Dark Worlds is the third Saga of Petersen Games’ Cthulthu Mythos Saga.
As this is a review of a set of adventures, if you’re more likely to be playing it than running it, then you should flee now, and you could try this portal link which will take you to an entirely random page on the site. It’ll be different each time.
Right now, Petersen Games’ website describes Dark Worlds as the exciting conclusion to Saga 2, which was the Yig Snake Granddaddy. I’ve not read that Saga, but I suspect Dark Worlds would be better for brand new characters. Either way, you certainly don’t need to have taken characters through Yig Snake Granddaddy to get value from Dark Worlds.
Dark Worlds: The Ritual has four adventures in it, the first is for level 1 characters, and it strongly recommends the milestone system. It suits four to five characters and players used to tough games. If you have any survivors, they’ll be level 5 at the end of this book.
You won’t need to have played through the previous Sagas for Dark Worlds, but you absolutely need a copy of Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos. I can’t imagine trying to run the adventure without it and don’t know whether the required dread and insanity rules are available anywhere else.
Dark Words: The Ritual is written by Sandy Petersen, the designer behind Call of Cthulhu and Matt Corley, who helped bring us Whispers in the Dark. Donathin Frye join them in development and Damien Mammoliti is responsible for the great maps.
I think the first thing you’ll notice when you open The Ritual is how good it looks. It’s easy to read, easy to follow and looks like a good investment. There’s plenty of great art too, and I’m going to try and be as appropriately liberal as I can with the art featured in this review as I think they’re a real selling point for the adventure.
The next thing you’ll notice, I suspect, is that side by side on the page is the fact that the player character’s nemesis in these chapters will be the fungal Mi-Go and that the designers end each act with suggestions on how to introduce new/replacement PCs.
I’m not sure how well Dark Worlds delivers on those proactive “how to insert replacement PC into the plot” promise but, as it happens, the structure of the four adventures allows for it. There will be encounters with surviving NPCs, and a new PC could be added there, or times when the PCs are out looking for a particular essential NPC, and they could find a replacement PC then.
You see, Dark Worlds: The Ritual takes your D&D heroes off-planet and out of their depth. Helpfully, crucially, before any of the adventures begin, Petersen and Corley offer up a section that helps bring this unnatural realm to life.
The Cthulhu Mythos chapter “Bringing Horror to Heroic Fantasy” is essential reading. Geek Native also spoke directly to Petersen about adding Cthulhu to D&D, which might also be a useful read.
DMs need to prepare for a setting in which events like this might happen as a random encounter;
A gargantuan gate to the Void appears in the skies above, sucking in the meager atmosphere of Yuggoth, as well as any nearby loose objects, until it closes 2d4 cataclysmic minutes later. Creatures within 50 feet of the gate must succeed on a DC 14 Strength saving throw or be drawn into the Void. Small and Tiny creatures and those flying have disadvantage on the saving throw.
What follows are four acts, starting off at the typical fantasy tavern and what feels like an almost cliche start to a D&D adventure… before the sucker punch.
Each adventure is straightforward to follow. There’s a synopsis which summaries the plan and the Petersen Games’ walkthrough of events with stats and notes as required.
The overall structure is linear in that certain events happen, and there’s very little the players can do about it. Heroes are caught up by the tremendous powers at play. However, within each act, the structure is very loose to allow (but also require) the DM to run with player actions. For example, in one act, the PCs are looking for a missing person, and it’s up to the DM to decide where they are found.
It is true for most pre-written campaigns; but it is essential to read Dark Words: The Ritual from cover to cover before trying to run it. At the start of the book, there is an overview of what’s planned for Act 2: Nithon, Act 3: The Zepzeg Cycle and Act 4: The Green Pyramid. This crystal ball will help DMs derailing adventures that they may already have bought via the Petersen Games subscription model.
The easiest way to get Dark Words is via a subscription. Ghoul Island, Saga 1, is available from Petersen Games’ shop but Saga 2, Yig Snake Daddy, is not that I could find. The listed benefit of the subscription is 20% off Saga Adventures and access to them a month before general retail release. Subscribe in time, or wait until the general release.
The goal of Dark Worlds: The Ritual, other than to be disturbingly entertaining, is to reveal to the PCs that there is an entire cosmos of worlds darker than their own familiar D&D setting. It certainly achieves that, but it does so by abduction and abandonment. It’s a bit like showing marshmallows there’s a life outside the bag by taking them camping.
That’s okay with me, but I wrestle with running Dark Worlds as a surprise for players or only after careful agreement. I mean, it’s a wonderfully terrible curveball to throw at a gaming group who might only know D&D 5e and yet be beginning to feel as if they have experienced everything D&D can offer. It is, however, a morbid horror and that’s not something to abduct PCs into lightly.
I was impressed by Dark Worlds: The Ritual. I’ve no exposure to Ghoul Island or Yog Snake Granddaddy, the two four-part sagas that came before, but if they’re anything near this quality and thoughtfulness then I’m not surprised we’re up to Saga 3 with a Saga 4 listed as “Coming Soon”.
I like both mythos and survival horror. Dark Worlds is both. If that sounds like you, then it’s easy to recommend The Ritual. If you’re an especially engaged Sandy Petersen fan, you would have subscribed aeons ago, anyway.
The unknown element for me is what gamers not terribly familiar with cosmic horror will make of the adventures. I think some might struggle, but I’m not sure they’ll mind. Equally, I believe some DMs will appreciate the quality that oozes from Dark Worlds but still conclude it’s a bit too far from the Forgotten Realms path for their tastes.
I much enjoyed reading and planning to run Dark Worlds: The Ritual. This is my cup of unearthly tea. With the twin caveats of this is not a playtest review and the cosmic horror won’t be for everyone; I recommend Saga 3 of the Cthulhu Mythos.
Sitting in the tavern, enjoying some ale when the door opens to admit a new group of people may never be the same D&D experience again. I mean, look how it might end up…
One last thing…
With this ritual, I learned that “Dark Worlds” was the tentative name for a project that went on to become “Call of Cthulhu”.
Disclaimer: Geek Native was not paid to write this review but did receive a free copy of the PDF to facilitate it.
Let us know what you think in the comment section below.