Take your 5e DnD Characters to Terrifying ‘Dark Worlds’

D&D Adventures Gaming Reviews

Sandy Petersen, author of the original Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, has teamed up with Matt Corley and Donathin Frye to introduce a new campaign in his Cthulhu Mythos Sagas.

What Is Dark Worlds?

Dark Worlds is a new D&D campaign that will take characters from levels 1-14 over the course of 4 separate books. It’s the third campaign in the Cthulhu Mythos Sagas. The earlier campaigns include Yig Snake Grandaddy and Ghoul Island Ghoul Island Act 1: Voyage to Farzeen was reviewed earlier this year by Ricardo Rebelo. All of the campaigns allow you to integrate the horror of the Cthulhu Mythos into your fantasy games of Dungeons & Dragons 5e.

Dark Worlds is available now as a subscription for $19.99/month. That subscription will give you immediate access to the PDF for Dark Worlds Act 1: The Ritual, with the hardcover shipping to you in October. Each month’s renewal of the subscription will include the next act in the series.

Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos 5e sourcebook. Image by Paul Benson.

Incorporating The Cthulhu Mythos into D&D

Petersen Games sent me a PDF of Dark Worlds Act 1: The Ritual to review, as well as a copy of Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. If you’re interested in running any of the Cthulhu Mythos Sagas, you’re probably going to also want to pick up that sourcebook. It’s a comprehensive guide to incorporating cosmic horror into your D&D campaigns, and includes new rules, spells, classes, races, and of course, monsters.

In the case of Dark Worlds, the guide importantly contains the rules for the “Dread” mechanic. Dread is a way to express how the terror is affecting the psyche of the player characters. Witnessing or recalling unnatural sights or events can lead to accumulating levels of dread. If you gain too much dread, your character can even go insane. There are different types of insanity that can grip your character; each one has palpable in-game effects.

Dark Worlds Act 1: The Ritual Overview

Note: There are a few spoilers for the campaign in this section. If you want to avoid those, skip down to the Verdict section.

The 1st Dark Worlds book. Image by Paul Benson.

“It’s dangerous to go alone!” is the famous quote from Legend of Zelda. But in our current pandemic, it’s dangerous to game with others…at least in person. Thankfully I was already well-accustomed to running games long distance in Fantasy Grounds, an online tabletop simulator that comes with the rules for D&D. I recruited some friends to play, and we were off to experience the first book in the campaign.

The party consisted of:

  • Dorje, half-Orc barbarian
  • Dudmit Pebblebrew, Mountain Dwarf paladin
  • Sister Maggie, Hill Dwarf cleric
  • Zanitina Amorette Ellyjobell Bimpnotlin Xotor Leaf, Forest Gnome bard

Also, Sister Maggie had taken skill points in “Yog-Sothothery,” which is essentially knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos.

A Dark Worlds session on Fantasy Grounds. Image by Paul Benson.

I hadn’t given my players too much information prior to starting play, just letting them know the barest of basics for what the campaign would be about: that through the course of events early in the game, they would find themselves transported to the alien world of Yuggoth, a planet notably written about in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1930 novella The Whisperer in Darkness.

A couple of Dark Worlds pages. Image by Petersen Games.

I was able to import some of the artwork from the PDF of Dark Worlds into Fantasy Grounds to use not just for maps, but also to show off the various creatures to my players. The book is lushly illustrated, with multiple artists contributing their work.

As far as the story itself, this is not your typical Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The players are transported to a completely alien world, where they must struggle to survive the hazardous environment. They will also meet two diametrically opposed alien races: the plant-like Mi-Go, and the seductively beautiful Zepzeg. While the Mi-Go are a creation of author H.P. Lovecraft, the Zepzeg are an original alien race developed by Sandy Petersen during his development of the upcoming strategy board game Hyperspace. If anything, Dark Worlds may pay homage to the classic 1980 Dungeons & Dragons module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, where players encountered a downed alien craft and bizarre creatures and robots. I’d love to say more about the story, but don’t want to ruin it for anyone that’s hoping to play the campaign.

Dark Worlds Act 1: The Ritual is written episodically, with the idea that you play through one chapter in each gaming session. Rather than leveling with experience points, the adventure uses “milestone” leveling: At the end of each chapter, player characters will also gain a level. The first Dark Worlds book will have players ready to start Act 2 at 5th level.

Let me also issue a warning to those considering playing Dark Worlds (and this definitely falls into spoiler territory): The Mi-Go perform gruesome experimentation on humanoids, including some of the NPC’s that you’ll encounter. If you’ve ever read The Whisperer in Darkness, then you’ll already have an idea what I’m talking about.

Dark Worlds Act 1: The Ritual Verdict

Just one of the strange alien creatures you’ll encounter. Image by Paul Benson.

First, let me start with the feedback from my players. They felt that things started off a bit too slowly for their tastes. They also thought they were railroaded a bit initially, as some of the events were out of their control and couldn’t be altered. Some of that is of necessity…the entire campaign takes place on Yuggoth, and so the players have to actually get there! But they did enjoy playing once they’d gotten past the early story beats. The party’s bard even truly embraced her role, writing and performing a song that featured Dudmit the paladin:

Another minor spoiler: No owlbears on Yuggoth. At least, not in Act 1.

From a DM’s perspective, there’s a bit more heavy lifting to do in Dark Worlds than in many of the campaigns from Wizards of the Coast. The adventure has you juggling a group of NPCs that are over twice as large as the player characters’ party. And as this is a horror game, it’s incumbent on the Dungeon Master to set the mood, and play up the unsettling events the players find themselves in.

I do quite like the dread mechanic used in the game. The fiction of Lovecraft is rife with otherworldly experiences damaging the fragile psyche of the stories’ characters, and the mechanic works very well to emulate this within the campaign. We didn’t get to see any of the characters go insane during this first book, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened in future installments. It’s highly thematic, and adds a dimension that I’m considering incorporating into other horror campaigns.

I’m also a big fan of the milestone leveling. While not the first campaign that I’ve run to use it, it takes away a lot of the tedious bookkeeping that’s done at the end of experience point-based encounters, and keeps the story flowing much more smoothly for players and characters alike.

As I mentioned before, Dark Worlds will transport the players to an alien world quite unlike any that they’ve had in previous Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. If you’re looking to experience some cosmic horror in an unfamiliar setting, then you should pick up the campaign. It’s a little slow at the start, but soon ramps up nicely and promises some extremely interesting encounters in future installments.

Dark Worlds Act I: The Ritual is currently available directly from Petersen Games.

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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.

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