Upon the release of Age of Sigmar those handful of years ago, an undeniable feat was at hand. How do you demolish a fantastical world that lingered for decades and replace it, seemingly overnight? As Age of Sigmar has evolved over the years into the more streamlined and fluid game system that we have today, it was ever more difficult to flesh out the Mortal Realms and the lives of their inhabitants. Enter Age of Sigmar: Soulbound, the tabletop roleplaying game set within the new world itself. Does it deliver in depths of detail? Or does it suffer in derisive drabness?
Conceived and crafted by the folks over at Cubicle 7, recently responsible for the amended Wrath & Glory rule set, I can only imagine how daunting this task would be. The mere prospect of fleshing out the world and lives within Age of Sigmar must have been a harrowing prospect from the get-go. Fortunately, I can say that in my experience with the core rulebook, they have done wonderful job. Both in shedding light on the setting of Age of Sigmar itself whilst also ensuring the game system itself is a fun romp within that fantasy world.
Test Your Might
The core mechanic of skill tests is a concise and accessible process that caught me off guard to begin with. The system uses only six-sided die and is as follows. Combining the aptitude of a player character’s attributes and relevant skills, the player build’s their dice pool. The difficult number itself is set by the GM (typically from 2 to 6 in most encounters) and the player simply needs to meet or exceed that number on one d6 in the roll.
For example, a Duardin Doomseeker is looking to leap across a wide ravine. The GM would request the player makes an Athletics roll. The player then adds his training in Athletics with the relevant Attribute (Body, in this case). This builds the player’s dice pool for the test. They must roll these dice and meet or exceed the difficulty number set by the GM in order to succeed. If the difficult number were 4, the player would must roll a 4 or higher on any of those dice to succeed.
The system is almost unreasonably simple in itself, but can be made more daunting via the implementation of “complexity”. In this, the player must roll a higher number of successes (meeting or exceeding the difficult number) in their roll. This is typically to account for the amount of time needed for the check or if it is simply a more complicated task overall. Having run a party through this system for over ten hours across a handful of sessions, they picked up the system with notable swiftness. This includes a party member brand new to roleplaying games who got into the swing of it early into the first session. I would surmise this a testament to the simplicity of the system itself.
Getting Stuck In
This system of performing skill tests also introduces a slight variation for making combat. Akin to previously, the players determine their dice pool by combining their training in the relevant skill and attribute. This determines their prowess in combat (be it ranged or melee) and places them on “The Ladder”. This is a staggered measure of a player character’s ability in combat and ranges from Poor to Extraordinary.
In combat, the difficulty of your attack is ascertained by measuring your combat rating against the defense rating of an enemy. If the combat rating of the attacker is one or two steps higher than the defenders defense rating, then the difficulty number decreases.
This provides an easy-to-track approach to combat without it being stymied by dreary numbers. Players can monitor an enemy and learn that they seem to be “Superb” in close combat. This gives a cursory glance into their chances against them against their own defense rating. The player character’s defense rating could be poor, emphasizing the potential danger that they may find themselves in.
Thus, if your Stormcast Eternal Knight Questor is “Superb” in combat, they’ll feel confident about taking on a lowly Clanrat. Of course, they may think twice about the lingering Rat Ogre that’s meandering about. It provides a way of determining their abilities in combat without it simply being tied to a number. This may prove tricky for those whom usually play systems tied solely to a numbers for gauging ability. Although, the system here was very quick and simple to grasp in my party’s experience.
The first step most players (and some GMs) will look to do is to run through character creation. For this, you make use of the available species and archetypes within the Soulbound book. In total there are five species to choose from and 23 archetypes that fit into the species themselves. It’s a hearty offering with a good breadth of variety for players to choose from. There’s also plenty of information provided to encourage you to create your own archetypes.
From Sylvaneth Kurnoth Hunters to simple human Trade Pioneers, there’s plenty to pick from. You could have your player character be humble inhabitant of Aqshy. Alternatively, you could create a huge, unrelenting hero-warrior, purging evil across the realms under the light of Sigmar himself. One thing to note on this is that you are true heroes, regardless of species or archetype. This isn’t a game of tepid beginnings and a gradual grind to mediocrity. You are a hero of the Mortal Realms and for this, you are Soulbound with your party. We’ll get into the titular twist of this game in good time.
With players being true heroes of Sigmar, it was a little tough to find the balance of early combat encounters. I setup fights against small clusters of Clanrats to begin with at first. This was typically against no more than three or four of the foul rat-men at a time. With the rats being wiped out in mere moments, I upped this to around six Clanrats supported by Ratling Gunners. Moments later, all these rats were disposed of.
Tipping the Balance
Avoiding overwhelming the players, GMs need to find the balance quite quickly using your own working-out and initiative. You don’t want your players to completely wipe in the first session, but you also want to provide a challenge. The book provides little assistance in this regard, bar a single matrix depicting the proposed difficulty of dice checks. There was an element of fun in learning the breaking point of my players (a Fellwater Troggoth just about gave my four players a sense of peril) and it’s something that would have been nice in the core book to depict in a more prevalent form. This would allow me to better structure a sense of progression for my players, rather than learning on the fly.
The aforementioned laddered system of combat prowess does provide something of a starting point for balancing encounters, though. Knowing that the highest combat skill of the party is “Good”, I can gather that putting them against an enemy with “Extraordinary” defense is likely a surefire way for them to get their heads caved in. Admittedly, an understanding of the lore (and Age of Sigmar factions themselves) also helps.
