Union, Mork Borg, and Curse of Strahd: The Dark History of Malador Goiterheim
Beneath dying stars, a cloaked figure cradles a shivering child. "All will be over soon, little one."
Canceling a session because someone can't make it is a common problem in the RPG community. You can push forward without the character, bestow their life upon another player, treat them as an absent-minded NPC, cancel the game, OR you can play that game you've been meaning to play for years. It has been sneering at you from the shelf all this time, after all. And if you can tie it into the game in progress, all the better to maintain momentum and excitement.
I've been meaning to play Ben Robbins Union for nearly two years. So when a player bailed to spend New Year's Eve with his family or something, I pulled Union off the shelf. We're currently playing Curse of Strahd by way of Mork Borg, a sinister combination, and I've been experimenting with ways to effectively build character backstory and investment through play. And thus, I chose one of the players who would be attending the game and offered to run a game of Union to flesh out their backstory. He enthusiastically agreed.
If you want to skip to the review of Union, jump down to the Review section below.
Union is a game about how our family trees and legacies shape who we become. The game works like this: you place a number of index cards on the table that will represent the people who make up the character's family tree. These cards are organized into the Hero (Malador Goiterheim in this case), parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Then after some framing, you go around the table adding details about these various people's lives.
As a GM, I went into Union with two goals to further our Curse of Strahd game. A, I wanted to tie Malador to the setting. So I made one of his great grandparents a Markovia. In Curse of Strahd, there is a cleric named Markovia that stood up to Strahd but failed. This ancestor would be a descendant of that line. And B, I wanted to establish the nature of his character's relationship to his god. With a class like Prophet of a Dead God, you'd imagine that this relationship is important.
We ended up learning a lot about Malador's family line and the history of the realm he was spirited away from. Three major family lines converged to make Malador who he would become.
The Scribe's Line
The Scribe’s story starts with Urvarg Kvtar, a disciple of Nurgle (Yes, that Nurgle). One of the practices of this sect of Nurgle’s worship was that it was a sin to write down any of Nurgle’s scripture. Instead, priests were expected to learn by rote, all of Nurgle’s teachings. Urvarg was afraid that without a written record, Nurgle’s word would be lost in a catastrophic event. And so, he wrote the first edition of the Word of Nurgle.
Urvarg’s son, Rauno Goiterheim (the family changed their name when they moved to the land of Nilan), became one of the High Priests of the Order of Nurgle. Like his father before him, Rauno was a scribe and he continued to create copies of the Word of Nurgle. Besides the sin of writing down the Word, Rauno began to receive criticism for adding new elements to the Nurgle religion in his writings.
Rauno became a known priest in the land of Nilan preaching Nurgle’s teachings of life and decay, but a new king named Zavod brought his own goddess of life, Sadenica, to the land. He outlawed the worship of the old gods, Nurgle included, and the people’s shifting faith deprived Nurgle of his life aspect, plunging him into the role of the Decayer. Ultimately, Rauno would die standing up for his beliefs, but not before siring a son named Mumpech.
Mumpech Goiterheim grew up in the shadow of his parents, but became a devout follower of Nurgle, reading his father’s work to the point of memorization. In an attempt to mend the rift in the religion of Nurgle, Mumpech of the Word was to be married to Petra Toadclot of the Song, the oral tradition. With Mumpech’s memorized version of the Word and Petra’s knowledge of the Song, they would be able to create a unified scripture in the wake of King Zavod’s inquisition against the old gods. Their efforts culminated in a dark ritual, where Malador Goiterheim was conceived and given Nurgle’s voice. Mumpech taught Malador the Word. Petra taught Malador the Song. Nurgle spoke directly to Malador (or did he?) and the Roots of Nurgle, a resilient cult to a dying god, was born.
Malador’s great-grandmother Lacara Marcovia was a paladin of a goddess known as the Night Mother. She came to the land of Nilan when her homeland fell to a monstrous lord. She quickly earned a reputation as a monster slayer in Nilan and a protector of the people.
