Wide but shallow.
It’s not so much that we settled on MÖRK BORG, but it wasn’t our first choice. If you’ve attended any PAX event in the last few years, you know that in order to sign up for most official events you have to download a janky scheduling app, wake up early and essentially choose one event. At 8 a.m. on the day of, you smash that register button and hope for the best, and from there maybe mosey to a few other lesser options to see if you can squeeze in, but with a light laugh at the futility.
There are waitlists for registered events, and PAX is largely about lines and patience and playing games with strangers in those lines or, if you’re lucky, by getting into whatever you were in line for – so the ramshackle app is not the omega of one’s experience. But I only really wanted to try and do my journalistic duty on one front for PAX Unplugged 2022, and that was the Blade Runner RPG from Free League publishing. There were copies on the floor but the books were yet to be released. As such, prepared referees were in thin supply, and demand was high, and I could have probably emailed some people or swung my media badge around pretending to be a real hotstepper, but I put my trust in the app.
I should not have put trust in my friends though, one of which just would not be told to wake up before 8 to fiddle on yet another app, which is respectable. And I came more for friendship than scoops, so when he didn’t register in time and the waitlist spots slipped away faster than a half-hooked bull trout, we were left to choose from the tables that remained. Of them, we went with the hellish rules-lite RPG MÖRK BORG, given that others in our wider playgroup had expressed interest. Might as well learn from a pro, or someone that has carved through the maximalist design in order to break it down a bit.
We three sidled up with four temporary friends and a patient referee to get gnarly. First, some lines and veils sheets for us all to fill out and share, which I appreciated – though our group was all rough-shorn veterans who each brought multiple sets of dice, it’s entirely plausible that others might have wandered for a game without even a book cover’s worth of understanding of MÖRK BORG. It’s an RPG about the end of a cruel, blasted world, as prophesized by basilisk gods and undead warriors amidst already smoldering remains. You can try to hasten or hinder this collapse, but your efforts will likely end up in death anyways, but the materials involved all look very cool in the meantime, and what else can you ask for?
MÖRK BORG was not entirely unfamiliar to me, having read the slim core manual. It flowed through me like water though, and I would fail a quiz about its intricacies, like most rulebooks I read. For me it’s all about application, whether that means me fumbling as a ref via Mothership or some other game for this same RPG group, or really focusing in on a let’s play or explainer video. Luckily, MÖRK BORG isn’t really trying to reinvent what the schools new and old have served so far, but put a nihilistic Dark Souls scaffolding around it, so most of the concepts were familiar: try a thing, roll to fail or succeed, do math.
This session operated entirely as a “theater of the mind” scenario, meaning there was no map and there were no minis or tokens. This can be a perfectly serviceable way to play, and in fact our referee had the chops to keep us engaged, informed and aware of what was happening as our party of freelancers descended into a bloody hole to try and find the knight that everyone actually loves and bring him and/or his fancy suit of armor back home. Sometimes I struggle with the theater of the mind though; I grew up loving sprites and maps and shit so without that my mind wanders. Normally I attempt to counteract this by taking overly verbose notes as an attempt to center myself, with middling success – it’s only a problem when I need to find something in the notes, and my spelling is so inconsistent so as to befuddle the humble cmd+f shortcut.
Didn’t have my computer here at PAX Unplugged though because I’m old and that stuff is heavy. Just a notebook and a few pens (and a couple sets of dice, I’m no slouch). Figured I’d scribble some notes as we go, but that wasn’t really holding me, as I did not expect this four-hour session to necessitate going back through the lore. But I had small dots for guidance, and our referee was very descriptive of the shambling masses of corpses and floating blood spheres and then the goblin which I only later learned could have been a real problem for us, and the blood press into which we were wandering with its various rooms.
Then it hit me, like a dirty lightbulb in an ancient office that’s gone undisturbed for far too long – I can draw these rooms. The power is mine, the technology is in hand. Why hadn’t I considered this sort of thing before? Well, we really don’t play many non-map games in my group, and the ones we do play, well, I run. And I try to make maps for these to use in our online tabletops, but a lot of the software is a smidge too finnicky for me or I just can’t find the tile or whatever I want at the moment and then I wander away to play guitar or eat a snack. But there was no wandering from this MÖRK BORG table; we were here to find a dead hero and rob his grave.
I’m not saying I drew great maps, because while I like drawing it’s really been a while and I didn’t particularly pay attention back when anyway. But got damn if drawing those diagrams wasn’t my favorite part of this whole con (though I did play more games and expect to write up those in some fashion soon please keep giving me media badges). It got to the point where it was clear we’d hit the final room, as we were trying to figure out how to stop these orbs from furthering the destruction of the world and essentially enacting the opposite of those intentions, and our time was wrapping up and there were no more rooms to draw and this delightful distraction was over. The session was indeed quite fun, though we’ll see if anyone runs something more for our home table. The magic was a real treat in the way it’s randomly assigned and almost always a problem for everyone in the vicinity, friend or foe, I’m always looking out for more mystical mayhem along those lines.
MÖRK BORG may or may not be my map inspiration in the future, though I certainly enjoyed my time at the table and would eagerly sign up for another session. And I’ve considered the #Dungeon23 train, a daily writing exercise of devising one room of a megadungeon per day as the main impetus, a way to put those Hobonichi Techo life books to real work, but I should probably keep whittling down all these poems.
Those little maps though, what sweet treasures. They juiced me with that creative joie de vivre that comes and goes too fast in an act of creativity, a reminder of what every aspect of this absurd hobby has to offer, may it carry on past the demise foretold by the lizard triplets.
Levi Rubeck is a critic and poet currently living in the Boston area. Check his links at levirubeck.com.