Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Game Review: Mörk Borg

Mörk Borg Cover art by Johan Nohr
©️2019 Ockult Örtmästare Games
& Stockholm Kartell
Author: Pelle Nilsson
Publisher: Ockult Örtmästare Games & Stockholm Kartell; Free League
Engine: Mörk Borg (OSR Compatible)
Note: I am reviewing a game here with very dark themes and subject matter. If you have trouble with blood, gore, violence against children, etc. I suggest you read no further.

Mörk Borg has been a phenomenon on the osr scene for almost 2 years now. It's a game that people like to talk about and often have strong opinions on. It certainly is unique in its design and tone.

Mörk Borg is inspired by Scandinavian Doom medal aesthetics, and has a list of suggested musicians to listen to for inspiration at the front. Many of which I was already familiar with. I am the kind of guy who is definitely the game's target audience: former goremonger, metal head, arts fan.


The actual rules of Mörk Borg are fairly light and feel like a compromise between 5e and older versions of D&D with enough of a twist to make them their own thing. Characters have four stats that are expressed as a modifier from minus 3 to +3, and are generated by rolling 3d6 and essentially taking the modifier that the 3 to 18 score would have given them in B/X D&D.

(My own game Deathtrap Lite does the same thing, which is an example of parallel evolution in action in TTRPG. Great minds think alike, and fools never differ, as they say.)

In Mörk Borg almost all tests involve rolling a d20 and trying to beat a difficulty rating. By default, most difficulty ratings are 12. Difficult tests require a 14. (Although tests of 16, 18, or 20 are listed on the difficulty chart, there are very few examples of them in the book). Fairly easy ones require an eight or a six. Difficulty ratings are modified by character attributes or sometimes NPC attributes.

Rules are entirely player-facing: in combat players rule to evade attacks, and if they fail they must roll the damage they receive minus a die for their own armor. There are system of critical hits and critical fumbles.

Character hit points are by default 1d8 plus a modifier for their toughness attribute.

Otherwise, a character rolls randomly for their weapons, armor, and three other pieces of equipment. There's a chance that characters start with scrolls which come in two categories unclean and holy, which correspond roughly to arcane and divine magic in D&D. There are no levels and some of the spells are quite potent. Using them requires a role and they can be used a limited number of times a day. In order to use a scroll, character must be wearing light armor at the best and cannot be using a two-handed weapon.

A player may choose to roll randomly too play one of several character classes instead of playing an unclassed adventurer. These classes provide special perks and abilities that other characters do not have, and a variable number of hit points, but also come with drawbacks. The character classes include:

  • A Fanged Deserter,which is a mutated soldier who with a bite attack and a randomized piece of magical equipment.
  • A Heretical Priest who has random innate magical abilities, but is a social pariah.
  • Gutterborn Scum, who have thieving abilities and a randomized disturbing mutation that grants both useful abilities and repugnant characteristics
  • An Esoteric Hermit with magical sources of charm and knowledge, or a collection of scrolls.
  • Wretched Royalty with a few remnants from their fallen house, often a magic sword or a helpful retainer
  • An Occult Herb Master who can create a random magical potion at the beginning of every day.

The game also has an optional omens rule which grants character daily random one shot advantages.

NPC morale and reaction rules are handled using the classic D&D 2d6 roll tables. In general, the game doesn't pay too much attention to things like movement, distance, etc. Because Mörk Borg is extremely loosely derived from D&D or other OSR games, any rules needed could be imported from any edition of D&D, while remaining mechanically different enough to not need to rely on the open game license.

With player facing rolls, monsters can generally be reduced to hit dice, damage, and a morale rating, plus a description of any other abilities it may have. Most monster entries describe bounties on parts of a creature or live capture.

Mörk Borg is intended to be played theater of the mind with a very loose play style. It requires very little of the tactical rule set used in even B/X D&D.

Most recognizable rules have minor twists on them. For example, zero hit points creates a state in a character where they are broken, it must roll on a D4 table to determine what this means. Negative hit points lead to death.

Leveling is handled with arbitrary rewards for accomplishing goals that the GM sets. Characters who level up roll 6d10, and if they roll over their current hit points, they add a d6 to their hp. They also gain a random item. If they have a class, they may add an additional class feature from the table at random.

If I were to compare it to any other existing system mechanically, I would say that Mörk Borg is closest to The Black Hack. The play experience is very similar, although, Mörk Borg is definitely designed to be somewhat more lethal.


Mörk Borg setting map by Johan Nohr
©️2019 Ockult Örtmästare Games
& Stockholm Kartell
Mörk Borg is set in a bleak Dark Fantasy realm have about five kingdoms surrounded by a mountains to the West and ocean to the East. One of the key notions in the setting is that some centuries ago a pair of two-headed basilisks were discovered in ancient tomb, one of whom had the gift of speaking true, if terrible, prophecies. His teachings and his predictions supplanted most other religions.

