Words by David C. Obenour
The culmination of every fantasy on fantasy, MÖRK BORG is a world set in blackness. Black magic. Black metal. Black smudges on your thumbs and forefingers from flipping through xeroxed punk zines.
And for as fully realized as its first incarnation was, Johan Nohr and Pelle Nilsson have delved back into the darkness and emerged dripping from the bogs of Putrescence Regnant. Partnering with the duo of Death Robot Jungle – and some other special guests, including the master of dirge and gloom, Greg Anderson – this new world of fantasy roleplaying fully embraces its metal inspiration with a LP and playable artwork.
Off Shelf: Before getting into anything, I just wanted to ask how you have been holding up over this last year. You’re based in Sweden, right? I know you’ve had your own unique challenges dealing with the pandemic.
Johan Nohr: That’s right, [cocreator Pelle Nilsson and I] are both in Sweden and this has been a weird and hard year here as well, despite our country’s… unique approach to handling the pandemic. We’re both holding up fine though, hope to keep it that way.
OS: Given the severity of our times, how do you think escaping into these dark worlds and settings can actually be an escape from the troubles and worries of everyday existence?
JN: There’s always been a desire to escape into another, fantastical world. But whether it’s a heroic tale of overcoming impossible odds or a horror story where everything is going to shit is a matter of personal preference. I don’t know why, but I have always been more of a “play to lose” person, and I vastly prefer games and stories where everything goes to hell. I’m allergic to plot armor in movies and series, and think that the sense of danger is only real if there’s an actual risk involved. I also think fleeing to the hellish world of MÖRK BORG can be cathartic when things are going the way they are in the real world. Like, imagining a place where everything is even worse, makes your own every day seem slightly less shit in a weird way.
OS: Mork Borg captured a lot of attention from the aesthetic that you have. I want to talk first about colors – in the core book, you rely predominantly on yellow, black, white, and pink. Can you talk about the significance of choosing those colors and why you chose to limit your range?
JN: When we started working on the visual presentation of the game we were inspired by underground and arthouse zine design, and the whole thing was originally intended to be just that – a softcover zine. Also, extreme metal as a music genre is at the core of this thing and that kind of uncompromising, overwhelming noise and fury runs in this game’s veins. We wanted it to look loud. To scream in your face as you flipped through it. So we picked some of the most vibrant, obnoxious colors we could think of and even though they aren’t traditionally “metal” they are very associated with another cultural expression vital to this game: punk. There’s also something interesting and paradoxical about having a bleak, dying world left in darkness, where the sun is forever kept behind heavy clouds, and portray this with screaming neon yellow and pink. Also, if you put this book on your shelf next to other RPGs, it will not kindly blend in with the rest, but will loudly proclaim “I AM HERE.” Hell, the spine even glows in the dark.
OS: There are also a number of instances where you venture outside of that color palette, with a reflective cross, splatters of red blood, full color paintings, prints. What dictated when you allowed yourself to make such exceptions? Was it hard to hold back from wanting to deviate more?
JN: I’m actually surprised that we managed to keep the color palette as much as we did given the approach we had. But yeah, there are some blues and reds in there too. I tried to constantly challenge myself to not fall into any kind of pattern, like if I ever felt like I was repeating myself or falling back too much on similar solutions and designs, I had to take a break and return with a fresh mind. But I guess I couldn’t stay away from some recurring ideas, which is probably for the better or else the book would’ve been even more of a complete mess.
OS: Were there any particular deviations or designs that you felt particularly proud of or impacted by in the core book?
JN: I think my two favorites are the Prophecy – with the table being designed and formatted like a bible page, down to the psalm numberings – and how the adventure design broke all the rules that were set up in the first part of the book. All of a sudden, you’ve got this hyper utilitarian, instructive adventure with neat columns and easy-to-reference guides which is a stark contrast from the blur of colors and shapes prior.
OS: You explore different mediums in the images you use – photography, Ralph Stedman like inkings, graffiti, paintings, photos, historical prints and more. What effects were you looking for by incorporating these styles? Wanting to still make Mork Borg feel like a singular work, did you ever feel self-imposed limitations in the styles you could explore?
JN: As I mentioned earlier, my biggest inspiration design-wise was punk zines and as I was also trying to avoid falling into one singular style I experimented a lot with different mediums. Plus, I think photography and public domain paintings are both mediums that are largely unexplored in RPG book design and wanted to see if I could make them work. But yeah, the wide range of styles and mediums, fonts and layouts all work together to convey a sense of chaos and discord. The world breaks and cracks, it’s crumbling to pieces and so nothing can be taken for granted. Even the book itself is falling apart and this jumbled style portrays that in a way.
OS: Font is another big element of design for Mork Borg – mixing Black Metal-esque scripts, messy paint brushes, medieval calligraphy, distressed stamps and more. What effect do you see fonts playing in how the game is perceived?
JN: I have never used this many blackletter typefaces before [laughs]. No, but really, for MÖRK BORG I treat typography like illustration in a way–painting with letters and using the entire page, not just the column grid or the baselines, as the canvas for them. Basically I tend to look at every spread of the book like a poster and work with type more in that manner than you’d do traditionally for a book. And many of the lines, words and individual letters are placed “by hand” and slightly tilted or skewed to create the illusion of something tactile and homemade. This was also something of an experiment in how many different typefaces I could use in the same product and still get it to work. Usually I’d recommend sticking with 3-4 typefaces for a book but here I used over a hundred. And two of these are Comic Sans and Papyrus, the most hated fonts of all. I just had to see if I could include them in a book that’s appreciated for its typography and graphic design. I think they deserve some kind of redemption [laughs].
