I went into this batch of books with a certain skepticism, and The Grand Duchy of Karameikos did not disappoint in that regard. I was expecting a by-the-numbers D&D fantasy setting, and what I got was even less fantastic than that.
Don't get wrong, the book is still useful, if you ever needed a serviceable starter kingdom, predominantly run by humans (so much so that the fantasy races could be excised neatly without changing much of anything) and low magic. It describes several medieval-style towns and gives a rundown of all the major figures of the Duke's court. And there's a historically-based ethnic tension that could serve as the driver of a lot of plots.
But . . . nope, no buts. If you were hoping for early D&D high fantasy weirdness, there isn't any. Not even any mention of water termites. Okay, it introduced two new monsters, one of which is kind of weird. The chevall is a sort of . . . were-centaur? It's a creature that mostly runs around in horse form, but can change into a centaur if it sees horses being threatened. The other new creature was the nosferatu. As near as I can tell, it exists only to be a stealth errata for the D&D vampire ("[it] strongly resembles the vampire. However, the Nosferatu does not drain energy levels. It drinks blood.")
The best things about The Grand Duchy of Karameikos are its seriousness and attention to detail. The most entertaining thing about it was Baron Ludwig von Hendriks. I'd already encountered him once before, in Lathan's Gold (which I only now realize covered the entire south coast of "The D&D World," not just Ierendi). He was the asshole who kidnapped my girlfriend for a ransom of unrefined gold. He lives in a castle called Fort Doom.
I think the author of this book might have hated the character. It depicts him very bizarrely. Like, even in-setting he is "bizarre" and "theatrical". The origin story of Fort Doom is that Ludwig von Hendriks was the Duke's cousin and was granted the title of Baron, but despite being the lawful ruler of the village of Halag, he came in with an army and conquered it anyway (actual quote - "he didn't need to conquer it . . . but he wanted to conquer something.") and then renamed it Fort Doom. The canonical reason for why he's allowed to get away with it is that his deeds are so over-the-top that the Duke assumes the reports are exaggerated.
So there you have it. A mostly down-to-earth fantasy setting, so restrained in its use of magic that you could slot it into a historical game with only minimal modification, and also it's home to a cartoonish, scenery-chewing supervillain.
UKSS Contribution: It has to be Baron von Hendriks. A guy who straight-up relishes in his own villainy and lives his life like a romantic diva? He could be equally ill-at-home in any genre.
The Emirates of Ylaruam
I was worried this book would be really racist, but it turns out that it was merely blithely sexist. Don't panic. It's not the worst case scenario. Fantasy Arabia, in the wrong hands, could have been very bad. The Emirates of Ylaruam's cardinal sin is that women are nearly completely invisible. There are zero named female characters, and while I didn't keep a running count, as near as I can tell, the only specific female character at all is a woman who buys some magic makeup after being tricked by an evil alchemist (but who doesn't actually figure into the subsequent adventure, which is about retrieving the makeup for a good alchemist). The character creation page does have example female names . . . marked by an asterisk because they're mixed in with a whole lot more male names.
It's weird. Even for the time, it's weird. Both The Grand Duchy of Karameikos and The Kingdom of Ierendi were much better about this. The Duchy had a Duchess and the Kingdom had a Queen, so even by the bare minimum standards, the Emirates fell behind, but then they each had female ambassadors and shop owners and city administrators, and even some female adventurers. All books written in 1987, but only two out of the three seemed to remember that half of the human species even exists. Counting points off for that. Bad form.
I wish I was more of an expert on Orientalism, because I'm curious about how this is influenced by the book's subject matter. Not to put too fine a point on it, but harems are conspicuous in their absence, and I wonder if that was less an oversight and more a deliberate excision. Certainly, the cover of the book is well aware of the existence of the trope. And if you're in 1987, writing about fantasy Arabia, and you're cutting out harems, than maybe there's no other mental connection you have between Arabs and women.
I've got to figure that someone, somewhere, made a call. Because when we look at Ylaruam's treatment of its male characters it's . . . okay. Not great, but okay. They invented fantasy Islam to underpin the region's culture. Which makes perfect sense. You can't have medieval Arabia without Islam. It's so influential that you leave a huge void if you just take it out. But that raises the uncomfortable question - what is fantasy Europe's analogue to Catholicism?
That's the main flaw of this book (aside from the women thing) - it makes specific things that are maybe a bit more general. Like, there's roleplaying advice that basically boils down to "characters will act rashly if challenged on their machismo, because the region's warrior-ethic is rooted in a highly performative masculinity" and my main thought was "where was all this when we were talking about Karameikos."
Guys, did you know the people of Ylaruam take their religion seriously, consider it rude if you jump straight into business without engaging in small talk first, and believe it's important to be hospitable? Wow, what a strange and mysterious people.
