Harbinger House

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 23: Harbinger House




Since Planescape is from that proto-internet world of the 90s and most of the content from then has either disappeared or been thankfully pushed to the bottom of Google’s trash bin, it can be hard to get a consensus as far as what people liked and didn’t like about the series when it came out. For that matter, I’m unclear what people still revere highly today (and in some cases, the releases are so obscure that they might as well have not existed). That being said, I’m going to guess that my most controversial essay so far in this series is the one where I talk about how The Deva Spark is a piece of skippable garbage. It was bad, and not even in an interesting way, and unfortunately since it was released early in the line it’s a lot cheaper and easier to come by than the good stuff that would come out later in the midst of TSR’s complete financial ruin. That being said, one of that execrable work’s two authors, J.M. Salsbury, redeemed himself with his contribution to The Factol’s Manifesto, after which he disappeared from RPG’s entirely never to be heard from again. Bill Slavicsek, on the other hand, is still working in the genre as of last year at least, and this time he’s returned with a solo outing. Is it at least better than before? I’m happy to report that yes it is, though the bar there is low. Is it great? Well no, it’s not, but at least it’s worth the read this time.

Harbinger House largely concerns two escapees from the titular Harbinger House, which is a sort of asylum designed by the Godsmen to watch after people they believe are close to godhood, yet are too crazy to be allowed out. The house’s concept, lest it be said otherwise, is excellent, like Planescape’s version of Arkham but with even more potential for disaster. One of these individuals is a mass-murderer going through a ritualistic killing spree in order to reach deification, while the other is just a nice dude who for reasons never really explained became absolutely obsessed with the Lady of Pain. All of this is set into motion by a succubus who players probably won’t learn a great deal about, but that’s fine. These concepts are strong, and what I particularly like about Harbinger House is its lack of a linear goal. Players are first concerned with one of these gods-in-the-making, then the other, then finally they’re seeing a whole bunch of them. Their mission changes and adapts, which is something I find much more interesting than simply pursuing the same goal through three chapters. This also causes the mystery of what’s going on to be deeper than what we saw in The Eternal Boundary, which is in some ways a better adventure (for one thing it sticks to the setting’s rules…), but since this has double the page count there’s a lot more material here to enrich the world and give us a more non-linear adventure. 


This is another one of the handful of Planescape adventures I’ve actually run1, and there’s a good reason for this, as its first and third chapters are especially strong. I love investigations, and this one leads to players wandering all around the city searching for clues to this string of murders. Some clues to the moronically-named Sougad Lawshredder’s rampage are surprisingly difficult to piece together, and all of this leads to plenty of opportunities for chance encounters and roleplaying. If you enjoy that part of D&D as much as you do dungeon crawls and battles, then this is an excellent module to run. And when it does come to dungeons, the house itself is both fascinatingly designed, feeling appropriately planar (even if it cheats a little in how it does this with portals following different rules here…), and an area where just smashing through everything is a bad idea. Most of its fights are possible to talk your way out of, and really, the entire 64-page book only includes three obligatory battles. Mostly, it’s talking, thinking, roleplaying, and taking in the ambience of a strange universe and the city at its center. That’s Planescape material at its best.

Harbinger House apparently looks like a bad modern art sculpture. Maybe don’t show this to players.

There are three things that really let the adventure down for me, though, and I’m not even talking about Slavicsek’s typically (for him) pedestrian prose and overwrought dialogue. The first of these is that the story completely throws out one of the more important tenets of Planescape: that the Lady of Pain is omnipotent in Sigil. The entire adventure only works because an artifact blocks her power in the Harbinger House, which is a pretty janky plot hook. If this is supposed to be a model for how adventures in Sigil work now that we have all those supplements to the setting, it does a piss-poor job by essentially saying that to make something cool, you can’t just use the setting as it was designed. The more I think about this choice, the more it grates on me, feeling as it does like a bad fan scenario and not something created by TSR itself. 


The next thing I hate about this adventure is keeping with that first point, which is that it doesn’t really… well, work. A lot of things revolve around a character not being killed by the Lady of Pain for worshipping her, which doesn’t make any sense and is never explained. This is a bit endemic of the logic the entire adventure uses. Even an attempt at lampshading this issue in the second chapter is unsurprisingly lame:

Why did the body animate for the PCs? Berk, things happen in the multiverse that nobody can explain. The corpse’s chant is important, however. It warns the PCs about Curst and gives them part of the solution to foiling the trap.

As he did in The Deva Spark, Slaviscek throws logic and believability out the window with this type of lazy encounter. Oftentimes, his NPCs act in ways that make little sense when you think about them, and while this isn’t the worst problem imaginable, as an editor I never would’ve let this type of slapdash approach make it to print. This leads to a weirdly underbaked feeling, the sense that this adventure needed another draft or two of polish, or perhaps someone else trying to think about these issues as if the world were a real location.

In fact, don’t show them any of the interior art for this adventure. This picture could be from literally any bad fantasy novel written in the 80s and 90s.

My last big frustration with this adventure is fortunately the easiest to fix. While changing the logic of things likely requires creating whole new encounters, and fixing the Lady of Pain’s role in things is more or less impossible (or at least quite difficult without coming up with something equally as lame as what’s here), Slavisek’s love of people talking about character alignments can just be skipped entirely without anyone noticing. Before, he was obsessed with the absolute ideas of good and evil, and here the same ridiculous premise holds sway except it’s about law and chaos. It’s not just that the most prominent NPC’s surname is literally Lawshredder because he kills lawful people, it’s that everyone in the adventure discusses the world in this same ridiculous way. Authoritarianism vs. anarchy is an interesting concept that could’ve been explored much more in Planescape (see: Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta for an excellent look), but having characters talk about alignment as if it’s anything but a nebulous concept immediately saps any sense of reality out of both characters and the world. 


I realize that alignment and the planes go hand-in-hand, both in Planescape and even before it. But that sort of absolutism, and the idea that people in this world talk about this concept like four-year-olds, leads to both tired roleplaying, and an uninteresting world. The fact is, I haven’t played with alignment in the traditional sense in 20 or so years, it being something I disregarded before high school as simplifying the world in a truly uninteresting way. Anytime an NPC brings up alignment as if it weren’t a meta-game concept, they should be struck by a Godbolt. And while it’s easy to elide this material when running the adventure—I know I did—it’s an unavoidable fact that this is slathered all over the module. 

For all that I spent the last few paragraphs criticizing Harbinger House, I do think it contains some great material. The search around Sigil is exciting and open for both characters and the DM. The house itself is a very cool dungeon, with a suitably climactic (though probably a bit confusing) finale. And while the middle chapter is a little half-baked, developing these into much more wouldn’t be difficult. It’s certainly quite a bit better than The Deva Spark, but for all of its cool ideas, it’s always being held back by those pretty huge flaws in its conception. Slavicsek returned to the setting once more with Doors to the Unknown, so I guess we’ll see if he keeps improving or stays mired in his obsession with characters talking about the concept of alignment as if it were some sort of real thing.

1. When rereading this adventure, I found a few of my old notes stuck in the book, as well as a few pencil markings. From this, I could tell that I’d converted this to edition 3.0 and made a few other adjustments, though from the look of things we only got halfway through. While initially I had no memory of ever playing this, I was still incredibly familiar with the first half, so that all seems to be about right. In my defense, I think I ran this back in high school, and during the intervening years I’ve played a lot of roleplaying games. 

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