Dedication: I'd like to thank a number of people who contributed throughout the run of this column. Thanks to Ed Greenwood for information on Shou settlements and general encouragements. Thanks to Eric Scott de Bie for helping to make the warlock article one of the best in the series. Thanks to Brian Cortijo for his expertise in all matters Kara-Tur (as well as matters of the Realms). A special thanks to Eric Boyd for extensive assistance and Realmslore checking for several of the articles. Finally, thanks to George Krashos, who graciously reviewed the majority of these articles, always providing honest and helpful suggestions and corrections. To all of these gentlemen, thank you for your tireless efforts and the love you put into the Forgotten Realms. It is truly inspiring.
The 20-level classes presented in books other than the Player's Handbook have become popular choices for players and DMs. Earlier articles in this series discussed how to import the classes from Player's Handbook 2, the Complete series, Expanded Psionics Handbook, Miniatures Handbook, Heroes of Horror, Magic of Incarnum, Tome of Magic, and Tome of Battle. This final installment focuses on Eastern classes -- the samurai, shugenja, wu jen, shaman, sohei, and spirit shaman. This article does not go into extensive history regarding Kara-Tur. Rather, it deals with how Kara-Turan classes have spread to the Realms via cultural diffusion.
Eastern Classes in the Realms
The Eastern-themed classes of the Complete series and Oriental Adventures sometimes seem at odds with the pseudo-medieval and renaissance feeling of the Realms, but they do offer options for those that wish to expand their games to include an Asian feel. With the exception of the spirit shaman, all of the other classes come to Faerûn by way of the East. The majority of characters with levels in these classes are from the massive continent of Kara-Tur. Kara-Tur consists of a number of provinces that have similar cultures to real world nations: Shou Lung (China), T'u Lung (China), Wa (Japan), Kozakura (Japan), Tabot (Tibet), Koryo (Korea), Ra-Khati (Nepal), Bawa (Taiwan), the Horse Plains (Mongolia), Malatra (Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam), and a number of smaller nations and principalities. Individuals from these nations -- most commonly the Shou and T'u -- have settled along the Golden Way, an enormous length of road running from Telflamm all the way to Shou Lung. They have set up Shou Towns, small enclaves with Eastern architecture, customs, and organizations. Through the settlement of citizens of these nations, Kara-Turan cultures and classes have spread to the Unapproachable East and the rest of the Realms.
While the majority of characters with these classes are Kara-Turan, the Eastern schools do occasionally accept Western students. In addition, individual Kara-Turan mercenaries and ronin occasionally venture into Faerûn. Sometimes this is to make a name for themselves, but in other instances, these individuals leave to escape angered patrons or bounty hunters. They often ally themselves with Westerners, who in turn, sometimes acquire levels in Eastern classes.
Spirit shamans are unique among the classes presented in that they do not originate in Kara-Tur. The spirit shamanic tradition arose in Rashemen, a land of great splendor and full of nature spirits. It is also found in Osse, a region of ancient aboriginal people with strong connections to their land and ancestors.
Small Shou Towns and enclaves have sprung up in a number of major metropolitan areas in the Realms. These are somewhat akin to real-word Chinatowns, but perhaps smaller and more insular. The most well known of these is found in Elversult, but there are enclaves or embassies in Zindalankh (Murghôm), Shussel (Unther -- the newest of the established enclaves), Vaelen (Var the Golden), and Sheirtalar. The ever-enterprising Shou are also busy with intrigues behind the scenes to establish enclaves or embassies in Athkatla (Amn), Chavyondat (Estagund), and the island-nation of Tharsult (in the Shining Sea).
Most samurai serve Wa and Kozakura lords making diplomatic trips along the Golden Way. Sometimes they also serve Wa (and occasionally Shou) generals who are leading armies against Tuigans, bandits, or monstrous forces. Their strict code of conduct and respect for authority often takes them beyond where most citizens of Kara-Tur ever dream of going.
