|This article or section is about something oldschool - and awesome.|
Make sure your rose-tinted glasses are on nice and tight, and prepare for a lovely walk down nostalgia lane.
Al-Qadim is an Arabian style campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons in the vein of The Thousand and One Nights. Much like Kara-Tur and Maztica, it was presented as a distant continent on the world of Toril, the homeworld of the Forgotten Realms Setting. These "mini-settings," as they were, were conceived of as small projects that would allow TSR and GMs to explore alternate campaign settings without making massively different rulesets, species, and classes. Al-Qadim was unusual in that the name did not refer to the continent itself, as it did for the other modules, but to the culture that lived on the continent of Zakhara.
TL;DR: AD&D races live in a Hollywood Arabic society. Also, you get to fight YAKMEN. Completely old school.
Zakhara is a harsh, tropical continent that lies south of Faerun and southwest of Kara-tur, a land of rugged extremes, girded on all sides by sea.
Culture in Zakhara is monolithic, and quite obviously based on Medieval Arabia mixed with what can only be called "liberal Islam" so law is secular, polytheism instead of monotheism, women need not dress quite as modestly, etc. It transcends races; an elf or a dwarf in Zakhara follows the same customs and beliefs as a human, an orc or a gnoll, creating a racially integrated culture unlike almost anything in standard AD&D cultures.
The biggest split in culture in Zakhara is the divide between the Al-Hadhar, the city-dwellers, and the nomadic Al-Badia. Even then, they share roughly the same social stations, cultural norms, beliefs, religions and traditions. Even city-states, whilst imposing their own particular spins on things, still preserve the general precepts of Zakharan culture.
What are those precepts? In short:
- Honor: Broadly definable as the embodiment of all that is good - honesty, kindness, forgiveness, and so forth - honor is the driving force behind Zakharan life. Every action an individual takes can increase or erode their honor - and an individual's honor colors those of his family as well.
- Family: The ties of blood, as might be inferred from the precept of Honor, are unbreakable, precious and irreplaceable to Zakharans. This guiding principle of their life is simple; Family Comes First, and the rights of the family supersede the rights of the family's members.
- Purity: One of the more overtly Islam-inspired aspects of Zakharan culture is the indigent belief that men and women are inherently weak where matters of the heart are concerned. Chastity, at least in the sense of avoiding overt demonstrations of carnal desire, is upheld as a matter of great spiritual and social importance. Whilst women in Zakhara have more rights and freedoms than their Islamic counterparts, it is still expected that they will generally avoid overt displays of desire, and whilst both sexes will veil and cover themselves to avoid enflaming lust, the onus is generally on the part of the women.
- Hospitality: To put it bluntly, Zakharans believe that generosity brings honor and stinginess erodes it. Thusly, any honorable man (or woman) will strive to be the greatest host they can - whilst visitors are held to similar standards as guests.
- Tolerance: Closely related in spirit to hospitality, tolerance is highly regarded amongst Zakharans, which has helped their culture to become so widely accepted amongst the different races and enables them to function as a nation of disparate sub-cultures and ethnic groups. Of course, there are limits to how far a Zakharan will extend tolerance, but it is considerable honorable behavior to accept the strangeness of others and respond with, at most, polite curiosity and debate.
- Piety: Honor and piety are considered inextricably linked; those acts that earn a man honor do so because they revolve around a man behaving in a manner deemed good and right by those who rule the heavens. An honorable man is inherently a pious man, and vice-versa. Thusly, Zakharan tolerance finds a sharp limitation in the face of atheistic beliefs: An individual who does not believe in some higher divinity, by Zakharan reasoning, lacks the moral anchor needed to function in society. Such a person is unpredictable, perhaps even dangerous! Suspicion and hostility will quickly be risen against anyone who is openly apathetic to the existence of the gods.
Fate, Enlightenment and the Loregiver
One element of Zakharan culture, oft-mentioned yet little defined, is that of Enlightenment - the Zakharans consider themselves "Enlightened", and all non-Zakharans to be "Unenlightened". So, of course, you're wondering just what the hell is up with that.
Even in the time when Al-Qadim was written, it was considered to be too on the nose to directly refer to certain key Islamic concepts. Instead, Al-Qadim has the Loregiver, a female prophet who, instructed by Fate, wrote the Scroll of Law - a holy text that contains precepts and instructions on how to be an honorable man so clear-cut and obvious that they became the foundation of Zakhara's modern culture. Most notably, the Grand Caliph, the ruler of all Zakhara, holds that position because they supposedly claim descent from the first caliph to find the Scroll of Law and bring the teachings of enlightenment to the people.
