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Saturday 29 January 2022

[Fanzine Focus XXVII] Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with 
Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another Dungeon Master and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & DragonsRuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry. Another retroclone garnering attention via fanzines is Mörk Borg.

Like Mörk Borg Cult: Feretory before it, Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic is a fanzine of a different stripe, both in terms of content and style. It is and it is not a fanzine, but it is for Mörk Borg, the pitch-black pre-apocalyptic fantasy roleplaying game which brings a Nordic death metal sensibility to the Old School Renaissance. The format is that of a fanzine, A5-sized, on matte paper rather than the gloss of the Mörk Borg rulebook, but sharing the same riotous assault of electrically vibrant yellow and pink highlights on swathes of black, abrupt font changes, and metallic embellishments. Essentially, production values higher than that typically found in most fanzines, but influential nevertheless, as seen in the recent Knock! #1 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac and Knock! #2 An Old School Gaming Bric-à-BracThis is because although the origins of the content in Mörk Borg Cult: Feretory are amateur in origin, they have been curated from submissions to the Mörk Borg Cult, the community content programme for Mörk Borg by the designers of the roleplaying game and collated into a fanzine format. And unlike most fanzines, is available through distribution. It is essentially, a cross between a fanzine with gorgeous production values and a supplement with fanzine sensibilities.

Funded via a successful Kickstarter campaignMörk Borg Cult: Heretic is also longer than most fanzines. Most of its articles are fairly short though and written and presented in a sparse, often bullet-point style which makes their content easy to digest. It can be boiled down to a variegated array of tables, scenarios, and character Classes, and in true Mörk Borg style, Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic does not waste any time in getting down to its trademark doom and gloom with the first of its tables. ‘Seeds of a CVLT’ is the first of four entries in Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic by Mörk Borg co-creator by Pelle Nilsson. Its six tables provide the means for the Game Master to determine a cult’s forbidden name, status, key leadership, headquarters, cult tasks necessary to reach the Shimmering Fields, and what its members hate. For example, The Pipes of the Black Gates continues to thrive today, led by an Unseen Executor who is Loved by All, based amongst the oldest and most obscure Grift temples, where its members give all the silver to the deep well of the underworlds and despise the carers of children… Thus the Game Master has an enemy, a patron, or simply a background element to add to her game with a roll of a few dice.

Johnny Carhat adds the means to indiviualise further Mörk Borg’s standard character Classes with ‘Unheroic Feats’. For example, with ‘Butcher’, the Player Character knows to hack livestock and poultry apart and Humans are no different. In effect, the Player Character can perform rough emergency surgery on an ally who dies—to either render him broken rather than dead or into rations if they still die! There are some thirty-six of them and they can be selected or rolled randomly, and they can be selected to create certain character builds, although there is only the one suggested such build, so the Game Master and his players will need to work what Feat works with what Feat.

The first of two new Classes in Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic is the ‘Sacrilegious Songbird’ by Karl Druid. This is a Bard Class whose voice was all wrack and ruin until he did a deal with the devil and now he has immense charm and been gifted with an accursed instrument like a Hurty Gurdy or a Lute of the Acute Brute. The other is Cameron James’ ‘Shedding Vicar’, a far viler option who believes that armour is for the weak, clothes are a sin, and even his very skin an abhorrent vanity. Consequently, he peels it so that he can walk clean and glistening wet under the night sky. That skin can be used a skin whip, is marked with glyphs of power, and even traded to a higher power for temporary bonuses… One is fouler than the other, but both are in keeping with the tone of Mörk Borg.

Mörk Borg’s other co-creator, Johan Nohr, contributes ‘You Are Cursed’, a set of tables of for creating and inflicting curses on the Player Characters—twenty or so curses, who might be able to help the victim, the cost of that help, and the solution. The cause of any one of these curses is not given, but whether from a witch or the breaking of sorcerer’s wards or the setting off of a trap, the trigger is the easy bit to set up. It the nature of curse itself, which is a bit harder to detail, which is where this article is so useful. Thus this is another adventure or story generator, the results of which can be applied to a Player Character or NPC, and so push them further towards their ill-fated Doom…

With ‘The Merchant’, Johnny Carht describes not just an NPC, but also his wares, which means another table, this time fully illustrated to roll on. Whatever Mikhael the Merchant has for sale, the price is always very personal to the Player Character—quite literally, costing him actual points in terms of stats! His wares, whether a Galgenbeck Deathmask (place on the face of a corpse to discover how it died, but its theft was heretical) in Iveland or a Jar of Troll Piss (spill on the ground to prevent no beast will walk on it, though a territorial troll might) in the Wästland, vary depending upon the region where he is found. There are plenty of temptations here and Mikhael the Merchant could become a recurring NPC, if the Player Characters are willing to pay the price. Ian McClung’s ‘Blackpowder Weapons for the Rich and Foolhardy’ adds firearms as an option to Mörk Borg, but whilst they are deadly, they are very expensive, and they are slow, not to say loud. Whether their advantage of possibly inflicting a lot of damage outweighs their disadvantages will be down to the players and their characters. That is, if the Game Master agrees, for they are very much optional.

