Friday 2 September 2022

[REVIEW] Cha’alt

Cha’alt (2019)

by Venger Satanis

Published by Kort’thalis Publishing

Low to mid levels

* * *

Knee-Deep in the Zoth 

Gonzo science fantasy has a high pedigree in old-school gaming. Wild genre-mixing has been with us since the campaigns of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, the publications of Bob Bledsaw and David Hargrave, and has more recently produced such gems as Encounter Critical (2004, predating the earliest retro-clones) and the great, unfinished Anomalous Subsurface Environment. For something affectionately referred to as “retro stupid” (Jeff Rients), this odd platypus-like mutt of gaming history has produced some remarkably excellent materials, and the expectations have thus been set rather high. So we come to Cha’alt. The book has often been dismissed as a vulgar display of bad taste, the product of some fringe weirdo with bad opinions, or juvenile fetish material not worth playing attention to. It has a small but dedicated cult following who swear it has merit. More often than one might think, these small cultish groups are right, and everyone else is dead wrong. Sometimes, they are just deluded. And thus, we are here.

Cha’alt is a lavishly produced, colourful, 216-page hardcover printed on heavy-duty, slick paper, with gold leaf embossing on the cover, and a psychedelic dust jacket depicting something from a 1970s album cover. There is a generous amount of colour illustrations and photos from Deviantart, most of them in tremendously bad taste, from “photorealistic” fetish art to generic and soulless colour pieces. As far as I am concerned, the art budget is wasted, but production values do not really concern this blog, so we shall move on.

While layout is not packed (white space and squiggly “magical glyphs” are abundant), there is a surprising amount of material in the book. Where a significant portion of old-school gaming has succumbed to the idea of minimalism, this is a rich, extensive campaign book mostly focused on directly playable material. This is a pleasant surprise: say what you will about the subject matter and the execution, the book has its heart in the right place. It is not an exercise in creating avant-garde literature, but giving you a rich grab-bag of stuff you can run out of the book. More than that, it is actual, honest functional writing that balances the setting’s peculiar flavour with the idea that information should be accessible, easily understood, and of help to the tired GM. It does not go into the weirdo formal experiments of presentation which have become fashionable in recent years, but while the text will not win any writing awards, it is competently edited, and does its job efficiently and unobtrusively. There is even a functional, well-built appenix! In the realm of ease of use, Cha’alt scores above much of the gaming field.

* * *

The Shores of Cha’alt

Retro stupid rides again
Cha’alt’s setting is a blasted post-apocalyptic wasteland following a war between the awakened Old Ones, and the planet’s highly advanced civilisation. Various city-states and barbaric outposts inhabit the remaining land mass, while interstellar opportunists have arrived to cart off the valuables, especially the remaining pockets of zoth, the literal lifeblood of the defeated Old Ones, and a main component of the super-valuable spice mela’anj. Of the great dungeon-complexes that have risen over Cha’alt, none are as formidable as the fabled Black Pyramid, a massive structure that has risen anew from beneath the sands. This is a high-energy setting with a crazy and enthusiastic anything-goes approach, from sandworms to space sluts, and from shameless Cthulhu flogging to monster cults. Gonzo games live or die by the way they cobble together their seemingly incompatible influences; the internal tension is part of the appeal, and being a little crazy never hurts.

The supplement’s first section is taken up by setting background and setting-specific miscellany – a grab-bag of stuff for your Cha’alt campaigns. If you want a random, goofy mutation chart, you will find it in the desert survival rules, while the description of the Domed City has a cyberware table to juice up your characters. This is a fun integration of rules and setting, and the section where the supplement is at its closest to the fabled Wilderlands of High Fantasy – a high point of creative, haphazard, play-friendly content. Factions with their typical representatives, and desert critters are described, although there are no random encounter charts (which would be one of the most important things to have in a sandbox setting), and the monster roster is rather limited with only seven new critters (there are several more scattered over the subsequent chapters). The same is the case for some of the supplemental material or random charts and rules, which are found hidden later in the book – a table of simple psionic abilities, an NPC motivation chart, random ability score arrays... bits and pieces that come up during play.