Various other elements contribute towards combat and how complex and exciting they can be. One of the most noteworthy would be the system of using “Zones” to determine range/distance between characters within the game. In principle it sounds like a fun and intuitive way to break fights and combat encounters up. However, I found myself and my group falling back onto using more granular methods of measurement (typically number of feet). The book encourages you to use either, depending on what works best for your group.
I have not felt overly compelled to sink much time into the Zones system. This is primarily due to the old system of traditional measurement being understood by any and all. No matter a player’s experience, “move 15 feet” is easier than explaining “move to the next zone”, especially in the heat of combat.
To be Soulbound
Not just harnessed as a catchy and typically “Warhammery” title, to be Soulbound is a core part of the game. The party in your games are usually called a “binding”. Their souls have been bound together by Sigmar so that they may achieve great things together and save the Mortal Realms from the numerous threats and enemies closing in on all sides.
It sounds cool, and the exclusive resource pool called “Soulfire” provides some exciting abilities to pull out of the bag at the last minute. Whether you look to restore health to a party member or to re-roll as many dice in a check as you would like to ensure success this system provides tension and excitement in sessions. If your binding are dipping into their Soulfire pool then you know that things are getting dire.
The Soulfire and binding concept aren’t quite so simple as you would hope, though. Stormcast Eternal party members cannot be in a binding, nor can they use Soulfire. Thematically fitting, Sigmar has already claimed their souls. However, it gets a little murky when you need to clearly explain the difference between a party and a binding.
Additionally, if you have a Stormcast party member who cannot make use of Soulfire then it can invoke a sense of being left-out. I’m sure there’s balance here in that Stormcast are naturally incredibly powerful, so shouldn’t need this emergency, life-saving resource. However, I cannot help but feel the Stormcast party in my player feels slightly ostracized when he has no say in whether the party should or shouldn’t use the coveted resource.
Setting the Scene
I can say with total confidence that the biggest thing to pull me into Soulbound was simply to learn and understand more about Age of Sigmar itself as a setting. What is life like day to day in any or all of the Mortal Realms? How dangerous is it try and walk from one end of Aqshy to the other? Are the major cities truly safe spaces from the grim and harrowing horrific battles that plague the Mortal Realms?
The sheer amount of information provided by this book is almost breathtaking. I can now tell you the days of the week in Aqshy. I can divulge how much it costs for a pint of Twin-Tailed Ale from an inn. I’m even able to note forms of entertainment within the cities, including the Light weavers of Hysh to Aelven shadow-dancers.
If you’ve ever wanted to build a vivid picture of life within the Mortal Realms, then Soulbound is an absolute must. With this, I can comfortably build a scene for my players that is fun and exciting. All whilst pertaining to the imaginings of the Age of Sigmar from the creators themselves. You could plan an entire evening of rest and relaxation for your players to give them a break from adventuring. This could include the list of drinks available in the local tavern along with the price of the rooms they’ll be spending the night in.
That’s not to say that you cannot deviate from these listings and descriptions, of course. The Soulbound book focuses on the realm of Aqshy. Lesser so, the other realms are present and explored somewhat. Optionally, you could use the provided information on Aqshy as groundwork for exploring the other realms, should you so wish. Needless to say, I’m quite keen to have my players visit the Realm of Death and knock a few ghosts about between their other adventures.
A Fine Offering Worthy of Sigmar
It would be incredibly difficult to say that Soulbound is anything short of the ideal item for exploring the Mortal Realms. This is especially the case if you’ve sought more investment beyond the Age of Sigmar tabletop war-game. As you would expect from a core rulebook for a roleplaying game, Soulbound provides an impressive amount of materials (352 pages in fact, with plenty of content we’ve not got the word-count to cover!) to explore any and all elements of life within the Age of Sigmar.
It is extensive and at times impressively granular. Yet, the book also advises you to indulge in some freedom and to feel free to deviate at times where it may help your group to have more fun. This strikes a fantastic balance of letting you be true to the world, whilst granting flex at times in the name of enjoyment. All groups are different, after all.
The book is just shy of perfect, however. Between some mechanics and systems that may be under-utilized along with the dividing, if thematic differentiation between a binding a party, there are a couple of other niggling issues. Cubicle 7 reworked the Wrath & Glory rule book to improve character creation into a more condensed and easy-to-access fashion. However, in Soulbound, Species and Archetypes listed for Character Creation feel a little bit dispersed from one another. Not quite to the original book of Wrath & Glory, but I did find it curious that they weren’t consolidated together. Additionally, some characters can feel a little useless when using the core rules for Initiative. I advise exploring the alternatives provided in the latter part of the book for a more fair, if chaotic approach.
Nevertheless, I can forgive these minor grievances when I reflect on everything else that Soulbound has to offer. If you’ve ever wanted to look further into the realms and religions of this fantasy setting or simply explore what daily life is like in the Mortal Realms, then it’s the ideal book for you. The only way it can be improved, is by gathering a party and taking that journey together.
Age of Sigmar: Soulbound is available to purchase and download via the Cubicle 7 webstore and DriveThruRPG. Have you taken Soulbound for a spin yet? If so, what was your favourite element of it? Have you found it forgiving for new players? What would you like to see Cubicle 7 release to supplement the system in the future?
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