Adventure Review: Saving Cha'alt
|Cover to "Saving Cha'alt" by Monstark;|
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
Marketplace : DrivethruRPG
System : Crimson Dragon Slayer d20
Saving Cha'alt is the latest addition to Venger Satanis' Cha'alt setting. It is meant to be an appetizer to keep the audience interested as he works of the third book of the Canon trilogy, Cha'alt: Chartreuse Shadows (w.t.). While the book offers a little bit of GM advice and a few random tables, it is primarily a collection of seven short adventures.
The book is designed to be played with the Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 system, which can be downloaded at DriveThruRPG, but is also included in a slightly updated format in the backs of Cha'alt and Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise.
Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 is designed to be a fast, light OSR-style game that is completely compatible with Dungeons & Dragons 5e. In essence, you could bring a group of PCs from D&D5e into a Cha'alt module and have no difficulty playing, as the numbers are completely compatible, and the math for Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 works out to be about the same. And you could toss a Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 party into a 5e adventure and have a pretty compatible challenge.
Venger places Cha'alt solidly in the O5R camp: games and settings designed to play Dungeons & Dragons 5e in the style of TSR-era D&D.
I have had the privilege of playing Cha'alt with Venger Satanis last month (play report here, I was the one who jacked the starship), and I can say that in actual practice, the engine is incredibly fast and flexible. More than I thought on reading and running home solo simulations.
I suppose that should serve as disclosure: I have a fairly amicable relationship with Venger. But I don't think that will affect the quality of this review, as I have plenty to say, both positive and negative about this particular product.
What I Loved
|"River Tam" by Alan Gutierrez;|
©2021, Alan Gutierrez
The Artwork in this module is absolutely stunning: he has brought back veterans from his previous manuals: Monstark, James Hayball, Alan Gutierrez, and John Zeleznik, who have defined Cha'alt's look from the beginning. He has also discarded the live model art that I found jarring in some of the previous settings.
Not all of it directly relates to what you are looking at, but all of it is evocative, fits with the Cha'alt aesthetic, and is pleasurable to look at.
Kort'thalis books ae always quality work. They are well layed-out, have great art, and the printing is held to a high standard. You cannot go wrong with any of Venger's books as artifacts.
One of the first offerings in the book is a "Heresy Table" in a section entitles "Are You a Heretic." In the tradition of Start Trek, the Heresy Table is a long list of strange traditions, unusual practices, or odd quirks that a character can accidentally run up against as they visit remote tribes on Cha'alt, or neighboring planets.
The table offers everything from strange quirks, to adventure hooks, to ways for the PCs to get themselves in trouble by breaking a taboo out of ignorance, and the section includes another table of possible punishments for offending the locals.
The table does a lot of fantastic world-building: you get a source of the kind of cultures you might find scattered around the Sk'bah desert. And get a great sense of the humor that drives Cha'alt.
(This table was partially crowd-sourced on Twitter from Cha'alt fans, and I was chuffed to see a few of my own suggestions on the table.)
Every one of the adventures in Saving Cha'alt is a glorious Mashup of 70s-90s scifi and horror movies seasoned with modern pop culture. Sanz Egra'as, for example borrows notes from Escape from New York, Red, Airforce One, Heavy Metal, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Alien, and No Escape (the American remake of La Femme Nikita).
The sheer degree to which he openly lampoons, mutates, matches, and mixes ideas from Hollywood is stunning. If your players are 35 or older, they will likely have something to laugh at in every scene.
Dome City is Hilarious
Following the previous point, Dome City borrows a little bit from every shiny, nightmarish dystopia from books and film of the last 60 years. Major notes from Logan's Run, A Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, Zardoz, Blade Runner, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Idiocracy mesh beautifully with elements borrowed from the TTRPG PARANOIA and the video game Fallout 3.
What Venger manages to catch with Dome City (mostly expressed through a d100 random encounter table) is the bright, candy-coated, oversexed, willfully ignorant, puerile, emotionally fragile, and intellectually Vapid world that you would imagine we lived in if the Twitter ATI ran the world. We have public sex and street music sitting right alongside cancel mobs and book burnings. All run by cynical politicians that think of their fellow citizens as idiot children. It is done with the savage satiritical humor of a National Lampoons film.
The people of Dome City are out to cancel the rest of Cha'alt with a giant super-robot that echoes Fallout 3's Liberty-One. And, barring player intervention, it is likely to go hideously wrong.
