Wednesday, December 20, 2017

AS&SH Review

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is a game by Jeff Talanian of North Wind Adventures.  "A Role Playing Game of Swords, Sorcery, and Weird Fantasy", AS&SH is a retroclone somewhat resembling 1e but with significant changes, and including the built in setting of Hyperborea, which is heavily influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and many other great authors of weird fiction.  I've been running the game for my group for a handful of sessions now and decided to write up a review with my thoughts so far.  This is fairly long, as necessary for a book this size, looking at the Kickstarter fulfillment and then each section of the book, so if you want the quick version: I love it, 5/5, etc.

The Kickstarter

The second edition of AS&SH was funded through a Kickstarter in October 2016, with fulfillment scheduled for August 2017.  I backed the Kickstarter at the pdf level initially, but upgraded to the physical book once I'd gotten the chance to play a game at NTRPG con last June.  The completed pdfs were sent to backers in September, with physical rewards going out at the beginning of October, and fulfillment completing early December.  Jeff hand numbered and signed each of the books that went out.  In the world of Kickstarters, completing 100% of fulfillment within a few months of projected delivery is a huge win.  I also have to praise Jeff for his communication throughout the process.  His updates were timely and he seemed to track everything very well.  He allowed me to upgrade my pledge after the initial backer kits had gone out, and I moved just prior to shipment, and there was no issue getting the book to me.  Also, the book arrived very safely bubble wrapped.  Plenty of folks have been sharing their pictures on the AS&SH G+ community, and the quality of the shipment has been consistently praised.

I had no prior experience with AS&SH, but the first edition was a box set with 2 spiral bound books about 250 pages each (players' and referees') and a black and white poster map.  The second edition is a single massive 692 page book, divided into 5 volumes, and including a huge 32"x40" full color map by Glynn Seal of Monkey Blood Design.  The map is gorgeous.  I believe it was hand drawn with colored pencils.  The physical book uses Smyth sewn binding, which allows it to lie flat and is very durable.  The cover has a sort of matte texture that looks and feels great.

So, high marks for the Kickstarter and the quality of the physical products.  The book is available for order now for $69.99.  It's one of the more expensive books in the RPG world, but it is an all-in-one book - players guide, magic, referee stuff, monsters, setting overview, and a collection of handy appendices.  The pdf can be picked up for only $19, which is a huge amount of content for the price.

Volume I: Swordsmen & Sorcerers

The players' section starts off with the customary introduction to role-playing games and using dice.  It only spends a single page on this before jumping into character creation.  The standard array of attributes are here: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.  Attribute modifiers range from -3 to +3 at most.  The physical attributes include Tests and Extraordinary Feats which can be used to quickly resolve most physical activities.  A Test is a fairly reasonable activity, such as forcing open a locked door, snag a grappling hook on a ledge, or swim long distances.  These are rolled on a d6 and have a 1 in 6 at worst, 5 in 6 at best chance.  Extraordinary Feats are heroic actions with a much lower probability.  These are d100 checks that have only a 4% chance for the average man, and at best (an 18 Strength Fighter, for example), a 40%.  Extraordinary Feats provide an easy task resolution mechanic when players want to attempt something truly heroic and/or outlandish.

The selection of character classes available is an area in which AS&SH really shines.  In a recent interview, Jeff Talanian discussed developing the system and it sounded like it was through creating new character classes that he really decided this needed to be its own thing, rather than being bolted onto an existing game.  This certainly makes sense when looking at the classes, as all 26 of the available classes are wonderfully written to evoke the swords & sorcery feel of Hyperborea.  Each class has its own progression table, attribute and alignment requirements, armor and weapon options and saving throw bonuses, and a smattering of abilities both at start and gained overtime.  They all also have 9th level end game options geared towards domain play, such building strongholds and attracting troops and collecting taxes, or the druid's need to challenge elders in the hierarchy to progress further, or witch attracting apprentices which might form a coven.  Ian Baggley's class illustrations especially give life to this section, with my favorite Druid example ever.  Yeah, shirtless, bearded, antlered, spear raised overhead and riding a boar.  No nature hippies here, folks.

