Funeral Rites
Three shadowy figures are propped up by trios of long poles, though whether they've been impaled or are using them as spindly methods of travel is unclear.

Sailing the Ashen Sea with Tephrotic Nightmares

This feature is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #175. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.


This series of articles is made possible through the generous sponsorship of Exalted Funeral. While Exalted Funeral puts us in touch with our subjects, they have no input or approval in the final story.

A black-and-white photo of an gothic castle turret in ruins. "Funeral Rites presented by Exalted Funeral" is inscribe on top of the image in a rockin' gold font.

You balance atop undulating waves of ash, eying the great, gloomy structure in front of you.  Above squawk the cannibal birds that have pulled your sled this far, away from the raider ships you saw in the distance – theirs the fast, fragile Tephro-Foil Skincraft, that glide above the waves but are also quick to tip their occupants, screaming, into them. In front of you towers the Urniversity, where twitching, nervous researchers study the end of the world – not the one yet to come, but the one that has already descended, a long night of flame that left ash underfoot and the world around you as you find it now, unwelcoming and hungry, shifting and violent. The scholars hate you – you have made an enemy of them through your persistent, flamboyant ignorance – but you also know that somewhere within their walls is the Inquisitive Mechanical Fish, which does not sail the ash but sinks beneath it, and with such a ship the Ashen Sea would be yours for the taking, the dangers above incapable of touching you…

This is the setting for Tephrotic Nightmares, the new MÖRK BORG adventure by experienced TTRPG designer Luke Gearing. MÖRK BORG needs no introduction, of course: the black-metal-inspired, ultraviolent RPG is everywhere these days, having hit the perfect match of an inventive, unique premise and wildly creative design to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue when they talk about current indie RPGs. It helps that MÖRK BORG has made its name by encouraging creators to build more games within its world, and since its release the community has ballooned not only with players but with designers, sketching out their own little pieces of doomed worlds to contribute to MÖRK BORG’s cause. Gearing had been interested in joining the fun: “I wanted to work with the [MÖRK BORG] team, especially as someone who’s work recently has taken a much less design-heavy approach,” he said. “I thought it would be fun and engaging to develop something that runs counter to that.”

A small village situated around a tall tower is nestled into a foggy mountain range.

Tephrotic Nightmare’s basic system is the hex-crawl map of the Ashen Sea, which is expansive – but not overwhelmingly so – and allows plenty of flexibility for players to run into both the more authored aspects of the world and have some chaotic fun with random encounters. It’s tightly focused on the Sea and its impact on the life and un-life within and around it. “A lot of my work comes from taking one idea and then trying to realize it as fully as possible,” Gearing said, and Tephrotic Nightmares certainly feels realized – almost gluttonously so, with a wide variety of factions, a vivid environment and wildlife, and a delightful modular boat-construction system. Players can sail around on, say, a wicker basket pulled by a swarm of necromantic bees, or the hollow corpse of a Sea-Giant, while loading themselves up with weapons (rams! scythes! flaming-oil slingshots!) and defensive or aggressive charms (one of Gearing’s personal favorites is the Scapegoat Homunculus, that can, if frightened, seep acid or give birth to an entangling net of useless fetuses or simply sail off, with the players and the rest of the ship, into the void). The hex-map used for the larger world is sized down for boat combat, which players will run into often – how couldn’t they, with Ashmouth Raiders patrolling the seas, or Dustlions looking for food? – but don’t worry, if their boat capsizes, they can always trudge their way to land on stilts – slowly, uncomfortably, and at the mercy of the weather and the waves.

A lone mountain stands shrouded in foggy darkness.

In their travels, the players are certain to stumble across one or more of the factions of the game, all of which bring their own bloodthirsty edge to the gray expanse of the Ashen Sea. Perhaps they’ll find themselves bartering with the Bloodhunters, who hunt the ugly, cruel creatures of the world and test their initiates in the great Clot that pools below their mountain. They offer equipment that may be otherwise hard or impossible to find, and they pay well for the heads of Thunderlizards and other beasts. Or they might take commissions from the Urniversity to map uncharted ash-waters, build vessels or borrow them, or simply bring them strange artifacts they’ve found in their travels, which the scholars are desperate to study. Players might do better to avoid the Dry-Witches: they trade valuable water for bodies, but they also each possess terrible powers, and the towers where they reside are shifting, impassable death-traps. These factions bring life to Tephrotic Nightmares, giving the feeling of a dynamic, changing world that the players simply wade through as these groups persistently pursue their own interests and agendas across the Sea. Gearing designed the game with the idea of centering player affiliations, so players that find themselves working with, say, the heretical, apocalyptic necromancers of the Burnt Offerings might have a totally different experience of exploring the world than those who become involved with the conservative, self-perpetuating hierarchy of the Cannibal Count.

But the strongest character in the setting – the most vivid, the most realized, and the most overwhelming – is of course the Ashen Sea itself. As the introduction states, the Ashen Sea is all that remains of a lush forest that existed before a great fire was set by the Arsonist, who still lurks in her sunken stronghold, to be unearthed by the brave or suicidal. Tephrotic Nightmares revolves around the sea: traversing it, surviving it, plundering its treasures and discovering its mysteries. The creatures are all defined in relation to it – ash renders the Dustlion Mother’s eyes useless, the Lungfish continue to swim through it, impossibly, but their meat is poisoned beyond saving – and the only solid lands left are the mountain fortresses where the factions gather and players must return to extract corpse-water from kills (after a cut from the desiccator, of course). Gearing’s concise, vivid writing breathes life into the world he’s created, and his interest in “layered history and ruins” gives the setting a sense of depth and chronology.

A white painted skull gawks from an inky black background.

Gearing says that the factions of the game were all “different takes on reactions to an ecological disaster,” in part inspired by what he’s seen in his own life and in the news. The brutally funny, almost carefree humor of the game comes into its own in this light. After all, who doesn’t recognize something of our modern experience of climate change in the Cannibal Count’s seemingly-endless rooms of inefficient, suicidal bureaucrats, or the Pneumatic Order’s fervent religious, isolated denial? The scale of the disaster is catastrophic, sure, but the reactions of these people and creatures to the destroyed world they inhabit isn’t fantastical so much as just exaggerated. Water as currency, splintering tribal groups enforcing their preferred and extreme ways of life, the creative, unfamiliar methods of navigating a newly-hostile landscape: all of these are common characteristics of environmental dystopias, of which Tephrotic Nightmares is simply an extreme example.

MÖRK BORG’s entire deal is the end of the world. Its charm comes from its utter commitment to doom, the heady, silly, nasty craft of puppeting terrible little creatures towards the inevitable apocalypse. It’s funny, then, that Tephrotic Nightmares could be mistaken as almost… optimistic? The Ashen Sea has already burned, see; the end of the world came with the Arsonist, and now she’s buried deep within her stronghold as the weak but persistent remnants of the forest reach for her, attempting through fungal growth and vegetation to end Her fiery reign and return themselves to the surface they came from. And on the edge of the Sea, the Cinderbloom Thickets grow unfettered, brimming with insect life and birdsong, and threaten to turn the ash into soil once again. The end of the end of the world, perhaps. Or the beginning of something else.

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Pre-orders for Tephrotic Nightmares will go live on this page over at Exalted Funeral soon.


Maddi Chilton is an internet artifact from St. Louis, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @allpalaces.


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