A Desert of Broken Dreams…
In the ENDLESS SANDS myth comes alive, and darkness is a salvation from an eternally scorching sun. Against that lie the dangers of a desert land filled with religious strife and political turmoil. Cities are the only shelter against the empty desert, and water equals power.
Ree Soesbee’s utterly original culture of the Endless Sands draws on a combination of ancient Morocco, Middle-Eastern Persia and Antioch, and the lands of mystery outlined in the ancient tales of the Badiya people. Cities are dominated by the strong, and the weak must do whatever they can in order to survive. It is a harsh world, but if you master it, it can be paradise.
As far as campaign settings go, Arabian Nights themed settings are nearly ubiquitous, usually described as another region of the game world, similar to the way East Asian themed regions are created. In some ways, these types of settings have more flexibility than ‘traditional European inspired’ fantasy. While we accept that in the ‘real world’, an Arabian setting is no more magical than a European analogue, we more freely accept the fantastic stories that belong to the setting. Everyone expects flying carpets, genies, scimitars and a desert landscape. An Arabian-inspired setting may be a strange pastiche of 1001 Arabian Nights, Hollywood movies, and history, but it is undeniably appealing. In this review I will be considering Avalanche Press’s attempt to deliver in Endless Sands – Arabian Adventures.
Like most Avalanche Press books, the cover art is by Lorenzo Sperlonga. It depicts two women. One is sprawled on the floor, her blouse hanging open as she throws up an arm to defend herself from what appears to be her ‘master’ – a woman wearing a chainmail bikini and preparing to lay down an open handed slap. One reason I have taken as long as I have to begin this review is that this is probably not the kind of book you want to carry around in public. The cheesecake is pretty thick here – and if you buy the book solely for the cover art, you’re likely to be disappointed. The interior art is entirely black and white sketches (as is true for the other Avalanche Press books I’ve reviewed), and the quality is inconsistent. Many of the sketches are heavily pixilated, as though they enlarged a small image to fit on the page. Many of the sketches are good, but seem to have little relevance to the text – they’re not distracting, but they appear more to fill space than contribute to the narrative.
The book is organized into an Introduction (3 pages) and six parts. Parts 1 (19 pages) and 2 (6 pages) describe the people and geography of the setting (divided between Al-Maghrebia – a confederation of four cities surrounding an inland sea, and the Deep Sands – the area far from the cities). Part 3 (5 pages) discusses Religion and Faith. Part 4 (6 pages) provides character options (prestige classes and feats). Part 5 (16 pages) covers Monsters and Magic . Finally, Part 6 (the shortest section at just 4 pages) provides Campaign information. The book does not have an Index, but the Table of Contents lists everything that is discussed within that section (except sidebars); almost every page has multiple entries (ie, each spell in the Magic section is listed on the Table of Contents, with multiple spells on the same page). Judging just by the Table of Contents, you’d think you’re getting a lot, but when you realize that most sections are no more than a paragraph, it starts to feel a little thin. Considering a certain amount of repetition and the feeling is confirmed.
The ‘true’ introduction, a half-page, provides a poetic justification for the setting. The description is evocative and exciting. This setting promises glittering palaces and dark alleys, powerful sultans and lowly beggars, mighty cities and vast sun-scorched deserts - everything you need for an Arabian Nights themed campaign – the pleasures and the dangers. Unfortunately, it fails to fulfill its promise for a number of reasons, not limited to the paltry page count. The rest of the introduction provides an overview of the setting that is then expanded in Parts 1 and 2). The description of geographical features is much easier to follow if you refer to the map on Page 30. The map would be better placed at the beginning of this section (or perhaps on the inside front cover), as it is easy to miss and comes after it ceases to be relevant. Not every geographical element is included on the maps, and it may not be to scale. Per the map, the setting is relatively close to the ocean, but the description implies that it is ‘thousands of kilometers’ away. Adding additional confusion, they insist on calling an inland sea the ‘bitter ocean’; any reference to ocean will necessarily mean the sea the cities are built on.
