Cute Mage's Tower

Are We There Yet?

It is not a novel criticism to say that the 2024 MIT Mystery Hunt went on too long. After all - any Mystery Hunt where the coin hasn’t been found by Sunday at 6PM has gone on too long. The easy criticism is to say that there were too many puzzles and that they could’ve cut a couple of rounds. However, there was another factor that played into the Hunt that left every team saying “Are We There Yet?”

A Disclaimer

I am not here to “take down” the 2024 Hunt. I enjoyed many parts of the hunt, and in particular I found many of the puzzles fun. I enjoyed hunting with my team, and I enjoyed the events. In fact, I wrote a whole blog post about it. Much like my analysis of the AI rounds from the 2023 MIT Mystery Hunt, I think that there is value in dissecting the good and the bad of a hunt in order for future running teams to do better. So yeah, I’m going to say some things about this Hunt that are not positive, but hopefully in a constructive way. Keep that in mind as we go through.

Finding the Path

It should not be a surprise to people who know me that I like :Pathfinder. In particular, I have spent a lot of time playing Pathfinder Society - the organized play version of Pathfinder. Instead of one long-running continuous story with the same people, you are playing short one-session episodes with various different people. The format loses some of the freedom that you get in a normal Pathfinder campaign, but you gain so much freedom in scheduling and socialization.

The short one-sessions episodes have fascinating consequences, many of which are solved with hand-waving and a suspension of disbelief. However, not every plot or session goal that works in a long campaign will work in this format. One such plot is the “traveling session”.

Traveling in fantasy RPG worlds can be dangerous. Traveling on foot or horseback exposes you to the elements, causing weather and terrain to take their toll. Fantasy worlds are filled with all sorts of monsters, many of which will try to kill you. Banditry is also common depending on where you’re at, and of course :magic can cause anything. Traveling by boat may prevent a lot of that difficulty, but sea serpents are a thing. Flying is also relatively safe, unless you’re spotted by :hostile archers or harpies. The point is, :travel isn’t trivial.

None of this is false in Pathfinder Society games, but the context around it is the problem. Because travel is dangerous, there are choices for players to take. Which route and which dangers do we potentially want to face? What equipment do we already have/what will cost us more to survive? How much time do we want to spend traveling? These are all interesting questions to answer. I remember getting an invisible rope so we could hide in a rope trick from a druid who roamed the forest since we knew she’d attack us if she saw us again. I also remember a Shattered Star game where the party pulled out a map of Varisia and figured out a couple different ways of getting to the next dungeon before deciding on our travel method. These are interesting decisions that can have a huge effect on what comes next.

In Pathfinder Society, these choices are minimized. Groups change from session to session, which means that you can’t have one session flow freely into the next. Each session needs to come to a stopping point so that players can switch out. Therefore, it’s hard to have consequences from travel decisions that matter for what comes at the destination. Now, there are definitely Pathfinder Society scenarios that try to do that, but quite often they feel like “Venture Captain tells you to go here. :You walk. Look an obstacle! You walk. Look a combat! You walk. You get there!” The main objective that you’re supposed to be accomplishing is done behind the scenes. :It feels like going on a monorail tour.

Perhaps you can see where this is going.

Fake Decisions

Of course, there is a huge difference between meaningful decisions in puzzle hunts and role playing games. In a role playing game, players are allowed to make decisions that aren’t otherwise accounted for because there is one person, :the game master, who can improvise rewards and consequences based on the choices they made, and the players can still have an effect on the story. This is not true of puzzle hunts except for those at a very small scale. In a role playing game, you can build in a choice to the story where the players have encounter A or B, and either way you’re doing a little extra work, but you’re only doing about :half an hour or so to plan that extra encounter. To do something similar for a puzzle hunt, you would need to have at least one extra puzzle that a team would not see or solve. Each extra puzzle is about :10 hours worth of work, plus or minus depending on the size of the hunt. Often we use whole rounds to represent plot points in a puzzle hunt, and having a choice between two rounds means an extra 120ish hours worth of work over not having that choice. Is it really worth it?

