The Groundhog Day Effect in 4e D&D

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 7, 2011

In the 1993 director Harold Ramis brought us the Bill Murray comedy classic Groundhog Day. For those unfamiliar with this movie, Bill Murray’s character awakens every morning to discover that he’s reliving the same day, February 2, over and over again. After watching the movie again last week I started thinking about how to use the Groundhog Day effect in an upcoming D&D adventure.

I saw this playing out in two possible ways.

  1. The PCs would find themselves in a situation similar to that of Murray’s character in the movie where they actually had to relive the previous day over again.
  2. The PCs had to face the same encounters a second time after defeating them once before.

Both scenarios allow the players to learn from their previous mistakes. How often have you used a daily power in the first encounter and then realized that it would have been more effective against the creatures in the second? How often have you held onto a daily power and then regretted not using it? The same thing goes for actions points.

The Groundhog Day effect, in essence, gives the PCs a do over. Once they realize that they’re facing the same encounter again they can choose to alter their original course of action.

I must caution DMs before attempting the Groundhog Day effect that some players will not be happy with this avenue. They’ll see it as the DM being incredibly lazy and just reusing a previous encounter (or two) again.

My recommendation to any DM who’s interested in playing out the Groundhog Day effect should only do so when there’s something important to gain. This can be an incredibly exciting scenario if a PC was killed during the encounter the first time through or some other devastating thing happened.

For example, during the D&D Open Championship in 2009 one encounter had an exploding chest as a key part of the encounter. As a mini-skill challenge the PCs had to disarm the chest and stop the explosion otherwise everyone would be killed. The longer they put off disarming the chest the more hazardous that task became. If the PCs failed to complete this encounter and been killed, a good way to let them try it again is to use the Groundhog Day effect. The only changed variable is knowledge. That in itself is a huge leg up.

The other possible use for the Groundhog Day effect is to basically reset the previous day’s encounters. This seems to have an obvious use in a dungeon adventure. The party has to fight their way in to accomplish a goal or retrieve a valuable. In doing so, they deplete their resources and need to take an extended rest. When they try to leave the following day they have to face all of the encounters again – this time in the revere order. But as in the other example, they are now forearmed with knowledge. Knowing what they’re going to face will help them decide what powers to use in which encounters.

When using either variation of the Groundhog Day effect, it’s up to the DM to decide how forthcoming to be about the replayed encounters. I’d recommend that the players have some way to learn that these encounters are indeed identical to the ones they’ve faced before. If the PCs waste time second-guessing whether or not the encounters are the same, they’ll likely loose a big part of the advantage that their foreknowledge potentially provides.

When reusing an identical encounter the party will also get a chance to discover which characters can actually hold their own and which characters are just lucky. For example, I have a level 17 Daggermaster Rogue who crits on an 18-20 for over 100 points of damage. In a recent game he critted four times in the first encounter. During the next encounter he only critted once. The luck of the dice made a huge difference in the first encounter but not so much in the second. Think of how the first encounter would differ if he didn’t crit at all. Loosing that 400+ points of damage from one striker could drastically alter how things play out.

The Groundhog Day effect is something that I wouldn’t recommend DMs use very often, but it is something that I’d encourage DMs to try at least once. Just be sure that it makes sense for your story arc and your campaign. The reason for the repeated encounters can be logical (like the dungeon scenario described above) or incredibly wacky (a god of chaos was bored and rewound time).

Have you ever replayed an encounter or used the Groundhog Day effect in your campaign? How did it work? If this is something you’d never previously considered, how do you think your gaming group would react to the chance at a do over?

Before there was the movie Groundhog Day there was the book Replayby Ken Grimwood. In Grimwood’s excellent novel the main character relives his entire adult life from 18-40 over and over again. I give it a solid 10 on a d10 and can’t recommend it strongly enough.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 BrianLiberge February 7, 2011 at 9:30 am

I think if you’re going to use this tactic as a DM you need to be very careful and very clear. Especially in 4e, where combats can get long, repetition is dangerous and can quickly lead to boredom. I would want their to be new goals, if the same encounters, other wise its just too much of the same.

2 Tourq February 7, 2011 at 10:10 am

Unless I had a clear, good reason, my players would balk at this.

