Getting Questions for Your Tournament

Author: Dwight Wynne

Level: Intermediate

This article was originally published through PACE’s now-defunct Freelance Quizbowl University program.


One of the biggest problems that people encounter when trying to run tournaments is finding a set of questions on which to run their tournament. However, getting questions is not hard if you know where to look. This article will explore:

  • Benefits and drawbacks of ordering from a major national provider (NAQT or HSAPQ)
  • Benefits and drawbacks of “mirroring” (running a tournament using the same questions as) an independent tournament
  • Benefits and drawbacks of writing your own set of questions
  • Some examples of factors you should consider when deciding how to obtain questions

Ordering Questions from NAQT and HSAPQ

Ordering questions from a national question provider has a number of advantages. First, you know what you will get when you order the questions: both NAQT and HSAPQ provide high-quality questions for a little over $15 per participating team (HSAPQ is slightly less expensive for small tournaments and slightly more expensive for large tournaments). Second, ordering questions from these companies is as simple as sending an e-mail to the correct e-mail address; both companies are prompt with their responses and you will know less than 24 hours after sending that e-mail whether or not they have a packet set for you to use. Third, both NAQT and HSAPQ are ready and eager to answer any questions newer teams have about running a tournament; if you have any question about what to do, chances are someone at your chosen question provider will be able to walk you through it. Finally, NAQT does an excellent job of publicizing your tournament through its website (HSAPQ less so), and both companies are devoted to outreach. These companies will help you find teams for your tournament.

However, there are some drawbacks to ordering questions from a national provider. The major one is that each company produces a limited number of sets each year, and each set can be used only once in a general area, so if you are in an area that hosts many tournaments during the year, every set from your chosen provider may have already been ordered by another team in your area. In addition, many sets from these national providers are completed only shortly before the set’s first use, so if you would be the first use of a tournament set, you may have to make it exactly clear weeks in advance the absolute latest you would be able to receive the set.

Mirroring an Independent Tournament

Independent tournaments are written by a group that comes together one time to write one set of questions for use at their own tournament. Well-written independent tournaments have many of the same advantages of the major national question providers: you will get high-quality questions for a reasonable per-team fee, and you will likely be able to talk to one or more members of the writing team if you have problems with your tournament. Because many independent tournaments are written by high school players and coaches, some people think that independent tournaments may more accurately test what high school players know.

However, there are some drawbacks to mirroring an independent tournament. First is the potential difficulty in publicizing your tournament and attracting teams. NAQT and to a lesser extent HSAPQ are “name brands” that most teams recognize; whatever independent tournament you are mirroring probably isn’t. You also will not have anyone stumble upon a mention of your tournament. What this means is that you will have to do all the team recruitment yourselves. Second, independent tournaments are of highly variable length, difficulty, distribution, and quality. You know what you will be getting with every NAQT or HSAPQ set you order; if you want to mirror an independent tournament, you will have to find one that closely matches how you want the questions to look.

Writing Your Own Tournament

You can run your own independent tournament by writing your own questions. Doing this means that you get to set your own guidelines for distribution, length, and format. It also means that you are in charge of what answers are selected and what clues are given for those answers. Writing your own tournament is also one of the best ways to get better at learning the clues and answers that regularly show up at the high school level.

However, writing a tournament can be a daunting task. You need to have one person in charge of making sure that everyone on your writing team meets the deadlines you set. You need to have one person in charge of making sure that there are no repeat questions, and one or more people in charge of editing every question to the length and difficulty you want. Finally, you need to start writing and editing the moment that you decide to write your tournament and not stop until the time that you need to print out the questions or send them to mirror sites. Writing a tournament requires a major investment of time and effort on the part of everyone involved.

What Not to Do: The “It’s Not That Hard” Fallacy

Writing a tournament, especially a good tournament, is harder than it looks. It takes longer to write and edit a question than you think it will. It takes longer to compile packets than you think it will. People will flake out on you and not write their questions, or will procrastinate and get their questions to you late. If you commit to writing a tournament, you need to plan for it being harder than you think it will be. Thinking “it’s not that hard” will result in a packet set that looks and feels rushed, if you finish it at all. Set small deadlines for when specific little pieces of the tournament should be done, and stick to those deadlines. If you find yourself missing deadlines, ask other people (other team members, other high schoolers in other parts of the country, college players) to help you out, and ask early.

