By Kevin Kulp
“Bookhounds of Eversink” (p. 28 of the Adventurer’s Edition) is a quick-start campaign setup for your Swords of the Serpentine game. The premise, which will be familiar to folks who have read or played in Pelgrane’s other Bookhound game Bookhounds of London, is that adventures focus on the acquisition or sale of rare, powerful, and obscure books. That works incredibly well in a Swords & Sorcery setting, with magical lore, hidden secrets, and political blackmail filling the books you hunt. Here are five different ways you might set up a SotS Bookhounds game in the SotS setting of Eversink, along with some sample plot hooks to get adventures started.
You work for a rare and exotic bookstore, one nestled in a back alley off a Temple Market canal that is only occasionally where patrons remember it to be. When people in the city need a book – really need a book that they can’t acquire any other way – they come to you. Whatever the risk, your team of thieves, sorcerers, warriors and highly observant sentinels have the knowledge and experience to track the text down and acquire it by legal or extralegal means. No wonder your prices are so high!
We love this campaign setup because it gives the heroes a reason to work together, you have highly episodic play (each client is an adventure), you can take ludicrous risks with a known payout at the end, and the GM can embroil you in any sort of politics she chooses by deciding who your clients are. Your patrons may be anyone from ancient nobility to small gods in human form, and your researches can take you anywhere within (or outside) the city.
- A church elder had a rare historical tome stolen from her while she was out drinking, and it’s turned up in the hands of a sorcerous cabal who intend to use it to open a sealed and sunken tower. She’s willing to pay everything she has if you’ll go retrieve it for her, before her mistake ends her career.
- An ambitious small god (nestled inside a human soul) concludes that the only reason it isn’t converting more followers is that its divine manifesto and holy text – “entertainingly written, and a real page-turner!” claims the spirit – is locked away in the forbidden church archives of Denari. You’re to procure it and pay to have scribes make a hundred copies. Let’s just hope that the Inquisition hasn’t had a prophetic vision that leads them to guard the tome more carefully than normal…
- An anonymous patron has you recover a small written pamphlet that gives specific instructions on how to successfully overturn the balance of power in the city – and somehow you know that it will work. The retrieval is laughably easy. Are you being set up? Well yes, of course you are. But why, and by whom?
You and your fellow Heroes are professors, students, and support staff at a university in Eversink, either Imperator University or one you and the GM create yourself. It might be a traditional school, a college of sorcery (echoing stories of Hogwarts or Sir Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University), or some other unusual institution. Your duties at the university require you to learn secrets and mysteries of Eversink, which means acquiring and securing exceptionally dangerous books of magic left over from an earlier age. You’ll track down and acquire ancient tomes while simultaneously navigating university politics, teaching classes, and funding your research.
We think this setup is huge amounts of fun because universities tend to be their own little oasis of oddity in a complex world. Early games will focus specifically on the university and who works or lives there, with further games expanding farther afield. As in Pratchett’s Discworld, you can play the fish-out-of-water aspect of contented university professors forced to leave their comfort zone on deadly adventures. You’ll find yourselves with a repository of grimoires that other bookhounds come to steal, and it’s up to you to heist these books back and to teach the thieves a lesson.
- An administrator requires you to retrieve a rare book from the restricted archives, a sentient speaking tome that takes umbrage at human interference. Can you capture it and defeat its plans to magically manipulate anyone who reads it?
- Several of the students seem to be drawn into a magical hivemind created by an ancient tome, and the book responsible is now loose within the city. It’s up to you and your associates to find and retrieve it before it causes irreparable harm.
- There’s only one acceptable textbook for an elite and important class, and that book only exists in one of three locations: a hostile noble’s private library, a sunken and haunted library beneath Ironcross, and in the memories of ghosts within the spirit realm. Where will you head first to try and retrieve it?
You are members of (or employed by) a noble family who wishes nothing but the rarest and most interesting books for their private collection. Nobles in this sort of campaign crave rare books for the social status they bring, not for the knowledge or secrets they contain; see the Dutch tulip mania of 1637 for a real-world example. Practically every single noble family is in a highly competitive scramble for rare or obscure tomes, and your team goes head to head against the acquisition teams of other nobles in tracking them down. Complicating your work are sorcerous cabals who crave works of power, Church inquisitors who declare certain works iniquitous or heretical (thus immediately tripling their value), and the thieves’ guilds who hope to steal books for resale. Your team is ostensibly loyal to a particular family from the Ancient Nobility who isn’t afraid to send you into sunken ruins, sorcerous troves, forbidden church archives, or forgotten libraries to find what they wish. It’s up to you whether you use these books to increase your own power in the process.
The joy of working for a noble family is that most ancient nobility simply don’t care what the books say, so once you get credit for retrieving them you can use information in such books for your own means. Acquiring books for a noble family means interacting with the (often repugnant) top rung of society, negotiating at glittering masquerade balls before sneaking into locked and treacherous archives, and having the social pull to make a lot of other people furious at you… or using that social prestige to undermine the very people who employ you.
