The Djinn of Al-Qadim
Campaign Session Report #1
By MARK WILSON
Setting: Al-Qadim (aka the continent of Zakhara)
System: D&D 5e
Levels: 3-?? (probably 12)
Dalia, the Mother – Rune Knight Fighter
Nezima, the Aunt – Hexblade Warlock
Atareeza (Atar), the Daughter – Divine Soul Sorcerer
Telchak, the Son – Soulknife Rogue
All but Telchak are Genasi of some type, whereas Telchak takes after his father, a lizardfolk. Despite being a fire genasi, Atar has lizard-like features, including scales on her feet. The family patriarch (father/grandfather) is lizardfolk and has ties to the City of Brass (CoB). The family is descendant of him and a genie from the CoB.
A generation ago, there was a djinni uprising that overthrew the Grand Caliph and ruling structure of Zakhara. Four djinn overlords rule in a tenuous alliance, one of each elemental type. Pockets of resistance remain, along with scattered tribes and towns not under djinni rule, but none that have the power to challenge their rule.
The world has become subtly darker in the intervening years, with institutionalized cruelties that would not have been previously permitted.
A genasi/lizardfolk merchant family with lineage tracing back to the City of Brass, and current ties to some resistance efforts via their grandfather/father, who was to be a player in our campaign until he had to drop out just before it started.
The campaign begins in the massive capital city of Huzzuz (which I’ve seen with both one and two ‘z’ letters in the center, so I may switch up the spelling), with the party arrested on technically-true but obviously embellished charges in order to fill a quota for the city’s gladiatorial arena, a barbaric practice introduced by the djinn. The curtain opens on the campaign as they are escorted into a tunnel in the arena’s pens and a gate in front of them opens to the arena itself, a hungry crowd cheering for their victory or demise…
While I’ve borrowed from a number of sources, both historical and from previous D&D editions, Zakhara is significantly different at times from the one presented in previous D&D editions. The broad strokes of the setting, campaign premise, and opening arc were all discussed with the players during Session Zero, and parts of it were shaped collaboratively to match with the party’s history and dynamics.
At the session’s start, I roll a d20, and we “see who Fate smiles upon” since the power of Fate is a recurring theme and pervading belief in Al-Qadim. They all roll, and if they meet or exceed my number, they get to choose randomly from a large number of beneficial perks for the session.
Normally we just give everyone one roll at advantage of their choice per session, but everyone seems to enjoy this slight permutation of that idea.
The Arena of Huzuz
Murmurs of the guards can be heard, some incredulous that children are being sent into the combat arena. Others seem ambivalent. They’re criminals, after all, some rationalize. They deserve their fate, they believe.
Cut to: cinematic arena combat with a magically-voiced announcer and two of the four ruling Djinn looking on with indifference. An initial fight is comically easy, so the show-runners send in a Basilisk, who nearly turns Dalia (mom) to stone before she barely makes her saving throw. They emerge mostly unscathed, impressing the crowd, though not the Djinn, who left mid-fight.
Arena Pens & Meeting the Fighters
Shift to the arena underbelly, where they’re thrown into gladiator pens by guards, led by an Azer (fire/metal) creature, who briefly references that their grandfather would have been proud of their efforts.
They then meet the motley gang of characters in the pens, and the second half of the session is spent meeting them and learning what they can of potential escape. Mom and daughter (Dalia and Atar), one who loves runes, the other who’s rebellious, get prison tattoos from a guy claiming he can inscribe magical runes on them. Kawkab al-Mansouri. Great name, I must say. One of my favorite. Anyway, they seemed to enjoy interacting with him. He’s successful with mom (Dalia), who gets herself a magical tattoo, but Atar just has an inert (though pretty) tattoo.
Shenanigans with the kids. “I want my own bedroom! She’s poking me!” yadda yadda. Lots of in-character stuff. They meet two other groups, The Sharks (straight out of West Side Story, complete with choreographed fighting styles) and the Flying Carpets (more down to earth, and a better lead on a reasonable escape), and the arena healer, who pops in and out after fights in the arena. They also overhear some guard chatter, about it being harder to find gladiatorial combatants since many are being “taken away.” Dalia worries about the family being split up, and it’s revealed that Zohar (granddad) was arrested at the same time. They don’t know his whereabouts, and suspect that he may have been taken to wherever these guards are referencing.
They try to hatch an escape plan, first trying obliquely to convince the healer to aid them. She seems sympathetic to their plight, but stops short of overt help.
She manages to say a bit without “saying” it, per se, including warning them that they shouldn’t just try to waltz out the back door that they see in her office, which is adjacent to the pens. The implication is that it’s either trapped, heavily guarded, or both.
So of course they do exactly that, albeit after conferring with the Flying Carpets and figuring out that it’s both mechanically locked and magically trapped. One of the Carpets died in a similar escape attempt when an alarm was triggered.
With a spectacular roll from Telchak (son/rogue), they find a button to depower the magical wards in 5-second increments, though the door itself is still locked. Atar Misty Steps (teleports) across to the other side to do a bit of scouting, and sees a guard in a steamy hot-tub-like pool, resting his eyes. She hides before deciding what to do next. The door is locked from both sides and no one else can magically shunt outside it, and the magical wards blink in and out too quickly for them to all escape in absolute safety…
Good opening session. Aside from almost turning Dalia to stone, no real threats in combat, but that was intended. It will get harder later.
The group seems to have an easy familial dynamic, and this is unsurprising given how much this group has roleplayed together. They’ll have lots of fun.
I’m already surprising myself. I had a year and a half to prep this campaign (I knew I was running it a while ago), and yet probably half of this session felt like improv.
Which is by design. I have the overarching structure built for the campaign, but I plot out very little of the specifics. Several unplanned-for details now exist in our world, and this is as it should be, with me reacting to the players as much – or more so – than dictating to them.
The Azer is a secret ally, but they didn’t pick that up at all from the knowing reference to their grandfather (who, it was established, was something of a dissenter against the ruling Djinn). The Azer was one of their potential tickets out of the pens, but they’re taking a more traditional approach of picking locks and snooping around.
They also ignored the only other NPC in the pens, a woman who escaped but was caught and subsequently had her memory wiped. They could have convinced or coerced the healer into removing this mental block, at which point a number of secret options would have been revealed. Ah well. It’ll probably end up as punching their way out with The Flying Carpets, which will be fun too.
Giant Fire Beetle (CR0)
Giant Lizard (CR ¼)