I suspect he had an illicit affair with the Goddess Denari and she gave him this as a gift, even as she stole away the memories of their passion.

Mixed Profession: Sorcerer and Thief

Name: Master-seer Bennoc, Retired Church Prophet

Elderly, Adventurous, Risk-taking, Pious, Making up for lost time

Drives: Doing, instead of just telling others to do; Manipulating fate to serve you; Proving to yourself you’re not too old for this

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Health 6

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1, Morale 12

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

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 1: Damage Modifier +0 (any convenient object)

Investigative Abilities: Liar’s Tell 1, Trustworthy 1, Forgotten Lore 1, Leechcraft 2, Prophecy 3, City’s Secrets 1, Scurrilous Rumors 1

Allies and Enemies: Ally: Church of Denari 1; Ally: City Watch 1; Enemy: Church of Denari 1

General Abilities: Athletics 4, Bind Wounds 8 (Plenty of Leeches), Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Stealth 1, Sway 8 (Play to the Crowd), Warfare 1

Gear: Mandatory retirement letter forcing you from the church’s service; the pitying glances of your former friends who thought your sanity was breaking; the urge to prove yourself once again before it’s too late; the constant whispering knowledge of events in the world; a church-assigned acolyte and servant whose name you forget, but she makes good tea

Design Notes: Prophecy is a joy for the GM because it means they can feed the player visions and clues as needed. Just remember that Prophecy always points to a person or a place that has the information a Hero needs, instead of giving the Hero that information directly.

Bennoc is a crotchety old man with a huge chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Let the player pick the method of prophecy, whether it is mystical visions in a copper tub or his own garbled memories from the future. He’s a great choice for players who enjoy playing untraditional heroes and for those who like access to (or declaring for themselves) hidden information about the world.

Mixed Profession: Sentinel, Sorcerer, and Thief

Name: Greca Leoni, Under-Acolyte in Training

Willful, Creative, Innocent-looking, Rebellious, Eager to learn

Drives: Not getting caught; Blaming it on someone else; Learning how to do it even better

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Armor 1, Health 9

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Grit 1, Morale 9

Offense – Sway: Sway 4: Damage Modifier +1 (sarcastic)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 6: Damage Modifier +0 (dagger)

Investigative Abilities: Charm 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Servility 1, Taunt 1, Laws & Traditions 1, Leechcraft 1, City’s Secrets 1, Ridiculous Luck 1, Skulduggery 2

Allies and Enemies: Ally: Thieves’ Guilds 1; Ally: Church of Denari 1; Enemy: City Watch 1

General Abilities: Athletics 5, Bind Wounds 1, Burglary 8 (Fast Hands), Preparedness 2, Stealth 4, Sway 4, Warfare 6

Gear: A talent for seeming helpless; very fast hands; old enemies who want you dead; the protection of the church (at least for now); reinforced peasant’s dress (Armor 1); a burning desire to learn from anyone who will teach you; a sharp, slim dagger (dmg +0); a talent with improvised weapons; a dislike of rules; a church-contract of indentured servitude you look forward to buying off

Design Notes: Greca is a wonderfully willful kid of undetermined age (we assume she’s about 12) who robbed the wrong person, took shelter with the Church, and who now has been assigned to Master-Seer Bennoc as punishment. She has plans of her own and who isn’t afraid to manipulate the adults around her to get it. As a child, we want to emulate her relative inexperience in combat even though she’s built with as many points as everyone else. We do this in three ways:

  • With her Health and Morale balanced at 9 each, this makes both her Health and Morale Thresholds 3 instead of 4. In combat she’ll get hit more often than other Heroes.
  • Other than Skulduggery, she hasn’t specialized in any one Investigative ability. This gives her wide capabilities but relatively low burst damage in a fight.
  • Neither her Sway nor Warfare is 8+, so Greca doesn’t get combat Boosters. This makes her more effective at targeting a single foe instead of large numbers of Mooks at once. And hey, with Stealth and the Fast Hands talent, she can steal an enemy’s sword out of their sheath before they even realize she’s there.

