HAMMERS READY, PREPARE TO SMASH!
For years Warhammer Fantasy was the ur-text for those who like their role-playing grim, dark and perilous. But how would that translate to the Age of Sigmar, where its heroes have swapped mud and blood for lightning forged, golden armour. John Power Jr. Speaks to Emmet Byrne, the man in charge of developing Cubicle 7's new Warhammer Age of Sigmar Soulbound RPG.
Aside from the small matter of being a fundamental pillar of British culture, Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play (henceforth WFRP) is notable for having really established the grim and perilous setting of the old Warhammer world. Released in 1986, a year before both Warhammer Fantasy Battle 3rd Edition and Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, WFRP’s grimy aesthetic and warty down-at-heel characters were a whole plane of existence away from the bronze skinned Olympians that graced the cover of another of 1986’s big hits, Dungeons & Dragons’ Immortal Rules.
WFRP presented both a system and setting mired in mud, blood, corruption and disease, where characters were more likely to die whilst attempting to mount their horses as they were to kick down the doors of hell. One result of this character fragility was that the game, and especially its celebrated multi-book campaign The Enemy Within, placed as much emphasis on investigation, skullduggery and political intrigue as it did on dungeon or, indeed as was more often the case, sewer crawling.
Whilst its sibling miniature battle game may have trended more towards high fantasy over the years, WFRP kept its filthy boots firmly on the ground. Dragon riding elves or griffin mounted knights might have taken centre stage when leading an army across a kitchen table, but the heart and soul of WFRP will forever be the humble Rat Catcher, accompanied, of course, by their small but ever vicious dog.
Fast forward to today and a lot has changed. After years with the clock forever stuck at one minute to midnight, falling sales gave the Chaos Gods the power up they’d always needed and in 2015 Games Workshop finally destroyed the Warhammer ‘World That Was’. It’s fair to say that this was something of a controversial decision, millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, many of whom have never taken the option to be silent since.
Just a few months later, out of the old world’s still warm ashes, a brand new streamlined game, Warhammer Age Of Sigmar, would emerge. From the off this was an avowedly high fantasy setting, think of it as the wargaming version of Dylan going electric with the response much the same too.
Gone was simulacra of Renaissance era Europe, in its place eight vast planes, or realms to use the vernacular, each one formed from and imbued with the winds of magic. This was the kind of setting where gods were no longer content to subtly influence events from the heavens but instead take matters into their own mighty hands, bestriding the land and hitting things with their big magic hammers.
Despite its somewhat rough launch within a couple of years Age of Sigmar’s bombastic, dialed up to eleven setting had revitalised Games Workshop’s fantasy line, the game's arrival coinciding with a years long run of financial results that’s seen the company become a favourite subject for, admittedly often baffled, finance journalists.
Still if there’s one thing a Warhammer fan likes, apart from arguing over rules, it’s lore and lots of it. Whilst the battle game and accompanying Black Library novels may have begun to fill in the gaps of this brave new world it would never be enough to sate the fans. What Age of Sigmar really needed was a role-playing game, something to do the job that WFRP had performed so well some thirty plus years ago.
For that task Games Workshop turned their eyes west to Irish games studio Cubicle 7. Founded in 2007 the County Meath based publisher already had form, having licensed and published, to some acclaim, the current 4th edition of WFRP in 2018. And so enter, in a blaze of azure lightning of course, Warhammer - Age of Sigmar Roleplay - Soulbound, to give the game its full, if slightly unwieldy, title.
‘The Warhammer RPG was formative for a lot of people and helped build out that world,’ affirms Emmet Byrne, creative director at Cubicle 7 and the man in charge of developing the new game. ‘So when GW approached us to take on the Age of Sigmar RPG it was with a view to fleshing out that world and getting into the kind of detail that battle games just don’t get to touch on so much. Like what a city looks like and how it functions.’
