Cha’alt (OSR) (Patreon Request)
This massive tome clocks in at 218 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages editorial, 3 pages of ToC, 1 page list of backer names, 3 pages of index, 1 page coded message (if you do decode it, contact me – I want to know if I was right!), 3 pages denouement-artworks/kort’thalis glyphs, leaving us with 203 pages of content.
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue at the request of my patreon supporters. The book contains some mature themes, but these are less prevalent than in e.g. Alpha Blue, and may be ignored with relative ease.
It should be noted that the book comes with jpg-versions of the maps for the 3 “small” locations, which comes not only in full-color, but also in a version that is player-friendly! Extra-kudos there! The cartography also encompasses a pergament-like, blood-spattered overview map, suitable as a handout. Maps note a scale and designate North properly.
It should be noted that I was a backer of this project’s kickstarter – I own the offset-printed limited edition hardcover, which arrived in a suitably panic-inducing PINK package. The book was printed by Friesens in Canada, and it shows – it is a super-sturdy tome, with thick, high-quality, glossy paper, smyth-sewn binding, proper dust jacket, etc. – if you’re reading this review on my homepage, you can see a couple of pictures of the tome below. It is a serious prestige-book that oozes (haha) quality, with top-tier production values.
Okay, so what exactly is this? Cha’alt was designated as Venger’s magnum opus, and as such, it contains a lot of material – it is, obviously, a campaign setting; it also contains a massive mega-dungeon, as well as three smaller dungeons/adventure locations, and the Crimson Dragon Slayer D20-rules in an appendix – I have covered these rules in detail in its stand-alone review, so if you want more details regarding them, please consult that review. Similarly, I strongly encourage you reading the entirety of this review before you make a final judgment on whether or not to get this book.
Okay, in all brevity regarding the rules of this book: Cha’alt’s Crimson Dragon Slayer D20 is essentially an ultra-lite rules-hack of D&D boiled down to the barest of minimums. It is not necessarily a smooth system, and should be considered more of a hack than a proper system, with its mechanical complexity being pretty much limited to advantage and disadvantage, a very basic saving throw system, etc. – the system RAW doesn’t even have ability scores any more. In many ways, the rules, while suitable for beer-and-pretzels games, don’t have much in the way of staying power, and character advancement is a very free-form affair that leaves the GM alone in the dark with handling special abilities. In many ways, I think the smartest thing you can do as a GM when using this book, is to disregard all rules presented within. Why? Cha’alt is designed to be lethal as all hell, with a LOT of save-or-suck/die, many of which are simply cheap-shots. In contrast, the Crimson Dragon Slayer D20 Rules, as per the writing of this review, are pretty broken, including infinite healing being hard-coded into clerics, which eliminate the threat of anything but the current encounter or these save or die saving throws.
Also odd: While Crimson Dragon Slayer D20 eschews ability score, Cha’alt DOES have table to quickly determine ability scores, and there e.g. are infections, such as the purple rot, which reference these scores. The reason is evident – Cha’alt has tables of ability score modifiers by ability score for anything from 5e to 0e – it WANTS you to hack it, to adapt it to your preferred system. It’s weird – I can’t discern whether Crimson Dragon Slayer D20 was the intended system or not….but I certainly do think that e.g. 5e does not work as written here; I you want to use that system, you will have as much work on your hand as if you’re using e.g. PFRPG to run this – regardless of system used, including Crimson Dragon Slayer D20, you WILL need to adapt this and put in some work. So yeah, the rules are frankly one of the weaker aspects of this book – they are better than Venger’s old VSD6 dice pool engine, in that they allow for a modicum of more complexity, but in many instances, I found myself thinking that the simple rules are holding this book back regarding what its concepts could mechanically realize – the lack of complexity assumed also ultimately mean that there isn’t as much variation on the rules-end, as this could easily have covered.
That being said, the rules have always been the weakest aspects of Venger’s offerings – he is more of an author than a game designer, so, how does Cha’alt stand up regarding the content-side of things?
It should be noted that the following information includes SPOILERS for the setting and modules, so potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
Only GMs around? Great!
OH BOY. Let us first examine the basic premise of this world: After the fantastic Age of Legend, an Age of Technology dawned on the planet, one that came to an end with the Apocalypse. Essentially, the Great Old Ones did rise – and they fought with ultra-highly developed high-tech civilizations…and lost. The carnage was titanic, but they were bested, with some of them even dying. The price, though, was horrible – this is the Obsidian Age, and it is a harsh age indeed. The game contains rules to withstand radiation and notes on desert survival; these are not bad, but are another example where I wished this used a system capable of doing a bit more. A d30-table of random mutations is included, fyi.
