Wednesday, February 9, 2022

[Review, Part 2] SOULBOUND RPG: Core Rules and Combat

Onward with my review of Soulbound, the Warhammer Age of Sigmar RPG! In Part One, I discussed the game's setting. I was quite positive about the setting (almost to my surprise). This time, I'll discuss the core system and the game's approach to combat and some other stuff. In this post, I'll have many positive things to say about the game's system (with a few grumbles), but a somewhat more critical perspective about certain aspects of the published scenario-supplements will emerge in my next, and hopefully culminating, section of this multi-post review (along with points of praise there, too).  

DISCLAIMER: As I noted before, Cubicle 7 supplied materials for a fair and honest review of the game. I received free .pdf review copies of the core Soulbound game, the Bestiary, and the Champions of Order and Champions of Death supplements. I also liked the game enough that I purchased the GM screen and several other game products. Please note that links on this blog to DTRPG.com contain affiliate links, which help support this blog's activities at no added cost to you. Thank you! 

In Part One, I noted the role this game has seized in my stable of RPG options: it's now my leading go-to game for short-notice, high-action, moderate-crunch tactical combat roleplaying with (super-)heroic characters (whew, that's a mouthful!). It fulfills, in other words, the vocation I'd hoped 4th edition D&D would satisfy at my table - my not-too-demanding, off-night, let's just rumble with a bunch of baddies because a player is away or I'm too busy to prep a regular session game. 

Let me explain why. 


THE CORE SYSTEM

...runs on a pretty straight-forward dice pool mechanic. PCs have points across 3 core stats - Body, Mind, and Soul. You also have levels of training in various skills, like Athletics or Ballistic Skill or Intimidation. To assemble a dice pool, you add your points in the Stat and in the relevant skill; so (for example) trying to break down a barred door would require a Body + Might check. The GM provides both the target number required for success and the number of successes required. This is written like so: 5:1, for a check requiring at least one result of 5+ among the dice rolled.

That's pretty easy to administer. This allows for checks with variable degrees of success, too, based on the total number of successes rolled. In some cases, the game will call for more complex and harder rolls - say, a 4:3 roll, where you only need 4+ on each die for success, but you need to roll at least 3 successes. This is less common, but it gets a little wonky. GMs are given a chart showing different target number/number of success combinations ranked by difficulty, to aid in eyeballing the best difficulty level, but honestly this seems a little creaky and opaque. In play, however, I've tended to just ignore most of this complexity, almost always calling for only a single success but ratcheting up the target number to 5 or 6 if I think something should be a little more challenging. 

[By the way, the game also supports an easy advantage/disadvantage mechanic, but only within the combat and opposed-roll sub-systems]. 


COMBAT

Though I've described Soulbound as my alt-4e D&D, one feature immediately distinguishes the two games' approaches to combat. Unlike the slow (to me) square-counting normal in 4e, default Soulbound combats take place on a map of abstract zones, each normally about 30 feet across unless otherwise specified (this can be quite flexible). I normally associate combat zones with more story-gamey systems (I think I first encountered them in FATE or some similar game), but I find it works really well here. Combat distances include arm's reach, same zone, adjacent zone, 2 zones away, or 3+ zones away. This allows maneuver and position to matter, so it's more precise than pure 'theater of the mind' combat -- but it is MUCH faster than a more granular gridded/square-counting system (interestingly, the core book offers guidelines in case you really insist on running with exact measurements or gridded combat - see pp. 298-299). Zone boundaries also make environmental effects and hazards really easy to adjudicate, along with special Area of Effect attacks. In the combats I've run, my players have had to think hard about exactly where and when to move, but the overall feel remained quite dynamic. Thumbs up. 

Here are some visual examples of zones in use. First, a more-elaborate-than-necessary setup; note that I was basically running Soulbound here as a tabletop skirmish game with my kids. In normal play, you can just dash down some sharpie or dry-erase lines on a blank space. Here, instead, I used Master's Atlas Worldcrafting Tiles and treated each tile as a zone, ignoring the square grid within each tile, then slapped down a bit of Warcry terrain and a bunch of minis: 

So much unpainted plastic! Clearly, heresy remains a key part of the Warhammer experience.

