Monday, December 24, 2018

Al-Qadim: Enlightened Monsters (5th Edition)

Artist Unknown

I haven't talked about it as much, but I'm quite a fan of al-Qadim. Even 25 years later its mostly Middle Eastern-themed setting is still a rarity in Dungeons & Dragons books. Seeing other takes on the culture such as The Nightmares Underneath, and Kobold Press' Southlands* made me go back to reading the oldest and most famous Fantasy Arabian tabletop world. One of the settings' most distinguishing elements was the relative harmony brought about by Enlightenment, the land's dominant religious tradition that brought various races (monstrous and otherwise) to live on peaceful terms. Although there is still plenty of conflict in the setting from nefarious secret societies to vindictive genies, the 'dwarf/elf, human/orc' race wars of other worlds are practically absent here.

*whose own Wolfgang Baur was a prolific writer for al-Qadim products back in the day.

The major factors for a monster's acceptance into Enlightened society are if it is overall humanoid in shape  (or capable of assuming said shape), does not possess extraordinarily powerful abilities, and does not have an inherently inimical nature alignment-wise. This coincidentally mapped onto overall guidelines for the appropriateness of monstrous PCs, which spawned the idea for this very blog post. 

The core al-Qadim products along with City of Delights mention the more common monstrous races, so I figured to write up some entries on other monsters (namely humanoids and giants) in the major 5th Edition books. Right now this blog post handles the core Monster Manual and Volo's Guide, but I may work on Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes and perhaps some 3rd party sourcebooks if there's enough interest. The Monstrous Races sourcebook and its sequel on the DM's Guild even provides balanced racial options for just about every official 5th Edition monster, further sweetening the deal.

Note: I am not including monsters already expounded upon in the existing al-Qadim corebooks. This includes the standard three goblinoids, kobolds, lizardfolk, merfolk, ogres, and orcs.

Monster Manual

Aarakocra: These mighty bird-people are natives to the Elemental Plane of Air, occasionally venturing forth into the Material Plane in search of evil beings to vanquish or capture. They are on good terms with djinni, although they regard the spirits as a bit too flighty to be entirely reliable. The djinni, for their part, view the aarakocra as being too uptight.

The aarakocra are followers of the Law of the Loregiver, whose inspiring words settled upon one of their own number. Most feel a service to spread its teachings throughout the planes beyond, and it is said that they once created a magic staff blessed by Fate known as the Rod of Law as a gift to the Grand Caliph. Alas a treacherous assassin among their own destroyed the artifact, scattering it into seven parts across the planes.

Bullywug: These inhabitants of the Ruined Kingdoms make settlements among the many twisting rivers as bargemen and river guides. The city of Dihliz contains the largest numbers of bullywugs, who often make a living as tomb-robbers in underwater ruins where humans and other races are incapable of surviving without magical aid.

Centaur: See al-Qadim Monstrous Compendium for more information. Centaur are desert nomads who are known to steal domesticated animals for they view this practice as a crime. Their magical traditions include priestesses who act as waterfinders and oracles for their tribes.

Cyclops: These giants used to be inhabitants of an oceanic empire among the islands of the Crowded Sea, but now they live within the ruins of their forebears. They have limited trade with Zakharans, offering their strength and magical powers learned from the lore of runic inscriptions to merchant vessels and pirates. Some follow the Law of the Loregiver and are devout citizens, while others pay homage to genies and terrible spirits of the ruins.

Doppelganger: With the ability to take the forms of others, doppelgangers are more than willing to to use their powers to reap the bounties of civilized society. They are rarely welcomed where they are discovered, for the nature of their powers inevitably creates distrust.

Drow and Duergar: See Land of Fate for more information. Unenlightened underdark civilizations beholden to evil gods in the western mountains, their existence is so far the stuff of rumors among surface-dwelling Zakharans.

Ettin: Cousins of ogres (as well as goblins and orcs), ettin find a similar role in Zakharan society as enlightened ogres. Although limited in intelligence, their dual-headed nature produces a surprising array of qadi and scholars, bouncing ideas and theories off of each other and arriving at conclusions one would ordinarily not reach alone.

