Monday, 25 May 2020

[Homebrew] Our BX/OSE Combat House Rules

The following hodgepodge is a glimpse at the house rules we use in our Old-School Essentials campaign Portals of Eremus. Some of them were borrowed from other games and supplements, others are my own. Some of them have been already used in previous campaigns, others were first introduced for Eremus. The goal was to spice up B/X combat without making the process too cumbersome. Only time will tell if they succeed at that or not, but so far they worked fine for us - especially the weapon properties!

If you are looking for complicated combat rules, you are in the wrong place.
Check out Player's Option(TM): Combat & Tactics instead.

Death and Dying
At 0 hit points the player character loses consciousness and begin to bleed out, losing 1 hit point per round until healed. Death is instantaneous when the current hit points reach half the character's Constitution score (round up) in negative. E.g. a character with CON 17 dies when reaching -9 hit points.

After regaining consciousness, the wounded character needs a full week of bed rest. Until completely rested the character moves at half the normal rate, cannot carry heavy items, and receives penalties in combat.

Being reduced below 0 hit points leaves the character with a hideous permanent scar.

When attempting to disarm a successful hit doesn't cause damage, but forces the defender to make a saving throw versus petrification or lose the weapon being held.

Distance: The weapon falls at the owner’s feet if it is of the same size as the attacker’s weapon, or lands 1d10 feet away if smaller. Recovering the weapon takes a round.

Limits: Weapons held in two hands cannot be disarmed. Disarming can only be used against weapons of the same length or shorter.

When the character misses by 10 or more on a natural 1 roll on the following table to see what happens:
 1d20 Result
 1-2Just a minor inconvenience. Laugh it off. 
 3-4Weapon slips. -2 to the next attack roll.
 5-6Weapon damaged. -1 to damage rolls until repaired.
 7-8Weapon stuck in something. It takes an attack to free it.
 9-10Weapon dropped or thrown. It lands 1d10 feet away.
 11-12Attacker slips. +2 to the next attack of the enemy.
 13-14Attacker stumbles. Free attack roll for the enemy.
 15-16Attacker falls. It takes a round to regain footing.
 17-18Attack roll against self. Classic.
 19-20Attack roll against nearby ally, or damage self when there is none in reach.

Grappling and Overbearing
When grappling each attacker makes an individual attack roll. Those attackers who hit roll their hit dice totals and compare their sum against the defender's hit dice total roll. E.g. two 1 HD orcs trying to pin a level 3 cleric roll 2d8 versus 3d6.

Attackers have higher total: The defender is pinned and can be executed or knocked out for 1d6 turns next round. Before that defender can try to break free, or another grappler can join the fray to pull the defender out.

Defender has higher total: The attackers are beaten back and stunned for a round.

Draw: No one manages to get the upper hand this round. 

When parrying the character’s total melée attack bonus* is added as an Armour Class bonus that round. The bonus is only added against missile weapons if the character has a shield. The parrying character can't attack until next round.

When attempting to trip a successful hit doesn't cause damage, but forces the defender to make a saving throw versus petrification or fall prone.

Regain footing: Can be done next round during the movement phase.

Limits: Must use weapons that can hook the victim’s leg. It’s impossible to trip creatures without leg. Creatures with more than two legs gain a +1 bonus to their saving throws per additional leg.

Weapon Properties
Crushing weapons (club, mace, staff, stone, torch, warhammer, etc.) get a +2 bonus to attack rolls against heavy armour (chainmail and above)**, unless the armour is of much harder material. E.g. a wooden club against plate mail does not get any bonus. A natural 20 that hits*** stuns the defender for 1d6 rounds. Another successful strike from a blunt instrument knocks the defender out for 1d6 turns.

Piercing weapons (arrow, bolt, dagger, javelin, lance, polearm, short sword, spear, etc.) impale foes on a natural 19-20 that hits. Impaled creatures suffer a damage roll from the weapon again when they do strenuous activity, or when the weapon is forcefully extracted. If the weapon is held by someone the victim is held at bay until the weapon is removed. Extracting the weapon forcefully costs an attack, while doing it carefully to avoid additional damage requires an entire turn.

