Yesterday, I mentioned how the support of our Patrons had enabled us to launch a second stream, just for Actual Play episodes. Before then we used to intersperse our magazine shows with weekly episodes of the games that our home group ran. The thread of each story interwoven with our chat shows.
One of the more emotionally involving stories was Song to the Siren, the first part of which we re-present here:
In April last year we announced a couple of changes. We became Effekt, rather than The Coriolis Effekt, and we started aPatreon. We were somewhat forced into that second choice by circumstance – Patreon’s terms were about to change and would not be as favourable to little projects like ours if we had started any later.
But what Patreon gave us was more than money. Yes, it has helped us pay for our hosting, and indeed to switch out Actual Play podcasts (which have, shall we say, a more … discerning, specialist audience) into their own dedicated feed. It has also enabled us to pay for Zoom, which in turn has enabled up to start streaming games on YouTube. But more than that I feel we are making friends of our Patrons. This last half year of Covid lockdown especially has seen a supportive international community of friends coalesce around our Discord channel and we have even started playing games together.
For the last couple of years my co-host Dave and I have produced a daily podcast for #RPGaDay. But we are not going to do that this year. Instead, in a blatant piece of self-promotion we are going to reflect on our last three years of producing the Effekt podcast, and highlight some of our previous episodes. You might consider it a “best of” selection depending on your definition of “best.”
Today’s theme is about Beginnings, we are going to share our very first episode. But first I was to tell you a little story that has particular resonance today of all days. I phoned Dave whilst on a walk to suggest the idea of creating this podcast, about Coriolis, a role playing game by the up and coming Swedish company, Free League, and he enthusiastically agreed. “And then we can maybe go to Sweden an interview theme and they can get to know us, and then we can write for them” he said. I replied “Maybe” in that tone that meant “No, that is only going to happen in your widest dreams.” And what happened next? We went to Sweden to interview them, they got to know us, and they asked us to write an adventure which ended up in the Alien RPG core book, and that book just last night, won the “Oscar” of the RPG world. The “Ennie” for Best Game. Not bad for our first attempt.
The Order of the Pariah are my favourite faction, but not for the reasons you might expect. I think most players read about the Order of the Pariah, their religious fervour, militaristic outlook, animate armors and Monastery Cruisers, and picture Games Workshops’ Space Marines in their head. And frankly that’s not a bad shorthand, but I like to think of them as more nuanced.
The Order of the Pariah are the Third Horizon’s first freedom fighters, leading the uprising against the First Horizon, and their agents, the Sacrifice of Nazareem. And of course when independence was won, and the portals closed, it was the Order that carried on the fight, seeking out the vestiges of the Nazareem’s Sacrifice while the other factions thought the war was won. In doing so, they are more true to their origins than the other first come factions, who were “fortune seekers, religious dissidents and rebels” from the First and Second Horizons. So, unlike the 40k Space Marines, the Order not only don’t have imperial ambitions, they seem more willing to isolate than to spread their creed. So what is behind their lack of missionary zeal? Having defeated the forces of the First Horizon in the Portal Wars, why did they not use their military might to spread the word of the Pariah across the third Horizon and cast out the false Icons? Do they not want converts? Indeed you have to be born of Zalos to live on Zalos – offworlders are restricted to the moon, Karrmerruk, the City of Foreigners. Are they as racist at the Zenithian Hegemony?
Their activities on Coriolis would suggest not. Apart from the famous Sanatorium, they run a network of soup kitchens and other poverty relief charities. Anyone (or at least anyone with the grades) is free to study at their Medical Academy. And yes, they become neophytes of the order while they train, but are free to seek work for other factions when they graduate. The Academy, and the charitable work of the Samiritans seems at odds with the reputation they earned during the portal wars. And their scientific advances, including biotechnology and antimatter propulsion suggest they they are not by any means dogmatic primitivists.
I like to think of the monasteries as places learning, the the sword of the judge, or the Sickle of the Martyr, is equivalent to Occams Razor. If you have read Anathem by Neal Stephenson, you have an idea of how I imagine the monasteries of concentric circles of learning… Here too is kept the memory of the all the Third Horizon knows about the old enemies, Al Ardha and the First and Second Horizon.