Fomorian: Between their huge size, anti-religious views, and seeking domination of other races, Fomorians have little desire for peaceful interaction with Zakharan society. They live in caves among the High Desert, striking out to raid nearby communities for supplies and slaves.

Giants, True: See al-Qadim Monstrous Compendium for more information. True giants are much more integrated in Zakhara, can range the gamut of alignments, and do not follow the Ordning like their brethren elsewhere. Except for the hill giants, they typically live apart from the settlements of smaller races, visiting occasionally to trade for objects they cannot get themselves and to provide work advantageous to their large size.

Githyanki: Rarely seen beyond a few extraplanar scouting parties, these strange beings are virtually unknown in the Land of Fate. Their militant hatred of the gods and loyalty to a tyrannical society put them at odds with Zakhara.

Githzerai: Some extraplanar portals exposed to the chaotic energies of Limbo bring forth githzerai monasteries. A few monks stand guard over these convergences to ensure that the elemental Chaos does not spread further into the Material Plane.

Gnoll: Completely integrated into Zakharan society, gnolls live alongside the other races in cities. Their ancestral lands of the High Desert are home to many gnoll tribes who maintain nomadic ways of life.

Gnome, Deep (Svirfneblin): The gnomes’ subterranean cousins are so rarely spotted in the Land of Fate that even dwarves regard their sightings as being “pink tunnel elephants.” Gnomish history and folklore tell of how a tribe once ventured into the deep veins of the earth in search of a fabled ‘Promised Land.’ They discovered it, but had to swear an oath to cut off all ties with the surface world. All manner of strange sightings in mines and caverns are attributed to deep gnome activity.

Grimlock: Grimlocks stalk the dark, subterranean lairs of the world. As a result, quite a few are mistaken for ghul or other monstrous diggers. A few scholars posit that they were an Unenlightened civilization under thrall to cruel false gods. Some more charitable souls and paladins sought to free the grimlocks from their unseen masters, although any word on their expeditions’ success is unknown and most fear the worst.

Hags: Whereas the hakima are wise women blessed to perceive truth, the hags are wicked women who made pacts with malevolent genies to bring misfortune upon others.

Half-Dragon: A favorite story among bards is the claim that the wisest and most powerful of dragons wreath themselves in humanoid guise to walk among mortals. Some arrogant serpent secure in his position over the “lesser races” softens their heart upon falling in love with an enchanting maiden or handsome lad. The half-dragons are the result of such unions, and the tales commonly end in tragedy when the mortal lover’s lifespan reaches their end. The dragon lover often retreats once again from the world, leaving their dual-heritage child behind. The storytellers often follow up this saga of sorrow and loss with a happier family reunion, but only on the next day when the crowd comes back to pay to hear the rest of the tale.

Harpy: These winged women are prized among mamluk legions and merchant caravans for their ability to take flight, undeterred by hostile terrestrial features. Their captivating voices mean that their number sports some of the best poets in the Land of Fate.

Jackalweres and Lycanthropes: The divine writ of the gods is not merely advice, say priests and paladins, but the binding of civilization itself. Those who toss aside neighborly ethics and live in squalor and selfishness declare themselves no better than the scavenging beasts of the earth. Some of these people become so far gone that they willingly embrace their bestial natures and turn into animals, apex predators brimming with demonic power.

Sometimes they wear the forms of people, but this is merely a façade of sanity for the monster lurking beneath. Jackalweres and lycanthropes eventually expose themselves in due time, if not from their true form than for their evil behavior which spreads misery and woe.

Kenku: Kenku are nomadic bird-folk who traveled to the Land of Fate from the eastern countries of Kara-Tur. They share a common folkloric history, telling of how they lived like kings in their homeland, only to betray their host’s good graces by coveting that which was not theirs. Their exile is a self-imposed code, lessons passed from elders to the next generation to explore the world and learn of all its people. When they learn the true treasures of family, community, and acceptance will they be find their home again.

These lessons are easier said than done; some kenku figure that being already cursed they have little incentive to prove the one who exiled them wrong, so ancestral lessons fall harder on some ears than others.

