Well, this has become quite a series - time to wrap this up! Here at last is the final part of a three-post review of Soulbound, the Warhammer Age of Sigmar RPG. In Part 1, I introduced the game, talked about its role at my table, and dove into some interesting features of the game's setting. In Part 2, I talked about the game system's core rules and combat.
Today, I'll close with:
+ a quick overview of some of the game's rules supplements
+ a critical perspective on trends in the game's published adventure scenarios
+ a summary of my overall thoughts on Soulbound
DISCLAIMER - please note that Cubicle 7 provided materials for a fair and honest discussion 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 some other 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) if you purchase items from DTRPG.com. Those desiring physical copies of game materials can order them from Cubicle 7, at a local game store, or elsewhere online. Thank you!
SUPPLEMENTS - FLESHING OUT THE RULES
Although Soulbound's core rulebook gives you a lot to work with, various supplements add still more to the game. Below, I address the rules supplements that I've had a chance to look through, noting which ones seemed more or less useful to me.
The Bestiary: GMs, if you get into Soulbound, and you only get one other resource to help your games, pick up the Bestiary. As I noted last time, it contains some quick tips on encounter design (that really belong in the core book, in my opinion...). It also substantially increases the number and variety of foes at your fingertips. Many factions have a few entries in the core book, but see significant expansion in the standalone Bestiary ('Greenskin hordes', undead 'Ossiarch Bonereapers', chaotic forces of Nurgle, etc.); other factions are entirely absent from the core book but show up in force in the Bestiary (you gain Seraphon/Lizardmen; ghostly Nighthaunts; Ogor Mawtribes; and even a short but impactful section on giants!). The list of monstrous creatures/animals, mundane human forces, and champions of Order also grows here). Again, this book is my #1 pick for a GM wanting to expand beyond the core book.
Through Fire & Smoke: Despite its small footprint, and because of its relatively low cost (sold in .pdf for 3 bucks USD on DTRPG), this is also an easy recommendation. It offers dozens of new ideas for environmental hazards or effects, which you can use to make different zones in your battle-maps much more interesting. This offers a nice way to add a bit more spice, variety, and challenge to combats.
Champions of Order: Unlike the titles above, this is mainly for players. I'd recommend it highly for any player with the desire and budget to expand beyond the core rules. CoO offers new archetypes (basically, 'classes') across various elven, dwarven, human, and Stormcast factions [again, please note that I'm using normal-people names instead of leaning on in-game spellings like Aelves or Duardin]. It also adds rules for an entirely new playable 'Aelven' faction/species (Lumineth Realm Lords, sort of 'mountain High Elves' who are part of Age of Sigmar). As much as those options expand player choices at character generation, this tome also adds a bunch of stuff for already established characters. We get new miracles, spells, talents, and equipment choices; new downtime options; and new info on the Soulbinding process and on the lives-cycles of Stormcast characters, along with additional XP-hunting goals for player characters.
Of real interest, too, is this book's addition of new Sub-Faction rules. These may apply to any character, even retroactively. They offer small but narratively interesting and mechanically helpful ways to distinguish between characters of the same faction or even archetype. So, for example, we read of different kinds of Stormcast Eternals, different backgrounds across the mortal human cities of the Realms, etc. - and in each case, identifying your character with one of these backgrounds adds a Talent-like tweak of personalization. This is really neat.
Champions of Death: Wait now, what? Yes, this dark cousin to Champions of Order does everything I just described, but for undead player characters - ghouls, skeletons, vampires, ghosts, wights, or human necromancers (who must have had really bad high school guidance counselors). Wow. This will leave some players cold (pun not intended?) while others will jump at it. Helpfully, this is more than just a guide to running 'the evil character campaign.' You could indeed play a team of walking corpses devoted to the dark cause of Nagash, Lord of Death - but you might also be an undead champion begrudgingly assigned to a team of Order's heroes to help fight off an even greater Chaos threat. Or, still further, you might play an undead character who is slowly realizing that Nagash ... isn't the hero of Age of Sigmar. Quite a few of the undead character options easily allow for champions who were unwittingly exploited by Death magic and are now coming to their senses, seeking redemption from their tragi-gothic fate. Ooooh.