Who is Fate? The simplest way to describe it as as the Overpower of the Zakharan pantheon. Fate is viewed as an entity whose power lies outside that of the gods; a female entity who embodies the natural force that is a part of every man and woman's future. Whilst not to be worshipped like the gods, she aids those who succeed and may comfort those who fail, and the gods themselves defer to her.
The teachings of enlightenment may be the foundation of Zakharan culture, but they do so by attributing at least part of their holiness to the gods. Still, Zakhara is large and, under its veneer of cultural monolithism, it has many subcultures and cults, leading to a uniquely divided pantheon.
Zakharans divide the gods into three categories; Major (or Great), Local (or Common), and Savage (or Heathen).
Great/Major Deities are those directly referenced in the Scrolls of Law, and thusly their worship has spread across Zakhara. They number eight deities, and are all considered to embody specific ideals regarded as enlightened.
Local/Common Deities are "small" gods of Zakhara; those whose worship is confined to a specific area or ethnicity. They are not as directly tied to the principles of enlightenment, and make up the larger part of the Zakharan "pantheon".
Savage/Heathen Deities are those not directly recognized in the teachings and tales passed down by the Loregiver. These include the Forgotten Gods of Nog and Kadar, the Cold Gods of the Elements (Akadi, Grumbar, Istishia, Kossuth), the gods of unenlightened Zakharan cultures such as the Hill Tribes and the islanders of the Crowded Sea, and the Ajami (Foreign) Gods - the gods whose faith has been carried to Zakhara by migrants from other lands, predominantly Gond, Helm (called "Helam" by confused Zakharans) and Clangeddin Silverbeard (whose diminishing worship amongst Zakharan gods has seen him renamed "Clang").
The unusual nature of the zakharan pantheon has led to two distinct faiths of note; the Temple of Ten Thousand Gods and the League of the Pantheon, or the Pantheist League.
The Ten Thousand Gods Temple takes the polytheistic inclinations of the Zakharans to the extreme; they worship ALL gods, interchangeably and commmunally. Their holy ideal is acceptance; their ethos is that all deities are merely facets of the same divine force. As such, their holy principles are simple:
- The gods are aspects of a greater holy power. Men and women, elves, half-elves, dwarves, and other creatures - all these mortal beings mirror the diversity of that divine power. All are touched by the same holy radiance. Accept your brothers and sisters. Think well of them and treat them kindly, for they, like you, are divine.
The Pantheist League is a comparatively small, but powerful, cult which has come to dominate a cluster of cities on the Crowded Sea and along the easten side of the Golden Gulf. They practice a combination of a very fundamentalist view of the common Zakharan faith and a their own unique pantheon; they recognize only the Greater Gods Hajama, Kor, Najm and Selan as "true" gods, alongside their own self-claimed "Greater" God, a local deity named Jauhar. Hidebound, moralist and dangerous conservative, their ethos preachs a combination of moral superiority and strength through unity:
- Only by gathering together, and by combining the best talents of the group, can we succeed. Trust your foes to be jealous of your accomplishments. The gods of the Pantheon are the only true gods. All other so-called deities are common creations, and their followers must be "enlightened". Excessive actions may be excused by excessive circumstances.
Zakhara is home to a vast array of races, and is almost unique in AD&D Forgotten Realms for how racially mixed it is. Traditional enmities like those held between dwarves or elves with goblinoids have been forgotten, washed away by the culture of enlightenment. As such, many traditionally "evil" races are found as respected, integrated members of society, meaning that Zakhara works well when paired with The Complete Book of Humanoids.
...Of course, this being an AD&D book, the splats present very little effort into telling you HOW the non-human members of Zakhara live or how to play them! After all, that would go against the humanocentric vision of the game, and you're already getting faux-Arabs...
Still, there are some useful things to glean.
Likewise, the City of Delights splatbook describes the city of Huzuz hosting more unusual creatures, which are certainly justifiable as adding to the PC list: half-orcs, half-ogres, ogre magi,centaurs, minotaurs, wemics, aarakocra, and kenku.
