CHA’ ALT AFTER DARK: The extra-sleazy Old School Renaissance adventure anthology for the Cha’ alt role-playing game is due for release next month, promising depravity, immoral exploits and sordid affairs for a mature audience.
Venger As’ Nas Satanis, master of eldritch gonzo role-playing, talks about his next releases, a successful game designing career, recent trends of the RPG market, keeping your dark sense of humour around the table, edgy storytelling and the shadow cast over gaming by the culture wars.
Red Room: What can you tell us about Cha’alt After Dark that wasn’t already mentioned in the Kickstarter campaign? Why do I really need that in my RPG book collection?
Venger Satanis: For me, Cha’alt is the ultimate D&D campaign setting. It’s eldritch, gonzo, science-fantasy, and post-apocalyptic. It’s also occasionally a bit sleazy, though not nearly as much as Alpha Blue. The Cha’alt After Dark adventures ride that razor’s edge between standard fare and the X-rated stuff you’d find on premium cable late at night or behind the curtain at your local used bookshop.
I’m including optional rules for sexual encounters, like mechanical benefits to incentivize hooking-up. I’m trying to achieve that pulp feel without letting players game the system, so it’s a balancing act. I’ve had lots of practice with Alpha Blue, so I know a thing or two about in-game sex and the pitfalls that go along with it.
If you love Cha’alt, then you hopefully want to see it flourish. Supporting these adventures supports me and that keeps me going.
RR: Are you working on something new right now?
VS: The feedback I got from the Cha’alt After Dark Kickstarter is that backers want physical books, even if it’s only print-on-demand. I spared no expense with the quality of both Cha’alt and Cha’alt: Fuchsia Malaise. The third book of the trilogy will be called Cha’alt: Chartreuse Shadows and that’s my next big project. I’ll be Kickstarting that book in September or October. It will include the adventures from Saving Cha’alt, Cha’alt After Dark (releasing in August), and another 100+ pages of new content… Possibly another megadungeon or several smaller dungeon-like areas ready to explore.
RR: What are your major influences as a role-playing game author?
VS: I take the vast majority of my influences from movies and TV shows from the ‘70s and ‘80s, also some older stuff like The Twilight Zone. The ‘90s to a lesser degree, although some of those might be cautionary tales. Definitely H.P. Lovecraft, as well. I’ve gone on about all the media I grew up with, but here are the highlights: Heavy Metal, Star Wars, Beastmaster, Alien, Dune, Conan, kooky fare like Zardoz, and probably an unhealthy dose of Monty Python and Weird Al Yankovic.
Simple, rules-light games inspired me system-wise, dice pools, simple D20 resolution mechanics, and free-form adjudication without dice… Or, at least, less dice rolling.
“The Cha’alt After Dark adventures ride that razor’s edge between standard fare and the X-rated stuff you’d find on premium cable late at night or behind the curtain at your local used bookshop.”
RR: And besides the major ones, were there any influences on your work you usually don’t talk about because role-playing nerds don’t care much about them?
VS: I feel like art could have influenced my tastes or a better way to understand it might be that there’s something inside of me that likes fauvism – wild beast, lots of bold colors – and old-school D&D and RPGs where you can go crazy and do wild off-the-wall stuff.
I’ve certainly been influenced by watching porn and years of trial and error in the dating scene. I was so bad at it for so long that I finally went full-nerd and bought some books on dating, basically putting myself through pick-up artist school. Learned a lot, put my acquired knowledge into practice, and eventually got married and had kids. RPGs like Alpha Blue give me an outlet that would normally go unfulfilled as a faithful husband: I get to pretend and/or watch horny humanoids from the 23rd century try to get laid.
RR: Your horror scenarios seem to be very “European” in nature for an American author. There are obvious references to Italian horror movies but, quite likely, there’s more than that. Would you care to elaborate on it?