Notice the little gaggle of ratmen partially obscured by the wall at top left? If the game's weaker monster minions gang up within a single zone, they form a Swarm, which grows a bit more powerful but stays easy for the GM to control. All that bunching up also makes them convenient to devastate with heroic powers, of course ... in this fight, if I recall, the hero archer took out the entire skaven gang in a single round (!). In Soulbound, the little grunts are really there to get in the way, wear you down, or just make you feel awesome before you get stomped on by the bigger, nastier foes. 

Mapping zones for online play is pretty easy, too - at least the way I do it. I grab a free Dyson map, add some colored lines with quick home edits, and have a battle map ready to go, like this one:

For this Dyson Logos map, I drew my own zones in blue, and treated each room in the tighter confines of the manor house as its own zone, too. We had quite a fight here. 

Once a fight breaks out, characters act in order of their Initiative, which is static. You don't roll for it; you just note down the fixed Initiative # of everyone involved and then start cycling through them in order (though there are tactical actions that can change your place in that order). I've liked this fixed-Initiative system more than I thought I would. It's certainly simple. As a generalization, the weaker, Swarm-forming foes tend to act absolutely last, so players often have to decide whether to focus on cleaning out the mobs or prioritizing the deadlier but lone big-bads. 

Once your turn comes around, you can Move and take an Action. Well, in fact, you can usually do a whole lot more than that, but that is the basic action economy. It is stretched by two factors: the generous definition of Free Actions and the use of a spendable action currency, Mettle. You can use a Free Action to relocate anywhere in your current Zone, or to open a door, draw a weapon, or drink a healing potion. Since you can chug that healing elixir in between hacking apart a monster and running out the door, recovering from your beatings is surprisingly easy in this game. A bit oddly, the game proffers a liquid resource called "Aqua Ghyranis" as both your healing energy drink AND your market currency (in the game's setting, lumps of gold are a dime a dozen on one of the settled elemental planes, so precious metal has little value; but water that restores life, now there's a real commodity...). To heal via potion, then, you gulp down what in other games would be your gold pieces. 

Mettle  means you can ... do MORE. Most characters have access to 1 Mettle per turn; some can start with 2. At either rate, if you spend it, you recharge 1 point of Mettle back every turn. You use Mettle to gain certain mechanical bonuses to rolls, to activate certain miracle effects, or - more commonly - to take another Action. Since you'll start your turn with at least 1 Mettle, you are usually guaranteed at least two Actions along with your Move and Free Action, unless you spend that Mettle on some other awesome thing. This simple action economy gives players small but meaningful choices every single turn, and keeps them feeling competent as active agents on the battlefield. Oh yeah, but ... the bigger, bad foes can spend Mettle too...which gets scary. 

Combat attacks use the general dice pool system described above, with a few extra wrinkles. You'll determine your dice pool for attacks by adding points from your Body stat and the relevant Skill (Weapon or Ballistic Skill). Also, each character has a qualitative rating for Melee, Accuracy, and Defense. These are written as words; for example, a Skaven Gutter Runner warrior has Good Melee, Average Accuracy, and Average Defense. The six available ratings run on a ladder: Poor, Average, Good, Great, Superb, and Extraordinary. To attack someone, you compare your own Melee (or Accuracy, if shooting) to their Defense. The number of steps up or down between your ratings will determine the Target Number needed for successes on the dice in your pool. So, for example, I might end up rolling 5d6 for my attack, and if my Good Melee is one step above that Gutter Runner's Average Defense, then I will count die results of 3+ as hits/successes. 

This is an interesting move, design-wise. In recent years, the Warhammer skirmish game Warcry introduced something a bit like it - simplifying some of the traditional multi-roll procedures in Warhammer combat via a quick relative comparison between the combat levels of enemies. I wonder whether this was just convergent evolution, or whether Warcry influenced Soulbound's design? At any rate, I worried that constantly cross-checking these levels for every combat attack would be too fussy, but in actual play I've found that it quickly falls into the rhythm, and my players get attuned to the short range of possibilities - so that after a while, I can just say "he's got Good Defense" and they mostly nod and check for the needed target number. 

