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Journey to the End of the Night: Chicago/DC 2009 by Spidere

May 21st, 2009 1:17 AM

INSTRUCTIONS: Simultaneous pursuits across Chicago and Washington, D.C.

The city spreads out before you. Rushing from point to point, lit by the slow strobe of fluorescent buses and dark streets. Stumbling into situations for a stranger's signature. Fleeing unknown pursuers, breathing hard, admiring the landscape and the multitude of worlds hidden in it.

For one night, drop your relations, your work and leisure activities, and all your usual motives for movement and action, and let yourself be drawn by the attractions of the chase and the encounters you find there.

If you participated in this two-city simultaneous Journey in any way (as a player, chaser, or volunteer), please post your story here. Tell us your story of fear, lust, pain, speed, alienation, loneliness, hate, and desire.

This story is going to be mainly a "pull back the curtain" look into what we planned and organized for the Journey, with some numbers and charts for those of us who like that sort of thing. But first, a feeling and a story.


Imagine, if you will, hundreds of people gathered before you. They are excited, and a little bit twitchy. They are about to run through the city, where unknown dangers and rewards await them. They don’t know what to expect--but tonight, the city will be a different beast entirely. It will be a place of adventure and danger, of narrow escapes and exhausted panic. Whatever their night is like, they will have stories to be told later. But right now, they do not know what those stories will be. They may hope. They may think they know. But right now, they are waiting to see how the future unfolds. They are waiting to be released.

They are waiting for you. They are ready.

And then they are gone.


It can be a dangerous thing, to plan a Journey. Particularly when we found out that another journey was being planned for the same day. We could not move (it is the last weekend before all the students leave); neither could they (Dax would be in town only for that weekend). And so we began to hatch a plan, Dax and I. This has long been tickling the back of my head, and so my first envoy to Dax was, "I think we can get our 500. What do you think?"

As it would turn out, we would make it to 1000 between us. But it was a process of negotiation, figuring out how to compromise on time (we would release late, at 8; they would release early at 7) and cross-city interaction. We came up with many ideas, some involving ringing public pay phones that players could pick up (sadly, it turns out that while some public phones still exist, none of them accept incoming calls), relying on players in the other city to find checkpoint locations, or secret envelopes given to players. In the end, the ideas were simple: Chicago players had, on their map, a secret code which would help DC players. DC players had a secret location, which would help Chicago players. If they could get in contact, they could trade and both benefit.

To encourage this, we made it well-known beforehand that people should find a counterpart in the other city; in addition, we published the phone numbers for each bonus checkpoint on the opposite map. If a player called it, they might be able to talk to a cross-city player and gain a fortuitous connection. We also had a Chicago-themed checkpoint in DC, and planned to trigger a Mothra transformation (turning a chaser into a second Good Player Fairy) in DC when the first Chicago player reached the bonus checkpoint. But we also wanted to make sure that while people were aware of the other city, they didn't need to know about it to enjoy the basic thrill of Journey. That they could simply chase or be chased through the city streets, having the visceral experience of fear and paranoia, danger and speed.

Next time, time, we might be more ambitious.


All right, here we go. There's so much to be told (as there always is after a Journey), so I'll try to stick to the most interesting parts. Let me just give a brief thanks to everyone who helped make this happen: there were about thirty people who all worked very hard to make this happen, and I'm tremendously grateful for it.

Timeline and Twitter

This year, we decided to try twitter for during-game status updates. The idea was pretty simple: chasers would twitter where they were going, and how many they had caught. This would allow the lead chaser to direct them to ramp up or down as needed. Checkpointers would twitter when people reached their checkpoints; this would allow further checkpointers to see when people would be arriving, and also let the chasers know approximately where people were throughout the route. A bonus result was that we could, at the end of the game, pull together all the messages to create a timeline. I think it gives a really fun way to envision the night, and see what various people were doing.

The collected timeline is here. Go ahead--check it out; I'm really quite inordinately proud of it. But remember to come back here for more.


