by Kevin Kulp
Swords of the Serpentine is designed to be a swords and sorcery GUMSHOE game that you can set anywhere, including your own home setting. Thinking of Thieves’ World’s Sanctuary, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s Lankhmar, or Locke Lamora’s Camorr, however, Emily Dresner and I love the game most when it’s set in a big city. As detailed in the core rules, that city is Eversink. Built on dozens of linked islands in the delta of the River Serpentine, Eversink considers itself the center of commerce and civilization in the known world.
So, what three things are most important to know?
The Buildings are Always Sinking
…and no one knows why.
The city was founded almost a thousand years ago by refugees fleeing downriver, and since that time most buildings sink into the soil by about 8 centimeters a year (although iconic buildings sink much more slowly and unmemorable buildings sometimes sink more quickly). That works out to most buildings losing their bottom floor underground every fifty years. Some buildings sink slower than this, some sink faster, and rarely one drops several stories in a single afternoon, but just about every building eventually settles out of sight. No one knows why. The Church claims it is the Goddess Denari’s will, but theological scholars don’t necessarily believe that. Over the 40+ generations that Eversink has been settled, huge numbers of buildings have entirely vanished. They’re still down there somewhere, most of them. Know the undercity well enough, and maybe you can find their ruins.
The City and the Goddess are One
Except when she takes on human form once a year, the buildings and islands of Eversink are the body of the goddess Denari Herself. You literally live inside the Goddess. As the goddess of commerce and civilization, Denari blesses the trade that occurs within her borders. Every coin exchanged is a prayer, and every transaction a sacrament. Worship her with soft words in the honeyed darkness of a garden at a masquerade ball, whispered to a fetching stranger; worship her by outwitting a dullard who wouldn’t know the best place in the world to live if it invited him in.
The aura of her Blessing doesn’t reach everywhere, though, and it’s burned away by sorcerous corruption – enough careless sorcery could literally kill the Goddess. She’s not omnipotent or omniscient, and only knows what her faithful tell her through prayer. The Church claims that it’s Her Blessing that delivers prophecies, but that’s clearly not always true; small gods and ancient demons lurk everywhere, clamoring for their own power by creating faithful worshippers of their own.
Statues are Everywhere, because Statues Represent Souls
Burial in Eversink has always been a problem; you can’t bury your dead below ground when floods are commonplace, not unless you want coffins and corpses floating through flooded streets. Nowadays, the poor slide corpses into one of the swamps and the rich opt for air burial on stone plinths upriver. But what happens to the flesh isn’t nearly as important as what happens to the soul. As long as a memorial funerary statue is made for someone deceased, whether a tiny statue out of clay or a huge magnificent statue out of cast bronze, the departed’s soul is guaranteed a place in Denari’s heaven. If that statue is ever destroyed, either the soul disintegrates and ceases to exist – or it returns to the spirit world as a ghost. There’s a heretical theory that ghosts are actually Denari’s memories of the once-living, and that when priests walk through the spirit world they are literally walking through the memories of the Goddess. Regardless, funerary statues quell unquiet spirits and keep your living loved ones from being possessed by the dead.
This means that in Eversink, statues are everywhere. Hundreds of thousands of statues. They’re in canals, on roofs, filling homes and staring out from niches in walls. It’s illegal to destroy a funerary statue, because that could destroy a soul, so families put the statues of their dead anywhere they can find space. A surprising number of crimes in Eversink involve funerary statues.
Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, to be published in 2019. Kevin previously 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.