Slashing weapons (battle axe, hand axe, polearm, sword, two-handed sword, etc.) can cleave, which allows a free attack against another foe within reach after killing someone. On a natural 20 that hits the weapon causes double damage. If the victim falls to 0 hp the attack tore off a random limb.

Some weapons can be wielded in different ways, changing the damage type. Depending on the weapon this can result in reduced damage, or the weapon handled as another weapon that’s more fitting for the situation - eg. attacking with a spear’s shaft counts as a staff.

* I assume attack bonus and ascending armour class.
** In case of monsters I use the following rule of thumb: hide and fur count as leather, scales count as chain, hard shell count as plate.
*** By this I mean the attack would hit even if the natural 20 wasn't automatic success.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

[Review] Cha'alt, Part III: Fear and Loathing in the Black Pyramid

Artist's rendition of Venger showing up in the comment
section asking when the next part is coming. Hoss in blue
is me telling him "next Friday".
With the pandemic forcing me into home office and pausing all my current campaigns I thought I will have more free time and can finally proceed with blogging, video games, and other stuff I neglected lately. That didn't go as expected, but the stars are right now, the end is nigh, so fasten your seatbelts and get ready for the climax of Venger's magnum opus!

The final chapter of Cha'alt devotes 116 pages to describe the Black Pyramid, a stupid gonzo funhouse dungeon unlike anything you've seen before. Most of this immense page count is spent on the 111 rooms of the fungeon*, but it takes a while until the book gets there, because the chapter has a meaty prelude about setting up and running the adventure. There is another hook about forcing the party at gunpoint into the dungeon, a bunch of rumors, tables for random events when leaving, wandering monsters, NPCs and factions, loot table, and weird local flavour. If improvisation isn't your forte it's well worth making notes in advance, because some of the results are random or vague, and might catch unprepared GM with his pants down. If you are good at it and used to Gamma World and Arduin level eccentricities, then you can comfortably run it with minimal preparations. An unexpected pizza delivery, a 23rd century soldier joining the party, and seeing on return that the Old Ones fucked up the world are completely normal occurences. There are some more mundane encounters and events, but those aren't boring either thanks to some intriguing or weird bit.

The status quo in nutshell is the following. After aeons of being controlled by Ara'ak-Zul, the evil god carried over to Cha'alt through the black demonic stone the pyramid was built of, six New Gods joined forces to imprison him. These six New Gods have been jointly ruling over the Black Pyramid ever since. Meanwhile Ara'ak-Zul is waiting for a chance to break free, gather minions, and take revenge - though at the moment the best he can do is causing nightmares. Meanwhile the group known as The Caba'al are hellbent on gathering magic items hoping they can manifest an omnipotent God when they have enough - though the best they could accomplish so far was obliterating room #112. Besides them there is a wealth of minor factions down there. Because of the volatile nature of time and space within the dungeon, they rarely know anything about what's going on more than one room away. Some of them have fixed relationship, for everything else there is a random chart with 1d6 results going from ignorance, through friendship, to all-out war.

There are two useful sections that give the GM advice that help running the module. The first is the Black Unicorn, which is basically a the black cat from The Matrix: it appears when reality is altered. It is a tool to retcon and change stuff, but should be only used sparingly due to its frustrating nature. The second is There Are No Coincidences, which recommends letting the players make up connections, and rolling with it. It helps both the players and the GM managing the Chaos and making sense of the place, and might even give some cool ideas the GM or the author never though of.

The dungeon itself is a mess of polygonal rooms connected by tunnels floating in the void. The rooms are seperated into regions based on the coloured stripe of light running through its top - which is actually zoth, but milking it too much makes the pyramid devour the thief or damage its integrity. By default traversing the different coloured regions needs an access crystal. These are prized possessions of the NPCs, but for one shots Venger recommends dropping the idea and letting the players explore.

A slice of the dungeon-point-crawl.
For those who like describing dimensions in details, the Black Pyramid will be a nightmare - not only because the irregular shapes, but also the lack of exact information about distances. There are squares on the map, but no scale, and even the descriptions emit such details. Considering the nature of the place this seems fitting, and might be even a deliberate middle finger: "don't bother with feet, rounds, and other bullshit, they would only distract you from the cool stuff  going on in the room!" If you really want to map the place without going insane, consider it a point crawl.

