Quick Look: Cthulhu Mythos Saga VI: Skin Deep
Authors: David N Ross, Sandy Petersen
Art Director: Tony Mastrangeli
Publisher: Petersen Games
Year Published: 2021
Find more info on Petersen Games’ website.
In Skin Deep, the heroes defend the lands of humanity against the machinations of extra-dimensional doppelgangers known as sand dwellers. The sand dwellers corrupt susceptible mortals, hollowing out their bodies and stealing their skins to take their places. They have infiltrated human governments and militaries and are undermining them, weakening them against the invasion by their warlord-queen, Ravazel the Butcher.
Can the heroes unravel their schemes and help humanity stand fast against this otherworldly menace, or will they too be hollowed out and replaced?
It begins with two dead bodies. The players are brought in to investigate, the need for quick resolution communicated clearly. The murders were not of just anyone, after all, and solving it quickly might avert war.
But the investigation is not without difficulties, and as clues are discovered, the murder begins to look strikingly like the work of a serial killer known as the Kulara Strangler who disappeared eighty years before.
The stakes were high from the start, but they only get more dire as the investigation continues. The players of Skin Deep will be thrust into the tense political games between nations as well as the machinations of an evil race of creatures set on destruction and confusion. And naturally, our heroes are the only hope there is to save the region from their wicked plans.
Skin Deep will throw your players into a gauntlet of monsters, evil plots, and political wrangling. They will cross between kingdoms looking for those they can trust and to protect the people from those who wish them harm.
Skin Deep is a 5th Edition campaign from Petersen Games as part of their Cthulhu Mythos Sagas series. The campaign takes the party from level 1 to level 15. A copy of this adventure was provided to me for the purposes of this review.
Otherwise, it should be noted that in order to get the most out of it, Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos should be used for additional monsters and rules which this adventure utilizes. While this is not strictly necessary, the adventure does assume you have access to these, so a DM would need to work around this assumption if you want to play it with just the base 5e rules in place.
While there is a big bad evil guy at the end of this adventure, the real villain of our adventure (and the driving force behind everything the players will encounter) is actually a group of creatures known as sand dwellers. The sand dwellers themselves are born out of the evil nature of people. They find those of evil bent and stoke that impulse with dreams and visions, often causing the people to become more evil in their designs, becoming sometimes serial killers as in the case of the Kulara Strangler, but also into politics and other areas where they can do great damage. Over time the person physically becomes a sand dweller themselves and at some point, quite literally sheds their skin to reveal the monster within.
They are able to wear skins quite effectively, taking them from their victims and then imitating that victim to whatever dark end they desire. If they are able to get close to someone important and murder that person, they will be able to effectively take that person’s place for an extended period of time.
The real tension in this adventure is not knowing who can be trusted and who is a sand dweller in disguise. In battle many of them are quite weak, but wearing the right skin, they are truly dangerous.
There is a certain feel that Chtulhu Mythos games have that is distinct from Dungeons and Dragons games and also Call of Cthuhlu. These campaigns are most definitely fantasy first, so while there remains a general creepy vibe to the adventure, these games are not Call of Cthulhu games in a 5e environment. The Chtulhu mythos is the flavor to the core fantasy rule set, so expect an adventure here and not a horror game.
That being said, of the Petersen Games I’ve played and reviewed, this one leans more toward fantasy adventure than others in the series, and a party entering this world should be well aware that this is not Call of Cthulhu with 5e rules, but a Lovecraftean skin for 5e that is going to give it a certain feel while remaining a fantasy adventure.
But even beyond just the feel of the adventure, the setting in Skin Deep plays a large roll in the adventure itself. It is set among three neighboring kingdoms, with an additional setting through a portal and to the Violet Dimension where the sand dwellers live. The political tension here is felt from the very beginning, and the NPCs are memorable and interesting.
The art in Petersen Games products is always first-rate, and sharing some of these images with players just amplifies the feel of the locations and the people. This is important because by the end of the adventure, these are the people and places the heroes will be tasked with defending, and having a sense of home about the place just intensifies the battles.
The Cthulhu Mythos Sagas are designed to be released monthly, with four chapters in each release, each one designed to span a session and each ending in a level increase. After four acts, the entire adventure becomes available in hardback form, which is the case with Skin Deep. In my experience these sessions assume a bit longer play than my groups normally go (which is typically three hours) so I would expect each chapter to be closer to four hours or so, depending on how focused your party is.
The chapters are distinct, which is one of my aspects of this adventure. There are investigation chapters, chapters featuring mostly combat, chapters that are more role-play, chapters that have you commanding armies in a war, and so on. The adventure is very well-balanced to keep game play moving. The world is interesting and fun to explore, and there are truly tense and dramatic moments as you go.
My advice for DMs out there is to really get under skin of the sand dwellers (pun intended). Make them menacing and dangerous, with drive and ambition. The danger here, since there are many and some quite easy to kill, is to make them silly, and if they become silly, the tension is lost. This is especially the case in certain parts where the players will be able to communicate with them in situations that are not at all hostile. In seeing them in just their normal routines, a bit of the fear of the unknown can be lost. And let’s face it, Lovecraftian horror is built on the fear of the unknown. The trick is to keep the danger of the situation high even if the enemies are rolling poorly.
This is actually the biggest weakness to the adventure, but one that we can avoid if we are aware of it. The individual sand dwellers are important, and some play a large role, but the group of sand dwellers is the real threat. If the sand dwellers become just another D&D enemy, it will be difficult to maintain interest in the adventure.
That being said, there is a lot here to sink your teeth into, and DMs should be ready to maintain a sense of wonder about the setting and a sense of dread about the enemy through the sixteen total chapters. The plot, the setting, and the characters are interesting. Overall, Skin Deep is a memorable adventure that proves to be quite an enjoyable ride.
The best audience for this adventure is a group that likes to see an ever-expanding story and well-considered lore. There are definitely many choices the players can make that will have long-term consequences, but this isn’t a pure open-world game by a longshot. There is a plot here to be played out, so it is best for the group that enjoys that style of game while a party looking to forge their own path completely is not going to be the right audience. Likewise, a group looking for a horror game will find tension in this adventure, but probably not exactly what they are seeking.
Find out more 0n Petersen Games’ website.