The Iconic Hero: Fantasy Classics in Swords of the Serpentine

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.

 

3 Responses to “The Iconic Hero: Fantasy Classics in Swords of the Serpentine”

  1. SunlessNick says:

    I’m interested to see that Ridiculous Luck is an investigative ability. Can we gather from that that it has a “spot an opportunity” slant rather than a “things happen to go your way” one?

    • Kevin Kulp says:

      I love Ridiculous Luck because it (like Prophecy) makes for a nice “wild card” ability. If the heroes miss everything else, a fortuitous event can alert you to a lead — and you can bump into useful people without it feeling strained. I have a caution in the book about why you don’t want to rely ONLY on Ridiculous Luck, but playing a lucky character is flat-out fun.

      You can also spend points of ridiculous luck to create fortuitous events. Have you just been flung off a building with a Maneuver? Spend a point and you’ll land safely (more or less!) or grab a handhold at the last second. Do you need to sneak into a place? Spend a point so that the guard is someone who owes you a favor. You can use these spends to help establish narrative control at a time when it directly benefits you.

      And hey, when you have Ridiculous Luck, you can just describe everything you successfully do as being incredibly lucky. It’s fun – a guest player’s Hero in my playtest game who had Ridiculous Luck 5 was the most popular guest star we’ve had.

  2. Derek Johnston says:

    And my immediate thought is: Highlander. So is this jumping back-and-forth in a character’s life expanded in the rulebook, or is it this extra exciting prompt here? (Rulebook just bought, not had time to look at it yet!)

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