A Superhero RPG for the Mortal Realms
In this article we are taking a deep dive into the fresh take on the mortal realms. It is a review of the Warhammer RPG “Soulbound”.
When Games Workshop killed off the Warhammer Fantasy “Old World” and launched their new fantasy universe Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, one of the greatest complaints about the new universe was that it wasn’t “deep” enough or “fleshed out”.
Fans understandably missed a fantasy setting that felt like it had history and endless detail anywhere you looked.
A few years have gone by now, and Age of Sigmar is a much more detailed universe than it was at the beginning. Players of the game know the stories of the main heroes and villains of the setting, and the various factions of the Mortal Realms have enough of an identity now that people can make memes and jokes about them.
Still, it can be hard to imagine exactly how it would feel to live in the Age of Sigmar.
There are civilized cities and kingdoms, but everything is magical and fantastical, and can feel much less relatable than the mud, dirt and politics of the Old World.
I am happy to report that the release of the new pen and paper roleplaying game set in the Mortal Realms, Age of Sigmar: Soulbound from Cubicle 7 Entertainment, fills in much of the worldbuilding vaccum of the Age of Sigmar, and makes it feel like a real place.
It does so without sacrificing the crazy, over-the-top guitar solo brand of fantasy that is Age of Sigmar, which many of us have grown to love over the last couple of years playing the tabletop game.
In this review of Soulbound, I will look at how the game translates the Age of Sigmar to an RPG experience, what classes and options are available to players, and what the play experience is like.
Note on this series of RPG reviews:
This article begins a new series of articles on Age of Miniatures where I review pen and paper roleplaying games. They are going to follow a few principles:
- The review will be based on a thorough read-through of the core rulebook and the running of a one-shot scenario for a “focus group” of players who helps evaluate the game.
- The focus of the reviews will be how easy the games are to pick up, what characters and playstyles are best suited for the game, and the pros and cons of the game’s rules.
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The Lore of Soulbound: From a background for battles to a living world
The description of the realms, peoples, factions and history of the Mortal Realms found in the Soulbound core book is the most comprehensive overview of the Age of Sigmar setting anywhere.
It’s a lot more focused on everyday life than the lore that can be found in the core rulebook for the tabletop game, and the sections on each god and faction in the game are full of interesting details.
In general, I’m surprised how well it suits the Age of Sigmar setting to shift its focus from big army tactics to adventuring and everyday life.
It was actually hard to put the book down while I went through the lore section, because the Mortal Realms in all their madness came to life on the page.
That is exciting stuff indeed!
This also means that I would recommend any fan of Age of Sigmar to buy the Soulbound rulebook, simply because it’s the best lore we have right now outside of Black Library novels and audiobooks.
From a gaming perspective, the lore section has little adventure hooks added for each realm, and the overview of what is expected from the worshippers of each god, and what kinds of tasks different factions might give to adventurers, is great for any Game Master looking for a place to start when writing their campaign.
While the lore section covers every realm and most factions one could think of with a page or two each, it goes into much more detail with The Great Parch, the area in the Realm of Fire where much of Age of Sigmar history has happened.
This works like a campaign setting in a DnD game would:
There are maps, points of interest, factions at odds with one another and cities to visit.
It’s all well designed, and I hope we’ll see similar campaign settings for other realms further down the line.
It’s worth noting that the book has what’s essentially a second lore section tied to the Bestiary at the end of the book.
Each faction of monsters in the book has as much space devoted to explaining the faction and how to “roleplay” it as a Game Master as it has for stat blocks and monster abilities.
For me as a Game Master, this meant that I never felt like the enemies I was throwing at the players lacked motivation or personality.
All in all, the lore of the core book is without equal when it comes to describing the Mortal Realms and bringing them to life, but this wouldn’t mean much if Soulbound didn’t have interesting ways of interacting with this background material through its rules and systems.
How Character Creation Works in Soulbound: Superheroes in the Service of Sigmar
If you don’t count the fact that the game is set in one of my favorite game universes, Soulbound’s rules for creating characters are my favorite aspects of the game.
3 Attributes to rule them all
First off, a character only has 3 attributes:
- And Soul
This might sound very reductive to, say, a Dungeons and Dragons player (where’s Dexterity? Wisdom? Charisma?), but the philosophy behind it just works.
Instead of starting out complex with a lot of attributes that each branch off into different directions via their derived skills and abilities, Soulbound goes for a simpler system of increasingly complex layers.
Every other statistic in the game is somehow calculated by using Body, Mind and Soul.
Your Toughness (hit points) is just the three attributes combined.
Mettle (we’ll get to that below) is half your Soul rounded up, and on it goes.
