In its impassioned embrace of equal parts ‘return to roots’ simplicity and psychedelic predilection for unbridled esoteric weirdness, the old school renaissance (or OSR) has gifted the world of tabletop RPG’s with one of its most fertile and exciting periods in decades.
As the phenomenon of role playing continues to make inroads into the mainstream, the OSR conversely plots a mirror course deeper underground, into the murkier climes of forlorn crypts and lamplit corridors – skewing further from the corporate boardrooms and marketing meetings of conglomeration and lurching back into the calloused hands of singular auteurs, clandestine communities and the whims of the players themselves. With accessibility again in the ascendant- the proliferation of ideas, zines and titles has exploded, birthing a true indie movement that will signpost and define this point in the history of the hobby.
It was perhaps only a matter of time then before one such title went supernova, gleaming incandescent in blacklight hues to throw ironic light onto the scene as a whole. And so umlaut straddled and iron fisted it arrived, ravening for blood and colouring outside the lines. The dark fort.
The contagion, corruption and rapid onset symptoms of MÖRK BORG’s bubonic allure are a validation of the hunger that still exists for something starker, something darker. Something unafraid and unaffiliated.
Birthed of the sunless herring-scented winters of photogenic cheekbone-epicentre Sweden, the 2020 international release of the game immediately lit the touch paper on a nascent phenomenon. Lauded for its uncompromising vision, evocative writing style and gonzo artpunk aesthetics, it spread like brushfire via breathless word of mouth, and in doing so – rather than birth yet another swathe of passive consumers, it gave rise to a cult. A cult of creators and collaborators that grasped the nettle of what was being seeded and began twisting it into an innumerable array of new and tangled forms.
As the world reels from that first prolific eruption, the twin basilisks of prophecy- Author Pelle Nilsson and Artist Johan Nohr- pause to take stock of what has transpired as they in turn fix their hollow eyes upon the future.
The apocryphal tale is that the tenebrous origins of MÖRK BORG were first seeded as Pelle gazed lazily, daydreaming in line whilst waiting to do something as benign as juice some apples. The initial eureka moment born of contrast, unfurling and taking shape as drudgery begat expansive vistas in the mind’s cracked eye.
Pelle: Yeah, that juice story is actually true! It happened in around August or September 2018, however some ideas had been in my head a few months before that. Everything started at a convention in the northern part of Sweden (called Grottröj). We played late at night and I really wanted simple rules: rules for the pub, rules you could remember, so I guess the rules and a couple of classes were already in my head.
At the juice place I wrote them down and added the rules about omens and nailed down all the classes. All this was on two papers/four pages. The absolute first thing up was the femur weapon. At the above-mentioned con some of us fought with femurs and it was really funny. So the femur is very important in the game!
To a legion of demo-scene alumni the lure of MÖRK BORG echoes proudly with an aesthetic, feel and intent that seems heavily indebted to the zine and tape trading culture of the punk and metal underground. A DIY network where cut-and-paste flyers, photocopied zines and home dubbed cassettes were crammed into envelopes overflowing with a riot of ideas and mailed across the globe ferried by glue-slicked stamps and IRC’s.
Johan: I think I missed the tape trading thing due to my age, but that kind of cut-up zine-like aesthetic has always been close at hand. Back in school I did a lot of poetry-slam and artsy underground theatre posters and flyers, as well as graphics for my friends in the demo scene. But I’ve always had a desire to experiment with graphic design and explore, bend and break the rules they teach in design school. I think if you just follow them all the time you will never innovate. With MÖRK BORG I really wanted to push this to the max and challenge the ways we traditionally think of RPGs. Because although functional, some of the ways we expect an RPG book to look and behave are not necessarily the most evocative, inspiring or innovative. And it’s easy to just fall into those patterns and make variations of the same book over and over again.
