Monday 26 October 2020

[Review] Cha'alt: Fuchsia Malaise

Mandy meets Venger.
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I thought I was done with Cha'alt after the exhausting three-part review I wrote earlier this year. I thought I can finally leave its mad vistas behind, come clean, return to normalcy, and recuperate. Then I heard a siren call from beyond the depths of the Void. The message was in za'akier, yet I understood it loud and clear. I knew immediately who was summoning me. "Hey kid, wanna buy some zoth? You know what, forget it. Here is some fuchsia malaise. It's new. It's free. You're welcome." It found me in a moment of weakness. I couldn't reject the offer. And here I am now, writing again about Cha'alt, when not staring at the fuchsia skies with a drop of drool hanging from the corner of my mouth...

Cha'alt: Fuchsia Malaise is a supplement for Cha'alt, the magnum opus of the Venger Satanis - madman, troll, za'akier, priest of Cthulhu, loving father, and old-school D&D enthusiast. Like its predecessor, CFM was also crowdfunded by a Kickstarter campaign - one that I missed. Fortunately when I was about to put the pdf in my DriveThruRPG cart the author asked me if I'm interested in a complimentary copy. Kudos for that hoss, and sorry for sitting so long on the review. It seems fate always tries its best to hinder me when I'm writing about Cha'alt.

If you are unfamiliar with the first book and too lazy to read my review (which I can completely understand), Cha'alt is a post-apocalyptic science-fantasy gonzo setting probably written on drugs, with one tentacle in pants. Besides being absolutely bonkers it also has a huge ass mega-dungeon called The Black Pyramid, which defies all logic and dungeon writing advice. What CFM offers is basically more of the same, but with a bigger emphasis on the world and its happenings.

The first chapter, Essentials, start swith summarizing the current status quo. CFM picks up 18 months after the events described in Cha'alt. There is a new sheriff in town, the alien company called Elysium, who are now in control of the entire zoth1 industry. They banned spice fracking in favour of slave labour, and use a drug called Fuchsia Malaise to keep their workers in a lethargic state until the next shift begins. They are also siphoning the planet's moisture, which turned it drier and even more hostile than before. The Chartreuse Sea dried up, the freed Kra'adumek's future is still uncertain, violet and purple priests wage an open war, while the evergrowing city of A'agrybah became the center of civilization. That's a great point to start a campaign, but the prelude barely scratches the surface. There is a lot more going on that's not covered here, but the information is all over the place, so it's up to you to pull all the bits and pieces together as you are plowing through the book.

These new times brought new races to Cha'alt. Blue velvet elves are amazing at everything and suave as fuck, but if something bad happens to a party-member they suffer the same effects, and they are also hunted for their pelts. Grogs are soulless sand-constructs capable of disassembling and reconstructing their bodies. Vores are reptilian bird-men without mouths, who can communicate telepathically and can digest anyone by wrapping their wings around them. V'symm are seven-eyed infernal creatures hiding their faces behind bronze masks, which are quite uncomfortable for long desert trips. I have a soft spot for the weirdo new races - they flavourful and unique. Are they balanced? Nope. Does it matter? Nope. This is still Cha'alt, the world of overpowered monstrosities and random deaths.

The rest of the chapter is mostly Cha'alt specific charts and miscellanea covering a surprisingly wide range of topics. The party got some important item? Here is a chart for who is following them and why. The party asks some random schmuck on the street? Here is a chart for traits, usefulness, beliefs. The party summoned some demon? Here is a chart for demonic offerings and favours. The party has a sorcerer? Here is a chart that will make their life hell. What I really appreciate about these tables is that most of them are meant to be used on the fly. They also do a damn fine job about capturing the setting's essence with weirdness, pop culture references, psychedellic sights, and of course some vengerian sleaze. Just take a look at this lovely random example from The Fuchsia Shadow (spell mishap) table:

I don't recall seeing stats for the
protoss, but it looks like they are
here too.
"Head Falls Off – The sorcerer’s head falls off immediately after the spell is cast – up from the neck hole sprouts all manner of tentacles dripping a jaundiced yellow and purple slime. Soon after, the tentacles devour the sorcerer’s corpse and give birth to an egg. Then, the egg hatches. A miniature-sized version of the sorcerer climbs out as he slowly enlarges to normal size. The whole metamorphosis takes about an hour."

You don't see shit like this in the dull D&D5e wild magic tables. It might be ridiculously over the top or juvenile sometimes, but it's also damn cool. Using the charts on the fly is hindered though by the the lack of organization. There is no rhyme or reason why things are in the order they are, unless they follow some extraterrestrial alphabetical order. If you want to use the book get familiar with the index, because this won't get any better in the following parts either.

