Hello everyone! I’m back from my writing hiatus, and as promised my next review is for one of 2nd Edition’s more innovative settings. First published in the early 90s, Al-Qadim drew heavily from Arabian Nights and Middle Eastern history. Its first sourcebook, Arabian Adventures, was light on setting but heavy on rules mechanics. In fact, the book was first pitched as more akin to an “Oriental Adventures” setting-neutral supplement than what was planned to be a full world. This was in part because the writers worried that the suits at the time would judge such a project too risky. The line lasted for 6 years, producing 3 supplements, 2 boxed sets, and 9 adventures both stand-alone and serials. Al-Qadim never got updated for future editions, although there’s been fanmade conversions for 3rd Edition and one in the works for 5th Edition courtesy of the Dungeon Master’s Guild.
For this review, we’re going to cover the Land of Fate boxed set, which was the supplement that propelled al-Qadim into a full-fledged world.
Introduction & Chapter 1: Lay of the Land
As a boxed set, there are three booklets of varying length and a series of handouts and maps. Adventurer’s Guide to Zakhara is both player and DM-friendly, covering the world of Zakhara. The second book, Fortunes & Fates, details DM-centric things such as hidden intrigue and secrets along with organizations and new magic items. We’re going to cover the Adventurer’s Guide first, although in some cases we’ll slip in Fortunes & Fates material which shows how things really are in our respective regions and cities. Finally, Land of Fate is a mini-sourcebook which has new monsters. As I own the electronic copy, all of these are present as their own PDFs.
Our first chapter is surprisingly a geographic glossary of sorts. There’s mention of features which may not be common in more standard Euro-style settings, such as different names for sand dunes and their functions, along with terms such as a kavir (salt flat overlying a sea of mud) or a haram (a general term for a holy site or place of power). The book references specific places as examples encountered for such terrain and places.
Chapter 2: Life in Town
Here we have an overview of common customs and daily life for the people of Zakhara, which is also known as the Land of Fate by its people. Zakharans are more or less divided into two major cultural groups: the al-Badia, who are nomads, and the al-Hadhar who primarily live in cities and outlying towns and villages. The al-Hadhar are more populous than the al-Badia, and most Zakharan cities lie along rivers and coastlands while the al-Badia are most prominent around the two inland deserts.
In the cities, there are regular calls to prayer spaced around major points in the day (sunrise, mid-day, sunset, etc) often signaled by a gong or other loud device from a mosque. These religious sites are often placed in the geographic center of a settlement for efficiency and often serve as a meeting or gathering place for the community. Most occupations relate to food production, particularly in rural areas, and agriculture makes ample use of irrigation to make up for arid environments that are common in Zakhara. Most people do not own the ground on which they live; instead it is owned and managed by local nobles and officials.
Many forms of merchants and artisans often operate their place of business right out of their homes. Musicians, story-tellers, and entertainers are another well-received occupation, and the best of the best may be lucky enough to be hired on as private performers for the nobility.
Meals are taken quite seriously. Dinner is often the largest and most important, and it’s common for the head of the house to first thank the gods for providing them with sustenance, and richer households may have multiple courses. Bread, olives, coffee, and dates are common among all social classes, while well-to-do people may supplement their diet with fruit jam and meat.
Clothing varies based on religion and culture, although there are some commonalities. Trousers and overshirts with sashes are favored by working-class men (no mention of what working-class women wear), with sandals and leather slippers when leather boots cannot be afforded. Headgear often is a soft cap or headcloth, while turbans are common in the central cities. Those who make their living in the desert wear keffiyehs and agals, and women often wear shawls whose material and jewelry is indicative of her class status. The middle and upper classes have more decorative clothing, with purses containing money, tobacco and small weapons in their sashes, and leathering stockings attached to trousers. A kaftan may be worn during times of unfavorable weather. The upper classes are fond of gemstones and gold thread, with turbans wrapped around fezes for men to make them appear taller, and it is common for servants to carry their personal belongings. Veils are common among both genders, with some places having only men or women commonly wear it. Veils are worn differently by region: nobody wears veils in the Cities of the North, the Pearl Cities are highly transparent and decorative, and the League of the Pantheon has veils which obscure one’s face. In Afyal tradition mandates that women have a veil at all times, but they don’t necessarily have to wear it and is thus usually hung over the belt or sash. Mamluks do not wear veils, for their facial tattoos demonstrate which order of slave-soldiers they belong.
