Puzzles, Time Loops and the Clockwork Setpiece

You pull yourselves up the rigging and over the ship’s handrail. The mist hangs low over the deck. You think you can see figures moving about, but nothing is distinct.
“Ah,” you hear from behind you, “I thought this might happen…”
Captain Broadheart is looking at his outstretched hands as his fingers trail off into the mist. In a few short seconds his form has dissolved and joined the dense fog.
Just then, the fog lifts…


Intro


I want to talk about something I’ve tried to implement for a long time and recently have managed to crack the formula for. If you’ve played The Outer Wilds then you’ll see some parallels here. If not then don’t worry, you won’t be missing any critical context.

How do you implement a Time Loop or other resetting setpiece in D&D? Sure you can just have things reset every so often, but there’s a surprising suite of challenges that make this hard to make satisfying. I’m going to talk about those challenges first, then discuss the solutions I’ve found, and finally examine some case studies of ways I’ve implemented these ideas in my games recently.

The Clockwork Setpiece

I’m going to use this term a lot during this piece, so I’m going to take the time to define it now. A Clockwork Setpiece is a setpiece that in some capacity resets after a set period. The setpiece may be a dungeon, a region of the world, an entire city, or one very specific gauntlet of challenges like a gladiatorial tournament. The period could be a certain length of time, a certain number of rooms traversed, or a certain number of enemies defeated.

The most common form the Clockwork Setpiece takes on is the Time Loop. In a Time Loop everything entirely rewinds to an earlier point.

Other Clockwork Setpieces may simply reset without rewinding. Traps re-arm themselves, enemies respawn, doors re-lock, but the players stay wherever it is they are already. This may mean they have to backtrack through previously-completed challenges, depending on the layout of the setpiece.

The Combat Issue

Let’s say you have a Clockwork Setpiece. It’s a dungeon where every (x) number of rooms everything respawns. Doors re-lock, automatons reassemble themselves, puzzles reset.

The specific moment where things reset for the first time and the players understand that the challenge won’t just be navigating the dungeon but instead navigating it efficiently is a really cool moment. Unfortunately the power of that moment is soon lost when they have to roll initiative for a combat they’ve already won before. Yes, there is now a new challenge in that they don’t just need to win combats, they need to conserve resources to win the same combat multiple times, but the tedium of the combat outweighs the fun of the challenge. Believe me, I’ve tried it.

So if you have time loops and other resetting setpieces it becomes difficult if not impossible to include combats as a part of these setpieces. Suddenly, in order to make our gimmicky dungeon work we have to largely eschew or entirely remove one of the main pillars of play.

This is, by the way, to say nothing of how frustrating it is to re-solve puzzles.

The Puzzle Issue

This one is naturally self-explanatory. If the players already know the solution then the challenge is gone. Re-solving a puzzle isn’t fun, it’s just busywork.

It seems like the obvious solution here is to have ‘timed resets’. If every, say, 20 minutes the dungeon resets then knowing a solution in advance allows you to progress further much faster. However, the problem arises when puzzles act as arbitrary gates to progress and ‘beating’ the dungeon becomes a matter of hauling ass through the puzzles you already know the solutions to then spending all your time on the newest one. The net effect is you only actually need to solve each puzzle once, which is no different to how it would be in a normal dungeon. There is no additional satisfaction gained from repeated solves of the same puzzle. Worse, because of the dungeon’s gimmick they have to solve each puzzle exactly once and then meaninglessly re-complete them several more times.

This is to say nothing of the difficulties that come with abstracting time in these situations. If a puzzle involves moving heavy things around a room, how much time should be expended from moving them to the known solution? Not only do the party have to deal with the tedium of saying ‘We solve the puzzle, same as before’, now you as the DM have to deal with the extra bookkeeping of calculating the impact each puzzle has on the total time elapsed.

This same problem somewhat applies to traps too, for what it’s worth, though there are some caveats to traps that I’ll go over later.

The Resource Issue

This is where we truly hit the wall. If the dungeon resets, do party resources reset? If they don’t then there’s a challenge in conserving resources, but the punishment of over-expenditure becomes extreme. If the party does eventually run out of resources then how do you handle resting in a time loop? Also, you best be sure you know exactly how many loops it’s going to take the party to beat the setpiece, because if it becomes impossible to beat without any resources at their disposal then there’s a failstate to this setpiece.

Failstates are fine in theory. They add necessary tension and real stakes. This, however, is an unsatisfying failstate. You run the risk of the party going ‘We came so close on that one attempt and barely failed, but because we failed we’re now unable to ever succeed since we used too many resources’. It’s just needlessly punishing and extremely anti-fun.

So what if resources do reset?

Well now we run into other issues. Primarily among them is the fact that the long-rest classes get a huge advantage over the short-rest classes. In fact we run into the exact issue many DMs run into when they have too few encounters between long rests.

So what about a mixed solution?