- You’re sent on an easy retrieval for a centuries-old book of history and political theory — except the secret histories written within threaten to undermine all of Eversink’s social and political landscape. Now families and politicians will do anything to get their hands on the book, and it’s up to you to hide it or use its information wisely.
- Out of pure spite you acquire an old family diary of a rival noble family, and discover that they broke the law to establish their place in society. Do you bring down their entire family, or use the book as blackmail to acquire the rights to an even more interesting set of tomes?
- Five generations ago your family’s matriarch was falsely accused of being a sorceress. A sorcerous libram you recover turns out to be signed by her, and points the way towards her own hidden library, a sunken and sorcerous deathtrap filled with wonders and wealth that your family badly needs. Do you go after it, even if doing so might poison the family’s reputation?
It’s rumored that the Church of Denari holds the greatest library in the city. That’s quite possibly true; the silent vaults beneath the cathedral are vast and meandering, and there are archives that even some of the church’s own librarians have forgotten. Not the Inquisitors, however. They know every inch of the Restricted Vaults, and their specialized bookhounds comb the city for even more books of dangerous prophecy, power, and truth.
Bookhounds of Denari sometimes use Prophecy, beseeching the goddess to send them visions of where to find the volumes they require; more often they use research and a well-established network of informers. When books (heretical or otherwise) surface around the city, a specially formed group of scholars, sages, and adventurers prove to be most successful in retrieving them for the church’s archives. These teams must be ever-wary of their rivals, including sorcerous cabals, private collectors, additional church teams who compete for success, and other small gods. Luckily, the church can wield influence and authority that other factions may lack, and the Heroes can uproot heresy in the process.
We like church inquisitors as bookhounds because the church has more resources than any other group in Eversink, and that means the challenges can be commensurately more difficult or exciting. Inquisitors are in a tricky moral and ethical position, rooting out so-called heresy while trying to not let the hunt for corrupt sorcery turn you into a monster yourself; Heroes who work for the church have a chance to throw their weight around even, as they’re forced to make challenging decisions.
- An ancient record of heresy has surfaced, a scroll that claims that Denari is something she isn’t. Anyone who touches the cover of the scroll will instantly know that the contents are true. How do you handle your heretical knowledge, what do you do with the scroll, and what is to be done with the religious cult willing to die for ownership of the scroll?.
- A demon-summoning tome appears in the hands of a high priest’s daughter.. She is being treated as a prophet by those who meet her, and demons flit about her to do her bidding. You can’t kill her; how do you retrieve the book, and clean up the disaster it has left behind?
- A rare and much-desired religious tome has emerged after several centuries, except you’re sure that this is a trap set by one or more sorcerous cabals who want your group of inquisitors out of the way. Do you go after it anyways, knowing that the dark temple it’s kept in is bound to be one giant death-trap? Is there a way to distract or disarm the cults, giving you a chance to grab the book before they realize what you’re up to?
You’re a member of a hidden and powerful sorcerous cabal, a secret society who seeks power and knowledge inscribed in centuries past. As a bookhound you hunt very specific types of books, as determined by your mysterious superiors in the cabal: sorcerous grimoires, collections of true names, pathways to vast and ineffable power, and accounts of inhuman creatures who are waiting to reemerge when the stars and tides are right. (It’s also possible that you’re hunting superb cookbooks and blackmail material on your rival sorcerous cabals; it really depends on the goals of your organization. Eversink is a complex place.)
If you’re a bookhound for a sorcerous cabal, your life is full of danger and adventure. The inquisitors are hunting for you, monstrosities are attempting to negotiate pacts with you, random adventurers continue to plague you, and you’re sent after books in some of the most dangerous and inhospitable places in the city. Similarly, you may be forced to infiltrate government, the church, or high society to find what you want. Good thing you (or your colleagues) have powerful sorcery at your fingertips.
Sorcerous cabals make for fun bookhounds because you’re working against the church of Denari and the established power structure of Eversink. If you want to burn it down, burn it ALL down, this is an exciting way to undermine those in power and bring your own plans to fruition.
- A ridiculously wealthy Mercanti family has acquired ancient works of power from a lost ruin, and intends to display them in an ill-advised museum showing. You’ll be competing with nearly every other sorcerer in the city as to who can steal the books first. But is it a legitimate opportunity, or a trap laid by the church and the City Watch?
- A drunken barbarian and her adventuring parties of Outlander heroes have entered the city, foolishly bragging about the dangerously forbidden tomes they found in the swamp. The church intends to take possession of them later tonight. Can you get them first, and do so in a way that it isn’t you the barbarian then wants to kill?
- The Sculptors’ Guild has a book of power that they’re willing to trade to you, but only if you first steal for them the most beautifully carved funerary statue in the history of Eversink. The challenge here is that it resides in the well-protected home of a notoriously angry retired mercenary commander, everyone in the city knows the statue by sight, it weighs several tons, and you’ll want to pin the theft on someone else. The advantage is that the commander has a remarkable library that might also contain useful lost works. Can you pull this off without ruining your own life in the process?
Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, currently available for pre-order. 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.