Art of Quest Building

Introduction

So, you’re interested in building a quest for the DarkNet? That’s excellent! Maybe you’re doing this because you have an amazing idea for a puzzle. Or maybe you learned something new and you’d like to teach everyone about it. Or maybe you’re looking for a way to earn some more points. Whatever the reason, this guide is here to help you construct a quest that will be not only a valuable addition to the Daemon, but even more importantly, will be fun for DarkNet agents everywhere!

As you are planning out your quest, keep in mind the vision for the DarkNet:

DarkNet is a radical, egalitarian social order: it’s the democratization of technology, production, and information. DarkNet is the organizational side-effect of putting information, technology, and, ultimately, economic power back in the hands of the producers, the makers, and the thinkers of the world.

We want to teach, share, collaborate, and challenge each other to be the best we can be.

In the same vein, this guide is written from our own experiences running the DarkNet, but we are by no means experts on the subject. This guide will continue to evolve as we learn and as we receive feedback from you!

 

Building a Quest

Target: 1 hour of content per quest (with the possibility of multiple quests in an epic)

Terminology:

  • Epic: A thematically- or topically-connected string of one or more quests
  • Quest: An activity which produces a single, predefined outcome or answer

Foundational Questions

As the title suggests, building quests is more of an art than a science. Like any type of creative process, building a quest can be both tricky and easy at the same time. Writer’s block and “the endless pursuit of perfection” are both real challenges that prevent amazing quests ever getting released. In order to help you along your way, here are a few questions to organize your thoughts (with longer descriptions below):

  • What type of quest do you want to build? Are you more interested in teaching our agents something new, or in challenging an agent’s existing knowledge?
  • What is your core subject matter?
  • Who is your target audience (e.g., people with existing knowledge of network fundamentals, people who’ve never held a lockpick in their life, people who like to play controller-tossingly difficult video games, etc)
  • How difficult should this be for your target audience? For others?

Be judicious as you consider these questions: it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to build “one quest to rule them all” with every element you can think of. Instead, build multiple smaller quests with each only having a single set of elements that together form a greater whole. 

What type of quest do you want to build?

The DarkNet is all about helping our agents grow through a series of trainings and challenges, and both are very important components of achieving our mission of putting power back in the hands of the people. Consider whether you are more interested in teaching someone a new set of skills they might have never seen before or whether you are more interested in challenging someone’s existing knowledge. If you head down the challenge route, make sure there is a way for the uninitiated to learn the content elsewhere!

Teaching quests are our way of taking someone from zero to hero in a structured way, with some problem-set-like challenges along the way to test and cement their knowledge. The priority is on the education versus the mystery/puzzle/challenge, and you will likely end up writing a decent amount of explanatory content and toy puzzles to show off specific aspects of the skill.

Challenge quests, on the other hand, are a way of synthesizing multiple skill domains together and testing an agent’s ability to delve down beyond their current foundational knowledge. This could be done by challenging the agent to combine multiple techniques in a single step of the puzzle or encouraging them to read the raw protocol documentation to discover a new way of using a specific data field.

From a scoring perspective, teaching quests tend to receive a smaller allocation of DarkNet Points and instead prioritize DarkNet Reputation to show off the agent’s newfound skills.

 

What is your core subject matter?

Now that you have decided on teaching versus challenging, you need to pick out your core focus area for your quest. It is important that you have a clearly defined list of defined topics for the quest to prevent rambling, runaway quests.

For a teaching quest, this should usually stick to a single focus area that could be described to a knowledgeable peer in only a sentence or two. For example, you might build a training quest that focuses on the basics of WEP cracking: triggering ARP packet generation, collecting sufficient ciphertext, and brute forcing the encryption key. Resist the urge to build The Epic Training Quest To End All Training Quests (e.g. WiFi Security would be way too broad for a single training quest). Because you are targeting agents that are unlikely to be familiar with your skill, you want to keep the content bite sized and give them the opportunity to “checkpoint and bail” after an hour (by completing the quest) if it isn’t quite their cup of tea.

By nature, challenge quests are going to be more broad than a teaching quest, but you still need to resist that urge of going too broad. When choosing a challenge quest, consider whether you would like to go for depth or breadth: either you would like to challenge an agent’s in-depth knowledge of a specific area (e.g. the ability to construct/parse raw WiFi frames), or you would like to challenge an agent’s ability to synthesize knowledge across multiple domains (e.g. a simple cipher embedded in an SSTV signal). If you are interested in doing “everything at once, for the epic, ultimate challenge,” take a look at the Advanced Quest Building section below.

