Confession time. I spent way longer than I should have done, trying to add the umlaut to the title of this post. Eventually I gave up and copied and pasted it in from somewhere else.
Thankfully, Mörk Borg is much more straightforward in terms of rules than it is to type. I’ll come back to that shortly. First, some context.
I’ve been going through a steady transition for a while now in my gaming life. Despite having a steady love for the Dungeons & Dragons brand and 5th Edition in particular, I’ve been finding it harder and harder to ignore the fact that the OSR movement has exerted an irresistable gravitational pull for me in the past year and a bit.
My first love is, and always will be D&D Basic. The 1981 Tom Moldvay edition to be precise. None of that “Red Box” populism for me. I’m the RPG equivalent of people who like a band’s obscure, early albums. That annoying guy who banged on about Nirvana’s “Bleach” when everyone else was worshipping “Nevermind”.
As a result, I’m naturally drawn to games that emulate that ruleset. It’s why I’m drawn to Dungeon Crawl Classics in all of it’s Otus, Willingham and Roslof illustrated glory or to Old School Essentials with it’s faithful, modern restatement of that 1981 classic edition.
Mörk Borg (Swedish for “Dark Castle”) is a very different beast from other OSR and OSR adjacent products though. If Slayer had released an RPG at the height of their 80s power, it very well might have looked like Mörk Borg. Well, if it wasn’t for the fact that Mörk Borg might possibly have been too dark and bleak a creation even by Slayer’s standards.
No, Mörk Borg isn’t the creation of Araya, King, Hanneman and Lombardo. Instead it’s the hellspawn lovechild of Swedish game designer Pelle Nilsson and graphic artist Johan Nohr. And what a beautiful and contradictory thing it is. It’s OSR in the simplicity of it’s core rules and it’s brutality, but stylistically it’s like nothing you’ll ever have seen before in an RPG book.
The entire rulebook is only 96 pages in total and the actual game rules make up only a fraction of that page count. In fact the first chunk of the book is entirely about the setting itself, detailing such terrifyingly grim locations as the city of Galgenbeck, the Palace of the Shadow King and desolate Kergus as well as the evocatively titled Valley of the Unfortunate Undead. As if being undead could somehow ever be considered to be a fortunate set of circumstances to find oneself in.
The book itself is an absolute work of art. It is an explosion of stunning design and a vast array of fonts and layout styles, none of which I can truly do justice to in words. You’ll never have seen RPG book design like this before. Ever. The Mörk Borg core rules could easily be displayed as a coffee table art book. It’s that beautiful.
Not only is it beautiful, it’s innovative as well. Each page you turn contains a stunning piece of art or typography in it’s own right, but woven into that artwork is a set of coherent, clear and functional set of rules. Not a single word is wasted yet not a single detail is missed either. It’s a masterclass in tight, minimalist game design.
Characters in Mörk Borg start with four core attributes (Agility, Presence, Strength and Toughness) with each being the result of 3d6 straight down the line. Armour, some starting equipment and weapons are all determined randomly with the dice. Like DCC, Mörk Borg is a game that will set the teeth of the purist 5e or Pathfinder min-maxer on edge. To me though, that’s the pure essence of OSR. It needn’t always be about the player making the character. Sometime the character makes the player.
Combat is not an unfamiliar process for anyone who has played a d20 system game before. Roll a d20, add certain modifiers and then try and equal or better a target number (the DR or “difficulty rating”). In the case of Mörk Borg though, it’s always 12. One particularly jarring combat change is the fact that monsters never roll dice. Instead, players roll their defence against an attack. That won’t be entirely left field for anyone who has played the likes of Dungeon World but it might take a bit of getting used to for those who haven’t.
The core rules also include optional starting character classes with delightful names like “Fanged Deserter”, “Gutterborn Scum”, “Esoteric Hermit”, “Wretched Royalty”, “Heretical Priest” and “Occult Herbmaster” – a twist on the usual RPG staple classes.
The true beauty of Mörk Borg is it’s simplicity. You could learn these rules in 5 minutes yet also get years of play out of the game. That’s an impressive thing for a game designer to achieve. Mörk Borg is simple without ever feeling like it lacks mechanical depth.
Not everyone will love it. As stylish as it is, I can understand how people might find it a difficult reference book to use at the table. Also, most of the content that’s been produced for the system is predominantly dungeon based. That’s not a problem for me. If every game I ever ran or played in took place in a Dungeon then I’d be happy enough. That may not however be to everyone’s taste and it remains to be seen how well the system translates to wider story arcs and wilderness adventures.
Personally, I love it. I’m definitely planning to run a couple of adventures at some point in the near future. If I had one criticism, it’s that I’m not sure how well I could run a fully fledged campaign, mainly because I’m not sure I’d be able to do the grim, hopeless and utterly bleak setting justice over the longer term. For short dungeon delves though, I’m all over it.
I am a 40 something DM/GM located in Scotland. In 2016, I rediscovered the joys of tabletop role-playing games. This blog documents my journey back into the fold.