‘It was a really exciting chance to create the first ever RPG in the Age of Sigmar universe, and that’s huge. We knew we would be getting a lot first time RPG players coming in, people coming from the battle game where this might be their first ever encounter with a tabletop RPG, very similar to WFRP 30 years ago.’
Although, much like the battle game, it was soon clear that this wouldn’t be your father’s Warhammer. ‘Pretty much from the jump we knew what we were going to do,’ Byrne explains. ‘The Age of Sigmar setting is very much mythic fantasy. Whilst the Warhammer fantasy setting itself, certainly for the battle game was quite high fantasy the RPG had this grim and perilous, gutter punk, dirty feel where you’re fighting just to survive. With Soulbound we knew we wanted to recreate that mythic fantasy feel where you start powerful, but at the same time the threats are more powerful too and you’re facing down hordes of demons and undead.’
“WE WANTED TO RECREATE THAT MYTHIC FANTASY FEEL WHERE YOU START POWERFUL, BUT AT THE SAME TIME THE THREATS ARE MORE POWERFUL TOO”
‘It fits the setting completely,’ he adds. ‘We already have a game [WFRP] that does all that grim and gritty and dark stuff and there’s no point having two of them. So from the start that was what we wanted to do.’
In the game the players take on the role of the titular Soulbound, an ancient order of individuals granted a measure of a god’s power, drawn into group bindings and sent out to enact their patron’s will. It’s a neat device that both explains the characters abilities and why they’re palling around together and importantly gives them a defined mission. Characters are less likely to wander off and spend several sessions setting up some kind of artisanal Manticore cheese shop when given their orders by an angry, hammer wielding, god.
Despite being central to the game the idea actually came relatively late in development explains Byrne. ‘We had a couple of other ideas for how an why your groups would come together and then we landed on this idea of being chosen by the gods. That again is very next level, literally the gods are meddling in everyone’s affairs.’
‘It allows us to have a lot of interesting and strange archetypes that would never normally be in a group together,’ he adds. ‘So you can have your Daughters of Khaine, aelves who literally follow a god of murder, alongside a priest of Sigmar or a Sylvaneth Kurnoth Hunter who worships life. Again our early design goals were making this a welcoming RPG not only for people coming from the battle game but also to people completely brand new to RPGs and a part of that was making it as easy as possible for the group to work together whilst allowing people to play the characters they want to play.’
Whilst these god blessed characters might tower above their WFRP counterparts the game does still give us a chance to explore the new setting in more detail. When you can field gods, or at least their avatars, in the battle game it’s easy to lose sight of what it is you’re fighting for whereas in Byrne’s words Soulbound is a chance to ‘look at the smaller stories, rather than just the big epic one.’
With Cubicle 7 now responsible for publishing the latest edition of WFRP, Soulbound and Wrath & Glory, the Warhammer 40,000 RPG, it’s clear that they’ve established a good working relationship with Games Workshop and Byrne, and his colleagues, are in constant dialogue with their Nottingham peers.
For Byrne that means working around the game’s meta-narrative whilst adding to the depth of what already exists. ‘No one knows the IP like the Games Workshop studios. In the end you’re playing with other people’s toys so you have to be respectful of it,’ he said. ‘There’s already so many really cool and interesting things in Age of Sigmar, creating more of that just gives us more things to explain. Instead we try to focus on what’s already in the setting and expand on them.’
Luckily, as anyone who has pored over any of Games Workshop’s books over the years will know, there’s never likely to be a shortage of “cool things” to expand upon. Generally every book they release will be full of maps dotted with ominous sounding locations alongside small snippets of flavour text that tantalise the reader but are rarely fleshed out in more detail.
Byrne cites some of their world building in the recently released Soulbound Starter Set as a good example of how they’ve expanded upon just one of these snippets. ‘We were looking at the map of Aqshy [The Realm of Fire] and you’ve got all these cities to the north and to the east but then we saw there’s nothing in the south west. So we thought lets go there so we’re a bit away and we can tell a new part of the story down here in Aspiria.’
