In a chance encounter online, I spoke with the creator of Cha’alt. The artwork and premise drew me in, and with a Kickstarter campaign currently underway to expand the setting, I was eager to get to know more. Lucky enough to receive an electronic copy for review, I dived in; little prepared for what would await…
So what is Cha’alt? If we consider the book itself for a moment, Cha’alt is a setting, mega-dungeon, and lite rules system. I’ll have to hold my hands up and say that I thought my days of mega-dungeons were behind me. The idea of going room to room, kicking down doors, killing stuff and taking treasure has lost it’s shine over more nuanced collaborative storytelling. You know what though? That’s just a bit pompous and maybe more than a little snobby way of looking at things. The point is to have fun and there looks like plenty to be had here.
The art, and layout are very good throughout. The cover does a fine job of being enticing whilst not giving much away. You could easily see it on the cover of some LP/record in a vintage collection. Although a variety of styles are employed, each brings the setting to life in ways that words potentially can’t. Some clashed with the ideas I was forming in my head but not enough to make me lose sight of the bigger picture. Part of that might also have been down to my initial apprehension at the nature of the product. Given the myriad themes on offer, a consistent art direction, or singular artist, might have been contrary to or diluted the intended effect.
I also have to note that some of the art features real folks in a variety of dress. I’ve seen some examples of this in the past which whilst commendable didn’t work well. Not so here. There’s plenty of fantasy, retro sci-fi, and steampunk flavour which really meshes with the frantic energy in the dungeon.
A note on taste and flavour.
Before carrying on too much further I should give fair warning. Cha’alt is definitely not to be found in the kid or family friendly section. It’s not particularly lewd or gory. Even the more in your face horror elements aren’t exactly nastee. Instead there’s a lot of implication and black comedy in here which may rankle some. There’s nothing that I found in poor taste though. Anything that came close is clearly written from a satirical view or is written with references in mind; at least I like to think so. The ultimate adjudicator and final say will be down to yourselves.
The Rules – Crimson Dragon Slayer
Before getting into the guts of the setting, I’m going to jump to briefly discussing the rules as presented. Anyone familiar with, or indeed using, DnD5e or OSR styled systems will be able to pick up and use this book as is. That in itself is a big plus; almost no conversion is needed from the simple stat blocks provided.
Crimson Dragon Slayer (CDS), the title of these rules, is the litest of lites. No character sheets. Character classes are detailed in five lines or less. A couple of pages of bullet points for rules. I’m writing this as if I’m being dismissive and depending on your point of view that could be the case. In essence though, consider this a framework to run your games if you want. The emphasis is getting round the table and having fun. I guess it’s fair to say that if you are new to roleplaying, you may not get enough out of Crimson Dragon Slayer to get you on your way. For those with a bit of experience under your belt, CDS might look a tad sparse. I’d put the spin on it to say that CDS as written, gives you the intended flavour and approach that the creators take.
The World of Cha’alt
Cha’alt is a world both familiar and completely alien. Take a big chunk of Herbert’s Dune, liberally toss in elements of Mad Max, B-Movie monsters and over the top plot concepts, then smash in the Lovecraft Mythos. It sounds like madness which shouldn’t work. So many disparate elements which strain the suspension of disbelief too heavily. The truth of the matter though is that it is what it is. Embracing the gonzo nature I got over my initial apprehension and found so much good stuff which, if I don’t run as is, will be cannibalised for other games/settings.
Cha’alt is a dead world teeming with strange life. You’ll find a lot of seeming contradictions in what I’m writing but I rarely encounter a product which does its best to defy simple description. The setting only actually takes up a small chunk of this book. Apart from a couple of maps with exotic and esoteric names which call out for further exploration, there’s not much specific detail. There’s some interesting ideas on radiation and desert travel then into a selection of places to visit, along with the creatures and factious guilds and groups you may encounter along the way.
So in travelling from A to B you may well see a giant sand worm off in the desert attracted to the Spice Frackers, or giant spider death droids battling cultists. I can think of a few friends who would be all over this in gung ho fashion but at the same time some who may be less than eager to deviate from Tolkien inspired fantasy cavern crawls.
