[Review] Cha’alt Pt. II; The Nicholas Cage of Megadungeons

We are back for the second and final installment. All that we have covered before is but the prologue. This is the real motherfucker. The Black Pyramid.

How to begin?

The obsidian jewel of Cha’alt’s demon crown is The Black Pyramid.
The wisest shamans denied its existence until that was no longer possible. With greater frequency, the pyramid resurfaced from the sands. And when it did, strangeness followed.
The oldest prophecies of Cha’alt describe a litany of ominous revelations regarding Chosa’al Mnenka, which means “heart of darkness” in the ancient tongue. It is the broken mind of man and his piecing together of irreconcilable shards. Those who hoped to discover meaning instead found madness. The darkest impulses made flesh!

With those ominous words Venger heralds in the Black Pyramid, fashioned of extradimensional stone and powered by liquefied dead gods, the strangest, most alien, most bizarre megadungeon to grace the OSR with its presence. Within lie 111 triangular rooms of unearthly dissonant Elder God piping that your brain will attempt to make into a semblance of order. It is difficult to judge The Black Pyramid by the standards of conventional dungeons, it seems to exist in a category all of its own.

For some reason Cha’alt provides yet more reasons for venturing within. A group of tough nomads basically threatens you into going inside. I don’t like that. It’s too mundane. This thing is literally the dungeon you get into if you hunch down in a corner of the Inn, drink your entire supply of burning oil, press B and cast a bless spell so you glitch through the wall. Your motivation should be existential, comparable to the themes The Black Pyramid either tackles or pretends to tackle.

All that gonzo shit from the planet? Forget it. The Black Pyramid is equal parts Jacob’s Ladder, 70s Doctor Who, Cube, Hitchhiker’s Guide, all the weird Star Trek TOS episodes, H.P. Lovecraft, Kafka, Stephen King and Alaistair Rennie’s Bleakwarrior which laid its eggs into DnD and now it is eating its way out. Does anyone know Mad God’s Jest or one of those Dungeon adventures where you walk through a Titan’s dream? What dungeon contains both the Shadow of God and Rob Schneider? This is an adventure in Venger’s brain.

The 54 villagers sustain themselves by milking a small herd of black centipedes which provides enough nutrition for everyone in the village. Additionally, a flock of myna’aks soar overhead, catching light from the yellow illuminated strip just below the ceiling.

The map alone feels like it was made by something alien with only a dim understanding of DnD, a colour-coded mesh of triangular rooms, connected by corridors across the void. Rooms contain a single encounter and have as much chance as harboring a maniacal clown as a group full of hermits in search for an artifact. Groups of rooms can only be accessed if you have the appropriate access crystal, limiting exploration [1]. Rooms sometimes feel bizarre and artificial and there is no empty space. Its easy to dismiss it as funhouse. You would be wrong.

Here and there, the satanic clown puppet, about 2′ tall, jingles and jangles upon his strings… almost as if he were dancing. A size-appropriate scepter is clutched in his little painted wooden hand

But there is more to it then that. In funhouse dungeons you as the player figure out the dungeon makes no sense and thus suspend your disbelief. The Black Pyramid is much much more clever. The unreality of the encounters is woven into the background of the dungeon. Some megadungeons have an origin story? The Black Pyramid has dozens. All of them both lies yet terribly, hideously real. The very inhabitants of Cha’alt are locked in a philosophical struggle centered around the idea whether or not there is a point to Cha’alt. Those who subscribe to it being meaningless call it the Black Dissaray, others call it the Black Acceptance, ascribing to it terrible design. LITTERED throughout the dungeons are hints, red herrings, factions, indications and other means of tricking the brain into believing there is a point to it. These hints are scrawled onto the walls of the dungeon, interspersed with inane blather, lies, ominous foreboding, with no attempt at elegant placement.

Some rooms within The Black Pyramid are said to slip in and out of reality when the Old Gods stir. The worshipers of Nurakeen must camouflage themselves if they are to survive their awakening.

There is an interconnectedness to Cha’alt that strengthens it but can be overwhelming. Factions exist deep within Cha’alt, sending their agents to work strange designs, sometimes only rooms apart and surrounded by monsters or other bizarre perils. How they remain alive is something you will stop asking yourself after a while. I think an attempt was missed to alter the geometry of the Black Pyramid ah la Cube, but this place is one of unreality. Time passes differently within the Black Pyramid, and things upon Cha’alt are not the same as when you entered when you emerge.

New Gods born of the Pyramid are worshipped inside, all appropriately alien. Ulraesek, Mazja’a, Szo’kanth, Qav Dwenos, Nurakeen and Vok-Yurd. Gods of Genocide, Sorcery, Slime, the Unknown, Thieves and Automatons. Arrayed against the Evil One, imprisoned within the Black Pyramid. Conflict within the Pyramid takes place on every level, from the philosophical to the existential, the petty to the divine. The evil of the place seeps into your mind, and sleep within the Pyramid saps your strength with nightmares.

