Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures (1992)

Jeff Grubb developed Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures in 1992 as a kind of companion to Oriental Adventures. A culture book – the details of the campaign setting came later – it is clearly inspired by 1001 Nights, old Sinbad movies (Harryhausen and otherwise) and the historical Arabian Empire. The book, like the entire line, is gorgeous, sporting gold design flourishes drawn from Islamic art and the beautiful black and white illustrations of Karl Waller – his vivid style defines Al-Qadim, much the same way Brom and Baxa defined Dark Sun.

As with any D&D setting that moves the focus from tactical combat, Al-Qadim has its quirks. There is a strong focus on cultural customs. Concepts derived from real-world Middle Eastern customs like honor, social standing, purity, hospitality and more play an important role, requiring adventures to test roleplaying as much as sword arms. The inclusion of rigid character kits gives players a number of cultural and occupational tools for their roleplaying, grounding them in the world.

My feelings about that world are complicated. I have an unabashed love for the Sinbad movies that so obviously form the backbone of the game, but I also recognize they, and Al-Qadim, are steeped in Orientalism (that is, an exotification of Middle Eastern culture for the entertainment of Westerners). I’ve no way of knowing if the designers included practitioners of Islam, but judging from the credits, I suspect no one of Middle Eastern descent participated. And all this is complicated by the book’s publication shortly after the first Gulf War.

That said, Al-Qadim has an air of scholarly remove and feels respectful, even if it is a portrayal of non-Western culture through Western eyes. There is a focus on equality that reflect the attitudes of the golden age of the Arabian Empire – cities are full of many races, even traditionally “evil” ones like goblin and kobolds, and all are valued members of society. The widespread belief in Fate, from which all the setting’s laws of hospitality derive, is a clever, secular substitute for Islam. On the other hand, the book is uncritical in its presentation of slavery and polygamy. As ever, your mileage may vary.

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