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[Let's Read] Al-Qadim: Land of Fate Boxed Set

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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!

Chapter 3: Life in the Desert

This is a rather brief chapter, focusing on how the al-Badia people live. Zakhara is dominated by two major deserts: the High Desert and the Haunted Lands, and besides a few examples no large cities exist given that what few sources of water there are. All recognize the deserts’ dangers, but the al-Badia can see the beauty of the land. Nomad tribes heavily rely upon trade and livestock for survival: sour milk, roasted desert rats and lizards, and dates are common sources of food, and in lieu of water people wash with sand for hygiene. Dogs and falcons are commonly used for hunting prey, particularly gazelle, and it is customary to pray to Fate and the gods before going on an expedition to raise one’s chances of success. A unique and rare food known as “nomad’s bread” is regarded as a delicacy by the al-Badia, cooked from unleavened dough tossed into a campfire before being cleaned of ash and sand and dunked in a cup of butter.

Al-Badia tribes have seasonal routes where they pick up stakes and make voyages to nearby towns and cities, selling the various goods of their people (wool, livestock, textiles, etc) to in turn buy items they cannot ordinarily obtain on their own. They often graze off the land, and when camping arrange their tents so that they’re within easy hearing range of warning horns in the event of trouble.

For what they cannot (or will not) trade for, they often obtain in raids where hunters will ride at night or during a dust storm to steal cattle from another tribe. This is meant to be a non-lethal affair, where those who remain in their tents are untouched and combat is not to the death, with signs of surrender known to almost all tribes to ensure that such raids don’t devolve into blood feuds. City-dwellers have no love or understanding for such raids, so nomads who attack villages and outposts often escalate things into bloodier affairs. More sensible and honorable tribes discourage this practice unless times are truly lean.

Nomads recognize laws of hospitality much as city-dwellers do, although the traditions are different in some ways, such hanging up a frock at a tent’s front to celebrate a guest’s arrival. It is during this time that the al-Badia have mutton as a feast, for sheep are delicious but their wool is an important trade good. Marriage (and divorce) are more informal as well, where a husband simply declares his desire three times while in the woman’s case she returns to her parents’ home. Babies are often decorated with blue-beaded caps, kohl on the face, and a dagger by the side of their crib in belief that such things protect them against the evil eye, a unique type of curse in Zakhara which is often bestowed by genies who become jealous of mortals who are too obviously arrogant.*

*This has mechanical rules in Arabian Adventures, and as a result causes most Zakharans to make shows of humility when they are praised in public.

It goes without saying that camels are a common herd animal among the al-Badia, as well as anyone who seeks to traverse Zakhara’s inland regions. They can endure the heat and poor resources of the desert, their dung can be used for fire fuel, and their urine serves as a multipurpose shampoo/disinfectant/eyewash/laxative.

Honestly, I am a bit surprised that there’s no mention of horses. In real-world Arab societies horses played an iconic role more so than camels, and served as a status symbol and were used for a variety of roles from racing to war. Camels were more typically draft animals.

Chapter 4: Desert Tribes

This chapter covers the major groups of al-Badia, split up into tribes of the High Desert and the Haunted Lands with nine among the former and three upon the latter. There are hundreds of smaller tribes which are little more than individual bands and extended family units, while the major tribes can number thousands of people (and ten times as many livestock). The tribes of the Haunted Lands by contrast are fewer in number, and their region is more highly elevated above sea level. Said desert was once home to warring kingdoms, and it is an important trading route connecting the eastern Ruined Kingdoms to the League of the Pantheon.

A Note on NPCs: It is with this chapter that we begin to see a common trend in the al-Qadim setting. Although none have full stat blocks, Zakhara is similar to Forgotten Realms in that its important figures tend towards the higher levels. Most city rulers and tribal leaders are quite high level, ranging from the low 10s to 15 and higher. Levels 5 to 10 are usually the sons and daughters or more minor yet notable figures in court. But unlike Forgotten Realms, most such figures tend to the interests of their hometowns primarily (or themselves for the less scrupulous sorts); nobody exceeds 20th level, and there’s no Elminster or Seven Sisters’ equivalents going around Zakhara and righting wrongs. Even the Grand Caliph and his court usually delegate matters to local rulers instead of intervening directly, using the empire’s bureaucracy and institutional power to alleviate injustices.

