A Review of Swords of the Serpentine

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Fantasy gaming tends to bounce between two poles: fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter and gritty sword and sorcery stories like the Conan stories and The Grey Mouser series. Swords of the Serpentine, from designers Kevin Kulp and Emily Dresner, is on the sword and sorcery side of the river. It’s chosen an interesting system to use to tell its tales of rogues, sellswords and spellslingers. Gumshoe is more well known for solving cultist crimes and slaying vampires, but this game looks to expand the game into fantasy heists in an urban setting. Pelgrane Press sent me a copy to look over. Does the game crush its enemies, see them driven before the dice, and to hear the lamentation of the players? Let’s play to find out.

Swords of the Serpentine is set in Eversink, a fantasy city that’s a little bit Lankmar, a little bit Venice and a whole lot of corruption. It is protected by Denari, a goddess of civilization and commerce. Despite this divine protection, the city still slowly sinks into the swamp where it is built, leaving plenty of room for hidden chambers and forgotten secrets deep underground. Magic is outlawed, which means only the rich and the obsessed have access to it. The players are the types of troublemakers that can rub elbows with rich merchants one week while mucking through the monster infested sewers the next. The book does a good job of making the city feel like a character in the story. It hits the same level of detail as Duskvol in Blades In The Dark: hook-filled elements that inspire players and GMs to expand but not so detailed that it feels like you’re reading an encyclopedia entry or textbook.

Gumshoe was originally built as a pushback against some of the more challenging aspects of mystery games like Call of Cthulhu. Even later games like Night’s Black Agents and Timewatch have a focus on investigation. Swords of the Serpentine keeps the split between investigation and general skills, but it also feels like the first Gumshoe game where that split seems arbitrary. Investigative spends are specialized spotlight focus moments and that’s made pretty clear by the skill list in this game. Unusual skills, like talking to ghosts and hurling eldritch spells, are split between four very loose classes. I think a table comfortable with the genre or the system could do away with the classes and let their players pick what they want.

That’s not to say Gumshoe is a bad fit for the game. The designers have a firm grip on the genre they want to recreate and have bent the mechanics to fit. One of the last bits of character creation is to ask your character the famous question from Conan The Barbarian: “What is best in life?” Those three choices become your characters' starting drives and help set up their motivations in play. My favorite mechanical bit has players choose two allegiances and one enemy from the various power groups in the city of Eversink. These choices give players a range of NPCs they can call on to cover any areas where they don’t have skill while also defining who might wish them harm in the city. It’s a deft blending of the networking mechanic from Night’s Black Agents and the relationship mechanics of 13th Age that stitches the characters directly into the power plays of influential members of Eversink.

Combat is juiced up a little bit by running social combat at the same time as physical combat. Characters have Health and Morale scores and if either of them zero out, they go down. That allows for characters who aren’t well versed in combat a chance to taunt, trick and intimidate opponents and let players who enjoy duels of wits as much as blooded a chance to shine. Investigative spends can boost damage with a little bit of player justification. If your player has the Nobility talent, for example, your character might flash back to an important lesson taught to you by your expensive fencing teacher.

Despite being illegal (or, perhaps, because of it), sorcery is available to players who take the Corruption investigative ability. Sorcery is mostly a player-defined affair, where they choose whether their magic affects Health or Morale, how they learned the foul ability, and what spheres they know to flavor their magic. These spheres mostly work as special effects to allow players to define how a specific spell works. A sorcerer using Aging to inflict damage will look different to someone using Luck, for example. I can see how an Ars Magica or Mage: The Ascension style Gumshoe game could be built on this foundation.

Magic also offers players a hard choice to offset their cool powers. It always causes additional corruption, hence why it's banished by the city. When a player spends Corruption, which they can do to enhance spell effects, they choose whether that corruption is internalized or externalized. Internalized corruption affects the character and gives them the kind of mutated appearance one might expect from wizards of this genre. Success means the change is small and able to be hidden, but eventually, those warts and witch’s nipples can add up and be discovered by observant members of society. Failed internalization means it’s something big like a forked tongue or demonic tattoo, depending on the origin of the magic. Sorcerers who externalize their corruption make it obvious to everyone that magic happened here which can do everything from cause morale damage to allies who are reminded of your terrible powers to leave a rift in reality that will draw the attention of the Church of Denari’s Inquisition who don’t take that sort of thing lightly, These elements give magic an interesting flavor beyond spell lists and offer intriguing choices at character creation as well as in the moment.

