Monday, May 26, 2014

Classic Review—Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (ASSH) is a recently released retro clone from North Wind Adventures. I say retro clone, but it's one of those games that is based on old school D&D, but also tries to do its own thing, like Adventurer Conquerer King, Blood & Treasure, Adventures Dark & Deep, or Crypts & Things. The term for these is generally "neo-clone", and while some don't find that adequate, their proposed terms haven't caught on.

Whatever you call them, they still more or less play like an old school verison of D&D. So why should you play this (or any other retro/neo clone) over actual old school D&D? Well, some are meant to fix problems that existed in the old games, like unbalanced or broken classes, or the lack of a single skill system. Some try to get the best parts of the various old school D&D games. Others are meant to emulate genres or do some specific task. ASSH does all three.

Primarily, ASSH is meant to emulate "Sword & Sorcery", not so much Tolkien, but Robert Howard and Clark Ashton Smith in particular, with a big dash of H.P. Lovecraft. The setting, Hyperborea, is rather mysterious. It's in the far, far future when the sun has become a red dwarf, and most of the inner planets are gone. Only a section of Earth remains, apparently torn from the distant past (CAS's Hyperborea more or less) and floating in space, somewhat reminescent of the setting of the movie Dark City, only bigger.

In terms of system, in many ways ASSH most resembles AD&D. Perhaps not the AD&D that was ever released, but the AD&D teased in the Holmes Basic Set. Race and class are separate, though "race" is not things like dwarf or elf (since this is more swords & sorcery), but more cultural: Amazon, Kelt, Kimmerian, Hyperborean, and so forth. You have four basic classes - Fighter, Magician, Cleric, and Thief, which is fairly standard. But each has 4 sub-classes (well, fighter has 6), all the traditional ones found in AD&D, but also several more.

I really wanted to get the boxed set, which is actually reasonably priced at $50 for about 500 pages worth of books, but being in a bad financial stretch right now, had to settle for the PDF. That is ordinarily priced at $9.99 total for two volumes weighing in at 250 or so pages and 50 megabytes each, as well as additional PDFs for the maps of the setting.


There is no multi-classing, but some of these sub-classes are essentially multi-class combinations. Balance is mainly handled by the classes needing differing amounts of experience for their level progression. As the level limit in ASSH is 12, this can be somewhat problematic, as some reach their maximum level fairly early, then stop (like the Thief), while others level slowly, but are quite powerful (the Warlock or the Bard).

Fighter subclasses are the Paladin and Ranger, essentially the ones you know. But also the Cataphract, which is like a Cavalier, a Barbarian and a Berzerker, as well as the Warlock which is essentially a fighter/magic-user, though the magic-user abilities top out pretty quickly, only able to cast 3rd level spells at most.

Magician subclasses are the Illusionist, Necromancer, Witch, and Pyromancer. It uses the Vancians system, and each one has their own spell list and a special power or two. The Cleric subclasses, Druid, Monk, Priest, and Shaman, are more different from each other. The Druid is mostly just a variant Cleric, as in regular D&D, but the Priest is a less combat orientated divine spellcaster, and the Shaman is like a Cleric/Magic-User. The Monk is not a spell-caster all, but a martial artist. Although perhaps less terrible than the official AD&D 1e Monk, it seems somewhat lacking in ASSH, too.

The Thief subclasses are the two traditional ones, the Assassin and the Bard, as well as the Scout and the Legerdemainest (ugh, easier to say than to spell). The Assassin is what you expect, while the Bard is more like one of the Dragon magazine ones than the official AD&D 1e monstrosity. It fights like a cleric and casts both Illusionist and Druid spells. The Legerdemainest is basically a thief/magic-user, and the Scout is basically just a thief who can also track like a Ranger.

As characters only go up to 12th level, the highest spell level is 6th. So even though it's more or less the usual D&D spells, most of the super-powerful spells are eliminated. The descriptions are also somewhat simplified, though it still pretty much takes up half of the player's guide. It's pretty much the usual D&D spell list, with a handful of new additions and tweaks.

Since this is an old school D&D style game, hit dice stops around 9th level. Or actually, right at 9th level for every class, as opposed to ranging from 9th to 11th as in old official editions. This mostly affects magic-users, as they normally have 11d4 as their max hit points, though thieves typically also had ten hit dice. At least here they get d6, not just a d4.


ASSH has skills, but only for certain classes. The Thief perform his usual bag of tricks — climb sheer walls, pick pockets, listen, find and remove traps. The Ranger can track.

The difference from other games is that skills are based on a d12. Each skill has a fixed chance of success based on character level, a number from 0 to 10, and if you roll under that number on a d12 the skill check is successful. Each skill has a related ability, and if you have a high score in that ability (16 or better), you get a +1 on the roll.

It's a little clunky, and I don't see the advantage over a d100% system or a d20 system, but it works. 

There is also a secondary skills table, but this mostly seems to be for character background purposes.


If you've played old school D&D, you know what to expect. Roll initiative, roll a d20 to hit, roll your damage, etc.

Combat uses neither THAC0 or Attack Bonus, but instead a chart. Each character (or monster) has a Fighting Ability level of 0 to 12. In practice though, Fighting Ability actually is attack bonus, so a character with a FA of 6 would be +6, needing a 14 to hit an armor class of 0 (or 20 if using Ascending AC).

It's somewhat more detailed than typical old school D&D combat. There are several combat maneuvers that can be performed, though nothing too outlandish.

