by Kevin Kulp
Swords of the Serpentine is a swords and sorcery game that’s fundamentally about your actions changing the world around you. One of the ways it does that is by giving you tools to manipulate political factions in your fantasy city or world.
Politics in Fantasy Literature
Every fantasy setting has political factions, even if you don’t immediately think of them as such. Glen Cook’s The Black Company has factions such as the Dominator, the Taken, the Lady, Mercenaries, and the Circle of Eighteen. Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora has Thieves’ guilds, Nobles, Secret police, Commoners, the Grey King, and more. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series set in Ankh-Morpork has the City Guard, Nobles, Lord Vetinari, Dwarves, Trolls, the Assassins’ and Thieves’ Guilds, Unseen University (and the Wizards), various foreign countries, guilds, and even the witches.
Political factions are the movers and shakers who drive plot, and the heroes in these stories may be allied to them, neutral to them, or have them as deliberate and implacable enemies.
SotS works the same way, working from a list of 12 pre-defined political factions that can easily be customized to your own setting; they’re the less-iconic equivalent of 13 Age’s Icons. The game represents political factions as Investigative abilities, and your new Hero starts with two ranks in Allegiances (either both in the same ally, giving you a reputation, or one rank each in two different allies. You can increase this quantity with standard build points if you wish).
As a result, you can use your ranks in these Allegiances to gather information about their accumulated knowledge or political activities any time you’re on an adventure. If you play other GUMSHOE games you’re probably used to Investigative abilities to be tightly focused on What You Know; Allegiances instead cut across multiple Investigative Abilities, but only on a very specific topic.
You’re playing a Hero who’s an accomplished thief and con artist. You have 2 ranks of Allegiances, 1 in Outlanders and 1 in Sorcerous Cabals. During an adventure you can find out quite a bit about foreigners who wield influence in the city, or about the secret cults of sorcerers who carry out their vile plans right under the Inquisition’s nose. When you are looking for clues or leads, Outlanders or Sorcerous Cabals will get you the information you need.
For example, when on an adventure to con a prominent Mercanti Guildmaster, your Allegiance in Sorcerous Cabals might inform you that she has a membership in a Sorcerous Cabal – and thus is likely far more dangerous than she appears.
As Investigative abilities, however, you can also use your pool points in these factions to manipulate factions or to gain favors that aren’t related to leads or clues. This is how you demonstrate your political weight and set your political allies against your enemies.
You need that Mercanti Guildmaster to feel nervous and off-balance in order for your con to succeed. You spend your pool point in Sorcerous Cabals to call on a favor from your allies, and temporarily have the Guildmaster’s cabal accuse her of a false crime within their order. The accusation doesn’t have to be true, and it doesn’t have to stick for long, but when you approach the Guildmaster she’s going to be distracted and worried. Like with any Investigative ability, in this case you’re spending the pool point (instead of having it work automatically) because you’re gaining a special benefit instead of a lead or clue.
In addition to starting with 2 ranks of Allegiances, you start the game with 1 rank of Enemies. This can be in the same faction you have Allegiance ranks with, if you wish. That Investigative ability rank of Enemies will still gain you information, but the pool point gets spent by the GM (not you!) in order to thwart you or work against you.
Your enemies won’t come into play in every adventure, but Enemy ranks give a nice method for the GM to complicate your adventures. Enemy pool points might represent rival adventurers trying to thwart you, enemy factions throwing obstacles against you, or your informants passing you false information for their own purpose. Just as in any swords and sorcery adventure, you’re not always sure who to trust, and Enemies ranks gives the GM a tool to make that fun and effective.
You have 1 rank of Allegiance with Sorcerous Cabals, but you also have 1 Sorcerous Cabal rank of Enemies; you decide you have enemies in the city’s sorcerers who would just as soon see you dead for what your father did to them a generation ago. The GM secretly spends that Enemies pool point and declares that Cabal members are arriving to warn your mark, right in the midst of your con. Jerks. Now you and your fellow Heroes need to plan on the fly and find a way to deal with this interference, even as you’re trying to keep your mark on the hook.
Temporary Allies and Enemies
As you adventure, one form of reward you’ll receive is temporary pools of Allegiances and Enemies points. You can’t use these pools to investigate (they aren’t ranks), and when they’re gone they’re gone, but these points represent the temporary favor or hatred you acquire from factions you run up against.
Your con job against the Mercanti Guildmaster goes off gloriously, and you leave with a lot of Wealth and some very angry people trying to find you. You gain two Enemy pool points for the Mercanti, representing the Guilds’ fury at your interference, and one Allegiance point from the Church of Denari for exposing a hidden sorcerer at the head of a large guild. You can spend this temporary point when you need a favor from the Church; it calls in the favor you’re owed when you do so.
Over time your Heroes may acquire quite a bit of influence, as represented by these temporary pool points of Allegiances. Spending these points to maneuver your way to political power can be a really fun style of adventure when you decide it’s time for your adventurer to become a conqueror or king instead.
Customizing the System
Setting a game in your own unique city? Using the city of Eversink as an example, create between eight and twelve of your own factions for your game’s Heroes to ally with or oppose. This can be as detailed or as general as you want. If you’re focusing a game on rivals in a neighborhood turf war, you’re going to zoom in to less powerful and very specific factions. If you’re focusing the game on a world-spanning adventure with the Heroes traveling internationally, the factions are going to be city-states or nations. It isn’t until you settle in a location and get involved with local politics that you return to a standard level of more specific factions.
There are guidelines in the rules for swapping out factions when the Heroes travel, making sure the system stays useful even when you’re not currently near all the people who owe you favors.
As a designer, I love this system because it anchors the Heroes to the game world. It gives them a palpable way to change the world around them, and it ensures that they’ll start the game with someone already wanting to thwart them.
Go build your reputation.. just watch your back while you do!
Kevin Kulp is the Boston-based co-author of Swords of the Serpentine (to be published in 2019), 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.