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.

 

By Kevin Kulp

Swords of the Serpentine doesn’t use Robin D. Laws’s One-2-One rules (including Edge and Problem cards), but the game is designed to play superbly with only one player and one GM. This type of adventure echoes the model of classic fantasy literature such as Conan or Elric where a main hero tackles their adventures alone, or at most with a companion or sidekick.

For one-Hero play you’ll need to make a small number of changes during character creation, and there’s some specialized advice for both GM and player.

Character Creation

As noted on p. 36 of the Adventurer’s Edition of SotS, if you’re the only player you’ll gain 14 Investigative Build points to create your Hero. That’s 4 more than you’d get with a full 5-person group. You can get an additional bonus point if you keep to only one profession, but that’s not always a good choice for one-Hero play; diversifying gives you more options when looking for leads.

The GM chapter on p. 269 of the Adventurer’s Edition has additional information, including that in one-Hero play the Hero gets an additional Ally point.

Example

Let’s say you want to play a hero patterned after the accomplishments of the real-world Ching Shih the pirate, making your hero a deposed pirate queen who’s fled to Eversink to regain her strength.

Five Players?

Were there five players or more, the Hero might look like this:

Fayne Chaskin, aka Captain Chask, deposed pirate queen of Min

Canny, diplomatic, strong-willed, middle-aged, murderous, loyal

Drives (what is best in life?): Wielding deadly force; following your own course; making an example for others to see

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Armor 1 (the leather hide of a great kraken), Health 8

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

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

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 8: Damage Modifier +1 (rapier)

Investigative abilities: Command 2, Intimidation 1, Nobility 1, Servility 1; Scurrilous Rumors 1, Skullduggery 3

Allegiances: Ally: Ancient Nobility 1, Ally: Outlanders 3; Enemy: Mercanti 1

General abilities: Athletics 4, Burglary 2, Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Stealth 3, Sway 5, Warfare 8 (Cleave)

Gear: A now-lost fleet of 800 ships (and almost 50,000 sailors) stolen from you by the Witch-Queen of Min; international warrants for your arrest and execution; a surprising sense of optimism; a desperate need to lay low; a perverse desire to crash the parties and balls of the nobility; your flagship The Savage Crown, moored unnoticed in a hidden swamp cove a day away; a handful of very important blackmail documents; fond memories of your gambling house and salt trading days; a jeweled hair comb from your mother, looted by her from Eversink nobility while you were still an infant; kraken-hide armor (Armor 1); a rapier whose hilt is fashioned from some kingdom’s stolen royal scepter, you aren’t sure whose (Damage Modifier +1)

One Player?

With only one Hero, though, you might build her Investigative abilities and Allegiances like this with the extra points:

Investigative abilities: Command 3, Intimidation 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Nobility 1, Servility 1; Ridiculous Luck 1, Scurrilous Rumors 1, Skullduggery 4

Allegiances: Ally: Ancient Nobility 1, Outlanders 4; Enemy: Mercanti 1

 

With Flashback from a high Preparedness, and 3 ranks of Ally: Outlanders, Captain Chask in a 5-player game has great narrative flexibility and wields substantial political pressure – and she can spend those points to have her still-loyal pirates show up in almost any circumstance to act as decoys, extra muscle, inside men, and assistants.

When you’re the only player, you have a Hero who is even better at having her commands obeyed; you can tell when someone is lying to you; you have a small amount of ridiculous luck; you’re even better at illegal activities (amongst the best in the city!); and your ties to your still-loyal pirates are remarkably strong. What you can’t do yourself, you can usually get someone else to do for you.

Player Advice

When adventuring you’ll run into the need for useful abilities you don’t have. Think like a fantasy hero: use a different ability creatively or find someone else in the city who might know what you need. If the GM gives you an interesting sidekick with a few abilities, they can help fill in for your weak spots.

