Mörk Borg (2019)
Pelle Nilson (art by Johan Nohr)
Creative Consulation by Patrick Stuart
If your favorite game is Mörk Borg, I like you, but I do not respect you.
Mörk Borg is the latest ultra-lite Nu-SR game to contend for the throne of the Artpunk OSR in the wake of the fall of Lotfp. Dragged from a cauldron of boiling blood under a Witches’ moon and given hideous unlife by the razor-sharp guitar riffs of Monolith, Triptykon, Celtic Frost and Amon Amarth , Börk Mörg is a very light, ultra-metal grimdark dungeon crawl that succeeds fairly well at what it is trying to do.
I always thought ultra-lite rulesets were essentially a waste of time as they inevitably fail to measure up to the thing they are ultra-liting but recently a revelation came to me when I asked myself this question: What if you only had 2 hours to play D&D? Suddenly the existence of all those beautiful mechanics, all the complexity, the plethora of spells and monsters and equipment, becomes a hindrance or at most a vestigial organ for the guy just trying to get his fix. Is Mörk Börk as good as D&D? Hell no, but it’s a reasonably faithful adaptation for that time-frame. I will be reviewing it as grimdark Tunnels & Trolls, a game meant either for short sessions or as an introduction to RPGs, to be discarded in favor of the more serious and lordly D&D when one is ready to try the deep end of the pool.
It is easy to stare at Mlörk Pörg’s glaring yellow cover and deliberately clashing mixture of medieval/early-modern art with pink graffiti and dismiss it as yet another runaway art project thinly disguised as an rpg to snare in the flighty, high Openness-to-Experience hipster wallet-things but what saves it is that Blörk Börk’s design is actually remarkably tight, things are simplified where simplification is warranted but no essential elements are left on the cutting room floor. What we are left with is rudimentary but serviceable, maintaining the crucial mixture of resource management, exploration, combat and magicfaggery that differentiates OSR stuff from mere hack-and-slash tactical combat, all of it drenched in pitch-black almost-parody levels of Doom Metal. This is WHF at its most edgy, Slain: Back to Hell Edition and The Black Plot by High On Fire.
The opening random tables really set the tone with such crystal clear perfection that I can simply share the weather table and you will understand it better then I ever could convey.
1. Lifeless grey 2. Hammering rain 3. Piercing wind 4. Deafening storm 5. Black as night 6. Dead quiet 7. Cloudburst 8. Soup-thick mist 9. Crackling frost 10. Irritating drizzle 11. Roaring thunder 12. Gravelike cold
The setting of Börk Görk suffers from the Artpunk syndrome of setting writing in that it is clearly meant as an evocative mood-piece that is effective but at the same time there is a sense of the emphemeral, the setting exists as a wafer-thin backdrop against which grimdarkness may take place.
Görk Glörg takes place in the frost-wreathed mountain crags of a nameless last continent, dotted with city-spanning Gothic Castles, Tombs, Graves, Pits, Sepulchres, Gallows, Crypts and Dark Forests. It most certainly has Wolves. And Skeletons. And Plague. But not Flumphs. The time is the tail-end of the prophesied End Times and the game goes so far as to include a Doom-Counter with various apocalyptic events going off on a 1 every time you rise, with the GM given discretion to decide the dice and the commandment to burn Mörk Blörk once a black sun rises to rain fire on the world and the Two-headed Basilisk escapes from his accursed prison to lead in the brave new world. You do not play figures of awe but mutilated, cursed, terrible wretches, eking out an existence of mindless murder, disease and robbery in the waning handful of hours that are left to you.
Names and places exist to reinforce a mood. The Blood Countess Anthelia. The Shadow King. The forest of Sarkash. To investigate further would be meaningless. It does not truly matter if the She Basilisk is worshipped in the Black Cathedral of GalgenBeck or if it is the Black God Nechrubel, or what terrible force excavated the tunnels and catacombs of the Bergen Chrypt or what language is spoken in this accursed, black land. All that matters is that you roll up a band of the most grimdark motherfuckers in rpgdom and send them off to die ingloriously.
Or as the game says:
Create a Player Character (PC) 1. Randomize your starting equipment on this page. 2. Randomize weapon and armor. 3. Roll your abilities. 4. Roll your Hit Points. 5. Name your character if you wish. It will not save you.
I like to roll up a character to illustrate how a system goes through it so without further adu let’s get started. Mörk Börg does have character classes that modify your attribute roles, starting equipment and abilities but these are entirely optional so we shall not bother with them now. We start with…equipment! We roll d6, d12, d12 (6, 2, 9).