The second chapter is about The City of A'agrybah. Like your adventures in the city, the section begins at the gates, where exiles hang around telling juicy rumours about what's going on behind the walls. The book then moves on to explaining how taxes work (and can be evaded), who are the ra'as and how can one become one of them (it involves 10,000 gold pieces and a pact with a devil), which are the noteworthy noble houses, and what is the water ritual.

A'agrybah has a few points of interest, including a colourful marketplace, the King's and Queen's palace, a temple where they resurrect people for 1,000 gp, a barely used spaceport, and various taverns. These get terse descriptions, which are a mixed bag. Check out The Chartreuse Dragon:

"The interior of this tavern is lit with zoth lanterns, giving the place an eerie yellow-green glow. An assortment of instruments hang upon the wall, all of them painted fuchsia. Various dirty and disheveled humanoids sit, drinking and eating."

Short and evocative, it sets the tone in three sentences and tells you enough to know what kind of place this facility is. Well done! Now compare it to The Burnished Soul:

"Another tavern filled with disreputable scoundrels."

That's generic and useless. It baffles me why is a damn good example of effective writing followed by something so bland and uninspired. If it was longer at least I could say it's a filler - I despise them, but at least they have a purpose. This has no reason to exist, but at least it manages to piss me off, because it would have taken zero effort from someone with such madcap imagination to barf up something that makes the place at least mildly interesting. There are a few more similar swings in writing quality throughout the book, but I wouldn't say it's plagued with them.

At least the hooks are good. Each place gets three to five of them, ranging from random encounters to adventure seeds. A merchant selling a three-eyed emerald snake, a bounty hunter looking for the bastard who sold him a junk starship, an apprentice begging for money so he can resurrect his master who was killed right after he discovered the meaning of life, universe, and everything... If these weren't enough, there is also a short table four tour guides who will gladly show you around the city, and a lengthy table for random unlikely events.

I'm torn about this chapter. On one hand A'agrybah itself is characterful and has a lot going on. On the other hand only a very small number of places are detailed, and some of those are done in a lackluster way. There is potential, but the execution needs improvement. Also, a map would be welcome. I don't expect anyone to go full City State of the Invincible Overlord, I don't even need the exact positions of buildings and precise ranges - just a vague sketch about what's where.

No clue who he is, but I have a hunch
he came here for the prostitutes.
The third chapter is Encounters, containing is a mishmash of places, scenes, monsters, charts, and important NPCs in no particular order. Two of them will get some more mention later. The Fuchsia Putrescence is a mile long floating entity randomly grabbing up people from the ground. Because its fallen slimy bits have healing properties, people began to worship the thing. Tha'anos is a scrotum-chinned warlord looking for the Rainbow Gemstones of Ultimate Power, which are hidden on Cha'aalt. Once he has all of them in his codpiece, he will create a cube outside time and space, where he can finally finish painting his miniatures while time stand stills. He is totally relatable villain, at least for me.

While it won't have any significant role later, I would also like to mention my favorite creature from the book: the clown-worm. It is a mix of sand-worms and demon-worms bread by the murderous night clown of The Black Pyramid. It's far from the most powerful entity on Cha'alt, but it can turn people with its sight into its clown thralls, and has all kinds of crap in its belly, including a magical weapon with a bonus against gods. The worm's full-page illustration is a thing to behold.

Onward to chapter four: Scenarios!

Fuchsia Flesh-pit is a genetic experiment of the wizard Vromka'ad, who was recently killed by his jealous bride La'ala. The girl came to this flesh pit looking for the other half of the glove she stole from the wizard, but she had to realize that it's dangerous to go alone: there are tentacles, mutant clams, evil cultists, a whispering cronenbergian monstrosity, and other weird shit within the organic hellpit. She tries to persuade the party into coming down and helping her out, after which she would try to betray them and leave with the treasure. It's a simply laid out, short dungeon, where the players are just as likely to release an Old One upon the world as finding a secret entrance to a synthwave lounge bar. Overall it's a decent module for a one-shot.

Tower of Vromka'ad takes place in the above mentioned wizard's tower. Since Vromka'ad's death the servants have taken over, and are now busy bickering among themselves. There are twelve colour coded rooms which could be reached by touching the corresponding orb in the entrance. Each has an interesting set-piece, but otherwise they rarely have anything else to offer. The servants are few, mostly very weak, and not worth bothering with. There isn't much loot except for the room with the three warriors and some magic items (those are pretty nice though). It ties neatly into Fuchsia Flesh-pit by wrapping up some of its mysteries, but overall Tower of Vromka'ad didn't leave much of an impression.