Okay, I've ragged on this book enough. It actually does a pretty good job of sketching out a setting and making it feel real. So maybe the problem is less that its editorial focus makes common things seem exotic and more that other books take a lot of stuff for granted.
And if you put aside the political angle, The Emirates of Ylaruam follows in the tradition of The Grand Duchy of Karameikos in being a serviceable workhorse of a book that mostly eschews magic and high fantasy for a grounded pseudo historical realism. It devotes roughly twice the word count to water management policy than it does to genies. Which, okay. It's not what I want from a roleplaying game, but I respect it. You can pick up this book and within minutes have a perfectly unremarkable Arab-inspired town, complete with beggars, barbers, and rival tribes, that's ready to be slotted into nearly any appropriate campaign. It may not make for the most compelling reading, but it does spare the DM a lot of scut work.
UKSS Contribution: The Roc. It's not used in an especially unusual way here - She attacks a village after the inhabitants steal her egg. But hey, the classics are classics for a reason.
The Kingdom of Ierendi
Moving on from fantasy Arabia to fantasy Hawaii. And people, this is bedrock D&D weirdness. It goes off the rails almost instantly and it never gets back on. I can't even figure out how this tracks with the previous two supplements, because it doesn't seem like remotely the same world. In Ylaruam you've got people sipping coffee and pointedly not discussing financial transactions, and in Karameikos you've got them stoking ethnic tensions as cover for their criminal syndicate, and meanwhile, over in Ierendi, you've got adventuring-based tourism, civic government, and religion.
This is not me being hyperbolic and reading more into the text than intended. The King and Queen of Ierendi are literally chosen by a process known as "The Royal Tournament of Adventurers." Once a year, the ministers of Ierendi set up mock dungeons, stock them with monsters, and hopeful contestants run through them, being judged by the mysterious criteria of "The Tribunal" and the highest-scoring man and woman get to be the King and Queen for the year.
And the economy of Ierendi is based on tourism. Given the numbers provided by the book, hundreds of thousands of people visit the islands each year. And one of the more popular attractions is Gastenoo's World of Adventure on Safari Island (so much so that it spawned a dozen imitators). In these parks, special magic items are used that absorb all damage directed at their wearers, while simultaneously announcing the wounds they would have received. Combined with weapons enchanted to stun, rather than kill, visitors to these parks go through carefully scripted scenarios "based on fairy tales, heroic legends, and ancient myths."
I . . . don't . . . even.
Wrap it up people. It turns out we've all been living in a world that reached peak irony back in 1987.
I'm not sure how this is meant to be used. Why am I taking a heroic legend and using it as the basis for a game within a game? If the players were interested in roleplaying the legend, couldn't I, you know, just make that the basis of the game? What's my pitch, here? "Hey, do you guys want to play D&D, but with a framing device where you're in the Enterprise's holodeck?"
But apparently, thousands, nay tens of thousands, of people in the D&D world do this every year.
And as for the religion . . . well, that I am reading into a bit. I'll let the book's own words describe it:
One message on the stones has not changed at all. Tomia, the Hope, wrote of a great treasure . . . [It] will be found, according to the Immortals, when the People's Temple's need is greatest. Not even the Temple officials know when this will be, so a continual search for the treasure is conducted by the Temple priests and by individual followers of the Temple.So, the doctrine of Ierendi's most popular religion is that you should gain levels and look for treasure. Imagine me giving a very pointed hmmmm.
Temple officials strongly encourage adventurers to increase their proficiencies and to someday achieve the level of Immortal. They do this in hopes that the great treasure will be revealed to them.
I guess my takeaway from the Kingdom of Ierendi is that I have a very poor intuitive sense of what the beginning of Dungeons and Dragons must have been like. To me, 1987 is still very early D&D, too early, I'd think, to start with the whole, jaded "adventuring is kind of like extreme sports" idea. Hell, real sports hadn't even gotten to that stage yet. It feels like learning that there was a punk rock band in 1965.
I'm not saying I don't like it. I'd tweak a few things, put the islands in a setting where people actually go on expensive island vacations, maybe just up the tech level generally, but as a concept, it works. On the other hand, if I'm working at TSR in the mid-80s, I would never have approved the manuscript. Gazetteer 4 is too early in the run to start parodying your own setting.
UKSS Contribution: There is a village of albinos that believe they can attract their gods to the mortal realm by building magnificent houses for them. They do this by building mansions out of sand (the primary material available at the beach) and then using secret alchemy to harden the sand into a durable structure.
I'll take the sand-hardening potion. Leave the stuff about the cult of albinos.
PS: I'm writing this about a year after the original post. I linked to this one from The Complete Book of Humanoids because I remembered a detail from Ylaruam that was relevant to the discussion - in the village, there's a tainted well. It's cursed because there are a bunch of undead lizard-folk down there. It didn't merit much mentioning at the time of the initial post, but apparently it stuck with me for months afterwards. Funny what you remember.