Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea

A Northwind Adventures game

Review By: Ernie Laurence

Text: Jeffrey P. Talanian
Editing: David Prata
Cover Art: Charles Lang
Frontispiece Art: Val Semeiks
Frontispiece Colours: Daisey Bingham
Interior Art: Ian Baggley, Johnathan Bingham, Charles Lang, Peter Mullen, Russ Nicholson,
Glynn Seal, Val Semeiks, Jason Sholtis, Logan Talanian, Del Teigeler
Cartography: Glynn Seal
Graphic Embellishments: Glynn Seal
Layout: Jeffrey P. Talanian
Play-Testing (Original Edition): Jarrett Beeley, Dan Berube, Jonas Carlson, Jim Goodwin,
Don Manning, Ethan Oyer
Play-Testing (Second Edition): Dan Berube, Dennis Bretton, John Cammarata, Jonas Carlson,
Don Manning, Anthony Merida, Charles Merida, Mark Merida
Additional Development (Original Edition): Ian Baggley, Antonio Eleuteri, Morgan Hazel,
Joe Maccarrone, Benoist Poiré, David Prata, Matthew J. Stanham
Additional Development (Second Edition): Ben Ball, Chainsaw, Colin Chapman, Rich Franks,
Michael Haskell, David Prata, Joseph Salvador

Introduction

Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, or simply Hyperborea, for short, is a sword and sorcery style tabletop rpg that harkens back to the dawn of tabletop gaming. It draws heavily from Earth’s mythologies and ancient cultures such as the Greeks (from which it gets the Hyperboria part of its name) and Norse, as well as delving heavily into the minds of H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock, Robert Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. It is a darker setting with a grittiness to it that reminds one of Conan or the Black Company.

I had the opportunity not only to read through the Compleat Reference Book, but also to hear a bit of the game play. This review is written in tandem with the Game School interview of Jeff Talanian, which gives me a bit more of a 3D perspective of the game than just perusing the manual. As I made my way through, I was hit by serious nostalgia over the art style. I felt like I was back in my high school days reading through the old rpg manuals from the 80’s (which were considered “old” by the time I was in high school).

Some of the mechanics and a number of the monsters had the same effect. Remember THAC0? What Talanian and the others did was provide us a look back at those days and then expanded on it ten fold so that we get the same feel but with a lot more depth.

Hyperborea Characters

Character Creation

To begin, the six classic stats are rolled one of five different ways ranging from punishing to lenient. Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma are these stats. Each is important and there is no dump stat in the game. Characters can only reach up to level 12 and there is no such thing as multiclassing.

Hyborea introduces only four major character classes: fighter, magician, cleric, and thief. These are considered basic classes for beginners, archetypes with the easiest to understand skill sets. Out of these, however, are 22 sub-classes. Each sub-class is built on the premise of the base classes, but they are their own class to begin with, not a prestige class that you pick up later in the game. They are more complex and each is something of an amalgum of the base classes.

For example the Paladin is a Fighter sub-class with a tasty dash of Cleric. Each class or subclass has a select set of skills with a different sided die rolls for each skill. During the interview, I learned that this does not mean that a character cannot attempt any skill they do not have listed, but they have to use a lesser-sided die (standard for non-class skills) to attempt the check. In this way, the character is quick to build and play, but with a complexity that makes the game a challenge.

What I really liked about the class section of the game was the detailed listing of followers and real estate that a character could acquire at the hightest level. There are descriptions that carry both the mechanical aspect and the story aspect to it. A barbarian, for instance would summon tribesmen, but a cataphract would summon calvarymen and halbadiers. It’s not just generic followers.

Pre-made Characters

The characters used in the Game School interview for the fifteen minute playthrough is available in the resource manual for Hyperboria. What follows is exactly what is found for her at level 1 in the manual:

YNGVILDR THORSTEINSDOTTIR
[ihng-VEEL-der THAWR-steenz-dah-ter] (1st-level Viking paladin):
AL LG; SZ M (5’7″, 135 lbs.); MV 40;
AC 5 (4 vs. Evil); DR 1; HD 1 (hp 10); FA 1; #A 3/2
(long sword [+2]) or 1/1 (short sword [+1]); D 1d8+2
(long sword) or 1d6+1 (short sword); SV 14
[mental sorcery +1]; ML 11; XP 20; ST 16, DX 10, CN 10,
IN 10, WS 16, CH 18.