VS: I like older American horror movies like Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but they’re all pretty straightforward. European – especially Italian – horror movies seem to have more going on, subtext, detective work, psycho-sexual eroticism, bold weird colors (Dario Argento), Lovecraftian weirdness happening for no apparent reason (Lucio Fulci), grossly awesome special effects (Demons), copious female nudity.
RR: Do you play a soundtrack while running adventures? If so, do you have any standard suggestions for people playing your games?
VS: Lately, when I’ve been running Cha’alt one-shots on Roll20, I’ve been searching for desert or Arabian themed dark ambient music and listening to that while we play. I’ve been a fan of dark ambient music since discovering it way back in the early ‘90s – and that musical genre is great for any kind of horror game, like Call of Cthulhu. Specific names of groups? Lustmord or Oneiroid Psychosis would do the trick. Maybe Nine Inch Nails? It’s been awhile since I’ve fished out my old CDs, but I should do that.
“European – especially Italian – horror movies seem to have more going on, subtext, detective work, psycho-sexual eroticism, bold weird colors (…)”
I like old-school heavy metal and stuff like Depeche Mode, too, but anything too distracting or with vocals gets in the way of immersion, or just me trying to talk as the GM. After discovering Vampire: the Masquerade my friends and I played it all the time. I must have played Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures just about every single time on a loop – to this day, I can’t hear those songs without being reminded of Vampire: the Masquerade. Haha!
RR: In a role-player’s mind your name is associated with the word “gonzo”. Was this planned, as a way to exploit a smaller niche of the role-playing game market, or has it always been your trademark as a game master?
VS: When I started out I was just a dumb, enthusiastic kid. I would run dungeons “on the fly”. Pretty much everything would be created spontaneously in my head from a handful of hastily scribbled notes. And I’m sure some of the weirdness I came up with was completely ridiculous and gonzo.
I never set out to create or exploit a specific niche, but once I got going and produced a handful of products, I noticed a couple trends in my work and deliberately steered towards that for the sake of consistency and my own enjoyment. Any time I try complex, rule-heavy systems, a small part of me dies on the inside. Same goes with games that try so hard to be “realistic” that they just become boredom-immersion therapy.
Since I’m now known for gonzo, I try to make my specific kind of gonzo fresh and vibrant and even more Venger than the last effort. One should never let one’s specialty become stale.
RR: Cha’alt presents a mixed science-fiction and fantasy setting, something that a lot of gamers appreciate. Quite frankly I have a hard time combining both. What is, in your opinion, behind the appeal for mixing two (apparently) contradictory things?
VS: The main one is probably not limiting myself. If I want sword and sorcery but also lasers and robots, then I don’t have to pick and choose. I can do both at the same time. There’s also a subversive element, too. Science-fantasy makes you feel like you’re doing something wrong, violating long-standing taboos. Dungeoncrawls that eventually lead to a crashed starship seem inherently off the rails – in a good way. I don’t like railroads as a play-style, nor do I like them as a design philosophy. Break barriers (in moderation) and you’ll eventually find an audience.
RR: Several of your role-playing scenarios and settings are based on humour. Alpha Blue immediately comes to mind, but it’s prevalent in most of your work. That isn’t easy to keep up while role-playing. Do you feel dark humour may have scared some players away?
VS: Humour may have scared some people off, that’s true. For whatever reason, I feel like humour is the natural state of roleplaying. I have to really concentrate in order to run a completely serious session or campaign. If I’m just being myself and doing what comes naturally, my GMing style is going to include jokes and eventually veer off into silly or slapstick or raunchy territory.
“Humour may have scared some people off, that’s true. For whatever reason, I feel like humour is the natural state of roleplaying. I have to really concentrate in order to run a completely serious session or campaign.”
RR: Would you like to mention some pro-tips to integrate humour into role-playing?
