Limitless Worlds

Limitless Worlds

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Review of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea has just got a formal release after its successful Kickstarter back in December, so I decided to give it a look.

ASSH, as it will now be called, is written by Jeffrey Talanian and put out under North Wind Adventures. It pens itself as a game of 'Swords, Sorcery and Weird Fantasy.' The tag of Weird Fantasy was what really drew me to the game, as I am an adamant fan of Lovecraft stories, and I haven't found that good system to integrate them into fantasy games.

ASSH is a pretty weighty PDF product. It comes with 6 files: The Player's Manual, the Referee's Manual, the Box Art (the game will be printed in a box set), a map of the setting, Hyperborea, and a two-page character sheet. The two manuals combined offer up about 500 pages, but the text is rather large, so the page numbers just seem to flit past.

In terms of the mechanics, its hard to mask my disappointment, honestly. I came expecting a very brutal rules set to reflect the deadly nature of weird fantasy, but all I got was an almost identical clone of AD&D 1e. Sadly, it's not even a very elegant clone; there are still all those warts from AD&D, such as disparaging task resolution, complex ideas such as weapon reach and combat tables, and different phases of combat. It even has the feel of a reference manual, with the table of contents listing Tables instead of topics. There is not even a detailed description about madness or sanity, which seems kind of contrary to weird fantasy. There is a system, but it is basically 1e's madness system. There is a fairly meaty Advanced Combat section if you like that kind of thing. If you like AD&D, then this is no problem, but for someone like me who started with 3e, I don't find very much appeal.

The game is class based, with the four traditional classes of Cleric, Fighter, Thief and Mage. There are also some pretty cool sub-classes, such as the Pyromancer, Ledgermainist (a slightly magical thief), and the Cataphract. There are no demi-humans in Hyperborea, but there are human cultures based on real world cultures, such as Celtics and Vikings. The max level is 12, which is kind of a strange number.

Spells are standard D&D fair, though the magician gets less spells than more high fantasy games. There are rules for Strongholds, Aerial Combat, Mass Combat and Naval Combat, but they all have that feeling of first edition rust on them.

The Referee Manual is a bit better. There is a bestiary, which is basically the 1e Monster Manual with some Lovecraftian monsters thrown in. The Treasure section is still pretty high fantasy, with things like +2 Fire Swords and Bags of Holding. The bright spot, though, is the setting. The setting is rich, detailed, and pretty creepy. Gods range from the ever graceful Apollo to the Lovecraftian Ithaqqua or Kthulu. I mean, even the lunar calendar is well detailed. It's a shame the system does not particularly back up the great setting.

The art in the books is really great, however. Ian Baggley is the sole artist, and he is a trained traditional artist. All of his work is done in charcoals, and its very dark and foreboding. The monster illustrations are pretty great, with the Elder Thing being really stand out.

Overall, ASSH has, what I feel, is a lot of failed potential. It's not a bad game by any means, and if you like 1e, it should hit a lot of sweet spots. I just don't feel like it accurately portrays Weird Fantasy in the rules, and is instead "D&D + Cthulhu", which you can do pretty easily by yourself. If the game was produced solely as a supplement for something like Labyrinth Lord, which would have the setting and additional classes, I would be much less disappointed. Granted, the entire 500 page product is only $10, so it's a pretty good steal and I don't really regret buying it.

I give ASSH a 7/10, mostly on account of the fantastic art and setting material. Though the mechanics are more than usable, I think they could have been so much more than they are.

You can buy ASSH through RPGNow or DriveThruRPG for $10.

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