In Trail of Cthulhu, the rules for seeing a Great Old One or Outer God work as follows. Make a Stability roll, then take additional Stability and Sanity loss, using the table on p.86.

This is particularly harsh for particularly horrific monsters. For example, if you see Shub Niggurath, you first make the normal 5-point Stability roll, for seeing a supernatural creature up close. If you succeed, you nevertheless lose 5 Stability and 3 Sanity. If you fail, you lose a total of 11 Stability and 4 Sanity.

In play, I find this rather dull. For example, in one game, my Investigator saw Shub Niggurath with two Stability.

I had two options. I could spend four Stability to automatically succeed my Stability roll and then lose 5 Stability anyway, losing 9 in total. Or I could roll, with the potential of losing 11 Stability. Either way, I would fall below -6 Stability and go mad.

For two reasons, this was dull. Firstly, there wasn't an interesting tactical choice I could make: either I lost 9 Stability or rolled to risk losing 11 Stability. I went mad either way. Of course, I took the roll.

Secondly, the dice themselves weren't interesting. A single die roll told me whether I lost 9 or 11 Stability. There was no tension in it.

Can you suggest a more interesting mechanic, for Stability/Sanity loss when you see Great Old Ones and their ilk, that fixes these problems?

Two points. Firstly, I'm not looking for an indie game mechanic, which involves, I don't know, sacrificing the memory of your mother or something. None of this "it's only interesting if it's narratively interesting", please. I want a die roll mechanic.

Secondly, I'd like something that fits closely to the GUMSHOE rules. The less tweaking, the better. So no playing card mechanics, for example.

Any ideas?

Edited to add: To be clear, the problem is this. The two main options, in the situation above, are:

  1. Spend 4 points. Without rolling, lose a total of 9 Stability and get a mental illness.
  2. Spend 0 points. If you fail your roll, lose 11 Stability and get a mental illness.

There are, of course, options to spend 1, 2 or 3 points, but they are similar to/worse than those two.

Given those choices, both of which involve losing huge amounts of Stability and getting a mental illness, you obviously choose the one which gives you a roll to avoid it.

Hence, in my opinion, there is no interesting choice to make. So I'm looking for mechanics that make it more interesting.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I don't know… It is a Great Old One or Outer God, after all. Sanity after that is the rare exception. The interestingness won't be in the roll (it's almost a formality), but in the twists and turns and unavoidable/poor choices that resulted in the investigator exposing themselves to Things Not Meant To Be Known. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 1, 2010 at 16:03

4 Answers 4


Since you're looking for an interesting dice roll mechanic, consider a push-your-luck approach.

The player rolls as normal. If they fail, they can sacrifice a permanent point of Stability or Sanity to re-roll. In addition, they add +1 Stability loss (from their pool) to the final result. They can keep doing this as long as they have permanent points to spare. This addresses your concern about a major encounter coming down to a single die roll, and it could make for a tension-inducing minigame.

(One problem with sacrificing a Pillar is that a player is already likely to lose one Pillar in the scenario you describe, due to Stability or Sanity loss from a Mythos encounter. Losing two in the same roll deflates the role-playing importance of the pillars, in my opinion. I would put this in a comment, but alas, I am not yet important enough to comment on others' posts.)


Some additional ideas, which stick closely to the Gumshoe rules and which I think would work well. They're alternatives to each other.

  • For large Stability losses, you can sacrifice a permanent point of Stability rating to avoid some of the loss. (One rating point for each three points of loss).

  • For large Mythos-related Stability losses, you can sacrifice a permanent point of Sanity to avoid some of the loss. Thus, you keep yourself together, but at the price of an insight into the Mythos.

    • You can let a Pillar of Sanity crumble to avoid some of the loss.

The second and third are most interesting, I think.

An alternative is that, rather than sacrificing a Sanity point/Pillar of Sanity per 3 points of Stability, you sacrifice it to keep yourself at -5 Stability (rather than going mad). You can only do that once per scenario, of course.


You can always roll one die per three (point five) points of Stability at risk. That adds randomness and comes out to the same average. The problem is of course that it only works for larger numbers, but if you are only worried about god-level checks then it works. In this case you would have rolled 3d6 - the average of it is 10.5 but could be as low as 3, high as 18. I'm not sure if a 1 in 256 chance of not losing your 2 remaining Stability in that particular case is super exciting, but there it is.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is interesting, but it's really different from the GUMSHOE rules. It's probably a hack too far for me. \$\endgroup\$
    – Graham
    Oct 30, 2010 at 19:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not sure what else to do though. It's not genre appropriate to put all the SAN loss on one roll so that you can get away scot free - there's no seeing a Great Old One and coming unscathed. In Cthulhu style games there are definitely no-win situations, the dice aren't there to save you. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Oct 30, 2010 at 21:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's all true, but I think there are options that stick closer to the Gumshoe rules. \$\endgroup\$
    – Graham
    Nov 2, 2010 at 10:15

A couple of ideas off the top of my head:

You could let the stability test dictate the total loss; success means the lesser of the two losses, failure means the greater, spectacularly bad failure could result in both!

So in the Shubby example: my Investigator spends 2 stability points and rolls a success. The lesser loss would be the 5 points of stability (plus the 2 I spent). That's my loss.

If I had failed the roll, I'd suffer the 5 Stability + 3 Sanity + my own spend.

If I didn't spend any points and I rolled a one, maybe I lose a 10 Stability, 3 Sanity, and my temper because I rolled so poorly.

Roll for Sanity Loss as well just as you would for Stability. Make the contest a two-parter with a 5-point Stability test and a 3-point Sanity test. I know it goes against the "you never roll for Sanity" feel of Trail, but it seems like a way to lessen the burden and make it a more involved loss - the player gets a chance to do something instead of just automatically going mad.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sam, isn't the first option the one I described? That's the standard Gumshoe rule, right? Or am I missing something? \$\endgroup\$
    – Graham
    Nov 1, 2010 at 15:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the idea of a Sanity test. The way you suggest it, though, I'm not sure it solves this particular problem, which is really about losing Stability. \$\endgroup\$
    – Graham
    Nov 1, 2010 at 15:45

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