Lacara’s daughter was Mokosh Zoria. Mokosh was an unlicensed monster hunter in Nilan, unlike her mother, under the rule of King Zavod. Zavod used the monsters of his kingdom to pave the way for his new gods, like Sadenica. Mokosh quickly earned a name as the protector of the weak and those being oppressed by Zavod. Rauno Goiterheim found himself hunted by one of these monsters, and nearly succumbed to it before Mokosh drove it off. Mokosh then took Rauno into hiding so that he could recover from his injuries and they took refuge in a complex root system of a tree called the Death Tree. While they were trapped there, they sired their son, Mumpech.
In the wake of these events, Rauno and Mokosh joined forces to become a real threat to King Zavod. This confrontation would end in Rauno and Mokosh both being burned at the stake, the fires fueled by the illuminated manuscripts of the Word of Nurgle.
So how is all this going to affect the game? Malador’s player now knows where his character came from familially. On one hand, he is the successor to the teachings of Nurgle, and on the other, he comes from a long line of monster slayers. Now with the voice of a dying god in his head, Malador ventures into the homeland of his great-grandmother to face the monster Strahd who slew Saint Markovia hundreds of years ago. So, Union was a great way to pass the evening since we couldn’t play our regularly scheduled game, but then again, it is Mork Borg. Who knows how long anyone will survive. But wouldn’t it be cool if Malador lived up to his family’s legacy?
For anyone curious, we used Google Sheets for the game in place of index cards. Here’s a link to the sheet if you’d like to see what it ended up looking like.
Union is a world-building RPG written and produced by Ben Robbins of Lame Mage Productions. Robbins is probably most famous for his game Microscope, which is a world-building game about building a world’s history. Union was originally a module for Microscope available in an expansion for the game called Microscope Explorer. Robbins felt that Union had the potential to be its own game, and I think he was right.
Union is a simple game. Put down some index cards to represent people, and then write details about those people's lives until you decide you’re done. There’s no end condition in the game, so this could go on for a hundred generations if you wanted it to. To be a bit more detailed about the game's process it breaks down like this:
Step 1: What is Union? - Describe the game so everyone is on the same page.
Step 2: Family Tree - Put down cards to define your family tree.
Step 3: The Trouble of Our Time - Define the trouble that our hero and his family face. We decided that this was the collision of the old gods with the new and how this affected the world’s cultures.
Step 4: The Hero’s Deed - Define what the hero has to do. Usually, this is pretty complete like: the hero slays the dragon and saves the realm. In our game, since the adventure has only just begun, we stated that Malador was faced with confronting Strahd.
Step 5: The Hero’s Traits - Here you quickly define the traits that the hero needs to complete his task. We identified three traits for Malador: Prophet of Nergal, Dead God’s
Agent of Decay, and Unwavering Determination.
Step 6: Make Your Palette - Making your palette is a cool concept. Basically, you go around the table defining the limits of the game. We want this to be in the game, we don’t want that, etc. Then you can use this as a guide to what elements you want to include in the histories of the hero’s ancestors.
Step 7: Explain Ancestor Cards - Explain how the ancestor cards work. Each card has four sections, one section for each of the partners' early histories, one for how they came together, and one for what ultimately happened to them.
Step 8: Make Ancestors - And then from here on out, it is all about making people, and roleplaying scenes to find out what happens to them.
The first seven steps took us about 45 minutes to get through, but it was also our first time playing and we had technical issues in the virtual environment. I think this process usually takes less time. Step eight is the game. We had a blast creating these people and the world they lived in. We only called one Scene, or roleplaying moment, but it acted as a culmination of everyone’s histories coming together. Specifically, the scene was the meeting where Mokosh and Gretta fleshed out the details of the arranged marriage of Mumpech and Petra.
We didn’t find any of the game a slog, which can sometimes happen in world-building games. In about 3 hours, we created seven ancestors, and fleshed out in detail two of those unions and fates, and capped that with a roleplaying scene. The only negative thing that I can say about the game, is that world-building games are not for everyone. We enjoyed it a great deal, but that’s because we had a great group that was invested in making an interesting world populated by interesting people. If people just want to roll dice, and kill monsters, this will not be the game for them (not that there's anything wrong with that). That said, Union is a game I highly recommend to anyone interested in fleshing out characters for an RPG or who simply want to explore how families make us who we are.
If you’re interested in Union, you can find more information about it here.
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