Monday, April 14, 2014

L is for the Land of Fate

Shannon Appelcline, who writes a great deal on the history of RPG Projects, got in touch with me a few weeks back asking about Al-Qadim - any behind the scene stories and the like. Well, I had a few, and warned him that it would eventually show up in the blog. So therefore L is for the Land of Fate, and here is what I sent him.

1) Al-Qadim Arabian Adventures (1992) was conceived as being a companion piece to Oriental Adventures. While OA was put together and then glued onto the Realms (there was some shrinking of the map scale in the process - Zeb put in not one but two full-sized Chinas onto Kara-Tur's map), Arabian Adventures was planned from the get-go to be part of the Realms, and situated to the south of the existing Realms map. The name of the area, Zakhara, evoked the word "sahara", and went to the Z because Abeir-Toril started with an A. [Hey, A to Z reference!]

2) The name itself was a challenge, in that there were different needs from marketing (which wanted a name that said everything and didn't need to be explained) versus legal (which wanted new words which didn't have any other meaning). At one point the name was "Burning Sands", which everyone on the creative side just hated (though I was amused when it showed up years later as part of Five Rings CCG). I was armed with an arabic dictionaries, and came up with the Al-Qadim, which meant, according to my dictionary "The ancient".  I put it in some cool fonts and we sold that name in.

3) However, management was concerned that the name may have other connotations that we didn't know about. Maztica, for example, sounds like the Mexican word for "chew" (Doug had checked the name with other Spanish-speakers, but they were from the Caribbean, and as such did not make the connection). Since my Arabic dictionary was printed in New Dehli,  I went to the Internet User Groups for help, and got that the name meant ancient, old, venerable, and wise. One contributor noted that it meant old in the sense of stale - "This cheese is old". Not horrible, but we kept the name, and thanked David Hirsch and Daniel Wolk in the credits for their help.

4) Speaking of credits, the great hero of this project was Andria Hayday, who served as the editor but is credited with "Additional Writing and Development". She is responsible, with graphic designer Stephanie Tabat, for the look of the project. She fought for the style of the Karl Waller line drawings, the gold foil borders (a 5th color), and the end papers. More importantly, she wrote the bulk of what became the first chapter. Originally we were planning on talking about the society at the end of the book, much like we did for OA. But her work was so good we moved it to the front, and I argued to give her full co-credit. She passed on getting her name mentioned on the cover (she didn't want to get gaming questions), but I got her name on the back.

Zakhara, the Land of Fate. So what
am I going to do for the letter "z"?
5) Another unsung hero was Jon Pickens, who, when we first started talking about AQ (and it took a few years to put it on the schedule), started collecting books on the subject. When I started on it he delivered three boxes full of books to my office. My favorite was a Marxist analysis of Bedouin life, and it was from that volume I pulled the name "sha'ir" for our wizard kit. In addition to Jon's books, I had also been reading the Burton Arabian Nights and followed a lot of pop culture - Harryhausen movies and the like. We wanted the game to be a combination of history, mythology, and modern knowledge on the subject. 

6) This was an era when we did a lot of "kits", and with AQ the kits blossomed pretty much fully into subclasses. Many of them paralleled western classes, but their own flavor.  I think we had the first female-only kit with the Hakima. When I first wrote up the Corsair, I used the female pronoun because the art piece we used showed a female character. Andria changed it, which was probably for the best.

7) One thing that the Arabian legends did not have was the mixture of Tolkienesque races. As a result, Zakhara was created as a more cosmopolitan world, where species and race did not matter nearly as much. It made for a different flavor in the game.

8) Another big difference was Faith. Religion was and is a touchy matter, and we wanted the faiths of Zakhara to be evocative of the Middle East, but no more descriptive of living faiths than the Gods of Faerun are to western religion. As a result, gods themselves were gathered into pantheons as opposed to having their own unique clerics, which again made the world feel more cosmopolitan. We did break the priest classes of these pantheons into three broad groups - The Faith Pragmatist, The Faith Ethoist, and the Faith Moralist. These were based more on outlook on Protestant denominations (Unitarians, Presbyterians, and Baptists, if I remember right) than any Middle-Eastern group.

9) The concept of Fate worked well for a number of reasons - it gave us an overgod like Ao who would be evoked but not worshipped. It gave us neat little evocation ("We have no fate but the fate that we are given"). And it gave us a reason for what Ed had all of these Middle-Eastern style civilizations scattered around the Realms - Anauroch, Raurin, Thay, Calimishan, et al. In Ed'd campaign, he would always put these Arabian Night civilizations on the borders, and as his borders grew in his campaign, he just added more. We created a folk legend where the various peoples could not get along, so Fate banished them to the far corners of the world for a time out. 

Sorry, guys. I couldn't find a copy of the
Easley piece I described. Here's the cover
(pulled from the Wikipedia). I think its
a pretty good horse.
9) The cover was a bit of challenge, in that we asked for a horse. Jeff Easley is a great artist, but does not like drawing horses and has gotten flack for it from the fans (I don't get this - I like his horses). As an option we suggested a young woman opening a bottle and genie coming out. He created a very cheesecake piece (which was used in the "Women of Fantasy" calender that year) which looked like the young lady was ... um ... smuggling bowling balls in her vest. So we went back to the horse. 

10) The interior art was great, but Jim Ward was concerned about nipple rings on the ogres in one piece. We had that one fixed. However, we did get a letter after publication from someone who was angry about the "blatant foreplay" we showed in one picture. That would be the one of two genies (male and female) playing chess on page149. OK, we had a good laugh on that one.

11) The map of the world was designed to be broken up into components for the boxed adventure sets. If we did them all (we didn't), we would end up with a huge mega-map.

12) Andria and I conceived of the line as having a definite life span of two, maybe three years tops. We did not want to fall into the mode where we had to do an AQ adventure every year, regardless of sales (see OA or Greyhawk). We would do cool stuff, and once the sales trailed off, we would be done. I think we did two years, then they added a third, and then we were asked for a fourth (which would have included the Land of the Yak Men, which was going to be Tibetian in nature), but management changed their minds and so the line closed out

13) The big rivalry in-house was with another desert-based adventure - Dark Sun. Dark Sun sold better per units than AQ, but AQ didn't have as high a unit cost (we didn't do the ring-bound adventure books and custom boxes), and as such is remembered more fondly. Further, we pitched AQ very much as being a sequel to Oriental Adventures. DS was going to "Replace the Realms" which was a statement that often would be the kiss of death for a line. 

14) When we launched, we were supposed to run demos at GenCon Milwaukee. I got fezzes for our demo team, we had some play areas map up to look like desert terrain, and we ran short adventures (Andria and I actually came up with what the specific adventures were while driving to GenCon - I was going to make them up on the fly, while she wanted just a tad more structure). And I am the one responsible for the gong - I borrowed it from the Lake Geneva High School orchestra, and we were to ring it only at the end of the demo. The sales booth said later that every time the gong rang, they got more AQ books out of storage for sale. Other people running demos next to us did not like the gong so much, primarily because Jim Ward loved the gong, and would strike it whenever he was nearby. After the second day we started hiding the striker from him.

15) The books sold well - Dark Sun sold better, as I noted, and we got good reviews. I was told (but never saw the figures) that it sold very well in Israel, which is cool. I am very proud of what we did, and happy to have worked on it.