Thursday, December 30, 2021

[Review] SOULBOUND: The Warhammer Age of Sigmar RPG - PART ONE (High-Powered Play, and Setting)

A year ago, I would have been surprised to read my next sentence. I really dig Soulbound

This game won't be to everyone's taste, but I consider it one of the best available options specifically for running high-powered, heroic, fantasy action adventures, whether in the game's official setting or in one of your own. In the past season, this game has taken over a supporting, but important, niche at my game table. Read on for my take on the pros/cons of Cubicle 7's Soulbound, the officially licensed RPG set in the Warhammer Age of Sigmar (AoS) setting, 'the Mortal Realms.' 

[This is Part One of a short series reviewing Soulbound. I'll update this post with links to the rest of the review once posted].

Those 'Realms' are what's left-over after the End Times destroyed the classic Warhammer Fantasy Old World. Like many old-timey Warhammer fans, I was dismayed when Games Workshop 'blew up' the Old World and replaced WF with AoS (in actual fact, the canonical Old World is still going strong, represented in Total War: Warhammer, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e, and an upcoming official return to regiment-based 28mm tabletop battles on the soil of the good ol' Empire).  But AoS? I appreciated the movement toward simpler gameplay with smaller armies, but otherwise it all looked rather silly. Let's be honest: at first sight, the whole thing looks like Art Deco 40k, with Stormcast Eternals famously lampooned as "Sigmarines," and Fyreslayer Dwarves  - oh, sorry, Duardin* - that look like they just left a nude beach in the Asterix comics. But after several years of development, there's actually quite a lot going on in this setting - and Soulbound shows that much of it is surprisingly interesting and creative. 



REVIEW DISCLAIMER

Before I continue, have the standard disclaimers: please note that this review's links to DTRPG.com use affiliate links, which help support my evil blogging services at no added cost to you. Also note that Cubicle 7 kindly provided .pdf review copies of the Soulbound core rules, Bestiary, and two supplements (Champions of Order / Champions of Death). I've enjoyed the game so much, however, that I also purchased four additional Soulbound resources/supplements on my own. I've now run the game ... five times, I think? Those sessions have all been combat-focused, so my perspective on the game has certain limits, but this review reflects concrete experience with Soulbound in actual play. 

*AoS/Soulbound do use setting-specific names like Aelves (elves), Duardin (Dwarves), Orruks (Orcs), but here I'm just going to call things what the rest of us normal geeks call them. 


I CAST DOWN MY ENEMY,  AND SMOTE HIS RUIN UPON THE MOUNTAINSIDE...

Ok, wrong world, but right power-level...



Before I say more about the setting, I want to talk about Soulbound as a great option for (super-)heroic fantasy gaming. In a nutshell, this game is my new D&D 4e. As a GM, I usually run quite rules-light games in the OSR, PbtA, or freeform traditions, but I'm also a wargamer - and here at the Gundobad residence we do a fair bit of tabletop skirmish gaming. In the past, I've run 4th edition D&D as a detailed tactical skirmish wargame.  I wouldn't want to run 4e as my actual RPG system, but I've used it when the gaming group has someone out of town, or I want to run a game but I don't have time to prep a regular session. Just grab a map and some characters, and have a scrum (my players are all bloodthirsty martial types anyway). But despite its reputation as a 'super-heroic' action RPG, 4e D&D can kinda drag. There's all that counting squares for movement...and at level 1, your PC will be trading nickel-and-dime hits with ... kobolds. At higher levels, PCs gain cool new powers, but if they fight level-appropriate monsters that aren't 1-hp Minions, they can generally expect to stay on a treadmill in which fights take about the same number of hits to slog through. 

Soulbound is my new 4e, my new 'let's run a low-prep tactical skirmish' game. Everything I wanted 4e D&D to be and do, Soulbound is and does, but better. Low-prep fights? Yep. Straightforward to run? Much more so. Genuinely meaningful and interesting tactical decisions? Yep. Interesting, distinct character builds? Yep (but faster and easier to build). Super-powered, heroic characters? Oh my word, yep. For example: 

In one recent battle, the PCs had to rescue a civilian hiding in a manor house before an angry orc raiding party could catch and kill him. The PCs cleared the place with little trouble: a Groot/Treebeard-like archer took out an ogre mercenary with a single bowshot; a human battlepriest summoned a vicious windstorm to keep foes from getting too close, and then proceeded single-handedly to mow down a full squad of goblins with her in the eye of the storm; and an elven corsair skirmisher dashed from room to room, using hit-and-run tactics that involved literally hamstringing orc foes. But then, the ground shook: the enemy's reinforcement had arrived. It was a giant

The archer ducked outside and snapped a shot at the giant. It was a good hit, but it did little to the approaching gargant. Up stepped a heroic Stormcast Eternal, an armor-clad semi-immortal champion, who called out to the giant with a challenge to personal combat! The giant obliged: it took a running charge, kicked the Stormcast and sent them flying about thirty feet through the air, then slammed its massive club down onto the fallen champion. Any normal warrior would have been pulverized; as it was, even the mighty Stormcast Eternal lay battered and near death. Then, the keen-eyed archer stepped outside once more, knowing that this was a do-or-die moment. Summoning all their inner reserves (ahem: in mechanical terms, burning two points of the key 'Soulfire' campaign resource), the archer let fly two arrows. One, two: right through the giant's eyes. The beast toppled, dead, and the battered Stormcast Eternal just barely rolled to safety, avoiding a crushing fate beneath the giant's corpse. 

