Basilisk’s Legacy: from Dark Fort to Mörk Borg

David Hoskins, ruin basilisk

Pelle Nilsson developed Mörk Borg from a small, solo dungeon crawler called Dark Fort. This precursor was published alongside Mörk Borg Cult’s Feretory, allowing players to experience the award-winning RPG’s humble origins.

But Dark Fort is more than just a curiosity or a fun diversion. It is instructive. The design choices and philosophy that define Mörk Borg are identifiable not only in Dark Fort’s gameplay and visual aspects, but also in the nascent concepts, images, and themes that develop more fully in its successor.

Gameplay

Dark Fort cover image
Dark Fort by Pelle Nilson; Mork Borg Cult, 2020.

The only materials Dark Fort requires are a pencil, a pair of documents (the instructions and the character sheet), and two dice: a d4 and a d6.

The d6 is the real workhorse, especially in combat, which is fast and efficient. If you hit, you deal damage, but if you miss, you receive damage. Do more damage than you receive, kill the monster, earn points, and use them to level up. If you’re able, buy some gear and better weapons. Then go explore more rooms and kill more monsters. Level up five more times to win the game.

The vast supermajority of Dark Fort’s mechanics are devoted to generating a random dungeon and populating it with monsters and loot. Mörk Borg’s focus is obviously very different, though it does preserve its origin in the form of a random dungeon generator. But this is a supplemental mechanic rather than the foundation of the game, and those dungeons are much less concrete and much more atmospheric than those Dark Fort produces. Instead, Mörk Borg directs its energy into adapting and expanding Dark Fort’s streamlined mechanics beyond crawling a fairly generic dungeon.

The Rules

Dark Fort’s rulebook (designed by Johan Nohr) is actually a single sheet, bi-fold pamphlet. Graphics on the front and back set the scene, the internal 2-page spread delivers the rules, and the last page explains leveling up and the endgame. Middle-weight cardstock lends a bit more substance to the document without diluting the content.

Johan Nohr's layout for Dark Fort's rules
Johan Nohr’s layout for Dark Fort differs markedly from those in Mörk Borg.
Pelle Nilson, Dark Fort; Mork Borg Cult, 2020.

The text is printed almost entirely in a Courier mono typeface. The most visually interesting characteristic is the script elaborating gear abilities and limitations. Its appearance (juxtaposed against blocks of text) recalls graffiti scrawled across a drab brick wall. This nascent visual seed grows into a more expressive, full-blown punk/metal aesthetic in Mörk Borg.

But contra Mörk Borg’s visual and verbal expressiveness, Dark Fort is very technically oriented. It is so efficient it seems sterile, especially compared to its successor. The writing has very little of the visual or subtextual character and diversity found in Mörk Borg, but it delivers the mechanics efficiently and clearly.

The Character Sheet

Pelle Nilson & Johan Nohr, Dark Fort character sheet
This Kargunt only made it to level 2.
Pelle Nilson and Johan Nohr, Dark Fort, 2020.

Dark Fort’s character sheet efficiently organizes and presents the information needed to play. The sheet’s top half is divided into two columns. On the left is all the gear you can collect, stats are on the upper right, and below them are the rewards earned through leveling up. The sheet’s bottom half is a blank frame for mapping your dungeon.

The overall document design is a clear precursor to the bleeding-edge usability that informs Mörk Borg’s character sheet and reference sheet. Only the functions, layout, and aesthetic are distinctly different.

Shared Images and Tropes

Mörk Borg veterans can expect to see some familiar faces like the blood-drenched skeleton (which gets a more elaborate stat block in Mörk Borg), a peddler from beyond the void (who makes a modified cameo in “Rotblack Sludge”), and a not-very-occult herbmaster (who gets occult enough to become a base character class). Other NPCs like the dying mystic and the riddling soothsayer give a taste of the grim flavor that fully permeates Mörk Borg. The same is true of Dark Fort’s magical scrolls, which become more diverse and sinister in the later game.

Dark Fort’s graphics (by David Hoskins) are defined by clean monochrome, nicely capturing the old-school RPG aesthetic that preceded cost-effective color printing and glossy paper. But despite this disparity, there are distinct visual markers that tie Dark Fort to Mörk Borg: the resemblance between Kargunt and the Fanged Deserter, the mangled head of the hyena-headed grotesque, and most notably the ruin basilisk looming over Dark Fort’s title page, an image that visually prefigures the status of the two-headed basilisks in Mörk Borg.

Adversity-Oriented Mechanics

There are instances when Mörk Borg hands players a stick with two shitty ends, and it refuses to apologize. For example, if the illiterate Fanged Deserter generates scrolls for his/her starting gear, those items are functionally worthless (unless you have the Greymatter Crown ability hidden in Scvmbirther), and they can’t be replaced or redeemed. In life and in games, we are at fate’s mercy, and it churns out adversity players and characters must accept and overcome.

There are times when Dark Fort also throws some unexpected twists and challenges at its player. One of the level-up rewards provides no mechanical benefit; it’s entirely narrative. Another awards an item the player may already have found or purchased. These non-benefits foreshadow the potential for character abilities to fall, rather than rise, when Getting Better (or worse) in Mörk Borg.

And like in Mörk Borg, there are moments when death is random, instant, and inescapable. Even if you defeat a medusa in Dark Fort, there’s still a 1-in-6 chance you get petrified. Time to print a fresh character sheet and start a new dungeon.

Lore

“The catacomb rogue enters the stage.”

And with no other exposition, you delve into Dark Fort.

The game’s text is focused on mechanics, not on imagery or atmosphere. But this single sentence does a lot of work situating the player and their character as the antihero of their own bleak, solitary drama.

The player’s goal is to level up 6 times. Their character then retires “until the 7th Misery occurs and everything you know blackens and burns”—a sudden, apocalyptic twist on the player’s hard-won victory. This conclusion is effectively an ellipsis pointing the player away from Dark Fort and toward the more expansive Mörk Borg, where the true end lurks just beyond the breaking of the 7th Seal.

Conclusions

Dark Fort is not as compelling as Mörk Borg. It is not as visually innovative or thematically evocative as its successor. It is not as experientially diverse.

But it is extremely compact and efficient, and it is a fun way to spend a solitary hour or two. Minimal material requirements make it easy to carry in a bag or pocket and to play whenever you want to kill some time and some monsters.


How do you think Dark Fort compares to Mörk Borg? Leave a comment with your thoughts (and your high score for number of rooms explored).

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5 thoughts on “Basilisk’s Legacy: from Dark Fort to Mörk Borg

    1. Yup! It’s included with Mörk Borg Cult: Feretory, which is available digitally at DriveThruRPG and physically on Amazon and the Free League web store. You can find it lots of other places too.

      Like

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