VS: If you know how to be humorous in real life, then just do that in the game. All I can say is look at yourself objectively as you’re roleplaying, see how ridiculous it is that we’re all sitting at a table, pretending to be elves and wizards and smugglers with a price on our head, then embrace that ridiculousness.
RR: And since tips were mentioned, you have authored a book titled How to Game Master like a Fucking Boss and you have a lot of experience in game mastering over the years. In your opinion, which are the essential skills a game master must possess?
VS: Yeah, that’s a favourite of mine and one of my top sellers. For me personally, a sense of humour is essential in life, not just game mastering. The ability to laugh at yourself, everybody else, and the world. My other two essential skills would be the ability to cut through the bullshit and the desire to have a good time. This is supposed to be fun – find the fun, damn it, or let someone else GM!
RR: Most OSR game designers make use of very simple layouts and mostly black and white artwork. Not you, though. Is this a personal preference or is it because you feel visually appealing books are lacking?
VS: I started out with black and white and simple layout. As I kept doing it, I took shots at higher production values until I started doing full-colour with some cool layout visuals. I don’t do the layout myself, though I do make plenty of recommendations. “No, put that over there. Those things are almost touching, move them further away. That yellow-green isn’t quite right, try this.”
Obviously, visual appeal is important. People do judge books by their covers, as well as their insides, how the pages feel. I want people to like what they read, what they’re holding. I try to impress the audience. Whether or not I succeed is up to the individual.
“People do judge books by their covers, as well as their insides, how the pages feel. I want people to like what they read, what they’re holding. I try to impress the audience. “
RR: Right now you are among the game designers immediately recognizable as OSR authors, but your games don’t seem to be as “gamist” (making use of the old GNS Theory jargon) as most of the other old-school RPGs available. Is your style the narrative or the simulationist side of the OSR?
VS: I actually spent some time at the Forge forum, so I know what you’re talking about. The jargon makes sense even though its foundation has cracks. In a way, my stuff may be more simulationist because I try to put characters into situations and let them role-play their way out. The role-play may take the form of social interaction, combat, or exploration, but the PCs have to want to keep going; some kind of motivation must be present. You motivate players by putting them in situations that are realistic and have emotional weight.
We play games, but I also want players to feel like they’re actually there, in a sense – to connect with the game world via their characters. The story invariably comes out of the disparate elements of each session, you just have to thread them together.
RR: Between games, adventures, YouTube videos and social media presence you devote plenty of time to role-playing. Do you have a day job, or do you make a living out of it?
VS: Yes, I do have a day job. The actual work I put into that job wasn’t very time consuming before the kung-flu. Since March of 2020, it takes even less of my time. That allows me to pursue my passion for RPGs. So, I’m extremely blessed and grateful.
RR: Though you are somehow connected to the conservative role-playing scene you seem not to really fit into that category…
VS: I always felt like the outsider. Growing up and probably even now in the suburbs, I was the weirdest one in any group I was in. That’s one of the reasons I gravitated towards Lovecraft. So, it seems bizarre that I would be the voice of reason, the sane one, the person speaking up for ordinary, Midwestern American values. But here I am, the champion of conservatism. That just goes to show how crazy the radical-left has become – and how they’ve managed to influence virtually every major institution – education, big tech, the media, Hollywood, the deep state, our military…
I’ve been harassed numerous time, people have tried to cancel me. I’ll have friends and colleagues leave me high and dry because I believe in biology or individual freedom or non-violence in the face of pseudo-oppression. After a while, you start putting two and two together. I’m pretty sure I know why a big online retailer won’t continue to sell Cha’alt on their virtual shelves. It’s because I won’t kneel before the woke mob and their SJW minions.
“I’ve been harassed numerous time, people have tried to cancel me. I’ll have friends and colleagues leave me high and dry because I believe in biology or individual freedom or non-violence in the face of pseudo-oppression. “
RR: While I don’t want to turn this into the theme of the interview, it does need to be addressed: What do you make of the newer generations forcing what they deem to be the necessary “inclusion” and “diversity” into the hobby? And as someone who has been attacked on social media by allegedly progressive gamers, has this been bad for business, or have you been able to turn the tables on your detractors?