One of the members of my playgroup had no prior experience with roleplaying games, and he didn’t have any problems creating his character. He only needed a minimum of help.
Skills on top of attributes
The second layer after attributes is Skills.
Skills can be upgraded through either Training, which gives you extra dice to roll when you use that skill for a test, or Focus, which lets you improve said dice rolls.
All the skills are associated with an attribute. From the skills and the attributes you can calculate the three combat statistics.
Those are Melee, Accuracy and Defence, as well as your Initiative – and then you are just about done!
Talents, equipment and special abilities
The last element to add apart from equipment is Talents, which are special abilities your character has.
There are a ton of talents in the book, ranging from different schools of spellcasting and combat disciplines to more role-playing focused talents such as Forbidden Knowledge, which makes you better at tests in a knowledge-based skill.
The twist in Forbidden Knowledge is that if you fail such a test, you “bring something dark into the world”, giving the gamemaster licence to make the world a much more dangerous place because the player made a deal with dark powers to gain their knowledge and it backfired.
But where are Classes in Soulbound? Well, they are called Archetypes
This is a fairly simple system, made even easier to use since the game’s version of classes, called Archetypes, are simply made up of specific attribute values, a choice of Skills and a choice of Talents plus equipment.
This makes it easy to understand what your Archetype can do, and you are mostly free of learning new rules when choosing a new Archetype.
If an Archetype does have special rules, such as the crafting abilities of the Kharadron Archetypes, those are designed as Talents and follow the rules of those.
You can choose between Archetypes from 7 different factions:
- Free Peoples (Battlemage, Black Ark Corsair, Darkling Sorceress, Excelsior Warpriest, Trade Pioneer)
- Daughters of Khaine (Hag Priestess, Witch Aelf)
- Fyreslayers (Auric Runesmiter, Battlesmith, Doomseeker)
- Idoneth Deepkin (Akhelian Emissary, Isharann Soulscryer, Isharann Tidecaster)
- Kharadron Overlords (Aether-Khemist, Endrinmaster, Skyrigger)
- Stormcast Eternals (Knight-Azyros, Knight-Incantor, Knight-Questor, Knight-Venator)
- Sylvaneth (Branchwych, Kurnoth Hunter, Tree-Revenant Waypiper)
One thing to notice here is that, apart from an abundance of magic users, Soulbound seems to very deliberately avoid “classic” role playing game character options.
There are no regular human knights or rangers available, for example.
The most “normal” human character you can make is a Trade Pioneer, which can carry all kinds of weapons, but it also has a celestial mongoose compass-like star creature as a pet.
You can be an archer or a sword-and-board character if you want, but then you’ll typically also be an amnesiac warrior-construct as a Stormcast Eternal or a living tree as a Kurnoth Hunter.
This is an example of a design choice in Soulbound that I am very fond of:
The designers have done everything they could to encourage players and game masters to play the game as an Age of Sigmar game, not as a Warhammer Fantasy or Dungeons and Dragons game.
The fundamental weirdness of the setting is woven into everything in the book, and it is made most clear in the character options:
You’re (mostly) not playing a lowly battleline unit character. Many of the character options are Heroes in the tabletop setting.
Simply put: Soulbound is a superhero game.
How do XP and progression work in Soulbound?
The superheroic theme also guides the way progression works in the game:
Your characters start out very strong, with lots of useful abilities and skills, and there are no level ups or anything like that.
You gain XP in the game, but only by completing goals (so not simply for killing monsters), and the XP can then be used to buy new abilities or skills.
You don’t earn that much XP per session, however, so your characters arsenal of options doesn’t grow exponentially all the time.
What this meant for me and my playgroup was that we discovered that Soulbound is immensely well-suited for one-shot scenarios.
You don’t have to slowly build up threats and conflicts, because your characters can handle a lot from the beginning. It’s obviously a matter of taste if you like the game’s approach to progression, but it’s a nice change of pace from the progression-focused approach of many other mainstream role-playing games, and we generally felt that it helped us think in character and focus on immersion and roleplaying rather than min-maxing and number-crunching.
This also forces you to think differently about your characters. Starting out, the characters are heroes already!
This dramatically changes how you need to write a background story in Soulbound vs other games where you start out by clearing cellars of rats and fighting goblins.
If you want to play the game as a simple pikeman or an Aelven Ranger, you absolutely can. Because of the simplified statistics of the game’s character creation, it is very easy to make up your own Archetype, and the book includes rules for this that are easy to follow.
One of the players in my group created a very powerful gunslinger/magical engineer character that seemed like a lot of fun to play, so if you are up for making up your own playstyle, it’s easy to do.