The prophecies of the basilisk predict a long slow horrible apocalypse full of sorrow and torment. But, you forbids suicide, demanding that mortal suffer through it to be purified for the afterlife.

That said, there are entire Kingdom-wide suicide cults, as well as doomsday cults that take the first signs of the end as license to do as they please. It is also clear that the teachings of the basilisk have created societies poor in empathy, compassion, and humanity. Many of the monsters in the game are humans who have been mutilated and transformed by curses and dark magic as punishment for their crimes.

As I am sure you can imagine, much like Shadow of the Demon LordMörk Borg features a lot of really dark material. Violence against children, mutilation, suicide, and torture feature heavily in the themes of the game. Mörk Borg goes hard at the darkest things embraced by Doom Metal. Like 'Metal, it aims to shock the uninitiated and give catharsis to players who know what to expect.

The writing and presentation style of the game leave the setting fairly undeveloped. It is just enough to run with to make something interesting, but not enough lore for players to really get a deep understanding of the game setting complete with expectations. It's in the golden spot where the GM can make the setting very much their own, but there's enough ideas for them to get started and have something to work with if they aren't feeling creative at the time.

What I Loved


Mörk Borg PC starting weapon table
P. 2 of 3, by Johan Nohr
©️2019 Ockult Örtmästare Games
& Stockholm Kartell
I have come pretty late to the party with this review. The game is about 2 years old. I've been holding off until I got my hands on a hard copy of it. However, with the recent DrivethruRPG sale I decided not to wait any longer.

Mörk Borg breaks almost every convention of graphic design. Every few pages use different fonts, clashing colors and wild page designs strike the eye everywhere you look. Sometimes rules are hidden within diagrams and graphics.

A lot of the images are gory or disturbing. It is intended to feel like crazy heavy metal album inserts, and it catches that vibe perfectly. I felt like a teenager going through my first Deicide album.

The artwork both sets the tone, and does an excellent job of assisting in the world building. Illustrations of monsters often note bounties for parts and live capture. Random equipment generation comes with illustrations of various pieces of gear. The overviews of the kingdoms in the region of the game elegantly capture the tone.

Mörk Borg has been accused of being more style than substance. I don't think that's necessarily true, but the art is most definitely used as a major means of communicating ideas. Mörk Borg definitely embraced the principle of a picture being worth a thousand words in order to keep the manual down to its impressively constrained 90 pages.

Tight design

Mörk Borg is as minimalist as you can get while still remaining essentially a D&D clone. It has been stripped down to only what is needed to play a very lightweight and abstract Theater of the Mind game. Because it is still so close to Dungeons & Dragons, it can also use D&D to supplement rules if you want to play a more complex game.

Given the fast, furious and aesthetic tone, I find that merkburg has just about what you need to play and no fat to trim.

Phenomenal Support & Open Culture 

The developers of Mörk Borg have taken advantage of the game's success to keep up a incredibly tight development cycle. One of its cleverest moves is the Mörk Borg Kult, an online community where people who have developed content for Mörk Borg can submit their creations for evaluation. If they're on par with what the developers want to create, the community-made material can find its way into official supplements, with al, of the design and product quality that entails.

Mörk Borg's open license is incredibly generous, and anyone can build additional material for it. Their engagement with the community has been such that new titles seem to be added every few days to the DTRPG Mörk Borg catalog.

They have also developed games for additional genres using the same sense of aesthetics and minimalist design such as Cy-Bor9, a science fiction setting with similar dark vibes and manic play.

Cool Creature Designs

Mörk Borg goblin art by Johan Nohr
©️2019 Ockult Örtmästare Games
& Stockholm Kartell
Where Mörk Borg uses the familiar, they make it unique and different. For example, goblins in Mörk Borg are still small vicious creatures that don't have much combat ability, but to fit them in with the aesthetics of the game, they made them cursed creatures. Anyone attacked by a goblin is also cursed, must kill it to break the curse. Otherwise, they turn into one themselves. Every goblin has the trapped consciousness of a decent human being who's forced to helplessly watch as their body devolves into a psychotic, rapine monster that acts on its own accord.

Basilisks are given prophetic powers, and are served by blind priests essay shape the world with their bizarre prophecies.

On the other hand, they include a lot of unique monsters like wickheads: lantern-headed humanoids who can snuff out all other lights, dim the light in the lantern that replaces their head, and then suddenly blind their foes. They are stealthy Boogeyman figures, although they also can be hired as NPC torch bearers, albeit treacherous ones.

Another example are monstrous porcelain dolls. These are children of embezzlers and corrupt officials who are encased in doll's clothes and masks and placed in a glass case until they suffocate or starve. Many of them become vicious Undead and eventually break out of the temples in which they are displayed.

I will note that while sexual assault is off the table in the horrors described in Mörk Borg, violence against children is a very common theme. Many of the monsters target children or created by their remnants. Violence against children also appears freqon adventure generation tables.