Cha'alt doesn't lack for grandiose scale, The Adventures in the original Cha'alt involve investigating the dead body of alien gods and visiting a strange nexus in space time, The Back Pyramid, that ties together many of the Mysteries of Venger's other settings as The Dark Tower does Stephen King's. Certainly there are multiple ways for the PCs to blunder into destroying the world.
Cha'alt Fuscia Malaise offers PCs a chance to fight off off-world Colonists and end the Spice-Fracking and moisture extraction that is destroying their world. And to seek fragments of an ancient artifact that can re-write reality.
However, these adventures are still very self-motivated. Exploration of the Black Pyramid will start as a punishment or a quest for Riches. Attacks on Elysium are likely done for glory or revenge. And while they might save Cha'alt that is a side-effect of the Character's actions.
- Saving Cha'alt ups the ante; every adventure either starts, or very shortly introduces an existential threat to Cha'alt.
- Six Hours to Save Cha'alt features an impending asteroid strike.
- Sanz Egra'as features the threat of an elder God being raised, and the assassination of a man that could lead to intergalactic war.
- The Sulta'ana Mutiny allows the PCs to prevent another drug that might complete the enslavement of the people of Cha'alt from being introduced (or profit from it) and learn about the events of The Cube before it is too late.
- The Cube gives the PCs a chance to stop a legion of shape-shifting alien parasites in service of an evil Artificial Intelligence
- The Prison Beneath the Palace includes unstable alien Power Sources and the Awakening of Great Ktulu
- The Occupation of Kra'adumek features an army of religious zealots trying to unseal an ancient demon to game unbelievable alien power.
- Big Trouble in Dome City features a city of brainwashed zealots building a suoer-weapin to destroy all other civilizations on the planet.
Players will get to be the heroes and save the world in most of these scenarios... or in some cases, possibly conquer it for themselves.
Session Zero Alternative
In the "Unsolicited GMing Advice" section Venger Satanis offers advice on and suggestions for running a demo adventure, then giving players a choice to opt out, rather than using the usual Session Zero. The advice is thorough, including a recommended structure to get players interested.
The point of the demo session is that it avoids the problem of Session Zero insofar as it avoids starting off a campaign with tedium and bureaucracy, which can kill some of the energy of the game from the very start.
It also solves the problem of demanding the players disclose and justify a whole bunch of personal, intimate details the way a lot of modern Session Zero (which at some tables can now take up to four sessions) and safety tools like the Consent in Gaming Checklist require. It allows the GM instead to put a game in front of the players, that offers noo shame or strings; they can opt out and walk away with no judgement.
I like this idea, and might experiment with it... but I also see it as having flaws. It is definitely not an approach I would take with total strangers if I had not given them a very explicit campaign pitch before offering the demo session. I would not want to take anyone by surprise with just how dark my games can get.
A Guide to Kort'thalis Currency and Characters might be Handy
I have had this complaint since the Purple Islands: Venger's work features multiple currencies: from bog-standard gold pieces to at least five alien currencies, to Cha'alt's various metal coins like Talons, to the Blue Bucks of Alpha Blue, Federation credits, and now a couple of cryptocurrencies.
We have not seen a good table detailing them all since The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence. I am having trouble keeping track of it all, and I doubt I am the only one. In fact, I also could have the same complaint about NPCs who appear across multiple books.
I am starting to think that we need a Cha'alt / Kort'thalis Wiki to keep track of it all. Heavens knows Cha'alt has had enough books written about it and enough dimension and interconnectivity that it rivals a lot of settings from large game companies..
Can we Get a Map of Sanz Egra'as?
The adventure Sanz Egra'as is effectively a point crawl: a series of encounters done in a number of possible orders, which eventually lead to a grand showdown. While the GM can do things a lot of different ways, a Map of the colony and a flow-chart of ways to fit the adventure together would make it a lot more interesting to run.
Some of the adventures in this book are unfocused: they go in a bunch of different directions and have a lot of encounters that have little to nothing to do with the main thrust of the adventure. This works well in the more self-driven adventures of Cha'alt and Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise, but in Saving Cha'alt, it often doesn't fit with the idea of an adventure about saving the world where the PCs need to be focused. The Meandering serves a purpose of wasting precious time against a ticking clock in Six Hours to Save Cha'alt, and serve a purpose of letting things evolve in Sanz Egra'as, but even they have fat that could have stood to be trimmed.