In the cities, the plebeian population worship the Judge/Pariah of course – what choice do they have? But their jobs are like any others, the industries servicing the great monasteries at each city centre. To truly become an adherent of the faith your must enter and monastery and learn. Monks are the equivalent of stationaries and their priests, prophets and elders are Privileged. There is no inheritance of title or estate. Everything is given to the Order when you die, but poverty is reduced to almost zero.
So I argue that their reputation as religious zealots that cry heresy at every new thing is in fact carefully crafted. Not for nothing do they consider the Foundation their biggest rival. Within the Zalosian monasteries are repositories of truth and knowledge. Knowledge which the Foundation wants, and which, given their isolationist stance, the Order believes no one should have. Yes, a fierce war rages against the “Heretics” of Zahardan, or Zalos-B, but the rest of the Horizon knows little about it. What is the nature of their Heresy? Personally I like to think that the population of Zahardan are even stricter religious zealots than those on Zalos A, but the Nomad Federation speak darkly of a war crime committed against one of their clans on that planet (core book p211), so it seems that Zahardans are at least less isolationist than the Order of the Pariah. Perhaps they do want to proselytise, to recruit new followers and to kill those who don’t covert… perhaps they are more dogmatic, less pragmatic than the Order of the Pariah. And the true Order are the misunderstood good guys – friends of all Firstcome genuine seekers of truth.
And therein lies a way to play some of the concepts that you might not quickly associate with the Order – as an Operative or Data Spider, you could be a spy on the Foundation, checking up on what they have found out, and how close they are to the hidden truth. As scientis, you could be a priest-researcher looking for evidence of portal builder technology in all the secret places of the Horizon. As a Negotiator you could be a diplomat, steering the other factions away from a Truth they could not stand to know.
Think about it, Zalosian Monastery ships, heavily armed scientific vessels. Remind you of anything? Its crazy I know, but I am going to say it – if you want to play the Crew of the Starship Enterprise in Coriolis… maybe they should come from Zalos.
In the last post I wrote about the Consortium, one of the few factions that we had not shined the spotlight on,in the podcast, because as Dave memorably admitted on the Patron discord he’s “not very interested in them.” I agreed in the last episode that the Consortium was indeed quite boring, but The Free League has a different problem.The Free League’s problem is that they are the perfect player faction. Too perfect.
What every crew wants is freedom … freedom to go where they want. Freedom to do what they want. Freedom to make profit on jobs, legal and illegal. Freedom to leave a system when a deal goes wrong and they are wanted for murder. Freedom to find a new planet full of rubes they can double-cross. And Freedom to move on again when it turns out the local crime-lord wants them dead. Freedom, essentially, to live like space RPGers have lived since the first Traveller player rolled 2d6 and wrote their stats in hexadecimal…
And if you are going to be a happy crew of malcontents trading their way from system to system, the Free League is the perfect support network. At least from a gamers’ perspective, if not the characters. They are strong when the players really need help, and weak when the GM wants to take the crutch away. They are connected right across the Horizon, if the players need a job or a contact, yet not so consistent that the GM can’t surprise the players once in a while. If I were a GM taking a virgin group of players on, I would probably recommend that they choose a Free League patron to get them started. And the beauty of the Free League, is I could likely offer them a Nemisis from the same faction, to show that everything ain’t black and white. Indeed if a GM said to me “I have never run a space game at all, what are my players likely to want?” I would probably reply that they should start with a short Free League based campaign. They are a perfect set of training wheels for crews and GMs.
So what’s the problem? How come it’s taken so long to write about them? The problem is that there is no challenge for the GM. An experienced GM will be excited if their players choose to be religious zealots, or secret assassins, each would be a new challenge. But if they want to be Free Leaguers, again, where can a GM find the novelty? One of the great things about the third horizon is that everything contains its own contradiction. So let’s go to the source material and see if we can find the hidden side of the Free League…
The first thing to remember is that the Free League are a Zenithian, not a Firstcome faction. They are listed alongside the Syndicate as one of the smallest Zenithian Factions ( p 188) and yet … and yet … on page 194 it says “counting official members, the Free League is the Horizon’s largest faction.” This is an interesting contradiction. It speaks I think of a membership not wholly affiliated to the cause of the faction. People join like they join the AA, or the triple A, or whatever your local roadside recovery insurance service is where you live. Thus being a member of this large organisation can help get your ship repaired on a distant backwater planet. But on Coriolis, the seat of power, there are too few powerful members to do much politically. And get this, tucked away in the timeline on page 249 is this little gem: in cc 14 “The Free League faction is founded as a partner to the Consortium.” Partners? Or lapdogs? Free? Or simply another arm of the Consortium? Extending their reach into the smaller markets that the Companies of the consortium are not yet interested in?
