10 June 2023

Review: Swords of the Serpentine

tl:dr; the GUMSHOE investigative system for fantasy, with a swords-and-sorcery setting and lots of helpful onboarding and running assistance to get you going.

I got in my pre-order of Swords of the Serpentine, looking to get my hands on fantasy GUMSHOE, and started this review with the pdf before finishing it with the book in hand.

Cover art by Jerome Huguenin

The writer published a 'How to Read the Rules: a quick-start guide for Swords of the Serpentine' on Pelgrane Press website but I think your best bet for getting a quick handle on how it all fits together is to go straight to the appendices and read the summaries there. These give you the skeleton of the whole game and in nine pages you can get a grip on the whole thing. This is a chunky text at 380 pages and I bounced off trying to brute force my way through but when I came back and used the character creation quick reference (p11 or p363) with the How to Play 101 (p362) it fell into place much more easily.

So what is all this stuff you get in the book?
The Basics 1%
Your Hero 11%
The Rules 15%
Sorcery & Corruption 7%
Wealth & Lifestyle 2%
Gear, Both Sorcerous and Mundane 7%
Adversaries 12%
DM Advice 7%
Eversink 20%
World 4%
Intro adventure 9%

So what is in here chunk by chunk?

The Basics - sets out the stall for Swords of the Serpentine - adapting GUMSHOE to a fantasy game of investigation, heroism, sly politics and bloody savagery. We get a single page high level overview of GUMSHOE and two pages introducing Eversink, the setting city, through eighteen short scenes as a montage. Interestingly, there is explicitly called out support for online streaming.

In the Your Hero section, your characters key off some chosen Adjectives and your Profession (class) and everything else cascades out from those - you assign your points to Investigative Abilities, chose your allegiances and assign general build points, create the gear you carry that says who you are and wrap up with a name. I did this first with a non-magician to just set all those systems aside and it simplified things for me starting out.

The Rules opens with a great '101' which is exactly what I needed to read here. A single page to help me get a handle on what is this new system is very helpful to me, coming to it from a long time spent playing only D&D. System wise this is very different, with the foregrounding of investigation activities clear from the start. The split of attack actions - both health and morale can be targetted - and the way that successes can cascade effects to more than one foe give a distinctly different feel to the system. This one page summary flags all the major elements of the system; I may not know what they all are but I know what I should be looking for and roughly where it all fits into the grand scheme of things. Excellent stuff, onwards.

For those coming to Swords of the Serpentine from other GUMSHOE systems, the designers flag the major difference as being the ability to tap the investigation points pool to boost damage, with the stated intention of permitting more spectacular sword and sorcery style combat.

GUMSHOE works by having a player automatically succeed whenever they chose to activate the correct type of investigative ability in the right place - the key variable is the consequences of those actions. Getting your information through intimidation or blackmail will have different knock on impacts than deducing it through the forensic examination of the scene. Passive leads are obvious once anyone walks into the room, active leads or clues require stating the intent to look for them.

Each player has a pool of investigation points is spent down for effects, in combat or to move along the plot. Throughout the section there are sidebars guiding the DM and players towards how the system ought to work - suggesting players rationalize why their abilities give them the effect they want, suggesting DMs follow 'yes, and...' as a default to such creative solutions. The foregrounding of the Allegiances trait and the focus on action within the city of Eversink makes for a refreshingly different dynamic. A couple of pages elaborating chase / race mechanics also set the tone of the game.

Similarly the spend of general ability points and refresh tokens mechanic creates a good 'use or lose' atmosphere prompting extravagant effort in scenes. I would imagine this drives lots more 'all in, swash-buckling action' scenes than the 'guttering torches dungeon-crawl ethos' which is a nice steer from the mechanics to the type of game Swords should be. The design notes state out-right this is supposed to make the players the 'big damn heroes'. The system in general seems to make sense and there is a nice illustrative scene at the end of the chapter to tie it all together.

Sorcery & Corruption - sorcery is effectively the universal wrench in Swords of the Serpentine, where you can substitute it in for anything but it also cost corruption. How it looks and how it works is up to the player - if it is a task that an unopposed regular person could do, you can wave your hand and achieve it (float a drinks tray across the room) - if it is something another ability could achieve, you can test against your sorcery to achieve an effect, or you can flex your sorcerous spheres to get appropriate effects. All this is in your standard ability but you can also take on Corruption to get big effects.

