PrinceofNothingReviews: Endless Sands (d20 3pp); Al-Quadim with a whiff of Dark Sun

[Campaign Setting]
Endless Sands (2002)

Ree Soesbee (Avalanche Press LTD)
Summary: Dark Sun + Al Quadim

The second stand-out Avalanche 64 page campaign setting I’ve come across, Endless Sands takes place in a fantasy world based on Arabian legend and manages to feel new despite coming out far after Al-Quadim. It exemplifies a truth about Campaign settings I have realized in my long journey through the elfgame archives: A good campaign setting need not be able to sustain a thousand campaigns, it just needs to be able to sustain one good one. As such the world of Endless Sands is limited in scope but sufficiently broad to give one the tools to run one hell of a kickass campaign.

It all starts by setting the stage. The world of Endless Sands consists of, unsurprisingly, mostly desert. This is not your grandfather’s Al-Quadim. This is more like Dark Sun’s Athas. The desert is a merciless place and most of its inhabitants lead a harsh existence. Civilization huddles around what few fresh water rivers exist or cluster around semi-permanent Oases. Life in the cities is vicious and brutal and the strong prey on the weak. Religious strife is rampant. The inhabitants of the deeper deserts are savage tribesmen who lead a desiccated lives of internecine warfare and daring raids on caravans, more like the Fremen then any desert dweller from Al-Quadim or Ylaruam. Yet something of the glory and splendor of that mythical Golden Age of Islam shines through all the brighter because of it. This is not PG-13 Araby. This is Endless fucking Sands.

What better way to start off the adventure then with a list of diseases that may be contracted as a result of exposure to the harsh environment. Altitude sickness. Heat Exhaustion. Prickly Heat (the rash you get from wearing armor or heavy clothing in conditions of severe heat). These rules have a purpose, which is to drive home the fact that the environment is hostile, and the sun is merciless. Nice.

The first 18-page chapter is devoted to Al-Maghrebia, the dominant and only nation of the Endless Sands, consisting of four major cities and numerous townships. It is ruled, with iron fist, by the divinely appointed Grand Sultan Jardin Qued Abdullah Ibn Ibrahim al-Kharaja and clustered around the Bitter Ocean, an inner sea. It is a young empire, created  by the (violent) unification of the four great cities that are each far older then the nation that now holds sway over it. Each city is described in detail and has its origins not only in history but also in myth. The truth of these legends are up to the GM, one supposes.

This section is what made me fall in love with this setting and every chapter thereafter just intensified that big gay crush until I could do naught but buy a d20-covered prayer mat and genuflect five times a day towards Virginia Beach in grateful exaltation. Endless Sands has only four Cities, so it makes sure each city feels distinct, totally different, has hooks, has unique features and has a flavor. Quehabat is a beautiful and glorious metropolis that founded al-Maghrebia by trade and force of arms. Ma-Hallam is a city built by the Jinn and ruled by the sorcerous Viziers, location of the mystical gateway into the Land of Sorcery and Fire and rival to the might of Quehabat. Yedja-alit is a lawless cesspool of powerful oligarchs, grinding poverty, beautiful and omnipresent mosaics, slavery, gladiatorial contests and numerous diseases (the rules for hepatitis, giardiasis, typhus and paper flesh (a sort of desert leprosy) make their appearance here). Diralé is the bitch of the four: conquered numerous times, cursed, haunted, having the rare distinction of being in possession of a powerful thieves guild (the Sepharine) and its architecture a bizarre kaleidoscopic mishmash of different styles belonging to the different civilizations that have at one time made it call them daddy. It does have a spiffy giant water clock in the center of town that is guarded day and night by royal guardsmen since the hoi-polloi want to destroy it claiming it is a waste of water.

And what of the people? Ah Gritty Arabian Nights. How I love thee! Every street corner is littered with filthy beggars, thievery is rampant, strange mystics wander about the place, nomads are dangerous and violent but honorable and what would be an Arabian Nights game without greedy merchants, Eunuchs and fanatically devoted suicide soldiers employed by the Religion of Ja’Ilam (the dominant religion in Endless Sands) against the enemies of the Faith (and also against the dirty dirty followers of the Old Religion). The section on the People of the cities really brings to life the different classes of people in the world of Endless Sands. Good stuff. The position of women is briefly discussed and contrary to expectations it is both exactly what you expect yet sort of surprising; clearly unequal but capable of wielding some influence behind the throne and given a modicum of rights. Lady adventurers can join the very small minority of women who give up their femininity for the chance to live life as a dude (hal-ila). You lose your right to wear women’s clothing, get married and you will be forever shunned by other women. Congrats, you are now a man! Now the Caliph requires a new gemstone mine for his palanquin. Start Digging!