We got more people than we expected. More than we'd hoped for, really. At first, things were going pretty well; a few hundred visitors per day (mainly from facebook or from direct email), some of whom signed up--things were on track for a good-sized journey.

It looked like there was a good chance of our breaking 300, so I doubled the initial ribbon order (ending up with 1200 feet each of orange and blue). Then, during the week leading up to the Journey, things got crazy.

Literally every time I checked my email, it would be filled with new signups. So I started to worry about our preparations. Even after finding the leftover from last year, I was scrambling for emergency last-minute ribbon. By the time the game started, 550 players had signed up: last year, we got about a hundred more than had signed up--but this year? What would the impending rain do? Would the numbers increase further? In the end, I had two backup plans: first. if we ran out of ribbon, be prepared to use the ribbon from medals. if even that failed, we would cut all the ribbons in half and have people tie them around their wrists. We ended up with 638 players, which narrowly made our quota: if 4 more people had shown up, we would have gone into the prize ribbon (which could have put us up to about 700 if needed).

(By the way, a word of advice to anyone running a Journey: if it looks like rain, buy an umbrella on the day of the Journey. So far, this has been 3 for 3 in preventing rain. ;)

638 was a lot of people to put unto Dupont circle. This is a pretty hastily-made panorama here:

But you might also want to check some other people's crowd shots, like this one, to give a sense of the number. We took over Dupont Circle.

It was a lot of people.

This year, people made it to the checkpoints in the following numbers:
Start: 638
CP 1: 600
CP 2: 440
CP 3: 241
CP 4: 191
CP 5: 110
CP 6: 85
CP Bonus: 220+

Give me another few years of data, and I'll see if I can get a survival analysis going, using distance from previous checkpoint, distance to nearest metro, and checkpoint number...sorry, was I drooling? Anyway, I'm very curious about modeling this, so other Journeys are encouraged to send me data if you have it...

I have some thoughts on why so few people survived down below, and how to increase the number.

The first team to finish was the amazing trio, Fireteam Camelot! You'll see several notes regarding them in the timeline, as "3 marines". They were a lot of fun--all of the checkpoints said they were great sports, and they hung out at the final checkpoint for a while. We have their email addresses, and come next year, you should look out for three speedy chasers on the streets...

The Route

The Google Map shows the checkpoints, safe zones, and the direct route from checkpoint to checkpoint for the main course. No one went direct, I'm sure (the fear of the chasers was well-deserved), but the direct route was 7 miles (also not including the bonus checkpoint). As with any Journey, I think choosing a good route and good checkpoint locations is one of the most critical things. This should be done as early as possible, so you can check the route and make sure it makes sense. Because not only should they be good places for checkpointers to set up, but they should encourage some public transit...without making it too easy; and not be too far, but far enough (especially early on) to separate players out.

Bonus Boxes

One of the new additions this year was the presence of a "bonus box" at each checkpoint.

Each one was a closed box with a combination lock. Within lay a prize that would assist the player with their journey--if they were lucky enough to find the combination.
I'll go through each of them (and their codes) in the checkpoint section below. I think this worked fairly well--some people got the bonuses, and it seemed like players liked the concept of secret information spread throughout the city.

Good Player Fairy

This is another innovation I'd been thinking of, and which we put into play this year. The problem is thus: some chasers will "camp" checkpoint entrances or exits, rather than roaming the streets for prey. Once there are a certain number of chasers in the game, this can make it nearly impossible for players to get in or out of a checkpoint, which makes it very difficult for things to progress. One of the ways to fix this is to make the safe zones large enough to provide many exist and entrances. Another is the Good player Fairy.

The Good Player Fairy's role is to wander the course, specifically going to places where chasers are making it impossible for players to get through. While within 10 feet of the Good Player Fairy, no captures can be made. This makes them, essentially, a roaming bubble of protection, to be summoned as needed or to act as they whimsically desire. To keep them from being abused, they have discretion over how quickly or how directly to proceed to the next checkpoint, or even whether to move at all. Fairies are not always predictable.