On the other hand, are they a Union? It only costs Br100/cycle to join. The Stevedors of Coriolis and the Net exert some power through the free league. Is the Free League getting ready to be the workers champion, and turn against the Consortium as the growth of that faction stutters and begins to fail. Will the Free League become a monster that Comsortium can no longer control? Will they one day be accused or being a terrorist organisation? After all, the Syndicate too, exert power through the Free League. Though the highest placed factionary Jesibel Niales is on to them, and working to curb their influence.
Finally, there is one little hook I really like and that’s the mention of “the Free League’s News Division.” (On page 21) Last time I talked about how the Bulletin, controlled by the Consortium was not the organisation that players wanting to be hard hitting reporters should join. The Free League might offer an outlet for independent journalists eager to seek out the truth rather than regurgitate propaganda.
Listener and Patron Nicjar set us an interesting challenge. He has been going though our blogs cataloging all our Coriolis related articles. And he pointed out that we have not done an article on all the Factions in the Third Horizon. I said that I remembered mentioning to Dave that we still had some to to do, but that he had assured me we had done them all. Dave replied that we had done them all… all the interesting ones at least.
And he was right. The only two we had not done (properly) were the Free League and the Consortium. Dave does argue that he covered them in his piece on trade, but not in the depth that we covered most of the others. So I took it upon myself to deal with the Consortium. And immediately regretted it. Because the Consortium are so damn boring. And they are boring because they are so pervasive. They are the Third Horizon. They are the government, the administration, the bureaucrats. They are the winners, the glue that bound the horizon together and made Coriolis its centre.
As it says on page 190 of the core book, “the Consortium and the Coriolis station are one – so closely tied together that most people in the Horizon can’t tell them apart.” That’s the problem, and not just on Coriolis station. Asking me to get excited about the consortium is like asking a fish to get excited about water.
But let’s give it a go. The Consortium is created from and largely controlled by families from the Zenith. Not the ones who became the Zenithian Hegemony though. These families are known as the Neo-Zenithians, more willling to work alongside and integrate with the Firstcome. So they are not racists, which is good. And good guys are never boring, are they?
Being less interested in bloodlines than their Hegemonic rivals, the Consortium claim to wield power though corporations, rather than dynasties. Though of course the same family names crop up again and again as directors of and major shareholders in the corporations. But here is a pop quiz for you: name four Consortium affiliated corporations. Go on.
Don’t worry, take all the time you need.
You can’t can you?
Well let me help. There is the Parr bio-sculpted food company, and the weapons manufacturers Xoar, Dayal, Tilides, Vulcanor, and Parr-Nestara? Ringing any bells?
Exeter? They offer cruises and tourism, apparently. Advanced manufacturing and research is the purview of those household names Celer-Delekta and Nyala. Alkarra make spaceships, but does any PC group actually fly an Alkarra spacecraft? And if they do, do they even care? Oh, and let’s not forget the first name in gravitics, Nomo!
One could maybe build an adventure around industrial espionage, or illegal research, but none of these companies are Weyland Yutani, let’s face it.
Actually there are three Consortium Corporations your players have heard of, but only one feels like an actual corporation, and that’s The Bulletin, the Horizon-wide communications and media company. The other two are the Foundation which I guess is a corporation in the old fashioned sense, like any university, but with its public interest education a research mission, it does not quite feel like a company. The other even has a word in its name that suggests it isn’t a corporation at all, but rather a quasi-governmental organisation, and that’s the Colonial Agency.
What’s important about these three corporations is that they each have a seat on the Council of Factions, ensuring the Consortium’s heavy influence on that body, but also, possibly making them almost factions in their own right.
