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Ghost Cartels is a fabulous triumph with just a few small nagging problems holding it back from being truly spectacular. Highlights of this product include: full-colour maps of key locations, full game stats for NPCs, an extended “colour� chapter that makes for great hand-outs for players, an easily-adaptable adventure “framework� format, and a wonderful over-arching story. Unfortunate lowlights include: annoying grammatical mistakes, errors in the NPC game stats, and some assumptions about the nature of characters running the campaign. Overall though, the few problems with the book are sure to be corrected in future errata releases. Ghost Cartels is sure to be an instant classic and become the first quintessential campaign for the SR4 system and timeline.

When purchasing the PDF copy of the book and opening it, after the front and back covers, the first then that smacks you straight in the eyes is a series of stunning full colour maps. These maps are now available as a free download from for those people purchasing the print copy of the book. The full colour maps are among the best I’ve ever seen in an RPG product and are good enough quality to enlarge and lay out as a miniatures map. Given the often chaotic nature of Shadowrun combats along with the need to maintain precise positioning, the maps provided of key combat locations are an invaluable tool for Shadowrun GM’s. There are a total of 9 colour maps detailing most of the major combat or “target� locations from the campaign. These tools should help GM’s run solid encounters in those areas and help give some life to those areas for the players. Catalyst Game Labs has already said that Sean Macdonald (who created the maps) will continue to create them for future Shadowrun products, so this looks to be a high-quality addition that fans can come to expect. Top-notch.
A New High
The first chapter of Ghost Cartels presents an extended collection of short fiction pieces that depict a new drug called tempoor flipside. This drug is the focal point of the Ghost Cartels campaign. The way this chapter was laid out (as a series of short pieces) presents a great opportunity for players and GM’s. One of the best things about Shadowrun sourcebooks has been (in my opinion) the fact that the majority of the book is written “in character.� This in-character discussion of topics relevant to the Shadowrun world provides amazing depth and colour to the Shadowrun world, as well as making the sourcebooks themselves much easier to read than the “stereo instructions� tone that many other RPG products take. Historically, this also presented a problem. Generally, it is good for players to have more of the “flavour� of a fictional world so that it can feel more alive, so having them read these in character sourcebooks would be a good thing. However, the GM often wants to keep certain information (especially about events forthcoming) out of player knowledge in order to heighten their reaction when the events do take place. The short fiction pieces in this chapter, if printed/photocopied and cut out, can work very nicely as player handouts in order to bring interesting context into the work for the players. I only wish they were laid out for better printing and handing out without having to cut out unwanted portions, but such a layout would have been extremely wasteful of page space. The fictions in this chapter include information from a wide variety of sources: corporate memos, police reports, Jackpoint posts and chats, news stories, and personal diary entries. Although interesting, the jumble of all of these different sources (and tones of writing with different perspectives) can lead to confusion. The first time I read through this chapter I did find myself getting confused, however subsequent reads (especially after reading the rest of the book) made this first chapter much more interesting. Another interesting aspect of this chapter is that the articles and pieces are laid out in a chronological order following the timeline of the events in the campaign. This layout does an excellent job of describing the overall “life cycle� of the tempo drug in the shadowrun world and how the view of it changes. The beginning articles just give brief hints of tempo and mainly describe it as an interesting but harmless party drug. As the pieces go on hints are given that there is more to this than a party drug and the mystery deepens. Also the effect the drug is having on everyday people as well as the shadow community starts to become apparent through the articles and even has a significant impact on the lives of two of the Jackpoint posters (though I won’t give away the surprises). These stories can be used by the GM to give more depth to the events or they can be taken and used as a template on how tempo could affect the lives of the runners. Overall this chapter does a very good job at whetting the reader’s appetite or engaging their curiosity for what is really going on behind the scenes.