Tribes of the High Desert
House of Asad (Children of the Lion) are one of the more prosperous tribes of the High Desert, and this in turn makes them quite arrogant. They claim a notable Jamal Oasis as their land but let other Enlightened tribes make use of it. Their leader, Sheikh Najib bin Kamal al-Asad, is one of the few 20th level NPCs in the setting and is known for being unmatched in combat.

House Bakr (Clan of the Young Camel) mostly live in and nearby Tajara, one of the cities of the Pearl. Their leader, Sheikh Ali al-Hadd, is the son of one of the rebels against the city’s ruler, who saw a vision that the people of his clan would know only misfortune within its walls. As said leader was formerly a prominent officer, relations between House Bakr and Tajar’s government are strained.

House of Dhib (Sons of the Wolf) live mostly as craftsmen and herders, but are notorious raiders of caravans and use old qal’ats (ruined fortresses) in the mountains to store their ill-gotten gains. Many such strongholds are believed to be magically warded from conventional view. Its leader, Sheikh Anwat al-Makkur, is gaunt to the point that he’s nicknamed “the Skeleton.”

House of Dubb (House of the Bear) live in the southwest portion of the High Desert, and also harvest the woodland resources of the Realm of Bleeding Trees. Its leader, Sheikh Yaqub al-Quwwat, would much prefer to go out on adventures than attend his traditional duties. He has also fallen in love with the city of Ajayib’s ruler, in part because he is still unmarried without children and was told of a prophecy that he does not have long to live.

House of Nasr (People of the Eagle) are well-known for maintaining the Desert Mosque which is holy to all nomadic tribes. The clans among the house serve yearly rotations where they watch over the mosque, and its leader Sheikh Nadia umm Fadela is famous for protecting it from foreign raiders. She is  also known for single handedly rescuing her daughter from a band of mamluk slavers from Qudra. Said daughter has red hair* and was thus mistaken as an Unenlightened barbarian. This was all settled amicably once the mistake was revealed, and the responsible mamluks were assigned to the less-prestigious naval units of their city

*which calls the marital faithfulness of Sheikh Nadia into question in very whispered hushes.

House of Sihr (Jann of the High Desert) are not humanoid at all, but rather janni who live in the most inhospitable region of the High Desert: the appropriately-named Genie’s Anvil.  They are a diverse gathering of clans hailing from faraway lands, some serving greater genies and others independent. They live much as other al-Badia, albeit with more magical abilities in common use. Their leader, Amir Bouladin al-Mutajalli, oversees a group of lesser sheikhs who regard themselves as the most important clan, and his daughter is often fond of disguising herself as a mortal and accompanying adventurers to fascinating locations.

House of Tayif (Ghost-Warriors) are Unenlightened, and their major stock in trade is raiding other tribes and appear to only seek violence against trading caravans. Its leader, Mouli al-Ajami,* is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigner who seeks vengeance against the Caliphate for his capture and torture at the hands of Qudran mamluks. Interestingly said foreigner is a Paladin, and given that this is pre-4th Edition where they could only be Lawful Good, this makes me wonder if there’s some deeper tale to tell behind this. Anger at Qudra’s military is understandable (they aren’t above using under-handed measures against their fellow cities as we’ll find out in Chapter 7), but the tribes’ portrayal sounds like they’re attacking a much wider audience than the mamluks.

*Ajami is a Zakharan term for ‘foreigner.’ Another foreign NPC in this book also has this title.