Many weapons will add to your # of successes rolled; conversely, enemy Armour will subtract from the total successes. Any remaining balance gets deducted from the target's Toughness. Dropping Toughness to 0 kills most foes, but PCs - and stronger enemies - have a separate Wounds track. There's a somewhat intricate system for Death Saves and recoveries that works ok. In keeping with the game's overall tenor, catastrophic damage is both a very real threat and pretty easy to bounce back from if you've got luck and resources on your side. If it looks, however, like your character is pretty much doomed, you can accept the inevitable and choose to go out in a blaze of glory -- with a pretty epic Last Stand mechanic. 

Worth noting: there are plenty of things to do besides just hitting the opponent. The game provides fairly simple rules for things like called shots, charges, defending a target or area, dodging, running away, pushing and grappling a foe, helping another character mid-fight, or even trying to verbally de-escalate an undesired fight right in the middle of the action. 

I haven't yet mentioned the PCs' secret weapon: Soulfire. This is like super-Mettle, drawn from a common pool shared by all characters whose souls are knit together in a party-wide bond (which generally means all the PCs except any Stormcast Eternal uber-knights or Lizardmen/Seraphon [the latter show up in a supplement]). This campaign resource recharges very slowly, so its uses are precious, but powerful. Spending a point of Soulfire can do some pretty impressive things, like choosing before you roll to make an entire dice pool count as if you'd rolled all sixes, or cheating Death to bring a mortally wounded friend back into action. Soulfire can be particularly helpful to maximize some of the spellcaster characters' abilities.

That's a fair bit of detail about the way you run combat. In terms of how it feels and plays, I'd say it is fast, tactical, and rewarding. Most turns provoke meaningful and sometimes difficult choices; player characters are both vulnerable but very, very competent. Almost everything is smooth and easy to run, though if you happen to have some characters imposing a lot of special conditions on others (Stunned, for example) then this can slow things down a little unless you track it efficiently. Overall, as I stated earlier, the game runs tabletop skirmish RPG wargaming in a faster and more pleasing manner than 4e D&D, which is just dandy with me. 

Another useful comparison, for me, is to Savage Worlds, another RPG with ancestral roots in tabletop wargaming (I reviewed the Savage Worlds: Pathfinder core rules last year here on the blog). SW is billed as 'fast, furious, and fun', though in play we found it to feel a bit swingy. That is, SW characters are capable of pretty amazing feats in combat or other challenges, but often because you get a lucky throw that cascades into a truly stunning success. Soulbound takes a different approach: PCs are much more reliably awesome, so you can count on doing somewhat epic things in most fights...but the opposition is dialed up, too, to match. The whole baseline is shifted up a tier; you remain vulnerable and aren't assured of victory, but you aren't just waiting around for the really spectacular rolls. I like that. 

Speaking of the opposition - who's out there waiting to kill/eat/corrupt/enslave your characters? Monsters and other foes are statted up similarly to player characters, though (again) most of them die at 0 Toughness, unlike your PCs. Many of the classic Warhammer baddies are here, along with many new ones from Age of Sigmar. Foes aren't just bags of numbers; they often have their own special powers that are both thematically evocative and mechanically interesting. The special abilities remind me a lot of 4e monster entries; like 4e monsters, however, they require the GM to take a good read through each one before combat erupts (at least ideally - or you'll discover mid-fight that you've missed reacting to some special trigger-condition, etc.). The core book includes a 42-page bestiary section. It is ... adequate. Well - it's good, in its own right, but it has limits. I'll talk about supplement books in my next review post, but I will note here that the separate Bestiary supplement would be my top recommendation for expanding the core rulebook. You could run games for a while without it, but a lot of Warhammer standards will feel lacking if you only have the core book. 

On that note, I was bummed not to see guidelines (or I missed them, if they're in there...) for creating your own monsters. You certainly can reskin and retool existing ones (there's already a healthy fan-made monster base online) but the game doesn't really prepare a GM for that [perhaps the licensed IP militates against it?]. More seriously, it isn't until the supplementary Bestiary book that the GM receives guidelines on how to design a "level-appropriate" combat encounter for your characters. Boo! (They're good but short guidelines, too, so it's not asking for a ton of work in the core). 

