Kara-Tur

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Kara-Tur is a campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons, created by David Cook in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons first edition splatbook Oriental Adventures. It was originally established as a part of the greater Greyhawk setting, but was almost immediately retconned into the Forgotten Realms setting, as is the fate of all things.

Settings[edit]

Like most TSR-created D&D worlds, Kara-Tur is built to imitate real-world cultures/peoples/countries to varying degrees. Specifically, Kara-Tur is built with China and Japan in mind, but each nation divided into two to create an adventure environment based on specific time period and theme.

  • Shou Lung is an empire representing the stable periods of China with a bureaucracy and Emperor...also showing them as "good China" as almost all bureaucrats and the Emperor are non-evil alignment.
  • Tu Lung is another fantasy China who broke off from Shou Lung and show off more chaotic periods of real-world Imperial China...except the aristocrats and Imperial Family being downright evil and the entire kingdom being chronically rebellious and war-torn that the one wonder why Shou Lung or other neighboring kingdoms hadn't taken over.
  • Wa is the Tokugawa Shogunate, complete with a military dictatorship ruling in lieu of Emperor and the chronic issue of unemployed Samurai after unifying the warring clans.
  • Kozakura is Sengoku-era Japan--also Kamakura era due to inclusion of retired Emperors ruling behind the scenes and series of regents being the power behind both the Shogun and the Emperor--where the feudal Daimyos fought against each other yet strangely had to no historical connections with Wa despite using Japanese aesthetics and terminology.

Later on, when Kara-Tur was added to Forgotten Realms--which Ed Greenwood disliked the addition due to its near-historical analogues being out of place and arguments over whether historical aspects made sense within Toril--where they added Tabot (a mountainous theocracy united under the worship/rule of a holy child monk emperor, aka Tibet), Bawa (Indonesia), and Malatra... which is copy-paste version of real-world Korea while Koryo is taken straight from Korea's Three Kingdoms and the later Korea unification under Silla.

It also gained its own set of shitty-wall hating, loose collective of steppe horsemen (although not as yet a grand uniter of clans), who even got their own spin-off sub-setting called The Horde, which came complete with a campaign (and tie-in novel trilogy) in which they try to invade Western Faerun... which goes a lot worse for them than it did for the Mongols, since you have realistic horse nomads turned light cavalry going up against pissed off dragons, powerful wizards, and a variety of monsters willing to make common cause with the native humans to get rid of these jumped up invaders.

Races[edit]

Kara-tur was an early TSR product, meaning this was written deep in the company's Low Fantasy phase. As a result, there are only four native races, or at least four races you can actually play.

Firstly, there are Humans in different ethnicities. We all know them, moving right along.

Secondly, there are the Spirit Folk, which are the offspring of unions between humans and local kami (spirits, monsters, lesser deities, etc). They're basically the Elf stand-in.

Thirdly, you have the Korobokuru, a race of short humanoids. Whilst actually based on a real Japanese mythological humanoid (admittedly translated as Koropokuru or variants thereof these days), here, their identity is to serve as "Oriental Dwarves". Which, since they are reclusive, forest-dwelling subsistence farmers and herders characterized as rude, boastful, comic relief who can't even grow decent beards, most dwarf fans reject this claim.

Finally, there are the Hengeyokai, a result of TSR grabbing as many different shapeshifting animal yokai from Japanese and Chinese mythology as they could, making a few more up for good measure, and squeezing them into a one-size-fits-all bag. To heighten this laziness, they even abandoned all of the unique magical abilities or cultural nuances associated with the more well-know hengeyokai breeds and instead focused entirely on the whole "they're animals who turn into people" thing, both mechanically and lore-wise.

Issues[edit]

You're probably wondering why you've never heard of Kara-tur before. Well, there's a couple of reasons for that, which can largely be summed up as "this setting's got flaws".

Perhaps the biggest flaw is the highly vocal modern contention surrounding issues of orientalism and cultural appropriation. We choose to acknowledge that this is a steep hurdle facing the setting and move right along to less skubby topics.

The three flaws we are going to talk about here are: the Japanese Centric Narrative, the Forced Low Fantasy, and the simple fact that It's Dated.

Japanese-centric Narrative[edit]

The term "Oriental", when boiled down to its strictest definition, literally means "any country East of Europe and the Mediterranean". At best, it means "All of Asia", which, in case you haven't looked at a global map recently, is a pretty big place made up of a lot of countries who actually don't have all that much in common. Yes, China, Japan and Korea have cross-pollinated a lot, but they're not the entirety of Asia.

Kara-tur runs into the issue that not only does it use "The Orient" to mean "China, Japan and Korea", but it actually reduces its Chinese and Korean elements to little more than very crude reskins taped over its Japanese stuff. For example, even in the distinctly Chinese/Korea-based locales, you have NPCs whose classes use distinctly Japanese naming terminology, such as Samurai, Bushi or Shugenja. In fact, taking a step back, the simple fact that the new classes/kits introduced in the original 1e all use Japanese names kind of makes it obvious that this was meant to be a Fantasy Japan and the Chinese and Korean elements were tacked on as a distinct afterthought.

Whilst the subsequent splatbooks Kara-Tur: Eastern Realms and Challenge of the Ronins did at least try to reduce the bizarreness by introducing equivalent terminology, it was basically a bandaid over a gaping wound, especially since anybody looking closer would realize that the ostensibly Chinese and Korean regions of the setting were sort of a chop suey for themselves plus Japan. Thus you have things like the Korea analogue having actual ninjas or Shou Lung's sectarian conflict mirroring Heian Japan's Buddhist Sects.

