Age of Sigmar: Soulbound Review
From somebody who didn’t play Warhammer Fantasy RPG
By Matthew Darnell, for The Garden of Nurgle Podcast
Part One: Intro
I wanted to do a special review slash primer for Age of Sigmar, Soulbound, which was released this week!
First of all, I am not a pro RPG veteran by any means. I got my kids and Ryan through about 3 sessions of DnD before our interest fizzled. But this is a mashup of roleplaying and Age of Sigmar… So how could I resist?
I didn’t go through the book in any particular order… I just jumped around a lot. So bear with me as I go through the different sections haphazardly. If I missed anything… well that’s just how it goes sometimes.
The main setting is the Mortal Realms, but the core rulebook focuses primarily on the Fire Realm of Aqshy. I haven’t had a chance to dig into the lore sections very deeply, though they seem pretty standard so far. It does help detail the realm of Aqshy a little more than the AOS core rulebook did.
Part Two: Basic Mechanics
This game uses standard d6 dice that we use in just about every Warhammer game.
Each character has 3 basic attributes that form the basis of your “Dice Pool” (the number of dice you roll to make a test with). Skills can modify that pool, providing additional dice for performing a test that utilizes a skill relating to that attribute. Main attributes: Mind, Body, and Soul. Stats range in value from 1 to 8, but the average human would have a value of 1 or sometimes 2 in any particular attribute. They can be modified by conditions, such as being wounded can reduce the Body attribute.
A representation of expertise. Starts at Untrained, progresses to Trained, and Focus Skills: Each level of Training in a Skill can modify the pool, providing additional dice for performing a test that utilizes a skill relating to that attribute. Focus provides a fixed modifier: +1 to the result of the die per level. Can have up to 3 levels of Training, and 3 levels of Focus.
Making a check/test:
The GM assigns a level of difficulty to the test. For us warhammer players, the statistics are already in our heads, so this shouldn’t be hard for us to figure out! The GM assigns first the number needed to pass, then the number of passes needed to succeed the check/test (first part is Difficulty, second part is Complexity. Together, they are the ‘Difficulty Number”)
Common checks require the player to get a number of “successes” on his dice equal to the “complexity” value (the second number in the difficulty rating). For example, a difficulty of “4:1” means 1 die needs to get 4+ to pass (i.e. 50% odds if only using 1 die). Another example would be a difficulty of “3:2,” which would require two dice to have the result of 3+.
A chart is included in the GM section that shows a rough approximation of how difficult a test would be based on the difficulty assigned vs. the number of dice being rolled for it.
There also can be opposing tests, where two characters are rolling against each other. Outscore the opponent to win.
Extended tests can be made over a long period of time, such as crafting or information seeking. They generally would require many successes, so require multiple rolls to determine the outcome. The GM can limit the number of attempts possibly, and you have to get a cumulative total of successes within that limit to pass the test.
Advantages or disadvantages can be applied to these roll depending on certain factors, and generally increase or decrease the difficulty of the test.
Much like DnD “Feats”, talents are abilities that serve to individualize a character. They sometimes have prerequisites,
Part Three: Characters
The “default” group premise is that they are all heroic agents of Order, “Soulbound” to each other to achieve a certain goal or mission. Think “Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring” except this group actually has to stay cohesive. So, no official evil campaigns as of yet!
The available races to choose from are Human, Stormcast Eternal, Aelf, Duardin, and Sylvaneth. Additional races need to be approved by the GM, and would require homebrewing to implement. Each race gets a racial bonus, varying from an extra talent to inherent armor. Racial choice affects the available pre-made Archetypes available to them.
There are a number of archetypes pertaining to each race and faction of Order. Some examples include a Free Peoples Black Corsair, Sylvaneth Branchwych, Stormcast Eternal Knight-Questor, and Kharadron Skyrigger. There are many more archetypes, and I assume more will be added in the future.