We are in luck. We begin play with a donkey, Our Presence Bonus+4 Torches and a shield. We are also generously provided with a waterskin, 3 days of food and 50 sp. We then roll for a weapon. We didn’t get a scroll during character creation so we roll D10 and get…a shortsword (d6). Weapons have a damage attribute only though they could be melee or missile. We roll for armor but don’t get any. It is interesting that in örk Trück heavy armor does not decrease your chance to get hit but reduces the damage you take by a dice, from d2 for light to d6 for heavy armor. Wearing heavy or medium armor while using scrolls is impossible, and it actually makes you MORE likely to get hit. A shield further reduces damage by 1 and can be sacrificed to negate any single hit, which strikes me as a cool optional rule, even though it means I will be spending the bulk of my extra cash on shields thank you very much. That Ulveig the Black goes through shields like no tomorrow I tell you.
We have cash so we should buy equipment while we are at it. Most of the items in Klörg Körgh are self-explanatory but a few of them interact with the systems unique mechanics like the Healing Kit, or are very much in keeping with the game’s bleak atmosphere, like Poison (it is not clear if it is ingested) or a Bear trap. We buy Light armor for 20s, a Backpack for 6s so we can hold our shit, a club for 10s so we can upgrade our damage to D6, and…a Healing kit for 15 s, leaving us with 1 s. It doesn’t really make sense to have weapons with similar damage dice with wildly different prices but at this point who cares?
There are but 4 stats for this game, Agility, Strength, Presence and Toughness, and 4d6 in order drop lowest for two abilities, 3d6 for the other two shalt be our commandment (or 3d6 if you use classes). Agility 12 (+0), Strength 8 (-1), Presence 17 (+3), Toughness 13 (+1). Everything in the game is a simple test of D20 + Modifier against a fixed number, to the point where you discard the actual number and use the modifier after Character Creation is done. The one major departure seems to be defence rolls: Mörk Börg resolves combat by having players roll Defence against any attacks they take, but the end result amounts to the same. There are no bonuses to damage but you get a bonus to hp if you have a high toughness. Which reminds me: We have…6 hit points!
There is, gasp, a simple but serviceable encumbrance system based on items as Str +8, so between 5 and 11 items, which seems fine. It doesn’t really differentiate between lard or zweihanders but this is a light game so these details are less important then the immediate visceral thrill. There are prices for rudimentary services and tame animals even if we largely have to infer their benefit and cost from our experience with roleplaying games at large.
Random Name and we are battle ready:
Armor: Light, Shield
Weapon: Club d6, Short Sword d4
Items: Backpack, Healing Kit, 7 torches, Donkey.
And there we go.
Combat is a simple affair. Group initiative, Attack rolls against a DR of 12 (like DC), Defence rolls against a DR of 12. Bad stuff happens if you hit 0 hp, anything below that and you are dead. Smart groups will carry a healing kit to fix bleeding wounds and recover quickly, though at any time you can take an hour’s rest to recover d4 hp. The game points out you need to have drink with you to do this, so I assume resting consumes a ration and keeping track of supplies is actually important, not bad.
1s mean you either lose your weapon or you take double damage from a hit and your armor is degraded by 1 tier. 20 means you inflict double and reduce their armor, or gain a free attack if you are defending. You will notice there are all these little mechanics buried in the ultra-light pretentious framework that do contribute to a nicely vicious and tight game, where careful consideration of equipment purchases and selection will greatly increase the longevity of your character. Status effects are briefly explored, in the form of Hemorraghing (death within hours if not treated), to infected wounds, which do not allow you to heal until you treat them. Seriously, healing kit (which has limited uses). Interestingly enough, the God statt in Klork Klork appears to be Presence, which is used for spellcasting, ranged attacks, encounter reactions and added to some equipment (meaning you bargain more?).
A point of criticism can be levelled against this game, in that the ultra-light framework it uses is probably only sufficient if one is at least tangentially familiar with old school games. This is probably acceptable given that people are unlikely to have their first RPG be Tork Work and gearing it towards these new guys is probably vainglory.
There is no XP, but if the GM decides its levelling up time, the game has rudimentary levelling up mechanics. Roll d6 for each score, if its higher then your score, your score goes up to a maximum of +6, if its lower it goes down. A 1 always goes down. The end result is that weaknesses tend to disappear quickly while exceptional ability scores are unlikely to grow much better and might even disappear. Hit points increase by d6 if you roll over them on 6d10, putting the max at an inconceivably powerful 65 hp.
