RPG Review: Tales from the World’s End

Tales from the World’s End is an anthology of 16 encounters exploring the depths of eldritch and cosmic horror in D&D fifth edition. Lead by Miłosz Gawęcki, this supplement aims to provide brief, easy-to-pick-up encounters and one-shot adventures for the DM that needs a quick way of preying on their players most primal fears. As you can expect with any anthology, the encounters are of varying quality (as we’ll get into later as we dig into the details), but overall it achieves its “ease of use” goal. There is something here for everyone, including those who aren’t horror fans, like me, which is always a very positive sign. Overall, an excellent supplement that’s ideal if you’re looking for your next Halloween one-shot or something to spice up your campaign with a spooky side quest. Several encounters could also easily be slipped into a published adventure, such as a Ravenloft campaign (whether Strahd or any other domain of dread.) Longtime readers will know my thoughts about Rime of the Frostmaiden, and the ‘Delban’s Embrace’ adventure could easily be included in the campaign to create a clear cause for the Dale’s problems.

Before we get into the adventures themselves, I want to take a moment to talk about how the anthology has overall handled the cosmic horror genre. The genre’s roots are old but are unfortunately mixed up with Lovecraft and his disgusting and reprehensible opinions. It is possible to pretend that this isn’t the case, as Wizards of the Coast’s Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft did, and, to be honest, it’s not always the worst way of doing things. However, Tales from the World’s End decides to take it head-on and calls this out in its preface, making the problem explicit and ensuring that this work, at least, is as inclusive and as careful as possible in its sensibilities. It is a refreshingly direct denunciation, and I love it.

While we’re on the subject of the genre at large, I’d also like to highlight and celebrate the framing device of antagonistic letters sent between The Librarian and The Peddler, two characters who are probing the depths of esoteric knowledge. There are a couple of letters at the start of the anthology to set the tone (that you can hear in the excellent trailer below) and a letter before each adventure to hint at what to expect. They probably give slightly too much away to be of use for players (though they might make enjoyable handouts after an adventure as a souvenir), but they are excellent at setting the tone for the DM. Despite coming from different writers, they are surprisingly uniform in their style and do a good show at working within their chosen genre. They are a surprising addition to the anthology and must have taken considerable extra work, but they are highly appreciated. In what I presume is a deliberate choice, they have also not included any NPC metadata in the text of the adventures (the usual type/alignment/etc. that follows the first reference to an NPC). I didn’t miss it much, and it makes the adventures read more like stories rather than the more technical writing style that is more common. This might not be everyone’s taste, however, and if you have trouble keeping track of things when DMing, you might need a bit of extra preparation (which goes against one of the anthologies goals, but not enough to write home about, in my opinion).

So what about the actual adventures themselves? Let’s do a brief run down, shall we (spoilers ahoy!).

Adventure breakdown

Stones of Serendipity by James Dodds is designed for 4 characters of 3rd level (CW: body horror, combat, gore, mutilation, big arachnid-like creatures). The party has to investigate the death of the village blacksmith and can trace it back to the recently discovered rocks from the reopened local mine. The investigation section is well designed and written, executing on all the standard horror beats, and also provides a choice in ending depending on if the party goes total extermination or diplomatic (though sticking to the theme, both endings offer ample opportunity to be downers sooner or later).

Patchwork Abomination by Nikolas Totief is also designed for 4 characters of 3rd level (CW: gore, amputation, rituals). This is one of the shorter adventures, more of an encounter than anything if we’re honest, but one that’s an excellent addition and easy to drop into any game. The party get to face off against a pretty unique monster with some excellent mechanics and a bit of backstory. It’s short but effective.

Delban’s Embrace by Saga Mackenzie is another in the category of adventures for 4 level 3 characters (CW: corruption, physical alterations, mind control). This is one of the adventures that stood out to me the most. If I were to restart my Icewind Dale campaign, I’d definitely include this adventure as a perfect opportunity to rewrite some of the parts I like least about the campaign. The adventure revolves around a village being corrupted by a shard of an extra-dimensional being that wants to plunge the universe into cold and darkness. It presents the adventure as a timeline, detailing what happens in the characters don’t intervene. Acting early and planning correctly can make the end of the adventure easier on the party, which is excellent at highlighting agency. The final encounter is also written to include innocent bystanders, which I feel is an intriguing addition in a horror story to up the tension, and remind the players of their difference in power compared to the average commoner. Overall, I’m impressed, and this might be my future go-to for a low-level Halloween adventure.

Jackson’s Folly by Logan Smith, for 4 level 3 characters (CW: Disease, death, suspense). What would a cosmic horror anthology be without weird sea creatures? I was amazed that there wasn’t one before this. It would appear that Old Man Jackson didn’t come back quite right after his last salvage operation. The actual combat encounter is interesting and, in particular, I love the way the difficulty ramps up during the fight to represent the evolution of the narrative. However, the rest of the adventure is slightly let down by a couple of minor elements that I found confusing, and I couldn’t line up the map provided with the text. Its self contained makes it easy to fit in anywhere and be adapted as needed to your campaign.

