Mörk Borg, which translates from Dark Castle in Swedish, is a dark fantasy, incredibly metal, Tabletop RPG. The rulebook itself is an artistic masterpiece, with everything down to the font and backgrounds taken into consideration on a per-page basis. I don’t think I’ve ever read a rulebook that has felt quite so much like somebody smashed up a metal bands’ lyrics and album covers into an RPG.
As you might imagine from that description, Mörk Borg’s setting is a very dark and gothic one; A world already heavily corrupted by evil where bad things no longer need to hide in the shadows, and where there are truly no safe places. The world itself is simply ticking down toward the end times, with any hope or history of prosperity long lost and forgotten. It’s grim, and even comes with a warning on the back that it’s ‘really not suitable for those under 16 years of age.’
This darker setting, which is pretty well realised through accompanying maps, nation/region descriptions and lore pages, allows for grimy, brutal and fatalistic scenarios. As Call of Cthulhu‘s rulebook contained rules for sanity, and the loss of it, Mörk Borg contains rules for disasters and end of the world scenarios; even the encounters that are provided reek of imminent doom. It’s fascinating to read, but without creative GM interference can end incredibly quickly for player characters.
I remember a friend saying that in Call of Cthulhu they rolled to find a book in a library, on a natural one they blacked out and woke up outside the library with everything inside burnt to a crisp. In Mörk Borg there is a list of arcane catastrophes which are suggested as potential results of a bad scroll read action, they include suggestions such as “Your skeleton is possessed by some unearthly force and will do anything to kill you and escape. Drowning or piercing is preferred so the bones are not damaged. Test Strength DR10 in stressful situations or take d4 damage. When you die, you become a zombie.” Of course, these are perhaps better used as plot points, or things that happen to NPCs, but an inexperienced first-time GM could find it very easy to put their entire party to death by simply playing hard and fast with the rules.
Is Mörk Borg good?
While incredibly grim in setting and brutal in nature, Mörk Borg actually makes for a very refreshing change from the vanilla dungeoneering (and dragoneering, hah) experience, and, because of the darker nature there’s a lot of creativity — even if its a bit darker than normally present — in the rulebook’s pages. Example occult treasures include thins like a Famine Spoon, which will cause a user to starve to death slowly, a Vampiric Phurba which can drain enemy health that will turn you to dust if you don’t whet it with blood on a Presence check fail, and more, while corpse plunder suggestions include things like a ‘Note with PC’s names. One is crossed out.’ or, the evergreen, ‘a hopeless amount of spiders.’
This continues through almost every element of the suggested item, class and event tables. There is even a system in place to simulate the tick-down to the end of the world, with a page of 2d6 psalms of catastrophes, vague enough to be adapted to a campaign, but malignant enough to completely flip the world on its head. Plague stuff; Lakes turning to tar, every child born during or since last Winter dead, a rampaging horde from the West, a Tsunami on all sides of the continent. If you can handle a setting filled with a little hopelessness then Mörk Borg can dial that all the way up and has no shortage of designer-supplied chaos.
But, does that make Mörk Borg a good campaign setting? Yes. While it might be a bit hard to digest for some, it’s a well-realised setting that can easily contain a lengthy campaign for a decent-sized group, and is incredibly well-tailored for a group who prefers to fight and explore rather than one who prefers to talk it out (where something like Numenera might fit better).
There’s an absolutely invaluable amount of guidance available for character creation, and while creating a character with flaws is something that a lot of players struggle with, there are some really good tables (‘You stutter when lying’, ‘Unable to get to the point’, ‘A nihilist – You insist on telling everyone you are a nihilist an explaining why.’) for character flaws, bad traits, backstories and more. What makes them work so well — besides the stylish, easy to use nature — is that the whole world is full of broken individuals and so the tendency to create romanticised medieval characters to fit into the world is gone.
In Mörk Borg the gods are evil or flawed, the nobles are immortal, incompetent or shells of their former selves, and everybody else is either doomed to live a short life or broken more than your player character. Of course, you don’t need to play it all that dark, but the source material starts you off at that point and it’s yours to build up.
More than a few little treats are hidden in the rulebook. I mentioned before that the artwork was fantastic, but my favourite thing about it all is that it’s structured in a way where it’s more than just an accompaniment to the words on the page. If I need to get to the Omen page (which are like one-shot powers like rerolls, or damage deflection) then I can simply flick through the book until I see the large crow. Not only that but there’s a page that shows off a selection of in-game weapons and their damage — all of the weapons are, perhaps unnecessarily but certainly theatrically, impaling or wounding a character in drawing form.
If we are talking about the best bits of the handbook though, I think my favourite thing about it all is that certain parts of the provided enemies are costed out with silver values. I don’t think I’ve seen a handbook, or monster manual, that includes the ‘captured’ costs, or costs for parts of the creature or measures of their blood. While Mörk Borg lacks much of a description on where or how to spend your silver, it certainly doesn’t hesitate in showing you how easily you can make money as a monster hunter.
How easy is Mörk Borg to play?
Ease of play comes in two different forms. Firstly, how easy it is to get started and secondly how the systems all tie together in a GM-lite campaign.
Regarding getting started, I really can’t chalk up any negatives to Mörk Borg. It includes really well thought out rules for character creation, from starting equipment and powers through to starting equipment and armour. The sheer number of extra tables that can be used for character flaws and origin is really useful and there are similar tables for adventure generation included too (as well as a dungeon name and description generator). Each character only has four abilities to manage, Strength, Toughness, Presence and Agility, and while dice rolls define them at the start of the game, you only need to track the modifier they have.
When it comes to how the systems all work together, Mörk Borg is pretty great too. Attack, Defend and general checks are all pretty simple to manage, although you’ll find that you’re rolling To-Hit, Attack, Deflect, quite a bit as there’s going to be a lot of negated damage. That said, things like Area of Control and Attack of Opportunity are out, and the decision to include some light improvised weapons & biting rules means that combat shouldn’t ever be too boring.
The included setting background was great and does a fantastic job of explaining the kingdoms and regions, however, there’s perhaps a slight issue with scale in that it could be taken to infer that there are only half a dozen places where a decent population of sentient beings exist. It’s not a setting that gives room for business opportunities, protecting caravans or travelling to trading towns — there’s actually no attempt at explaining markets, smaller towns or farming and food within the realms. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be included, just that there’s no framework for it.
Mörk Borg in review
An incredibly stylish and memorable handbook that does a great job of introducing a grim, dark setting. Mörk Borg is going to be a bit too dark and moody a setting for some, but for those of you who can dip into hopelessness in their roleplaying, there’s a lot here. There are plenty of supplementary tables to help a GM quickly set up a scenario and guide their players through character set-up — and the world not hiding how doom-ridden it is has allowed the designers to layer brutal misfortune and unfortunate events throughout every element of play.
Mörk Borg is available through the Mörk Borg official website. Check out the site to find lots of free, extra resources for the setting including character sheets, scenarios and monster, character & dungeon generators.