If you’re looking for an urban fantasy game that feels grimy and morally flexible without wanting to play an rpg where low level characters are in danger from dying from a bad plan, Swords of the Serpentine will fit your bill.
 

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Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland

Mezuka

Hero
Want a physical copy badly. Shipping to Canada is crippling. I'll have to wait for local stores to get it, in September from what I can gather.
 

SAVeira

Explorer
Want a physical copy badly. Shipping to Canada is crippling. I'll have to wait for local stores to get it, in September from what I can gather.
Tell me about. I only purchase now if I get the PDF free and the cost of shipping is less than what the PDF would cost. So glad Chaosium has warehouses in Canada so shipping cost are reasonable. Wish more companies could do that.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
The cost of Canadian shipping on my preorder was (relatively) low key. I might have a different comparative framework though, I live on Baffin Island. :D This game is amazing btw, I'd recommend it to anyone.
 

Mezuka

Hero
The cost of Canadian shipping on my preorder was (relatively) low key. I might have a different comparative framework though, I live on Baffin Island. :D This game is amazing btw, I'd recommend it to anyone.
How much did you pay for shipping? When I check their website, they are charging me $21 US shipping on a $60 US book.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
How much did you pay for shipping? When I check their website, they are charging me $21 shipping on a $60 book.
About $18, and I think Baffin is about as expensive as shipping gets in Canada. Might be cheaper because of the preoder, IDK... That seems very reasonable to me given what I pay to get some things shipped up though.
 




Seule

Explorer
We played a demo a few years ago now and I'm very glad that there are 4 classes. We only had 3 (IIRC) so one of the four characters seemed extraneous.
It was great fun. For us at least it was very Lankhmar.
 


Piratecat

Sesquipedalian
The classes aren't really classes. You can mix and match skills freely during char gen. There's a small bonus for taking skills from just one list, but that's it.
That’s definitely by design. Creating Professions helps encourage classic adventurer templates and reduces analysis paralysis, but I wanted it to feel more like a suggestion than a requirement. I like the final result!
 

Taralan

Explorer
I just finished a first reading of the book and am confused about when to use one of the social investigate skills to convince an NPC to collaborate, help etc, or when to use a sway maneuver to achieve the same result.

It seems both could work but when are we supposed to use each system ?
 

Von Ether

Legend
I just finished a first reading of the book and am confused about when to use one of the social investigate skills to convince an NPC to collaborate, help etc, or when to use a sway maneuver to achieve the same result.

It seems both could work but when are we supposed to use each system ?
Depends whether you want to do Morale damage or not.

Using a social skill to manipulate or negotiate. Use Sway when you wan to break someone down to the point they want to retreat.
 

Taralan

Explorer
Depends whether you want to do Morale damage or not.

Using a social skill to manipulate or negotiate. Use Sway when you wan to break someone down to the point they want to retreat.
That is what I thought at first, but sway attacks also come with maneuvers where the NPC gets to choose whether to do what you want OR take morale damage. And exemple is given for having nooks leave you alone for a fight with their boss for example.

So it seems a sway Roll can certainly be used to convince NOCs to leave for example, without reducing their morale to zero.

But it also seems the same can be done with a use of the social skills like intimidation. Maybe the difference is just that one is automatic and the other needs a roll ?
 

Piratecat

Sesquipedalian
I just finished a first reading of the book and am confused about when to use one of the social investigate skills to convince an NPC to collaborate, help etc, or when to use a sway maneuver to achieve the same result.

It seems both could work but when are we supposed to use each system ?
Hey, co-author here! Social investigative abilities always work to get clues and leads -- no spend or die-rolling needed. So if you ask the NPC to collaborate and that's what makes sense to get you deeper into the adventure, woo hoo. You're all set.

Investigative spends are meant to get you a special advantage. If you want someone to really go out of your way for you, or to do you a legit favor and stay loyal to you (or at least not betray you!), that's probably an Investigative spend. I think of them as a big deal and worthy of time spent focused on your Hero.

Sway Maneuvers were born when we realized there was no real mechanical way to threaten someone or get a NPC to help you for minor things. Sure, you could spend an Investigative point, but what about when that feels like overkill? A Sway Maneuver (which for unnamed Supporting characters is functionally the same thing as a Sway attack) is the right choice there. It has a chance of failing, as befits something more minor.

