A team explores an ancient catacombs, solving puzzles, avoiding traps, and searching for a key to unlock a Native American burial vault filled with treasure.
* * *
In 1990 I was a sophomore studying theater at Ottawa University. My friend Tim Conard, also a theater major, was my go-to partner in crime for extracurricular creative projects. Tim was avid gamer, mainly of role-playing and adjacent tabletop strategy games, and he had a knack for staging game activities with theatrical flair. After the death of Monty Python performer Graham Chapman, Tim and I talked about creating a scaled-down version of the Dangerous Sports Club and cultivating a group of students interested in unconventional and adventurous leisure activities. We named the group the Ottawa Association of Fun and, as an initiation activity for O.A.F. prospects, concocted a late-night tomb-raiding adventure.
We set the adventure in the basement of Atkinson Hall, a dormitory that had been abandoned since the 1970s. The mildewy building was being used by the theater department for overflow storage, so we had rooms full of props to use for the activity. We took a trip to U.S. Toy in Leawood and picked up rubber bats, plastic bugs, fake spiderweb, and other decorations. We picked a Saturday date in the spring and sent invitations to a dozen students we were considering for O.A.F. membership. The first invitations did not mention an scheduled event but contained vague references to a catacombs whose entrance had recently been discovered. A later invitation instructed the group to meet at the campus gazebo dressed in appropriate costume and equipped with flashlights and other exploration gear. The recipients sought one another out to speculate on the meaning of the messages. Tim and I sent invitations to ourselves to prolong the mystery of who was organizing the event, but a spoilsport not on the invitation list spotted me with some O.A.F. materials and sent out another set of messages to let the cat out of the bag. Regardless, the invitees were intrigued and assembled at the gazebo just before midnight to see what Tim and I had planned.
We emerged a few minutes after midnight, Tim in his leather bomber jacket and me in an olive-green military field coat and an eye patch. We introduced ourselves as Oklahoma Smith and Achie Ologist, character names that elicited the intended amount of groaning from the assembled party. We set up the activity as an expedition to the recently discovered catacombs beneath the campus. The catacombs contained challenges that would test the group’s physical and mental agility. I held up a piece of a stone (Styrofoam) tablet and explained that we believed the remaining pieces of the tablet were scattered around the catacombs and, once reassembled, the tablet would lead to an Ottawa Indian treasure. The group accepted the mission and followed us to the back stairs of Atkinson Hall.
The main hallway of the basement had been converted into an obstacle course of theatrical props that the group lumbered over or crawled beneath. Gray trash bags filled with shredded paper were stuffed into closets and led to mini avalanches when the doors were opened. In some dormitory rooms members of the group retrieved tablet pieces by playing variations of “hot lava” or avoiding hordes of poisonous insects suspended by strings from the ceiling. In other rooms, the group needed to solve puzzles. In one room, Tim was possessed by an ancient riddle master and gave riddles for the group to solve. In another room I had set up an arrow maze on the tile floor. The maze included wrong turns leading to an infinite loop in the maze’s center, and if a solver got stuck in this loop another solver had to enter the maze and navigate around the stuck player. The maze was solved on the fifth attempt, with the successful solver carefully negotiating four tapped colleagues. In one of the sillier rooms, we awarded a tablet piece when every member of the group sang part of a show tune (we were very generous in evaluating this task). The final puzzle was assembling the tablet, which appeared to be one piece shy until someone in the group remembered to ask me for the piece I was holding. The restored tablet bore a message about a key hidden under the throne. The group returned to the throne room (a dormitory bathroom) and retrieved the physical key that unlocked the final room in the hallway. The room featured a coffin filled with ring pops, candy necklaces, and printed mission statements of the Ottawa Association of Fun.
Ottawa Catacombs was a bauble, a small entertainment promoting a club that would be forgotten by summer. But I find it remarkable how the event anticipated 21st-century escape room design: a goal-focused narrative, an immersive setting, orchestrated discoveries, and performance evaluation (in this case overseen by the two embedded game masters rather than mechanical or electronic devices). I’m not sure what informed the Catacombs concept back in 1990. Tim and I were not into haunted houses or LARPing, but we must have somehow tapped into those traditions, added our familiarity with stagecraft and puzzle-based interactive fiction games, and come up with an experience that decades later would become my livelihood.