“The wind from the west, from the sundered land. Rot rides it, and the stench of blood. Cursed walker, will you travel there?”
The world is burning, jackbooted storm-troopers blanket the streets in gas, ancient aboriginal sites are destroyed, our collective heritage and future is siphoned from the earth and filtered into hedge-funds and the rich keep getting richer. Is it any wonder that with its promise of escape, the world of tabletop role-playing is in the midst of an unprecedented resurgence?
Under the stewardship of Wizards of the Coast, Dungeons and Dragons has achieved a visibility and allure unheard of since the heady days of E.T., moist-eyed Tom Hanks ham and the suburban curtain-twitching of the Satanic Panic. New players join the fray daily and old hands are heeding the call of rediscovery as they reconnect with their imaginations and yearning for adventure – dusting off polyhedral ambitions and stroking their beards in whimsical recollection of the Villages of Hommlet, Borderland Keeps and Horrific Tombs of their mis-spent youth.
But amongst the influx of new blood and multi-generational homecomings there has also arisen a desire for something a little crunchier and more flavourful than the polished and watery vanilla essence being ladled out in the official spread of low-fat fifth edition canapes. Many of us cast a withering eye over the Norman Rockwell indebted art and heavily trope-indentured range of experiences on offer via the high street.
Older players recall something more arcane and mysterious, and newer players are curious to delve back into the murkier origins of this world-straddling phenomena. There is a desire to recapture the amorphous, heady, occult-infused sense of the unknown that permeated the game before the fantasy genre became hidebound by a common primer and default archetypal blueprint, pinned by the weight of expectations as a blood-drained victim of its own surprising successes.
This is where the Old School Renaissance comes in. And MÖRK BORG is its blackened inbred heir, perched on a gnarled goat throne.
“Distance shifts, paths between places warp, as if this pale lightless world possessed a will and bitter life. Its mercy curdled to wrath over a too-long age.”
Emerging from the frosty steppes and long dark winters of Sweden, MÖRK BORG describes itself as a “Doom Metal Album of a game, a spiked flail to the face” and in doing so, sets out its stall early with a wicked witches grin and a supreme confidence. You know what you’re getting yourself in for, basically. Yet, even then it retains the capacity to surprise with the weight of imagination it holds deep in its tattered and voluminous sleeve.
“Rules Light, Heavy Everything Else” it proclaims, resting on its desire to seduce the creative right hand lobe of the brain, whilst content to merely tickle the analytical and mathematical left-hand lobe that so often interrupts the narrative essence of a good RPG with its fastidious statistical insistence. The barrier to entry here is low, but once you vaunt its grim and gilded gates, the onus is firmly on you as a group to craft the experience, a sense of storytelling the sharpest arrow in your quiver, as it draws upon the masterful chipped-stone building blocks provided in this slim yet expansive tome.
And what a tome. In an era when corporate design documents have rendered the myriad talented hands in the D&D stable nigh-on indistinguishable from one another, MÖRK BORG instead embraces a thrillingly gonzo approach that induces a tonal whiplash aesthetic completely in line with the aforementioned promise of spiked flail trauma. Its physical presence screams at you from each ink-drenched page, from the wild ‘yellow as the colour of madness’ hues of its cover, to the neon pinks and darkest linework blacks of its coiled innards. This is RPG as a work of art, as much a delight to behold as it is to play, offering heaped spoonfuls of inspiration with each fevered turn of the page. Upon its arrival it became my pre-dream evening companion and my head hit the pillows each night swimming with ideas and implications, filling in the withered cracks and making the world my own as it bled out from the sturdy GSM stock into the parched recesses of my psyche – bewitching blooms spouting from blackened earth as I contemplated the teeming vault of possibilities.
“Clearly the eyes of other powers are upon you, Eldritch watchers or the tangled fates of alternate worlds.”
And crucially, that inspiration and sense of agency is key. MÖRK BORG is content to hand you the reins. The flaky skin of its withered digits isn’t interested in holding your corporeal, mortal hand. After sketching out its premise it leaves its lines blurred, its edges malleable. Its world, premise and underlying aesthetic is predicated on the oblique and unknowable. The obtuse, the unformed. The dreamlike. It retains its mystery and holds fast to its secrets even after repeated readings and plays. In doing so it whispers of possibilities in a desiccated croak, its borders ever shifting. Yogic, mercurial and lysergic.
The only true certainty it gifts you with is the knowledge that the world is doomed, and you have been honoured to bear wretched witness to its demise. The twin serpents of prophecy speak of seven miseries that shall befall the land. Biblical in both language, ambition and import, they draw upon the grimmest elements of Catholicism, which is still the most gothic wellspring in town, replete as it is with the capacity to traumatise near every child exposed to its mangled parade of martyred saints, necromantic voodoo ceremonies, blood-drenched finery and ridiculous hats.
