Last time, we looked at the entirety of Al’Qadim: Arabian Adventures except for one thing. Today, we look at that one thing: the sha’ir.
“Why wasn’t this a class? How is this a wizard?”
Those are the first of my notes from reading about the sha’ir. Things only went downhill from there. The sha’ir is maddening.
So without any further wait, let’s go!
Sha’ir We Go
Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat – I think this kit is absolutely terrible. Unless I’m severely misunderstanding something, it is nigh unplayable. It’s self-contradictory, vague and over specific in turn, and ultimately I don’t know why this was considered a good idea.
To begin, we’ll look at the sha’ir spellcasting system. We’ll detail it first, and then I’ll comment afterwards – trust me, the description alone is complicated enough without my madman’s ravings interspersed here and there.
A sha’ir is a wizard who gains power from a bond with genies, including an elemental familiar called a gen. As far as I can tell, this is pronounced almost exactly the same as “djinn,” a type of normal genie. That will not be the most confusing thing about this kit.
Sha’irs don’t cast spells like normal wizards. Rather than a spellbook or spell slots, a sha’ir “requests” spells from their familiar, who then “searches the planes to find the spell” and bring it back to them. This spell must then be cast within 3 minutes. The amount of time this fetching process takes depends on the level and source of the spell.
- If a wizard of the same level as the sha’ir could normally cast this spell, this process takes 1d6 minutes + 1 minute per level of the spell. Thus a 1st level sha’ir can request a 1st level wizard spell and get it within 2 to 7 minutes.
- If a wizard of the same level of the sha’ir could not normally cast this spell, but it’s still found on the wizard spell list, then fetching it takes 1d6 x 10 minutes + 10 minutes per level of the spell. Thus a 1st level sha’ir can request a 3rd level wizard spell and get it within 40 to 90 minutes.
- If the spell isn’t a wizard spell (yes, sha’irs can cast cleric spells), then it takes 1d6 hours + 1 hour per level of the spell. Thus a 1st level sha’ir can request any 1st through 9th level cleric spell and get it within 2 to 7 hours.
However, this “fetching” process doesn’t guarantee a success. At base, there’s a 50% chance the gen will successfully find the spell – additional modifiers (based on the level of the spell, the level of the sha’ir, the type of spell, etc.) then apply to raise or lower that chance. Asking for a spell below the maximum level you can cast is easier, while a higher level spell (or a cleric spell) is harder.
Finally, a sha’ir can only cast spells using their gen familiar. A sha’ir without a familiar (either because it died or because it was sent elsewhere) cannot cast spells. If the familiar dies, the sha’ir loses half their hit points (current or maximum isn’t specified) and any further familiars summoned have a permanent +1 to all rolls for fetching spells. Thus a requested 1st level wizard spell would become a 3 to 8 minute process (1d6 minutes + 1 per level of the spell +1 for the new familiar).
Additionally, the familiar bond can be broken by dispel magic – whether or not this incurs a similar penalty when the familiar is killed and resummoned is not specified. Thus I’m unsure if the sha’ir would lose half their current and/or maximum hit points after having dispel magic cast on them (I’m wagering no), or if the sha’ir’s new familiar, when summoned, would add a permanent +1 to all spell fetching (I can’t see any reason in the text that this would not be the case).
Let’s take a minute to look at this. Because it is utterly absurd.
Firstly, I have to point out that combat worked differently in 2e. Rounds and turns had very different definitions, and spell cast times were more complicated. We don’t need to go too into things except to say that typical combats in 2e did not take an hour. So fights were longer than in 5e (where most last maybe a minute, or 2 minutes tops), but not by an insane amount.
So a sha’ir in combat was, simply put, screwed.
If they just want to cast a single 1st level wizard spell, they have to wait a minimum of 2 minutes to do so. Once they get the spell, they still have to then cast the spell, which takes additional time. And this is all assuming the gen is able to find the damn thing in the first place – which is not a guarantee even for a 1st level sha’ir casting 1st level wizard spells. The best time to ask a sha’ir to cast a combat spell is literally ten minutes ago.
