11 September 2020
How does the world end? With a bang, or a dice roll? We talk to the creators of MÖRK BORG about birthing their apocalyptic doom metal RPG
There are lots of ways to try and introduce MÖRK BORG. You can call it a Doom Metal RPG, you can talk about the Old School Revival movement, you can just show people the lush printing quality and the design throughout. But really, the only thing that comes close to properly explaining what MÖRK BORG is, is to explain: “at the start of every day, you roll a dice to find out whether the world is going to end.”
Now that’s MÖRK BORG.
We spoke to Pelle Nilsson (the writer of the game) and Johan Nohr (the artist) about how they brought this extremely metal RPG to life.
It started as a single-page RPG, and as a facilitation of the way that many of us end up playing these adventures, “We were playing RPGs really late, and we wanted to create characters really quick,” says Nilsson, explaining the group wanted to be able to get to the good bit fast, without picking equipment from long lists. Instead you can roll your equipment, traits, and stats in no time at all “you can have a character in five minutes, or less – if you don’t use the Scumbirther.” This is an online tool for automatically generating a character from classes included in the core book. With it, you can be ready to play in seconds.
The setting is heavy, but the words are light. The pair opine that there’s a dearth of short, snappy RPGs that do the kind of work that MÖRK BORG does in 12 pages. We all agree it’s nice to read 150 pages about a world, but it certainly feels better to jump into a setting quickly, knowing that as a GM you have absorbed everything you should be aware of from the book after one sitting.
Do you want to save the world?
MÖRK BORG’s world is one ruled by two two-headed basilisks, who have predicted the end will come. The various locales are described in sparsely detailed single paragraphs, “most of that text was written in one day,” says Nilsson. These minimal details do a lot of work, the forest of Sarkash has spread ‘unnaturally fast,’ and the description asks the question ‘hasn’t it grown warmer in this usually cold place? Do you hear the frantic scratching?’. In the Valley of the Unfortunate Dead ‘the soil, the very air, is lethal,’ bringing about a kind of desperate zombie ennui. Kergus is a frosty, blasted place with a neurotic queen who draws colour out of everything she holds in her gaze.
In short, it’s a terrible place.
“The interesting thing that appears when we play is: ‘this world is so bad, is it worth saving? Why?’ Because there’s no good in it,” says Nohr. When pressed the pair give the answer that, even if the world is awful, it’s the one you live in. You’re going to take your chances when they come up.
Nilsson suggests that players might be enticed to delve into a dungeon for an artefact or to complete a ritual that might reverse the prophecy. “You also have these two-headed basilisks that maybe, because they know the prophecy, can change its outcome if you give them something they want,” says Nohr, before adding with a shrug, “some people just take this opportunity to go Mad Max.”
Nilsson smiles through this. As the writer you have to wonder what his intention is for how the world ends. “I’m quite open minded actually,” he says of the world not ending, “I’ve not decided yet. Every gaming group can decide that.”
Nohr adds, “Look at our own world, it’s kind of ending. Look at all the climate change, wars and viruses, we’re still going about our lives – people ignore it.” MÖRK BORG’s world might be closer to home than we think.
The world ends on a dice roll. At the start of the day you roll a dice, its type depending on whether the players want years of pain, a bleak half-year, a fall in anguish, a cruel month, or, our favourite, rolling a D2 for ‘the end is nigh’. If you roll a one, a D66 is rolled and the table of miseries consulted – applying an effect, after interpretation, to the world as a whole for the rest of the campaign. For example, one of the less ambiguous miseries takes effect in the forest of Sarkash, ‘fog and dusk shall breathe beneath the waking trees. That which was hewed by man shall now hew in its turn.’
Which may make you wish you’d rolled a pair of secateurs, rather than the flail.
Rules light, heavy everything else
The RPG takes from the OSR movement in the fact there are few rules. The well-worn phrase about OSR is ‘less rules, more rulings’ – which leads some players to be put off. This is often because of the impression that it’s a ‘less fair’ roleplaying environment. Assuming more rules makes for fairer games. The structure of Dungeons and Dragons, or the various calculations we have to make in Call of Cthulhu for our rolls are perceived to provide a safety net. A safe table or rule to reference in a pinch.
But for a certain group of people, MÖRK BORG is entirely perfect. There’s something really accessible about the game. Nilsson explains a story he’s heard of a 12 year old running a game of MÖRK BORG for her father’s roleplaying group with zero problems.
The game just trusts you to have fun, even if it is a bit more work. “It’s just how we play,” says Nohr, “We don’t want our hands held.”
The world is sparse and simple, the descriptions ready to be improvised from. The packed-in starter scenario Rot Black Sludge gives GMs just enough to play out the mood of a scene, a description of ‘sad violin music’ coming from a space a couple of rooms away, or a strange smell, is all that’s really needed to begin scene setting.
“Someone said that we don’t have a GM section in the book, but we have the art – and that’s the GM section,” says Nohr, laughing. “It’s very cinematic play in MÖRK BORG” adds Nilsson.
While this is something we attribute to the OSR movement, MÖRK BORG isn’t beholden to it, “we never set out to do a retro-clone. That’s not what we wanted. We’ve never been like, Oh, ‘how would they have done it in the 70s?’” says Nohr.