‘What jumped out were the names on the map The Disintegrating Shores and the Agloraxian Citadels. We knew the Disintegrating Shores are part of the landscape that’s literally crumbing into the Realm of Chaos but the Agloraxian Citadels, well there wasn’t a huge amount on them, so we just took this idea and ran with it. We knew that the Agloraxians, from what Games Workshop had written, were this ancient magocracy that had been wiped out. Not particularly nice people but they had performed all these strange magical experiments. So we thought Agloraxian Citadels, what if they’re basically fallout shelters where they were doing weird stuff and hiding their weird experiments.’
Building upon that one of those Citadels would then become the literal foundations for the newly founded city of Brightspear, the setting for Soulbound’s opening series of adventures, with this magical “fallout shelter” beneath the city’s lower levels acting as a source of both threats and treasure.
That close relationship with the Nottingham studio is all the more important when dealing with Age of Sigmar’s sprawling, and surprisingly fast paced, narrative. Where previously the Warhammer storyline had proceeded at a glacial pace, Age of Sigmar has already powered through at least a couple of centuries in its short life.
It’s a situation which poses particular challenges for Byrne’s Soulbound team. Take Shadows & Mist, the game’s first campaign, set in the gloomy, port-city of Anvilguard. Whilst the physical version of the book isn’t out till later this year, the city it is set in has already undergone a dramatic transformation in the battle game, overrun by mutinous aelves and renamed Har-Kuron in the first of four Broken Realms books released in spring 2021 in the run up to the battle game’s 3rd edition.
If that wasn’t enough to contend with those same books also saw a major character become a god, a completely new, and previously unheard of, god emerge from their ancient prison and the game’s very own god of death, and noted big hat enthusiast, Nagash dispatched, temporarily at least, at the sharp end of a sanctimonious Aelve god's sword.
‘It’s something we have to be very aware of,’ admits Byrne. ‘A lot of people might just have the (RPG) core book and don’t know anything else about Age of Sigmar. So as far as they know everything is taking place after the events of the Necroquake [the major event of the battle game’s 2nd edition]. It’s a tough balance at times, but I’ll say with the Anvilguard situation we had a little heads up on that so knew what was coming and it still didn’t stop us telling a story and for people who want to play after the events of Broken Realms: Morathi we have a guide as to what happens and how you can change it around.’
Byrne is keen to point out though that the ever evolving narrative provides opportunities as well. ‘So it’s quite an interesting one, say with the events of Broken Realms: Teclis where Nagash gets a bit of a smackdown. Coming up we have the Champions of Death book where you can play as undead characters, bound by Nagash and working for him, but we also had options in there where you could be bound to one of the gods of order and the events of Broken Realms: Teclis actually gave us a bit more freedom as the death factions now have a bit more autonomy.’
The setting isn’t the only area where Soulbound radically differs from its predecessor. Gone is the traditional percentile system, replaced by d6 dice pools built around just three stats, Body, Mind & Spirit. Instead of exact distances things are measured in abstract zones, it all adds up to fast, cinematic action.
‘A lot of it came back to the goals of the game, make it welcoming to new players or those from the battle game,’ Byrne says. ‘They’ll recognise D6s. Even if you haven’t played an RPG before you’ve seen a six sided dice, then having a lot of dice to chuck around at the same time gives the game that tactile feel and makes you feel powerful. And again we wanted to create that feeling of a more free flowing combat, everything fed into that. It might feel that counter intuitive for an RPG based on a miniatures game to not use a grid or set distances but doing that it allowed us more freedom in combat.’
‘We’ve always said you can make a simple system complex but you can’t make a complex system simple, so we start simple and then we can add layers on to that. You see that with the spell creation rules in the book. You can literally create any spell you want and we break down exactly how to do that.’
For those who like to sink their teeth into a bit of crunch there are several supplements that provide myriad new ways to engage with the game such as Steam & Steel, an expansion focused on crafting, whether that’s potions, weapons or the more exotic equipment favoured by the settings sky faring, piratical steam/aether-punk dwarves, the Kharadron Overlords.
