Entering the Mortal Realms: Age of Sigmar Soulbound. Here’s our review.
Between late 2014 and summer 2015 Games Workshop published a series of novels they titled The End Times, a tale depicting the end of their then long running Warhammer Fantasy Battles game. This did not only end the setting itself but nearly caused the fanbase to melt and collapse in on itself from the heat of the furious rage felt by many long time customers of the veteran miniature game company.
Sales of the old world had by some reports lagged well behind their flagship IP of Warhammer 40.000 and something needed to be done. What arose from the ashes had a very troubled birth but has by this time, in the opinion of this miniature game geek, eclipsed its predecessor like a phoenix guarding one of the Aelven temples in Gyran.
When Age of Sigmar was first published there were many things wrong and objectively the whole process can be used to describe how not to relaunch a beloved IP. The game had no mechanic to balance its play and contained downright silly rules requiring players to stroke beards, lift cups and speak in rhyme. This did not lend itself well to resurrecting the game that was now supposed to take place after the cataclysmic ending of the old world.
Industrious fans stepped in and, by trial and error, constructed a system of points that allowed the game to be played on an even level by its participants. What emerged was, in my opinion, a superior system and one I play to this game, barring any world shattering pandemics eating into my gaming time. Slowly the setting, known as The Mortal Realms, has been fleshed out. expanded and now encompasses nine separate planes of existence with several subrealms and strange dimensions lending further flavor to the game.
This book expands even further on the life in the Mortal Realms with a meaty chapter on Aqshy The Realm of Fire, one of the near infinite realms that make up the Mortal Realms. The focus is squarely on The Great Parch, a part of the world that served as the stage for the first novels published for the setting and well known by fans. But more on that later, let’s take a chapter to chapter look at the book.
For the player
The book opens on an Introduction that guides novice and veteran role playing gamers through the basis of both what role playing games are and the rough points of the setting itself through narrative and, by what will soon to be clear to most to be amazing, art depicting the reasons why the major conflicts in the setting exist. This should serve as a great hook to reel people into the setting as a first taste and is greatly augmented by the top notch layout and high fantasy art. It is a testament to the layout and its helpfulness that I must carp on how helpful it is overall with only one minor pet peeve triggered on my part that I will detail later in the article. Overall the perfect use of sidebars, bold lettering of certain words and page references for other parts of the book on the page breaks results in a book that is surprisingly navigable when its page total is considered. The book is hefty and clocks in at about three hundred and fifty pages so proficient indexing is worth a lot.
The second chapter details Character Creation, lists species and archetypes commonly seen as Soulbound in the Mortal Realms but also allows players to design their own archetypes, a feature that delighted me greatly as many role playing games inspired by other game types often shoehorn players into set archetypes. Though certainly encouraged here it is not depicted as the be all end all of character generation and players are even encouraged to work with their narrator in personalizing character archetypes to suit their needs.
The chapter wraps up with a description for skills and talents, equipment and finally some great narrative devices to add detail to the character, help assemble the party and to bring the whole ensemble alive. This section sports some excellent tricks to fleshing out characters, something a lot of more prestigious gaming systems have choked on. Care has been given to this so it needs to be appreciated and lauded. I wish more games paid this much attention to this part of the game.
The third chapter lists all the Archetypes of the game and their power and is probably the thing new players will look up first. In total there are twenty two archetypes based on models in the current Age of Sigmar range and one that has no clear analog in the miniature game. This gives me hope for further expansion of the background through archetypes that have no clear models, something I would very much like. A total of five species have archetypes here with more promised in further publications. Overall most of the archetypes are pretty set in stone but the previously mentioned custom archetype will give mileage to the system in my opinion.
Next we have the Skills and Talents chapter itself, listing the details of each individual choice rather than the catch all system described earlier. This chapter contains everything needed to build a character except, and here is my pet peeve, the spells available to arcane channelers. These in staid get a separate chapter later in the book leading to a certain disjunction between the two. I suspect this was done because of the length of the spell chapter and is in a way understandable but, alas it was a little jarring. Placing it right after the Skills and Talents chapter might have been a better choice.