Here kitty kitty
The core of Cha’alt is centred around four adventure sites: two smaller dungeons (Beneath Kra’adumek, 17 keyed areas; Inside the Frozen Violet Demon Worm, 23 keyed areas), a “home base” style location (Gamma Incel Cantina, 69 keyed NPCs), and a large, three-level “tentpole” dungeon (The Black Pyramid, 111 keyed locations). Unfortunately, it is the short intro scenario, Beneath Kra’adumek, that is the really good stuff, and the rest have a growing number of problems. But Beneath Kra’adumek is good, partly because it is designed as a real dungeon. There is a decent, meaningful layout combining caverns and passages; there are guarded sections to avoid or eliminate, prisoners to free, mysterious stuff to mess with, weird monsters (the centrepiece being the demon cat-snake) and duplicitous NPCs to kill, fool or befriend; and it has a sequence of simple, memorable setpiece encounters. Ways to poke at other dimensions and screw things up (including making 1/6 of Cha’alt’s population disappear forever). Fanatical demon-worm cultists absorbed in their evil activities. Cryogenic pods to awaken ancient pre-catastrophe sleepers. Individualised treasure. It is a dynamic scenario that could go a lot of ways due to the variety of NPC/monster/device interactions, and even feels like a goofy sort of Star Wars locale – great for an action-packed intrusion into the fortress-dungeon of an evil space cult, three “princesses” (well, big-boobed space sluts) included. This is top-notch, and unfortunately, as good as it gets.

Inside the Frozen Violet Demon Worm is a great concept – exploring the intestines of, well, you get the idea – but Cha’alt’s deeper flaws start to emerge. First is the degeneration of the maps. An arbitrary dungeon (Beneath Kra’adumek) offers good exploration potential, while the demon-worm’s interior is an enormous fleshy tunnel with a bunch off side-chambers in its folds. You approach the locations, you do the encounter. This is the Monty Haul dungeon in its original sense – a series of “doors” along a corridor to open for random stuff ranging from a young woman chained to a stone column crying out for help (concealed Ktha’alu spawn with some really god magical loot), a group of insectoids battling a flesh-sac detached from the slowly thawing worm, or an enormous stone head worshipped by savage brutalitarians (lazy Zardoz reference), a lost pirate ship, or a bunch of skeevy guys playing high-stakes poker around a scrap metal table. Why? Rule of cool, that’s why.

Retro, retro
stupid, retro utterly
freaking dumb
This is super-arbitrary, and unlike the cultist lair, has no good sense of place. Why don’t these encounters wander off a little? Why don’t they interact if they are right next to each other? What happens if the party runs deep into the worm, triggering them one by one (and how could the GM handle the logistical chaos of juggling 8-12 setpiece encounters)? It is a mess, with little to connect the random bits and pieces. It feels like a “ghost train” type deal from an amusement park, with dioramas of animatronic monsters leering at you from the sides. The structure is horrible, and whatever dynamism is present in the encounters is probably going to be wasted. They are still rather good on the individual level – the author’s skill for punchy, self-contained situations and setpieces lifts up the material. If these were spaced less tightly, and placed within a more interesting, better designed dungeon environment, this would be another good one.

Gamma Incel Cantina is the Mos Eisley cantina from Tatooine, but on Cha’alt. If you have an interest in gambling, whoring, illicit deals, information or odd jobs, this is a good place to visit if you know how to get in (it is behind a cloaking field). The presentation is questionable, but the content is good enough. Basically, you get a map, a brief description of the cantina’s main areas (from loos to gambling tables to its VIP lounge), then 69 (tee hee) NPCs keyed on the map in colour-coded groups to make things a little more accessible. This is, obviously, completely useless for anything other than hitting up 1d6 randos and interacting with them, and treating everyone else as a homogenous crowd. On the other hand, the paragraph-long NPC descriptions offer brief, fun profiles so hitting up those 1d6 randos is going to get you something. The list, appropriately enough for the author’s interests, starts with P’nis Queeg (“Pilot; just parked his starship; yellow skinned banana / penis headed alien with swollen ganglia. He’s holding a brand new plumbus.”), and includes people like Treena (“THOT, human; blonde hair, blue eyed space Muslim; smoking long, thin hookah; likes humiliation and spanking”), Halvern (“Sentient chartreuse vapor inside environmental suit; fake mustache painted on helmet visor; uncontrollable giggling – that’s why they call him “laughing gas.””) or Bolo (“Droid; bounty hunter; camouflage and rust-colored; spritzing WD-40 on plate of myna’ak wings; head of engineering on nearby space station.”) You get the idea. The sleazy truck stop/titty bar vibe is spot on, and it works decently as Cha’alt’s Keep to Cha’alt’s Borderlands.

