Serpent’s Skull – DM notes

So, I am running Serpent’s Skull. I might jot down a few things that might come in handy for other DMs, as I discover them. These notes will contain spoilers for players, but I know my guys will be reading this so I’ll restrict the spoilers to stuff that has already happened in our game. Nevertheless, guys, perusing this stuff may take a little of the magic away. Your choice.

One of the issues with the game material is that certain stuff is scattered around the various source documents. The wandering monster rules are in the bestiary, the NPC rules are in the “Shipwrecked!” supplement, and so on. It’s a bit of a challenge pulling it together.

If you are running the game:

Track the game state

You will need a piece of paper on which to keep the game “state”.


Each NPC has a morale and an attitude, and each NPC and player may have a campsite “role”.

panicked, frightened, shaken, normal, hopeful. Starting morale is “shaken”.

hostile, unfriendly, indifferent, friendly, helpful. Staring morale is as per the notes for each NPC.

guard, defender, entertainer, hunter, medic. To fill a “role”, the NPC or player must be busy doing that the entire day. No role for the NPC until made “Indifferent”, and roles available are as per the notes.


The Island has a limited amount of certain monsters – track them. I suspect that the number of monsters is important with regard to XP available on the Island. You can’t grind to 20th level on Smuggler’s Shiv.


Keep a calendar and keep track of how many days it’s been. Log events like monster kills – perhaps 10M, 10D, 10E, 10N for morning, day, evening and night of day 10. This is particularly important for timed events. I was considering also using this calendar to work out when high tide and low tide are. On earth, high and low tide happen twice each day, and the time moves around the clock once a month, so morning high-tide becomes morning low-tide after one week.

Daily routine

The daily routine is:

  1. Sunup: wandering monster check, NPC state check. Is the party moving camp, or is the party exploring from a base?
  2. Midday: wandering monster check, possible heat chack
  3. Sundown: wandering monster check, disease exposure check. Check to set up camp, if necessary.
  4. Midnight: wandering monster check

  • Wandering monster check is: 15%, -5% per guard. Remember that “Defender”s do free damage.
  • NPC morale check is DC 15 Will. +2 per entertainer. Failure by 5 worsens the state.
  • NPC attitude check is a diplomacy roll, modified by morale (+2, 0, 0, -2, -4) and circumstance.
  • Camp. if the party is on the move, then they need to leave enough time in the afternoon to set up camp. If the survival roll is bad and they need more hours of daylight than they have budgeted for, then no camp that night.
  • Disease exposure: 25%. -15% for having a decent camp, -5 for each medic. I take disease exposure to mean “chance of being bitten by something carrying something during the night”.
  • Heat. “Strenuous activity” during the hot part of the day triggers a fort save. This includes a fight at the midday wandering monster encounter. It should probably also include attempting to bush-bash through jungle at around midday. DC 15 on the hour, +1 for each consecutive hour (the hot part of the day is 3 hours), 1d4 nonlethal. Odd – I would have thought that the character becomes fatigued, but the penalties for exhaustion are pretty steep. (Note that Jask can prepare Endure Elements).

I suppose the best bet would simply be to keep the calendar as a spreadsheet. Columns are:

  1. Day #
  2. High/Low tide – advance by 2 hours a day to keep it simple. So 2/8 means high tide at 2am/pm, low at 8 am/pm.
  3. NPC State – Two columns per npc.
  4. Role – one column for each PC and NPC. Roles have to be the entire day, so if a PC is adventuring, then they are not doing a campsite role that day.
  5. Disease incubation, other conditions. Probably just one column, unless it gets complicated.
  6. Encounters. Four columns.
  7. Todo. For timed/scheduled events.

Overland movement

Player Map

DM Map

Players, seriously – resist the temptation to click on the DM map. This is not a “takes the magic away” issue, it’s a “ruins the module” issue.

This caused me a great deal of angst.