If we assume that AD&D 2e combats always took 10 minutes (they did not), then that means the sha’ir, at most, can cast a single 1st level spell. And that’s assuming that the gen successfully finds the spell, which isn’t guaranteed.
Then there’s the problem of enemy spellcasters. You can completely shut down a sha’ir with a single 3rd level spell – dispel magic. This dispels their gen, thus meaning they cannot ask for any more spells. Depending on how you read things, this could also give that sha’ir a permanent +1 to the timing of all their future spell fetch attempts. If you’re particularly loose with the interpretation, it might also halve their hit points.
Since gen are specifically elementals, a creature type no other class or kit can have as a familiar, you could just safely cast dispel magic on every enemy spellcaster with an elemental familiar and completely remove their ability to cast spells. The sha’ir, as far as I can tell, didn’t gain any bonus proficiencies or combat options to counteract this unique weakness.
I mean seriously, shutting down a normal wizard takes something like anti-magic field which is an 8th level spell.
This is the single worst casting system I’ve ever seen.
Additionally, there’s the issue of balance. Let’s say the sha’ir didn’t suck (a completely false statement if ever there was one). In that case, a sha’ir can basically cast any spell they want as long as they’re patient and lucky. It might take several months, but you can eventually just get wish. As a 1st level character. At which point, presumably, you would wish to be a different class.
You can also get cleric spells, which is pretty powerful. This is balanced by the fact that if you get a cleric spell of too high a level (unspecified) then a random god will hit you with a curse (also unspecified) or send a monster (guess what) to kill you. So always make sure to spend your first couple of months fishing for that wish spell so you can simply wish for immunity to divine retribution.
Then there’s the problem of low-level spells: sha’irs don’t have spell slots. That means the amount of spells they can cast per day is limited only by how much time is available. A lucky sha’ir could easily cast almost fifty 1st level spells with just 8 hours of work. And that’s assuming every spell takes its maximum amount of time to fetch, and takes a solid three minutes to cast on top of that.
I know 1st level spells aren’t a huge deal, but this is still crazy. The system just wasn’t made with this amount of casting in mind. I scanned the Wizard’s Spell Compendium (first volume) to find something abusable and found something within 5 minutes: animate dead animals. A 1st level wizard can animate 4 skeletons of very weak, small animals with a single casting. The skeletons last until killed. Thus a sha’ir could create a hundred and twenty skeletal squirrels with just one hour of effort, phenomenal luck, and a disturbingly large collection of dead squirrels.
I’m being a bit facetious, but this seriously is a problem. If the sha’ir was functional, it would be broken. It isn’t currently broken only because it is fundamentally unplayable in the first place.
Sha’ir’s the Deal
And that’s just the spellcasting system. The sha’ir has other features besides that. Though they aren’t as completely off-the-wall as the spell system, they’re still weird.
First is the gen, the sha’ir’s elemental familiar. This gen can be one of four types – earth, air, water, or fire. Each type has its own specific name based on the name of real genies of that type, but none of the names are worth using.
Your choice of element with your gen affects several things. For one, sha’irs get a minor bonus on saves against effects of the appropriate type. Each element also has a specific thing it excels at.
- Earth gen deal more damage on hits (2d6 instead of 1d6).
- Air gen have an increased fly speed. This does nothing to decrease the time it takes to fetch a spell, which is 90% of all movement your gen will be doing.
- Water gen give a whole host of benefits, all exclusively useful while underwater – on land, they’re worthless.
- Fire gen are evil and can cast produce flame at-will, which is nice considering it would take like half an hour for you to cast that yourself.
Finally, you get bonuses when dealing with genies of the same element as your gen. This becomes relevant with the class’s other features.
Next up are the sha’ir’s various genie-related abilities. They are all awful. Seriously, most are nigh-worthless except in exceedingly specific circumstances, and basically all of them have very low success chances at low level. One of the features even locks you out of using most of the other ones – potentially forever!