This was, I think, a great success, and one that should be repeated and extended. It was also a great way to protect players and have more of them make it safely through the night. incircles was a great player fairy: he seemed to have a lot of fun, and I think was a fantastic element in the game. The temporary protection he offered reminded players that once they left it, they would once more be at the mercy of the chasers.

The Bonus Checkpoint

This was also our first year with a bonus checkpoint. I had no idea how many people would go for it, or what precisely to reward people with. In the end, I just made things up and went with it. The bonus checkpoint was a huge success, with over a third of the players going there. I'd provided them with bonus box items to give out, as well as the ability to give combinations for other bonus boxes. But I think the success (as with just about any checkpoint) really came from having great people running it. The Yellow House is filled with some of the most talented and wonderful people I know, and they did not disappoint. Their theme? Magnum PI Tiki theme. With polar bear, of course.

In keeping with this, and in a wonderful tie-in to SF0's moustache tradition, the bonus checkpointers would prove that people had visited their checkpoint by drawing a moustache on their face (for those with existing moustaches, they would accentuate it with long curly ends or similar). Their work speaks for itself.

For anyone who made it to the bonus, and also made it through every checkpoint, they would receive a brilliantly designed bonus checkpoint pin.


CP 1: Directly in front of the White House, we'd thought about making a stronger connection to Chicago by emphasizing the Obama connection. Instead, Bruce Witzenburg, leader of the DC Defenestrators, created a bureaucratic maze, forcing people to literally jump through hoops or perform other tasks in order to navigate through and finally get their checkpoint 1 stamp. I believe they made the marines do pushups. I don't believe this slowed them down.

The combination code for the first bonus box was 2-0-2 (Washington's area code), given out over the journeydc twitter feed just after the game started. The bonus allowed players to use some of Washington's bus system.

CP 2: Chicago-themed, run by eccoglyph and Kprime. They had the Chicago musical soundtrack playing the whole time, and constructed an amazing set of silhouettes. This was at the Taft Memorial, which is dedicated not to President William H. Taft, but to his son, Senator Robert A. Taft. One person who came to the checkpoint was a history major, and gave an impromptu speech about Taft's powerful senate career; but I think most surprising was that two of Taft's grandsons were runners in the Journey!
You can find pictures (and videos) here.
The combination for this checkpoint? 7-7-3, of course (Chicago's area code). Acquiring this gave players access to /all/ of DC buses, as well as making bus stops into safe zones.

CP 3: 1950's home was the theme: Fizzbang made everyone draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grew up. He has a great twitter here, saying ' Most common: "Astronaut", followed by "Fire Truck" and "Dinosaur." "Pilot" tied with "Airplaine" (obviously, those folks need to team up).' Also I liked his comment on Fireteam Camelot. what did the three marines want to be when they grew up? "A marine. A marine staff sergeant. And Grimace, from Ronald McDonald." (Apparently, the purple crayon was the first one he picked up.)
You can see a couple of the drawings here, but I really want to see these scanned in for fizzbang's praxis!
We made the combination 7-7-3 here as well, to emphasize its importance. Also--when it is late at night, and you are trying to fit lines into quarter-pages, it is nearly inevitable that you will start making one entirely in haiku.

CP 4: Camping/granola (on the Howard university campus), run by nano5th. I don't actually know of any pictures from this checkpoint, but I heard they made people sing campfire songs. :) The code for this checkpoint, which housed the most powerful bonus in the game, was '4-1-5' (San Francisco's area code), which was posted on posters leading up to the bonus.

CP 5: Pastafarians. These are believers in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whose noodly appendage created the world and all things in it. They also dressed as pirates, of course, to try and reduce global warming, in keeping with tenets of the church. Find pictures here.
Combination: 4-1-2 (area code for Pittsburgh, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates); this was also in a pirate chest. The bonus was my favorite, too:

Final Checkpoint: We ended at the Dupont Italian Kitchen, which was great--enough space to hold tons of people, fairly empty during the late night, and we didn't have to worry about providing food or drink for the party. More importantly, we also had some people from SpeakeasyDC recording stories from people, and got some great audio recollections. Take a listen! You can find them (and links to all many other photo collections) here.


