: New: Novice, Novicer, Novicest

I was site-monitoring at a puzzle hunt. Things were quieting down at the site: Most of the teams had solved and gone on. Not all, though. Those that remained were novices, still learning the puzzlehunt ropes.

This was at DASH, which uses ClueKeeper. In interest of fairness, GC was not to give hints; instead, ClueKeeper was to give all hints. If teams from Some City received bigger nudges from GC and thus surged ahead in the nationwide worldwide rankings, that would be unfair.

But I gave hints anyhow. (Hi, haters!) Not to the front-runners; not to the, uhm, middle-runners, either; but to the back-of-the-pack novices. I figure/hope that folks who care about rankings (and inter-city fairness) are watching the front of the pack. Maybe? Let's hope. Anyhow.

I'm remembering one of my hints now. Someone brought up the topic of getting novices to playtest novice puzzles. And I'm remembering a feeling when watching wrong-guesses for Octothorpean. I'd watched novices play through some of these puzzles, thought I'd made the right things obvious. But different novices are ignorant in different ways. When you look at the wrong-guess logs, and you realize how a team's reasoning could lead to that wrong answer… and it's a valid track of reasoning, if you haven't learned the "right" track from experience. At DASH, I encountered such a track.

This puzzle had a message for teams to find partway through, telling them to "shift" some letters. You, I, and everyone reading this blog post sees that "shift" and thinks "shift cipher". I walked past a novice team reading aloud their message telling them to "shift". I thought, "Well, that team is on the right track. They will solve, get up, and head out in a minute or two."

But minutes later, they were still sitting and solving. A note of frustration had crept into their voices. I shamelessly eavesdropped. They were novices. They had a few theories of what "shift" might mean; they were working it out from first principles. Their winning theory was a sort of constrained anagram. E.g., you can "shift" a letter of pYre to make preY. It was a neat trick of wordplay, and I would be proud to make a puzzle out of such a thing. But of course, it wasn't what they were supposed to get from the word "shift".

If this had been a front-runner or middle-of-the-pack team, I would have let them continue struggling. But in this case, I stepped in, said they might be mis-interpreting that "shift". And they piped up with some of their other theories for that word's mysterious meaning; the correct meaning was among those; and that novice team was soon on track.

Maybe there's a variant of the Anna Karenina principle at work. Experienced teams who have learned to "spot" the right track are all on the same right track; inexperienced teams are all on different wrong tracks. GC, being mortal, can come up with automated hints to get many many teams on the right track; but site monitors can still keep an ear out. Or something like that.

Tags: puzzlehunts teams

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