Lands of Intrigue Reimagined Part Two
When I last left off, I was talking about how a recent image in Dragon Heist changed thing in a good way before going on a bit of a rant about the rampant whitewashing in D&D art in previous editions.  So now it’s time to talk about the Peoples of Southwestern Faerûn, and more specifically how the may not exactly be as they’ve been advertised and described in the past.
So, this is the image that caused this stir. If so far as I’ve been able to tell, this is the first image of a Tethyrian that wasn’t from the northern bit of the land. The thing with Tethyr is that it’s a crossroads location, with the problematic description of its peoples being “dusky” and increasingly lighter towards the north. Traditionally, this has translated into white and European coded imagery for the, and accompanying confused looks and irritating questioned levelled at players who opted to be from the Black part of the nation. So seeing a POC Tethyrian in a canonical work is huge, and lends credence to a pet theory of mine.
This all starts way back. How far back? The First Sundering way back. At the end of the Days of Thunder, the distant ancestors of the Katashakans, Lapal, Chultans, and so on were living life dodging dinosaurs, Sarrukh creations (like the Yuan-ti), and generally enjoying that paleolithic lifestyle. Then in -17600 DR, Sun Elf magic nearly broke the planet and separated out the population. There’s evidence in lore that humans were kicking around the areas now known as Katashaka, Chult, the Chultan Penisula, and Calimshan. The Batrachi Empire seems to have been the main barrier to further expansion. So, prior to the Sundering, the maximum human expansion probably looked something like the red shaded area in figure 1.
After the Sun Elves decided, against Dark Elf advice and a part of the prophecy they were following that they didn’t like’s advice, to create their own vacation island, the world was radically different looking, and that human population was now enjoying the island and bottleneck genetic effects. With the survivors split roughly as in figure 2. The green areas representing the proto-Lapal population, and the orange areas representing the proto-Tethyrian population.
In essence, a single demonstrably Black population was divided into three groups, of whom then proceeded to develop largely apart from one another as they struggled (at least in Faerûn) against dragons and giants who swept in the vacuum left by the Batrachi in the area now known as Calimshan, and against the Kingdom of Serpentes and its scaled peoples on the Chultan Peninsula. This would be, largely, the status quo for another few thousand years until, in -7800 DR, Djinn of the from pre-enlightenment Zakhara, led by Calim and with their many human and halfling slaves in tow, arrived and established Calimport and the Djen Empire. This displaced a number of the indigenous humans, and likely resulted in the enslavement of many more, which in turn planted the seeds of modern Calimshan’s colourism and ethnic hierarchy. As Calimshan expanded, it annexed and enslaved more of the proto-Tethyrian population, including lighter skinned “barbarians” they encountered and clumped together with the dark complected ones. This would explain Tethyr and Amn’s multiple ethnicities but relatively unified cultural aspects. The land now known as Tethyr, in effect, acts as a bridging point between what was once several distinct populations that were “unified” by imperial decree. It also adds the dimension that the lighter skinned Amn born Tethyrians may begin to identify less as Tethyrians and more as Amnians, but that’s a different post. Moving forwards through time, we see Tethyr gain its independence, but the dark skinned population remains large in both Calimshan and its former holdings.
Meanwhile, to the south, we see the Lapal peoples develop and eventually gain a modicum of independence after generations as slaves to the Yuan-ti. However, in true D&D fashion, non-European/East Asian/Arab coded people aren’t allowed to establish cool empires or stable nations, so things are pretty turbulent for the next few millennia. Eventually, the Lapal, Thinguth, Tethyrians, and Calimshites blend to form a new culture and ethnic group, the Tashalan. Then it gets super murky because, canonically, the Lapal sort of “disappear”, while Chondathans and Shaarans show up, and things become very hard to track because that region has been extremely undeserved in lore.
So, that’s the deeper lore of the place, but what’s going on now in the Lands of Intrigue?
Imagining New Lands of Intrigue
First, who’s living in the Lands of Intrigue?
- Humans: the dominant population in most parts, with Amnian, Tethyrian, Calishite, Lapal, Tashalan, Chultan, Western Shaaran, and Chondathan being the most commonly encountered ethnic groups. Their history is all very deeply tied together; with the exception of the Chondathans, who are relatively new arrivals on the scene in any significant numbers.
- Halflings: descended from the slaves of the Djen Empire, most of the halflings in the area have a culture distinct from that of the Luiren Halflings who make up much of the Halfling population on Faerûn.
- Dwarves: Shield Dwarves are found commonly in northern Calimshan and further north along the Sword Coast, and Gold Dwarves are common on the Chultan Peninsula.
- Genasi: Air and Fire Genasi are extremely common in Calimshan (upwards of 25% of the population or more in some areas), with Earth and Water Genasi being less common. Their culture is very much akin to that of their genie ancestors, and a strong sense of superiority is common in this Genasi population.
- Lizardfolk: there are many marshy areas, particularly around the Lake of Steam and on the Chultan Peninsula, and all manner of Lizardfolk settlements can be found there.
- Yuan-ti: the regional climate is right, and the power hungry nobles and peoples of the Lands of Intrigue are always eager to get an edge over their opponents. While often hunted on the Chultan Peninsula, the Yuan-ti might be found living more openly in the lands north of the Shining Sea.
- Wild Elves: few of their more sedentary kin can be found in the cities of the Lands of Intrigue, but in the Western Shaar, Border Kingdoms, and onto the peninsula, memories of the Elf Harrow are still strong, and their totems and territorial markers are taken very seriously.