Somewhat confusingly, there is only one saving throw, but there are still 5 different saving throw situations, and most classes get a bonus in some of those situations.

Strongholds, Domains, & Mass Combat

This gets a fairly short section, but the construction rules are fairly comprehensive, similar to the talbe in the Companion D&D Rules or Rules Cyclopedia. The domain rules are pretty much just handwaved, not even a basic 3 sp per peasant found in other rules.

Mass combat on the other hand gets handled fairly well, if in an abstract manner. Again, it's very much like the system in Companion or RC D&D. You figure out a basic rating of each army, then add a bunch of situational modifiers. Then roll d100 for each side and look at a chart for the results.


About 100 pages of the GM's guide is devoted to the bestiary. Each typically gets half a page devoted to it. Most of the monsters are the usual D&D fare, with some renamed. For instance, the Ogre is renamed the Mountain Ape, and Golems are called Automatons. Demons are slightly revised to Daemons.

There are a handful of Lovecraftian entries for Yithians, Mi-Go, Elder Things, Deep Ones, Shoggoths, Night Gaunts, etc. Not overly comprehensive, but it has the major ones.

In terms of stats, they have all the basic info found in old school D&D, so are usable with other retro-clones. Though most are redundant, with only a few original creatures, so perhaps not that useful if you already have an old school monster book.

Magic Items

Pretty much the usual. Swords and armor typically only go up to +3, though you still have old favorites like the +5 Holy Avenger and +4 Defender. There are a few new magical items, but nothing really mind blowing.

There are on the other hand, a handful of high tech items. While certainly not Gamma World, or even Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, there are things like radium pistols, laser swords, and even a suit of powered armor.


As mentioned, the game is set in Hyperborea, which is apparently in the distant future. But despite that, it's a mish-mash of old sword & sorcery pseudo-historical settings. You have greek-like people like Amazons, Atlanteans, and Thracians. You have Vikings, Kelts, Picts, Kimmerians, and Esquimaux. And then Lovecraftian inspired stuff like Dagon Bay, Dunwich, and the Plains of Leng.

How did this mix come about? Well, they took a page from Auguest Derleth and several from Brian Lumley. In their writings, there is a Great Old One called Ithaqua, the Wind Walker, who sometimes likes to pick people up for an interstellar ride. In Derleth, they were usually deposited back where they started several hundred years later, frozen solid. But in Lumley they were sometimes deposited on Ithaqua's home world, Borea.

As to Hyperborea itself, it's lifted almost directly from Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborea. Just some of the names are spelled slightly different (and a few places missing). Khromarium instead of Commoriom. Mount Vhuurmithadon instead of Mount Voormithadreth.

Hyperborea and its locales, however you spell them, was in the distant past, how it got into the far future isn't explained, exactly, but one of his stories, The Coming of the White Worm, is invoked (again, under a slightly different name). It froze the place (at least part of it), then when it unfroze, it was in the distant future and someplace else.

At any rate, this covers about 50 pages, mostly an overview of things, as well as a calender. Which is somewhat complex, since Hyperborea seems to be in an orbit somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn.

While CAS has been dead quite some time, I'm guessing his stuff might still be under copyright and thus the names had to be changed. But on the flip side, I think they could have done a better job with some of the variant spellings. Many of the Lovecraftian authors would use slightly different names for things, as they were (supposedly) trying to represent inhuman names in various human languages. Cthulhu vs. Tulu for instance. Here they change the pronounciation of things, and being so used to the originals, I find the new ones silly.

Art & Layout

Do you like the art from the old sword & sorcery novels? And early AD&D/D&D? Pre-Elmore? Then you will love the art in this. There is a lot of it, too. Not every monster is illustrated, but a lot are. Lots of illustrations in the rules as well. Alas, no cartoons.

The layout mimics the small booklets of Original D&D, only in six booklets instead of 3, though as I said, in PDF form, you just get those dvided into two PDFs, one for the players and one for GMs. Single column and thus very easily read on my Nook HD+ tablet, but perhaps a bit clumsy on a PC or printed out.

There is an index! And the PDFs are bookmarked. Both can be a rarity in OSR publications.

Final Thoughts

Although ASSH does some questionable things, like essentially using Attack Bonus but keeping the descending armor class and sticking with a combat chart, or the single save but classes getting conditional bonuses, all in all it's an extremely playable game with a lot of flavor. If you like a lot of customization, it might not be for you, but the huge selection of sub-classes provides a lot of character variety.

Still, the thief is far too weak, and while there are several subclasses that serve as the multiclass combinations, there isn't anything for the fighter/thief. I'm not sure how you could replicate the Gray Mouser in this.

From the GM side though, it's a bit of a letdown. The bestiary is mostly from D&D with a smattering of Lovecraft. I would have liked more original critters. They could have cut out some of the mundane entries. While I'll admit the leaping camel was clever (it's like a Tautaun from Star wars), did we really need stats for deer or giant weasels or giant sloths? There's not a huge amount of waste, but still, the space could have been put to better use.

And the setting just doesn't do much for me. Karl Edward Wagner managed to construct a very plausible sword & sorcery world in his Kane novels that captured most of Lovecraft, Howard, and CAS's ideas, yet wasn't so blatantly derivative. There's a difference between an homage and a knock-off. This falls perilously close to the latter.

As a rules set, I would give it an B+. As a setting, I would give it a C.

Do you want to play something familiar, yet different? Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is a solid choice.

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