Sanity Systems and Emotional Beats

More Horror Week! Now that we have the beginning of a foundation for talking about emotional beats, let’s talk about one of the darlings of horror gaming: Call of Cthulhu‘s Sanity system.

I’m only been a RPG player since 1995, so Call of Cthulhu predates my history with the hobby. Still, I know the history well enough to say the following: Call of Cthulhu blew minds when it came out. The idea that your sanity was something that could be assaulted, that you were fighting a two-front war against the horrible unknown — trying to survive both physically and psychologically to finish the task and fight another day — was a new, amazing thing. (And I should also say that I’ve had fun playing Call of Cthulhu with some really great Keepers, including CoC advocate Kenneth Hite[1].)

Today, we see it as another hit point mechanic, and one that isn’t particularly interesting, but that’s what happens when anything is exposed to enough time and we watch over advancement pass something by. At the time, it was novel. It changed gaming. And it should be respected for that.

But now that we have a more advanced understanding of gaming and see different experiences, the sanity system is flat. It’s a standing hit point mechanic where the triggers and consequences around it have a different color. Here’s an outline of old-school hit point systems:

  • Something assaults you, causing “damage”
  • You may or may not roll to mitigate the damage, depending on the system
  • If you’ve taken sufficient damage, you lose control of your character either temporarily or permanently
  • If not, you might still take some form of penalty forward (a.k.a. the death spiral)

There is nothing particularly tense or scary about that, when all the inputs involved are known.

Call of Cthulhu is a sign of its time, a very detail-rich setting with loads of gameable material. So we know things like how much Sanity loss the The King in Yellow does 1d3/1d6 (for those who aren’t familiar, that’s 1d3 sanity loss if you make your sanity check, 1d6 otherwise). If you see a book, you as a player know that it’ll cost some range of Sanity. You look at the current Sanity on your sheet and figure you can risk it, so you describe picking up the book and reading it.

Let’s look at the emotional beats (refer to my chart from yesterday’s post):

Expo in: “I pick up and read the book.” {I know this is going to cost me Sanity loss, that’s how the game works. I can risk or spend this amount for information. Beat: superiority/calculation}

Roll A: GM calls for the roll against current Sanity, which the character has at 60. Minimal rational footprint, no change in the beat.[2]

Roll B: Roll! {Potential slight inclusion of hope or dread if the dice take more than a second to roll, like if they roll of the table. Otherwise, nill.}

Here, I’ll branch into two paths, failure & success.

Path 1-Roll C: Look at the roll. 64! Full sanity loss gonna happen. {Beat: failure/defeat/gamble loss}

Path 1-Expo out: The GM has one of those gleeful grins and describes the sense of horror in the moment, the player rolls with it. {No inclusion of a dread beat, as due to Roll C and the tropes of Lovecraft gaming, this is expected. Furthered the beat of defeat.}

Path 2-Roll C: Look at the roll. 32! Only partial sanity loss. {Beat: triumph/gamble won. Exactly the wrong beat for this moment.}

Path 2-Expo out: The GM describes the sense of horror in the moment, the player rolls with it. {No inclusion of a dread _or_ relief beat, as due to Roll C and the tropes of Lovecraft gaming, this is expected.}

I’ll bet dollars to donuts that these beats were very different in the early days of Call of Cthulhu, when the tropes were fresher and the mechanic still carried with is a sense of novelty and wonder. Keep in mind that external emotional beats do influence the game, so a game that blows your mind will punctuate the emotional beats it intends to produce — especially if you’re also looking to celebrate the genre you’re playing.

When Sanity is known and calculable, people will calculate & weigh risk. Ideally, the players don’t know what will trigger sanity loss or the amount of sanity loss threatened, but in reality — and we have to live in reality when dealing with the psychology of gamers — they do. Even if you invent something whole cloth, upon contact with it, those become known with exposure. Say you have a haunted house game, and some of the doors speak to you in an ancient tongue when touch the doorknobs.