In a world where fantastical archetypes have become cultural shorthand- robbed of their sense of wonder and menace by sheer dint of their familiarity – MÖRK BORG succeeds in presenting a stark and edifying throwback to a time when RPG’s had an allure of the esoteric and mysterious about them. Perhaps even a whiff of danger. In looking back to their roots in the hobby, what were the barbs that initially ensnared Pelle and Johan? I pictured a box of Drakborgen looming large.
Johan: Haha, yeah Drakborgen was a HUGE part of my childhood and remains one of my absolute favourite board games to this day. I remember we had a copy of it at school for some reason. Being 13 years old and skipping class to go dungeon crawling, fighting skeleton warriors, looting corpses, being bitten by a venomous centipede and unheroically dying really paved the way for MÖRK BORG I think.
My first foray into proper RPGs was the Swedish game Mutant (that later became Mutant Chronicles and Mutant: Year Zero), set in a post-apocalyptic Sweden with anthropomorphic animals and a ton of humour. My nerdiest friend “borrowed” it from his big brother and we played a session without having a single clue about how it actually worked or what the rules were. But it didn’t matter. There were cool images and hints of a strange future world so we just made shit up. And that’s how I still do it today I guess, and how I encourage others to play. I think what’s in the book isn’t nearly as important as what actually happens around the table. You have no obligation to play a game as written—make it your own.
Pelle: I started in the mid-80s, and Drakborgen was there, but I never owned nor played it then and I feel no nostalgia regarding that game. I played Talisman very much however. That was the first “complicated” fantasy board game for me. The RPG scene was very vibrant back then and I played Mutant (1984 version with % system), Drakar och Demoner (based on Runequest) and Chock (Chill). Later I played the first version of KULT quite a lot.
Around 1992 I was fed up with RPGs and didn’t play again until about 2013 when the OSR started to thrive.
In its world-building and overall character, the game of MÖRK BORG is wilfully and evocatively obtuse in that it gifts the players with a very strong flavour but few restrictive concrete parameters. This in turn rewards creativity and an ability to grasp the atmosphere being seeded, almost like an evocation of sorts.
Pelle: Yes, that was very intentional. Simple rules that everyone can grasp in a few minutes and short setting descriptions, intended to not stand in the way and kill all creativity with super detailed information. Classes, adventures and creatures then contribute to feeling/setting with small pieces of information. And lots of people have started to do exactly what we aimed for: making classes, adding their own stuff to the lore etc. I guess the kind of feeling we wanted to evoke was of a dark, dying world, but also one with a lot of humour.
Johan: I think the vagueness of the descriptions, rules, setting and everything kind of forces you as a reader to make your own interpretations and fill in the blanks. And by doing so you begin to form your own game in a way. You become a game designer. And you learn just how easy it is to homebrew, change and add to the game you’re currently playing.
There’s also the whole thing where the book almost feels like it was written within the game world, because of how non-meta its descriptions are, and how the narrator is unreliable and even contradictory at times. As reality decays, you can’t really trust what you’re reading.
In the embrace of that spirit of open-ness and creativity, the capacity for bizarre and memorable encounters is duly multiplied. Unpredictability is the companion of chaos and must sometimes even surprise its fathers…
Johan: There are so many strange and disconnected moments and a lot of them are very “you had to be there”. But I will never forget the time one of my players played a Wretched Royalty accompanied by three monkeys dressed up as courtiers. They were completely feral though and would run around wreaking havoc, terrorizing and completely destroying every place they went.
In a lot of ways these monkeys were scarier than a many of the monsters the group was fighting, as the players had absolutely no control over them. As they travelled through the woods of Sarkash they would only hear the screams and movement of the monkeys in the dark, somewhere out of sight. Once in a while they would leap out from the foliage to attack an unknowing enemy and either run off into the woods again or drag the unlucky foe with them, never to be seen again.
Oh – and then there’s the time when the group weaponized the zombie-raising spell Foul Psychopomp. I rule that the caster can’t control the undead they raise, but they go straight for the throat of anyone nearby, caster included. The players learned this the hard way, and so would basically hurl a corpse at groups of enemies, raise it as an undead, and run away. Then return after a while to see who’s still standing!
