[Game Dev] On Mörk Borg, and Free Kriegspiel Vampire, and Bloodspell

Last week, I bought MÖRK BORG.

I did this a) to see what all the fuss was about, b) because since Prince reviewed it I suspected the Dying Earth game of my heart’s desire might be buried in it somewhere, but mostly c) since I needed to round up a distributor order or pay for postage and packaging.

Here is a brief opinion on Mörk Borg: I love an A5-ish rulebook that fits in the same sort of space as my tablet, i.e. in a bag I can actually carry without throwing my back out; the system seems functional with just enough clacky clacky number stones to satisfy people who don’t think they’re playing a game if they don’t roll dice every few minutes; I like the atmosphere but the aesthetic choices throw me in a lot of ways, in particular the typeface changes mid paragraph get on my nerves (Chris Onstad would like a word). Seems fast, random, lethal and kvlt.

Having read it I immediately scurried back to my notes for Black Sand / Red Sun (the OSR-ish skull-and-planet campaign setting I will use the moment I have a face to face group who might be into it) and realised a) I’d written a lot more than I thought I had and b) the system I’d written was extremely close to Mörk Borg. Parallel evolution, really.

And this made me think about systems, and what they’re for, and why so many of us think we have to start with a bespoke system. I rejoined the FKR Discords I used to lurk on and this is something that’s percolated out of those conversations. It’s to do with my weird pathway into RPGs and why I always end up with just enough rules for me, which always feels like not quite enough rules for a “proper game.”

I came in with Fighting Fantasy, which showed very well that 2d6 roll low or 2d6 + X roll high opposed was enough for muscular heroics, railroading your way through a pretend shlocky sword and sorcery film, and things like magic worked as direct hacks to an encounter or challenge. Costs came off your Stamina. Saves came off ever-depleting Luck. People like to sneer at FF and AFF because they were made for an audience of bright children but you know what, the thing works. It was classical fantasy roleplay without the layers of alienating cruft.

When I got into 200+ page rulebook, genre-emulating, grown-up trad RPGs they always ended up hacked down to that basic level of operation. Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer FRP were percentage chance to resolve task and a tracker for wounds or sanity. Vampire in all its forms was compare stat pools, roll a d10 each for a random factor, with four trackers to which costs and consequences might be applied.

By the time I started to engage with the rules as written, I was already a man – and crucially playing with people I didn’t see and speak to every day. In those circumstances I think a heftier rule set compensates for the lack of organically developed trust. And, as with wargaming, when strangers do not place trust in one another they must turn to the rules, and the rules become more elaborate as they have to govern more and more possible interactions…

I could lament this, but to do so is to lament human nature. Of course we are wary around people while we get to know them. And some people like the theatre of rules play, the point of the “game” enterprise for them is assembling known factors to eliminate randomness and overcome challenges. Personally I like board games for that sort of thing, to each hole the peg best fitted and so on, but I understand the desire to blend outcomes.

This, I suppose, is the point of using something recognisably D&D-shaped for a creative endeavour like Black Sand / Red Sun; that a natural “rules are for arbitration and play-shaping, not core gameplay in themselves” roleplayer like me can run it in something like Mörk Borg or the Black Hack and it shouldn’t take that much to scale it up to your dad’s D&D if you have the time and patience to grapple with it.

In the meantime, here’s something else that’s been living in my head rent free while I think about all this. I know I’m not the first person to consider this (Cavegirl’s version is in a similar lane) but again, parallel evolution is the name of the game here. Most people who have fun with V:tM end up boiling away at least some of its convolutions.

It’s Not Quite Free Kriegspiel Vampire, But…

PENELOPE GERMAINE ARMITAGE-STONELEIGH
Cryptographer ; Priestess
Marechal: Status, Domain; Adversaries
Blood Leech: Protean; Against Other Kindred; No Eating Mortals
Lasombra: Dominate, Potence, Obtenebration; No Reflection
Hunger _ _ _ _ _
Humanity _ _ _ _ _
Willpower _ _ _ _ _
Health _ _ _ _ _

Breaking that down, that’s:

CHARACTER NAME
Pre-mortem occupation / Post-mortem occupation (bonus to anything derived from these)
Coterie Type: a couple of advantages and a disadvantage afforded to the whole group
Predator Type: a Discipline (general area of magic powers), a personal advantage and prohibition
Clan: three Disciplines and a disadvantage shared among all members of the clan
And the rest is all trackers. 1-5 because the “three rounds and you’re done” style of contemporary Vampire doesn’t need to go longer.