The players may be on the lookout for books and the like as sanity loss vectors, so when someone touches the doorknob to the attic, that’s a surprise when you say “Roll sanity.”

Suddenly, everyone at the table feels a dread emotional beat, because that came out of nowhere from their perspective. And that’s hot, as any horror GM will tell you.

But then comes the additional information that gives the players context for risk management: the sanity loss. Say the door is a common 1d6/1. The first person to touch a doorknob succeeds, only losing 1 point. The dread feeling is now replaced by a really fascinating beat, the emotional reward from knowledge acquisition — the same thing we get when we surf Wikipedia for hours for seemingly no reason.[link]

From there, you now have risk management. The first character, the metaphorical canary in the coal mine, has shown everyone else something about the world. Now they’ll do stuff like try to touch the doorknob with gloves on, or create apparatuses to open doors without touching them, etc.

Let’s move on from critique to fiddling.

These would be dread beats if the risk was incalculable. So how do you do that, while changing the system as little as possible? Hide the information. Don’t show the player’s current sanity, or show the loss in each moment. Present consequences with little apparent rhyme or reason. Let’s look at the hypothetical door example, but with the players not knowing their current sanity rating or anything else.

Expo in: Player says “With my gun drawn, I open the attic door.” GM: “Oh, you touch the doorknob…” {beat: confidence/comfort in this specific moment, possible dread about the _next_ beat rather than this one.}

Roll A: “…Roll Sanity” {Beat: dread}

Roll B: Player rolls dice. {Beat: dread/hope}

Again, we’ll take two branches here, failure & success. In both cases, Roll C is going to be a long box with multiple beats.

Path 1-Roll C: Player not knowing what the dice mean, but having to be the agent of the randomness, says the result and looks at the GM. {Beat: hope/dread.}

The GM shakes his head, notes down sanity loss on his hidden sheet… (Beat: hope dashed, all dread all the time}

Path 1-Expo out: …and starts writing something down on an index card. The silence fills the room. {Beat: jesus fuck dread}

The GM hands the card to the player, who reads it. The players look at his reaction. {Beat: continue the dread}

The card tells the player: “You hear screams, dreadful screams, from inside your mind. A language you can _almost_ make out. Hey, is that your mother’s voice? Isn’t she dead? Describe how you lose your shit and get all incomprehensible.” {Beat: horror at revelation, dread for other players at facial reaction.}

Player describes. GM grins, turns to the others, and says “What do you do?” {Beat: dread & horror at the unknown}

Path 2-Roll C: Player not knowing what the dice mean, but having to be the agent of the randomness, says the result and looks at the GM. {Beat: hope/dread.}

The GM says “Okay, you keep yourself together”, notes down sanity loss on his hidden sheet… (Beat: hope, but with some upcoming dread}

Path 2-Expo out: …and starts writing something down on an index card. The silence fills the room. {Beat: continues, with more dread than hope, but not as intense as if failed}

The card would be different at the end, allowing the character to keep agency. While still being shaken.

I’ll admit that I’m cheating here a bit, but going into further detail than I did for the Call of Cthulhu example, but the hidden information gives the GM more tools to craft those emotional beats. The secret notes thing is a common Cthulhu trope, so all that could easily be used in the above beat — just not as well, when the players have all the arithmetic context for the result in their minds.

To be entirely fair, there is nothing new in what I’m saying. This has been a common criticism of Call of Cthulhu for a long time, and hidden information is old technology. The reason I wanted to write this today was to link these old ideas to discussion on emotional beats, because I think that backs up things people have talked about regarding horror games for years.

Horror Week ends on Monday, Halloween. For that post, I’ll share with you my Cardinal Rule of Horror Games. (And as always, I don’t post on the weekends, so I’ll see you Monday!)