Kuo-Toa: Another of the Underdark races, Kuo-Toa are idol-worshipers whose collective mental energy is capable of bringing their revered statues to life. Their priests use strange rituals drawing upon the hopes and fears of the community to instill primitive intelligence in said idols, which act as defenders of the tribe. Needless to say they are Unenlightened, and Zakharans have many tales of gigantic demon-statues rising from the soil and the waves as a result of scant encounters with them. The Kuo-Toa for their part have little inclination to give up their heathen practices, for in many cases their idols are their community's first and last line of defense.

Medusa: It is said that the first medusa was a vain woman who sought out a jinn to grant her wish for beauty and power. The jinn was more than happy to make the deal, but cursed her such that those who gaze upon her would never spread tale of her beauty as they became stone. Forced into isolation, she built her own cult of blind beggars to carry out her will. Called the Way of the Unseen Eye, the medusa’s followers scour the land for artifacts of value as offerings to their mistress. Said offerings are slid under a silken curtain into a room of wealth and luxury, the medusa doing her best to recreate her pre-wish glory days.

Merrow: Merrow are integrated into Zakharan society much like merfolk and ogres, plying their trade in coastal towns.

Artist Unknown

Minotaur: The minotaurs’ cultural folklore infers their creation at the hands of a demonic cult, but this is not a shameful tale. Far from it, they use its history as evidence of the Loregiver’s uplifting message. It is said that the first minotaurs were humans and demihumans granted “the strength and ferocity of the bull” by a demon lord in exchange for servitude. They were mighty and terrible warriors, but one of their number recovered a holy book of the Law from one of their raids. Although looking at it for but a brief moment before hiding it in fear, its wisdom was so profound that it planted the seeds of doubt in the wicked minotaur’s soul.

The minotaur broke free of the cult, but knew his brethren were still enslaved. He returned to his fellows in due time and began speaking the Law. There were those who resisted, but many wept tears at realization for what they had become. They made restitution for their past sins by becoming holy warriors and wiping the demon lord’s taint from the land. Now the minotaurs are few in number but true citizens of the Land of Fate, congregating around the capital Huzuz where they are counted among the mamluk legions’ finest soldiers.

Ogrillon/Half-Ogre: Much like humans (and to a lesser extent elves and orcs), the reproductive compatibility of ogres with other humanoids means that their marriages are likelier than others due to the ability to bear viable progeny. The size difference in the resulting conception is the largest hurdle, so traditionally female ogres and male spouses are preferred for easier births on the part of the mother.

Oni: Also known as ogre mages, some ogre children are born blessed with innate magical tendencies. Such events are highly prized by the community who see it as an auspicious omen. Friends and family of the ogre magi's parents will raise money to send the child to a magical university or tutor so that they may perform great deeds for the Caliphate.

Quaggoth: Where quaggoth live in the deep reaches of the Underdark, so too do drow. A race of fierce warriors and shamans, the dark elves put them on the front lines of their many raids and battles.

Sahuagin: The sahuagin kingdoms are on a hostile footing with the Enlightened. The merfolk and locathah bear the brunt of their attacks, although a hidden city lairs somewhere in the Golden Gulf where they make raids on ships passing to Hiyal and Huzuz. The reason for their war footing with the Land of Fate is unknown, but theories abound ranging from wicked undersea cults to more mundane desires of greed-filled raids and pillaging.

Thri-Kreen: This race of nomadic insectoids almost exclusively lives within the Haunted Lands. They have an arm’s length relationship with the Caliphate, as the thri-kreen are not in any hurry to adopt the Law and hew to idol-worship in private when among other races. Most of their interactions with Zakharan society are as mercenary barbarians and desert guides.

Troglodyte: Native to the al-Suqut Mountains of western Zakhara, troglodyte rarely venture into the Land of Fate save in full-body wraps smelling strongly of perfume and incense. They’re well-aware of the offensive properties (figuratively and literally) of their natural odor, which has led them to be known as “the aromatic ones." Those who venture to the nearby Cities of the Pearl work in tanneries, slaughterhouses, and other jobs where foul odors would not be cause for alarm.