OS: While so many of these styles explored are disconnected by origin in time and geography, they all still work remarkably well in conjuring up a dark world of sword and sorcery adventuring. Why do you think our brain makes these connections? How did you like playing with known constructs while pushing boundaries into new or unexplored ones?
JN: The MÖRK BORG world is never really defined …chronologically? It doesn’t say what time period it mimics or how technically or culturally advanced the world is, it just assumes a semi-historic, dark period going to shit. So we didn’t limit ourselves to just, say, medieval imagery, but include images depicting almost any historic period as long as the mood is right. There’s a lot of biblical stuff, medieval or renaissance woodcuts, 19th-century gothic horror and modern-style digital paintings mixed together. They all convey this sense of violent, hopeless doom and dread. And that’s what’s important. And since the graphic design of the book was so inspired by underground punk and metal zines, the collage approach of cutting and pasting images from all over the place works really well and adds that DIY, musical aspect to the mix of historic imagery.
OS: Your latest game, Putrescence Regnant further engages your players senses with the inclusion of a vinyl LP. Can you talk about the significance you see music having in creating a mental space for the game?
JN: Music is at the core of MÖRK BORG. I cannot understate its importance and everything we do is fueled by it. We even called it “a doom metal album of a game”, and even though you could include other extreme metal genres like black, death and drone into that, it’s still true. We put such a heavy emphasis on tone and flavor in the presentation and design of this game, and I don’t think anything can drive that as much as music. For example, when I design or draw for MÖRK BORG, I always put on appropriate music and try to let what I hear bleed onto the page. Try to put the music into ink, so to speak. It’s not an exact science, and I never really know what the piece is gonna look like when I start, but if you wanna be pretentious you could say that the music guides the paintbrush.
OS: What bands did you draw inspiration from?
JN: There is a quite extensive list of bands that inspired us at the beginning of the book. But if I look at my Spotify right now I’m playing a lot of Vile Creature, Konvent, Fister, Zhrine and Swampwitch. But there are a few bands that I always keep getting back to, like This Gift is a Curse, Murg, Electric Wizard and Sunn O))). Greg Anderson of Sunn O))) is actually on Putrescence Regnant. He’s lending us his guitar hammering for 10 solid minutes or so for one of the tracks.
OS: What did you like about what Andre Novoa and Manuel Pinheiro had done with Death Robot Jungle? How did you take that in collaborating with what you hoped to see for Putrescence Regnant?
JN: When I first saw them announce DRJ it blew my mind. Just the idea of merging music and ttrpg into one spoke to me on almost a spiritual level and I knew I had to have it. I was also fortunate enough to get to play it with Andre, among others, and it was a lot of fun. When he later reached out about wanting to do this collab we didn’t hesitate for a second. We wanted Putrescence Regnant to be similar in function, but with a bit more game content like the 8-page booklet with all the locations and factions etc. We’re actually putting gameable content pretty much everywhere this time, both the booklet and the gatefold cover but also on the actual inner sleeve, which will have an optional class – by Greg Saunders, creator of the game, Warlock – and a player-facing map. So when you’re playing, the GM has the booklet, the players have the inner sleeve, and the gatefold cover is between them. I think it’s gonna work out great! But I have to say, the format is a bit challenging, since it’s so much bigger than what we’re used to. Not only can you fit a lot of stuff on a 12×12″ booklet, but you also have to consider how impractical it is to flip through it and have it open on the table. So I’m trying to keep everything to single pages so that you can actually fold it and just have a single page in front of you. Like the opposite of a typical book or zine.
OS: Relating to some of the questions I had on design, what is it about certain styles of music – and even more basic, certain sounds – that brings to mind a dark and fantastical world?
JN: I mean it’s the power of music and ambient sound. Transporting you to a different place or time, and there’s a reason a lot of people play music or background sounds when they run their TTRPGs. I’m usually not super into immersion when it comes to RPGs but music does help immensely to set the tone and vibe.
OS: When you decided on incorporating music for Putrescence Regnant how did that shape the world and narrative you created around it?
JN: The project was always meant to be a record with a scenario attached to it. Or rather, an idea of this place–the bog of Targ-Dungel–presented in both text, art and music. Before we sat down and designed anything we had a lot of talks about the artistic direction and vision we had for the project. Once we were all on the same page artistically, we started writing and designing and when we had a rough outline and the first couple of artworks ready, Andre and Manel began experimenting with the music. The idea was for every track to sort of embody/represent a location, faction or aspect of the scenario, making the entirety of the album an overarching expose of the swamp and its denizens. The album is the map, each track a point of interest, in a way. And even if, at its surface, Putrescence Regnant is about adventures in a swamp, there are also strong themes about rot, rebirth and royalty – and the absurdity of it.
OS: What next would you like to explore with the world of Mork Borg?
JN: We have a busy year ahead of us, and apart from helping our community create and publish third-party content for the game we’ve got a couple of more or less announced books coming. The first one is the zine MÖRK BORG CULT: HERETIC which is basically the sequel to Feretory, meaning it’s a collection of community-made content curated by us mixed with some fresh material from Pelle and me. When releasing that, we’re also releasing the official MÖRK BORG GM screen which is going to be a beast of a screen, especially since the Kickstarter campaign managed to unlock stuff like photo corners and custom inserts which will allow you to customize the screen for your needs. We’re also releasing IKHON, which is a weird box with four booklets about the gifts and punishments of forgotten folk-gods. But later this year, we have something called CY_BORG coming, which we have teased a few times. It’ll be cool. But I can’t say too much yet. There’s also another thing but I must stop now before the Stockholm Kartell takes me away.