Picking one of these is like picking a class in other RPGs. They come with a preset build of talents, attributes, skills, and equipment. With permission of the GM, these archetypes can be altered to match a certain character concept.
Alternatively, you can create your own Archetype with a point-buy system (again at GM discretion), using the Advancement rules and a XP limit to purchase talents, skills and attributes. Starting equipment can be determined with a spending limit and a rarity restriction, if you create an Archetype in this way.
“Melee” rating calculated using Body and the Weapon Skill. This is compared to opponent’s Defence to determine the difficulty for the attack.
“Accuracy” based on Mind and the Ballistic Skill.
“Defence” based on Body as well as training in Reflexes skill. Equipment can modify this rating, such as a shield.
“Armour” reduces the amount of damage you take.
“Toughness” are basically hitpoints. You take damage here first, but once expended, you begin to accumulate Wounds.This is calculated based on the attributes Body and Mind.
“Wounds” are more serious injuries that can be lasting or life-threatening. All three attributes are used to calculate this value.
“Initiative” is a set value, not a roll, based on your Mind attribute as well as various other skills that can increase this value.
“Natural Awareness” is a passive perception-type value, used for the GM to make undeclared tests against for NPCs.
“Mettle” is a regenerating resource used to act above and beyond the standard limitations of a player’s actions. It is calculated based on the Soul attribute.
Part Four: Combat
This game works in the abstract more than most, and breaks down any combat encounter into “Zones”, or areas of the map. These are somewhat freeform, supposedly conforming to natural breaks in the terrain the combat is taking place in. They do a pretty good job of explaining that the Zone the character is in, is within Melee Distance, adjacent Zones would be short range, zones further than that start with medium range then go to long and extreme range, etc.
I think this is a good concept, especially for players to play combat out verbally without the need for miniatures and maps. Very good for skype or discord sessions. It looks like it would keep the combat fluid and fun. Hopefully it cuts down on the minutiae such as “Oh darn I needed to move 7 feet but only could go 5 so I guess I can’t hit him.” Hopefully this keeps the combat fun and engaging for all the players.
If you are really itching to get some models on a table (I know I am), they do include alternative rules for movement and ranges in the GM’s section that utilizes more precise measurements. For DnD veterans, this should fit like a glove, as 1” = 5’ with these rules.
There are additional rules for terrain features, mostly focused on how they can interact with the players despite the battlefield being an abstract narrative.
Much like just about every RPG out there, combat is broken down into bite-size chunks of time lasting about 6 seconds, AKA a “Round”
Unlike other RPGs, initiative is fixed by default. This means that you can get used to the order that the combat turns go in, because they won’t be changing much from battle to battle.
When it’s your turn, you can Move and perform an Action. What your action consists of can vary wildly, as there are a lot of options, but generally this can be used to attack, cast a spell, or move further. There are free actions you can make, such as taking out a weapon or moving up to another enemy within your current zone.
There are other kinds of movement that can fall into either the Move or Free Action categories, and they list them out in the book. For example, willingly going Prone is a free action, whereas standing up from prone costs you your Move action for the turn.
They also describe some other common actions, but ultimately leave the details of Actions up to the player and the GM to work out. There definitely seems to be a focus on narrative over crunch (aka rules), which will either be desirable or abominable to you depending on your preferred playstyle. Personally, I prefer the narrative to the crunch, as it’s less for me to worry about as a GM.
Doing damage goes through a few layers. Rather than just having a single value that acts as both armor and defense, this game separates it out a bit further. You have a Defense value, an Armor value, a Toughness value, and a number of Wounds.
An attack hits by rolling their Weapon Skill (WS) or their Ballistic Skill (BS) against the target’s Defence. If that hits, does a number of damage as listed by the attack or weapon. This damage is reduced by the target’s Armor, and then applied first to the Toughness value of the target. If the Toughness value is reduced to zero by the attack, any remaining damage is then converted into Wounds.