Happy to provide examples if that's useful.
 

Taralan

Explorer
Hey, co-author here! Social investigative abilities always work to get clues and leads -- no spend or die-rolling needed. So if you ask the NPC to collaborate and that's what makes sense to get you deeper into the adventure, woo hoo. You're all set.

Investigative spends are meant to get you a special advantage. If you want someone to really go out of your way for you, or to do you a legit favor and stay loyal to you (or at least not betray you!), that's probably an Investigative spend. I think of them as a big deal and worthy of time spent focused on your Hero.

Sway Maneuvers were born when we realized there was no real mechanical way to threaten someone or get a NPC to help you for minor things. Sure, you could spend an Investigative point, but what about when that feels like overkill? A Sway Maneuver (which for unnamed Supporting characters is functionally the same thing as a Sway attack) is the right choice there. It has a chance of failing, as befits something more minor.

Happy to provide examples if that's useful.
Thanks! I think I get it, but a few examples would certainly be useful.

If that is the case, than I suppose it’s not worth spending an investigate point to get a +3 on the sway maneuver roll, as you would likely have gotten the same result just spending the investigate point in the first place right ?

BTW the game seems to have some great innovations, some of which it seems may be ported easily to other games (For example the overland travel montage rule).
 

Piratecat

Sesquipedalian
Thanks! I think I get it, but a few examples would certainly be useful.

If that is the case, than I suppose it’s not worth spending an investigate point to get a +3 on the sway maneuver roll, as you would likely have gotten the same result just spending the investigate point in the first place right ?

BTW the game seems to have some great innovations, some of which it seems may be ported easily to other games (For example the overland travel montage rule).
I find it's worth it under some very specific circumstances:

1. I'm out of Sway points and I want to succeed (such as if my team members gave me their damage via Teamwork, and it's all wasted if I don't hit)
2. I really want to make sure this Maneuver is likely to succeed!

The latter is most common. If I'm shoving someone off a cliff, or trying to turn them into a chicken with sorcery, it may well be in my best interest to spend Investigative points to boost the result. Convincing the GM "I grew up on a humble farm and I KNOW chickens, so I'd like to spend my 2 Servility to add +6 to my Sorcery Maneuver roll" probably means the difference between success and failure there.

I like Maneuvers because even if they fail, the target takes almost as much damage as they would with a normal attack. It makes trying cool stuff a viable option, which of course is what's fun.
 

Just my opinion, but I think LotR has far more in common with Conan than it does with Harry Potter. That's a very strange categorization to me.
Temporally, the Conan stories were written in the 1930s, LOTR in the 1940s, and Harry Potter in the 1990s-2000s, so the worldviews of Tolkien and Howard are going to be a lot closer to each other than either is to Rowling.

I'd argue LOTR and HP both have an overarching narrative and good vs evil dichotomy that Conan clearly lacks. HP isn't really high fantasy (there's a secondary world but it's tacked-on to the real one, I think this used to be called 'wainscot fantasy') but rather its own genre at this point, the modern fantasy school story.
 

Taralan

Explorer
I find it's worth it under some very specific circumstances:

1. I'm out of Sway points and I want to succeed (such as if my team members gave me their damage via Teamwork, and it's all wasted if I don't hit)
2. I really want to make sure this Maneuver is likely to succeed!

The latter is most common. If I'm shoving someone off a cliff, or trying to turn them into a chicken with sorcery, it may well be in my best interest to spend Investigative points to boost the result. Convincing the GM "I grew up on a humble farm and I KNOW chickens, so I'd like to spend my 2 Servility to add +6 to my Sorcery Maneuver roll" probably means the difference between success and failure there.

I like Maneuvers because even if they fail, the target takes almost as much damage as they would with a normal attack. It makes trying cool stuff a viable option, which of course is what's fun.

Yes I see how it could be worth it in these circumstances.

Conversely, I suppose if I wanted to gain a final victory against the main enemy say by intimidating her to surrender or charming her to become an ally, would you allow this to succeed automatically by the mere spending of investigative skill, or would you use a sway maneuver to introduce a chance of failure ?

i think I would go with the second, but am not sure what the intent of the game is.
 

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