This isn’t to say that teams don’t make choices during a puzzle hunt, but they mostly don’t affect the story of it. How you organize your team can change a lot about how you progress, and what :puzzles you prioritize can affect how smoothly or roughly your team progresses through the hunt. They affect your team’s story, but not the overall story of the hunt. That being said, there are definitely some hunts out there that have had meaningful choices in them. The 2018 MIT Mystery Hunt had a mechanic where whenever you unlocked one of the Islands of Personality, you got to choose which island was which based on some descriptions of what was coming. You still had to solve all of them to finish the Hunt, but you could choose which ones you wanted to do first, which was actually an interesting decision. The Miskatonic University Game had a puzzle that could be solved in two different ways. The way you solved it split you between the Humanists and the Cultists and the final interaction pitted the two factions against each other. But these are minor choices compared to ways you can affect the stories told in other media.

My argument here isn’t that puzzle hunts need to have more decisions in them that affect the story. My argument is that they are unlikely to have any meaningful choices, which means that some types of stories don’t just work as well as others. My argument is that the “travel session” doesn’t work as a puzzle hunt theme.

Seriously, Are We There Yet?

Let’s tackle this from a different angle and examine a couple different Mystery Hunts. I’m going to list the things that solvers needed to do and bold some parts of them. See if you can figure out why some things are bolded and some things aren’t.

Okay, that was more than a couple, but I went back to 2015 for a specific reason. Have you figured out why some parts are bold and some others aren’t?

The parts that are bolded tell the solver how much they will have to solve. Many of these are indicated by a map that is being slowly filled in, but there are a couple notable ones to point out. It never explicitly says “there will be four AI rounds” in 2023, but there are multiple indicators to tell you that there are four. 2022 had Pen Station to tell you how many rounds were in the third part of the Hunt. The 2019 map started out small for just the Your Birthday Town area, then expanded once you got past that.

Compare that to 2024 and 2015. In both of those hunts, you aren’t told when you’re getting close to unlocking/solving everything until suddenly you’re not unlocking any more puzzles. In others you’re accomplishing a goal and you can see your progress, but in 2024 and 2015 you are on a treadmill that is controlled by another person. The frustration that I felt in 2015 came right back in 2024, with the entire team more and more exasperated every time we opened another round, and these are the :only two that are like that.

Solvers, when not given something with which to judge scope, will look for a way to do so. But there’s not a good way to do so. If you’re on a road trip you should be able to figure out where you’re going, right?



This is the map from the Overworld page of the 2024 Hunt. Lines travel from one round to another in the order that they were unlocked, starting with the exit from the Underworld in California. There is absolutely no logic to this road trip. Which, honestly, that’s fine. I am fully aware of needing to reorder rounds for balance reasons. But it means that storyline wise, there is nothing to hold onto here.

So what else do we have to hold onto here?

Perhaps the cities have something in common that we can grasp on? Nope. The places seem completely random, and it’s really hard to find a connection between the Mississippi River and Hell, MI. Perhaps the final stop is in Philadelphia, since the starting place in California was marked on the map and Philadelphia is also marked? Nope - it just turns out to just be the story page and nothing else. Maybe when we get to 150 puzzles we’re getting real close to the end - since other recent Mystery Hunts have ended close there? Nope. A :rough count gives us 219 feeder puzzles and 19 metapuzzles. When we solve a metapuzzle we’re done with the round, right? Nope. Mercury unlocks more puzzles and another meta. When we open a bunch of rounds with one or two puzzles in them we are close to the end, right? Nope. We were in that :flat structure for a whole day. When our puzzle radius gets to 20ish that’s when we’re close to the end, right? Nope - our puzzle radius kept on increasing.

Basically, none of the normal indicators that we were drawing to a close were showing up. We were like a young child on a road trip - not knowing how long it was going to be or where we were going, wondering when we would finally arrive.

