Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 5 April 2020

The world is damned, and you don’t care

The seas rise. The forests spread. Crops fail. Wars continue without reason. The dead walk the land. Peasants suffer taxes, plague, and worse. There is no hope. All is despair. The world is dying, reduced to a handful of lands amidst the Endless Sea. The prophecies of the Two-Headed Basilisks are coming true. In the great cathedral to the god Nechrubel in the city of Galgenbeck in the land of Tveland, the arch-priestess Josilfa heeds the prophecies whilst the inquisition of Two-Headed Basilisks hunts down the apostates and heretics who would commit of the ultimate sin of taking their lives rather than meeting the apocalypse with eyes wide open. Before Galgenback lies Graven-Tosk, an ancient cemetery ringed by a tangled, spreading forest at the heart of which stands the gothic black Palace of the Shadow King, from whose crumbling halls the Shadow King’s sons—and only sons—go out to wander the cemetery ruins to trick passing travellers and those who would delve into the grave, all to further enhance the misery of men. To the east is Grift, located on a peninsula separated from the rest of the lands by the bottomless Múr over which span three giant bridges. Múr once ensured that the city-state was a bastion of hope and light from the plague-ridden, war-torn lands on the other side of the bridges, but now the rock upon which Grit stands cracks and nightly spawns monsters, the bridges shriek and scream, and King Sigfúm heeds the prophecies of the Two-Headed Basilisks and prepares to march his peoples over the cliffs and into the seas. In the west lie two kingdoms. In north-western Kergüs, Blood-Countess Anthelia cries out for colour and warmth from her white stone castle in the black glass city of Alliáns, yet in her ice-wracked lands, everything the fragile countess touches, looks upon, and breathes upon is drained of colour. To the south-west, the paranoid, corpulent, and crazy King Fathmu IX obsesses over the prophecies of the Two-Headed Basilisks even as he viciously raids and taxes his peasantry to ensure his seat, the city of Schleswig, maintains its gaudy opulence. Between them all is the Valley of the Unfortunate Undead, its crypts rumoured to be home to one of the Basilisks, its soil said to be lethal, its air roiling with deadly despair…

This is the world of Mörk Borg, meaning ‘Dark Fortress’, a Dark Ages, a Swedish pre-apocalypse Old School Renaissance retroclone designed by Ockult Örtmästare Games and Stockholm Kartell and published by Free League Publishing following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It is a doom-laden, death metal driven, dark fantasy roleplaying game set in a grim-dark world of despair in which the last remnants of mankind with the will to act work themselves up to perhaps plunder the crypts and graves of those fortunate enough to have left this land or even stand up against the forthcoming apocalypse. It is rules light, with minimal, player-facing mechanics, in fact so light, it can be played with or without Classes. The rulebook comes with everything necessary to play—rules, setting, a bestiary, a guide to magic, and a short, bloody dungeon.

Yet make no mistake, what grabs you from the start about Mörk Borg is its look. Behind its striking, even shockingly yellow cover with its subtly reverse-embossed illustration of a skeletal warrior, the hardcover consists of vibrant swathes of pink and yellow which contrast sharply with the stark blocks of heavy black on white and heavy white on black. A jumble of fonts—gothic fonts being the mainstay—flood its pages and the whole book has the look and tone of one thing—the heavy metal fanzine. This is not amateurish though, more artfully designed—especially with the silver and gold foil pages—and nor is it all solid tone colours though, full illustrations being quite subtly worked to further enhance the sense of despair and menace, such the fully painted image of the human heart placed behind the text which explains Hit Points. Overall, the layout and look of Mörk Borg is brutal and stark, in your face and constantly remind you of the doom that hangs over the world. 

Once you open the book, you are straight into the game. There is no explanation as to what a roleplaying game is and what roleplaying is. And that is fine. Mörk Borg is not a roleplaying game for anyone new to the hobby. It does carry a warning though, that it is really not suitable for anyone under the age if sixteen. Which is probably true.

Mechanically, Mörk Borg starts with the end of the world. The Game Master can roll for what Miseries befall the world, predicted in a series of psalms from The Calendar of Nechrubel – The Nameless Scriptures. So, it might be “Behold the Endless Sea, where Leviathan causes waves to be as mountains.” or “As at the beginning, so at the end, all manner of fly and wasp shall fill the air.” The seventh Misery will herald the actual end of the world, but how far away that is can be determined by the Game Master enabling her to set the rough length of her Mörk Borg campaign.

Mörk Borg is humancentric, the player characters being the men and women unlucky to be alive in this dark age. A character is defined by four abilities—Agility, Presence, Strength, and Toughness. Of the four, Presence is the odd one out. It is not just used for Charisma checks, but also for perception checks, ranged attacks, and casting spells. The four abilities range in value from -3 to +3, these being equal to ability modifiers found in Dungeons & Dragons and other retroclones. Character generation though depends upon whether you are using the Classes in Mörk Borg. If not, a player rolls for his character’s starting weapon and equipment, and then rolls four six-sided dice and drops the lowest for two abilities and three six-sided dice for the other two.

