This post’s for you, Johan.
Mörk Borg and Human Occupied Landfill (HōL) are both singular books. Their resemblance stems from their rebellion against the RPG industry norms and standards for rulebooks. But each approaches that goal in different ways, with very different purposes, and with different results.
Typography and Layout
The visual characters of Mörk Borg and HōL are their most apparent similarity and difference.
Both convey information with text, so you have to read for content. But both also exploit the visual character of written language. Instead of looking through the text to the information, they want you to look at the text as an expressive visual component.
Both reject the standard convention of typeset text in normalized blocks and columns. HōL is almost entirely hand-written; the exceptions are the covers, the copyright page, some publisher ads at the back, and a single anomalous page that only says “ling.”
Mörk Borg, on the other hand, was produced purely digitally. It can’t match HōL’s granular holographic (hand-written) textual heterogeneity, but its 100+ typefaces—and the use of color—create a distinctly variegated and sophisticated visual texture. As a result, Mörk Borg’s diversity is more apparent to the reader at a more meaningful scale.
Although HōL leverages the text’s visually expressive dimension and ventures into some avant-garde layouts, it still cleaves to some of the basic conventions that Mörk Borg rejects. Pages tend to gravitate toward linear blocks of self-similar text or some approximation thereof.
HōL’s text is also most frequently (though not universally) segregated from illustrations and other visual elements, creating a more traditional page gestalt. By comparison, it rarely delves into the visual complexity and nuance that define the little yellow book of doom.
Tone and Humor
Both games drop players into doomed worlds. In Mörk Borg, they’re anti-heroes who are—at best—dying by inches as reality crawls toward its ultimate cataclysmic end. The Human Occupied Landfill is a garbage planet populated by material and human refuse—criminals, deviants, predators, etc.
But neither game drives exclusively toward absolute gritty edginess. HōL is so over the top and self-deprecating that you can’t take it seriously. Mörk Borg’s tone is grimmer overall, but the writing is punctuated by judicious, well-placed gallows humor that takes the edge off and considerably lightens the mood without fundamentally altering it.
HōL, on the other hand, consistently and staunchly refuses to take itself seriously. Its irreverence is entertaining for a couple dozen pages, but after that, it quickly becomes repetitive, and its humor value wears thin. Mörk Borg, in contrast, uses an asymmetrical balance of bleakness and irony (not to mention a significantly lower word count) to stay fresh, entertaining, and inspiring.
Usability (or lack thereof)
Just like a cookbook, a rulebook’s purpose is to be used. Most of us aren’t going sit down and read a recipe to pass the time, and the same is generally true of RPG mechanics.
There’s a long tradition of reading RPG books for fun, but generally with the intent of perhaps someday playing or at least imagining how the system plays. Some read RPGs’ lore for entertainment, but it’s again usually in the interest of real or imagined play.
Caveats aside, a rulebook’s primary, intended purpose is let us play a game. We read it to get acquainted with the system, and we reference it at the table when we have need.
That isn’t the case with Mörk Borg or HōL.
As a system, Mörk Borg is designed for speed and utility. The basic mechanics are quick to learn and just as easy to use. When a question arises, players can consult the comprehensive one-page rules reference sheet. And should you need to crack open the book during play, its excellent index and its visual diversity make navigation easy despite the lack of chapters, page headings, and other common apparatus.
Mörk Borg is at its most complex during attribute generation and character advancement. And even then, the process is so lightweight that it still takes less time than in most other class-based RPGs.
HōL doesn’t have classes. It also doesn’t have rules for character creation. It provides a handful of pre-made characters, and its expansion Buttery Wholesomeness provides some tables for random character generation.
This is emblematic of HōL’s relationship to players: from the outset, it is against them. The system itself is heavier with more detailed mechanics, and the book (as a play material) is challenging to use.
HōL has a rules reference sheet … of sorts. It summarizes the combat procedure, which is a multistep back-and-forth that incorporates a table à la old-school D&D and its wargaming kindred. But that table isn’t reproduced on the reference sheet; players must flip backward in the book to find and use it.
Besides the combat summary, the sheet’s only other entry is “Everything Else”, which berates the player and tells them to look up whatever mechanic they need (just like the damage table). However, HōL has no page numbers and so no table of contents or index. And the holographic character causes the pages, including the headings, to bleed together into a homogeneous mush. On occasion, the stylized section headings are more difficult to read than the standard text, hindering usability instead of facilitating it.
HōL was originally published in 1995 and again in 2002—both editions appearing well before the boom in digital RPG distribution. Nowadays, we can rely on internal hyperlinks and CTRL+F to quickly find the desired terms and passages. But in an appropriate quirk of progress, digital technology preserves HōL’s recalcitrance: the text is not even remotely machine-searchable.
In their own ways, both games critique rules-heavy systems and D&D in particular. Mörk Borg implicitly does this by providing a faster, simpler, but still extremely enjoyable experience that is mechanically similar to the d20 system; for anyone familiar with D&D, Mörk Borg will be relatively easy to pick up and play.
HōL explicitly derides D&D (and its players) throughout the text. Its content reacts against the mainstream tradition, and it embraces complicated gameplay as a form of satire. It uses both to mock the more popular and well-established game. But its critique of RPGs doesn’t end there.
In HōL, misspellings, errors, and redactions abound. This emphasizes its holographic quality and creates a working-draft ethos, the sort of document that (like proof sheets) would normally be discarded after production since it no longer holds practical value.
This visually reiterates HōL’s focus on waste and identifies the physical book with the content it describes. With its own characteristic humor, HōL acknowledges that it is—and even aspires to be—trash.
Mörk Borg, on the other hand, situates itself at the far end of the spectrum. It is a self-professed art/rulebook. It pushes boundaries in the (apparently) opposite direction, and like HōL, its graphic design and illustrations aren’t just for show. Its typographical manipulation and its gritty non-verbal elements complement the text’s tone and content. The book clearly conveys a sense of apocalyptic decay without ever actually depicting it.
As books, Mörk Borg and HōL have similar but still distinct aims, and they pursue them in ways that are both contrasting and comparable. The end results, though, are quite different. Nearly two years after release, Mörk Borg absolutely thrives. HōL, nearly two decades after initial publication, has more or less been relegated to either the shelves of collectors or the waste basket of RPG history—if its owner isn’t too lazy to throw it out.
Next time, another comparative review: Mörk Borg & Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
In space, no on can hear you yawn.
For partygoers who want to kill some time and themselves
A summary & discussion of my paper about RPGs and art