Game Review: Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise
|"Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise " cover art by
Monstark, ©2020 Kort'thalis Publishing
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
System: Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 Revised
Note: I recieved a complimentary copy of Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise from Venger Satanis in return for an unbiased review. It is also my fourth review of a Kort'thalis product.
Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise is the second in a planned Trilogy of books in the Gonzo science fantasy setting Cha'alt. It is such a shortly after the events in the original Cha'alt, and things are getting even more lethal as an alien Mega-corporation, Elysium, has taken over the spice fracking operations on the planet, and stealing the planet's dwindling moisture as well. The Sk'bah desert is becoming progressively more lethal as the ecosystem collapses.
The setting has evolved in several ways. Aside from the spice fracking operations being taken over by Elysium, they have converted a huge amount of their labour force to addicts using a drug called fuchsia malaise, which leaves them perpetually bouncing between jonesing and strung out... perfect for slave labour. Meanwhile, magic has gone wild, and a nightmarish Lovecraftian thing has begun roaming the skies, de-populating whole settlements. And the zoth that sustains life on the planet is neatly gone...
...all in all, Venger Satanis has stepped up the already impressive complexity and challenge in Cha'alt to a whole new level. If your players are looking for a game where they feel like they are winning against impossible odds, Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise is an excellent choice. The setting is gritty, lethal, and bizarre all at once.
|"Ravaged Cha'alt" ©2020 Kort'thalis Publishing
Cha'alt Fuscia Malaise is designed to work as a stand-alone product. As it is designed to be "O5R" compatible, it can be played using Dungeons and Dragons 5e, and occasionally makes accommodations for 5e play that are not neccessary if it is being played using the Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 Revised engine provided in the Appendix.
Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 itself has been updated just enough in its revised format to be totally self-contained. A copy of some version of the Dungeons and Dragons Player's Handbook is no longer required... although the game benefits from it.
Cha'alt Fuscia Malaise presents a new town setting: A'agrybah, a short dungeon: The Flesh Pit, which interconnects with a larger dungeon: The Tower of Vromka'ad. The book contains two other large dungeons The Tomb of Va'an Zayne and Elysium, along with a point crawl S'kbah Pilgrimage, that can lead to a fifth dungeon location: Subterranean Cha'alt, that includes an entire lightly-detailed sunken city, or to a micro-dungeon: the Shrine of Ka'ali. This is a massive amount of material, and adds a staggering number of places to go on Cha'alt.
Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise includes his book OSR Like a Fucking Boss as bonus material. I may review it separately, but will not do so here for brevity.
Compared to Cha'alt
Most of both the things I loved about Cha'alt and its growth points carry over to Fuscia Malaise, but I will definitely make some point-form notes about the differences:
- Fuscia Malaise does not explore survival in the S'kbah desert; it loses some of the man vs. environment energy as a stand-alone (see Growth Points)
- Fuscia Malaise continues to defy genre, and again, uses clever encounters to thumb its nose at people that demand literature conform to their categories, although not with the same level of erudition.
- The goofy humour of Cha'alt is still strongly apparent in Fuscia Malaise.
- The treasures are generally less absurd, but still show a great deal of forethought.
- The art is more unified along particular themes. Photographic art, where used, was effective and meaningful, although still action-free portraiture.
What I Loved
A Variety of Dungeon Sizes
The Original Cha'alt included two large (20-30 room) dungeons and one hulking (111 room) Megadungeon. Plus a town with a staggering 70 detailed NPCs. This was not a problem, but it meant using Cha'alts pre-designed locations required a lot of time and energy. By contrast Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise has two dungeons that have less than 10 locations (and use a variation on the 5-room dungeon structure. ) Two more use the more traditional 20-30 room version.
"S'kbah Pilgrimage " offers a branching point crawl with less than 10 locations total... and delivers the PCs into one of those less-than-10-room locations.
Finally, we have Elysium, which is about half the size of The Black Pyramid at 56 rooms, but is still colossal and feels very complex. It is a megadungeon-level time commitment.
