Thursday, 27 February 2014

Review: Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

This is a review of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (henceforth AS&SH), a game published by North Wind Adventures. AS&SH is a complete game, rules-wise mostly resembling 1st edition AD&D; its official world, Hyperborea, is greatly influenced by the works of R. E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, C. A. Smith, E. R. Burroughs, Fritz Leiber, Abraham Merritt, Michael Moorcock, and Jack Vance (the list is actually from the book), and it has a good deal of sword-and-sorcery and weird fantasy elements.

The game comes in a box with two books (Player's Manual and Referee's Manual) containing three volumes each, a poster map of Hyperborea, six character sheets, and some dice. Unfortunately, I cannot talk about the quality of these as I only bought a pdf copy (honestly, with international shipping costs added, the boxed set was way too expensive for me). Nevertheless, the books are extremely well-written and superbly edited; the reader is oft guided to other sections of the same or of other volumes and is given notes reminding him to important and useful things.

The language of the product is both clear and evocative; the thorough notations help the reader interpret the text and not forget important details, while the vocabulary choices maintain and support the atmosphere created by the illustrations. Oh my god, those illustrations! Ian Baggley single-handedly illustrated the whole game, striking a perfect chord with Jeffrey Talanian's prose.

The setting of AS&SH is called Hyperborea; once an earthly paradise, now a flat, hexagonal pocket-dimension far from the Old Earth, surrounded by the boreas and, beyond, the Black Gulf. A year is approximately as long as here; however, it takes 13 years to cycle through all four seasons. One of those years is spent in radiant light, another in total darkness.

Cultures, languages, flora, fauna, the unique calendar, deities, festivals, ancient and recent history are briefly described, and so are the most important geographical features, cities, and political units. Hyperborea is a nicely done setting with a strong sword-and-sorcery vibe. It presents enough material to be evocative and playable, yet it does not restrict the Referee or the players in any way. For the Hungarian readers, the balance we can find here is comparable to Melan's Fomalhaut, only with a larger and sometimes more alien setting.

I must admit, writing this review was challenging. I enjoy playing D&D: casting spells, killing monsters, taking their stuff, what's not to like? However, I have this never ending desire for streamlined and uniformed rules that give me freedom and direction at the same time. I also like the aesthetics of the sword-and-sorcery genre; again, who doesn't? And although D&D was very much inspired by it, there have been many attempts to make a proper S&S version of D&D. I will not go into details why this may be a daunting task, if not impossible (I have written about some of the assumptions of D&D here and about "Will it still be D&D if I change this and that?" here); let's just say D&D is not only defined by what the player characters do (i.e. kill monsters and take their stuff) but also how the rules are structured (this may not be the best wording but I hope it's understandable).

The system at first glance appears to be a streamlined version of first edition AD&D. Creating a character follows the same steps as in other D&D-esque games: (1) determine ability scores, (2) choose a class, (3) buy equipment, (4) calculate hit points, saves, attacks, AC, etc. The first noticeable difference is the lack of playable demi-humans; you may only be human, but you may be of various cultures (Amazon, Pict, Kelt, Viking, just to name a few) that have no mechanical effect, only colourful fluff.

The game presents 4 main classes and 18 (!) sub-classes. The main classes - Fighter, Cleric, Magician, and Thief - will not surprise people with basic knowledge of D&D, nor will most of the sub-classes (like the Paladin, Druid, or Monk). Even though they are not unique in themselves, they are most certainly well done and nicely described - in other words, let me say it again, streamlined.

Of similarly excellent quality are the adventuring and combat rules. The former explains the usual stuff (lighting, travelling, overcoming obstacles) and presents three (or four) different mechanics to decide if the characters are successful: (1) as per class ability; if it is a physical test, it may be (2a) simple (X-in-6 chance based on the relevant ability score) or (2b) extraordinary (percentile chance based on relevant ability score); or (3) an X-in-6 chance arbitrated by the Referee based on difficulty, likeliness, etc. To the simple d20+modifiers vs. AC combat system an optional and simple variant of weapon length-based initiative and a slightly complicated but tactically rich two-phased system are introduced.

A superbly presented bestiary is included as well with thematically appropriate monsters, such as sabre-toothed tigers, apemen, and elder things. Most of the creatures are re-imagined versions of already existing monsters (thus orcs became demonic picts and ogres became mountain apes), but even the old classics are well done with properly worded special abilities that are nicely summarised and easily locatable and are accompanied by evocative illustrations.

The treasure tables contain mostly the usual D&D-esque stuff (coins, gems, jewellery), including magic items; a few setting-specific and technologically advanced items are thrown in, as well. This and the spell lists (different but sometimes overlapping lists for the magician, cleric, druidillusionist, pyromancer, necromancer, and witch) are sometimes said to be lacking sword-and-sorcery flavour and be from vanilla D&D.

And here we arrive at the hard conclusions. AS&SH is a fantastic game. It presents all the familiar rules in an excellent manner, sometimes with clever little changes; I, for one, would definitely use the rules in a non-Hyperborea campaign if I were after an AD&D-esque feeling (i.e. somewhat more complex than B/X with a plethora of options, yet simple enough that it will not make me go crazy).

But is AS&SH a sword-and-sorcery game? Certainly, the setting is very reminiscent of Howard's and Smith's worlds; yet many may feel that something is missing: it is too much alike D&D. And they would be right, for this game is "merely" a superbly edited version of AD&D that happens to have Hyperborea as its setting.

For one, I very much enjoy playing D&D, and I strive to find a system that I am satisfied with. AS&SH is one such a game. I recommend this game for those gamers who similarly look for an "ideal" version of D&D; for those who would like to play in a well-presented and evocative setting without giving up the beauties of D&D (such as classes, levels, AC, memorisation, or fireballs); and for those who would like to take a look at what high-quality illustrations and editing (!) looks like. The PDF for 10$ is available on RPGNow and Drivethrustuff, and the boxed set in North Wind Adventures' online store.