Playable factions? I am not sure. While it’s interesting the think that the Faction Standing talent might make you a mover and shaker in the Bulletin, Foundation or the Agency. It’s only the latter two that, to my mind, hold any potential fun for players. While you might enjoy the concept of a investigative journalist reporting for the Bulletin, who should remember that the Bulletin is a mouthpiece of the establishment. A media organisation that does not speak thrush to power as the fourth estate should, but lies to the people on behalf of the Council. And no you are not going to crush it from the inside, because it controls not must the message but the means of communication, the relay stations and probes that communicate across portals. No, any journalism campaign has god to be about underground publications and pirate channels … not being the media lap-dogs of the state. At a push … it might be fun to play a team whose job it is to cover up for mysterious incidents, and make up mundane stories that explain away strange happenings… but it would be a push. And, that seems to better suit the Colonial Agency, really…
A Foundation campaign or adventure might be fun… investigating portal builder archeology like a space Indiana Jones, but the agents of the Hegemony fill in for the Nazis could work.
And then there is the Colonial Agency … who many Firstcome might consider to be as bad as the Zenithian Hegemony anyhow. If you want to play colonists, making a life for themselves in a hostile environment, and learning to get along with the natives (and importantly – you really don’t want to play the Alien RPG), then the agency might be the way to go. Or you could play the Agency as a sort of mixed up Starfleet in a Star Trek style mission to explore strange new worlds. The only problem is there are not many new worlds left to explore.
Which brings us I think to the best opportunity for role playing in the consortium. That lies in the phrase at the top of the core books’ entry on the Consortium: “Expansion is life”.
The secret of making the the Consortium interesting lies in it’s antithesis. Expansion is slowing to a halt. If the Consortium can no longer grow, it faces an inevitable decline into entropy and death. There is a great group concept in the idea that the PC s are the good guys, defending the Consortium and everything it has built from the forces of evil, which includes pretty much everyone else: uppity Firstcome, Hegemonic Nazis, religious fundamentalists from Zalos, piratical Free Leaguers and Nomads. Never mind spoilers from beyond the horizon!
If the players can get invested in the idea that the a Consortium is a force for good, excusing the occasional mistakes that the Colonial Agency has made on the way, if they can appreciate the Horizon as we know it is a delicate construction of the a Consortium, which could crumble at any moment, if not for their diligent efforts, then at last, the Consortium becomes … interesting.
It’s hard writing a scenario for UKGE and GenCon for a game one has not played, so I was eager to get Vaesen to the table. I had that opportunity last week, and this post is a reflection of that session, plans for the next, and lessons learned that I will apply at UKGE. There will be spoilers for The Dance of Dreams, the scenario included in the Alpha, but I will save them for the second half of this post, which is mainly for the players of the game, to remind them where we got to. We won’t get to play again for another week.
First things first. Character generation is quick. Choose an archetype, then an age, scatter the relevant number of points across your attributes and skills, make a few narrative choices, and select one of a choice of three talents. Alien was similarly quick, and I LOVE the idea of only having one talent at the start of a campaign. Having to pick three in Coriolis seems positively onerous in comparison.
Indeed it struck me as almost as simple as making the choices in a PbtA playbook. So I quickly turned the archetypes into something like a playbook, and then gave them to the players to fill out. That process went pretty well.
I was thinking of perhaps letting convention players make their characters, limited only their choice of archetypes. But I think, timing the process on this run, that it might take too long, especially as I will also want to make time for safety tools too. So I will provide pre-gens in the adventure, and maybe include fillable playbooks as an option, with a caveat on time.
As it turned out, the players chose four of the six archetypes that I had planned to offer convention gamers: the Academic; the Servant; the Occultist; and, the Officer.
Then we got stuck into the adventure. It’s written as the first adventure in a campaign, so we start by introducing the characters to Castle Gyllencreutz and the society. This was fine… but it strikes me that a better starting adventure might involve a bit of an exploration of the castle itself, rather than what this felt like: “here are the keys to the castle, dump your stuff here and get on the road to the Witch Cat Inn.”
It wasn’t quite that bad of course. After all, the PCs were expected to use the castle’s resources to gather initial clues. This step of the investigation afforded me my first surprise as a GM: the occultist spurned the library and decided to get clues from the source itself, using the MEDIUM talent to summon up the spirit of Oscar Hjort! Now… this stumped me for a moment, the Medium talent is written as though it’s meant to be used “on-site” as it were, and there is a Seance Parlour facility you can purchase for the castle, enabling the very long-distance clue gathering that Niclas (Thom) was proposing. But this one was a one off, not the start of a campaign, and in the pursuit of Maximum Game Fun, I decided that his seance would produce results though it wasn’t Oscar Hjort that he summoned.