Spellcasting has effectively been eliminated as a class profession, but is solved creatively. You can begin play with Scrolls. A Scroll allows you to use a certain power d4+presence times per day if you roll against DR 12. If you fail, you take minor damage and you cannot use your powers for an hour. These scrolls are divided between Profane Scrolls (Palms Open the Southern Gate, Lucy-Fires Levitation, Nine Violet Signs Unlock the Storm and the eponymous Death) and Sacred Scrolls (Enochian Syntax, Hermetic Step, Grace for a Sinner and the unbelievably overpowered Unmet Fate, which can raise people from the dead with no ill effects) that roughly preserve the old division between divine and profane magic. In keeping with the general atmosphere of the game, 1s result in nightmarish mutations that will quickly lead to instant death, which in Blorg Glorg is probably a small mercy anyway.
The first truly dirty modern conceit makes its entrance. Flork Blorf has
Fate Points ahem Omens that allow you to reroll damage, avoid hits, get a bonus etc, and do so up to 1-2 times per day. I think in Yorg Vlorff’s case this is probably a mistake. There is something about the agency that you get by being able to alter fate that goes against Yarp Barg’s pitiless grimdark imago, especially given the speed at which they regenerate. It feels, pardon my French, like a sub-system for girls and closeted normals, so they won’t cry overmuch if the dice treat them poorly. Perhaps this is offset by the Critical Hit system, but I say cut it out.
There’s three tables to flesh out your character with terrible traits and since these set the tone you would be a fool to skip them. There’s three tables and it just says roll twice so I picked Terrible Traits and Broken bodies and rolled once on each one. I rolled Endlessly Aggravated and Starved: Gaunt and Pale to give our boy some grimdark trappings, and we roll d20 for a quick group backstory (or we can throw a knife, the book suggests, and given the target audience I think it cannot be ruled out that in between the endless parade of soy-faced coomers there will be found the odd sub-culture of unwashed HEMA practitioners with a substance abuse problem to do just such a thing. I have rolled “Your Flesh Heals twice as Fast, but that of your companions Twice as Slow. You see a Many-Eyed Guardian Angel” which I guess will have to be our call to adventure. I am not a huge fan of having additional abilities show up in the backstory generator but this is not a deal breaker.
Classes are short and sweet. Picking one modifies Ability scores, omens and starting equipment and gives you one, often randomly determined power. They are all very grimy and gringy, all the exaggerated vibe of a reinassance fair during a cholera epidemic and praise the Dark Gods for it! a man with sharp teeth, The Gutterborn Scum, the Esoteric Hermit, a Heretical Priest, Wretched Royalty and the Occult Brewmaster. I was pleasantly reminded of Darkest Dungeon, the grimdarkest of grimdark dungeon crawl games. Each class is given some variety with the randomized abilities and the classes are nicely differentiated. Kudos for having the Gutterborn Scum have the Excretal Stealth Ability where you are almost impossible to spot as long as you hide in filth, debris and muck.
We have a bestiary to top off the setting which has to tackle an interesting problem. Doing an exaggerated grimdark aesthetic means that people are going to expect statts for certain stereotypical monsters but at the same time those monsters are essentially old hat and your game is DRIVEN by novelty and OPENNESS TO EXPERIENCE. The solution is admirable; re-imagine classics instead of making up nonsense monsters. So we have Goblins that will turn anyone they attack into a goblin if the attacker is not killed within several days. You’ve got a big regenerating troll (almost invincible in Glurk Thruk) that runs away and every time it returns it is stronger. There’s skeletons that are covered in blood, Gargoyles with a destructive gaze attack, Liches, zombies with the bite etc. etc. The twists just as often detract from the atmosphere as re-inforce it, but kudos for having a porcerlain doll filled with the re-animated dead in there. I kept holding my breath for an ultimate monster to erase the party from existence and strike fear into the hearts of Tramp Stamp players everywhere but ah las my blue balls were not answered. As an interesting feature, monsters can actually be captured alive or brought back dead and sold for loot, and this probably takes the place of treasure in the grimy, dirty, poverty-stricken hell of Blorgh Dorgh.
There is a nice quick and dirty section on henchmen, each of them imbued with a sort of surrealist Gothic atmosphere that goes…a little too far in this case. The introduction of a race of Wick-Headed men or demon ladies hearkens back to 5e’s bi-sexual furry avengers syndrome and leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth, and surely there are all manner of bizarre and baroque henchmen of mere human race to draw from? Madmen, Flaggelants, Cutthroats, Plague Doctors, Necromancers, Eternal Champions, Blood Knights, Witch Hunters, Cultists, Shamans etc. etc. etc.