Reworking Needed in several Adventures
The Prison Beneath the Palace is clearly the victim of a swift editing process. The first half of the adventure and the second half feel totally disjointed. It was as if Venger had a great idea for a prison break, and a great idea for an adventure involving a crashed starship, but didn't know how to finish one and start the other and so stitched them together with a strange coincidence.
I suspect that that particular adventure could use some serious reworking to make it seem as though the NPC helper had getting to the crashed starship in mind and a believable reason for knowing about it. Honestly, I think that they would work best separated into two different adventures.
The first half would have worked great as a part of The Occupation of Kra'adumek.
Likewise, The Occupation of Kra'adumek doesn't do a great job of motivating the PCs. In fact, if you had played the early adventures in Cha'alt, watching that city burn to the ground is probably worth more than the reward for helping its citizens.
Some Tables Are very Short (I Mixed Minds About That)
I enjoy Venger's random tables... especially some of the magic gone wrong tables and urban encounters. However, I find that some of the tables in Saving Cha'alt don't have enough options to really live up to their potential.
Ultimately, when creating an adventure with a table, I don't suppose you need too many options. Two rolls on a couple of d6 tables can offer you an incredible range of possibility, but it seems like there are a lot of missed possibilities. The "Who's Aligned Against us...", "..and Why?" tables are terribly short. As is the "Interesting NPC" tables. And they seem even more disappointing next to the brilliant table of 100 things you can find when picking pockets table just before them. And they had the space to be much larger,
The Sulta'ana Mutiny Doesn't Fit
The Sulta'ana Mutiny doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the adventures in the book. It does not have the same high stakes: a PC can save Cha'alt insofar as they can defeat a demon ruling a single tribe, and determine the fate of a new drug about to hit the market. It doesn't, however have the same feel as the rest, where millions of lives hang in the balance, and by halfway through the adventure the PCs know it.
It isn't a bad adventure, Mind you. It is a middling adventure, but it is in the wrong book. All of the Cha'alt books have featured images, hooks, and moments with slaves and Pirates sailing over the sands in flying barges. They even figure in to The Black Pyramid adventure in Cha'alt. They are iconic to the setting. Getting to know something about how they operate from the inside. I might have saved this one for something like an "Essential Cha'alt" book with adventures designed to show off iconic things like Sandworm attacks, sand pirates, desert survival, bloody tribal initiations, the fate of captured off-worlders, and spice fracking sites.
Saving Cha'alt is meant to keep us engaged with the setting by giving us some fresh material that feels big, bold, and crazy. I understand why this is important as I keep an eye on the metadata coming through Welcome to the Deathtrap; you can see when people need something fresh and interesting or they start to forget about checking in... and often never come back.
With a blog like this, that requires something new every three days or so. For a setting like Cha'alt? It seems every six months is a sweet spot.
But it does mean that you are going to see a mix of higher and lower energy products. And Saving Cha'alt is a lower-energy project. It is there to give you something new to do on Cha'alt: some new places to explore and new adventures to have... but it is it going to do anything that really revolutionizes the setting or expands on the game.
Saving Cha'alt, because of what it is, just doesn't have the same oomph as Cha'alt and Cha'alt: Fuscia Malaise do, and that I expect Cha'alt: Chartreuse Shadows to have. It is there because we needed to have more Cha'alt to remind us that Cha'alt is badass. It was put together in a much tighter time frame, with a lot less effort put into editing and design, and that sometimes shows in adventures that don't work as well as they could, show signs of being re-written halfway through, and ones that are there to put out plot hooks without really fitting the theme of the rest of the book. I suspect all the best stuff he has come up with lately immediately gets siphoned off for the Grand Finale of the planned Cha'alt trilogy: the one that needs to be a blockbuster.
The question becomes, then, if it isn't as good as the two big Cha'alt books, is it still good? Are the adventures worth running? Will we use the stuff in here, Or is it filler? Is it "Rogue One" good or a "Solo" awful? I would say it is more "Rogue One": I would probably use Dome City for laughs. There are four out of the seven adventures I would run happily, and I would probably try the Demo Adventure using the structure provided. It is absolutely worth the $10 price tag if you like Cha'alt's brand of gonzo weirdness and are looking for a fix.
Besides, Cha'alt is way cooler than anything in the last five Star Wars movies...