Welcome to the desert! This one is an odd thing to review. It’s kind of a setting book (like Eberron: Rising from the Last War) but it’s also not actually a distinct setting (since it’s located in the Forgotten Realms). But it also is sort of its own setting?
This one’s actually been metaphorically sitting on my desk for quite a while now, so it’s about time. And it’s a weird one for sure, but sill worth looking at.
Anyway, let’s check out Al’Qadim and quick. I originally planned to joke that WotC wouldn’t be bringing this one back any time soon, but with all their poor decisions recently… anything’s possible.
The alternate title for this section is “A History Nerd’s Lament” – you’ll see why soon enough.
But before addressing that, let’s address racial stereotyping. This book, along with Oriental Adventures, can easily be cited as one of the most distinct examples of racial stereotyping in early Dungeons and Dragons. I decided not to review Oriental Adventures yet since it covers a topic (Asian culture and history) which I am not familiar with.
Al’Qadim, meanwhile, covers a topic I do know at least a little about. It isn’t much, but at least it’s something. So to get this out of the way – if you think D&D isn’t even a little bit racist, read the book. It speaks for itself quite literally in that respect.
Now on to my more history-based opinions. There is a lot to like about this book, particularly how it introduces desert/wasteland content to a game world previously devoid of it. But it also has one major failing which is shared by many other “Arabian Nights”-esque fantasies. Namely it homogenizes and massively limits Islamic culture and influence.
Al’Qadim bills itself as specifically Arabian Adventures. But the problem there is that it really doesn’t limit itself to actual Arabian culture. It certainly limits itself to Arabian stereotypes, but those are usually an amalgamation of Arabian culture plus random pieces from practically every other Islamic culture or society to ever exist.
Places like Mughal India, the Iberian Peninsula, or pretty much any non-desert area of Africa are completely absent. We also miss out on the Mediterranean Muslims, whose unique interactions with Mediterranean Christians would heavily contribute to most of the major artistic, cultural, and academic advances of Europe after the middle ages. Hell, you could even get parts of China in there if you’re really wanting to look at the whole of Islamic culture.
Maybe you could say that the Muslims of Sicily don’t fit because their king was a French Norman. And maybe you could argue that Mughal India should be considered oriental instead of “middle-eastern” (though I’ll note that India doesn’t really show up in Oriental Adventures either). But the truth of the matter is that the “One Thousand and One Nights” that Al’Qadim draws from is a primarily Hollywood-centered creation of Western authors and filmmakers. Creators who were, in turn, drawing not just from Arabian nights, but Persian, Indian, and African nights as well.
So take everything with a grain of salt. Most of what’s present here is solidly drawn from the narrative sphere, not history. And that can be fine, but it’s important to note nonetheless.
And On with the Show
Okay, with that done let’s look at the mechanics presented in the book. I’m going to skip over the majority of “world-building” at the beginning of the book since you can get most of that info elsewhere. Instead, we’re going to look at the unique mechanics introduced by this book – the kits, the desert survival rules,
and the sha’ir kit. You’d think the sha’ir would be with the other kits, but the thing is so damn complex it needs its own section article. (Instead of the sha’ir, we’ll hit a few miscellaneous fun facts.)
But before all that, we need to make just a few small notes about the world itself. Zakhara (also called the Land of Fate) is a region of the same world as the Forgotten Realms setting – it’s possible to sail from one area to the other, and in fact many people do. But while you might assume that this means most basics of reality remain the same… it doesn’t.
For whatever reason, magic functions differently in Zakhara compared to literally anywhere else on the planet. Rather than the traditional elements or schools, magic is characterized by elemental provinces – sand (earth), sea (water), flame (guess), and wind (air). This also means that wizards not native to the Land of Fate can’t learn native spells. For… some reason.
Another funny consequence of this is that dwarves and elves who previously had racism-based combat bonuses (dwarves vs. orcs, for example) no longer do so. Because Zakhara is completely devoid of racism. Somehow. Unless your racial combat bonus is against giants or trolls, presumably because screw those guys (actually it’s the short-race bonus against large humanoid enemies, but that isn’t as funny).
Oh, and also druids straight up don’t exist (despite them also having a literal global conspiracy group that operates on all continents).
All of this will become more important later on, but I wanted to get it out of the way early because this theme (that of “foreign vs. native”) will be a recurring one in a lot of these mechanics.
Forget About Kit
Al’Qadim does something a bit odd with kits and makes them a mandatory part of character creation. Previously, kits were an optional addition to the character creation process and you could easily go without them entirely.
