[Review] Cha’alt Pt. I (O5R?!?); Kom Cha’alten met me

[Adventure]
Cha’alt (2019)
Venger Satanis (Kor’thalis Publishing)
Levels 3+

Disclaimer: Content partner

chaalt cover

Venger’s magnum opus. I am partially responsible. I think it is up to me to give it a proper context. To explain my actions so that, at last, you understand. I will make you see.

There is a foreword. Ignore it. It will do you no good. Read only this.

Before I forget – you’re supposed to explore and talk to people. This is non-standard DnD right here. Exploration will have meaning besides finding the monsters and whatever
loot they have. The adventurers will want to make sense of this place, like piecing
together fragments of a bizarre dream. Interaction is preferable to constant,
mindless combat room after room. GMs, luxuriate in the roleplaying aspects
of Cha’alt! If you, the GM, take an interest in the world, for instance,
factions within the dungeon, then so will the players. The fire of your enthusiasm will light theirs. Enthusiasm begets immersion. When player immersion increases, it makes for a better game.

Cha’alt is pure distilled Venger Satanis, making it about 80% awesome and 20% horseshit. Whatever slovenly tendencies predominate in some of his later era works have been expunged viciously by snarling, spitting invective and frequent caning, leaving only a fuchsia colored vision of utter bewildering strangeness and alien horror, occasionally interrupted by asinine space exploitation. A forsaken taskmaster I, to midwife this odyssey into worlds beyond the imagination.

The hardcover is gorgeous, a seething wraparound of a black pyramid superimposed with the word Cha’alt in sinuous black letters, surrounded by tentacles, eyeballs and tendrils. The inside is a kaleidoscopic vision of ancient parchment, emerald runes, banal cartoon drawings and nightmarish abominations. Stat blocks are elegant and information is presented semi-efficiently for once, a rare treat in a Satanis product. The overal look is stunning, vivid and attractive.

Do me a favor. Put on the Dune Soundtrack – Main theme, and repeat it endlessly as you peruse its accursed pages and stare at its black pyramidal cover. That is Cha’alt.

The History of Cha’alt is presented in sweeping strokes of long ages, yet coherently and in a way that the nature of Cha’alt is built up, layer by layer, as though some brilliant rpg consultant had assisted in giving shape to its seemingly unwieldy nature.

The world of Cha’alt begins as any standard fantasy world, elves, dragons, wizards etc. At some point the dimension devouring Old Ones nest down on its soil and sink beneath the earth, wary from their interdimensional predations. Part of Cha’alt is corrupted by them and joins them below the ground. In their absence, the surfacers forsake ancient sorcery, develop technology and super science and create themselves an interstellar empire. When the Old Ones awake once more, incensed that their ways have been forgotten, and rise up to annihilate the surfacers, they are met with battlecruisers, super science and warriors drawn from a thousand worlds.

Or as some guy put it:
These ancient Gods, diminished by the loss of faith, wreaked vengeance upon Cha’alt. Many of the domed cities were destroyed as subterranean races fought to reclaim the surface world. But the surface-dwellers would not yield meekly to the executioner’s blade. They matched star-strewn technological might with the eldritch wrath of
K’tulu, Yog-Soggoth, and their loathsome ilk. Amorphous abominations pitted against slave legions drawn from across the cosmos. The most fearsome of the galaxy’s battlecruisers facing down ineffable nightmares from nameless black gulphs.

So basically the coolest backstory ever. One apocalypse later, the Old Ones are dead, their rotting bodies forming the coveted substance Zoth, and the survivors of the cataclysm lead a cursed, violent existence in the horror-haunted desert littered with the remnants of a godlike age. Two suns, seven moons.