I often hang out in OSR-adjacent rpg design spaces where "level-appropriate encounters" are eschewed in favor of open worlds and responsible players. That approach definitely can work in Soulbound, but the overall lethality of some monsters is hard to pin down until you try them and their special abilities in play. So, in some ways, encounter design for Soulbound is an acquired art, not a science, but after running about half a dozen games of it, I feel I haven't mastered said art. 


MAKING CHARACTERS

Character creation involves a point-buy system, but it's kept pretty straightforward via some (optional) archetype templates. The core book presents 23 of those archetypes across a diverse species array of humans, kind-of-no-longer-human Stormcast Eternals, dwarves, elves, and tree-folk, so there's plenty of choice. These archetypes make it pretty straightforward to eyeball an interesting concept, make a few choices to taste, and then start playing. 

Once you get to know the game a bit better, however, it's quite easy (and book-legal) to build alternatives to the archetypes, or to create a completely different character from scratch. That does require, as I noted above, point-buying options from a pretty lengthy list. If you are familiar with the range of Skills and Talents (feat-like, sorta) then this becomes pretty do-able in about 15 minutes, but to get to that point, I first had to comb through the Talents list with an eye to specific tactical abilities I was looking for. 


A sample Archetype - you can use these for quick character creation,
or as a foundational template for a 'class' of your own.


Worth noting: when using the pre-generated characters available for download, or just the core archetypes in the book, don't take anything for granted. Take a moment to look up and read the description for everything. For example, we had run an official, pregen Dwarven "Duardin Skyrigger" for several sessions - with a pretty amazing steampunky 'drill launcher' on the weapons list - before I noticed in the core book that this weapon comes with a really heavy head, so that most characters will only carry a single reload. Oh. Well, that required new tactics. :-) Conversely, an item of clothing that sounded like flavor text on the Dark Elven Corsair's archetype page turned out to have quite useful special stealth effects. I suppose it's not rocket science to say "be sure to read the rules" but sometimes Soulbound's general simplicity can fool you into thinking something is straightforward when it isn't. 

As is pretty common nowadays, the character creation chapter includes somewhat more 'narrative' ways to round out your character and the group as a whole. These range from suggestions for names and physical-appearance details to questions about your background - and a random-roll table to provide backstory connections between PCs if you're having trouble thinking of one you like. The game also has you - you individually AND you all as a party - set short-term and long-term goals that grant milestone XP. XP points are exactly the same kind of thing you spent during character creation to buy new Skills, Talents, and Attribute levels (unless, again, you stuck with a pre-written Archetype that keeps all the relevant math hidden in the background for you). This approach offers the benefits (and drawbacks) of a milestone-XP system, but prevents a GM from railroading entirely based on their desired outcomes; players have an important say in the things they want to be rewarded for. 

Note that some of the game's initial supplements include players'-option books that really add a lot of further power and flexibility in character creation. 

We found in play that the pre-gen characters released by Cubicle 7 could be a little underwhelming in combat (note, though, that we really emphasized combat over everything else at our table while testing Soulbound). I decided to craft some characters to really shine in specific combat roles. This did involve ... the dreaded min-maxing! Happily even min-maxing in Soulbound doesn't really take up much time, so I could sheepishly enjoy my wannabe-3.5e experience... ;-) I created, for example, a Dark Elf corsair with a signature move; he can hamstring opponents and knock them prone. The fella plays like death on sneakers, a mobile guerrilla assassin who regularly changes the battlefield. While it's easy to create specialized troops like that, they do run the risk of being so single-focused that unexpected combat situations can make them feel less enjoyable. 

As PCs gain XP to spend on themselves, they can keep honing those precious combat abilities, or train up in non-combat related Skills. My own focus on running Soulbound as a tactical skirmish game is probably blinding me to some of its potential for longer-term campaign play, but combat is potentially bloody enough that I'd pity a character not well-suited to fighting, here. 

Creating a spell-casting character is not 'class limited' - rather, it depends on spending points to gain the Talents that grant access (either to cleric-style miracles or mage-style spells). Then, gaining additional powers under those umbrellas costs further points. Using the pre-set archetypes makes creating a spellcaster quite easy, but the point-buy option means you can create a sort of 'multi-class' fighter-wizard, if you want to combine/dilute the different specialties that way. 