While there is no multi-classing in AS&SH, the classes really cover the gamut of options most players will look for, and do so with style.  The Barbarian, Berserker, and Huntsman are all familiar fighter archetypes that show up here, but each one has unique abilities that make them feel very distinct from each other and entirely at home in Hyperborea's cruel wilderness.  Among the Magician subclasses, the Witch stands out as a favorite, complimented with alchemy skills starting at level 1, and yes, they do eventually get a flying broom.  AS&SH also provides the best take on the Cleric I've ever seen with the Runegraver subclass.  This more combat oriented class carves runes on bone, wood, or stone which can cast spells when the Runegraver spills his own blood onto them and speaks a short poem.  Each of the runes available has its own symbol, name, and a poem sourced from Runic and Heroic Poems of the Old Teutonic People, Cambridge.  That's gotta be one of my favorite things I've ever seen in an RPG.

Moving into Races, AS&SH jettisons all demihumans in favor of 11 distinct human races, from Amazons to Vikings.  They all have a bit of history and culture described, as well as their own physique modifiers, languages (complete with varying dialects), and homelands.  There is a common race and common tongue, both of which I've ignored in my campaign to good effect.  My players are a mixed group - Amazon, Kelt, Kimmerian, and Viking, but there is plenty of room for racial animosity with the Picts, Ixians, and Esquimaux, and the Hyperboreans and Atlanteans feel completely alien, despite being human.

Volume I finished up with equipage, and here AS&SH is very comprehensive as well.  Armor uses descending AC but also as slight damage reduction for the better armors (1-2 points at most).  The weapon tables are quite large but the variety is not only cosmetic, as the weapons give a wide variety of advantages to consider, such as bonuses vs plate armor, greater reach, and damage bonuses when set against charges.  If your players tire of weapon choice being largely irrelevant - or worse, one clear winner - this section should excite them.  The equipage continues with standard adventuring gear, religious items (my favorite item being the crock of woad body paint), livestock, and room and board.  having a good selection of stuff for the players to want to buy helps incentivize adventuring.  Straight away the Ranger of our group set his sights on getting a couple war dogs in barding and saved up from his first two adventures to buy those.  If the equipage selection seems overwhelming, the section ends with a standard equipment back for each of the 26 classes, so character creation needn't get bogged down in the minutiae of provisioning.

All in all, Volume I covers most everything the players need to get started.  As much as I like the large AS&SH book, I'd love to see a soft cover printing of just volume I to pass around the table to players.

Volume II: Sorcery

This section discusses all matters pertaining to the learning and casting of magic.  Magic in AS&SH is of the standard Vancian style we all grew up with.  While I've heard some people express disappointment that AS&SH didn't do something significantly different to evoke a more swords & sorcery vibe, my favorite Rambling Conan the Cimmerian Blog wrote an interesting review on AS&SH in regards to how well it runs a Conan RPG, and the section on Sorcery makes a very good argument for the magic system being a perfect fit.  For me, I never had an issue with the magic system to begin with.  One thing AS&SH does very well regarding sorcery is in providing examples of where its spellcasters gain their arcane knowledge from.  The Necromancer gains favor from daemons and netherworldly beings, the Druid learns spiritual revelations from ancestral spirits, the Priest puts together abstract theologies, while the Shaman learns secrets from spirits of the dead and etched on ancient stone tablets.  It's up to the referee to incorporate these suggestions into the game, but if done so, it takes the feel of sorcery in AS&SH a long ways from the wizard academies of high fantasy.

The other way AS&SH imparts its flavor on sorcery is through its carefully selected spell lists.  There are 6 spell lists for the Magician and its subclasses, as well as a Cleric and Druid spell list.  Keep in mind that the Runegraver has its own spells defined by its runes, and the Shaman chooses between Magician or Necromancer, and Cleric or Druid, when deciding which spell lists to cast from.  So while you'll see many familiar, standard spells on the lists, the selection available to each class further refines the class distinctions.  Witches don't throw around Magic Missiles and Fireballs, they cast Blight and Summon Daemon.  Aside from the odd utility spell essentially required to be considered a wizard, every spell available to the Pyromancer involves lights, flames, and smoke.  There is nothing subtle about that sorcerer.

