Some thoughts on Serpent’s Tooth

We played Ross Cowman’s Serpent’s Tooth tonight and had an absolute blast. I’m writing this to collect my thoughts more than to critique the system, but I’m particularly interested in where the mechanics of the game broke down. Obviously this will come across as negative toward the system; almost all of the fun we had was outside the system. I’m not saying the game sucks: I’m saying the mechanics did not add to the fun for us tonight, and I want to find out why.

In Serpent’s Tooth, you follow a “king” in the twilight of his reign. The GM plays the king and has three banners in front of him: the palace, the crown, and the sword. Those represent authority over place, NPCs, and threats, respectively. As play progresses, players can plot to and then actually seize these banners by having their characters seize the corresponding fictional item.

Other than that, Serpent’s Tooth comes with two systems: natures and authority negotiation.

Each character has one nature (adjectives such as “wise”, “lying”, “loyal”, “feral”) in front of them. The nature card has the opposite word printed on the reverse and at some point in the game, the player can choose to flip the card to reveal her true nature.

As for authority negotiation, each player has authority over their character, and the player with the corresponding banner has authority over place, NPCs, and threats. The latter three start out in the GM’s hands. When another player oversteps and says things that fall into your authority, you can play along, step in and correct, negotiate, or set a cost. Playing along means accepting the other player’s contribution. Correcting means just that: changing the contribution in some small way. Negotiating is a back and forth where the authority and the overstepping player discuss the contribution. And setting a cost finally means, yes you can have this but if and only if X also happens. If a threat is handled, you must choose play along or set a cost.

Since I’ll discuss examples from the game below, some quick words on the setting. We chose the Artificial Life king (in our game: the AI “Father”). The game was set aboard an interstellar colony ship, with the crown being the Stasis Key (established as the thing that allows you to wake people from stasis), the palace being the ship itself, and the sword being the warhead (we established this as a cache of antimatter warheads on board the ship that could be used to blow it all up).

We ran into our first major problem during the setup phase. The king template comes with three classes each for characters, places, and threats. The game asks the players to fill these out before play begins, and advises as follows:

The things you write down will be central to our Story, so pick things you are interested in.

This may be a problem with the game or with the king we chose, but my players struggled mightily to make sense of elements of this.

One of the first questions that came up was how much they were allowed to make up characters as they wrote down names. Would it be okay to write “James McCoy, who is a condemned serial killer but nobody on board knows”? Or do we just write James McCoy and find out later who he is? (This one’s pretty obvious: it’s the latter. Just write down names, and we find out. Still the urge to say something about these names was overwhelming.)

Here’s the much bigger problem that almost entirely stopped us in our tracks: What does Threats / In Stasis mean? Are these people who are in stasis that might become threats for the ship? Are these things that might happen to people in stasis? If they’re people, is this just another list of names?

We went back and forth on these for a while and I had no good answer. We ended up writing two names into In Stasis and the word “nano-plague”. The nano-plague sort of entered the story toward the end, but had absolutely nothing to do with stasis and was never opposed as a threat. We struggled to include anything on this banner and ended up just name-checking a lot of the threats. The only threat that was ever really opposed was one of the names from In Stasis, who we decided was that secret serial killer Zoey had mentioned earlier.

Places ran into a similar problem. The things we wrote down seemed interesting to us, but as the story progressed, none of them seemed to fit. The Bridge, The Cloning Facility and the Quantum Computation Banks were the only places out of the nine we wrote down that were ever used to set scenes; no places were ever scarred and removed from the kingdom. We had a lot of disagreement amongst ourselves what Dreams of Earth should mean (we wrote down “Launch Bay”, “Mt. Fuji”, and “Arc Academy”) and never ended up using any of those.

For people we had the VIPs “Saturn” (a super-famous pop star from old Earth), Ronald Drump, and “Sky”, the Specialists Donovan White (who it turned out was the captain of the ship), James “Teech” Timberland (I think he was name-checked once but never really used?), and Dr. Miyazaki, the science officer, and finally for children we had Sally (age 4), Christopher, and Subject 461.

The players picked Saturn, Ronald Drump, and Subject 461 as their characters. Saturn picked Foolish/Wise with Foolish facing up, Subject 461 picked Cowardly/Brave with Cowardly up, and Drump picked Rational/Insane with Rational up.

I really enjoyed the questioning the court section, but then I think that character creation can be the most fun part of the first session of Apocalypse World, and this is definitely that kind of thing. We came out of questions with a lot of interesting tidbits for the characters:

  • Drump’s body was failing him, being overtaken by cancer, but he refused to be put into Stasis because he didn’t trust anyone else to run his empire
  • Saturn was unable to write music anymore and was looking for new inspiration
  • Subject 461 was entirely alone, didn’t remember her parents, and wanted to see no one and talk to no one other than Father and the doctor who visits twice a day

Importantly, though, while these were all cool hooks, they didn’t give anyone but Drump a push that paid off narratively.

