Game Review Cha'alt
Publisher : Kort'thalis Publishing
System: Crimson Dragon Slayer d20
Note : This is the third in a set of four rapid-fire reviews of Kort'thalis books, as I went on a binge.
Cha'alt is a campaign setting book by Venger Satanis that details a dying post-apocalyptic world in the same universe as The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putresence and Alpha Blue. And like those titles, Cha'alt has a humorous, satirical tone more densely-packed with geeky pop culture references than the average episode of The Simpsons.
And like the rest of Venger Satanis' "Gonzo", Heavy Metal inspired creations, it is often designed to appeal to the reader's inner twelve-year-old boy, from the edgy sexuality to the over-the-top violence. A sense of humour is required.
Cha'alt is the spearhead of Venger's O5R strategy. He has converted several of his products to a modern d20 based system using bounded accuracy similar to Dungeons and Dragons 5e in anticipation of this release. In the case of Cha'alt, he has taken his Sword and Sorcery RPG, Crimson Dragon Slayer (originally a VSd6 game) and modified it to work with d20.
|"Adventurers Bound for the Black Pyramid"
Cha'alt consists of a basic setting guide with factions, hazards, and monsters, along with rough information on nine major locations. Then Cha'alt goes into detail on two large dungeon adventures in Kra'adumek (a city ruled by a giant telepathic worm through mind control.) The first in the caves beneath Kra'adumek where the priestscwhonserve the worm shelter from his telepathic influence, and the second in the belly of the worm.
After that, there is a detailed description of a hidden spaceport called The Gamma Incel Cantina where PCs can get connected to the rest of the Kot'thalis game worlds. It has a lot of specific connections to Alpha Blue.
Finally, Cha'alt includes a 111-room mega-dungeon: The Black Pyramid. A massive, surreal labyrinth that gets more unreal the deeper you go.
What I Loved
The Hostile World of Ch'alt
|"Demon-Cat-Snake" Illustration by Slappy
The last scraps of civilization on Cha'alt live on the S'kbah desert, which is always fangerously hot under twin suns, and has, at the longest, four hour nights. Characters travelling the desert without heavy and costly supplies have to save or flat-out keel over - and likely die - after just a couple of days of travel. And if those supplies don't include anti-radiation medicine, they also have a pretty good chance and horrible, disfiguring mutations.
That is, if they survive the desert pirates, Cthulhu cultists, mutant dinosaurs, sandworms, cannibal tribesmen, and malfunctioning war machines left over from the Apocalypse. All to move between xenophobic, tyrannical settlements where your elven skin may or may not be a valuable commodity.
Not that the tyrants will be threats for long. The planet is soaked with seas of Zoth... the toxic ichor of dead Elder Gods, which, if refined, becomes an addictive, magic-enhancing and Psionics-inducing drug (à la Dune). And so interstellar fracking operations are tearing the planet to shreds and draining it of life force.
The setting is so 'Metal I wanted to keep Slayer on loop while I read it. This is a good thing.
|"The Maw of Ka'adumek"
At first read, it looks like Venger Satanis took High Fantasy, Lovecraftian Horror, Cthulhupunk, Space Opera, and Post-apocalyptic survival and tossed them into a giant and very effective Appendix-N-Style blender.
It is far more complex than that: genre itself gets constantly satirized as the game moves on. The Black Pyramid Megadungeon constantly defies you in its text to find meaning or patterns in the game. Characters who both constantly try to make sense of the surreal Black Pyramid or deny that there is any sense to be made are both the butt of endless cosmic jokes throughout Cha'alt. The book defies you to put it in a box. At the very end, the dungeon itself can be destroyed in a metaphor for putting faith in the abstract and ideal.
Cha'alt oozes satire from its tentacles in a way that makes it clear that your expectations of it fitting into a narrow conception of genre are every bit as absurd as the exploding banana-men that stalk the upper levels of The Black Pyramid.
|I can't help thinking of the Rocket Bar in Space Quest...
Image from Space Quest VGA, ©1991 Sierra Interactive
The Gamma Incel Cantina is a fascinating exercise in game design. It includes a staggering 70 NPCs with motivations, rough descriptions, quirks, and often relationships defined on a set of tables. There are intrigues, conspiracies and love triangles laid out in those tables in stunning complexity.
The map of Gamma Incel notes the usual places for NPCs, but has rules for characters moving about for their jobs or to go to the restroom. Color coding both in the book and on the map makes Gamma Incel one of the richest "town" locations I have ever read. I think the innovative presentation would be a great jumping-off point for similar designs.
I could go on about the complex subtext, and how it troubles the grand narrative conception of genre in Cha'alt; I majored in English, after all, but I can spare a lot of time and you a headache by saying "Cha'alt uses weapons-grade silliness to keep you on your toes." Nothing is sacred, nothing is taken too seriously, and every time you try to pin it all down, Venger comes along and tells you: "Stop overthinking and play the fucking game, Hoss."
And then he teases you with a compelling quote or a serious literary allusion again.
And weapons-grade silliness is right. If you are playing Cha'alt be prepared to snort Mountain Dew out your nose with fair regularity. This setting roams into surreal territory. Some of my favourite examples include:
- An encounter that has the PCs deliver a baby in the middle of a dungeon.
- An alien psych experiment posing as a game show.
- The only washroom in the Megadungeon as neutral territory.
- A psionic orange mind controlling artists to paint its fruit bowl.
- Barrels of monkeys and stacks of typewriters so that they can write out the works of Shakespeare.
- A mutant with the power to make chocolate milk come out of target's noses.
- Players accidentally walking in on a tech-week performance of a humourous Lovecraftian musical... during the very realistic human sacrifice scene.
- Aliens using fossilized Fruit Loops as currency.