The rest of the chapter describes the individual rooms. If I would try to describe them in general, I would end up throwing around the usual words I have been doing for three articles. If I would just pick some encounters I liked, I could spend hours with choosing my favorites from the 111. To stay in spirit with the product, I chose three entries randomly using my d111.

18: The Museum 

Besides sculptures, paintings, and statues there are arcane scribblings on the wall which can only be discerned by the light of a magic weapon. It's the confession of a prisoner who had to retrieve a relic and murder to escape from the pyramid. There is also a sun-elf curator and a death priest arguing about a dangerous exhibit, the Xa'an Pyllek.

"The Xa'an Pyllek is a confusing jumble of colorful shapes where black tentacles seem to attack dripping chartreuse stars and streams of magenta and crimson blood infused with blue polka-dots scribble over purple smears. It's a spectacular mess, like the birth of an extra-dimensional god.

Those who gaze at Xa'an Pyllek are temporarily transported to an unknown galaxy where intruders are habitually detained, tried in a court of law, and eventually disintegrated by the Federation for spying, colluding with the Zetorlans, and obstructing justice. Everyone who stares too long at the Xa'an Pyllek must roll on the following random table..."

A d6 table follows with various results from disintegration to heartfelt apology and compensation. You can also bribe the judges with magic items, technology, or 1000 credits, which earns you a reroll.

42: The Cracked Obelisk 

"In the center of this room, an obelisk of smooth dark stone looms taller than a man. A swarthy human wearing sand-colored robes and a fez atop his head studies the obelisk by the chartreuse light from the ceiling band. The distant sound of a horn echoes throughout the room. The sonorous vibration gives an impression of wretched beggars searching through fog and darkness for the last vestige of extinguished light."

That's one fucking sweet introduction with its straightforwardness and evocative words. The man is a geologist wanting to preserve a few artifacts before Cha'alt blows up, and finds a joy in murdering assholes. The obelisk is slightly cracked and is the prison of Ara'ak-Zul. Tampering with it will fuck with the players, breaking it will release a 23 HD deity who looks like a "writhing mass of human arms with outstretched, blood-stained hands", and has 90% magic resistance, immunity to normal weapons, and 7 attacks which can possess humanoids (up to 1000). If the party manages to kill him somehow he leaves behind a black crystal shard that destroys anything it touches. Cool stuff.

That reminds me,  there is an abundance of solo creatures with shittons of hit points in the dungeon. Not that surprising after the previous sections.

101: The Author

Okay, I won't go into too much detail here. A za'akir accompanied by his monkey-lizard inhabits this room, busy writing... stuff. He has a paperweight the Caba'al and the Lich King also want to acquire.

"In all honesty, the paperweight has the most power of any artifact or relic within The Black Pyramid. It contains a shamefully obscene amount of magical energy. Enough to rouse dread K'tulu, feed him ice cream, get him all riled up, and put him back down for an afternoon nap. Unfortunately, there's no practical application. Essentially, it's just a paperweight… and yet, that paperweight has more than enough raw power to bring Cha'alt to its knees… or would have if it actually did anything besides just sit there and weigh papers down."

Zarga'an is just one of the many epic level monsters in the Black Pyramid.
The deeper one gets in the rabbit hole, the more is revealed about the dungeon. It's a rollercoaster of pieces coming tomegether thanks to some revelation, and falling apart because of contradictions, until you die or come to a conclusion. Is that the truth, or just the above mentioned There Are No Coincidences taking effect? It doesn't matter. Reality in the Black Pyramid is subjective. I can easily see players arguing about it and asking the GM after they finish the adventure. Needless to say, a good GM answers only with a smile and saying "Perhaps..."

