RPG Review: Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

A new contender for the RPG with the longest name seems to be Astonishing Swordsmen & Swordsmen of Hyperborea, published by North Wind Adventures. I'd faded a bit from keeping an eye on the D&D-like side of gaming for a while after my Dungeon Crawl Classics game fizzled - not that it wasn't a blast but we couldn't get a consistent quorum.

Like other games such as Swords & Wizardry, AS&SH clearly has as its starting point original edition D&D. However, unlike many of those games, this is not a slender tome. The boxed set is impressive, dominated by two thick spiral bound books, giving you nearly 500 pages of content.

Before I dive into the contents of the books let me give some overall impressions, something I'll return to later. AS&SH feels, to me, like an alternate path of D&D. If you were to take original edition D&D just before AD&D came out and dial up the Conan/Lankhmar influences while dialing down (to almost zero) the Tolkien influences, that's what I feel you have in this game. There are no non-human races in this game, though there are various types of humans such as Atlanteans, Kelts, Vikings, etc. The default setting is that of Hyperborea, something that you could easily use as is or use as a sort of "meta-setting". As far as style goes, it is definitely written in a style that I would say is similar to that of Gary Gygax. In my experience most attempts at doing so fall flat or feel like caricature. However, Talanian's prose, while evoking the feel of Gygax, is also clearly his own. If my impression is correct then it is not surprising as Mr. Talanian was the lead developer of the sadly aborted Castle Zagyg project at Troll Lord Games and presumably had some contact with Mr. Gygax. Of course it could all be in my head as well...

With that in mind let us take a look at the boxed set. I normally perform such a dive in considerable detail. However, given the length of this book I'm going to have to do this analysis in somewhat broad strokes, with the assumption the reader is somewhat familiar with D&D.

Overview

Volume I: Swordsmen & Sorcerers

The first of the two physical books consists of three volumes. The first of these, Swordsmen & Sorcerers is essentially concerned with character generation. 

We begin, as is typical, with the traditional 6 attributes and a variety of methods to generate them. As similar to later versions of D&D as it approached its first "Advanced" incarnation, each attribute has a variety of bonuses and penalties. For the physical stats this is used go give bonuses to various circumstances for combat, hit points, and saves, as well as to give probabilities for Tests of an Attribute and Extraordinary Feats of an Attribute. A "Test" is a chance in six to do some standard but heroic feats like forcing a stuck door, carrying a comrade, jumping a ten foot pit, swim for an hour, etc. It ranges from 1 in 6 to 5 in 6. The Extraordinary Feats are for more heroic tasks like bending bars, walking a tightrope, etc. This is rated as a percentage, from 0 to 32, with a +8 bonus for characters having that attribute as a prime attribute. The mental attributes are used for languages, bonus spells (for both types of "sorcerers" - Intelligence-based (Magicians) and Wisdom-based (Clerics)), etc. Charisma is used for the loyalty of henchmen, reaction checks, and adjustments to clerics turning undead.

As mentioned above, while there are no traditional D&D races there are a variety of types of humanity. This does not impact your stats but does determine things like physique and aging. 

Classes have some interesting wrinkles. You have your traditional four classes - fighter, magician, cleric, and thief. Their abilities are about what you'd expect from similar games. Fighters have access to weapon mastery. Magicians and clerics are both considered sorcerers. Clerics, unlike in most D&D incarnations (but as many interpret the rules of the original edition), while not having a spellbook, still need to learn the spells they can memorize. Thief abilities are represented by chances in 12.

Beyond the main four classes are a variety of subclasses. This allows some considerable customization, representing most of the archetypes found in pulp fantasy literature. You can have your thief who dabbles in sorcery, assassins, witches, bards, barbarians, etc. The use of subclasses is optional and the referee decides which, if any, will be used. 

Alignment is represented by five choices - your character can be Lawful Good, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Evil, or Neutral. This matches what was found in some versions of D&D.

Each class has a Fighting Ability, defining how well he or she is at physical combat at a given character level. Fighter classes advance one level in Fighting Ability for each character level. Some characters have Turning Ability (clerics) and Casting Ability (ability to use sorcery).

Like Swords & Wizardry there is one Saving Throw, based on character level, but each character excels at certain types of saves, getting a set bonus. Attributes can also modify some saving throws. 

Armor in AS&SH is like it is in most older D&D games, starting at 9 and descending. Heavier armor also is able to reduce damage modestly (1 or 2 hit points of damage reduction). Weapons use variable damages and all melee weapons have a Weapon Class, defining its relative length which is sometimes used to determine first strike i combat. Also many weapons have special characteristics vs. certain types of armor.