Otherwise, you can pretty much read everything I wrote about Champions of Order and apply it here: new archetypes and factions, cool sub-faction rules, new talent, miracle, spell, and equipment options, etc. Although this book's theme didn't really grab me, one of my kids really enjoyed the option of playing a ghost character (you can see his spectral miniature in the battle-in-progress photo of my Part 2 post).
Based on online forum conversations, I believe that a parallel Champions of Destruction volume (orcs/orruks, ogres/ogors, etc.) is in the works, but Cubicle 7 has decided not to produce a Champions of Chaos (they are the ultimate villains of the series, after all).
GM Screen: What can I say? It's got art on one side, and most of the rules you'll want in play summed up on the other side. I picked up a physical copy and find it helpful when running the game. This includes a separate booklet of adventure ideas; I'll talk about the game's published adventures separately, below.
So, so far: if you want to expand the rules for Soulbound, I'd strongly recommend the resources above. The next one on my list left me feeling a bit more ambivalent.
Stars and Scales: Playable Lizardmen (Seraphon)! Well, that's cool. If you're really into Lizardman lore, you'll probably enjoy the worldbuilding details and species-themed spells and equipment items found here. This also provides scaly sub-faction choices and two new archetypes, the bruising Saurus Oldblood and the wily, magical Skink Starpriest. These options are ... good. I just didn't have my socks blown off by any of this, and the limit of two archetypes felt a tiny bit underwhelming (though, again, those sub-faction options help). The book stresses that Seraphon should seem "utterly alien", making them effective NPCs, but perhaps a challenge to play well as PCs (or just an easy out for someone with zero interest in roleplaying beyond cracking skulls) :-).
This resource also includes adventure seed ideas for the GM, but I'll talk about adventure scenarios separately, below.
Supplements I haven't read: there are also plenty of other supplements I haven't read; one expanding gear and transport options, one addressing ancient relics, and lots of little mini-resources (like a discussion of hidden refuges players can find across the landscape).
SCENARIOS - MIGHTY HEROES ... AND RUSTY RAILS...
***Please note - SPOILERS FOLLOW for several published Soulbound adventures.***
Ok, gang - here, I'm afraid, I will offer my most critical points of the review. The situation is simple: Soulbound adventures offer many good points, but too often they show an alarming tendency toward railroads that minimize or suppress players' creative agency and problem-solving skills.
Apparently, there's a market for that; I've noticed something similar in the few Warhammer Fantasy RPG 4e adventures I've read ... also from Cubicle 7. I'm not saying people shouldn't be allowed to play this way - if this floats your boat, that's great - but for me, this undermines one of the primary benefits of tabletop roleplaying games.
What am I talking about? Well, I'll give some examples.
Reap and Sow is an intriguing introductory adventure (complete with pre-generated characters) with a cool concept, throwing PCs into a Seven Samurai-style showdown to protect a settlement from an undead "bone tithe." A cool concept - articulated in button-mashing, railroady style. Upon the PCs' arrival at the soon-to-be-threatened settlement, the GM is informed which NPCs will come up to talk with each specific pre-gen character; exactly what the PC must do to solve the problem presented by the NPC; what type of dice check this requires; and even (in some cases) *how* the player will actually go about doing so in the fiction (for example, telling a PC what they talk about while attempting to "sooth [sic] Wullum's frayed nerves, recounting tales of Sigmar's trials as he journeyed through Shyish"). No need for PCs to come up with their own solutions to problems, or even in-character color! Meanwhile, the party's Stormcast fighter "must" (the adventure's words) "rush to the site" of an industrial accident and make a specific skill check to lift some rubble so that someone else can free the laborer trapped beneath. Later, the actual scenario threat arrives: hulking undead constructs who demand a 'bone tithe' -- offerings of fresh human bones to honor the king of the dead and restock his skeletal armies. That's pretty epic! The module's handling of this problem? Less epic. A specific pre-gen character "can attempt to negotiate" to buy the town one extra day of prep time for a defense (they get two days anyway for free). Once the baddie envoys leave, the game imposes specific guidelines about which specific PC may attempt to sway the urban crowd in desired directions. Should your players have the temerity to suggest any possible response other than the pre-scripted Seven Samurai-style showdown, the module tells the GM exactly how to penalize them. In the end, as the game states explicitly, "there is only one option: make the settlement ready to defend themselves from the Bonereapers."