The number of wounds a target has is related to how many slots it has on it’s sheet to record them. Different wounds have different levels of severity, and fill a number of slots, depending on the number of damage that the attack did overall.. According to the rulebook, a target that has no spaces remaining to note wounds then becomes “Mortally Wounded” and will start to have to take death tests.
Interestingly enough, after you become mortally wounded, you can make a choice. You can either keep trying to resist death and hold out for healing, or you can make a heroic last stand. Making a last stand confers a number of bonuses upon you, such as making you immune to damage or conditions and refilling the party’s Soulfire resource, but it kills you at the end of your turn.
Thoughts on Combat:
I like the rules that I have read so far about the combat. Zones is easy to wrap my head around, actions are a familiar concept to any RPG veteran or Skirmish scale wargamer, and attacks seem like they ought to go pretty fluidly to any of us that have played the tabletop game. It follows a pretty standard formula of “Roll to hit, roll to determine damage (depending on the weapon of course), apply damage to target.”
The way damage is applied is interesting. Having to go through Toughness first, as a form of hit points, is pretty standard in the RPG world. Having to accumulate a number of injuries before you can die is where it gets a little different… it seems that there are not many attacks that will outright kill a player in a single stroke. The deadliest wound you can suffer fills up 3 slots, and I counted up to 12 on the character sheet, so it would take at least 4 strong wounds to put down a player character. I can see this as making the characters feel heroic, but I also could see this being abused by certain groups to bully their way through fights they weren’t exactly meant to win.
It may require some tweaking based on the grittiness of the campaign you want to run. Either increasing the number of slots each type of wound takes up, or permanently reducing the number of slots per character could make it a little more difficult for advanced players.
Overall though, I think combat should be fairly fluid and fun, with not a lot of things weighing it down.
Part Five: Magic
Casting a spell:
Characters with the Spellcasting talent can attempt to cast spells related to the Lore associated with the talent. You begin with a number of generic spells, and 4 spells chosen from the Lore associated with the talent.
Using an action to make a Channeling test, DN determined by the spell. Additional successes can overcast the spell, making it stronger. Some spells can be cast conjointly with another spellcaster, making them easier to cast if they occupy the same zone, at the risk of both casters suffering ill effects if the spell fails. Different lores of magic can give bonuses to cast to those with affinity to that lore, and the lores correspond to the different Realms.
These vary greatly depending on the spell, but most have a Difficulty Number, a Duration (in turns or time), a specified target (such as self, or zone, or 1 target), the Lore they pertain to, and sometimes a Test which tells you which attribute is used to resist its effects.
Included in the core rulebook is a methodology for creating new spells to cast. Utilizing a chart, you can create a spell that can have a number of different effects. The effects of the spell determine the difficulty in casting the spell. For example, a spell that affects one target is easier to cast than a spell that affects a zone.
Thoughts on Magic:
Magic seems to be fun and interesting to use in this setting, with the ability to create new spells, or modify existing ones, easy to do in a seemingly-balanced manner. There is an excerpt in the GM section that posits that you could allow players to do this on the fly, in order to give magic a more free-flowing feel. Although this could bog down the game if they are trying to do it in the middle of their turn, I could see how this could result in some memorable gameplay moments.
Part Six: The Party Dynamics
A central part of this setting is the idea that the players are bound together and tasked by their various pantheon. Soulfire is a more literal representation of the bond, allowing players to pool their resources and perform fantastic feats through unity and solidarity. Soulfire can be used to heal a member of the party, cheat death, reroll dice during a test, or automatically pass altogether.
What I can see happening is parties disagreeing how to expend this valuable but limited resource. Apparently the designers did as well, and implemented a system to discourage players from using up all of the shared Soulfire points to the ire of their companions… which leads me to my next point…
Doom is a limiting factor, meant to provide a tangible measure of the weakening of a Soulbond between the party. Doom is not spent, but accumulated by a number of failures the party made. The party can grow their doom if a party member dies, if a member of the party uses Soulfire without the party’s consent, if either the Flee or Retreat action is used by a party member, etc.The GM can increase this number at will as well, if the GM feels that the party is wandering too far from the task they were brought together to achieve, or if the party failed a crucial task keeping the forces arrayed against Order at bay.