The book ends with an afterword by some guy called Prince of Nothing (never heard of him), the Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 system (not my cup of tea), backer names, index, and a secret message I didn't bother to decipher. Playtesting is mentioned several times

Reading and re-reading Cha'alt was a fun ride. It made me smile, sigh, cringe. It made me realize how lightly games get labeled "gonzo" and "weird" by the rpg community. It made me question whether what I see is part of a bigger picture or it's my mind playing games. Like its author, the module is an enigma that will bamboozle you, troll you, and is probably smarter than it seems. If you were looking for a post-apocalyptic setting with a bizarre dungeon, and don't mind silliness, randomness, mindfuckery, and Venger, then by all means buy a copy of Cha'alt.

Tl;dr: Cha'alt is the Twin Peaks of gonzo science fantasy adventures.

Where to find it: You can find the module in pdf on DriveThruRPG. I have no clue what's up with the print edition. Venger will likely show up in the comment section and tell you how can you buy it.

Other parts of the series:
Part I: Planet of Apostrophes
Part II: Dungeons and Demon Cat-Snakes

* That was an unintended typo, but seemed fitting enough to be left in.

Disclaimer: The DriveThruRPG links on this site are affiliate links. If you buy something through the link we'll get some credit for your purchase too.

Monday, 13 April 2020

Raise Dead

New corner, same old shit.
Working from home office and having a four day long Easter holiday might seem like a lot of free time on paper, but in practice I didn't experience that. Work was busy as usual, and thanks to the restrictions on movement we decided that it's time to bring forward moving with my girlfriend, before the restrictions get even more serious. After all the shit was done I needed some rest, so the one thing related to rpgs I did was painting miniatures.

Now that I'm used to my new environment it's start to get back to rpgs. While my main campaigns are on halt, we discussed running some tetriary one-shots on roll20. The group decided on X-Plorers, a simple and stupid sci-fi variant of OD&D. I'll also get back on posting house rules and content from my Eremus campaign, but first I have to finish is the Cha'alt review, before Venger puts a curse on me that makes my junk grow spines and spit acid or something.

Stay tuned, stay healthy, and Happy Easter everyone!

Saturday, 15 February 2020

[Homebrew] Improving Ability Scores

Bunch of apes earning pips to their Intelligence.
Old-school D&D and its clones don't offer much in improving ability scores besides magic. I don't have any issue with the rolled values being the peak of natural development, but in my campaigns I like giving my players options to increase them. Getting a +1 to something every x levels though is pretty damn boring, predictible, and uninspiring. In my Swords & Wizardry Wilderlands campaign I used a system inspired by HackMaster's percentile scores that increase with every level up. In my DCC RPG Terminus campaign I took the game's "Quest for it!" advice to heart and allowed the players to increase ability scores after reaching certain milestones. The system I use for my Old-School Essentials Eremus campaign is a mix of both: I allow a slight increase at level ups while also rewarding experimenting, research, and questing.
Improving an ability score needs a certain number of pips depending on its current value:

Improving ability scores
Current value
Pips to increase value

Pips are awarded for the following:
  • Leveling up grants one pip to a Prime Requisite. If there are multiple Prime Requisites, choose randomly which one increases. If a Prime Requisite is 18 it can't be increased and the pip goes to another, randomly chosen ability score.
  • Achieving certain deeds grant one to three pips to a corresponding ability score, depending on the difficulty and scale of the deed.

The latter includes eating powerful creatures, interacting with alien objects, performing esoteric trials, succeeding at difficult tasks, dealing with deities and demigods, visiting hard to reach landmarks, training with legendary masters, and so on. A few examples from my campaign:
  • Eating a giant's flesh increases Strength.
  • Impaling yourself to a tree for nine days increases Wisdom.
  • Looking into the black monolith without going insane increases Intelligence.
  • Taking bath in the thermal pools of the Moon increases Constitution.

I keep the possible achievements secret, thus the player characters have to learn them from rumors, mentors, journals, or by experimenting. Sometimes if the player character does something amazing or surprising, I hand out one on the fly and add itt to my list.

There are a few limits of course:
  • The maximum ability score is still 18.
  • Performing a deed is only worth a pip for the first time.

So far this method worked fine for us. I'm not afraid that it will create game-breaking characters on the long, because the importance of ability scores and their modifiers is diminished at higher levels, and there are plenty of opportunities for my players to decrease their ability scores.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

[Review] Cha'alt, Part II: Dungeons and Demon Cat-Snakes

Welcome back to the second part of my Cha'alt review! In the last episode I took a look on the book and the world itself. Time to move on to the dungeons - and a night a club!