Spell descriptions are fairly succinct, listing the level (by class), range, duration, and a brief description of the effects.  I am not nearly the scholar necessary to say which spells have appeared in what other sources and which are new to AS&SH.  I will say I recognize more than I don't, but there are some surprises in here for me.  The Danse Macabre is a fun low level undead animation spell that I've just granted to my group's Necromancer.  Black Tentacles I got to see in play at NTRPG and it positively wrecked a group of enemies.  I'm not sure the total count of spells, but this section covers 70 pages and seems pretty complete to me.

Volume III: Adventure & Combat

Here begins the referee's section of the tome and will likely be the hardest section to fully digest and the one filled with the most surprises.  Comprehensive is a word I keep using to describe AS&SH and this section is why.  This book begins with rules for hirelings and henchmen, including commoners, mercenaries, and specialists.  This includes descriptions, costs, and rules for reactions, loyalty, and morale.  There is a great little section on adventure preparation, from setting an itinerary and marching order to establishing caller and mapper.  I'd have liked this section to be included at the end of Volume I to be player facing instead, but I appreciate its inclusion nonetheless.

Rules for all the various adventuring activities are laid out.  Climbing, light sources, dealing with traps, encumbrance, time, movement in the dungeon and the wilderness, surprise, reaction checks, death and healing, all are covered in about 8 pages.  It's efficient and easy to understand.

The rules for combat might take a little longer to understand, especially for newer gamers.  As I said, this game uses descending AC.  I started out on 2e and pretty freely mixed with 1e and Moldvay Basic in my youth, so I don't mind descending at all, but for my group of players, this is a first.  There is a combat matrix in which the referee cross-references the character's fighting ability or the monster's hit dice with the roll to determine the armor class hit.  In play, I keep this matrix up all the time and my players do not even check it.  I've come to actually like this, as it puts a little bit of a barrier to the players' knowledge of what their opponent AC and hit dice is.  It's nothing they can't work out in their heads, but they seem to largely ignore it and focus more on what's happening in the combat rather than what the numbers are, so I consider that a very positive effect of the system.

Initiative may also seem confusing at first.  The game uses group initiative (rolled after declaring actions) and a two phase combat sequence.  The tables in the book make this seem much more confusing than it is in play.  What I've found is that this runs very fast and creates a very flexible, fluid combat round.  I keep a sheet ready with participants and 2 columns representing the phase, and as they declare their actions just make a quick notation on each phase.  Something like Sh|Sh for a character just firing a bow both rounds, or MV|ML for someone moving in phase 1 and attacking in phase 2.  The advantage of this system is that it's extremely flexible for the players.  No matter what my players have wanted to try it has been simple to adjudicate when it happens.  Simpler systems often restrict players to such singular actions that their turn can feel wasted when having to navigate over terrain or use equipment, while more complex systems get bogged down in each person having such an array of actions for each round that players tend to check out in between their turns.  This system really does a good job of allowing complexity but keeping everyone engaged.

Adding to the complexity of the system is a very good list of combat actions.  In addition to the expected modifiers for flanking, charging, high ground, etc, AS&SH has rules for interesting stuff like arrow setting (taking a round to stab arrows into the ground increases the archer's firing rate as long as he stays stationary at his arrows), using an off-hand weapon for parrying, splintering shields with axes, and throwing an off-hand weapon ahead while charging into combat.  None of the rules are complicated or require a lot of look-ups, but they give the players a lot of fun options in combat if they care for that sort of thing.

Volume II continues with rules for special damage like asphyxiation and energy drain, bouts of madness, and a table of poisons.  There is advice for rewarding experience points and the cost of leveling up with and without training with a master.  And then the book gets into aerial combat, waterborne expeditions (this includes a table of vessels to choose from, hazards of storms and icebergs, getting lost at sea and drowning, and naval combat), and finally gets into the domain level play missing from so many systems.  There are rules for the construction and maintenance of strongholds, managing resources and taxes, and mass-scale warfare.  I've never had a game run into domain play but I certainly hope my current campaign will last long enough to and I'm glad to see this game provides rules for covering that portion of play.

