by Kevin Kulp
Pelgrane Press’s upcoming fantasy GUMSHOE game, Swords of the Serpentine, has any number of ways to be a hero.
Investigative abilities define the knowledge and abilities you use to gather leads and clues while adventuring. Swords of the Serpentine has shared General and Investigative abilities that are available to any Hero, but your character’s specialty is defined by their unique Class Investigative abilities.
The scale for Investigative abilities looks like this:
- Rank 0 in an Investigative ability means you cannot use it to gather leads
- Rank 1 in the ability makes you proficient at it
- Rank 2 makes you an expert
- Rank 3 indicates remarkable knowledge or talent
- Rank 4 suggests you’re one of the best in the city
- Rank 5 indicates you are one of the best in that ability that most people will ever meet
There are four loose classes: Sentinel, Sorcerer, Thief, and Warrior. Each class has four unique Investigative abilities each, and your choices here define what your Hero can do. Here’s what they look like.
As a Sentinel you may be a Church Inquisitor, a member of the City Watch, an informer for Eversink’s secret police, a scout for smugglers, or an inspector for the Mercanti. You typically have an eye for detail, an exhaustive knowledge of rules and regulations, and a keen sense for criminal activity (whether you encourage it or try to stop it!). Some Sentinels can sense ghosts and see into the spirit realm that overlays the true world.
Felonious Intent: you can spot warning signs of crime and criminal behavior
Laws & Traditions: you know the (often obscure) laws and traditions of wherever you live
Spirit Sight: you can see into the spirit realm, and may sense ghosts or Corruption
Vigilance: you notice tiny details others might miss, making you seldom surprised
Sorcery may take a hundred different forms, but tapping into your true power is dangerous to your allies and deadly to Eversink’s patron goddess. Powerful sorcery causes Corruption, and Corruption is illegal in Eversink. If you wish to avoid persecution, you may have to limit your power or keep your skills secret. There’s no “good” magic when it comes to Sorcery; whether true power stems from the writings of the ancient and inhuman snake-people or as a gift from forgotten demons, the source of all sorcery is foul and corrupt.
It’s in your best interest to use your skills subtly or be so powerful and politically connected that few dare challenge you. As a Sorcerer you may know rare and hidden secrets, know how to heal the sick (or how to kill more quickly), be able to prophesize the future, and know the corrupt keys to sorcerous power.
Corruption: you can tap into the foul source of Sorcery for knowledge and power
Forgotten Lore: you know facts, legends, and trivia others have long forgotten
Leechcraft: you can diagnose ailments and know how to cause or heal diseases, injuries and poison
Prophecy: you can prophesize secrets from the past, present or future
You specialize in secrets. Thieves may attack with word or blade, and they’re equally treacherous with either. You probably know the alleys and canals of Eversink better than anyone else. You may be incredibly lucky, you’re likely skilled at gathering information through illegal means, and you are tied into the web of gossip and scurrilous rumor that circulates throughout the city.
City’s Secrets: you know the back streets and hidden truths of cities
Ridiculous Luck: you’re far luckier than most people, and stumble on clues others might miss
Scurrilous Rumors: bribery, gossip, and whispered secrets help you learn what others might have done
Skullduggery: you can find out hidden information through blackmail, spying, shadowing, and other reprehensible methods
You’re an expert at the art of warfare. As a Warrior you primarily make your way through the world by force of arms, whether you’re a duelist, a brute, a mercenary, or a foreign barbarian. You are likely skilled at surviving in the wilderness, battling monsters, spotting your foe’s weaknesses, and understanding deadly battle tactics.
Know Monstrosities: you know legends or secrets about non-human creatures, including their tactics and motivations
Spot Frailty: you notice and exploit weaknesses in armor, objects, and structures; and you might even see weakness in peoples’ personalities, allowing you to manipulate them emotionally
Tactics of Death: you can read fight scenes and understand military tactics
Wilderness Mastery: you can navigate, survive, and even thrive outside of cities
For a small price you can match abilities from different classes to end up with exactly the Hero you want. There’s a balance between raw power, influence, and flexibility.
- If you spread your Build points out between lots of abilities (including your Class abilities, Shared abilities, and Allegiances, things we’ll talk about in the coming months), not putting more than 1 or 2 points into any one ability, you’ll gain tremendous flexibility. In exchange you limit how much damage you can do in any one attack, and you probably aren’t renowned for being astonishing at any one thing.
- If you focus your Build points into just a few abilities, each with more ranks, you’ll gain quite a bit of power in that area and be able to inflict some considerable extra damage in a fight. You’ll also develop something of a reputation. In exchange, you’re going to lack flexibility while adventuring.
It’s the classic tradeoff with specialization: is it more fun to be really good at fewer things, or solid at a lot of things? Your answer to that will change from Hero to Hero. Both approaches have advantages; in one playtest adventure, a player put 5 ranks into a single ability and immediately established herself as a legendary expert in that area. That creates its own source of adventuring plot hooks! In actual play, we see a mixture of these approaches from different players, and the resulting balance works well.
There’s one other feature that balances flexibility and power:
- If all your Class abilities start with the SAME class, you’ll lack flexibility but gain an extra Build point.
- If you select Class abilities from more than one Class, you’ll have flexibility others will lack, but you’ll be a little bit less powerful.
In practice, this means that you’ll have a mechanical encouragement to really be a Warrior, or a Thief, or what have you, just like in many Swords & Sorcery novels. If you spread your points out to really customize your Hero, like the Gray Mouser or a young Conan (a mix of Warrior and Thief abilities), you’ll get the Hero you want and just miss out on the bonus Build point.
None of the Above
Interestingly, a perfectly viable character might be one with no (or almost no) Class abilities at all. We haven’t talked about Shared abilities (your social skills) or Allegiances yet, but if you want a Hero who’s tremendously well-connected and socially adept, you might not be focusing on the Classes at all. That will get you a Hero who’s astonishing at moving through Eversink’s society, even if they aren’t inflicting a lot of damage in anything but social combat.
Okay, that’s the basics of the Class system. Next up we’ll look at Shared abilities, Allegiances, and how you use them to shape the Hero you really want. We’ll also look at what happens when you spend these Investigative pool points – because that’s where the game’s true magic lies.
Kevin Kulp is the Boston-based co-author of Swords of the Serpentine, and formerly helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.