Doom can be decreased by increasing the maximum Soulfire of the party, or if the party makes attempts to cleanse the corruption. A Stormcast Eternal being Reforged can also decrease Doom.
Doom can be used by the GM for a number of nefarious purposes, such as making extra attacks with NPCs or garnering them additional protection from attacks.
The party itself can have both Short Term and Long Term goals, negotiated between the players and the GM. Short term goals are usually simplistic but might still be critical to moving the main narrative forward. Something such as locating a particular object, or helping a certain person may serve as a short term goal. Long term goals can be more esoteric or strategic in scope, such as saving a town under siege or ending the reign of a murderous warlord.
These can determine the catalyst for forming your party, or as a way to get a campaign back on track with liberal use of the Doom mechanic.
Part Seven: Advancement, Endeavors, and Equipment
The real meat and potatoes of any RPG for the characters is it’s advancement system… the rewards for continuing to play the same characters over and over again, rather than throwing them out after every completed session.
In AOS Soulbound, due to the fluid nature of Archetypes and the freeform character creation methods, advancement is pretty simplistic by necessity. Players can earn the required XP (experience points, again industry standard) by completing both Long Term and Short Term Goals. Just as in the character creation system, there are very few limitations on how this XP can be used to advance the character. It can be spent on increasing attributes or skills, as well as gaining new talents.
Although this makes the actual Archetype the player is roleplaying somewhat unimportant, it does allow the players to chase their ideal character concept without much restriction. The races themselves offer plenty of character anyway.
Equipment is a pretty short section, Mostly consisting of the basic charts that describe different weapon types, their capabilities, their cost, and their availability. The interesting equipment comes in the form of the different racial equipment, such as Kharadron devices and Fyreslayer Runes. I hope they continue to expand the different racial equipment lists, as I’d like to see Idoneth and Sylvaneth sections in future publications, rather than just a single item listed here or there.
Currency is certainly interesting in AOS: Soulbound… since the emphasis in the core rulebook is the Realm of Aqshy, the most important commodity are droplets of pure water imbued with Ghyran magic from the realm of Life. Measured in drops, phials, and spheres, this currency is definitely a tangible one. My biggest concern with it is how I am going to justify it as loot to the party… may have to simply offer it up in terms of contracts or something. Seems far fetched to imagine a Servant of Chaos to be carrying around a horde of pure, life-magic infused water. But who knows… everybody needs to hydrate now and then.
Right now, there doesn’t seem to be a large emphasis on player equipment. It is all pretty basic starter equipment. There are no mentions of improved weapons, just an endeavor that can be made to imbue a weapon with a magical property, which I will go into later. Maybe they are saving the real fancy artefacts for future publications, but I’d have liked a list of a few basic artefacts to sprinkle in.
Endeavours are what the party members can occupy themselves with between sessions. They are tasks that take long periods of time to complete: such as crafting new weapons/armor/equipment, training, learning new spells, or even weaving magic into weapons.
I do like the more structured concept of endeavors, where newer roleplayers can find things their character can do during downtime.
Part Eight: Bestiary
The Bestiary is pretty standard, providing rules for a myriad of opponents the party might face in the Mortal Realms (as well as the realm of Chaos). Although I knew they couldn’t input every enemy into the core rulebook, I did wonder why simple Chaos Warriors were excluded. Chaos Sorcerors made it in, as well as the mortal followers for each individual chaos god, but no basic Undivided warriors? I suspect they already have plans for supplemental releases that will include expansions upon the basic Bestiary.