Brighter Than The Sun by Bobby Ellis is designed for 4 level 3 characters (CW: Religious cults). It’s one of the more open adventures, providing quite a lot of background for the DM to do what they want. As they travel through a forest, the characters learn about a cult lead by someone calling themselves The Lightbringer set up in a nearby abandoned city. The forest travel provides plenty of time for roleplaying and includes some pretty dark and creepy locations that are cool, allowing the characters to gather information about the cult before they meet them. When they do, however, there is a considerable risk of it devolving into a rapid blood bath if the characters are too aggressive in their approach. There is also a pretty nasty “save or die” mechanic hidden in there, so do with that what you will. I’d class it as a volatile adventure, with the possibility of being excellent or completely fizzling, and therefore wouldn’t recommend it to new DMs. If you’re willing to put the work in and are confident in your ability to run the cultists well, I could very much imagine this being the start of a whole campaign because it has a lot of potential.

The Buried Vessel by Lucas Zellers is the last of the adventures designed for 4 level 3 characters (CW: cannibalism, claustrophobia, endless houses). Low on combat, this encounter is mainly a puzzle, where the characters will have to figure out of to leave this crashed alien ship. However, to do that, they will first have to figure out that they’re trapped, as this might not be immediately evident to them. The idea is interesting, and it makes an enjoyable change from some of the more combat orientated adventures, but it might be frustrating to certain players if they can’t figure out what they’re meant to do. Personally, I found the instructions slightly confusing, even though they were written down for me, and I had a hard time matching them up with the indications on the map.

Best Friend is the second entry by Bobby Ellis, aimed this time at 4 level 5 characters (CW: gore, cruelty, violence to children). Since the last blood moon (always ominous), the local children have been acting strangely. A short but well-designed investigation will lead the party to confront a set of corrupted slaad. During the fight, the characters will have to choose how to deal with the children, which increases the stakes. A bit of puzzle-solving will also benefit the party in their final challenge to close the portal, though, in case of failure, you’d better be ready to write up a campaign or change it to something that suits you better.

Beckoning of the Bleak by Vall Syrene, designed for 4 characters between levels 5 to 10 (CW: insanity, thalassophobia), is one of the more subdued adventures in the anthology but is possibly more potent for it. There is no combat here, not in the traditional sense at least, though the players will be in conflict in other ways as they try to close a portal at the bottom of a lake that seems to be draining the memories of the locals. The party is tasked with finding a missing person, and to save them will have to risk themselves in the process.

Food for Thought by Miłosz Gawęcki is optimized for 4 level 5 characters (CW: mind control, gore, audible hallucinations). A small village is being discreetly controlled by alien vegetation from space (Triffids anyone?) that are slowly devouring them for sustenance. The characters, one way or another, will discover where the plants have made their base and can engage with them in combat to end the threat (or at least, so they think), or possibly decide that it’s not worth the effort, in exchange for a reasonable payment. The combat encounter is nice, in the form of a trio of bosses, which follow the same basic principles with some variation between them. I love that the plants don’t communicate with words but through images and impressions. A really solid addition and I feel like the monsters in it could also be easily integrated into another adventure (if you want, say, sentient plants in the jungles of Chult). 

Mists of Memory by Nikolas Totief is for 4 level 6 characters (CW: dementia, abandonment, bullying). The half-child of a devil sorcerer has fled a village after being shunned from it. He has manifested some of his father’s powers and is using them to steal the memories of the locals in the hopes of finding his birth mother. The characters must find this child, now at least partly transformed into a devil, and try and relinquish its hold over the village. Unfortunately, the actual investigation section is a bit linear as written, and the party might come crashing into a brick wall of confusion if they don’t understand what they’re meant to be doing. However, the combat encounters are well designed. 

Song of the Sea by Logan Smith is designed for 4, 7th levels (CW: body horror, mind control) and isn’t so much a whole adventure as it is a scripted creepy combat encounter. As things get progressively worse, the characters race to take out an eldritch choral before they can complete their poem and doom the town.

The Hobbes End Horror by Saga Mackenzie is designed for 4 level 7 characters (CW: corpses, tentacles, body horror) is a relatively straightforward but highly effective adventure that plays perfectly with our fear of dark, enclosed places and the things that might live in them. It involves investigating what remains of a town and its inhabitants before facing off against the cause of the destruction in a particularly creepy boss fight that makes good use of its location.

