Monday, November 6, 2023

(Shadowrun) Harlequin's Back

I definitely have feelings about Harlequin's Back. I wrote multiple beginnings to this post, all sarcastically proclaiming my enthusiasm for the return of Harlequin, and after each one, I'd look back and think to myself - wait, am I really not excited at all to see Harlequin again? And in each case, the answer would be the same: "uuummmmmmmmmm . . . "

I guess I kind of like Harlequin . . . in theory. Which is aggressively faint praise, I know. But I am feeling strong emotions here. It's not one of those cases where I've got neutral feelings about something bland or outside of my experience. I'm not out here opining about baseball's designated hitter rule. I am not just ambivalent, I am powerfully ambivalent.

The issue with Harlequin is that he's potentially a very good character, but from a GMing perspective, he's got a high degree of difficulty. The players going, "I hate that fucking guy" is not just a failure state, it's the likeliest possible outcome. The second-likeliest outcome? Unfathomable levels of sheer cringe.

Here's how the book recommends I depict him: "A high-strung, sarcastic comedian on a verbal tear." Not included: even the slightest recommendation for how to actually fucking do that. 

I get the appeal from a writerly perspective. It's the beginning of an epic quest, the fate of the world is at stake, and you've got a mentor/questgiver-type character who's the closest anyone in the story ever gets to seeing the whole picture. Normally, these sorts of scenes are ponderous and staid, with big, important speeches and admonitions about the absolute seriousness of the task at hand.  So it's theoretically pretty fun to have a character who takes the opposite approach. This whole thing is deadly serious, but the person who's telling you about it doesn't seem to be taking it seriously. It's not just whimsy for the sake of whimsy, it's a deliberate subversion of a stock fantasy character.

And I do have to cut FASA some slack here. 1994 was a long time ago. The fact that this particular kind of subversion has, itself, become old hat is not something that I can lay at the feet of the book. I don't have enough of a pop-culture memory to say for sure whether it felt fresh at the time, but I can certainly grant it the grace of accepting it on its own terms.

However, as much as "the heroes are told about the imminent apocalypse by a weird clown" might be an audacious choice for a book or a movie, the medium in question here is a roleplaying game and so it's not just a genre parody - it's an improv challenge.

Here's the test to see if you can successfully portray Harlequin. Say the following quote out loud:

"When Fate taps you on the shoulder, you'd best pay attention. Unfortunately, she has the blasted habit of tapping you on the opposite shoulder, so that when you turn around she's actually on your other side, giggling like a deranged schoolgirl. I hate that."

How did that feel? Natural? Like you're just being the funny trickster mentor, imparting your hard-won life experience in the form of a humorously over-extended metaphor?

Personally, I think it's a writer's line. We get that way sometimes, valuing cleverness over a strict adherence to realistically depicting speech. It's emblematic of Harlequin, though. He's definitely a writer's character.

The question I'm left with, regarding Harlequin's Back is whether that counts as a fatal weakness. It's hard to say, because for all that he can sometimes be an insufferable character, he's also the most interesting thing about the story.

The basic plot of the adventure is that it teases a potential Earthdawn crossover. Because of metaplot nonsense, the Horrors are threatening to breach our reality many hundreds of years ahead of schedule, resulting in widespread death and destruction as an unprepared Earth is invaded by millions of terrifying magical beings. Some poorly-explained cosmic force has assembled a team consisting of Harlequin, his kidnapping-victim-turned protege, Jane Foster, and the player characters for a quest into the deepest reaches of the astral plane, to gather the several ingredients necessary to close the pathway into our world.

On a practical level, this takes the form of a series of short alternate-universe adventures, where the PCs must solve a problem in a different genre of game (post-apocalyptic, western, Arthurian romance, etc) in order to be rewarded with the thing they need to advance the plot. Technically, Harlequin only shows up at the bookends, to tell the PCs what's going on and to cast the magic ritual they gathered the parts for, but in each of the alternate universes, there just happens to be a guy who looks a lot like Harlequin, undergoing a challenge that is representative of the real Harlequin's past and of the conflicts inside him.

As the introduction puts it, "the overall Astral quest is in many ways Harlequin's journey . . . players can do little except observe the battle in Harlequin's psyche." 

The two halves of that quote are separated by, like, 3 pages, but I put them together in a single thought because they really do capture something essential about the adventure - it really does work better as a story when the world-saving stuff is in the background and your attention is focused on getting to better know this weird clown. He's an immortal sorcerer, who used to be a knight and a hero, until the grief of accumulated tragedy and failure, and the sheer weight of years brought him low. His cynical goofball persona hides a deep sadness and tarnished honor, and there may yet be one last noble quest inside him.

The tension inside Harlequin's Back is between the desire to effectively use its title character and the basic rpg reality that the players are the story's true protagonists. As a result, it really seems to meander at times, and it never really lands the moments it needs to land, giving it a weird theme-park vibe when it clearly has the ambition to be something more.

Funnily enough, I think the real culprit behind the weaknesses of Harlequin's Back is not Harlequin, but rather the fact that he's back. The adventure would probably work best if Harlequin has been a part of the game for a long time. If he's a recurring mentor or employer (or even an antagonist), then the dynamic changes from the PCs tagging along on someone else's quest to the PCs doing a quest and being rewarded with lore as a form of loot. You really want to wait to run Harlequin's Back until the PCs start asking, unprompted, "what's the deal with that weird clown."

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to go abstract with this one. I'm not super fond of Harlequin, but I did like his overall arc - a burnt-out immortal who has forgotten how much he has to offer or even how to care about how far he's fallen. I think I could make a compelling NPC with a similar story.


  1. I remember playing this over a weekend at university - the party were at best moderately aware of Shadowrun's metaplot, we didn't have a clue what was going on. In the end we just gave up on it.

  2. Oh, that's definitely a hazard. Even if you do know about the Shadowrun metaplot, the events of this adventure are chaotic at best.