Puzzle Hunts: Hunt for Justice 2017

In 2017, some folks put on a puzzlehunt-in-a-package called Hunt for Justice. The puzzle-writers were scattered all over the country; it must have taken DASH order-of-magnitude organization to squeeze puzzle ideas out of all of them. I don't know, though; I wasn't squeezing. I wrote a puzzle, pitched in on puzzle assembly, and worked HintOps on game day.

Recruiting

The USA 2016 presidential election was rather bleak. The least-favorably-rated candidate in history had eked out a win over the second-least-favorably-rated candidate in history. Things were bad, with no reason to think they'd get better soon.

So I was definitely in the mood for this mail from Matt Cleinman (Portland Puzzled Pint pioneer, recently moved to San Francisco):

Subject: Help with charity puzzle hunt?

Hi Larry,

I'm reaching out for help with an upcoming puzzle hunt. More than ever many of us feel like we want to do something positive to contribute to the world, and we know how to write puzzles. So let's use those skills for a hunt for charity!

Who: Eli Goodfriend is heading up this effort, and I'm helping him out. Eli is Puzzled Pint Game Control in Pittsburgh (formerly co-founded the East Bay PP group), and former coordinator and writer for the Berkeley Mystery Hunt. He's recruited a bunch of folks he's worked with in the past to help write, do web development, and more. I'm reaching out to you to see if you'd like to join this effort!

Hunt details: Still a little tentative, but leaning towards a Fall 2017 hunt. (Read: Relatively leisurely timeline for writing/testing/etc.) It will be done remotely by teams, but on the same day. We're currently leaning towards a DASH-ish length and format - 8ish puzzles plus a meta. The construction quality and puzzle difficulty will be roughly similar to DASH, with a box of DASH-quality puzzle props sent out to each team in advance.

Cost/charity details: A bit more than a normal day long event, but not by an order of magnitude or something. Honestly, we haven't gotten too much into this part yet. Currently considering having all profits benefit the Innocence Project (work on exonerating wrongfully convicted folks), but this isn't 100% set in stone.

What we're looking for: People to either write a main puzzle and/or help design the overall structure/meta/story.

All of this is a little fuzzy still, as we're currently assembling our super-team of authors/designers/helpers. Can you join this all-star cast?

Thanks,
Matt

Here was something I could do. I was no good at politics, only nerd stuff. Calling senators was hard, but designing a puzzle was easy.

Easiest decision I'd made in a long time. I wrote back:

Sure, I can write a puzzle. Good luck!

Sure, a puzzlehunt wasn't going to restore the power of democracy. But now I was doing something. (OK, I was doing a few things. But in this case, I was doing something I specialized in.)

Writing a Puzzle

So I wrote three rough-draft puzzles. Yes, Matt had only asked for one puzzle. But I'd once again run into an old issue: when coming up with wacky puzzle ideas, I couldn't be sure which of them were wacky-awesome and which were wacky-not-so-awesome.

In this situation, I'll make three rough-draft puzzles. Three puzzles to give GC a choice. Rough-draft only because if I go to the trouble to make a puzzle really good, I can get attached to my ideas, and less ready to take feedback; Seeing as how I wasn't sure which of these ideas was best, it was too early to get attached to any of them.

GC had sent out a hunt theme and a list of answer words. If puzzle designers had a theme-appropriate idea that could work with any answer-word, great. If a puzzle designer had an idea that would only work with one of the answer-words, that designer had better notice that quickly and "claim" that word for their puzzle.

The theme of the hunt was: a team of teen-aged spooky-mystery solvers in a van were examining ghostly goings-on at a science-fiction convention. I got to thinking about what was cool about science-fiction conventions. I only had vague ideas about this. I hadn't attended any science-fiction conventions, just role-playing game conventions. What was cool about science fiction conventions? I could think of few things… including cosplay. Aha! I'd make a cosplay puzzle. So I wrote a puzzle in which some of the clues were costumes: recognize the character and write their name in the blanks. And I wrote a couple of other puzzles.

