I’ve always been interested in the idea of running an RPG in the vein of Groundhog Day or Stargate‘s time loop episode. I recently watched Day Break (which looks like it’s now on Hulu instead of Netflix), which had a lot of cool ideas for how to actually pull it off in a way that makes sense for an RPG (some of these are minor spoilers for the show).
Elements of the Premise
Your game should feature at least a few of the following elements:
- The PCs start the day in peril: By the time the loop starts in Day Break, the main character has already been framed for a crime. This creates immediate tension every day, as he has to keep ahead of law enforcement while investigating. The PCs shouldn’t be able to just take a day off to recuperate or train without planning and a chance of failure, or the game might lose its sense of danger. Thus, starting them off with some kind of personal and dedicated threat keeps the game from losing momentum.
- If you keep your memories, you keep your injuries: The counterpart to not having your brain reset is not having the rest of your body reset either. You can’t just kill yourself when you get frustrated and restart the day, like in Groundhog Day, and you also can’t just try something stupidly dangerous over and over until it works out through dice luck. This also implies that you’re aging, so you don’t want to spend years stuck in this loop even if you could otherwise become a small god of the place you’re trapped. And if you actually die in the loop… well, your significant other is going to have to wake up next to your decaying corpse for quite a number of loops, and you wouldn’t want to inflict that on a loved one, would you?
- There are multiple people aware of the loop: Obviously necessary for multiple PCs, both Day Break and Stargate‘s episode feature potential allies in others that want to escape the loop. Beyond the other PCs, there may be unpredictable factors also aware and changing things. Just when you think you’ve figured out all the angles on an event in the loop, it changes and you don’t know why, until you realize there’s another aware actor in the loop with you. Maybe the whole premise of the game is that once you’ve been trapped in a loop, you’re aware whenever other people nearby get trapped, and you have to help them solve their problems to restore time.
- You can change the loop slightly via great effort: One of the most interesting elements of Day Break is that he can sometimes improve his situation by repairing a dysfunctional relationship: on the subsequent loops, the loved ones in question are more likely to help him, even if they don’t remember why. You could retain this kind of mechanism for a personality-focused game, or even build in more overt mechanisms based on the rationale for the loop. Effectively, though, pursuing side quests is actually rewarding. Rather than being a waste of something that will just reset again tomorrow, they can generate rewards that make the main plot easier to complete.
- The playing field is constrained: Groundhog Day has its blizzard, Stargate traps them in the command center and world they’re traveling to that day, and Day Break has all of the local law enforcement on the lookout for a fugitive. Coming up with a similar method for your game limits the amount of tangents the players can get up to, and how much information you have to create beyond the original scope.
- The number of iterations is limited: Either because the characters are slowly aging, because they’ll go insane from too many repetitions, or because the very process is destructive if allowed to loop for a nebulous “too long,” the players can’t just decide to sequester themselves for relative years to learn whatever skills they think are necessary. Because your players will definitely want to pull a Phil Connors and use the opportunity to max out their skills before even attempting to solve the main plot if you let them.
- The way out of the loop is easier to identify than to solve: It may only take a couple of iterations of digging to figure out the likely source of the time loop. Day Break has to unravel the conspiracy that framed the protagonist and Stargate has to stop the machine that’s causing the loop. This creates an objective, and now the game is about figuring out how to obtain the objective. Perhaps the obvious objective wasn’t the whole story, and securing it just reveals the real core behind it all, but at least there was always an obvious goal for forward progress (and there should only be one or two princess in another castle moments anyway).
Best Practices for Running the Game
Once the elements of the premise are nailed down, there are a few tricks to make running such a thing possible:
- Establish the prototypical day in great detail: You need to know exactly what happens if the PCs stay out of the way, down to the minute if necessary. For major characters, you may even want to map out their movements during the day both on an area map and on a relationship map. The former lets you have serendipitous events where the PCs happen to encounter an NPC unexpectedly just by virtue of being in the right place at the right time. The latter allows you to note when NPCs cross over and think about what happens if the PCs have interacted with one NPC (e.g., if NPC X gets delayed meeting with NPC Y, what will NPC Y do instead of his normal actions? If NPC A encounters the PCs, will she tell NPC B about it at their meeting?).
- Create lots of intersections that may only become apparent on repeat viewings: That relationship map is especially important because peeling back the layers of relationships is one of the key elements of interest in a game like this. How many iterations will it take before the PCs realize that the guy they keep saving from a building fire was actually a key member of the conspiracy that someone is trying to kill via arson? How long until they realize the day regularly ends on a parent being held hostage because that parent was how the conspiracy got interested in the PCs in the first place?
- Have a good map of the area with an easy way to determine the time it takes to move around: This is especially useful if you can put major NPC routes on it without making it too busy to read, but at the very least you want to be able to give the PCs reasonable travel time notes between locations. A lot of the game may boil down to figuring out a sequence of things they do to give themselves an advantage or just save innocent lives, and it’s important to know how long that takes. When the PCs finally figure something out that involves another location, can they get there in time from the last thing they wanted to do?
- Always keep track of the time: Maybe obvious, but you should be able to make it clear to the PCs what time it is, and if they get separated you should flip between them in as much of a real time manner as makes sense for your scenes. Having a fake clock you can make constantly visible would be a big help, even if it’s just something you’ve made out of card stock and brads like in kindergarten.
- Take copious notes: The only way to do this thing in any way at all that feels like the TV shows or movies that include it is to feel free to improvise, but make detailed notes of what you did. If the players want to go somewhere at 10:45 AM that they’ve never gone and you had no plans for, feel free to invent some local color, but you have to write it down so the players will see the same thing if they go there again. When the players change something, and you decide how that affects the rest of the day, it should generally do the same thing over and over until they change something else.
- Don’t be afraid to end a session early: Sometimes, the changes that the PCs have started to make regularly should have some pretty detailed follow-on effects. Don’t be afraid to stop the session so you can prepare a revised relationship map for the next time that assumes the common changes the PCs tend to make. You can only be in the moment for improvising this kind of thing so far before you need time to really look at the various permutations and make sure you’re not forgetting a logical consequence or changed movement of an NPC in the new possibility space.