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A Look At Mörk Borg

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.

A Look At Old-School Essentials

Let me start by giving you some context. Even though I have enjoyed the roleplaying game hobby for almost 30 years now, I started playing at an older age than most of you. I was 16 when I first played in a TORG convention game in 1992. Shortly after that I was finally allowed to join a friend’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign, which lasted a couple of years and ended with our party saving the Empire from utter destruction! Even though I was aware of D&D at this time, I did only play it a few times. And – oh boy – I really didn’t like the AD&D 2nd Edition rules which were popular back then. I found the rules too restricting, and just plain weird. I still played it if I got the chance because everything aside from the rules was fun and I had the chance to spend some time with cool people.

Back then I didn’t know much about the history of the game, neither was I aware of Basic D&D. D&D 3rd Edition which came out a few years later was more to my liking and we played it quite extensively. But over the years my interest in rules-heavy games plummeted. It was somewhere in the 2010s when I first read blog posts about the Old School Renaissance (or whatever you want to call it) on the RPG Bloggers Network I had joined in 2008. As far as I remember I was pretty skeptical at first, but when I eventually looked closer into these “retro clones” I found something which I didn’t know I have been looking for all this time.

Old-school D&D had all the elements I liked in the D&D editions I played so far, but it was much more rules-light. The kind of gameplay it supported was also something I found intriguing. Eventually I started my long search for the “perfect” retro-clone (I know, there’s no such thing). I played Lamentations of the Flame Princess several times and it came pretty close to what I was looking for. I enjoyed the artwork associated with this game and some of the changes to the rules compared to the edition of D&D it emulated just felt right to me. Unfortunately the guy behind the game is not someone I want to support, so I looked for alternatives.

Over the years I have read basically everything OSR-ish I could get my hands on. There are some pretty popular games inspired by old-school D&D without trying to emulate the original rules which just didn’t click with me. Especially Index Card RPG is a game I really enjoy reading but I just can’t make it work at the game table. A game that almost worked perfectly for me was Swords & Wizardry Whitebox. It was simple and very easy to hack. But you know me, I kept hunting after my personal “white whale”, the perfect retro-clone.

Eventually I heard about Old-School Essentials by Necrotic Gnome. People all over the internet talked about it as if it was the best thing since sliced bread. At first I was seriously underwhelmed when I read it was trying to emulate the B/X edition of D&D perfectly. What I didn’t realize was that the author, Gavin Norman, rewrote it from scratch, so that the rules are much, much easier to understand, made some minor fixes, and added some optional rules like THAC0 or Ascending Armor Class.
But what really sets OSE apart is its layout. To call it perfect would almost be an understatement.

Continue reading A Look At Old-School Essentials

Mental Health in Roleplaying Games

Please note that this post contains mentions of mental illnesses, ableism, and suicide.

When it comes to the roleplaying games community there’s no shortage of scandals and constant drama. The latest controversy is about Evil Hat’s decision to include a section about the team’s stance on H.P. Lovecraft’s racism and antisemitism in their upcoming game “Fate of Cthulhu“. They also decided not to include any “insanity” rules but opted for a corruption mechanic instead. A lot of very vocal fans of Lovecraft’s work and the roleplaying games based on it, quickly shared their displeasure online. Personally I think Evil Hat made the right decision. Even though I enjoyed some of his writing, his blatant racism is hard to stomach. And don’t get me started on “insanity” rules in games…
Ok, let’s look a bit closer at the subject of mental health in RPGs.

Let’s start by giving you a bit of context. I have struggled with my mental health for many years. My wife has and is still suffering from mental disorders, as are many of my friends. My best friend suffered from depression for most of his life and when he couldn’t cope with it anymore, he took his own life. The prevalence of mental illnesses is about 25%, which means one in four people will suffer from mental health issues at least once in their life. This is no joking matter.

Unfortunately many roleplaying games treat it like one. This is especially a problem in most games based on the Cthulhu Mythos. I am mostly looking at Call of Cthulhu here, since it is one of the most well-known examples of using mental health in a game, but there are many other culprits out there.

You may argue, that the gameplay is informed by the limited knowledge of mental health people had in Lovecraft’s time, but that is a very weak excuse. Especially since there’s a pretty high chance that someone at the game table may actually suffer from something the Call of Cthulhu rules so nonchalantly calls insanity, a term which is often if not always used derogatory.

In games like Call of Cthulhu each player character confronted with gruesome events, the supernatural, or Cthulhu Mythos creatures loses some “sanity points”. If more than a certain threshold of points are lost the character may suffer from short or longer “temporary insanity” which may include effects fainting, stupor, homicidal or suicidal mania, strange sexual desires, paranoia, compulsions, amnesia, and so on. Not only does mental health not work this way, it also takes control away from the player. At the very least a GM should ask for a player’s permission to force something like that on a player.

From my own experience I know that these effects are also often played for laughs. Sure, this is a problem caused by the players and not necessarily the game itself, but this might not happen if there weren’t any “insanity” rules in the first place. People often forget that what they might consider a funny quirk added to their player character, might be a real and constant struggle for someone else. You might think that playing a compulsive disorder in a game is fun, but for someone suffering from it, it’s hell. And now imagine that some one jokingly plays out the “insanity” you or someone at your gametable is struggling with in real life.

Do I think that mental health should never be part of a roleplaying game? No. But you have to a) make sure that everyone at the table is ok with the subject and b) that you treat it respectfully. A good start is not to explain evil behavior away by calling someone insane, crazy, mad, or something similar. Atrocities have been committed by people a psychologist would consider fully sane. One might feel comforted by the idea, that people who commit evil deeds are “different”, but many studies have shown that this is not the case.

So, how can we deal with all of this at the game table? Personally I’d probably just ignore the “insanity” mechanics in most games, or look at what Evil Hat came up in for Fate of Cthulhu and adopt it for the games I play. I’ll also try to avoid such common tropes as the mentally-ill villain. The least any GM can do is think twice before adding mental health issues to one’s game. And don’t forget to make sure that everyone at the table is on the same page when it comes to this issue.

What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you think we should refrain from using mental health issues in roleplaying games or do you think this might even help raise awareness? Please share your thoughts below!

P.S.: Unsurprisingly I already covered this subject in a post from 2014. You can check it out here.