A Festive Apocalypse

Mörk Borg took the gaming world by storm in 2020. It has been revolutionary. Full stop.

Supporting that claim would yield a post unto itself. Curious readers can explore it further through the various reviews, writeups, and interviews with Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr. (I’d particularly recommend my own interview with Johan, available in Wyrd Science: Session Zero; our conversation focused on Mörk Borg’s textual and graphic divergence from rulebook norms and standards.)

Instead, as this year winds down, I think it’s appropriate to examine Mörk Borg’s deeper cultural roots. The goal is to better appreciate not only its radical newness but also its contiguity with longstanding Western practices and traditions.

To do so, I’m turning to Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World, a critical inquiry into the literary work of the titular sixteenth-century French humanist. (All unattributed quotations below are from this text.) In the book’s introduction, Bakhtin rehabilitates the modern perception of Medieval Carnival culture and the imagery that accompanies it, all of which is a direct precursor to Mörk Borg’s peculiar comedic-grotesque ethos.

“It’s grimdark with a cold beer and a smile.”

– Johan Nohr, Bastionland Podcast interview

Carnival & Play

Bakhtin uses the term carnival in a specific sense that precedes the Tilt-A-Whirl and funnel cakes. Under the strict definition, Carnival is a Christian festival preceding Lent. Many of us are probably most familiar with Carnival through the high-profile spectacles of Mardi Gras and the Carnival of Brazil.

But more broadly, the same atmosphere and attitude that characterized Medieval Carnival persist in other festivities and revels. These frequently accompany holidays and breaks with normal, everyday life. This separate space constitutes what Bakhtin calls “a second world and a second life outside officialdom.”

This second world defined by carnival culture admits “no other life outside” itself. The “festive life” is “subject only to its own laws … the laws of its own freedom.” It provides “temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order” and entails “suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions.” (The Mörk Borg rulebook itself enacts this latter point at a textual level, which I discuss in my material review.)

“Fuck the rules. Just do whatever you want.”

– Johan Nohr, Worldbuild With Us interview

Those who’ve read my post on Johan Huizinga’s theory of play will recognize carnival culture’s point-for-point correspondence to the play attitude we adopt in gaming: it is freely engaged, disconnected from mundane concerns, provides intrinsic satisfaction, occurs within certain specified limits, but within those limits operates according to special rules. Bakhtin identifies carnival culture as possessing a “strong element of play” while Huizinga calls Rabelais, the subject of Bakhtin’s book, “the play-spirit incarnate.”

Mörk Borg’s strongest tie to carnival culture is its status as a game. Festivity and revelry almost universally involve food, drink, laughter, intoxication, and a general playfulness, all of which we find at the gaming table. We bring snacks, we drink and/or smoke, we crack bad jokes, we wear metaphorical masks, and we have an overall good time by escaping from the mundane world and inhabiting an imaginary one for a few hours.

And the same is true, at a larger scale, of gaming conventions, another life-outside-life built around gaming’s life-outside-life. At cons, carnival spectacle and pageantry often receive much greater emphasis, but the broad act and attitude of play still reigns supreme. And this milieu, by Pelle Nilsson’s own admission, is the origin of Mörk Borg. In the long and short historical scopes, the game is firmly rooted in carnival culture.

“Everything started at a convention in the northern part of Sweden (called Grottröj). We played late at night and I really wanted simple rules: rules for the pub.”

– Pelle Nilsson, Mongol Cult interview

Equality & Inclusivity

At the table and at cons, another quality of carnival is (ideally) present: the festive culture “embraces all people,” as “all were considered equal during carnival.”

Mörk Borg enacts this openness through its minimal ruleset and broad sketch of its setting. The rules-lite formal structure is easy to pick up and play, and it gives the GM plenty of breathing room to make the game their own. The painted-in-broad-strokes setting likewise grants flexibility to take control of the world and guide its development/downfall.

“We don’t own the game anymore once you’ve bought it.”

– Johan Nohr, Worldbuild With Us interview

The Mörk Borg Third-Party License expands player agency by letting them create and publish whatever content they can dream up—within reason. The license also explicitly calls for inclusivity and equality when doing so, ensuring everyone feels welcome at the table:

“Make it dark, depressing, weird and cruel. But let everyone partake in the suffering. Be sure to avoid sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic tropes and themes in your content. There’s plenty of that crap in the real world already. The world of MÖRK BORG doesn’t need it.”

It may seem like the GM’s role violates the principle of equality and suspension of hierarchy, but remember: the GM is just another player with a different type of credibility at the table. The GM can’t control player characters (under normal circumstances, at least) and shouldn’t unreasonably inhibit their freedom; the gamerunner’s role is to ensure play continues and gratifies the participants. And this role has roots in Medieval carnival culture as well.

English Christmastime revels were overseen by a pseudo-authority most widely known as the lord of misrule (also the king of the bean, the boy bishop, and others titles under various contexts). The lord of misrule was actually an anti-lord, an authority in name only; their job was to facilitate festivities, not to govern them. The lord of misrule and the GM alike have only the pretense of authority, and that is granted so they can fulfill a single purpose: to keep the party going, in every sense of the phrase.

