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.