The fifth chapter detailing the Equipment and the wider economy of the Mortal Realms is quite extensive. As most of the factions fighting on the side of Order in Age of Sigmar have radically different cultures and currency this might seem as a bit of a stretch. I profess I did not spend a great deal of time on it as I found other chapters in the book much more interesting. Still it serves a very important purpose and other systems have stumbled by not having a solid enough equipment section in their core books, yes I am looking at you FFG Star Wars.
Chapter six is where we get into the meat of the rules, simple as they might seem to vizened players of certain other games. The core system is quite simplistic, using a dice pool of six sided dices and trying to hit a certain number of successes on a floating target number but it is actually rather interesting. Without actually playing the system I can not say for sure but the system seems to favor narrative flow and flexibility over simulationist crunch that often bogs down other systems and I am looking forward to diving into it. Still it possesses an expansive enough system not to be labeled as a purely narrative game so ultimately I would estimate it at a complexity level similar to White Wolves Storyteller system. Seeing a fleshed out system for a player to declare a Last Stand that benefits his surviving party members sealed the deal for me when it came to liking the system over all and I foresee great heroics in my future.
Also worth mentioning are the systems for Soulfire and Doom, the former a shared resource accessible to most members of a group playing the system while the latter is more of an ambient rating for the dangers facing the group. For instance losing a party member would result in Doom that makes certain monsters more dangerous but also just allows the players to rate how they are doing as a whole in protecting the Mortal Realms from its dangers. I am sure these systems will get further expansions in future publications.
The movement system in the game gave me pause at first as at first reading it seemed too similar to the maneuver system in the previously mentioned FFG Star Wars set but in looking at it further, and noticing an alternative system later in the book, I accepted it as something I might just need to try to get the hang of. Still it is one of the few things that gives me pause in the book.
The seventh chapter is devoted to what happens between the adventures themselves and is aptly named Between Adventures. It lists several Endeavours players can have their character perform during downtime and is a refreshing addition to the book as such systems are too often afterthoughts bolted on without any real purpose.
The next three chapters are mostly background material with chapter eight devoted to the Mortal Realms at large, chapter nine to the Great Parch and chapter ten detailing Religion & Belief in the Mortal Realms. I profess having skipped most of these in my read through as the setting is pretty well known to me but I hear there is a trove of lore there for new and old players alike. The lore about the Great Parch is something I will return to for sure as it has never been presented in this kind of detail before, having previously been scattered between several books in the tabletop miniature game.
Chapter eleven contains a list of spells for each separate lore in the game but also systems to craft your own spells during downtime endeavours. I am sure this will interest players that like running magic using characters greatly.
For the game master
Chapter twelve is for the Game master and seems to have been given the same care as the options presented during character creation with alternate and custom systems being plentiful and encouraged. I especially liked the inclusion of Session 0 early in the chapter as it is a gamemaster trick we have often recommended. Seeing such care put into the enjoyment of players and game masters alike raises my opinion of Cubicle 7 as they seem to be on the same page I am when it comes to running roleplaying games.
The rest of the book is simply a large chapter of stat blocks for antagonists and a summary of conditions that can affect players and monsters alike. This part is both helpful and extensive but seeing that the setting of Age of Sigmar is vast there were invariably creatures left out that I miss having the stats for. I hope they publish a book that greatly expands on this part of the game as not having antagonist statistics for my Chaos Warriors is hampering my campaign creation right now.
Overall the book looks amazing and I hope it gets the warm welcome it deserves. I can not wait to dip my toe into the Mortal Realms to a greater degree than previously possible when life gets back to normal all around the world. And if we meet in some blasted canyon choked full of the servants of Chaos, I will know that we can stand side by side and release the Mortal Realms from their grip together…