Part 1 delves more deeply into the four main cities surrounding the bitter sea. This section is made difficult to follow because each section uses the same heading format, and it goes directly from describing important buildings in one city to providing an overview of the next city. Since most of the headings use foreign-sounding words (for example, Zeh-Ahuramazda is a temple, described just before Yedja-alit, a city). Better organization would help avoid any confusion. Additionally, the lack of a proper map is telling. Many of the written descriptions seem to contradict the one map of the geography provided. The actual descriptions are generally evocative, but everything may be written on too grand a scale. The bazaar is described as having over 3,000 merchants; a temple is described as having ‘walls that stretch over 150 yards into the air’ – approximately the same height as the Great Pyramid! A large fortress (that includes additional spaces for congregation and trade inside) is described as 8 miles in circumference, with 200 gates. These tremendous buildings are not supported by any maps - not of the cities, or of the described locations. I would be inclined to believe the author had confused yards and feet, but in a later chapter they describe an ancient tower as having stood ‘over five hundred feet high – an astonishing task, and one that modern architects could not replicate’. The descriptions of the important buildings are limited to a small paragraph – you know the function of the building, perhaps something about the architecture, but little to nothing of the residents. There are no stat blocks for any people in the setting – only monsters. They do not even list suggested class/level combinations. Further, they provide very few examples of people, other than the most lofty of rulers (sultans and rajahs, mostly). While groups are described, no group gets more than a single column, and the groups themselves are very broad. For example, ‘beggars, assassins and thieves’ are grouped together. These groups do not include any organizations of significance to the members. One group, ‘Women’ is covered in cursory fashion, and I think it provides an example of the shortcomings of the setting. This book struggles with whether to cleave to historical fact or embrace the fantastic. In regard to a woman’s place in the world, it cannot decide whether they should be cloistered or the free and equals of men. Their solution is unlikely to make anyone happy. Women have the following role in Endless Sands:
Women in al-Maghrebia are treated both like goddesses and like slaves. They are given the best and worst of all worlds. Depending on their birth, they may be rulers, traders, military generals, or prophets and viziers, but, in general, it takes a great deal for a woman to escape the cultural norms of “wife and mother”.
It further describes the separation of the genders in public spheres, and those women who do achieve prominent positions are ‘treated with scorn by the general populace, who see such things as an invasion of the man’s domain’.
Part 2 follows a similar format, but is much shorter. While it covers a larger amount of geographical area, it is all unvaried desert, with a single nomadic culture. The distinction between ‘civilized’ cities and ‘uncivilized’ nomads is both vague and insulting. The nomadic desert wanderers are described as hospitable and at least as cultured as their urban cousins.
Part 3 discusses Religion and Faith, and sets up a conflict between a declining population of pantheistic sun-worshippers (Ahuramazda) and a newer monotheistic religion (Ja’Ilam). Ja’Ilam is a fantasy bastardization of Islam with little pretense to the contrary, the adherents of whom scarcely tolerate the minority of worshippers of the ‘old religion’. The setting heavily implies that religious motivated violence against those who accept Ja’Ilam is frighteningly common. The issues of a monotheistic religion and a pantheistic religion, both with access to divine magic are disregarded. In the chapter on monsters, it appears that both the existence of a sole monotheistic deity and the existence of multiple other gods are both factually true, despite being largely incompatible.
Through the book up through this point, there have been few mechanics presented within the body of the text, though there have been a number of sidebars discussing various aspects of the setting. Some describe environmental effects, artifacts, drugs, diseases, and cultural practices, most with associated mechanics. Most of the mechanics are problematic. For example, this book presents rules for heat dangers and altitude sickness, despite both already existing in the DMG. These rules are similar, but significantly different rules. For instance, after taking damage from extreme heat (which normally causes fatigue until the damage is recovered), Endless Sands suggests that characters start taking 1d6 points of Constitution damage until healed. Likewise, they suggest a number of diseases, most real-world conditions, but they suggest that they persist until healed by magic. In the DMG, most diseases are ‘cured’ after several successful saves – these do not. Replacing the rules contained within the sidebars with ‘standard rules’ is highly recommended
Beginning in Part 4, mechanics move front-and-center, beginning with character options. Character options include three prestige classes and seven feats. Later 3.x books are guilty of heavily padding their page count with this type of crunch, and most of it has been of poor quality. While this takes up very little page space, there is little of note.