There are regional differences in clothing. Dyed fabrics are common in the Pearl Cities, given the inhabitants a wider variety of colors. In the conservative Pantheist League, jewelry is forbidden as are colors other than black, and men and women alike dress in full-length robes with veils to prevent attractive people from inciting lustful thoughts in onlookers. The Cities of the Heart, sitting at the relative center of the Caliphate, have a cosmopolitan array of styles. The Ruined Kingdoms, rural areas, and island settlements often have fashion several years out of date. Even Afyal, which is a financially rich realm, is often remarked for having fashion that went out of style during the era of the Grand Caliph’s grandfather. The Cities of the North, which have the most frequent contact with “Northern barbarians” have more exotic fashion.
When it comes to governance, Zakhara is the term for the peninsular subcontinent, but the Caliphate is its official name. It is an empire whose leader holds lineage to the First Caliph, responsible for rediscovering the Law of the Loregiver and spreading Enlightenment to the world. The Caliphate functions via a form of feudal federalism, where the empire as a whole is governed by the Caliph’s law and that of the Loregiver’s teachings, while smaller provinces and city-states swear fealty to the Caliph with minor sultans, kings, and other forms of governors administrating on a regional level. Below even them are qadi, or judges, who act as local arbitrators and mediators for disputes and the dispensation of justice. Among the city-dwellers they are often appointed by existing bureaucracies, but among nomads they are often appointed by the community directly based on support and trust. Leadership roles among nomads in general is often more informal and closely-bound at the local level.
For war and military matters, most nomad tribes have many among their number who can defend themselves. Most cities have militias that can be called up in the event of an invasion, and a watch for internal policing. Some larger cities can make do with a standing army or hire out mercenaries, and mamluk units are their own division of elite soldiers. Theoretically speaking the Caliph can call upon soldiers across Zakhara in a single unified army, but they have no neighbors who can seriously challenge them in the ways of symmetrical warfare. Most small-scale battles and skirmishes are often land disputes between local authorities, or Unenlightened barbarians and pirates around the Caliphate’s borders and more isolated regions. Twenty years ago there was a local sheikh who tried to lead an army against the capital city of Huzuz, although a single mage summoned an army of genies which wiped about the sheikh’s forces in a one-sided battle.
We get a bit of a lengthy treatise on women, marriage, and family structures. Before Enlightenment, most of Zakhara was a highly patriarchal society, and while there have been many inroads towards equality (women can and have held every position besides Caliph) there are still some lingering holdovers. Men are encouraged to be financial breadwinners for family units, while women attend to domestic affairs. Women and children also have their own separate quarters in many houses known as the harim, which can range from a single room or an entire complex based on the wealth of the family. Marriage is traditionally one man, one woman, with class and financial obligations often playing a role. Men are given more freedom to marry below their station, although it is possible for both husband and wife to hold property separately. Men are permitted to have as many as four wives, although this is a steep financial obligation which only a few among the wealthy take advantage of. There’s an exception on the island of Afyal, where women can have any number of husbands; this is due to the fact that the island’s men are mobile traders, and the wives often manage the mercantile houses.
One of al-Qadim’s more controversial setting aspects is slavery. Or rather, its portrayal of the institution as one which is largely non-evil beyond some bad apples. In Zakhara is not chattel slavery for life, but more often a form of indentured servitude for law-breakers, debtors, and of Unenlightened people. The children of slaves are considered to be born free, they cannot be left to the elements if they become crippled or useless, and torturing and starving slaves may allow a qadi to rule in favor of their freedom. Any crimes committed by a slave are the owner’s responsibility.
Slaves among the Unenlightened are mostly drawn from isolated tribes among the southern islands, mountain regions, and deserts who are captured by slave-hunters. Unlike the above their children are also slaves if they reject the Law of the Loregiver. In some more lawless provinces unscrupulous slavers capture Enlightened people far from home, claiming them to be heathens pretending to be civilized.