Wrapping it Up

Travel stories are fun to read about. Lord of the Rings is an interesting travel story that has enthralled many :nerds for years. But it’s not a fun story for a puzzle hunt on its own. An interactive medium telling a travel story wants the participants to make certain choices that a puzzle hunt generally cannot allow its solvers to make. That combined with the elimination of a target to aim for meant that most of the hunt, we were all asking “Are we there yet?”

- Cute Mage

:X AntiAI

This is why we are so far away from having AI game masters for role playing games. AIs are good at some things, but free-form improvisation based on themes and logical consequences are a long way away.

:X Estimate

Obviously this is a rough estimate, but consider the process that it takes to get a puzzle from idea to final conception:

That’s a lot of different steps. A lot of time goes into each and every puzzle in a puzzle hunt.

:X FixedNumberofSolves

Or DEEP. Whatever. You get the point.

:X FlatStructure

Okay, so I don’t want to get super far into this because this is gonna be the topic for another post about hunt unlocking and how it affects the structure of the hunt, but this is the basic idea. In a large hunt where 1) solving a puzzle in that round tends to unlock a puzzle in that round and 2) rounds are unlocked by a :fixed number of solves in other rounds, you start off with a small number of rounds with a lot of puzzles in them and then slowly progress to a lot of rounds open with a few number of open puzzles in them except for the oldest round(s) which have most of their puzzles. That’s when you can tell you’re getting close to the end.

:X HalfanHour

Maybe. Depending on the system and what you’re running.

:X HarpyArchers

Or, in the case of one particularly memorable Pathfinder Society scenario - Harpy Archers. That was a scary one.

:X Magic

For once in my life, I am mentioning magic as in the general capability of extraordinary forces, and not magic as in Magic the Gathering. That being said, with the addition of Universes Beyond, Magic: the Gathering can be anything.

:X MonorailTour

This is not meant to be a takedown of Pathfinder Society - I love Pathfinder Society and I love a lot of scenarios. There are also some travel scenarios that are really fun to play and run. But it’s a problem with the genre in Organized Play.

:X Nerds

Let’s be clear - if you have interacted with Lord of the Rings more than getting pop culture references or watching the movies, you are a nerd. That’s okay. I’m a nerd too. (But for different reasons.)

:X OnlyTwo

You may be asking “but what about 2021? You don’t have that bolded.” First of all, thank you for being so predictable. Second of all, 2021 would be kind of like that if it wasn’t for the last round. In 2021, you are literally traversing a map that gets bigger and bigger, and while you’re not given the outline of the full map that is slowly being filled in, the map is the MIT Campus, so we know what’s happening. The last two rounds were Clusters and Tunnels. Clusters was foreshadowed by certain rooms you couldn’t open, but IIRC Tunnels wasn’t indicated anywhere until it opened. I would consider 2021 to generally have followed the principle of showing you how much you had to do, but :Tunnels is a mark against it.

:X Pathfinder

If you don’t know what Pathfinder is - it’s Dungeons and Dragons but better.

:X Prioritize

Fun story - one of the reasons I created the unlock structure I did for the 2022 Hunt was because I wanted to focus on this decision. It kinda worked, but that’s a story for another blog post.

:X RoughCount

This rough count includes each of the repeated Everglades puzzles once, the Hell round as 7 puzzles plus a meta, and each Hole puzzle as a full puzzle. I feel justified in that last one because making a small puzzle is :a similar amount of work to making a full puzzle, so when trying to judge how much a Mystery Hunt team has made, it’s still worthwhile.

:X SimilarAmount

Yes, obviously a simple ISIS puzzle takes less time to construct than say, a custom pinball machine. But it still requires two clean playtests, it still requires that a meta is constructed for it, it still requires post-prodding, it still requires fact checking, etc. Each step is easier, but there is still a lot of steps to be done.

:X TravelIsntTrivial

Unless the GM decides that they don’t want to make travel difficult, which is their prerogative.

:X Tunnels

I also think that if you chopped off the Tunnels and the Clusters rounds, 2021 would be much closer to perfect, but that’s a very hot take that I do not expect everyone to agree with.