The game suggests motives for the king for “when you feel stuck”, and I used them a lot, but I ended up getting no movement from the characters for a long time. Zoey commented at one point to say “we’re really letting this story breathe” after nothing had been happening for a while. I was feeling like I was spinning my wheels and like I was failing as the GM.

One of the central problems was that if a player decided her character was happy where they were, I had very little in terms of tools to give them direction. I could do violence to them, narratively, by forcing them out of their comfort zone or giving them things that needed to be done, but this was all externalized motivation.

For instance: one of the first things I did was give someone a mission. I decided that long range sensor readings had come back with bad news: the system they’d hoped would have a habitable world didn’t. This added at least 20 years to their mission time until they’d hit another system. So Father, the benevolent ship AI, asked Ronald Drump to use his charisma and people skills to give a ship-wide address and keep everyone’s spirits up. This did yield a very fun scene where an underprepared and overconfident buffoon stumbled through the worst speech in the history of mankind, accidentally ending up with self-praise and “prepare for hard times”, but then we narratively hit a wall. That speech didn’t advance the plot state in any meaningful way; there was no logical or good way to introduce a threat (since none of the threats made sense to me); and while we got a great, fun scene out of it, I was back to square one as the GM after it. The scene had not meaningfully advanced the plot in any way, nor had it revealed anything new about Ronald. He was a bag of hot air before, and he was still a bag of hot air after.

I kept thinking about which threats I could introduce. Here is the list I had in front of me:

In Stasis:
James McCoy
Francis Reed

Oxygen Supplies
Nutrient Paste
Stem Cells

Emergency Order 6-B
Random Screening
Organic Cleansing Decontamination

Short of a “set everything on fire” moment I didn’t see how I could bring any of them to bear.

Saturn’s arc started with her yelling at an astronomer to get her up to date pictures of the planet Saturn for inspiration (that’s not how light-speed works) and sort of stalled out there too. This plot thread about her being unable to write new music never even got mentioned again after her first scene.

Subject 461 was holed up in her room and perfectly content to be there. I spoke to her as Father and made her promise to go to school or else I’d wake up the man she’s terrified of from stasis. This was me taking her out of her comfort zone. She agreed to my demands after I threatened to wake up a mysterious “him” from stasis. This was me eyeing the names under threats and hoping it would all make sense eventually. Again I was treading water. Okay, so she’s started going to school. So what?

I want to repeat that we had a lot of fun. There was a lot of laughter, everyone loved being there, we made great jokes and had our characters do fun things, but everything that happened happened in spite of the rules. We basically played a free-form game seeded by some of the elements on the king sheet.

Natures were another problem here. I kept prodding players to provoke each other’s natures, but it never really happened, and I never found a good moment for me as the GM to do it either. Their starting natures were Rational (Drump), Cowardly (Subject 461), and Foolish (Saturn).

Here’s my thinking: because there was no narrative thrust and no narrative stakes for them, there was nothing to push against, which is what provoking natures is (“here, there’s this thing that’s obviously bad for you to do, but I’m pointing at your nature and hah! You kind of have to do it!”). Because of this narrative limbo, the provoking natures rule was pretty meaningless.

Additionally, players played their characters in a certain way from start to end. When their true natures were revealed, they played slightly differently for a single scene, but then pretty much went back to how they’d always portrayed the character. I think natures entered play too late and too weakly to be on players’ minds.

I ended up falling back to my usual AW-style of GMing, inventing wildly and cutting back and forth between scenes, asking questions, throwing things at people and seeing what sticks, but this undercut a major mechanic in the game as well. Because I asked so many questions (like “Cool! Where is Saturn now? Oh, you’re at home? Cool. Who’s with you? Subject 461? Alright, let’s go!”), the moment of giving up the regalia meant next to nothing. Our playing style was already heavily collaborative, so “giving up” authority on setting and casting scenes was only a gradual dimming of my voice, not a switch-over.

We also never really got to plotting to seize regalia until I pushed players REALLY REALLY hard. Everyone seemed to have something like a multi-scene plan how they may or may not eventually possibly at some point move toward taking regalia, and 2 hours into the game I shoved them into it so I could see the mechanic in play before we finished the game.

The setting again hurt us here: in Artificial Life, one of the options for The Palace is The Ship. This is a bit of a stumper, since everything else necessarily is part of the ship. Like, seizing the Armory after someone had already seized the ship doesn’t make sense? How you seize a ship was also such a large question that it was positively paralyzing for players to think about.

I think one of the root causes of this feeling of being narratively becalmed was that the game’s rules force players into an actor mindset in a game that badly needs them to think in an author mindset too. You get some of the latter as you fill out the banners, but as one player put it, it was like “thinking about the scenery”. The fact that right after you pick your character, you pick your nature, and that your GM then immediately starts asking you questions about yourself (and it probably didn’t help that, true to AW fashion, I addressed myself to the characters, not the players), forced my players to think a lot about “what made sense for their character”. Well, cowardly child Subject 461 just wants to be left alone and doesn’t like anyone. That makes sense for her. That also gives me a hell of a headscratcher as the GM, as a result of which I ended up doing a lot of violence to her. I forced Saturn to adopt her for no good reason other than that I thought the pairing would be hilarious — and it was! Some of the best humour came from the clueless no people skills pop star trying to suddenly be a mother to our Stranger Things’ Eleven-esque Subject 461. But it was all externalized motivation pushing against a character whose impulse was to revert back to their starting position.

