Friday, March 22, 2024

REVIEW: Hyperborea

When I first read Astonishing Swords & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, two things about it greatly impressed me. Most significant was that this roleplaying game of "swords, sorcery, and weird fantasy" demonstrated an obvious love for the pulp fantasies of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. Equally obvious was its love for Gygaxian AD&D. The latter should have come as no surprise, given designer Jeff Talanian's stint as Gygax's protégé and amanuensis for the uncompleted Castle Zagyg project. Still, both these qualities endeared AS&SH – an infelicitous acronym of there ever was one – to me. 

In the more than a decade since its initial release in 2012, the game has found a place for itself among fans of old school Dungeons & Dragons and its descendants, particularly among those, like myself, whose tastes tend toward the pulpy end of the fantasy spectrum. A second edition of the game was released in 2017 in the form of a single hardcover book. The new edition added some new material to the contents of its original boxed rulebooks, as well as new art and layout. Unfortunately, the second edition rulebook was over 600 pages in length and very unwieldy to use, either in play or as a reference volume. On the other hand, the many adventures published to support the new edition were both excellent and evocative of Weird Tales-inspired fantasy.

2022 saw the appearance of a third edition of the game, this time in the form of two, smaller hardcover volumes – a Player's Manual and a Referee's Manual, each around 300 pages long. In addition to their much more convenient size, these new volumes contain even more art than the two previous editions, as well as a cleaner layout and organization. The game also acquired a new title with this edition – Hyperborea. The combined effect of all these changes is, in my opinion, the best-looking and easiest-to-use edition of the game to date. 

As pleased and impressed as I am by the visual improvements of the third edition, its actual content is not significantly changed from second edition. Aside from combat, which is much simplified, most of the changes are quite small, small enough that I, as a casual player of the game over the last decade, had to dig around online to notice most of them. There are also new additions to the selections of monsters, spells, and magic items, not to mention playable human races. When combined with all aforementioned esthetic changes, I think this is more than sufficient justification for a new edition, but whether it's enough for any individual to replace their existing copy of second edition with it is for each person to decide himself. By design, none of the changes or additions make, say, adventures written with 3e in mind incompatible with previous ones, so there is no necessity in "upgrading."

Players of Gygaxian AD&D will immediately find Hyperborea familiar – six attributes, a plethora of classes and sub-classes (22 in all!), nine alignments, multiple lists of spells, etc. It's a big, baroque stew of often idiosyncratic but flavorful options, but it's never overwhelming. In large part that's because of Talanian's presentation of the material, but it helps, too, that Hyperborea is much more clearly a cohesive ruleset than a sometimes-contradictory hodgepodge built up over time, which only makes sense, given that Hyperborea came out decades after AD&D. Consequently, I consider Hyperborea the best modern restatement of AD&D

Of course, the real joy of Hyperborea is not its rules, however solid they are. Where it most stands out is setting. The titular Land Beyond the North Wind is a flat, hexagonal plane that was once a component of "Old Earth" and the source of many of its myths and legends. Inhabited by the peoples of many ancient cultures – Amazons, Atlanteans, Kelts, Kimmerians, Norse, Picts, and more – Hyperborea is a adventuresome, horror-tinged sandbox in which to set all manner of pulp fantasy adventures. If you read about it in story by REH, HPL, or CAS, you can easily set it in Hyperborea. The setting is sketched out with just enough detail that the referee isn't left entirely to his own devices, but neither is he hamstrung. Think of the original World of Greyhawk folio and you have a good idea of the level of detail I'm talking about.

If I have a complaint about Hyperborea compared to its predecessors, it's that the setting map is now presented in a softcover Atlas of Hyperborea, which is sold separately. Previous editions, including the second edition hardcover, included a very nice, fold-out map of the lost continent; the Atlas chops up that map into smaller (and much less usable, in my opinion) portions. It's a shame, because Glynn Seal's map of Hyperborea is lovely and deserves better.  

Hyperborea is a product of real passion and dedication, both to the legacy of Gary Gygax and to the imaginations of the greatest writers of Weird Tales. It's a good example of what can be accomplished by a designer with a singular vision and a dedication to seeing it realized. Certainly, Hyperborea is not a fantasy roleplaying for everyone. Its focus and authorial voice are distinctive, even a little out of step with what some may want. But if what you're looking for is a florid, flavorful take on pulp fantasy that nevertheless hews closely to the outlines of Gygaxian AD&D, you're in for a treat.


  1. I've been playing classic D&D with Hyperborea and it's been a lot of fun. I really like it as a ruleset, and I really like its selection of classes, monsters, and treasure (which has some real fun recognizable magic items).

  2. Hyperborea is far and away my favorite incarnation of D&D, and has been since it first appeared in print. I agree with most of your points above, though do have a preference for the unified artistic vision of AS&SH 1e.

  3. Another ASSH 1st edition fan here .I never ran it regularly, but its very inspiring for me- both in the way it is written, and the incredible art. I've used the adventures in other O/TSR systems and never felt the need for 2E and Hyperborea, though Id like to pick up the latest version . IMO, Jeff T is one of the very very few OSR game designers who fires on all cylinders.

  4. I've only played 3rd edition Hyperborea and love it. I was drawn by the Lovecraft and Howard inspirations and then fell in love with the classic art styles and ruleset. HIGHLY recommended. .

  5. James, have you ever perused the World Of Xoth supplement? It tries very much to fit the niche of Sword & Sorcery, and wondered what you thought of it.

    1. I didn't know there was a supplement, but I did review the two Xoth adventures that were published a long time ago and liked them quite a bit.

    2. This is the doc that I've come across over the years.

  6. Personally, I particularly love the setting. I agree with more-or-less everything you wrote in this post, and would just underscore the point about this current, 2-volume edition being much easier to handle than the prior, single volume hardcover. For me, the author's enthusiasm for the material radiates from the text, and is infectious.