The Ghostwalker Shadow Initiative (GSI) : Managing An Epic Campaign

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While attending the VFS Game Design program as a student, it became a common joke that all of my projects would somehow become epic. This was even carried over into one of the program’s more unusual offerings: the RPG Lab — a class dedicated to teaching students how to play Dungeons and Dragons. The course continues to this day, maintained through the exemplary dungeon mastering of one Diego Pons, and I’ve been lucky to teach the course alongside him for the past two years. But while Diego has been taking students on a journey that may or may not actually involve dragons, I’ve been offering a change of pace by guiding students through a Shadowrun campaign. Or three. More on that shortly.

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For those not in the know, Shadowrun is a pen and paper RPG. In its fourth edition rule set, the time period is the early 2070s in a world controlled by mega-corporations, where cyberpunk aesthetics, sorcery, politics, and good old fashioned run-and-gun scenarios share the stage. You’ve probably also heard or read about the new Shadowrun Online title being created by Harebrained Schemes after their immensely successful Kickstarter campaign last year. The universe is an exciting one, and there certainly is no shortage of stories to tell.

When creating a campaign for a pen and paper RPG, there are a lot of factors to consider. There are the story elements — like, your characters, the setting, and how it all fits within the Shadowrun universe. Then there are the gameplay moments — the combat encounters, skill management, character progression, etc. All of it needs to be balanced and juggled by the game master with one goal in mind: make sure the players (in this case the students) are having fun and feel like a bad-ass while doing it. It takes a lot of work and dedication, but when it goes well, your players will have stories to tell for years to come.

The first campaign I designed for the course involved having AIs take over the world. Sure, it might sound a bit farfetched, but in the Shadowrun universe it was a very credible threat (having almost occurred once before). The material was a hit, but after a year I was itching for a change of pace. A second campaign followed, this time revolving around magic and corporate intrigue. Another great offering, but it suffered the same problem of creative longevity. I decided a third campaign was in order, but before I began, I took a step back to see what I had to work with, and how I might extend the life of the campaign material to last for more than a year.

The first two campaigns had been designed to be loosely connected — different characters, settings, and scenarios, but some references and cameos to string them together. I had never intended to create a trilogy, but that’s what was looking back at me: part three offered a way to close off loose ends and dig deeper into the material I had already created. But I faced a challenge: how could I get new players up to speed on what had happened in the first two parts? Was it even important? After all, each part of the trilogy had been written so that it could stand and be played on its own. As it turns out, the solution presented itself in the form of a plot point from part two.

The fiction of the third campaign revolves around the Ghostwalker Shadow Initiative (the GSI), a fictional agency akin to MI6 or the FBI. They track, monitor, and contain dangerous events around the world that are dangerous for the general public to know about. The agency works as both a story (fiction) and gameplay HUB, giving me incredible control over how the campaign can change over time. This also solves the longevity problem — when the material gets old, I can replace individual missions in the campaign with new content instead of re-writing the campaign as a whole, all without disrupting the overall start-to-finish continuity. This was great for me, but the problem of getting players up to speed on the fiction still remained. So I thought about it. And then things got epic.

With the assistance of Riley Goddard and Melissa Stacey (both previous RPG Lab students and Game Design grads), we began the four month process of physically creating the GSI. The result is a massive database of information that can be accessed via a web login, providing players a resource where they can learn more about the characters and concepts they encounter in the campaign. The database consists of roughly sixty biographies for characters and enemies that have appeared during all three campaigns. Corporate bios, persons of interest, and intelligence dossiers are also available. Full summaries of the first two campaigns can be accessed, as can a recap summary of the third campaign as it’s played out (updated after each class with what happened). None of it is required reading, but for players looking to further immerse themselves in the campaign, the material can be invaluable.

Sure, it’s easy to see the database as a one-stop-shop central info dump, but it has several practical uses as well. During the campaign, I can mimic an NPC logging into the GSI by physically doing it in front of the players (and can even create logins for those characters for authenticity). Using page permissions, I can restrict the flow of information available to the players, ensuring that current players can only access material that they’ve encountered, while those that have finished the campaign can still have full access. I can add, edit, and update information on the fly (like updating existing entries with new information as it is learned in the campaign). Most importantly, the database supports the function of the GSI in the campaign. I have the freedom to add new content as the old becomes stale without having to worry about continuity — I simply expand on what is already there with new entries (and as someone who loves storytelling and narrative design, there’s never a shortage of ideas).

At the end of the day, the database is a tool that provides amazing flexibility for a game master, and it’s something that I look forward to expanding as time goes on.

If you’d like to experience the GSI for yourselves, simply head over to the GSI website. To login, feel free to use our guest account (Username: Guest; Password: GSI — But note, login does not work in Safari or Explorer, however Firefox and Chrome have been confirmed). Have a look around! If you’re a veteran of the RPG Lab, maybe you’ll see some familiar faces. If you’re new to Shadowrun, maybe it’ll fuel that urge to give the game a try with some friends. Just make sure you get some dice. Lots of dice. So much dice…

To learn more about the Shadowrun pen and paper RPG, as well as other Shadowrun related projects, visit