By some weird combination of mouse-clicks, I managed to extract the terrain layer of the map in the PDF without all the markup. So
what I eventually did was to get the map into the Gimp and use “filters/distorts/mosaic” to chop it up into hexes. The hexes are about 1/2 a mile from center to center by the scale on the map. According to the module, the players move 1 mile every 2 hours bush-bashing through jungle, and you have a chance to notice a special feature if you are within half a mile. So my players can move 4 hexes per day-quadrant. 8 per day … but that leaves no time to set up camp.

In the wreck of the Jeniveve, the players found a map of Smuggler’s Shiv, but it was only a blurry outline which (for some reason) had been blown up to a3 size. The players get a blurry outline of the island, I get a rather more detailed map, and the two have a matching hex grid overlaid. The players indicate on their map where they are moving, and I compare it to mine to see what they might have stumbled across.

I have just now “hexified” the map by drawing out rivers, paths, borders and so on. The island border, rivers, and cliffs go either along a boundary or through the middle of a hex.The paths go from the center of one hex to the center of another. This should make it as little easier to work out what to do with these terrain features. I’ve been ignoring them up till now, trying to get a handle on things. Now I can definitely say “to get from this hex to that hex will take an extra 1/2 hour and involve a swim check.” 1/2 hour seems mechanically do-able. It means you can get there and get back with one extra hour of travel time. Characters don’t know this until they come to the river or cliff, of course.

So, although ugly looking, this hexification turns “Well, ok – it’s a map, I suppose. Definitely a drawing of an island.” into a campaign hex map that can be played. This is a reasonably common problem in Paizo materials, I have to say: stat blocks split over pages, crucial crunch buried inside paragraphs of colour text. With the pirate treasure thing, I had to piece together that it was 10 ft down to the plug, 40 ft to the water, and then 10 ft down: a total of 60 ft. Those measurements were scattered around the shop. The module described in detail the story behind the treasure, but that’s not a lot of use if there’s no in-game way to tell it to your players. All you can do is tell them out-of-game after the encounter is done.


I like handouts. There’s nothing worse than having to read out blocks of colour text – physical handouts mean you can give something to the players and let them argue it over while you lean back and relax.

I bought myself a laminator a while ago. The handouts in the campaign materials are printed out and laminated. I also did the same to those “dream” things that clue the players into what’s the deal with Ieana and the Captain. They have met captain Kinkarian – some nice artwork there worth printing off, too. Pretty much any picture in the PDF is worth printing and giving to the players at an appropriate time. The alternative is awkwardly showing them the page of the module. Handing out the artwork from the modules is as important as having the right minis to hand. Sure – you can play without it. But it just lends the session a little zing.

I was going to write up some stuff on dealing with new players, but meh – I’ll do it next time.


12 Responses to Serpent’s Skull – DM notes

  1. Logan says:

    This will be invaluable! I’m starting my own serpent skull game next week

  2. Anonymous says:

    The map and handout links no longer work. Can you update them? They will help me a lot tonight!

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’m according with the previous guy, can you update the maps again, please?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much, Paul! I am going to start DM Serpent Skull next week and I found your blog! This entry was very helpful. Thanks a lot.

  5. Andrew says:

    Ahh this seemed like a great guide, but the images dont work!

    • Paul Murray says:

      Images are hosted on my 12″ PPC Mac. Server goes up, server goes down, server goes up again.

      • Andrew says:

        Appreciate the speedy reply. I just started this last night, your notes have been helpful and I’ll definitely be printing out these maps. I was planning on using a paperclip piece to measure out miles but this makes things much easier. I actually got the folio thinking it would be gridded out (like the kingmaker folio) but was shocked to find out it wasn’t! Thanks again.

  6. Anonymous says:

    You just saved me a complete re-read of the module to figure out what I need to track, at what time, and who’s doing what. Thanks!

    Ryan in San Diego

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hey, is there any chance you could email me a copy of the maps?

    I would really appreciate it, and thank you for the detailed write up.

  8. Paul Murray says:


    The maps are now hosted on wordpress.

  9. Peter says:

    Thank you! This page is a real work saver. Starting this scenario very soon and this was just what I needed – especially the hex maps!

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