Rather than each Discipline being a tower of little subsystems and mechanics, they work as general areas; Dominate is anything to do with hypnosis and direct mind control, Potence is anything to do with raw, superhuman strength; Obtenebration is anything to do with weaponising shadows; Protean is anything to do with shapeshifting.

Dice rolls are five d10 plus one for each relevant advantage plus one for teamwork minus one for each relevant disadvantage. The Beast may be Roused to add two more dice but increase Hunger by one.

Dice results are per V5 with Hunger swapping in as I really like the critical/messy critical/bestial failure outcome there. (They’re easier to show than tell, so if you’re not a V5 player, trust me.) Only players roll, against a static target number of successes required (per the back of the V5 ST screen, very useful), and players only roll when Hunger would be interesting. Failures accumulate damage to Willpower, Health or Humanity. Damage loops around from Superficial (/) to Aggravated (X) and if you fill up on Aggravated you’re stuffed.

Keep the core rules this light and I might actually be able to find space in my head for Resonance, Dyscracia and all the other stuff V5 introduces on top of its core loop. More situational advantages and disadvantages, essentially.

Bloodspell

Remember that?

I bring it up because a little while ago, someone said the nicest damn thing to me: they told me that they had bought my game, played my game, enjoyed playing my game, engaged with basically everything in it and it had worked, and would I like to see a drawing of the characters they made with it? And did I want to know that it was my fault they were into other RPGs now?

That’s all I wanted. To know someone bought it not just to “support me” but because they thought it would be good, and that they were proved right. To know that it had been played.

I suspect that’s what’s tilted me back around to roleplaying and making things for it again. I really want to get some sort of face to face group together so I can figure out how to tackle BS/RS without the additional load of Discord gaming. It’s fine for what it is, but it’s not a natural fit for me, and the work of adapting to the medium is going to detract from the learning-how-to-OSR.

[Off Topic] “Oh, all right. One more lifetime won’t kill anyone…”

It’s been a hell of a year.

I don’t just mean 2020, although it absolutely has been. Leaving aside Nineteen Crows and the return to form of Perfidious Albion, there have been troubles closer to home.

I didn’t let on when I was making the final posts of what I swore would be the final year, but I’d just had to pack in my writing gigs after a year of freefalling income and declining health. I’d also run into an expensive (life-shatteringly so) bureaucratic cock-up at the same time. It was all getting a bit rough and for a while I thought I’d be spending Christmas 2019 on the streets.

Instead, by lucky hap, I took a job in a bookshop, put my PhD on hold while I learned the ropes and ended up leaving it there. And after three months, the town it’s in flooded and we became ground zero for cleanup and care. And THEN, while I was on what was going to be a week’s holiday in London, Nineteen Crows happened. I nearly ended up living in E and K’s spare room again, and when I came home I spent four months playing an Amount of Total Warhammer 2, making my peace with V:tM’s fifth edition by trying to run a couple of chronicles, and…

I also made a bunch of mini-RPGs. Having tried to crack the mid-tier RPG industry and realised what a crock it is, I fell in with the rabble-rousers and went indie. Most of them are system tests – attempts to make one or two mechanics work as isolated indie games about THIS or THAT. One is a hack I made because I was so very, very pissed off with Vampire: the Masquerade after a year doing research on it and saw a way to make Wolfspell into something that scratched the same itch and put some feelings to rest.

I actually quite like making games, it turns out, and the next one is – well, I’ve made a single to hear myself on the radio, and a couple more followed, and I’ve done a weird EP of cover versions, and the NEXT thing is going to be the debut album, as it were. Figuratively speaking.

There’s some other business. I tried Classic World of Warcraft and it was the push I needed to quit altogether. I tried to stream again, but that kind of workmanlike #content creation has never really been my scene. I ended up in charge of matters pertaining to board games at work: we are, step by step, figuring out how to turn a successful monthly club into a community and a customer base.

And, as the year turned and I had a bit of mad money even in the midst of furlough, I found myself turning back to Warhammer like an old, old friend. Half-assed collections of Chaos Dwarfs (event swag/trades) and Tomb Kings (a side project that took on appeal) have been rounded out with new third party figures. My new gaff is smaller, but located such that playing games is less of a giant fiddle to pull off. Which of course made me think about the website.

I thought – well, why not?

I have quite a bit to say. About what I’m playing, what I’m making, what I’m studying. Expect occasional dalliances with Warhammer, still, but also developer’s notes on the games I make, and the occasional bit of academic sidepiecing. It’s like the old GAME OVER days, but I’m not ripping off Andrew Eldritch’s branding. Much.