Saturday, October 13, 2012

REVIEW: Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

In certain quarters of the online world, Jeff Talanian's Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (hereafter AS&SH -- an infelicitous abbreviation if there ever was one) will no doubt be viewed as "yet another retro-clone" and dismissed out of hand. If so, that'd be a shame, since, while there's no doubt that that AS&SH borrows more than a few pages from Gary Gygax's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons -- as Talanian freely admits -- its specific content and presentation transcend its origins. In particular, as Stuart Marshall notes in his foreword, this game
is a return to some of the literary roots of the hobby, to the thrill and wonder of weird fiction. You will find the pages that follow are overflowing with references to the golden age of Weird Tales: the Picts and the Atlanteans, the Amazons and the barbarians, of Howard; the Colour out of Space and the Plateau of Leng, from Lovecraft; and Hyperborea itself is, of course, a name familiar from Smith, though he did not invent it.
The pulp fantasy roots of D&D is a subject near and dear to my heart and one that, I hope, is now more widely understood, if not necessarily widely embraced. Consequently, I was predisposed to like AS&SH before I'd even read a word of it, though I am happy to say that it more than lives up to my predispositions.

Before getting into the meat of the game itself, I'd like to discuss its physical qualities. AS&SH is available in two formats: a PDF version and a boxed set. The PDF version is, frankly, a steal at $10.00, while the boxed set sells for $50.00, which I also think is a very good price for what you get. The game consists of two books, each made up for three "volumes" (i.e. large sections). Each book is around 250 pages, spiral-bound, and measures 7 x 8.5 inches. The books use a single-column layout that's very easy on the eyes and are profusely illustrated by the gorgeous black and white artwork of Ian Baggley. Also included in the boxed set are a six precision polyhedral dice, a pad of character record sheets, and a poster-sized map of the titular Hyperborea. The box itself is nice and sturdy with a suitably pulp cover by Charles Lang.

The two integral books are the Players' Manual and the Referee's Manual. The Player's Manual covers character creation, character classes, equipment, spells, movement, combat, saving throws, and related rules. At 252 pages, it's the larger of the two books. Players already familiar with any version of D&D should find the basic rules familiar  -- six ability scores, alignment, etc. -- but AS&SH introduces several new wrinkles. First, this is not merely a humanocentric game but one where playing anything other than a human is impossible. In AS&SH, "races" refers to various human cultures, many of which are modeled on ancient Earth cultures (Kelt, Kimmerian, Pict, etc.) while others are legendary in origin (Amazon, Atlantean, etc.). The other area where AS&SH differs from its inspirations is its character classes. The familiar four -- cleric, fighter, magician, thief -- are all here, as are many traditional sub-classes, but there are also many new ones, like berserkers, warlocks, pyromancers, and shamans. AS&SH has 22 classes in all.

Magic and spells are much as one would expect, though all classes have only six spell levels. That's something I like a great deal, perhaps because I already do something similar in my Dwimmermount campaign. Other rules, like combat, are very similar to what you'd expect from a game inspired by/derived from AD&D. The rules generally differ from their inspirations in two ways. First, they are clearer and better explained. Talanian has obviously taken great pains to ensure that every rules in AS&SH is easy to understand. Second, as part of the process of clarification, they've been regularized and, in many cases, simplified. For example, there are still five saving throw categories, but they're death, transformation, device, avoidance, and sorcery. Likewise, what were percentage chances in AD&D, like thief abilities, are now D12 rolls. None of these changes are bad or indefensible ones, but they are changes and they give AS&SH a distinct feeling compared to AD&D.

The Referee's Manual is 236 pages long and covers monsters, treasure, and a gazetteer of Hyperborea. The monsters should mostly be familiar to most D&D players, though many are presented with Hyperborean twists. Golems, for example, are called "automatons" (though they still come in clay, flesh, iron, and stone varieties) and are presented as much as robots as magical creations.There are also many new creatures, like leaper camels, tentacular horrors, thew wagons, and many others derived from the tales of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Treasure is similarly "familiar yet different," with magic items given slight alterations here and there for flavor. New items include a variety of science fantasy weapons, such as laser swords (presented as Atlantean artifacts). Both these sections highlight Talanian's overall approach: hewing closely to D&D "tradition," while giving it his own personal touch.

The setting of Hyperborea is a "micro-setting," which is to say, a place of limited geography that can be used either on its own in conjunction with an existing setting. The gazetteer provides ample information for using it, regardless of its nature. There are details on astronomy, the calendar, history, climate, flora and fauna, races, geography, and gods. Though original, Hyperborea draws strongly on the pulp fantasies of Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith; it's hard to miss the borrowings and homages from these as you read the gazetteer. I really like it myself, but then I share Talanian's love for these early fantasy authors. If you're not as keen on such things, you may find the gazetteer of less use, particularly since it presents more of an outline for a setting than a fully-realized one. Again, I see that as a positive rather than a negative.

