18 January 2005

Writing a Hunt

Wax wrote about his feelings on this year's Mystery Hunt. At one point he talks about how he hopes that somebody (Mayhem in his case) gets a chance to write a hunt that is somehow "different" from the current pattern. I might write about this year's hunt in detail somewhere, but right now I'm motivated to provide a perspective on this exact question of creating a novel hunt from someone who tried to do just that.

It's terribly difficult. We first set out with this idea of getting away from the way things had been done in recent memory (i.e. having puzzle rounds which build metapuzzles which meta-meta, which lead to a final runaround). We also wanted to give puzzles more MIT flavor and bring them away from the canonical puzzle types (crosswords, cryptics and so forth, as well as common encoding mechanisms such as sorting, letter-plucking and so forth) preferred by NPL types. Right away we realized two things:

  1. In order for 80 distinct puzzles to lead to a coin they must have structure of some kind, and it's pretty damned hard to create that structure in any way other than the rounds-with-meta system.

  2. Creating the Mystery Hunt is a huge responsibility which ultimately requires a product you hope will please everyone who wants to participate—thus you need to include at least some of those canonical puzzles that everyone expects. One of the reasons they are always used is that people tend to enjoy solving them.

In the end we had a mammoth hunt with what I think was a pretty cool structure. Unfortunately, all that most people saw was the island-by-island phase, with standard metas (although they all had the cool feature that the answers were "transforms" for the paper maps we handed out—e.g. one needed to be read under UV light, one needed to be folded into a pirate hat and read along the seams). We also had a whole secondary structure where some of those words were re-used in "Booty Metas" which were clued by the main map and yada yada. It was cool, believe me, but would've required a whole week for somebody to solve.

We were overambitious and inexperienced from start to finish. We ended up with too many puzzles which lacked polish. Writing the Hunt has been described as a full-time job, and it is even more daunting for a group of people with little experience doing this sort of thing. My advice to people from Random this year is fairly simple:

  1. Don't make it too long! The Hunt should end on Sunday, not Monday morning. People are just burned out by then—focus on better, not bigger.

  2. As first time writers, focus twice as much energy on writing and testing as you think you should.

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