As Dungeons and Dragons began to find some success with its more popular settings, there was a sense that players wanted more. Most of the settings only concentrated on small areas of their constructed worlds, leaving a great deal of room for DMs to create their own new areas within those settings.
It should come as no surprise that TSR thought they could tap into that same market by creating new sub-settings in their popular lines.
One setting that is both legendary and somewhat overlooked these days is Al-Qadim. A Middle Eastern-flavored area in Forgotten Realms’ Faerun, it provided players with a unique way to look at a well-established fantasy world.
Al-Qadim didn’t start life like some of the other settings in Dungeons and Dragons. Instead of beginning as someone’s homebrew campaign or as a marketing idea, this one began as a purposefully-created expansion to something that already existed. Al-Qadim was meant as an expansion to the Forgotten Realms, perhaps trading on the success of other products like Oriental Adventures.
Despite the fact that it existed for fairly mercenary means, there was still a great deal of love put into the setting. The initial publication didn’t really include much – just general rules for playing a Dungeons and Dragons game in a setting that was inspired by a sort of general, mystical Middle Eastern vibe. That initial publication was enough to get the ball rolling, despite the fact that the product was meant to be a very limited project.
In fact, Al-Qadim lasted far longer than it was intended to last. It was only intended as a brief, two-year project was that meant to help supplement the growing popularity of Forgotten Realms in general. There was enough of a response from the playerbase to convince higher-ups at TSR to give the project a bit more leeway, though, eventually resulting in a game line that would span just over three years.
Despite the fact that it was extended, Al-Qadim’s tenure as a Forgotten Realms supplement was relatively brief. It never received the kind of continual reference that other supplements received, and it did seem mostly forgotten as D&D made the transition from TSR to Wizards of the Coast. Despite this, there are still fans who insist that Al-Qadim deserves a spot alongside well-loved adventures like Ravenloft or Oriental Adventures. It’s often forgotten, but still legendary among certain circles.
When Dungeons and Dragons was purchased from TSR by Wizards of the Coast, some of the classic settings were left in limbo. Over time, many of these setting would find their way back into the fold of D&D either through clever references, remade supplements, or the license being granted to publishing partners. Despite the initial popularity of Al-Qadim, this setting wasn’t revived by Wizards. Instead, bits and pieces of the world have been adapted into other forms.
It has, however, survived in one unique way – through character classes. The Middle Eastern flavor of Al-Qadim gave it several unique classes, which are discussed below. A few of these classes managed to leave behind the game itself and transfer into the main campaign setting. While they wouldn’t do so during the original 3.0 release, the classes slowly filtered in during 3.5.
Thanks to an article in Dragon magazine, the Sha’ir class managed to be built as a core class for 3.5. It had a few working differences from the Al-Qadim version, of course, but it definitely couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than a homage to the older game.
There were also a few prestige classes that managed to make the jump later in that same run of Dragon Magazine. Barber, Corsair, Mamluk, and Holy Slayer all became usable prestige classes in the game. These classes brought in even more flavor from Al-Qadim, though their general lack of publication in the major books made them rarely-played classes.
Unfortunately, 3.5 would be the last time that Wizards really paid attention to anything from Al-Qadim. There have been a few classes and adventures that have a general Middle Eastern feel, but nothing that really calls back to the game that first brought those tropes into the world of tabletop RPGS. Al-Qadim is, for the time being, a defunct adventure line.
The World of Al-Qadim is one that’s deeply tied to the world of Forgotten Realms. It isn’t an entirely new setting, but rather a part of the same general world. Much like Oriental Adventures took players to a new part of Faerun, so too did Al-Qadim. In this case, the new part of the world would be a penninsular desert kingdom called Zakhara.
As you might be able to tell from the title of the game and from the name of the kingdom, Al-Qadim is heavily based on ancient Arabian kingdoms. As is typical for D&D, though, it isn’t based on any particular historical kingdom. Instead, it’s very much a fantasy version of the setting that owes more to Hollywood depictions of the Middle East in the 1930s than anything that happened in reality.
