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!