D&D General Al-Qadim, Campaign Guide: Zakhara, and Cultural Sensitivity

South by Southwest

Incorrigible Daydreamer
In this post I am going to make two shameless plugs, but because they are for products other people have written and I have no affiliation, I will not apologize for my plugs or my shamelessness. I am unashamed of how unashamed I am.

First Shameless Plug: the Al-Qadim campaign setting is gorgeous and offers extraordinary adventure opportunities. On the good advice of Lidgar, posted here, I have completely fallen in love with Arabian Adventures and Land of Fate. These are old, long-since-abandoned publications, so finding them is admittedly challenging (but they're really good). On another thread way back in late 2020, some members discussed Al-Qadim, and there Quickleaf mentioned the oft-expressed concerns about cultural insensitivity in elements of Al-Qadim. In that context he mentioned a YouTube channel of Asian gamers called, "The Asians Represent," where they have a podcast series called, "Critical Read." He recommended it and I concur. It's a podcast of all-Arab D&D players who go through the setting books and critique them.

Second Shameless Plug: In fact, I became so interested in this stuff that I chased down a book project one of Critical Read's members, Ahmed Aljabry, worked on: it's called Campaign Guide: Zakhara. Zakhara is an updated Al-Qadim campaign setting for 5e and tailored more to 5e players' sensibilities and sensitivities (or ambitions toward sensitivity), and it's available on DMs Guild. I got so into this stuff, in fact, that I went all out and got both the premium color hard bound book and the .pdf. Now, my own sensibilities are measurably gruffer than many 5e players' will be, so I've arrived at the initial decision that I'll take some elements from Zakhara but also keep some--only some--of the harsher setting elements in Arabian Adventures. I love both books dearly now, so even where I disagree with a decision made in one of them, my admiration for what both groups achieved stands undampened.

One thing my recent reading on these settings, on Islam, on the Arabic language, and on Arab culture has convinced me of, though, is how exaggerated some of our popular perceptions of them can be in the West. Not all, mind you--I'm not setting up any angels or heroes here--but, you know: some. One place where I think the West's popular perception is very skewed is in the matter of honor killings. This is such a fraught, sensitive topic that I almost didn't want to write this post, but then I figured, "We cannot solve problems about which we are too afraid to speak," so here I am posting on something about which I have very little knowledge indeed. The Critical Read podcasts helped me considerably, but what sparked me finally to say something about it on EN World was a set of patient, informative posts from EN Worlder Ondath in this thread, which I encourage everyone to read. Honor killings do happen, yes, and apparently they even can happen in a European country like Turkey (I had not known that), but their frequency and degree of social acceptance is, I think, often exaggerated and "flattened out" in Western media to where it seems they're equally common and equally accepted throughout all parts of "the Muslim world." Even from what little I know, I know this isn't so. As Ondath put it:
To be frank, painting the situation worse than it is smells of reducing Turkey to "one of those backwards Middle Eastern countries", and it is this generalisation that enrages me the most about the fact that Turkey was bundled up with other anti-LGBT countries despite there being no anti-LGBT legislation.
I think it was Mariam on Critical Read who, in the context of critiquing Arabian Adventures' depiction of some utterly brutal honor killings, coined the term "honor hobos," for which I am grateful. The predominant Western media depiction of the whole concept of honor now strikes me as fraught. So I guess this is one place where I am especially grateful to Ondath, the people of Critical Read, and the authors of and contributors to Campaign Guide: Zakhara: their efforts toward setting the record straight on some of this has meant a lot to me and will show up in any Al-Qadim campaigns I might build for my players in the future.

Back on the gentler, happier subject with which I started, I'll reiterate that both Arabian Adventures and Campaign Guide: Zakhara have enchanted me. For anyone seeking a new campaign setting to play around with, it's well worth a look.

Edited to correct annoying punctuational errors.
 
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Disney's Aladdin teleserie has been one of my favorite cartoon shows, lots of times I felt that special vibe "Agraba" was the Disney version of al-Qadim.

Maybe my point of view is different because I am Spanish and al-Andalus is part of my past, and I accept this even when my opinion about the warlord Almanzor isn't good at all.

