Although I’m a fan of fantasy, Tolkien, D&D, etc. I must admit that I’m not very familiar with the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, or most of the others that appeared in Gary Gygax’s Appendix N of the 1E AD&D DMG. I guess I was born in an era that was more of TSR’s Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, etc. I didn’t even discover H.P. Lovecraft until my mid-20s! According to Gygax, he was far more a fan of those writers rather than Tolkien, eschewing the other races besides man and finding more interest in the truly strange and other-worldly. While this wasn’t reflected as much in AD&D as it was in OD&D, it was certainly his personal preference.
I had heard about Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, similar to other Appendix N-influences RPGs such as Crypts & Things and Barbarians of Lemuria. Again, as a fan of the more traditional Tolkien-based fantasy I didn’t give these stories or games much thought. I thought it was too much to get rid of dwarves, elves, dragons, and other key figures that were so deeply rooted in my picture of what fantasy truly was. It wasn’t until I was reading Empire of Imagination that I started to think about it again. I kept coming back to AS&SoH over the other two for a few key reasons: the simple and clean layout, the unbelievably amazing artwork that would make David Trampier proud, and the refined-but-still-familiar AD&D-based rules. While I would love to plunk down $50 for the gorgeous boxed set from North Wind Adventures, I went for the PDF, which at $10 is an amazing deal. NWA is working on a hardcover version of AS&SoH (not sure if one big volume or two), and I may go for that once it’s released.
AS&SoH is split into two volumes, the Players’ Manual and Referee’s Manual. At 256 pages, the Players’ Manual is pretty beefy as far as an OSR RPG goes. Looking at the table of contents, it’s confusing as it only covers through page 95. That’s actually for the first volume (Swordsmen & Sorcerers); if you go to page 97, you’ll see volume 2: Sorcery; page 190 is where volume 3: Adventure & Combat begins.
In addition to the classic classes, AS&SoH also provides sub-classes for each one, and in total there are 18 sub-classes. While I can appreciate the number of choices to create exactly the kind of character I want, I think that’s a bit over-kill. Let’s take the sub-classes for the fighter: barbarian, berserker (is that really much different from a barbarian?), cataphract (que?), paladin, ranger, and warlock (isn’t that normally a magic-user specialization?). See, I can play almost all of those simply by the equipment I carry as well as how I role-play a character during a game. I don’t need something different on my character sheet, various ability and skill options and/or bonuses/penalties. That screams rules bloat, and NOT OSR RPG.
Volume 2: Sorcery takes up almost 100 pages by itself; while it’s not anywhere near the overkill of DCC RPG, it’s still a dis-proportionate amount of space. Now don’t get me wrong, more spells is nice, but at some point you have to limit choices (not just spells, but everything such as equipment, monsters, treasure, etc.). The Referee is gonna have to look up and re-familiarize herself with a spell every time a player want to cast it, and with too many to flip through and read that is gonna slow down or even kill the pace of the game.
Volume 3: Adventure & Combat is also a sizable portion, and it’s all rules here. There’s just too many, and my eyes glaze over as I even attempt to memorize even a fraction of them. I don’t even know if a large Referee screen would help; there’s just too much I’d want to let alone have to include.
At 240 pages the Referee’s Manual is also a decent-sized tome for an OSR RPG. Volume 4: Bestiary takes up the first 118 pages, so there’s a nice variety of monsters to choose from. Like other ORS RPGs the stat-blocks are nice and compact. It is in this volume that I really have to re-iterate the outstanding artwork by Ian Baggley; some of the monster illustrations are downright terrifying (yes, legit freaks me out), giving true understanding just how horrifying it would be to actually meet one (or more!) of these creatures. Even if I don’t play this rule-set, I will definitely consult this volume for inspiration when describing an encounter.
Volume 5: Treasure offers a wide assortment of items to shower upon your player for their hard work, astounding role-playing, and probably sheer luck at survival. I do like the organization and layout especially in this volume; having the text as one-column makes it far easier for me to easily see just what all is on offer to give to the players.
Volume 6: Hyperborea is an optional gazetteer of a setting a Referee can either use as the base for her game or it can be an add-on to an existing campaign world. At first glace I was going to ignore this volume, between already having my own world working as well as growing tired of the total page-count of AS&SoH. However, as I flip through this volume I see a lot of things I could actually use. There isn’t a map shown within the volume, but a separate (and very large) PDF is a detailed map of the region. At the end of the volume is a very short Referee Advice section; I’m not sure if this belongs here (rather than say at the beginning of the Referee’s Manual, and why it couldn’t be expanded to at least a few more pages, include some handy tables, etc.
All things considered AS&SoH is a very impressive and formidable game. A clean (if somewhat simple) layout, good organization, and stunning artwork show off a very different take on classic Appendix N-based gaming. While I personally couldn’t play without the inclusion of Tolkien-based facets of fantasy, there is a lot in AS&SoH I will gladly port over to my game. I am glad I went with the PDF version, as I can extract the volumes I want to keep. If the eventual hardcover isn’t too expensive, I would likely purchase it for the artwork alone, along with all the great information and inspiration it contains.