Into the body of the beast…
As something of an appetiser, Cha’alt brings us a ‘small’ dungeon crawl before the main course. I say small but this clock in at over thirty encounters with the novel twist of being set inside the cadaver of a giant sand worm. Starting out in the city of Kra’adumek or the City of the Purple Worm, the adventurers start off with nothing more than the clothes on their back. The psionic powers of the great worm normally enthral anyone within the confines but a ravaging storm has weakened the beast. To escape into the desert without gear would be suicide so it’s into the belly we go…
Gamma Incel Cantina
Whilst the name might raise a few eyebrows this is a fleshed out space bar which could as easily find itself in a sci-fi game stop over or Jammer asteroid hide away. The aforementioned B-Movie nods are all here and I can’t help but be put in mind of films like Hell Comes to Frogtown. You’ll hopefully know the group you’re gaming with and whether a lot of these elements will resonate but it’s not like they are essential so can be dropped if needs be.
There’s a decent map lay out and tables of NPCs with enough blurb to give you some backstory and motivation when required.
Who needs a carousing table when you can just roleplay that shit?venger Satanis
The Black Pyramid – Into the Mouth of Madness
Here it is. The meat of the book is found describing the hundred odd plus rooms and encounters inside the obsidian marvel. I don’t want to spoil too much for those that might end up playing so will instead focus on the themes, flavour, and fluff.
The Black Pyramid takes strange and leverages the Spinal Tap effect cranking it up to 11. What is it and why is it there? Who created it? Is there a deeper purpose to be found within its walls. Even if you survive the horrors within, how will it change you – physically and mentally. Whether you follow through the first adventure leading you and your group here or you find it on some other plane more suited to your game, you’re going to need to keep your wits about you.
Oaft, it’s really big!
Part of what I dislike about mega-dungeons is almost hypocritically what I love about the way that this is presented. Some of these massive dungeons are created with no real thought into how or why it works. One room leads to another with no thought for how the denizens feed, defecate, or generally go about their business. Inside the Black Pyramid time and space are merely conceptual threads that are plucked by the gods within. Oh yeah, the pyramid has developed its own pantheon.
The rooms and encounters are all delivered in simple and easy to understand segments. There’s no flicking back and forward to understand why NPC A is in room 24 and how you need the key from their partner in 17 to unlock the chest NPC D is sitting on in pit 34. And herein lies another benefit for someone like myself. Even if I don’t run the Black Pyramid as it’s own adventure, or heavily modify it to my whims, there’s oodles of encounters here to either shoe horn into one of your own adventures or as a random event for a group.
There’s tons of pop culture, literary, and historical references with almost no connection between them. Or is there? Perhaps there are clues to be found amongst the chaos. Perchance a clever, or insightful, character may spot that which is overlooked and in a Cube-esque fit of brilliance unravel one of the greater mysteries. But then maybe they’re just letting their own mind fill in gaps that aren’t there! It’s a wonderfully, almost meta, nightmarish Hellscape like one is travelling further into the underworld or demonic psyche.
How to sum up?
Cha’alt is something which I normally wouldn’t have considered my cup of tea (Earl Grey, although recently enjoying a delightful Rooibos Chai). Cthonic or demonic scarred land ticks the boxes for me but the gonzo elements are something I wouldn’t have considered my thing. Ironically however, when I think back to the one off games and convention events I’ve taken part in, the more gonzo ones have always been the ones that stand out as being the most fun.
If any of this sounds intriguing I’d have no qualms about recommending you pick it up. The production values and ease of reading are big plus points. With seam after seam of RPG ore to mine in here, it’ll be of use for many even if they never set foot on the blasted lands of Cha’alt’s wastes. No doubt too that there will be people for whom this will not be to their liking. Whether it’s the B-Movie sleaze twinging their sensibilities, or just not genres that tickle the fancy, one can still appreciate the effort and dedication involved.
Have you ventured into the Black Pyramid of Cha’alt or considering taking a gander? Let us know your thoughts below or over on the Facebook page. You’ll find more from the mind of the creator over on their blog here.
P.s. Just released is a free pdf over at Drivethrupg from Kort’thalis Publishing for – OSR Like A F**king Boss. The authors personal views on running games to keep them fresh. I haven’t had a chance to read these yet but as it’s free no harm no foul right?