VS: It seems like madness, but then revolutions can easily turn insane. Before you know it, the baby’s been thrown out with the bathwater. There was never a problem with including people. Folks didn’t gatekeep those who were different than them. Back in the day, we were ones who were different, and we’d welcome anyone who wanted to sit down and play. Didn’t matter what race, orientation, sex…
Standing firm against the woke mob hasn’t been easy. I’ve lost business opportunities, and friends, too, as I already mentioned. But I’m not the sort of person who goes along with the majority just because they’re the loudest or most aggressive. I do my own thing based on what I feel is just.
I put my faith in two things – the revolution ending as the pendulum inevitably swings back the other way and the next generation, Generation Alpha (as I’ve heard it called), are poised to be way more conservative than Millennials. It’s the natural state of rebelling against what came before. I don’t think kids today will put up with the critical woke theory being pushed on them as cultural Marxism continues to rise.
RR: Most readers will surely know the answer to this question, but I’ll ask it anyway: Your work deals with mature subjects, mainly sex, violence and drugs. What is your take on so-called safety tools?
VS: The greatest safety tool is communication. If you’re unsure, just have a quick conversation with someone. Failing that, use your legs. If a particular game just isn’t for you, walk out. I’ve done it myself. I don’t believe in checklists or X-cards. And I also don’t believe in forcing other gamers to bend to your will. I give potential players a heads-up so they know what to expect, but after that, I do what I do, using my own judgement to determine what lines to cross and when to cross them.
“The greatest safety tool is communication. If you’re unsure, just have a quick conversation with someone. Failing that, use your legs. “
RR: Is mature role-playing again missing from the gaming market due to so many worried about “sensitive” content?
VS: It’s there in the right places and right amounts, I feel. Mature content probably shouldn’t make up the majority of RPG content because that’s not what most people want. But there’s a strong and vibrant sect of gamers who crave roleplaying with blood, guts, drugs, sex, and tentacles… And I’m here for them.
RR: When did you publish your first commercial role-playing content and what was it?
VS: The first RPG content I put out into the world and charged money for was a little something called Empire of Satanis. It was bad on purpose (though, I may have only realized that subconsciously) and should only be appreciated ironically. It was my Andy Kaufman phase where I tried my hardest to make something awesome but in the most hackneyed and amateurish way – a bit like Encounter Critical, actually. I followed it up with a sourcebook called Satanis Unbound. That was around 2004 and 2005. It wasn’t until 2012 that I started becoming aware of, and interested in, the Old School Renaissance.
In 2013, I self-published Liberation of the Demon Slayer, a megadungeon that could be used with most versions of original Dungeons & Dragons. I did that as a way of testing out a prevailing theory. Like many my age, I grew up with old-school D&D but realized I wasn’t having as much fun as an adult with 3rd and 4th edition. There were two reasons for that. Either I had out-grown my passion for RPGs or modern D&D lacked certain fundamental principles we implemented in the early days of roleplaying. I needed to see which one fit me, so I created an old-school type of dungeoncrawl using either B/X or one of those retro-clones. As I hoped, it turns out that I wasn’t outgrowing D&D, I just enjoyed old-school styles of play better than modern versions.
Liberation of the Demon Slayer was successful artistically, critically, and commercially. So, I kept going after that. There are a lot of people, such as the RPG Pundit, who consider The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence to be their favourite product of all my stuff. Cha’alt was a return to that type of adventuring, which is probably why it’s been such a hit with the OSR crowd.
RR: Has the market changed since you first started as a game designer?
