What I Learned About Narrative

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?


15 comments on What I Learned About Narrative

  • Philip

    I absolutely LOVE narrative in my puzzle hunts. I agree with you that these sorts of events are meant to be adventures, not just a string of puzzles with the chore of walking in between.

    Having said that, it can be difficult to effectively weave narrative into a hunt while matching it well to the puzzles. I think often times one is left with the sense that the puzzles feel contrived when viewed in the context of the narrative.

    From comments I’ve seen, some people had the opposite experience with the Dr. When game. There, the hosts tried very hard to integrate their puzzles into the narrative and did (in my opinion) a very good job of it. However, this meant that a vast majority of their puzzles were logic puzzles, as crossword-type puzzles would have been out of place. While some teams complained about this, my team didn’t really notice until it was pointed out to us.

    I guess to sum up I would say that narrative isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but I think it can lend a lot to the experience. It does, however, come with its own pitfalls.

    • clavicarius (author)

      Thanks for sharing! Glad to find another fan of narrative =) “The chore of walking in between” is a good way of describing my feelings about DASH by the end. Because of the rain, we worked on the last few indoors, all sitting around a table and near other teams, and there were definitely moments where I thought that might have been preferable to walking around.

      I think the most basic problem with puzzles and narrative is always the question “Why would a group of people be solving puzzles in the first place?” It seems like you either have to ignore narrative all together or really go all out to try and justify the purpose for everything and make it all make sense. Otherwise, like you said, things end up feeling a little forced.

      I didn’t know that about the Doctor When game! I had just seen some of the (amazing!) videos they made and assumed that was most of the narrative aspect. It’s so cool that they found creative ways to include narrative besides just slapping the theme on an otherwise unrelated puzzle. I’ll have to read more about what they did.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

      • Philip

        The Dr. When team did a fantastic job of narrative integration.

        They actually held auditions to find good actors (sorry puzzle people, we are not, by default, very good at this) and did a combination of videos and live-action skits (with an AMAZING time machine prop) to deliver the narrative.

        Additionally, every single volunteer was given a manual (several inches thick, by all accounts) that detailed the story, what players knew at any given point in the hunt, and instructions on staying in character. At every point the volunteers did a great job of delivering the narrative and really setting the atmosphere.

        If you want narrative advice, I highly suggest digging around and finding out as much as you can about how the Dr. When team went about putting on such a great hunt.

        • tabstop

          Just as an aside about actors and manuals: at an ACPT I was an actor/judge/”country” for one of the Saturday night events (it was Pliska and Chaneski’s ACPT-zing Race, to be specific). All we were given was the answer that went with us (I was Canada, so my answers were Ottawa and … something else that I’ve forgotten) and a stack of papers. If people said the right thing, they got a paper; if they didn’t they didn’t.
          It actually made for some amusing spy-fail banter as people would try some sort of passphrase that wasn’t for my puzzle and I would just look at them, or respond with something else, etc. None of the judges knew anything about anybody else’s puzzle, or even our own for that matter other than the answer, so we couldn’t hint anything at all, just shrug.

          • clavicarius (author)

            Love it!

            Okay, from now on, my story is that all the other people at that coffee house were plants told to give you all a funny look when you told them “Bravo” 😉

  • Greg


    I’m glad your event was a success! Congratulations! Sorry I couldn’t be there myself.

    I think that narrative tends to make most events more interesting (regardless of whether that interest is embedded in a soil of cheese), and I also think that your idea that solving puzzles should be more of an adventure is spot on. Having narrative is a glue that goes beyond just tying puzzles together and aiding participants in solving the clues–it also makes the puzzles more memorable in the long run. One is more likely to say, “Oh hey remember that awesome hunt we did trying to find Jefferson’s lost invention where we did X and Y and totally screwed up Z and Q?” than recall a random puzzle and remember that it was from Post Hunt 2012 as opposed to Post Hunt 2011, especially if the one is an avid solver. I also think that your simple fix of reminding participants that every item that they have should be carefully examined and not to take anything for granted is very effective. As you mentioned, some may not be expecting the narrative really to matter, but you personally emphasizing that would lock the those ones in. It could give some players an edge if they were expecting it and others were not, as well, which may not bode well, but honestly, it seemed from the beginning that you were going that route to me (then again, I’m not a puzzleholic and wouldn’t specifically think to tune out those things).