There’s a lot of backstory to Cha’alt itself before the book gets into the Black Pyramid proper and its mostly good stuff. The Zoth is craved throughout the galaxy, meaning alien spice frackers [1] descend upon Cha’alt to stripmine it, careless that they will leave it a barren husk. Portals from the Tech Age still remain functional, allowing all manner of visitors to arrive. My recommendation is to minimize or entirely eliminate any connection with Alpha Blue since it clashes with the otherwise stellar, dreamlike atmosphere of Cha’alt. Replace the banality of asslicking cat hookers with something more enigmatic, an inscrutable stellar empire with emissaries like the Visitors from Book of the New Sun, the warriors of Emperor Ming or the elite legions of Emperor Shaan from Druillet’s Loane Sloane [2].

Cha’alt runs on VS’s Crimson Dragon Slayer system which is nominally compatible with oldschool systems or 5e which is sort of true, and which is kindly described in the back of the book in a few short, concise pages. This is one of the smart choices in Cha’alt. The torrent of strangeness and bewilderment requires a breakneck pace and Satanis provides the system to do it. Four classes, fixed hp per level, saving throw is 20-your level, no ability scores, each class has about one class feature, wizards can cast any spell they know but lose level d6 when they cast one, advantage/disadvantage for penalties or buffs, one short rest per day to regain d6xlevel hit points and a long rest means you regain all your hit points. Arcade mode. My recommendation is that you scratch the cleric class entirely, as written, its unlimited access to healing ability means your game will quickly become an irreparably broken mess. Regardless, statts are simple and special abilities are few, prompting simple, rudimentary conversion.

The point is that the system enables quick, efficient character generation while adding enough weird twists, such as a percentage chance to get psionic powers (i.e. make someone save or have his head explode at the cost of 2d4 hit points), to keep everything colorful and fresh. One thing that is rather puzzling is that Cha’alt also has as playable races an astonishing variety of elves, who have a sinister connection with infernals in this setting. Some of the variants are nice, the Blood Elf gaining advantage on any first attack they initiate at the cost of disadvantage on peaceful interaction is a nice trade-off. but some of the elves like the Sky-elf have special abilities that are not offset by any drawbacks, not even skin that is worth 150 gp on the market of A’agrybah, making one wonder why not everyone should select them.

The gazetteer of Cha’alt is probably one of the stronger sections of the book as a whole, presenting you with such a torrent of ideas that one cannot help but be carried off to this strange land of violet sand and fuchsia skies. The environment on Cha’alt is as deadly as its inhabitants, requiring one to travel light to avoid heatstroke, take radiation pills to avoid mutation and to remain constantly hydrated, which is enforced with simple, practical rules. Transport or mount costs are haphazardly scattered throughout the text, but you should not be afraid. You will figure out it is not that important. What are the costs of Radiation pills? You will learn that these things are of less paramount importance. Cha’alt is a game of the strange and the fantastic, and resource management is not really a part of it. This screams Gonzo with a fiery, bellowing, bone-splintering roar.

Get carried away by descriptions of the obsidean city of Kra’adumek, ruled by the purple priesthood in psionic thrall to a great, demonic worm. The city of Ja’alette is ruled over by the matriarchical Harmonious Validity, and decrees that 90% of its males are castrated. A domed city still maintains the ancient technology of its forebears and offers cybernetic enhancements at the cost of scavenged tech. The Capital City of A’agrybah towers over all, ruled by a cruel king and his infernal bride, a mixture of high technology and ancient sorcery, with seedy taverns filled with spicers, daemons and sorcerers. Seven Zuleks is a single gold piece. Curators of an ancient library wielding phasers or a great crimson rock where the tribes of Cha’alt congregate to offer bloody sacrifice to Terrible, New Gods. It’s like somebody condensed all of Heavy Metal into a single campaign setting and IT’S WONDERFUL.

This EASILY has enough ideas to flesh out into a full-on hexcrawl and the plethora of hostile inhabitants makes the desert landscape seem almost crowded. A quick look at the map, which humorously expresses distance in terms of days travel, reveals otherwise. It is three weeks travel across punishing, perilous, worm-haunted desert from A’agrybah to the Black Pyramid. Factions are lavishly drenched across the whole, adding psychopathic cultists, alien spice-miners, mecha-armoured mercenary bands, anti-gravity skiff riding sand-pirates, mad-max raiders, hunter killer robots and a time-travelling cabal of sorcerer-scientist that seek to prevent the apocalypse. All of them neatly statted out, given treasure and rudimentary motivation, an unprecedented amount of thoroughness for a Satanis module that is remarkable.

