Secrets of the Lamp

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 7.5: Secrets of the Lamp




It’s time for another blast from the pre-Planescape past, though we’re not headed back as far as we’ve gone sometimes. Secrets of the Lamp is a kinda awkward supplement in that it came out right before Planescape did, so while some of it would soon be carried over and become canon for Dungeons & Dragons, it doesn’t fit perfectly with what would soon be published. Secrets focuses on genies, as they’re a huge part of the Al-Qadim campaign setting that would soon be devoured into that insatiable force called Forgotten Realms. But this focus turns them into the sole focus of the inner planes, something that would have to be fought against in order to make them more interesting and diverse places. I don’t really like the book, but I can’t argue that it’s not foundational to certain parts of the multiverse, so let’s take a look even though I think it’s weirdly skippable, despite developing large parts of the inner planes and being by the same author as In the Cage and Planes of Chaos, Wolfgang Baur, who I guess at this point is the king of the just-good-enough-but-not-fantastic planar supplement. Catchy, eh? That being said, he still does plenty of D&D design today, so we’ll have to see if he improves during the intervening decades. 

Second Edition AD&D was filled with unique supplements that chimerically tried to be all things to all people, and ended up being sort of weirdly disappointing as a result. Secrets of the Lamp is one of these, consisting as it does of “a 64-page sourcebook about genies, a 32-page booklet of adventures set in Zakhara and the City of Brass, a full-color map, six cards showing details of the City, and four Monstrous Compendium pages that introduce new genies and other elemental creatures.” Of these efforts, I would say it does a good job with the sourcebook and the full-color map, while the rest is disappointing and a bit weird. Things like the cards and compendium pages really didn’t age well, but no matter. My main issue with the set is that it’s Al-Qadim focused, which is one of those campaign settings that is, to use that famously scorned word/cliche, problematic. 


Like with Oriental Adventures before it, the Al-Qadim setting was meant as a “cultural book” by Jeff Grubb, the dude who designed the original Manual of the Planes. But the thing to remember about the culture here is that it never actually, well, existed (neither did the pan-Asian fantasia before it, but you can probably guess that from the title alone). Wikipedia says that Al-Qadim “is a blend of the historical Muslim Caliphates, the stories of legend, and a wealth of Hollywood cinematic history.” Given that Aladdin was released in 1992, that’s the primary touchstone, but add in some Indiana Jones and just a whole lot of weird, misguided ideas about the middle east until you get a rather offensive and frequently off-putting melange of racism, islamophobia (somehow, considering Islam itself is nowhere to be found—monotheism has always been the game’s biggest taboo), and outdated stereotypes. There are certainly settings that have aged worse, as Al-Qadim is at least intentionally fantastic and reliant on myths and fables, but it’s not something I’d ever actually play. While I quite appreciate roleplaying games that go beyond western fantasy tropes, it is quite difficult for these to be done well when based on any sort of real world touchstone, and this is especially true when none of the writers and designers are from the culture being explored. 

Karl Waller’s interior art is… exactly what you’d think it would be. Good for him, I guess.

That being said, I absolutely adored 1001 Arabian Nights as a child, and what I do like about Baur’s depiction of this world in Secrets of the Lamp is the hostility of the genies. Aladdin contributes plenty to the setting’s stereotypes, but you won’t find any Robin Williams-style genies here, instead there are four increasingly hostile races of intolerant slavers. This is much more in line with that book’s mythos, and the resulting tone is pretty hostile. The Dao and Efreet in particular are all about slaves, and so the version of Arabic cultures here is a lot like what your racist uncle might claim to know about, say, Iraq. Genies may sound fun, but visiting their homelands means heading about as far from tourist destinations as you can get.

So what do the planes have to do with this? As mentioned previously in the monster manuals, the genies come from the inner planes, and a different race calls each one home (except for the Jann, who combine all elements and thus are weaker and have to hang out on the prime material plane with all the rest of the posers). The first chapter of the “Genie Lore” book for DMs focuses on the homes of the genies, from the Great Dismal Delve of the Dao to the City of Brass of the Efreet to… the significantly much-less-memorable Citadel of Ten Thousand Pearls of the Marid and Court of Ice and Steel of the Djinn, both of which go largely forgotten after this book because they’re just not that interesting. 