I definitely think, though, that a convention game and introduction to the world of Vaesen might do better without a prelude in the castle. Indeed, I am inclined to make mine a sort of prequel whenin three or more investigators meet of rather first time, drawn by different routes to the same mystery, and each coming pre-equipped with different clues, that they can share with each other.
I was really pleased with how the Journey went, with each player recounting an atmospheric scene to earn their advantage. Ghostly figures seen while lifting the cart’s axle, pages of textbooks that disappeared … the players really fell into the spirit of the game with very little prompting.
Other GMing thoughts, the different games have rules variations that mean after you have played a lot of them you find yourself wondering “how does grapple work in this game?” I am pleased I paused to check.
What actually happened *spoilers*
When the players arrived at the Witch Cat Inn and met the private detective Olaus Klint, who had sent them the mysterious note, they were eager, not just to get into the warmth of the inn but also to take rooms upstairs a get get dry. So they did not quiz the other guests for clues. Upstairs they took the opportunity to check out the other rooms, and so quickly found Nora’s Journal, which provided them with most of the clues they needed to understand the nature of Oscar Hjort.
This was the moment I decided to bring the players attention to the Countdown, buy having the innkeeper, Sami, wailing in horror as his customers fell asleep. (I failed the have the players roll for fear, as I should have done, at the sight of this mass narcolepsy). They confronted Sami (at last) with the playbill for Sophie’s shadowplay, so Sami raged, took Sophie into the kitchen to scold her and slap her, at which point she ran out of the kitchen and up to her attic.
Which act prompted the most wonderful reaction from the players: the party split up!
Not only did they split up, they went to all the right places. Prof. Brugge (Craig) sent West, his servant (Jase) to investigate the Orangery while he himself investigated the Root Cellar. Nicolas (Thom) followed Sophie up into the attic while Frank Linden (Tom) stayed with Sami. The dominos were all in the perfect places.
So, we started with the Shadowplay. Sophie suggested that Niclas watch her rehearsal, and in her sweet voice started to narrate Oscar’s story as she turned the clockwork. Her voice slowly became rougher until Oscar himself appeared from behind her screen and accused Niclas of his murder. Niclas failed a fear roll and panics, flinging himself down the ladder (for an old man however, he is mobile, and did not hurt himself).
Cut to Prof. Brugge, who broke into the root cellar to be confronted by a horrific vision of a rotting cave, and a vision of Oscar’s murder. His fear roll succeeded. West, sees the sleeping patrons of the inn coming out to attack the professor and tries to grapple one of them.
Meanwhile Franz realises that Sami is somehow possessed and has to stop him hanging himself.
Niclas, stumbling out of the house sees his friends seemingly attacked by the sleepwalkers. Rolls for Fear and fails again. Rather than flight, he choose a fight response and stabs one of the sleepwalkers, the priest.
Then using his advantage the Professor removers what was on a disappeared page on the journey here. A prayer against enchantment. I wasn’t sure how to handle this, rules as written, but in the last few seconds of the session, citing Maximum Game Fun I let him make a roll and he succeeded. (Perhaps a pro would have made him wait ’till the next session.)
Last week Effekt published the last part of our Coriolis actual play, but given that it was recorded in two sessions a year apart and released in five episodes a year ago, and another four more recently, I though it might be worth posting links to all the episodes, on order, to help new listeners find them more easily.
In episode eight of Song to the Siren, our Coriolis actual play, Yaphet and Salah confronted Córdoba, the “cannibal king” of Salvagetown. To be honest, I don’t think we heard enough about him in the AP, so as I am writing the adventure in full for the forthcoming Free League Workshop, I thought I might share some of that write-up, here, so that anyone who is interested can see what how I had intended him to be played, even if my players “turned left” (with an excellent shiv in the eye way back in episode one).
The head man of the Salvagetown “community” is Córdoba. He is big. Indeed, he is the “biggest guy in the yard,” who some players may choose to fight in the hope of asserting their violent credentials among the other prisoners.
