For me Mörk Borg (Dark Castle) came totally out of the blue. I don’t remember where I first read about it, but I was immediately intrigued. It is published by Free League Publishing after all, and everything they touched so far turned out to be pure gold.
So, what is Mörk Borg all about? It’s a dark and gritty old-school roleplaying game inspired by older editions of D&D while not trying to emulate any specific edition. It’s set apart from your regular retro clone by coming with an original setting and some pretty far-out aesthetics. This is not just a game, it’s a true piece of art!
I’ve included a couple of photos below since screenshots of the PDF copy just don’t do it justice (By the way, at this point I should mention that a print copy of MÖRK BORG has gratuitously been provided by Free League Publishing for the purpose of this review). The first thing you notice when picking up the 96-paged hardcover book is that the binding has a nice velvet-like feel to it. Some of the elements on the cover are also slightly embossed. This definitely supports the coffee table book vibe this product emanates.
On its Kickstarter project page, designers Pelle Nilsson of Ockult Örtmästare Games (writing), and Johan Nohr of Stockholm Kartell (art) call its genre “blackened art punk” and looking at the photos it’s obvious why the name fits. But enough about the looks – let’s have a look at the content.
Mörk Borg is a complete old-school, D&D-inspired roleplaying game. It comes with a set of light rules, a setting, and a small but original bestiary. Ruleswise Mörk Borg feels like a very stripped down version of D&D. Instead of the regular six attributes you get Agility, Presence, Strength and Toughness. Tests are all done with a d20 and follow the familiar d20+ability>=difficulty rating format. Characters are usually classless, but there are a few (optional) classes like the Fanged Deserter or the Esoteric Hermit players can use. Classes in Mörk Borg are much more specific than in D&D and reminded me a bit of the Failed Careers in Chris McDowall’s Bastionland since they also help define a character’s background and outlook on life aside from the mechanical aspects. Instead of Vancian Magic, characters get access to a list of powers on scrolls, they can use Presence + d4 times per day. Overall the rules can be summed up on about two pages and luckily the book includes a rules overview on the endpaper.
I use luckily in this context because even though the book looks great and everything from the text to the artwork is pretty evocative, reading the book is sometimes pretty hard. Mörk Borg often feels more like a piece of art and not like something to be used at a game table. Don’t get me wrong, I love leafing though its pages, read a paragraph or two and look at the artwork, but reading through some parts of the book makes my head spin.
But what I love about the game are its simple rules and a plethora of tables for you to roll on. There’s a d66 table for what you find on a corpse, a d12 table to randomly determine how bad the weather is (there are truly no good results), tables for random names, a d20 table to generate looks for NPCs, the list goes on.
The setting of Mörk Borg is all about a dying world and how the player characters react in the face of certain (?) doom. Do they try to fight the apocalypse, or do they use their last days to kill people and take their stuff? Regardless, the world of Mörk Borg definitely has a sinister outlook even if you decide to embrace hope. I have considered giving an overview of the world in this review, but I opted against it. Describing the place using my words would just not do it justice. Some of the descriptions in the book are also left quite vague probably to allow for different interpretations. I wouldn’t want to mar your experience by shoe-horning in my ideas. I am sorry if this sounds utterly confusing, but I think you get it, if you read the book yourself.
Mörk Borg is definitely a game you should check out. The simplified D&D-like rules should work great – especially in one-shots like con games or short campaign – the artwork and art design in general is just awesome and I mean that in a quite literal sense. It’s also crammed full of content. It’s mindboggling how much stuff they managed to fit into such a small book. I am pretty sure that even if you never play this game, even just leafing through it will definitely inspire you. But I also found it pretty confusing at times since its layout – expressive as it is – is sometimes not very readable.
I have to admit I have struggled with this review as I have struggled with reading Mörk Borg. It’s biggest strength was – at least in my case – also its biggest weakness. As you’ve seen with my review of Old-School Essentials I prefer a way more clear presentation. Perhaps I am getting old, perhaps it’s just how my brain works. Nevertheless I wholeheartedly recommend you to give Mörk Borg a chance!
The hardcover book can be bought directly via the Free League Publishing web shop for about $29 or your local equivalent. The purchase also includes the PDF version. Alternatively you can get a digital-only copy from DriveThruRPG for about the half.
Last but not least I have to mention the Mörk Borg website which not only offers a rules summary, character sheets, and a character generator, but also free material for your game created by both fans and the creators of the game.