This chapter ends with the standard Game Information section that is generally for GM eyes only. This section gives suggestions to GM’s on how Ghost Cartels can be run in a campaign and explains the nature of the “Campaign Track� chapters that follow. This style should be familiar to those who participated in the SR3 hallmark campaigns of Mob War and Blood in the Boardroom. Included in this section is an invaluable week by week timeline of the events in Ghost Cartels. The detail given here provides an excellent resource for GMs to keep the campaign moving consistently and keep timelines realistic in the even that the players diverge from the main plotline for a period of time and come back to it again. Also in this section, the positions and reactions of all the major players involved are spelled out briefly and the first Cast of Shadows section is revealed. This section is familiar to anyone who has read a published Shadowrun adventure before. It is where a description and the game stats of all major characters in the adventure are located. In the case of this chapter, the stats for the three most major characters in the game are given, though the players do not meet any of them until the later part of the timeline. New to any Shadowrun 4 product is the fact that the NPCs included qualities and gear published outside of the core rulebook. This is a strong hint that NPCs throughout this campaign will finally be on “even ground� with players in using qualities and gear from the expanded books. Finally, the chapter ends with the game stats for the tempo drug itself, which is wonderful since there is a good chance that at least one of the players during the campaign will want to use it.

Overall, this chapter serves to entice the reader into the story of the tempo drug and, with a little “paper� work by the GM, can be used as a direct player handout to help draw them into the story as well.
First Taste
The First Taste chapter is where the real “meat� of this book begins. This is the first of the three campaign “tracks� that are present in the book. Each one of these tracks can be run sequentially (staring with this one) or separately. Personally, after reading through all of them, I don’t think I’d do anything but run them all sequentially. Contrasting the previous chapter which was written entirely in fictional “shadow talk� this chapter’s tone is directed entirely at the GM that will be running the campaign. Again, I see this as a strength of the book, because previous products had the colourful “shadow talk� scattered all throughout the book, whereas Ghost Cartels isolates all of it to a single chapter which could (theoretically) be read in entirety by players without completely ruining the overall campaign (though I still wouldn’t recommend letting players read all of it). The beginning part of this chapter goes into detail about the events and people that play a major role in this section of the campaign. My only criticism with this chapter would be the section titles. Although the titles are very creative from a literary standpoint (with names like The Best High in Town and Up Tempo) they are not at all conducive for reference purposes. The bookmarks of the PDF match the titles, which is only natural, but when the GM is in the middle of an adventure and wants to quickly find a bit of information on this event or that person, the titles are of no help.

Now, it is important to note that Ghost Cartels does not contain “full� adventures that are ready to play “out of the box� like On the Run, Survival of the Fittest, Brainscan, or Harlequin. What is presented in the book are frameworks for adventures. They describe how the run could (or may) proceed using a few paragraphs of text that break the adventure up into scenes. A GM who is incredibly familiar with the setting and extremely good at improvisation could probably run a session straight from the framework, but most GM’s (especially less experienced ones) will need to do more prep work before the adventures are ready for player contact. I won’t describe any of the adventures in any specifics in order to not spoil the surprise. In general, the adventures do live up to the “billing� that they were given. They are very “street� level, dark, gritty, and violent. Players are working for a criminal syndicate that is aggressively expanding its influence using revenues from an illegal narcotic. That’s about as “gritty� as things can get. Parties that enjoy large gunplay and challenging opponents will not be disappointed in Ghost Cartels as the opportunity exists for PC’s to really mix things up on a regular basis. The tone of runs sponsored by criminal syndicates take on a very different tone than those sponsored by corporations as corps must still (at least) maintain the appearance of civility and watch their bottom line. Criminals have no such restrictions on civility and this is certainly reflected in the nature of the adventures in Ghost Cartels. Therein lay my only criticism with the campaign. The adventures are extremely violent without much of even a hint of a “greater good� to them. As such, they assume player characters that are pure mercenaries at heart without much need for the restrictions of a moral code. Ghost Cartels’ adventures have a much more “R-rated� or “Cinemax� feel than previous Shadowrun products. However, all is not lost for those parties that want to run a campaign with a more altruistic nature. These are, after all, only adventure frameworks and thus if the GM doesn’t like the nature of them, they are much more easily adaptable than a fully-written adventure. The GM is disregarding a few paragraphs are material rather than a few pages or a few chapters. A good GM can go back to the descriptions presented earlier in the chapter and put a different spin on the adventure to suit the desires of the group. The only other (minor) criticism I have with the adventure frameworks is one regarding formatting. The frameworks are laid out in a series of scenes with the final one labeled Climax and then a final section titled Sequels. I found the information under Sequels would be more appropriately title Epilogue or possibly Results or some such. “Sequels� to me means “things that can/will happen later as a result of this� but often the information that presented was more akin to “what happens after the runners complete their mission.� This, however, amounts to just a minor formatting complaint.

