01 February 2022
The end of the world has never seemed so close
This article originally appeared in issue 62 of Tabletop Gaming Magazine, and was written by Christopher John Eggett. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here.
“It’s time to talk about the end of the world again,” I say through the videocall.
“It’s always happening,” says Johan Nohr.
“And this time, it’s more real than ever,” says Christian Sahlén.
Welcome to the world of CY_BORG – the sequel of sorts to 2020’s best RPG about the end of the world, MÖRK BORG. We talk to Johan Nohr, the designer and illustrator for both games, and Christian Sahlén who has logged on to write this techno-doomladen outing for the rules light, OSR game.
“CY_BORG is MÖRK BORG hacked to the needs of a cyberpunk game,” says Sahlén, “I already wanted to run a cyberpunk game in 2020 – and as soon as MÖRK BORG became a thing I started working on this, and after a while I said ‘hey, this is turning out to be more than something for me to run a game from. Maybe we should do something with it’.”
While MÖRK BORG was written by Pelle Nilsson, Sahlén’s name appears in that book too as an editor, “my name is in that book more times than Johan’s,” he laughs.
“I made some art for it and I posted the picture,” says Nohr, “and then I realised that we actually have to do it, because we announced it.”
PLUG AND PLAY
The book is 127-odd pages of cybernetic fury and rage – each page lashing out at a dystopian future that is well within our current imagination. It’s a third bigger than the previous outing, but no less OSR. This is down to the extensive use of tables from Sahlén – who suggests there’s nearly 100 random tables to roll – and an equal amount of new art pieces.
“We use those tables to explain the game and the world as well,” says Nohr, “if you read the tables you’ll get the kind of vibe we’re after.”
Much of the joy of what we should now probably call the BORG series comes from the community. From the very launch of the game new classes were being created in the same punk style, now there’s the Ex Libris database with nearly one thousand items to make your games just the way you like them. Kickstarter is full of BORG compatible content, with comparatively small projects netting tens of thousands of dollars. So what do the pair hope for the community reaction to CY_BORG?
“They’re already making third party stuff for CY_BORG on the Discord,” laughs Nohr, “they started pretty much instantly when we teased the thing. There’s monsters, weapons, everything – and they don’t even have the game yet. We hope that they keep doing what they do and continue to put out stuff.”
To hack and interact with much of the game’s tech will require a new stat, knowledge, which represents their ability to use the hellish technology of the future.
Nohr jokes that this makes MÖRK BORG characters compatible, “because they wouldn’t know anything about it, they don’t have the stat.”
“The herb-masters aren’t well versed in tech,” adds Sahlén, “adding tech and hacking to one of the stats that already existed would make it more useable than others.”
“They have a lot more toys as their disposal now,” says Nohr, “there’s three different kinds of powers in the game – there’s apps, cyber-tech, and nano-powers. They’re like having scrolls, potions or magic items in MÖRK BORG – they all work similar but different in their own way. These things can define a character in CY_BORG.”
“And that’s still true of course, because there’s a lot of equipment and gadgets that you might not need any special powers for – you just need the power of money,” says Sahlén.
Money is central to CY_BORG. We can’t have a dystopian hellworld without it after all.
“We have credits in the same place as health on the character sheet. And that has a meaning because money is very tied to your wellbeing in this world – and so is the debt everyone has,” says Nohr.
“If you’re rich enough, you may survive otherwise fatal accidents. There is a chance to survive, no matter how you die,” says Sahlén, “you may need to replace your body after that, but there’s a chance to survive. But if you’re broke, you’re dead.”
“So you don’t want to spend all your money – because it’s good to have some, but you still have people you owe money to,” says Nohr.
Money in roleplaying games sucks for the most part. It’s usually the most boring part of the world, shopping is tedious and annoying, and frankly, it solves too many problems. Give a hero retirement-level wealth in a game and where exactly does the basic desire to adventure off somewhere dangerous go? A theoretical castle with a nice view, and a new character sheet.
“You just put it in a pile and have no use for it,” says Nohr, “so money is at the heart of it, and you can’t really escape that.”
“But under that there’s some really expensive stuff that you actually might want, but you always need to consider the next time you get shot,” says Sahlén.
Everyone starts with a debt, and knowing who they owe money to. Similar to Electric Bastionland this primary motivation is one to encourage you to seek out treasure – or at least, find a way to clear your debts. GM’s are encouraged to see this person or entity as a way to hand out quests – and also that maybe they should be a target.
I ♥ CY
CY is the city where all of this is happening, maybe where everything is happening.
“It’s the only city that matters,” says Sahlén, “it’s unclear whether other cities exist. But something else exists.”
Around CY are wastelands, monstrous mega farms, harvesters, or a dead sea with abandoned oil platforms. There are planes and ships that come and go from CY, but the game doesn’t specify where to and from – instead the focus is on the city and its neighbourhoods.
Not quite a Hive City of Warhammer 40,000, but more like the less efficient and unfocused evil that we see across the cyberpunk genre. The rich live in the hills, the poor in the slums, and at the centre of CY there is a place known as G Zero.
“It’s the central part of town where something happened. We only refer to it as the incident. It’s a walled off area that everyone says you’ll die if you go there. But people do and look for treasure and knowledge,” says Nohr, “it’s a very central adventure site that you can use for ruin delves or post-apocalyptic gaming.”
And, of course, there are cults and there are corps. There are around ten different organisations in CY.
“We call them ‘the enemy’,” says Sahlén, “I try to avoid saying this is biggest in a certain industry, but I say this is a ‘big player’ instead. And of course, if we’re talking megacorporations they are in many different businesses. They have minor interests in all sort of areas. One thing we are trying to lean into is that CY always changes. There’s always something new.”