Black tentacles rip and tear your flesh, exposing an empty void… from which erupts yet more black tentacles. This occurs over and over again as a deep, booming voice says “Ara’ak-Zul”

The amount of extra rules and prep before you get to the rule entries are heartening. Random encounter table? Check! Rumors? Rules for trying to bleed off a little Zoth while the Black Pyramid isn’t looking? Check! Tables for the cost of mundane and extraordinary items? Check! A table for changing the situation in Cha’alt if the PCs travel back? Check! All the stuff that you would normally expect Venger to forget has been added and accounted for. An ENTIRE NPC table with all of them having a motivation and equipment. I DID NOTHING ABOUT THAT.

These are murderous clowns from a dimension where nightmares are made flesh. When 111 clowns have escaped through the candy colored portal into The Black Pyramid, they’ll start their raid – they call it “The Purge.”

I think I made some sort of point about unlimited healing being a really terrible idea and he retorted by saying that it wouldn’t make a difference and he is fucking right. The Black Pyramid is deadly as fuck. Encounters run the gamut from  1/2 HD Crab Raccoons to 20+ HD satanic Dragons, Elder Gods, The Devil, a Lich, cultists and angry communists with just about everything you can imagine in between. There is A SHITTON of Save or Die [2] outside of the starting area. This game does not fuck around. With the reworked saving throws at 20 – Level of character and level capping out at 10, that means piles and piles of fucking dead characters. Don’t even think about running this with your 2 page backstory 5e friends. Someone is going to fucking croak, probably within the first session. Fortunately CDS character creation takes about 10 mins tops.

Roman centurion from an alternate reality. Wears cream-colored tunic and crimson pallium. Doesn’t speak English, but is good at charades. Attacks only those trying to kill him.

Encounters are much more worked out then in Liberation of the Demon Slayer. As part of my consultation for Cha’alt I literally went over each encounter in the Black Pyramid and made sure that there was some sort of interactive component, meaning that despite the ultra-lethal nature of some of the encounters, almost everyone in the Pyramid has something that they want and can be talked to. This isn’t a hackfest, or rather, not only a hackfest either, there are plenty of bizarre puzzle rooms, riddles, a time loop trap, bazaars, settlements or natural barriers in Cha’alt to shake things up. There are some virtual reality scenario’s that deserve elaboration, adding a potential extra layer to Cha’alt’s already impressive depth. The only thing I miss is a bizarre sub-dungeon like in Liberation. There are a few scenario’s where PCs are transported elsewhere, like in a Tron universe, a Federation Court or anywhere in time and space, but generally their fate is decided via random dice roll, a bit of a shame.

Inspecting Gonzo’s nose reveals a tiny catch underneath, at the base. Manipulating it opens a compartment located in his crotch.
Inside is a battered trumpet. Playing Gonzo’s trumpet summons a Buddhist monk (appearing in 1d4 rounds) who walks into the room and sets himself on fire, providing enough light and warmth for several minutes before it goes out and what’s left of the monk is carried away like sand in the wind.

Treasure is like the previous sections only to the Nth degree. I don’t think there’s a single book item in Cha’alt. Magic artifacts exist alongside time machines, high tech weaponry, eldritch artifacts, pop-culture potpourri and bizarre trapezoidal crystals. If you get the Horn of Za’argon [3] you get what is essentially a limited wish every day but who cares, it’s Cha’alt.

This room is dominated by a gross salmon-hued sphinx with multiple eyes, mouths, and tentacles

I guess a problem with the nature of Cha’alt is that it does not really have a climax. There is no single solution to its nature, no climactic fight at the bottom of the pit. Venger recommends imposing on Cha’alt whatever order the PCs pick up on. This is the one area where I feel Cha’alt could have given some extra advice. Or perhaps it works best as a place of strangeness to wander until you depart, laden with artifacts and dead friends.

Ba’al K6-22 wants to become god of The Black Pyramid, and is looking for worshippers to serve him… going out into the rooms to subjugate others. In return, it offers a place by its side when it ascends to godhood. Anyone who refuses its generous offer will be blasted with lasers!

If you are looking for a traditional megadungeon experience Cha’alt will not satisfy that urge. Much of the resource management has been eradicated, you will not find multiple means of egress (other then the bottomless pit in Kra’adumek), and the type of gradual, methodical exploration that you would find in things like Stonehell or Dwimmermount are likely to be absent here. Much of the conventional wisdom of dungeoneering is absent.

This creature was magically constructed to absorb all the piss on the floor, for those who couldn’t make it to the restroom. The gelatinous urine moves throughout the pyramid, but is resting here because it just soaked up a lot of pee.

What takes its place is wild, boundless exploration. Lethal, headlong drunken stumbling into an incomprehensible realm beyond the imagination. Some rooms seem almost like a play staged for the PCs benefit. This is lampooned further by having one of the encounters, a sacrifice, be an actual play. Death. Hilarity. Wonder. All of it is here.