The City of Delights splatbook furthers this by giving rejiggered level limits and kit suggestions for the most common humanoid PC races, although you still need to pull their stats from the CBoH:
- Goblin: Fighter 10, Ranger 7, Thief 12, Cleric 9; askar, desert rider, mercenary barbarian; sa'luk, barber, beggar-thief, matrud; hakima, kahin, mystic
- Hobgoblin: Fighter 11, Ranger 5, Sha'ir 7, Thief 11, Cleric 9; askar, corsair, desert rider, faris, mamluk, mercenary barbarian; sha'ir; holy slayer; kahin, pragmatist
- Kobold: Fighter 8, Thief 12, Bard 6, Cleric 9; askar, desert rider, mercenary barbarian; sa'luk, beggar-thief, matrud, rawun; kahin, mystic, pragmatist
- Lizardfolk: Fighter 12, Sha'ir 5, Thief 11, Bard 9, Cleric 7 corsair, mamluk, mercenary barbarian; sha'ir; beggar-thief, holy slayer, merchant-rogue, rawun; mystic, pragmatist
- Ogre: Fighter 12, Sha'ir 5, Thief 10, Cleric 3; askar, mamluk, mercenary barbarian; sha'ir; sa'luk, matrud, merchant rogue; pragmatist, hakima, kahin
- Half-Ogre: Fighter 12, Sha'ir 7, Thief 10, Cleric 4; askar, faris, mamluk, mercenary barbarian; sha'ir; sa'luk, merchant-rogue; pragmatis, ethoist, kahin
- Orc: Fighter 10, Thief 11, Cleric 9; askar, desert rider, faris, mercenary barbarian; sa'luk, barber, matrud, merchant-rogue; pragmatist, ethoist
- Half-Orc: Fighter 10, Ranger 5, Sha'ir 5, Thief 11, Bard 6, Cleric 9; any Zakharan kit
As settings go, Al-Qadim got a fairly significant array of splatbooks. The core trinity (officially, core duo, but everybody considers City of Delights to be a third corebook) consist of Arabian Adventures, Land of Fate and City of Delights, whilst the rest expanded upon the setting in various ways.
Arabian Adventures is supposed to present AL-Qadim as a general "theme", a way to build your own Arabian Nights-inspired D&D settings, in much the same way as the earlier Oriental Adventures. It's somewhat undercut because it opens with an examination of the Zakhara as a canon realm, covering in brief the land and its cultures. It also covers building characters, most notably how to adjust races to reflect the unique cultural aspects and prohibited characters, an assortment of new kits, proficiencies and equipment, and new spells, and new setting-related rules, such as calling upon fate, the evil eye, survival in the desert, and how to handle armor vs. the intense tropical heat.
Land of Fate acts as the campaign setting, exhaustively examining the different city states and expanding upon cultural aspects, including religion. it also features a bestiary with a number of uniquely Zakharan monsters.
City of Delights fleshes out Huzuz, the capital city of Zakhara, home of its Grand Caliph. It expands upon the city's history and layout, talks about the character of its residents, expands upon daily life and culture, depicts notable figures, includes an examination of how to base a campaign out of Huzuz, and features a bestiary with a number of uniquely Zakharan monsters. This boxset is considered most useful for its aside on optional humanoid PCs, providing some slightly tweaked rules for playing goblinoid, kobold, lizardfolk, orc and ogre (and their half-breed progeny) PCs. These rules are incomplete, still mandating access to The Complete Book of Humanoids for basic stats, but do expand their classes by comparison.
Naturally, Al-Qadim has its own Monstrous Compendium Appendix - which, ironically, actually doesn't feature any of the monsters that appeared in Land of Fate or City of Delight.
Secrets of the Lamp might as well be TSR's definitive genie lore sourcebook, taking the meager lore from early planar sourcebooks like the Manual of the Planes and expanding upon it in significant ways, such as naming the various genie rulers for literally the first time in D&D's history. Ironically, pretty much none of this lore would be reprinted in Planescape.
What Happened to it?
Unlike Kara-Tur, which was rereleased as The Book of Weeaboo Fightan Magic and Oriental Adventures, Al-Qadim was not updated for 3e/3.5e in any significant way. Precisely why, nobody is sure, but most blame the obvious /pol/-related issues.
The one element of Al-Qadim that has survived is the Sha'ir; it received an updated to 3e in Dragon Magazine, and then appeared in Heroes of the Elemental Chaos for 4e. Dragon 321 also had several prestige classes.
Currently, as of 2021, the 5E Conversion has been released on DMS Guild.