Chapter Deux of the Endless Sands concerns the sandiest part of the Endless Sands, the Deep Sands, also known as the 90% of the Endless Sands that cannot be farmed or tilled. It is inhabited by the Badiya, vicious and violent tribes of desert nomads that behave exactly like one would expect nomadic herdsmen in merciless environments with a harsh, monotheistic religion to behave. So devout are the Badiya that they allow the holy men of rival tribes to commit suicide by walking into the sands without food or water rather then putting them to the sword.
In addition, we get the legend of the ruins of the city of Urud, ancient rival to Quehabat and fallen capitol of a mighty empire, now dust. Exact hints about the location of its hidden vaults, filled with the riches of a thousand Rajas, are hidden in the folk tales of The Adventures of Haji Baba. Naturally, no chapter would be complete without the Fallen Tower, a structure raised (or so legend would have you believe) by the Children of Ahuramazhda (the Sun god of the Old Religion) and his mortal concubine so they could reach him in Heaven and pushed deep into the sands by his evil god-wife Fatima (who incidentally gave birth to all the monsters in the setting as part of a price she had to pay cure her bareness). Nice.

Religion in Endless Sands is a deliciously volatile mix. About 20% still follows the Old Faith, a pagan nature religion with a Sun God, a moon goddess (the Evil Fatima!) and their children the Elements. Dictates involve living a balanced life and fighting the forces of darkness that constantly encroach upon the world. Reminiscent of Summerian mythology with Ahriman and Anur and whatnot.
The largest and most dominant religion is the relatively newfound monotheistic religion of Ja’Ilam, whose dictates involve Ja’Ilam being the only true religion, mindless obedience to the dictates of Ja’Ilam, the Creator already having outlined everything in this world and that the Sands will one day rise up and swallow the unbeliever. While the Old Faith has the hideously mutated Cult of the Moon, Ja’Ilam has the warrior Fanatics of the Ghazi and, even better, the Bakaghazi’s, who are so damned that only brutal and agonizing death in service to Ja’Ilam will redeem them and who are kept imprisoned and tortured constantly underneath some mosques until they are unleashed upon enemies of the faith. Many worshippers of Ja’Ilam are opposed to their existence, to add a bit of nuance. Domains are Law, Healing, Protection and Destruction. FOR I AM A VENGEFUL GOD.

At about page 37 we hit the mechanics part of Endless Sands. We are provided with 3 prestige classes (because this is a 3e supplement and you are legally obligated to put those in if you are making a campaign setting) all part of the setting: The shamanistic Bedoul, the Ghazi warrior fanatic and of course, the elementalist Vizier class. Each one is serviceable in its own right but no ability jumps out as particularly noteworthy. Power-wise, they seem about on par with the less retarded prestige-classes of 3.5, if a wee bit more flavorful. As a side note, the Vizier needs to pick an element to specialize in but the way it is written some elements are clearly superior to others, something that would have to be fixed by expanding the spell selection beyond the Corebook (conservatively and without slipping into the retarded excess of Complete Mage and other such nonsense supplements). The game keeps referring to a Knowledge Religion feat as a prerequisite that I do not think actually exists in either the Corebook or this supplement.

Then we arrive at the other obligatory feat section. The damage is limited, some nice feats that allow you to fire arrows effectively from horseback, a dervish feat for better dodging, a haggle feat and a stack-able Guardsman’s stance feat for some temporary and minor damage reduction. A feat that allows you to twirl your blade and make a free attack against anyone moving into your threatened area as a full round action might be really shit, but is forgivable.