There is no random encounter table for the desert which is fortunate since the wilderness inhabitants make Carcosa look tame by comparison. You are actually lucky if you encounter a band of psychotic cannibal murderers in power armor in Cha’alt. 15 HD Sand Worms, monsters that drive you insane by just looking at them, terrifying desert sirens and yet more killer robots round off the inhabitants of the desert.

I think I may have mentioned in passing that I think Venger’s main strength, his relentless McCrackenesque creativity, is best suitable for campaign settings or hex crawls and it shows here, outlines are broad enough to create a spark of vivid imagery in the brain, and usually contain enough gameables to enable the GM to turn that spark into an adventure. Good. Shit.

The first module proper is an introductory adventure called Beneath Kra’adumek, and takes place in the legendary dungeons beneath the city of the demon worm. A polar storm has disrupted the Worm’s psionic control, prompting revolt. You and your fellow PCs [3] start the game without equipment and must venture into the dungeons below in search off supplies to survive the trek across the desert. Enter the PCs!

The dungeon is…okay. There’s a few niggling annoyances, like the place feeling too crowded (every room has either treasure or creatures), a 19 room complex in frequent use by the priesthood somehow containing a horde of cannibalistic spider mutants, a weird ooze creature, a demonic cat snake and nine bazillion cultists requires a little GM legerdermain to keep plausible. On the plus side, many of the encounters can be interacted with, solved by trickery, having something going on, and give the appearance of a living, breathing place. There is a palace revolution going on, some cultists are transplanting a brain into another suit, comitting human sacrifices and getting up to all sorts of shenanigans, there’s an opportunity for disguise, murals etc. etc. Satanis also begins the first room with an invisible 6th level Wizard with a fireball spell fuck you very much.

Monsters throughout Cha’alt are relentlessly creative and I would not be able to tell you if a single book monster makes its way onto the roster. This dungeon alone has mutant spider people, a mutant ooze, a cat demon, warring cultists and at least one robot.

Having actually played in some of Satanis’s test sessions, its readily apparent how a game of Cha’alt is played, which is BOLDLY AND WITH FEVERISH IMPROVISATION. There are no fuck you traps to stifle the relentless momentum of the exploratory drive, there are fuck you crystals throughout the complex rendering all magic unpredictable, and the map lacks versimilitude but is at least amply stocked with branching pathways to render exploration interesting. The occasional monster of fuck you strength prevents the game from degenerating into hack and slash, or more accurately, parlay and then hack and slash. The lack of random encounters is regrettable.

Another point I hate: Mundane Treasure in Cha’alt lacks weight behind it and feels at times like filler. The lack of a gold for XP rule and a dedicated equipment list, coupled with a lack of focus on resource management renders much of the gold pieces, tuleks or silver you find somewhat of an afterthought. There is, however, a plethora of modern technology, laser weapons, unique magical items and hallucinogens should keep everyone suitably entertained. A bit messy but acceptable as a starting dungeon.

Next up is Inside The Frozen Demon Worm. Ooooh boy. Why do you make me suffer so?

The concept is great, the PCs enter the Maw of the Demon Worm, frozen by the great polar storm, in search of…fuck you we can go inside the maw of a frozen demon worm god okay?!? Okay! A crowd of onlookers watches mutely as you enter the belly of the beast…for no readily discernable reason.

More good stuff. Halfway through the Demon Worm it begins to thaw, and its digestive juices damage everyone, adding some tension. There’s random encounters in the form of strange parasites that live inside the Worm’s gullet, which is voluminous enough to contain people for years and years if they avoid his digestive juices. Fucking around with spells and trying to attack the worm might trigger some sort of tentacly retribution, which I appreciate.

