Pyramidality is the concept that quizbowl tossup questions should consist of multiple clues arranged in descending order of difficulty, that is, with the hardest information first and the easiest at the end. It also encompasses the general idea that every quizbowl question should contain accurate, non-misleading information throughout the question and avoid deliberate hoses or swerves that punish players with greater knowledge.
Pyramidality is the defining characteristic of pyramidal quizbowl and is considered the most important determination of tossup quality. NAQT, PACE, ACF, NHBB, and tournaments considered part of the circuit use pyramidal tossups.
Pyramidal questions use multiple clues arranged in descending order of difficulty. The first (hardest) clue of a pyramidal tossup is conventionally called the lead-in, and the last (easiest) is called the giveaway. Ideally, there are at least two or three middle-range clues in between the lead-in and the giveaway. At higher difficulty levels, there may be 4-5 lines of such middle clues.
Purpose of pyramidality
The purpose of pyramidality is to fairly reward deeper knowledge of a topic: a player who knows harder, lesser-known clues about a topic will answer a pyramidal question before a player who knows only easier, more well-known clues. By applying this idea to many clues (generally five or more, depending on question length), a single question can be effectively targeted at a wide variety of player ability levels, rewarding many levels of knowledge and minimizing buzzer races. This allows teams of a wide variety of playing levels to enjoy playing the same set of questions and encourages teams to continue to learn more about various topics in order to buzz-in on earlier, more difficult clues. Thus, instead of simply being satisfied with knowing the author of a given novel, a pyramidal question would encourage players to learn more about the importance of that novel, the plot of that novel, and other more advanced clues.
There is often guesswork involved in determining which clues are most and least likely to be known, and the "right clue order" may vary significantly for different people. Experienced writers and editors generally do the best they can, and the results may or may not be perfect.
Tossups that have only a single clue, or multiple clues arranged without the goal of descending difficulty, are called "non-pyramidal". This makes it more difficult for players with greater knowledge of the topic in question to accurately buzz and be rewarded for their greater knowledge due to the non-pyramidal construction of the question.
For instance, a question such as:
- What legendary chalice was sought by King Arthur's knights?
is a non-pyramidal question because it consists of only two clues and perhaps the easiest clue comes on the second and third words of the question, even though it's not uniquely specific at that point.
A more pyramidal version of the same question would add additional clues, clearly and uniquely specify what is being asked for from the start without adding easier clues (i.e. "What object"), and then order the clues from harder (i.e. a lead-in about Chrétien de Troyes writing about the grail) to easier (i.e. a giveaway mentioning it was sought by Percival and Galahad, both knights of King Arthur).
Tossups that are supposed to be pyramidal but have one or more badly misplaced clues are called "anti-pyramidal". This term is usually used for mistakes; questions that were never supposed to be pyramidal in the first place are "non-pyramidal".
Transparency can contribute to anti-pyramidality by suggesting more about the answer than is explicitly stated in the question.
Internal pyramidality is the idea that within a clue, the sentence structure should be arranged pyramidally; that is, with the hardest information first and the easiest last. An internally pyramidal clue will generally state descriptions before titles and more obscure names before more famous names. For instance,
- Characters like Charles Bon and Thomas Sutpen appear in this author's novel Absalom! Absalom.
is an internally pyramidal clue. The same information could be rentered antipyramidally as
- Absalom! Absalom! by this author features characters like Thomas Sutpen and Charles Bon.
In the first example, less well-known obscure characters like Charles Bon are stated before better-known characters like Thomas Sutpen, and the title (which is better known than either character name) comes last. In the second example, the easiest information (the title) comes first and the character names come second and third (with the more obscure character's name being the latter).
Some critics complain that pyramidal questions are excessively long. While "excess" is subjective, pyramidal questions need not be particularly long; a 2-line question may be written more or less pyramidally while an 8-9 line question may not necessarily be pyramidal. The key is in the ordering of the clues and the level of the teams playing on them.
Pyramidality as a component of high-quality quizbowl
Pyramidality is a critical component of quality quizbowl, but only one component. Good questions are not only pyramidal but also well-written in other ways (spelling and grammar, factual accuracy, the absence of quizbowlese, etc.), and quality quizbowl also entails high standards in bonus writing, difficulty control, tournament formats, and other areas.