You’re probably mighty in a fight, but you’re only one person – and your biggest weakness is facing lots of people at once in combat. If you’re facing a lot of enemies at once, you have a few options. You could surrender (although it’s probably more fun to make them work for it) and fight your way out later; you could spend a point of Taunt to challenge their leader to single combat, completely side-stepping the mooks; or you could spend points of an ability like Intimidation to buy yourself time to talk with your foes instead of fighting them. You could even use Flashback and spend a point of Charm to establish yourself as an old friend of the enemy leader. Consider creative solutions and pick the one that makes for the best or most exciting story.

Still want to fight? That’s solid heroing! If you’re facing Mooks and you have Warfare, Sway or Sorcery at 8+ ranks, spend all your combat ability at the start of the fight in a single amazing attack to try and down as many Mooks as possible as quickly as possible. You’re likely to defeat as many as 4 or 5 in that sudden flurry, and that will get you Refresh tokens AND buy you some time. You can spend Investigative points to briefly boost your defenses (p. 75); in a tough fight, that may well mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Finally, spend your Ally points to draw on your Allies in any situation where you want backup. That’s especially useful if you don’t already have a sidekick; a convenient nearby ally can help heal you, can bolster your Morale, may have knowledge and expertise you lack, and can pitch in during a fight. Intimidating your foe by having a dozen mercenaries or thieves suddenly show themselves is an excellent use of that resource.

GM Advice

GMs will find advice for one-Hero play on pp. 269-270 of the Adventurer’s Edition. Try not to toss the hero into an adventure that they’re particularly ill-suited for; without access to Teamwork, setting a Warfare-based hero against a monstrosity that can only be defeated by reducing their Morale is just going to be frustrating. More fun is an adventure where the Hero’s strengths can shine, and where the foes are not prepared for a single dangerous assailant.

As mentioned above, we like the idea of a sidekick during one-Hero play. It’s particularly useful for offering Investigative abilities that a Hero may lack, for emergency healing that keeps the Hero on their feet, and for giving you someone particularly fun to roleplay.

If converting existing adventures, handwave or eliminate large numbers of Mooks. A single Hero will likely focus on the most dramatically interesting target in the fight, and while they might need to fight their way through some speedbumps to get there, that shouldn’t necessarily be the focus of the scene.

Since your player won’t have any other players to bounce clues off of, don’t be at all shy about summarizing and talking through what they’ve learned, who’ve they’ve talked to, and where they’ve been so far in the adventure. It’ll help make sure they don’t accidentally bump into dead ends.


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.

By Kevin Kulp

Swords of the Serpentine’s pre-layout PDF is available for everyone who has pre-ordered the game, so we wanted to sketch out an adventure seed to use alongside of (or instead of) A Corpse Astray from the rulebook. This seed is a solid session or two of adventure, easily customized for your own game. Note that due to space limitations you’ll want to fill this adventure in during your own play, adding clues, supporting characters, adversaries, and complexity to an extent that makes you happy.

Please don’t read farther if you’re a player, or you will find yourself spoiled.

Adventure Premise

The ghost of a murdered merchant asks the Heroes to investigate his murder. Doing so lands the Heroes in deep danger from a seemingly innocuous source, and presents them with a difficult decision: what happens when the thing that helps people isn’t the thing that’s both ethically and morally right?

You see, it turns out that Eversink’s Fishing Guild is run by a small sorcerous cabal who sacrifice human life in exchange for a bountiful catch. The ghostly merchant was this month’s sacrifice to the guild’s ancient fish god. Is one life a month a reasonable trade for a hundred thousand people staying well-fed?

Scene 1: The Ghost

In scene 1, a ghost hires the Heroes. The ghost is an Outlander merchant from wherever you choose, here in the city to purchase ceramics to bring home. (Pick whatever you wish, the more boring the better, to steer the Heroes away from his purchases being important.)

If a Hero has at least one rank of Spirit Sight, the ghost can hire them personally. If they don’t, the ghost will find a beggar that can see spirits and harass them until they approach the Heroes. Make the ghost entertaining, likeable, and angry he got killed in a way that left few traces. He’ll ask the Heroes to retrieve his body and avenge him, and offer them the Wealth he brought to the city in exchange (you can decide how much that is; make it 4 Wealth per Hero if you want to give them a taste of prosperity.)