Party sheets are a thing!
Once you’ve created your character, your group also has to create a Party Sheet, which is like a character sheet but more focused on how everyone knows each other, and what the group is hoping to accomplish.
The game’s lore is centered around the idea of the Soulbound as a group given divine power from Sigmar at the expense of their freedom to live outside of that “binding”, and while that can feel a little limiting in terms of how your characters can plan for the future (being part of a Soulbound binding is a life-long commitment), the Party Sheet was a good tool for making the players think about their group identity.
It also comes with a few statistics:
Soulfire, which is a resource players can use to gain bonuses, and Doom, which is a number describing the state of emergency in the game world which effects certain monster statistics.
While Soulbound’s streamlined approach to character statistics and its wild and imaginative character classes probably aren’t a great fit for every kind of pen and paper enthusiast, I think it does a great job of combining beginner-friendliness and depth.
It’s impressive that there are so many character options and a system for creating your own archetypes, and since it is fairly easy to die in the game, it’s also nice that it doesn’t have to take days to create a new character if your first one takes an orruk fist to the head within a few hours of play.
If I had to mention one thing within character creation that feels a little undercooked, it has to be the game’s rather sparse equipment section.
While some archetypes, like the Kharadron, can engineer a lot of strange weapons and devices, it is rather frustrating that the armor section of the book is just “Light, Medium, Heavy, Shield”. This could have been expanded loads upon!
There is a fair amount of different weapon types, and some interesting traits to go along with them (if you’ve played Necromunda, you’ll feel right at home in this system), but the entire equipment system seems to go in the opposite direction of the design philosophy of the rest of the book.
Why is a Fyreslayer’s ancestral battleaxe just a regular axe? Where are all the legendary armor sets and swords with strange abilities and histories?
It does make the system a little easier to read that the equipment system is so simple, but it felt weird to me that the weapons were the least interesting aspects of the player characters in my group.
I hope there’s more content coming for this part of the game.
Playing the Soulbound game: Tons of Dice
Whether you find the game systems of Soulbound familiar or strange depends entirely on what type of gaming you are used to.
If you are reading this as a Dungeons and Dragons player looking for a new system to try, I’m sorry to tell you that you have to leave your beloved polyhedral dice behind. There are no d20s or d4s in Soulbound. If you’re coming from Age of Sigmar as a tabletop game, you’ll feel right at home.
All tests in the game are resolved through rolling a pool of d6s (that’s just regular six-sided dice) and counting your number of successes.
How many dice you have to roll depends on your abilities, skills and equipment, and what you have to roll to succeed depends on a Difficulty Number that tells you the target value of a roll and how many of your dice should be that value to succeed.
If that sounds confusing, let’s look at an example:
- If you are making a check to cast a spell and the Difficulty number is 5:3, this means that you have to roll 5s to succeed, and you have to roll at least 3 5s.
- How many dice you have to do this is determined by you Mind attribute (lets say it’s 5) and your Channeling skill (let’s assume you have 2 in Training in Channeling, so you can add 2 dice to the pool).
- That means you have 7 dice in your pool, and 3 of those should be 5s or better to succeed.
Much of the time, you will have to look up these Difficulty Numbers, or your Game Master will have to determine them (the book has plenty of tables to help the GM with this).
When it comes to combat, it’s a little easier:
You use either your Melee or Accuracy to attack, and check if it’s higher or lower than the enemy’s defence, and a small table on the character sheet then tells you what you have to roll to succeed.
If it sounds a little complex, don’t worry: It becomes second nature after a short while.
If it sounds a little too simple, don’t worry either: You can have Focus in a Skill which allows you to add value to dice rolls for tests with that skill, and many abilities and weapons have extra effects for what happens when you roll more successes than the test requires.
These rules for tests is basically all you need to know to understand the rules outside of combat. There are Opposed Tests as well, where an opponent or the GM also has to roll against your roll and you compare results, but the rest is just dice pools, difficulty numbers, and a lot of freedom for roleplaying.
I found it to be a very elegant system that didn’t lead to any confusion among players or any dice clutter on the table.
In combat, the game has a lot of modifiers that can affect the players’ actions. There are terrain effects, conditions such as Blind or Dazed, and the rules for how you take damage are complex enough with both a Toughness statistic (which is basically hit points but you tend to have very few of them) and a Wounds track that shows you how close you are to dying.
On a player’s turn, she can make a Move and take an Action, which can be attacks, spells or other abilities.
On top of this, a player has a resource called Mettle, which let’s you make an extra action per point used. Mettle recovers by one point each turn, so you can always make more out of your turn than just a Move and an Action.