Crash and Burn is another free starter adventure that also relies on Ye Olde Railroad. Here, it's a scene-based railroad that allows for the illusion of flexibility by allowing some scenes to occur in 'any order.' On the other hand (in a callout box specifically about 'choices and consequences'!!!!), the scenario shows the GM exactly how to punish the players (mechanically, via Doom) if they act in selfish or unapproved ways.
Grr. Look, I get it; these are starter adventures, so maybe they're for tables with little practice running games or roleplaying. But no no no no nooooo. I remember the moment when I taught a friend to roleplay for the first time ever, and he singlehandedly stopped a kidnapper's stagecoach in his first roleplaying character action ever in his life by brainstorming a way to use a spool of wire he had randomly rolled up with his starting equipment. In the old-school-inspired way of gaming that I find most natural, the whole point is to present factions, situations, and challenges as the GM, then sit back and watch the PCs come up with some cool response (or die trying). Framing railroads in starter adventures just teaches bad habits to players and GMs, in my opinion.
Besides, the problem isn't limited to Soulbound's starter scenarios. "Little Rats Run" is a scenario seed in the Stars and Scales Lizardman supplement. It's basically a (rather painful-looking) railroad for PCs trapped in an ancient structure, who have nothing to do but walk to the middle of the structure, where they become hunted by a foe they can't damage or restrain in any way and which explicitly ignores all attempts at diplomacy, until the PCs catch some skaven with a missing macguffin who are trapped in there too, and do this ritual thing with the macguffin, and then do it two more times, and then get chased by the monster they can't damage up to the surface, and watch the monster finally vanish. Whee! Oh, and if the PCs decide this is all bonkers and they want to retreat, no problem - "the entrance that brought them here no longer exists." Are the "little rats" of the scenario title the hiding skaven, or the player characters as mindless GM lab rats?
Don't misunderstand my rant: not all Soulbound adventures do this, not by any means. Between the Stars and Scales supplement and the scenarios published with the GM screen, I've got my hands on quite a few more respectable adventure seeds. Many of them could be fleshed out into something quite fun. It's just a shame that too many of them read like loose narrative excuses for the next pre-fab scene of combat and skill-challenges - given the epic scope of the game's premise, it really begs for something grander in the scenarios. That being said, I've noted before that I'm using Soulbound mainly as a kind of low-stakes, lower-prep tactical skirmish game when my regular game won't happen. It doesn't hurt me to have a bunch of fights + fluff, since that's the role I'm going for. But I'm not sure I have a great sense of what a full-on, well-rounded sandbox campaign, full of room for player choices, would look like in Soulbound. I bet it could look really awesome.
REVIEWING SOULBOUND - OVERALL SUMMARY
So. Here at last are my overall impressions, in a nutshell. Soulbound is a light-end-of-medium-crunch RPG. It's pretty easy to learn, easy to run, and fun to play. The books are well-produced overall, and enjoyable to read.
I have really enjoyed running Soulbound as a tactical skirmish game; for me, it will probably replace D&D 4e in that niche at my table. I don't expect to run it as a proper campaign, using it instead as a well-crafted filler game for combat-focused one-shots. Combat is fast, dynamic, and full of interesting and meaningful tactical choices. Player characters tend toward the super-heroic, prompting some gamers online to call Soulbound an ideal Exalted-light RPG. The game offers rich variety for interesting and distinct player characters, albeit with a tendency (which can be resisted) to emphasize combat.
Of the published supplements, I'd immediately recommend the standalone Bestiary, and would endorse picking up the Champions of Order players' supplement for any players able to get it. Other supplements (that I've seen) may be a bit more niche, but still offer lots of goodies. The published adventures (that I've seen) are sort of hit-and-miss, in my opinion, too frequently devolving into railroads or set dressing between pre-determined combats.
Ironically, the setting itself is rich and interesting. This is an epic world for epic PCs with the ability to make a significant difference (all the more reason to avoid railroads...). I think it remains to be seen whether the product line will continue to empower local tables to make the world their own, or fall into the trap of scooting players through predetermined narratives -- a potential pitfall for any game set in an established IP environment. Age of Sigmar's relative newness, and the Mortal Realms' vast scale, do offer at least a chance for this setting to remain really fresh.
At any rate, GMs remain free to do what they wish at their own table, and there's a LOT of fun stuff you can do with this game. Despite my few critiques, my overall impression of Soulbound is very favorable. I've really enjoyed running it and I feel I've only begun to plumb its potential depths.
Thanks for reading - and happy gaming!