Mamluks are the most famous and privileged of slaves in Zakhara. They are all technically owned by the Caliph himself and employed by the state as soldiers, often kidnapped from the Unenlightened and indoctrinated as children to become loyal warriors. In the northern cities bordering the Great Sea they are the de facto rulers, and often war against the pirates of the abolitionist Corsair Domains.
Finally, we talk about Zakhara’s Nonhuman Races. Zakhara holds a human majority, but all of the Player’s Handbook core options are present, along with some of the more monstrous humanoids such as goblins, kobolds, lizardfolk, gnolls, and even locathah and merfolk in seaside and undersea settlements. Unlike many other D&D settings of the time, there was no major strife between such races. In fact, most demihumans and humanoids living in Zakhara more or less assimilated and share the same customs, deities, and ways of living. However, the races still retain their original languages, which implies that at one point there were distinctive cultures, and in terms of marriage a union which can produce children’s encouraged which means that most people marry within their race* even though the Law of the Loregiver does not ban interracial marriages.
*orc-human and elf-human pairings the notable exception.
But what of races beyond that? Generally speaking, there are four main qualifiers for a monster to become accepted in the Caliphate:
1. They must be intelligent enough to understand the Law of the Loregiver.
2. They are usually humanlike in size and shape. Creatures with more exotic sizes, anatomies, and/or dietary restrictions have more difficulty living among population centers and tribes. Extremely non-humanoid monsters never become al-Hadhar, although it says nothing one way or the other about the al-Badia.
3. Their innate abilities must not be such that their powers can cause tension or discord. Very powerful and dangerous abilities can put people and local rulers on edge, even if the monster makes it a habit to only use their powers for good.
4. Certain subraces belonging to faiths and civilizations which are on a war footing with the Caliphate, or whose number have been shown to be continuously and irredeemably evil (such as sahuagin and yak-men) are never allowed to join Enlightened society.
Speaking of ‘irredeemably evil,’ I am a bit curious about this point. Although far enough away that it may as well be its own setting, Zakhara is part of the planet of Abeir-Toril which itself houses the Forgotten Realms setting. And said setting has pretty much every D&D trope with which we’re familiar, including monsters which are naturally inclined towards evil. This has included humanoid numbers such as orcs, and there isn’t really any description on how Zakharan society overcomes this trope. It seems to me that the implication is that the Law of the Loregiver is such a revelation of truth and wisdom that it can break down ignorance and hidebound customs. But then I have to ask what is it about sahuagin which makes them innately evil that they cannot be converted, whereas orcs and gnolls can break free of such tendencies.
Thoughts So Far: The Land of Fates’ opening chapters feel at once both big-picture but also focus on the day-to-day lives of its citizens. I do like the attention to detail on various things, from leisurely activities to food, clothing, and governance. It’s something even a lot of settings today forget to include, and as such makes al-Qadim feel more “lived in” than your average fantasy world.
It may more reflect the media I consume, but I find it rather novel even near 30 years later to have a setting with an empire that is not evil. And even moreso, one which does not have any major enemies militarily speaking. There are foul cults, rampaging monsters, and rulers mad with power, but Zakhara isn’t in any great danger from a Mordor-like invading army. Even the Lands of the Yak-Men and Brotherhood of the True Flame, who are al-Qadim’s most iconic villains, tend to act more via magical spies and “rotting from within.” While there are plenty of ruins and dungeons, conflict in al-Qadim would likely be of a more personal nature, and while there are problems in the system, the government’s highest echelons and Grand Caliph do genuinely care for the welfare of the people.
The aspect of slavery being an institution that is not portrayed as innately evil or in a “kinder way” is one of al-Qadim’s more controversial options, the other being honor-killing for infidelity (which isn’t mentioned in this book but in Arabian Adventures). While most D&D settings often portray slavery as the chattel kind, the various limits/protections are reflective of attempts in the Islamic world to reform the practice. Even so, slavery as a whole no matter the civilization has been too open to abuse that I am not exactly keen at seeing it ‘softened,’ morally speaking.
Join us next time as we cover the nomadic side of things in Chapters 3 and 4!