The first offering is a prestige class called the Bedoul. It is designed to be a divine spellcasting class with an emphasis on divinations. The class qualifications are non-standard, requiring Character level 4th, the ability to cast divine spells, and 4 ranks in two different skills. Typically, a class like this would have the requirement to cast 3rd level divine spells (thus necessitating a minimum 5th level divine caster), but as described, this could be entered by a Fighter 3/Cleric 1 (for example). Unlike most caster-focused prestige classes, this one does not offer increased levels in a prior spellcasting class. Instead, it offers a new spellcasting advancement just like that of a standard cleric, granting up to 5th level spells at 10th level. Thus, instead of having 9th level spells at Character Level 17th, the Bedoul (assuming a Cleric 10/Bedoul 10) would have 5th level cleric spells and 5th level Bedoul spells. Unfortunately, there is no Bedoul spell list (though they do gain access to additional domains). The class can be made playable by replacing the spell progression with +1 level of existing divine spellcasting class. I don’t know why they didn’t go this route, because additional prestige classes in this book do. Without that change, the class might make sense for a Paladin that was interested in switching to clerical spellcasting but was interested in additional domains.
The second prestige class is a religious warrior known as a Ghazi. It is a full BAB progression class that might technically be impossible to qualify for. Besides a +4 BAB, Cleave, and Toughness, you’re expected to have a ‘Knowledge (Religion) feat’. My best guess is that they mean Skill Focus (Knowledge: religion), since there is no Knowledge (Religion) feat described in the book, and later prestige classes do specify ‘Skill Focus (Knowledge [religion]) feat’. Really the only mechanical reason someone might choose to take this class is that it gets an ability called ‘Creator’s Blessing’. It is identical to a Paladin’s Divine Grace, but since both provide an untyped bonus, a strict reading of the rules would allow the Charisma bonus to saving throws to stack; although this class only offers a good Fortitude progression, combining two levels of Paladin and two levels of Ghazi might allow a character to advance their saving throws substantially. The class gains darkvision for no apparent thematic reason, and gains a feat described in the book called ‘Guardsman’s Stance’ multiple times. The feat grants damage reduction for a number of rounds per day equal to your Constitution modifier. The DR begins at 2/+1 (this is 3.0). Each time you gain the feat again, you can either increase the number of rounds your DR is available, increase the amount of DR by 1 (ie, 3/+1), or increase the required bonus on the weapon to overcome (ie, 2/+2). DR/magic is essentially pointless at the levels that this becomes available. The capstone ability is Bleed for the Faith. It allows you to sacrifice 20 hit points to gain a +20 bonus on your next attack roll, which, if you hit, generates an automatic critical hit. ‘The Hit Point loss represents wounds sustained on the way as the Ghazi sacrifices his or her own safety to deliver a devastating blow’.
The Vizier is a spellcasting prestige class suitable for either arcane or divine casters. It is an elementalist, gaining a bonus on the DC to resist elemental spells they cast as well as a bonus on saving throws against elemental spells cast against them. Over the course of the first five levels, it gains a +2 to the DC of each element (fire, earth, air, water), chosen one at a time. At 3rd level a Vizier chooses one type of elemental damage, gaining immunity to that form of elemental damage, but is then subject to double damage from the opposed element. The damaging spells from each school are certainly not balanced against each other, but this ability is still something of a mixed bag. Over the next five levels, they gain the ability to summon an elemental construct of CR 2 (described later in the book). While the rules for the summoning are somewhat vague, the elemental construct does not advance, making the ability largely superfluous – the summoned creatures will not be able to assist in any type of level-appropriate challenge. Although the Vizier offers a full spellcasting progression, it is neither particularly flavorful or exciting.
After these three Prestige Classes, the book presents the seven setting-appropriate feats. I’ve already described Guardman’s Stance, and the others are similarly bland and/or mechanically insignificant. Since there are so few, I’ll describe each:
Badiya Archery is an advanced form of Mounted Archery that eliminates penalties for firing from horseback and grants a +1 to damage rolls. Considering how few characters I’ve seen use mounted archery, this isn’t something I’d expect to see used much.