“They all have one or two or three main areas they work within. But they could have restaurant chains too, or a game show. Their fingers are in everything,” adds Nohr, “so no matter what you do you might end up helping one of the big corporations you wanted to take down. The street gangs and the cults are probably sponsored by them too.”
United Citadel Security are the security organisation that make up the majority of guards around the city, protecting exactly what they’re being paid to and not an inch further. AST are a corporation who deal in food manufacture using algae and fish from the Endless Seas – a nod to MÖRK BORG.
“The joke is that the seas are not endless, there’s no fish any more – just fish farms and aquatic cages,” adds Nohr. AST also run pre-schools in the city. On top of this, there’s gangs that have incorporated themselves and even a cult of celebrity. The capitalist horrorscape of CY is evident, and something a little close to home.
“They are quite real,” says Nohr.
“They’re becoming realer every month until we release the game it seems,” says Sahlén.
The tone of CY_BORG is as tongue in cheek as its predecessor – but it’s impossible to carry the same amount of humour when things get real.
“Of course Facebook would announce their view of the metaverse right now,” says Sahlén, at the time of the interview Facebook showed off some embarrassing videos of a future no one is interested in, “it is like… that’s exactly the kind of thing we don’t want. You know, having a company that wants to harvest all your personal data that then wants you to live in their universe. It seems like bad idea.”
“It’s a way of artistically venting,” says Nohr, “this is a cyberpunk futuristic dystopia, and then you realise – this is the real world. This stuff is actually happening. It seems too bad to be true, but just look around you.”
The illustrator and designer sighs heavily, “but, I mean, it’s not a surprise to anyone.”
AT LEAST WE’VE GOT LASERS
There’s plasma guns, more conventional weaponry, and a whole host of new melee options out there for players to interact with. Plus, of course, microtransactions.
“You can buy a booster pack for your gun, and then the next time you use it you throw it away. It modifies your next shot somehow – bouncing around corners or doing more damage to people with a lot of cybernetic parts,” explains Sahlén.
“It’s Judge Dredd ammo stuff, it’s more Bam-Bam than pew-pew,” add Nohr, “the boosters probably come in very small non-recyclable plastic packs.”
The game remains as deadly, and without the cash to back you up, player characters could die very quickly. Once you add automatic fire and being hit a few times in a round, it’s a little more dangerous.
“But there is more modularity to it,” says Nohr, “with your gadgets and your stuff.”
“There’s health potions at the nearest pharmacy, you don’t need to rely on the graces of your GM. You can just buy them if you have the cash, because they have a clear set price and are easy to come by,” says Sahlén.
“And you’ll probably get it delivered by drone or something,” says Nohr, “everyone is connected, everyone is wearing a retinal communication device – which range from big VR headsets to ‘cyber eyes’ – meaning you can connect to the net anywhere.”
But you’ll need a cyberdeck and apps to hack. Imagined as something most like a modular synthesiser with its mess of patch cables and obtuse lettering, it’s even got a one of one place on the successful Kickstarter – a Nohr-splattered recursive noise machine.
“Apps are pretty much spells,” says Nohr, “which narratively are like physical cassettes that you put into your cyberdeck. If you fumble or mess it up you can burn it out, or it can explode and you lose it.”
“Because everything and everyone is connected, you can pretty much hack anything. You can hack into technology obviously but you can also hack someone’s weapon, or even someone’s RCD creating illusion in their augmented reality,” says Sahlén. There’s also the downtime hacking for information as you’d expect.
Nanobots, rumour has it, are technological beings that have been hijacked by alien bacteria. Players don’t necessarily control them, but they can manifest – and can learn to be helpful if you ask.
“It’s a spell with an infestation attached to it,” says Nohr, “they change you physically.”
“If you get a few of them you start to look really weird – our latest campaign ended up in body horror territory,” says Sahlén.
Playing with the body doesn’t end their either. For a high enough price anything on the equipment list can be implanted as a cybertech device. The pair recount players adding collapsible ladders to their torso and telescopic legs, before discussing RFID chips for scanning, or of course, weapons.
“But the risk is that any time you add a smart device into your body and connect it to you brain, something bad can happen. People can hack it, it’s a security risk,” explains Nohr. Aside from hacking, there’s the effect of EMP weapons that could shut down technological parts of your body.
There’s also cy-rage – a mysterious effect where people with a lot of cybertech go berserk. This is a section where the team have used a sensitivity reader to iron out some of the problematic ideas around someone being ‘less human’ for having ‘less human parts’. The gameplay effect however is an external force that’s made its way into the player characters, and is trying to cause trouble.
“It’s the same thing as getting a Google Home – the more smart and convenient tech you add, the easier it is to get access. And now it’s access to your brain,” says Nohr.
“And no matter where it comes from, it’s definitely a breach of the end-user license agreement,” adds Sahlén.
HOW THE WORLD ENDS
Miseries – a session-beginning mechanism to add more horror to the world, eventually ending it when you’ve rolled seven – have been replaced with Miserables Headlines. They add up in the same way, but have different properties. We ask if the headlines are really happening, or whether it’s psychic damage of hearing about bad news that’s ending the world. We’re reassured that the world is really coming to an end.
“In MÖRK BORG there’s a whole continent – things can happen way over there…” says Sahlén, “here we’re talking about a city, with news reporting and live feeds and so on. If someone blows up downtown, it’s going to matter in the campaign. We’re encouraging the GM to make it matter more by using NPCs and characters.”
“There’s a small note to the Miserable Headlines, which I love,” says Nohr, “which is ‘in D4 days this will become a meme, or a joke, or a game that everyone is tired of’ – so terrible things happen, but everyone just moves on.”
We won’t though. CY_BORG is open for late pledges, and is ready to take you somewhere a little too close to home.