The book functions alone, but for some there is a desire to use it as a supplementary set of rules. Powered by the Apocalypse is one such option, as is straight up BX or AD&D. But free forming it with anything is totally fine, according to the designers. They comment that when you’ve bought the book, it’s not their book anymore.
The mechanics are very simple. Combat is handled by players rolling both attack and defence tests. If your attack roll passes, you hit, if you fail a defence test, you get hit. You’re usually rolling against a 12, higher being a pass. Your attributes are modifiers to these rolls. There are only four stats for your character anyway – what can’t you do with strength, presence, agility and toughness?
Turning The Tables
There are some slightly more complicated aspects to the game of course. The introduction of specific traits for monsters tends to add a little spice.
An interesting example is the troll, a huge creature with tons of HP. This part is unsurprising, but there is an addition of it having a very low morale, which makes it run after being hit in a round of combat. This is then paired with the fact that it never forgets who struck it and may return – with all healed HP added to its stats, and a D6 added to its attack. This creates a narrative that sees played stalked by an ever-growing, but still timid, creature that wants revenge. There’s a striking image of an impossibly large troll attempting to sneak through trees towards the party, despite the fact it dwarfs the forest.
Equally, the goblins all carry curses that will transform players into their kind. If the creature continues to live D6 days after the initial attack, the players who joined combat with it will soon be turned into goblins themselves. This makes capturing goblins extremely dangerous, because it’s simply too easy to succumb to their curse.
Both of these interactions give you some flavour of how campaigns will soon go off the rails. There’s unlikely to be tidy stories of nipping down to the bottom of a dungeon and returning to continue a main quest arc. The distractions here in the form of monsters, starvation or the environment will become driving forces in your games.
“I think players want to be surprised,” says Nohr, “and they want to see the tables turn on them in a way,” hinting that there is a desire in some player to see the worst this dark world can offer.
Tables themselves form another part of the dark flavour of the game. Some in the book, like the table for generating your party background, comes with the instruction to throw a knife at the page to generate it (or roll a D20). We think you should probably roll the dice, but it’s your game.
And the answers to these tables are often deeply thought provoking in terms of how the adventure will be played out. The use of magic in the game, or powers, is limited and somewhat randomised – and the failure table is a joy. One such arcane catastrophe describes your skeleton being possessed and wanting to escape the fleshy prison it is trapped in. That’s you and all of your organs. This forces a strength test in fretful situations where the skeleton may try and drown the player character. Fun right? More fun is the line added for the GM only, ‘when you die, you become a zombie’.
Character creation provides wild table-based fun too, for example, NPC characters can be rolled as companions. The most notable being Barbarister the Incredible Horse, a talking horse who is magical, intelligent and vain. Convince him, or rather, the GM controlling him, and he may help you with presence tests. Alongside this there’s opportunities to apply ‘six moderately tame rats’ to your enemies, or to get a nasty nick from a snarky sentient ancestral sword that hates you.
A Community Cult
There’s something of a community angle to MÖRK BORG. There’s a whole album that’s been created for the game by GNOLL, a brooding collection of dungeon synthwave. It was available briefly on tape before selling out. The English translation was completed by Patrick Stuart (Silent Titans, Veins of the Earth), a particular favourite of the pair.
In both these cases, they simply just asked, “I think it was just an Instagram message,” says Nilsson, of approaching the band, laughing. It’s been a casual engagement of just seeing what can happen. “Throughout this project, we just haven’t been afraid to ask,” adds Nohr.
This translates to the wider MÖRK BORG world. The website invites fans to submit their work to expand the world. This content is deemed to be part of the MÖRK BORG Cult, and will, if Nilsson and Nohr like it, be designed and polished up to sit as expansions, supplements and adventures.
So far the fan reaction has been great, with rules for hunting and moving in the overworld being added as well as new adventures and classes. These are distributed for free, so there’s really no reason not to integrate the parts you like into the game. But if you wanted to get involved, where would you start?
“Lots of people make classes – it’s quite easy to begin with that,” says Nilsson, “but we also like lots of tables. Small dungeons and stuff like that. But not very long stories about the world, we want tables and small things.”
Artefacts, NPCs, little additional rules that people can add to the game are mentioned. Critically both creators suggest to avoid overwriting it, there’s plenty of other games to turn into novels. This is a toolbox approach to creating flexible RPGs that suit the people playing them.
“And no plus-one damage long swords,” Nohr adds, “it’s boring.”
The collaborators both talk about their desire to add more to the game in coming years, it’s hard to ignore the buzz around it. But they’re cautious “We don’t just want to make a module book. We want to keep on making something unique somehow. So, we’ll see,” says Nilsson, “It’s, it’s impossible for me, and I know it’s impossible for you, [he gestures to Nohr] to stop drawing, writing and making stuff.”
Nohr closes by returning us to the beating, tar-filled heart of MÖRK BORG, “The idea was to have a game where the apocalypse meant something. There’s all these ‘post-apocalypse’ games where the end didn’t really ‘take’. We thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if there was a game where the world ends, and you have to burn the book.”
Words by Christopher John Eggett
This review originally appeared in Issue 41 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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