Videogame epic Elden Ring blew my mind and crushed my social life when it arrived in 2022. As a forever-DM, it was a pleasure to hand the script, screen and dice over to FromSoftware and enjoy a wild ride through Hidetaka Miyazaki and George RR Martin’s imagination.
But while the Dark Souls RPG uses Dungeons and Dragons 5e as its base, is DnD the best roleplaying system to represent Elden Ring on the tabletop? Yes, there are swords, and sorcery, and giants, and dungeons, and skellingtons, and dragons. But does contemporary DnD have the energy, the freedom, the gonzo disregard for continuity, pacing and work-life balance to match Elden Ring? Modern DnD is all about narrative, and balanced encounters, and NPCs with sane and comprehensible motivations.
Fie! Fie, I say! If Elden Ring is DnD, it’s the old school variety, where a DnD Wizard class had 1 hp, the ceiling could eat you, and there was a gentle jellyfish monster called a Flumph.
Fortunately, there is a vibrant school of indie tabletop RPG designers making games with the vibe and design principles of classic DnD, mixed with modern sensibilities and aesthetics. If you want to take Elden Ring to your tabletop, look no further than Swedish black metal RPG Mörk Borg.
Mörk Borg oozes psychedelic death metal style
Elden Ring is cool. But not, like, cool cool. It’s hip. But it’s not try-hard hip. It’s still uncool, because obviously it’s nerdy. But, like, that confident kind of uncool that you’ve got to respect, so really it’s cool. A cool kind of uncool. And it’s metal. Totally brutal metal. But, like, also? It’s deep.
Living Jars, rolling goats, brass pumpkin-headed giants, undead trolls, Turtle Pope, vile root maggots, grisly living fingers, extremely cursed Hogwarts: Elden Ring has the untethered creativity of a pothead describing their dreams, rendered with the fidelity of a prog-metal album sleeve. You can’t imitate it, but Mörk Borg matches it for sheer wild sincerity.
The svelte Mörk Borg rulebook is a work of art. Each page is a collage of frenetic line art, mediaeval woodcuts, and black, white, magenta, yellow and silver ink treatments. It’s an actual wizard’s grimoire that feels blasphemous and sacred. The English translation is localised by RPG writer nonpareil Patrick Stuart. Every short, sharp sentence hits like a shot of absinthe: burning with flavour that will blast the doors of your mind wide open.
Small, weird, intensely powerful – this is the Danny DeVito of RPG rulebooks. There’s a kick-ass Souls-ian setting in there, replete with dolorous monarchs and cosmic decline, but more importantly, it crackles with high voltage creative energy that will electrify your brain and supercharge your DMing.
High fructose freedom
Just two minutes from Elden Ring’s tutorial dungeon are the ruins of a settlement scorched by dragonfire. Slay or slink past the lurking undead soldiers and their mangy hounds and you can make your way down muck-choked stairs, into an underground chamber. What luck! A treasure chest!
The chest is trapped. Opening it teleports you into the bowels of a mine, where crystal-infused undead sorcerers blast shards of magic crystal from the rocks. Centipede-man slavers loom overhead, ready to obliterate anyone who breaks cover with finger-mounted laser beams. A few, educational deaths will teach you to sneak your way, and then run like hell, to get out of there.
You emerge before a lake of poisoned blood in the lee of a shattered fortress, where gargantuan alien seedpods belch clouds of poison into the foetid air. In less than ten minutes you’ve gone from the fantasy idyll of Limgrave to the surreal hellscape of a Zdzisław Beksiński painting. Elden Ring has a mindblowing sense of freedom. It’s a freedom that cuts both ways: the game will mess with you, but it’s procedurally robust enough that you can mess back without spoiling the fun, a true sandbox.
That vertiginous freedom has seeped away from DnD as its adventures accumulated more narrative, pacing and balance. Mörk Borg brings it back in spades. Every day you roll a die: on a 1 you generate one of 36 world-shattering events that will completely alter your campaign. There is no mechanical explanation for how this should work. Mörk Borg’s rules are light and simple and easy to keep out of the way, empowering the players to try wild things, the GM to use their judgement, and the campaign world to spontaneously flip on the roll of a die.
Elden Ring is so vast I don’t understand how humans made it. That’s not even a joke. Multiple times I realised that a map I spent hours exploring was just the edge of a larger map that was, itself, just one corner of an even more massive game world. I took one downward elevator, expecting to find a mini-dungeon, only to discover that it was the entrance to the underdark. There’s an entire map underneath the map. How did Miyazaki make this? Was it a deal with the king of hell? Has he the power of an Elden Lord? How?!
No sane GM could match this output for their homebrew game, so you’ll need to be armed with an encylcopedia’s worth of pre-written adventures. Luckily, Mörk Borg inspires unusual dedication in the community of creators who produce adventures and supplements, and these craftspeople are always careful to match its tone and aesthetics. The Mörk Borg website has scads of free adventure PDFs, luxurious printed expansions are regularly available on crowd-funding sites, while the website Ex Libris Mörk Borg collates the many adventures and supplements from the maddened scrivening of star-crazed nerds.
Alas, swamp! Therefore, try circling around
Finally, it’s not a Miyazaki game unless it has a swamp. Fortunately, Mörk Borg has you covered there too. Putrescance Regnant is Mörk Borg’s luxury bog-crawling expansion, delivered as a vinyl LP. The record itself is a soundtrack of swamp ambience, the sleeve serves as a GM screen and setting map of a new region dominated by foul swamps, while the liner notes contain the adventure and additional rules for traversing the miserable poison-choked mudscape.