House of Thawr (Children of the Bull) had the majority of their number settle into more sedentary lives in the Pearl Cities. The remaining nomads have been on the receiving end of attacks from said cities after some unsuccessful raids. Its leader, Sheikh Ali al-Sadid, has refused various plans from advisors, instead placing his trust in visions of a “cleansing wind” that shall destroy the cities. His daughter worries about her father’s sanity, and has pressed the ablest members of the tribe into scouring dungeons and ruins for valuable treasures to uplift themselves out of poverty.

House of Uqab are technically Enlightened and pledge loyalty to the Grand Caliph, but they are made up of outcasts from the other tribes and not hospitable to strangers. They have even been known to recruit Unenlightened tribes from the mountains, but often employ them as expendable mercenaries on the front lines of raids. Their leader, Solina al-Ganij, is a powerful fire mage and former member of the Brotherhood of the True Flame who is on the run after a failed assassination attempt against the sultana of Hiyal.

Tribes of the Haunted Lands
Unlike the High Desert, these ones have no alternate names in parenthesis.

House of Hanif are the largest tribe and whose center of governance operates out of a qal’at once home to an order of holy slayers. They are loyal to the Caliph and even have their own ambassador in Huzuz. The leaders’ two sons differ on their relationship to the Grand Caliph, with one entranced with the courts’ wonders and marvels of the city-dwellers, while the other feels that they are too much under the al-Hadhar’s thumb and advocates building their own city. Both sons have advocates among the tribes, which may lead into an ideological split.

House of Hotek have a legendary rivalry with the City of Hiyal. The greed and treachery of the latter’s governance has earned them many enemies, and the House’s numbers increased exponentially from those who lost everything from Hiyal’s sultana. Its leader, Ibrin bin Hotek, seeks to destroy the city and the evil legacy of its rulers, and leads many raids against its holdings.

Jann of the Haunted Lands tend to be more erratic and quick to offense than their counterparts in the High Desert, which causes most to avoid them unless they have no other option. They once lived in a grand civilization known as the Great Anvil, but its buildings are now charred ruins among the desert. Many people theorize that this is the reason for their violence and paranoia. They used to pledge loyalty to every new Grand Caliph for the past 14 generations, but as of today no jann diplomat has been sent to Huzuz’s court. Its leader, Amir Heidar Qan (who has no HD or level listed) has not been seen in 50 years, and if he’s alive he acts only through servants who claim to speak in his will.

Thoughts So Far: I like how the al-Badia clans have enough detail that virtually each of them has an adventure hook of some kind or an interesting ally or backstory for a nomadic PC. There’s quite a bit of talk on the ‘mundanities of life’ which I touched upon in my last entry. Unfortunately, we don’t have much more info on nomads beyond these chapters, for the rest are by and large dedicated to the al-Hadhar cities of Zakhara.

Join us next time as we cover Chapter 5: Gods & Faiths!

good to see you back!

Chapter 5: Gods and Faiths

This is the big chapter on religious beliefs in Zakhara, Enlightened and otherwise. Society recognizes three major groupings of deities, which is more of a cultural designator than an objective cosmic fact: Major or Great Deities, who are universally (or near-universally in the case of the Pantheist League) worshiped in the Caliphate; Local or Common Deities, who are those considered legitimate by the Law of the Loregiver but have smaller followings; and Savage or Heathen Deities, a catch-all term for foreign gods who do not recognize the Law.

Religion in the Caliphate functions differently than in other D&D settings; people often pray to the gods as a whole, choosing specific deities as favorites based on their circumstances, occupation, and other factors. Divine spellcasters of organized churches often, but not always, give the majority of their devotion to a single deity. Furthermore, the eight Major deities have no alignment; alignment is instead based on the priest kit* rather than one’s patron deity, and instead they reflect universal archetypes which can be found in both the noblest hero and foulest villain. Local and Savage Deities are closer to basic D&D where they have specific alignments which the majority of worshipers belong to.

*2nd Edition terminology for a subclass.

