Friday, April 14, 2023


A common criticism against Mörk Borg is that it's all style and no substance. While I can see its critics' point, I also feel it's an unfairly reductive assessment of the 2020 dark fantasy game published by Free League. Certainly, a key element of Mörk Borg's appeal is its extravagant esthetics – a chaotic graphic design accentuated by riotous colors and moody, uneven illustrations. What's overlooked, I think, is that this sensibility is more than a mere artistic affectation but rather a deliberate design choice intended to convey as much to the reader as its text, proof of the old aphorism that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Yet, I must admit that the game's latest release, Ikhon, skirts very close to prioritizing style over substance, especially when compared to its previous releases. Written by the game's creator, Pelle Nilsson, Ikhon comes in a small (6.25" × 4.5") box, inside of which are four, staple-bound 20-page booklets. Each booklet is dedicated to one of the four titular Ikhons, "ancient god-vessels of cured skin and soot-black wood, as rare and as valuable as they are blasphemous." These vessels are reputed to be the handiwork of the dark divinity Nechrubel, who bound within them "the Profane Profound," a quartet of lesser but nevertheless potent supernatural entities: the Bilkherd, the Becklure, the Old Dead, and the Silkfiend.

A character who somehow manages to obtain an Ikhon may call upon the powers of the Profane Profound shackled within. Doing so is not just a blasphemy according to the inquisitors of the Two-Headed Basilisks but also fraught with danger, as the powers of an Ikhon may rebound disastrously upon the wielder and/or his companions. Each booklet contains a brief description of one of the Profane Profound, along with pages numbered from one to "ten+." The pages detail an escalating series of responses to attempts to call upon one of these "age-old and nigh-forgotten folk gods." Which response a character gets is determined by a roll of a d8. The roll can be modified by +1 "for every willing human sacrifice" and "for each significant body part severed from the wielder of the Ikhon," to a maximum of +3. An Ikhon is thus a bit like a deck of many things or a wand of wonder from AD&D, an unpredictable source of power that can harm as well as aid.

The responses vary considerably. All are evocatively described, but many completely lack game mechanics of any kind. Consider, for example, the lowest (1) response in the Bilkherd's booklet:
He summons his Herd. 
To the hateful goats, you are the field-poisoners, earth-salters, torch-wielders and slaughter's heralds. A thousand thousand strong, trampling all in their path and leaving only blood, sorrow and the dust of crushed bones. 
All is obliterated under spiteful, churning hooves.

Meanwhile, the highest (10+) response in the same booklet is the following:

The Lamb from Beneath the Mud: heralded by rotten stench and glistening carmine eyes hanging at its hooves.

It devours one chosen foe, effortlessly masticating and grinding them whole, before sinking into the burbling muck.

Summon the Lamb within the hour – and never speak of it again.

 As I said above, the responses are evocatively described, but, in many cases, I'd trade that for a little clarity. Now, I am not opposed to inspirational vagueness. Indeed, I think a degree of textual indeterminacy is a necessary feature of old school roleplaying games. Such indeterminacy serves to inspire; its an encouragement to make a game one's own by filling in the gaps oneself. Perhaps that's what's being done here, too, but, if so, it eludes me. Rather than inspiring, Ikhon simply feels frustratingly incomplete.

In some respects, Ikhon reminds me of Tékumel's The Book of Ebon Bindings, another RPG product that ostensibly introduces the summoning of powerful supernatural beings into its associated game. While Ebon Bindings is grandiloquent and Ikhon terse, both shed far less light on their subject matter from a gaming perspective than I – and I suspect most gamers – would find immediately useful. In the case of the former, one can at least luxuriate in its overblown language. Ikhon, though, mostly offers Samuel Arraya's gloomy artwork, which is something, I suppose,. Whether that's enough to justify the purchase of this product is an open question.

I wish I liked Ikhon more than I do. The idea behind it is a solid one, very much in keeping with the dark fantasy inspirations of Mörk Borg. As presented, though, I find it inadequate to its intended purpose. Others may feel differently and indeed I can easily imagine that the very things I find wanting, such as its gnomic text and limited game mechanics, might prove attractive to others. Goodness knows I often enjoy game products that others do not. In the end, I suppose my feelings about Ikhon derive from how much I've enjoyed previous Mörk Borg releases. Compared to them, this one fell flat and I am left disappointed.


  1. I'm no fan at all of Mork Borg, but playing devil's advocate, what more would you want from Ikhon in terms of game mechanics?