Clues:

  • The ghost can sense where his body is and will guide the Heroes there if they hire a boat. It floated out of the harbor on the turn of the tide, and has floated into a swampy inlet some miles north of the city. (Optional clue; go to Scene 2)
  • The ghost remembers getting accosted by two smelly people at night while drunk in Harbor Approach, but didn’t see their faces. He knows where he was – on the docks near where The Scarlet Ruse was docked – and remembers that there was a toothless old beggar nearby who he’d just given coin to in a traditional exchange. Perhaps she saw who attacked him. (Core clue; go to Scene 3)

Scene 2: The Cove

In scene 2 (which is optional), the Heroes learn that ‘Sinkish citizens have been murdered monthly for about three generations, and their corpses have somehow ended up in one particular spot. Something supernatural is involved.

Ask the players to narrate a travel montage (p. 260 of the Adventurer’s edition) during their trip away from the city.

The ghost will lead them to an isolated marsh inlet north of the city, in an area of the swampy shoreline with a slightly treacherous tidal pattern. Follow the twisting tidal channel into the high marsh grass and you’ll find yourself in a large pond that’s full of fish, birds, and other small scavengers. Drifting lazily in the middle of the pond is the ghost’s corpse, mostly eaten by fish.

Clues:

  • The victim was hit on the head, then while he was alive his chest was cut open and his heart and intestines removed in a way that reminds you of gutting a large fish. Then the corpse was thrown into the outgoing tide. (Leechcraft)
  • The corpse shouldn’t have drifted to this spot on its own, based on tidal patterns. (Wilderness Mastery)
  • This pond is full of bones. FULL. Perhaps 800 corpses and skeletons lie under the water if anyone chooses to check. They vary tremendously by age, the oldest being perhaps 80 years dead, and a series that are clearly from the last year. Based on the progression, it reasonable to assume that one drifts in every month before being eaten by fish and sinking. (Core clue: Vigilance)

The Heroes will be attacked by hostile fish on their way back, two waves of a dog-sized leaping and biting fish named boneteeth that will leap into the boat to devour the Heroes. Think large, angry salt-water barracuda. There are two waves of coordinated attacks, with two boneteeth per Hero per wave; split these up into two or three Mook groups in the Initiative so that not all the fish attack at once. (So if there are 4 Heroes, the group is attacked by 8 boneteeth per wave, for two waves.) Use the advice on p. 198 to create a final larger, more dangerous fishy foe at the end of the fight if that would be fun for the group.

Boneteeth

Unnaturally hungry

Defense – Health: Health Threshold 3, Health 1

Defense – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Morale 1 (see below)

Offense – Warfare: +0; Fixed Damage 3

Special Abilities: Anyone swimming in a boneteeth swarm automatically takes 3 Morale damage per round from fear

Misc: Boneteeth don’t understand speech and thus are immune to language-based Morale attacks, but scare them with Sway and they’ll retreat

Refresh Tokens: 1

 

Scene 3: The Witness

In scene 3, the Heroes use the ghost’s descriptions to find a witness to his murder, and then one of the murderers himself.

The ghost was knocked unconscious on the docks after midnight on the night of a new moon. He remembers where he was killed, even if he didn’t see who attacked him. Living near that spot is an elderly toothless beggar named Crow. She’ll refuse to talk unless befriended with money, food, or kindness by someone with ranks of Trustworthy; a Hero with ranks in Servility or Ally: Commoners can also get her to talk if no one with ranks in Nobility is nearby.

Crow saw the murder, although she doesn’t think the murderers saw her. She describes one of the murderers as a fisherman she only knows as Eel. After he and his partner knocked out the stranger, they put his unconscious body in a boat and rowed into the darkness towards Sag Harbor.

