(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.)
Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that I had a very stressful year; a lot of things contributed to that, ranging from personal to professional to political, but Hunt was a big one. There were a number of things I wish we had done differently (some of which I complained about at the time), and I want to document them here not to throw anybody under the bus (I’m certainly not going to name any names) but rather to provide a warning to future construction teams, especially a first time construction team like Death & Mayhem, about small things that can cause you headaches later on.
I also want to emphasize that some of the people I was most frustrated with over these issues really stepped up in the last few months, which I deeply appreciate. But in a perfect world, November and December could have been a tune-up period, rather than a period in which a third of the Hunt’s puzzles were still being drafted.
1) We didn’t do enough to keep the whole team aware of the process throughout the year.
We had two primary ways for the team to communicate: Slack, and the team e-mail list. Between the day the theme was chosen and December, we didn’t use either enough for my tastes. Early on, a committee of about twenty people interested in metapuzzle writing was split into two halves and worked on metapuzzle development, with the idea that the other half could be the first testers and develop the metas further, before they were tested by folks outside the committee. This took several months, and as it turned out, (a) we didn’t do much testing outside the committee after all, and (b) we got used to not talking about what was going on using the main list, since what was going on was a secret to most, and I don’t think we ever kicked that habit. Just to show that I’m not just assigning blame to others, I was one of the people principally in charge of story, and in December, when I told a constructor their flavortext was inconsistent with the story, they told me that they didn’t know what the story was at that point. That’s as much my fault as anyone else’s.
We also had a small executive committee that accomplished a lot of really important tasks (props to them) but didn’t always keep the rest of the team updated on what they were doing (and I think that made it look to people outside that committee like there wasn’t much to do, which probably contributed to #2). I was on that committee briefly but ended up leaving out of frustration, and sort of designated myself “person outside the committee who constantly annoys the committee about keeping the rest of us aware of what’s going on.” When Setec ran the Hunt, Ray Jones served as “Team Asshole” (his term, I believe, not mine) whose job it was to step in bluntly when people weren’t meeting deadlines. We didn’t officially have a team asshole this year, but I think I unofficially stepped into that role, and I suspect some of my teammates would consider that an apt name for me during this process. (They would not be wrong.)
In any case, I suspect there are casual members of our team that would have happily done more than they did if they had been in the loop earlier, and I found that very frustrating.
2) We didn’t have enough urgency in the first half of the year.
The beginning of Hunt construction is very bottlenecky. You can’t do anything until you have a theme and structure. Then you can do very little until you have metas. (I know some teams have actually split up round creation and have thus started building the puzzles in a round as soon as that meta is complete, though I’ve never done so. We did start accepting character puzzle proposals while the quest metas were being written.)
I already mentioned that our meta process was a bit isolated, but even within that process, there were sometimes stages where nothing happened for several days. Sometimes that was because it wasn’t clear that we had to move on, and sometimes it was because the person in charge of the next step vanished and didn’t delegate to anyone. In any case, there were definitely times when, from my perspective, the Hunt seemed like it was on pause, and we suffered for it later.
3) We spent too much time using a one-editor system.
In 2011, Metaphysical Plant created a Hunt construction platform called Puzzletron, which will almost certainly be passed on to you if you run a Hunt. It tracks each puzzle from proposal to draft to testing (which can be done by testers through Puzzletron without a moderator, which is AMAZING) to postproduction to final version. It’s an invaluable tool, and I would never write a Mystery Hunt without it at this point. (Thanks, MPP!)
One of the key elements of that process is assigning editors to puzzles. My experience in 2014 was that every puzzle got three editors; at each advancement stage (most importantly idea-to-start-writing, draft-to-testable, testing-to-ready) happened once 2 out of 3 editors clicked a button, and it was all a very smooth and automatic process. The last time Setec wrote a Hunt was pre-Puzzletron, and editing was a more ad hoc process… likely stemming from that, this time we started with one editor assigned to each puzzle. This did not work; having one editor and one author is not conducive to discussion, and if the editor got busy or didn’t log into Puzzletron for a while, everything ground to a halt. Eventually we made more people editors (establishing two tiers of editors, the top tier of which would end up with more assignments) and put at least three editors on each puzzle and a lot more started happening. Based on these two Hunts, I think it’s good practice to assign a lot of your team members to be editors; even if someone has no experience, if they’re part of a team of three where others do, they’ll likely be useful.
Again, the good news is that none of these missteps (or at the very least, they’re things I considered missteps) damaged the Hunt, thanks to a lot of work from everyone in the last two months. But those two months were much more frantic than they would have had to be if we’d have a smoother process. I think the moral of all this is that in April, the Hunt seems like it’s a long way away… it really isn’t. If a week goes by and not much happens, imagine it’s December 1, at which point losing a full week would be terrifying. Get everyone involved in the process early, so that everybody doesn’t have to drive themselves crazy by the end to get everything done. (And if it seems impossible to stay on a well-paced schedule, ask Erin Rhode for advice.)
= = =
I’m grateful to virtually everybody on our Hunt team for the work they put in, but I’d like to give particular thanks to a handful of people that made this experience better for me personally, and whose contributions might not be obvious from the outside. (I’ll also tip my hat again to the kickoff cast, whom I already thanked in Part 1.) So thanks:
To Philip Loh and Guy Jacobson, both of whom accepted a field promotion in terms of editing and ended up doing a lot more work than they initially signed up for. Their contributions were absolutely crucial to getting things going at a necessary pace, and I was grateful that they were willing to volunteer much more of their time than they probably intended.
To TK Focht and Jenn Braun for proposing a structure that I could really get excited about (see Part 1 of my recap for more on that), and for letting me get involved with the story development.
To TK Focht (again) and Matt Gruskin for building a smoothly functioning website (which, as we learned in 2016, is not a given) and showing us enough partial work throughout the process to keep me confident that the one thing I have no control over (I do a little programming, but a project on the level of the Hunt website might as well be magic to me) was going to be just fine. And they both wrote some great puzzles at the same time; each of them was fully or partially responsible for one of the puzzles in the top three I listed at the end of Part 2.
And to Jenn Braun (again) for keeping me sane for most of the year. Jenn and I started a Hunt team (not this one) together eleven years ago, and having run two Hunts together, we agree on a lot of things and generally understand each other when we disagree. I was figuratively on the ledge a lot writing this Hunt, and Jenn did a great job talking me down when I was overreacting, and helping to advocate for me when I wasn’t. She’s one of my best friends, and I wouldn’t have made it through this project without her.
So that’s it! Nothing left to talk about… Oh, right. Stay tuned for Part 4, where I’ll talk about the amount of time it took Death & Mayhem to find the coin, and maybe we can all have a little chat about what it means for the Mystery Hunt in the long term.