Feedback came back from GC: they wanted to include physical "goodies" with the hunt. What if instead of pictures of costumes, we used action figures? Or better yet, what if we used [spoiler redacted], Which could be bought for cheap on the internet?

That sounded like a pretty good idea to me, so I ran with it.

(There was a moment where I hesitated: of my three rough-ideas, to get one to work, I'd written some computer code. OK, that's not unusual for me. I tend to write little scratch programs to find things that fit the gimmick of the puzzle: maybe common phrases that conceal number-words or somesuch. But I'd found a puzzle idea with unusual constraints: the first scratch program I wrote just ran and ran and didn't finish… thus giving me time to back-of-the-envelope estimate how long it would take and realizing human civilization would be long gone. So I'd re-written the program to be more efficient, had thought about it… and gotten attached to the idea. But I shook it off: I was pretty sure there would be other puzzle-writing opportunities in the future. Maybe we'd win the 2018 MIT Mystery Hunt and I'd wryly laugh at the idea that I'd ever thought I had too many puzzle ideas.)

So I worked up the no-longer-about-cosplay ideas into a not-so-rough draft. GC central found playtesters for me from among the other authors. Playtesters had good feedback, and pretty soon that puzzle was looking pretty solid. Sure, it was going to be a hassle putting all those [spoiler redacted]s into boxes, but I was pretty sure that puzzle assembly would be happening in Pittsburgh, so that was somebody else's problem.

Puzzle Assembly

…so one weekend in October, I and other folks spent a couple of days disassembling and collecting my puzzle's [spoiler redacted]s into baggies and otherwise assembling puzzles, because it turned out this happend in San Francisco after all.

There was Matt and Eli. There was Sierra, who wasn't into puzzles but, as Matt's sweetie, was sharing her apartment with many many boxes and was ready to get them assembled and shipped the heck away. There was Jared(?), who Matt knew from work, and was up for creative projects. There was Michael "MConst" Constant, who'd been part of enough puzzlehunts to have some sympathy for those going through puzzle assembly. (He helped out both days that weekend.) There was Sarah who was normally out of town but was doing things in SF Saturday morning and evening and got cajoled into helping assemble puzzles in-between. There was Liz, who volunteered to show up ready to make art in response to a somewhat overwhelming request on some mysterious Slack, which between you and me, indicates a good attitude.

This wasn't even all the people. These were just the people in photos, so I was able to kinda remember them a couple of weeks later as I wrote this up.

Anyhow, it was a good bunch of folks to spend time with.

Game Day

The hunt website was set up with a UI whereby teams could check their answers (and check "partial" answers). It would automatically dispense some hints.

Also, teams could request custom hints. It was pretty easy for an "automatic" hint to say "solve the crossword puzzle," but custom hints were darned useful for teams that were trying to solve the puzzle, but just needed a hint on 12 Across.

There was another UI on that website, a UI that teams didn't see. Thats where we GC folks watched for incoming hint requests. I spent spent game day watching that web site. When a hint request came in, a GC volunteer would "claim" it by pressing a button. Then that volunteer would email the team to ask them what kind of hint they wanted.

I think the Hunt for Justice web site was a repurposed site from a conference-room-style puzzlehunt game.

Anyhow, I sat, I "claimed", I emailed. At first there weren't many questions, but then there were. But we mostly kept up OK. I hadn't playtested many of the puzzles, but we had a Google drive with solutions, and I'd studied that in the nights leading up to game day. This was enough so that I could give hints on most puzzles. For a few hint requests, I had to go to the GC Slack Channel and ask. But there was always somebody who knew the answer.

The scariest (but in the end, not so consequential) moment came late at night. GC head Eli got limited by GMail: he'd been sending so much email that GMail was worried he was a spammer, so he couldn't send any more. So we suddenly lost one of our answerers, one who knew the whole hunt. But fortunately, it didn't happen until late, after most hint-askers had already finished. So the rest of us picked up the slack and kept answering.

Upshot

It was good times. I'm glad I did it. If you're a puzzle designer with a puzzle idea that's too long for Puzzled Pint, you might see if there's room for it in the next Hunt for Justice… assuming there's another one.

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