That's the kind of action this game provides using legal, by-the-book starting characters. They're really capable. But they're also vulnerable, and players' tactics will matter. I've killed a PC in battle (Note: this game makes dying awesome with a Last Stand move). In our most recent game, the foes' objective was to capture a piece of loot, not just to kill the PCs. If their objective had been to win a last-character-standing deathmatch, I think that three out of four PCs would have died (in fact, they almost did anyway, but they pulled out a win in the end). 

On internet forums, I've seen fans describe Soulbound as an ideal Exalted-light, a way to play truly super-heroic characters from the get-go. I've read one comment that this game offers a good fit for running a Trojan War-themed campaign of mighty warriors empowered by supernatural agents - and I'd agree. I think this point is important to grasp before discussing the official setting. Soulbound is made to showcase Games Workshop's AoS Mortal Realms, but with some creative re-skinning, the system could serve any setting with fantastically powerful heroes facing equally dangerous foes. Come to think of it, if I wanted to run a Warhammer Fantasy game that matched the heroic tone of the old wargame instead of the grubby, rat-catching tone of the RPG, this would do very nicely. I've even wondered about re-statting monsters for a high-level D&D module. Hmmm...

In Part Two of this review (a subsequent post), I'll discuss the game's mechanics, and offer my thoughts on why they support easy high-powered play so well. 


AT WAR FOR THE REALM OF FIRE: NOTES ON THE SETTING

The game features and explains the core AoS setting, the Mortal Realms. In a nutshell, the Warhammer Old World was destroyed by Chaos in an apocalyptic frenzy, but a divine coalition led by the benevolent god Sigmar managed to establish a new order of creation spread across many elemental Realms, dimensions linked by Realmgates. The history of these new Realms involves titanic, back-and-forth contests between Sigmar and his motley allies versus resurgent Chaotic forces - along with quite separate factions serving Death (undead of various sorts) and Destruction (orcs, etc.). The King of the Dead claims right to all living souls, and seeks to snuff out life and free will everywhere - thinking an undead empire the perfect antidote to the teeming threat of Chaos. Now, the multi-way contests continue, whether in great still-vibrant cities or vast ruins ground down in those centuries-long struggles, with open warfare and cunning intrigue both playing a role. 

Sigmar's greatest champions are the Stormcast Eternals; like Norse warriors plucked away to serve in Valhalla, these were valiant fighters singled out for nigh-endless rebirth in Sigmar's service. They now rise anew in his forges each time they fall in battle...but with each rebirth, they lose a little more of their humanity. Other heroes of Order might be steampunk dwarves, or berserker dwarves who hammer red-hot magical rune-metal into their very skin before battle; keen-bladed witch-elves, or even elven soul-hunters from a hidden underwater empire; tree-spirits drawing on the memory of past arboreal generations; human merchant-explorers and battlepriests; or others. All of these and more can be PCs in Soulbound; with the exception of the Stormcast Eternals, all these also can bond together as the titular Soulbound, elite special-forces-like bands of adventurers who have magically fused their souls, strengths, and fates together in a shared collective. (Stormcast can join the party, too, but they face certain restrictions in exchange for greater individual power). 




For a deeper dive into the setting and its lore, see here. In this review, rather than rehashing the big-picture lore, I'd like to talk about the lower-level details of the RPG setting's main continent. Each of the Mortal Realms is vast, almost functionally infinite, so there is ample room to create your own little sandbox if you wish. But the game provides a helpful overview of one key corner of the setting: the Great Parch, a landmass on Aqshy, the Realm of Fire. Not everything here is on fire; the Realms are more balanced at their centers, so to really see something like D&D's Elemental Plane of Fire you'd need to move out far from the mid-Realm. The Great Parch is inhabitable, even farmable, and is surrounded by seas, but everything here features more heat/fire motifs than you'd find on other Realms. The place is also badly scarred with blood and woe by the incursions of Chaos; Chaos held much of the place under its thumb for an Age now past, and its forces still occupy many strongholds across the landscape. There's a lot here, though it isn't meant to shut out GM contributions. As the book notes, "A scribe could toil for a year and not even cover a fraction of the peoples and places of the Great Parch.



Much as I'd initially dismissed AoS, and this game with it, my initial response upon flipping through the core book's discussion of Aqshy was "meh." But then I actually sat and read it. What I found was a wealth of genuinely creative, interesting, and inspiring ideas. Tasting notes? "A strong base of Warhammer Fantasy, with notes of Planescape, the Wheel of Time, and a lingering aftertaste of The Silmarillion." (Yep. Definitely some big, bombastic resonance with mythic tales like The Silmarillion, though not at all The Lord of the Rings. I mean, during the Age of Myth, a Chaos warlord killed the world's second sun, which was a great solar dragon). 