My favorite illustration in the entire book: strong female
characters unimpressed by the Demon Cat-Snake.
Beneath Kra'adumek is a dungeon under the City of the Purple Demon-Worm, a settlement whose people live their lives as mind-controlled slaves of the titular invertebrate. A recent solar storm interfered with the mind-control though, freeing dozens of slaves temporarily - including the player characters, who having no better idea enter the caverns below the city, hoping to scavenge some equipment from the Demon-Worm's priests and find the secret to resist its mind-control. Sounds suicidal, but hey, that's pretty much true about everything on Cha'alt! Now that I think about it, being brainwashed by an alien entity doesn't seem like a bad fate on this planet...

Beneath Kra'adumek is an introductory dungeon meant to ease players into the campaign setting - though a trigger-happy invisible wizard bullying the party at the entrance and the piles of shredded corpses in the first room where spellcasting has a 2 in 6 chance of summoning a Greater Demon feels more like throwing people into the deep water than a step-by-step tutorial. Furthermore, the entire dungeon is teeming with purple crystals that dampen psionic abilities, slowly mutate humanoids, and cause magic to have random side-effects, because fuck spellcasters. The latter gets a small, but disappointing d20 Magical Mishap table, where a few amazing entries (eg. "the pungent odor of carnality and the desert lotus blossoming in the eldritch illumination of demon moons") set the expectations high, but are ultimately overshadowed by the mundane ones and the 35% chance of rolling "nothing".

While it's only 17 rooms long, Beneath Kra'adumek packs a lot of punch. Every section has something interesting going on, be it a slumbering Demon Cat-Snake expecting worship, a chamber for preparing sacrificial virgins, clerics holding back a rift in the fabric of reality, or a group of priests planning a coup because they believe the Demon-Worm is violet instead of purple. There are plenty of opportunities to mess with the environment and the inhabitants - and suffer the consequences, though unlike Lamentations modules it's not always punishing. The monsters are all unique, and carry a satisfying amount of treasure which is a good mix of valuables, magic items, trinkets, and some sci-fi junk.

Venger uses a terse, effective, conversational style. Highlighting, bullet points, cross referencing is seldom used, but that doesn't really hurt the entries, because usually they are easy to wrap your head around. I did run into some redundant or garbled text, but no outrageous errors - or maybe my threshold went through the roof after reading Magic World. Still, it's a fun little adventure, a fitting starting point for your Cha'alt campaign.

That's one damn fine dungeon entrance if
I've ever seen one!
Inside the Frozen Violet Demon-Worm follows the events of the previous adventure. Kra'adumek is frozen solid, more and more people are regaining consciousness, the Purple Priesthood were overtaken by the Ultra-Violet Rebellion, and those who didn't flee yet are taking up arms against the priests. These tumultuous times might be the best to enter the Demon-Worm's maw, because why not. There is no hook, but if you have a party that survived and enjoyed Beneath Kra'adumek, then you probably won't need one - they will do it for shits and giggles.

Besides introducing us to the current state of affairs, the chapter starts with a solid chart for random NPCs, general notes about the environment, and a table with twelve psionic abilities. If you thought Carcosa's psionics was simple, think again. Each power gets a single row that contains the name, the hp cost for using it, and a vague description of its effects. While "cause an opponent’s head to explode; saving throw to avoid" is pretty clear (and brutal), what "able to see the essence of a humanoid" means is left the GM.

After the caverns beneath Kra'adumek his fleshy, acidic, rat-infested bowels feel more of the same, but bigger, and unfortunately also more disjointed. It is a 23 room linear dungeon with branches on both sides. Considering his rampant imagination I find it odd Venger didn't go crazy with the layout. It is an alien after all, so there is no reason to stick with anything resembling a real worm. For inpsiration, I recommend checking out episode 7 of Tigtone, which is about an insane journey through the body of a giant.