Under Cha’alt’s twin suns (alas, no information on day/night cycle included), the planet is a wasteland, with seas of chartreuse slime, known as “zoth”, the ichor of the Old Ones – here, in a less potent version. Pure zoth can enhance the potency of spells, can be used as a weapon oil, or be used as a weapon on its own, for contact with it is not advisable, etc.
As far as themes are concerned, we thus essentially have a post-apocalyptic setting that is defined by the contrast between cultists and beings who worship the very real Old Ones as gods, and those that seek to ascend themselves, that seek to inherit the marvels of the tech age – these New Gods are not any better than the Old Ones, but more on that later. Cha’alt is also a gonzo setting – as a world with a thin planar fabric, it is pretty easy to justify elements from other worlds, including our own. The setting has a distinct gonzo-theme, but it’s a lower-case gonzo as far as the setting is concerned. There are a couple of elven sub-species as “unique” races, such as beautiful sun-elves that need to sacrifice someone every month, blood elves, winged sky elves, etc.
Indeed, I genuinely consider the overall setting information for Cha’alt to be easily among the best things Venger has ever written: From cities where new cults seek to reawaken the tech of yesteryear, including gigantic spider droids (Horizon: Zero Dawn’s Eclipse, anyone?) to an organization who seeks to alter time to undo the cataclysm, to pirates, to a city of people with full the access? What about a kingdom of really nasty amazons? And did I mention the spice fracking going on?
Yep, if you choose, you can add a science-fantasy angle/Alpha Blue crossover here – one of the adventure-locations is the Gamma Incel Cantina, a place hidden from the eyes of the locals by potent tech…and it is here that the scum of the universe oversees the spice-fracking operation, which will eventually kill off the planet. You see, the spice harvested is another potent substance, and indeed can be refined into the potent drug mela’anj. The cantina is fully mapped, and comes with a TON of NPCs in tables, color-coded by group. Oddly, this is btw. also where the massive table of sample ability scores are provided. Don’t like sleaze or the Space Quest-y angle in your gritty, tentacle-ridden post-apocalypse? No problem, this place and the entire angle is easy enough to ignore. This location mirrors Venger’s style for Alpha Blue supplements best.
As for the other adventure locations, we don’t generally have more than an introductory paragraph of read-aloud text per area; we do get wandering monsters where applicable, and the description of the rooms generally starts off with the thing you’ll notice first, and then proceeds to go into details. A slightly missed chance here: The book’s layout e.g. always writes “The Black Pyramid” in big, bold, black letters; “Purple Prizm” in purple, etc. – but such formatting decisions are generally more on the cute, rather than on the useful side – bolding character names and numbers, putting magic items in italics or the like, formatting that makes running the book easier? The like, unfortunately, has not been implemented here.
How most groups will start playing in Cha’alt, however, will be via the “Beneath Kra’adumek” adventure – a module set in a metropolis enslaved by a ginormous, psychic worm…only that something, like a solar flare, temporarily has eliminated the vise on the mind of the PCs – thus, you better escape while the Purple Priesthood is occupied! This dungeon includes a cat-headed, incredibly vain serpent-demon, and if the PCs are stealthy, they might catch high priests with their pants down, stumble into a singularity, or find out that the purple crystals throughout the complex can make magic rather volatile.
The second such smaller scenario can be pictured as a loose sequel – in the aftermath of the first scenario, the Purple priesthood will have been supplanted by the Violet heresy…but more importantly, the massive, psionic demon-worm-thing is frozen, but thawing – so why not explore the massive thing? The interior of the demon-worm is a surprisingly engaging dungeon, in spite of its actual layout/”floor”-plan being less compelling – we essentially have a massive open space, and small “rooms” in crevasses on the sides. The thing is, the module uses its global traits really well – the oxygen-rich environment can cause explosions, the worm’s digestive system may slowly start kicking in once more, etc., and the parasites, lobstra’ats (lobster-rats) are dangerous and hilarious. The module also highlights very well a classic strategy for dungeon-solving, namely that leading groups to engage into conflict with each other can be a valid means of solving an adventure. What some might consider to be massive battle royales, this one, by virtue of its design, elevates to the probably most likely outcome.
