In 1985 TSR released Oriental Adventures, a new AD&D hardcover geared towards adventuring outside the normal tropes of Western Medieval Fantasy. Unusually for TSR and AD&D, it also contained the outline of a setting, called Kara-Tur, instead of saying as little as possible about locales outside of specific products.

Some of this reticence about particular settings carried over, as it was still designed to be able to be dropped into any existing campaign, although it was assumed to belong at the far end of the continent featured in the World of Greyhawk. With the discovery of world-building as a new class of product line, a full boxed set was done on Kara-Tur in 1988, setting it in their new hot property, the Forgotten Realms.

In general, the contents resemble the Forgotten Realms boxed set, with two 96-page booklets, and four poster-size maps (with no grid, and the same clear plastic hex-grid sheets as in the former box set). Past the pure physical contents, it gets stranger. The books are purely a two volume guide to the lands of Kara-Tur, instead of being split between a general use guide and DM’s materials (in fact, the page numbering continues straight through both books). The four map sheets are double-sided, and much more scattershot than the systematic presentation the Realms were getting between the main set and the FR-series supplements. One sheet gave two overview maps of Kara-Tur, one political and one topographical, each at a scale of 580 miles per inch. (The two full-sheet 90-mi/in maps of the original set cover about 12 million square miles; the single Kara-Tur map covers roughly 125 million square miles, or more than 10 times the area.) From there, there are three 90-mi/in full sheet maps and one half-sheet one, a 30-mi/in full sheet map, a 30-mi/in 3/4 sheet map (the remaining quarter is used for a city map and some building plans), a half-sheet 30-mi/in map, a 30-mi/in inset map of an island, and a couple small 30-mi/in maps on the same sheet as several city maps and a couple of building plans. These maps generally do not connect to each other or (with a few exceptions) detail an area covered in larger scale, giving a somewhat disjointed sense of presentation.

Despite being in two physical parts, the books break down into three rough sections, with the beginning being Chinese-inspired countries, the end being Japanese-inspired countries, and the stuff in the middle being more of a variety of other Oriental influences. China and Japan have decided top billing here, with the middle chapters being shorter, much less detailed, and not as well written. Each chapter supposedly written by a different in-world personality describing the area to Elminster, and actually written by a different contributing author. As with any anthology, this leads to a variety of styles, presentation, and quality.

The first part of “China” is Shou Lung, a fantasy version of ancient China which gets a pretty good introduction in about forty pages, including a gazetteer of the provinces, a cultural guide, Chinese-style renamings of the largely Japanese-influenced classes from Oriental Adventures, secret societies, religion, history, sample NPCs, and some details on a typical example town, complete with social tensions. These forty pages are packed. Of course, since this is the country that takes up most of the overview map, there’s plenty of room for invention as well.

If Shou Lung is fantasy Lawful Good China, T’u Lung is its Chaotic Evil mirror, where the bureaucracy hinders every action, taxes go uncollected, many towns are ruined by unrestrained bandits, etc. This overstates the case, as neither country is full of people of a particular alignment, but it’s not a bad assessment of the character of the countries. Overall, this section gets a bit more lost in details, such as having even more NPCs than given in the longer Shou Lung chapter, but since this is the Southern Song to Shou Lung’s Imperial China, the cultural notes from both chapters can be of help for both countries.

Kara-Tur transitions from China with Tabot, a little too obvious fantasy Tibet. With only eight pages, if you already knew something of Tibetan history, this might be enough. For me at least, this is where the boxed set starts strongly saying, ‘there’s China, and then the rest of the world is boring’. There’s just not enough here to get a real feel of the place. Sure, there’s some history, and short bits about architecture, language, religion, etc. But it is all breezed through, there’s no touches like Tabotan-culture class names; nothing more than the barest overview.

This too-short treatment dogs the next several chapters, starting with The Plain of Horses, which is obviously the home of the fantasy Mongol/barbarian horde stand-ins before you even read the chapter. And… it’s pretty much a fastball straight down the center of those expectations. Almost everyone is a barbarian (in the class-mechanics sense), everyone rides, etc. That said, while there’s a number of different tribes that fight with each other, many of them have apparently permanent cities that serve as their central meeting spot, up to the largest, Li-Raz, that has a 15,000-man (barbarian) standing army. Still, this feels a little more like a place to flesh out and adventure in, rather than visit, than Tabot, though it probably comes down to relative existing knowledge for me.