‘The game does have depth and granularity to it but if you don’t want to engage with it you don’t have to,’ he adds. ‘You can just play the system out of the box, it runs smoothly, its fairly simple to understand, theres very few points of friction that can slow down play, we worked as hard as we could to give you that feeling of being a big damn hero.’
“WE WORKED AS HARD AS WE COULD TO GIVE YOU THAT FEELING OF BEING A BIG DAMN HERO”
That fast paced action is especially pronounced when you come up against a horde of malevolent critters, with rules that make fights against even dozens of opponents a breeze to run. ‘That’s actually one of the points during play testing where we felt like we were going in the right direction,’ says Byrne. ‘We had a combat with something like 30 or 40 enemies and it was done in 20 minutes. If you’re playing other systems that can really drag sometimes.’
‘My own preferences for games has changed over the years,’ he admits. ‘I used to really like heavy crunchy systems but these days I like Powered by the Apocalypse, Fate, all those kind of games that give you a bit more freedom.’
The other key mechanics introduced into the game are Doom and Rumours, Fears and Threats. Doom represents the darkening of the world as the game progresses, a way of dialing up the difficulty level and the danger the player’s face. Rumours, Fears and Threats meanwhile is a device for the GM similar to ABC plotting in serialised TV shows or comics. A neat way of seeding future storylines, allowing them to bubble along in the background and escalate as your campaign progresses, providing your players with dilemmas as they decide where there priorities lie.
‘A big part of it is the characters in the game are so heroic, the threats aren’t necessarily to them,’ Byrne explains. ‘Sure you can get hurt or killed and if you come up against a big chunky monster they can do some serious damage to you but generally a lot of the game is about protecting people and places. So you’re probably going to win but at what cost. Who has been lost? Probably not someone of your binding, but maybe part of the city or people you were protracting. So that came from making people feel like they were under pressure essentially.’
‘I’ve played a lot of games in the past and the ones where you have to make hard decisions and decide which threat you’re going to tackle are the most memorable,’ he says. ‘Introducing situations where you can’t deal with everything that’s going on at the same time presents a lot of tension for the group. It makes it feel like a living world and Rumours, Fears and Threats is a good way of representing that.’
‘One of the things that always bugs me in video games is when the end of the world’s coming but there’s still time for 50 side quests,’ Byrne says. ‘So I quite like having a ticking clock where you just have to pick what to handle and everything else will probably get out of control. So then you’ll need to deal with that and of course whilst you’re putting that down something else will happen. Plus for a GM you see what the players latch on to. what they’re interested in.’
It’s a mechanic that makes for great, organically evolving campaigns but of course when talk turns to campaigns Soulbound’s predecessor and in particular its acclaimed campaign The Enemy Within casts a long shadow. Still held up as one of the greatest RPG campaigns of all time, and recently reissued in a fully revised and expanded form, can they replicate its success? Is it even necessary to try these days?
‘It’s something we talked about a bit actually,’ admits Byrne. ‘With modern audiences and modern games I don't think you see those kind of campaigns any more, you don’t even really get multipart adventures as much. Like D&D you’ll have Curse of Strahd or Tomb of Annihilation and there might be some tenuous thread between them but really they standalone, there’s your book you’re done and our first campaign, Shadows & Mist, is the same.’
‘But it’s something we’ve been chatting about, what would The Enemy Within equivalent for Soulbound look like? We’ve some interesting ideas which we might look at in the future and I think with Soulbound it has to involve traveling between the realms. But we’d want to create one of the kind of campaign that people look back on fondly in twenty years, which is easy to say but then actually creating it is another question…’
Difficult it may be but with Soulbound having already forged its own new, and indeed award winning, identity we wouldn't bet against lightning striking twice here.
Warhammer Age of Sigmar Soulbound is out now published by Cubicle 7
This interview originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1 / Issue 2