Tomb of Va'an Zayne is a more traditional dungeon than the previous two, with a proper layout and twenty rooms. Va'an Zayne was a sorcerer and writer, whose tomb is so frequently mentioned among the earlier rumours that it's nigh impossible the party won't hear about it. The sepulcher offers a good deal of interactivity combined with a selection of intriguing NPCs. There is a writers circle right at the entrance, a trapped clone of Elysium's head honcho, asshole energy beings taunting cultists, a play-doh statue that can summon demon, a post-modernists and anti-modernists arguing about bullshit, a gate to The Islands of Purple-Hanted Putrescene, and so on. Every room has something noteworthy and fun going on. If this wasn't enough, the tomb is tied to Cha'alt's greater metaplot in several ways. The place was raided not so long ago by Tha'anos, there is a Key to Time in Va'an Zayne's tomb that can erase time, and there are revelations about the true nature of the Old Ones and the planet's future. These open a can of worms and foreshadow a bleak future, which I hope Venger will explore in Cha'alt: Chartreuse Shadows.

A hive of scum and villainy.
 is the biggest of the bunch, and probably my favorite. The module starts with introducing the alien races, factions, personnel, security systems within the facility, then without further ado moves unto describing its 56 rooms. Elysium feels like a living, fully functional complex. It is the most grounded from all the Cha'alt stuff so far, yet it still remains gonzo enough to not become just another boring futuristic base. The fantasy and weird fiction elements here are diminished in favour of science-fiction parody. The humour and the art feels like a distant cousin of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that replaced the british smartness with animated american sitcom vibe. Besides zany characters chasing their own (often shady) agendas there is all kinds of dangerous science to play with - the characters can try to stop a black hole generator, fiddle with THE INTERNET, destroy Elysium's reactor, et cetera. Furthermore, like the Tomb of Va'an Zayne, Elysium also has some mindfuckworthy lore drops and stuff related to the various ongoing events. It is by no means as large and exciting as the the Black Pyramid, but it's still a damn fine module and the zenith of this book.

S'kbah Pilgrimage is kind of a character funnel, thus it should have been the first in order, but I don't mind it being at the end of the book. The party is thrown out from the village to stop a plague of blood-sucking locusts, and aren't even allowed back until they succeed. I don't even know if returning is covered at all though, because I kept zoning out while reading it... The entire adventure is a chaotic railroad where the GM yanks the PCs from one cool scene to another. They are mostly well-written and do a fine job at establishing what's the setting is about, but the pilgrimage tries to do too much too fast - from desert travel, through subtrerranean Ka'ali worshippers, to fixing the generator of scheming dark elves... It's hard to follow its jumps between all the goodies it wants to show you and ends up being a confusing mess.

CFM ends with an appendix that contains three free products from earlier: the Crimson Dragon Slayer ultralight O5R ruleset, its Cha'alt Ascended supplement, and Old School Renaissance Like a Fucking Boss. There is also an index, yay!

Following Cha'alt's footsteps the art is stunning once again. Like the world itself it's a vivid mix of sword & sorcery, science fiction, body horror, and cosplay photos. The layout is simple, mostly gets shit done, but has a few issues. There is way too much whitespace that serves no purpose and highlighting seems to be an afterthought - while there are times when Venger plays with bolding and using colour to accent certain elements in the text, it happens rarely and doesn't help much.

CFM is chock full of content. Half of it is great, the other half not so much. Even those falling in the latter category aren't awful, but they could have been much better with minimum effort. The lack of organization and effective highlighting also diminishes the usability of the book. As a standalone product it pales in comparison to its progenitor. As a supplement it does a good job at expanding its possibilities and turning things up to twelve. If you liked the original, then by all means go grab it. If you don't have it, then get that first instead, and after absorbing it you will be able make up your mind if you want more of that stuff or not. Fingers crossed the third part will be a tighter, more focused product that manages to tie up all the loose ends.

Rules system: OSR/O5R
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
Publication date: 2020

Format: hardcover
Size: letter-size
Pages: 230

Available from:
 DriveThruRPG (pdf)
A flawed gem.
I want more of it.

1 Zoth is the spice of the setting, "the bilious-green liquified remains of dead gods… monstrous, extradimensional titans who once ruled Cha'alt and various other planets". It's refined into mela'anj, which can power high tech devices, grant godlike powers, and generally fuck things up.

2 Print copies aren't out yet. Keep an eye on Venger's blog if you want one of them.

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