I mean… was this supposed to be an NPC class? Because if so, they never mentioned it. Anyway, here’s a summary of the features:
- Initially, you can identify genies, items made by genies, spells cast by genies, and even hidden or shapechanged genies (5% chance of success per sha’ir level).
- A little later, you can yell and summon a jann – a genie which will help you if you’re lost and starving and not with anything else. You also have to be in a desert. It, too, has a low success rate (5% per sha’ir level), and the jann takes like half an hour to show up. They do not rush.
- After that, once per week you can summon a real genie (5% chance of success per level). This genie isn’t beholden to you in any way. You can negotiate with it using various conditions to affect its chance of accepting, which is based on the reactions table. Also wishes are basically off the table.
- Later on, you can bind a summoned genie for a longer period of service. They make a saving throw, but you can improve your chances by agreeing to various stipulations. If bound, the genie can be asked to cast spells for you since it can do so innately and without waiting three hours per spell.
- Next, you get the ability to craft a “genie prison” and thereby completely ruin your ability to use any of your other features. It takes 1d20 days and a difficult Dexterity check to make the vessel, and if the genie succeeds its save it’ll likely want to kill you. This one can be used to get you wishes (assuming it works).
- Finally, you can request an audience with a noble genie. This process takes 10 days, isn’t guaranteed, and the noble genie in question doesn’t have to do anything for you. Also if you’ve imprisoned genies before (see above), the noble genie might just kill you.
A lot of these features are theoretically very powerful. The last couple are specifically called out as allowing you to potentially get wishes from various genies. This assumes, of course, that the sha’ir can survive long enough (and kill enough monsters) to even get to later levels in the first place.
Originally I struggled to understand why a sha’ir, who can cast any spell including wish as many times as they want given enough time and luck, would ever bother to try to get wishes out of genies. But then I remembered the consequences of wish in 2e. They are quite severe, even for relatively basic stuff. So getting a genie to do it for you does have appeal.
But this is all assuming your DM would even want to let you have all these wishes in the first place. I know I wouldn’t! Even a single wish spell can present DMs with a massive headache to avoid derailing the campaign – a sha’ir with a bound genie and three wishes is even worse!
This is all theoretical, of course, because most of these features have low success chances and further limits specific to wish-granting. But the problem here is that the various genies you can bargain with don’t do much of value besides granting wishes. Sometimes their capabilities are left frustratingly vague, but even when specified the benefits just… aren’t good.
You can get a genie to be your bodyguard (since it can both fight better than you and cast quicker than you), but it still uses all the normal loyalty rules. Even if just assigned to keep watch, 10% of the time it just falls asleep at its post. It can carry messages and deliveries. It can also die, which then imposes you with massive penalties to all future bargaining with genies.
There’s also a caveat to the genie prison feature that if it’s a mean genie, other genies might forgive you for imprisoning it. That’s a relief, because otherwise you can just never use most of your kit features ever again.
When You Wish Upon a Sha’ir
Simply put, this is the absolute worst class, subclass, or kit I’ve ever seen in a fully published book. Maybe The Complete Cleric’s Handbook provides some worse kits, but I haven’t read it yet. The thought that it might have something worse than this literally keeps me up at night.
Just as an aside, there is actually a Complete Sha’ir’s Handbook published… I just don’t have it. I also don’t anticipate getting it any time soon. Maybe it fixes some of the insanity of this kit or maybe it doesn’t. The simple fact that a kit got an entire handbook dedicated to it should be a clue at how ridiculous this thing is.
But the biggest problem I have with the sha’ir isn’t its spellcasting. Or its other features, or any of its confusingly vague statements. No, my biggest problem with the sha’ir is that all of those issues ruin what is, narratively, a super interesting class.
This has all been how I truly feel about the kit, but the real cincher is that I wanted to like it. The narrative is fascinating. The aesthetic is wonderfully unique. In some ways it reads like a very early attempt at the modern warlock concept, while in other ways it fits perfectly as a culture-specific subclass of wizard.