Here’s the bit that finally did get the plot moving and that ended up taking over the rest of the narrative: Ronald’s cancer diagnosis got him to ask questions about cloning and if they could grow him a new body; no they can’t, was the answer, but certain purpose-grown bodies can be primed with someone’s DNA to accept a brain transplant, and who would have guessed it but Subject 461 is one such purpose-grown body. The man she’s scared of who is in stasis was the man to whom her body was promised (Francis Reed, we decided). Ronald of course had other plans. In the end he used the promise of her body as a ticket to a much longer life to convince General O’Conor to threaten Father with the antimatter warheads (and thus Ronald received the sword).

Saturn and Subject 461 became fugitives on the run and somehow stumbled into gaining control of the ship (this part was never fully explained) and the stasis key. They wake up everyone from stasis, Father informs the ship that they now have resources for 3 days before people die, and Ronald unleashes the nano-plague on all the lower levels where the non-VIPs stay, blaming it on the now dormant AI Father going rogue. This is where we ended.

I had to prod and prompt my players to even try to take the regalia from me multiple times, and when the vagueness of how this would be achieved made it so we couldn’t say what a successful follow through would look like I just handed them over. I did enjoy being a lot more silent afterwards, but it also came with a drawback: since my aggressive GMing had kept the story moving forward in the absence of a system that kept us on the rails before, as soon as I gave up powers, everything started slowing down and we decided to end the session.

A lot of the threats got name-checked but were never mechanically opposed as threats. The nano-plague, the cleansing protocol, random screenings; they were all mentioned in the last scene, but never opposed mechanically. When threats were opposed, the “setting a cost” rule was so maddeningly vague that we repeatedly got into situations that just made no sense and were very unsatisfying. Here’s an example.

At some point Father wakes James McCoy, the secret serial killer, from stasis. In the next scene, Saturn is arming herself in the armory with quantum encryption dev consoles, attempting to seize control of the ship. Stash, Ronald’s player, has the sword at this point, and Zoey, who played Subject 461, has the crown. Naomi played Saturn and had yet to seize the palace, but she had the tooth for it.

While Saturn is arming herself, Stash introduces McCoy as a threat to the scene. I help with suggestions (again, we’re a very collaborative bunch). We decide he’s standing in the door frame, after Father had turned off all the other lights. (This was another maddening aspect of this setting: casting the King as the AI made giving up discrete chunks of authority very hard to justify in the narrative. I was still the AI running the ship. I could still turn off the lights at will, and presumably turn off the air. Would that be introducing a threat?) McCoy grins at her, revving a bonecutter he’s holding in his hand, advancing toward her. “I grab a pistol and shoot him” says Naomi. Cool! Now Stash gets to set a cost.

And we hit another wall. What even is a good cost here? After a lot of back and forth we settled on “yes you can shoot him but the security forces on the ship will henceforth be instructed to shoot you on sight”. Okay… but is this really a choice? If she does not accept the cost, what happens? Her character gets killed? That’s not a choice. Stash basically dictated a new plot element (which never came up again after) and the threat went away, impotently. Nothing was truly threatened, no one had anything real to push against.

I think that’s what it comes down to for me. With the style of the people I play with, there was no pressure in this game. No narrative forces to push against. Everyone agreed with everyone else and sort of went along with me, no matter where I was taking the plot. None of the mechanics seemed to help there. I couldn’t provoke natures because there wasn’t a thing my players DIDN’T want to do. I couldn’t set meaningful costs because there were no meaningful narrative stakes.

I absolutely adore Serpent’s Tooth on paper. I think the central concepts are BRILLIANT and such a smart dissection of narrative authority.

I wonder how much of this was this specific setting? In the rules, almost all examples are taken from the Homecoming King or the actual monarch. I suspect the game may have been written for and tested with those kings primarily? I sat down with one of my players after the game and looked at the other kings — we immediately identified strong narrative thrusts that would arise from the setting and the characters of the Taco King for instance, and now we’re planning to get this same group together again and try that king, to see if it goes any better.

Further to this setting: I really struggled making an omnipresent AI work. I was present in all scenes and yet in no scenes. I couldn’t really be meaningfully threatened and when parts of my systems were taken away, I just went away, and no one really minded. Again, I had wonderful scenes and I got to say super ominously evil fun AI things, but the shape of this king (and the suggested regalia) just didn’t work for me at all.

Tonight was a great example of how a group that plays well together will have fun with whatever, and how a system can create fun from any aspect of its rules. For instance, the setting itself energized us all, two of the categories (“children” and “restricted areas”) set off creative sparks in one player’s mind that let to “Subject 461” and “Cloning Labs”, which caused us to create a wonderful story. I’m still super excited about Serpent’s Tooth and want to try it again, and I’m really thankful to Ross Cowman for writing a game that made me think so much about dynamics around the table.