A fun hybrid of the two quest types is the “advanced training quest,” in which you are focused on teaching a more advanced skill area, but simultaneously forcing the player to apply their just-learned knowledge along the way. For example, you could teach the basics of sending and receiving Bitcoin transactions in your first training quest, and then focus on building custom transactions in your “advanced training quest.” This arrangement encourages the player to practice their initial knowledge of sending and receiving, but in a novel, assisted way by sending a hand-built transaction. This is a very effective way of chaining together multiple training quests for some epic education.

Regardless of quest type, write down your core subject matter at the beginning and reference it regularly to ensure you are staying on track with your original goals. By all means, feel free to change the goals as you think about it some more; just make sure that you can still present a concise description of the purpose of the quest. One technique for doing this is Key Takeaways: “By the end of this quest, the agent will be able to do X, Y, Z” or “By the end of this quest, the agent will have shown in-depth knowledge of areas X, Y, and Z.” If you can’t fit your key takeaways in a single sentence, you should consider splitting your content into multiple, related quests.

 

Who is your target audience?

The DarkNet has a wide spectrum of ability levels and specialties, so you will need to be selective in deciding which subset of the agents you would like to target. Also, remember to be respectful of your target audience, especially if you’re doing a teaching quest. Just because your target audience doesn’t know how to write complex regexes or reverse-engineer a piece of malware, doesn’t mean they’re stupid. 

How difficult should this quest be?

For target audience? For others?

Difficulty is a tricky thing, and this is where playtesting (see below) will come in really handy. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of “I know it, therefore everyone else knows it”, and forget to spell out key bits of information which you take for granted but may not be obvious to people who aren’t you.

 

Aesthetics of Play

In broad strokes, the aesthetics of play are aspects of enjoyment in activities that people will tend to seek and enjoy in differing amounts. People are different in how much the various aesthetics appeal to them and in what amounts, but any given activity or game can only usually focus on a handful. Please read through this writeup on The Aesthetics of Play as they pertain to the DarkNet: https://drive.google.com/open?id=19UXNo-3mWY2pGNptzmebPVRox7OEgJdQ

Other descriptions of the same concepts

 

Think in terms of the player

Stop yourself regularly and review your quest from the eyes of the player. Is this a reasonable logical jump? Based on the information provided, what are other possible directions the player could be thinking?

 

Playtesting

Just as you did during the design process, put yourself in the agent’s shoes and walk through your quest. This unfortunately gets more and more challenging as you become more and more familiar with the quest content. So, once you think you’ve got something all figured out, it is time to bring in some outside help! This is the process of playtesting and is crucial to the playability of your quest. Find a friend who is somewhat close to your target audience, and ask them to work through your quest. (Bribery helps!)

Pay attention to the mistakes that are made or roadblocks encountered during playtesting: you will use this information to design your pre-written hints. In fact, you’ll likely even want to playtest your hints just like you’ve playtested your quest!

Designing and Giving Hints

Puzzles are puzzling because you have multiple possible options and are not certain which one is correct.

Example: a child’s puzzle (placing different shaped blocks in cutouts) has a small number of options (piece selection and orientation). A hard physical puzzle has 5000 pieces and 4 orientations. A maniacal physical puzzle has 8 orientations (pieces can be upside down as well).

With each of the above examples, you have a pretty good idea when you get a piece right, and when you are mistaken (“false paths”), you can’t go too long without realizing your mistake (nothing else fits, or something else fits better).

Harder puzzles will have more possible options and potentially more false paths. A good, straightforward puzzle should be very clear when you hit on the right path. A good winding puzzle should feel like you got it right on a false path, but leave this nagging feeling like you missed something and want to go back.

Much of the fun in puzzle solving comes from thinking through the set of options, maybe trying a few, and eventually landing on one that “feels” right. 

Understand where your player’s brain is at so you can eliminate the false path that is getting them stuck and guide them towards the right path

 

Pre-written hints

Use your playtesting experiences to your advantage here! In playtesting, you had real people make real mistakes. Be prepared for more agents to make the same and similar mistakes.

 

Providing hints on the fly

Ask questions! Your goal is to constrain the problem space by eliminating unproductive paths or (re)introducing previously eliminated paths.

Have a quest you want to write?

Got through the entire Art (or just skipped down here, in which case we applaud your bravery and recommend you go back and read it)?

Use this form to enter a quest!