And yet, deep down, it’s worthless.
Often when I review these old books, one of the things I’m most on the lookout for is concepts which can be brought forward to modern systems. Those features, alongside particularly interesting narrative ideas or DM planning tools, are what I look for. And Al’Qadim is almost completely devoid of anything worth taking, except the sha’ir narrative (maybe).
There’s no possible way to fix the 2e sha’ir. Not for me, anyway – I don’t have a good enough understanding of 2e to be able to pull something like that off. But could the sha’ir ever be usable?
Well… yeah. It already is. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything added The Genie as a warlock Patron, and it works perfectly to mimic the feel of the sha’ir. And it’s much better in terms of balance. The only thing it loses is that godawful casting system, which I think it’s safe to say isn’t that big a loss.
But, having said that, let’s try to bring it back shall we?
It may seem insane for me to want to bring back something I just spent so much time criticizing. But one key part about this insane spellcasting system is that I actually do like the narrative of it, just a little. For one, it’s pretty unique to think of spells as being semi-tangible things which you can go out and find “in the wild,” as it were. It also creates a lot of opportunities for DMs to introduce plot points or other narrative constructs into the game – who knows what a little familiar might find while out in the great open Planes.
Thus the fact that the spellcasting system is so unusable is a bit of a shame. And I think there are relatively easy options available to fix it – to a degree. And not in its 2e incarnation, no. Only in a 5e version anchored in the Genie warlock from Tasha’s.
My fix involves adding two Eldritch Invocations specifically tied to the Genie patron.
Elemental Familiar. Requires: Pact of the Chain, The Genie patron. Your familiar, while it can take other forms, is innately an elemental creature of the same element as your patron and is drawn from their home plane. As an elemental, it does not breathe and can compress to slip through openings as narrow as one inch wide in its natural form. Additionally, your familiar grants you one of several benefits based on its elemental type. You gain this benefit only while the familiar is within 3oft of you and in its natural form. Air. You reduce fall damage by an amount equal to half your warlock level and no longer expend movement to stand up when prone. You can hold your breath for three times longer than usual. Earth. You gain resistance to nonmagical slashing and piercing damage. You and your familiar count as one size category larger for any creatures grappling you, but not when determining what creatures you can grapple. Water. You gain resistance to cold damage and no longer suffer ill effects from cold environments. When in water, you naturally float upwards 5ft per round unless you choose not to. Fire. You gain resistance to fire damage and no longer suffer ill effects from hot environments. Your familiar sheds light as in the light cantrip if you wish it to and its body can be used to light small, nonmagical fires (such as campfires or torches).
This first one takes care of the gen fantasy, though you’ll note that I refuse to call the familiar a “gen” because it’s a confusing name. The Invocation might need a level requirement as well, but none of the effects are too extreme. I’d also want to do more consideration on the grappling clause for the Earth familiar – it’s intended to represent you and your familiar being unnaturally heavy during grappling, but I don’t want it to give any sort of active benefit besides that.
But hey, give me a break – this isn’t even a homebrew post.
Palatial Sundries. Requires: Pact of the Chain, The Genie patron. Once per day, you can order your familiar to leave for your patron's palatial home in the Elemental Planes and search it for either a spell or a common magic item. A spell you choose must be of a level you can cast with your Pact Magic spell slots and it must be found on the warlock spell list (including your patron's expanded spells). Your familiar spends 1d10 minutes + 10 minutes per level of the spell on this search. Once it returns, you add the spell to your list of spells known until you complete a long rest. If you ask for an item, your familiar takes 1d20 x 5 minutes to search for the item. If you roll a 1, the familiar returns after 5 minutes without the item. If you roll a 20, the familiar returns after an hour with two of the item. On both a 1 and a 20, you cannot ask for the same item again for one week. You may only have one item from your patron's home at a time. Your patron always knows when you request a spell or item, and selling an item from their home is likely to cause severe repercussions.
