Wednesday, October 4, 2023

(Shadowrun) Harlequin

My path to the ownership of Harlequin is kind of a twisty one. It was the early 2000s, my only real experience with rpgs was AD&D, and though I'd been enthusiastic about the transition between 2nd edition and 3rd edition, it hadn't really broken through my head yet that other rpgs would have editions as well (it's how I wound up buying the Book of Shadows for Mage: the Ascension, despite owning the revised core). So I'd just started getting into Shadowrun, owned the 3rd edition core, and was looking to expand my collection. Cue the not-so-friendly local hobby shop near my college, the one where I got my ridiculously discounted copy of the Spelljammer boxed set. They'd always have an eclectic, if underwhelming selection of random rpg material, priced cheaply but with a clear indifference to curating any sort of coherent rpg inventory. One day, I go in and I see a Shadowrun supplement - Harlequin's Back. Who's Harlequin? Why is he back? Where did he go that he needed to come back from?  What is this Shadowrun thing all about anyway? Neither I nor the shop owner could say, but the book was only a couple of bucks so I bought it.

Fast forward a couple of decades. I'd just finished getting a complete Mage: the Ascension collection and it gave me all sorts of wild and untenable ideas - what would be next? It turned out to be the Aeonverse, but there was a point where I was making good progress towards Earthdawn and I thought, "why not Shadowrun after that?" And though, subsequently, good sense prevailed and I stopped myself from chasing after a complete Shadowrun collection, it was only after I snagged a few volumes that I hoped might answer some lingering metaplot questions. Numbering among those questions "Harlequin?" And thus I bought the book Harlequin, almost twenty years after I last read Harlequin's Back.

I'll let the "Running Harlequin" section at the end of the book summarize what I gained from the experience, "Even the gamemaster does not see or know the big picture. Ehran and Harlequin's dance of blood and vengeance is the secret, master story while the storyline involving the runners is only an offshoot of that deeper plot. The gamemaster knows only enough of the storyline to interweave a number of adventures, gradually letting their surface plot become revealed. About all that he [sic] and the player characters can do is make educated guesses about the master story, based on the little information they can obtain . . ."

DAMN YOU FASA!!! ::shaking fist::

Oh, and I guess I also learned that the Harlequin who died in an example on page 87 of the 1st edition corebook is a different guy from the Harlequin, which I kind of figured already, though it's funny that they went through the trouble to confirm this canonically. Was the character of Harlequin inspired by that example, and subsequently made distinct or was he independently invented and then, before the book was finalized, someone pointed out that there was already a guy almost exactly like that, but he died, and so they had to clarify that it wasn't the same person.  The other possibility is that they are in fact the same guy, but that Harlequin is such a tricky fellow that sometimes he appears to be dead when he's not. Presumably, this option was discussed behind the scenes and dismissed, in favor of preserving the objective voice of the mechanical example sidebars.

Which leaves only one last lingering question: did corebook Harlequin really die from a run-of-the-mill summoning accident or was he murdered? Because one thing we've definitely learned about the famous Harlequin, from the Harlequin adventure, is that he is entirely petty enough to arrange for a trademark-infringing wannabe to suffer an "accident." 

Justice for Harlequin 2! The people demand answers!

Anyway, I should probably focus on this book here. It's . . . 

It's . . . 


I guess Shadowrun, overall, likes to tell a particular story - professional criminals accept money to commit crimes for mysterious employers - and that's basically what this book is. The players are offered money to commit a series of crimes, and these crimes are connected by the fact that they're all for the same mysterious employer.

Fair enough. Where Harlequin stumbles is that its titular character isn't really that likeable a guy, and even to the degree that likeability isn't a necessary trait in a shadowy underworld contact, he's also too powerful to turn the tables on, and his overall agenda is petty to the point of inscrutability (Ehran the Scribe wounded him in a mock duel hundreds of years ago and now is the time to get revenge through a series of burglaries designed to humiliate him in the eyes of ???).

In other words, the plot is as shallow as advertised in the GM advice section. It's fine if the PCs are the sort to just accept an envelope full of cash to kidnap an innocent woman, but I don't really want to read a story about that kind of person, you know. 

Also, there were parts that didn't age so well, like the nearly-unavoidable sidequest where the PCs are mercilessly tortured. Or the poor treatment of the people indigenous to the Amazon (I guess it's not technically a colonialist stereotype that the Jivaros will cut off their enemies' heads and shrink them, because they are a real people who really used to do that, but it's all kinds of colonialist fucked up to take those real people and use them as expendable mooks in a random jungle encounter).

Overall, I'd say Harlequin was pretty skippable. Maybe in 1990 "weird guy who is inexplicably a literal clown in a crime-caper setting" was a fresh enough idea to anchor a book, but now, I need something a little more substantial. I expect that if you name an adventure book after a specific character, that character is going to be just as compelling as the adventure itself. That's not a bar that Harlequin reaches, and it probably wouldn't even if you spotted it his later appearances (for example, he appears in Earthdawn under the alias "Har'lea'quinn" which is just ::chef's kiss::).

Ukss Contribution: The thing with the Jivaros made me uncomfortable enough that I'm just going to skip this book. It's probably not as bad, objectively, as some of the others I've skipped, but it literally calls an actual, extant culture "savages" and that's not cool.

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