Like the cloyingingly sweet smoke of censer and candle, this heady eschatological scent permeates every fibre of the game, both stunting and expanding your ambitions accordingly as you abandon the rote heroics of lesser works for the higher calling of cryptic gnosis and the mere act of survival.
“In the heart of Sarkash, fog and dust shall breathe beneath the waking trees. That which was hewed by man shall now hew in its turn.”
Character creation is mercifully simple, with more attention lavished upon your inauspicious origins than your mechanical parameters. Childhood traumas, mysterious omens, broken bodies, terrible traits and troubling tales are all accounted for in a succession of inventive tables. This system demands you make the most of fate’s hand from the very outset, initiating opportunities for unconventional role-play and suffocating in the cradle any lingering hopes for conventional min/maxing power fantasies.
Conventional class archetypes are similarly subverted, with the staples of fighting man, thief and magic user being spindled into the new forms of the Fanged Deserter, Gutter-Born Scum, Wretched Royalty and Heretical Priest. Each of these wyrd and wayward entities arrives complete with a selection of innate abilities and starting items that eschews the practical and pedestrian in favour of the thematically rich, from eldritch origins to dirty fingernails, abominable expectorate to the shoes from death’s very horse. It’s a fertile soil from which tendrils of story emerge, even prior to commencement, and like all elements of the game, favours thematic etching to fill out the world rather than abstruse cross referencing of dense numerical fields.
Combat and skill checks are borrowed from the common d20 system, whilst magic-use takes a cue from the likes of DCC in its fondness for majickal mishaps, replete with innumerable catastrophic contingencies. Like the many pillars of MÖRK BORG, it resists the harness of expertise, remaining ineffable and retaining its danger and arcane allure. The fiends and adversaries on display undergo a similar transformation, with the slim bestiary on offer drawing from traditional shapes, and then drawing down the moon in a black blood twist that transforms even the mere staple of a goblin into new and terrifying shapes. Remaking what was old and known into something again unseen, and in doing so revivifying it anew. It also leaves room to incorporate supplemental accoutrements from thematically resonant siblings such as Fire on the Velvet Horizon and Veins of the Earth, with a rare thematic coherence in place for the adoption of such lofty invocations.
“And the earth shall shake and be riven. And from the cracks shall rise a poisonous mist, and in ten days it will shroud the world”
Lives are wont to be short, truncated affairs as players are exposed to corruption, madness and deformity. Debilitating injury and shrieking madness are the purse to be offered for exposure to demonic pacts and rusted blades. The storytelling here, as in all aspects of the game, is both precise in its brevity and expansive in its implications. The art of world-building via random tables is expertly employed to both ‘show not tell’ and gift the experience with the sort of emergent narrative that erupts from the unexpected. A good DM will be key to embracing this system and making it sing in harmonious Gregorian tones, their narrative flair a key ingredient as they are left to stuff its blackened crust, armed as they are with this selection of delectable prompts. Statistical density is sacrificed for a space to weave stories that extend from the earthy tones of your mud caked boots, to the dizzying expanse of the unknowable stars above.
And yet, in the midst of the agency it offers and engagement it demands, MÖRK BORG remains a generous lover. It does not demand your time in mundane preparation. This is not a 400-page spine stuffed to bursting with appendices. Nor is it an affair that demands scrupulous and painstaking creation of campaign materials, hand-outs, dossiers and ephemera – though the option to do so is there. In keeping with its dreamlike oeuvre, the skeletal frame of a session often sits snugly on a single page. The literal bones of the tale being gilded with enough laced drapery to spin out in innumerable directions as the whims of the players lift it into four-dimensional space. Their looming mortality and the seven prophecies of doom conspiring to conjure fantastic material for one-shot adventures or brief campaigns, before the frames of another set of wayward miscreants is inhabited and the tale begins anew.
“And Leviathan shall come among you. Children winter-born and fated to fall before snow, both shall it take.”
And from all this space, this haunting blackness, its greatest gift is perhaps the potential to grow. Since its release earlier this year, MÖRK BORG has been fervently embraced by an active community that has set to task with filling out and expanding upon the crumbling foundations provided. A cult has formed, redolent of the underground zine and tape trading scene from which some its roots surely burrow deep. Available online, and soon to be collected in zine-form, this poisonous well of content is testament to the intoxicating lure of what has been crafted here. A DIY endeavour begetting DIY acolytes that ripples outwards in self-sustaining circles and has thus far offered expanded rules, classes, bestiaries and more. And if you need a themed DM screen then your gatefold pressing of a Bathory LP will do just fine.
So if quests for glory no longer entice, if three death saving throws seem excessively merciful, and if the well-worn outline of the beholder has ceased to terrify, then oh man is this ever your HM2 jam.
“All praise Yetsabu-Nech, the underworld’s nightmare, the black disc which stands before the sun! All praise Verhu, beaming with delight! All praise the fire which burns all! And the darkness shall swallow the darkness”
MÖRK BORG is available here.