Saturday, March 6, 2021

Al Qadim Again

I've posted many times how much I love Al Qadim. I have been collecting the books for years (not finished yet, but getting close), but really I've only played in one Al Qadim game one time in the mid 90s and I've never ran it. Maybe I never will.

An interesting thing about this setting is just how inaccurate it is to Arab culture and the mythos in which it plays. For example, my understanding is that the tales we call Arabian Nights are actually Chinese in origin (?), not Arabian. but folks in the Arabian world, having also grown up knowing about these tales, assume they are Arabian. There are lots of other culturally inaccurate ideas in the game that you can Google for yourself.

I'd love to say these things don't matter because it's an elf game. And... yeah... I mean, mostly that's true. But we'd be fools and - worse - assholes if we totally ignored it. This is a game series based on a distinctly American male's idea of what Arabian fantasy is. More specifically, it's based on a certain generation of American males: mine.

When I was in first grade, c. 1976, I remember our little asses being marched into the school's auditorium to watch a movie. I remember it vividly because we were arranged from shortest to tallest (so people could see over each other, natch) and I was second in line. The only person shorter than me was Vickie and her pigtails. I loved Vickie. Being placed next to her in line, for me, was an early romantic experience that filled my wee mind with ideas. I was her "taller man".

Anyway. That's not important. The fact that she ignored me is meaningless. The point is we watched the 1963 classic Jason and the Argonauts, then only a little over a decade old. It was phenomenal! Warriors, ships, giants statues, skeletons! My mind reeled with the imagery looming over me.

This has jack shit to do with Arabian Nights, but it's this sort of movie, along with mummy movies and other adventure flicks, that fueled the imagination of Jeff Grubb, author of TSR's Arabian Adventures setting book that launched the Al Qadim campaign series.

Jason and the Argonauts, the mummy movies, Sinbad, the Thousand and One Nights... these are the sources for Al Qadim. Arabian mythology and history are really a distant second. The setting is a hodge podge of middle-world cultures and ideas, all filtered through the brain of a white male American riffing on ideas that inspired him in the 60s and 70s. And it's fucking fantastic! I love Al Qadim, for what it is. Warts and all.

But I understand that folks from middle-world cultures might find the work irritating or even mildly offensive. I don't believe it is egregiously so. Jeff Grubb and crew did a bang-up job of doing the best with what they had and genuinely trying to make a setting that lovingly and respectfully approached the material. But it was by and for white Americans, so any actual near-east perspective is not really present in the work - and that is one of the things that must be kept in mind when exploring it.

This is the subtle point that people miss out on when they complain about "cancel culture". Nobody is running around screaming "cancel it!" like the right wing media machine wants you to think. Rather, things we took for granted are being examined from new perspectives and sometimes that means something old and beloved has to be re-evaluated if you want to be intellectually honest and socially responsible.

You can still love the shit, so if you feel some sense of outrage welling up just tamp it back down, kiddo. Enjoy your magic carpet ride, just don't forget it's complete fantasy.

But hey, maybe check out this video series that goes into a lot of depth on the topic. They talk about these issues more broadly, from a modern perspective, so don't go into this expecting a short review of Al Qadim. You ain't gonna get that, buster.

EDIT: And I want to say for sure that I 100% accept that this series has serious problems. No defense will come from me on that front. This is probably why, even though I own this and still collect it, I have not ran it. I could have easily ran this setting long ago. Still I don't.


  1. Most D&D settings make a hash out of European myth and culture. Same with the Far East and the New World. Al-Qadim is in good company.

    1. One interesting point they make in the linked video is that with European settings there is an inherent tone of "you are familiar with this" while in Al Qadim and Oriental Adventures the tone is "this might seem strange to you". Which of course makes sense if you assume your audience is western. But if you are interested in expanding your base, drawing in new players, and making products that stand the test of time, then this is really not a good idea. And I think it's an automatic way of writing these settings. We don't see our own bias. The authors of Al Qadim were certainly not thinking "I'll write this ONLY for white Americans". But the powerful social biases at play caused them to write it for white Americans.