I’ve really liked Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea for a long time but I have to admit that this one of the clones that I’ve had the least amount of experience playing. But hell, they had me with the cover art of the first edition.
Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea has a lot going for it. First, it’s one of the few games that’s not firmly routed in Tolkien. Instead it dives head first into weird pulp fiction of days gone by. There’s no elves or halflings. Dwarves exist but only as monsters. Humans are the only option but there various races to choose from.
Game mechanics are firmly rooted in the old school games. So if you’re already familiar with that then playing this should be little problem and GM’s shouldn’t have too much difficulty converting any material. There’s descending AC, Thieves with their own set of skills (in this case x in d12), and so on. Like Swords & Wizardry Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea uses a single Saving Throw modified by class. The game does use some of its own nomenclature such as Casting Ability, Fighting Ability, and Turning Ability. At first this was a little confusing to me, but reading in detail even I was able to figure it out.
Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea handles classes well. If the GM wants to keep things simple then they can use only the four basic classes (Fighter, Magician, Cleric, Thief). If the GM wants lots of options then the game goes the “sub-class” route and offers lots of options. There’s the what you would expect Assassins, Bards, Barbarians, Druids, and Necromancers plus there’s more like the Shaman, Cataphract, Runegraver, and Purloiner just to name a few. What concept a player comes up with, there’s probably a class that fits.
While the material is separated into volumes when that it’s complied into a single book or PDF, it clocks in at over 600 pages. I know that seems like a lot compared to other old school games. There’s a lot of material there. It not only combines material you would find in a Players Handbook, Monster Manual, and DM Guide but also includes the material fro the Hyperborea setting.
For me, this is where Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea really shines. Since the game ditches the Tolkien style fantasy for a weird pulp Swords & Sorcery approach, the setting and the adventures are what really set it apart from most other games. The setting manages to alien but familiar. Now IMHO, it is a bit too detailed in parts like I’d probably never use a setting specific calendar. But it’s full of inspirational material for a GM to run with to make their own unique setting.
Even if you already have your own game system of choice, it’s worth grabbing up a few of the adventures. The standard dungeon crawl with orcs, goblins, and dragons can get a little mundane after a while. The jaunt down the path less traveled makes things all the more interesting and weird. Crap even the cover art and titles are evocative and inspirational.
You can get Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea on DrivethruRPG or visit North Wind Adventures site for the material plus some freebies.
Let me start this off with a very brief overview of The Cepheus Engine. It’s basically old-school Traveler. Ability scores and task resolution are on 2d6. The whole system uses only d6’s. There are no classes like the World’s Most Popular RPG. Characters have careers that give them skills and material benefits during character creation. And yes, you can die in character generation but many GM’s house rule around that.
The Sword of Cepheus is the Cepheus Engine take on Sword & Sorcery and with very little tweaking you could use it for Sword & Sandal or even Sword & Planet. The game is presented without a setting but it does explain it’s three “pillars”: Gritty Heroic, Dark Sorcery, and Open World. In other words, you’re average PC is better than mooks but they still need to be careful. Magic will screw you up. And go out there and get into trouble.
Character generation and game mechanics follow pretty much the same formula as you see from the original source systems. Roll your stats then pick a career and so on. Since it’s been literally decades since I messed with Traveler, it took me a while to digest it but a good read through got me back into the swing of things. The best thing about the character generation/career steps is that also gives a character a bit a background or at least some bullets points for the player and the GM to work with. Now I’ll probably rename some skills just to fit my own sense of style but that’s not really a big deal. There’s also Traits to define a character further. Think of these like Feats but without that silly Feat chain effect in 3rd Edition.
