Thursday, May 14, 2020

D&D against Ayatollah Khomeini

B/X D&D included a series of modules (which I actually ran as a kid) featuring fanatics of the desert of Sind (using a real Asian place-name for a desert in the game-world of Mystara). These were X4, “Master of the Desert Nomads,” and X5, “Temple of Death." Both appeared in 1983. The author was David "Zeb" Cook, who,with Steve Marsh, wrote the D&D Expert set, and who would go on to be lead designer for AD&D, Second Edition (1989). He also wrote AD&D's Oriental Adventures book (1986). X4 and X5 were followed by X10, “Red Arrow, Black Shield" (1985), by Michael S. Dobson. I still have these three modules. The last of the three was a double-sized adventure module featuring tactical combat supplementary material.

The basic plot concerns a brewing international conflict between a "Republic" called Darokin and a religious fanatic called the Master, who is uniting the desert nomads to form an evil empire of conquest. The Master must be stopped not once (X4 and X5), but twice (X10).

The boss villain, the titular Master of the desert nomads, is a fourteenth-level chaotic Cleric. He is also, transparently, a fantastical cipher for two historical leaders. On the one hand, he stands for Muhammad, the seventh-century prophet and founder of Islam, who is credited in history with uniting real-world medieval “desert nomads” who initiated an empire by conquest. On the other, he stands for Ayatollah Khomeini, whom Americans knew and generally hated after the intensely publicized Iran hostage crisis (1979-1981) in the wake of the Iranian Revolution at the time these modules were developed.

In the fantasy, the heroes, depicted by default and in the accompanying artwork as European-types, undertake a guerilla mission to assassinate the Master in the name of all that is good. As I mentioned, the PCs are coming from the Republic of Darokin (a fantasy-medieval Republic—under President Ronald of House Reagan, no doubt). The heroes, guided by a mysterious “Unknown Benefactor” (i.e. God?) penetrate the “hagiarchy” of the Master, a land where clerics of chaotic gods rule, where diviners “act as police” for the evil religion to purge “wrong thoughts,” where the people support troops in a holy war against “non-believers and false gods.”

It's clearly a fantasy Islamic Republic of Iran as villain. If the heroes win, assassinating the Master, the threat of the evil clerics is strategically contained and the desert empire of the fanatics of Sind never menaces the Republic.

... until the sequel, X10, when the Master returns! Here the PCs engage in diplomacy with every fantasy stereotype country to get allies in a massive ground war against the newly-returned Master. There are Mongol fantasy people, Norse fantasy people, etc. In one case, they need to convince the Emir Ali ben Faisal of Ylarum, described as “a fat and rather stupid man” (a Saudi oil magnate Arabofantasy), to join in the fight the Master. (Faisal is a common name in the house of Saud. Ali is, rather, more typically a Shiite name, but I would not expect the authors to understand the difference.)

This was published in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war—you know, the one in which the US executive branch, Regan’s government, secretly and illegally sold weapons to Iran to fight Iraq, the country it publicly supported. Reagan claimed he “didn’t recall” his illegal decisions, more than one hundred times, when interrogated officially in public. History, by contrast, will recall.

Anyway, here we have a clear case in which the D&D eurofantasy was made to beat the Islamofantasy. The Republic wins.

When I ran these modules, I was clueless about international politics, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Islam. I thought it was pretty cool to have a fantasy totalitarian country as an opponent.

More mature gamers, who read the news, must have recognized the meaning. It's an interesting and clear example of how a fantasy game company used contemporary international politics and hostility to sell game products.

It also demonstrates what gamers hate to acknowledge: that our imagination is a product of our troubled reality. Our beliefs and culture permeate the games we play and find expression in them. Can fantasy gamers acknowledge this and use it for understanding, without turning fantasy games into moralizing?

It is not that fantasy is boundless. It can take us beyond ourselves. But we still imagine fantasies from the vantage of our real lives, and our limitations and our ignorance are the limits of our fantasy.


  1. You missed that the home country of the Master (where X5 happened, only X4 was in the Sind) was ... Hule. So subtle that I noticed when I was 15. Perhaps I was contaminated by high school French to recoginze "huile" when I saw it.

    1. Ah, that is a great observation! Thank you!

      Readers, huile in French is "oil." The Master was from the country of Oil. Think petroleum.