I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Review: Cha'alt

Disclaimer: the author (Venger As'Nas Satanis) sent me a review copy (PDF) of this book, after asking me if I was interested in reviewing it. We occasionally interact on social media.

Cha'alt* is the latest setting book by Venger Satanis. Mostly a megadungeon ("the black pyramid") and its surroundings - the land, settlements, factions, NPCs, etc.

If you ever read something by Venger, deciding whether to buy Cha'alt or not is easy. This is Venger to the umpteenth potency. It's gonzo, tongue-in-cheek, full of weirdness and pop culture references. It is both inspiring and confusing. If you like his stuff, you will like this; if you dislike it, this one is unlikely to change your opinion (for the most part).

If you haven't - or is still on the fence - read on.

The contents

The book has 218 pages. It starts with an overview, followed by couple of dungeons, then "the Gamma Incel Cantina", the Black Pyramid megadungeon, and an Appendix (see "mechanics", below).

This book is uneven. So uneven, in fact, that it is sometimes uneven in its unevenness - which means, some parts are more consistent than others. Let's dissect it a little...

The looks - and layout

This book looks impressive. It is full of good artwork, some of it awesome. It is all over the place: realistic, cartoony, photo-shopped pictures of real people, etc. The maps are clear, colorful and just plain COOL - better than most stuff I find in current D&D. The overall quality is above average.

Likewise, the layout is good - but full of ocasional strange choices, and lots of white space (sometimes filled by quotes, exotic markings, blood-spatters and so on). Overall, it looks good, even though it could be condensed a lot.

There are lots of good choices - using color-coding for groups of NPCs or to mark the sections in the black pyramid, for example - but also baffling ones - like adding information that applies to the entire setting inside a chapter that describes a particular location (the fact that "approximately 10% of humanoids in Cha'alt have psionic abilities" is mentioned in "Inside the Frozen Violet Demon-Worm", for example.)

Despite these reservations, the visuals are really striking.


The first chapter, Overview, tells you the basics about Cha'alt: history, geography, factions, monsters, etc. This part of the book is both strong and mostly consistent. It contains the exact amount of information to provide inspiration without exhaustion - by avoiding boring, useless information.

It is about 25 pages long, and would make an interesting setting book by itself - heavily based on post-apocalyptic fiction such as Dune (lots of Dune) , Dark Sun, Carcosa, etc., plus Lovecraft and others. As you can see in the link, this are sources that work very well together, in my opinion. But Venger also sci-fi, TV commercials, comedy movies, current issues (fracking, etc.) and lots of puns in the mix, which... takes the material to another direction.

Cha'alt is currently a post-apocaliptyc world, with advanced technology like lasers and nukes... but unevenly distributed. The fact that "recently, the spice rush has brought hundreds of starships looking to plunder the planet's riches" adds an interesting twist to it - it seems that the PCs can easily realize that the universe is doing fine, it is only the planet that is doomed. Even though the invaders are aggressive slavers, it make me wonder if most inhabitants would prefer to ally with the enemy rather than fight to protect this wasted planet.

The chapter includes "The Exotic Races of Cha'alt"... which aren't really that exotic, just elves of various colors. A strange and somewhat disappointing choice, considering the weirdness of the material, but not hard to fix.

The Cantina

The "Gamma Incel Cantina" is a tavern/strip club with 69 patrons. They are divided in groups, but the groups' objectives are not always clear. I'm not sure how to use this. I would imagine that most people don't go into taverns (or strip clubs) to socialize with strangers. If you want to socialize, well, some NPCs are described as "single", "bi-sexual" or "flower vagina with sensitive petals"... anyway, if you want to make an Alpha Blue crossover, this is a good place to start.

This sections is 15 pages long an has some relevant information about the setting which should probably be included in the "overview" section.

The Dungeons

The book has two small dungeons - 15 to 20 pages. They do a decent job of mixing a more traditional outlook with some of Venger's brand of weirdness. Good introductions to the setting.

The main part of the book is The Black Pyramid - about 120 pages, describing a megadungeon with 111 rooms. And when you get to the black pyramid... all the bets are off.

First, there are rumors, encounters, strange phenomena that may happen if you leave the pyramid or come back, etc. The contents are weird (in a good way), but the structure is pretty traditional. Likewise, the structure of the pyramid is strange - maybe inspired by Cube - but cool and easy to grasp. The overview of the pyramid, like the overview of the setting, is useful and inspiring.