Minions, Champions, and Chosen:
They do differentiate between a few classes of opponents, called “Roles,” such as Minions. These are Toughness 1, and since Bestiary entries don’t contain a spot to record Wounds, that means they are killed in 1 hit, and represent many small creatures or weak foes. Some of these foes can Swarm when 3 or more of them gather in a zone, allowing them to become a more unified threat, in which each point of damage decreases the number of individuals in the swarm by 1.
Warriors are tougher, having more Toughness. They also can’t swarm, but they can survive several hits in most situations and be a general nuisance to the party.
Champions are the next step up, and they have their own Mettle value that they can use to do things like make extra attacks. These are your unit leaders, such as a Bloodreaper leading a group of Bloodletters.
Chosen are the real bad guys. They have a real toughness value like Warriors and Champions, share the Mettle mechanic with Champions, but additionally have a Wounds characteristic, making them even harder to kill. These are the ones you would make the boss the party have the long term goal of eliminating.
What I liked:
I do like what Cubicle7 did with the IP for this game. They fleshed out a little bit of things I was curious about and dug a little deeper into the Mortal Realms setting. I feel that the rules seem simple to grasp, but complex enough to be difficult to master. It should be a good narrative-driven game system.
I like the ability to tweak things within the confines of the ruleset. There were lots of options for alternatives in the Game Master section, allowing the GM to make small changes that could have a big impact on the game’s feel and gameplay.
The amount of flexibility with the character creation process should allow players to fine tune their character concepts pretty easily.
The art in the book is amazing. Some of it is recognizable from other sources, but some of the new art is just beautiful. The book is laid out neatly, with no annoying page breaks that seem out of place, and the art work all seems to blend with the design pretty seamlessly.
What I Didn’t Like During Initial Readthrough:
Although the freeform character creation system allows players to make exactly what they want, I feel the archetypes are largely unnecessary. If you can make whatever you want, why make a character with obvious weaknesses or shortcomings? Since the majority of this system seems geared at more novice roleplayers rather than diehard DnD veterans, I would have liked to see some more checks and balances in the character creation system. Talents being available to purchase with little consequence seems like it might get out of hand quickly, but time will tell.
I was a bit disappointed with the basic equipment section. I was hoping for some great artefacts to motivate my beginning party with, but I will probably have to create some of my own design anyway so this isn’t a big deal.
The Bestiary definitely is not comprehensive, but it does provide enough of the framework I need to come up with difficult encounters for the party. Unlike other RPGs, the lack of a threat rating system will mean that a lot of trial-and-error will be needed to make sure you don’t overload the party… I think as a core rulebook this could have used some work for new GMs.
The lack of an included adventure was a bit disappointing. It is entirely possible that introductory adventures will be published on their website (and one is promised in the forthcoming Game Master’s Screen pdf release) but I would have liked to see one in the core rulebook to get a feel for how they expected adventures to be designed in their ruleset. It would also have been useful for gauging how difficult to make encounters.
There are always some rules inconsistencies when a new game comes out, and this is no exception. Hopefully an errata will clear up some of the rules interactions, especially when pertaining to Swarms. For example, a weapon ability that does damage to multiple enemies at once, should treat swarms as multiple enemies right? RAW, it doesn’t explicitly say it does, but it probably should.
All in all, I am looking forward to running my family and friends through a few sessions of this, if not more. Since so much of the impetus was put on the GM for tweaking the rule system, it shouldn’t be a stretch to fix the broken things as well as to create the missing things.
With so many of us still practicing social distancing at the moment, there should be plenty of time to do both!
Definitely pick this up if you are a fan of Age of Sigmar, for the lore and artwork if nothing else, and you won’t be disappointed.
Publisher: Cubicle7 for Games Workshop
PDF available now, physical copies ETA quarter 4 of 2020
Price at time of writing:
$60 for standard edition preorder, comes with PDF
30 for PDF only
120 for the Collector’s edition preorder, comes with PDF
30 for the Game Master screen preorder, will come with PDF when complete that also has introductory adventure