Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Al-Qadim: Golden Voyages

Cover by Jeff Easley drums up deep sea fears.
It's no secret I have a late-blooming, slowly-flowering love affair with Al-Qadim, TSR's 1992 Arabian Nights style setting for AD&D second edition. In my humble opinion, Jeff Grubb knocked it out of the park when he penned Arabian Adventures, launching the setting proper.

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!
Like the other box sets from this line, ALQ1 is a curious mix of love and inspiration with budget constraints. Or so it seems. Inside the box are 6 booklets, some monster sheets, a large folded map, and a DM screen. The materials are nicely rendered with solid art from Karl Waller, the primary artist for the whole series. The maps are by the great David C. Sutherland III, so they are quite good.

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 monster sheets are meant for the compendium binder, an idea of the early 2e era that I think was both beautiful and completely ridiculous. Beautiful because you could customize your monster manual to taste, adding new sheets from all the box sets they were putting out back then. Neato! But ridiculous because it's so ephemeral and delicate. Those sheets will get ripped and destroyed. We old school gamers like our sturdy hardbacks and saddle-stitched formats. Most of the Monstrous Compendium pages have the same format. There is a pic, stat block, and quite a lot of text describing the monster's appearance, habitat, lore, and how it fights. This was a tendency that probably grew out of those Ecology of entries in Dragon Magazine. Whereas B/X or 1e has relatively short, sparse monster descriptions, 2e tended to overshare. Anyway, the monster sheets in ALQ1 are slightly different because the front page gives you the stat block + page of text and the backside of the sheet is usually a full-page piece of art. Some of it pretty neat, such as the ogrima pictured left.

The six booklets. Slim but nice. Easy to navigate.
The booklets are actually really useful. If you only want to deal with running an adventure among the Djinni's Claws then you can just grab that volume and leave the others in the box.

A view of the inside of the screen and the folded map, plus monster art.
 The map is pretty great, as are all the Al-Qadim poster maps. They are large, colorful, and well-rendered to my non-cartographer's eye. They really invite you to explore this exotic land*.

Pretty sexy little DM screen.
The DM screen art is un-credited as far as I can tell. In fact, the only place in the entire box that tells you any credits is on the first page of Book 6: Map Booklet where it only states that Karl Waller did the illustrations. Since no one else is credited for illustrations other than Easley's cover art, I must assume that Karl Waller painted the DM screen. And a fine, fine job he did. As an aside... it's very strange to put the credits on the first page of Book 6. Normally there is an indicia or some kind of front page to a book where that sort of thing goes. But it's fine, really. Just not very clear. Does this mean that the credits are only for Book 6? I'm sure that's not the case, but it really isn't very professionally handled here. Clarity, people. Clarity.

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.


  1. Al-Qadim is one of those things that I wish got more attention. As you say, it's absolutely not a real representative document in any sense whatsoever, but it doesn't claim to be. It's exciting and adventurous. It reminds me of Egyptian mummy exhibits at museums and the Arabian Nights book I had as a kid and all of that is terrific stuff.

    My hope is that one day Humza finds the time in his schedule to continue and eventually complete his setting, Legacy of the Bieth. His sources are vastly deeper than just the Arabian Nights, and I feel like he will do a terrific job of capturing that adventure and magic and maybe draw more people to create in this space with him.

    Really, I just wish WotC would lay off the Forgotten Realms and work on their other, underused settings. Al-Qadim and Spelljammer are my two biggest wants for 5E. I hope when they eventually do them, they do them right - but I'm not sure I want to hold my breath on that.

    1. I'm not familiar with Legacy of Bieth.

      I think Al-Qadim could get me to want to run 5e.

    2. Great post. I believe there is some 5e stuff on DMs guild for al qadim. I love goldennvoyagaes, it read really well. And didn't seem overly railroadey.

    3. Humza's Bieth stuff can be found here:

      A lot of his components are richly inspired by MENA hisotircal cultures and myths way beyond the reach of Arabian Nights, which I likely never would have learned of otherwise. Lots of (literal) flavor stuff, too - cultures in his setting have food details borrowed from the real world. It's very good, if a little different in tone from Al-Qadim.

      These days, 5E is what I play the most, as I primarily run games for my wife and kids and that's what they want to play. It's not so bad! I rather like it (even if I want to strip it down, and often do) Even as a big fan of the old-school, I don't mind playing around in the heroic playground with them. If 5E Al-Qadim comes out, my group is getting teleported there pretty much immediately, come hell or high water.

    4. Yeah that looks pretty neat. I do enjoy non-Euro fantasy settings.

  2. Al Quadim and Golden Voyages were the root stock of one of my first, best campaigns I ran as a fledgling DM back in those days as a college freshman returning home to run games for my younger brother and his friends. The boat diagrams alone in Golden Voyages are worth the price of admission. (Another handy touchpoint that helped me get a bunch of high school guys into the Arabian Nights setting, Disney's "Aladdin" came out in the fall of 1992.)

    This is probably crass self promotion, so I beg your pardon if you feel it's an undue intrusion on your comment space, but I've published the first of a series of Arabian Nights themed sourcebooks for old school play, using Labyrinth Lord as my base. I can send you a link to my Drive Thru RPG space or my game blog if you're interested.

    P.S.: I love your work, and really dug Rabbits & Rangers.

    1. Good point about Aladdin's timing. I'm not sure... was TSR's release of Arabian Adventures timed with the Disney movie on purpose? I can see that being a thing. It makes sense and I wouldn't hold that against them.

      Yeah, what's the link to your stuff?

    2. Here's my blog: http://saturdaynightsandbox.blogspot.com/

      And here's my game, the Thousand Year Sandglass


    3. I picked up the game. It looks very cool! You put a lot of work into it. To be honest I just hadn't seen it before or else I would have looked sooner.

    4. Thanks! I really appreciate it. I hope you enjoy it and find some of it useful.

      Promotion and advertising is one of those areas where I'm kinda clueless, so I don't hold it against anyone if they don't know about my stuff. My obscurity is very much self inflicted. I'm workin' on it. :)

    5. Mmm, I should probably write a short-form review of TYS, come to think of it. It's criminally underappreciated.

  3. Meant to tell you earlier James, but I mentioned this excellent overview on my podcast this week. Not that you need the traffic, but hopefully it pointed some folks at your blog.

  4. Regarding the monster sheets idea, this would be easy to implement in the PDF world with PDF Toolkit and other free apps. That is if folks would design their monster books so that two monsters don't share a page. someone should cook up a very basic DIY standard for that kind of cooperation.

    1. Are you talking about a shared PDF monster book?

    2. Not really, but sort of. Imagine if whenever someone wrote up a monster or monster book they took the extra effort to ensure that no monster shared a page with another (the way Pathfinder does). Front/back of a page count as different pages in PDF so that wouldn't be a problem. The monsters could be gifs or jpgs or pdf, that part doesn't matter either these days. Then anyone who liked a monster they found out in the OSR or in an OSR book could insert that monster into a pdf using PDFToolkit or another program and assembly a monster book containing only monsters they liked. It would be like the idea of what 2E tried to do.

    3. A shared book along the likes of Petty Gods would be an awesome idea. Someone or some company could set up a challenge or contest the way the 1-page dungeon works and then assemble the end product.

    4. Oh, I see what you mean. My mind was in publishing mode but you're talking about people just using what they find. Very cool idea. Hard to keep the monster/page ratio 1:1 though. Depends on what you're doing.