Another oddity is how Al’Qadim defines all kits as either “native” kits or “foreign” kits. This is presumably to ensure characters imported from other areas (and game systems) have some sort of mechanical marker. This can then be used to ensure they get social disadvantages (a staple of nearly every “foreign” kit) compared to natives. Even though you could just, you know, make that a rule (maybe throw in a new reaction table, no biggie). But no, it’s tied to the kit system.
Now, I’m not going to go over every kit in detail. That’d be way too much. Instead, we’ll just hit the highlights.
We begin with fighters, who get arguably the worst deal here. For one, their “generic” native and foreigner kits (the askar and creatively named outland warrior respectively) are pretty boring. They get no real changes beyond the social penalties on the outland warrior. The others, meanwhile, are only moderately better.
- First is the corsair… which is just a rogue. It gets fancy two-weapon fighting and access to rogue proficiencies. That’s it. Oh, and it loses these benefits when wearing heavy armor, which is weirdly enough decided by the Armor Class and not the material. So a magical set of AC 8 leather armor would be treated the same as full plate.
- Then there’s the desert rider, whose benefit is a horse. That’s it. Here’s hoping your DM ignores the “dungeons” half of Dungeons and Dragons (and that the dragon doesn’t eat your horse).
- Next up is the mamluk, a slave warrior staunchly opposed to slavery. I’d like to point out that the real life mamluks were often the ones buying new mamluk slaves because that was their tradition and culture. The whole kit is based on ordering around underlings and being ordered around by superiors in turn. Which sounds like just a joy to deal with as a DM.
- And finally the mercenary barbarian, one of the least creative names possible. Their special power is being able to make racism (which doesn’t exist!) relevant to any scenario. Literally. Your special benefit is that you can intimidate people by playing off of their racist view of you. Your special hindrance is that everyone is racist against you. In the land which supposedly has no racism.
Next up are wizards. And here is where we get weird. In addition to traditional wizard kits not being available, even wizard specialists aren’t available. And even bringing in a foreign specialist isn’t great, but we’ll have to get to them in a second.
- First off is the sorcerer. I actually quite like them. They’re required to specialize in two out of the four elemental provinces, but there are no restrictions on what combinations you can have. So you can do a sea and flame sorcerer, which is pretty cool. They then flat out can’t use spells of the other two elements, which is pretty hardcore.
- Next is the sha’ir, the kit so unimaginably weird that it has to get its own
sectionarticle. Why this wasn’t a class I will never understand.
- And finally the problem kit… the ajami, or foreign wizard. They get the typical social penalties found in the other “foreign” kits, but they also have limitations on learning spells. They aren’t allowed to learn any spell restricted to an elemental province, even if they’d normally be able to learn that spell – thus a foreign wizard flat out can’t learn fireball here, though they could presumably just leave the continent, learn it, and come back. At that point they’d be fine, since they can cast spells as normal (even those not normally allowed in the setting) so long as they learned the spell before coming to the Land of Fate.
- Needless to say, this is horrifically complicated.
- I mean… the book says that a foreign wizard can’t learn fireball because the spell functions differently in this region, but why then can’t they just learn their version? Y’know, with a scroll from back home or something. And if the magic just “functions differently” then why do the spells work at all?
- Additionally, wizards with the elementalist kit are exempt and can learn Al’Qadim spells just fine so long as their elemental province matches the elementalist’s chosen element. Which makes a bit of sense, but is still bizarre.
Then we have the rogues (and bards). They’re kind of boring, all things considered. They also have the oddity of their “generic native” and their “foreigner” kits being the same kit. Which, again, doesn’t really give you anything. Other than that, most are pretty plain.
- First is the famous, well-known rogue archetype – the barber. It tries to play off the barber’s previous role as a pseudo-surgeon, but it really doesn’t pull it off. Instead you get bonuses to identifying magical items (you know, like a barber would do) and in return a massively lower number of skill points to put into various rogue skills.
- And the “holy killers,” also known as “crap, we already used ‘assassin’ didn’t we?” kit. Your bonus is the ability to use any one-handed weapon, ignoring normal thief restrictions. You can also specialize in a weapon, which normally only fighters can do.
- Next is the merchant-rogue. Because there’s definitely no worrying stereotypes lying behind the “innately-thieving merchant” character, right? Playing this kit also unlocks a brand-new economics simulator! That’s right, now you too can spend three whole sessions buying food!
- I would literally never allow this kit. Hard pass.
- And last is the sole bard kit, the rawun. It’s decent, with the ability to invoke or cure the “evil eye” – a fairly good curse-like effect. Oh, you also can’t learn spells from any of the elemental provinces. Which sounds pretty serious, but I’m sure you could manage just with the universal spells.
