Cosmic Horror and Dungeons and Dragons can be a match made in the abyss with the right tools! Luckily, Sandy Petersen (Call of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Wars), Matt Corley (Whispers in the Dark), and Donathin Frye (Dark Matter) have created an intriguing campaign to bring D&D fans to the creepier side of roleplaying. Dark Worlds: A Ritual (available now via online subscription at Petersen Games), is a 4 part campaign created for characters from 1-14th level. It uses Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos for 5e to optimize gameplay for D&D 5th edition mechanics, with a few extras added on for high stakes and immersive storytelling. It’s technically the third Saga in a series, but it’s a standalone adventure, playing through Sagas 1 and 2 aren’t necessary to enjoy this installment.
The story begins in a tavern, inspired by classic tropes. It then takes a nightmarish turn to the planet of Yuggoth, home to the brutal Mi-Go, a fungal race known for their cold intelligence and “ghastly” experiments. It has all the trappings of medieval fantasy stories: a mad king, a treacherous wizard, an ancient feud. As the adventure progresses, however, those trappings fall away to reveal a much darker narrative, where the characters are faced with terrible foes and even more terrible choices. Self-described as an “adventure path [that] combines elements of heroic fantasy, survival horror, science fiction, and swords and sorcery,” Dark Worlds plunges players into harsh environment with hazards around every corner, from flesh eating micro-organisms to mind-breaking reality storms.
Dark Worlds is a great campaign for D&D players and Dungeon Masters looking to broaden their horizons. It does require an additional sourcebook, Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos for 5e, but if there’s any interest in incorporating this kind of content into games, it’s a solid investment. There are hundreds of pages of new races, monsters, classes, and backgrounds to help integrate the Mythos into a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. It’s a helpful tool for people who aren’t interested in jumping into a new system like Call of Cthulhu, but want the option to incorporate some of the lore and mechanics into their games. It also has a fabulous section on “Bringing Horror into Heroic Fantasy” that’s got plenty of tips for Game Masters looking to explore darker themes in their stories.
For Game Masters familiar with D&D 5e, Dark Worlds has a few extra tools to ease into a more intense narrative. The first is the structure of the adventure itself. The storylines are episodic, where each session begins a new chapter for the players. Within the episodes, encounters are classified as Scenes, Interludes/Preludes, and Sidetreks, with Scenes being integral to the plot, Interludes/Preludes being more flexible to roleplay, and Sidetreks as optional content. This allows each session to be flexible, even modular, something that’s lacking in many pre-written D&D adventures. Dark Worlds also incorporates dread mechanics (described fully in the Mythos for 5e sourcebook).
Dread is a very helpful way for GMs to begin incorporating more horror elements into their games, and a great way to begin plugging their players into the terrifying circumstances of Dark Worlds. Dread is something a character can experience when confronted by mind altering circumstances. It can be trauma, horrific consequences of their own actions, or even the all consuming power of an Elder God. There are varying degrees as to how Dread can affect characters, from rolling at disadvantage to falling unconscious. At higher levels of Dread, characters can even incur lasting effects known as Insanity. Keep in mind, this is what is referred to in the sourcebook as “Fantasy Insanity,” meant as a roleplay tool. If incorporating this version of madness into a game is harmful for the GM or Players, there is a variant provided for gameplay without it.
The adventure will introduce dread checks and dread-inducing situations throughout the narrative, pulling characters deeper and deeper into the madness of the planet. Possibly so deeply that they’re irrevocably changed. Dark Worlds is intense and high stakes, player characters can die, go mad, perhaps even become as monstrous as the creatures they’re fighting. Safety tools will be very important for any groups looking to play in this world. But if the group is ready and willing, the compelling, immersive storyline of Dark Worlds: A Ritual may be the perfect gateway to a spine chilling, adrenaline rush of an adventure. Just in time for Halloween season.