Gamemasters looking to pull themselves out of their gaming rut might consider running a scenario with a “Groundhog Day” time loop.
I have an affinity for such storylines, and will eagerly watch a TV show or read novels that employ the time loop trope, should they cross my path.
(Strangely, though, I have never actually seen the trope’s namesake, the 1993 film comedy “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray — I prefer to meander into these experiences through happenstance rather than intentionally seek them out, I suppose).
I unexpectedly encountered another such example when I recently watched Star Trek: Discovery for the first time. One episode in the new CBS Series features the rascal Harry Mudd using a time loop to exact vengeance upon the Discovery’s captain and crew.
My favorite comes, of course, from Xena: Warrior Princess. In “Been There Done That,” Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer keep reliving the same day until she finds a way to prevent a town’s young lovers from rival families from using the Romeo and Juliet “solution” to consummating their affair. In one iteration, Joxer buys it with a chakram to the chest — perhaps the most therapeutic moment of the entire run of the series.
There are others, of course. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect,” Doctor Who and Romana taking on Meglos and the classic X-Files episode “Monday.” And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Roland’s entire quest from The Dark Tower series or the repetitive Seven Ages that serves as the introduction of each novel in the Wheel of Time series. (“The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legends fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.”)
With that out of the way, how can you structure a scenario so that it presents a Groundhog Day scenario for your players?
Part 1: Construct a Decision Line.
This is the first, and most important part. Establish a sequence of decisions that serves as the spine of the scenario. Between five and seven decision points should prove sufficient. These are the “turn left, turn right” moments the PCs must correctly determine to correctly “fix” the timeline. Basically, these are knobs that must be turned to a correct setting so that time resumes correctly. To think of it another way: it’s like setting a combination lock or making sure a sequence of switches is open to complete an electrical current circuit.
Part 2: The first time
The PCs will go through the decision tree. There is no right or wrong at this point — yet. But the GM should note the decisions. Once the PCs complete the “day,” begin the reset. Pick about half the decision points, and flick them “off.” That means those points in the narrative are the ones the PCs have to change. Keep these changes to yourself. It’s up to the PCs to discover the correct combination on subsequent loops.
Part 3: Every day in the loop starts the same
This is the cue to the PCs that their efforts in each loop were not successful and that time is, indeed, repeating.
Part 4: Establish an Objective
At this point, the GM must decide who or what is causing this time ripple and forcing events to repeat. A powerful entity, a god, quantum mechanics, a leaf on the wind — one is as good as another. The more important question is to answer “Why?” Before the sequence can be established, “something significant” must be corrected. Usually, this means that one of the PCs must fall in love / discover something about themselves / treat someone special with an appropriate amount of “love and/or respect. It is a McGuffin of sorts — and instead of digging into one of the characters’ psyche, obtaining an object is also a good substitute. Nothing can happen until someone has that proverbial Golden Apple.
Part 5. Interloper
The person or persons that are key to obtaining/understanding the object need to be introduced on the second loop. This NPC must have characteristics that encourage one of the players to have a change in their personality or outlook — or if you are playing D&D fifth edition, causes them to reevaluate their bonds, flaws or ideals.
Part 6: Hand wave the rinse and repeat
Once the PCs establish points of the sequence that are correct, the PCs should be able to handwave over any sequences they know are correct. Essentially, they are fast forwarding past known decision points — just like they do on TV. This keeps the game moving along and prevents any miscues and keeps the session manageable.
Part 7: A magical thing
The final solution should be an extraordinary demonstration of one PC’s ability — or, even better, group collaboration. The PCs must somehow manage to do one magical thing correctly to carry the day. It must be a stretch of their abilities — and carry an element of risk. (For example, Xena making that most difficult chakram toss of her career).
Part 8: That day is done — at last!
How does one know the solution was effective? The next day starts differently for the first time. The sun rises, the birds sing and all is right with the world …
… until the next adventure comes around the corner.