It begins as a simple martial arts tournament. Sure, your skills are tested and you might even win a trophy - or learn a lesson or two. But it's still just a tournament...
Until someone starts playing for keeps.
When a traitor to the empire is revealed, His Excellency calls loyal and heroic citizens to follow the trail of deception. The scale of the treachery is grand - it seems that an entire army has turned its back on its rightful liege!
The trail leads through trackless (or seemingly trackless) mountains, into peaceful (or seemingly peaceful) valleys. The emperor has promised great rewards to heroes who can solve his mystery, but as the journey progresses the heroes find their own reasons for continuing.
As a sinister suspicion grow in the minds, the adventure reaches its climax in the ruins of an ancient civilization. Finally, our heroes are faced with an ultimate choice - between success and failure, loyalty and betrayal, even good and evil.
On their choice rests the future of nations.
OA6: "Ronin Challenge" (1990), by Curtis Smith & Rick Swan, is the sixth expansion for the Oriental Adventures (1985) hardcover, and also the second expansion for Kara-Tur: The Eastern Realms (1988); it was released in May 1990.
About the Cover. With the publication of OA5: "Mad Monkey vs. the Dragon Claw" (1988), the "OA" adventures dropped their "Oriental Adventures" trade dress, replacing it with the big "Forgotten Realms" logo to mark the setting's move to the Realms. OA6: "Ronin Challenge" (1990) was the only adventure to reverse that trend. Its cover displays both the "Oriental Adventures" and "Forgotten Realms" logos.
Origins (I): Welcome Back to Kara-Tur. "Ronin Challenge" was first advertised in Dragon #148 (August 1989), which would have put it right in line with the yearly support for the Oriental Adventures line. However, the advertisement was quite interesting, as it listed the author as "TSR Staff" and didn't say anything about the actual contents of the module — other than incorrectly claiming that it would be the first adventure to use the background from Kara-Tur: The Eastern Realms (1988). This rather empty description was probably due to TSR's practice of coming up with names for adventures and putting them on the schedule without actually knowing anything about the story.
"Ronin Challenge" instead ended up being delayed by another year. It was resolicited in Dragon #157 (May 1990) and this time actually included details, talking about a martial arts tournament and two authors: Curtis Smith and Rick Swan. Presumably they were handed the adventure title and told to do something with it.
Origins (II): Empires Rising. The year and a half gap marked a continued slowdown in the production of Oriental Adventures supplements. Why the sudden resurgence in 1990? It certainly had to do with the Empires (1990) event, where mongols from the Hordelands were invading both Kara-Tur and the Heartlands. With Kara-Tur returning to TSR's worlds of fiction and adventure, it made sense for the setting to get a more central focus in "OA" adventures as well.
Remarkably, TSR didn't take advantage of the crossover at all. "Ronin Challenge" doesn't even mention the Empiers events.
Origins (III): Welcome to 2e. "Ronin Challenge" was the first Oriental Adventures module published after the advent of AD&D 2e (1989). What's most remarkable about this is that Oriental Adventures (1985) was an AD&D first edition supplement, full of first edition races, classes, and spells.
There was no effort in "Ronin Challenge" to update that crunch, which is perhaps the best example of how little concern was given to the change from AD&D 1e to AD&D 2e. In olden days, players had arbitrarily mixed together content from OD&D, AD&D, and even Basic D&D. Now TSR assumed that players would mix together content from AD&D 1e and AD&D 2e with as little trouble.
This is a dramatically different attitude from the major breaks that occurred when D&D was updated to 3e (2000), 4e (2008), and 5e (2014). It was truly a different era.
Origins (IV): The Missing Heroes. FR7: "Hall of Heroes" (1989) included a number of mysterious heroes from Kara-Tur that hadn't previously appeared in any novel or adventure. The most important of them was Doin Sanehiro. Though these characters never did appear in novels, as was originally intended, some were co-opted for use here. Doin Sanehiro is "The Wanderer" while Sanehiro's adversary, the Earth Spider, also appears.
Genre Tropes: Asian Appropriation. Kara-Tur had always been a mishmash of Asian cultures. "Ronin Challenge" demonstrates that more than most of the "OA" adventures. Though it's named after the Japanese Ronin, it's set in Shou Lung, one of the Chinese-inspired nations.
Adventure Tropes. "Ronin Challenge" is a long, multipart adventure. The first big chunk (chapter 1) takes place at a tournament, and it's a rather nice sandbox of sorts, where a massive tournament and its many participants and fans are all laid out, allowing the GM to then play out the event as he sees fit. The other long section (chapter 3) is a picaresque wilderness adventure, meaning that players have different encounters as they move through the adventure. However, it's by no means a railroad, as most of the encounters are detailed descriptions of various waypoints on the journey, which the GM can then use as he sees fit.
Though "Ronin Challenge" is certainly trending toward the increased focus on storytelling that would be crucial to the AD&D 2e (1989-2000) era, it nonetheless maintains player agency while offering a new, more organized take on old-school gaming. (Nonetheless, there's still a big climatic battle at the end, as would be increasingly common as D&D moved away from the more random delves that defined its early years.)
Exploring Kara-Tur. "Ronin Challenge" returns to the Imperial China country of Shou Lung, which had previously been featured in OA3: "Ochimo: The Spirit Warrior" (1987) and further detailed in Kara-Tur: The Eastern Realms (1988).
Because of Kara-Tur there was no longer any need to offer detailed gazetteers in the "OA" adventures. Despite that, there's still considerable new detail on the land. The tournament takes place in Suijeng, and the adventures then continues at the Emperor's retreat in Saihoji. This results in a journey through the Shao Mountains to the south, which provide the most interesting detail of the adventure, because of all those picaresque events. Finally, it closes in the Forbidden City of Tempat Larang beyond the Mountains.
Future History. The narrative of OA6: "Ronin Challenge" continues directly (albeit, weakly) into OA7: "Test of the Samurai" (1990).
About the Creators. Swan got his start writing for TSR with one of the short adventures for OA2: "Night of the Seven Swords" (1986) and also contributed to Kara-Tur: The Eastern Realms (1988). Smith, meanwhile, freelanced across the industry, though he'd previously written the Test of the Ninja (1985) gamebook for TSR.
About the Product Historian
The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to firstname.lastname@example.org.