This is a world of wealth, magic, and mystery. It’s a world in which the 1001 Arabian Nights couldn’t just happen, but in which they would be a regular part of daily life. It’s a world that absolutely incorporates almost every positive and negative image the media has ever created about the Middle East and threw them into a blender. It’s not necessarily a setting that looks great to modern eyes, but it is one that’s made with a great deal of care.
Because Al-Qadim was a new adventure set in a familiar setting, it took great pains to make sure that the game was compatible with other Forgotten Realms adventures. As such, one could bring a character from another Forgotten Realms campaign into this game, or a character from this game into another Forgotten Realms campaign.
The mechanics weren’t unique, but the kingdom and the characters were very different from what would otherwise be found on Toril. Understanding the game requires taking a look at the society of Zakhara and at the characters who could be played there.
In many ways, Zakhara is a land of Fate. It’s the primary deity of the setting, even if no one directly worships it. There are all of the usual gods – and even a few new ones – but everything really comes back down to Fate. Fate has no temples, no worshippers, and no priests – but it does have the laws that were given to the Loregiver, and that’s generally enough.
Zakhara divides is people into three basic groups. There are the Al-Badia, who are generally human nomads who are generally based on the Bedouin tribes of the Middle East. There are the Al-Hadhar, who tend to be a bit more cosmopolitan and dwell in the cities. Finally, there are the pagan outsiders, who tend to be human and tend to reject the Loregiver’s Law.
Oddly, Zakhara isn’t really a land where species classification matters. Most of the people who live there are human, but there’s not any real prejudice against anyone else. In fact, several races that are generally considered monstrous or evil (like Orcs, Goblins, and Ogres) are valued members of the society in that game. Everyone lives under the same law, in the same cities, and generally gets along rather well.
Zakhara is much more united than the rest of Faerun. The entire peninsula is covered with cities and small settlements, but they’re all part of a single empire. This empire, based heavily on ancient Arabian empires, is ruled by a single caliph. Everyone speaks the same language and follows the same law, so internal conflicts are much less of an issue than one might expect.
Taken as a whole, Zakhara allows for campaigns that focus less on traditional tropes and more on exploring the way in which a united society might deal with its problems. It also gives players a very unique chance to interact with creatures that might typically only be found on a combat table.
Al-Qadim takes the usual character classes of Dungeons and Dragons and adds a second layer of complexity. Instead of having a character that can develop in myriad ways, the characters of Al-Qadim develop along specific paths through the use of character kits. All of the base classes from D&D are present, usually with a few different kits that make them conform to the setting. The character classes and kits are as follows:
- Warriors: citizen-warriors (Askar), swashbucklers (Corsairs), nomads (Desert Riders), holy warriors (Faris), slave warriors (Mamluks), Barbarians, and Outlanders
- Wizards: mages of sand, sea, fire, and wind (Elemental Mages), genie useres (Sha’ir), common wizards (Sorcerors), outland wizards (Ajami)
- Rogues: freemen (Sal’uk), traders (Barber), beggars (Beggar-Thieves), assassins (Holy Slayers), outcasts (Matrud), merchants (Merchant-Rogue), bards (Rawun)
- Priests: common priests (Pragmatists), conservative priests (Ethoists), intolerant priests (Moralists), wise women (Hakima), champions of nature (Kahin), prophets (Mystics) and outsider priests (Outland Priests).
In addition to the kits that came with the initial adventures, there were a number of new kits that would be added to the list through Dragon Magazine. Many of these kits were specifically focused on magic, including popular kits like Astrologer, Ghul Lord, and Spellslayer. There were also a number of kits that were adapted from other popular tropes, like the Tomb Robber.
