Monday, July 26, 2021

Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Soulbound review, high fantasy, high magic and high stakes in one epic RPG

 Recently I started an Age of Sigmar Soulbound campaign. Soulbound is the Cubicle7 roleplaying game set in the Age of Sigmar universe. Like the setting, it encourages epic ‘over the top’ fantasy gameplay in a high magic world (well realmscape really). As my Warhammer Fantasy Campaign was rather rudely interrupted by Covid, I decided to dive into this new system. This blog post is a review of the rpg and some general observations. Soon I’ll follow up with the blog on the first session (let’s call it the hands-on part of the review). 

So the name is: Warhammer Age of Sigmar Roleplay: Soulbound, Perilous Adventures in the Mortal Realms?
I suspect someone got paid by the word ;)

For those of you not in the know, the core of the Age of Sigmar setting is a ‘world’ made out of eight realms connected to each other by realm gates. Each realm corresponds to a color of magic in the old Warhammer Fantasy system. For instance the Realm of Fire (orange), Aqshy, has a high amount of volcanic activity. Chamon (yellow/gold), the Realm of Metal, literally contains mountains of gold (and a lot of loud music is assume). The center of each realm looks a lot like our planet. As you travel outwards from the center, the region around you gets more and more in line with its concept. For instance: if you travel too far to the edges of the realm of fire, you’ll burn alive. 

Whether these realms are shaped like planets or just endless flat lands (or maybe they are banana-shaped) is not clearly defined in the background (and not really important for storytelling purposes). What is important are the realm gates connecting these realms. These act as point of interest, means of travel and plot devices. Some lead to a single realm, others to many different relams and still others work in one direction only. They can be a small as a pinhole and big enough to fit entire armies. Some can move, some are part of living beings and yet others are carved into a cliff.

It features the most important Chaos God if you ask me.

Realms of Chaos 

The other important thing to mention are the Realms of Chaos. These are connected to – but not part of - the eight realms in their own way. Aside from that there’s the Allpoints, a realm connected to all eight realms through powerful realm gates (and currently occupied by head Chaos badguy Archeon). Last – but not least – there is the Skaven realm. This realm of tunnels connects to all other realms and is used by the Skaven to always appear where they are least wanted. There’s also space between the realms, for instance between Hysh (Light) and Ulgu (Shadow) is a lost city called Shadespire. This same space also contains Slaanesh’s prison if I'm not mistaken. The Slann Seraphon travel in the space between the realms in their floating vessels. 

The realms form the canvas of the Age of Sigmar world. Games Workshop has done a rather sterling job of adding history to them. In the past I’ve taken some time to describe bits of Age of Sigmar background on this blog. Every few years the story advances and things change. I like this concept. It’s a bit like the switch from nineties tv to modern series (Babylon V excluded of course). The story no longer resets back to its premise after each episode, it continues. 

The shelf with background expands, and I still have to pick up physical copies of the Broken Realms series.

Short AoS background summary

For those of you wondering what’s what, here's a very short summary. A long while back, after the destruction of ‘the world that was’, Sigmar befriended seven other deities (one for each realm aside from Azyr (heaven, his domain)). They worked together and this led to an Age of Legend. It was full of wonderful high fantasy cities and empires (you should've been there). Unfortunately the pantheon of eight had a falling out. This led to infiltration by Chaos which evolved into open warfare. Chaos won. Sigmar closed all gates leading to Azyr and the rest of the realms went through the Age of Chaos. Finally (in 2015 with the launch of a boxed set) Sigmar returned to liberate the realms which started the Age of Sigmar.

The original Realm Gate Wars (a set of five books) told how Sigmar, using Stormcast Eternals, reclaimed bits of different realms. A rather miffed Nagash betrayed Sigmar at the end of these wars,  which led to him not quite managing to conquer the Allpoints. The second part of the story – Soulstorm– told how Nagash was angry over Sigmar’s use of souls. Stormcast return to life after death, a big no-no to Nagash. He hatched a plot to take over the universe. Thanks to accidental Skaven intervention it failed quite spectacularly. In the end Nagash's accidentally inverted Shyish, the Realm of Death. It's center is deadly while it gets less deadly towards the outer edges. It also unleashed a plague of ghosts and other undead across the realms.

The current story – Broken Realms – tells how Archeon (the Chaos bigshot) is using Chaos Realmstone (a stone reminiscent to warpstone) to breach Azyr. Morathi has stolen some of Archeon's Realmstone supplies to turn herself into a deity. Meanwhile Teclis and Nagash are locked in a struggle that should determine which one is more arrogant and snooty (they both think it is about something else of course (also it is the Elf Aelf, it always is...)). Recently a god of destruction called Kragnos has entered the fray. To be honest I have yet to read what’s happening there now. I will though, as it is quite a fun pastime.

A floating city made of wrecked galleons? I'm in!

Soulbound the roleplaying game 

Soulbound the roleplaying game tells the stories Bindings of Soulbound create. Bindings are champions of Order that get their souls bound together (Soulbound you see) through a Sigmarite ritual. By doing this, these exceptional individuals become a formidable group of agents. They can be accompanied by Stormcast who (because their soul is already locked elsewhere) will always be outside the binding. The only thing unclear is how James Brown hooks into all of this, I guess they’ll leave that one up to individual game masters. 