Kratar
Agility +2 Presence +3 Strength -2 Toughness 0
Hit Points: 6
Armour: No armour
Weapon: Warhammer (d6)
Equipment: 110 sp, waterskin, two days food, backpack, metal file and lockpins, sacred scroll (Grace for a Sinner)

If using character Classes, Mörk Borg offers six. Although optional, they do add flavour to the setting as much as they enhance what a player character can do. Three of the Classes are equivalents of classic Dungeons & Dragons-style Classes, whilst three are particular to Mörk Borg. Fanged Deserter, Gutterborn Scum, and Esoteric Hermit are the equivalent of Fighter, Thief, and Magic-User respectively, whilst the Heretical Priest is an adherent of an unholy faith, the Occult Herbmaster is a mixer of potions and poisons, and the Wretched Royalty is fallen noble. Each Class determines what dice a player rolls for his character’s abilities, armour, equipment, weapons, and origins, and can either be selected by a player or rolled randomly like everything else.

Quillnach
Occult Herbalist
Agility +1 Presence -3 Strength -1 Toughness +1
Hit Points: 6
Omens: d2 (1)
Armour: Furs (-d2 damage, tier 1)
Weapon: Femur (d4)
Equipment: 50 sp, waterskin, four days food, portable laboratory, donkey, silver crucifix, heavy chain (15 ft.), red poison (two doses), Southern Frog Stew (four doses)
Origins: Raised in the old frozen ruins not far from Alliáns

Mechanically, Mörk Borg is simple. A player rolls a twenty-sided die, modifies the result by one of his character’s abilities, and attempts to beat a Difficulty Rating of twelve. The Difficulty Rating may go up or down depending on the situation, but whatever the situation, the player always rolls, even in combat or as Mörk Borg terms it, violence. So, a player will roll for his character to hit in melee using his Strength and his Agility to avoid being hit. Armour is represented by a die value, from -d2 for light armour to -d6 for heavy armour, representing the amount of damage it stops. Medium and heavy armour each add a modifier to any Agility action by the character, including defending himself. This is pleasingly simple and offers a character some tactical choice—just when is it better to avoid taking the blows or avoid taking the damage?

In addition, characters have access to Omens, of which a character typically has one or two a day. They can be used to deal maximum damage on an attack, reroll any die—not just that player’s, lower the damage die rolled against a character, to neutralise a critical success or fumble, or to lower the Difficulty Rating on a test.

Instead of magic, Mörk Borg has scrolls. There are twenty of these and they can either be ‘Unclean’, for example, Foul Psychopomp, which summons zombies or skeletons, or ‘Sacred’, such as Enochian Syntax, which gives a command which must be blindly obeyed. Although any character—of any Class or none—can use a scroll, they cannot be used whilst wearing medium or heavy armour or carrying a two-handed weapon. Once a character has a scroll, he can use it or his other scrolls a random number of times per day, each time requiring a standard Presence test to succeed. Fail and the character will suffer one or two points of damage and is dizzy for an hour, so cannot use any scrolls. A roll of a one is a critical failure and means that the player must roll on the Arcane Catastrophes table, the best results of which can simply kill the character…

Optional tables for the characters add terrible traits, backgrounds or ‘Troubling Tales’, and what Two-Headed Basilisks might demand of them, whilst for the Game Master, there are tables of occult treasures, corpse plunder, bad—and only bad—weather, and more, enabling her to create dungeons and adventures with just a few rolls of the die. A dozen or so monsters are listed, plus ‘Rotblack Sludge or The Shadow King’s Lost Heir’, a short dungeon.

As physically fantastical as Mörk Borg is, the design is not necessarily the easiest to use, although a summary of the mechanics is included inside the back cover and the idea is good. In addition, some of the imagery may not be to everyone’s tastes, it being heavy, oppressive, and often of an occult nature. It is though in keeping with the doom metal genre which inspires the game (and its own soundtrack).

As a Grim Dark roleplaying game, Mörk Borg would work with other content too. It would work perhaps as the last days of the Kingdom of Alberetor from the other Swedish fantasy roleplaying game from Free League Publishing, Symbaroum. Then again, it more easily plugs into various scenarios for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, such as A Single Small Cut or the infamous Death Frost Doom .

The style of Mörk Borg’s look makes it look more complex a roleplaying game than it is. The simplicity of the rules is hidden by the oppressive feel of the graphic design, but this graphic design imposes its Grim Dark, doom laden atmosphere on player and game alike, and is carried over into the mechanics, which support suitably brutal play in a world free of moral certainties and weighed down by a portentous sense of doom as it draws to its end. Mörk Borg is the roleplaying game your mother warned you about during the Moral Panic of the eighties—brutal, in-your-face dread and despair, a low and bloody guitar riff of a game.

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