Al-Qadim also suggested that players inhabit the role of several races there were not available as PC races in the main version of AD&D or in the Forgotten Realms. Races like goblins, kobolds, orcs, lizard men and other typical enemy races could easily be adapted for play in this setting – something that further helped to make Al-Qadim different from the main line of the game.
While the character kits were mostly for use in Al-Qadim, many of these ideas would later be used in other version of D&D as prestige classes and as base classes.
Al-Qadim started its life as a very limited-run product. Because its production timeline was only slated to be two years, the vast majority of its products were rushed out the door to players in a huge, single wave. The unexpected popularity of the product did lead to a third year of production, though, which allowed later products to take a better look at how the world could be improved.
As one might expect from this kind of setting, the initial product came out as Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures. From that point forward, though, a number of products that fleshed out the world would follow. The timeline of publication included:
- Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures (1992)
- Monstrous Compendium – Al-Qadim Appendix (1992)
- Al-Qadim: Land of Fate (1992) – a full sourcebook for Al-Qadim, including monster compendium entries and maps
- Golden Voyages (1992)
- City of Delights (1993) – a boxed set that included two guide books, 8 monster sheets, and a city map
- Assassin Mount (1993)
- A Dozen and One Adventures (1993)
- Secrets of the Lamp (1993)
- The Complete Sha’ir’s Handbook (1994)
- Ruined Kingdoms Campaign (1994)
- Cities of Bone (1994)
- Corsairs of the Great Sea (1994)
- Caravans (1994)
In addition to the officially published entries, there was also quite a bit of material that came from Dragon Magazine. There were roughly twenty different entries in Dragon that helped to expand the lore and the world of Al-Qadim, largely filling in the blanks during the gap between official products. There were even a small handful of articles published in Polyhedron magazine that helped to do the same for the setting.
The final Al-Qadim adventure would be published in 1998 under the name Reunion. This was still an AD&D adventure, but isn’t generally considered part of the overall Al-Qadim release scheme.
Oddly enough, Al-Qadim never really received the same level of love that other settings in D&D received when it came to adaptations. While there’s nothing surprising about the fact that Al-Qadim didn’t get a cartoon or get any kind of major traditional visual media adaptation, it’s a bit odder that it never saw the light of day in other formats.
The sole Al-Qadim adaptation is Al-Qadim: The Genie’s Curse. Coming out at the height of the D&D computer game era, it definitely blazed its own path. It is an incredibly divisive game, one that was reviewed incredibly well by some publications and that was absolutely savaged by others.
The other issue is that the game felt like it was trying a bit too hard to shed the D&D label and become something more mainstream. It was compared unfavorably to The Legend of Zelda, both because of mechanics and because of the general type of story it was trying to tell. This comparison definitely hurt it in the long run, allowing the game to fall into a kind of disrepute from which it never really recovered.
It’s hard to look at the current state of Al-Qadim and see a bright future. The game line has been dead for the better part of twenty-five years and even the most blatant mentions of the game came over a decade ago. Does that mean that the setting is completely dead? If history has taught us anything, it’s that one should never give up hope.
As of the moment, it doesn’t look like anyone is working on anything officially related to Al-Qadim. There’s not even a remake in sight, which isn’t all that surprising. After all, the original iteration of the game looks a little problematic to modern eyes and it would take a great deal of work to modernize the game into something that could work today.
There are, however, a number of fan communities keeping the game alive. There are homebrew rules for both 4th and 5th Edition games, as well as adaptations that work with games like Pathfinder. These aren’t official products, of course, but they do so that a desire to play the game is very real. This is fantastic news for fans of the setting, as keeping the game alive in the minds of the players is always the biggest problem for any game line.
Even if Al-Qadim is dormant, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily gone away. There will always be people who have fun with the original adventures and still use the rules in their 2nd Edition games. If you’re a fan of Al-Qadim or of settings that don’t play on typical European fantasy tropes, there’s still room for you in the D&D world. If you want to talk more about Al-Qadim or about the other great settings of D&D, make sure to talk to us over at the LitRPG forums.