Kara-Tur was the first of a few non-European culture based settings TSR released in the 80’s. It was released in the wake of the success of Oriental Adventures by Gygax. Later the setting was merged with the Forgotten Realms setting.
Following the success of the Dragonlance setting, people within TSR seemed to get more confidence in that they could release something that wasn’t just dungeons and more dungeons. In 1985 Gary Gygax wrote and TSR released Oriental Adventures. To put it short, critics loved the book. Not only because for the first time in D&D’s history you could play in a setting that was based in a non-European history, but also because it introduced a new optional rule – Non-weapon proficiencies.
This optional rule was quickly adopted by the community and when 2nd edition AD&D was released non-weapon proficiencies were a part of the game. Later these evolved into the skill system we know today.
The Kara-Tur setting
Oriental Adventures contained a chapter written by David “Zeb” Cook which provided insight to the Oriental setting. You could say that this first introduction to the setting was a bit lacking and short, but, still, you could easily see what kind of Oriental setting Cook had in mind. It was more in line with the Japanese history, mixed with some Chinese and Korean history, myths and legends.
Year after the release of Oriental Adventures, TSR released the module Swords of the Daimyo. In fact much of the text of the module is dedicated to describing the Miyama province, but it also had three short narratives which all take place in Miyama. In the first story the PCs need to travel from your average western fantasy setting over to the Miyama, but the later two take fully place in the province.
In 1988 TSR released the Kara-Tur – The Eastern Realms boxed set, which contained a detailed description of the Oriental setting, many NPCs and also a map. However, Zeb Cook wasn’t listed among the designers, but the setting was attributed to Mike Pondsmith, Jay Batista, Rick Swan, John Nephew and Deborah Christian.
The boxed set had, similar to the grey Forgotten Realms boxed set, lightly detailed descriptions of many nations, like Shou Lung, Koryo, Kozakura and The Island Kingdom, each of which one could easily imagine was an analog for the different eastern-Asian countries.
Different narrative style
Obviously, a setting like Kara-Tur which was so starkly different from other settings, called for a different narrative approach. In the modules players needed to assume the roles of ninjas, monks and samurais, but the narratives were also more political than before. Some might even say that the narratives had taken on a more serious, even more adult, tone.
A part of that was a small addition introduced originally in Oriental Adventures, the honour system. A character’s honour was measured in points and there were number of factors that could affect it, characters could both gain and lose honour. A character without honour was more or less worthless.
Following the boxed set there were a few modules released. Among these were classics like Blood of the Yakuza, Night of the Seven Swords and Mad Monkey vs. The Dragon Claw, which were a hit among Kara-Tur fans.
Kara-Tur was an original setting at first, just like Dragonlance and Greyhawk. However, in 1988 it merged with Forgotten Realms and in the boxed set Kara-Tur was introduced as the Eastern Realms. Even the last few modules released using the rules introduced in Oriental Adventures were released under the Forgotten Realms logo, not the Oriental adventures logo. In the Forgotten Realms Atlas released in 1990 you’ll find maps showing Kara-Tur, cementing Kara-Tur on Toril.
Since AD&D little has been released for Kara-Tur and has the setting, along with Al-Qadim, Maztica and other smaller non-European settings, been discontinued.
Still, in 3rd edition WotC released Oriental Adventures sourcebook, but it wasn’t aimed at or written for Kara-Tur. It contained updated information on some of the player classes and races introduced in the original Oriental Adventures, but the setting introduced in the 3rd edition book was Rokugan, which was, as many fans know, originally produced for Legends of the Five Rings.
The Creativity of TSR
Like the many culture based settings TSR released in the 80’s Kara-Tur never saw much publication nor where many modules released for the setting. Which was a shame, since both the original Oriental Adventures was well received and the setting itself as well, e.g. the boxed set won the Gamer’s Choice award.
Whatever one might feel about the quality of the many settings TSR released, from Ravenloft to Maztica and beyond to Spelljammer and Planescape, it’s hard to deny the fact that having so many settings offered more opportunities for game masters that relied on published material to find a setting that fit their narratives.
Many game masters don’t look further than to what WotC publishes, not knowing of all the small 3rd party publishers or of the fan-based material (I’m looking at you athas.org and fraternityofshadows.com). The same might be said about the DMsGuild.com, despite seeing more sales lately, many players and game masters solely rely on WotC to produce games, modules and source material for the game.
Truth be told, I would love to see WotC take a few steps more into TSR’s direction and even introduce something completely new. To take bold steps where no knight, monk or sha’ir has gone before. D&D has never been as popular as it is now and if there’s ever an opportunity to introduce a new setting, it is now.