We had a lot of great chasers this year. Two bike chasers, which were reportedly almost as terrifying in DC as in Chicago. "El Guapo" was particularly good, with his mexican wrestling mask:

But Justin, with his blatantly lying "I am not a chaser" sign, was also pretty fantastic:

They did a great job instilling terror in the players. Congrats to all of them!


Our best costume winners put up pictures here.

Some Reflections: What Went Right and What Went Wrong

People had a really good time. That's critical. They had an adventure, they had terror. They didn't all survive--but they all experienced their city anew, as a different, less trusted and less safe place--and also as a place where they could run, powerfully and swiftly, become agents seeking information and escaping from enemies.

The checkpoints were all fantastic. They provided new worlds for the players to encounter in the city. I was really impressed with how each one provided unusual and interesting oases of safety in the city. They were really cool, and I think the players had a great time because of them.

One thing that was a problem last year was that the mass of players swarmed the early checkpoints at once, overwhelming them with hundreds of players in just a few minutes. To try to avoid this, we did three things. We increased the distance to the first checkpoint; we loaded up on chasers between the start and the first checkpoint; and we gave people the option of going to the bonus checkpoint first. I should also mention that this year, we released on time (actually a little late) rather than surprising the chasers with players before they were ready. I think these things worked pretty well to manage the crowd surge. We also got specialty ink stampers made with the Journey logo, which was a lot faster than signing. Even with this, checkpoint one got fairly well swarmed (though I think the red tape theme may have contributed to this). Next year, though, I think it'd be good to have two stampers there (this year, they had someone signing in addition to the stamper).

On that note, I think that interacting with Chicago worked fairly well. People seemed to enjoy being able to interact with Chicago players, especially to exchange bonuses. I know a number of people talked via the bonus checkpoint. I was disappointed that we never got a call from the Chicago checkpoint (which would have triggered our Mothra sequence, adding a second good player fairy, which would have helped more players make it through the course). Our late release was due to some security guard trouble in Chicago. But overall, I was really happy with the idea that there were people simultaneously running in both cities, having similar experiences even as they traveled different routes. I continue to have the highest respect for Dax and the whole Chicago team, and was really glad to be able to get some cross-city interaction with them.

After reading the rules to the players, we waited until 8 PM (about fifteen minutes) before releasing them. In the future, I don't think we actually need to wait.
We did it to make sure people had arrived (and this year, to coordinate with Chicago), but we had plenty of people in time this year. I also need to write a shorter speech for the beginning. :) A big crowd is a difficult thing to control. They don't want to sit through a bunch of dry rules. I need to either write better or write shorter (in this case, maybe they're the same). Even with the jokes, trying to talk about the various bonuses felt too long. Next year, I'll try to rework the map to make some of that information available there. I also need to be able to release them pretty soon after finishing the reading--because the other thing that a large crowd doesn't want to do is wait. I know that's frustrating.

The end was also a similar sort of difficult-to-manage experience. While I was really glad to end at a restaurant/bar (which allowed underaged folks, just not for alcohol--very important) because it was a great space to get food and drink without having to manage it ourselves, it also made it difficult to try and direct everyone at once. This is probably mainly a function of size, and means that the end-of-Journey experience should perhaps become more of a social party, with prizes given individually as people finish rather than trying to have a standalone ceremony. The board really helped with keeping track of the finishing order, and who was in the running for prizes.

