Playtesting: the Merfolk (Non-Human Heroes) in Swords of the Serpentine

By Kevin Kulp

This is the ninth in our series on non-human heroes which has so far covered the Serpentine, the spider-like Arakene, the Considerata (humans whose souls are contractually linked to gods), Constructs, the fungal Drowned, fey Hidden Folk, Intelligent Animals, and Unsleeping Advisors (secret undead). The city of Eversink borders both river and sea, and this month’s Ancestry lets you play water-breathing undersea creatures to either infiltrate it or invade it.  Be sure to read the previously published rules on Non-Human Heroes if you haven’t already.


Ancestry abilities: Ancestry (Merfolk), Forgotten Lore, Scurrilous Rumors, Tactics of Death

  • Ancestry (Merfolk) reflects your culture’s heritage, knowledge, and any special abilities
  • Forgotten Lore represents the extensive base of knowledge collected by merfolk over centuries, including secrets discovered in forgotten shipwrecks and sunken kingdoms
  • Scurrilous Rumors represents your ability to listen to the rippling water and learn the many and varied rumors it has overheard
  • Tactics of Death reflects the merfolk’s deadly tactical prowess, in and out of the water

You are a merfolk living beneath the waves. You wage wars against hidden threats that surface dwellers never suspect, and you worship terrible ancient gods in whose name you spill blood. Your people hold ancient secrets, and the water whispers to you of what it has heard.

It is up to you how you appear. Human top and fishy bottom? Two fish tails for legs? A shark or humanoid fish head along with webbed hands and feet? A sentient shark who shifts into human form? Half-human, half-octopus? The proud and savage remnants of an advanced human civilization that sunk beneath the waves? You choose.

You can breathe both salt and fresh water, although you prefer one over the other. As long as you possess 1 or more ranks of the Ancestry (Merfolk) ability you may freely reform your merfolk tail into mostly-human legs for as long as your body is not immersed in water. You remain identifiable as merfolk.

If you choose ranks in Scurrilous Rumors then you can talk to the water. It whispers to you, telling you secrets it has heard from land- and ocean-dwellers alike. You may need to travel to a specific location before you can get the exact information you seek. If so, the water will tell you where you must go to learn what it knows.

It’s unusual but not unheard of for you to walk secretly among humans on dry land. Merfolk usually do so to spy, as a rite of passage, or to accomplish secret diplomatic missions that could be handled no other way. See below.

Investigative ability: Ancestry (Merfolk)

You have at least a passing knowledge of merfolk culture, behavior, history, politics, art, tactics, and superstitions. You know where to look for leads on shipwrecks, currents, natural (or unnatural) water-based phenomena, other (probably hostile) clans of intelligent undersea creatures, and sea monsters. You speak the language of merfolk, which is difficult for most people to do without drowning.

This Investigative ability points you towards leads and clues that are linked to merfolk as a people and society, including their kingdoms beneath the waves. You will need to rely on other Investigative abilities to gain leads from specific merfolk.

Sample spend: Make a merfolk supporting character particularly like, trust, or accept you as one of their own. Summon and catch non-unique fish. Know charms to manipulate currents or to communicate at a basic level with sentient sea creatures, who will often treat you as a friend or ally. Ask the water to spare a friend who is drowning. While on dry land, pass entirely as a believable human for the duration of the adventure; if you are immersed in water you temporarily return to merfolk form until you are once again dry.

A 1-point spend allows you to acquire the poison known as Sea King’s Blessing that lets humans breathe underwater; a 2-point spend allows you to recite ancient charms which will allow your friends to breathe water instead of air. Ask your GM if the ability to breathe water is related to a lead; if it is, your spend may be free.

Sample Hero – Merfolk

Name: Affogare Tholepin, secret merfolk valet

Discreet, Impeccably well-tailored, Polite, Loyal, Clever

Drives (what is best in life?): Exceeding the expectations of your employer; Learning and utilizing the secrets of others; Success without exposure

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Health 8

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1, Morale 10

Offense – Sway: Sway 3: Damage Modifier +1 (polite disdain)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 8: Damage Modifier +1 (toothy strike)

Investigative Abilities: Ancestry (Merfolk) 2, Nobility 1, Servility 1, Trustworthy 1, Forgotten Lore 1, City’s Secrets 1, Scurrilous Rumors 1, Skulduggery 1, Tactics of Death 1