Special: Divine protection (immune to disease; AC & SV
bonuses included). Healing hands (heal 2 hp ×1 per day,
cure disease ×1 per week). Horsemanship. Sense Evil 60 ft.
Valiant resolve (immune to fear). Weapon mastery (long
sword).

Gear: scale armour, small shield, short sword, long
sword, backpack, soft leather pouch, tinderbox,
torches ×2, wineskin (full), iron rations, wooden holy
symbol of Odin, 5 gp.

Yngvildr Thorsteinsdottir originates from the Isles of Thur, where exiled Vikings endure in disgrace. At a young age, Yngvildr was recognized for her physical prowess, strong resolve, and unwavering moral character. Accordingly, she was selected to serve a secret society of Lawful Good warrior-maidens known as the Order of the Valkyrie. Upon the culmination of her instruction, Yngvildr was sent abroad to serve as a missionary for Law. Now she explores mainland Hyperborea, crusading in a world consumed by Chaos, barbarism, and horror.

Races

As Hyperboria is not a true fantasy, but more sword and sorcery, there is a lack of the typical fantasy playable races such as elves, dwarves, half-orcs and the like. Instead, there are 12 listed subraces (“strains”) of men with varying levels of human-ness about them. These strains draw from ancient cultures around the world such as the Amazons, Celts, Eskimo, Vikings, and so on. There are even Atlanteans that have speciated (cannot breed with other strains) and have specialized adaptations for living in the water.

In addition, there are rules for customizing your own race if the ones provided are not to your liking.

Mechanics

This part of the game system was the part that I struggled with the most. The Armor Class (AC) system is very much like the old THAC0 (To Hit Armor Class 0) system of the early D&D editions. Requiring different die rolls for different skills then modifiers on top of that can be daunting. There are tables provided to alleviate some of this, but then there are tables all over the place. Unless the GM is familiar with the old school systems or with the Hyperborea game itself and can teach new players along the way, this game is going to have a steeper learning curve for new players than some of the other systems out there.

Hyperborea spells

Spells

All spell-casting classes have access to about the same number of spells, but there is a definite advanatage to the cleric in this area. All new spell-casters, magician or cleric, start the game with only three known spells. However, as characters level up, the magician only adds 1 new spell for leveling whereas the cleric adds three. Both classes and their subclasses can research to add more spellsto those they already know. The lists contain a mix of well-known spells from days of yore and new spells to match the subclass flavors (e.g. cryomancer and pyromancer).

Sadly, this is yet another gaming system that ignores the extremely versatile and amazingly powerful geomancer (master of earth, stone, metal, and crystal magics). C’est la vie.

Bestiary (Monsters)

The bestiary was a mixture of classic monsters such as the aboleth and behir, mythological monsters such as the minotaur, abominable snowman, and chimera, and originals from the team like the Colour Out of Space and the Thew Waggon. Entries for monsters are condensed, streamlined entries that really make the game playable without getting bogged down into overly-complicated encounters. There is customizability, of course, for those who want that extra. Certainly there is a darker aspect to the monsters here than typical fantasy games. Most of the D section is filled with Daemons and a notable gaping hole — no dragons. Also, this is not a game meant for minors. Both the artwork and the overall story elements are definitely adult-oriented.

Equipment and Treasure

They brought back electrum, which is fun. Beyond that, there is a decent array of equipment, magical items, and treasure both staple and new. Some of my favorites are the Ophisimian Rod, the Staff of Curing (largely because they got the words “cure” and “heal” properly sorted), and the Ring of X-Ray Vision.

Hyperborea Response

Overall Response

As I read through the book, and later listened to the interview, there was a very heavy dose of nostalgia for me. I’m in my 4th decade and have played from a pretty early age. I had to chuckle as I was reminded of the friction between rpgs and religious groups (and parents) and the Dead Ale Wives skit. I’d have a good time playing this system once I got a handle on the multiple-die mechanics. I don’t know that I’d run a game in it, but that’s just a personal preference for high fantasy and dragons.

If you’d like to catch the interview with Jeff Talanian and learn how to play the game from the creator himself make sure to check out the Season 2 premiere of Game School.

To find out more about the Hyperborea game, get supplements and adventures, or to order your own copy of Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea go to www.HYPERBOREA.tv.

Rating – PG-16

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