    So yeah, I think you should keep making things as interesting and as memorable as possible!

    • clavicarius (author)

      Great point about narrative making an event more memorable! Though I guess theme can serve the same purpose (all of this year’s DASH puzzles were loosely based around wonders of the world, and it had an apocalypse theme). I guess I need to differentiate between what is narrative and what is just theme, hmm.

  • tabstop

    Definitely a learning experience for me as well. Probably the biggest thing was: when you bring a box of granola bars, you should maybe stop (even if you are behind) and eat some of them. I did make myself take a break at 5:45ish, but I was already a little bit shutdown by then.

    I had definitely processed the letter as a meta thing, but I hadn’t twigged (or really tried to twig) what it actually was, as I figured I would need some pieces first (not realizing that the letter, at any rate, was self-contained). Only at the end, when you seemed sure that I should solve it, did I actually sit down to look at what was in it. (Plus, spacing as I mentioned at the time.)

    I don’t know that my problem with the main puzzles was keeping the narrative out of it, so much as trying to be … sneaky is not the right word exactly. I was not expecting to require assistance to obtain the materials (how obscure do I need to be about this puzzle), so even though I saw the desired object, I dismissed it as “I would need to get someone to get this for me”. I guess the secrecy was part of the narrative; it is probably exacerbated in this case by my antisocial tendencies.

    I definitely enjoyed the different type of puzzles — granted the two runarounds were short, but I didn’t think I’d actually enjoy trying to be subtle about matching pictures to scenery in the middle of downtown.

    I have also learned that it always takes me two tries to figure out one of your codes. I don’t know why that is, but there you go. (The extra ROT13 kept me from realizing the problem with that code for a while, as I was expecting gibberish (that would later get ROT13’d again) rather than an actual message; and I was definitely trying to fill in whole words instead of letters in the other one (which coincidentally has the same number of words as there are in the grid).)

    • clavicarius (author)

      I brought a ton of snacks to DASH and I think the only reason we touched any of them was when we were prompted by the candy reward from one of the puzzles, hah. We barely even stopped for dinner.. it just takes over your brain!

      I think I want to put more “runarounds” in future hunts, they seem like some of the more fun things to do, even if they’re not as puzzley as traditional puzzles. Being subtle and sneaking around is the best =) I think I need to design a spy-themed event that requires more sneaking…

      Maybe your last point has something to do with that polish issue we talked about via e-mail! Let me know if it ever starts taking you one try =)

  • Jen

    I’m glad you enjoyed it and it went well, too! I can’t wait to hear the details this weekend! (Yay this weekend!) I think Greg made some good points about narrative as a glue, and tabstop made a good point about eating granola bars! I enjoy the narrative/adventure aspect, though I guess I haven’t much experienced that, and I also figured you were trying to make a story out of it, considering the marketing. Which is awesome! It gives you more purpose for solving the puzzles, and actions having purpose is really important to me and, I presume, for many. But when you’re caught up in the moment, I can see how it’d be really easy to overlook the ‘big picture’ and narrative-reliant clues, as you called it. No matter how much you might emphasize that aspect though, for some people it’ll click, but for others it just won’t. Really wish I could’ve experienced your first public hunt! Keep at it!

    • clavicarius (author)

      (Party time!!!)

      I think I’d really like to make an event where narrative is king, and I think to do that I would have to really help players get out of that puzzle zone tunnel vision you get into with most events. One way to do that might be to do away with points and scores and times as much as possible. Time limit maybe, and a winning state perhaps, but avoid things that get people into that panicked focus where details are overlooked and all the fun aesthetic bonuses are dismissed as distractions.