Priest kits are last on the list, and also have the largest list of options. It feels weird that your choice of kit isn’t determined by what god you serve, but ultimately I’m fine with that. The problem is that most of these kits don’t really do anything.
- First up are the “Order” priests – the pragmatist, ethoist, and moralist. They each get support from their order/church as a bonus, and not much else.
- The moralist is a bit of an outlier in that it’s clearly intended as an NPC-only kit, so I don’t know why they added it. On a PC, it’s basically the kit to play if you want an excuse to act like a jerk. The kit’s list of recommended traits and my list of “forbidden character archetypes” are the same list.
- Next are the “Free” priests, who are much more interesting. First of these is the hakima, or wise woman. They’re pretty limited, and get Perception proficiency as their only benefit, basically. It upgrades to an almost detect magic type of power later, but still… at least the lore is neat.
- And then we have the kahins, who are the native druid stand-ins. Despite that, they are not druids. They’re just priests who use the druid level advancement table, are required to be neutral on one alignment axis, worship and devote themselves to “the land”, and can’t wear metal armor or shields. You know, exactly like druids.
- They even cease being “kahins” at 16th level, instead becoming “aged masters” – just like 15th level druids become “hierophant druids” at 16th level.
- The only real difference they have is that they don’t have a weird limit on how many kahins of a particular level can exist at once. Oh, and they get zero benefits before 16th level. So they aren’t just druids, they’re subpar druids. Which is fascinating given how horrible druids were at base in 2e.
- Finally there are the mystics. They get some bonus proficiencies in exchange for having a bizarre method of getting spells. Rather than pray, they dance, sing, meditate, or do some other strange activity. So I guess that’s nice.
- Oh, and there are outland priests too. Which are basically like outland warriors and have no real changes outside of social penalties.
It’s probably not that difficult to notice a theme here – many of these kits don’t really do much.
And I think that’s where Al’Qadim runs into its first problem. The book makes kits mandatory for all characters, but then fails to offer up more than two or three genuinely interesting kits among the two dozen provided.
To me, it seems like the kits were primarily a way to enforce social penalties on foreigners. I still wonder why this couldn’t have just been done with a reaction table (god knows 2e loves reaction tables), but even if this was the only option… there still aren’t any reasons to play any of these kits. Most don’t change anything about your character, and only a couple have truly interesting narratives around them.
It just ends up feeling a bit like a waste of space.
In the Desert You Can’t…
The other major mechanical aspect to Al’Qadim (besides the dread sha’ir) is its desert survival rules. These are, for the most part, pretty good.
And yet we have to start with the one that isn’t so good – heavy armor rules for heat exhaustion.
While this does make sense (metal hot), it isn’t implemented very well. The entire system is based off of AC, for one thing, which just forces them to spend a couple paragraphs explaining that magical bonuses don’t count. So rather than just saying “metal armor equivalent to plate is hot” they have to say “any armor above this AC is hot unless that armor is only above the AC limit due to a magical enchantment (such as with magical leather armor +2) which uses its base AC rather than the magically adjusted AC.”
Just seemed like a waste of word count. But, then again, maybe they were coming up short.
The other bizarre part of this is that shields are included in this system. So wielding a shield causes you to get heat exhaustion faster. Which makes… very little sense. Now, while you aren’t wielding it, I suppose it would be across your back – which could be quite warm. But even then, I feel like cultures in arid regions used shields just fine.
Also there’s a native-made shield alternative which has a lower heat penalty. I guess it breathes better?
Luckily, the remaining desert rules are much better. And while there are good rules for sandstorms and getting buried by sandstorms, the most robust details are saved for the dehydration rules.
Essentially, your character has a required amount of water per day. This is based on several factors, including how you’re traveling (sticking to the shade or only going at night lowers your water needs). If your character gets that amount of water, they’re fine. If not…
For every day a character only gets half of their required water, they lose 1d4 points of Constitution. If you get under half of the requirement, you lose 1d6 points instead. Once you hit zero Constitution, you’re dead.
I originally thought this was a bit too harsh. Everyone but fighters would be dead within a week, and the fighters would follow soon after. But after some rudimentary research (single Google search, first result) I realized that this is actually pretty light. And that’s fine! PCs are heroes – it makes sense that they could go without water longer than an “average” person.
There’s also rules for animals too, but these are very simplified. Every day without water, an animal like a horse has a one out of ten chance of dying. Camels can go 7 days without water before making these checks. And while that is simple, I think it’s fine. It’s hard to tell what state an animal is in, and besides – what fun is there in simulating animal death by dehydration?
