CURRICULUM VITAE: Ottawa Catacombs

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OTTAWA CATACOMBS
(Puzzle Room)

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.

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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.

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CURRICULUM VITAE: Quizardry

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QUIZARDRY
(Trivia/Wordplay)

Teams participate in a pub trivia game with six rounds. Each round features four trivia questions. Teams have a category sheet listing the categories for each question. The questions are fairly easy but the announced answers, while always falling within the corresponding categories, are clearly wrong. Teams must discover four wordplay transformations that convert an actual answer to the “correct” answer within the trivia game.
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Quizardry was an event written the 2017 MIT Mystery Hunt. That year’s Hunt, called Monsters et Manus, featured a fantasy-genre roll-playing theme. The events were inspired by the six character attributes in Dungeons & Dragons, with Quizardry representing both Intelligence and Wisdom. I had been brainstorming swapped-initials pairs, e.g. U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Tyler, during my trip to Ireland. That led to the the basic idea of trivia with wordplay transformations. Many members of the Setec Astronomy Hunt team, especially Jeff Roberts, helped with game development, editing, and play-testing. The event was presented as the Saturday night event during the Hunt. I read questions, Matt McGann deejayed the think music, and Nancy Taubenslag facilitated the players. In practice, several teams completed the Hunt puzzles and metas long before Saturday night, but needed event participation points to be eligible for the final runaround. This means that I and several of my teammates ran single-team versions of Quizardry starting in the wee hours of Saturday and continuing through Saturday afternoon. This question produced the biggest audience laugh during the Saturday night event: What 1989 Oscar winner for Best Original Song, sung by a crab named Sebastian in the animated feature film The Little Mermaid, is ironically part of the official soundtrack for the Disney Cruise Line? (We hope it doesn’t describe the final destination of their cruise ships.)

CURRICULUM VITAE: John Ratite’s Interplanetary Palooza

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JOHN RATITE’S INTERPLANETARY PALOOZA
(Trivia)

Players form teams of two and participate in an “Amazing Race”-styled competition that takes place in various fictional planetary systems. Teams pilot spaceships and visit planets where they are given trivia questions. Teams that answer questions correctly receive rewards that help them on the race: fuel, navigation information, weapons that can be used against opponents, etc. Trivia knowledge is the principal skill, though teams can also form alliances and employ strategy to gain an advantage. The main goal in each planetary system is to find a stargate to the next system. The last team to find the stargate in each system is eliminated. The last team to avoid elimination wins the competition.

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Interplanetary Palooza is the third John Ratite trivia game that I organized and presented on  the Grey Labyrinth website. Registration opened on February 2, 2005, and the game started a week later with twenty registered teams. Nine months and over 4,000 posts later, the team of Matt Jones and Trip Payne planted a flag on the final planet and were declared the winners. The thread is preserved on the Grey Labyrinth site, albeit with now broken links to images.

The game was richly detailed with countless inside jokes woven into selected trivia questions, planetary system themes, and overall narrative. Shortly after the game concluded I wrote a lengthy post that covering these fine points; the post is on page 104 of the thread. Looking back at Palooza after many years and focusing on the broad strokes, two things remain notable: the size and the drama. Palooza comprised more man-hours and creative content than any other project of my career. I generated material at an even pace throughout the experience, and didn’t think about the total number of trivia questions and planet descriptions I had written until it was all over. The drama largely involved a player who I will simply refer to as X. Player X performed well in the trivia but less so in the social game due to his arrogance and unusually convenient rationales for knowing the answers to difficult questions. At one point X casually mentioned that his non-playing girlfriend helped him with a question. When other teams observed that this was a violation of the “no outside references” rule, X claimed a misunderstanding of the rule and I chose to be merciful. X was eventually eliminated as a result of a sabotage perpetrated by a team that was out of the running but in a rare “kingmaker” position. X proclaimed that the sabotage, while not a violation of the rules, was unsportsmanlike and clearly motivated by personal rather than strategic motives. His comments spurred a heated exchange that included insinuations of cheating and favoritism based on real-life friendships between players. The situation was uncomfortable at the time but became an interesting case study on gameplay morality that I could share at cocktail parties.

The size and drama attracted many non-player spectators to the Interplanetary Palooza thread on Grey Labyrinth. It was the first game thread inducted into the Grey Labyrinth hall of fame.

CURRICULUM VITAE: Drawing a Blank

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DRAWING A BLANK
(Visual Trivia)

Players are given assignments to draw things from various disciplines. The drawings are judged not on artistic ability but on a set of details that represent a basic visual familiarity with the thing to be drawn. Players are randomly given cards before they begin drawing. Some cards reveal one of the details that will be judged and other cards have no information; player receiving those cards have “drawn a blank.” The completed drawings are shown to all players. Before the judging, each player must secretly vote for an opponent that they believe drew a blank. The judges then announce the details and the players who did draw blanks. Players score for including the judges details in their drawings, for voting correctly, and for garnering incorrect votes from opponents.