Clues

  • Eel is a professional fisherman, out fishing every day from before dawn to sunset, but he drinks in the fisherfolk’s bar attached to Fish Hall in Sag Harbor. He rents a room there in the Guild Hall as well. Eel is a big, powerful, burly man with fish tattoos on his hands and arms. He’s not educated, but he’s considered solid, dependable, and deliberate. (Core clue: Scurrilous Rumors or Ally: Commoners)
  • Eel is a long-time trusted member of the Glorious Assemblage of Attentive Fisherfolk, the formal name of Eversink’s fishing guild. Their guild house, known as Fish Hall, is at the western end of Sag Harbor near the docks. The building stinks of fish and always looks like it’s about to sink underwater, but it’s been there in one form or another for centuries. (City Secrets or Ally: Mercanti)

You can decide for yourself who Eel’s partner was, and build the adversary using the rules in Chapter 7 (likely reworking an existing Adversary). For the most fun, make them quite different than Eel, but also a ranking and trusted member of Fish Hall.

At the end of this scene, Eel’s partner realizes that they never created a funerary statue for their victim to put his soul to rest. They do, and the ghost will disappear suddenly, shouting to the Heroes as he does that he is being drawn into Denari’s heaven. Remind the players how funerary statues work in Eversink (p. 274), and what must have just happened.

Scene 4: The Accusation

The Heroes can observe or approach Eel however they wish. Eel’s daily pattern is to leave Fish Hall before dawn, fish all day with a 5-person crew, return back with his catch before dusk, then eat and drink in Fish Hall until he falls into bed. The one exception is when the Fishing Guild has formal meetings; he never misses these. Eel doesn’t attend Denari’s services weekly, something that is slightly odd.

Confronting Eel about the murder will almost always result in violence unless he’s tricked. He knows the Guild will support him, and so he’d rather capture any accusers while rumors of what he does can still be contained. Eel will Summon friends (use Drunken Sailor stats on p. 221) and call on his Allies (use Brute stats on p. 225) to support him in a fight. Of course, his partner that you’ve created will try to protect him as well, but may cut and run if things look poorly.

If Eel or his partner die (as opposed to being defeated and left alive), and word reaches Fish Hall, they  will put out the word for the Heroes to be killed: Heroes receive the penalty of Enemies: Commoners 1. If Eel or his partner are just defeated, the Heroes receive Grudge: Commoners 1.

Ideally, have this fight somewhere interesting and use the environment in interesting ways. Swinging ropes, thrown anchors, swaying footbridges, unsteady ship decks, live fish, and slippery wood all help contribute to an interesting fight.

Eel, a fisherman

Loyal, pious, dependable, murderous

Defense — Health: Health Threshold 4, Health 10 per Hero

Defense — Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Morale 5 per Hero

Offense — Warfare: +1 (surprising strength); Damage Modifier +3 (fish-gutting knife)

Offense — Sway: +0; Damage Modifier +1 (threats)

Abilities: Malus 15

Special Abilities: Allies (cost 3 – Fish Hall), Strength, Summoning (cost 3 – Fisherfolk)

Misc: Stealth Modifier +1

Refresh Tokens: 5

Description: Eel is a huge broad-shouldered fisherman. He has been methodically gathering victims for the monthly sacrifice for over ten years, since he took over from the previous fisherman. He agonizes over every single one but knows in his heart that he’s helping the city he loves, even if it means a stranger had to die.

Amongst his possessions is a ring of keys that will open most locked doors in Fish Hall.

Clues

If no one is left alive to question:

  • The ring of keys Eel possesses will unlock many of the doors in Fish Hall. The fish image stamped into the metalwork is unmistakable, as it matches the guild’s symbol. (Core clue: Skullduggery)
  • Eel’s spirit (and the spirit of Eel’s partner) are stamped with the spiritual stink of rotting fish. There’s little or no room left for the goddess Denari in that spiritual space (Spirit Sight)
  • Eel’s back is covered with a homemade tattoo. It’s labeled “heroes of Eversink” and has 123 hashmarks on it. The last one is brand new, the next-to-last one looks about a month old, and so on. There is an old tradition that this is done when an executioner or a priest wishes to honor the memory of their sacrifices. (Laws & Traditions)

If Eel or his partner are left alive to question, Intimidation or another appropriate Social ability will reveal the following:

  • The Fishing Guild is also a church, but not to Denari. There is an ancient and primal small god who guarantees the guild a bountiful catch in exchange for a single sacrifice each month. Eel believes that a single death each month is worth guaranteeing food for a hundred thousand citizens. It’s regrettable, but he considers himself a hero. (Core clue)
  • Eel and his partner are loyal and willing servants. The high priestess of the small sorcerous cabal is Julliana Fishhall, the Guildmistress for over 40 years. She will do anything to keep or cover up this secret, because she thinks the city will starve if word gets out.
  • Eel doesn’t know for sure but assumes that the Triskadane knows about what happens in Fish Hall, and deliberately turns away their gaze. (Whether this is true is up to you, the GM)
  • Deep in the basements in Fish Hall is a throne that weeps seawater. The seat of the throne is made from the cornerstone of Eversink’s first bridge a thousand years ago. Victims’ viscera are placed on the throne during the new moon to be presented to the god. Doing so will guarantee that the corpse will drift away on the outgoing tide to be eaten by fish.

If Eel or his partner aren’t left alive, the Heroes can learn this information in Scene 5 from the guildmistress or one of her trusted confederates.

Scene 5: Resolution

It’s up to the Heroes how to handle this, and you’ll need to follow their lead. They could destroy the cabal and suffer consequences, join the conspiracy, or find some middle ground.

The following are likely possibilities:

  • They reach a point where they decide that Fish Hall is doing something good, and allow them to continue. If they do this, the guild will refrain from trying to have them killed and will reward them monetarily for their forbearance and silence.
  • They decide to expose the truth about Fish Hall without putting themselves in danger doing so. Church inquisitors, bolstered by the church militant and mercenaries, raid the guildhall several days later. The resulting scandal is quickly covered up, if possible. It’s up to you whether Julliana Fishhall and the Dripping Throne escape to continue their sacrifices. If they don’t, it’s up to you whether the rich fishing turns bad, or whether that was a lie all along and the sacrifices only fed a lying god.
  • They raid Fish Hall themselves, possibly calling for aid from their Allies when they do. Have fun with this! The fisherfolk in the building (use the Drunken Sailor and Obsessed Cultist adversaries) won’t be plentiful if the raid is done during the daytime when everyone is out fishing, but they’ll mount an impassioned but unprofessional defense. The Heroes will pass through a room of small clay funerary statues from almost every sacrificial victim over 70 years, and will encounter elderly Guildmistress Julliana Fishhall (use the Cruel Sorcerer stats and ocean/fish spheres), her entourage (use Sorcerous Apprentice stats), and the Dripping Throne deep in the sunken and flooded basements. Their god may have a fish-monstrosity there as a representative and guardian as well (re-skin the Chuggut swamp shaman as a hideous fish-thing). Follow advice in Chapter 8 on pacing and structure as you create encounters in Fish Hall, and throw in a water- or fishing-themed trap from Chapter 3 for extra fun. Just remember that you don’t need to map the building; instead, think through the three or four areas where the Heroes are likely to face opposition, and ask your players to help you describe only those spaces.

Conclusion

Heroic actions creating lasting change is what this game is about. What happens to Eversink’s fishing fleet and their previously remarkable success? Are the Heroes considered pariahs or saviours, especially in the eyes of the Church of Denari? The difficult decisions the players make in this adventure will affect their Heroes going forward; supporting characters met in this adventure can reappear in future adventures as well.


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.

 

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.

Sentinel

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.

Sorcerer

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.

Thief

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.

Warrior

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.

Sentinel

Sister Claris, Inquisitor of Denari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorcerer

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

Pretentious, amused, spoiled, covetous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thief

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

Friendly, inquisitive, helpful, polite, honest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allegiances: Ally: Commoners 2; Enemy: Triskadane 1

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

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

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

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

Warrior

Foyle, Professional Monster Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, to be published in 2020. Kevin previously helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.

 

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.

Fledgling

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.

Standard

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.

 

Sovereign

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, 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.

 

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.

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