First Impressions of “Swords of the Serpentine” RPG
by Emily Dresner and Kevin Kulp with Matthew Breen
On Monday 6th and Tuesday 7th Feb 2023, I played in a game of “Swords of the Bosphorous”, Martin Cookson’s (@mcookie123 on Twitter) “Swords of the Serpentine” game set in Byzantium in 1450, still the last remnant of the Roman Empire, a shadow of its former self, only three years before its fall in a great siege, but the characters don’t know that of course.
The characters were a random assortment of city folk, an Orthodox Priest, a wine merchant’s daughter, a captain of the city watch and the character I played, a city engineer. I am not going to discuss the scenario, because *spoilers* but what I thought of the game, I have wanted to try the game’s “Gumshoe” system since “Trail of Cthulhu” but i found that book physically hard to read, my eyes just counted cope, so firstly, “Swords of the Serpentine” is definitely easier on the eyes.
I still think it Swords of the Serpentine could do a better job of explaining itself, but that might be a feature of the simple, but separated system that is different to most others. I think, if it was me, I would have a truncated character with a couple of each of the features with explanations as a sample
At the heart, it has a skill system, but two kinds of skills, Investigative and General Abilities.
- Investigative Abilities. You have one of these, and you will, then you can just use them as part of your interactions with the world, eg, you know City’s Secrets, so you can find your way about the city and know some of the things strangers don’t. Need to get information by criminal means like blackmail or spying? Your Skulduggery skill will help you there. However they do do more for you, more on that later.
- General Abilities, your “normal” skills. Eg hitting people or sneaking about. You have a skill, you roll a d6, get 4 or over, you succeed. Sometimes it might be difficult, and you need A 5 or 6, but it is all a single d6 die roll.
However, straightforward as this seems, you can modify things. You have levels in both your Investigative Skills and Abilities, but these are expendable resources, like Power in RuneQuest, things you spend but can get back.
For a General Ability, e.g you want to increase your chance of Jumping from roof top to roof top, well, you have 6 points in Athletics, spend 2 of them, and you can add 2 points to the roll, and have 4 more points for later use.
The more points you start with a skill, the better you are at it. If you are an Expert in a General Ability, ie you start off with 8 or more, then you get a Talent, which gives a special advantage. E.g. If you have 8 or more points with Athletics, you can try to Dodge attacks that otherwise would have damaged you.
In attack Ability use, though GMs might use the idea for other abilities, can have “critical effects” if you do really well.
With Investigative Abilities, your options are broader. These are not just “I do this” but also “How do I do that” and you can use them to
- add to your success chance for your General Abilities
- increase the damage you deal
- reduce the damage you take or increase the amount you take
- influence others
- substitute for a skill you don’t have
Your character should, however. have a narrative reason how this works. In the jumping attempt above, a character might use their knowledge of City’s Secrets, to give a bonus to crossing the rooftops as the character knows of a gargoyle sticking out that they can use as a ramp, making the jump effectively shorter. Or, if they did not have the Athletics skill, then they could use that Secret to give it to them.
Allegiances and What is best in Life
There are also Allegiances, organisations characters owe fealty to, or enemies that might counteract them, that you can use with Investigative moves to gain information or things with that influence, and “What is Best in Life”, three things your character values that not only help you figure out who your character is but, once per adventure, you can use to gain a bonus for an Ability use.
To boost chances or use special features of Investigative Abilities, you need to spend points that the Abilities have, the same for the one per adventure use of Allies or What is Best in Life. Normally these only refresh per adventure, not per session, though a GM might allow that for a long multi-session adventure. However, succeeding at goals and defeating enemies can gain the characters refreshes, as can rest and carousing. Refreshes come from a communal refresh pool, so there might be negotiation (arguments) between the players about who needs it more, perhaps the merchant/thief who has only picked the one lock today needs it less than that Sorceror who saw off three angry mobs by themselves.
The last thing about the mechanics, instead of “Hit Points”, your character has “Health” but also “Morale” meaning that attacks are not just against the physical fabric of a target, but also their willingness to even be there, which can be hit by social abilities or foul sorcery. (All sorcery is foul in this world, even of used for good, it stems from Corruption).
Playing in the streets
So, how does it play? It is is light game that encourages players to narrate their actions, not just “I hit them with my hammer” but, when boosting with an Investigative Ability, to describe what is going on “I taunt them as I attack them ‘Last time I saw something like you it was rotting unloved at the bottom of a fish barrel’ and spend one of the points you have in the Taunt Investigative Ability.
In a chase sequence, my character boosted their chances with City’s Secrets and other Investigative Abilities, coming up with reasons why they applied help not only give some history to the character but also help shape the world. This idea that spending points with Investigative Abilities can have the player add details to the world, physically, culturally, legally, helps, I think, the player buy into the world, as it becomes part of the creation, rather than something that only exists to the extent that the GM describes it to them.