At one of my early ACPT appearances I presented an after-hours game called Thingamadoodles, which was a drawing based Balderdash variant. The game played poorly and I pulled the plug after a single session. Years later I mentioned the game to Darren Rigby. I admire his game design and wondered if he might have a remedy. Darren said that the game was similar to an idea that he was working on called Drawing a Blank. He invited me to collaborate on an after-hours game for the 2011 NPL convention in Providence and I agreed.

The game logistics were almost completely based on Darren’s original concept. I contributed by helping with the content, i.e. ideas for well known and drawable items that players could have fun with. Many of the judged details involved spatial memory: In Grant Wood’s American Gothic, is the male farmer on the left or right? In which part of Australia’s coast is the island of Tasmania? Darren was also very thoughtful about designing elements that improve gameplay efficiency, such as voting cubes that players could use to keep track of votes for scoring purposes. At the convention Darren and I took alternated between being the primary presenter and the assistant. A memorable bit of comic ad-lib occurred when I was presenter and Darren assisted. I explained to players that they did not need to be proficient artists to score points, and used Darren’s “crude rendering” of the art school admissions test character Tippy the Turtle as an example. When I said “crude,” Darren turned to me with dramatic indignation. It was a fun bit that we used in several sessions.

CURRICULUM VITAE: Specimen / The Curse

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Instead of writing my own summary of the recently opened puzzle rooms at Puzzah’s Flatiron Crossing location, I am providing links to reviews of Specimen and The Curse written by Dan Kaplan, a staffer for Esc Room Addict. I respect the fact that the reviews are even-handed and constructive, pointing out both the strengths of the experiences and the elements that were not as successful. I’m particularly flattered by the plausive call-out that Dan gives me in the review for The Curse.

As a side note: Dan told me that he is a descendant of a David Kaplan who competed in crossword tournaments in the past. Does anyone recognize that name from ACPT or the U.S. Open?

CURRICULUM VITAE: Clip Joints

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CLIP JOINTS
(Audio Trivia)

The game features nine audio clips assigned to the cells of a three-by-three diagram. The three clips in each horizontal row and the three clips in each vertical column have a thematic connection; in other words, the diagram comprises six themes and each audio clip belongs to two of them. The clips are played one by one, and players try to guess the themes. Players score more points by correctly guessing themes with less revealed information.

Clip Joints was created in 2013 shortly after I downloaded the audio-editing freeware Audacity. I wanted to come up with an audio-based game as a way to practice using the program. I thought of the Picture Tic-Tac-Toe puzzles that appeared in classic issues of Games Magazine and decided to create a audio analogue. I was a bit concerned about the amount of information that I could convey in a sound clip so I did not give myself the added constraint of themes on the two main diagonals. The biggest challenge was finding themes that exploited the audio gimmick and were not simply categories of three words presented explicitly or implicitly in a verbal clip. My best example was a “clarinet” theme: the three clips simply featured a clarinet being played, but each clip contributed to an intersecting theme. This type of puzzle, whether visual or audio, often requires some contrivances in tricky intersections. I did have a space that needed to join “German” and “transportation” and I chose a segment from a conversational German language lesson (“the bus station is ‘der Busbahnhof’).” It was flagrant choice but I hoped it would get some laughs.

Clip Joints was presented at a LA minicon and then at a few subsequent gatherings. It was fairly easy to present as I the sound clips are playable on my smartphone and players simply need a piece of scratch paper.

CURRICULUM VITAE: Fresh Freestyle Crosswords

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Fresh Freestyle Crosswords, my new book of themeless, or freestyle, crossword puzzles, is currently available for preorder and will officially drop on November 1!

Over the weekend I received a box with advanced copies of the book. It was like Christmas in October, which I guess is the way everybody experiences Christmas these days. The cover design is eye-catching, if a bit edgy for the author in question, and the inside layout is slick and attractive as is the case with all Puzzlewright titles.

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The material from the book comes from the Autofill Project, which I started several years ago. The project was a label for my pastime of improving the wordlist database that I reference for crossword construction. Part of the project involved creating puzzles to test autofill quality, as well as highlight interesting database additions. I dubbed these puzzles “unthemelies” because they were themeless and a bit unseemly, at least at the onset, due to the rawness of the database. The project and the puzzles improved and I began offering the Unthemely crossword puzzles on my blogs for solver feedback. Peter Gordon at Puzzlewright Press offered to publish the collection when I had enough for a book and I agreed.

About two-thirds of the puzzles in the book appeared on one of my blogs at some point in the past. The rest are original puzzles or heavily revised versions of Unthemely puzzles. In one case, I kept an Unthemely diagram structure, deleted every entry except one (which was not the original seed entry) and refilled the grid. I submitted the puzzles to Peter in an order that is basically chronological and I believe an arc of fill improvement is noticeable as one works through the book.

I hope all you themeless crossword puzzle fans will enjoy the book. If you choose to manually type the title on your favorite online bookseller website rather than use the link at the top of this post, beware that “Fresh Freestyle” may lead you to a manual on swimming and triathlon exercises. On the other hand, if you are into honing the body as well as the find, put both books in your virtual shopping cart and reap the benefits!