As much ink has spilled in reviews about Mork Borg as you’ll find in its splattered, blood-covered pages. The indie project, born of a zine written during an overly-long apple que, epitomizes the rules-light, attitude-heavy genre of metal rpgs.
About this Review
This review focuses on the original Mork Borg hardcover, published by Free League Publishing. We’ll focus on how it’s presented, how it plays, and determine a rating.
After an incredibly successful Kickstarter in 2019, Mork Borg was delivered to Kickstarter backers as a 90 page A5 hardcover. The small yellow book advertises itself as “A doom metal album of a game” and is packed with lore, optional rules, and a dozen creatures to “be murdered by.” The production quality is high, with thick glossy paper and a ribbon bookmark. For folks allergic to paper, the rules reference and barebones editions were added to https://morkborg.com free of charge.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Mork Borg is a style-first book. If you’re expecting to pick this up and casually thumb through to the part you’d like to learn more about, you’re going to have a hard time. This layout is experiential in design. It evokes the dark, grim setting through deciphering twisted texts and prophecies before bothering to tell you “here are your 4 attributes and how they’re used for combat.” Mork Borg wants you to know first that the world is dying. A mad king squeezes the life out of his kingdom, while all around cities crumble and vile creatures crawl up from the earth. This is how the book opens. No friendly letter, just a drop right into the setting, painted in black and yellow. Next, a series of prophecies which are coming to pass. Still no rules. These prophecies codified into the game itself as a roll table the GM rolls against each day. How frequently they occur sets the pace for a campaign, because once all the prophecies come to pass there will be no world left to explore. Want a short-lived world? One happens each day. For a longer end time, roll a d4, d6, or d10 and unlock the next prophecy on a 1.
Each odd little mechanic presents itself that way: splashed on a page with dramatic typography and little context. The art uses limited colors and striking contrast to evoke its heavy metal heredity. It does this at the obvious expense of readability. This is a book made for you, the Gamemaster, to flip through and whisper “hell yeah” to yourself at least a dozen times before even trying to explain why to anyone else. It makes the book as interesting to read as it is to play, but it also means you’re going to be reading a lot before you’re ready to explain it to someone else. As gamemaster, I first ran with my own little cheat sheet, then later discovered the ones provided on the publisher’s site. Mork Borg isn’t encyclopedic, and it isn’t easy to flip through. Have sticky notes ready.
The good news is that this OSR-inspired game itself can be straightforward for an experienced party to play. Characters have four attributes: Agility, Presence, Strength, and Toughness. Players can either randomize everything during character creation, gaining the benefit of a 4d6-drop-the-lowest stat roll, or choose to roll 3d6 and use the optional classes in the back of the book. These six classes bring the same flavor you’d expect from the front matter, with titles like “gutterborn scum” and “wretched royalty.” In addition to being kitted out with equipment and powers, they’re ripe for inspiration from details like “you carry a portable laboratory and continually search for frequently expanded ingredients.” Each trades specific flavor and benefits over raw stat numbers and the chance of better powers. Players wanting a shot at better stats may opt for the 4d6 instead and leave their powers and equipment to the dice gods. Either way, characters are designed to be weak and character generation is fast for a very good reason. Lethality bleeds through the pages.
And it’s this kind of choice that highlights Mork Borg’s approach to writing. This is not a game to introduce folks to ttrpgs. Mork Borg assumes you’re comfortable making a life or death decision on the fly, and damn the consequences. Resolving most checks is done by rolling a d20 against a DC (almost always 12), with modifiers derived from your attributes. Throw in some familiar critical successes and failures, flavor moves, and death and dying and you’ve got a typical OSR game. Magic derives from your presence, essentially slotting spells-per-day into anyone bold enough to try them. These powers split into either character-facing boons (like HP) or curses to throw at other creatures.