I understand we have to make an effort to avoid offenses against the people from Midde-Orient but... how to explain it better? If Kamala Khan/Miss Marvel was created by Marvel comics to fight islamophobia, then al-Qadim should be a wonderful opportunity to introduce softly the rich cultures and traditions from North-Africa and Middle-Orient.
 

TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
Al-Qadim is great.

Killing for honor, along with slavery and all the rest are ubiquitous in pre-modern and early modern societies, as I think we all know at this point. They were certainly not limited to the islamic world. In any case you may choose to leave them out of your game if you would like.
 

TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
Honor killing as touched on in Al-Qadim is, by implication, connected to the practice of arranged marriage. Both still happen in RL, the second fortunately much more then the first.

Arranged marriage could be an interesting element in a campaign, but it does not have to be part of your campaign.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Mod Note:

As hinted at already, honor killings are not unique to the Arabic/Islamic world, are not common within such societies, and actually predate Islam.

So unless there’s REALLY a pressing need to discuss them- say, because they’re central to a RPG product being mentioned- we should probably avoid or minimize talking about that topic.
 

Yeah, I...basically ignored any amount of that stuff with the setting I built with my players, which was (in part) inspired by Zakhara. That is, there might be some of these unfortunate things occurring somewhere in the Tarrakhuna, but they aren't particularly relevant as a cultural practice.

Frankly, I don't see any reason why "uglier" aspects of past extant societies need to be included in new authored works. For example, it is historically factual that Al-Andalus, one of the primary IRL historical periods/cultural groups I've drawn on, practiced slavery in a way that was, in practice, almost purely race-based. (Technically it was religion-based, but realistically, they imported massive numbers of Central and Eastern European Christians.) Yet, despite the fact that slavery was rampant in Al-Andalus, my setting emphatically forbids it, for its own cultural reasons.* This is not an accident, but it doesn't make the Tarrakhuna suddenly alien and weird compared to either the IRL historical/cultural inspirations nor the literary inspirations both fiction and non-fiction (e.g. the Thousand and One Nights, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, the Rihla, the Kitab al-I'tibar, etc.) My players and I collaborated on what is or isn't in this world, and one of the biggest requirements I had, though I did not explicitly state it, was that the world be "bright" enough to actually be worth saving/protecting. Together, we made sure that that is true.

I did something similar with the primary religions of the setting. The dominant religious force, which is the "new" faith (though "new" is relative--both have existed for well over a thousand years), is the Safiqi priesthood. They accept priests regardless of gender, because their monotheistic deity, the One, is explicitly pre-gender; our concepts of "male" and "female" arise out of aspects of the One. There may be specific, relatively obscure sects that admit only men or only women, and it is known that some monasteries choose to have members of only one gender. But all are welcome in the priesthood regardless of their gender identity specifically because the One is too vast, too infinite. The "old" faith, which is still quite strong despite being a distinct second now, are the Kahina, the shamans and druids who deal with the nature-spirits and quelling the restless spirits of the unquiet dead, and they don't care about gender either, because they were founded long, long ago. Back then, mortal-kind was eking out a hardscrabble existence in the vast wastes between the genie-rajah cities. You never turned down a promising student because you never knew when you might find another. Nature can be a cruel mistress, and she does not look kindly on fools who put pointless restrictions before survival.

We, as creators, have the power to create worlds that are better than our own in various ways. That doesn't mean we must close our eyes and plug our ears. We can still face the wickedness that exists or existed. We can know, as the Shadow knows, what evil lurks in the hearts of men; we can build places and worlds where that evil is real and dangerous and lurking, without one where that evil is entrenched and pervasive and successful.

*Specifically, the current culture of the Tarrakhuna arose in part from throwing off the shackles of slavery to the ancient genie-rajahs, who were forced to abandon the mortal world for Al-Akirah, the elemental otherworld, where they formed the modern "country" of Jinnistan. (Modern Jinnistani nobles, naturally, deny that their ancestors were driven out, and claim that they willingly departed the world. The evidence is highly equivocal, so likely it's a mix of both.) As a result of literally being founded through a mortal slave revolt, the idea of enslaving other mortal beings is extremely not okay in the eyes of modern residents of the Tarrakhuna. That doesn't mean some people don't do it--they surely do, just as some people try here in the US--but it's a crime basically everywhere and being caught in mortal trafficking is basically a one-way ticket to financial and personal ruin.
 

