Archives of Candlekeep: Actual Forgotten Realms: Al Qadim
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Fifty Eight on 24 March 2021.
Lennon: There you are! Ostron, I need some teleportation.
Ostron: Um, that’s not a spell you can use as a Warlock…I mean you’ve got thunder step but that’s not quite-
Lennon: No, no, no, I need you to teleport me somewhere. Al Qadim, specifically.
Ryu: I’m probably going to regret this but why?
Lennon: Well, I’m trying to explore this alternative patron idea, and I know genies are an option. I hear there are a lot of genies in Al Qadim.
Ostron: Umm…yeah, I might need some help with this.
Ostron (coughing): oh..okay…wow that’s a dusty one. Thanks Libby. Ah, yeah, I see your problem. There isn’t a place called Al Qadim.
Lennon: Um, I’m pretty sure there is. I know I’ve heard about it.
Ostron: Yeah, that’s sort of the problem; you’ve only heard about it and you don’t know the details. To be fair, most people don’t know anything about it anymore except that it might have existed at one point.
Al Qadim is one of the campaign settings for D&D that are part of what people online like to joke are the actual forgotten realms. However, Al Qadim is literally like the Forgotten Realms in the sense that it isn’t actually the name of anywhere. You can’t look at the Sword Coast and find a location marked “Forgotten Realms”. Similarly, you can’t look at a map of Toril (the planet where the Forgotten Realms are), go down to the far southeast of Faerun and find a location marked Al Qadim. What you can find are places called the High Desert, The Haunted Lands, the Great Sea, and Huzuz, all contained within a political region known as Zakhara.
Zakhara is the name of the region where all the Al Qadim content took place. It was mostly put together by Jeff Grubb, a TSR veteran who contributed to the D&D setting guides for The Forgotten Realms, Spelljammer, and Dragonlance. Al Qadim, or at least the initial books in the setting, were put together by him and another TSR designer named Andria Hayday.
Now we’re going to immediately address the camel in the room…and that kind of joke is what we’re talking about. The first book in the setting, literally called Arabian Adventures, opens in part with the following description, which we’re paraphrasing:
“Three distinct visions of Arabia have helped give shape to these rules. The first is the historical Arabian Empire…the home of great warriors, explorers, and traders, as well as great knowledge and civilization. The second Araby, more important to these rules, is that of legend—the world of genies and ghuls, mad barbers and magicians, and young women gifted with true sight. The third Araby comes from our own culture and its Hollywood movies—films that are occasionally humorous and quite often inaccurate.”
Keep in mind, the “humorous and inaccurate” movies mentioned are ones created in the late 70s and 80s, and that should give you a sense of the political and social mores we’re dealing with here. We’re going to present information about this setting as it was published originally. We’re not going to give an opinion one way or the other about the sensitivity or intent behind what was published, other than to say it will probably become clear very quickly why this setting was only ever published for 2nd edition.
To start with, Zakharan society is broadly broken into two separate groups: the Al Badia, described as nomadic desert tribes, and Al Hadhar, or those who dwell in the cities. Like with Eberron, traditional interpretations of many D&D races were turned a bit on their head. In the Al Hadhar group in particular, all sapient humanoid races were considered civilized, helpful members of society, including races such as orcs and goblins. However, they were very much outnumbered by humans, and even more so in the tribes of the Al Badia. However, unlike Eberron they didn’t often go into describing the subcultures of each; it was just assumed any player race could be living as a contributing member of society.
Religion was mostly different as well. The major official religion of the area was called the enlightenment, and was focused on the worship of eight Great Gods, each embodying a particular virtue, as well as several smaller or local gods focused on specific areas. Unlike the Forgotten Realms deities, most of the Enlightenment gods only focused on one thing; you didn’t have a god or goddess of nature, home, and fertility. Each one of those had a different god in charge.
The other major religious focus of the area was Fate. The idea of fate being the prime influence of all things in the world was central to most Zakharan’s belief along with the gods. In Zakharan legend, all of the beliefs and laws of the land were handed down by a woman named the Loregiver, who embodied the essence of Fate specifically to convey the laws to the people of Zakhara. That belief gave rise to one of the names for Zakhara: “the land of fate.”
The center of Zakharan society and religion was the city of Huzuz, where the Grand Caliph ruled (who is different from the Great Caliph, who is the head of genies. Do not get those two mixed up.) Huzuz was also home to the Golden Mosque, a site all adherents to the Enlightenment were expected to make a pilgrimage to at least once in their lives. And if some of you familiar with Islam are starting to raise your hands and go “hang on a minute” at this point, remember what we said at the beginning.