Having said that, we played in Byzantium, “Swords of the Serpentine” has its own, reasonably described, city, Eversink. The feel of that, from my totally casual read, is a combination of Renaissance Venice, Camorr from “Lies of Lock Lamora” and Dunwall or Karnaca from “Dishonoured”. There are many factions, someone in one world might have no contact with anyone in another but, then again, perhaps that priest has a secret vice that gives them contacts with disreputable merchants, so there is definitely scope for politics and intrigue in the noble courts, as well as those of monarchs of thieves or of the church, as well as thievery and violence. The set up looks like it supports a decent range of campaigns and adventures.
Swords and Sorcery
One of the goals of the authors was to be able to do “Sword and Sorcery” games. That it should, s well as the more social heist style of game emulating, say, “Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser”, that it could cope with “Conan” and his imitators. The world of Conan gets cited in a few examples, as does the definitely not Sword and Sorcery “The Hobbit”.
As far as Conan goes, there is more to Conan than the film version, fun though Arnie was. In the books he is intelligent, educated (the first film nodded to that), speaks many languages and is more athletic than powerlifter.
Obviously the “What is Best in Life?” rule is inspired by the quote from the film “Conan the Barbarian” though John Milius lifted that from a 1927 book about Genghis Khan, with the Great Khan asking that of an officer. The author, Harold Lamb, wrote for the pulps and Robert E. Howard enjoyed his stories, so it is all good, but, despite that nod, and examples to bring Conan in, I suspect you have to pick your Conan. Conan in the stewpots of Shadizar or the back alleys of Tarantia sure, running across on a quest such as in the film “Conan the Destroyer” or pirate raids wih Belît, not so much. However characters will probably find themselves facing seemingly impossible odds against foes without end to cut a bloody swath through, as the game is set up with glass cannon mooks to fill out the numbers.
Sociability and Sorcery
Hitting folks with big bits of something is not the only way to combat someone. There is a “Morale” score that can be affected by “Sway” attacks or by the use of Abilities that might cause opponents to think twice about attacking you, whether through fear or you grabbing their interest.
Sorcery I didn’t use, but saw a few uses. It seems to attack either Health or Morale meaning the the Sorcerer can choose what their vile manifestations get up to. Either their summon plague of ants nibbles you to death or they crawl all over your body giving you the heebie-jeebies.
I really liked that opposition was social as well as physical, meaning a fast talking but feeble thief might, by use of their voice, daunt as big a crowd as a more violent type might do with their blood dripping battle axe.
Eis ten polin!
While there is some scope to leave the city, my impression, based on far too little reading of the book or play, is that it is really intended for urban play in a sprawling metropolis, but a GM could introduce new Abilities and organisations to cope with those icky outdoors if required, though, given the way the rest of the game seems to work, involving the players into establishing their ties to the world beyond the walls might be fun.
That the city is seen as the main focus of the game is covered by a conceit of the description of Eversink, that those who are there think it is the best place in the world, despite its mysterious descents to the depths that means that a new storey is required each generation. This seems magical in nature as people lose that feeling when they leave, but regain it if they return.
However, this sinking city with his drowned and buried levels just shows you why you never need to leave, dungeon levels, like the buried parts of Edinburgh, Paris or the layers under the cities of Tekumel, are right in the city, no uncomfortable trips into the cold and wet wilderness when it is all on site.
The advice to GMs is concise, but seems useful and covers how to run the elements of investigation, adversaries, combat against superior numbers, customising it as to world and and how to tweak it to your preferred style. Want more experienced heroes in a work where vulgar fisticuffs doesn’t take place? Here is how…
There is a gazeteer for the world, nothing too in depth, and a sample adventure as well as earlier chapters about wealth, magic items and how to build your adversary.
I played this as a one off, so my experience is limited, but it was fun. There are simple, and seemingly appropriate rules for character growth, but obviously I have not experienced them, or how a campaign plays out. (Hint: I would love to play in a campaign of this) but it looks workable.
Although it took me a while for me to get my head around the system, once in it is very easy, though how to balance spending your points in play is probably a matter of experience, it was easier for us at the end of a set one off adventure to blow points to achieve things than a player who does not know how long this might go on for. Players and GMs will get there no doubt.
Despite what I said about finding it slight more tricky to find the nuts and bolts at the start, the book is chock full of advice, most of it brief but to the point, and I found the font much, much more readable than “Trail of Cthulhu”.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable smooth game (or at least the one game I was in was, obviously GM and players make a difference, but my experience was great) and it worked with a comparatively few number of characters, and the book even has advice for one GM and one player play.
The system is coherent and mostly unified, with little in the way of extra subsystems, so once you learn the basics, you learn the whole game. Which is very attractive for the point of one-shots or fitting in players, so that they can concentrate on the world rather than flipping through the pages looking for mechanics.
If urban fantasy with intrigue, factions and a variety of social settings where sorcerers are just tampering with evil forces and your off-work preferences can influence your success in adventuring in surprising ways is your thing, “Swords of the Serpentine” is a damn fine choice!