Jungle Review: Al-Qadim’s Ruined Kingdoms
August 25, 2011
In general, when I think of AD&D 2nd Edition I think “too much”. Too much rules supplements. Too much campaign settings and too much product for those settings. No doubt there are some good products from that era, but so much of it seems watered down and overdone.
Compared to other camping setting product lines from the era, the Al-Qadim setting seems modest. Only 14 products released over the span of a few years. The visual style of the books is restrained. Functional but attractive with gold border designs. Not over-stylized like Planescape and Dark Sun, but not with a bland layout and style like a lot of what TSR made in the 90s. The setting has a nice sword & sorcery vibe to it with the gritty adventure of a hot desert and the exotic wonder of a thousand and one cool nights. Overall, I nominate Al-Qadim as an under appreciated gem of the AD&D 2E era.
All that being said, I only own one Al-Qadim product: Ruined Kingdoms by Steven Kurtz. Of course, it has jungles.
Ruined Kingdoms is like the seven other Al-Qadim adventure sets in that it consists of a thin but sturdy box containing many pieces. In this box: 64-page Adventure book, 32-page Campaign book, 8-page Monster book, six cardstock accessory sheets, and a color fold-out map.
The six cardstock sheets are full color on one side, intended to be shown to the players at various times during the adventures in the Adventure book. Little props like this are handy. The other side contains DM info such as maps and stats.
The Al-Qadim world maps are some of the best TSR ever produced. The Ruined Kingdoms poster map is a fine example. A functional cartographic style with effective use of color and texture. Thematic icons to represent noteworthy sites such as ruins and cities. This map alone can be used as inspiration and roots of a sandbox campaign. Here is a portion of it:
The meat of Ruined Kingdoms is the 64-page Adventure book and 32-page Campaign book.
The campaign book provides enough details to communicate and support the general theme of a Ruined Kingdoms campaign. It starts with a brief history of the land, outlining the kingdoms that have ruled there in the past but now exist only as ruins and deadly magic in the jungle. Next, it describes the magical legacy of the Geomancers, an extinct culture of earth elementalists. The Geoglyphs that they left behind makes exploring their ruins particularly dangerous. Then, the crocodile Cult of Ragarra is efficiently described and presented as a potentially powerful friend or foe of the PCs. Next, four cities are presented: Dihliz, Kadarasto, Medina al-Afyal, and Rog’osto. These cities are described in enough detail (about 2 pages each) to give each its own flavor and adventuring possibilities without getting bogged down with mundane details. The origins of Rog’osto is especially cool. Finally, some magic items found in the Ruined Kingdoms are described, offering more ideas and lures to adventure.
Overall, the Campaign book is a good balance of detail and openended-ness that supports a classic D&D theme: exploring and plundering the magical ruins of past kingdoms. In the jungle, no less! Furthermore, any of the components could also be swiped for use in your own jungle campaign. Just a nice little book of ideas.
Unfortunately, I felt most of the nine scenarios in the Adventure book don’t live up to the potential of the Campaign book. For better or worse, there is a plot to it all, giving it the feel of an adventure path. The story is ok but not exactly original, involving a long dead sorcerer rising again in hopes of reviving the Geomancer empire, which the PCs must thwart. Only a few of the adventures deal directly with that plot, the other adventures serving as filler, some of which are no more than a single encounter. It’s a little railroad-y, but not overwhelmingly so, and the individual adventures could be easily adapted for use in your own campaign if you liked a particular one. My favorites are the ones that involve jungle ruins, delivering on the potential of the Campaign book:
Adventure #5: Talisman. Travel through the jungle to battle the crocodile Cult of Raggara at the Temple of the Serpentine Empress.
Adventure #7: Secrets of the Seal. Journey to the Isle of the Elephant to find the underground ruins of Al-Asirr and the holy avenger scimitar: Breaker of the Ninth Chain.
Honorable mention goes to Adventure #9: Kismet, for being a nice set piece lich’s lair deep in the jungle with a nice color map card and challenging final battle. Unfortunately, it is assumed that the PCs will travel to the lair on a magic carpet, missing out on the fun (for who?) of stomping through the jungle. Indeed, like many jungle modules, travel through the jungle is glossed over for the most part. For example, introduction to adventure #5 Talisman suggests:
“Take your time describing the noises, sights, and smells of the jungle: stress the unusual abundance of water and cool rainfall in the mornings and evenings; the persistent chatter of the birds, animals, and insects (at night, this can be unnerving until the party becomes accustomed to it); the magnificent hardwood trees stretching into a canopy far overhead; the crumbling stone ruins, which occasionally peek from beneath a carpet of vines and creepers; and the delicate smell of orchids, gently wafting down from the canopy overhead. To relieve any mounting tension, feel free to run one or two simple encounters, perhaps with a family of wild boars or a giant hornet looking for food.”
A nice effort, but it basically just tells the DM to give some flowery jungle-y descriptions and toss in a few jungle-y encounters. As I’ve mentioned before on this site, the shortcomings of existing jungle modules is what led me to create the Jungle Event and Travel System.
To summarize my thoughts on Ruined Kingdoms: Great maps, props, and clean, functional book design. The Campaign book got me interested in running a campaign in the Ruined Kingdoms, but I would use only a few of the scenarios in the Adventure book. More likely is that I’ll get value from Ruined Kingdoms by stealing bits and pieces for my own setting.