    Going by the examples you provided it's clear enough how you invoke the relic's power - roll d8 plus maybe some mods, pray for high numbers.
    The 1 result in the example calls up a million-gait stampede that flattens the invoker into mulch along with anyone or anything else that can't get away fast enough or somehow resist the onslaught - which probably means some kind of magical escape route or finding an actual castle to hide in, because a mere stockade or roadside inn sure isn't going to hold up to a million goats. Congrats on the self-inflicted TPK and maybe killing a bunch of innocents and wrecking a settlement, I guess. They said these things were dangerous.

    The 10+ result puts an auto-kill on any one enemy you like that can be used anytime within an hour - and might be a once in a lifetime thing for the invoker if the GM wants it to be. Doesn't sound like the foe needs to be present, but they need to be someone you can "choose" so no anonymous enemies or people you've never heard of. The GM could probably decide to let you send the thing after the King of Stinkland or whatever, or maybe you need a name not just a title. The GM can stick on limits to avoid a total game-breaker, but considering you sacrificed at least a couple of people and/or body parts (and likely more than that) to get that high a result I'd be generous. There's probably some BS in the game that can survive being eaten and digested by a god-goat-avatar-thing anyway. That'll be fun when they come back later and ask if that's all the PC's have got.

    Sounds like this is mostly works by fiat stuff. Putting more numbers to it would just limit the GM's options.

    1. While I've read reviews and had a look online at parts of the original materials, I've never bought or engaged in a session of Mörk Borg. It's not the premise that puts me off, it's the garish colours and difficulty to read what is written.

      I do think that I'd enjoy Scandanavian folk horror (my 15yo self certainly would have), but the game seems that it would have better suited as a source book for a BX clone.

      Like Dick I think that this supplement sounds interesting and I think that it wouldn't be difficult to rule on mechanics for these effects using aspects already in the BX game. But I do agree with your point that what is being sold as 4 small 20-page books is thin.

      This supplement would have been a 2-page article in White Dwarf back in the day.

    2. "It's not the premise that puts me off, it's the garish colours and difficulty to read what is written."

      That's my principle criticism as well. They sacrifice utility in the name of aesthetics, and they aren't even attractive aesthetics to me. I didn't like it with Hol way back when, and I like it less here. The rather steep costs don't improve my opinion either.

      Scandinavian folk horror is quite well done by Vaesen, IMO. And that one actually looks good.

    3. I'm going to sound like a proper grognard here, but I think style and presentation is valued over and above substance in almost every public sphere now, not just rpg.

      More than 20y ago my then girlfriend was a working, impoverished, artist and she used to regularly rail against what she called 'art wank' where a simple, new & colourful idea is preferred over a more technically complicated, traditional piece. What is new isn't necessarily better and it seems to me that a lot of these indy games fall into that category.

  2. As someone who likes simple rules that don't get in the way, what draws me to a particular game is the world it evokes...whether this is through art, style or writing. I've never played Mork Borg but the impression I get is that it's a simple set of rules that does a really good job of evoking a particular setting and style of play through its presentation and art. That seems valid to me...even if the whole Metal thing isn't really my cup of tea.

    And Free League seem to place a lot value on presentation...Vaesen is gorgeous as is the upcoming Dragonbane illustrated by the same artist, Tales from the Loop/Things from the Flood, too. These are books that I can happily dip into just for the pleasure of immersing myself in the art and the worlds they evoke (whilst also admiring the quality of paper and the sewn bindings). In my opinion, good art (and presentation/layout) can do as much as the good writing in evoking a particular setting...and often in less space. So there is something to be said for focusing on the presentation.

    That said, I agree that art, style and presentation can't compensate for a mediocre set of rules or a crap adventure...but I think the new indie/OSR tendency to invest in art and presentation as well as quality books is a good thing overall. These days I only buy physical copies of books worth having as physical products...made to last and a pleasure to hold and look through. The good stuff with limited and/or crappy art I'm happy to have in PDF or print off myself.

    1. All of that is valid and I take that on board, as I too derive pleasure from the effort that people put into clever world building and beautiful supporting art. I'm a fan of John Hodgson's work for example. I do think that there's a trap in it though, where the art and world building is so good that the game or supplement is read rather than used. Many have warned about this.

    2. Maybe. I mean I do think there is such a thing as style over substance. But what I really want is style and substance.

      As for Mork Borg, there seems to be a pretty big DIY community based around the game...just take a look at DriveThru RPG...which suggests a game that is getting used and played.