The respective entries also are at times funny, and this might be a good place to talk about the inevitable pop culture/RPG-references: the penultimate room contains Zeekah, who calls upon his servants, collectively known as “The Community” to engage in jiha’ads with people not fitting with his world-view. He is serving Nema’an Soka, the god of extinguished hope, inevitability, and foregone conclusions. If you do know about the drama in the online community, you will get this barb; if not, then this is still a perfectly serviceable encounter, with Zeekah have a unique and deadly ability. This is imho Venger doing such references at his best – they are there, but subtle enough to not break immersion unless desired. Did I mention e.g. the unique Cube that either makes you orange or blue, and forces you into a no-holds-barred death-match against the onlookers identifying as the other color? This is a simple and cool encounter, and it is a great item mirroring how constant radicalization and polarizing as a cultural phenomenon is dangerous. Or, you know, you can just not interpret the item as I just did and use it as written.
Cha’alt’s locations are not per se defined in an exhaustive manner; instead, the book focuses on the big ideas and lets you fill in the details – with the exception of these two mini-adventures, which are much more detailed. If anything, I consider Cha’alt’s general information and these modules to be the best thing Venger has written. I am not exaggerating. This is Venger at his very best; high-concept, but with STRUCTURE, with DETAIL, with the things he sometimes just glances over. These are fantastic, and had me clamor for more, for more such adventures/adventure-locations. This aspect of the book, as a whole, is absolutely amazing, and I think that most people will agree with me here.
The lion’s share of the book, however, is devoted to the massive black pyramid on the cover: It is a massive mega-dungeon, a powerful linchpin of Cha’alt, a dungeon with an inside that is spanning multiple dimensions and the like – as such, the pyramid’s rooms are concerned not with precise dimensions, but with a rough approximation of how they connect; the dungeon is very much a bit Tardis-like, in that its rooms are bigger on the inside. The mega-dungeon features prominently in rites of passage, cultic sacrifice, and all cities and factions of Cha’alt have multiple reasons to enter the place. Rumors, tables of what happened while you explored the place, effects for exiting the pyramid, random encounters (including crab raccoons oozes, NPCs, etc. – here, we have a massive amount of tables that focus on providing context and impulses. Sleeping in the pyramid will have your dreams haunted in a horrid manner; and there is the “black unicorn” – essentially a carte blanche (or noire, here…) for the GM to excuse inconsistencies – and there are factions, like the lich-king-led Ca’abal. Inside the pyramid, a single striped line of energy runs along the top of the rooms – and the pyramid sports multiple rooms that are color-coded by this line. With the exception of the entry-room and the blue rooms surrounding it, entering rooms with another color requires access crystals, so yeah, the PCs will have to explore A LOT of this place if they wish to dive further. (And yes, the PCs can harvest zoth from these stripes.) The sides of the pages do btw. feature color-indicators, which makes getting the right rooms when flipping through the book easier.
The Black Pyramid is an irreverent full-blown WTF gonzo dungeon-crawl of 111 rooms. Let me get that right out of the way: It does not necessarily read like a coherent mega-dungeon; it is a ginormous funhouse, and any other expectations will be disappointed: There are rooms where star-spawn are incubated, there is none other than good ole’ Zargon (Pardon: Zarga’an…!!!), there is a sorceress of Slaanesh (Sla’avesh), there is an insane clown posse. There is a Rick and Morty cameo, there is a room where you can kill off Rob Schneider, there is a pizza delivery service in the dungeon, there are arcade gamers that play a VR, pixilated version of Cha’alt. We have a Life of Brian joke, with several micro-factions mirroring the “People’s Front of Judea”-joke, a Spin the Wheel gameshow-like room, a “The Purge”-reference, Crimson Dragons, a band preparing to play for the Devil – just one guy is currently missing, perhaps chickening out on the deal made…there is a quasi-deity-level entity playing human chess, there are silver flying spheres out to kill you, subway cars, gelatinous urine. The most mechanically interesting ones here, for me, were the well-executed version of “The author is in the dungeon”-trope (yep, you can try to kill him…) and the room that is a “Waiting for Godot”-reference. Cha’alt, and the Black Pyramid, is btw. littered with Easter-eggs regarding Venger’s previous books – from fruities to a nod to his Escape from New York-homage to a villain returned from Liberation of the Demon Slayer, the book does contain lost of nods and references.
If anything, the “Hail Gonzo!” room perhaps best exemplifies the dungeon: There, a statue of the great Gonzo can be found; lingering here has a half-demon show up, and whisper essentially a quest-hook to the PCs. Fumbling around with the Gonzo statue will open a secret compartment in the crotch, which contains a damaged trumpet. Blowing this one manifests Buddhist monks, who proceed to set themselves on fire, in a macabre way of lighting the room.
