The year is 1939. The United States of America has yet to officially enter World War II, but those who are in the know suspect that it’s only a matter of time. Particularly enterprising corners of the private sector recognize the military-industrial complex is likely to pay top dollar for technological innovations that can deliver an edge in the coming conflict. In Cambridge, two companies are leading the charge: Drosselmeyer Industries seeks to push the boundaries of science with its research in artificial intelligence, while Rattibus Labs is exploring more paranormal lines of inquiry, attempting to use mind control on Earth’s smartest creature: the noble rat.
Of course, none of this should matter at Club Drosselmeyer: the local nightclub planned a big night of music, dancing, spirited performances, and even more spirited libations to provide a needed distraction from the increasingly dire state of the world. To be sure, there’s rumors of an escaped test subject from Rattibus Labs on the loose…and a curiously strong yet naïve man known only as “our cousin Alan” says the most curious things while wandering the nightclub floor…but none of that should be important. Not at Club Drosselmeyer.
Club Drosselmeyer is an annual immersive show by Green Door Labs that transforms the holiday classic tale of The Nutcracker into an evening at a World War II era nightclub. And while it’s possible to treat Club Drosselmeyer as a fancy night on the town with live performances and swing dance lessons, the show can go in a surprising number of directions. Fans of puzzles can help the night’s adventures unfold by solving a series of puzzles, while attendees more interested in live action role-playing can adopt a persona to interact with over a dozen character actors scheming their way through the night. Club Drosselmeyer offers up a buffet of immersive possibilities, and it’s up to each attendee to decide what balance of dancing, puzzling, and character interactions they want to chase to fill their plates for the night.
The Main Course: Picking Sides Through Puzzles with a Side of Roleplay
The events of Club Drosselmeyer open as Herr Drosselmeyer receives an encoded telegram from his mentor. The message is encoded in what should be an unbreakable cipher…luckily, the artificial intelligence his company has been working on, “Project Nutcracker”, should be capable of translating the message after assembling a module from five component parts, and installing it in the Nutcracker. At the same time, Erasmus King is looking for help with his mind control experiments…some of his experiments escaped from their cages, and he needs help tracking them down.
Players interested in helping with either of these challenges were directed to check in with characters at opposite ends of the ballroom floor to receive puzzle packets to assist in the respective investigations. For instance, the Drosselmeyer puzzle track revolved around solving pen-and-paper variety puzzles to determine the names of the five components.
Just knowing the name of the component, of course, was not enough to help out. Armed with that knowledge, players could start chatting with the characters scattered throughout the event to find where those components could be found. For instance, Club Drosselmeyer host Fritz Stahlbaum was sitting on a suitcase full of one particular component. The only problem? He had a bit of a gambling problem, and owed Erasmus’ son Rhett King a sizeable chunk of money. Players would have to find a way to help him out in order to get the MacGuffin. And while some of these tasks involved the accumulation of in-game currency, others challenged players to join a character for a short dance, or collect signatures for a birthday card a character neglected to prepare for his mother.
The largely pen-and-paper puzzles would have felt right at home at a Puzzled Pint event in both variety and difficulty, and were particularly good at blending the flavor of the challenge with the puzzle’s structure and design. The puzzle that led to Fritz Stahlbaum’s first component, for instance, involved reviewing research notes from a scientist who inadvertently took faulty readings: correcting the mistake and tracking the real results would spell out the component’s name.
After assembling all five pieces of the module through a combination of puzzle-solving and character interaction, Herr Drosselmeyer guided players into a back room to confirm it was in working order. After that, players were instructed to head up to Drosselmeyer Industries’ safe to recover Project Nutcracker’s blueprints so the module could be installed properly.
Once players entered the safe, they discovered that Erasmus King arranged for the theft of Project Nutcracker’s blueprints: luckily, the rats’ irradiated paws meant that a trail of blue prints could be seen under UV light, leading players to Erasmus King…or rather, an experimental rat who mesmered Erasmus King’s body into reenacting Ratatouille. The blueprints would help the rat take control of an even more powerful body: Project Nutcracker, who was “cousin Alan” all along. Realizing what he’d done, Erasmus briefly regained control of his senses and handed off the blueprints and told the group to flee.