Weighing Your Options

I’m going to assume that you’ve decided that you don’t have the time or experience that you would like to explore the option of writing your own questions, and that you are looking to order questions from somewhere else. Here are some variables that you should consider:

Field Strength

What kind of teams are you trying to attract to your tournament? If your area has a lot of new teams, you may want to try to find a “novice” tournament. Novice tournaments are typically run on NAQT A-sets or an independent tournament specifically catering to novices (e.g. Fall Novice, HAVOC). Most tournaments want to attract everyone from nationally competitive teams to freshman C teams, and will go with a “regular high school difficulty” tournament. NAQT IS-sets and most HSAPQ Tournament Sets are advertised at this “regular difficulty” level; most independent tournaments are also written at this level. If you expect a field with many nationally competitive teams, you may want to consider using an independent set that is traditionally regarded as skirting the upper edge of “regular difficulty” (e.g. Harvard Fall), or a set marketed to college novices (e.g. NAQT Sectionals Division II, Minnesota Undergraduate).


Most independent tournaments and national providers use a variant of the tossup-bonus format. HSAPQ also offers a couple of tournaments a year in the four-quarter format (ten tossups, ten tossups with bonuses, directed round of ten questions to each team, ten tossups). If you want questions in a league-mandated format that is not one of these formats, you may want to see if there are independent tournaments using a similar format. You may also want to ask NAQT or HSAPQ if they would be able to adapt one of their pre-existing sets to your specifications; both companies are usually open to minor modifications of their sets, but would have trouble fulfilling your request if it is too different from their standard fare.

Distribution and Length

NAQT has significantly more questions in the areas of popular culture and current events than HSAPQ; HSAPQ has more questions in fine arts and religion/mythology/philosophy than NAQT. Independent tournaments will often advertise their distribution. HSAPQ and most independent tournaments do not write computational math tossups; NAQT gives hosts the option to include or exclude them.

Another consideration is the length of tossups. NAQT institutes a strict 425-character cap on the length of their IS-set tossups; HSAPQ’s questions are longer but do not exceed six lines of text. Independent tournaments can have tossups range in length from one line to seven lines depending on the tournament.

What Not to Do: Buying Blind

The single biggest mistake people make when finding questions for their tournament is buying questions with only limited information about the questions themselves. Simply put, if you don’t know what you’re getting into when you order a packet set, don’t order it. Some basic rules of thumb are: know the distribution of the set you’re getting, and know how likely the question provider is to skirt around that distribution by doing things like listing Dude, Where’s My Car? in the Fine Arts distribution; know not only how long the questions are but how many buzzable clues are contained in that length (ask to see a sample packet if you’re not sure); know the target difficulty of the tournament and how likely the writers are to hit that difficulty; know how much you’re supposed to pay for using the questions; know when you’re likely to get the questions and how much work you’re likely to need to do to make them “acceptable” for the teams at your tournament.

Asking For Help

There is nothing wrong with asking for help if you’re not sure how to get questions for your tournament. If you have a good idea of what specifically you want, you can ask trustworthy, experienced tournament directors in your area for recommendations, or you can post your question in the Theory/Newbie Help section of the forums and get answers from a nationwide group of players, coaches, and tournament directors. It may also be a good idea to monitor the “National and Regional Comparisons and Discussion” section of the forums to see what independent tournaments are offering their questions for mirrors, and contact the people in charge of those tournaments if you see a set description that strikes your fancy. Finally, if you’re completely at a loss for what to do, you can rarely go wrong by looking at NAQT’s and HSAPQ’s sample sets and ordering a set of the type that you like best.


  • NAQT and HSAPQ are the major national providers of high-quality pyramidal questions; their help in running a tournament and attracting teams make them a good choice for first-time tournament directors, but their sets may sell out early in your area.
  • Independent tournaments are quite variable; many of the best ones offer benefits similar to those of NAQT or HSAPQ without those of a nationally-recognized company name, while the worst ones have major problems that you should stay away from.
  • Writing your own set of questions can be a valuable and rewarding experience, and gives you complete control over how your tournament looks; however, it is much more time and labor-intensive than it initially seems.
  • When considering where to order questions from, you should consider your target field strength, the format of the set, and distribution and tossup length, among other things. Don’t commit to buying questions unless you know what you’re getting.
  • It’s allowed and encouraged to ask for help in choosing a question provider for your tournament, but you should have some idea of what you want your tournament to be before asking. If you really have no idea, it is hard to go wrong looking through the NAQT and HSAPQ samples to find something you like.

About the Author: Dwight Wynne has directed tournaments in Southern California since 2003.