Now the issue becomes bookkeeping. If you’re sitting there going ‘Cleric spell slots don’t refresh but Warlock ones doo, Bardic Inspiration refreshes but Ki doesn’t,’ then you’re adding needless complexity for either yourself or your players (or worse, both). Alternatively you could simplify it by saying ‘long rest resources don’t refresh, short rest ones do’, but now the setpiece is heavily skewed towards classes that largely refresh on a short rest and we have the opposite issue to before.

We really do just keep hitting walls, huh?

The Outer Wilds

The Outer Wilds is a game about exploring your local solar system in a ramshackle spaceship.

There’s a mild spoiler ahead. Really it’s a spoiler for something that happens 22 minutes into the game. In fact, it happens every 22 minutes…

In The Outer Wilds, every 22 minutes the sun explodes and everyone dies. Then you wake up back on your home planet and start again.

In theory you could beat the game on your first loop, but you don’t actually know how. There are no puzzles to solve, no combats to beat, no challenges to repeatedly beat every time you want to progress further during a loop. The difference between you on your first loop and you on your last one is your knowledge of the game world. Not a single new mechanic or ability is introduced.

So What Does That Have To Do With D&D?

The main thing that needs to be acquired between resets is knowledge. This can be knowledge of a layout, allowing the party to avoid dead-ends or utilise shortcuts. It may be knowledge of how to better navigate challenges like combats, traps and puzzles. It may be knowledge of how to ultimately end the resets.

The Combat Issue Revisited

The party has fought the same pair of automatons three times already. Just as it’s getting tedious, they finally reach a room deep in the eastern wing of the manor that has a blueprint of the automatons’ construction. On it is clearly labelled a killswitch. If a certain gear is removed from the automaton’s spine the whole thing will shut down. Now the party, armed with this knowledge, can start treating automatons like Traps to be disarmed with skill checks rather than Combats to be beaten at great expense of time and resources.

The party has been rewarded with Knowledge which will help them across all their loops. Should they ever need to fight those same automata again, or even encounter more further in the dungeon, they will be armed with the knowledge to quickly despatch of them.

A Note on Traps

Remember how I mentioned Traps were a little different compared to other gameplay challenges in D&D? That’s because in a big way they actually lend themselves well to Clockwork Setpieces. Traps are sometimes already built to reset themselves. If a trap has already been disarmed once then disarming it again is made easier due to the fact that the party already largely understands how it works. Yeah there’ll still be a skill challenge, but the DC will be significantly lower than the first disarming.

Better yet, between loops it may be possible to disengage a trap altogether. A certain reward at one point might be finding a master switch that permanently disables all traps in a certain area of the dungeon.

The Puzzle Issue

Puzzles as Gates don’t work in a Clockwork Setpiece, so what does work? Well, instead of single puzzles, have the dungeon itself be a puzzle of sorts. Or perhaps there is some wider puzzle surrounding permanently disabling all the traps in the dungeon. In each loop the players find more and more clues until eventually they have all the information required to go to the room with the master switch and solve the lock that prevents them from manipulating it. Now with the lock removed they can throw the switch and can disable all the traps.

In each loop they were again rewarded with Knowledge. In this instance it was the knowledge of how to solve a wider puzzle. Now solving the puzzles of the dungeon has become part of the goal rather than something in the way of the goal. Once all the traps have been disabled from the master switch, the secret to shutting down automata is known, and the passcode to the inner sanctum has been decoded, it’s possible to confront the mad tinkerer and put an end to all this.

The Resource Issue

In truth there’s no easy fix to this one. The best approach to take is either have a time loop that is short enough that nobody is expending too significant a portion of their resources so as to make it unbalanced. The sweet spot in my opinion is about 1-2 combats.

If it’s not a time loop situation and is more just a sprawling ‘Clockwork Dungeon’ then letting the party perform rests as normal is more or less the solution. Yeah it’s nothing special, but it’s functional.

In truth most of this issue is solved by solving the other 2. Once we’re not needlessly expending resources on grindy combats and repeated traps or puzzles we largely stop having to worry about how often resources are being refreshed.

A Case Study

I recently ran a one-shot that was, put plainly, a time loop on a ghost ship. As soon as the players climbed aboard I started a 10-minute countdown timer and read the monologue from the start of this piece.

The players had to figure out what happened on the ship to cause it to become a ghost ship and had to figure out how to fix it.

The ship was sailing toward a storm. The captain had sent a letter to the Boatswain informing him that he intended to alter his course to the north. In the rain the letter got damp on the way to the Boatswain’s quarters, and with the lights in his room half-extinguished he misread the letter. Thinking the captain intended to sail them into the storm the Boatswain rallied the crew to mutiny. They murdered the captain while he slept in his bed and stashed his body along with the map showing his intended course into a barrel deep in the hold. The ship then sailed south, right into an unexpectedly strong flank of the storm. The crew perished, and as penance for the murder they carried out were doomed to sail the seas forever.

