Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea (AS&SH) is a game I’ve seen mentioned more than a few times on more than a few blogs. I feel like the name alone made this game worth checking out, so I went and picked up a PDF copy. Here is what I think about it after an initial read through:
First of all, as a Dungeons and Dragons retro-clone, there are a lot of nice things about AS&SH. One thing I like is that the old Open Doors and Bend Bars/Lift Gates abilities associated with Strength are given a broader scope, and renamed Test of Strength and Extraordinary Feat of Strength, respectively. Dexterity and Constitution are given a “Test of…” and “Extraordinary Feat of…” column as well, providing a simple and effective way of adjudicating physical feats and challenges. I also like how Saving Throws have been streamlined. In AS&SH there is only one saving throw instead of five, with different classes having different modifiers to the roll depending on what it is that is forcing the character to make a saving throw. There are several simple innovations like this throughout the rules that I really like.
While there are some interesting variations to an otherwise familiar combat system, like an optional first strike rule and combat sub-phases that follow an “I go, you go” format, there are no real surprises here. Even less surprising are the magic rules, with spell lists lifted directly from an old Dungeons and Dragons manual (some names have been changed of course, to protect innocent game publishers from the wrath of powerful wizards like Tenser, Bigby, Mordenkainen, and Tasha). This lack of any innovation in the magic system is one of the most disappointing things about this game, which I will discuss in a moment. Magic items are given a near identical treatment, though a few sci-fi items like a laser sword (it’s what you think it is) and radiation grenades add a nice touch.
One thing that sets AS&SH apart from many of its peers is an extensive list of sub-classes (there are a total of eighteen) and a very short list of playable races (you can be a human). I don’t have a problem with either of these things, generally speaking, but it bothers me a little that Fighters get six sub-classes, while Magicians, Clerics, and Thieves each only get four. I also wish the sub-classes felt more inspired by the setting (more on this in a moment as well).
The player’s guide does a good job covering most conceivable situations, including sections on waterborne encounters, stronghold construction, and some warfare and siege rules that give a clear nod to Chainmail. This attention to detail is commendable in a retro-clone, and I am sure many players and dungeon masters will be happy to have these resources at their disposal in any lengthy AS&SH campaign.
The campaign setting for AS&SH has a lot of things going for it as well. The world is a hexagon, with oceans spilling over the sides into a void, where the mysterious boreal winds howl. The land mass is relatively small when compared to many campaign worlds (the continent of Hyperborea is about 3,000 miles wide), but there is still ample area for adventure, and the gazetteer gives a great overview of the major regions and races of Hyperborea. There really is a lot of setting material here, and it all does a good job of hitting the mark it’s aiming for. One of the more unique things about AS&SH is the setting’s unique seasonal/solar cycle. It takes Hyperborea 13 “earth years” to make a full revolution around its sun, with this period being broken down in to 13 sub-years of 13 months each. What makes these 13 sub divisions unique is that the cycle begins with a period of near total darkness, waxes towards a period of eternal sun near the middle of the cycle, and wanes towards a year of total darkness. There is a lot of room to establish very different moods during these different solar cycles, with each providing its own unique set of challenges.
So what’s not to like? As a retro-clone, the rules are solid and the attention to detail applied to character classes, combat, and all things adventure-related, will surely appeal to a wide cross-section of old school gamers. Descriptively, the setting is plenty pulpy, and fans of Howard, Leiber, Morecock, and even Lovecraft will find something they like here. The problem is that a great Dungeons and Dragons retro-clone and a great sword and sorcery setting don’t just mesh seamlessly together because you throw them both in the same box.
This is especially true for me when it comes to magic. Dungeons and Dragons magic just doesn’t feel like the magic of Conan or Elric; the majority of the spells themselves and the formulaic system of memorization just feels completely wrong for the setting. Magic in the genre that the AS&SH setting wants to be a part of is more free-form, typically requires some sacrifice, and is often bestowed on the wielder by otherworldly, often malevolent forces. Magic is one of the most defining elements of any fantasy setting, and I’m disappointed that nothing was done to make magic in AS&SH feel more like it does in the literature that inspired so much of the setting. Likewise, many of the magic items that are staples of Dungeons and Dragons (and their usual proliferation) don’t feel very evocative of the genre.
These same sentiments can be applied to the sub-classes in AS&SH as well. I said earlier that in general I don’t have a problem with the sub-classes, and I don’t: they are fine for what they are. They just aren’t pulpy. None of the sub-classes feel like they are inspired by the setting material. No Solomon-Kane-inspired witch-hunter sub-class; no swashbuckler. In fact, if you removed all style formatting and game name information from what you were reading, you would probably think the player’s manual and the gazetteer for AS&SH were from two separate games.
Ultimately, Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea is either a solid set of retro-clone rules for your Dungeons and Dragons style game or an interesting sword and sorcery setting for your pulp style game. It just doesn’t feel like it does a great job at being both of those things at the same time.