The Unrelenting Cruelty of a Dark and Dying World: Looking at Mork Borg
A Rules Light RPG Review
A cancerous moon hangs like the head of a dying god in a blind and empty sky. Storms ravage the land like fever, the rancid muck churning with the blood of dying sacrifices, and the birth pangs of monsters. A two-headed basilisk shrieks prophecies into the minds of the mad, and the miserable masses seeking just to survive another night of howling beasts and depraved murders bow their heads to pray in crumbling, dilapidated churches.
This is Mörk Borg.
For those who haven't come across this particular RPG, Mörk Borg is best described as a game that takes place inside the cover art of a particularly heavy swedish doom metal album. Filled with the imagery of dying worlds, fruitless pursuits, and unrelenting bleakness, on the surface it feels like the younger cousin of properties like Berserk and Dark Souls. If you peek beneath the surface, though, there's a very dark humor there that can add a kind of gallows laugh to the game.
While folks have been talking about it for a while now, I finally got a chance to take a look under the hood. So I thought I'd take some time to share my findings with folks.
And if this sounds like something up your alley, grab your copy of Mörk Borg, along with a free character sheet download!
First Up, Let's Talk About Tone
The first thing that draws the eye to Mörk Borg is the tone. On the surface the game is extremely grim, and that tone is enhanced by artwork that feels like what you'd get if Stephen Gammell (the infamous artist behind Scary Stories To Tell in The Dark) illustrated a collection of Conan stories. The game tells of a dark world gone mad, where crazed prophets wander, bloodthirsty monsters lurk in every shadow, and the slightest mistake or misfortune will spell death and misery for you and your comrades.
That sort of world may be familiar to some players, however, the tone of the world meshes with the rules and setup of the game in a way that promotes PC vulnerability. Characters do not have access to a lot of abilities or resources to help them survive this world, and even the toughest PC is 1-2 bad rolls away from a slow, painful demise. This means that every combat, every random event, and practically every interaction has a serious chance of doing real, lasting harm even if the PCs survive.
Comparing it to the two grimdark properties I mentioned in the introduction, Mörk Borg is like playing Dark Souls when you only have 1 life, or playing in the world of Berserk when you aren't one of the named characters, and there's nothing stopping you from having your head pulped in the background of a battle scene.
However, as with anything that seems unrelentingly bleak at first glance, there is also a lot of dark humor in Mörk Borg. A lot of it is in the sneaky (and not-so-sneaky) references made in the charts for items, and in the description of abilities. Whether it's the "666" instead of just a regular 6 on the equipment chart for the Heretical Priest, or the Gutterborn Scum's ability to spit thick, disgusting, viscous phlegm into their enemy's faces, or to hide extremely well in muck and filth, there's definitely no small amount of piss being taken behind all the doom and gloom. Whether you want to acknowledge it in your campaign is up to you, but the game definitely doesn't take itself so seriously that it can't acknowledge its own ridiculousness at time.
Secondly, The Mechanics
As I mentioned above, Mörk Borg is a pretty rules light game. If you got hold of the stripped-down version of the rulebook, the whole thing is only 76 pages, and that's including the world text, monsters, extra charts, and all the other straight text. This game is so rules light that even though it includes classes, even those classes are considered optional to play the game at all!
So, how do you play Mörk Borg?
Well, first you randomly roll your equipment, on a simple chart, then you roll your Abilities with 3d6. You have 4 of them (Agility, Presence, Strength, and Toughness), and the modifier will be from a -3 to a +3. If you aren't using classes, then two of your stats can be rolled with 4d6, dropping the low score. You then roll your hit points (1d8 + Toughness modifier), and you acquire a number of Omens. These act as a floating pool of points you can use to influence fate by maximizing your damage, rerolling saves, etc. It should be noted that Omens are optional, the same as classes, and that not using them is one more way to put things on Nightmare Difficulty.
Once you have your characters, every action will be resolved by rolling a d20 to make a test. The difficulty is usually an average of 12, and you aren't going to get much in the way of bonuses (though you're going to have to deal with a lot of penalties from curses, exhaustion, injury, etc.). And you test for everything; the monsters don't even roll to hit you in Mörk Borg. Rather, you have to dodge the incoming hits that are coming your way every round, so hope that your d20 is good to you.
At this point, you know basically everything you need to know to play the game. There's no skills to invest points into, no feats to acquire, no levels to go up in, and no XP to track. You get better when the GM says you do, and this usually just means you might get more hit points, and your attributes might change. Because Mörk Borg is a cruel game, there's a chance you simply don't get more HP, and that your attributes actually go down.
Lastly, you can access magic in this game. It requires you finding sacred or profane spell scrolls, reading them, and gaining a number of uses of magic that day. But as with everything else, there's a risk of something terrible befalling you if you aren't careful when it comes to tapping into the power of witchfire and blasphemy.
Should You Play Mörk Borg?
Taste is going to be an extremely subjective thing. However, if you haven't made your decision by this point, there are some things you should keep in mind that might influence your yay or nay.
Firstly, Mörk Borg as written is a high-lethality, low-mechanics game. If you're more of an old-school or OSR player this will be right in your wheelhouse. If you're someone who wants a game that doesn't have a lot of moving parts, and where you don't have to read dozens and dozens of rulebooks or figure out a detailed character build, this game will likely appeal to you as well.
Also, because Mörk Borg is so easy to make content for, there's a lot of expansions and options that build on the basic framework. Cy_Borg is a perfectly example, in that it presents a techno-apocalypse in the concrete gutters of a corporate hellscape that carries forward all of the themes, but does so in a completely different kind of dystopia.
With all of that said, however, Mörk Borg is not a game that lends itself to the typical campaign structure a lot of TTRPG players might be used to. Character advancement doesn't really happen, and it has a very low ceiling for how good you can get even if you survive long enough for the GM to declare you can try to improve. Character death tends to happen pretty often, and that can be extremely discouraging for players who are more used to actually finishing a story arc for their characters rather than keeping a stack of replacements for when the dice fail them. So I would recommend that if you aren't sure you'll really like Mörk Borg, then try a sample game before going all in. There's a chance you might find it a good palate cleanser between campaigns, but if you tend to like more robust characters meant to last the full length of a campaign then you might quickly lose patience with the bare bones nature of this doom metal RPG.
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About the Creator
Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.
Blog: Improved Initiative and The Literary Mercenary
Thanks for bringing this game into my radar!