In making the transition from its native umlaut-studded guise to its English language iteration, the duo collaborated with noted OSR author Patrick Stuart (Veins of the Earth) in a fortuitous marriage of styles. One wonders how the process transpired and what changes are evident from the feel or intent of the original?
Johan: We collaborated with a lot of people on this project and I think that’s one of the reasons it came to life the way it did. We made a dungeon-synth soundtrack together with Heimat der Katastrophe and Gnoll, borrowed an awesome sludgy doom-track from Domkraft for our Kickstarter promo video, and got editing help from MoonRat Conspiracy, Vi Huntsman and the rest of the Stockholm Kartell gang.
As for Patrick, he helped us find the English tone of voice and inject some linguistic strangeness into the text. The process was like so: Pelle wrote the whole game in Swedish, I translated it into English and tried to keep it as close as possible to the original, and then Patrick was unleashed upon the English text to basically rewrite it in his particular manner, adding his own ideas and twists at will. And then our editors got it, cutting, adjusting and rephrasing until it was done. We did adjust the Swedish a bit but weren’t too concerned about disparities between the editions.
Pelle: I think there are some differences in the tone. The Swedish version is a bit more harsh, and some jokes do not work in English and vice versa. Patrick likes to float out a bit when writing, and I like to keep it a bit more concrete. So sure, the Swedish and English books differ a bit; some enjoy the original Swedish text more, and some Swedes like the English more.
Johan: We consider them two different products and they are allowed to have two different tones. Like, you’re never gonna sit down and compare the two so there’s no reason for them to be exactly the same. Only we would really notice and we’re not the target audience here. I think maybe the Swedish version is a little less flowery and more short and harsh in its language. But they’re each just the way we want them for their particular language.
In an awesome contemporary twist on the spirit of the Gygaxian ‘Appendix N’, upon opening the core book, readers are treated to an exhaustive list of bands that inspired the creation of the game and helped set its blackened tone. In MÖRK BORG we seem to find an exemplar of a growing symbiosis between the worlds of indie gaming and extreme metal. Why do you think that those two seemingly disparate threads entwine so readily in a certain wayward mindset?
Johan: If I were to guess, I think the desire to challenge traditions and norms, to bend or break the rules and to find new ways of expression runs through both artforms. In our case it was really just the kind of bands that fuelled our inspiration when we were making the game and the worlds and ideas that they formed.
Pelle: I’m personally not involved in any scene or camp at twitter, facebook or anywhere else. I don’t know or care about what’s trendy; I only want to create and it seems like writing is the way to go, even though I would like being in a band like, say … Darkthrone. That did not happen (but I’ve emailed with Fenriz some years ago) so instead I did this book with Johan.
To me it’s just a creative vessel and it’s like I’m in a rehearsal room where the words are my instruments. I think many independent game creators feel the same and these two rather small ‘canals’ of music makers and book creators are not far apart in my opinion. In fact I think it’s all in the same waters, Muddy Waters!
Further to these inspirations, one of the most immediately striking and unique aspects of MÖRK BORG is the incredible art and presentation that positively bleeds from every page. From what fell fields were such blighted harvests extracted? I imagined Erol Otus and the OD&D and crew, John Blanche, Ian Miller and the Oldhammer crew, Alex Hellid’s Nihilst Demo covers, Dan Seagrave’s Left Hand Paths and more all surely planted some bad seeds…
Johan: I always think it’s super hard to pinpoint exactly where the inspiration comes from and it’s all basically a mental maelstrom of shapes and images that I try to make something useful from. Some of the ones you mention have surely made a mark, but also things that aren’t either rpg or music related inspire me, like photography, fashion, video games, architecture and graphic design like posters or editorial stuff.