Spells, Items, and Skills
Originally, this portion went into detail on the sha’ir, the wizard kit that never should have been created. That, however, proved too long a discussion to fit in here – so look for it coming up next!
Instead, we’ll check out a few of the miscellaneous humorous bits from my notes while reading Al’Qadim. While it wasn’t as ridiculous as Lords of Darkness was, it definitely had its fair share of oddities.
One thing I definitely want to point out is just how inconsistent this book is when it comes to the concept of racism. While detailing the Land of Fate, the book takes great pains to stress the multiethnic and multiracial nature of Zakhara, and all but outright states that racism doesn’t exist. It then pointedly removes racism-based bonuses from races that have them (such as the dwarves’ innate bonus against orcs).
And I understand why they made this choice. Historically, Islamic kingdoms do tend to be more racially and ethnically diverse. But this is primarily a comparison with medieval Europe, which isn’t the highest bar to surpass. And despite this tendency towards tolerance (religious, cultural, or otherwise), there were definitely still race-based assumptions and stereotypes.
But the real thing that gets me is that this book constantly undermines its own position. There’s no racism in Zakhara, and yet nomadic and sedentary people are inherently wary of one another. The mercenary barbarian’s entire kit revolves around racism – the stereotype of your people being wildly dangerous warriors allows you to more easily intimidate people, but their assumptions about your culture also leads them to shun you socially.
It’s a petty complaint, I know. And they could just mean that racism here is very light when compared with the rest of the Forgotten Realms. Or maybe they meant that fantasy race-based racism was absent – sure, you might discriminate against anyone from a nomad band, but you wouldn’t discriminate against a dwarf just because they’re a dwarf.
Even still, I can’t help but find it weird.
Another continual issue with Al’Qadim is the book’s obsession with economics simulation. They have very detailed rules on haggling and barter, as well as what the high, normal, and discount price of all objects are. And then to make sure you use it, they added a rogue kit completely based on it (the merchant rogue) as well as a new skill proficiency for anyone else who might want to barter sessions away.
For me, this is a nightmare scenario. I don’t play D&D to simulate economics. I can see the value of a realistic economic system (since it falls under the general “world-building” aspect of the game), but this is just too much. In my experience, going any further than a single die roll into economics, haggling, or barter is guaranteed to take up the entire rest of the session arguing about bread prices.
And the writers knew this!
Check with the DM before taking this proficiency [Haggling]. While it enhances flavor, haggling may result in PCs spending too much time at the bazaar and too little time on the battlefield.
This is literally in the book. They knew that the haggling system could be complicated and time-consuming, and yet they put it in anyway! Now, not everything in a book has to be for me – sometimes there’ll be mechanics that I just won’t use. But even if that’s the case, can’t you at least come up with some way to simplify or limit it?
Apparently, the answer is no.
Ultimately, I think Al’Qadim isn’t a very useful book today. Many of its decisions are bizarre and difficult to implement in 2nd Edition, much less 5th. Its narrative doesn’t add anything that struck me as irreplaceable, and its kits are mostly too vague to be of use as inspiration. The one upside is the desert survival rules, but even those aren’t that complicated.
If you want to run a campaign inspired by Hollywood’s various renditions of “Arabian Nights,” then this book has some use. But even then it’s limited, because it doesn’t really tell you anything you wouldn’t find elsewhere.
And then there’s the sha’ir. We’ll come back to that one.
Anyway, to finish out this portion I’d like to point out one more small oddity. Al’Qadim adds several new spells, some of which are interesting. There’s depth warning, which helps you avoid reefs while on a boat. There’s whispering sand, a magic mouth clone which can be ruined by a light breeze. And then there’s create shade and lifeproof – both 7th level spells.
Using a 7th level spell slot on lifeproof allows you to extract your heart and place it into a separate vessel, thereby becoming essentially immortal. No damage can kill you so long as your heart remains whole. This is inspired by the classic fairy tale trope of the “heartless king” or similar characters.
Using a 7th level spell slot on create shade, meanwhile, allows you to create a patch of shade to rest in. It lasts for around 10 minutes per level of the caster. The area is 10 square feet per level of the caster. So in 5e, at least, that means a minimum of 130 square feet of shade from the sun, which would last a little more than two hours.
For a 7th level spell slot.
“So this would normally take you a 7th level spell slot, huh?” “Please shut up.”
Anyway, check back soon for a trip into madness with the sha’ir! And, as always – let me know what you think!