Beyond the gods themselves, the aspects of the Caliphate’s religion speak a lot about Fate. Fate is not a god or entity (although she’s portrayed as a personified woman in some tales) so much as a universal force of nature which affects all things. The Loregiver was a long-ago mortal woman who served as an interpreter of Fate’s cosmic threads. She penned the Law which would serve as the building blocks for moral society, and the gods who saw its wisdom came to be known as the Major Deities, with later-comers known as Local and Common Deities.

Zakharan religion has some Islamic influences, as you might imagine. It is customary to kneel to the ground during prayer, although in some cases bowing one’s head silently is accepted. Prayer itself which is held at different times of day based on the position of the sun and moon. Worshipers pray in the direction of the capital city of Huzuz, and much like the pilgrimage to Mecca it is customary for the Enlightened to visit the Golden Mosque there at least once in their lives. There’s nothing in the Law which mandates that prayer and sermons be held at temples; barring centers of supernatural power, centers of worship are a more practical affair constructed to strengthen community bonds as well as have a common point of reference in a settlement.

Note: The text makes reference to class kits from the Arabian Adventures sourcebook, which I’ll discuss here. Clerics are grouped by the same faith rather than individual gods, and there are no “specialty priests.” Specialty priest is an AD&D term for clerics with their own Spheres which were not unlike later Edition cleric domains. Priests of Order were part of a hierarchical church and grouped into Pragmatists (most liberal and tolerant, in touch with the common folk), Ethoists (more conservative, the ‘baseline/mainstream’ religion in Zakhara), and Moralists (preach the supremacy of their individual deity over all others). The differences between Order Priest Kits are political in nature; they all have access to the same kinds of cleric spheres even if they favor a particular Enlightened god, and ethoist and moralist priests are able to get various social boons such as safe havens, room and board in temples, monetary loans, hired help and special assistants, all in exchange for being bound by the bureaucracy and hierarchies of their church. Moralist priests get more political boons in exchange for more restrictions. Pragmatists may be any alignment, ethoists any non-chaotic, and moralists have to be lawful.

Free Priests do not belong to an organized faith and whose kits include Hakima (women with second sight and truth-telling abilities), Kahins (idol-worshipers who believe in a universal divine force), and Mystics (ascetics who gain divine insight through trance, meditation, and introspective activities over rote prayer and learning).

Great Gods are the eight major deities of Zakhara. Each entry (including the following Local and Savage Gods) has formulaic listings of holy symbols, special abilities only their priests gain if any (usually +1 to a certain ability score), permitted weapons beyond basic cleric proficiencies, as well as where their centers of worship are most common.

Hajama the Courageous represents courage in all its forms, and not just the kind in battle. He is popular in areas of harsh terrain and where conflict is common. Hakiyah of the Sea Breezes is associated more with wisdom and truth than the sea, viewed as a wise mentor figure. She encourages the faithful to be skeptical and to never be certain or content with how things are, but also to not act rashly or with immediateness. Haku, Master of the Desert Wind, is closely associated with nomadic culture and preaches a doctrine of self-reliance. Jauhar the Gemmed is only considered a Great God in the League of the Pantheon, a goddess of industry who encourages the accumulation of wealth as the ultimate means of bettering oneself and the community. Jisan of the Floods is a goddess of fertility and agriculture, who is theorized to have once been a storm goddess in pre-Enlightenment times. Kor the Venerable is a god of wisdom, order, and stability and is thus often portrayed as a wizened old man who uses a hatchet to metaphorically attack “the root of the problem.” Najm the Adventurous is a deity of uncertain gender who is associated with curiosity and daring deeds, and whose priesthood are the most likely to travel the world to experience its wonders and to bring word of the Law to foreign cultures. Selan the Beautiful Moon is a goddess of beauty and joy, patron of the night sky. Her chariot pulls the moon across the horizon, followed by her mainy suitors who take the form of stars. Finally, Zann the Learned encourages learning and the written word, for knowledge is best utilized when spread far and wide. His followers are heavily involved in the creation of libraries and centers of learning, although they have a bias against texts from heathen cultures and presume them to be works of fiction. Which seems like a pretty huge hurdle in their ideology.