– Ryan

(The problem with writing about a game I haven’t played in over a year while not near my library to look it up is the dread that I’m misremembering the mechanics. Emotional beat: dread!)

[1] Ken asserts that Call of Cthulhu is the best RPG, and so this post could look like I’m picking a fight with him. But if we judge CoC not on today’s merits but on the merits of when it came out, he’s totally right. Same with me & Unknown Armies. At the time, it was the best RPG, and in my mind it still is, even though you could do a similar post deconstructing how UA uses outdated tech. I’ll cop to that.

[2] I think I may have found that neutral thing I said I wasn’t sure exists. If you don’t have a decision to make and the interpretation is quick and _able to be pre-calculated by the player prior to the roll_, then it carries forward whatever emotional beat held before. That last part is key, because it means that it was already merged into the Expo In beat if the roll was expected. (Okay, maybe it’s not neutral, per se, but non-impacting.)


18 Responses to Sanity Systems and Emotional Beats

  1. Tom I says:

    I’d say hidden information, when done right, enhances many different genres, not just horror. I’ve played D&D games where hit point totals and damage totals were secret and it rocked. I even played a Champions campaign in which we didn’t have full access to our character sheets. We just gave the GM a concept, and our powers were slowly revealed over time to us but never presented to us in their stark, quantitative form.

    It takes a lot on the GM’s part. First, it requires more bookkeeping. Second, you have to describe the results in a non-quantitative way accurately and consistently. Most importantly, you have to have the players’ trust. If you fudge die rolls or are suspected of fudging die rolls, it takes so much control away from the players that they quickly lose touch with the experience.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      It takes a lot on the GM’s part.
      I don’t buy that. Not that you necessarily are, but I have heard others cite this as a criticism of hidden information games, and when they do it’s super weak. It takes exactly the amount of work the GM wants it to — GMs that don’t want to do it won’t, GMs that want to will.

      it takes so much control away
      Keep in mind that all control is seated in perception. That’s psychology.

      – Ryan

    • Tom says:


      Yeah. I suppose it’s just another aspect of prep, at worst.

      And the more I think about it, I have *never* had an experience where it detracted from a game and plenty of experiences when it made things richer and more exciting. The first D&D campaign I played in when I was 11 was run by an older neighborhood kid and almost all of the game mechanics were hidden and it was 7 kinds of awesome.

      And I do think you’ve zeroed in on the genre where it sparkles best. I know some CoC GMs who also have players roll perception rolls in a list before the session so there’s more suspense and less gaming of the system with that portion of the rules, too.


    • Ryan Macklin says:


      To sidetrack, we’re always playing the game with hidden information. You don’t know what’s in the undeclared parts of my imagination. Which is why an RPG session is typically filled with a lot of questions. (Which has me thinking now about some weird silly mechanic for resolving how those questions are answered.)

      I know some CoC GMs who also have players roll perception rolls in a list…

      Huh. I haven’t seen anything like that. Interesting.

      – Ryan

  2. Clint Krause says:

    (personal context: I’ve run a lot of CoC and it’s the game that led to the best campaign I’ve ever been involved in. I don’t really play it anymore due to frustrations with the system. However, my frustrations are pretty much unrelated to the issues you’re talking about. Basically, I wish it was simpler and more abstract, initiative and autofire are funky, and that sort of stuff, but I like the overall effect it has at the table. I think it actually benefits from tacking the D&D-ish mechanical paradigm onto the other things it’s doing.)

    A few thoughts I had while reading this:

    1) I think the risk aversion you speak of actually creates some great in-game moments. The example you used was kind of dungeon crawly and, yes, that can come up. But, even today, there are few games where a player will have his character AVERT HIS GAZE from something for mechanical reasons. It’s pretty powerful stuff.

    2)I think that the feedback created by SAN loss as a known quantity is important. It ties into risk aversion and stuff. But a big SAN loss also creates a great “oh shit” moment that instantly raises the stakes of what ever is going on. I feel like hiding that information would largely kill the great climactic moments that arise from the game. You’re right that it might increase dread in some situations, but there’s a trade off I think.