Calimshan, Tethyr, and Amn are a north-south axis that codes as Moorish North Africa (Calimshan), Al-Andalus (Moorish held Spain), and Castilian Spain (Christian Spain). This tracks well in several ways. Foremost is that Amn has been well established as an analogue to Spain in the canonical lore, and this reinforces that; it also adds a dimension of friction between them and their former imperial masters in Calimshan, as well as a potential story of establishing themselves as a culture distinct from Tethyr in the eyes of the larger world (which they are, yikes). This places Tethyr in not only a cultural and ethnic crossroads position, but also opens doors to establish them more firmly as fighting to be independent from both Amn and Calimshan. In my vision, Tethyr is a land of blended influences that has created something unique and beautiful, but also a place that struggles between an old imperial master and an upstart nation, both of whom see them as a resource to be used.
Now, right away I need to be clear that Calimshan is not a “good” place. It’s has a long, dark history, and its culture still deeply reflects that of the Djen Empire on both sides. So, first, the biggest change: there’s two Calimshans. The Emirates of Calimshan are human dominated and seek to reestablish the glory days of the Shoon Imperium, they’re driven and inspired by their successes in overthrowing the Genasi and Genies (at least in part), and their largest city is Almraiven. The Emirates control the eastern parts of old Calimshan, and are pressing west while struggling to reestablish trade dominance in the area (something Amn is not keen on). Meanwhile, the western parts of old Calimshan are controlled by the Elemental Sultanates, Genasi dominant lands that bicker and fight each other when they aren’t uniting (ever so temporarily) to stave off reconquest efforts by the human led Emirates. Memnon and Calimport are their greatest cities, and from there they reach out to trade and try to dominate other lands. Colourism is rampant in both parts of Calimshan, with lighter complexions being desirable and being seen as a sign of heritage from the humans who came with Calim and Memnon. Slavery is still commonplace in both locations, although abolitionists are trying to end it in the Emirates (with poor results). It should be noted that the colourism is not a guard against enslavement, and that dark complected peoples can and do rise to positions of power.
Tethyr is a crossroads land, with strong links to the past through its human and elf populations. For millennia, it, and its peoples, were defined by the colonial polices of Calimshan in its various forms. Now it’s freer than it’s ever been before, even as it’s population and culture remain deeply influenced by their former colonial masters. Tethyr is, of the three nations, the most stable and advanced, with a strong government and reliable infrastructure. It came through the Era of Upheaval fairly well, and it shows. Unlike Amn or Calimshan, it’s mercantile sector does not wield undo power, and it is non-expansionist. Tethyr is well known for the quality of its goods, fairness in its governance, and for its engineering and infrastructure. However, it is also a hotbed of international intrigue, with both Calimshans trying to influence them, and a recovering Amn trying to secure their resources. So far the dukes and counts have remained loyal to the crown, but with so many with family both north and south of the border, pressure to ally with, or at least tacitly support, various factions is quite strong. Plots abound, and are likely to target adventurers, both local and foreign, as pawns.
Amn lost a lot in the Era of Upheaval. New Amn, its colony in Maztica, was spirited away to Abier, cutting them off from its wealth and resources, and Port Nyanzaru was eventually able to overthrow them (although this would be a benefit in the long term). They also lost territory to monsterfolk, and saw the weaknesses of their oligarchy laid bare. And after all of that, they learned absolutely nothing. Amn is hungry for wealth, slaves, and resources, and it’s every oligarch for themselves. While this is happening, there’s also a cultural revolution occurring. With Calimshan so weak, and with Tethyr uninterested in enforcing Calshite ideas of ethnicity, the lighter complected Tethyrians of Amn have begun to identify themselves as Amnics. Amn is mounting expeditions to see if Maztica is back, with a n eye to re-subjugate it if needs be, and is pouring trade vessels into the Great Sea and Shining Sea in an effort to sew up trade before the Emirates of Calimshan can fully get their feet under them. Amn is very much seen as a rising power on the Sword Coast, and has been unabashed about it’s desire to expand north.
The Lands of Intrigue, save for Calimshan, have been poorly covered and described in previous editions for the most part. They’ve also been subject to whitewashing and “ambiguously brown” in art, which didn’t help anchor anything for players or DM’s when trying to make use of this area. So in this short piece, I looked at potential population movements, ethnic backgrounds, and an alternative take on the area that adds a lot more potential to it for gaming.
Images used in this post are property of Wizards of the Coast, and are used here under fair use.
Considering their location in an area analogous to al-Andalus and the descriptions of their varied skin tones, I see Tethyrians as fantasy counterpart Amazigh/Berbers. I previously assumed they had just spread across the western coast of Faerûn and that the more European looking Tethyrians were of partial Illuskan and/or Chondathan descent, but I think your explanation about them being unrelated groups lumped together by Calishites makes a lot of sense.
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It might interest you to dig into the Living Forgotten Realms campaign that was set in Calimshan; while it’s probably not canon (I don’t think any of the later LFR materials are), it still tells a neat story that fits well with your alternate Calimshan here: that of the genasi ruled Skyfire Emirates (divided between the forces of Calimport and those of Memnon), who are largely cruel and driven by war and slavery, and the free city of Almraiven, whose ruling WeavePasha (with the aid of a former slave noble named Ala’ammar Asha, and the Janessar, a Triad-worshipping order who oppose slavery) fight for equal footing for humans in Calimshan and an end to slavery. It’s a super neat little campaign, and well worth stealing from; all the materials are up for free legitimately on the FLR website.