THE APOCALYPSE MEANT SOMETHING
From Its Blood Drenched Skeletons To Its Typography, Mörk Borg Is An Assault On The Senses. Walton Wood Speaks To The Game’s Artist And Graphic Designer, Johan Nohr, And Discovers The Method Behind The “Blackened Artpunk” Rpg’s Award-Winning Madness...
The apocalypse happened quietly on 31 July 2020. On that day the 20th ENnie Awards saw Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr’s artpunk RPG MÖRK BORG earn silver in Best Game and gold in Best Layout and Design, Best Writing and Product of the Year. This apocalyptic fantasy-horror game’s critical and popular success is itself an apocalypse, a revelation and revolution in rule-books’ inherent artistic potential.
Coming from a background in mainstream editorial projects and graphic design, Nohr broke into RPGs with Symbaroum (Free League, 2014). His design and layout process began with scrutinising other RPG books in his collection, noting common characteristics and patterns in overall structure, and minute details like font heights and word-count per line.
‘I’m still very happy and proud with how Symbaroum turned out,’ Nohr said. ‘Working on MÖRK BORG was more about abandoning a lot of these patterns and finding out what would happen if I didn’t follow them.’
The layout and design of both these books are meticulous but developed and executed in entirely different ways.
Typically, publishers privilege a rulebook’s text; the copy goes from writer to editor to proofreader, and then only after that will the actual book be designed, laid out and finalised. In contrast Nilsson and Nohr instead adopted a nonlinear process that both simultaneously developed and prioritised text, graphics, and layouts.
‘We tried something a little different, and did the writing, designing and drawing all at the same time,’ Nohr said. ‘When I joined the project, Pelle had the basics written and ready, but as we put it into layout, he and I added content, rules and entire sections. I would tell him to cut a paragraph that wouldn’t fit in the design, or ask him to invent a random table if I had space that needed something for the whole picture to work.’
Nohr estimates the book mutated through about 50 drafts. Successive iterations gave him ample opportunity to fine-tune the gestalt of individual layouts and the overall experience of paging through the book.
‘Graphic design, typography and art was one singular process for me, with each spread being a separate artwork in a way,’ Nohr said. ‘Designing a book spread is a lot like designing a poster like that. And it’s not just the hierarchies and flow on that spread, it’s the experience of flipping through the book. The order, flow and the dramaturgy of the spreads in sequence. Flipping through a book is kind of like watching a very, very slow animated movie.’
Like any RPG book, MÖRK BORG strives to achieve multiple goals: ensuring readability and accessibility, inspiring the imagination, establishing emotion and theme. But another critical goal is challenging gamers’ expectations.
“THE ROOMS ARE A FUCKING MESS, BUT THE BUILDING -THE CONSTRUCTION- IS STURDY”
‘We tried to do all of these things in MÖRK BORG, but not at the same time,’ Nohr said. ‘Even though it might seem chaotic at first, there’s actually a lot of structure and stability behind the chaos. A lot of graphic design rules are broken, but some things like composition, content hierarchy and usability/reader flow are still respected. The rooms are a fucking mess, but the building —the construction— is sturdy.’
The book consists of two major sections. The core artpunk, zine-style ‘flavor-bomb’ features diverse typefaces, striking images, and colours that ‘scream in your face.’ Altogether, the book seethes with a weird, dark energy that entices, inspires, and immerses readers. It foregoes traditional rulebook components like explanations of what RPGs are and how to play them, or terms like d12. Standard, visible navigational aids—discrete chapters, sections, and page headings—are absent. But MÖRK BORG is just as functional, if not more so, than traditional rulebooks.
‘Even though the first, wilder section of the book sacrifices some usability on the altar of aesthetics, it’s still rather easy to find your way,’ Nohr said. ‘Because every spread is unique, the images and design work like landmarks or page numbers and will help you find the things you’re looking for.’
To achieve this result, Nohr sought inspiration everywhere except other RPG books. MÖRK BORG’s visual quality and presentation instead draw on music posters and zines as well as more unlikely (but still highly relevant) sources like business documents.
‘When designing and laying out financial reports you’re working with numbers, tables, graphs, large chunks of body text and more-or-less creative data visualisation, and they must all harmonise and work alongside each other to get the message across,’ Nohr said.