Chariot Mastery allows you to make a Charioteering check to negate an attack on your chariot, your mount, or yourself once per round.
Devish Attack increases your Dodge bonus from the Dodge feat from +1 to +2, or alternatively, you may apply your +1 Dodge bonus to a number of creatures equal to your Dexterity modifier.
Gift of the Old Religion is a metamagic feat that allows you to choose one elemental spell and spontaneously cast it (just like a cleric converts a prepared spell to a ‘heal’ spell). Thus, you could convert a 3rd level spell slot with Fly to Fireball, if you selected Fireball as your ‘mastered’ spell.
Haggle allows you to make a Diplomacy check (DC 15 ‘plus any additional modifiers the DM wishes to add based on the marketplace’) that allows you to save 10% on your purchases, or 20% if you beat the DC by 10 or more. Saving an extra 3 gold pieces when purchasing a longsword doesn’t sound exciting to me, but I’ve never enjoyed haggling, either.
Weapon Shield allows you to take a full action (so no attacks) to be allowed to make an attack of opportunity against anyone that enters, leaves, or moves within your threatened square. If you know someone will be approaching you, it might be helpful to attack them as they approach, but you could also ready an attack. If you’re going to be approached by multiple people, you will get an attack on ALL of them – there is no limit on the number the way there is with Combat Reflexes. While I would never consider taking this feat myself, it can easily be abused by combining with cleave to create a ‘bag of rats’ exploit.
Part 5 is split between monsters and spells, but the monsters dominate the section (spells cover barely more than a page at the end of the chapter). The ten monsters presented are generally appropriate for low-level characters, but do not appear to have been play-tested. The worst offender is the Ne’mhan Ghul, a CR 3 undead creature whose touch causes level drain. The monsters offer a few interesting mechanics, but few are the first thing you’d think of when creating a desert setting. The Kadir Jackal and the Sand Giant (Zubhair) have an attack that uses burning sand that deals initial damage and then continues to deal additional damage on subsequent rounds (like acid) as the burning sand penetrates clothing and armor. The Buraq is a winged panther that can cast healing spells that is said to be sent directly by the Deity of Ja’Ilam – a creature that seems to confirm the Ja’Ilam view of a monotheistic world.
The most interesting creature in Part 5 is the Mirage Spirit. When a creature dies in the desert sands, they often rise as an incorporeal undead that seeks to lead others to their deaths in the desert. It has illusion abilities that it uses to create illusions of oases and it possesses a Dexterity draining touch attack. I think a mirage as a malevolent attempt to lure travelers to their death occupies an interesting conceptual space, similar to a will-o-wisp that could be worth exploring. However, as described, creatures slain by the Mirage Spirit rise up as Ne’mhan Ghuls, who, with a level draining attack are significantly underrated by their CR.
Endless Sands also presents a Sand Crocodile – an amalgam of a regular crocodile and the creature from Tremors.
After describing regular monsters, the book describes several types of Djinn (intended to replace the standard version). The creation of the desert is attributed to a war between the Jann (noble Djinn) and the Ifrit, with two other genie groups as spectators. The Djinn continue to war, and eventually may reopen the portal to their home world when one side achieves victory. This section is actually my favorite – if expanded and put at the beginning, it could have been a useful framing device for the rest of the setting. Both the Jann and Ifrit can be made to grant wishes if captured.
After monsters, the section continues with five spells, most of which are available to Clerics/Wizards and Sorcerers. Again, since there are so few, I will describe each:
Blood to Sand is a 6th level ‘save or die’. On a failed save, the target dies. On a successful save, the target takes 6d8 damage and can take no action for 3 rounds. Since disabling a target for three rounds is extremely desirable, I’d consider this spell severely overpowered, and would not recommend including it.
Fury of Ahuramazda blinds targets in a cylinder and does 5d6 damage, no save. The spell is instantaneous, and no duration is listed for the blindness. As written, I presume they mean until healed (such as by remove blindness/deafness).
