I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

HYPERBOREA Player's Manual (review)

I'm a fan of sword & sorcery. I read an played several RPGs in the genre, but hadn't read Hyperborea 3e, mostly because it felt to extensive to me (the whole thing is over 600 pages, with the PHB being around 320 pages.

I finally bought the PHB and found that there is much to like about this game, and fact it is not as complex as the page count would seen to indicate.

BTW, I've been reading lots of S&S RPGs to acquire ideas for my own games (I hope to write a new one someday). There might be more reviews of S&S games to come...

So here's my review. I'll tackle it chapter by chapter. Since I'm familiar with the D&Disms and AD&Disms the game uses (I assume my reader is also familiar with those), I glanced over some parts, so let me know if I missed anything.

A brief note about art

This book contains amazing B&W art all over, including pieces by (my favorite!) Russ Nicholson and other OSR luminaires. It looks great!

A brief note about organization

The book's table of contents are pretty terse and not hyperlinked. The index, however, is very good.

Chapter 1: Introduction 

This chapter describes what is an RPG, how to roll a d3, and other things you probably don't need, but also contains a great breakdown of the S&S genre and why this is a S&S game.

Chapter 2: Character Generation

First, a short (and sweet!) primer on the setting, which I'll skip because most of the setting is in the DMG (but I must say it sounds AWESOME), then a summary of the PC creation process.

Chapter 3: Statistics 

Attribute and statistic generation (several methods are presented). System-wise, the books is "streamlined AD&D", which I love. See the Strength and Dexterity tables, for example:

This is clearer than AD&D, although I cannot help but to think that a "test of Strength" could simply be rolling under strength and you wouldn't to check the table/sheet.

Like AD&D, I find Hyperborea relies unnecessarily on tables, but the system is straightforward enough that you might as well choose to ignore half of them - which is good.

Other statistics are similarly streamlined: you have fighting ability, casting ability, a single saving throw (with some exceptions)... AWESOME stuff, since it is a lot simpler than matrices, THAC0, saving throw tables, etc.

Chapter 4: Classes 

This is where the book really shines. "Four principal classes (fighter, magician, cleric, thief) and 22 subclasses are available for play". Impressive.

Each class is described in 2-4 pages, so while there is a lot of overlap, the classes themselves are not complex.

Fighters are AD&D-ish - d10 HP, extra attack on level 7, weapon mastery, cleave, etc. Magicians get familiars and the usual spell slots. Clerics get a turn undead table, and thieves a d12 skills table. Needless to say, this could be simplified further, at the cost of becoming less AD&Dish. 

Each class and subclass has starting equipment, which is love.

The subclasses are an interesting set of options. The books contains different (but similar) classes for barbarians and berserkers, rangers and hunters, etc.

There is lots of redundancy here, but the book is very complete - you have all the usual suspects (paladins, assassins, druids, etc.) plus plenty of alternate archetypes.

Chapter 5: Background

This chapter describes hyperborean "races", deities and languages. Races include vikings, greeks, "half-blood picts", etc., each with a different weight, height, skin color, and culture, but not really different statistically. 

Obviously, "viking" is not a "race" in the real world, but this kind of language is very common in S&S books.

I have to say it is refreshing to see a fantasy game without elves and dwarves!

Deities are a mixture of Greek, Lovecraftian, pulpy and D&Dish - pretty good and very appropriate to the S&S genre.

Chapter 6: Equipment

This chapter contains an EXTENSIVE list of equipment with detailed description. There are some oddities - the falcata, short sword, and short scimitar are described as separate weapons despite being identical, and AFAICT the horseman’s pick is better than ANY of them (it is cheaper AND  better against plate, with no downsides).

I'm probably nitpicking because I'm obsessed with medieval weapons; this chapter is very complete, describing both equipment and some services (but not hirelings).

I love the way Hyperborea treats armor, giving medium and heavy armor some damage resistance, and adding two types of shields instead of one - overall, making armor more important. I'm extremely tempted to use this in my games!

Chapter 7: Sorcery 

I skimmed over this one. It is the longest chapter in the book by far (except classes/subclasses). But I can say it is very complete/detailed and seems genre appropriate. Here is an example of both things at once:

Chapter 8: Adventure

Adventuring rules: time, movement, light, hirelings, etc. Encumbrance is left to referee discretion, except for armor. There is a d6 task resolution that boils down to referee fiat, if you don't want to use attribute checks.

Chapter 9: Combat

This chapter includes not only combat but also encounter reaction. It contains several special combat situations and combat maneuvers. It is more detailed than your average D&D game without becoming cumbersome, which I appreciate. Unarmed combat has plenty of detail in jsut one page - and is a vast simplification over AD&D. There is a combat matrix, but it could be easily replaced by Target20 if you don't want to check it (AC is descending).


The appendices describe names for each "race", armies and strongholds for each class and subclass when they reach level 9, and a small note explaining that RPGs are cooperative efforts.


I really enjoyed reading this book. 

It has great looks, great rules and is simpler than I imagined, even tough it could be reduced to 100 pages or less if you prefer something more minimalist. Still, it is simpler and clearer than AD&D RAW and has tons of additional options in the subclasses - while maintaining perfect compatibility to AD&D modules, monsters, etc.

The S&S vibe is on point, the author really seems to know the genre. I'm curious about the setting and might get the setting book someday.

If you like AD&D and S&S, this book is a must have! Buy it here.

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