I think that twitter worked pretty well--by having every staff member using twitter for updates, and making sure we all knew each other's twitter, we could follow everyone we needed to and set up our phones for text updates, maintaining very good awareness throughout the night. Next year, we'll need to make sure that everyone sets up a new account (so that the staff twitter feeds don't leak out beforehand). We also set up two special feeds, using scripts to collect and retwitter updates--one reposting all checkpoint information, and one reporting all chaser information. These were to be made available to players during the night. A few players noticed ahead of time the special feeds--which is fine, and I think clever of them--but once a bunch of people started finding them, I knew I had to block access until the start of the game. Next year, we'll try to have some more unexpected names so that people won't know without the special bonus. However, I also really liked the use of journeydc as a "publicity" pre-game twitter feed and also to provide some more information during the game. I think players liked that, and it was pretty cool to have a channel to communicate with (some) players during the game.

On a smaller tactical level, we used a google group for pre-game organizational mailing, and a wiki (running mediawiki) to organize details. While I think this worked well, and definitely recommend it (it's good to have a central place for files, and automatic records of emails), I think google documents would have worked just as well as (perhaps even better than) the wiki.

I think the new additions worked pretty well. The bonuses seemed like a good way for people to add another level to the game, finding new layers and depth to the city. However, it's a terrible feeling to get a bonus that doesn't help you--next year, we should make sure that bonuses aren't duplicated between checkpoints (either through mixup or design). The bonus checkpoint should have its own unique benefit.

I think the Good Player Fairy was great, both thematically and especially to help prevent chaser camping. I think it was also important that these additions were optional--that the core of the game has to be the thrill of the chase. It's a raw theme which appeals directly to our primal instincts, but also makes the game very resilient to any problems. While I really do like these additions, and think they make the game more interesting, it's important to keep them from dominating the game.

The safe zones worked fairly well for the most part. Having them be a full block makes for a lot of entrances and exits, which I've come to think is a really good idea. The two exceptions were Checkpoint 3 (which had only a single section of street), and ended up being a chokepoint for many players, and a killzone for many more. Also, the safe zone around the bonus area was pretty FUBAR on the map. It was supposed to be as you see it on the google map, a block around the bonus--but neither the written description nor the map were right, nor were they even the same. :( Next year, I'll make sure to have three sets of eyes on the map.

The main issue, I think, is how few people survived to the end. Many fewer than I was expecting. I think this was basically because of chaser activity--when we saw how many people there were, we increased the catch limit for staff chasers. (They were supposed to catch no more than 4 players. I think this limit should probably be 2 at most.) So they ended up catching more players, earlier than expected. This was a problem because chaser growth is exponential (each chaser can create more than one new chaser by catching players) and the chasers have a pretty one-sided power dynamic with players (if a chaser finds you, there's nothing you can do but run). I don't think those two things should be changed (it would significantly change the feel of the game)--which means that staff chasers have to be very careful about how many are caught early on. Also, at least one staff chaser got carried away with the thrill of the chase, and went significantly over their catch limit.

Finally, I think our prizes were really incredible this year. Dax made some fantastic trophies. Kprime did an amazing job laser cutting medals, then painting them gold, silver, and bronze for the first places. The bonus badges and the main player and chaser medals were amazing, and I think having those will make sure that Journey has a special place in every player's hearts and minds.

Final Words

Journey is a great concept--if you can get the word out, that alone will bring in people. If you already have a group of people who know about it, and are excited about it, and want to bring their friends, it can become a blowout success.

Also--I'll volunteer to answer any questions people have here, about running their own Journeys. :) It's a great event, and results in amazing adventure and story. I'm happy to help anyone else make such a great event happen.

+ larger

The Journey Logo
Chaser Baton
 Chaser Medals
Replacement Ribbon
Speakeasy DC
Replacement Manifest
Our official manifest
The Map
Initial visits
Bonus Boxes
The Good Player Fairy
Hawaii, we love you!
Half a moustache
Moustache Badge
 Fireteam Camelot
Bus passes
Spidere and El Guapo
I am not a chaser
Player Medals

26 vote(s)

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19 comment(s)

(no subject)
posted by JJason Recognition on May 21st, 2009 6:10 AM

Wow. Brilliant stuff.

(no subject)
posted by Lincøln on May 21st, 2009 9:35 AM

A winner is you.


