The other night, we wrapped up the second mystery/adventure of my Trail of Cthulhu campaign. This session exposed elements of the mechanical base of ToC's GUMSHOE System that I hadn't really noticed before. I knew that it was "impossible" to fail at an investigative task if you think to use your skills, but I hadn't really realized just how much power the players have in regards to combat mechanics. I guess I knew it in theory, but seeing this in action had more impact than I imagined. If anything, I would have imagined this to be a "bug", but I now think it's one of the coolest features of a system I'd already fallen in love with. (That said, this feature I'm raving about works best in the Pulp idiom, and would seem a lot less wonderful if I were trying to run a game within the hard-core Purist idiom.)
The adventure revolved around a fairly nasty monster that had, until recently, been human. There were several possible solutions / conclusions to the adventure. There was the firepower solution, the spellcasting solution, and the noble sacrifice solution - not to mention the very real possibility of failure and death.
Given the nature of the player character in question, Sarah decided the noble sacrifice was the best way to go. An Elephant Gun, a Tommy Gun, and a Tome containing the spell that summoned the critter were all available in the scenario, but she felt the character was most inclined to go the "I can save you" route, which was essentially a "bell the cat" scenario.
Thing is, neither of us realized that the noble sacrifice solution really didn't require a sacrifice. I'd previously established, during a spend of Cthulhu Mythos Lore, that there existed a magic amulet that would protect a person from becoming possessed by a particular entity. The amulet forces the entity out of our dimension, basically. An NPC casting a dangerous spell without that amulet had resulted in the creation of the monster in the first place. Therefore, putting the amulet on the monster should at least greatly weaken the monster. However, first you have to face down the beast, and get close enough to bell the cat.
Difficulties in Trail of Cthulhu range between 2 and 8, with hitting a target typically being a 3 or 4. I set the belling action at a 6, knowing that the monster would get at least one attack first. I was certain it was suicidal, but if the PC wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, she could. Wanting to keep a sense of mystery in the conflict (she was about to wrestle an inhuman monster, after all), I kept the difficulty secret. If she wanted to bell the cat, it'd take a leap of faith.
First, she sets up a safe haven, and invokes the once per session refresh of traits, returning her athletics pool to 7. Then lays an ambush of the monster. It shows up, and smells her. Having a higher action pool, it acts first. Being a big powerful monster, it rushes straight at her. The attack eats up her health points, not enough to knock her out, but enough to raise the difficulty of all the PCs actions by 1. Then she takes the very nasty Stability test for being attacked by a supernatural creature. This drops her into "Shaken" territory, which applies another +1 to the difficulty of all actions. Finally, it's the PCs turn - and the difficulty has risen to 8, on par with the most difficult of possible actions, and both her Health and Stability are in the negatives. It's all or nothing time, if she were to fail, she'd be dying in vain. So she spends all 7 athletics, which, unbeknownst to her is exactly the amount needed to succeed even on a roll of "1".
It was a beautiful thing to behold. Like a perfect moment out of the movies, the hero who faces down the Big Bad without dodging, and takes a serious wound without flinching, surviving out of pure willpower. Breathtakingly cinematic, yet with no fear that one bad roll would have undone it all. The PC lost a little Sanity in the process, and the contorted former-monster is irretrievably insane, but the player got exactly the win she deserved, and didn't have to die to get it. She had just enough points left in other skills to get out of the monsters path while the amulet did it's thing.
Afterwards, I just sat there going "wow, these mechanics are cool." I wish I could say I'd planned and carefully orchestrated this - but honestly, I'd been hoping she'd take the ritual sorcery solution. This sort of scene is how I'd always wanted Scion to work, but instead I get it in a Cthulhu game. Not sure what to think of that... other than "GUMSHOE rocks!"