Reynard

Legend
I think orientalism and exoticism are very deeply engrained in the hobby because of the Appendix N foundational literature. Anything that help maintain a sense of wonder but alleviates that sort of cultural bias is a net good IMO.

That said, I don't really think a setting based on Arab mythology needs Islam any more than vaguely-Eurpoean settings need Christianity. Most of the underlying myths that power the fantasy of D&D are pre-Christian, and the same should be true of Arab and Persian myths (or various African or East Asian cultures and mythologies). Not that you CAN'T touch on modern religions in your elf games, but it seems mostly unnecessary.
 

Retreater

Legend
Exoticism used to be a big part of my D&D experience when I was getting into the game in high school and college. Al-Qadim, specifically, was a setting I liked - and I'm still asked by one of my original gaming friends to run it. But I'm not touching it anymore.
 

Yeah, I...basically ignored any amount of that stuff with the setting I built with my players, which was (in part) inspired by Zakhara. That is, there might be some of these unfortunate things occurring somewhere in the Tarrakhuna, but they aren't particularly relevant as a cultural practice.
<snip>

We, as creators, have the power to create worlds that are better than our own in various ways. That doesn't mean we must close our eyes and plug our ears. We can still face the wickedness that exists or existed. We can know, as the Shadow knows, what evil lurks in the hearts of men; we can build places and worlds where that evil is real and dangerous and lurking, without one where that evil is entrenched and pervasive and successful.

Pathfinder's Andorans (an obvious expy of the USA with its democratic 'common rule') ban slavery and liberate any slave who passes into their country. Needless to say, this was not the case in the historical USA at the time of independence.

You are not obligated, when making up a culture in a fantasy world, to include every nasty aspect of the real one from the original culture it was based on. (Gender roles are far more equal in most modern D&D worlds than any preindustrial civilization, or indeed most industrial civlizations until the 1970s!)

It's a game, you don't have to do things your players will find disturbing. Unless that's what they're looking for, of course--but then there's Ravenloft or Midnight.
 

These settings are much flavourful before monotheism came along. "Elf Games" are massively polytheistic so no need for any inference to 'modern' RL religions.

So much fun and expansive flavour to Al-Qadim there is little need to dwell on the 'tricky' topics.
 

South by Southwest

Incorrigible Daydreamer
I think orientalism and exoticism are very deeply engrained in the hobby because of the Appendix N foundational literature. Anything that help maintain a sense of wonder but alleviates that sort of cultural bias is a net good IMO.
Totally with you.
That said, I don't really think a setting based on Arab mythology needs Islam any more than vaguely-Eurpoean settings need Christianity.
EXACTLY. This is one of the big points the Critical Read podcasters brought up, and I have been especially pleased to see the Zakhara setting book remove material about Islam and just focus on all those fantastic and fantastical Arab, Persian, North African, South Asian, and Middle Eastern myths and legends. Seriously--they've got tons and tons of stuff in there to work with.

If someone wants to bring extant religions into their game, that is surely their business and none of mine, but like you, I don't really see the point of it. To my mind, D&D is about (1) bringing mythologies and legends of all kinds to life as a way of re-enchanting this world of ours, and (2) running away from scary slaadi until you're high-level enough to face them. It isn't and shouldn't be about pooping on other people's religions and/or cultures.
Most of the underlying myths that power the fantasy of D&D are pre-Christian, and the same should be true of Arab and Persian myths (or various African or East Asian cultures and mythologies). Not that you CAN'T touch on modern religions in your elf games, but it seems mostly unnecessary.
A-yup.


The one main element from the new setting book that I (tentatively) prefer not to adopt is its broad cosmopolitanism, where racism hardly exists in Zakhara. Especially if these myths and legends are taken from a deeply tribal set of histories, I have trouble seeing how the tribal biases and hostilities that stem from them can be so easily avoided. Mind you, this is not to say that I do not find their avoidance morally desirable in real life--I do. It's just that if I'm going to work with a setting that is ordered around very tightly-knit tribes, then I figure the warts of tribalism ought to be in there, too.
 