The characters can face Za'ardaz brutalitarians worshipping a stone head, meet the Apostle of the Demon-Worm whose clones are performing various tasks all around Cha'alt, help a young couple in child delivery, drink rum with the captain of a pirate ship whose crew reanimated as skeletons after he killed them, and even rip Kra'adumek in half by tinkering with a photon torpedo! The place is chock full of fun stuff to do, with a shitton of potential for faction play - but alas the latter is shamefully wasted. The various encounters are all isolated in their own little rooms, busy with their local issues, leaving the heavy lifting to the GM in turning the dungeon into an active setting. Inside the Frozen Violet Demon-Worm isn't a bad adventure at all, but with some extra effort it could have been a weird living-breathing environment instead of a haphazard collection of cool ideas.

At first glance even the cantina feels more
complex than the insides of the Demon-Worm.
Gamma Incel Cantina is Cha'alts wretched hive of scum and villainy: a night club frequented by mercenaries, frackers, criminals, et cetera. The chapter starts with a short summary about Cha'alt's intergalactic status quo - a qucik summary for those, who didn't read or drank enough to forget part I: it's drained dry of its zoth required to create mela'anj, which will soon destroy the planet.

The cantina itself is invisible, so finding it in the vast desert can be a quest unto itself. Once the player characters get inside they can meet the 69 patrons, who are summed up in charts and differentiated by colour coding so you can find their tables easily on the map. Neat! A few examples:

13. RD-FU: Protocol droid; stainless steel; just arrived from his home planet New Aldera’an 2; hoping for skull souvenirs after successful night-hunting Cha’alt natives; abrasive personality; carrying thermal detonator.

27. Halvern: Sentient chartreuse vapor inside environmental suit; fake mustache painted on helmet visor; uncontrollable giggling – that’s why they call him “laughing gas.”

45. Thonda: THOT; pink skin; Alpha Blue satisfier; prefers blowjobs to handshakes; carries box of transparent aluminum condoms (1d12 remaining).

Yeah, the cantina is full of deviants, degenerates, perverts, and can be easily inserted in your Alpha Blue campaign. After wasting some time an NPC called Ka'ala appears looking for adventurers who will venture with her into the Black Pyramid to find the sanguine orchid, which she wants to feed to her half-demon daughter so she can receive her full powers. That's a pretty cool hook to move things forward! The chapter ends with a d100 table of random ability scores and charts for ability score modifiers, which feels a bit out of place, but whatever.

Join us next time, when we'll finally reach the biggest, nastiest, bestest part of the book: the Black Pyramid! I'll try to make haste, so Venger won't suffocate holding his breath while waiting for it.

Other parts of the series:
Part I: Planet of Apostrophes
Part III: Fear and Loathing in the Black Pyramid

Disclaimer: The DriveThruRPG links on this site are affiliate links. If you buy something through the link we'll get some credit for your purchase too.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

[Homebrew] The Portals of Eremus Have Opened

Like all good campaigns it started in a tavern.
By session #3 they stepped on the moon.
In August our HackMaster campaign ended with a glorious TPK, after which we decided to give the game some rest - it was fun, but it was becoming a bit tiresome, plus we were in the mood to play something else. My best and longest campaigns so far were my two Wilderlands of High Fantasy campaigns (using Swords & Wizardry Complete and D&D5e), and my homebrew Terminus campaign (using DCC RPG). Following the old wisdom "let the shoemaker stick to his last" I decided to run something akin to those: a gonzo kitchen sink sandbox inspired Wilderlands, Arduin, Tékumel, Wizardry 6-8, and the various Might & Magic games.

"I hope it won't be AD&D though" said one of my players after I told them my idea. Once again my plans to use my dream mix of AD&D 1e + 2e + house rules were delayed indefinitely. I rarely let my players have a say in what I'm going to run, but this time I had to agree with him, because I both wanted to minimize preparations and introduce some new players to the game, thus something lighter seemed beneficial. Enter Old-School Essentials, which I managed to upgrade last minute to the print version in the pledge manager, which closed on the night of the aforementioned TPK. After I got the pdf I began to revamp old materials, write new stuff, convert content from other games, draw shitty maps, outsource said maps to someone more skilled, and so on.