The Very Naughty Tetrahedron

We now come to the main attraction: The Black Pyramid rises from the wastelands, descending into an underworld most mythical, or at least moderately horny. This is obviously the campaign lynchpin not just from the size, but all the side materials. We get a rumours chart, and random encounters complete with specific monsters (from the dreaded night clowns to hunter-killer droids, fruit folk, pizza delivery and bat-winged eyeballs) and unique NPC groups (lost Romans, alien looters, suspicious hooded guys of all sorts). A “what happened while you were away” chart! A “leaving the pyramid” chart (travel 1d30 years into the past/future and wipe most of the campaign – woo-hoo)! Six new gods! A “you dumbass slept in the pyramid” chart! And so on. So far so good.

"Have we reached rock bottom yet, guys?"
"Not yet! Everybody, dance!"
"My anus is bleeding!"
But then... yes, the problems of the book come back in force, and are multiplied fourfold. The maps are chaotic gibberish. Any semblance of structure or order (or even inspired chaos) goes out the window, and what we get is a bunch of randomly shaped and sized rooms connected by short, randomly patterned corridors (these seem to have no distinct function, or the reference just fails me) between random clusters of colour-coded rooms accessible with special crystal keys. This childish mess does not look like a pyramid – even a severely corrupted one – lacks meaningful height differences or even connecting stairs (what you think are three dungeon levels are actually a single flat plain), has no spatial order to accommodate orienteering or exploration, does not feature actual dungeon navigation challenges (even less so than the frozen demon-worm), and it is overall very repetitive in its formal structures. The room descriptions have no relation whatsoever to the room shapes and sizes. To make it short, the map is really, really terrible, lacking any redeeming qualities.

There is something about the encounters that was grating. Maybe my patience was wearing thin, or maybe it is truly repetitive, but one of the reasons this review is overdue by several months is that I just could not press on with it. It is just one pop culture reference setpiece after the other pop culture reference setpiece. Now... this can work if there is some other kind of connecting material to add variety (say, an interesting dungeon map to navigate, or challenging combat/exploration situations and a few clever traps), but it is missing them altogether. The lazy content also shows its limits. Sometimes, recognition still elicits the Sensible Chuckle, but that well soon runs dry, and you start to scrutinise these encounters with a more critical eye. And many of them do not cut it – they are often static, convoluted for the sake of telling a lame joke, or don’t offer much interesting interaction. And those lame jokes, they are getting lamer and more one-note. Here is a room housing anthropomorphic fruit (#13). Here is a stereotypical podcast guy doing an interview (#14). Here is the Carousel room from Logan’s Run (#15) – all right, this is OK. Here is a room with a clone of Rob Schneider trying to convince a young woman to pay him for sex (#16). Here is a room with a statue of Gonzo, of Sesame Street fame (#17). “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.” There was an opportunity with the Black Pyramid to present some kind of otherworldly, metal-inspired, high-energy dungeon. If you’ve got a black pyramid in your game, you kinda owe something to your readers. Well, Cha’alt’s Black Pyramid is not otherworldly; it sells out all its potential at one tired joke a pop. It is all so tiresome.

Here is another one for free


Your dungeon is offensive!
As the post may suggest, Cha’alt is not an easy thing to review. It is a giant collection of the good and the bad, mixed in with the happy medium of “questionable”, and it is not easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. At its best, it is high-energy gaming with a lot of personality, and a very specific flavour (space/Cthulhu sleaze). It would be a mistake to write it off on the basis of this content – like it or not, this is what it intends to do, and what it intends to be. Those who call it skeevy or sexist are only doing the author a favour, since this is what he wanted to do. To cite the late, great József Torgyán, head of Hungary’s Independent Smallholders, Agrarian Workers and Civic Party, “A lawyer with litigation, and a fine lady with a hard instrument, cannot be threatened.” But does Cha’alt succeed on its own terms?

As far as I am concerned, one of the supplement’s main draws is something that some may identify as a flaw – it is not a thoroughly polished product, but something that shows its origins as a bundle of the author’s home campaign notes. It preserves the enthusiasm, and does not reduce the material to a dry treatise. It invites questions and engagement. There is a definite sense of a dog-eared folder of faded printouts, scratch paper, and session notes behind the book. It is charming, and ironically, more conductive to actual use than many books that look more smooth, but are not presented with table use in mind. It is as accessible as a slightly cleaned up collection of GM notes, and a fun glimpse into a madman’s mind.