  • tabstop

    Oh right, the other thing I was going to say. I was having a debate with myself in the car on the way up (you have to do something, especially when your radio doesn’t work) about whether it’s better to have a very linear hunt (the way I understand DASH works), with you only having one puzzle in hand at a time, or a … less linear “here’s all the clues, call me when you’re done, go”.
    My personal preference is for the latter, but that may well be the fact that I tend to do these things as a lone wolf, and I need to be able to get around (at least for a little while) stuckness. I can see how a very linear structure can give you not only a way to hang a story on the experience (think every video game ever, and their cut-scenes; also you can almost make a choose-your-own-adventure type story where each answer is a verb phrase or something similar to tell you what to do — I remember a P&A with two different metas, as the story was that you were half-human and half-vampire, so you had to choose whether to do the human meta or the vampire meta. I don’t know how many people made a choice based on the story; I made a choice based on which meta fit the way my head works better), but also to allow each puzzle to build on the previous (if that’s what you want).
    I would expect, however, that running a linear hunt would require a LOT more GC than are available.

    • clavicarius (author)

      That was a long way up! I’m glad you spent it thinking about something to comment about =D

      I think I also prefer a non-linear approach when possible for the same reasons about getting stuck. I get stuck a lot. It’s also nice just to have that feeling of freedom and choice somehow.

      From a designer’s perspective, I think maybe it’s easier to deal with unexpected problems (the Library of Congress reading room has been reserved by a research group for the afternoon!) are easier to handle with a non-linear event. You may only have one group encounter the problem, and you can get a fix out to everyone else before they even see it (though that first group is then put at a disadvantage).

      The thing about the kind of events I’m running is that usually part of the puzzle is figuring out where to go and what to do when you get there. If teams move linearly, that element isn’t really an option anymore. (Though I was surprised how rarely we found ourselves following any teams in between locations at DASH). You also have to handle crowding with non-linear events, which is why Post Hunt is designed the way it is (and they STILL have terrible crowding problems).

      You’re right though, a linear event basically has room for narrative built-in. These are all very interesting things to think about and consider for future events! Thanks for bringing them up =)

  • Jason

    Congrats! Glad to hear that things went well. I haven’t really had much experience with narrative hunts. I like heavily themed hunts, where the puzzles are tied to the theme in a way that makes sense. My wife and I designed and ran a Bootlegger themed hunt one year that was very popular. Every team had a box labeled “HOOCH” that they had to carry around to every location, and we had a costumed NPC G-Man who would stop teams and harass them (costing them time) if he spotted their HOOCH. But there wasn’t really much of a story, just a strong theme.

    True Dungeon has some narrative, but it’s mostly at the beginning and the end of the adventure (and in between adventures, even). The dungeon itself is heavily themed, but the story is basically that you’re trying to get to the big bad guy at the end and stop him. There was a short-lived spy-themed puzzle-based runaround at GenCon called Guardian 6, that actually had some pretty decent narrative tying everything together. But, due to the vast number of attendees, they had major throughput issues, and it only ran once at GenCon Indy.

    I noticed you said “playtester”, singular. If you need more playtesters for future puzzles/hunts, I’d be happy to help if I’ve got the time. The more playtesters you have, the more likely you are to spot snags ahead of time. And if your primary (or only) playtester is someone you know really well, who’s familiar with your style, things may seem easier to them than they will to the actual players. (That’s a constant problem that my wife and I run into when test-solving each other’s puzzles.)

    • clavicarius (author)

      Haha, your bootlegger hunt sounds hilarious! I would love an element like that. Having to sneak around or conceal something is so fun, it reminds me of playing Assassins in college (I would get super into it!).

      And oo, a spy-themed event would be the best. I’ll have to look more into that. It sounds like it would be especially at an event with lots of people like that, if you were trying to search for different people or set up rendezvous and such. Though scale/scope becomes an issue if it’s open to everyone I guess..

      I was referring to my playtester who did a dry run of the event on location. Most of the puzzles rely on specific locations/landmarks, which change with each event, and getting a good time estimate means seeing how long it takes people to move from location to location and what other elements distract them along the way. If you’re in the Virginia area though let me know!

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