Interview: Basheer Ghouse, Writer of The Tayyib Empire
The Tayyib Empire recently emerged from a brutal civil war, but its peace is fragile. Monsters roam the hinterland, and people vie for power to stave off desperation during the recovery.
By Matt Chapman
“One of my big hopes is that I see people posting fan art of characters from this region,” says writer and cultural consultant Basheer Ghouse, who has created the Tayyib Empire gazetteer for the “Beyond the Radiant Citadel” section of Journeys through the Radiant Citadel. This region’s cosmopolitan mix of the native people of Suristhanam, immigrants, and various invading groups draws upon his family’s long history in India.
“Parts of our family claim to have been involved in many of the twists and turns of Indian history, which has always fascinated me. Getting to bring some of that to Dungeons & Dragons, alongside my own historical appreciations, was a lot of fun,” he shares.
“One of my biggest inspirations is the end of the Wild West period in American history. Individuals could be really important on the edges of an American state that hadn’t yet become fully centralized, until the final relics of disorganization were swept away. Suddenly, a lone gunslinger is no longer a meaningful force at that time, as a lone adventurer may no longer be a meaningful force in this region.”
The Good King
The Tayyib Empire may have suffered through a devastating civil war, but Basheer was keen not to repeat common fantasy and sci-fi tropes based around that destruction. He also didn’t want to perpetuate the myth that Eastern rulers are inherently bad or that everything can be fixed by a good king.
“A lot of fantasy that features Muslim and Eastern cultures, especially in previous Orientalist fantasies, portrays an ancient, mystical place that is now falling into ruin and decadence. And I wanted to purposefully avoid that,” he explains.
“And most Western fantasy stories suggest that there aren't any good kings or emperors in the East. Normally there's a focus on the decadence of the court, so I wanted to have an authority figure who went against that trend. Empress Firuzeh is clearly the best option, but the problems of the Tayyib Empire aren't fixed by installing a better monarch on the throne. There's a lot more rebuilding that has to happen outside of that.”
Part of that restoration involves harnessing the ability to instantly travel around the empire. Travelers arrive and depart through the Hall of Doors, which houses teleportation circles linked to locations across the empire. That concept was one of the products of Basheer’s extensive research into mythology, mysticism, and the supernatural elements he’s included in the gazetteer.
“The Hall of Doors is loosely based on the multifaceted arched gateways that appear in a lot of Muslim architecture. When I was researching them, I had the idea that they could do something really neat and become teleportation infrastructure in a place that is currently centralizing and building itself up.”
While most of the kingdom is looking to the future, relics of the war do occasionally rear their rotting or fiendish heads. Bijabad, which was the breadbasket of the region, is still terrorized by the creatures left behind and work crews periodically regret their decisions to dig into the earth.
“The undead as the continuing scar of war is one of the cooler ideas I had for the Tayyib Empire, where it's this physical representation of what the cost of war was. They’re one of the most dangerous things that can be dug up when farming the land,” he shares. “And once you've killed whoever was controlling a bunch of demons, you’ve still got a bunch of demons.
“Speaking of demons, Robson Michel’s art is phenomenal. I wanted to marry traditional D&D iconography with Hindu and Buddhist interpretations of demons, especially pre-Islam, to make sure those elements were represented. You can see that in the curved interlocking fangs of this stone representation.”
Basheer’s gazetteer also includes a number of adventure suggestions that imply many other interesting creatures call the Tayyib Empire home. That includes nothic, jackalwere, efreeti, and wyvern, some of which have deeper cultural ties.
“I tried to bring both Muslim and Hindu elements into the setting,” he says. “Efreeti are a type of jinn that are heavily tied to the Muslim world. There are also a lot of monsters that take the form of animals in Hindu legends, so the jackalweres fit that category well.
“Often an alternate society of people living in the woods are not a threat. That's one of the reasons the jackalweres in the adventure hook aren't necessarily hostile, they may just be showing up to get a free meal at the festival. The idea of unlikely allies that turn out to be neutral has always had a place in D&D, in a lot of memorable adventures. And that was an element I wanted to emphasize.”