"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Easy is the Descent: A Look at the MÖRK BORG and ShadowDark RPGs

Easy is the descent to hell; all night long, all day, the doors of dark Hades stand open; but to retrace the path; to come out again to the sweet air of Heaven – there is the task, there is the burden.
- Virgil

"The Old School Renaissance," or "Old School Revival," kicked off in online forums like Dragonsfoot in the early 2000s. Essentially, the movement was a reaction to the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, a game that was both mechanically and thematically a departure from all the versions of the game before it. The original OSR games were mainly "retro-clones," rulesets that made use of the Open Game License and System Reference Document to emulate those early editions of D&D. Games like OSRIC (AD&D), Labyrinth Lord (B/X D&D), and Swords & Wizardry (OD&D) all sought to preserve earlier editions of the game no longer supported by the publisher at that time. There were, however, even then games that wanted to capture the "feel" of early editions of D&D without actually reviving those early mechanics. Castles & Crusades was amongst the earliest of these. As the years have passed, this non-retro-clone "new wave" of OSR game has gained in popularity. Using modern mechanics, they return to the themes of the earliest editions. Ben Milton's Knave, Dan Masters' Deathbringer, Keven Crawford's Worlds Without Number, James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, and even to an extent Howitt and Taylor's Heart fit this description to various degrees.  In this article, however, I would like to focus on two recent games that I think exemplify this trend, Nilsson and Nohr's doom metal dungeoncrawl MÖRK BORG and Kelsey Dionne's recent ShadowDark.

Before I get into why these two games, let's talk about the tone and themes modern OSR games are trying to recapture.

Worth a Thousand Words

The 1978 AD&D's Player's Handbook featured wrap-around cover art by David A, Trampier. It depicts a party of dungeon explorers, all their hirelings in tow, in a dim subterranean temple prying the jeweled eyes out of a statue. A battle has clearly already occurred, since we can see some of them clearing away inhuman corpses. But the cover tells you exactly what the game is about. Going into dungeons and looting them for treasure.


Flash forward to 2014 and the cover of the 5th edition Player's Handbook. A pair of glamorous heroes--no henchmen or hirelings in sight--are single-handedly taking on a giant. There is no treasure, because these are not treasure-looting adventurers, there are bold heroes. The focus of the game has moved from loot to combat. If the tone of the 1st edition of the game was 1982's Conan the Barbarian, the tone of the 5th edition is 2019's Avengers: Endgame. 


D&D began as a kind of "survival horror" game. Your characters were mostly ordinary people, initially quite frail, crawling into pitch-black ridiculously hostile places in search of gold. It was a game where the players themselves had to be crafty, descending into Hell, avoiding combat whenever possible, and crawling back out again with some riches under their belts. Experience (and thus character improvement) came from gold pieces, not killing opponents. Characters did not have superhuman feats at their disposal, they relied on finding magical items instead. It was a game focused on exploration, not action. Decades of video games (where you could simply go back to your last save if your character died) and blockbusters like Star Wars and the MCU changed all that.

While there is nothing wrong with playing high-powered superhero games, the OSR seems to be suggesting there was something worthwhile in those early editions too. So let's talk about ShadowDark and MÖRK BORG.


In terms of graphic design, lay-out, and sheer attitude these two games could not be more different from each other. ShadowDark focuses on clarity. Its text is straightforward, concise, and extremely readable. MÖRK BORG by contrast, is a direct assult on your senses. An extremely sparse text, it explains itself instead visually, with short, suggestive bursts of text that read more like song lyrics than prose. ShadowDark is a text. MÖRK BORG is performance.

On the other hand, mechanically the two games are very similar to each other. But use the modern d20 system: roll a d20, add your characteristic modifiers, compare to a difficulty number. Rolling high is good, rolling low is bad. In both games the math is extremely flat, so that characters do not become superhuman over time. Hit points are low. Both even share a similar spell mechanic. In both these games, magic-using characters need to make a roll to activate their spells. Indeed, both have the potential of spectacular failure if you roll a "1," a magical mishap that could be lethal to your character and the party around them. A key difference is that ShadowDark stays closer to D&D, using the standard array of STR, INT, WIS, DEX. CON, and CHR while MÖRK BORG opts for just Agility, Strength, Toughness, and Presence. ShadowDark also keeps the concepts of Advantage and Disadvantage from modern D&D. In situations where your character has some sort of advantage, you roll two dice and take the higher result. If you suffer disadvantage, roll two dice and take the lower.

Aside from these differences, ShadowDark is the more recognizable of the two to D&D players. The monsters, the spells, and the classes (Fighter, Priest, Thief, and Wizard) are all familiar. Compare this to MÖRK BORG's Fanged Deserter, Gutterborn Scum, Esoteric Hermit, Wretched Royalty, Heretical Priest, and Occult Herbmaster.

But let's talk about the covers again.

MÖRK BORG's wasp yellow-and-black and ShadowDark's eerie, silvery horror are coming from different directions but arriving at the same place. Both depict the threat of the setting, not the bold heroes. In MÖRK BORG the world is literally ending. In the very first mechanic of the game (an example of how despite its riot of color and layout the game is extremely intentional) there is a calendar the GM rolls on every day of game time to see if another apocalyptic doom is unleashed on the world. The characters are doomed and wretched, fighting to survive as long as they can. The world of ShadowDark is far less miserable, but the game is very evocative when describing the "ShadowDark," any dark, dangerous, forlorn place as almost a living presence. Only mad people would willing descend into such places. But the characters in these games are OSR characters, they are risking life and limb to buy as much time for themselves as they can.

Two final very OSR-features of these games is the widespread use of random tables and the reliance on treasure for character improvement. 
MÖRK BORG's random tables start right on the inside covers, and do more to describe the atmosphere of the setting than the text itself. The weather table gives results like lifeless grey, piercing wind, deafening storm, and gravelike cold. The next table generates items found corpse-plundering. ShadowDark's are more comprehensive than suggestive, allowing you to whip up dungeons (to be fair, both games do this), hex crawls, settlements, neighborhoods, NPCs, monsters...basically everything. You could run entire ShadowDark campaigns with these random tables. The randomness speaks to the "emergent play" feature of OSR games, that the "stories" emerge from the dice and what happens at the table, not extensive backstories or elaborate scripted plots.

The reliance on treasure is another critical feature. As mentioned, neither game is giving you an abundance of class feats that magically appear as you gain levels. If you want magical abilities, you need to comb dungeons for them. This keeps the focus on exploration and danger.