He’s tried to stay away from black pyramid politics, but is aware that Thoth-A’amon has a clone of himself hidden somewhere nearby (Room #103). The clone is ready to take power if the real ThothA’amon dies.

Is Cha’alt good? YES! Is it for you? I think I have probably given you enough information to figure that out for yourself. There’s some trouble with the organization, its hard to keep track of all the different factions and relationships, every now and then an encounter just doesn’t land or will cause you to roll your eyes, but for every dud there are three or four encounters that FUCKING ROCK. If you get the right audience Cha’alt is likely to provide an unforgettable experience for many sessions of dungeoncrawling that is literally Beyond the Imagination. Team up with Hannibal Lector and Rob Schneider stand-ins as you battle Shoggoth Sphinxes and Cultists for control of the Green quadrant. Die to the awesome power of the S’zar Tcholek. Trade inane banter with one of countless dozens of bizarre NPCs.

Make yourself a playlist. The Dune soundtrack. Flash Gordon. John Carpenter. Queen. Knights of Cydonia. Hocacio.

There is no character or concept that is out of place in The Black Pyramid. In Cha’alt you will touch the infinite and it is a place that will burn you.

Cha’alt is Venger’s Magnum Opus and as such it really transcends and defies categorization. If you have the recessive mutation that enables one to enjoy his work then you will enjoy this sublimely as it is his best, most ambitious project. I find it unlikely he will transcend it, though if he decides to try, I will sure as hell try to get a consulting place again.

I will leave it off by quoting myself, in which I take a not inconsiderable amount of narcissistic joy;

Running Cha’alt is not about control, accuracy, or preparation. It’s not a series of
encounters that requires a delicate balance of character classes, feats, and consumables to circumnavigate successfully. Rather, it is about letting go, living in the moment, embracing the unknown, the miraculous, the horrific, the comedic, and the deadly. It’s about wandering through the rusting graveyard of pop culture and beating the shit out of whatever you find there

I rate Cha’alt 15.4 Zulkirs

Check it out here.

[1] Curiously, despite the fact groups of rooms are color coded, access crystals are universal and allow one to go as one pleases. Perhaps more intriguingly, only the first area can be accessed without an access crystal, and it does not itself contain an access crystal.
[2] The exact number of save or die encounters is difficult to describe, since some are save or pertrification, others only inflict save or die on a critical hit, some may be avoided in some fashion etc. etc. Regardless, my estimate would be that about 20-25% of all rooms has some variant of save or die. I am not kidding.
[3] As a callback to B4, Zargon is here, only now he is 24 HD and even more fucking dangerous.


16 thoughts on “[Review] Cha’alt Pt. II; The Nicholas Cage of Megadungeons

  1. I did consider making the layout more like Cube… but that might have been a bridge (over the void) too far. I don’t know. However, if the GM wants the rooms to move periodically, he should go for it. Why the Hell not?

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  2. First thing’s first, does Gonzo literally mean Muppet Gonzo?

    The Black Pyramid sounds amazing. It sounds like a more crazed version of Xas Irklla’s dungeons. I just love the sound of it. I can practically imagine the sounds of its inhabitants clanging in drugged out craziness. Its like a Grimdark Doctor McNinja World or a Axe-Cop.

    Stupid question,is there a fecal/urine system in the game? Its because of the piss monster that I’m asking that.

    The Horn of Zargon sounds like it’s going to break the game seven-ways to Sunday.

    Also I bought Bleakwarrior because you keep mentioning it and I now love the book, so thank you for that.It reads like a Bizarro Fiction version of Highlander done by Edgy China Meliville and Garth Ennis in one of his good phases.

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    1. Yes, there is a statue of the muppet Gonzo in The Black Pyramid.

      There’s no system, but The Black Pyramid only has one bathroom. So, there’s an ooze to take care of accidents.

      Sorcery is nuts in both Cha’alt and Crimson Dragon Slayer. The campaign is meant to break somewhere between the 3rd and 7th session. Also, Fuchsia Malaise will delve deeper into the key to time segments…

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  3. Venger tried to post here but he couldn’t get through my Spam Filter so I will convey his message:

    “The only thing gayer […] then playing Cha’alt is incessantly spamming links to my products on someone else’s blog, especially without asking the owner first. As punishment for being such gaylords, [fifteen counts of the N-word omitted] I will make Cha’alt nine times more expensive until Pigs Fucking Fly, [something about a historical event not having transpired the way is commonly believed it did] the only way you morons will learn. Suck on My Squamous Zak’ier Tentacle-balls you dumb idiots.”

    I don’t know what came over him, perhaps a momentary lapse of judgement?

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    1. Only one of the best, tsk tsk 😛

      Honestly thanks a lot Venge. It was fun, demanding but fun, to work with you on Cha’alt and watching it all come together as I went through it was worth it. Sometimes writing a review almost feels like fucking work, but this was not one of those times. You take care man.

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