Organizing a contest around your book, TV series, or other work can greatly help in promoting it. A Fictional Mystery, Real Prize contest is the variant where readers are challenged to solve a puzzle, with the clues hidden within the story itself. For example, in a whodunit, the reader who figures out the culprit ahead of time and sends in his answer can win a prize. Or the producers of the show might bury a treasure somewhere, for the first smart and adventurous reader to figure out the cryptic directions within the story and physically travel to dig up his prize.
Obviously, such a story typically must be written specifically around the contest, so the Fictional Mystery, Real Prize gimmick is usually its main selling point. Once the prize is won, the work might lapse into obscurity and be considered little more than a curiosity, unless it stands as a story on its own.
As several examples below attest, such a contest may result in a headache if it's not planned out properly.
With the rise of internet and being super easy to share your findings with the whole world, this model is pretty much forgotten, while some internet-based examples exist.
An Alternate Reality Game is an advanced form of this.
- Whodunnit was a short-lived mystery comic book from the mid 1980s. Each issue had a mystery, and the first person who wrote in with the correct solution won $1,000. It only lasted three issues, so only one solution ever got published.
- Treasure In Search Of The Golden Horse was released both as a book and as a movie, available on VHS, Betamax, Laserdisc, and RCA Selectavision Videodisc. The premise involved a golden horse statuette and clues contained within the film and book on how to find it. It was thought that those who helped work on the film knew the location of the golden horse so it was dug up and moved elsewhere; unfortunately, the book and film were never updated accordingly. The contest officially ended on May 26, 1989 and the golden horse was donated to charity.
- Money Hunt The Mystery Of The Missing Link was a video released in 1984 where the winner could get US$100,000. The video started off with an introduction explaining the rules and giving a few hints. The rest of the video involved a film noir detective story with a private eye named Cash Hunt who had to solve the same puzzle. The solution involved the name of a USA city & state, a safe deposit box, and a telephone number which had to be called once the correct solution was deduced.
- Masquerade was/is probably the best known example of this trope. Illustrator Kit Williams did the book and made a contest to find a golden figurine of a hare somewhere in the British Isles. The book itself had many clues contained within its story on how to find the hare. These involved symbols, wordplay and some arithmetic to figure it all out. However, the winner of this contest won through inside information.
- A few years later, Kit Williams put out a second picture book along the lines of Masquerade simply dubbed "The Bee Book" or "The Book With No Name". The challenge this time didn't involve going to dig anywhere; it was to find out the true name of the book and express it without using written words. The solution involved using bees, the changing of the seasons, and Kit's illustrations throughout the book to figure out the title. There was also a deadline involved as the answer was to be revealed A Year and a Day after the book's release. More information on that book can be found here.
- Secrets Of The Alchemist Dar by Michael Stadther. This book involved clues that would lead you to 100 rings, valued at US$2 million. However, the author's publishing company went out of business and it's unlikely any of the prizes were claimed. See the entry on the Other Wiki for more details.
- Ready Player One. The author of the book set up a contest that required reading the book, finding an Easter Egg and being the first to beat three video game challenges. The winner Craig Queen received a 1981 DeLorean automobile.
- The novel itself is also about an in-universe hunt for a real treasure hidden in a virtual world by its developer, with the finder to inherit his company.
- The Merlin Mystery written by Jonathan Gunson and illustrated by Gunson and Marten Coombe. The prize was £75,000, as well as Merlin's Magic Wand, decorative alchemy symbols, and a vial of gold nuggets. To claim them, you worked out what the spell to free Merlin was, and sent it to the publisher. When no-one solved it by the deadline, the money was given to charity. It's not clear what happened to the wand etc.
- The Great Global Treasure Hunt on Google Earth by Tim Dedopulos, in which people who solved the puzzle by the deadline were put in a prize draw for 50,000 Euros.
- Toxic Panda by Adam Adams. It's a unique book written entirely without the letter "E", where readers who solved the puzzles within could win sums of money, though these amounts were smaller than some of the other examples in this trope.
- The puzzle book Maze: Solve the World's Most Challenging Puzzle by Christopher Manson originally offered a $10,000 prize.
- Edgar Wallace's 1905 mystery novel The Four Just Men, published as a Serial Novel, offered a high prize to the reader who could guess the solution to the mystery before the publication of the final chapter. The contest was an utter disaster—for one, Wallace never really predicted that there could be more than one winner.
- The book packager Bill Adler created or co-created several books that offered cash prizes of $10,000 or more for solving a mystery: these included Who Killed the Robins Family? (1983), The Revenge of the Robins Family (1984), Murder Game (1991), and Who Should Melissa Marry? (1994).
- The World of Jonathan Creek includes a Scrapbook Story (with comic-strip framing sequence) called "The Riddle at Castle Cain", in which the reader is given all the information Jonathan has about a mysterious murder, with a prize of a "Mystery Weekend", plus a genuine Jonathan duffel coat and a signed script.
- The Ben Affleck-produced TV series Push Nevada had a $1,000,000 prize for the first person to figure out all the clues. And then it got cancelled before the planned end of the series, so they had to scramble to shove a bunch of clues in all at once towards the end. The last clue was actually aired during a Monday Night Football commercial break.