Apart from belief in fate, there are a few other tenets laid out as central to Zakharan society. First there is the concept of honor, which is portrayed as a kind of immediate social contract; if a family or individual’s honor is besmirched, the offended party can and will demand immediate restitution, either by money or by physical punishment (an example in the book outlines, yes, a thief having part of their hand cut off). Only two offenses immediately warrant death; murder and what they call “amorous impropriety.” The example given in the book tells the story of a woman betrothed to a merchant, who instead fell in love with a farmer and ran off with him. To settle the resulting issues of honor, the woman’s brother tracked down his sister and stabbed her in the heart. Then the merchant, looking to settle things with the farmer, arrived to find that the farmer’s family had already killed the young man for him to restore their family’s honor. All of this was considered right and proper behavior, and honor was satisfied.
As you might have gathered from that last part, “purity” is another big deal to Zakharan society, and because various parts of the female body (regardless of species) can be tempting, city-dwelling women are typically shrouded in full covering garments, and are often locked away from the public eye for everyone’s good. The nomadic Al Badia are more egalitarian; the women help with all major tasks, including combat, and wear clothes more like the men, mostly for practical reasons; the tribes can’t afford to have any individual not work.
That sort of division in behavior is a common example of the philosophical divide present between the Al Badia and the Al Hadar. Members of each group believe they are superior to the other. Al Hadar think they’re more pious because they worship in grand temples, while the Al Badia think they are closer to the gods because of being out in nature and depriving themselves. Al Badia think the city dwellers are soft and lazy, while the Al Hadar think the nomads are crazy to live in the desert. However, all of them believe they, and their culture as a whole, is superior to any that outsiders represent. That said, hospitality is another major tenet of Zakharan honor, and they do their best to make any outsider welcome until the point where their honor is offended.
Outside of civilization, the land of Zakhara has a few very specific groups of troublemakers. There are the usual bandit types; tribes and groups that renounced Enlightenment and serve what are called Savage Gods, or those that did not contribute to enlightenment. Some also worship what were called Cold Gods of the Elements; one each for air, earth, fire, and water. As experts in D&D theology might already have guessed, these are actually primordials from the elemental planes.
While most 2nd edition player races were described as integrated into Zakharan society, that wasn’t true of all sapient species. Giants were the local “ancient enemy” and had a vast empire in the region thousands of years before the humans and smaller races took over. Some of them are still around and yearn for the glory days. The Yuan-ti also regularly showed up to cause trouble. One of the major antagonists of the region were the mountain-dwelling Yikaria, or yak-folk; ogre sized humanoids with yak-like heads who had their own society based on slavery and worship of a brutal deity called the Forgotten God; a power that demanded sapient sacrifices to the four elements in exchange for giving the Yikari the ability to regularly enslave dao.
Speaking of dao, at this point some of you are probably wondering “if this is based on Arabian stories and legends, where are the genies?” Apart from the ones enslaved by the Yak-men, genies were definitely a central feature of Al Qadim. The Zakharan beliefs around them set them up as sort of angels with more independent thought. They’re credited with being the major reason the empire of the giants originally fell, and some hold the belief that they are created and dispatched by the gods of enlightenment to punish unbelievers (the fall of several local and more recent empires are credited to vengeful genies). However, they are just as often described as rogue agents, with mischievous and unpredictable motives and behavior.
Mechanically speaking, Al Qadim as a setting didn’t add much to D&D at the time other than as a setting. The only real unique facet of the campaign setting is the enforcement of kits. In 2nd edition, kits were more or less like subclasses are today; enhancements to the flavor and abilities of a class beyond the basics. In 2nd edition those were usually optional, but Al Qadim’s setting not only provided a number of them, but mandated their use for characters in the setting. The stated reason is that the characters interaction with the honor system and laws of Zakhara would be drastically different depending on the kit chosen, which also informed their caste in Zakharan society.
As we’ve already said, Al Qadim only got a major release for D&D’s 2nd edition. There were multiple sourcebooks and adventure modules published at the time, with titles such as Secrets of the Lamp, Ruined Kingdoms, Golden Voyages, and Corsairs of the Great Sea. Dungeon and Dragon magazines also had a decent amount of supplemental material to go along with the setting. After 2nd edition, though, Al Qadim was really never seen again. Dragon magazine published some 3.5 prestige classes (again, think complex subclass rules) that were based on some of the kits created for 2nd edition, but no sourcebooks or reference materials have come out before or since. Though, if you’ve been paying attention, you can probably guess why Wizards of the Coast may have been hesitant to revisit the setting, particularly the details as portrayed in the original source. It remains to be seen if they will go through the effort to update the setting for modern audiences. In the meantime, if you want to go campaigning in the land of fate, you’ll have to do most of the legwork yourself.
Ryu: All right, so you convinced me, but then why *did* the village give you a vegetable ovation instead of the standing one.
Ostron: Remember what he said about everyone having an opinion, good or bad?
Lennon: I still say the rock triangle currency is going to be big. I just can’t get anyone to go along with it.
Ryu: Oh! I still have tremors from the hammering. And my room is covered in rock dust! Hang on, I need to give you an object example of what a 20 in dexterity can do. Do we have any melons? Ohhh or a pineapple!
Lennon: Scrying pool time!
Ostron: Do we have a lot of letters?
Lennon: Don’t care; the room has a closeable door.