There is also something to be said about the modules’ ambitions. They are deeply flawed in multiple ways (as detailed above), but they are not gated by level and do not pull punches. You can easily meet enemies who are way more powerful than you are. You can also beat them up and take their high-tier loot or obtain powers beyond your meagre abilities. You can find yourself bargaining with major demons, inadvertently unleashing planetary devastation, or pull off major campaign-altering victories. Some of this is lolrandom stuff that depends too much on die rolls or (un)lucky encounters instead of player skill or meaningful choices that lead to logical consequences, but it is there nevertheless, and it can be glorious even in this flawed form. It is writ on a large scale, and allows the players to win big or lose big.

Third, it shows variety and imagination on the encounter level. Things on Cha’alt are unpredictable (to say the least), but they are always colourful, and feature fun interactivity – NPCs and plotlines sketched up willy-nilly with a few broad strokes, there are knobs to mess with (some of them blow up half the world, but that’s OK), and a lot of the material is hand-crafted, specific – although the magical treasure is also too plentiful; you can barely take a few steps without finding a javelin +1 or a freeze-ray. Many of the pop cultural references are lazy, but at least many of them make for a compelling set-piece.

Here is the problem, though. Cha’alt is cursed by a curious sort of laziness that’s apparent even if you consider this is a 200+ page hardback crammed with gameable content. It falls apart on the levels above the encounters, and has little discernible structure to it. Things are sometimes connected a little (albeit haphazardly), but mostly, it is just throwing things at a canvas to see if it sticks. Is there a pattern behind the random ideas, or is it just you? It is probably just you. The trick works in the comparatively small and tightly designed starter dungeon, but it increasingly becomes apparent Mr. Satanic is bluffing. The lack of structure and the utter scattershot randomness of the material makes it hard to apply player skill to the modules, to treat them as challenging, complex problems or even real places. This is where the diorama/animatronic monster issue comes back to take its revenge. The environment cannot be known and mastered because there is no environment, only an illusion of one. The amount of interaction obscures this problem, but never fully resolves it.

Your Dungeon is a Cancerous
Growth of Intertextuality and
Postmodernism. REPENT!
And it also suffers due to the sheer excess of pop culture citations. Any conceivable part of cult/geek media is digested and reconstructed in Cha’alt to form the majority of its encounters. While surely one of the greatest collections of genre and pop culture references, Cha’alt does little to integrate its disparate influences into a greater whole, or at least give them its own spin. The approach it takes is disappointingly literal, and often falls flat. When Anomalous Subsurface Environment draws from He-Man, it adapts the material to its setting, the Land of a Thousand Towers, and the result is always a great fit which transforms the spoofed material just enough to stay recognisable, yet add a new angle or a clever gameplay twist. Say, “Monsator, Lord of the Stalks” is obviously an homage to Evil Megacorporation Monsanto, but he is also a fully developed, compelling villain of a wizard who is interesting beyond the quirky reference. Monsator is also one idea among many, most of them original.

When Cha’alt does something similar, it mostly just plops down its direct references randomly, and tries to skirt by on the strength of star recognition. Sure, Mr. Satanic betrays an encyclopaedic knowledge of late 20th century cult stuff and esoterica, but a Videodrome reference next to a Logan’s Run reference next to a tiki bar next to a movie theatre showing Escape From New York does not start living together without some effort to make a coherent whole out of them. The city of “A’agrybah” is plainly Agrabah from Disney’s Aladdin, “just on Cha’alt” with some surface details like a spaceport and a human sacrifice tradition. Sure, there is supposed to be chaos and wild leaps of imagination, but that is just part of the work. Here, the other part is very often missing, and it is all just a post-modern mish-mash of citations upon citations. Is this because the author knows no better? Far from the truth! When he makes an effort to tie things together, as with the setting background, he succeeds fairly well. It just doesn’t happen often enough, or I guess well enough to bring out the sort of transformative quality which makes for a truly great gonzo setting.

Ultimately, these two central flaws are what makes Cha’alt only “good enough” and not actually “good” or “great” – they are omnipresent through the book, and cannot be easily fixed. There is something really good in the setting, and with better structure, the basic concept could excel. Where Cha’alt is good – the starter dungeon, many of the individual encounters, the no-nonsense campaign-friendly presentation – it is deservedly good. As it is, though, it is a deeply flawed book, although never without charm, or generously endowed space doxies, bless ‘em.

No playtesters are credited in this publication. It has apparently been very thoroughly tested, although often in a fairly peculiar manner, as text chat-based random pickup games over several of Mr. Satanis’ lunch breaks.

Rating: *** / *****