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Even when the entertaiment industry makes the best esfforts to be polite with the different Asian markets in the tabletop game the players can show their personal prejudices, for example a group can be pro-Egypt and anti-Sumerian, other more pro-Persian but anti-Otoman and a third group pro-Otoman and anti-Egyptian and anti-Persian. Other tabletop can show characters based in the favorite Turkey soap-opera but the antagonists are ersatzs(parodies of real Turkey characters from the goverment. A DM can tell a plot about the classic intrigue in the harem (and the stepmother as a classic antagonist), something that happened usually, too much, but other DM would say all the Zakharans are totally monogams (but if the first wive can't beget a a son ) to avoid the continuous struggles for the succession. Others would rather to use al-Qadim to create stories closer to Indian fantasy fiction.

Even when the original work is totally honest and respectful, the parody version can be really... mercyless. And facts from the real life could cause some things becoming taboo, for example an Asia movie about zombies years before the current epidemic.

Others could use al-Qadim for a plot based in Frank Herbert's Dune saga.
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I wonder if sha'ir should be a core class with special game mechanics, mabye mixing arcane magic with summoning, vestige binders, or incarnum soulmeldrs.
 

These settings are much flavourful before monotheism came along. "Elf Games" are massively polytheistic so no need for any inference to 'modern' RL religions.

So much fun and expansive flavour to Al-Qadim there is little need to dwell on the 'tricky' topics.

Don't forget the attempt at monotheism made in ancient Egypt, though, whose fleeing surviving priests and worshipers may have had an influence on certain neighboring peoples' monotheistic beliefs. And this way predates the time setting the Al-Qadim stuff uses.

 

Reynard

Legend
Don't forget the attempt at monotheism made in ancient Egypt, though, whose fleeing surviving priests and worshipers may have had an influence on certain neighboring peoples' monotheistic beliefs. And this way predates the time setting the Al-Qadim stuff uses.

Not so much "forgotten" (because, well, we're talking about him) as "was nearly erased by those who followed." Egyptian Pharaohs had a nasty habit of editing history.

Monotheistic sun worship does seem the most obvious sort, of course.
 

Stormonu

Legend
I (vaguely) remember doing a report on Akhenaten, and even ended up using the split between the Memphis worship/priesthood and Aten as the basis for the cultural differences (and war) between my faux Egyptian Iiannhanex and Lllannhanex countries in my homebrew.

Also, I second taking a look at the Zhakhara update to Al-Qadim.
 

Swedish Chef

Explorer
I believe I own every product made for the Al Qadim setting. I thoroughly enjoyed the setting when it came out and loved reading through it. Sadly, none of my group wanted to play in the setting.

Every once in a while nostalgia hits and I'll re-read the books. Although I can now more clearly see the flaws, I can still appreciate the good parts and hope that the cultural errors were more from ignorance than malice.

Not certain spending the money on a hardcover that I'll never use in a game truly makes sense, but my love of reading has never truly needed to justify itself.... :LOL:
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
Pathfinder's Andorans (an obvious expy of the USA with its democratic 'common rule') ban slavery and liberate any slave who passes into their country. Needless to say, this was not the case in the historical USA at the time of independence.

You are not obligated, when making up a culture in a fantasy world, to include every nasty aspect of the real one from the original culture it was based on. (Gender roles are far more equal in most modern D&D worlds than any preindustrial civilization, or indeed most industrial civlizations until the 1970s!)

It's a game, you don't have to do things your players will find disturbing. Unless that's what they're looking for, of course--but then there's Ravenloft or Midnight.
The new Ravenloft is just as modern as any other 5e world. That just the way it's done now.
 


South by Southwest

Incorrigible Daydreamer
How much of the Zakhara book is system neutral? It sounds interesting but I just don't need 5e stat blocks.
I would estimate it to be around 50/50, maybe slightly tilted in favor of system-neutrality. By the table of contents you'd think it'd be more, but chapter 4 is where the monsters and NPCs are, and it's a big chapter for sure. Still, because it is a setting book and not a campaign, there's a lot of stuff in here that you could throw into any system you wanted. Also, I'll note that the .pdf-only version is just $15.
 

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