Thoughts After Ten Sessions of Swords of the Serpentine

You can be a barbarian in sudden urban confusion

My role-playing group finished up our space FBI campaign in Ashen Stars before the summer break. Then we’ve played ten sessions of Swords of the Serpentine during September through February. This is an urban sword & sorcery game by Kevin Kulp and Emily Dresner, inspired by Howard’s Conan, Leiber’s Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork and Renaissance Venice. The printed book has not yet appeared due to trouble with the illustrators. Instead I’ve used the pre-pub PDF that you received when you pre-ordered SotS.

This campaign has been quite different from the space FBI one: primarily because while there are ten published full-length scenarios for Ashen Stars, there is only one for SotS (in the core book). It didn’t fit our campaign premise, so I haven’t used it. Instead our game has been like a TV series with overlapping longer and shorter story arcs devised by myself with input from the players and the source book. It hasn’t been divided into discrete quests.

The main long arcs have been:

  • The characters are the young adult generation of the Galimberti, a noble family of impeccable pedigree with almost no money left. This is one of several campaign frames suggested by the game’s designers. I chose it because it made the characters city natives and it gave them a realistic reason to collaborate and look out for each other. I also came up with Grandma, who relies on the characters to help her get the family back on its feet. She was very useful as a quest giver: she had authority over the characters and they shared her long-term priorities for the family.
  • Two of the characters wonder where their dad has disappeared to. Player Marcus came up with this when the rules prompted him for his three main drives during character creation. I decided that Dad had escaped from some criminal acquaintances 20 years into the future, using the magic gondola of a famous courtesan.
  • One of the characters lives in a tower with a monster in the basement. Player Roland came up with this and I gave the monster some odd ambitions and biological characteristics.
  • A merchant-wizard from distant Caym is trying to kill one of the characters out of some murky revenge motive. I came up with this when the rules demanded that each character be allied with two factions in the city and enemies with a third. We had a lot of fun with the way this bad guy’s turn-person-into-bird spell misfired.

This has been my first self-designed campaign where almost none of the material was pre-written. But as you can see from the above, the game design has prompted and supported myself and the players in improvising story arcs. When combined, the character drives, allies and adversaries are super fertile for this purpose.

Though the game mechanics are a version of Gumshoe, I’ve followed my story gamer tendencies and played this very free-form, using the game mechanics only rarely and clumsily. All the more so because there have been no written scenarios that prompted me for when and how to use the rules. I did try – in vain – to get a couple of the players to read up on the combat mechanics as supporting umpires. The most useful parts of the core book have instead been the richly embroidered setting material. (Here’s an example of how I’ve engaged with it.)

It’s become a running joke when I explain that something happens for obvious dramaturgical reasons, not because of any rules. And this preference of mine in role-playing has become all the clearer to me in recent years when I’ve played in other game masters’ campaigns, where dice and other mechanics determine the outcome much more strongly than does an assessment of what would be dramatically satisfying.

I put our SotS campaign on hold after ten sessions because there are no published scenarios yet. Making up my own material has gone well and we’ve had lots of fun, but it added an element of stress to game prep that I’d rather not have. Actually though, prep for each session probably took considerably less time this way than when I had to read up on elaborate investigative Ashen Stars scenarios last academic year! I learned some really useful tricks from Michael E. Shea’s 2018 book Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. You can get an enormous amount of story gaming mileage out of simply writing down ten secrets about the social and physical setting of your campaign.


Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts After Ten Sessions of Swords of the Serpentine”

  1. There’s nothing like narrative drive. When D&D first came out, it was presented as a way of automating story telling. It borrowed the idea of dice based game mechanics from the Avalon Hill war games, but ditched the hexagonal battlefields. Notably, D&D was introduced about the same time as the first text adventure game, the one inspired by a recent divorce and a memory of spelunking. When I played my one and only D&D session, I realized that it was just a friend of mine, the dungeon master, telling a story and now and then offering some audience participation. It was like back in kindergarten – [Teacher turns page] “And what do you think Little Lori is going to do now?” (Question formation in following narrative is a very important skill and not just for reading.)

    I recently finished a rather long essay on the structure of mathematical proofs with a discussion of their narrative style. There’s a lot of talk about automatic theorem proving, but it is generally unsatisfying given the nature of the human-android dialog. In truth, when a theorem is proved, nothing really happens outside the mind of the reader. But what happens? Human proofs, the author notes, are like novels which alternate turning points and, as one literary critic put it – Was it Forster? – “filler”. The frame of the essay was a famous proof in K-theory, the ghost story one, with its phantom inspired turning point in section 5.5.1, about 100 pages into a 200 page proof. All told, a wonderful essay, only a little past my level of comprehension. My reach exceeds my grasp.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been looking into getting this game. It sounds like you really had a good time! It’s always interesting to read how others run games and how it differentiates between groups. For example, I couldn’t imagine running a game that’s solely prepublished material. Even when I use material that’s already been published, I inevitably twist it and use only vague ideas from it. But I’ve always loved tailoring games to my players and don’t have an issue with the extra stresses it causes. I completely understand not wanting to do the extra work!

    Same with mechanics. I like to understand a game and its mechanics before I run and I try and make a little cheat sheet for my players (or find one online) to help them with the most commonly used complex rules.

    Your review really interested me in the game though! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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