Gods of the Pantheon is novel in that it gets its own entry not as a deity, but as a religious movement. Holding sway over a group of cities collectively known as the League of the Pantheon (aka Pantheist League), they recognize only five deities out of eight as being Enlightened. Pantheist teachings view Hakiyah, Haku, Jisan, and Zann as being less than sincere, merely wishing to join the winning side, and consider one of their local gods Jauhar to be a Great God instead. This is of course disputed by other political and religious factions, although as of now they coexist in a tense peace. Only Pantheon-approved deities are allowed to be worshiped in their mosques, and members of even other Enlightened deities face heapings of legal persecution which drive their faiths underground. The gods themselves have not weighed in as to the correctness of the Pantheon one way or the other.

Local Gods are highly numerous in the Land of Fate, although this boxed set only details 4 entries. They usually have strong ties to a tribe, holy site, or other geo-political center. They include the regular priest kits of al-Qadim plus the specialized idol-worshipers known as Kahins. Kahins are Zakhara’s equivalent to druids, who share an animist-like belief that divine power is present in all things. Kahins are believed to belong to some of the oldest religions in Zakhara, and are known to worship physical objects in addition to deities in order to gain their powers. Their practices encourage moderation and balance, and have no organized churches or hierarchy.

Bala of the Tidings is a goddess of music, whose worshipers suffered major losses in a war with the League of the Pantheon. Their religious center was the city of Mahabba, and small groups of holy slayers avenge themselves on Pantheist officials. Bala’s faith encourages the use of song and music to make people strive towards good works, but now most people know of her through violence and thus call her Bala of Ill Tidings.

The Temple of Ten Thousand Gods is a religious movement that recognizes all deities, both Enlightened and heathen, to be various faces of a single god whose presence manifests in different ways to different people. The movement is tolerated in the Caliphate, although moralists insist that they’re a false religion or a mere philosophy without a god (but they receive cleric spells all the same). Priests of the Temple of Ten Thousand Gods are a small, decentralized religion whose few tenets include universal tolerance (“all are touched by holy radiance) and to learn as much about as many gods as possible.

Vataqatal the Warrior-Slave is common among the northern mamluk-ruled city-states, hailed as a martial paragon who encourages enlightenment through self-betterment through conflict. His status as a slave, a servant in defense of the Enlightened, makes him popular among mamluks and soldiers in general who admire self-sacrifice in favor of a cause.

Savage Gods covers those gods who come from beyond the reaches of the Land of Fate. Ignorant or willfully defiant of the Law of the Loregiver, their faithful are usually only encountered as lone foreigner priests visiting Zakhara or as isolated tribes and cults. Some are merely forgotten, legacies of long-ago civilizations whose people died off or converted to Enlightenment. For the dead faiths we have five entries, although one you may recognize is Lotha, a spider goddess worshiped by evil elves who were burned at pyres for their sinful ways long ago.

Those with living faiths are common in the islands of the Crowded Sea, and can range from mortal heroes whose tales elevated them to divine status or merely very powerful monsters and genies playing godhood. One of the more detailed island-gods listed includes the Lost One, an elephant god of the Isle of Afyal, whose influence makes his favored animals more intelligent than usual in that realm. Other entries include Kar’r’rga, a crab-headed giant whose protects several coastal villages from attacks, the Drummer who when summoned to the world by music tears through a tribe’s enemies as an invisible force, and Pag a nature god whose spirit is said to inhabit every bit of flora on an island and thus whose worshipers eat only meat and seaweed. I do like how Kar’r’rga and the Drummer can be divine interpretations of existing monsters and spells; the idea of bards shooting sonic blasts with their music they believe is their god helping them is a rather cool mental image.

The Hill Tribes are heathen people who live in Zakhara’s highest altitudes, and whose gods are considered to be particularly wild and violent. Legends teach that their gods ruled as lords in far-off lands, but were exiled for their crimes to the wilds of Zakhara. Two of the most well-known Hill gods include the Beast, a catlike being who hunts children far from home, and the Faceless God of the yak-men who teaches his people the art of civilization but only so that they can dominate others.