Players who chose Rattibus Labs’ path experienced the story in reverse. After meeting with Erasmus King and his rodent companion, players were encouraged to steal the blueprints and assemble the components to the translation module, before absconding with the device and handing it over to King. These “runaround” finales that guided players outside the main ballroom were particularly impressive at Club Drosselmeyer‘s new venue the Cambridge Masonic Temple, which heightened the immersion for those key scenes.
These major narrative beats operated under a state of uncertainty throughout the night, with each team experiencing events as if they were the first to unlock it. The night’s finale, however, was determined by the collective actions of all attendees: the more teams who finished the Drosselmeyer path, the more likely an ending favorable to them would occur. Teams who finished the King path would weigh the odds in favor of the rats.
For the Friday night showing, Herr Drosselmeyer’s faction won out. After successfully installing the translation module into Project Nutcracker, the audience learns that unbeknownst to Erasmus King, Rattibus Labs was secretly receiving support from the Germans. After this reveal, a mind-controlled Erasmus burst out from under the stage and his rodent master flung himself onto Project Nutcracker in search of a better host. Ultimately the rat was defeated, although it came at the cost of Erasmus’ life.
Savoring the Side Dishes: The Puzzle Isn’t Always the Answer You’re Looking For
It’s tempting to look at the main narrative arc of Club Drosselmeyer and view it as a linear path (or at least, a looping path): solve a sequence of puzzles and help your chosen faction, leading to a binary resolution at the show’s end. However, the reality was so much more rewarding than that.
Over the course of the night, befriending the various characters would unlock additional puzzle challenges that are remarkably free-flowing. For instance, famed actress Ginger Lamarr received a cryptic note, and thinks it might contain information on her next big film. Decrypting the message gives players the chance to pitch Lamarr’s next film. Rather than offering a reward for helping her out directly, she suggests chatting with roving reporter Dewey Faye, who is desperate for a scoop to help land her a job at the Boston Globe. She’s more than happy to pay for a tip about Ginger’s new lead role…or any other juicy gossip learned over the course of the evening about the distinguished guests.
A number of smaller moments like that were seeded throughout the margins of the show. These opportunities were necessary to unlock the main narrative since they were the primary route to unlock the game’s in-game currency necessary to bribe characters into giving up their components, but also gave players the chance to influence the many side stories. Would dancer and aspiring confectioner Sugar Faye go into the candy business, or reconcile with her sister? Would Drosselmeyer researcher Karl LeQuinn continue to engage in shady dealings on the side? Players who deeply invested in those side stories would take ownership of creating those answers: whether that involved finding financing for Sugar Faye’s business, introducing sponsored content into Dewey Faye’s new outlet, or convincing Karl LeQuinn that the future of AI is generative art.
Engaging with the narrative could even circumvent puzzles entirely: one of my teammates managed to sweet-talk a component out of one of the actors without even engaging in the corresponding puzzle, although we did eventually solve the puzzle independently. While puzzles were a major component of the experience, they were not the only way to play.
An Appetizer Before 1940: Radio Drosselmeyer
Club Drosselmeyer was designed to run as a 6-year narrative arc, following the events of the war from 1939 – 1944. Each year is designed to work as a standalone experience, players who return for Club Drosselmeyer 1940 in December 2023 are likely going to see hints of the events from 1939 carry over.
One way to get a taste for that narrative linkage is to play Club Drosselmeyer‘s online editions, that cover the years 1943 and 1944 of the show’s prior cycle. During the pandemic, Green Door Labs adapted the live Club Drosselmeyer experience into an interactive “radio” experience, designed to be played from home.
While puzzle solutions at a live Club Drosselmeyer performance were handled by live character interactions, Radio Drosselmeyer is managed through an interactive switchboard system. Dialing the phone numbers of the various characters allow players to input puzzle solutions, and the decisions and progress made over the course of the show determine which ending players get.
Club Drosselmeyer 1943 provides a more challenging puzzle experience that provides considerably more potential endings to explore, while Club Drosselmeyer 1944 is a slightly more accessible and streamlined puzzle experience. However, both do an admirable job of capturing the spirit of the show, and are highly recommended.
Club Drosselmeyer will hopefully be back for 2023, but in the interim: you can find radio show tickets at ClubDrosselmeyer.com.