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A few months ago, someone ran a "Groundhog Day" scenario at a local con as a pickup game using Monsterhearts. [personal profile] drcpunk played in it.

Now, first, it seems clear to me that people had fun at this game. It was -not- a failure, by any means.

However, it also seems clear, both based on [personal profile] drcpunk's description of play, and in what I've heard elsewhere, that the game was not ideal -- both in that it violated the implicit contract of play of Monsterhearts, and that it didn't really fulfill the promise that one -could- have in a Monsterhearts/Groundhog Day scenario.

FWIW, my purpose isn't to trash the original game. It seems to have been fun! But I want to sketch out how I'd do something similar that would fit my aesthetic better.


Note: This is yet another very geeky RPG methods post. If you don't know Monsterhearts (or Apocalypse World games in general), you may be very mystified.

Ok, first, a few things for the lost:

Monsterhearts is a game using the Apocalypse Engine (a popular Indie RPG structure so-called because the first game using it was Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker) which does the "Teenage Monster" thing; a bit of Buffy, but at least as much Twilight and Ginger Snaps. The short descriptor is "The game of messy teenage monster romance." Like all Apocalypse Engine games, characters earn experience quickly, with an intent that the game reach the end of a "season" in about 3 or 4 sessions of play (or at least that's the way it tends to work in my experience; different AE games do have slightly different rates of growth, but getting one or two experience in most scenes, and getting a character advancement every 5 experience, is pretty common).

Groundhog Day, for anyone who hasn't seen it (I haven't) or is familiar with the trope (most people are) is a plot where a time period repeats over and over again until the characters get it right, due to some kind of time magic or science or whatever.

Now, the way the under-discussion game ran was that at the beginning of the second session, the GM told people to remove all their experience and go back to starting characters (after all, the previous day hadn't happened, even though their characters remembered it -- and yes, I'll get back to this). The characters then went through the same day again, only they remembered the previous version.

Eventually, they figured out the rules and why they were there: 1. If any PC died, the day started over. 2. If Kevin (a NPC) hadn't had a perfect day, the day started over. 3. The reason this was happening was that Kevin had cast a spell to "have a perfect day".

So, with a lot of elision (ie, as one might expect, some of the days weren't played out except by description), they eventually figured out that Kevin's perfect day involved getting together with the girl he wanted to be with, set it up, and bam, game over, happy ending.

I might have left a few things out. I don't have a writeup in front of me, and I didn't play in this game.

But as promised, I do have a few issues with how this ran:

First: The experience thing. Groundhog Day plots are expressly predicated on the characters learning from the many repetitions of the same day they go through. In the original movie of Groundhog Day, the character starts out not knowing how to play the piano, but at the end of it, he's a master pianist, on the same day -- because he's gotten a chance to practice. To give another example of the plot, on Skin Horse, there was the "Choose" plotline (go read it; I'll try not to spoil much, and it reads well stand-alone), where by the end the character had picked up a number of important skills (particularly bootblacking). The concept is -expressly- all about characters learning from experience. So removing experience from the characters on reboot is a lovely "gotcha" -- a great subversion of the expectations of Monsterhearts -- and absolutely, 100% wrong.

Second, the scenario itself. Monsterhearts is all about the players (and their characters) making decisions -- pushing themselves into upwards and downwards spirals. But a game of "figure out what the perfect day the GM decided on and make it happen"? Is pretty much the exact opposite of that. It makes the game not about what the players choose, but about how long it takes them to figure out what the GM decided on -- and thus turns the game into "Monsterhearts, the puzzling" rather than "Monsterhearts, the cutting open your wrist and seeing how much bleeding you want to do". If I want to play a puzzle game, I'll play a game that has more than one move which finds out information.

And third, although it's a subltle point, I just think this scenario was too easy. I mean, any time you wanted a do-over, all you had to do was kill yourself or ruin Kevin's day. So it was trivial for any character to deny the game ending (just suicide) and once they figured out the plot and the overall solution, it was just a matter of walking through it.




So, then, the question is how I'd do it. Better, of course.

First, mechanics: Of -course- characters would earn experience in a Groundhog Day scenario. That's the whole point. You can even make things impossibly hard in places, because the whole concept is that you get to go through the day until you get it right! So not only would you get to keep experience (it's the same "you", after all) on iterations; I'd also put in play a rule that whenever you tried something that was exactly the same as a previous time which you succeeded at before, you automatically succeeded. If you failed the last time you tried it, you instead get a bonus equal to the number of times you've tried it; if it's possible (i.e., if I'm giving you a roll), eventually you'll figure out how it works, because you're learning and the universe isn't. Of course, all bets are off if you're opposed by someone else trapped in the time loop, because paradox (and because they're -not- guaranteed to do things exactly the same each time given identical previous circumstances.

Second, narrative structure. The key element of a Groundhog Day scenario in a way that's interesting in a Monsterhearts way isn't "you have to do the same day over and over again." It's "you discover that you -can- repeat the same day over and over again until you're satisfied with it." The arc that gives players agency and means that I as GM have no idea what is going to happen isn't a puzzle set up -- it's a setup where by halfway or 3/4 of the way thorugh the game the characters -can- finish things, but if they do, lots of horrible things will have happened that -aren't- undone. Or they can keep resetting the day until they get it right -- but when is it right enough? Particularly since characters--this is Monsterhearts, after all--won't necessarily agree on what "right" is.

That brings us to the final concept--in-world structure. The problem, fundamentally, with "any PC death or anything bad happening to this NPC resets" is that it both requires that every PC agrees with the ending (which means that if the game -does- end up being about disagreement, all PCs have to agree to end the game, which could go very badly and biases non-sociopathic players to collaborative solutions) and it allows very little agency to the players. It also is a long puzzly thing that's likely to take too much time away from what interests me about the idea, which is what the PCs are willing to do to get -their- perfect day, not to fulfil someone else's perfect day. So the lynchpin -- what causes things to reset, has to be really simple--maybe not easy to accomplish; you need to have enough repetitions before people figure out how to stop things that they feel in control and can try to focus on the other things that went wrong in later iterations, but simple enough that it doesn't dominate the entire game.

There are a lot of possiblities here, but the most obvious to me is the death of a -single- character. Most likely a NPC (because NPCs can more easily be very fragile than PCs), but possibly a Mortal or otherwise plot-level vulnerable PC. Or it could be an object or building.

This allows for a lot of interseting things going on. Of course a lot of terrible things will happen (unstoppable in the first iteration; not so much in later ones where the PCs know they're happening and can figure out why and how to stop them if they want to); after all, we need enough bad stuff going on that they realize there's a motivation to stop things. But also not everyone is going to agree on when it's time to stop -- and until you hit the end of playtime, that's ok. Maybe some days will end with a war between characters, some of whom want to reset and are trying to kill/destroy the lynchpin. Or mabye they'll all decide that one day is pefect -enough- and stop. Or maybe they'll manage to solve everything and end with perfect-enough for everyone. Or maybe they'll decide they're trapped in a time loop forever. I don't know how this would go, and it's awesome.

Fundamentally, the story I want to tell with this setup isn't "how do we end this day and get out of the episode". That can be an interesting mystery plot, but Monsterhearts isn't a mystery game, and it's just not that interesting to me. Instead, it's "ok, you have tools that let you end with a perfect day, at least in theory. So, what's your perfect day, and what are you willing to sacrifice for it or settle for?

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Joshua Kronengold

February 2017

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