After the adventure frameworks comes another Cast of Shadows section with detailed descriptions, full stats, and pictures of the major NPC’s. The pictures are full-body shots that take up a full page in the book, which is atypical of previous Shadowrun products. I don’t profess to be any sort of art critic so I won’t attempt to review them as art, but I will say that they do a good job of giving the players a realistic (non “cartoony�) image of the NPCs. The full game stats for the NPCs for a very wonderful attempt on the author’s part, however, I was very disappointed when errors (sometimes obvious ones) were quickly pointed out. This was the single most disappointing aspect of the book, in my opinion. Purchasers of the PDF can undoubtedly look forward to getting an updated version of the book with the stats corrected, but purchasers of the print copy will be stuck with the mistakes in perpetuity. Errata will no doubt be released but that’s never the same as having the original print copy have the correct information in the first place. Considering these NPC stats were a much-advertised selling feature of the product this seems like a significant slip-up. This is disappointing, for sure, but not an insurmountable problem with the book.
The Source
This is the section campaign track of the book and contains a similar format as the previous section but this time it is split over two locations: Seattle and Hong Kong. The chapter begins with the Seattle section and details what is going on in that city, as well as the major NPCs that come to play. Although in the same location, the events and NPCs of this track are different than the previous one because this track is from a different perspective. This track has just one adventure set in Seattle, which can actually should be run while the players are still in the previous track. This adventure also gives the first major clue to the hidden secret of tempo. After Seattle the action moves the players to Hong Kong, which is (as of Shadowrun 4th edition) a setting of equal importance to Seattle. Again there are brief descriptions of the city and its various elements, however an owner of Runner Havens will have a much easier time setting the scene. The adventure frameworks presented for Hong Kong continue the gritty and violent theme of the runs, and also have players be central in events that are sure to be incorporated as “cannon� events in future Shadowrun products (two words: Kowloon Massacre), which should create enduring memories for players. This track then continues to Neo-Toyko, a setting that is likely unfamiliar to Shadowrun players, but gives nice variety to the campaign, and good “mileage� for Corporate Enclaves owners that didn’t have an opportunity to incorporate the setting previously. Runs in Neo-Toyko continue the theme, with the opposition continuing to stiffen against the players as the pressure mounts. This whirlwind Pacific Tour track winds up in Los Angeles (another Corporate Enclaves feature). Just one adventure framework is presented here and it is a direct set-up to the beginning of the next track. Overall, this chapter brings the characters from fighting a criminal syndicate war on the streets of Seattle, to working for much “higher� powers as they tour all the major stops of the Pacific Rim. For players that like a more “global� impact to their campaigns, this will feed it. In addition to the adventure frameworks, each location also includes more ideas in an adventure “spinoffs� section. This should allow GM’s to feature a location more prominently if they wish. All of what should be considered “core� (required) adventures to the campaign are detailed in the adventure “frameworks� while these “spinoffs� provide the GM with more “side quest� type run ideas.