The Northern Wastes (out past the Plain of Horses) is another sparsely-populated area with no central nation, and no overriding culture either, leaving the area undeveloped in text as well, a home of lone mysterious places, and a primary place to find non-humans (more on that later). The Jungle Lands to the south of T’u Lung with multiple nations are broadly-Indonesian in flavor, but this ten-page chapter is ill-served with pages of short city descriptions crowding out broader concerns of what the area is like, with the three peoples presented are given the barest outlines. The Island Kingdoms… yes, technically, there are kingdoms (multiple) here. But the chapter spends its time purely on the island of Bawa (too-obvious renaming—Java—strikes again). With such a tight focus, the island is actually fairly well developed, and this is one of the better places to have adventurers visit and interact with, but it’s hard to imagine a campaign starting here. I’d like to complain about ignoring the rest of the region the chapter should be about, but this product needs more focus like this.

Then Kara-Tur transitions to Japan with Koryo, or fantasy-Korea. While Korea has often suffered from being stuck between China and Japan, Koryo is much more influenced by Kozakura than Shou-Lung. The ‘narration’ of this chapter is schizophrenic, supposedly written by the author of the Shou-Lung chapter, but with parts also from a brother/sister pair. They offer nicely contrasting views in one part, and the entire chapter could have been much stronger with more use of the technique.

Kozakura is a chain of islands modeled after waring states Japan, with Wa being an adjacent set of islands modeled after the Tokugawa Shogunate (down to persecuted Chauntea cultists in place of Christian missionaries). Like the pair of ‘Chinas’ earlier, these chapters have a decent amount to offer each other in terms of crossover society and background. Thanks to the increased coverage, and the smaller geographical size, they’re probably the easiest to digest for adventuring in, pointed up by the fact that most of the OA-series adventures happen in these two countries. They also feature a lot of color by way of Japanese terms and titles. I’m happy with it, but I can easily see someone being severely overwhelmed by all the foreign names and terms, and having a lot of trouble with this section.


In many ways, the Kara-Tur boxed set is just crammed full of possibilities, and can serve as a great inspiration to a DM. But it also suffers from overreach. It would be easy to take any one part of this product and turn it into something deeper and more focused, and still be giving the barest outlines of world-building inspiration. However, the worst omission is actually the absence of any sort of timeline. There are history sections, and many parts refer to an event happening in ‘such-and-such a year’, but the current year is never stated, making all those references nearly useless (and they’re obviously not in Dale Reckoning, and probably are in different calendars in different countries).

For me, the boxed set lived entirely on its Forgotten Realms tie-in, and that is a place that it also runs into trouble. While Kara-Tur has plenty of high-power, high-fantasy elements that make it fit into AD&D well, it does not fit with the Realms so well. The Realms are an ancient land that have been dominated by dragons, dwarves, and elves in turn, where the human era is still getting going with the wreckage of former empires scattered about. Meanwhile Kara-Tur is a very human-oriented land. There’s no signs of this backstory here. No elves, and only peripherally dwarves (if you count korobokuru), and no great pre-human empires. It’s possible they just didn’t get out this far, but it clashes with the tone of the main Realms.

The fact that the regions and cultures are all closely modeled after Earth equivalents comes in for some criticism. I’m generally fine with it (I’m a fan of Mystara, which uses that technique for much of the world), but there is the problem that as alluded to before, they the ‘fantasy’ here is largely powered by the actual myths of these cultures, and not by the implications of AD&D style-magic and the like. For instance, Shou Lung has some very nicely Chinese ideas of a Celestial Empire and heavenly bureaucracy that is reflected in the mortal realm by Shou Lung itself… but this has no place in the ‘great wheel’ cosmology of AD&D that has such an influence on the Realms. It’s not even explained how it works in relation to the other countries in the boxed set.

All of this is probably why Kara-Tur remained almost unexplored in further products. There were a few more OA-series adventures released after this, and The Horde would tie the eastern and western parts of the continent together, but there were no KT-series modules to expand on the setting, and when WotC released a new Oriental Adventures for 3rd ed D&D, and included a setting in that book, it was Legend of the Five Rings‘ Rokugan, not D&D‘s Kara-Tur. It remains a good foundation for adventure settings, but is too much to just visit, and needs too much work to base a campaign in.