Miracles and spells use different rules: spell-casting is essentially a gamble, requiring a dice-pool test to succeed. If you really blow the roll, there's even a "Price of Failure" miscasting table (p. 266). Though much less zany than DCC's miscast table, things can definitely go VERY wrong if this happens. On the other hand, spells can be pretty powerful! Priestly miracles are generally more reliable, either succeeding automatically at the expense of an Action, or requiring that you spend your Mettle metacurrency to power the effect (or keep it going for a longer duration). Both types of magic have diverse schools/domains that are well-connected to the setting material, and can make two spellcasters (even of the same 'type') feel quite different in play. 


OTHER STUFF

Along with an in-book core bestiary (see above), detailed setting description (see my previous review post), and a suitable discussion of rules for magic and equipment, Soulbound also provides two other short but noteworthy sections. 

One is a downtime system for PC activities between adventures/missions. This sort of thing has become more common in recent years - it was championed particularly by Blades in the Dark - and it lets players feel more connected to the campaign world while continuing to differentiate their characters. These activities might be as mundane as shopping for or maintaining equipment, or you might find yourself researching old lore or new inventions (or magic spells). Alternately - if you're fantasy Batman - you could keep up appearances with a fake identity. If you're a Stormcast Eternal, slowly losing bits of your humanity every time you return from death, you could spend time seeking fragmented memories from your own past, perhaps allowing the GM to hand you new story hooks. 

Also worth noting: a 13-page GM's guide section. Some of this offers your standard introduction to running an RPG. More interesting (to me) are the detailed tips on creating the feelings envisioned for Soulbound (the game "has four primary tones: mythic, hopeful, tragic, and dark") - or, if you'd prefer, making it your own and changing some fundamental aspects of the game. Want a game closer in tone to Warhammer Fantasy RPG's low-power grittiness? There are rules suggestions for that.  Considering some of the more obvious rules hacks? You'll find discussion and recommendations on house rules. Think it would be interesting to make some changes to the default setting? The book explicitly calls out running games in a different period of the world ... which aaaaaaaalmost implies "go ahead, use your own setting for this official Warhammer game!" 

For the record: I think it would be pretty wild to use these rules to run an old-fashioned, high-level D&D adventure arc, like Against the Giants...

The GM section also includes procedures for integrating Rumors and Threats into the campaign. This reminds me of Fronts in Dungeon World, and offers some structure for setting up dynamic campaigns

PLEASE STAY TUNED...I've one more post in this review mini-series, commenting on some Soulbound supplements, and then summing up my own overall impressions of the game. Thanks for reading, and happy gaming! 


2 comments:

  1. Healing resources as treasure is actually a really clever idea. Normally, balancing the economics of healing in TTRPGs is really tricky, because of PCs become wealthy enough, then healing becomes relatively trivial. I mean you can have limits on how much they can hold, or limited supply, but it's still those kinds of constraints.

    On the other hand, by making the healing resource also the treasure, then it becomes an interesting and dynamic tradeoff, weighing the risks and rewards. This would make a lot of sense in other OSR/NSR style games.

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    1. Good points. It probably wants the full scope of a campaign to really shine - so that, as you note, it's always a meaningful resource trade-off. Cubicle 7 has stated (I can't remember whether this was online or in the rulebook) that *Soulbound* isn't a game about characters who take on missions just to get paid - they're out for epic fights against evil. On the other hand, in a world where money equals first aid, elite combatants would have a pretty good reason to go dungeon-crawling just for loot every now and then, to stock up on supplies!

      Another interesting game with a twist on healing is "King of Dungeons" - a very-distantly-OSR-adjacent 13th Age-lite ruleset (I found the game packed full of creative ideas but ultimately not something cohesive enough in the right ways to sell me on running it). In that game, adventurers are assumed to carry an adequate supply of health potions (the way many skirmish wargames assume that troops carry enough ammo for a battle) - the tradeoff is that potions are pharmacopic, and they are habit- and addiction-forming. You never have to worry about running out of potions, but there is a push-your-luck dynamic to see how many potions you dare drink on a job before they start causing you even bigger problems (and/or you build up tolerances so that you have to drink even more potions to get the same healing effect!). I found this a clever approach. I imagine that some gamers may not want to make substance addiction and abuse a core part of their gameplay, but it is certainly an interesting mechanical idea.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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