How to Read the Rules: a quick-start guide for Swords of the Serpentine

By Kevin Kulp

Swords of the Serpentine (abbreviated SotS, or #SerpentineRPG) is Pelgrane Press’s new GUMSHOE sword & sorcery game by Emily Dresner and Kevin Kulp. It features morale-based social combat, a freeform sorcery system, cinematic combat, a canal-strewn setting that echoes classic fantasy cities like Lankhmar and Ankh-Morpork, and an Allegiance system that let your heroes manipulate local politics. It’s available in PDF right now for people who pre-ordered it, and the color hardback is heading off to the printers.

If you pre-ordered, you’ve been patiently waiting – SO patiently! – and the PDF of Swords of the Serpentine is now waiting for you on your Pelgrane Bookshelf. You might not be a person who reads a game book through cover to cover. So where do you start? This article will give you a quick idea of what to look at, look for, and appreciate as you jump around the text.

As the co-author, here’s how I’d spend my first look.

Chapter 1: The Basics. These few pages will tell you if you’ll like the game’s rules and setting, so it’s a great place to start. Pay special attention to designer sidebars throughout the book; we added the logic behind our design decisions in these, and they’re a fun read. If you decide to change a rule, these will help you make an informed decision.

Chapter 2: Your Hero. If you’re a player, this chapter is for you. We have a step by step flowchart of how to create a hero and where to look for each rule. Your abilities help define your hero, so give the Investigative and General abilities a skim; you don’t need to read them exhaustively just yet. Want to save time? The back of this chapter has a whole slew of fantasy archetypes that are completely playable; grab one, and change it to fit what you want in your hero.

Chapter 3: Rules. The first half of this chapter is a must for the GM, and a little less important for a player. SotS handles combat and Investigative abilities a little differently than other GUMSHOE games do, so you’ll want to make sure you’ve read how that works. If you’re short on time, read or skim up to page 84 (where Morale ends), and skip for now the sections on Hazards and Traps. GMs, jump back in at page 97 to see how Refreshes and Character Growth work.

Chapter 4: Sorcery and Corruption. GMing, or playing a sorcerer? Read up to Advanced Sorcery (p. 120) and quickly skim the rest. Not immediately planning on playing a sorcerer? Give this chapter a miss for now.

Chapter 5: Wealth and Lifestyle. You can skip this chapter if you’re running a one-shot game, although the list of Eversink’s currency makes us laugh every time. If you plan to run more than one game, this short chapter is worth the read. We’re doing some interesting things with how the loot that heroes spend affects their Repute in a meaningful, game-mechanical way, and that integrates into campaign-style play.

Chapter 6: Gear, Both Wondrous and Mundane. Other than checking Mundane items to see how armor, shields, and weapons work, save this chapter for your second pass. There’s a lot of fun items in here, but not many new concepts, so you can use it as reference instead.

Chapter 7: Adversaries. This chapter is way more important for the GM, who should read the first half (up until the list of Special Abilities) and skim the rest, coming back to use it as reference later. Players can safely skip this chapter entirely for now.

Chapter 8: GM Advice. This is vitally important for GMs, and pretty darn useful for players as well, because it shows you how to structure play, run a game, make a game really fun, and tweak the rules when they aren’t quite right for your play style. GMs, please don’t miss this, and consider reading it more than once before your first game.

Chapter 9: The City of Eversink. Enough rules, let’s look at setting! We start off with the most important city features that everyone should know. When building the living and bustling city of Eversink, Emily and I kept asking ourselves, “could this feature be the hook for an adventure?” Almost everything that couldn’t got tossed. We want the city to feel comprehensive but to have a huge amount of space for your own factions, neighborhoods, and design. As a result, ignore the details at first; read this chapter the first time to just get the feel and tone of the city. Understand what it looks like, smells like, and sounds like, and maybe what neighborhoods you’ll find where, and reading it later for details later will be even more fun. As such, read up to Eversink’s History (p. 238) carefully, then skim the districts for now. Then skim the Allegiances; you want to know who the politically powerful groups are, sure, but save the details for your second pass.

Chapter 10: The World. If you’re planning international intrigue or you aren’t setting your game in Eversink, this chapter on other countries is definitely worth a closer read on your first pass. If that’s not the case, admire the map and come back to this chapter as needed. I’ve run close to 50 games for my home gaming group, and they still haven’t left Eversink.

Chapter 11: Corpse Astray. If you’re a player, stay out! If you’re a GM, this introductory adventure is worth a quick skim, with a more detailed read after you’ve decided whether or not to run it for your group. It’s not an incredibly complex adventure, but Corpse Astray is a solid action-filled mystery with some horrific monstrosities and some sympathetic villains. We include suggestions for using Corpse Astray as a launchpad for your ongoing series.

Appendices and Index: Don’t forget they’re here; we grabbed the most important tables and charts for your use.

After all that? You might have fun skimming the blog posts here at; there you’ll find a number of free SotS resources for the game. Also head to the free SotS tools (including a hero generator and adversary generator) by contributing author Matt Breen, found at

Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, the PDF of which is currently waiting for you on your Pelgrane bookshelf if you pre-ordered the game. 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.


1 thoughts on “How to Read the Rules: a quick-start guide for Swords of the Serpentine

  1. Pingback: Routinely Itemised: RPGs #130

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