|Cover by Jeff Easley drums up deep sea fears.|
I recently picked up ALQ1: Golden Voyages, one of several "sourceboxes" that were produced for Al-Qadim. The set, written by the famous David "Zeb" Cook, was in pristine condition, which always makes me smile. Cook was also the primary architect of the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons... but he will always be remembered by me for giving us Star Frontiers.
Looking at the publication date of 1992 reminded me that in 1992 I was a young man, newly married, struggling in college to make the grade and make ends meet. I wasn't gaming at that time, though I wanted to be. I was out of touch with new games and I was starting to feel strong burnout at the oversaturation of my geek markets. I blame Todd McFarlane and the various pre-bagged alternate Spider-Man #1 comics that still sit in a box in my storage building to this day. I stopped buying comics because of you, Todd. And even though I wasn't gaming at the time I was keeping an eye on mall bookstore shelves. I was noticing the glut of TSR books. I was ignoring them, along with Vampire: the Masquarade and everything else.
(I have a contentious relationship with the 90s. I turned 20 in 1990 so that whole decade should feel warm and cozy to me. Yet it feels alien. And when I say I was "ignoring" things what I mean is I was constantly looking at these books when I was in a bookstore. Just not reading or buying them.)
Anyway... this box set would have been sitting on some bookstore shelf staring me in the face at some point and I probably just ignored it. It's one of those little gems of the past I wish I would have grabbed when I had the chance.
|$18? I remember when box sets were $8!|
At first, I thought this set had a bit of a sandbox vibe. Each little booklet seemed to describe different islands in The Crowded Sea, also known as Bahr al-Izdiham. But upon further reading I believe this box set lies somewhere on the continuum between a scripted adventure and a wild west sandbox.
Book 1: Home Port is where the adventures begin. We get this curious little bit on page 2:
"Golden Voyages is a special adventure set for player characters using the AL-QADIM rulebook and is set in Zakhara, the Land of Fate."
This struck me as odd because there is no "AL-QADIM™ rulebook". The series was launched via Jeff Grubb's excellent Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures book and followed up with ALQ1 and other box sets. It just seems odd that they would use the term "rulebook" in reference to a game accessory.
Book 1 goes on to describe the way the adventures in the box set are designed. The structure is described as having a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is in Gana of the Pearl Cities, where the PCs are meant to be compelled to go sailing the Crowded Sea in search of a great treasure. The treasure itself might be one of several that are described. The reasons may be one of several offered, or something the DM cooks up on their own. In any event, the PCs ought to be on their way to adventure... the middle portion of the set. During this portion we get a genuine sandbox vibe. There is no script. There are many short "mini-adventures" presented in the various booklets. The DM is free to add new material and let the PCs wander as they will. But always there is some degree of pressure to get them to find the great treasure and return it to Gana, thus concluding Golden Voyages.
Naturally you can ignore all of that and just let the magic of the isles guide your adventuring path. The text might gently urge you to stick to the 3-part adventure structure but we all know DMs and Players are gonna do what they like anyway.
Cook seems to understand this quite well as he carefully walks that line between guiding you and scripting you. In the end, all he really intended was for your PCs to enjoy a Sinbad-style series of high seas misadventures:
"Although Golden Voyages has a beginning, middle, and end, very little about it is definite. There are several different ways the adventure can begin, depending on you and your player characters. During the middle section, when the characters are sailing about, there is no set order for the encounters. What the player characters encounter depends on where they sail. Like the beginning, there are several choices for ways to end the adventure. All these things are shaped by the interaction between the DM and his players."
Now, I don't have any complaints about this box set. For me, this is golden, as the name on the tin implies. But if I put on my critical hat for a minute I can comment on one thing about the presentation that might speak to the whole budget constraints comment I made above. And this is a statement that is true of all the Al-Qadim box sets I have seen so far. There is a tendency in these sets, and I believe with TSR in general as the 90s grinded them down, to re-use art. There are images I see in one book of the series that re-appears in another book. In ALQ2: Assassin Mountain, one of the books inside the box features the cover art from GAZ2: The Emirates of Ylaruam. In ALQ1, they just don't bother with covers for the 6 booklets. Which is absolutely fine, really. I just have this sneaking suspicion this is more of a budget thing than an aesthetic choice? Maybe I'm wrong about that.
|A dancing fool of an ogrima!|
|The six booklets. Slim but nice. Easy to navigate.|
|A view of the inside of the screen and the folded map, plus monster art.|
|Pretty sexy little DM screen.|
Final thoughts: If Arabian fantasy filtered through Western eyes isn't your cup of tea, you will not like any Al-Qadim products. If it is, then I think you'll be compelled to dig this stuff as I do. I'm not going to argue that this box set or any of the others is flawless. Clearly they are not. There are editing problems, re-purposed art, and in the case of ALQ2 they even got the name of a book wrong on the cover... yikes! But on the whole, this is really solid, fun stuff. Karl Waller's art is quite good, in my opinion. His pen-and-ink work is similar to Easley, which might be why he's the guy doing it here. I have no foundation for that claim other than stylistically he hits the same niche and maybe that was an art editorial directive. Again, the maps are lovely and the overall construction of the Zakharan setting is alluring to me. I can feel the setting in my bones when I read about it. I know I'm bringing a lot of that to the table and reading into it, but that's how I feel about it. Now gimme a scimitar and get out of my way.
*Yeah, so basically Al-Qadim is just a cartoon of actual cultures, stories, and traditions. It isn't representative of those cultures in any meaningful way. It is a Western white dude's exotic power fantasy ala Lawrence of Arabia and, more directly, The Seven Voyages of Sinbad. And that's ok, I think. But it is important to recognize this fact and be sensitive to the thoughts of people for whom the ideas being cartooned herein are part of their actual cultural heritage. I don't believe Al-Qadim is mean or unfair to it's source material, but it is also not genuine to it. And in the pages of Arabian Adventures Jeff Grub makes it pretty clear he is only drawing inspiration from real history, Arabian Nights, and goofy Hollywood fantasies.
I watched Bredan Fraser's The Mummy a dozen times and will probably watch it a dozen more. One of my cherished memories from childhood is watching a Ray Harryhausen movie in the auditorium in first grade. I love this stuff, so I am right there with Grubb in his enthusiasm for the setting and I'm thankful he was involved in the project. I'm happy Al-Qadim is a thing.