None of this material is truly bad, but a lot of it feels rote. There’s always been a grid-filling element to the genies, such that if you read about how fiery the efreet are, then you pretty much know how watery the marids are, etc. It’s almost like playing a Mario game and knowing that you’re going to get an ice level and a water level and a fire level etc. The genies aren’t differentiated enough for me to find them terribly interesting, and as a result it’s just a couple dozen pages of material saying that fire genies like fire and air genies like air. The City of Brass and Great Dismal Delve are also mostly what you’d think, but at least through devoting more pages to them they reach some modicum of depth and differentiation. Still, it’s not a great read, and hardly necessary for running a campaign in these locations. 

In case you didn’t know what a stereotypical genie looked like, the book is filled with examples.

The other problem with Secrets is that it heavily implies that the genies are pretty much all there is in the inner planes. And yes, they are a large part of it, but they’re not everything, especially considering that this book is only about the four elemental planes and there are a whole bunch of para, quasi, and energy planes nearby, too. I guess I’m thankful the designers didn’t get so grid-filling crazy that they decided to make another dozen or so genies for these places (like they did for mephits), but in all it feels weirdly limited. While that’s only natural, considering that this is really all about the genies, not about the planes (if you think this all sounds genie-crazy, keep in mind that Al-Qadim has a spellcasting class where the spells are literally granted by the genies—they’re a huge part of the setting), I still find its picture of the inner planes rather dull. It’s the same feeling I had when reading through the first edition Manual, which is that I wouldn’t really want to run an adventure there. 


Speaking of adventures, two of the three ones contained in Secrets take place on the inner planes, though neither of these is good. “By the Numbers” (both a play on being about math, and a lampshade on how basic this adventure is…. well-played?) takes players to the Great Dismal Delve in order to retrieve a mathematical formula stolen by a dao. It’s five pages long and, while I appreciate its reference to the sophistication of Arabic mathematics, there isn’t much there besides fighting with daos, and possibly being enslaved by them if players fail.  “In the City of Brass” is clearly the set’s real focus1 and given more than double the page count. Here, players get tricked into visiting the City of Brass by a weird genie mishap that’s never really explained. Regardless, they soon find themselves enslaved by a noble efreet and working to smuggle a racing nightmare, as in the horse-type, out of the city. I don’t much care for this adventure either, not only because of how much emphasis it places on slavery (that word sure pops up an awful lot for a book written by a white dude in the 90s…), but because it’s incredibly linear. This isn’t an adventure about exploring the City of Brass, it’s about going through some rote plot machinations in order to ride in an “exciting” race. This climax is exactly the type of encounter D&D isn’t terribly good at, and the whole thing relies on stereotypes and unavoidable plot points. Bleh. 

You see, it’s exciting because the horse is made of fire.

The other noteworthy item in the book is the map of the City of Brass, which is kind of neat, but also… I don’t know, lacking after we’ve been spoiled so much from Planescape’s maps. Rob Lazzaretti has me spoiled, I’ll admit it. The map is certainly detailed, but at this point I find that a little bit weird for planar locations, which seem like they should always be in flux and a bit unknowable. The other thing I find odd about it is that for all that detail, it’s not actually given much explanation in the book’s text. If the Eternal Flame Pavillion and the Barracks of the Ring of Fire aren’t really going to be explained, then labelling them mostly points out to me how lacking the earlier explanation really was. 


The question I had before reading through this set was whether Secrets of the Lamp was, like some of the late 90s AD&D books, a pseudo-Planescape book I’d always been missing. I often saw it mentioned when the planes were brought up, plus Baur’s work on the setting made me think there might be something worthwhile there. Sadly, I think this is a very skippable work that does surprisingly little to detail our knowledge of the planes. I suppose if you’re really into genies there’s some new material here for you, but for most of us this version of the inner planes is weirdly lacking. Guess I don’t need to add a copy of this to my collection after all. 

1. Shannon Appelcline says that Baur’s directions for the set were just, “write about genies and also describe the City of Brass,” everything else being left to his discretion.

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