What is an RPG? There’s a question that could send you down a rabbit-hole. At least one person per possible answer is already out there, ready to spew hate at you from Twitter. What’s an RPG book? That one, in theory, should be a little easier. An RPG book, whether we mean a physical book or a PDF, is the document that enables you to play an RPG. These can be core rulebooks, they can be setting books, or they can be supplements for either the setting or the rules, but they are, broadly speaking, the documents in which an RPG is contained. So what does that look like? You may be imagining text, some tables and charts, and probably some pictures. As much as these books vary, you probably think you know what the next RPG manual you crack open is going to look like. That’s why you need to crack open Mörk Borg.
I recently undertook an investigation into several OSR games to answer some questions I had, not the least of which was “what do all these variations on the same theme actually get us”? Looking into five interpretations of Basic D&D gave us a series of good mechanical answers. What Mörk Borg gives us is a stylistic answer. Freed from the constraints of needing a significant page count to convey rules, Mörk Borg instead conveys the setting and, dare I say it, the style of the game it wants to be. Attempting to read Mörk Borg like you would any other RPG is going to confuse and probably frustrate you. In addition to the sheer bombast of its layout, the contents are intended to evoke, rather than explain…at least that’s the best explanation I can come up with for the setting material as it exists. But evoke it does; Mörk Borg makes a solid effort at making a game that is as interesting and fun to read as it is to play, with the only trade-off being that reading it cover to cover is the only way to figure out what the hell is going on.
Mörk Borg the game is a relatively straightforward OSR romp, though it’s not making a significant effort to be a retroclone. There are four attributes, Agility, Presence, Strength, and Toughness. Attribute scores are rolled straight down the line, 3d6. There are optional classes which modify these rolls with bonuses, and the choice to use 4d6 drop lowest if the optional classes are ignored. These attributes are translated from their 1-20 score into an ability modifier from -3 to +3, the attribute which is actually used in-game. The core mechanic for the game is to roll d20 and add that attribute modifier to the result, comparing to a difficulty rating. From these stats come hit points and encumbrance, and the rest of character creation involves rolling on random tables for weapons, armor, and the rest of your possessions. Characters are weak, but character generation is quick, which may come in handy later if you aren’t careful.
The rules are quite straightforward. Beyond typical tests, combat defines three tests: one for melee, one for ranged, and one for defense (much like Macchiato Monsters, enemies don’t roll in this game). There are critical successes and failures, initiative is done by sides only, zero hit points means you’re broken, and negative hit points means you’re dead. Throw in some basic magic rules that boil down to rolling presence for how many spells you can use per day, and that’s really all for the rules. Given the relative simplicity of the game, the optional classes add some additional flavor to characters, defined through differences to attribute rolls as noted above as well as a collection of abilities which read like and are earned like PbtA Moves. These classes probably double the rules density of the game, but given how little there is, it’s not a big lift.
In all honesty, I’ve spent more time discussing the rules than anyone who has cracked open this book would expect. The book is utterly wild.
Every page spread is full-color (though those colors are black, white, yellow, red, and pink), a bombastic collage of grotesque art and words splayed across the page. Even Troika, with its own limited color printing and striking art, looks more like a book than Mörk Borg, which more resembles the sort of unholy codex you’d find on a back shelf somewhere in Miskatonic University. The art style could be considered divisive (though the heavy metal influences shine through and therefore I personally quite like it), but whether or not you love the look, everyone who reads this book must concede that the creation of this art piece came at the expense of readability. The question, though, is ‘so what?’ Mörk Borg weighs in at 96 pages, or roughly 48 spreads of garish violence and striking gloom. If you were to distill the game down, even including all of the random tables, you could probably fit it on 16 pages, if not less. But doing that would miss the point. Beyond teaching you how to play the game, Mörk Borg teaches you what the game should look like, serving as an artifact that could very well be statted out in its own pages, somewhere in the ‘Occult Treasures’ table on the front endpapers.
One fascinating bit of contrast with the rest of the book is the sample adventure, “Rotblack Sludge, or, The Shadow King’s Lost Lair.” The adventure has one closed hook which leads into a 15-room dungeon. Without getting into spoilers, the adventure puts forth a very good example of designing, keying, and stocking a dungeon, although said dungeon is fairly linear. The most interesting thing, though, is that the artpiece style of layout used throughout the rest of the book is abandoned here, replaced with a tight and smart two column layout. Each page has one column with a small map, art, and stat blocks if applicable, and another column with text describing the room, broken down into each key element. The rooms are well-written, and this dungeon has none of the italic flavor text nonsense that we’ve all rolled our eyes at from more baroque early D&D modules. In case you didn’t believe the authors’ ability to get down to business and stay there, the back endpapers of the book contain a much more readable rules summary that fits on one page.
Mörk Borg is a signpost regarding the RPG hobby’s embrace of ergodic literature, and a poke in the eye to games studies absolutists at the same time. The dual questions of “What is an RPG” and “What is an RPG book” each imply an additional question, “Is an RPG book part of an RPG”. This is not a question with an obvious answer; some may interpret the rulebooks as the game itself, while others treat the rulebooks as a precursor, much like how you’d treat a copy of The Joy of Cooking as a precursor to chocolate chip cookies. Mörk Borg, rather than seeking to answer the question, seeks to muddy the waters. Reading Mörk Borg is an essential part of playing the game, and even if you were to hack a rules element from Mörk Borg into another OSR game, it would not land the same unless your players see the manner in which it was originally presented. Mörk Borg is a game for which “style over substance” is not an insult, and it’s my hope that there are lessons to be learned here about where the experience of reading an RPG manual fits in the broader notion of playing a game.
Mörk Borg is available in PDF form on DriveThruRPG with English and Swedish versions.
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