- The 1985 miniseries Murder In Space offered a cash prize to viewers who could figure out the mystery, with the last 15 minutes of the show being shown at a later date to explain the solution.
- Metagaming had two of these.
- MicroQuest #4 Treasure of the Silver Dragon. The game had clues to the location of a 31 troy ounce silver dragon hidden somewhere in the U.S. The dragon was found by Thomas Davidson, who was also awarded a $10,000 check in addition to the dragon.
- MicroQuest #6 Treasure of Unicorn Gold. This game had clues that would lead to a small gold unicorn. Unfortunately Metagaming folded before the location was found, and it's unclear what happened to the statue.
- Pimania had a £6000 golden sundial as a prize for the first player to solve the clues leading to a specific time and place.
- My Name Is Uncle Groucho, You Win A Fat Cigar, by the same company as Pimania, challenged the players to identify a famous film star based on in-game clues; the readers who mailed in the right answer had a chance to win a trip to Hollywood to meet the star.
- The Swordquest series from Atari for the Atari 2600. A total of four games were planned, but only three were released. Each game came with a comic book and the goal was to find five words which would qualify the player for the national tournament. These words were hidden in the comic book, and clues to their location were given by the cartridge for solving various puzzles. If the player found all five words, he was given a certificate of merit and his name was entered in the drawing for the tournament. The national tournament consisted of a handful of other finalists competing against each other in a special "tournament" version of the game. Those who won the tournaments could get really fantastic prizes of gold and jewels. Sounds like fun? It wasn't - the games were lousy and confusing and involved more of luck rather than skill. The entries on the Atari Protos page describes each game in detail, the contest, the prizes, and their problems:
- Wolfenstein 3-D had the "Aardwolf" contest organized by Apogee Software: by finding deep in a secret area a sign saying "Call Apogee Say Aardwolf" and following this instruction, players could win a prize. The contest was abandoned, however, since cheat programs popped up within days of the game's release, allowing anyone to see the sign without effort.
- An In-Universe example is the Blue Star Bottlecaps in Fallout: New Vegas. Certain caps of Sunset Sarsaparilla have a blue star on the underside and if any one brings at least 50 of them, an old man named Festus will grant them a treasure. People have murdered for their bottle caps and so can the Courier. It turns out that the bottle caps were just a pre-war promotional gimmick so Clark County (the county Las Vegas and neighboring cities are in) kids can come to the bottling plant for a fake deputy's badge. The Courier gets that, a made-up story about the company for kids, a whole stockroom full of bottle caps (the real treasure as caps are used as currency after the nuclear holocaust), and a unique laser pistol from someone who got in there earlier and died. The The Legend of the Star is based on the Tootsie Pop urban legend, where kids would have to turn in 100 wrappers with young Native American shooting a star for a free Tootsie Pop.
- Gold Rush, a contest devised by AOL and CBS, had participants correctly complete a series of tasks on AOL.coms Gold Rush hub in order to stockpile virtual gold bars. Many of these tasks consisted of pop culture trivia challenges. Clues to help solve each of the challenges were found in CBS Television programs and commercials, magazines, radio, song lyrics, and on AOL. In each round, the first three players to complete the challenges and collect 12 virtual gold bars were taken to a location somewhere in the United States where they will compete on-camera in a head-to-head, reality-style competition (the "Gold Competition") for a chance to win $100,000 in gold. In the Finale Round of Gold Rush, the 12 previous $100,000 winners return, joined by 6 new contestants, to vie for the $1 million grand prize.
- TimeHunt, a website around 2002 or so with a Clock Punk feel to it. The prize was a mechanism supposedly created by John Dee, and to claim it you needed to visit the nine planets and solve puzzles concealed in stories by various well-known writers, thereby accessing mini-games which enabled you to access other planets and solve further puzzles... Sadly, the site went down for some reason before anyone completed it.
- Referenced by the Creepypasta story "Pale Luna", revolving around an Interactive Fiction game, in which the player must bury some "gold". Doing so rewards the player with geographical coordinates, presumably leading to real-life buried treasure. An enterprising gamer sets out to find the treasure, and indeed finds something in the indicated location: the severed head of a murdered little girl.
- In-Universe example: Played with in Spongebob Squarepants. In one episode Mr. Krabs takes Spongebob and Patrick in a treasure-hunting trip, playing pirates. For some reason Krabs doesn't allow S & P to read his map. When Krabs is sleeping S & P took their time to investigate the map... and reveals that it's just the pirate-styled board game they played days ago. But just as Krabs is going to punish them for looking at the map, they find the X and consequently the treasure beneath it; after all, the board game was based on the real map.
- The Cipher Hunt, a world-wide hunt for the statue of Bill Cipher, was placed after the cartoon Gravity Falls ended. The hunt for the statue included decoding ciphers, assembling a notoriously large jigsaw puzzle, and searching for clues in various places such as a shrine in Japan and a forest in Oregon. The hunt took two weeks and the statue was moved after fans found it — as while it was originally placed on private property with permission, the land came under dispute by another landowner.
- The Simpsons once ran a contest based around the episode "Who Shot Mr. Burns", where if a viewer correctly guessed who shot Mr. Burns they would get animated into the show. However only one person guessed right, but used a college email leading to the team being unable to contact them. They instead had to choose a winner at random and the person who won didn't even watch the Simpsons and instead chose a cash prize.