The idea behind Bindings is that they are a more subtle tool in Sigmar’s toolbox. A chamber of Stormcast is send in to obliterate chaos strongholds. Bindings can be send to investigate rumors, find hidden enemies and conduct precision raids. Fantasy Dark Heresy? I hear you think, and yes you can make a merry band of fantasy inquisitors out of your Soulbound (bring the comfy pillows). But this is not the only way to approach the game. Its more of a ‘whatever works for your group’ thing. You can just as easily turn them into a bunch of treasure/artefact hunters, endless spell slayers, the fantasy dirty dozen, you think of it, the game accomodates it. There even room if you don't want to play with Soulbound characters at all. 

Kharadron Overlords, also know as flying Dwarves in steampunk armor. 

Soulbound: a shared backstory for the group

From a roleplaying perspective the Soulbound concept is awesome. The group always shares a connection.  This saves you the cheapest of the cheap ‘you meet in a bar and a fight erupts’ start of a group. You can still use more elegant means to establish why everyone’s working together but you don’t have to (or at least get a kick start). The game does incorporate methods like shared backstory creation. The group gets to explore individual connections between player characters. But the Soulbound part gives everyone focus while also giving players carte blanche to pick any race and profession they like. 

What can the characters play? The core book gives a lot of pre-made characters (archetypes) to choose from. Pick what you like, make a few small choices and off you go. Have you always wanted to play a Black Arc Corsair (formerly known as naughty nautical Dark Elf)? Get your whips and chains and go! Do you fancy replaying a Battlemage of old (all the Old World power without the hassle of first playing a fumbling Wizard’s Apprentice only to have the campaign end as you learn fireball)? We got you covered. Ever wondered what it would be like to play as a Dryad? Pick a Sylvaneth Brachwych and find out…

If none of the archetypes tickles your fancy, you can use generic rules to make your own character from scratch. Start by picking a race from: Human, Stormcast Eternal, Aelf, Duardin or Sylvaneth. Then assign stats, skills and talents. If you don’t like playing over the top characters in a high fantasy setting there’s even rules to run a Dark and Gritty campaign (i.e. your group gets knocked around a lot, suffers from shared PTSD and finally sinks into the abyss (Fhtagn!)).

Aside from simulating hacking and slaying, you also get rules to get more out of player's downtime.

A fresh roleplaying system 

The core system of Soulbound does for roleplaying what AoS did for wargaming. It starts fresh and uses almost fifty years of collective roleplaying experience (Gygax & co. started in ’74 if Google is to be trusted) to build a streamlined and interesting system. The entire system uses six sided dice, D6 for us RPG afficionados. Or, as no wargamer anywhere ever asked: 'Where of where will I find enough D6's?'

Characters have three basic stats: Body, Mind and Soul. The first determines anything that requires strength, dexterity or other things related to physique. Mind is about willpower, the ability to reason things out and thinking in general. Soul is mostly about dancing and listening to Tower of Power  about anything to do with supernatural things and abilities. Not the ability to cast spells, but the power to go above and beyond the line. A bit vague? Yes! Useful in game? Quite! Explainable in one paragraph of a review? Nope.

Skills and talents add flavor to your character. For instance if you want to hit things over the head with a sword, you use Weapon Skill. This skill can be trained from 1 to 3 and you can focus in it (also a score ranging from 1 to 3). Training gives you extra dice to throw, focus allows you to fudge the rolls of individual dice. It’s a simple method to add some layered complexity to a skill. This is expanded further with talents. For instance if you want to wave two cutlasses around, you’d take ‘Ambidextrous’.  

A D6 based system? Let me get the spare dice for that!

Example of the game mechanics

Let’s give a quick example how this plays. If you have the skill and talent mentioned above, you might just be playing a Black Arc Corsair. This character (if you don’t change too much during creation) has a Body of 3 and most likely has Weapon Skill of 2 with 1 point of focus and the Ambidextrous talent. If this character waves the two cutlasses around it’d throw 3 dice for its Body, add 2 for its Weapon Skill and 1 extra dice for using two blades. The total number of dice (dice pool) would be 6. Having focus allows a small modification to the dice roll after you made it. If you ever decide to wave your weapons in anger, you’d get to roll 6 dice (your dice pool) and then fudge the result of one of them by 1 (that's focus at work).

Most skills work about the same. You make a dice pool based on your stat, skill and talents (if available). The GM determines a difficulty (what number you need to roll) and a number of successes you need. Some talents, skills and items interact with keywords. For instance the ‘Sever’ talent allows you to modify damage made with ‘Slashing’ weapons. It all makes for an easy to grasp system that’s deep enough to avoid becoming bland (I’m looking very sternly at you D&D 4 and above). 

The quality of combat maps with their zones can vary from GM to GM.

