We are living amidst a grimdark renaissance. If you want to play a dark fantasy rpg, you will find yourself awash in options. In this post, I am going to do capsule reviews of the four most noteworthy grimdark fantasy games currently on the market: MÖRK BORG, Shadow of the Demon Lord, Warhammer 4e, and Zweihänder.
These reviews are going to be "from the hip"; you can expect them to be highly subjective, narrow, and quite possibly not very helpful--although I will try to at least gesture toward who each of these games might appeal to.
This is likely going to be an unpopular opinion: MÖRK BORG's presentation isn't all that. For a game that's lauded as an artistic masterpiece, there sure are a lot of pieces of public domain artwork here that we've already seen hundreds of times before in other games. Yes, they are dressed up with harsh yellow and pink colors and about a million fonts, but to me the end result looks more like a mess than "artpunk" or "cutting edge design." It's a shame that other creators have decided this is the approach to ape.
That said, the original art pieces in MÖRK BORG are fantastic. I wish there were more of them! In general, I have a hard time swallowing the idea that MÖRK BORG is like a "punk zine." It's far too glossy, far too designed, and far too expensive for what you get to accurately fit that tag. MÖRK BORG could easily be cut down into a truly slim, fightin' mad little game with no loss of content, but that would necessitate sacrificing the graphic designer wank, which seems like it was at least half the point of making this game.
MÖRK BORG is rightfully referred to as "the doom metal rpg." It has an atmosphere of crushing despair. The prose drips with misery, so much so that the game actually feels faintly parodic. I've see more than more person complain that MÖRK BORG is "barely a game," but that's a claim I disagree with. There is a game here, even if it isn't particularly deep, and it's a game that looks like it would be fun in small doses. The system itself is simple; it's OSR derived, which means in a grimdark context you shouldn't expect to get lengthy campaigns out of this game. Again, small doses.
Shadow of the Demon Lord
The fans of Shadow of the Demon Lord who champion the notion that this game is vastly different from 5e Dungeons & Dragons have got it all wrong. Shadow of the Demon Lord is a grimdark game for the 5e D&D crowd. It's a niche game that could see actual play by a general audience. If you've played 5e, you will easily come to terms with what SotDL offers. Rolling a d20 plus an attribute modifier plus one or more d6s is just not that different from rolling a d20 plus an ability score modifier plus a proficiency bonus. Choosing an ancestry, a novice path, an expert path, and a master path is not substantially different from choosing a race, class, and subclass.
That said, Shadow of the Demon Lord is the best of the current grimdark crop, in my opinion. Not only does it have an easy approachability for people who have already played D&D, it has great modularity, streamlined rules, an eminently playable setting that isn't buried in minutiae, and tons of options that are actually optional.
It also gives you a bit of the old Warhammer feel without trying to be a copy of Warhammer. (See below for two instances of that particular phenomenon.) Shadow of the Demon Lord has rules for corruption, insanity, monsters that are mechanically unnerving, and magic that actually feels terrifying or grotesque. It takes the expected experience of playing a fantasy rpg and drags it kicking and screaming into a dark place.
Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play 4e
First-edition Warhammer FRP was one of the games my group played the most in high school. In many ways, it felt more like our game than D&D. What really drew us in back then was how unique WFRP felt. In comparison to D&D's generic heroic fantasy, WFRP core book was chock full of John Blanche's sublimely grotty art, a decidedly gritty and European take on fantasy, and enough content inside to make it feel like you wouldn't ever need supplements to beef it up. WFRP had a mystique; it had mystery.
Decades later, the fourth edition of the game arrives and it feels devoid of mystery. At some point, the scales tipped and Warhammer went from being a unique alternative to vanilla fantasy to becoming another fantasy institution. I just don't get the same feeling of wonder that WFRP initially provoked. Everything here feels neat and tidy. The art looks like what you would find in a dozen other fantasy games, and the art budget here does not seem to have been particularly generous; in comparison to the other games reviewed in this post, WFRP is strangely spare and barren. There's also a feeling of being driven primarily by nostalgia here; from the cover image the recreates the original WFRP cover for what is at least the third time to the re-release of souped-up deluxe editions of The Enemy Within campaign, it seems like the creative spark is gone.
This could well be a great game, mechanically speaking, but I'm sad to say it does absolutely nothing for me. Nothing here makes me want to play. It feels like a modern Star Wars movie; it vaguely reminds you of something you loved in your youth, but it's a pale figment of the thing you remember so fondly.
Zweihänder presents itself as the spiritual successor to WFRP, which is in itself a little annoying. In reality, what that means is that it's hard to think of Zweihänder as anything other than a bare rip-off of Warhammer.
Nearly everything in the book, from the rules to the setting elements, reads like Warhammer with the serial numbers filed off. That initial impression isn't helped at all by the author's aggressive style of of marketing or by the fact that Zweihänder is hideously over-written. Yes, it's a weighty tome, but it could be substantially cut down with the added benefit of getting rid of every instance where the rules you need in play are utterly encased in a padded word count.
That said, I would much rather play Zweihänder than the fourth edition of brand-name Warhammer. Although Zweihänder is slavishly imitative of WFRP's earlier editions, it at least focuses on the parts I enjoyed about those games while introducing some modern mechanical refinement. And the black and white interior art by Dejan Mandic absolutely captures the mystique of old Warhammer without being derivative or overly nostalgic. It is, however, wild how boring the cover of the core book is.