The winning continues with the monster section. Again, you are pressed for space, so what do you do? You give a few monsters, all as different as possible, all with different roles, and you make sure they rock. The CR is clustered heavily around the 2-5 area i.e the place where most actual DnD takes place, with only the hideously powerful Sand Giant standing out at CR 12. Each monster is flavorful, has a definite purpose and a delicious hint of faery-tale origin. Dog-men bred by the Viziers as magical watchdogs. Great falcons that are said to have been trained and used by a great hero to lay low a massive city centuries ago (they are noted as being trainable but that the process is very difficult, this section needed a Handle Animal DC)). The Angel-like Buraq creature. Mirage spirits that lure travelers to their doom. Creepy creepy Ghuls. Burrowing Sand Crocodiles.

Personal award goes to the Fazokhl, a magical ram sacred to the element of wind, whose horns may be fashioned into a sounding horn that can be heard all over the Endless Sands. It can turn Ethereal at will and fly at 180 feet. It looks like a silver ram with copper horns. Capture one. Instant flavorful fun quest.

And of course, no Arabian Adventures game worth its salt is complete without a section on Djinn. In keeping with folklore, Jinn are, in general, not people you want to mess with. The ancient civil war (which began over the beauty of a maiden) between the Jann and the Efreet is what turned the Endless Sands into a desert. Unfortunately for the fucking Jinn it also destroyed the Portal to the Land of Sorcery and Fire, so they are now trapped here. If you kill one they will exact their revenge upon you, though one could conceivably gain protection by abusing the fact the Efreet and the Jann are still more or less at war. Next to the Noble Jann and the Evil Efreet, you also have the Beautiful Bajehnn and the enigmatic Yemman, who are said to know a means of opening the Portal (but since they were of inferior caste in the land of Sorcery and Fire they aren’t telling). It goes without saying that Endless Sands outlines a means of opening the Portal, though there are several hindrances to overcome (guardian spirits of Djinn-mausoleum, the Jewel of the Conqueror must be wrested from the hands of the Grand Caliph, the Sorcerous protection of the Rub Al Khalit must be overcome etc.).

The next section outlines some new magical shit. The spells, while not as bad as the ones in Aztecs, are ho-hum. Sand related damage spells and some protective magics. 3e magic was mostly shit and this is no exception. All this dice per level damage and +2 to something or other. I want to go back to the days of Clone, Wish, Heart of Stone and Aerial Servant.

The magic item section is way better. The effects are not spectacular but the descriptions  sell it. A magic carpet that makes you invisible/minor globe of invulnerability. A black belt of stat bonuses worn exclusively by the king of the pirates of the Bitter Ocean (Instant Quest idea!). A magical scimitar used by the priests of Fatima that grows in potency under the light of the moon. Fatima’s Hand is a mace that makes one stronger if one is hit by an opponent. The manifold powers of the Jewel of the Conqueror. These are mostly solid, with a few four stars thrown in there.

The rest of the book is taken up by two segments. A segment on the Cult of the Moon outlines the manifold mutations the worshipers of Fatima can get at the cost of their intelligence. Eventually they are turned into hideous monsters (for which the corebook has ample stats). The Cult of the Moon are huge assholes that want to destroy Ja’ilam and use tactics like assassination, kidnapping, poison, sorcery and general assholishness to do it.

The plot hooks at the end are kind of a letdown. Nearly all of them take the form of: Something is bad (a princess has gone nuts, your ship is now of course, a tribe has gone missing) followed by A MONSTER DID IT! KILL KILL KILL. The alright one describes a religious war finally breaking out, and maybe one where you find a genie in a ring and a merchant wants her back (haha NO!). I award ten points for one where the PCs accompany a dude to the city of Ubar, claiming to be some descendant of the last Caliph of Ubar going to collect his boundless wealth. As the players get trapped inside by accident he reveals he is a simple thief who stole the map that led them to Ubar. He has no idea about the dangers or where the treasure is.

Pros: Good take on a worn premise. Excellent setting design. Classic Faery tale elements make the blood soar. Decent magic items and monsters.

Cons: Yet another Arabian Nights? Spell section is weak, as are mechanics (e.g Avalanche). Plot hooks could be more inspired.

Bottom line: Overall, Endless Sands is a short but sweet outing into a land of harsh beauty, wonder, cruelty and magic. Makes Al-Quadim seem watered down by comparison. Absolutely get if you are interested in the subject and you do not mind playing with just the three core books or doing some expansion of your own. Not for the lazy, nor the faint of heart. 8 out of 10.


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