Cold Gods of the Elements are the very same four elemental deities from the baseline Forgotten Realms setting: Akadi (air), Grumbar (earth), Istishia (water), and Kossuth (fire). They are dubbed ‘cold’ more to their aloof attitude towards mortal worship than an association with ice, and are commonly known in Zakhara more due to their spellcasters’ affinity for genies and elemental magic than having any significant batch of worshipers. The Brotherhood of the True Flame, an evil organization of fire elementalists are particularly interested in theories and rituals which could possibly enslave one of these gods. All such attempts resulted in said Brotherhood member’s destruction at the hands of raw elemental power.

Finally, there are a few gods from the continent of Faerûn known in the Land of Fate, although their names are transliterated differently and the in-game text has a clear bias (such as confusion when a culture or pantheon has “two gods doing the same thing”). Gond is known to be worshiped by foreign traders, while Helam (aka Helm) is viewed as the warrior god of all northern barbarians due to his worshipers once assaulting the city of Qudra in an organized force. Overall, Zakharans view Faerûnian deities as being inordinately selfish for demanding exclusive worship even for small areas of influence, and find the concept of racially separate pantheons, or a god who can claim to speak for an entire race or species, to be a bizarre concept.

Thoughts on the Chapter: I’ve never really been a fan of D&D’s standard monolatrism, where they have a pantheon styled in the Greco-Egyptian manner but then have clerics exclusively worship one god. Although there are still some holdovers, al-Qadim posits game mechanics as well as a society which can house a more typical ‘worship the pantheon’ style. I am a bit amused at how the setting kind of wants to borrow inferences from Islam but doesn’t go full monotheism, and while I appreciate that there’s diversity of thought even among believers it does stretch credibility a bit. Why is the Temple of Ten Thousand Gods not viewed as heathens in disguise beyond just the League of the Pantheon, if they view all deities as equally legitimate? And why are the gods tight-lipped about the whole contention thing regarding the Pantheon’s religious interpretations? I can see this playing out in one of two ways:

1. The Great Gods are united and truly devout, and the Pantheon’s suspicions are a bunch of huey but their political power and latent zealotry can very well cause civil war to break out with the wrong words. So the gods end up saying nothing to preserve an uneasy peace.

2.  There may be division and suspicion among the gods both Great and Common regarding purported devotion to Enlightenment, but do not proclaim things one way or the other to avoid civil war in the Caliphate and among their own divine number.

Both options are logical, although given the Caliphate is a centuries-long institution it begs the question of why such issues haven’t been resolved or what’s tying the gods’ hands that they can’t just say an ultimatum to be accessed via the Commune spell. Granted, in the appendix we learn that there are some questions on other subjects the gods refuse to answer, so the Zakharan pantheon may be more tight-lipped than usual.

Another thing I’ve noticed that is tangential to the setting but raises questions due to its connectivity to Forgotten Realms: there was an event known as the Time of Troubles where every god save one was demoted to mortal status, and their clerics lost their powers unless they were in close proximity to their patron deity. The al-Qadim setting takes place nearly 10 years after this event (1367 DR, where the ToT happened in 1358). The boxed set makes no reference to any sort of loss of divine power in Zakhara in recent memory, which suggests to me one of several possibilities: that otherwise planar-wide events are confined entirely to Faerûn, that al-Qadim was originally meant to be its own setting but got stapled to the Forgotten Realms (the one I believe), or the gods of Zakhara are not gods in the traditional sense but something else.

Chapter 6: Cities of the Heart

Note: Although technically in a separate book, Secrets of Zakhara details the hidden goings-on in the respective cities of this region and following chapters. I’ll highlight said secrets as part of these entries as a sort of “all in one” coverage.

The relative geographic center of Zakhara, the Heart is home to the capital city of Huzuz and is thus a sort of melting pot of the rest of the Caliphate. Four major cities dominate the Heart, three of them lined up against the shores of Suq Bay with Halwa deep in the deserts to the east.