Perhaps if they had a magical amulet that would back-up time – once, that might be useful, especially if they had a very difficult mini-adventure coming up, one where every clue NEEDED to be found. Perhaps the amulet was bestowed by a deity, or greater demon?

3 Johnny Voruz February 7, 2011 at 10:47 am

We just got done with the adventure “Curse of the Kingspire”
http://www.goodman-games.com/5302preview.html
(Spoiler Alert!)
This was the crux of the whole thing. If you want to see how to use this effect very well, I highly recommend this adventure and adding a little creative energy of your own, DM’s!

4 Alton February 7, 2011 at 11:03 am

A cool concept for a small adventure would be to have the adventurers go through 4-5 encounters to get slaughtered in the big one. They have to redo the encounters and the DM would add subtle changes to give the characters more information on ways to overcome the final encounter. The DM should probably design the adventure so it take the party 1-4 tries. Award the same XP for 1 try as 4 tries (big bonus for getting it 1st try and less bonus as you progress.)

Just an idea.

5 Debora February 7, 2011 at 11:24 am

I love this idea! Like the other commenters mentioned, it would have to be handled deftly and imaginatively to avoid player frustration and burnout, but if it was done right I think it could be very cool!

Reading this blog makes me really miss rpging. I live in a gamer-free town, as far as I can tell; I wish I could drum up some local interest.

6 Alton February 7, 2011 at 11:46 am

@ Debora

Have you tried joining some online gamers…to see if you can join one of their groups? MapTools and the like. Post on a couple of sites asking for a group that is missing a player at the table. I am sure there are a lot of people out there…

7 Ameron February 7, 2011 at 11:50 am

@BrianLiberge
This idea won’t fly if the combat was merely a bunch of monsters in a 10 x 10 room hacking on you with swords. However, if the combat had a lot of dynamic elements like interesting terrain, cover and traps, and the monsters had powers that the PCs didn’t expect like flyby attacks, phasing, invisibility, breath weapons and auras, then getting a second go at the encounter could be very exciting and rewarding.

@Tourq
It didn’t occur to me that a possible motive for wanting to try an encounter again is to retrieve something they missed the first time through. It almost sounds like a video game scenario where you replay a level to get every hidden coin or puzzle piece. I think if that’s your only motive for replaying an encounter then the missing information or treasure better be pivotal to the bigger story, otherwise why bother.

@Johnny Voruz
Thanks for the excellent recommendation. I’ll be sure to check it out.

@Alton
Of course the encounters don’t have to be exactly the same. In fact it might be better to make the first encounter the same and then start changing subtle details with subsequent encounters. Many things are the same but some small details (like the location of the traps or the damage type of the creature’s aura) are altered. If your players want to keep trying to overcome your encounters and you’re ok to let them keep trying then go for it. I think that speaks volumes to your encounter design if the players liked it enough to want to play it again.

@Debora
The burnout factor is something DMs need to be very aware of. Players might like the concept of the Groundhog Day effect at first but after repeating two encounters they may just want to quit – especially if things haven’t really turned out that differently.

I’ll bet there are a lot of closet gamers or folks that could be easily convinced to try out RPGs in your town. Perhaps you could try and organize a D&D Encounters session and get people interested that way? I’ve found that just reading the D&D PHB in a public place often draws a lot of curious onlookers. It could be that simple. Where do you live? Perhaps some of our other readers are nearby and we can help facilitate a meet-up? Good luck.

8 BrianLiberge February 7, 2011 at 12:19 pm

That just doesn’t sway me. Who uses filler encounters anymore? The encounter was tough and dynamic, and the the thing that was surprising the first time, obviously isn’t going to be surprising the second. If it’s going to be rewarding, something, even if its just character motivation, has to be different.

My player’s don’t want to be pitied, or thrown a bone.

9 Ryven Cedrylle February 7, 2011 at 12:43 pm

While I don’t generally see myself using the Groundhog’s Day concept as a DM, I can think of one use that might flip my switch as a player – the ‘preview’ fight. My party is about to get into a fight with the Ancient Evil(TM) that was sealed away by another party a couple thousand years ago. When going through the old tomes and legends to learn about the battle, the DM hands us each a new character sheet, probably 2-3 levels higher than our current characters. Play through the fight. Now when our main characters face off against the Evil, we’re outclassed by a few levels but we have a good idea of what can happen because we’ve already beaten it once.

