Kevin Kulp and Emily Dresner’s Swords of the Serpentine1 is a fantasy roleplaying game (RPG) set in
Venice Eversink, an entirely fictional secondary world fantasy city that is simultaneously a geological mystery, a thriving trade community, and the living embodiment of a goddess. Core mechanics are based on Robin Laws’ Gumshoe game engine. The game emulates the heroic fantasy of Howard, Leiber, Lackey, and Pratchett.
Let’s put the stuff I didn’t like up here (where people can forget it by the time they get to the purchase link).
The Gumshoe game engine has a simple core mechanic: one rolls a single six-sided die and applies modifiers, hoping to exceed a target. I don’t care for linear probability systems and I especially don’t care for ones whose range is as tiny as single six-sided die.
As is the custom these days, Swords is available both as a PDF and a physical book. The hardcover rulebook appears sturdy and well bound. It’s heavy, at 2.1 kilograms2. The PDF is similarly massive at over 400 MB, sufficiently huge that I haven’t downloaded it as I don’t care to invest that much computer memory in a single game3. Presumably this heft is due to the many illustrations, in particular the map of Eversink, which appears no less than three times.
The way-too-humongous PDF highlights another issue I had with the game. Due to my miserable eyesight, the combination of font size and glossy paper made the physical text hard for me to read. However, I couldn’t turn to the PDF because as previously stated, I didn’t download it. A text-only streamlined PDF would be a plus.
Full disclosure: as one might deduce from the fact that my name appears in the game’s list of playtesters, I took part in a very early playtest of this system. I don’t remember much about the playtest, except that life was hard for my sorcerer because one of the other playtest characters was an inquisitor whose job included keeping an eye out for sorcerers.
In fact, the nature of sorcery may be the detail that many table-top fantasy roleplayers (TTFPRGers) stumble over. All sorcery endangers the fabric of reality. The party sorcerer — and you know there will be at least one — trades short term utility (and sorcery can be very useful) for exceedingly unpleasant, long-term consequences (potentially leading to the death of the local god and her city). I can think of no real-world phenomenon that might have inspired this mechanic.
As one might expect from other Gumshoe games, the core mechanics are straightforward. The explanations are clear and there is ample commentary in the text. Novices shouldn’t have any trouble picking up the essentials from scratch. The default setting is Eversink and the regions adjacent to Eversink, but (unlike certain TTRPGs I could mention) it would not be hard to gently pry the essentials away from the setting to run some other sword-and-sorcery setting.
Would I play this? Yes. Would I run it? Given my issues reading the text, I am not sure that I could.
Swords of the Serpentine is available here (Pelgrane Press).
There is a very detailed, eight-page table of contents and a ten-page index.
Chapter One: The basics
A compact overview of the rules and the setting.
Chapter Two: Your hero
Our old friend, character generation. There are twelve steps (profession, drives, investigative abilities4, allegiances, general abilities, assign health and moral, assign health and morale thresholds, document corruption and sorcerous spheres if any, document five iconic pieces of gear the character has, assign one point of Grit (armour for morale), assign default starting wealth and repute of zero, and choose a name).
This may seem like a lot, but armed with the checklist it should be possible to tackle it all in well under an hour.
Professions, of which there are just four, may seem like character classes. However, one does not seem to be limited to choosing skills from just one, although there are bonuses for specializing. I note with some interest that one of the four professions (Sentinel) appears inherently not just law-abiding but law-enforcing. Anther profession (Warrior) is neutral, one leans criminal (Thief) and one appears to be irredeemably evil or at least very misguided (Sorcerer). I am certain that this will lead to interesting party dynamics because in our playtest, it did.
As far as I tell, team irredeemable evil is the one with healing skills.
In an interesting twist, the more players in a campaign, the fewer points they get to create characters. As one would expect, the number of abilities one could buy is far larger than one can afford5; to prevent decision paralysis, the rules allow one to shuffle points after the first session if one discovers design flaws in play.
Chapter Three: Rules
This covers a wide variety of game mechanics.
Chapter Four: Sorcery and corruption
All magic in this setting is both powerful and inherently toxic. There is no cunning way to avoid that, although sorcerers can choose between internalizing corruption (which will slowly alter their body in horrifying ways) or externalizing it (which will weaken reality, endanger the goddess of the city, or worse). To put it in universal terms, sorcerers are either Chernobyl’s Akimov or his boss Dyatlov.
(For players and GMs who want a magical choice that isn’t the mystical version of reactor waste, the game offers a less malign school of magic called Thaumaturgy, but that is an optional extra. In the base game, thaumaturgy does not exist and all magic is sorcery.)
Chapter Five: Wealth and lifestyle
How the game’s economics work.
Chapter Six: Gear, both sorcerous and mundane
Equipment of various sorts.
Chapter Seven: Adversaries
A long list of non-player characters that the Gamemaster can use.
This seems as good a place as any to observe that players want to avoid learning the names of their opponents, as nameless mooks are far more fragile than named characters. If I were an NPC, first thing I’d do would be to introduce myself to the characters.
Chapter Eight: GM advice
Chapter Nine: The city of Eversink
A detailed guide to Eversink, a waterlogged, subsiding trade center.
Chapter Ten: The world
A somewhat less detailed guide to the regions outside Eversink.
Chapter Eleven: Corpse astray
An introductory adventure.
What it says on the tin.
1: The copyright says that this game appeared in 2021 but I had prepaid for my copy in the summer 2020 but did not get my hands on the finished product until fall 2022. I would guess that covid-19 is to blame.
2: I am informed that the correct term, when discussing weights, is “scales,” not “food weighing machine.” It helps to have a food writer in the household.
3: Because I didn’t download the humongous PDF, I cannot cut and paste the credits.
4: ‘Investigative abilities’ is a misleading term for ‘skills,’ which odd naming I suspect is due to the game deriving from a detective RPG.
5: As is usual in RPGs, players have to choose whether they want to be very good at a few things, barely competent at many, or something in between.
I wonder if it would be cool to play a character who invests all of their points into two professional skills; Command (which inclines people to listen to you) and Trustworthy (which inclines people to trust you). This could work in hilarious ways for confidence scammers and/or self-deluded charismatic nincompoops. Ah, maybe make that three skills. Maybe add a bit of Nobility, which confers social rank….