Let’s get the meat of what makes this a Sword & Sorcery games. Magic and Monsters. First up. Magic. Magic is divided into three colors (White, Gray, and Black) and six Circles. The color is pretty obvious. Casting Black Magic causes Corruption. Misusing Gray Magic also causes Corruption. Get enough Corruption and bad things happen to your character. Also, magic is magic. There is no Cleric, Magic-User or Druid spell list. Any distinctions are based on how the character is played, their career, and choices. Circles are a bit like spell levels. The Circle denotes the spell’s relative power and difficulty to cast. This isn’t Vancian Magic. There isn’t a specific number of spells per day or memorizing. If the character knows a spell then they know it. Most of the spells will be at least familiar to experienced gamers but most of the direct damage, combat-type spells are gone. Why? Well, it takes 10 minutes to cast a spell. With each round taking six seconds, that means it would take 100 rounds of concentrating on a spell to cast it combat. Not going to happen. But there’s a way around that. Spell Foci. Think of these sort of like the equivalent of D&D scrolls or wands (but they don’t have to be those objects). There are one-use and rechargeable foci. A foci is for specific spell and basically let’s the spell caster have that spell cocked and locked (to use an old military term). There’s an optional rule to allow for rushed casting at a penalty for a more magical campaign. Like I said, there isn’t a limited number casting per day. The character just keeps casting and eventually a bad die roll is going to happen and the consequences are pretty bad. Yes, the character can die, or go into a coma for 1d6 years. So there’s a steep price for magic. Another thing to note is that even a beginning character has access to the most powerful spells. They might not be able to cast them effectively but they may know them. Another thing I like are the healing spells. They don’t give a character x amount of HP. Instead they give natural healing for a specified period of time. The lowest circle healing spell (Respite) gives a day’s worth of natural healing but that doesn’t help for Major Wounds. Or to put roughly into D&D terms, a bunch of Cure Light Wounds spells won’t help you if you’ve had the crap beaten out of you.
For monsters, the book has pretty much the standard array of monsters that you would expect. The stat blocks are pretty easy to ready except for the UPP. This is something from Traveler. It’s a string numbers and letters designating an NPC/PC/Monster’s ability scores. So an average human would have 777777. Stats above 9 are designated with a letter like with hexadecimal. So a character with a UPP of C77777 would have a STR 12 and 7 in the rest of their scores. The order and the attributes aren’t that difficult, they almost mirror d20 based games. The thing is if I have a monster with Strength of “F” that means a a Strength of 15. Now what is the damage mod on that? Well that’s in the beginning of the book. If you’re used to it then it isn’t a problem but if you aren’t there will be some page flipping.
Of course, the book is rounded out with weapons, armor, equipment, magic items, mounts, and vehicles along with chase and naval rules.
Overall, I’m glad I picked it up. I will say that game really needs a GM screen since there are lots of modifiers and tables spread throughout the book. This is another option if you want to run a more Conan/Kull type game rather than Tolkien. I can see bringing a lot of inspirational from existing OSR resources especially things that tend more towards the weird fantasy. It’s also worth noting that Human is the only option in the core book but never fear there is an inexpensive non-humans supplement and that’s pretty good too.
What am I going to do with this? I dunno. I like it. I want to run it. And screams for it’s own setting. Ah. Now that’s something to think about.
You can grab the Sword of Cepheus over at DrivethruRPG.
I mentioned this in the most recent episode of the pod cast and here we got the first What’s Cool Wednesday of 2019. Old Skull Publishing and the games of Diogo Nogueira.
I guess it was about a year ago that stumbled upon Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells. I had downloaded long before that but it took me a while to really look at it. And dang it’s a pretty cool game. I did a review a while ago on it and wrote up a bunch of house rules and other stuff plus I’m working on my own setting for it. Go ahead and read that over. I don’t need to go over the basics of the system again. But any way, Diogo is a pretty cool guy and has done a lot for his own games plus for Dungeon Crawl Classics. But he isn’t done yet.
He’s two more games coming out that run on the same rules chassis as Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells. There’s Dark Streets & Darker Secrets. A sort Buffy-esque modern urban fantasy RPG. And there’s Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells. What’s the best way I can describe this one? Heavy Metal Space Fantasy. That should be coming out soon too. A busy guy who can pretty much do it all; writing, art; and layout. A hell of a lot more talented than me.
Any way, you can look up his stuff on RPGNow and you can’t beat those prices. Or follow Old Skull Publishing on its MeWe Group or its Facebook Page.
There you go. It’s 2019 and let’s share the fun.
OK, yeah. I was a little rough on Primeval Thule for 5e in the last podcast. But there’s some good things too. And being forever the tinkerer of rules, I’ve got a few ideas for what may in the future become my next 5e campaign.