…I have to admit to not nearly liking the black pyramid as much as I hoped I would. Unlike in e.g. Monkey Business, there is no rhyme or reason here. Where the main world stuff of Cha’alt manages to feel surprisingly consistent and cool, where it keeps the pop culture references down to a minimum, the Black Pyramid is all about no fucks given. There is, by design, no consistency or structure here – in a way, it perfectly encompasses Venger’s interests: High-concept stuff, never mind the connecting tissue or details, it’s about the wild ride.
This feels like a chaotic deluge of concepts, like an insane kaleidoscope that oscillates between horrific experiments, extinction clocks and pop culture references that range from being genuinely cool and funny (the People’s Front joke, for example, only slowly becomes evident as the PCs meet the other groups…) to being…there. Okay, Rob Schneider joke, got it. There are plenty of non-sequiturs here, and if you want your dungeons to make sense in an internal manner, you will quite probably end up hating this. However, the black pyramid does play better than it reads –you see, there is one thing you cannot ever claim about this place, and that would be that it’s boring. It’s not. Not ever. Even if you dislike the disjoined nature of the place, it is chock-fll with unique encounters, and while I’d wager that most groups won’t play this as written, the dungeon does contain a huge wealth of rooms I will gladly scavenge to add some doses of the weird to my game.
I thought long and hard about why the back pyramid doesn’t work for me, and I came to a conclusion that might help you as well: The small modules prior to it, and the world itself, are pretty serious – they have gonzo elements, but, as a whole, are more consistent, less vignette-like than Venger’s usual fare. Don’t get me wrong – I’d have loved to read more about the details of Cha’alt, about the day/night cycle, about food, more vehicle stats, etc.; there is a lot to add, to ask for here. But Cha’alt, as a whole, is his most disciplined writing. It is inspired, clever, does not drown in self-referential navel-gazing, and is more easy to use than Venger’s modules to date. If you disregard the rules-related need to adapt the book, you have modules you can pretty much play as written, without having to fill in blanks. The global effects, backdrops, variety – all there. I really, really like Cha’alt.
The Black Pyramid at the center is deadly, elicits awe and horror – and turns out to be this strange funhouse dungeon. The clash in themes from subdued gonzo elements to all-caps GONZO, where clowns may literally attempt to kill you evident here gave me whiplash, and undermined the plausibility of Cha’alt for me. I do like full-blown GONZO, but here, the book attempts to have its cake and eat it, too. You can’t have a relatively gritty and surprisingly consistent, alien world sketched out, and then maintain its sense of consistency with that as the central touchstone. Granted, the world does not have equipment sections or the like, and it’s strange – but the three smaller vignettes had me PRIMED for a great centerpiece that brings all together. Instead, I got a funhouse dungeon.
The color-coded access crystals serve to somewhat structure the place in play, even if the book does not specify the colors of the respective crystals and leaves that up to the GM; as a whole, this feels like something done after the dungeon was written, as an attempt to provide some sort of consistence, and it is successful in some way…but nonetheless, we have no consistent leitmotifs here. Even Liberation of the Demon Slayer, Venger’s freshman offering and perhaps closest analogue to the black pyramid, had more consistent themes per level. I’d take Anomalous Subsurface Environment (reviews forthcoming) over the Black Pyramid any day of the week.
…then again, the sheer randomness of the Black Pyramid may not be a bug for you; perhaps, it is a feature for you. Just because this dungeon did not work for me, does not mean that it won’t work for you.
Editing is very good on a formal and rules-language level. Formatting is very basic, and doesn’t really help running the book. Layout deserves special mention – Glynn Seal’s talents are on full display here: The book is gorgeous to behold, and from the color-coded markers to other details, the layout is not only gorgeous, it genuinely helps run the book. Kudos. Artwork ranges from impressive full-color two-page spread original pieces to plentiful thematically-fitting cosplayer-photographies of aesthetically-pleasing males and females. The cartography is full-color, and the presence of player-friendly maps is a big plus. The pdf-version comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks, and the hardcover is a genuine collector’s piece – an impressive tome, a great artifact. I love the physical book. (There are, as per the writing of this review, still copies available, so if you want one, better act fast!)
I’ve reviewed a lot of Venger’s writing at this point – and he is perhaps one of the most difficult authors to review. His own houserule systems sometimes get in the way of the cooler concepts. Ironically, Crimson Dragon Slayer D20 gets less in the way than his previous systems because Cha’alt does not implement it consistently. You still have to do the work, though – unless high risk, handwaving beer-and-pretzels-gaming is what you’re going for, you will want to do properly convert this to e.g. B/X, PFRPG, DCC (perfect fit for DCC, imho). Huh, come to think of it, this would have been awesome as a book using DCC-rules. Everything about it screams DCC.