At a smaller scale, some of this stuff unsurprisingly evokes classic Warhammer or even LOTR against-the-Dark-Lord vibes:

For many centuries, the black-walled [Obsidian Fortress] was held by the forces of Chaos and was an abattoir of horror. The Khornate warlord known as the Thirsting Prince ruled the lands for hundreds of miles to the east and south from his throne of sinew and charred bone. During the Blazing Crusade, a force of Stormcast Rangers from Tempest's Eye infiltrated the fortress and slew the Thirsting Prince atop his ghastly throne. The Tempest Lords now hold the Obsidian Fortress, using it as a staging ground to assist in joint military endeavors with the Aspirians of Steel Spike against the unspeakable horrors that wander out of the Timestolen Empire. 

But overall, despite all the flesh-reaving Chaos thugs and sorcerers, Soulbound's setting isn't really "grimdark" - AoS marks something of a tonal departure from other Warhammer settings. There is real horror and desperation here, but there's also un-ironic hope that the good guys might win (yes, unlike 40K, which GW has officially declared void of good guys, there are real heroes in the Mortal Realms). There's also room for a variety of agendas and interests. Consider this: 

Bataar was once ruled by a series of merchant-kings, each of which controlled a swath of territory and trade. With the great diminishment of their people, the heads of the surviving kingly lines now all rule together through the Bataar Trader's Guild, which is headquartered in the Floating City. To determine prominence for each year, those that sit at the Wide Table play the 'Game of Razored Gifts'. Each competes to see who can give the others the most outlandishly unique and generous tributes; a player's ranking in the game determines their social influence. The merchant-lords are thus always looking for anyone that can assist them in finding something special for the next round.  

That's both a fun hook for adventures and an interesting use of a real anthropological phenomenon from some cultures. 

What else might one encounter in the Great Parch? We have extra-planar immigrants loyal to Sigmar who (in theory) are staunch allies to the indigenous planar locals; in reality, prejudices run in both directions, and some of the locals see Sigmar's great counter-invasion against Chaos as just the latest movement sweeping through, one that will fade in time like all the others (hmm; one detects hints here of the ambiguities in modern Afghan conflicts). Among the resurgent Bataari merchant-lords, wealth rests especially on trade in fabric - an iridescent silk woven from the thread of Flamespiders. Yep, these are spider-ranchers, and sometimes they even like to lure in giant spiders from the wild to refresh their breeding-stock - but lately, the creepy-crawlies who wander in too often bear the taint of Chaos infections. There's a stronghold perpetually threatened by the machinations of a dark Chaos lord, but the loyal defenders are cursed with foreknowledge of their own death-circumstances...which means that their own defenses constantly adapt as their mortal premonitions reveal each changing ploy and strategy adopted by the enemy. A mountain fastness called The Forge Anathema is home to what are clearly Chaos Dwarves, a welcome hint at an old-canon Warhammer fan favorite. Buried citadels and megadungeons conceal barely-understood superweapons left behind by one of the Realm's earliest empires. The passes of a great mountain chain are troubled not just by bandits, but by a "pyromaniacal cult" led by what is essentially an evil ogre-mage. A lake haunted by night-reveling ghosts reflects the constellations of another world, and may hide a portal to the Realm of the Dead. The major city of Hammerhal, built around a Realmgate, sits astride planes, with neighborhoods on two Realms. The fortress-city of Hel Crown, built by Chaos worshipers in an active volcano, is defended by living, sentient lava flows. Surrounded by thick, vibrant, choking jungles, the city of Anvilgard is perpetually wreathed in green defoliant mists that prevent vegetation from overrunning the city; in the shadow of those mists, an organized-crime cabal of elven corsairs and blood cultists secretly dominate the city's affairs. 



So, I find it an evocative, interesting setting. Each region is colorfully mapped (and the .pdf purchase at DTRPG includes a big map file of the whole continent). I like the map, though, um, if we zoom in at one point...

Huh. Tell me that's not Southeast Asia!
Rondel Wick = Hainan, Cape of Spines = southern Vietnam,
Crescent Sea = Malacca Strait, the area around Vandium = Bengali Ganges Delta,
Clavis Rift = Borneo or the Philippines, etc.?
So ... that's a little weird. 


WRAPPING UP PART ONE

Overall, then, I find the game's official setting interesting, especially when it offers local color and not just the big 'meta-fiction' of the developing Age of Sigmar storyline. As noted earlier, however, my main engagement with Soulbound has involved combat-focused, tactical skirmish sessions. This does mean that we haven't really leaned on the setting in play, which I suppose is a pity, and something I think I'll try to change. For players not versed in the official AoS lore and setting, the core book can offer a great deal of orientation and help, but there is a lot going on here, and I can imagine it taking a while to get into from a cold-start (some of Cubicle 7's published resources for the game offer a deep-dive into specific local cities/settings, which would help a lot). 

In upcoming segments of this review, I'll plan to discuss the core system, why I think it works so well for making high-powered play easy to run, the process for generating characters, the selection of monsters in the Core rules and Bestiary, and the player supplements, Champions of Order and Champions of Death.

Thanks for reading!  




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