‘It’s not so different from what RPGs are trying to do. But instead of a balance sheet you have a table of critical hits. Instead of risk analysis you’ve got random encounters. And so on. The aesthetics are obviously, probably, different but the key design principle remains the same: organise and present the content in an optimal way for the intended use. And the end goal can be anything from usability in the heat of the moment, to just pure inspiration.’
The book’s second section, the introductory adventure Rotblack Sludge, distinguishes itself through more subdued designs, straightforward layouts, and even a tangibly different quality of paper. These choices economise in-the-moment usability; the information is quickly and easily accessible, ensuring gameplay flows and players remain immersed.
‘You need to be able to flip to the right page, find the right room, the right description in mere seconds,’ Nohr said. ‘You’re high on energy, a bit drunk and your players are excited and keep asking you what happens or what their character sees.’
Rotblack Sludge’s design and layout incorporate Nohr’s ‘best-ofs’ from other publications and the OSR community. MÖRK BORG neither shies away from following best practices when they’re beneficial nor from ignoring them when its goals lie elsewhere. But when breaking rules, the book does so intentionally, to achieve the greatest possible effect.
“CAN YOU USE COMIC SANS AND PAPYRUS IN A BOOK AND STILL WIN AWARDS? TURNS OUT YOU CAN”
One example is Nohr’s use of typography. As a teacher, Nohr cautions students to draw on only two or three fonts and to limit use of more expressive typefaces.
‘I wanted to abandon that rule completely and basically see what happens if I packed this book full of typefaces,’ Nohr said. ‘What happens if in one paragraph, every line is a different typeface, but very similar to the last one (Neue Haas Grotesk followed by Akzidenz Grotesk, followed by Helvetica, followed by Arial, etc.)? You’re not supposed to distort letter shapes and make a font wider or taller. What happens if I do it anyway? Can you use Comic Sans and Papyrus in a book and still win design awards? Turns out you can.’
Calling attention to the text’s graphic dimension not only emphasises its aesthetic contribution it highlights the visible word as a tool for establishing the game’s atmosphere and tone. Nohr leverages that tool to express the decay and disintegration of MÖRK BORG’s setting.
‘I put a lot of time and effort on the fine details of the type work in MÖRK BORG; sometimes breaking a word or sentence apart into separate letters, placing them by hand and a bit tilted to get an organic, hand-made feel. Just to have them slightly off without it being obvious creates a weird sense of dynamic movement,’ Nohr said.
‘Typography is really a form of illustration too. It all boils down to lines, fills and shapes and so you could treat letters and glyphs the same way as say, lines in a drawing. You could use “wrong” letters to create new expressions, or twist and turn the glyphs to paint some kind of picture.’
“ART SHOULD CONTINUOUSLY REMIX AND MUTATE AS INFLUENCES PASS FROM ARTIST TO ARTIST”
Even before these experiments were in print, Nohr and Nilsson’s work had attracted a diehard fanbase that began homebrewing content for the game. These creators have, in one way or another, adopted and adapted the graphic conventions that have been established in MÖRK BORG.
‘It’s very flattering and downright fun to see your style inspiring and being adopted by other creators. See it transform into something I would never have thought of, since it’s being mixed with another artist’s tone of voice and approach,’ Nohr said. ‘This, in turn inspires me and so the cycle begins. Art should continuously remix and mutate as influences pass from artist to artist.’
Of course, some of the more extreme tactics haven’t been as widely emulated, such as the typographic maneuvers in the Bad Habits layout. But, even for Nohr, such practices can prove tricky.
‘I had to push myself into doing some of the more avant-garde stunts in the design and I had literally no idea if it would work or not until we got the first reader feedback and the first flip-through video,’ Nohr said. ‘We took a huge risk making the book the way it is and there was no guarantee that it would pay off, so I totally understand why you’d be cautious about going too wild. I still have to constantly remind myself to keep challenging our own tradition-in-the-making and do things that don’t necessarily make sense at first.’
Future, official MÖRK BORG releases -such as the forthcoming Putrescence Regnant scenario, pressed on black and yellow marbled vinyl- promise to continue innovating, breaking both new ground and new rules, including the brand’s own. It’s fair to say that Nohr and Nilsson’s apocalypse is far from said and done.
‘This has always been an experiment, we’ve always asked ourselves, “What will happen if we do it like this instead?”’ Nohr said. ‘First we were talking about RPG books in general. Now we’re also looking into the mirror. Nothing is safe.’
MÖRK BORG is out now embrace the apocalypse at morkborg.com
This feature originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1, Issue 1