This isn't even my final form!
Thus Eremus was born, a continent on Anachron IV, a planet terraformed eons ago by the primogenitors to be a paradise on the galactic fringe. Then they fucked it up during their great war, and vanished without a trace, leaving behind the soldiers and creatures they summoned from across time and space to wage their battles. After a long dark age the survivors began to rebuild civilization.

The campaign which I named Portals of Eremus takes place millennia later, during the tumultuous centuries following collapse of the Tritonian Empire, which ruled over the entire region before it fell apart during the Succession Wars. The players are adventurers seeking fame and fortune in the Contested Lands, where barbaric kings began to raise kingdom upon the ruins of past nations.

We use a heavily modified and expanded version of OSE. Without going into details, the following resources are in use, more or less (sometimes an entire book, other times a few articles only):

Plenty of house rules are work in progress, under playtest, even totally untested. Nothing is set in stone, and if they won't work out as intended they will be changed, retconned, or thrown out. Not that I care too much about balance, but usability and simplicity are paramount. If we keep forgetting to use something, then it wasn't interesting in the first place and should be thrown out. Some highlights of my house rules document:
  • crapton of races for the wandering circus feel
  • monk, samurai, techno class conversions
  • a deck o' stuff table that keeps growing
  • learning skills and talents by training
  • improving ability scores by questing
  • smoother THAC0 and save charts
  • expanded secondary skill list
  • spell point based spellcasting
  • spellburn and spell mishaps
  • expanded weapon qualities
  • dungeon fortune cookies
  • combat maneuvers
  • psychic powers

I will go into the details in future posts. I will also consider writing session reports, but time and time again they have proven to be something I can't keep up with on the long. For now, enjoy the Holidays, and this overview map by Gábor Csomós (author of the excellent The Lost Valley of Kishar).

Work in progress overview map of Central Eremus

Disclaimer: The DriveThruRPG links on this site are affiliate links. If you buy something through the link we'll get some credit for your purchase too.

Monday, 23 December 2019

[Review] Cha'alt, Part I: Planet of Apostrophes

Beauty is in the eye of the be'holder.
It's the end of December and I finally have some time to sit down and blog again. Since Christmas is right around the corner, it would be fitting to write about something relevant, like The Kringle Castle Invaders or How Orcus Stole Christmas!, but I won't yield to the comformity of the Holiday Season - instead I'm going to write about Cha'alt, like a fucking boss. Cha'alt is the magnum opus of Venger As'Nas Satanis, a controversial OSR author and a many-faced agent of Chaos. Is he a Raggi knockoff? A za'akier high priest of Cthulhu? A mad genius of adventure design? A juvenile metalhead with sleazy imagination? The greatest troll of the old-school gaming community? He might be all of them, and neither...

I have ambivalent feelings about Venger's previous works.  While there is a rampant creativity behind them I enjoy, it's often smothered by incoherent writing. Venger needs someone to discipline him, badly - preferably not with a whip, because he would enjoy that, but with strong criticism. Enter the fair prince of the Netherlands, whose passionate reviews of Venger's works lead to one of the most entertaining bromances I have seen in the history of the OSR. Him jumping aboard during the Kickstarter campaign was the straw that broke the camel's back, and made me shill out the money for the pdf.

I would gladly travel back in time to the very moment I selected my reward tier on Kickstarter to slap myself for being a miserly bastard and not going for the hardcover, because Cha'alt looks stunning. It's a lavishly illustrated book with a nice parchment background. The art styles are varied, and do a good job at telling what kind of kitchen sink madness awaits the reader in this book as the mecha battles, lovecraftian monsters, vast deserts, gonzo postapocalyptic scenes come alive on its pages. Sometimes it's unusually alive, thanks to the cosplayer photos used here and there instead of illustrations. They aren't bad at all, but they feel a bit out of place. Cha'alt uses colours to convey information: all chapters have a defining colour scheme that makes them immediately recognisable, and maps have sections differentiated by colouring too. Sometimes it goes a bit overboard, but it didn't make my eyes bleed. Most of the text is presented in a simple two column layout, with a rather minimalistic use of highlighting and bullet points. It's okay, because the majority of the entries are short anyway, but it does feel a bit lackluster after the clean german precision of Old-School Essentials. The stat blocks do deserve praise though: although far from groudbreaking, they use space effectively, are easy to read, and cover everything you need in a terse style. They are like a very light-weight version of HackMaster's combat rose.