This gives us a huge variety of options in terms of energy and commitment. Playimg in Cha'alt's prepared locations no longer requires learning a full-scale dungeon, and if we want a second megadungeon, we have one.
The Broken Artifacts
Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise details two multipart artifacts: The Key of Time and the Rainbow Gemstones of Ultimate Power; lampooning Dr. Who and The Avengers respectively. These artifacts are scattered across Cha'alt's detailed locations, and the latter is sought by a villain: Tha'anos (no, I shit you not).
These artifacts add a possible scavenger hunt meta-plot, and another possible reason to explore all of Cha'alt's dungeons, allowing DMs to stitch Cha'alt, Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise and potentially upcoming Cha'alt: Chartreuse Shadows into a unified campaign. This is a slick way of giving DMs options.
|Think more like this
When I saw that Venger had used the name "A'agrybah" in the original Cha'alt, I expected it to remain a throwaway joke. I did not expect Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise to turn it into a full-blown setting. I admire Venger's sheer audacity for doing so. And yes, there is a Princess Ja'azmin and a Ja'afar mentioned, but surprisingly no encounters with beligerent locals cutting off your ear...
The way A'agrybah is presented is the part that makes it noteworthy, however. Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise creates a very vivid city with a minimum of statted NPCs, shopping lists, etc. In fact, A'agrybah is brought to vibrant life with very little space.
The first section covers politics and laws at a glimpse, including just enough interestingpoints to suggest much more to the GM. Such as that becoming a noble is about buying you way to power at a ridiculous sum... and then making perform rites to make pacts with infernal powers. No more information than that, but so much more can be abstracted by the DM. Likewise, that noble houses that focus on eldritch sorcery and assassination tells one a lot about how politics is done.
Beyond these explanatory sections, most of A'agrybah's feel, culture, and population is conveyed in the form of a description of several guides who can be hired and a table of 100 evocative random encounters. These are so well imagined that by the end of exploring the table the city is utter alive, and you have dozens of potential adventure hooks in mind.
The section on A'agrybah also include seven points of interest, a temple where ressurection (after a fashion) is possible, the marketplace, the local spaceport, the palace, andca set of three different taverns of different social strata... each with 3-5 adventure hooks designed as much to establish setting flavour as give PCs something to do.
|Banner used in Venger Satanis' C:FM
roll20 group; Acrylic Painting by Venger Satanis
©2019 Venger Satanis
Much like in The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putresence, magic in Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise is wild and unpredictable. There is an increasing chance based on spell level of some additional effect occurring every time a sorcerer casts a spell. By 6th level, magic is guaranteed to come with strings.
This reminds me of mercurial magic from Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG in all the right ways. Magic comes with risks and a cost, but sometimes with unexpected rewards as well. In the case of Fuscia, it comes on the form of one of the wildest d100 tables I have ever read: rife with pop culture weirdness and unexpected events. Everything from Dr. Who's TARDIS arriving to the void swallowing the caster, to demonic orgies, to levelling up. Magic is unexpected.
This encourages PCs to use magic wisely, and make the most of low-level spells.
High Stakes Around Every Corner
From walking in on a saboteur trying to destroy the planet with a black hole, to preventing the awakening of one of the Great Old Ones, to rescuing a city before their power source goes dark, to preventing a mad AI from detonating an ancient nuclear arsenal, Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise offers players a chance even at low levels to save the world... or destroy it. There are no dull "giant rats in the basement" quests here.
Silly Does not Mean Without Consequence
Despite the fact that Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise is weird in the extreme, and the dungeons can be an exercise in surreal, postmodern humor, it never relies on its wackiness to hand-wave the consequences of PC actions. The outcomes of encounters matter. Player choices will change the fate of Cha'alt. You may find yourself the deciding factor in a battle between two forces of insufferable post- and anti-modernists, but who wins will determine who is accidentally carrying atomic launch codes in their pockets...
Adding Spell and Ability Lists to Crimson Dragon Slayer d20
The version of Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 included in Cha'alt relied on having access to the Dungeons and Dragons Player's Handbook to give PCs options for magic and character abilities. Adding a set of spells and abilities for the system on its own makes reference to a book beyond Fuscia Malaise itself optional.