Halwa, City of Solitude: Located inland on a bluff deep in the deserts, Halwa is far from other major population centers. Its wadi* turns into a muddy torrent roughly for a month around springtime. It serves as a trading center between city-dwellers of the Heart and the nomadic tribes of the Haunted Lands. Caliph Hava al-Gatil rules lightly in most affairs, and the city’s a center for adventuring parties mounting expeditions into the Haunted Land’s many fabled ruins. Chief Vizier Zarad is the power behind the throne, often misusing his position to levy heavy taxes and gain various personal favors. He has a bound dao (earth genie) at his side he refers to as his “pet” who acts as a very powerful servant.

*Arabic for a valley or channel that becomes a riverbed during heavy rainfall.

Secrets: Zarad seeks the hand of one of the caliph’s daughters, who resents the vizier but does not act openly against him due to the watchful eye of his dao servant. Zarad also seeks immortality to live as long and pleasant a life as possible, and is not above delving into dark magic to achieve this ideal.

Hiyal, City of Intrigue: The closest thing al-Qadim has to an “evil city,” Hiyal is a miserable industrial hell with an ever-present cloud of pitch-black soot. Its streets are winding and haphazard, and where the tyrannical sultana’s court cannot hold sway, organized crime does. Although the people of Hiyal are no more evil than anyone else in the Caliphate, the city’s unpleasant reputation causes many outsiders to distrust them, and evil-doers in general are attracted to the land in hopes of being better able to ply their wicked ways there. Sultana Alurah bint Ashra is getting up in age and has ill health, and her immediate family endlessly fights among themselves in hopes of claiming the throne. A few even made deals with other evil factions, such as Prince Omar who joined the Brotherhood of the True Flame. There are interesting figures beyond the court in the city itself, such as a rumored ‘Shadow Marketplace’ of magical wonders which can only be entered by entering the right number of gateways in the city.

Secrets: Bulad the Steelmaker was once the finest weaponsmith in the Land of Fate, and his daughter still follows in his footsteps. Her father was murdered, and there’s suspicion that Prince Omar is the culprit given that he recently purchased most of the city’s steelworks. He seeks to use their great resources to build iron golems, whose construction was learned from savage foreigners beyond Zakhara.

This is the ideal Lawful Good government. You may not like it, but this is what a 20th-level ruler looks like.
Huzuz, City of Delights: Sitting at the edge of Suq Bay’s south and thus within easy reach of both western and eastern Zakhara, Huzuz is considered by many to be the Caliphate’s most beautiful and wondrous of cities. It was here that the First Caliph unearthed the Loregiver’s scrolls and learned of the Law. Ever since it has been the most important political and religious center of the Land of Fate, and during certain holidays its population of 800,000 can nearly double. Its gilded architecture has given the city the nickname of Huzuz the Golden, and its residents bear influences from the rest of the continent. In addition to mortal forces of warriors, mages, and cavalry both conventional and monstrous (griffons and hippogryphs as favored aerial steeds), Huzuz employs a veritable army of genie servants bound by sha’ir to defend its walls from invasion and to provide magical aid in day-to-day life. Mages cast continual light spells upon lamps at night to allow for vision even after sundown, and nine mosques arranged in a half-moon shape are keyed to each of the Eight Great Gods. The ninth mosque, the Golden Mosque, is built around the ruins of a house believed to be where the Loregiver buried her writings of the Law.

A fair portion of this section is devoted to the Grand Caliph and his court. Khalil al-Assad al-Zahir bears many titles, all suitably appropriate for the most politically powerful man in Zakhara. A mighty warrior possessed of genuine care for the welfare of his people, there is no ‘mad, tyrannical emperor’ trope in al-Qadim nor an incompetent and out-of-touch ruler kept in the dark.

