Unleash the minstrels of pain! Mörk Borg, the metal role-playing game rocking lockdown | Music


The dungeon-master Flintwyrm explains to four adventurers over a voice call that the only way to stop the apocalypse is to play the most intense extreme-metal song imaginable. All they have to do is find a concert venue called The Hall of Cacophonous Screams, an endless keg of beer, and five “minstrels of pain” to frontline their jam session, all the while surviving goblins and the forthcoming apocalypse. Flintwyrm, a 29-year-old named Christopher Joel, is excited about the adventure: this is how he and hundreds of strangers are bonding during quarantine, whether they are role-playing gamers, metalheads, or somewhere in between.

Welcome to Mörk Borg, the headbanger of a game that is the latest example of the fertile cross-pollination between tabletop role-playing and extreme metal: a love letter to the hellraising imagery, lyrics, and album art of metal.

Tabletop role-playing games are collaborative and narrative, relying on improvisation and cooperation more than strict rules or cards – Dungeons & Dragons is the best-known example. In Mörk Borg, players – gathered online or in person – narrate their journeys through flooded crypts, torture dungeons and dark forts, rolling dice to find the result of almost any encounter, from attacking monsters to scavenging food from a corpse (or, depending how desperate they are, eating the corpse itself). Players’ characters die so frequently that Joel constructed a virtual graveyard to house all the dead, each gravestone engraved with a lighthearted epitaph. “The themes are dark, the setting is dark, but what sets the tone is the players,” he says.

Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr.
Ardent metalheads … Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr. Composite: Tobias Ohls

The game was conceived in the winter of 2018, as designer Pelle Nilsson waited in an eight-hour queue in the Swedish countryside to juice apples. Bored, he drew up a page of game rules in harsh, cutting sentences that echoed black-metal lyrics. He collaborated with artist and designer Johan Nohr, intending only to make a small zine that explained basic rules, lore, and character classes, such as Gutterborn Scum or Esoteric Hermit. Instead, more than 1,000 Kickstarter backers crowdfunded the first printing of what evolved into a rulebook. A new zine of Mörk Borg content, due this month, was fully funded within 13 minutes, and the rulebook swept the 2020 ENnie role-playing awards last week, even winning top prize of product of the year.

“I think people have been waiting for something like this,” says Orvar Säfström, a former Swedish death metal musician turned role-playing historian. He has noticed the resurgence of the 1980s in pop culture in recent years, best exemplified with the release of the Dungeons & Dragons-filled Stranger Things, and he believes that a game that combines old-school gaming and old-school metal was going to do well, quarantine or not. “It feels like an underground thing, it looks like an underground thing, and that makes you a little bit special,” he says.

“It was more like a music band than making a book,” Nilsson says when describing the game development process. Both Nilsson and Nohr played metal on their stereo constantly, from Belzebong to Murg, and the entire game rulebook is soaked in the aesthetic and references: Bowels of a Baby Killer is a banger by US sludge-metal band 16, but it’s now also a bowl of entrails that can disguise your character’s scent in-game. The sheer mass of music recommendations that pour through the Mörk Borg Discord, a chatroom for the game and surrounding subcultures, are hard to keep up with: bardcore, sludge, stonerdoom, Orthodox hymnals, game soundtracks, and, of course, black, death and doom metal.

A spread from the Mörk Borg game rulebook.
A spread from the Mörk Borg game rulebook. Photograph: Johan Nohr

Joseph Norman, a lecturer at Brunel University who studies the intersection of metal and “weird literature”, was amazed by the deep cuts in Mörk Borg’s soundtrack playlist, which includes YOB’s The Screen and Conan’s Hawk as Weapon, the lyrics to both of which deal with monster attacks and ancient ruins, as many in the seven-hour playlist do. “Each of these could be a stage of the game, an atmosphere, a location, an item, an action,” he says; Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka is an ithyphallic metal album today – next month it could easily become the title of a fan-made Mörk Borg adventure.

Norman says that interlude tracks on metal albums, traditionally made with synthesisers, became the foundational inspiration for “dungeon synth”, a genre that developed as tabletop, role-playing-game dungeon-masters crafted synthesiser soundtracks for their fantasy games. Those dungeon synth albums inspired further games, creating feedback loops. Mörk Borg takes it a level deeper: musicians are already releasing music inspired by the game, which was inspired by music inspired by games: the loop keeps going.

Role-playing games have inspired stunning albums in other genres, too, most recently the Mountain Goats’ In League With Dragons, a “partial rock opera” about the fallen wizards of Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. And more are likely to come. As Daniel Ekeroth, bass player for Martyrdöd and Iron Lamb who has little role-playing experience, flips through the game’s rulebook, he says: “I’m kind of intrigued – might this be what finally will make me take a step into that dimension?” Thankfully for Ekeroth, a bass guitar is an available weapon in Mörk Borg – it can easily behead a zombie.



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