    3) There’s a weird thing that happens in CoC (most horror games, really) that’s hard to quantify. In my experience, it’s common for players to be advocates for their character from a mechanical standpoint (employing the aforementioned risk aversion) while simultaneously delighting in the same character’s downfall (like a horror film audience). I feel like your argument here is assuming a more pure character advocacy on the part of the players.

    4) I’m not actually sure I believe that there is such thing as “outdated tech” when it comes to rpg mechanics. But that’s probably a whole different discussion.

    Thanks for the post! Got me thinking. Sorry if I’m talking past your points a bit.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      1) I question that. Can it happen? Sure. Can it also fuck up a horror game? Absolutely. Crappy mechanic + great GM & players will make the mechanic work, but I’m not talking about the second part of that formula.

      2) Or it’s a dungeon crawl counter, to use your words from #1.

      3) Enjoying a character’s downfall is another form of emotional beat, one I see often in con games & one shots. And again, you’re looking at the side of the equation I’m not.

      4) That’s fair. Doesn’t make it untrue. Fate’s Aspects are old tech at this point. So is, to use a real world example, the internal combustion engine. I didn’t say not useful, but outdated.

      – Ryan

    • Clint Krause says:

      1) I’ll cop to bias based on anecdotal evidence and nostalgia, but I still think the mechanic works pretty fucking well for the source material, even sans magically talented players/GMs. To me it has roughly the same potential for misuse as most good mechanics do.

      I should also note that I don’t dislike the dread-based alternative you presented (and I really dig what you’re saying about emotional beats in general). I just think it’s doing something different.

      2) Not sure I follow.

      3) Fair.

      4) Gotcha. I was reading “outdated” as “no longer useful/good.”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      1) I wish I could be a fly on the wall at some point, watching how you run these games and studying the places where facial expressions and eye lines changes. Because I think that’s your GMing doing that. When I see it work elsewhere, and I have, it’s always been the GM overwriting the natural emotional beat with strong GMing (which, regardless of the mechanic, you need in a horror game. man alive, you do).

      That and it’s such a short mechanic that if there is a beat from it that’s discordant, the GM gets to grab the beats about and shake them right. The previous post mentions this as one option for making a discordant mechanic work.

      2) Don’t know if I can explain it another way, given it’s just reiterating what’s already said.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I’ll also admit that, on re-reading the post this morning, I am stretching out the CoC beats for analysis purposes. In play, I haven’t seen it stretched out that much. I’ve seen similar in my beloved Unknown Armies, too, which works similarly from a trigger-roll-analyze flow.

      – Ryan

    • 4649matt says:

      There are alternatives for CoC.
      Trail of Cthulhu is CoC with some newer tech.
      Cthulhu Dark is an abstract CoC redux.

      Dread takes horror down to dice-less.

      I share your frustrations with CoC mechanics, though.
      Character creation alone caused a game to implode.

  3. Ezra says:

    Footnote 2 is given in the text, but at the bottom it’s erroneously lableled 1.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Thanks! You can tell I don’t write this linearly. :) One of these days, I’ll hack the footnote plugin that Jeremy Keller uses, because I really don’t like how it presents the footnotes.

      – Ryan

  4. Alan Kellogg says:

    Your points can also be applied to a system like Dangerous Journeys (Attack to Derange) or Kult (where it is possible for the character to be too sane :) ). That said, I must say that a big part of the whole thing is how the event is presented to the player. It’s one thing to say, “You lose 35 points from Spiritual (one of three DJ Traits, the others being Mental and Physical)”, and saying, “You just took a big blow to your ego and sense of worth, your hold on reality has been dashed to the ground and stomped on.”

    Mechanics is one part of the equation, how events get presented is another.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Mechanics is one part of the equation, how events get presented is another.