Taken as a whole, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is an impressive product, both as a physical product and as another interpretation of old school Dungeons & Dragons. As I've stated throughout this review, AS&SH reminds me most of Gygaxian AD&D, albeit a clearer and more rationally presented version. Normally, I'd consider clarity and rationality to be enemies of the kind of quirkiness that makes for a good old school game, but, in this case, I think Talanian's strong, pulp-influenced voice comes through strongly enough to make up for anything lost. The result is a solid, well-designed, if occasionally baroque, class-and-level fantasy roleplaying game that is imbued with a distinctly pulp feel. It won't appeal to everyone but it's well-written, attractively produced, and fills its own distinct niche well -- all marks of a RPG worth a look in my book.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for either a fantasy RPG that in the vein of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons but more clearly and rationally presented.
Don't Buy This If: You're not interested in a complex fantasy RPG, no matter how presented or written.

19 comments:

  1. I just remembered the existence of Petty Gods. Can we have an update on that some time, please?

    ReplyDelete
  2. That's a pretty funky logo. That alone makes me oddly interested Oo

    ReplyDelete
  3. I own the box set and I absolutely love this game! If/when my long-running HackMaster campaign comes to an end it will be the next campaign I run. Can't wait.

    ReplyDelete
  4. It's a fantastic game, and while the setting is an outline, it's an extensive one with more than enough meat for someone to use and set adventures in. Quick correction though: Thief skills use a d12, not a d20.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Petty Gods is where it has been for the better part of the last year and a bit: in limbo because I don't have someone reliable to do layout for little or no money and I don't know how to do layout myself. This may be changing; I have found someone who wants to take on the project, but only time will tell if it's going to work out. If it does, I'll let everyone know.

    ReplyDelete
  6. You are correct. I'll make that correction now.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I loved this game... I am currently thinking about mixing it up with DCC RPG. I think they will fit nicely together.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I absolutely love AS&SH! I can honestly say it is my favorite version of D&D (including even all the 'official' versions). The combat rules are are clean, simple, and provide enough detail and options that I am immediately dropping them into my current LL campaign.. I have the print version myself, but like James said, the PDF for $10 is a steal.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Do you recommend getting this if I already own the Mongoose Conan RPG? It's very similar in setting and ruleswise. And why it wouldn't be given the sources the game draws inspiration from. But form the rules point of view? But then again $10 for the PDF is a steal.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I've never actually read a copy of the Mongoose Conan game, so I can't really say. I will say that AS&SH is more like "pulp-flavored AD&D" than simply a pulp fantasy game, so, if you're not keen on D&D tropes, it probably won't appeal to you.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The Mongoose Conan is a D20 OGL game based on 3.0 rules, or atleast the 1st edition which I have is. From what I've read it is one of the better presentations of the D20 system, even if the 1st edition editing is horrible. The game does capture the sword & sorcery feel of Howard's stories quite nicely.


    I've actually never played D&D or any of the retroclones. I've read the Labyrinth Lord rules, but haven't got the change to play it yet. But I'm most likely getting the PDF version of AS&SH anyway as it's very good values for money, even if I just use some bits of it.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Great review, James! AS&SH (as the inebriated barbarian might curse...) is truly a magnificent game. I supported it from the Kickstarter on down, and wasn't disappointed. Weird fiction saturates the text, and the art by Ian Baggley is absolutely integral to generating the proper feel. Even for players who don't have much of a pulp background, all you'd need to do is show them some of the illustrations to get them in the mood, so to speak. It should also be mentioned that Jeff has a robust ongoing discussion about the game over at the ODD74 forum: http://odd74.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=hyperborea


    As others have mentioned, the pdf is ridiculously well-priced at $10. Do yourself a favor and pick it up!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Setting-wise they're not as similar as you might expect. Certainly AS&SH has elements of REH's Hyboria, but it owes much more to CAS's work setting-wise and has a strong "dying earth" genre feel. System-wise they're also quite different. Conan d20, while a great d20 game, owes much more DNA to D&D3e, with a combat system that is somewhat more crunchy than that edition. AS&SH owes far more to AD&D1e, albeit with cleaned-up mechanics and presentation. Which you'd prefer is going to be very much a matter of taste.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I just ordered my copy of AS&SH through RPGNow.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I picked up the PDF a while ago for a game I was to be joining. I turned out missing the game, but did read through all AS&SH and love it. I'm itching to run/play this game.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Another one: Magicians only have six spell levels, just like everyone else, not nine.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I'd been impressed by the first two adventures that came out before AS&SH ("Taken from Dunwich" and "Charnel Crypt of the Sightless Serpent."), so I'd been waiting for the game with some anticipation. I'm definitely buying the PDF.

    ReplyDelete
  18. James, I picked this up in PDF (and soon the boxed set, I think), in no small part due to your review. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  19. I received a boxed set a couple weeks ago and I must say that the set and books are attractively sturdy and well-constructed. A big part of old school nostalgia for me is sensory, and this set nails that. It feels like a physical object from the 1970s, if it had been put together with contemporary technology. Also, the writing and art are consistently superior.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.