Grotesque Realism

Medieval Carnival enacted a break from strictly ordered life governed by spirituality, and modern secular carnival culture does the same with other governing paradigms. In both cases, carnival inverts normal emphases, turning the world upside down, and we can see this clearly in the imagery traditionally associated with carnival culture.

Grotesque realism is the guiding principle of carnival imagery, and the essential function of grotesque realism is degradation: “the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body.” This emphasis on the body is everywhere in Mörk Borg , from the Bad Habits and Broken Bodies tables, to individual class traits, to graphic and textual depictions of characters and monsters.

“It’s not realism—you can definitely say that.”

– Johan Nohr, Mildra interview

The carnivalesque grotesque lays low the exalted, brings the high downward. In the cosmic symbolic sense, upward represents the sacred and the spiritual while downward indicates the profane, material stratum of the earth and the body. Degradation entails “contact with earth as an element that swallows up and gives birth at the same time” as it provides the “popular corrective of laughter … to the narrow-minded seriousness of spiritual pretense.”

Again, we see this enacted on the material level of the rulebook. First and foremost, Mörk Borg adopts the popular (what Bakhtin might have called “marketplace”) zine aesthetic that intentionally breaks with RPG publishing standards and norms. At the same time, its status as a hybrid rulebook/artbook exalts the book before bringing it low again by playing on its materiality.

An RPG rulebook is a tool for playing a game. It is meant to be used, and that use will inevitably entail physical wear, no matter how hard we try to preserve it. An artbook, on the other hand, is meant to be handled very carefully and preserved in as pristine a form as possible. Mörk Borg contravenes the latter by encouraging the former: the Bad Habits layout instructs us to throw knives at the book, and the Calendar of Nechrubel demands we “burn the book” when the final Misery befalls the world.

Many of us probably aren’t going to do either of those things—I keep my copy on my shelf, wrapped in the packing slip, probably fetishizing it as an artbook more than most people do—but these tongue-in-cheek instructions nonetheless remind us not to exalt the book or the game too highly. All things are caught in the flux of process, and like the Dying World, the book and the game—like every carnival—must eventually find their ends.

The Grotesque Body

The grotesque image is one of “unfinished metamorphosis.” It is most potently depicted through the figure of the “unfinished and open” body that is “an incarnation of this world at the absolute lower stratum, as the swallowing up and generating principle.”

The grotesque body is defined by its relation to time and its ambivalence (in the sense of having two valences). These dual characteristics are unified in the image of the body that is simultaneously pregnant and dying. As Bakhtin puts it, “time is given as two parallel (actually simultaneous) phases of development, the initial and the terminal … death and birth.”

We find the grotesque body in Mörk Borg ’s most emblematic image: the two-headed basilisks. SHE emerged at the dawn of the Dying World, and SHE gave birth to HIM, who attests to that world’s end. The rulebook describes the basilisks as “two and two-headed,” multiplying the grotesque body’s ambivalence while simultaneously subverting its symbolic function. The iconic grotesque body in Mörk Borg is not pregnant; it has already given birth and now has nothing left to do but undergo deterioration and wait for death—just like the Dying World itself.

“Someone on our Discord said … wouldn’t it be funny if there weren’t an apocalypse? … All the fuss about everything, and then nothing happens.”

– Johan Nohr, Mildra interview

Happy Yesterday to All

We frequently think of apocalypse as the end of the world: a cosmic cataclysm, a nuclear holocaust, or some other catastrophic event. But etymologically, apocalypse means a profound insight or moment of enlightenment—hence the Christian apocalyptic narrative is titled The Book of Revelation.

Carnival is one such apocalypse—it reveals a world and a way of living beyond the mundane and everyday order. And Mörk Borg is another—it enacts a radical break from standards and expectations of what rulebooks and grimdark games should be. It leverages iconoclastic imagery and occult themes, but it does so with its tongue firmly ensconced in its cheek, inviting us to laugh along with it. “The people’s laughter … characterized all forms of grotesque realism from immemorial times,” Bakhtin reminds us. “Laughter degrades and materializes.”

“When we sit down to play Mörk Borg we laugh our asses off, all the time. We don’t take it seriously for one second.”

– Johan Nohr, Mottokrosh interview

This post doesn’t even come close to examining all the intersections of Mörk Borg and carnival culture, or their implications. For example, the subversion of the grotesque body’s ambivalence and the process of degradation call for further exploration in the context of the setting’s ongoing disintegration in the absence of the body’s traditional promise of renewal.

But rather than trying to cover it all myself, I’ll leave that loose thread—and all the others—to be tied up by you, critically minded reader. After all, doing otherwise would fundamentally contravene the carnival spirit of plurality and equality and the participatory nature of revelry and games.

In other words: have yourself a merry little apocalypse.

Liber Ludorum is entirely reader-funded. Please consider lending your support.

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