Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Emirates of Ylaruam: RPG Items I Like

Classic D&D region supplement covering a fantasy nation with an Arabian flavor.

We come now to the second volume in the gazetteer series. I talked a little bit about the series and Mystara setting as a whole in my first review on GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos. It's interesting to look at how the follow up matches the patterns of the first book and how much it deviates from them. The Emirates of Ylaruam generally stays with the style of the first gazetteer, but doesn't rigidly adhere to it. There's greater emphasis on adventure seeds, a more distinct player character section, and a richer treatment of a single city. I like each volume in the series seems linked but at the same time shift to fit their subject. In this case we have industry veteran Ken Rolston at the helm. He would later design two other entries in the series, GAZ4: The Kingdom of Ierendi, and GAZ7: The Northern Reaches.

Design-wise, The Emirates keeps the same basic three parts: folio cover, map and 64-page booklet. Clyde Caldwell provides a cover combining the classic Arabian tropes with a map background. There's beefcake and cheesecake present in the illustration. A full-color page has smaller map of Ylaruam, showing its relation to its neighbors (the Dwarves of Rockhome, the Empire of Thyatis and- oddly- the the Viking-like Soderfjord Jarldoms directly to the north). The folio interior shows two top-down building illustrations and a two-page spread of an underground complex. That's accompanied by three detail inserts. The large fold-out map offers another classic hex-treatment of the Emirates, and five city maps. These are a little more detailed than those in GAZ1. They have keyed and labeled locations. The saddle-stapled booklet keeps the basic text design, with three columns of tiny text. This volume has much lighter and less obtrusive watermarks on the pages. Doug Chaffee provides all of the interior B&W illustrations. They're OK, a little basic and echoing the style of Elmore or early Easley. Unlike the previous volume, the images here focus on places and general scenes, rather than the NPCs.

The Emirates are the Arabian analogue for the Mystara setting. It's interesting to look at given our present context. I'll talk a little bit later to some of my reaction to the material and choices. For the moment I want to focus on the details presented here.

Ylaruam takes magical geography to an extreme- a desert kingdom bordered by mountains with icy climates and more temperate lands directly next door. It has ocean access as well. The booklet of material opens with two versions of the land's history: the local and the DM version. Ylaurum has historically served as the home to two distinct groups- hazar (city-dweller) and nomad. Conquered early by the Thyatians and Alphatians, with both establishing colonies in the more hospitable areas. Then arose a prophet, Al-Kalim, who quested and petitioned an Immortal to aid his peoples. Al-Kalim brought back his support and created the Nahmeh, the text which describes the dream and rules of the people of Ylaruam. Armed with this, the people of the Emirates threw out the foreigners. A confederation arose from the various tribes under the dynasty of Al-Kalim, the first Sultan. He established the Eternal University in the Emirates and a wise council known as the Preceptors. However with the passing of Al-Kalim, two factions arise. The first believes in rules by choice of the most wise, i.e. the decision of the Preceptors. The second believes in rule by the family of Al-Kalim. The former have control in the setting currently, but the latter represent a significant force in the region. The supplement lays this out in some detail over three pages, complete with a nice timeline that includes a few future events.

Several topics get 2-3 page treatments next: ecology, peoples, and economics. The Emirates have a fairly rich and diverse environment. Each of the six provinces possesses slightly different climates and resources. While the desert makes up the majority of the land in the region, it includes coastal plains, grasslands, and plateaus. Some provinces possess greater access to fertile lands, encouraging a focus on urban settlement and lifestyle. Others much rely on a nomadic lifestyle. The provinces have distinct cultural heritages, with several heavily influences by contact with one or more of the colonial or foreign powers. Add to that significant ethnic groups in the land. While the Alasiyan culture and people dominate the region, the Emirates have peoples of Makistani, Thyatian, Alphatian and even Nithian descent. That's one of my favorite details of this supplement, and a story that runs through the various gazetteers. As you read through them, you begin to get a strong and present sense of older cultures, especially the Makistani. We see how they spread, rose, fell, and integrated with the various nations of the continent. That's a challenging concept to get across to readers, and perhaps even more challenging to get across to players. Consider that as a GM you can set up a particular set of elements as a national archetype: the Arabs of Ylaruam, the Italians of Darokin. Now add to that the complication of ethnic lines and sub-groups, people who live within the land but don't stake their primary identity as national. In Karameikos we got two primary groups: the colonial nobility and the native Traldarans. In GAZ2 we begin to see a richer and more complicated approach.

The largest section of the booklet covers society in the Emirates. That begins with the life and history of Al-Kalim. His words and teachings, as recorded in the Nahmeh, provide the key text for life in the Emirates. Interestingly, Al-Kalim began as a conventional hero- a skillful tactician who organized his people against foreign oppression. It would be only later in his lifetime, when it proved practical, that he focused on mysticism and philosophy. Again there's a practicality here that just begins to grapple with what living in a fantasy world like this would mean. Al-Kalim quests and bargains, gaining aid for the Emirates and pushing him forward on his own path to become an Immortal. Al-Kalim, retired from life, does not die, but continues on that quest for immortality. Lacking gods in a conventional sense, Mystara borrows more than a little of the Heroquesting themes of Glorantha. It actually becomes a little hard to follow in the text- on the one hand, Al-Kalim seems to be using the Immortals, in particular the Old Man of the Sea. His work seems to be focused on results, manipulation and general philosophies. On the other hand, the articles of faith have the people of the Emirates giving faith to the Immortal Guardian. How much that's a specific or abstract figure isn't as well described as it could be.