This, more than anything, creates the superhero feel in the combat flow that I mentioned earlier:
A player can do a lot in a turn, and everything feels fast-paced and like something out of an action scene in a movie.
All the options available to players mean that monsters can go down pretty quickly, but I am happy to report that the monsters are often as high-powered as the players. I do think there are too few monsters available in the core book (even though it contains rules for making your own), but the ones that are there are lovingly crafted, and I haven’t found a monster yet that didn’t have something interesting it could do.
Bloodletters can literally decapitate players with no option for recovery with the right roll of the dice, and the big boss monsters have as many rules and abilities as their tabletop counterparts.
The Bestiary covers the servants of the major Chaos Gods (but regular Chaos warriors aren’t included, strangely), several Death factions and a selection of Orruks and Grots (plus a few neutral creatures), so the game is in need of more monsters for sure.
If you need more monsters right now, I can recommend the game’s Facebook community, which has already spawned a horde of custom monsters from every imaginable faction in the Mortal Realms.
The greatest weakness of the game’s systems in my opinion is the Zone system:
Instead of having players move across hexes or measuring inches with a ruler for movement, a combat area is divided in zones, which the players and monsters then occupy. If you’re in the same zone as a monster, you’re in melee range.
This design encourages players to imagine the combat rather than just seeing it play out with miniatures, and it does make playing online easier since you don’t actually need a playing area.
The downside to it is that it made the players in my group think a lot less about movement, positioning and maneuvering in combat than if they had played with miniatures and measuring tape. The game does have some simple alternative rules for doing so, and I would recommend anyone to use them instead of the Zone rules.
But, this totally depends on your preference. But with so cool miniatures available, I am definitely up for using them in the game!
Does the mechanics of Soulbound lead to a fun RPG experience?
The big question, then, is whether all of Soulbound’s systems make for a good play experience?
In the experience of my player group, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the Soulbound game.
It’s feels amazing that the player characters are strong and interesting from the first second of play. You don’t have to wait a few sessions before they get access to class-defining abilities, and the monsters match this by skipping rats and wolves in favor of terrifying demons and monsters from “level 1”.
But, I do think most of the fun we had came from the nature of the game’s setting:
The game does a great job at showing the high-stakes nature of the Age of Sigmar.
Chaos and Death is almost always nearly victorious, the Realms themselves are as weird and dangerous as the creatures that populate them, and it is easy to craft a story where your playgroup is all that stands between civilization and destruction.
The systems themselves have plenty of depth as well – I haven’t even gotten into how you can create your own spells, what happens if you fail casting a spell, or the specifics of any of the Archetypes – and everything is easy to customize to better fit your playstyle.
I do miss some more content, such as items, weapons, monsters and so on, but there’s already one free expansion out which adds some new monsters and an adventure, and plenty more updates coming over the next year.
Pros and Cons of Soulbound
- Amazing setting that brings the Mortal Realms to life like nothing before it
- Easy character creation and customization
- Steep power curve – your players are almost superheroes from the beginning
- Fun monsters with interesting background and abilities
- Fast-paced combat with many options for the players
- Emphasis on roleplaying and combat rather than on power progression
- Somewhat light on content when it comes to monsters and equipment – for now
- Zone movement system isn’t as immersive as measuring movement
- Why not incorporate the amazing miniature line more?
- For fans of low level roleplaying, totally not your game
How to buy the Soulbound RPG
Right now you can only get the book via Cubicle 7 website or via Drive Thru RPG.
The physical book will be out in the last part of 2020. If you buy the book (on preorder) now you will also get the PDF version.
There will also be different versions or bundles of the game (collectors edition, starter set and so on). I suggest checking out Cubicle 7 website for more information on that.
My Final Verdict on Soulbound RPG
I loved playing Soulbound, and so did my players. Its rules aren’t as detailed and its simulation isn’t as complete as something like Dungeons and Dragons, but it was easy to get everything going, and it just seemed like the game’s rules were designed to never get in the way of storytelling and roleplaying.
My players fought along Flesh-Eater Courts ghouls against Stormcast Eternals, all the while thinking that they were helping some brave knights battle the forces of Tzeentch, and it all took place in a desert of rust in the Realm of Metal.
I don’t know in what other game we would have so easily played something so strange without it ever feeling overly complicated.
The greatest compliment I can give the game is to say that none of my players complained about not looting any real treasure or leveling up during our play session – they were simply immersed in the story, and seeing it through seemed like reward enough in itself.
If you like the Age of Sigmar tabletop setting for what it is, with all its strangeness and hyperbole, I think you’re going to love Soulbound just as much!