Puzzles in Pop Culture: DiscWorld

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[Image courtesy of Blizzard Watch.]

There are many strange worlds in the realms of fantasy literature, crafted in loving detail across dozens of novels and stories. But no fictional world is as hilarious, as thought-provoking, as sincere, as strange, or as endlessly inventive as the DiscWorld.

DiscWorld is a pizza-shaped planet that rests on the backs of four giant elephants that themselves stand atop the shell of a giant turtle that swims through space. The masterful creation of author Terry Pratchett, DiscWorld is a beloved universe of stories that encapsulates social commentary, parody, and epic adventure, all told through the lens of classic fantasy tropes turned on their heads.

And when you have a world that encompasses everything from witches and golems to time travel and Death himself, you’re bound to encounter a puzzle or two.

In today’s edition of Puzzles in Pop Culture, we’re looking at the colorful ways that Terry Pratchett incorporated puzzles into one of the most singular, expansive worlds in fantasy literature.

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[Image courtesy of The Daily Star.]

There are numerous capable puzzle solvers in the DiscWorld novels. Across several novels, Commander Vimes of the City Watch cracks both criminal cases and elaborate conspiracies thanks to his street smarts and years of detective work. Career criminal-turned-postmaster Moist Von Lipwig unravels several criminal conspiracies on his journey from miscreant to hero. Even Death, alongside his granddaughter Susan, takes a turn testing his puzzly might over the holidays when they uncover why the Hogfather (DiscWorld‘s version of Santa Claus) has gone missing.

But you cannot talk about capable puzzlers in DiscWorld without mentioning Lord Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician of the fabled city of Ankh-Morpork.

A trained assassin and mastermind who pulls puppet strings all over the city, Vetinari is both hero and villain, doing whatever he deems necessary to keep the city running smoothly.

As you might expect, he’s quite a fan of puzzles. (He plays games as well, like Thud and Stealth Chess, but we’re going to focus on puzzles today.)

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[Image courtesy of VS Battles Wiki.]

He’s something of a whiz when it comes to decoding and decrypting messages. At the Blind Letter Office in the Post Office — where letters unable to be delivered end up — Vetinari sometimes tests his wits by unraveling the near-gibberish found on some of the letters.

For example, Vetinari encountered a letter addressed to “Duzbuns Hopsit pfarmarrsc” and offhandedly explained that the letter was intended for “K. Whistler, Baker, 3 Pigsty Hill.” How, you ask? By decoding the above into the much-more coherent “Does Buns Opposite the Pharmacy.”

Although the regular employees of the Blind Letter Office manage to translate five out of every six addresses that cross their desks, they view Lord Vetinari’s puzzly skill with awe.

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[Image courtesy of Amazon. The Times Cryptic Crossword Book.]

When it comes to British-style/cryptic crosswords, he brings equal skill to the table. In fact, the only discernible sign that Lord Vetinari is drunk is when it takes him 15 seconds longer than normal to solve The Ankh-Morpork Times‘ daily crossword puzzle.

He is routinely challenged by “Puzzler,” the setter for The Ankh-Morpork Times. Naturally, his begrudging respect for the skilled constructor leads him to pursue the secret identity of Puzzler.

In a later DiscWorld novel, Vetinari believes that fellow trivia enthusiast and pet-food shop owner Grace Speaker could be Puzzler. He puts her under observation when it’s revealed she is one of five people in the city who correctly answers the trivia question “What is, or are, Pysdxes?”

(For the record, the other four are Vetinari himself, his assistant Drumknott, Puzzler, and the Curator of Ephebian Antiquities at the Royal Art Museum.)

Later confirming her secret life as Puzzler, Vetinari continues to welcome her challenging puzzles, even if entries like “snarkenfaugister” leave him exasperated at her fiendish and obscure vocabulary choices. (Apparently crosswordese is a thing on DiscWorld as well…)

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[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

In the novel Making Money, a cryptic crossword clue is presented for the reader to solve as well: Shaken players shift the load (9)

Later in the novel, the answer is revealed. Did you figure it out?

The answer is CARTHORSE. The word “shaken” implies that some letter-mixing is involved, and if you shake up ORCHESTRA (the “players” from the clue), you get CARTHORSE, a device which allows you to “shift the load.”

Naturally, this clue was no match for Vetinari.

[Screenshot from the Penny Dell Sudoku App!]

It’s worth noting that Sudoku has also made its way into DiscWorld, though in a tongue-in-cheek dismissive fashion. In DiscWorld, it is called Jikan no Muda, which is Japanese for “waste of time.” Lord Vetinari considers Jikan no Muda puzzles far easier than the crossword, and therefore less worthy of his attention.

As you’d expect from a master manipulator like the Patrician, he enjoys crosswords more because they allow him to comprehend how another person’s mind works when actively trying to mislead.

In the capable hands of a world-class storyteller, little puzzly details like this don’t simply add color to an established character; they can set the tone for the adventures to come.

In Making Money, for instance, mentioning both crosswords and Jikan no Muda is no coincidence. The entire novel is built around the battle between those who prefer to deal in words (Vimes, Vetinari, Moist) and those who prefer numbers (Mr. Bent, who runs the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork).

One of my all-time favorite series even before I compiled these puzzly moments, the DiscWorld books make the most of every story element involved, whether it’s witchcraft, magic, misunderstandings, fiendish plots, or simply one city official’s penchant for puzzles.


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A World of Puzzles and Games at Norwescon 42!

Your friendly neighborhood puzzle blogger took a trip across the country to attend Norwescon, the premiere fantasy and science fiction convention in the Pacific Northwest.

