Mystery Hunt 2017, Part 1: Theme & Structure

(Note: The 2017 Mystery Hunt was created by Setec Astronomy, a team of about fifty people. I did a small fraction of the work and was not in charge in any way. Any opinions or perspectives below are my own and don’t necessarily reflect that of my teammates.)

Initially we brainstormed nineteen themes. In February, we narrowed them down to two for further development, and in March we chose the one we used. I’m not going to spoil all the stuff we didn’t use, but I will say one rejected theme was Presidential Election, and let’s all be VERY glad that one didn’t get picked. The finalists were the theme we used (RPG) and a theme/structure I proposed; I’m not going to say what that was so that Setec can use it when we write again in 2029, so for now let’s call it Pokemon. (For the record, it wasn’t Pokemon. Or Election.)

When TK Focht and Jenn Braun presented their RPG structure, which was virtually identical to the structure we ended up using, I fell in love with it, which put me in the unique position of arguing strongly against my own suggestion. So I defected and worked closely with Jenn and TK to produce the official theme/structure proposal, while another group put together a similarly detailed proposal for Pokemon. The final vote was 56% to 44%, so we came very close to doing something completely different!

One thing that was not in the original structure was the item meta (The Maniacal Merchants). After we already had a structure pretty much nailed down, (a) we realized that there wasn’t any motivation to go back and solve quest puzzles if you got the meta, and (b) Chris Morse was sad that we weren’t hitting the “gathering stuff” element of RPGs. The item meta turned out to be a really nice way to solve both of these problems, as it gave you neat little rewards for solving some quest puzzles, and those rewards fed into a giant meta, so that you needed to solve a lot of those puzzles but not necessarily all of them. (This was also intended to substitute for the “pop quiz” element of some Hunt endgames that checks whether you’ve solved enough puzzles… We wanted that check to happen during the Hunt, rather than at the end when everything is more urgent.)

A small committee (consisting of Jenn Braun, TK Focht, Greg Pliska, Todd McClary, Connor Stokes, Brooks Willis, and me) worked on the item meta and the two endgames, which were mostly finalized in August. We initially planned to grant teams a custom die every time they solved a character meta, giving them a full set of six that they would use to solve puzzles in the endgames. But we couldn’t decide on a way of using the dice that was worth the cost of making them, and delivering an object every time teams solved a meta seemed pretty time-consuming (I’m looking at you, Wafflehaus). Everything clicked once Todd realized that the eight shifts between the two endgame answers we ended up using were actually only six different shifts, since two pairs of letters shifted by the same amount. Since six was our magic number for characters, once we had that transformation to work with, everything came together.

I really love writing Hunt kickoff scripts; I’ve done so for five previous Hunts I’ve worked on (the exception being 2014, where I generally tried to defer to the people who’d been around since 2004 on anything that didn’t seem too risky), and I was excited to get to write for this one. There’s a certain meta-humor you can draw from the fact that, yes, you’re telling a story, but this story is also just a flimsy excuse for solving a bunch of puzzles, and I think I’m pretty good at tapping into that sort of humor. (The realization cheers on the dice coming out and the mention of a “two-sided die” both went exactly as planned.)

Anyway, a lot of people have said really nice things about the kickoff skit itself, and I’m really happy that people enjoyed it. I want to emphasize that it would not have been anywhere near as good as it was without the fantastic cast (Marisa Debowsky, Josh Oratz, Tanis O’ Connor, Jenn Braun, Trip Payne, Philip Loh, and Nancy Taubenslag) who rehearsed for the first time the night before Hunt started and pulled off their best performance when it counted. Also thanks to Steeeve Peters, who provided additional director’s notes once I was hamming it up on stage and couldn’t see what was going on.

I also wrote the “script” for the character and final endgames, so that anybody could play Mystereo (we had lots of different people play all of the characters throughout the weekend; we probably had about ten different Mystereos, and I played him five times, in addition to playing the Economist three or four times). As Mystereo I improvised a lot, which was super-fun because it’s basically just trash talking. In fact, in retrospect, I’m kind of sad that we had Mystereo turn back into the DM before the final runaround, as when I ran around with teams, I found myself constantly wanting to taunt them. (Occasionally I tried pretending that Mystereo was trying to re-possess me to add urgency, but that was just awkward.)

Together, the kickoff and endgames had what I think was one of the more vivid story arcs I’ve ever seen in a Mystery Hunt; once we chose endgame answers that were themed around cooperation and togetherness, it became clear that the kickoff should depict two sets of characters that were arguing as much as possible. I love that you start with a bunch of characters that can’t get along, and initially you solve puzzles that only benefit one character, but then you advance to quests that the whole party tackles together (leveling up all of the characters at once) and that advancement from single-mindedness to teamwork was reflected in the endgames, the most pivotal moments of the story. Some of this came together by accident, but I’m really glad that it was all in there in the end.

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5 thoughts on “Mystery Hunt 2017, Part 1: Theme & Structure

  1. I literally had a dream last month that you had chosen the election as the theme and spent the last two months frantically rewriting the whole Hunt!

    I think this was my favorite kickoff ever. (And as somebody who’s spent the last 5 years hunting from California [Next Year In Cambridge, I say every year… maybe once Ida’s a little older…] I appreciated the high quality livestream of kickoff and wrapup, though in general I do strongly believe that Hunt should not be optimized for remote solver.) I laughed a lot. Trip’s magic arms were probably the absolute highlight, but it was generally pretty hilarious.

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    • Tom Buehler should be thanked for the quality streaming of the kickoff and wrap-up, as well as most of the great videos at the end of the wrap-up (Philip edited the Swifties comp, though). He did a great job documenting the Hunt in general.

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  2. Kickoff skit was great! I also really liked the endgame. We’ve needed a good model for an endgame that was short and simple, but also enjoyable and with a memorable puzzle (in this case mostly memorable because of how perfect the answer was in context). These epic several-hour endgames are so often a disaster (too long, under-testsolved, difficult to parallelize, difficult to run 17 times), and so it’s a service to see how another model can work well. I think to me a perfect endgame would be some kind of more challenging in-room large puzzle like the Hell meta-meta (or the History hunt resolve round) subbed in for the inventory puzzle followed up by exactly this length and difficulty of out-of-HQ endgame.

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  3. I don’t understand the Wafflehaus reference. What’s that referring to?

    The opening skit was one of the best I’ve seen. I don’t know how much of that was due to the livestreaming actually working. 🙂

    One interesting feature of this opening skit is that it is surprisingly accessible to RPGers who aren’t puzzle hunters. It hits a lot of the tropes really well.

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    • Wafflehaus is a team based in Simmons Hall, which is a bit of a hike from main campus. Going to visit them every time they solved a meta would have been a bit of a time sink (and making them come to us would not have been fun for them either).

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