The structure is a waste of potential. A linear dungeon with encounters that take place sequentially. NOOOOO. A shame Satanis. I imagine the possibilities of something like the Behemoths in Beings From Beyond and I tut a little. This needed branching paths, organs, sphincters, branching digestive tracts or other organic features. As it is the Worm feels inert, wasting much of its otherwordly potential.

The dungeon opens once again, with an ambush, a signature move? If only a genius would have been around to consult when this particular piece of Cha’alt was designed.

All the encounters are good, but more importantly, there is a dynamic potential to the encounters that makes them effective. Monsters are occasionally non-hostile, bandits can be questioned, a couple is giving birth (?!?), NPCs may be befriended, fights may be joined and there is a photon torpedo that may be triggered to destroy the worm and potentially everyone inside if you hit it hard enough. How’s that for an encounter? The at times maddening inertia of something like BftPI or even IoPP does not take place here. Lessons are learned. Treasure is a sumptuous mixture of high tech, non-standard magic items, inexplicable pop-culture detrius that one would find in some sort of Truck Stop Gift Shop At the End of Time. And then an 11 HD Spawn of Cthulhu with save or die poison. a Violet Slime that kills on hit, a pylon that transports you to a nightmare dimension, a bizarre gleaming cube that provokes conflict, a demon that promises a wish in exchange for a means of escape…Nice.

This is damn fine, solid stuff, on par with anything in Liberation of the Demon Slayer or Islands of Purple Haunted Putrescence. A Pity it is used in such a straightforward fashion. Do I go into the treasure?

His magic sword Umz’sor is a +1 weapon. It glows when humanoids are untruthful.
Additionally, Umz’sor does an additional 1d4 damage when some nihilistic phrase is uttered during a successful attack (has to be a new phrase each time). 

Fun! Does anyone remember Fun?!? Play it! Put the Flash Gordon Soundtrack on (Emperor Ming). Mix with John Carpenter.

Gamma Incel Cantina is the last section before the Black Pyramid and my recommendation is that you omit it entirely because it is A) atmosperically incongruent with the rest of Cha’alt and B) mostly vestigial and devoid of gameable content. There’s the odd collection of Alpha Blue sleazebags, hookers, dudes with tiny motivations and other nonsense but almost NOTHING has anything to do with finding the Black Pyramid and it doesn’t really work as an adventure location either. A princess showing up at the end with an offer of reward for those travelling to the black pyramid (because she pays in gold pieces, none of the spacers give a shit) is a fairly effective hook but the bulk of the patrons may be done away with and replaced with something more…weird. It needs less Star Wars, more Flash Gordon, Dune or Druillet or Alejandro Johdorovsky.

A stellar setting, followed by two okay adventures and one wet blanket. The main course is yet to come. We have not even reached Peak Satanis yet!

Next up: THE BLACK PYRAMID. WHOOP WHOOP!

[1] Spice Mel’aanj…sigh
[2] Yeah yeah I know real relatable references
[3] My suggestions would be a Red Fighting Man called Nomad, a nameless gunslinger with dual pistols made from the metal of Excalibur, a black robed wizard named Mongo the Omniscient and a blond kid with exposed chest muscles named Prince Thangorr.


19 thoughts on “[Review] Cha’alt Pt. I (O5R?!?); Kom Cha’alten met me

  1. Vengar Satanis is just Anton LaVey’s time-clone stuck in the OSR scene. Change my mind.

    This feels like Heavy Metal The Magazine: The RPG.

    [2] References.
    Obscure references? A series that I’m beginning to read,something that I watched with my father,and a series that I love alongside Moebius’ works are obscure? Also don’t spoil anything about New Sun, I don’t wanna know more about these Visitors.

    Are there more wild things in this book you didn’t mention?

    Frozen Demon Worm
    I don’t know, if I saw a bunch of people walk into a gigantic deity-worm I would sit down and watch. Living in this world at least the horror’s on someone else for the moment.

    Gamma Incel Cantina.
    You mean the local bar that I frequent? JK, I don’t go to bars, who am I kidding?