(no subject) +1
posted by Dax Tran-Caffee on May 21st, 2009 10:00 AM

This takes the cake Thomas. You've set the game-organization bar a little too high this time. A little too high.

(no subject)
posted by Lincøln on May 21st, 2009 10:08 AM

I was thinking the same thing.
But luckily he wrote it all down and shared it, so Journey L.A. (coming late this summer) can benefit from his good hard work.

(no subject)
posted by Dax Tran-Caffee on May 21st, 2009 5:40 PM

Just because he's written out how he did it... doesn't mean that we can do it.

The one thing you're missing (unless I missed it) is the game budget. I'd love to know if you were able to keep track of that.

I track /everything/. +1
posted by Spidere on May 21st, 2009 6:09 PM

$48.00 in ponchos
$128.32 on ribbon
$50 on trophies
$20 on locks
$20.71 on box latches
$26.88 on wooden boxes
$50 on refreshments (cups and water)
$116.25 (including last-minute shipping) on stamps
$25 on prize materials
Total $485.17
- not including checkpoint theming costs
- not including free printing of the maps

We received $447.15 in donations (about $250 in cash, and $200 from paypal), hurrah!

(no subject)
posted by Dax Tran-Caffee on May 23rd, 2009 11:38 PM

Amazing! I can't believe you pulled all that off for under $500. That's less than $1.00 per player - sure beats a movie. Congrats on free printing of maps, that's a big one. And that's great that passing a hat made up almost all of the organizer's cost!

Now that May 2nd has come and gone, I've come to the realization that surveyor's tape is only $3 for 300 feet ($6 for flourescent).

(no subject) +2
posted by Ian Kizu-Blair on May 21st, 2009 2:04 PM

Wow, I am so impressed! The Journey looks incredible, I'm going to go back to reading through the awesome twitter feed now. Great idea. And the Good Player Fairy, I love that innovation as well.

Wow! An impressed Ian! +1
posted by Spidere on May 21st, 2009 5:57 PM

:) I'm so proud. Last comment from Ian was nearly a year ago! :) Yay! (does a merry jig)

Some Questions
posted by JJason Recognition on May 21st, 2009 10:44 PM

Did you tell people about the good player fairy beforehand?

Also, do you have an estimate of how many people got the bonuses from the boxes?

Some Answers
posted by Spidere on May 21st, 2009 11:04 PM

Regarding the GPF: We told them that there would be someone to help them through the course, but no specifics until the reading of the rules at the beginning.

No estimates on how many people got bonuses from the boxes, though. In retrospect, I should have counted before and after.

posted by susy derkins on May 23rd, 2009 9:08 AM

5 meagre vote points for making a great night for SIX HUNDRED AND THIRTHY EIGHT people? And turning the city into a playground? With your bare hands?
We need a "maker of awesomeness" badge. An "Ian impresser" badge?

(no subject)
posted by Dax Tran-Caffee on May 23rd, 2009 11:39 PM

... looks like we just got a "Journey Organizer" badge...

(no subject) +1
posted by teucer on May 24th, 2009 7:32 AM

I think after MN0 they ought to give me a "Journey Disorganizer" badge instead.

(no subject)
posted by Ben Yamiin on May 23rd, 2009 2:22 PM

How the hell did you get so many people?

(no subject)
posted by saille is planting praxis on May 26th, 2009 12:31 PM

I am so sad that I missed this. gahhhh. Travel sucks.

(no subject)
posted by Lincøln on May 26th, 2009 1:35 PM

What're you doing on August 29th?

(or June 20th?)

(no subject)
posted by saille is planting praxis on May 26th, 2009 7:33 PM

June 20th I'm in North Carolina with in-laws for a week for several birthdays (and hopefully tasking). There is a non-zero probability I could get myself sent to LA around that date in August, though, or send myself. I don't want to get my or anyone else's hopes up, but I will look into it.

(no subject)
posted by teucer on May 26th, 2009 8:49 PM

North Carolina, you say?