Refined Encounter Design
Cha'alt included a lot of battles with massive killing machines carrying bags of hit points, and more save-or-die effects than you could shake a rod of lordly might at. Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise includes a lot more hoards of low-level enemies instead of massive fights with behemoths. This makes the big, scary encounters feel a little more frightening and powerful NPCs feel more exceptional. There are still a lot of save-or-die events, but they seem a little more spaced out, and events that paralyze, knock out, confuse, or bewitch.
|Acrylic Painting inspired by
Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise playtest.
Acrylic Painting by Venger Satanis
©2019 Venger Satanis
Cha'alt offered us some clear ideas of how the various worlds in the Kort'thalis multiverse fit together beyond the idea that Razia was somewhere in the same galaxy as Alpha Blue and Earth around 2271 c.e. Most of this is established in Alpha Blue by having characters from Purple appear with statistics in the index of Alpha Blue; references to "Alpha Blue" in The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putresence could all be taken as references to the pornographic 1980 film for which Alpha Blue is named.
In Cha'alt the Federation from Alpha Blue is a minor player. Satisfiers from Alpha Blue appear in the Gamma Incel Canteen. The two are clearly linked, and by extension, Razia and Cha'alt must exist in the same universe.
Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise actually makes the worlds of the various settings interact with each other. The Zoth Fracking has awoken a creature identical to the Purple Putresence on Razia, and the same disruptions to magic and time-space occur. The Black Monoloths from the Purple Isles make an appearance. Movement between the settings is possibleatvseveral points throughout Fuscia.
We also get an explanation why magic is so rare in the Federation, but abundant on Cha'alt and Razia that works well enough.
Intrigue and politics from the Federation that serves as Alpha Blue's Backdrop become of critical importance in Fuscia Malaise, as Elysium 's director plans on dominating Federation politics through his Zoth monopoly... a conflict that will destroy Cha'alt far faster than spice fracking will if the PCs don't intervene.
Bringing the Kort'thalis multiverse together appears to be one of the main goals of Fuscia Malaise that I hope portends a world-hopping book in Cha'alt: Chartreuse Shadows or shortly after it.
The Surreal Metaplot
Beyond tying to tie Cha'alt, Alpha Blue, and Razia into a single continuum, Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise gets subtly metaphysical. The almost throw-away Author character from the original Cha'alt is connected to several encounters as a background figure in a way that is meant to smack of synchronicity. Cha'alt itself is represented as both having thousands of years of history... and having just appeared as its Apocalypse was unfolding. Both seem to be equally true, and time travel, god-like artifacts, and dimensional gates that have bern rife throughout Cha'alt and the Islands of Purple-Haunted Putresence suddenly seem more significant. As do the themes of reality and unreality in The Black Pyramid's finsl room. Venger seems to be going somewhere with it all that promises to be interesting.
|"From the "How Useful is this NPC (d100) table,
Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise P. 31
©2020 Kort'thalis Publishing
Venger provides us with random tables for creating and running NPCs that are absolutely stunning in their scope and variety. There are tables for:
- Character Loyalty
- Reasons to hate off-worlders
- Reasons why off-worlders are on Cha'alt
- 100 random NPC traits
- A table to determine how potentially helpful a given NPC might be, with entries for knowledge, talents, skills, or connections that NPC might be able to use to help the PCs. (I love this table!)
- What pact a demon is willing to offer
- A random table for how an interaction might go.
Jog Our Memories, Please
Because I have read Cha'alt and Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise back-to-back, I readily recognize that some of the characters and events in Cha'alt return in Fuscia Malaise in different contexts. Even reading them sequentially, however, I am hard-pressed to keep it all straight. A reminder in a side bar with where we can find them in Cha'alt would be really helpful.
Where are my Blood Sucking Locusts?!
