Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Why I fell in love with Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperboria

I've started two or three posts on why I love Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperboria, but it finally hit me last night during a bout of insomnia. The classes are almost exactly what I think you need for a solid D&D game. Its not just that there's a good number, or that they're thematic for the game that is being played, but really reading through them leaves me hard pressed to do much more than what there is. And I've been vaguely working on a personal version of 2nd edition and we get some very similar things between AS&SH & my 2nd edition.

While I still think the basic fighter is a bit generic, AS&SH has Barbarians, Berserkers, Cataphracts (Knights), Paladins, Rangers, and Warlocks (Fighter-Mages). The warlock is a multiclass character, plain and simple. But this is the same list, more or less, as I'd really like. Though I might replace the generic fighter and make him more low-class (ala the Oriental Adventuerers Bushi) and add in a weaponmaster/kensai. Whether or not knights are a separate group is kind of irrelevant. Also, I had never really consider the Barbarian worthy of classhood (particularly when contrasted with Berserker) but I can almost see it here, particularly if the fighter was given a power or two of civilization.

AS&SH has Thieves, Assassins, Bards, Legerdemainists and Scouts. The Legerdemainist is a mouthful and also just a multiclass thief/mage. That leaves the expected thief, assassin, and bard plus the unexpected scout. I like it because the scout is a different archetype and makes a primal rogue. The legerdemainist could also be a mountebank or fire thief (thief/pyromancer), but the mountebank or trickster are much better names for the class. The bard seems like a really interesting class learning a few magician and druid spells plus the generic song/poetry stuff.

I go back and forth one whether or not specialty priests are great, but if you want a few different priest classes it's hard to go wrong with AS&SH's Cleric, Druid, Monk, Priest, and Shaman. Now, I've been thinking that a purely martial monk ought to be a fighter type and most monk/mystic classes ought to have a few spells like the Spells & Magic monk of 2nd edition or be psychics, but these are some solid archetypes. Prophet is the only thing really missing, and you might need to muck around with spell systems to make it work well. As an aside, they solved the priest problem where priests get access to their whole spell list and get a power boost with every suplement: clerics and priests choose a few spells (3-4) per level to add to their lists. Simple and effective.

This is where AS&SH fails me a bit. They give us the generalist Magician alongside Illusionists, Necromancers, Pyromancers, and Witches. Its a nice little slate, but they don't seem as distinct as I might hope, and its not clear that an illusionist can preform the same work for the party that a magician or witch can. But they have unique spell lists and a couple special abilities, so its a nice slate assuming there's only one or two ways magic works in the world. I think with a couple well done spells you could add the idea of the warlock/pact-mage into the game as is, and I'm never 100% sure that the game needs sorcerers (though if they were run like 13th Age Occultists...).

One thing that really caught my attention and made me read through AS&SH again was the ability of
a few of the "primal" classes (Barbarian and Shaman) to draw poison: basically they get a chance to remove poison before it takes effect if they're quick enough and a bit lucky. The other "primal" classes (berserker, ranger, druid, scout) get some similar abilities but they don't all overlap. I'm not sure how it all washes out in play or if some of those skills could be a bit unified as "thief" type skills, but I like how the wilderness classes all give nice abilities (or at least fancy ribbons) that are thematic and cool. If I wanted to take that into a four class system, you could crib the civilized/barbarian theme and add it in as a background. So a civilized fighter might get some towny powers while a barbarian fighter could choose from the wilderness ones.

Essentially, AS&SH is looking very close to a 2nd edition game which uses Fighters, Barbarians, Berserkers, Paladins and Rangers; Thieves, assassins, and bards; Clerics, crusaders, monks, druids, and shamen; and mages and all sorts of specialist wizards. Just tweaked to cover a sword and sorcery setting with a few hard-coded multiclass options. In otherwords, AS&SH gets it about as right as Oriental Adventures.

The big flaw with AS&SH as I see it is that it's based on AD&D 1st Edition, and I'd like it a bit more if it were basic D&D. The unified ability bonus and simplified combat system appeal to me a bit. The combat phases really disinterest me, but by and large I think the game is decent looking (even if I might import a few 2nd edition-isms like d10 for initiative).

Anyway, of all the retro-clones out there I think this one is worth a second or third look. I wouldn't give up Al-Qadim Church for the world, but I'd definitely consider running AS&SH sometime. At least the class system looks to do a very good job of mixing Conan with D&D as though D&D never had elves or dwarves. The only real competitors in my mind are Adventurer Conqueror King and actual published D&D stuff. And the only real reason I like ACKs is that its based on basic D&D (i.e. simpler rules) and yet has some good variety to its classes. Though ACKs classes seem to be more about mixing fighting, thieving, clericing, and wizarding than anything unique and innovative (yeah yeah, Dwarven Machinist and Mystic and such). 

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