Córdoba is not just big, he is in shape, and his skin has the reddish tone of a humanite with the Hardened Epidermis Talent. His physical abilities give him a confidence which can seen in the slow, casual way in which he approaches everyone he talks to or prepares to fight. He prefers to fight unarmed, but does carry a meat clever which, if he is pressed he in not adverse to using it in combat.
His preferred use of the cleaver is what gives him his fearsome reputation. He eats people. He is an adherent of some remnant of the Nazareem’s Sacrifice, the long outlawed, and mostly eradicated worshipers of the Beast. In his warped morality, he sees nothing wrong in this harsh environment, in feeding not just himself, but his community too, on the flesh of the weak.
Salvagetown is situated on the edge of the desert dropzone known as Harvest for a reason. Córdoba and followers are always first to arrive when a new consignment of prisoners makes planetfall. The new arrivals are usually battered and dazed by their decent, and easy prey for the harvesters and their dury-rigged Stunsticks. Swiftly incapacitated and bound they are taken back to Salvagetown as chattels . Their ration bars and water are of course all confiscated, of course, to be added the the communal stock. Some arrivals see what’s happing and run away. Neither Córdoba, nor his Harvesters will chase them far. Some will die in the desert, others will come crawling back, and the few that make it to Club Topeka are of no concern. Indeed their they might make the produce that Córdoba occasionally trades for.
Those that put up a fight just might avoid the cleaver. Córdoba is impressed by strength. He will allow any arrival who fights one of the Harvesters to try and challenge himself too. And even if defeated, anyone who puts up a spirited fight is inducted as a Harvester.
Those who don’t make the grade, the chattels, are not slaughtered, but rather eaten piecemeal. Kept tied, Córdoba will remove an arm or leg first, cauterising the wounds against infection. If they seem submissive, they may be allowed some freedom, to move about Salvagetown, and through work, earn the right to eat. Córdoba is no fool though, and will chop more limbs off troublemakers, and finally cook their offal too. Eat the whole beast is his motto.
The motto applies in a way to everything that lands on Harvest. Once the prisoners themselves are rounded up, the Harvesters return to collect the landing pods themselves. Back in Salvagetown they, and some paraplegic chattels set to break them up for raw materials, trading parts, and making these equipment they need to sustain their way of life.
Córdoba’s motivations are simple: the survival of his community, and the display of strength. Submit to him and you will be looked after, either as a harvester or as a chattel/slave.
Skills: Melee combat 3; Dexterity 2; Survival 1
Improvised Stunstick (Bonus +1, Init 0; Damage 1, Crit: Stun; Range Close; stun , cel powered ; Tech 0.)
Harvesters are driven by loyalty to Córdoba and the desire not to be eaten
The Harvesters drive solar powered scratch built vehicles to go about their gruesome task in the scrubby desert of Harvest. Consisting of a small cab at the front and a platform at the back, partly shaded by the photoelectric panel that powers the motor. They have a battery of sorts but quickly run out of power after sundown, only viable modes of transport in daylight.
Bonus 0, HP 4, MR 11, Armor 0; Passengers 3 (plus whatever you can fit on the platform – maybe six hogtied prisoners?) Fuel solar; Tech P.
Skills: Survival 3; Technology 2; Manipulation 1
Chattels have little drive, a lot of apathy and are motivated by fear.
On the Effekt podcast, we don’t do reviews. We tell you about the games we like, because we play those games. We occasionally tell you about what we don’t like about the games we play. But we tell you this things because we play the games. If we were a review podcast we’d have to play the games, and we don’t have time to play all the games we have already got!
So, like I said, we don’t do reviews. But here I am reviewing Mörk Borg. And we haven’t played it. So what the hell am I doing?
Well first of all, let’s talk about why I backed the Kickstarter. The first reason was that this is a book that comes with Free League’s name on it. Though that’s only one of the names. This is, in many respects, an Indy project, supported with Free League’s publishing experience and distribution. It demonstrates how the Free League has grown. When they first started publishing in English, they looked to Modiphius for their experience and publishing networks. Now they are in a position to take a similar mentoring role for the creators of Mörk Borg.
As an aside, it’s interesting to note there are two Free League logos on the cover. Their standard publishing logotype and one for the Free League Workshop, the brand that will soon appear on DriveThru as an outlet for fan-created content. All that content will, I think, be supplementary material for most of the company’s stable of Year Zero engine games and Symbaroum – not stand alone games like this one.