The Golden Way can be a perilous place, especially when one travels far from Thesk and into the plains. There are a variety of reasons samurai might venture into the Realms -- forces they serve are sometimes defeated, their warriors taken prisoner; sometimes lords defect or are banished, taking their retainers with them; occasionally a samurai is dishonored or banished, becoming ronin. Regardless of the reason, most samurai look for a new patron to serve for their Bushido code. Those who do not become ronin.
Following the Tuigan invasion and the increasing number of Shou Towns popping up along the Golden Way, more and more samurai are serving Shou leaders. Samurai tend to follow their leaders without question. Thus, they can be found among both benevolent and corrupt Shou leaders. Samurai are found serving town elders, and ronin often bodyguard high-ranking yakuza of the Nine Golden Swords.
In addition to their presence in enclaves and embassies, Samurai and ronin are often sent on missions to far-flung corners of the Realms. They make connections and forge ties with Western characters, spreading their traditions, albeit slowly. Ronin sometimes act as mercenaries, working in Thay, Thesk, and even locations as far as Sembia.
Samurai rarely form organizations. They are almost always in the service of a feudal lord, Shou elder, or another person in a position of authority. Ronin often join mercenary companies, but it is almost unheard of to find them congregating together. More often, when ronin meet each other (or a samurai), only one ends up leaving the meeting alive.
The classic image of the samurai wielding katana and wakizashi is exclusive to the nations of Wa and Kozakura. An equivalent character from Shou Lung would wield a jian (longsword) or yari/uma-yari (spear/horse-spear or lance) as ancestral daisho. While the concept of the samurai in the real world is innately Japanese, it's quite possible to establish warriors that serve lords, lieges, or other powers in any of the areas of Kara-Tur. For that matter, such characters are even possible in the Unapproachable East where Eastern concepts often meld with Western ideals.
In many ways, shamans are the druids of Kara-Tur. They channel the spirits of nature, respecting and reflecting the will of their ancestors. Whereas shugenja tend to serve as spiritual advisors among nobility, shamans tend to be local leaders, acting as healers, elders, and midwives. Shugenja are common among the nobility of Shou Lung, T'u Lung, Wa, Kozakura, and Koryo. Shamans are fairly common among the local populace of these nations but are more prevalent in Tabot, Ra-Khati, Bawa, and Malatra. Shamans are also found in the Northern Wastes, where they act as natural guardians and as the crafters of minor amulets and fetishes of protection and healing.
Shamans are rarely hired as healers on noble expeditions traveling the Golden Way. The noble classes tend to find them unrefined and desire the more cultured and elegant ways of the shugenja or wu jen. Occasionally, shamans travel into the Realms at the behest of a dying man from their land, offering comfort in the last days of his life. Sometimes the family calls for a shaman to comfort them following a death or to perform an exorcism. When the spirit world is out of balance, shamans may be the only hope for restoration. They are commonly found in the poorer areas of Shou Towns and refugee camps, especially among those displaced by the Tuigan hordes.
Shamans also sometimes travel individually or on pilgrimages to learn about the spirit world in the West. They may sense great spiritual disturbances but more often are driven to adventure because of clues from the spirit world. Ancestor spirits often have goals and desires -- rights to wrong and things left undone in life. As a cleric takes on quests for her god, so too does a shaman take on quests and follow paths dictated by spirits. This can take a shaman anywhere in the world -- spirits traverse both space and time.
Shamans might also be found outside of Kara-Tur among the Uthgardt barbarians who worship totems of animals and magical beasts. Other naturalistic and animistic cultures may also possess a form of shamanism. Whether this is shamanic tradition or a spirit shamanic tradition varies depending on dogma and philosophy (see below).
Shamans should not be confused with spirit shamans. The former are limited to less civilized populations of Kara-Tur (and occasionally tribal populations of the Realms). The latter are more common among spirit folk of both Kara-Tur and the Realms, the continent of Osse, and the Witches of Rashemen. Both groups hold many similarities, but Eastern shamans tend to be more focused on community and ancestors than those of the West. Western spirit shamans are more focused on the individual's spirit quest than any sort of relationship between ancestors and community.