      There’s a thing in software engineering, where I come from, called scope. And getting into detail about that second part of the equation is the scope of another post. It’s hard to separate the two, but in order to be better game designers, we must learn to separate the two where we can, to ignore the inputs of Expo In and Expo Out in our analysis in the early stages. Because a good GM can unfuck a weak system through control of those emotional beats.

      And while useful as a GM, that’s utterly useless as a game designer. (Maybe I need to put some sort of icon for folks here that says “game designer hat please” when talking about this, because man it it muddy as hell. Partly because I’m writing about it for the first time, and haven’t worked out the kinks in the explanations.)

      – Ryan

  5. I’ve never played CoC, but the concept of sanity loss in a horror game fascinates me. I like what you’ve got here with the secret knowledge. I’ve only got 2 questions in regards to it.

    1. Is there some other way to accomplish this other than secret knowledge?

    2. Context for question is the game Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I’ve played a bit of this game, but a big part of it is the notable effect lack of sanity on the character. How does the player roleplay that when the knowledge is hidden? Is it as simple as giving a relative measure? (“Your character’s on the hairy edge of losing it right now”)

    I’m enjoying the emotional beats series you have going on here. I’m still waiting for a good opportunity to spot them in game.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      1) Maybe. For a horror game, I’m suspicious.

      2) That’s out of scope — I’m taling mechanic design right now. And I’ve not heard of the game you mention.

      – Ryan

  6. Ryan Macklin says:

    Addendum: After having slept on it, I just realized that this post would have been much, much better if I made the CoC example also about the weird door thing. Totally muddied the “system” and “presentation” side of things. Thanks to everyone for calling me on that!

    I tend to write these things quickly (since no one pays for that time) and do a quick review, but the big structure things don’t get found out until after I hit Publish. :) Live and learn, next time, etc.

    – Ryan

  7. Randy McCall says:

    I have fairly extensive experience with CoC, having picked it up in first publication, and also contributing some scenarios to Chaosium publications; The Asylum, among others.

    I’m intrigued by the idea of emotional beats, which I used in my GMing (though not under such a defined name or system). The basic CoC system does indeed have issues, if run by a GM who only plays what’s in front of them. Dropping out of role-play to work on game mechanics certainly takes players out of their willing suspension of disbelief (as I called it), or out of the emotional beat as Ryan refers to it.

    I used a host of GM techniques to avoid this, which I think fall under Ryan’s comments about a GM with good technique supplementing a flawed system.

    Some fell under the heading of hidden information, usually in the form of notes being passed to the player/victim in question, referring to results which they would have to role-play as opposed to announcing numbers.

    Continuing in the hidden information vein, I would would randomly ask players who were in potentially dangerous / atmospheric investigations to roll dice, for no reason other than to raise their stress level and remove the rolling of dice as a cue which would take them out of the story.

    At those times where players would have be to informed of items of game mechanics, I tried my hardest to never allow players to just focus on die rolls, character stats, etc. I would, in Ryan’s terms, add a beat to every every comment involving game mechanics. “Make a SAN roll… you think you hear a high pitched sound… Player: I make it… GM: You lose 2 points, and the sound resolves into the high-pitched whine of unearthly flutes…” etc.

    Finally, within game descriptions, if I had to tell the group something in terms of game mechanics, I would add descriptions which removed any sense of security. For example, if a group member asks “Are we being followed” and makes a roll on Awareness (or whatever), I wouldn’t just say yes or no in response. My answer would be something like, “Not by anything you can see…”

    I found my players responded well to this kind of treatment, and often would respond in kind. I well remember one game in which a player had lost much of their SAN; when a door behind which they suspected a creature might be imprisoned was to be opened, the player in question didn’t say “My SAN is low… I don’t look”. Instead, responding to the atmosphere, she said “I cover my eyes and look away… I don’t want to see!”…