Volume II: Sorcery

The next section of the first book is devoted to sorcery. It discusses how a character starts with spells, how research can be done, using scrolls, the affect of armor on magicians, etc. All of this is quite similar to other versions of D&D. The spell list is as one would expect in D&D, with classics like fireball, raise dead, etc. It is worth noting that there is no ability to create magic items save scrolls and potions and no Permanence spell, This is in keeping with the setting of Hyperborea which is assumed to be well past its prime.

Volume III: Adventure & Combat

Like the previous volume, this is pretty much what it says on the tin. It is details of how to run things such as recruiting hirelings, light sources, task resolution systems, movement (including in the air and water), rules for combat, saving throws, castles, strongholds, warefare, etc. 

Much of this is as one would expect. Combat is nicely detailed, giving a variety of options for characters to use and lots of optional rules like critical hits, parrying, dodging, etc. I would say this is nearly as detailed as one would find in Advanced D&D 1st edition. 

Volume IV: Bestiary

Beginning the second physical book is our "monster manual". One difference from most D&D-type games is each creature, instead of having a listed Intelligence, has a listed Dexterity, a stat used to break initiative ties.

The list of monsters has a heavy emphasis of one might find in weird fantasy (including some definite Lovecraftian creatures), with intelligent humanoids kept to a minimum. Outside of humans and sub-humans, the big two humanoids are Dwarfs and Orcs. Both are changed from their traditional D&D roots. Dwarfs "begin life as foot-long, sickly yellow maggots... They are cunning eevil, greedy, and lecherous; equally they are tireless forgers and brilliant dweomercafters." (Dwarfs are among the few beings still able to make magic items.) Orcs, on the other hand, are the "unhallowed progeny of swine daemons and an abominable tribe of Picts". They are not nice people. 

Volume V: Treasure

This is what we're in it for, the goodies. The list of magic items is typical of what would find in many D&D settings, with quite a few twists. There are many laser-based magic items - if you've been wanting a lightsaber in D&D this is your chance. Unfortunately, they have limited charges and there's probably no one around who can recharge it. Well no one you'd want to meet. There's also that funky energy bow from the old D&D cartoon that we all wanted to have back in the 80s... 

The volume ends with a section on magic item creation. Effectively, beyond potions and scrolls, it is off limits to PCs. However, if one wants to visit snake-men, dwarfs, mi-go, elder things, fish-men, or the Great Race, you might have some luck, if you survive the experience.

Volume VI: Hyperborea Gazetteer

This is a world that has clearly "moved on", to borrow a phrase from Stephen King. Hyperborea is a lost continent, joined by Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu. There had been connections to our world but they are few and far between now. A bloated red sun wheels around the horizon in a 13 year orbit, making seasons last for over three years. Winter is quite brutal, bringing shades of Westeros of A Song of Ice and Fire

Some thousand years ago the Green Death nearly wiped out humanity. The gazetteer explores the remnants of humanity, outposts of civilization (and barbarism). As we learn about the cultures and religions, we see much that is familiar, some from our own history, some from the worlds of H.P. Lovecraft. 

Accessories

Also within the box can be found a fold out map, dice, and a pad of character sheets.

Digital Format

For those who purchase the book digitally I'm pleased to say the PDFs are excellent. The images are very clear, they load quickly, contain an outline and links within. This makes navigating them a breeze.

Impressions

While not a small work, AS&SH is not what I would consider a "crunchy" game. You are not going to need spreadsheets to calculate your attack bonuses with multi-attack, two-weapon fighting, and power attack. I'd say it is a tad less crunchy than 1st edition Advanced D&D but is also much more consistent in its rules and presentation. (And far, far more organized than Original D&D, which, while full of flavor, is often rather vague and unorganized.)

The setting of AS&SH is an interesting factor. It permeates the entire book. It adds tons of character to it. It is a real swords & sorcery type setting. And at the same time you could easily ignore it or mine it for ideas. 

It has the benefit of familiarity - if you are familiar with AD&D, Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, or similar games you could jump right into AS&SH. At the same time, it is its own game. It looks like it would work wonderfully well for a pulp fantasy type. As a huge fan of the Lankhmar series, I can see how one could easily build the protagonists with this. It also works great with traditional D&D tropes - the Green Death depopulated the land, leaving lots of ruins and treasure. A dungeon crawl is entirely reasonable in such a setting (and Conan, Fafhrd, and the Grey Mouser all had their own dungeon (or tower) crawling experiences.

There's a huge H.P. Lovecraft influence to be felt here and as far as I'm concerned that's a good thing. I'm currently running a Call of Cthulhu game but we might be interested in the occasional D&D type game and this could well wind up being an ideal system for that.

The boxed set is available for $50.00 (with just the first three volumes - the players' book - available for $20.00). The PDF is available for $10.00 from RPGNow.com - this is a steal in my opinion.

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