A Rainbow in the Dark
The Game You Were Warned About
Mörk Borg is the RPG worried parents from the 80’s thought actually existed. The game itself has got all the darkened themes of a black metal album and artistic trappings that land somewhere between Stephen Gammel and a DIY concert poster that’s been stapled to a light pole. All the documentaries and news pieces of yore that proclaimed playing tabletop role playing games would lead to interest in The Occult, Satanism, and rock & roll music turned out to absolutely right. Because here I am, 35 years old wearing a Ghost T-shirt, sitting beneath the framed deck of tarot cars near my kitchen table, and writing a review about how I’m enjoying the hell out of this game.
First off, let me tell you what Mörk Borg isn’t. It’s not a dense, crunchy, or simulationist set of rules for elf-games. It’s not even a medium-weight Goldilocks RPG with just the right balance of flavor and mechanics. No. Mörk Borg is, mechanically, the emaciated husk of a more traditional RPG’s corpse. However, that cadaver is bloated with evocative innards ready to erupt as a necromancer raises their palm and speaks the words that would cause it to explode and smatter you in its vibrant gore. It’s got an OSR vibe but without all of OSR’s baggage.
The book itself reads like a punk zine with words that hug jagged lines and splash down in crooked blocks of text, spewing gouts of color that perfectly punctuate an otherwise photocopied black & white vibe. The world of Mörk Borg (which is Swedish for Dark Fort by the way) is a gloom-soaked bleak hellscape on the precipice of an apocalypse where the sun never shines and almost nothing good ever happens to anyone. Fantastic!
While I do typically prefer those mid-weight Goldilocks games, the sheer level of personality that Mörk Borg oozes more than makes up for any sort of action economy or racial traits those games might beguile me with.
Ermahgerd, Merk Berg!
Mörk Borg carries a solid framework, or skeleton if you will, of mechanics that have a very organic flow to them. It’s got all that you need really. There are 4 stats, some weapons, some armor, a form of currency and a simple task resolution system. Of course there are rules for damage, healing, death, leveling up, and morale for when shit goes sideways. It will go sideways. Luckily there are Omens, which give the ability to momentarily twist the fate of your character’s miserable life in their favor. The optional mechanics in the game are some of its most interesting bits in my opinion though and I don’t consider them optional, but hey, I can’t tell you how to have fun.
Of those options my favorites are the classes. Each class has abilities that drip with flavor that further explains the world, much like item descriptions in Dark Souls. Even the class names in Mörk Borg all tell a story, the lore is baked right in with names such as Fanged Deserter or Wretched Royalty. There are also a series of rollable tables for things like terrible traits, bad habits, broken bodies, and more – which are great for character creation if you’re lazy, un-creative, or both. Your character’s probably going to die soon anyway, this isn’t the game for soliloquies or 3-page backstories. I mean maybe it is for you, and that’s great if it is, but that’s not the vibe I’m picking up here.
Another favorite option of mine are Arcane Catastrophies. What doomed-world scenario would be complete without the potential of colossal magical failure when casting a spell? Rolling the same result twice will not only only guarantee your character be set ablaze with black flames that dance with shapes of the faces of the damned, but there’s a d20 table full of more awfulness to endure! This includes magical diseases, a thirst only quenchable by ashes, and having all of your teeth fall out! That’s right folks, all aboard the laugh train because Mörk Borg can be both a romp and a riot!
Front to back, Mörk Borg clocks in at less than 100 pages. Perhaps an entire body of evidence that pagecount doesn’t mean shit. It manages to cram pure brilliance into such tight spaces that its outright confounding at times. Each monster in the bestiary, while not many, is very flavorful and includes the prices of each of its bits if they were to be sold. From price per pint of zombie blood, to how much silver a live captured troll would bring you. I absolutely love this single droplet of monster hunting, dare I say Witcher, flavor. It does so much to tell you more about the world without doing it in prosy paragraphs that ramble on about the 3rd age of the 4th war of the dynasty of the who-gives-a-fuck-lets-crawl-some-dungeons-and-kill-monsters.
Another great example of such game design sorcery is that you can determine how long you’d like your campaign to last with by simply choosing the size of die that you roll on the Miseries table each day. Oh, have we not talked about Miseries yet? Well, within the lore of Mörk Borg it is basically guaranteed that the world will end at some point in time while you’re playing in it. There’s no avoiding the apocalypse. When it’s all over you set the book on fire, tear up everyone’s character sheets and go into the dark forest where you and your group will dance naked around a pyre wearing a headdress made of antlers and teeth! That last bit’s completely optional but highly recommended.
Sounding the 7th Trumpet
Among everything else I’ve already mentioned there is an absolute treasure trove of tables to roll on that are full of cool things to find and do, a flavorful and brief explanation of the world that’s just enough to set your mind alight with ideas to make your own, and so much personality that it’s honestly hard to describe without seeing the book for yourself. I’ve been playing RPGs for over 20 years. I own a lot of RPG books. I can safely say that this is easily the most unique and memorable books on my shelf, and also one of the most beautiful too. Symbaroum still wins for the prettiest RPG book I’ve ever seen or owned. I guess the Swedes really know their shit when it comes to aesthetics.
Again it’s worth reiterating the simplicity of this game. It has no perception stat, no grappling rules, no movement rates, no damage types, no magical subsystem, and not much else to weigh it down. That means it’s not going to be for everybody. I’ll admit that at first I found myself double-checking its pages to see if I’d just somehow missed a detail or two when I first ran the game, because something this simple is a bit outside of my wheelhouse but I wound up just setting the book down and rolling with whatever came up with the efficient tool set the game provides. I’m really loving that. I think you might too.
Until next time, game excellently with one another.
Mörk Borg was created by the Stockholm Kartel and funded on Kickstarter. I was a backer and so I have had my copy for a bit now, but the game fully launches on February 25th. You can purchase or pre-order directly from Free League Publishing’s website, or pick it up on DriveThruRPG with my affiliate link after the 25th.