In the city of Tajar, a group of troglodytes hire themselves out as literal “stinkers” to foul up establishments of rival merchants and those who can’t or won’t pay their debts. They are widely disliked, but a vital asset to many traders owing them favors for getting a leg up on the competition.

Troll: Along with aarakocra and kenku, trolls are rare to the point that they have no towns and cities of their own in the Land of Fate in any appreciable number. They are most commonly found within major urban centers such as Huzuz, and their massive appetites mean that they most commonly end up working for mamluk units and merchant caravans in need of strong muscle. They prefer the lush terrain of the Ruined Kingdoms and the fertile bays of the Pearl Cities over more desolate civilizations if they can afford to move there.

Yeti: Exclusively located within the Yehimal Mountains, the yetis as a people have made no real level of contact with the Caliphate. They either live in isolated tribes of small family units who hunt and herd mountain goats, or serve as slaves of the yak-men. The yak-men are fond of using their body-swapping powers on yetis, as their climbing claws and cold endurance allow them to patrol the far reaches of their isolated empire.

Yuan-ti: Most yuan-ti in Zakhara hail from the Kara-Turan continent, Mahasarpa specifically. They live in the Grey Jungle of east Zakhara and are little seen save in the city of Kadarasto. A pureblood ambassador by the name of Netocris bint Shalah represents her people’s interests, although she is carefully weighing ties between the Caliphate and the necromancer city of Ysawis. The former is larger and more powerful, but the latter is far closer to yuan-ti lands and boasts a sizable undead labor force. As such, many yuan-ti take a “hear all, assume nothing” approach to the other races of the Lands of Fate, with various tribes hewing to Netocris’ neutrality to varying degrees.

Volo's Guide to Monsters

Aasimar: Descended from celestial beings, aasimar have a complicated role in the Land of Fate. On the one hand, many Zakharans view them as akin to priests or holy men and women and seek their blessings for good fortune. On the other hand, their ancestry places high standards upon them, and many aasimar are encouraged into predestined social roles. They are usually adopted by the church or state to be molded into a model citizen and people’s champion at best, or government pawn at worst.

Dark Stalker courtesy of Pathfinder Artwork

Darklings: Lairing deep beneath the earth and unknowing of the Law, the darklings wage a never-ending war against the ghul and other dangers of the lightless depths. They come to the surface via hidden passages and caves, often stealing into cities to ply their shady services. A small community lives in Hiyal, City of Intrigue, disguised as beggars.

Firbolg: Firbolg are servants of the jinn of Eastern Zakhara, watching over the unspoiled jungles of the Ruined Kingdoms. They were mortal foes of Nog and Kader, opposing their sorcerers’ exploitation of the verdant woodlands. They still maintain their role as sacred guardians, for although those fell kingdoms are no more they are but recent memories to the perspective of the regions’ great trees.

Firenewt: Firenewts thrive in the islands of the Crowded Sea, especially those home to active volcanoes. Many worship the cold elemental gods, specifically the ones associated with fire. Quite a few unscrupulous individuals seek to take advantage of the firenewts' isolated societies and low intelligence for muscle work, from efreeti representatives of the City of Brass to the Brotherhood of the True Flame. As such they can appear in a variety of climates as bodyguards, laborers, and messengers for their masters. But such deals are not foolproof; the firenewts are a proud people, claiming descent from mighty dragons, and do not appreciate when others look down on them as savages. A particularly brave corsair managed to turn a firenewt tribe against a Brotherhood plot by exposing the flame mages’ illusions of their fire god to be trickery, causing the firenewts' former allies to be driven off the island for their blasphemy.

Flind: Flind is merely a term for a gnoll leader rather than being a race unto its own. As a result, the flind monster stat block reflects prized warriors and sheiks among their race but can be of any alignment.

