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.