Test Subjects Review
Phaedra's Short Game Summary (spoilers!)
Suggestions for Keepers (spoilers!)
I ran Test Subjects, a scenario for Call of Cthulhu by Michael Fryda!
Here is its DriveThruRPG description:
“Are you brave enough to explore the Boston underground? This 25-page exploratory sandbox scenario pits 1920s Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Investigators against a hidden foe. What will happen when a job in a newspaper advertisement leads to strange places? Will you feed your curiosity with only an electric torch to light your way? Will you seek help from locals? Will you flee?
This scenario features:
-Options for the Keeper for how adversaries react
-A complete array of seven easy-to-print player handouts
-Organizational tools to help the Keeper run the scenario
-Keeper notes to help new Keepers
-Info on Locations not often used in Call of Cthulhu scenarios
Test Subjects is an open-ended exploration module that can fit delightfully as the beginning of a campaign, or within an already existing campaign. The lack of any need for or likelihood of combat is refreshing, and the use of maps is original and actually useful! The threat level is relatively high but will only depend on the level of risk-taking the characters engage in, and the concept is overall fun, scientific and innovative!
As a standalone scenario with 4 players who were mostly new to Call of Cthulhu, Test Subjects took me approximately 2.5 hours, with the investigators having explored all the indoor areas available. While the scenario has suggestions for a ‘convention run’, I would recommend it more as part of a larger adventure seed than a standalone. That being said, the author has also written an ‘expansion’ module - The Lair of Lothysss - which can potentially increase the excitement and run-time of this scenario. However, this review is about Test Subjects only.
Included with the title are:
4 NPC & monster portraits - 3 old-timey photographs and one drawing
3 Location old-timey photographs
4 Digitally painted maps
3 Keeper Aid Tables
Read-aloud text boxes
What Makes This Scenario Great:
The scenario is well-written, and includes a lot of helpful tips for running it. I particularly liked the Keeper tips, and the Play-tester notes that shared what happened during the early runs of the game as an example of things that might occur. It made the scenario more fun to read!
A scenario that is both open-ended and exploratory, but also quite simple and easy to prep and run. It gave the investigators the opportunity to explore their characters as they interact with the environment in their own time with little need to be pushed forward, but also a few potential events to amp up perceived threat. I also enjoyed the information given about the various areas that might be included in the scenario, for the edification of the players and Keeper.
I really appreciated the Keeper aids being offered as part of the scenario - in particular a table that can be used to keep track of stats as the game unfolds. I would have made something similar, but it was great to have it pre-prepared and included. I'm also partial to random effect tables, and I got to play with those as well!
The NPCs in the scenario are very well fleshed out. The scenario offers word for word text boxes on what they would say, which I personally love! There are only a few of them, but if the investigators happen to encounter them, a beginner Keeper is given the tools to portray them realistically and have a good time with them.
Inclusivity-wise, I was glad to see that the option of a non-binary investigator is made explicit within a mechanic of the game. In fact, one of my players did make a non-binary Private Investigator, so I got to make use of it, though it was never fully revealed. Overall, I didn't notice any missteps inclusivity-wise!
Suggestions for Improvement:
I found navigating the research phase a bit clunky and not intuitive for the amount and relevance of information available. In particular, the suggestion that the investigators research the same things independently before they even meet can prove time consuming and repetitive. Perhaps it might be worth setting up an alternative way that the investigators can find out the same information after they join forces, for example a locked area somewhere.
The quality of handouts could be improved in general, but particularly they would benefit from being increased in size and then re-uploaded because they turn quite pixelated when zoomed in on or printed. A higher resolution would improve the player experience, even if the design is not improved.
A personal preference, but as someone who runs one-shots in groups of new players, I would have appreciated Pre-generated Investigators made to suit the specific scenario, especially because a few specific skillsets are important to make the most of the scenario (in particular Geology and Archaeology). The Private Investigator that we created because it was suggested in the 'job post advert' handout didn't have as much to do because of limited relevant skills.