Volume IV: Bestiary

What would an RPG be without a folio of fiends to challenge would-be heroes with?  AS&SH's Bestiary includes a large variety of monsters culled from classic monster manuals, Lovecraftian Mythos, and Old Earth mythology.  Monster stats are presented in concise listings with the bulk of the description given to any special abilities.  Each monster has morale and treasure class listed, which is always appreciated.  Illustrations are fairly frequent and range from extremely evocative to merely utilitarian.

One of the best sections is the assortment of Daemons in the book.  With 7 Greater, 15 Lesser, and 6 Sublunary, ranging in hit dice from 1 to 15, there is no reason that the infernally-minded referee couldn't make daemons a ready feature of a campaign early and often.  Given how many swords & sorcery tales involve encounters with daemons and their ilk, it's good to see so many options to choose from here.

Likewise, there are plenty of weird Lovecraftian horrors to choose from.  Elder things, deep ones, mi-go, and shoggoths are all here.  You won't find any goblins, and orcs have been reflavored as daemon-picts, appropriate for a Kimmerian barbarian to face off against.  There are no dragons here.  A giant draco lizard can glide on wings, while the giant komodo dragon breathes fire, but neither comes close to the super-intelligent, magical, near-deity creatures of high fantasy.  There are a couple surprising inclusions, such as the owl bear and treants, that feel out of place.

The volume concludes with tables listing all of the monsters by hit dice.  There are no encounter tables by dungeon level or terrain type here.  Fortunately, a fan made supplement of encounter tables is available here which is quite comprehensive, including tables for every region of the map and every terrain type.

While the Bestiary is generally very good, this is the one volume in which the single massive book does not work in its favor.  One of my favorite books I own is the Swords & Wizardry Monstrosities, which is about 500 pages and gives every monster entry its own page including stat block, illustration, description, and adventure hook.  Something similar for AS&SH would be fantastic, particularly tying each monster to a piece of source fiction if possible.  However, this book is already 692 pages, so complaining that it isn't long enough just seems ridiculous.

Volume V: Treasure

While referees are motivated by having a wide assortment of devils to throw at the players, the players are most motivated by the treasures they can gain.  AS&SH delivers the goods.  The treasure class tables allows randomly rolling up treasure for every monster slain, every lair plundered.  There are tables for generating a nice variety of gems and jewelry to keep the mundane treasures interesting.  The magical treasures include all the scrolls, potions, armor, and weapons your players could ever dream of hording.  While there are plenty of old standards, it spices things up with some weird technology if you like mixing those elements.  This is completely optional to include but does support the more alien aspects of the setting.

This volume is 67 pages and includes everything I'd want in a treasure listing.  I'm always in favor of creating new, weird, unexpected magic items, but this gives plenty to work with.  The chapter is not to be skimmed too quickly though, or you'll miss Ian Baggley's homage to the classic Paladin in Hell.

Volume VI: Hyperborea Gazetteer

With everything in AS&SH oozing this fantastic weird swords & sorcery feel, this book would be terribly incomplete without an overview of Hyperborea.  This volume presents a world torn away from Old Earth by some long forgotten cataclysm.  This flat shard now floats the the black void under a bloated red sun, spilling its seas over the edges at the Boreas.  Hyperborea is as hostile a setting as I've ever read.  The gods of Hyperborea are cruel and distant, a pantheon that includes Xathoqqua and Kthulhu among its most worshiped.  Its calendar works on a 13 year cycle, with seasons lasting 3-4 years each.  In the dead of winter, the 13th year called Nightfall, the world exists under an entire night of wintry darkness.

Tracking time in a campaign is vitally important to maintaining records and presenting meaningful decisions, and Hyperborea has its own 13 month calendar complete with moon phases, festivals, and daylight tracking.  Once again, AS&SH surprises for its complete consideration for supporting long term campaigns.

The present history of Hyperborea is recorded in less than 600 years, with its ancient history being a series of cataclysms, from being ripped away from Old Earth to the Green Death which decimated the population.  Today no settlement exists with more than 8000 people, and most villages are only a few hundred.  The wilderness between is roaming with ferocious beasts, terrible monsters, dangerous environmental hazards, and a variety of deadly flora.