- Kabuki theatre performers trying to break a curse by performing before anyone who wanders into their room.
And these are just scratching the surface. Cha'alt is a hell of a weird ride.
The Treasures of Cha'alt
In Cha'alt, treasure hoards are hilariously eclectic. In the second dungeon, the PCs are wandering the insides of a colossal purple worm, and run across people who have been living, trapped in the Worm for decades collecting the random trash the Worm eats. Treasure hoards including orange brassieres, coconut shells, batteries, 8-track tapes, and copies of The Wizard of Oz. It is a strange, fun touch that surprises you ad gets laughs.
The Black Pyramid has even more bizarre junk held on to for trade by the prisoners of the megadungeon, including enchanted movie tickets, pornographic playing cards, loaded dice, arcade tokens, and magic amulets that make people think you have their best interests at heart.
In a show of fascinating foresight, many of these treasures are vsluable to NPCs elsewhere in the dungeon. For example the arcade tokens work in video game machines in a particularly weird dungeon room, making them valuable tonwin the trust of the NPCs ou that room. Dozens of seemingly random items are actually solutions to later problems.
|"You know you want to..."
"Demon Face" from Tomb of Horrors
©1978 TSR Inc.
In the first dungeon there is a tear in space-time being contained by the villains. It is one of those weird mysteries that a certain kind of player can't resist - rather like the green face in The Tomb of Horrors.
This anomaly is leveraged to add an extra layer of weird to the setting that you can't help but admire. The results range from destroying the PC, to changing minor details of a character's backstory and appearance, to a two-minute time hop.
The most wild result, however is a temporal shift that erases 17% of the planet's population: As the DM, every time a new NPC is introduced, you roll 1d6. On a 1, they were erased from history, and the scene should be reimagined to take that into account; ideally with a clue to indicate the timeline shift.
As much as this seems like a pain in the butt for the DM, I love this bizarre twist. It is a perfect example of the next-level creativity Kort'thalis books bring to the table.
|"Devil Plant from Yag" by Zarono, 2017
Cha'alt uses a mix of painted and modified photographic art. Kort'thalis art is usually a mixed bag, but the quality and style of the work in Cha'alt can seem jarring and internally inconsistent.
It is not that the art is bad. Most of it is pretty good. It just doesn't all work well together.
This is in part, likely my own distaste for photographic art in role-playing manuals. But I think that distaste is well-founded. Photographic art in many role-playing games are usually just glamour portraits of models in elaborate costumes. They have no context, show no action, and thus add little to the DMs ability to imagine setting or scene. This is certainly true of Cha'alt: the photographic art is all of NPCs posed ominously with no backdrop or action. In one case, the portrait is of a nameless orc NPC, and seems to exist for the sake of filling space.
I mean, it is a badass looking orc... but is the art enhancing the book?
The painted art, on the other hand, is usually (with the exception of the fruities) highly detailed and shows action, imminent action, or establishes setting in a meaningful way.
When looking at the art and layout credits I noticed that he mentions that the aesthetics of Cha'alt are inspired by the art of Zarono. Zarono's art appears frequently in Venger Satanis' earlier works such as Alpha Blue and The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putresence. I suspect that having a guiding aesthetic like this is a great idea for a book; but it should be consistently throughout all parts of the art direction.
I am not a stickler for organization in a role-playing book. On the one hand, I am pleased when a book is arranged in a way that keeps you from hunting and that makes it easy to learn. On the other, I am used to playing from books from the 80s where quality-of-life upgrades like organization were a bonus. In general, I am happy if a book is arranged to make enough sense to play, and wowed by an intuitive reading experience.
Kort'thalis books are generally a little scattered, but very functional. Cha'alt has a few points, however, where I found myself scratching my head and hunting around. For example, the section on Zoth is mostly handled as an environmental note for The Black Pyramid, even though it is the critical resource that drives much of the action for the setting. Similarly, psionics are common on Cha'alt and characters have a chance of possessing a psychic power, but this is not detailed either in the introduction, nor in the rules appendix. Rather, it is a section in the intro to the second dungeon.
These are remnants of the way Cha'alt was released. The three dungeons were released to playtesters and Kickstarter backers as they were produced, and as the setting grew organically. Cha'alt is, in effect, a compendium of dungeons that were used to build the setting. They were not re-arranged after being combined. A little cut and paste would have have gone a long way to making the game easier to read.
Killer First Dungeon
"Beneath Ka'adumek" is one murderous dungeon. There are so many points where a PC death or a TPK are likely, I find myself thinking I might use it as a Level-0 Funnel for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. There is a chance for the party of level 1 characters to be fireballed by an invisible wizard in Area 1! Possibly multiple times. I find the idea of a third wave of PCs having to climb over the smoking remains of the last two parties... my players might be less entertained.
From there it gets nasty.
On the one hand, I appreciate how this can set the stage for a carnage-rich Kort'thalis meat grinder. On the other, I would prefer to ease the players in a touch... and start killing once they get attached to their characters . It is a matter of taste, of course.
Cha'alt is brilliantly weird, grim, and silly. It is a showcase of some of the best creativity and wit that Venger Satanis has to offer. It is a trio of strange, surreal, and highly lethal dungeons set against the backdrop of a violent post-apocalyptic Cthulhupunk environment that makes the Mad Max or Fallout series seem downright friendly by comparison.
If your players love silly, love dark, don't mind going through PCs like popcorn, and like their pop culture references coming in at Futurama speed, you can't ask for a better way to spend a campaign. If, on the other hand, you are gamer looking for a serious, internally logical, or emotionally complex game, then Cha'alt will likely hurt your brain.
There is actually a lot less sleaze and sex in Cha'alt than in the other Kort'thalis works I have read. It is in there, but plays a much, much smaller part, and is pretty easy to gloss over if that is not your thing.