Shugenja are the priests of Kara-Tur, spiritual guardians who focus on tapping into and balancing the natural elements. Like samurai, they usually come from the noble class, but some are also orphans adopted by noble families or inducted into the priesthood at a young age. Shugenja enter the Realms in similar ways to samurai. They act as priests and spiritual advisors to nobles along the Golden Way. When travelers from Kara-Tur found Shou Towns, Shugenja bring the old ways to the new world. They help to make small oases of tradition in very foreign environments.
Unlike samurai, shugenja are not bound by a strict code of morals. They do not need to serve a particular master, thus they can travel the world as they see fit. They are drawn to disturbances in the elemental balance of the world. This leads them on adventures to right environmental wrongs, destroy blights on the land, and keep the balance of the elements.
Shugenja of Shou Lung are known as dang-kai and are adherents of an elaborate religious philosophy known as The Way. As part of their belief system, they reject notions of good, evil, chaos, and law and instead focus on manipulating natural, universal energies toward a desired end. (More information on the dang-kai appears in the Kara-Tur boxed set, particularly on page 28 of Volume I.)
Because of the greater freedom allowed to shugenja, it is more common to find them in the company of Western adventurers than to find samurai. In recent years, shugenja have been drawn toward the disturbances caused by the rage of dragons, rain of fire, and the transformation of the High Moor. While still uncommon, the proliferation of Shou settlements along with a shugenja's inherent attraction to natural imbalances has greatly increased the presence of this class in the Realms.
Sohei are similar to monks in their ascetic pursuit of bodily perfection while secluded in monasteries, but they are less academic, favoring zeal over philosophy. As a paladin is a hybrid of fighter and cleric, sohei are hybrids of monks and clerics, monastic warriors working for a temple or a monastery and performing whatever missions and duties are required of them.
Unlike samurai and shugenja, sohei come to their paths from all social classes and backgrounds. Those who show a talent for the martial and academic arts become monks. Those that have the physical prowess but lack a contemplative bent (or think more through faith than reasoning) make perfect sohei. Westerners often remark that sohei seem more driven by anger and passion than the relatively calm and dispassionate monks they've encountered.
Sohei enter the Realms on missions while serving their monastic or temple leaders. This might involve a religious quest, a diplomatic mission, a military effort, or any number of other possibilities. They might settle in a Shou Town with displaced or refugees, acting as defenders of the people or bodyguards to elders. They often participate in long-term military conflicts if those wars are supported by their temples or monasteries.
While lawful and disciplined, some Sohei have been known to venture into the Realms after their tour of duty ends, afte the death of their master, or their temple's dissolution. They love to test their mettle and prowess, and adventuring provides the thrill of battle. Unlike monks, Sohei rely on both prowess and rage, thus monsters, villains, and epic wrongs can drive their destinies. Because of their unpretentious origins, they tend to work well with Western parties -- they're lawful natures encourage unity and discipline, but their humble beginnings make them less judgmental and more tolerant.
It is possible to adapt Sohei to the Realms. In such cases, they are likely to be temple guards for lawfully-aligned martial churches such as Helm, Hoar, or Red Knight. They always possess Weapon Focus in their deity's favored weapon (granted to them as a bonus feat when they take their 1st level in the class).
Spirit shamans are uncommon in the Realms and Kara-Tur. In Kara-Tur, shamans channel and mediate with spirits, acting as the spiritual guide for more primitive populations. Only spirit folk in Kara-Tur follow the path of the spirit shaman and rarely go adventuring. Shamans of Kara-Tur have more of a connection to people and ancestors, whereas spirit shamans are more connected to spirits of the land and the land itself. In the Realms, spirit shamans are found among the witches and independent male divine spellcasters of Rashemen. They are also found among the spirit folk of Rashemen and Thesk (those brought from Kara-Tur along the Golden Way). Finally, a small number of spirit shamans travel the Realms, having come from the distant land of Osse.