    Like

    1. You read more widely then I would have surmized. Good on you.

      There are in fact more wild things in this book that I have not mentioned. Stay tuned.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Having played in some of these very same playtests as our esteemed host I can fully agree with his observations.
    To fully enjoy Cha’alt you basically have to turn your “willing suspension of disbelief” up a level or two.
    let me paraphrase the Ancient One from Dr. Strange: “Not everything makes sense. Not everything has to.”
    So if you expect a rational explanation for everything that is going on or that the book answers the hows and whys … you’ll be sorely disappointed.
    If you however can manage to let go and accept, that Chaalt isn’t so much a fleshed out setting (and it is fleshed out very well in some places) but rather the essence of a setting plasmabeamed directly into our head … well then you’ll be having a jolly good time 😉
    Instead of info dumps and backstory and the like Cha’alt manages to convey to you the emotions, the feeeling and the style of the world … paired with the minimal Crimson dragon slayer rules and a certain “by the seat of your pants” attitude … that works phenomenaly well … for a certain kind of player and DM.
    It is certainly not for everyone 😉

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    1. Ah for those bygone days, when the might of the Red Men was alloyed with the Sorcery of Lothiq, and Worm Worshipper and Shoggoth alike knew fear and death, in a distant place, under twin suns in a fuchsia sky.

      Like

  3. Regarding the cleric’s healing hands, there’s something critics don’t consider. With traditional D&D, the PCs wouldn’t last 3 encounters in Cha’alt without a good night’s rest. Rescind my OSR card if you must, but that’s fucking lame. Save vs death is badass, but nap or die is bush league!

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    1. See, that’s where the 20% retard element sets in. Removing resource management from the game entirely strips it off an important challenging element and reduces it to a call of duty infinite regenerating health game. That’s already a little gay, but maybe, theoretically I could sort of see the point if you wanted to do a quick and dirty convention game with flashy encounters. But! you also removed spell slots and made spells run off of spellcaster hp. Coupled with infinite healing, that turns the game into a mess.

      Your PC’s already have…what? More hp then the average bear, coupled with a short rest ability that recovers considerable hit points. Throw in some healing items and we are fine.

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  4. The only games in existence are quick and dirty convention games with flashy encounters… Cha’alt!

    “Infinite healing” is an exaggeration. It is limited, but not by time. There’s precious little healing items in Cha’alt. Resource management, yes, just not needing to rest for 8 hours after a 5-minute battle.

    How about we compromise and call it a beautiful disaster? 😉

    FYI, I recently revised the entire Crimson Dragon Slayer PDF (still FREE): https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/303380/Crimson-Dragon-Slayer-D20-Revised

    Like

    1. Are you kidding? There’s a market in the Black Pyramid that sells potions of total healing at 25 gp a pop. With potions only and no cleric its still arcadey as fuck and by adjusting the starting level you get around the 6 hp ftr two encounters and you must sleep problem that you feel slows down the game, which perfectly legitimate, especially a convention game. At d6 per round, unlimited you remove resource mangement pretty much entirely; You get full hit points every encounter, you get full spells every encounter since spells are tied to hit points, and you don’t need to worry about torches/encumberance in Cha’alt. You could argue that food, anti-radiation pills and water represent some sort of resource, but that is the very resource I would probably handwave in an Arcade DnD game.

      Now I plan on running Cha’alt because its damn interesting, but you bet your Purple Breeches I will be adjusting Crimson Dragon Slayer by scrapping the Cleric when I do so.

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      1. As an addendum, I’m…halfway through the Black Pyramid…Its damn good. It’s occasionally frustrating and rough but when its good it’s fucking great. An unnerving, dissonant symphony. I am glad I worked on it.

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      2. Interestingly, no one I’ve run through The Black Pyramid has ever reached the marketplace. And I did write Cha’alt for all forms of D&D, not just Crimson Dragon Slayer.

        Sure, remove the cleric. I won’t cry… too much.

        FYI, I think the cleric could be really fun when there’s inter-party conflict. Not necessarily player versus player, but an air of tension, mistrust, and competing values. Who needs healing now?

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