Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Are you interested in trying out this year's OpenCTF contest, but you have no idea what’s going on? This document is for you!

What is Capture the Flag?

Whether you are new to computer security or are a veteran, Capture the Flag (CTF) competitions are a great way to both learn new skills and hone existing ones. CTF competitions are a series of computer security challenges, with teams competing to solve the most challenges and earn the most points.

It's Hacker Sport.

What is OpenCTF?

OpenCTF is a CTF competition, being run at this year’s DEFCON. OpenCTF is open to all players of any skill level, with no pre-registration or qualification required. Formerly called "amatuer CTF," OpenCTF has been running since DEFCON , and has traditionally been passed on from one organizing group to another.

Come on by, try out the game, learn something new, and meet interesting people!

How do I play CTF?

There are multiple formats and styles of CTF, but they all have one thing in common - the challenges. Players are presented with puzzles, programs with security vulnerabilities, or systems to break in to. Embedded in the puzzle, program, or system, is a secret key, or “flag”. Finding this flag is proof that you solved the puzzle, and submitting it to the scoreboard earns your team points. Flags are typically chosen to look very distinctive, so that when you see one, you’ll know it’s a flag, and that you’ve solved the puzzle. Flags in OpenCTF will tend to be a phrase or sentence in l33tsp34k, for example, ther5s_n0_Place_l1ke_h0m3.

How do I play OpenCTF?

See: "Getting Started"

Do I need a team?

While you can participate solo, you’ll probably have a much better time if you play with a team. Get a few friends, sit down, and work together to solve challenges. After the beginning of the game, there’s multiple challenges open, so each person can work on their own, or they can try to collaborate to solve one. If none of your friends want to play, ask some of the existing teams whether they want an extra member. It’s a great way to meet new people, and learn skills you’ve never even heard of!

What should I bring?

You will need a computer of some sort to play. Typically people play with laptops.

The ability to run VMs is very helpful, so that you can use Windows, Linux, or whatever else the contest requires. It also allows you to isolate programs which could potentially be dangerous. For that matter, it’s a good idea to just use a fresh hard drive, with no personal data on it, that you can just wipe after DEFCON.

This is DEFCON, you should consider using a burner laptop anyway :)

OpenCTF will provide each table with physical connections to the contest network, and there will be a power strip at each table. You should bring your own power strip (the provided one may not have enough outlets), and some way to share the one physical network connection you get. Since this may or may not be ethernet, we recommend being prepared to use either one players laptop or a dedicated laptop as a router. An ethernet switch and enough cables for everyone on your team is also advised.


There’s a wide variety of challenges that show up in a CTF, but they tend to be grouped into a few categories:


These challenges involve attacking common vulnerabilities in web technology. For example, you might need to use SQL injection to read the secret_flag table of a database, use directory traversal to get a web server to serve you flag.txt, use Cross-Site Scripting to trick a simulated user to send you their password, or bypass some client-side checks implemented by obfuscated javascript.

Digital Forensics

This is a fairly broad category. You might receive an image of a disk in FAT format, and you’ll need to un-delete flag.txt. Maybe you receive a zip file, that contains a 7z file, that contains a tar archive, that contains some obscure file format you’ve never heard of, and unpacking the entire chain eventually gives you a flag.


Steganography is the art of hiding a secret message in plain sight, and it leads to a variety of implementations and challenges. yoU might be given an image, where all the blue pixels can be filtered out to reveal a seCret message. maybe an innocuous Http transfer hides A Secret flag. or maybe a video file, That’s been subtly watermarked witH the secret flag. maybe a paragraph of text hIdes a secret message in the capital letterS.

Packet Analysis

In this category, you’ll typically receive a packet capture dump (a "pcap"), and you’ll try to decode, analyze, and interpret it, using tools such as Wireshark. Maybe a simulated user was sending their password in plaintext, and you have to retrieve it. Or, perhaps a simulated user was having a VOIP call without encryption, and you need to listen in and hear the secret flag.

Binary Reversing

Several categories of challenge involve reverse engineering programs. You’ll receive the program, but not the source code, so you need to disassemble it, look at the assembly code, and figure out what it does (and if it has any weaknesses!). Programs can be x86 Windows, x86 Linux, ARM Linux, obfuscated Java, and a whole bevy of more obscure formats.

Sub-categories include:


In this category, you’ll attack poorly implemented crypto, outdated crypto, or use well-known vulnerabilities to attack encrypted messages. You might be given a few RSA keys whose modulus share a factor, and you decrypt a message encrypted by one of these keys. Or you’re given a password database with unsalted password hashes. You could get a cipher, where you can guess some of the plaintext, and use that to figure out the key and decrypt the remainder of the message. Or, it could just be ROT13.


Miscellaneous is, well, miscellaneous. These are often lower-point value challenges that ask for trivia, or bizarre messages that just have to looked at with the right perspective, or programs that will output the key, if you can get them to run correctly. This could also be a bitmap image, printed out in Base64 over several pages of tractor-feed paper, that you need to OCR into a computer, in order to view the secret flag on the image.

What formats are there for CTF? How does the whole contest work, outside of individual challenges?

There are a few common formats for CTF.

In "Jeopardy-style", there is a board full of challenges in various categories. At the beginning of the game, only one challenge is open, and all others are closed (inaccessible). The first team to solve the open challenge gets to pick another challenge to open, which becomes the new "lead question". Previously opened challenges remain open, so slower teams can still solve and submit them for points. Solving the lead question gives you the privilege of picking the next challenge to open, which becomes the new lead question. Each challenge is worth points, and the team with the most points at the end of the game, wins.

OpenCTF is a Jeopardy-style contest.

Some CTFs follow a linear path, where you start on one challenge, and solving it unlocks the next challenge, but only for you. The first team to solve all challenges, in sequence, wins.

There’s also "Attack/Defense", or "Player VS Player (PvP)" contests. In these, instead of the contest organizers running the game servers, individual teams do. You gain points by capturing the flag off of your opponent’s servers, and you lose points either by having your flags captured, or when your servers are offline. Instead of merely needing to solve challenges, you also need to defend yourself from other teams, and patch the vulnerabilities that you discover. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins.

DEFCON CTF is Attack/Defense style.

Any hints or tips?

Tool Description
imagemagick creation, modification and display of bitmap images
sox the Swiss Army knife of audio manipulation
sed stream editor for filtering and transforming text
awk pattern scanning and processing language
grep print lines matching a pattern
strings print the strings of printable characters in files
file determine file type
xxd make a hexdump or do the reverse
sort sort lines of text files
uniq report or omit repeated lines

If you feel another team has really crossed the line, talk to the contest organizers.

Have Fun!