Anyways, Venger’s focus on high-concept ideas can leave you with an amazing idea, hamstrung by a lack of connective tissue and details. This is less the case here, than in his previous works – with the exception of “The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence”, which, to this date, remains my favorite among his books when seen as a whole. I am not sure if Prince of Nothing’s consultation is the origin for that, but the color-code-angle paid huge dividends in actual play of the pyramid, changing pure chaos into something that plays much better.
However, for me, the biggest achievement here would be the first half of the book – where we learn about the lands of Cha’alt, where we escape the yoke of the Purple Priesthood, dive into the maw of the worm, and have a nice mela’anj-infused drink at the Gamma Incel Cantina afterwards. This section is genuine gold. It presents a view of a world that manages to blend seemingly inconsistent themes and tropes into a concise and inspiring whole. There is structure here, and it is evident that Venger genuinely paused and thought about the world, how it operates. I maintain that we’d be better off with more like that, and the Black Pyramid as its own book. But that may be me.
I can definitely see that, for some groups out there, the Black Pyramid may well be the ultimate mega-dungeon, namely because it doesn’t behave like one. It’s randomness and consistent weirdness and sheer audacity will be perfect for groups that are usually quickly bored by dungeons with consistent themes. Do your players tend to have shorter attention spans when not engaged by something far out/outrageous? Then the Black Pyramid was written just for you! Seriously!
What I’m trying to enunciate here, is simple – Cha’alt is a divisive beast, an iconoclastic potpourri of themes and design-styles; Venger shows that all of his design-styles, from the table-centric one to the more classic one, are deliberate choices. And he shows that, when he sets his mind to it, he *can* deliver truly awesome material.
For me, had the book focused more on the world of Cha’alt, in the way that the first half of the book did, this’d have been a Top Ten candidate, my dissatisfaction with the rules notwithstanding. At the same time, the Black Pyramid was, to me, a let-down. Too random, too unfocused – even though it does work MUCH better in play than on paper…but that is my personal opinion. As a person, I’d rate this 3 stars for the rules (CDSD20’s limitations really show after a while), 5 stars + seal of approval for the world/small locations, 3.5 stars rounded up for the Black Pyramid (that was 2.5 stars prior to playing it, for context – it works much better in play than on paper; plus, you can dismantle it into a ridiculous amount of gonzo encounters). For me, as a person, this is a 4.5 stars book, rounded down – one that makes me seriously hope that the Cha’alt expansion Fuchsia Malaise further expands on the setting’s strengths, now that the gonzo-touchstone at its center is done; I think Venger is best when he exerts some restraint and thinks more about the big picture, and is less focused on individual encounters/vignettes.
When Cha’alt is good, it is better than anything Venger has written so far. If you don’t like pop culture references and are a stickler for consistency of theme and atmosphere, then you’ll probably think about the Black Pyramid as I do, and similarly feel that you’d have wanted more detail on Cha’alt.
If I enter review-bot mode, I arrive at a different outcome: The rules-rating would remain as is; however, when viewed neutrally, the world-information is missing context to establish rules for tech, equipment, etc., and I could list a series of niggles here. The setting information requires more detail, and that the GM extrapolates a series of realities about the world, which would cost this the seal, and reduce the rating to 4.5 stars. My personal taste has no bearing on the Black Pyramid in this scenario, and I’d be forced to admit that this might be the ultimate high-GONZO mega-dungeon, a glorious deluge of chaos turned to paper. When rated neutrally, the Black Pyramid may well be the biggest achievement of the book for some tables, and it does what it sets out to do exceedingly well. In this scenario, I’d give this component 5 stars + seal of approval.
I pride myself on trying to review books for what they are, and not for what I’d wish them to be – and as such, my review-bot verdict will be the final one: Cha’alt gets 4.5 stars, rounded up, and does get my seal of approval, as I will get a lot out of the Black Pyramid in terms of scavenged encounter ideas, with the caveat that this rating assumes, as noted above, that you’re going for this kind of high-concept, gonzo weirdness.
You can get the pdf of this massive tome here on OBS!
If you’re looking to get the limited edition print-run, you can do so best by backing the kickstarter for Fuchsia Malaise, the upcoming and fully funded expansion to Cha’alt!
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Great way to close out 2019, hoss! Thank you for the review. I quite enjoyed your inner struggle, but my popcorn needed extra butter. 😉