This second, slightly more complex Invocation takes the place of the absolutely unusable sha’ir spellcasting system. This one shouldn’t need a level requirement since it only allows you to get spells of an appropriate level (unlike the 1st level sha’ir with flame strike) and common magic items aren’t too gamebreaking. The most frequent use of this would likely be on potions of healing – that might need to be excluded or otherwise more limited, but I haven’t done the numbers.
Either one of these Invocations would allow you to port over the feel of the sha’ir in much simpler terms than Al’Qadim uses. And both could likely be refined to be even simpler to explain, that just isn’t the focus of this article. I especially would want to figure out if there are even stronger ways to prevent people from using Palatial Sundries to run a profitable side hustle in common magic items. But that can wait for another time.
Sha’ir’s to You
And that has been my in-depth criticism of the sha’ir kit. I generally like to avoid outright criticizing something unless I know it’s bad – luckily, the sha’ir really is just that bad.
I think the thing that sticks with me the most is confusion. How did no one notice these problems when designing the thing? What did they expect sha’ir gameplay to actually look like? Why did they take this objectively interesting character concept and not turn it into a full class?
There’s likely no way to know. But the fact remains that the sha’ir is a confusing, difficult-to-use, nigh-unplayable mess. I would say that I’d like to hear from people who actually played a sha’ir in 2e, but given the issues with the kit I feel it’s very likely those people either a) expunged the experience from their memory, or b) died and/or got bored too fast to really have any solid impressions besides “it sucks.”
I gave some final impressions in my first post about Al’Qadim, but I’d like to go a bit more in-depth now that I’ve fully covered everything.
As I said before, Al’Qadim is not a very useful book today. None of its kits are worth bringing forward into modern systems. Even the sha’ir, an interesting concept tied into unusable mechanics, has already been moved forward with the Genie patron from Tasha’s. And besides the class options, Al’Qadim offers no unique items or skills. There’s an economics simulator, if you’re into that sort of thing.
There are plenty of interesting spells in Al’Qadim, including the bizarre 7th level pair of lifeproof, the immortality spell, and create shade, a spell replicable with a moderately sized tent. But many others are perfectly usable, and potentially worth adapting into a modern system.
But if those spells are the highlight of the book, then Al’Qadim is still useless because all those spells (and many, many, many more) can be found in the Wizard’s Spell Compendium series.
The story elements aren’t anything to write home about either. It really does feel like someone pitched “Zakhara, the Land of Fate” as a wholly separate setting like Dark Sun, Grayhawk, or Dragonlance and then had to last-minute force the thing into the Forgotten Realms.
And who knows, that could’ve been literally what happened! I don’t know much about early D&D’s pivot from Grayhawk to the Forgotten Realms as a “default” setting. And I still don’t know how or where “Points of Light” fits into the whole process either (if that is, indeed, real and not just a fever dream of mine from ten years ago).
But the Land of Fate just doesn’t offer anything that isn’t already offered somewhere else. Grayhawk at least has a significant difference in the “state of the world” when compared to the Forgotten Realms. Dragonlance supposedly has a much richer history along with a different feel to it. But Al’Qadim?
Not so much, unfortunately. There could’ve been something here, judging on the “historical” inspiration at least. There’s tons of cool things you can adapt from historical Arabian and Islamic cultures. Unfortunately it turns out that when you adapt only from Hollywood, what you end up with is mostly guys in turbans sitting on camels.
Anyway… I have a few more Late Reviews in the first stages of production – which is to say that there are multiple old D&D books lying by my desk for me to read and take notes on. While I had originally been planning to tackle The Complete Cleric’s Handbook next, I think I might swap to something without such a dour reputation. I really don’t want these reviews to be nothing but doom, gloom and sass all the time.
We’ll see. In the meantime, let me know what you think!
“Okay, okay, you’re only a 1st level wizard and you can cast a 7th level spell – impressive, I guess. But are you seriously telling me that you spent over an hour to just make a tent-sized patch of shade to rest in?”
“Don’t think I won’t kill you for-”
“In what, five hours?”