Now, the rooms are random, REALLY random. The pyramid contains orcs, a pizzeria, a village, aliens, a podcast recording session, a couple of dragons, clowns, anthropomorphic fruits, a tiki bar, a game show, a clone of Rob Schneider... with more "traditional" stuff like cultists, robots, tentacled aberrations, great old ones, etc. Time works in strange ways, but space is often entirely ignored (the rooms are divided in squares... but there is no scale or coherence).

The relationship between the factions is also defined by a random table.

In short, the dungeon is chaotic, strange, and full of color and flavor. The rooms are separated in sections of different colors, and some rooms have obvious connections to others in the same section, but many rooms would fit any place, apparently - maybe you could have a d100 tables with all the rooms. A small section describing each "color" would help a lot - if there is a meaning to the whole thing.

But is there? Here is what the book says:

"Eventually, the PCs will see patterns linking one thing to another. [...] That's normal for
human beings. We try to make sense of seemingly random stuff as if the world were made up of clues. If the players or their characters see a connection, go with it.  [...] Obviously, many connections are intentional. [...] Even the pyramid denizens are split into factions about the nature of things within their devil-stone home. Some believe there's no bigger picture, it's all just randomized nonsense. [...]"

Make of that what you will.


Once again, it goes from "very good" from "baffling". Cha'alt is mostly OSR-compatible; the stat-blocks are good-looking and easy to grasp. Most monsters have cool mechanics and powers instead of just HD and HP.

It seems obvious that the monsters were created with care (all the numbers seem to be in the right ballpark to me). On the other hand, the sheer amount of "save or die" powers and traps makes me believe "balance" was not a big priority here.

(BTW: sometimes there is no save. Enter an empty room, say a password out loud or you're disintegrated. End of story).

It might be a good fit for a DCC character "funnel". Start with 20 PCs. A lot of them will die. Do not get attached.

The book includes an Appendix for "Crimson Dragon Slayer d20", a simples OSR system that looks neat - with only classes and levels, but NO need for abilities (there is a new, improved version for free). It ALSO contains a 1d100 table to generate abilities for PCs and NPCs, for no clear reason.

I'm probably nitpicking here - this table is 3 pages long and easily ignored, and might be useful if your system actually uses abilities.

In conclusion...

Cha'alt is not easy to explain. Is it original? Yes. Is it derivative? Yes. Good ideas? Yes. Silly puns and obscure references? Yes. Philosophy and politics? Yes. Meta-linguistics? Yes. A pizza-delivery corvette inside the pyramid? Also yes. Is the author himself presented as one NPC (or two...) inside the setting? You bet!

Is it average, then? Definitely not.

It is easy to say "you will either love or hate it", or that "it is full of good ideas but you'll have to find them among the nonsense". But I am not even sure that applies. The whole black pyramid is so extravagant that I'm tempted to use it EXACTLY as written in order to experience the whole thing. Most dungeon rooms would be out of place in other dungeons, but the setting and main ideas are very good and ready to use.

It is almost as if there is two books in there - one of them weird and well-written, and other (the rooms inside the pyramid) just completely random, experimental and crazy.

Toning the whole thing down and organizing it more would make the book ten times more useful for me... but it might be missing the whole point. There are lot of neat dungeons out there, but there is nothing quite like Cha'alt as far as I can remember. Like it or not, Cha'alt is quite unique.

In short: get Cha'alt if you're looking for something gonzo, random, novel and fun, with great looks and lots of unexpected twists. Avoid it if you want something balanced, sensible or predictable. If you are unfamiliar with Venger, this is a good place to start.

If you are interested in Cha'alt, get it here*.

*By purchasing stuff through affiliate links you're helping to support this blog.


  1. Hey, I finally stumbled upon your Cha'alt review. Sorry it took me so long to notice. I like what I read...

  2. Simple system, lavish art, futuristic setting of weirdness...gee, could this be converging with Numenéra? Probably not, because not enough LGBT dwarves on unicycles...lol!

    1. I found Numenéra a bit tame in comparison, but it's been a while since I've read it.

    2. Numenera is tame compared to Cha'alt? Color me unsurprised.

  3. Follow-up book has landed and it's almost as gonzo as the original... Cha'alt: Fuchsia Malaise!