People with 300 hp mechas are the kind of people
one should befriend.
While Cha'alt doesn't use an exact rules system, I wouldn't call it system neutral either: the stats are some hodge podge of a D&D-isms with hit dice, hit points, ascending armour class, and single saving throw. It's straightforward and easy to convert to your game of choice, though if Cha'alt is very old-school in one way, it's balance - or rather, it's lack of. Monster power levels are all over the place, some of them have ridiculously high hit points, and there are save or die attacks galore! The Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 ruleset is included in the appendix, though calling it a ruleset is a far stretch - it's one of those super light few pages long "systems" that I find too vague and basic for anything other than a beer & pretzels session (heck, even for those I would rather run B/X or Tunnels & Trolls).

Enough of the form though, let's talk about substance! Cha'alt offers a post-apocalyptic setting that feels like an unholy bastard of Gamma World, Tatooine, Dune, Lovecraft, and who knows what else. Originally a generic fantasy world, Cha'alt was first fucked up by the Old Ones for shits and giggles, then aeons later again when they re-awakened and started an apocalyptic war with the now technologically advanced surface dwellers. The current era is called the Obsidian age, where ancient technology, sorcery fueled by the corpses of fallen Old Ones, monsters mutated by the radioactive wastelands, and insane lovecraftian cults co-exist. There are also travellers from outer space who visit Cha'alt to extract the rare resource called zoth needed to refine the spice Mela'anj, which will destroy the planet in a few months. The latter is mentioned only casually once or twice, which is surprising considering saving or leaving the planet seems to be a great hook to kick off the campaign.

Cha'alt's (sigh) map aims to look good over being functional. I would preferr having a hex or square grid overlay over the scale at the bottom right corner - I hated using that on geography classes, and still do twenty years later. There are a dozen intriguing points of interest shown on the map, including a city mind controlled by a giant purple demon worm, a high tech outpost guarded with battle-droids, a sea of green slime full of dredge, a hardcore feminist matriarchy where males are castrated, and so on. The journey between them isn't trivial, because most of the region is covered by the S'kbah, a radioactive desert that will kill or mutate the unprepared. The rules and advice for travelling the hostile sands and obsidian patches are simple: bring plenty of food and water, doff your armour, take anti-radiation pills, and avoid other wanderers.

Rare photo of a ga'athrul mating ritual.
The latter should be taken to heart considering what kind of factions inhabit the wasteland: the cults of the desert are worshippers of Old Ones, the skeevers are desert pirates scavenging the S'kbah, the hunter-killer droids are mysterious machines attacking humanoids on sight, the spice frackers are the aforementioned space travellers, the death-stalkers are nihilistic raiders who fuel their vehicles with blood, and the Dha'arma Initiative is a secret sect of scientists trying to change the past so the Apocalypse never happened. All are cool and inspiring, but it's a pity that half of them is so antagonistic by default it's unlikely the PCs will do anything else other than fighting them. If the desert wasn't colourful enough already, gargantuan sand worms, alien dinosaurs, serpentine sirens, and lovecraftian horrors also lurk among the dunes. Except for the sirens, neither of them has less than 10 HD. The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that Cha'alt begs to be ran using Rifts. MDC weapons will come handy.

The overview ends with a generic loot table for NPCs (simple but good), some meh magic items (the good ones are in the adventures), six elf sub-races with vague racial abilities (interestingly none of them has tentacles), a random chart for names (of course most of them has a'po'stro'phes), and some rules about saving throws, advantage and disadvantage, critical success and failure. This section was a bit of a letdown after all the zaniness seen so far, but it's just a slight downturn before Cha'alt picks up the pace again. We are 32 pages in, and the meat of the book is just about to begin, so buckle up!

Other parts of the series:
Part II: Dungeons and Demon Cat-Snakes
Part III: Fear and Loathing in the Black Pyramid

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