Random loot table

I was particularly taken with the looting the body table in Mörk Borg. Some of the results are incredibly strange and evocative, like a blinded and wingless pixie prisoner, or heretical texts that might give a community hope that the apocalypse is not coming as the basilisks have predicted it, but would paint a target on the PCs' back.

Rules Summary Appendix

As I have reviewed so many story games and OSR games, I have definitely noticed that there are quite a few people who use aesthetics and art to distract from poor game design. It's as if they hope that you add enough cool flavor and funky art, people won't notice that there's nothing worth playing there. In such cases lot of the touches that make play easy, like a good rule summary or index are simply discarded.

It would be easy, given the complexity of the design, to assume that Mörk Borg falls into that camp. It doesn't. The game means to be played, and that is on display with all the critical tables and play rules being neatly summarized in the back of the book with none of the funky formatting that distracts in the rest of the rule book. It's an all-business section to make sure the game is playable, and looking at it, you can see a well-designed game under all the calligraphy and gore.

Rotblack Sludge

Mörk Borg excerpt from 
Rotblack Sludge
 art by Johan Nohr
©️2019 Ockult Örtmästare Games
& Stockholm Kartell
The included adventure in Mörk Borg, "Rotblack Sludge," is a very well-written adventure. It offers a great opportunity to introduce characters to the game and get a feel for its particular perils. Like the rules index in the back, it's one of the ways that Mörk Borg proves that it intends to be a real game, not just an art project.

Growth Points

Nihilism and Irony

This is the same criticism I levelled at Shadow of the Demon Lord, amplified. Mörk Borg has no sense of hope. When you start a campaign you roll for the time period before the world ends in blackness. The game famously says burn the book, once the campaign is over. Not that you would, it's darned expensive on amazon.

Nothing the characters can do can stop the end. The end is a fact of the campaign setting. At best, the game suggested they are going to be tomb robbers, thieves, mercenaries, or marauders for the last days of the world.

While The Hylian has argued with me that a party could still be the hope for a community, given that the game is full of suicide cults and societies that turn a blind eye to the murder and torture of children, I find most of the setting's people too reprehensible to want to help. If a GM created a community worth saving, at best characters could give them a comfortable end.

This kind of design leaves me cold. At least in Shadow of the Demon Lord, the Demon Lord has been banished for centuries at a time over and over again. The game gives no way for the player characters to be the one to do so, but the game is also expandable

At best, Mörk Borg suggests that characters might find evidence that the prophecy of the Apocalypse is false, and maybe there is hope. But if that is the case, it's a highly deviated campaign.

Unlike Shadow of the Demon Lord, however, Mörk Borg doesn't aim to create protracted campaigns. It is designed to be fast playing, lethal, brutal, and short. Much of the entertainment value of Mörk Borg is in witnessing the horrible, untimely death of the PCs. It's a game meant to be played with a sense of irony and wicked humor.

I have come to realize that the point of these games is in part to free the inner killer DM. With no prospect of a long-term campaign, and a tone that is over-the-top in grimness, playing to see your characters kill and be killed is part of the point. There is no reason to worry about the consequences or story: those things simply aren't important. Which is worth keeping in mind when considering whether you want to give Mörk Borg a whirl. Are you looking for a game where PCs can change the world and the stakes are high, or one where the stakes are so low that you as the GM and the PCs can get away with anything.

It's not for me except in small doses, and it definitely confines it to a very small niche even of the potential goremongering metalhead fans. I doubt I could sell it on my players, or feel like it was the best use of my limited time for playing RPGs.

Limited Tension-Building

Mörk Borgis kind of one-note when it comes to building tension. It relies on getting players to buy in, or at least pretend to buy into the unrelenting, oppressive gloom of the setting, and otherwise be focused on what the monsters will do to the characters if they are unwary.

With practically no rules for resource management or timekeeping, and a countdown to extinction that prevents any heroic deeds the characters might do to have lasting meaning, a lot of the ways that Dungeons & Dragons builds tension are closed to the game. Importing rules can help, but, ultimately, the game is about horrible people living in the end of days and meeting horrible, gory ends at the hands of monsters. It isn't really meant for extended campaigning or lengthy dungeon delves. Which is a pity, because additional means of tension-building would be useful. A corruption mechanic, in particular, where the PC faces a countdown before becoming a monster him- or herself would be an ideal addition,


Mörk Borg is a stylishly designed game that has very little fat and creates a very specific experience. It's a light-hearted gorefest where players can be horrible, selfish people in a world where their actions have no real consequences and few NPCs deserve salvation or mercy. Or, conversely, can be a ray of Hope for a short period of time before the end, but might have a hard time finding people worth nurturing.

Either way, the game is designed to be a fun, short lived, dose of humorous, ironically-enjoyed nihilism, like a B-grade slasher movie. It has exactly what it needs and no more.

And so far as it does that very, very well, it is a triumph of design.

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