Eventually you have to either internalise or externalise corruption - twisting the magic user or warping a location and/or terrifying your friends. As designed it feels like old-school sorcery lifted straight from the swords-and-sorcery inspirations - magic users are powerful and feared, because power requires drawing on dangerous sources.

Wealth & Lifestyle abstracts coins and goods to just 'wealth' which you can spend to maintain different levels of lifestyle but also convert into 'preparedness' representing bribes, bought research or other advantages that can make progress easier in game.

Gear gives us our basic page of rules like damage and weight followed by seven pages of mundane and alchemical gear with a focus on things likely to crop up during heists and sneaking around - poisons to keep someone home with gut distress while you impersonate them, disguises, powders to block tracking by dogs. We close out with ten pages of sorcerous items from grimoires to magical weapons to miscellenea.

In Adversaries we get supporting characters, companions, adversaries, monstrosities and mooks - mooks and supporting characters are basically 'fall to one blow' types either for or against the players, companions and adversaries are the named and more complex allies or foes and monstrosities are the big weird scary things. We get guidance on how to handle each of these classes of foes in fights, larger battles and at different points through the adventure. We get a long list of abilities for our baddies to use and sixteen pages of archetypal background characters to serve any of the roles above. Seventeen pages of monstrosities with their signature special abilities close out the section. The full stat block for a significant monster is simpler than most bestiaries with lots of the heavy lifting done by the few adjectives in the monstrosities descriptor - 'subtle, savage, superstitious' for one example. I like this 'mooks and heavy hitters' approach, with the 'Making mooks matter' sidebar giving some nice advice on making them interesting in later fights.

DM Advice opens with Safety During Play and then sweeping on through Setting the Tone, Players Help Build the World and discussions of the GM facing aspect of the mechanics like ajudicating investigative abilites and running fights. This is well thought out guidance on how does one run this system to get the type of game intended. We also get a bunch of options like removing combat, making heroes weaker or mightier and how to write and run the investigative type of adventures Swords of the Serpentine is intended for.

Eversink we get the largest single section of the book as the guide to the setting city, Eversink. Opening with a general outline of people, climate, architecture, etc we then dive into the districts and locations, all of which come with adventure hooks. To support the allegiances - allies and foes - of characters we have all the various factions outlined and then we get the workings of trade and threats, both internal and external. Together Eversink is an interesting city with lots going on and tons of hooks to mine for a campaign.

World gives us nine broad-strokes foreign nations to serve as background or to seed adventures, or to twiddle the dials of tone. If you want a Steampunk Swords of the Serpentine, try the Republic of Caym, if you want a nautical campaign, the Pirates of Min. Details are sparse but leaves lots of white space for DM's to DIY.

Intro adventure A Corpse Astray is pitched as gritty sword and sorcery investigation designed to introduce the core ruleset. There is a plot map on p335 that blocks out how it can all play out - and advice on the next page on how to expand it if this seems to linear. We open with a scene set up to allow a red-line test of combat options, then move into investigations, then on to the heart of the issue and the players have to figure out how to deal with it. There is a fair amount of staging advice and hand-holding with lists of the potential options and abilities that can be used and how to run those in the scenes. All told it serves well to demo the system, as befits what is essentially a system-tutorial.

To wrap up - through the whole book we get lots of guidance to help bring people into the GUMSHOE, Swords of the Serpentine style and get helpful 'how to play' sidebars on how to adapt play-style at the table to take best advantage of the system like recommending a note-taker for leads. From online surveys we hear a barrier to picking up new systems is learning new rule sets and these frequent guide-posts are very helpful. All in all this does what it says on the tin - you want GUMSHOE system for fantasy, here it is. A while back I reviewed Lorefinder, a guide to mod your Pathfinder campaign for GUMSHOE - I thought it was a great tool to have in the toolkit as a properly investigations focused system that snapped together with D&D combat systems. It is good to see a purpose built fantasy GUMSHOE system in Swords of the Serpentine, in particular with advice tailored to running it, adversaries that use the quirks of the system and a setting to show case it.

For other reviews see At the Sign of the Salient Hurcheon or Locked Room Gaming.

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