All Hail the King by Miłosz Gawęcki is optimized for 4 level 8 characters (CW: gore, body horror) centred around tracking down and dealing with a monster called the Rat King, capable of assimilating traits from its prey. The monster design is good, and the idea that its abilities change depending on what it has eaten is incredibly cool. Unfortunately, given the current set-up of the adventure, the Rat King is likely to only ‘evolve’ once, maybe twice, if you can get away with it. That is if you can manage to pull off the monster fleeing at half health like it’s meant to, but trying to escape a group of level 8 characters is often quite the challenge, especially since the Rat King doesn’t have anything, in particular, to help it escape. I’m not sure I’d run it exactly as written. Still, in a high-level campaign, I’d love to have several Rat Kings running about, hunting prey in dark alleys, using hit and run tactics, each recognizable to the party by their different traits; I think it would work well.

Night of the Living Dreams by Lucas Zellers brings our 4 player party up to level 9 (CW: Insanity, nightmares), with a unique premise and a combat encounter that is… interesting, to say the least, but we’ll get to that. I’m a sucker for a cursed item, and the idea that a fiend is trapped in a scroll of dreams is juicy. The encounter starts during the long rest after the party uses the scroll, which, while highly thematic, also means that if your party tends to hoard magic items, they might never find it, but it’s a fun little easter egg that’s easy to include in any party. The encounter itself is fascinating, with both the fiend and the affected player fighting over control of the dream (and the associated lair actions). If the player wins, they can draw in other players to assist them. This concept is incredibly thematic, but it is highly dependant on the affected character’s stats. If they are unable to gain control of the dream and call in their allies, it could quickly become a massacre as they try to face off against the fiend in a one on one fight. On the other hand, if the player manages to get early control over the dream, the fiend can find itself rapidly overwhelmed. This encounter promises a lot and has the possibility of being one of those moments that the entire table never forgets, but it is also highly variable.

Cult of the Black Bedrock by Nikolas Totief is designed for 4 level 10 adventurers (CW: Possession). Bringing back a staple of eldritch horror in the form of Mindflayers, it also mixes in some almost sci-fi elements with strange metal boxes that have very particular properties. The adventure is well built and makes good use of a timeline that describes what happens if the characters fail to intervene and ramps up the challenge well if they wait too long. The party has several ways of dealing with the mindflayer threat and saving the town, making the adventure quite open in its flow. It also makes good use of the Elder Brain, a criminally underused monster. An excellent entry.

Oakheart and Beyond by James Dodds rounds out the anthology proposing a one-shot for 4 level 12 characters (CW: body horror, combat, cults, madness, self-harm, poverty). The adventure is centred around a mysterious group of builders erecting a statue in the town centre to summon a Star Spawn (from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes). However, this adventure is a bit disappointing as it suffers from the difficulty of translating certain horror elements to a TTRPG. In this case, the characters’ actions can, at best, delay the construction for a few days, but no matter what they do, the Star Spawn will eventually be summoned, leading to the final fight. This can work well in a film or novel, as it can add to the impression that doom is inevitable, increasing the feeling of helplessness at the core of this sort of horror story. In a TTRPG, however, this reduces the player’s agency, as their character’s actions are pointless and have no effect on the final result. The premise is good, and the fight is well designed, but overall the adventure might leave your players with a bad taste in their mouths.

Cover of Tales from the World's End. Two hands hold half a letter each, meeting in the centre and bisected by a strange otherworldly sceptre. It is surrounded by black wines which have eyes on them.
Cover of Tales from the World’s End. Credit Hefestus Cave.

Wrap-up

Overall, the anthology is solid, with even its weakest entries providing an interesting base to build on. There is plenty in here that I’ll be stealing for my games, despite generally avoiding horror. Its goal to provide easy to pick-up and run adventures is usually achieved, with few of them needing any real preparation time for the DM. However, there were a couple of adventures (Jackson’s Folly and The Buried Vessel) where I couldn’t figure out how the maps matched the adventure description, which might be a problem if you haven’t read the adventure at least once before running it. I’d also like to point out that while the content warnings provided are a very welcome addition, they are also a bit random. I’m guessing that the individual writers assigned them, but it does lead to certain adventures having “violence” or “combat” as a CW, while this is missing from others that also have combat in them. This is a minor complaint, and overall I felt that the warnings were accurate. A bit of harmonization would have been nice, though this only really stands out as the anthology on a whole deals very well with making sure that it is safe for everyone, despite its difficult subject matter. 

I’d recommend picking this anthology up if you’re a fan of horror or are looking for a one-shot for the spooky season. They are also perfect for slipping into a darker campaign, such as Curse of Strahd, Rime of the Frostmaiden, or something home-brewed in the Domains of Dread. The design and layout are on point, and reading through the anthology is almost as much a collection of short stories as a set of adventures, making for a very agreeable time even if you don’t get around to running anything from it.

You can pick up the anthology with a 25% discount until the end of August here! (This will send you directly to your cart on the DMsGuild, if you want to check out the product page without the discount then click here).

Credits:

Until next time, be more kind,

TTFN,

Sam

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