The party had to do 3 things. They had to bring the captain’s bones up from the hold and lay them to rest in his bed, light the lamps in the Boatswain’s quarters, and bring the captain’s original map up to the helmsman.

So that’s the goal.

Now for the Mechanics

The spirits on the deck will attack the party if provoked. Once they are defeated, though, they will fall back into their bodies, speak a few lines, then perish. These lines will hint towards what went on aboard the ship or how it might be fixed. Things like “We shouldn’t have killed him”, or “If only we could set things right”. To make bookkeeping easier, all combats are assumed to take 1 full minute.

If the party confronts the man stood on the ship’s foredeck he will attack. If he is defeated, the loop resets. This man is the Boatswain. Confronting him when all 3 tasks are complete is the way to break the loop and save the ship.

After 10 minutes the loop will also reset, and the party will receive the same opening monologue to signal that this reset has taken place. Spells will be refreshed and hit points will be restored with one small caveat.

The spirits all have the ‘Drain Life’ ability. Any time you take damage from one you have to make a Constitution saving throw. On a failure your hit point maximum is reduced by the amount of the damage taken. This reduced hit point maximum does not reset at the start of each loop. This introduces a failstate, but it is one that is predictable and mitigate-able. The party will begin minimising combats, taking them only where necessary.

Advancement and Success

After a couple of loops as the party has begun to learn more they will use the few lines of dialogue given by the defeated spirits as an opportunity to learn more.

“You say we shouldn’t have killed him. Who’s ‘him’?”
“The cap’n. Gods, we murdered him in his sleep, fools all we were.”

They’ll also know what they are looking for. The first time they go down to the hold it may be several minutes into the loop, and they will have likely proceeded with caution. Soon they’ll start each loop with the fastest party-member saying ‘I sprint down to the hold and grab the map and the captain’s skeleton’.

After a few loops they’ll understand the mechanics and they’ll know how to learn the answers they need.

The combats are made brief enough that they never become tedious, especially when they can be anticipated. Given that the party trigger the combats and not the enemies, combat will only happen on the players’ terms. This mitigates the tedium in a big way.

Finally the party can complete all 3 tasks and confront the Boatswain. He can tell them the story of what happened on the ship if they haven’t figured it out fully yet, and the ship’s curse can be lifted.

Other Formats

Naturally a haunted location makes for a great framing device for a Time Loop, but this isn’t the only way we can implement these Clockwork Setpieces. I’ve loosely used the other example of the manor of a mad tinkerer across this write-up. A large, sprawling manor with numerous trapped rooms that all reset after a certain period of time or when certain locations are reached is another great way to build a Clockwork Setpiece.

The main thing, of course, is to stick to the lessons laid out above. Make sure advancement is tangible, and have advancement largely be tied to mitigating or removing the tedium that would otherwise come from fighting the same enemies and disarming the same traps over and over.

Another great format is the ‘Stuck on a Mysterious Island’ trope where the party is trying to escape some sort of pocket dimension. During each loop the party can explore entire regions of the pocket dimension and learn how it all works and where things all are. The whole thing culminates in an epic run through the final loop where they have figured out a route to all the places they need to go to undo whatever it is that is trapping them there and set themselves free. The challenge becomes one of routing and efficiency over a large area.

There is one key thing in all this though:

Make Sure Goals Are Clear

The party must learn as quickly as possible what the rules of the Clockwork Setpiece are and must gain a clear understand of what must be done to overcome it. Having them dick around through loop after loop with no clear idea of their goal is going to ruin the whole thing.

Now obviously discovering the goal can be a part of the challenge, but there must be tangible progress made toward this discovery each and every loop. This is why I emphasise Knowledge as the reward from each loop above all else. A loop where the party has accomplished nothing and learned nothing is going to kill your players fun like you wouldn’t believe. Two of them in a row will kill your game altogether. Three may just kill your friendships.

The Conclusion to Groundhog Day

Thanks for sticking through that one, I know it was long. Hopefully though this has given you a proper toolset to allow you to successfully implement one of the coolest concepts out there in the form of the Clockwork Setpiece. Remember: make goals clear, reward players with knowledge above all else, and clearly understand the things that can kill the fun so that you know what you’re trying to avoid.

4 thoughts on “Puzzles, Time Loops and the Clockwork Setpiece

  1. This has been a game idea in my head for a while that I thought would make for a very neat experience, though such a tough one to make fun as you illustrated with all the problems in the first half.

    Big fan of the “knowledge as reward” in this, and right-sizing it becomes the part to balance so they are not stuck too long without making progress.

    Resource strain has been a sticking point in my head, so I super love the life drain idea. Makes it clear thing can continue to go downhill, but not horribly disastrous via using a 1/day spell/ability in the wrong place.

    Like

    1. Glad you found it helpful! Making resource expenditure work is absolutely the hardest part of all this, but the main thing is to ensure it’s not too punishing. Having contrivances like ‘This room has a well, if you drink from it you restore a spell slot’ if the players find themselves running too low is perfectly fine.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.