I believe one should always try to look for inspiration far from the medium or genre you’re creating in, so that you avoid just repeating or recycling too much. So I try to find interesting compositions in annual reports, imagery or scenery from movies or series, campy B-horror flicks or cheap halloween decorations. And museums, street art and creepypasta. But it was all done in a frenzy, more stream of consciousness than anything structured or methodical.
One thing I think is important when it comes to presentation though is the way art, design and content intertwines and becomes one. Often you can clearly tell that a book (especially RPG books) consists of images, text and the occasional decorative elements, and they tend to remain separate entities sharing a page. I tried to treat all of these things as equally important and blend them together on the pages, treating every spread in the book as if it were a poster or its own thing. You should be able to flip the book open, land on any page and feel like it could stand on its own feet. I didn’t want to waste a single page.
In yet another echo of the punk-rock and metal DIY ethos, one of the most transgressive aspects of MÖRK BORG is the way it has been embraced so fervently by a dedicated cult of community contributors, especially for such a new game. This cultivation of community ensures the game thrives as a living entity, or perhaps a suppurating tumour on the face of the RPG scene.
Johan: Our community is everything, and I truly believe that a game without players (or readers) is just a book. The people hanging out on our Discord and Facebook group are making some of the coolest stuff I’ve ever seen and to see that our game inspires creativity is the greatest reward.
It makes the game come alive and I think part of that is because of how active we’ve been in inviting people and encouraging them to partake. We’re not corporate or very protective of our brand, we’re just two guys making a cool game about death and demons and if you like that stuff (and you’re not an ass-hat) you can come on in. And we try to help other indie creators by boosting their messages and help spread their word, just like we were helped by the scene when we first launched.
Especially now that we’ve opened up the third-party license you see more and more people sharing their modules and adventures, and I think we’ll soon see some of these things in print. I can’t wait!
As this missive goes to print, branded acolytes of all nations are just getting their hands on the latest bruised fruit of the Feretory zine, which sees the world of MÖRK BORG continue to grow and unfold. It begs the question, as momentum mounts- what might be lurking in the pipeline?
Pelle: Yeah, all the buzz is very inspiring. We have lots of things in the pipes. Both official stuff, MBC stuff and some collaborations. But all of this is secret I’m afraid. We also need to think about our mental health… hehe! Since the release earlier this year there is already a zine including the official solo game Dark Fort, we have two digital generators for characters and dungeons. But things will be revealed in the coming months.
Johan: There are things on hard drives. And lots of discussions and plans in e-mail threads. Let’s leave it to that.
Landing in 2020 and surely cursed to live in ‘interesting times’, MÖRK BORG arrives amidst a world of dread and uncertainty – politically, biologically and eschatologically. Has this has perhaps been a factor in the game being embraced so readily? That in its portents of doom it aptly reflects the zeitgeist? Or is it simply that people are just burned out on the generic fantasy tropes that more mainstream games tend to recycle to infinity?
Pelle: I hope that it is because people are burned out on generic fantasy. The most crazy thing I know of right now (apart from that orange guy in the US) is the internet stressing people up. I see a lot of love and good things, so hopefully MÖRK BORG did ok because of the generic super-hero fantasy thing and because it’s a good thing on its own. To me, MB is full of humour and lots of readers/players seem to enjoy it.
Johan: These are messed up times and, I don’t know, maybe the permissive nature of the game–with the openness of the setting and rules and the theme turned up to 11–is a bit liberating and almost cathartic for players and creators alike. You can’t really do it wrong, and if you just wanna spend an evening with your friends killing undead, listening to heavy metal and having a laugh, it’s totally fine. You can of course play it more seriously but you don’t have to. The game doesn’t take itself too seriously.
I also think the themes and the story in the game reflects the real world in a way, if you want it to; a shit world racing for its own destruction and a doomsday prophecy more or less ignored by the general public. Is it just about two-headed basilisks or really about an impending climate catastrophe? I think people can relate in a way to the shitshow that is the world of MÖRK BORG.
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