10 Corwin February 7, 2011 at 1:09 pm

There have been several iterations on this kind of idea before. The one from Goodman that has already been posted, and even this one, called “Timeless,” about fighting a chronomancer and his older/younger selves: http://www.readyanaction.com/adventures/31timeless.pdf

I think it’s an engaging idea if there are:

1) Enough subtle differences to separate the encounters and avoid the mindless repetition and boredom that can happen with similar 4E fights.

2) A good story to tie them all together or explain the repetition.

3) An increasing level of difficulty that lets you use your knowledge of the previous fights to shine.

Still, it would be interesting to see a more strict Groundhog Day interpretation, or even something akin to Majora’s Mask, where the players must perform a series of tasks in order (during combat or after) to get things moving again. Puzzle fights are the best!

11 Camelot February 7, 2011 at 2:56 pm

At the start of the next day, each die roll the DM makes would have to be the same as it was the previous day, until the PCs start interacting with the NPCs enough that you could justify them taking slightly different actions.

For example, the party is awakened by the ninja failing a Stealth check while trying to assassinate one of them. However, he wins initiative when he realizes this and makes the first attack roll: a critical hit! The next day, he’d do the same thing unless a PC somehow changed their actions enough to affect his.

12 Tourq February 7, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Oh, I just got a wicked adventure in mind… (though “adventure” is too happy of a word for it)…

muahahhaahahha

13 Debora February 7, 2011 at 7:44 pm

@Alton I don’t know what MapTools is. I just Googled it and I think it involves GPS? Which I don’t have one. Of.

I’ve done a bit of searching in the past and haven’t had much luck finding local groups. Maybe I should just keep looking, now that I finally have enough free time to give it some serious effort.

14 Soklemon February 7, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Someone mentioned this on the Dungeon Master Guys podcast. I think it was Dave, Episode 3. Those interested should listen to it!

15 Debora February 7, 2011 at 7:53 pm

@Ameron I don’t want to DM; I already know that I suck at that and I don’t have any equipment other than dice anyway. My strengths are solving puzzles, tactical strategies and diplomatic interactions; I would hate knowing all the solutions before the game opened.

I’m in SoCal, in the 92539 zip code. Any groups nearby?

16 Alton February 7, 2011 at 8:10 pm

@Debora

Sorry I guess I confused you. What I meant is try to find some people, through blogs like this who would be willing to go online and game. It is not the same – I game virtually – but it gives me my fix.

You can then organize to get a gaming program such as RPTools.net, or battlegrounds.com, or one of the plethora of technology out there. It is free and if you connect with some computer wizards, it can be a great experience.

17 Debora February 7, 2011 at 8:25 pm

@Alton Aha, I should look into that. Thanks!

18 Alain February 7, 2011 at 10:05 pm

This reminds me of a ST:TNG episode. I like, I like… :)

19 Greg February 8, 2011 at 10:42 am

I did something similar many years ago in a 2nd Edition D&D game (this was before 3rd edition came out) but my do-overs were based more around Caught in Crystal, by Patricia C. Wrede than on Groundhog Day. It’s a good book to read if you’re looking for inspiration.

20 Sunyaku February 8, 2011 at 8:04 pm

My home group lives a significant distance from one-another, so we don’t play as often as I would like. I like this idea, but I think I would hesitate to use the Ground Hog Day effect just because I want each session to be a rich experience that leaves everyone wanting to play more (especially since there’s a fair amount of pre-planning and driving involved for everyone).

But, over the holiday break I ran a special module that could be considered a somewhat different spin of the “Groundhog Day” effect. The module took place in the campaign world, several months into the future– and the players took on the roles of various monster champions who were assembled and coerced to complete a series of key tasks before an impending invasion of civilized lands. The events of this module will eventually impact the regular players’ characters when they catch up with the timeline… and they will have the option to hunt down these champions and their tribes, or forgive them and try to convince them to oppose the leaders of the invasion.

At public play encounters, there was one week where the group I played in TPK’d so fast we had enough time for a second go at it. Shamefully and embarrassingly defeated, the DM had the monsters let us go so long as we promised not to invade their territory again. We went back to town, had an extended rest, and then went after them a second time. The second time went equally bad, and we all died again lol.

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