Mörk Borg & Lamentations of the Flame Princess: A Comparative Review

The first post in this series compared and contrasted Mörk Borg with Human Occupied Landfill, which both exploit nontraditional graphic design. This post compares Mörk Borg and Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) but focuses on the often-cited categorization as weird horror fantasy.

Note: I’m only comparing the core rulebooks (Mörk Borg, LotFP: Rules and Magic, and LotFP: Referee Book). It’s a reductive approach that skews interpretation by neglecting a huge amount of content, but it makes the discussion more manageable and allows closer scrutiny of how each game, at its core, establishes its ethos.

System

LotFP is significantly heavier than Mörk Borg (and other rules-lite OSR mainstays like Knave and Into the Odd). It puts some mild twists on standard fantasy archetypes for classes, and it lays out basic rules and mechanics for situations like water adventures and business enterprises.

LotFP’s table of contents. LotfP © 2013 James Edward Raggi IV.

Mörk Borg’s leaner ruleset lets GMs make their own rulings for situations beyond the fundamentals. The core mechanics are straightforward, but Mörk Borg supplements these with the Calendar of Nechrubel (which counts down to the end of the world) and, at character creation, players flesh out their scum with bad habits and physical impediments. Powers (its equivalent to spells) are inherently hazardous and even lethal to the wielder.

Mörk Borg’s index. Mörk Borg © 2020 Stockholm Kartell and Ockult Örtmästare Games.

In short, Mörk Borg incorporates mechanical elements that establish and emphasize the game’s tone. LotFP’s mechanics amount to a slightly chunky retroclone with no formal attention to cultivating the desired mood in its players.

On the one hand, this places greater responsibility on LotFP GMs and players to establish and adhere to the desired tone. But at the same time, despite the preponderance of incidental mechanics, it provides no real formal basis for building this experience, only some advice and guidance in the Referee Book.

The Referee Book, unlike other GM guides, contains no mechanics whatsoever—no additional game rules, no monsters, and only a handful of sample magic items; it expects GMs to make their own or else convert them from other systems. The book consists almost entirely of the designer’s philosophy of how to play RPGs.

Mörk Borg expects most people who buy the book will understand what RPGs are and how they work, and even if they have no prior experience, the rules are fairly simple and intuitive. Whereas LotFP’s core books amount to mechanisms and practices of control, Mörk Borg shows more respect to its GMs and players. It gives them a toolbox, some exposition and visual inspiration, and encourages them to go wild.

Tone

Mörk Borg establishes tone through gritty visuals and apocalyptic lore. It conveys the latter in broad strokes and invites GMs to use it as they wish. The lean context is enough to provide the sense of a world with depth, motivate players, and give the GM a foundation comparable to the mechanics themselves.

LotFP doesn’t really provide much concrete lore at all. Whoever the Flame Princess is and whatever she’s lamenting, they aren’t explained to the reader. They serve only to set a certain tone, and LotFP follows up with a smattering of vibes and broad backstory in class and alignment descriptions. The book builds the game’s “weird horror” character primarily through two components: the illustrations in Rules and Magic and one single spell.

Illustrations

A lot of LotFP’s illustrations are relatively generic fantasy filler. It puts some emphasis on weird, but nothing that compares to, say, Erol Otus’ work in AD&D.

A representative (but relatively tame) example of LotFP’s visual focus on graphic violence by and against women. Illustration by Eric Lofgren; fair use.

What really stands out is LotFP’s depictions of violence and bodily harm, particularly death and dismemberment. When it appears, it’s consistently graphic and frequently features women as victims of grievous harm or as femme fatales inflicting it.

In the two most extreme cases, it explicitly involves intercourse and reproduction. But that clinical terminology doesn’t do justice to how graphic the depictions are. (This isn’t the place to delve into them, but I’ll discuss this point further in a future post.)

Mörk Borg doesn’t shy away from gore and violence, but the book puts greater focus on the weird through more abstracted or impressionistic depictions of the macabre and the monstrous. In both cases and in Nohr’s own words, “it isn’t realism.” From its blood-drenched skeleton to Anthelia removing a suitor’s head, Mörk Borg represents gore without aiming for mimesis. LotFP’s art, on the other hand, indulges in its realism and arguably fetishizes its gore.

Mörk Borg’s depictions of violence are expressive and evocative without relying on mimesis. Illustration by Johan Nohr; used with permission.

Summon

About half of Rules and Magic’s page count consists of spells. The vast supermajority are pulled directly from the d20 SRD. Its most significant departure is Summon, which takes 10 full pages to cover. And that’s where the abundance of core LotFP’s weirdness and horror resides.

Besides the five-step rules and tables for summoning strange creatures, Summon also includes Abstract Forms the spell can manifest. Some of these are creative and cleverly conveyed in the text. “Disruption of the Universal Order” causes a new player to take up the referee role; “Imaginary Equation, Incorrect yet True” alters die-rolling mechanics and calculations.

But multiple Abstract Forms involve loss of control on the PCs’ part. The most memorable among them feature (on par with the tone set by the art) suicidal compulsion, genital mutilation, and potential sexual assault resulting in demonic offspring. It’s pretty weird and horrific—but not, for me, in the way the designer intended.

Humor

Some of LotFP’s writing definitely conveys character. But for the most part, the prose is fairly sterile and didactic. When it breaks from this tone, it typically strives for bleak and hopeless.

Mörk Borg aims for the same tone, but it achieves it consistently throughout the text. Just as importantly, it uses well-placed gallows humor to keep the sense of despair from becoming overpowering, but the humor supports the tone by maintaining a grim irony.

LotFP also takes a stab at humor in the adventure module included with the Referee Book. “A Stranger Storm” is an escalating murder mystery that leans more toward weird than horror, and it introduces some absurdity to lighten the mood. But elements like an inn called the Incontinent Vicar, an innkeeper named Cameron “Doodles” Fiddlesticks, and traveling spoon merchants amount to throwaway goofiness.

The adventure’s tinge of whimsy seems even more out of place in the context of the climax: a selfless knight decides to murder a score of orphans in front of their nun guardians (who may even approve the slaughter). Overall, the attempted lightheartedness deviates and detracts from the dominant tone rather than supporting it through contrast.

Conclusions

Mörk Borg maintains its tone consistently throughout its exposition of the game’s setting and mechanics, and it even incorporates that tone into the mechanics themselves. LotFP instead presents a generic ruleset and places the burden of tone on its artwork and isolated textual components.

Mörk Borg establishes its weird horror aesthetic through the bizarre and otherworldly: humanoids with lanterns for heads, psychedelic and grim alternate dimensions, ominous spells and prophecies, and just about everything else in the book. The weirdness is bolstered by expressive artwork and avant-garde graphic design and layouts.

LotFP fundamentally mistakes explicit violence (and particularly sexualized violence) for weird horror. It inconsistently grafts these motifs onto a fairly genre-neutral OSR system that doesn’t inherently approach—let alone sustain—its intended experience.


My thanks go to Ian Long (Gray Tide) for taking a deep dive into the muck and thinking through LotFP with me.

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