Fighting in zones

Combat is not played out on hexes or squares (although if you really, really want it, help is offered to adapt to it). Instead it uses zones. A zone is an area with (usually) some effect. For instance a small fight might be around a ruined tower in the woods. The tower would be a zone granting cover but causing damage because its dangerous (crumbling). The woods around the tower would be another zone (granting cover) and so on. You get to spend more time wondering how the fight is going narratively and less time counting if your magic jet hits two or three goblins. 

Most damage characters take during a fight is shrugged off as they rest after victory. They can also get wounded in which case healing takes longer and the risk in new fights increases. If worst comes to worst they can get mortally wounded. In this case the group can use their collective Soulfire (part of their Binding) to heal that character or the character can leap up and declare its time to make a final stand. This ends with a Shakespearean death (‘I can’t believe that dog, that rat, that mouse, that cat could scratch me to death! That braggart, punk villain who fights like he learned swordsmanship from a manual!’ Bla bla bla, hack slay, make new character).

If only some company made pretty miniatures to represent the players and monsters in Age of Sigmar...


Not all is combat in Soulbound, there’s plenty of room for talents like Silver Tongue, Alley Cat or Diplomat, although as with any rpg a lot of the rules lean towards fighting. An important overall factor for the gamemaster is Doom. This score increases as the group bickers about the use of Soulfire. It goes up when they lose important fights and it rises as the bad guys do bad stuff. A higher Doom leads to stronger opponents and – more importantly – it changes the world the characters act in. Shopkeepers board up their shops, those who can leave, leave and at its apex the sky's crimson tears abolish the rules made of stone and before you know it, it’s raining blood (from a lacerated sky to be sure). 

I did a quick combat test before writing my first Age of Sigmar Soulbound campaign building two basic characters and first pitting them against a Goblin Grot. After my first die roll I found out that to make the fight last longer than a single dice roll I needed at least 50 grots. I worked my way through a bunch of sample monsters with increasing levels of importance (they get tougher as their part in the story get bigger). I ended up trying some special monsters and high powered characters. The test fights got quite hairy and interesting indeed. 

Ah dice, they almost never land on the pip you want them to.

Making the big bad-guys really shine 

The interesting part of combat in Age of Sigmar is that minions and swarms (small creatures) have a place in the fight. They serve as background creatures, chipping away a bit of damage, getting in the character's way and doing nasty stuff (lighting up the forest, carrying off the civilians). They die easily and in great numbers, but they're not just shooting range targets. Meanwhile the big, bad-guys really shine. If you ever want to simulate the Trojan Wars in style, this is the system for you. Like Hector gutting his way through a bunch of no-name Myrmidons to get to Achilles, your character will wade into the thick of things, focusing on the named characters (so to speak) while keeping an eye on the smallfolk. If you can make a comparrison to the Illiad, you know you've got an epic system on your hands. 

I ended my combat system test running a Great Unclean against my two sample fighters. If I'd do this in Warhammer Fantasy 4th (for instance). The two characters would go splay almost instantly, making it an encounter not quite suitable for a campaign scenario. I want my players to have some sort of chance (if only to figure out they should flee). In AoS Soulbound both characters where about ready to die after two combat rounds. Meanwhile they saw the abysmal bit of damage they did to the Great Unclean One heal before their eyes. No chance to win, luckily you can always run away in Soulbound, as long as the entire group agrees that it’s a good idea and you don’t mind the Doom going up. 

Aside from Doom the game also has an Endeavor system. This gives your characters things to do when a few weeks or months pass in game time between chapters. Adding this to the story is quite important. It helps characters improve their equipment (especially the different Dwarflike types) and seeds extra story elements into you campaign. I have tried using similar rules during my previous Warhammer campaign. It was fun there as well although it takes extra effort by the GM to make it interesting and comprehensible to all players (not everyone owns a rulebook, let alone knows what's in it). 

Have I mentioned the pretty artwork inside? Hardcover binding? It's another gloriously good publication from Cubicle7.

Is Soulbound worth it?

If you ask me: yes Soulbound is well worth it. It has over the top combat like the good old Conan or Red Sonja stories (or dare I say is Slaine?). You find magic and artefacts gone wild like you're Elric of Melnibone and fund conceited gods walking around, scaring the atheists like…erm…they're in a Pratchett novel? (okay that one needs some work). You can finally explore floating islands, fortresses hidden beneath mountain ranges and rivers of pure molten silver. The game mechanics make it play fast, and ensures epic combat flows at a nice pace. You don’t get the ‘how many rolls does it take to get from 250 hits to 0’ feeling you have in D&D'. It also doesn’t feature the ‘hey the character I’ve been building up for ten sessions just got decapitated by a lucky goblin blow’ feel of Warhammer Fantasy. It inspires daring-do, without making it easy to win.

Your characters have a personality and skills that define their background. Different archetypes play differently despite a streamlined system governing it all. As a GM it can be hard work. The method for appointing difficulties to tasks is not always straightforward (and my minor gripe so far). As a canvas to go for a high-fantasy over the top magic world it is awesome. I’ll start publishing my gaming sessions set in the new campaign I wrote soon for those of you wondering what play can be like. In the meantime check out the system over at Cubicle7’s website.

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