First of all, to anyone who is curious after all the build-up, Jefferson’s Lost Invention went great! The teams were super nice and enthusiastic (and really excited to have a Charlottesville race), none of the clues were broken (though some could use improvement), everybody seemed to have a good time, and I didn’t have any meltdowns! Thanks to Team C’ville, Team Kaiya, Team A-Squared, and reader Tabstop for making it out on Saturday, I had a great time and loved meeting all of you! And a special thanks to my husband for driving me around all day, carrying stuff, and dealing with my poor communication skills when it came to reconciling where we were with where we were parking the car with where I actually wanted to be.
Since nothing totally fell apart during the hunt this weekend, I think I had more of an opportunity to step back and examine different qualities of the event and find places to improve and grow as a designer. One element of my race that I’d like to talk about today is narrative.
For whatever reason, probably because I enjoy it, I put a fair amount of emphasis on the theme of my event. While I think this made the event a little bit more interesting marketing-wise, I’m not sure I entirely succeeded when it came to the actual implementation of that narrative during the event itself.
I had two clues that tied back into that narrative. The first required searching for an item in a store, and I assumed players would think back to the theme of the event to know where to look, but only two teams worked it out (one even left and came back). I may have even accidentally sabotaged this one myself with a misleading hint (the worst red herrings are the ones that are well-intended).
The second involved a page of text that appeared, at first glance, to just be flavor. Near the end, the text mentioned that there was a code embedded in the message that would be used at the end of the race. I don’t think a single team read this page before I prompted them at the end that they still had one more step, and why would they have? It’s easy to imagine that most teams just saw a wall of text, assumed it was all flavor, and skipped or forgot about it (I did the exact same thing with the archaeology puzzle at DASH). These players don’t know me, (and each batch of new players won’t know me), they don’t know whether they can trust me as a designer not to include superfluous materials.
Even though the type of events I’m doing have a stronger emphasis on narrative than say DASH or Post Hunt, I think the players weren’t used to or expecting the way I tried to connect the story to the puzzles, especially when it meant changing the format of the race near the end. This really seemed to catch veteran teams off-guard. They’ve been playing these events for years, and I think one of their goals with each race is to learn and improve. When I introduce a new element that seems fun and exciting to me, I imagine it could easily just be come a distraction or source of confusion to them. I can’t wait to go back to DASH with my teammates next year and try to do better. It would be frustrating if DASH was suddenly completely different and we were beginners all over again.
What about other puzzle hunt events? I remember listening to a SnoutCast a few months ago where they talked to the designers of the Doctor When game and discussed how they wanted to emphasize the narrative more than in other Games, and whether the puzzle community was into that or not. It seems like there are a lot of different elements that must play together to make narrative really work within an event. It’s a lot to ask of players to keep a storyline in mind while they’re in puzzle-solving race mode. It’s probably better to include narrative in any moments where the players are in between legs or puzzles (which is what it seems like was done in Doctor When), if your event is linear and long enough to design those breaks into the game.
I’m not sure if any puzzle that requires knowledge or recollection of the theme is a great idea anymore. It kind of reminds me of playing an RPG where you skip over the NPC dialogue telling you where to go, and then you’re lost without a clue. Designing puzzles to enhance your theme or make the event feel more cohesive is fine I think, but putting the burden of the theme onto the players should maybe be avoided except in specifically narrative-driven events (such as a murder mystery dinner).
All of that being said, narrative and theming are important to me and are elements that might make my events unique, so I don’t want to shy away from them. These aren’t meant to be purely puzzle events, they’re adventures. And to me, a good adventure requires at least some narrative element. I think for the type of event I ran this weekend, if I want the narrative to be an emphasis, I need to reflect that in what I do, specifically during the opening of the event before the clock has started. I think I could have anticipated the problems with the two narrative-reliant clues (even my playtester anticipated one, but I dismissed it), and the introductions would have been a perfect time to remind players to keep the theme in mind during the race and to carefully examine each item they were given. That simple information would have gone a long way to bridge that gap between what both parties are expecting from the experience.
So that’s what I learned about narrative (among many other things I learned!). Have you had any good or bad experiences with narrative at an event involving puzzles? Do you find it enhances your experience, or does it just get in the way? Do you think some events are more suited to heavy narrative than others?