Allegiances: Ally: Mercanti 1; Ally: Architects and Canal-Watchers 1; Enemy: Church of Denari 1

General Abilities: Athletics 3, Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Stealth 8 (Where’d She Go?), Sway 3, Warfare 8 (Cleave)

Gear: Precisely what your employer needs, half-a-second before they need it; Impeccably tailored valet’s uniform (for your human form); An inconvenient craving for live raw fish; A secret mission to spy on Eversink’s defenses and society; Exceptional pride in your success as a gentleman’s gentleman

Special: Tholepin’s natural form is that of a terrifying fish-tailed merman, sporting clawed and webbed hands and a gaping fanged maw; as such, he can spend a point of Ancestry (Merfolk) to approximate the effect of an Intimidation spend instead. Tholepin’s people are traditionally ambush predators, and becoming a patient human-shaped spy on land in Eversink seemed natural to him. He turns out to make a superb valet: always anticipating his employer’s needs just before his employer can vocalize them, disappearing silently into the background until needed, and silently cataloging Eversink’s defenses so as to better inform his peoples’ strategists. What’s surprising is that Tholepin is discovering he likes Eversink. He likes the people, he likes his work, and he likes adventure as a loyal retainer. So far no one knows his true identity, including his employer (probably another player character), and he suspects it’s safest that it stays that way.

Sample Adversary – Merfolk

Prince Oceanus, Merfolk

Charismatic, entertaining, magical

Defense — Health: Health Threshold 4, Armor 1 (Ceremonial sea-armor), Health 30

Defense — Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 2 (Self-assurance), Morale 10 per Hero

Offense — Warfare: +1; Damage Modifier +2 (golden trident)

Offense — Sway: +2; Damage Modifier +2 (rich, golden voice) or the Persuade Maneuver

Abilities: Malus 18

Special Abilities: Extra Action (cost 3), Magical Charm (cost 3 – as per ritual; see below), Monstrous Ability (cost 3), Summoning (cost 3 – fish and undersea creatures), Swimming

Refresh Tokens: 7

Special: Prince Oceanus is a charming, handsome, commanding merfolk who has recently appeared in Steeple Cove, just off of Temple Market and Ironcross. He presents himself as a visitor to the city, and delights nearby gawkers with mesmerizing tales of undersea kingdoms and adventures. He lounges and displays himself for hours each day, a consummate showman, and encourages any humans attending to pay with a single coin in compensation for his storytelling. Crowds have been growing rapidly these last few days.

“Prince Oceanus” is in fact a cleverly constructed persona. He is a merfolk, that part at least is true; but his name is Algius and rather than being royalty, he’s a merfolk vizier and spy who has come to pave the way for a proper invasion. His fish servants collect every single coin that humans throw into Steeple Cove in tribute to him; and at night’s high tide, as moonlight glints on seawater, he performs a ritual that ensorcels the last three people who touched each coin. Each person is compelled to send another three people down to hear “Prince Oceanus” tell stories of the sea, and pay for their time with a thrown coin. In that way, within a week the harbor will be crowded with thousands of visitors, almost all of whom pay for the stories with a tossed coin. When the moon is full and the tide is high, any day now, “Oceanus” then intends to compel these mesmerized people to fight any mercenaries who try to stop the merfolk invasion. It may be up to the Heroes to realize what is happening and stop it before it is too late.

Sample Allegiances

Different types of merfolk may war between themselves, but they attempt to present a united front when dealing with surface-dwellers – usually one of suspicion and wary distrust. Establishing merfolk as a unique faction implies that the sea folk play a major role within Eversink’s politics. They may be conscribing (or allowing) shipping, raiding (or guarding) the harbor, or even have a vital role in the trade of food or undersea valuables and commodities.

Having merfolk as Allies means that they believe you respect their interests, their territory, and their sovereignty. Helping a merfolk who is stranded on land is often enough to be thought of favorably. Use your allegiance to learn about the secrets of the oceans and of life beneath the waves; and don’t hesitate to call in your favors if you find yourself on a sinking ship.

Having merfolk as Enemies means that the ocean is seldom safe for you or for those who travel with you. You may find your rudder befouled, your hull leaking, or the wind and waves actively trying to thwart you. Appeasing the merfolk in some way, such as an offering tossed overboard at a voyage’s beginning, may be enough for them to temporarily relent.

Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, out now in hardback and PDF. 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.

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