The other reason I backed it was the typography. I am a typography snob, ever since I trained with proper metal type back in art school, and the sample pages on the Kickstarter campaign convinced me I had to have this book, even if I never played the game. So it in that spirit in which I am reviewing Mörk Borg, not so much as a game, but as a book for your library. We’ll therefore return to typography in a while.
But first I want to talk about how the book FEELS. Never has so much thought gone into RPG texture. I raved before about how the texture of the Forbidden Lands book is exactly right for the neo-traditional nature of that game, but I am blown away by the mix of textures in this slim volume. You may already have seen the rushed unboxing video I made for our new YouTube channel. And if you have you will note I can’t stop fondling the book. It starts with the subtle embossing of the illustration on the front cover, and it ends with how different signatures (the blocks of pages that are sewn into a hardback) are made with different qualities of paper, so that the rules are smooth and the scenario is rougher. This is not a book that you want to buy on PDF.
Actually there is another reason you don’t want the PDF. In a rare lack of attention to detail, the PDF has been compiled without separating the cover from the interior spreads. So where the design goes over two pages (and it FREQUENTLY goes over two pages) PDF readers can’t appreciate the beauty of the layout.
Huh. Looks like we are talking aesthetics already. So be it. The book LOOKS gorgeous. It has the aesthetics of the photocopied punk rock fanzines of the seventies and eighties. But that analogy does not do it justice, because if you haven’t seen it you’ll be thinking it’s black and white. It isn’t. It’s a riot of colour, with Cadmium Yellow covers, bright emo pinks. It switches between monotone, spot colour, three colour and full colour printing between spreads. It even uses metallic foil. It’s only a slim book, but every turn of the page is a surprise and a delight.
I said we’d talk about typography. Now, you should understand that has a typography snob, I HATE HATE HATE poor use of type. Every time my co-host Dave sends me a document I wince at his choice of typefaces, the way he uses too many different fonts, underlines all his titles… gah, I am tensing up just writing about it. I tell people again and again that just because your computer comes with a gazillion fonts, it doesn’t mean you have to use any more than two in a document.
They use more than two fonts in Mörk Borg. There are over 100. But they use them all so well! Every spread is a delight! There is a crazy logic to all their choices. In the hands of most people this could be a hot mess, but designer Johan Nohr knows and loves his type. This is the work of a master. He is also responsible for the illustrations which have the carefree mastery of early Picasso sketches – each one simultaneously looking like something you doodled in your exercise book at school, and something you could never draw as well, not even with 100 years of practice.
So let’s talk about the system. Now I am not a fan, or indeed any sort of expert, in that gaming thing called “OSR.” Hell, I don’t even know whether the R stands for “Old School Rules” “Revival” or “Renaissance.” In fact, just about the only thing I do know, is the OSR community can’t agree what the R stands for either. However, I think I have just taken delivery of an OSR game. Do correct me if I am wrong, but I understand OSR games to be based upon a stripped down rules light take on the early versions of D&D. And this bares all the hallmarks of that philosophy.
Regular readers will know I am not a fan of the d20 and it’s linearity. But there are things I read in this book that almost, almost, make me want to play this game. For a start, there are no character classes. (Well, there are, but that’s an optional rule.) You start your character by rolling a d6 and a couple of d12s to find out what equipment you have. The d6 gives you things you can carry stuff with, and the d12s give you stuff. Then you roll a d10 for your weapon. Oh! The typography! Oh! the layout! The weapons table is three pages long! And there are only ten items on it! This might sound like a bad thing, but it is not. It is a thing of ugly, punkish beauty!
Your roll for your ability bonuses too, a traditional 3d6 for each, and hit points. And then step five is , and I quote: “Name your character if you wish. It will not save you.” Yes the setting is very dark.
How dark? As dark as confronting your worst self on a moonless night, in a cellar, with a blindfold. This world is ending. There is no way to save it. Your characters are scrabbling for some tiny comfort, some moment of safety, before the end. Which is inevitable. According to the Calendar of Nechrubel, your campaign lasts long enough for six prophesies to come true, then the seventh prophesy occurs: “The game and your life end here. Burn the book” it says.
Which is why I will never play. I don’t want it to end. I can’t burn this.