A defining feature in Mork Borg are the little mechanics to make successes more awesome and failures more fatal. Rolling a 20 not only doubles your damage, but degrades their armor and grants an extra chance to attack. The dreaded 1 on defense means your armor or equipment is damaged. Recovering hit points requires both rest and rations, both of which are typically in short supply. Certain wounds cannot be healed without treatment which, again, may be hard to find in the crumbling end of time. But there’s hope! Characters gain omens, which work like Bennies or Fate Points to allow the occasional reroll. Doling these out falls on the GM, but generally one or two per day soften the pitiless blows.
The dozen beasts included in this grimdark apocalypse evoke memorable monsters, but each with a twist. Goblins create more goblins with their fetid infections. Trolls aren’t just hard to kill, they become stronger each time you try. The gargoyles, liches, and even skeletons come with twists to turn the atmosphere up.
The conceit matches the core here: characters push their way against insurmountable odds with nothing but their own lousy dice and randomly generated equipment to get them through. The creatures they encounter, like the world they embody, is familiar to the genre but turned up to 11.
You’ve probably gotten the heavy metal influence pretty clear here. Playing Mork Borg can feel like a kick in the teeth for anyone used to a more fleshed out ruleset. Mork Borg can be criticized as being a little rules-light. This is still a narrative game at its core, more akin to Powered by the Apocalypse than something like Darkest Dungeon. You’re fast or you’re dead, and a single dice roll often determines which. This isn’t a weakness; Mork Borg’s presentation is the game, so straightforward rules give the gamemaster room to push the pressure. Most encounters can kill your character quickly and brutally. With the loose narrative, it’s easy for a situation to spiral out of control. But if running fast and hard through a dungeon guaranteed to leave scars is your game, Mork Borg delivers exactly the tone. For a short campaign or single adventure, this is a near-perfect night of bare-knuckle adventuring. For a longer campaign, there’s going to be some tension that could wear on as the prophecies continue to unlock. The burden of work is on the gamemaster for delivering the game in Nilsson and Nohr’s design. Gamemasters almost never roll, they simply call when one is needed. Players watch as bad rolls maim and kill. It’s up to the gamemaster to turn this into something enjoyable instead of simply cruel. With advice like “or just throw a knife at the page,” it’s clear that the designers are in on the nihilist humor. The trick is bringing that same energy to the table. Onboarding –ideally with a session 0– is essential to making this a positive experience for everyone at the table.
The book includes an introductory dungeon crawl called Rotblack Sludge, which is a linear dungeon masterfully stocked and laid out in the only traditional feeling pages of the book. Reading the adventure after the rest of the book feels like the authors saying “look, we can play it straight, we just choose not to.” There’s also tools for generating dungeons on the fly, another thing which has spawned dozens of iterations since.
It’s worth stating again, this is not a beginner’s GMing experience. There’s roll tables and tools to randomize an adventure, but there’s just as many blanks to fill along the way. Character boons (called “omens”) can tilt any planned encounter far into their favor immediately. Magic is dangerous and unpredictable. In fact, everything is dangerous and unpredictable. Players coming into Mork Borg should expect to laugh in the face of their grim fates, otherwise they’ll find themselves frustrated instead.
Mork Borg is as much about reading and owning Mork Borg as it is about playing Mork Borg. It’s a rulebook that shows, rather than tells, the world it wishes to present. It’s not for everyone, but it makes no bones about what it is or is not trying to be. And if it is your thing, there’s no shortage of extra material to keep on building. It’s spawned hundreds of free resources to grow its twisted vision.
For players who want a crumbling, violent world, and don’t mind their characters being despicable and disposable, Mork Borg delivers a great few-session campaign. Between the lethality and the limited leveling options, this isn’t going to deliver a multi-year campaign or a long cinematic arc. Nor should it. Like a good concert, Mork Borg delivers a memorable experience best enjoyed briefly.
Nine out of ten broken teeth.
Product: Mörk Borg core rulebook
Designer: Pelle Nilsson
Graphic Design and Art: Johan Nohr
Publisher: Free League Publishing
Release Date: 2019