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

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  1. Nice bridge between sections, hoss! Although, I do take issue with one detail... the interaction between factions is right there waiting for PCs to exploit, but it's up to them. The GM shouldn't hold their hand.

    Regarding the magical mishap table, I 100% agree. Twas a bit lazy of me. I'm making up for it with a d100 table in Cha'alt: Fuchsia Malaise! It's an arduous challenge, but I'm up to about 90 results so far. ;)

    1. It's not about holding the players' hand, it's giving the seed of conflict, inspiring connections to the GM. Beneath Kra'adumek has these, just as the Black Pyramid, and they make a place far more interesting.

      Colour me interested about the improved magical mishap tables!

  2. Beneath Kra'adumek was run by a single faction that was in the process of splintering. Inside Kra'adumek doesn't have any kind of central authority - it's pure chaos.

    Universal Sidebar: groups of people in the same vicinity will have either good or bad relations based on motivation, culture, and belief system. Additionally, "wild card" individuals may have other plans.

  3. Replies
    1. I was thinking about just yesterday how a post mortem review would increase views! Just kidding, I have a short one in pipeline and then I can finish this.