Al-Kalim's writings, as laid out in the Nahmeh, provide guidelines for right living and treatment. They also provide for the division of the peoples into three “ways”: of the Follower, of the Warrior and of the Scholar. The Scholar includes clerics, and the rules offer four culturally specific spells (including detect water and truthtelling). The rules include an interesting concept as well, gaining experience in ones social status. That's a new model for consideration. The book suggests ways in which NPCs “level up” and gain EXP through following the codes and rules of their particular class and status. That's a neat idea and the book doesn't overplay it. Instead it offers the DM a new way of thinking about the how and why of NPCs in a setting.

The sixteen pages of the society chapters cover many topics. From social structures and obligations, it moves to cover the politics of the region. The Emirates offers an interesting challenge for players in the form of a strong bureaucracy insulating the nobility from petitions and possessing a great deal of power. The book considers the policies operating internally (a focus on water resources, clamping down on tribal rivalries) and externally (peace with neighbors with some exceptions). Next it details laws, including the differing senses of ownership within the region (something which might have a significant impact on player behavior). Various customs are also addressed. For example, mages must wear particular clothing to identify themselves. It is worth noting that generally the Emirate supplement avoids the question of women and their treatment. While offering a fantasy refit of the Arab World, it leaves any question of women as second-class or restricted citizens.

The next section is one of the most interesting, a new development that would appear in some- if not most- of the later gazetteers. The middle of the booklet has an eight-page pull-out section, utilizing a slightly different background color. This covers “What Everyone Knows About the Emirates.” This is a great idea- opening with dialogue perspectives from several different sources. In two pages it offers a rich, playing-facing resource which the DM can easily pass around to players. Next the pull-out covers character creation, including a guide to naming (in some of the tiniest type I've ever seen in an rpg book). Following this it covers mechanics for riding checks, travel rates, heat exhaustion, EXP for playing points of honor, and storytelling. The skills system presented in GAZ1 does not appear here however, and is not referenced at all. A new class, the Dervish or Desert druid is presented, as a Cleric variant with a distinct set of five spells available at each level. The section ends with courtesy tips for foreigners and a glossary. One notable oversight here, and throughout the book is any kind of guide to pronunciation. Given some of the odd names thrown around, that would have been helpful.

Where GAZ1 offered an overview of the important locations of Karameikos and the key NPCs of the nation, The Emirates of Ylaruam takes another approach. Instead, over fifteen pages, it provides a rich and detailed location for DMs, the Village of Kirkuk. This trade crossroads showcases an important caravan stopping point. That makes it particularly useful for DMs who might simply want to take their party through Ylaruam, rather than centering a campaign there. This section offers plenty of details and many suggestions for how to stage the city and tie players into the stories and adventures. Following this the booklet ends with twelves pages on running campaigns in Ylaruam. It offers some excellent general advice on campaign-building, beyond simply talking about the region. As expected it includes typical monsters and rare treasures of these lands. The chapter presents nine adventure seeds, each with a nice multi-paragraph set up and suggestions about what experience levels might be appropriate. If I have any quibble with this section, it is that it too literally adapts material from the Arabian Nights, rather than coming up with new setting specific concepts.

I have to say I'm of two-minds about this supplement. I'm at something of a disadvantage based on my background. In high school and college, I took Arabic as my language requirement; I majored in Anthropology with a focus on the Middle East; and I studied for a year in Egypt. I'm a little wary about representations of other cultures- and the fantastic has been used as cover before for some pretty awful depictions. I'm not necessarily a subscriber to Edward Said and his Orientalism approach to all depictions of the foreigner. But I am a little wary when the figure of Mohammed gets rewritten in such a thinly veiled way. I have to wonder if as transparent a version of Jesus in a fantasy setting would be received well? That being said, I think this book is pretty amazing for how it manages to bring together some of the key elements of classical Arab traditions: the split within the faith (essentially the Sunni/Shia division), the division between urban and nomad culture and the values associated with it, the focus on scholarship. It balances the difficult differences and contrasts of the Muslim and pre-Muslim world.

Several of the gazetteers take a whole region and compress it down to a single nation, as here where the tribes/provinces represent the distinct and different facets of the Arab World. I think The Emirates of Ylaruam is a pretty great supplement- but I think it stands better as a fantasy treatment of Arabian history than perhaps it does as a living part of the Mystara setting. I think a couple of opportunities get missed here- especially about what faith and religion really look like in a world with Immortals instead of gods. The material here contradicts itself from section to section. Still, I have used The Emirates in my own campaign. Where I've changed and transformed the material from the other gazetteers, I've used this one pretty much whole cloth. In the end, that ought to be my yardstick for judging this material. I've been able to bring it to the table and it has served well as background for many sessions over the years.