The various regions of Hyperborea are given brief overviews, most of no more than a couple paragraphs.  Major settlements and significant geographical features receive additional focus.  This is just enough to give each region a distinct feel and inspiration for developing, without getting bogged in minute details that can restrict a referee from making Hyperborea their own.  It also works to promote a sense of wanderlust in the setting, similar to Conan's travels.  I've already begun sprinkling in rumors of far off places to my players in order to inspire them to strike out from the humble village we've been adventuring around so far.  I certainly hope to put AS&SH's waterborne expedition rules into play as the adventurers meander from the Crab Archipelago to Port Zangerios and off to the dreaded Isle of IX.

If you are a fan of the source material, Hyperborea offers everything you could want in a setting.  It's just detailed enough to include all the right pieces, while sketches vaguely enough to allow all the freedom to make it your own.

The Appendices

Five volumes of game out of the way, AS&SH then delivers 50 pages of 5 appendices.  Appendix A is referee advice, which gives credit to Gygax and Arneson, tasks the referee with using this book as a tool to craft your own adventure campaign with, and implores the referee to maintain careful records of the campaign and the passage of time.  All good advice.

Appendix B gives tables for randomly generating the weather.  I've used this a bit and am satisfied that it provides fairly realistic feeling results.  I've begun using it as a baseline for a week of weather and then relying on Blackadder's encounter tables for giving more severe weather.  There are good effects listed here though for negative weather, including missile fire penalties and visibility and movement reductions.

Appendix C presents two adventuring parties at level 1, 5, and 9.  The first of these are the adventurers illustrated throughout the 1st edition of AS&SH.  The second party is the one illustrated on the volume covers of 2nd edition.

Appendix D and E provide a starting settlement and corresponding adventure, suitable for first level characters.  The village of Swampgate is written in detail, including history, map, keyed locations, and about a dozen NPCs.  The adventure involves exploring a nearby dungeon to rescue a couple missing farmers from Swampgate.  I've been using the town of Swmapgate in my game.  It made it easy to jump into the setting of Hyperborea with little effort and build out from there.  The town has everything needed for a starting party, some rumors of goings-on, and sits on a dangerous borderland which opens the game to a variety of adventuring situations.  I've not yet run the starting adventure but have read it.  It includes a very nice dungeon map, also by Monkey Blood Designs.  The dungeon has a few types of enemies to fight, a couple traps, lots of branching routes, and an interesting backstory.  I do intend to get my play group to the dungeon soon, but am changing the hook.  I don't feel like my current adventuring party would risk much to rescue some farmers.  I always love it when a game includes a starting adventure though.  It just makes it easier to jump in and try it out and get a sense of the sort of thing the author was going for.

Final Thoughts

If you read all this, it's probably pretty obvious that I love this game.  I originally backed the Kickstarter just to pilfer some ideas since it name-dropped my favorite authors, but this is a game I want to run for a very long time.  It's also a game I terribly want to play in.  The book is gorgeous and a fun read.  Jeff has a different writing style, something kind of Gygaxian but distinctly his own.  Actually, that describes the whole game.  For something that is inherently derivative, a retroclone pulling inspiration for a bunch of weird fantasy fiction, it manages to come out feeling completely fresh and exciting and new.  Highly recommended.


  1. I haven't had the time to delve deeply into my KS-acquired copy yet, so it was great to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

  2. Cool review, have the PDF of it and--if I could find a way to purchase it without P&P almost doubling the cost--I'd grab a hardcopy as well.

  3. This is the most wonderfully thorough review I have seen for the 2nd edition of AS&SH so far. Thank you Zach for your time and consideration. With your permission, I'd love to share this blog on some of my social media locations (FB, G+, Twitter). Let me know! Cheers, ~Jeff T.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Jeff. Feel free to share this anywhere. I already posted it on a couple rpg forums and as on rpgnow/drivethru.

    2. Thanks, Zach! Will do. Again, excellent and very thorough. Color me impressed!

  4. Awesome review Mr. Pierce. Very thorough and an interesting read. Glad you liked it!