S'kbah Pilgrimage is built on the idea that the PCs are somehow connected to the settlement of Norva'ala, which is overrun with blood-sucking locusts that are devastating the region. The PCs are sent on a pilgrimage to find a defense against them. The hook is weak, and some alternatives for seasoned PCs probably would have been in order: If the PCs are not from Norva'ala how can we make them care?
Hook aside, though, I am dying to know why the locusts don't appear as a statted monster in Fuscia Malaise. They are an incredible lost opportunity! At one point PCs might be forced into a grotto by the Fuscia Putresence ... but it might have been much more consistent... and cooler to have them flee a super-swarm.
I am stunned that this opportunity got missed.
I Hope We Will See the Corpse of Yeezog-Asurek Somewhere
There is a quest mentioned in the Tomb of Va'an Zayne about finding the corpse of a great old one and bleeding it out to restore Cha'alt's Zoth reservoirs. It is an almost irresistible hook; I know my players would jump on it! It would have made a perfect 9-room dungeon for Fuscia Malaise. That it doesn't show up is a huge disappointment.
The Federation Needs Fleshing Out
The Federation is not described or explained in meaningful detail anywhere in Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise. You need to build a working sense of it through various encounters. In fact, the only place in the Kort'thalis books where The Federation is detailed is in Alpha Blue. Even reproducing segments on the Federation, the Interstellar Caliphate, and the Mega-Corporation Conglomerate would be helpful to setting up the context of the events in Elysium.
Fuscia Malaise Loses Some Great Material as a Stand-Alone
If you treat Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise as an expansion to Cha'alt, it adds a lot of interest and depth to the setting. Treated as a standalone product it is still pretty damned good, but it lacks some of the best parts of Cha'alt: the factions, mutation tables, psionics, desert survival, location overviews, and wilderness encounters. The sheer hostility of Cha'alt gets a bit lost. It would be a lot harder to develop an original Cha'alt adventure using just Fuscia Malaise.
|Okay... there are still a few hot chicks about to be sacrificed...
"Ka'ali" by Brian Daigle ©2020 Kort'thalis Publishing
There is less sleaze in Fuscia Malaise than in Cha'alt or Islands of Purple-Haunted Putresence. In general the number of nubile sacrifices, escaped sex slaves, tentacle monsters, witch orgies, etc., is a lot lower than I expected in a Kort'thalis game. They are still there, but Fuscia Malaise seems a lot more focused on the drugs and rock n' roll and less interested in the sex. It's still there, don't missapprehend me, but it has taken a definite backseat. This is not really a complaint either, but it was a surprising shift in tone.
Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise is an excellent follow-up to the formidable gonzo grindhouse of Cha'alt. It builds on the setting of Cha'alt beautifully... making it an even more strange and terrifying place. It also sets up a number of galaxy-shaking conflicts for the finale in the upcoming third book.
Unlike its predecessor, It offers a variety of dungeons of several different sizes and levels of complexity, making it easy to switch gears and play-style as the needs of the table shift. Each part can be played separately, but there is a lot of help for DMs who wish to string it into a campaign.
Fuscia Malaise goes a lot farther to facilitate modern "O5R" play in part by rethinking encounter design to include more mooks and fewer skull-crushing brutes. It can run well in D&D5e, and has a completely self-contained game engine that can complement or replace D&D5e for this setting as you prefer.
If Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise has one major sin, it is that it refers back to much of the Kort'thalis canon without giving us pointers as to where we can find information. When it comes to characters from Cha'alt , it is a bit of a nuisance that could be solved with page / area references. But for things like The Federation, copying material out of Alpha Blue to give context would really have been best. These problems arise in part because Fuscia Malaise undertakes the ambitious goal of establishing a unified Kort'thalis canon, which I believe deserves to be done.
I would recommend it without hesitation to anyone who wants to explore Cha'alt. It takes the same ultraviolent, extra lethal, and extremely weird setting and ups the ante with godlike artifacts, alien warlords, and an alarming number of opportunities to save or destroy the world. It is definitely a must fror Kort'thalis collectors.
If Cha'alt is not your bag, the Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 Revised engine, A'agrybah and NPC tables might still make the book worth considering.