Both the bestiary and the Henchmen roster are a little on the light side but I think the game sort of assumes you will have to devise your own shit sooner rather than later so it makes sense to leave some room for innovation before the inevitable deluge of trash-tier 3rd party content causes the designers to abandon the thing in disgust, hoping it will never be brought up again.
There’s one sample adventure called RotBlack Sludge which showcases the ultra-short format that will no doubt come to shit up the MB catalogue and this is very nice if done well but all but guarantees any novice-intermediate content will be trash tier as writing short adventures is something that requires you figure out what information to omit but maybe I am overly cynical. You have to recover the Shadow King’s Heir from The Accursed Den (good name!) a vaguely underground location of no discernable type in no specified area, a Waste! Though there is, unexpectedly, a rumor table, this approach showcases its weakness right off the bat by throwing any sense of immersion under the bus, then using a random encounter table but only in 3 rooms, then locking all the rooms together without intervening corridors so everything feels smashed together and small.
The format is interesting and it might work. Immediate sensory impressions in the form of a few words. A smell. A sound. A sight. Then bullet points for each individual object in a room. Then cardinal directions with each door and the features, bold printed. Then player actions that might interact with the room. Then monster stats. This MIGHT work, it might be too much, given the fact each room can essentially be described on a postage stamp.
It avoids the beginner’s trap of just having straight up combat by introducing stuff that can be interacted with, a monster that is too strong to fight directly and the odd natural obstacle (a pool of corrosive sludge) and even a puzzle (a statue with a missing eye socket with blood in it will open a secret door if you place an eye-ball in it! Yes! Yes!) but it suffers from the Skerples school of design  in that the map feels like a video-game, and obstacles feel like they have been placed to impede your progress because that’s what an adventure must be. There’s something artificial about it all, there’s no attempt at emulation. It doesn’t help the central feature of the thing, the eerie violin music, is just two skeletons standing on a giant pillar in a pool of acid that cannot possibly be interacted with in any way and do nothing.
I dunno man. I compare this with something like Lichway and you see so much has been lost, and the atmosphere, the one thing you would expect Mörk Börg to pull off, is always kind of…off? The impulses are good but it needs that little extra Oomph, and for a game that is basically all about atmosphere and style, that’s bad. Read Solomon Kane, then the entire K.E. Wagner ouvre, then read The Chronicles of Malus Darkblade, listen to Triptykon, Celtic Frost, Amon Amarth, then try again. It’s not terrible as an illustration of design but there are most certainly better adventures, the aforementioned Skerples one especially.
Okay, conclusion time. Mörk Börg is perfectly suitable as a light break between more hearty and rules heavy RPG fare, as an introduction to the OSR I would say its core is sound, and that is all it effectively needs, so kudos. The atmosphere is strong but there are unwelcome strands of random artpunk weirdness meta-stasizing inside that, I think, one might as well eliminate to get one’s grimdark metal vibe across all the cleaner. There is something lost from D&D once you abandon all pretense at emulation and depth and devote yourself entirely to style and gameplay and MB showcases this fairly well.
As a metal fan, I am pleased but not overwhelmingly entertained by the tone of Mörk Börg. Pelle Nilson seems like a nice guy but I have a lingering feeling that if I ask him what his favorite metal band is he would probably answer Fallout Boy. There’s something about the writing style where it’s trying to be apocalyptic and dark but also like it’s trying to do so in a manner that would allow you to enjoy it if you were a timid 12-year old girl. “Plëase dön’t hurt më, Princë.” MB does not meet the soaring metal heights of Xas Irkalla, the most metal game that ever can or will exist, nor by any means wins the coveted title of Most GrïmDärk in the OSR, a title held first and foremost by Black Sun DeathCrawl.
Make no mistake; This is like a hand-held port of D&D. It does not encapsulate ALL of the facets and elements of D&D but it does manage to lay its hands on the meaty core so it can bring you many 2-hour long blood-soaked sprint sessions that one might barely stretch into the 10 session mark until either the Players exhaust the bulk of its possibilities or the bong runs out, whichever comes first. For a lite version though, its not bad, provided you like your DnD dirty, violent and resoundingly anti-heroic.
Next week we continue the Artpunk Crawl by grabbing ourselves a handful of Mörk Börg 3rd party. God Save Our Souls.
 Ah las, these are nowhere cited, and the actual bands are much lamer
 I don’t actually have anything against Skerples I was just reminded of this style