The Grand Caliph has not produced any heirs yet, to the worry of many. His uncle, Prince Tannous, oversees an expansive network of spies and would assume the throne if he dies childless. The Grand Vizier is a moralist sorceress who serves as an advisor and is often the more serious foil to Jiraad, a marid genie ambassador who oversees the genie soldiers of the city and believes that the Grand Caliph should listen to his heart in more affairs. The Keeper of the Mosques is an elderly elven priest in charge of the upkeep of the nine mosques in town and for learning of the needs of the faithful at large. He is tasked with presenting disputes and quandaries of a religious nature to the Grand Caliph’s attention.

The city’s other important figures include a barber by the name of Gorar al-Aksar who often hears many rumors of interest to adventuring types, while a senior member of the Brotherhood of the True Flame lives in a mansion which serves as a base of operations for the organization in the region.

The section on Huzuz ends with a short tale of its history which virtually anyone in the city knows: 600 years ago the land was but a small village. The man who would become the first Grand Caliph received a vision from Fate at the house claimed to be the Loregiver’s dwelling, who back then was a figure of legend. The vision told of how disaster would befall his tribe, but that they would rise to greatness if he placed his trust in Fate. The prophecy came true when a sandstorm of epic proportions hit his tribe, seemingly never-ending nor weakening in strength. The man chose to ride in a random direction on his horse, trusting Fate to protect him. He awoke later in a cave and discovered a set of ancient scrolls written by the Loregiver herself.* He shared its teachings with as many people as he could, and soon the words of the Law spread far and wide. The scattered members of his tribe miraculously survived, and re-established their ties by following the tales of the one among their number who made this grand discovery. Soon the collection of tribes following the Law grew into a collection of cities, and eventually a Caliphate, the title of Grand Caliph passed from father to son.

*So is the Golden Mosque built around a cave? Is the Loregiver’s house sitting on top of a cavern entrance? There are some contradictions, but given the nature of stories it’s likely told more for dramatic effect than historical accuracy.

Secrets: The Grand Caliph’s seeming infertility has no definite canon answer, but there are several possibilities listed: he is naturally interfile, a djinn-enchanted gem which radiates an aura preventing conception was placed in the chandelier by a courtesan who fell out of favor, he is actually fertile but his children are being raised in hiding by the Soft Whisper.*

*an all-female order of Holy Slayers who act in the interests of the Grand Caliph, although it’s uncertain whether or not they function with his approval.

Wasat, the Middle City: This city has the shortest entry by far, roughly under a page. It serves as a major trade port between Huzuz and Hiyal, but has a “sleepy and quaint” vibe of an easy-going place. Interestingly the proximity to more wondrous locations like Huzuz, its populace is rather nonplussed to all manner of crazy and epic happenings as long as it doesn’t cause too great harm. It is home to a great archmage by the name of Azuah al-Jawwaf who is a whopping 20th level, but doesn’t seem to do anything beyond conduct research in an old monastery-turned-home and serves as an advisor to the city’s ruling Caliph. The closest the city has to conflict is various spies and agents of Hiyal and Huzuz monitoring the local court in hopes of gaining political and economic advantages.

Secrets: None, surprisingly.

Thoughts So Far: Barring Hiyal, the Cities of the Heart are not exactly the most “adventure-worthy” places. Huzuz is thematic and reflective of a wondrous high-magic imperial capital, but the emphasis on its powerful rulers and being a bright shiny beacon of goodness makes it more the type of place PCs defend from outside threats than the kind in which you find homegrown threats. Wasat is kind of boring, although Hiyal has a fun vibe as a “hub of scum and villainy.” Halwa’s treacherous vizier and proximity to the Haunted Lands can make it a good base of operations for wilderness adventure, although there are other cities later on (particularly in the Ruined Kingdoms) which can serve this function better in my opinion.

Join us next time as we cover the Cities of the North and the Cities of the Pearl!


--- Quote from: bhu on March 18, 2020, 06:43:40 PM ---good to see you back!

--- End quote ---

Same to you too, bhu! Although tbh it seems the Discord server is a more happening place; I got more feedback about this Let's Read there than here. :lol


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