Spirit shamans in Rashemen are divided into two contingents. The first is a section of Hathrans -- the exclusively female divine spellcasters of the land. These Hathrans commune solely with spirits, leaving communion with deities to the other casters. To make Hathran magic more unique, some DMs may wish to make all members of this group spirit shamans. Barring that, DMs can limit spirit shamans to the subsection of Hathrans that only commune with spirits. While only male spellcasters are required to go on a dajemma (spirit journey or pilgrimage), many female spellcasters also go. This is almost universal among Hathrans who take up the path of the spirit shaman. This is the most frequent way that spirit shamans venture into the Realms.
There are also male spirit shamans in Rashemen. While all arcane spellcasters are either roped into the Vremyonni or banished, male divine spellcasters have no such limitation. There are male clerics and druids in Rashemen, but many independent male Rashemi spellcasters are spirit shaman hermits. Some whisper that they are driven mad by their connection with the spirits, especially without the social framework provided by Hathrans and Wychlaran.
The spirit folk of Rashemen and Thesk sometimes take up the path of the spirit shaman. Their spirit ancestry makes them an obvious choice, and they often have great facility with the abilities of this class. The spirit shamans of the Rashemen tend to be of the mountain and river variety, whereas those that come from Kara-Tur can be of any type, especially bamboo. Few outside their populations take the time to understand the magic of the spirit folk, assuming it is something innate rather than something studied. Spirit folk spirit shamans adventure for a number of reasons -- to find their way in the world, because of wanderlust, or because of special missions known only by them and the spirits with which they commune.
Osse is a mysterious continent far from Faerûn. Its population shares much in common with the aboriginal populations of real-world Australia and New Zealand. The people are deeply in touch with their natural world and believe that everything has a spirit -- rocks, trees, air. They are in touch with their ancestors and venerate them along with nature. While travelers from Osse are few and far between in the Realms, those that are encountered frequently follow the path of the spirit shaman. They go on quests to find their way in life, balance wrongs in the spirit world, and help maintain the world's natural beauty.
Wu jen are akin to wizards in a land where there are no wizard colleges and mentorship is hard to find. Some reject the structures and traditions of their societies, becoming hermits or traveling mystics in distant lands. These are most likely to be found acting as makeshift shamans for the tribes of Purang in Malatra.
Many wu jen powers are similar to those of the shugenja. Where they differ is in their relationships to people. Shugenja are rooted in society, serving as spiritual leaders and advisors. Wu jen are often withdrawn and solitary, focusing on personal power and self improvement. Nevertheless, they serve important roles as advisors to the emperor of Shou Lung.
Like samurai and shugenja, wu jen often enter the Realms via caravans and diplomatic missions from Shou Lung, Wa, and T'u Lung. They act as magical support in the same manner as wizards of the Realms. Unlike samurai and shugenja, however, wu jen frequently leave their employers to venture into the world. Their chaotic natures lead them to abandon ties to hierarchies, instead going off on their own to expand their personal power.
Wu jen in service to the Emperor are another story altogether. They enter the Realms in many of the same ways that other service-based characters do. They frequently serve on missions for the Emperor or another Shou noble. Sometimes, even these wu jen 'defect', but it is more unlikely than among their unaligned brethren.
Wu jen are among the most likely classes to have members that originate from outside of Kara-Tur. The vast majority of wu jen learn their craft from a single mentor. The rejection of social stricture by many wu jen means that they are more willing to teach non-Eastern students than are members of other Eastern classes. There is even talk in a few major wizard colleges of studying the nature of the five elements system to see if there is validity to the method. Such discussions are currently occurring at Candlekeep and at wizard colleges in Waterdeep, Gheldaneth, Silverymoon, and even in Thay. The Thayans have seen the ease with which wu jen manipulate the energies of their spells and seek to learn the secret behind this facility.
About the Author
Eytan Bernstein hails from exotic Long Island and spends his days writing and editing projects for numerous game companies. In addition to his work on Dragons of Faerûn, the Magic Item Compendium, and numerous other projects, Eytan serves as a partner and PR & Marketing Manager for Silven Publishing. Eytan enjoys hunting for gems and minerals in rock quarries, studying religion and theology, composing music, and playing with his many pets. For more information about Eytan, check out www.eytanbernstein.com. Send questions and comments for Eytan here.