Goliath: Native to the Yehimal Mountains, the Goliath race sits on the crossroads between Zakhara, Faerûn, and Kara-Tur. They have minimal contact with the people of the respective continents. The exception is the Lands of the Yak-Men, with whom they are on a continuous war footing as the horned sorcerers view the goliath tribes as a strong source of slave labor. Most Goliath are Unenlightened and hew to a “survival of the fittest” ethos, but a few converted to the Law when some Zakharan beat them in a competition of bravery and strength.

Grung: Cousins of the bullywugs, the small and weak grungs were forced from the choicest island and rainforest terrain of southern and eastern Zakhara by their larger peers centuries ago. They learned to utilize their races’ natural poison and mobility to defend themselves against invaders of all types. Even the geomancers of Kadar viewed them as more trouble than they’re worth, and although biased against them quite a bit of grung oral history is replete with knowledge of the Ruined Kingdoms’ sorcerous rites.

Grung have minimal contact with the rest of Zakhara, with merchants appearing in Kadarasto in small numbers selling the bounties of the rainforest. They have a caste system similar to Afyal, and for that reason they tend to translate appropriate protocol with Enlightened people based on their professed occupation.

Nilbog: Nilbogism is believed to be the result of a mischievous jinn possessing the host goblinoid. Due to the fact that violence against the possessed host is neither practical nor moral for many communities, affected goblins are either ignored or tricked into being captured to make the possessing jinn grow bored and move on.

Nilbog Alternative Writeup, based on traditional/Tome of Horrors portrayal: These goblins are cursed to live time at a different wavelength than others. The mental strain and temporal confusion generated by them causes nilbogs to become outcasts, so they gather in monasteries of their kind where they seek the favor of the gods for solace. The experience of maladies and wounds “in reverse” caused more than few nilbogs to take up the sword and fight otherwise invincible foes. Goblinoid rawun are quite fond of these “tragic heroes,” teaching that even those afflicted with horrible maladies can go on to perform great deeds.

Sea Spawn: The sea spawn of Zakhara are the fleshwarped slaves of undersea and aquatic creatures, from aboleth and krakens to sea hags and marid. In many cases the transformation is permanent, although like all curses there is a way to break them. It is known that true love’s touch can turn a sea spawn back to their original form, which is why many wicked monsters of the deep keep their most valuable slaves in wicked coral fortresses. If one has feet instead of fins, an entreaty with a merfolk or triton wise of the ocean's many trenches may spirit travelers and star-crossed lovers to the lightless realms, either for a price or for shared righteous justice.

Tabaxi: These feline humanoids perfectly integrated into Zakharan society. Many live in the jungles of the Ruined Kingdoms, and serve as guides for travelers in Dihliz and Kadarasto in ancestral lands they still know very well. Some still privately worship savage gods.

Tlincalli: The “centaurs of scorpions” are a race nearly exclusive to the Al-Badia tribes of the High Desert and Haunted Lands. Bearing the lower half and poisonous stinger of a giant scorpion, the natural strength and chitinous armor of the tlincalli give them a reputation as fierce warriors. Most bandits know better than to tangle with a tlincalli tribe, which puts them in high service for caravan duty. Scorpion folk are a mixture of Enlightened and pagan faiths, with the more isolated tribes more likely belonging to the latter category.

Triton Fortune Hunter, of Magic the Gathering

Triton: One of the major aquatic races besides the merfolk and locathah, triton represent the Law’s will beneath the ocean waves. Their cities are wondrous, colorful citadels of coral, and their cavalry is made up of dolphin and orca-riding mamluks. Poets above and beneath the waves sing of their many heroes, from Sabiha the Krakenslayer to Mehmood the Herald of Storms.

Xvart: History points to the xvarts as being the creation of an insane god, but the ones who accepted Enlightenment turned their prior zealotry into a lust for life. As one of the few races shorter-lived than humans, they are impatient and seek to make something of themselves in the world. It is said that their god still watches over them with jealous eyes through bat and rat spies, so the Enlightened xvart defy him by taming said creatures and learning their speech. Xvarts also bear a warrior culture in spite of their short builds, using tactical retreats and lower centers of gravity to topple taller foes. Several mamluk units have a squad of “giantkiller” xvart infantry when going up against larger enemies and monsters.


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