In the research phase there was a set of rules for breaking into a house, which seemed highly unlikely to me with the groups I normally encounter. While I'm certain that there are groups who would go in that direction, I recommend maybe adding a disclaimer that this is for extreme situations, otherwise a new Keeper might feel the need to push their group in that direction to take advantage of the mechanic.
I think it would have added to the interest of the scenario as a one-shot to be able to uncover more about what is truly happening by the end of the scenario as an option. While I used all the 'suggested encounters', the end still felt a bit anti-climactic to me as a one-shot, and believe that at the moment its merit lies as part of a longer adventure rather than as a standalone. This point might be resolved by adding its expansion - The Lair of Lothysss - to the game, but I cannot comment on that.
Phaedra’s Short Game Summary:
Investigators (created by MrHowl)
Eli, the nonbinary and nonchalant Private Investigator
Martin, the miner with the adorable canary
Irma, the archaeologist with an eye for valuables
Alice, the geologist with the impressive rock collection
The investigators answered the advertisement in the Boston Globe and soon found themselves in the underground tunnels below a Boston mansion, instructed by the property’s caretaker to retrieve any scientific discoveries they found. The group took their time to map out the underground system as they explored it, analysing the soil and architecture of each area. As they moved along the long, dark tunnel, three out of four in our team started experiencing uncomfortable headaches, which seemed to deteriorate every time they passed through one of the Gates, which were all position through the longer tunnels.
The second time, Alice saw that the geological profile of this tunnel in fact did not match Boston at all, but rather the areas surrounding the Great Lakes. Perplexed, they decided to go above ground and have a look, only to find themselves in Milwaukee - a fact confirmed by the sight of the Papst Building and a curious neighbour. Some panic ensued, though it quickly passed, the party deciding to focus on their valuable finds of a lizard fossil and a crate full of furs.
They return to the tunnels only for terrible nausea to take the place of their headaches, and discover they are in fact now in Omaha, encountering a drunk labourer. Still shaking it off, the group decide to finish their exploration. A mysterious glass artefact falls from thin air, and they take some time trying to piece it together, only to realise it contains numbers of some sort. Unfortunately, their final passage through the dark tunnel hurts Eli, our PI, severely, leaving them barely conscious and bleeding.
The group, distracted and trying to tend to Eli’s wounds, don’t notice the artefact being stolen from their bags. The brief appearance of a lizard person in a lab coat is followed by an explosion in the distance and the sound of a sibilant voice thanking them for their participation. Our investigators run for their lives, nearly not making it through the door as the tunnel collapses, and emerge to find themselves back in Boston. Eli is taken to the hospital, and a week later they find they have been paid for a job well done. They move on with their lives trying to forget what happened.
Suggestions for Keepers:
Following from my earlier point about the research phase being a bit clunky, my investigators tried to search the geological profile of the tunnels rather than anything about their employers - which is where all the information that can be derived during the research phase lies. A suggestion for how to help the investigators look for the information is to amp up how shifty the caretaker is about sharing information about his employer. And while it doesn't make as much narrative sense, there could be a locked room they're told they're not required to enter that holds more information about who the employer really is.
I had my players design the maps themselves as they moved through the tunnels, and that worked really well. Since the quality of the map handouts is basic, it just adds to the experience and engages the players' attention more!
One of my investigators had a canary that he took into the tunnels to check for poisonous gases. When they passed through the tunnels I didn't make the canary suffer any negative consequences because animals don't normally have Magic Points. I regret that though - if I were to to it again, I would let horrifying things happen to any animals coming through with the party, to add to the horror and apprehension of what is happening.
The glass data record puzzle was not understood at all by my investigators - they assumed that they would find more information, or a 'key' that would help them out with it. I gave them an Intelligence roll and told them that they're numbers, but at that point they were not interested anymore, and I didn't want to hand them the whole thing. A fun way to give them some more information would be to colour code each player on the glass data record, and then unexpectedly they can find the relevant colour tag on themselves as they walk around and then maybe make the connection that the data is about them.
If you'd like your own Miskatonic Repository Scenario reviewed on Phaedra Keeps an Eye, contact me through Stars Are Right, or email me: email@example.com.