Forced Low Fantasy[edit]

Let's be honest; anyone with eyes can see that TSR was kind of obsessed with Low Fantasy. But the so-called "Ethnic Fantasy" got it worst, with Kara-Tur setting the precedent for basically taking it to the extent of making the setting Historical Fiction in a paper hat. Kara-Tur, despite being based on Chinese/Japanese/Korean fantasy, is incredibly low-magic; the presence of the Spirit Folk, Korobokuru and Hengeyokai is treated as something mysterious and wonderful, a pool that lengthens the bather's lifespan to a century is a whispered-about miracle, and the most powerful defense of the Forbidden City is that it has an aura that dispels levitation.

Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Low Fantasy has its fans, and just because it's "Oriental" Fantasy doesn't mean it has to look like Inuyasha or Naruto (even if it would have been nice to have the option for that kind of wuxia campaign)... but the problem is, Kara-Tur isn't an isolated setting. Not even literally. It's supposed to be part of the motherfucking Forgotten Realms... y'know, TSR's official Heroic Fantasy/High Magic setting?

Even when it was part of Greyhawk, Kara-Tur would have seemed kind of out of place, but as literally the eastern half of the same continent as the Sword Coast and the Dalelands, it just looks ridiculous.

To give TSR credit for it, they did learn from the mistakes of Kara-Tur and The Horde. Maztica, the only other Ethnic Fantasy subsetting of the Realms, actually made the ineffectualness of local magic a plotpoint, as it literally justified a small Amnish fleet kicking the ass of the not-Aztecs. And Al-Qadim, on the other hand, just said "screw that shit" and made itself as magical as the rest of the Realms, justifying its unusual flavors of local magic as "genies are everywhere, and they are dicks".

It's Dated[edit]

This is probably the major issue facing the setting in the modern era, aside from the political bullshit. The simple fact is, Kara-Tur represents an idea of "what do players want from a Japanese D&D setting?" that is no longer relevant to modern audiences (and was frankly probably starting to look kind of out of touch in the 90s!) Kara-Tur was inspired by and intended for an audience whose "oriental" media consisted of Samurai movies and chop sockey martial arts films; it was a setting for those who wanted to play sagas inspired by The Seven Samurai or Flying Guillotine Master or any Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan movie you can name here.

In the modern era, though, fans have grown beyond that historical fiction/low fantasy mold. Waves of anime, manga, videogames and media inspired by all of those have offered a far more fantastical depiction of Japan (and to a lesser extent China and Korea), and the Heroic Fantasy and High Fantasy fans have eaten this stuff up for decades now. If asked to play "Japanese D&D", such a fan would be far more interested in the crazy shonen action-magic ninja of Naruto or the yokai-infested Edo Japan of Inuyasha than re-enacting Lone Wolf and Cub.

The simple, sad truth is that Kara-Tur has gone from a "best-selling" campaign setting to just coming off as bland. It only really appeals to the Low Fantasy/Historical Fiction crowd as-written, and even they find fault with its contradictory internal lore.

Publication History[edit]

Kara-Tur was written for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, debuting in its 1st edition and then being ported to the Forgotten Realms and expanded upon in 2nd edition. Sadly, this remain's the setting's height, and it has only declined from there.

The first sign of Kara-Tur's fall was in Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, when it was booted from the 3.0 Oriental Adventures update, with the role of the "example setting" instead going to Rokugan. Yes, that's right, Wizards of the Coast took one look at this setting and decided that it was such a bad example of a Japanese D&D setting that they decided it would be better to buy the licensing rights to the setting of Legend of the Five Rings instead!

There were a couple of Dragon Magazine and Dungeon Magazine appearances for Kara-tur in the 3e era, but it never saw its own splatbook.

Even in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, Kara-Tur made no appearances, until Dragon Magazine #404 was devoted entirely to "oriental D&D" content and so used Kara-tur as a backdrop.

There have been no appearances of Kara-tur in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

Gallery[edit]

Dungeons & Dragons Campaign Settings
Basic D&D: Mystara (Blackmoor) - Pelinore
AD&D: Birthright - Council of Wyrms - Dark Sun - Dragonlance
Forgotten Realms (Al-Qadim - The Horde - Icewind Dale - Kara-Tur - Maztica)
Greyhawk - Jakandor - Mystara (Hollow World - Red Steel - Savage Coast)
Planescape - Ravenloft (Masque of the Red Death) - Spelljammer
3rd/3.5 Edition: Blackmoor - Dragonlance - Eberron - Forgotten Realms
Ghostwalk - Greyhawk (Sundered Empire)
Ravenloft (Masque of the Red Death) - Rokugan
4th Edition: Blackmoor - Dark Sun - Eberron - Forgotten Realms - Nentir Vale
5th Edition: Eberron - Exandria - Forgotten Realms - Greyhawk - Ravenloft - Ravnica - Theros
Third Party: Arkadia (5E) - Askis (5E) - Dragonmech (3E) - Dragonstar (3E) - Fallen Camelot (5E)
Golarion (3E) - Grim Hollow (5E) - Humblewood (5E) - Iron Kingdoms (3E/5E)
Kingdoms of Kalamar (2E/3E/4E) - Midgard (3E/4E/5E) - Midnight (3E/4E) - Mists of Akuma (5E)
The Ninth World (5E) - Odyssey (5E) - Primeval Thule (5E) - Ptolus (3E/5E)
Rokugan (3E) - Scarred Lands (3E/5E) - Seas of Vodari (5E) - Spellslinger (3E)
Vast Kaviya (5E) - Wilderlands of High Fantasy (Basic/3E) - World of Farland (3E/4E/5E)