Just three monsters are described in Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic. One is Matthew Bottiglieri’s ‘The Bone Bowyer’, a vile fey which sneaks out of the Sarkash and abducts children to fashion their bones into bows and their flesh into blood-dyed cloaks. The obvious use is as a thing to hunt and possibly, rescue missing children from its callous clutches, but the option given as to what a wicked Player Character (or NPC) would have to pay in order to have such a bow as that wielded by the Bone Bowyer. Even if the first target is missed, an arrow fired from the Bone Bow will try to hit another and then another and another until it hits a target—any target! The second is ‘Borg Bitor’, a centipede-grub which feeds on stone, mortar, and wood, with acidic-venom dripping mandibles and the ability to excrete ‘Devil’s Glue’ with which to capture its prey. Worse though is the fact that the females find surrogates for their eggs in nurseries and none are any the wiser the parents are forced to hide the child from the world. The third and last is the ‘Rotten Nurse’ by Pelle Nilsson, a description of those infamous nurses who helped perform terrible experiments in Mikol’s Infirmary and who harshly punished with burial alive after being dunked in acid… When their graves were opened,  their coffins were empty. These creatures will be found in the scenario, ‘Nurse the Rot’, which follows immediately on.

The centre-piece for Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic is Karl Druid’s ‘Graves Left Wanting’. This is a large cemetery crawl, set in Graven-Tosk in Sarkash in the shadow of the Shadow Kimg’s manse, long abandoned, but with bodies still finding their way in even as the living and unliving attempt to claw their way out. Which includes the Player Characters. ‘Graves Left Wanting’ is intended as a one-shot, a campaign-starter, or even a post-campaign starter after a Total Party Kill! The Player Characters awaken in coffins and once free have the bounds of the graveyard to explore and ultimately escape… as you would expect, this is a foul, fetid, wretched place, fog-shrouded and full of the dead, the not-dead, and those in between. This is a great, doom-laden, way to kick off a campaign, or even better restart a campaign. In fact, even if the Player Characters die in Graven-Tosk they can easily wake up again in the grave and attempt to find their way out again, so there is a little bit of Groundhog Day to ‘Graves Left Wanting’…

‘Graves Left Wanting’ is followed by three scenarios, the first of which is Greg Saunders’ ‘Bloat’. This is a short, two-page mini-dungeon, home to a bacchanalian cult of excess and consumption, and as vile and rotten as you would expect. Where ‘Bloat’ is a one-session affair, Christian Sahlén’s ‘Sepulchre of the Swamp Witch’ is longer, but also details a cave complex home to a strange cult. It is said that if certain words are chanted before the witch’s altar of glyph-covered roots, any wish will be fulfilled—even powerful enough to stop the encroaching Doom! Depending on the actions of the Player Characters, fully exploring this cave complex may become an exercise in frustration, but it contains some fun twists which they can take advantage of, and if they can make it to the altar, where they can make their wishes, but this being Mörk Borg, there is a catch… Lastly, at the bequest of one of their aunts, Mother Marathuk, the Player Characters must enter the Chapel Olundan and recover the Staff of Awful Light lest the village of Tünstal sink into darkness. Placed inside rear fold, this is the last entry in Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic and the last and fourth by Pelle Nilsson. The chapel is partially populated by the Borg Bitor and the Rotten Nurse described earlier, and the more the Player Characters explore the more likely they come to their attention. Once that happens, it adds a sense of urgency to the situation as the Player Characters attempt to get away from their clutches and fulfil their aunt’s last request!

Slipped inside the front cover, ‘The Monster Approaches’ is a quick and dirty random monster generator which with a roll of a handful of dice, the Game Master can create something vile and unnerving to throw at her Player Characters—who are of course, just as likely to be almost, if not equally as vile and unnerving. It is quickly followed by Svante Landgraf’s ‘Roads to Damnation: Travel Across a Dying World’ which provides rules and randomness for travelling across the large island which is all that remains of the Dying Lands. It covers distances as well as events on and off the road, but like all tables has only a limited number of entries, so may be exhausted fairly soon. For a roleplaying game like Mörk Borg, which is designed for short campaigns, this is not so much of an issue.

In addition, Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic comes with a minimalistic dungeon crawl which is part-comic/part-poster. Drawn by Łukasz Kowalczuk, ‘The Hero Gauntlet of Hagelsecht’  shows how three brave/foolish adventurers ventured into the depths of the dungeon and did not make it out again. It is fun to see a Mörk Borg dungeon bash done as a cartoon and being accompanied by the monster stats and a mini-map could easily worked up into a mini-adventure inspired by the trio’s fate.

Physically, Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic adheres to the artpunk aesthetic as you would expect for a Mörk Borg supplement. There is a definite contrast between its dark gloomy content—and often its pages—and the bold splashes of colour, even on the matte paper stock. It is well written and the layout., perhaps a little busy in places, is easy to read.

As with any Mörk Borg release Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic can add so much to your fantasy game—especially if it is dark and grim. Its content would work in Warhammer Fantasy RoleplayZweihänder: Grim & PerilousShadow of the Demon Lord, and others—with a little bit of adaptation. As a supplement for Mörk Borg, the fanzine adds more content to make the experience of playing Mörk Borg even grislier, grottier, and grubbier for all concerned, the Game Master, her players, and their characters. ‘Graves Left Wanting’ in particular is a great starting (or restarting) point, but there is so much dark and nasty content in Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic that any Mörk Borg Game Master will want to inflict it on her players.

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