The Final Cut
This track is the climax of the campaign, providing the toughest opposition and the biggest rewards. This track starts the players where the previous track left off: Los Angeles, but then moves them to the South American city of Caracas. This location got a brief look in Runner Havens and is summarized again in this track as a reminder. Just like the other chapters, this one begins by detailing the events, locations, and people that are central to this part of the plot. This summary includes some more detailed information on the previously undeveloped Amazonia, where discovery of the secret of tempo eventually leads the players. The settings and events in this section put the players in the greatest danger and act as a very satisfying conclusion to the campaign. The adventures in this track start off with an absolute bang with a frantic escape from LA (Kurt Russel not included) which also introduces a thoroughly enjoyable villain that should haunt the players for this entire track. Although not discussed in great detail during the track, GM’s should have great fun harassing players with this villain who is clearly built (judging from his stat block) to take on an entire party of Shadowrunners by himself. After the frantic flight from LA the action calms down for a couple of adventures. This break should allow the players to get a good flavor of the Caracas location. The final two adventure frameworks detail two dangerous, and dramatic confrontations that wrap up the campaign. The last adventure, in particular, should challenge even well “optimized� PC builds with a high speed chance through the jungles of Amazonia with the secret power behind tempo hot on their tails. This dramatic conclusion to the campaign practically leaped from the pages as I was reading it, and will no doubt provide and incredibly memorable gaming session for any group. The concluding epilogue has the players well rewarded for their efforts, but leaves enough of a hint that the Shadowrun world has not seen the end of events and characters introduced in Ghost Cartels.
Despite having one or two disappointing faults, Ghost Cartels will no doubt be a success due to the strength of its plot and its writing. It succeeds wonderfully in providing a series of action-packed scenarios for players to enjoy, with escalating difficulty that should challenge all but the most extreme “power-gamer� groups. Ghost Cartels is a brilliant success in blending a street-level story that escalates into one of global consequences, all with the players right in the center of the action. Players who run this campaign are sure to produce enduring memories and look back on this as the first great hallmark adventure book of the Shadowrun 4 era.

That's it! If anyone thinks I missed something or wants a little more detail on a topic let me know and I'll try to provide some further details without spoiling anything for those who like surprises.
Tiger Eyes
Thank you for posting such a well written and thorough review. If you posted your review on various other sites (such as the PDF vendor) it would be enormously helpful to prospective purchasers who aren't on Dumpshock, as well as getting the word out there about SR.
While you were writing that I went and posted it on BattleCorps and RPGNet. wink.gif

EDIT: Did you write part of Ghost Cartels Tiger? Are you going to admit which part? biggrin.gif
All the good ones! Duh!
This is a read through review, yes? Or have you run it and what experience did your group have with SR4 prior?
I dont know how the double post happened.
Good review now I know I want it.
QUOTE (BlueMax @ Dec 4 2008, 06:53 PM) *
This is a read through review, yes? Or have you run it and what experience did your group have with SR4 prior?

I've only read it. I haven't yet run any of the adventures.
Tiger Eyes
QUOTE (Malachi @ Dec 4 2008, 05:27 PM) *
While you were writing that I went and posted it on BattleCorps and RPGNet. wink.gif

EDIT: Did you write part of Ghost Cartels Tiger? Are you going to admit which part? biggrin.gif

The part where Slamm-0! and Netcat banter, of course. wink.gif

Authors are given credit for their sections on pg 3. So you know whom to blame (or praise) for each chapter. grinbig.gif
Thank you for the detailed and thorough review, I sincerely hope you enjoy playing the campaign as much as you enjoyed reading it. The characters and critical events were indeed devised to be as memorable and original as possible, it's good to see that carried over.

FYI: Jennifer "Tiger Eyes" Harding wrote The Final Cut with assistance from Jay "Demonseed Elite" Levine, Bobby "Ancient History" Derie wrote The Source, Malik Toms and myself co-wrote First Taste, and A New High was co-written by all the chapter authors, Elissa "Pistons" Carey and Lars "Labrat" Blumenstein.
Very nice review/synopsis.

So it seems that the quality of Ghost Cartels can be compared to L5R:City of Lies Campaign Sourcebook and Vampire the Masquerade: Chicago By Night I&II along with DC by Night which are some of the best RPG campaign sourcebooks ever published to date imo. Looking forward to flipping through this on Saturday and then after getting a few more Gming sessions off my belt, to eventually run this.
Demonseed Elite
Of all the SR projects I've worked on, this one ranks in my favorites with Brainscan and Runner Havens.

I really like the new direction that was taken with it, trying to make an exciting street-level campaign that toned back the world-shattering events and put the emphasis on some really solid characters and story. I really hope that GMs and players like the NPCs as much as I did and want to re-use them. And I hope the format continues in future plot/campaign books.
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