Off that bat. Races. It’s still a big no on Elves, Dwavres and Halflings. Just humans. That’s enough to keep things interesting. Use the normal human character rules.
Classes. OK. They threw the kitchen sink in there. But to keep to the low magic and Sword & Sorcery vibe. Reduce classes to Fighter, Barbarian, Rogue and Warlock. That’s it. Drop an class specializations that cast spells like the Arcane Trickster and Eldritch Knight. And there some good class specializations in the book. For the Rogue, there’s the Poisoner and for Barbarian, the Slayer. For the Warlock broaden the spell list and include many of the spells from the Wizard and Sorcerer lists plus many of the spells from Primeval Thule. I’d probably limit the Patrons to Fiend, Great Old One (which is awesomely augmented in Primeval Thule) and Hexblade. No I haven’t done THE spell list yet. That’s for the hurried campaign prep stage of things. What about healing? Now, those short rests are much more important. And with standard 5E healing, you get all your HP back overnight. I know this ain’t grimdark gritty but without Mr. Cleric Healbot along for the ride, it’s one of those things I could live with. Additionally, there a couple of ways to get some healing in Thule without the cleric.
Background from the Players’ Handbook. Drop them. Because Primeval Thule did it better with “Character Narratives”. Just what are Character Narratives? Like Background, you get a couple of skills. But in Thule, you also get some neat special level-based abilities. For most of them, the abilities at 6th and 10th levels aren’t that great. So I’d probably drop those. But the first level one’s are pretty cool. You notice there aren’t Rangers mentioned as a class. No prob. Take Hunter. No cleric. There’s a healer that gets 3 HP/level of healing sort of like a Paladin’s lay on hands. I’d say my two favorites are the Soothsayer and Bearer of the Black Book. So for Soothsayer, you can tell a character fortune. The mechanics are simple Roll 2d20 and write those numbers. Those numbers can each be used once to replace the character’s roll or an opponet’s attack roll. Bearer of the Black Book. Cool. You have an Artifact. You gain a spell slot. And there’s good chance somebody is going to try to pry it out your cold dead fingers.
For Feats, there’s some good one’s in the book that keep the vibe going. Use those too.
So overall. Inspirational and useful. But like so many things, I’d house rule the heck out it. Sure there are more cool bits and pieces but those are the highlights.
Roll Dice. Kill Monsters. Take Their Stuff. And Have Fun.
Getting back into the whole blogging thing. And one of the things I like to do is go back and find really cool stuff that isn’t exactly that new or the flavor of the day. So enter Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells (and it’s Addendum).
So what is it? First it’s a low magic game that leans more towards dark sword & sorcery than your usual high fantasy. There’s no non-humans or clerics and magic is dangerous and not a sure thing. So that’s the vibe. But if really wanted to you could add those.
Mechanically, it takes a lot from Black Hack (and its Hacks) as well as 5E D&D, DCC, and Fate. So it’s a simple light game that focuses on ruling not rules and “if you don’t like then don’t use it”. Those are two things that I just love.
There’s four Abilities: Physique, Agility, Intellect, and Willpower and three classes: Warrior, Specialist, and Magic-User. It uses the basic roll under an Ability score mechanic. Vocations are akin to “High Concept” in Fate and uses Positive and Negative Dice which is similar to 5E’s Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. And the magic system becomes a push your luck type situation with player determining how powerful the spell will be and hoping to roll enough to pull it off. So yeah. That’s the basic stuff why I like this game and think it’s cool.
Now here’s the bonus content. Or at least that’s what I’m calling it. Because even if you don’t play the game, there’s some handy resources no matter what game you’re running a GM could use. From the core book, I plan using Complications for the upcoming resurrection of my DCC game. Plus there’s a pretty cool, Adventure Idea Generator in there. The Addendum is just filled with various charts and tables handy for a GM no matter the rule set they happen to be using.
All this goodness is crammed into a couple of tiny books. the Core Book is under 46 pages (plus character sheet and OGL) and the Addendum is 87 pages. But wait there’s more. The PDF’s are PWYW. The Core Book. and for The Addendum.
I don’t often do this but shortly after I grabbed the PDF’s, I just had to have some hard copies from Lulu. After lugging around various other tomes to play other games, it nice to have such robust but light and efficient game. It’s get a big thumbs up from me.