This was the 42nd edition of the convention, and if you know your sci-fi novels, then you’re not surprised that there were all sorts of references to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (The number 42 is a big part of the first novel.)

The convention’s subtitle was “Don’t Panic” (another HHGTTG reference), and lots of convention attendees were in their bathrobes or carrying towels, representing the two main characters of the series, the bathrobe-wearing Arthur Dent and the towel-toting alien tourist Ford Prefect.

As with any convention, the costuming was amazing. There were fairy godmothers, vikings, mermaids, Daleks, folks in Seahawks-colored finery (it was Seattle, after all), a Predator offering free hugs, an inflatable T-rex costume with those robotic grabber arms, and even photo ops with Krampus and Santa! (And Easter Krampus on Sunday.)

One of the oddest moments for me was seeing a group of people in uniforms I didn’t recognize, and realizing they weren’t con attendees, they were the flight crew for an international airline. (The hotel was across the street from the airport.)

Although many of the convention’s panels and events have a writerly focus, plenty of attention is also given to art, films, games, and pop culture, so there was loads for puzzle and game fans to enjoy at the event.

The dealers room — the main area to shop for costumes, books, fabric, t-shirts, memorabilia, collectibles, and more — had several game shops represented, toting loads of games at good prices. (Several of which we’ve reviewed on the Blog in the past, and some that will be reviewed in the future.)

[All hotel nooks and crannies were stuffed with thematic exhibits, including this delightful leave-a-book, take-a-book mini-library a la The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.]

Board game demos were available all day, complete with skillful players to introduce newbies to various games, as well as tabletop roleplaying adventures in all sorts of settings and systems, from Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade to Pathfinder and more. In fact, one of the gaming spaces was right down the hall from my hotel room, and it was PACKED morning ’til night with enthusiastic roleplayers telling stories, rolling dice, and battling monsters.

There were open games as well as sign-ups for specific games and adventures, including a multi-table multi-hour battle for gang supremacy in the fictional city of Waterdeep.

One of the most intriguing puzzle/game experiences available to try at the convention was Artemis.

Artemis is a spaceship bridge simulator that allows a group of players to essentially play out a Star Trek-esque adventure. Each player has instructions, controls, and a laptop in front of them, as well as a big screen for everyone to view (much like the main viewer on the bridge of the Enterprise).

Two teams, each piloting their own ship (the Artemis or the Intrepid) must battle foes, trade goods, dock with space stations, and explore the galaxy, all while maintaining their weapons, shields, energy usage in the ship, and piloting control, as well as communicating with their sister ship through headset.

I moved back and forth between the two “ships,” watching as the players navigated different challenges, cooperated (and disagreed) on command decisions, managed their resources, and ventured between the stars, all while some pretty impressive graphics tied the whole play experience together.

What really struck me about the Artemis style of play was how much communication was required for success. It is a co-op game in the same vein as Castle Panic!, Forbidden Island, or Spaceteam, but with a lot more personal responsibility. Plus the laptop interfaces for each station were slick and well-designed, bringing that polished Star Trek: The Next Generation feel home.

I was also responsible for some of the puzzliest events at the convention. Although I did participate in some panels on writing, literature, roleplaying games, and movies (both good ones and the worst of b-movies), the two events that were the main focus of my time were a LARP/scavenger hunt based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and an escape room based on Star Wars.

The HHGTTG event was built as an in-universe scavenger hunt where players (who were all expected to bring their towels, of course), had to complete five tasks. The completion of each task led to a rune for the players to record on their gamesheet. and earn five runes, then spell them out in a secret location using their towels, in order to ask an important question.

Some of the tasks included:

  • finding HHGTTG character names in a word search grid, then reading the remaining uncircled letters as a secret message
  • singing karaoke to the mermaids at the hotel pool
  • assisting a Vogon poet with her terrible poetry

They had to earn all five runes, then find me in a secret location and spell out the runes with their towels. If they did so correctly, they would bring one of the missing dolphins back to Earth (and received a small stuffed one for their efforts).

[A bag full of dolphins, awaiting a possible return to Earth.]

The Star Wars event was a traditional escape room with puzzles to solve, boxes to unlock, combinations to find, keys to uncover, and a room to escape under a time limit. Designed for the teenaged attendees, the escape room was set on a bounty hunter’s ship, and all of the players were recently captured by the bounty hunter, awaiting transport to an Imperial prison.

But the bounty hunter has fallen victim to one of his own security protocols, so all of the “prisoners” have a chance to escape, if they disable the (Nerf gun-)armed droid blocking the escape pod, as well as either shut off the radiation leak near the pod OR gather enough bacta to heal themselves from radiation damage in order to actually survive the escape.

[Nerf guns and five shipped boxes. An embryonic escape room.]

[The contents of said shipped boxes. An escape room mid-construction.]

Although some of the boxes were opened out of order (by brute force, rather than proper solving) and one of the puzzles had an unfortunate printing error, the players unraveled the mysteries of the bounty hunter’s ship and escaped with only seconds to spare before the Imperials arrived. SUCCESS!

(Plus friend of the blog Jen Cunningham cooked up some lovely victory certificates for the players, which was a cool bonus. Thank you Jen!)

More importantly, despite the hiccups encountered during both events, everyone had fun while playing (either walking away with a small dolphin or a certificate).

The entire convention was a blast (an exhausting one, but a blast nonetheless), and I highly recommend attending Norwescon next year to any fans of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, writing workshops, games, roleplaying, and of course, puzzles.


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