VS: I don’t think there’s been any kind of huge shift in the market. There’s still a lot of gamers who love roleplaying, but most are into whatever the modern incarnation of D&D is (thankfully, 5th edition is closer to old-school D&D than 3rd or 4th edition) or the other 800lb gorillas or super-niche, artisanal, boutique RPGs that seem to generate a huge following overnight and then fade into obscurity after 6 months. Of course, get enough of them on a consistent basis and you have a movement, like the Apocalypse World story-games.
The traditional way will always have a following. Just as there will always be a place for normal, old fashioned, conservative values, even when the rest of the world is jumping up and down, screaming, shouting, flaunting its rainbow monkey dong in your face.
RR: When and how have you discovered role-playing games?
VS: My aunt gave me and my cousin some D&D stuff when I was 10 and he was 11 or 12. I got the magenta box Basic set in 1983 with the Erol Otus cover. At first, we didn’t get it – but I still loved the pictures, words, and idea of pretending to be a warrior or wizard in that fantasy world.
A few months later, a friend at school who learned from his older brother showed me how to actually play D&D. I distinctly remember a one-on-one session where my character kept dying until a change in tactics and some lucky die rolls allowed me to survive long enough to reach 2nd level… and then 3rd. He was a fighter named Root.
“The traditional way will always have a following. Just as there will always be a place for normal, old fashioned, conservative values, even when the rest of the world is jumping up and down, screaming, shouting, flaunting its rainbow monkey dong in your face.”
RR: What was the game that caught your interest? And was there some game everybody else liked, but you hated?
VS: Besides D&D, I gravitated towards TMNT and other Strangeness, Paranoia, the WEG Star Wars RPG, Call of Cthulhu, Toon, Amber the Diceless RPG, Vampire: the Masquerade, etc.
I remember not liking certain games because the session itself was extremely boring. Bad GMing, I’d call it. I really liked the idea of Shadowrun and all the d6s, but the rest of the system wasn’t to my liking, same thing with Palladium games and GURPs. I owned the DC Heroes RPG, as well as, the FASA Doctor Who boxed set with Tom Baker on the cover – but I never really played them, nor did I try to run such games. Not sure if they seemed overly complicated or what, but I simply looked through them a lot and made a few aliens via random rolls with Doctor Who. Same goes for Over The Edge. Always wanted to play or run it, but just never had the opportunity.
RR: Do you have time to run other people’s games? If so, is there something that you’ve tried recently that you liked?
VS: Unfortunately, I don’t have time to run other people’s games right now. A few years ago, I did a short series of one-shots where I went back and ran some old favourites like Paranoia, Vampire: the Masquerade, and Marvel.
After Cha’alt: Chartreuse Shadows, I’ll be focusing on Encounter Critical, so that’s another person’s game (which I bought the rights to a couple months ago). Other than that… I’d like to run more of the games I grew up with for nostalgic reasons, and because they’re great games. Call of Cthulhu, Toon, Amber, and WEG Star Wars. The limited amount of time is a big factor. If I want to keep putting out my own stuff, my energy needs to be spent playtesting. But playing in games I’m unfamiliar with would also be valuable research. We’ll see what happens.
RR: Before we end this, one final question: Is the Cult of Cthulhu a real thing or a very elaborate joke?
VS: It’s real. Well, as real as any conception of the unknowable. We talk about God like we’re intimately familiar with him – and know exactly what he’s about. Religion is just a way of understanding God. Neither religion, nor God are within our mortal purview. The human race is on this mysterious journey without much to go on. Finding answers is key, but no one has a monopoly on those answers.
I’ve found a lot of deep truth in Lovecraft’s writing. The Cthulhu Mythos is as good as any pantheon or theology you could name. Plus, it has tentacles! Back when I was writing Empire of Satanis, I was also trying to found my own group involved in magic, occultism, and the esoteric wisdom found in the Fourth Way. Aligning all my interests with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Cult seemed like a natural (or unnatural) fit.
YOU CAN LEARN MORE ABOUT VENGER’S WORK BY VISITING HIS OLD SCHOOL GAMING BLOG