Helm of the Dead is a 7th level Cleric/8th level Sor/Wizard spell. If you bind the soul of a foe, you gain damage absorption equal to half the target’s hit points. Any damage you take is applied to the helm of the dead first. Of course, you have to wander around the desert with a giant black helmet on your head so everyone knows how evil you are.
Spiritual Shield is a cleric spell (level 2) that provides an AC bonus equal to the caster’s level and provides cover. The bonus appears to scale well beyond what can be considered appropriate.
Sandwyrm is a fire spell that allows you to throw super-heated sand. It deals initial damage and continues to deal damage on subsequent rounds (like acid).
The final section of Part 6 presents magical items. The first is a magic carpet that makes the riders invisible and provides protection from a minor globe of invulnerability, but is otherwise like magic carpets described in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The other items are intended to be important to the setting, but don’t relate much to other details we’ve been provided. The Belt of the Pirate King is supposed to be possessed by the King of the Pirates that sail the Bitter Ocean – and as far as I can tell, this is the first we’ve heard of them. There are no islands in the ocean (at least, none described), so I’m not sure how to include them in the setting, but I do know that the king of the pirates gains a +15 competence bonus to jump checks, +1 AC, and +4 Con. Among adherents of the old religion, some worship Fatima (the estranged wife of Ahuramazda - the sun god). She created most of the monsters in the setting, and her worshippers are planning a religious war against adherents of Ja’Ilam. To assist them, they create Black Steel Falchions – a+2 weapon that gives you +4 AC if you’re in moonlight. Clerics of Fatima might be interested in Fatima’s Hand – a +1 mace that grants +1 CL for clerics of Fatima. Each time you’re hit while you’re wielding it, it gains an additional +1 against that opponent (to a maximum of +5). That part is interesting, but it also gives you a +1 Constitution (that likewise increases each time you’re struck by your opponent) which means you’ll frequently need to recalculate your hit points if you use this item. The good guys can use the Scimitar of Flame – a hilt that can create a sword of flame of command. It works like a +2 flaming scimitar (you still have to hit normally) and anyone struck must succeed on a Reflex save or catch fire. The Jewel of the Conqueror is a setting specific MacGuffin that can open the gates to the Djinn homeworld and can command Djinn. The high-sultan wears the Turban of al-Kharajab granting +4 Charisma, +4 on Intimidate and Sense Motive checks, and grants the effects of nondetection.
The final section of the book is supposed to show us how to use the information presented earlier in the book to create a campaign. There isn’t much to go on. They spend most of this section talking about random mutations that members of the Cult of the Moon (worshippers of Fatima, the mother of monsters) can acquire. While some of the effects are interesting (and useful for any kind of monstrous trait acquisition table), this would be most useful for NPCs. The final half page provides adventure Hooks; in their own words ‘The following pieces are short ideas to get you started in your ENDLESS SANDS advenures. You’ll need to develop them more fully yourself.” The hooks are at least genre appropriate, but each would require extensive work to develop, including maps, stat blocks for opposition, etc. Essentially, they tell you what kind of adventure you should write, but nothing else.
After considering the book in its entirety, it is clear that it failed to achieve its objective. Not only is there not enough information to use for running the setting, there isn’t really a compelling reason to use this setting. The setting feels very isolated from the rest of the world, which is incompatible with the core of the Arabian Nights. The setting insists that there are caravans wandering the deep desert, but for what purpose? There is nobody out there. Trade between the cities is described as being important, but they’re largely homogenous in terms of their tradable goods. The cities are described as incredibly rich, with marble, gold, and ivory in abundance – but these things all needed to come from elsewhere. The setting is too insular to allow easy travel from outside, but provides too little to build a compelling campaign. There are seeds of good ideas within the book, but in order to germinate them, a DM will need to do a lot of additional work. Unless a DM is interested in creating their own Arabian Nights inspired setting and is reviewing multiple ‘takes’ on the subject, this book is of negligible value.
Title: Endless Sands - Arabaian Adventures
Author: Ree Soesbee
Publish Date: August, 2002
Publisher: Avalanche Press