By Kevin Kulp
Along with political manipulation and potent social abilities, Swords of the Serpentine has four primary professions for your Hero: Warrior, Thief, Sentinel (think “city guard or inquisitor”), and Sorcerer. Let’s talk about that last one. If you’re wondering how you can rip a stone tower in two with a wave of your hand, or turn your defeated enemies inside-out just to horrify your remaining foes, read on.
Sorcery is Never “Nice”
“Sorcery is rare and dangerous, and seldom can be trusted. Sorcery corrupts and has a cost. Its rules and origins are little-known.” – A Swords of the Serpentine design mantra
Unless the GM decides otherwise, this game’s Sorcery (as in most swords and sorcery novels) is dark and dangerous. We wanted something that had bite to it, that was tremendously flexible (just as classic fantasy sorcery can be), that maintained a sense of wonder, and that relied heavily on player creativity and imagination. That said, I didn’t want rules that required their own sub-system. So how the heck do you allow for powerful magic that remains balanced with other GUMSHOE abilities?
The answer lies in both game mechanics and narrative fiction.
Mechanically we pull this off with a General ability (Sorcery) and an Investigative ability (Corruption). You’ll use Sorcery like any other General ability; this is what you attack with, and a rank of 8 or more means that your attacks might affect more than one foe when you attack. In combat you’ll be spending Sorcery points to hurt your enemies, and then you’ll describe what those attacks look like by taking inspiration from your Spheres (see below).
Your Sorcerer has the Plant sphere. You attack a mercenary using the General ability Sorcery, successfully hit, and roll 5 points of damage (a number you could, but choose not to, increase at a cost). You describe how the vegetables this mercenary ate for lunch sprout in their stomach and send vines up their windpipe to choke them. You did enough damage to defeat them, so you describe how their corpse falls and quickly erupts into sessile vines. You leave it behind you as you head deeper into your enemy’s mansion.
The power of your Sorcerous potential is measured by your Corruption rank. Corruption is an Investigative ability, and the more ranks of Corruption you have the greater your potential for remaking the world around you. You can spend Corruption to do extra damage, or to create an effect that can’t be explained any other way. Stopping time, melting walls, flying – if the effect falls within your Spheres, you can spend Corruption (with the appropriate risks) and describe what happens on the spot. No spell preparation required. Of course, Investigative pool points like Corruption don’t refresh until the end of an adventure, so you’ll only be able to cast such powerful spells when it really counts.
You stand in a small city park and draw upon your Corruption points. You’re a plant Sorcerer, so you tell the GM that you’re animating every tree in the park and sending them to rip apart the front of the assassin’s guild stone by stone. You spend 2 points of Corruption (about right for a spell of this power that’s just meant to flush out your enemy in an incredibly showy way), psychically polluting the world around you as you do, and then follow the many trees down the street as you wait to pick off your fleeing foe.
A Hero with only 1 rank of Corruption but a high Sorcery rank has an excellent grasp of sorcerous dueling technique, but not much raw power. A Sorcerer with a high Corruption rank but not many points in sorcery can create incredible world-altering effects, but isn’t at all trained in combat. A Sorcerer skilled in both areas is one others probably find terrifying.
Your ability as a Sorcerer probably came from one of two sources. Did you encounter the ancient writings of the Serpentine folk, long-dead snake people who dwelled here thousands of years before humans arrived? If so, squirming writing leapt off a tablet and into your mind, where it coils and writhes and demands to be cast. If you’re a fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, this might be comparable to how Rincewind learned the impossibly powerful spells that he was in no way prepared to cast.
Or perhaps you made a deal with a small god or paid obeisance at a long-banished demon’s forgotten stone altar deep in the swamp. Now that unique entity has literally taken up residence within your soul, and in return for fear or prayer or respect, it grants you the ability to perform impossible magics. If you squint a little, Elric of Melnibone’s black soul-devouring sword Stormbringer could be compared to such a demon, granting Elric strength and power in exchange for victims.
— o —
As I mentioned on social media recently, the only reason small gods and demons got included in the first place is so I had something snarky to roleplay in a voice only that player could hear.
Sorcerer player, to NPC: “Thanks, it’s been…”
Kevin, in a rising growl, RPing sorcerer’s demon: “Kill him! Flay him alive and dedicate his death to me, and I will promise you such delights as you can not conceive!”
Player: “…really nice to meet you. Shut up shut up shut up!”
NPC: “Wait, what, sorry?”
— o —
Either way, now you have access to Sorcery. Your Sorcery affects either a victim’s Health (it physically hurts people) or their Morale (it terrifies or mentally exhausts them), decided when you create your Hero. You’ll have one or more Sorcerous Spheres: themes you can make up that affect what your Sorcery looks like and what it’s capable of. Everything you do involving Sorcery needs to be described by you as fitting within those Spheres.
For instance, let’s take inspiration from the classic Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser short story “Ill-Met in Lankhmar” by Fritz Lieber. You decide you want to play a Sorcerer similar to Hristimilo, allied to the thieves’ guild, and you choose to have your Sorcery affects Health. With 2 ranks of Corruption (see below), you claim the Rat and Smoke spheres. Every bit of magic you do needs to be described as involving rats or black, clinging city fogs; you might describe your attacks as your enemies being gnawed on by a host of vermin, or black smoke wreathed into a strangler’s noose around your enemy’s neck. You’re inflicting the same amount of damage with your attack either way, but how you describe it is all about style.
And frankly, that’s important. Swords of the Serpentine’s rules dictate how much damage your attack does, and then you describe that attack however you want. We want Sorcery to feel unique and mysterious, different from person to person. Allowing players to define their own Sorcery’s nature helps.
You can use Sorcery (no roll required!) to describe anything you could do normally – the sorcerer above could use rats or foul black vapors to fling a door shut, since he or she could just as easily get up and close it the old-fashioned way – and you can attack with it safely. If you’re trying to find a lead or a clue related to Sorcery, you’ll never even need to roll or spend points for that. You only put yourself or others at risk when you want to create rules-breaking effects that couldn’t be created in the game any other way. You’ll create these more powerful effects by spending Corruption Investigative pool points (again, see below), and the results can be remarkable. If you had the Stone sphere, for instance, you could spend 3 or so Corruption points to literally rip a stone building in half.. handy when you’re bad at picking locks. But you won’t be creating fire, because that doesn’t have anything to do with stone.
There’s a cost to powerful magic. As we said, Sorcery is never a nice thing. The power is channeled from a corrupt, unnatural reality that sickens and distorts the area around it. When casting powerful spells and creating Corruption, it’s always your choice as to whether you pollute the area around you (hurting your allies’ Morale and creating spiritual pollution) or channel the Corruption into your own body (changing something small about your appearance). If you’ve ever wondered why swords & sorcery sorcerers wear cloaks and sometimes have unnatural appearances, like Ningauble of the Seven Eyes outside of Lankhmar, this would be why.
If you like the idea of Sorcery but hate the idea of Corruption, look at the Witchery variant. This allows you access to the spheres of Alchemy, Poison, Disease, Mesmerism, and the like without any risk of Corruption. There are other rules if you want to get fancy: true names you’ll bargain with unnatural entities for, death curses, and sorcerous items. At its heart, though, Sorcery allows you to create unique effects you can’t get any way else. Just remember that you’re going to have to pay the price in Corruption.
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.