Designing Your Own Escape Room Event!

One of the most interactive puzzly challenges available to modern solvers is the escape room.

Although themes and scenarios vary greatly, the basic idea is this: a group of people are locked in a room, and tasked with escaping from it within a certain time frame (usually an hour).

They do so by searching for clues, completing tasks, unraveling riddles, and finally, unlocking the door to escape. Some rooms employ riddles. Others use word puzzles. Others still involve working together to overcome obstacles. (For instance, I hear about one escape room where the group was split in two and separated, and they had to work together to unlock the door that separated them.)

There are endless variations available to the intrepid puzzler. And a week or so ago, I had a go at creating my own and running it for a friend’s birthday. I’d never run an escape room per se, but having run roleplaying events before — as well as murder mystery dinners — I was excited to pit my dastardly puzzly mind against a worthy group of heroes and miscreants.

And so, I thought I’d offer a few tips on creating your own puzzly escape experience.


1.) Know your audience.

If your players aren’t engaged, the event is pointless. So you have to make sure that whatever obstacles you lay before them will interest them. If they aren’t partial to brain teasers, mechanical puzzles, or physical challenges, they’ll quickly lose any investment in completing the game.

In my case, I tried to use every puzzly tool at my disposal. There were riddles, puzzle boxes, combination locks to crack, door locks to “pick”, and tricky clues to unravel.

[I drafted two puzzle boxes from my collection into the game.]

2.) Give everyone something to do.

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to things like this. So use that to your advantage. Let the hardcore puzzlers tackle the puzzles, while the less puzzly people complete tasks like uncovering backstory, hunting for hidden items, or even doing battle with threats to the players.

Adding a live-action roleplay element like combat can not only add flavor to your game, but it allows players to contribute without having to struggle with puzzles that might not be their strong suit.

If everyone feels like they’re contributing, all successes feel shared. And shared successes are the best ones.

3.) Let imagination drive the game.

When tackling an event like this, it can be easy to splash out on locks, puzzle boxes, and all sorts of trappings for the game. After all, you want it to be an immersive experience, but that sort of immersion can grow expensive very quickly. And you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to create a great solving adventure.

[A 5-digit combination lock that lets you spell words (or mix letters and numbers), a directional combination lock, and two standard four-digit locks]

I had a small budget, so I bought a few combination locks, four small briefcases (so there was something to unlock and open), and some other bits and bobs. Locks run between $6 and $12, but there are few things more satisfying than cracking a puzzle, dialing in your answer, and feeling the lock open in your hand. The sign of a job well done.

But you can build one without spending much money at all. Get creative with it! You can replicate practically anything with a piece of paper — locks, puzzles, riddles — and a little imagination. Any box can become a treasure chest or a lockbox. Any room can become a laboratory or a dungeon or a high-security vault.

[I picked up this little lock for cheap on Amazon, drew the various characters in the combination on little slips of paper, and hid them around the room. It was up to the players to find them, put them in the correct order, and open the lock.]

The low-budget solutions are often the most satisfying. For instance, I mentioned above that, in my escape room, there were door locks to “pick.” I used quotation marks because I didn’t buy door locks to actually pick. Instead, I swapped in another, simpler method for testing someone’s digital dexterity: Jenga.

I stacked up a Jenga tower, removed 8 or 9 pieces, and then challenged the group’s lockpick to remove two or three pieces per door they “picked.” This simulated both the tension of the act and the level of skillful manipulation necessary, and for a fraction of the possible cost.

4.) Tell a story.

I’m a roleplaying fan. I love telling stories in my gameplay. And, to me, nothing adds flavor and depth to an escape room like a story. My favorite escape room experience was a Houdini-themed room that was loaded with the famous magician’s history and trappings — shackles, a straitjacket, and more — and all those little touches added so much to the atmosphere and the tension of the game itself.

So craft a story! Why are the players there? Why do they need to escape? Is there a villain? A curse? An evil artificial intelligence to battle? A diabolical millionaire or a mad scientist with an axe to grind?

All those elements can add to the experience. The escape room I designed and ran centered around a evil wizard and the aftermath of his reign of terror. My players warded off ghosts, avoided automated traps, and even held a Beauty-and-the-Beast-inspired seance — since the wizard had turned several of his staff into furniture — as they moved from place to place.

[The remains of a room well-escaped.]

With a little ingenuity, forethought, and creativity, you can craft a one-of-a-kind puzzle experience.


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The Great Escape (Room)!

room

For years now, Headless Horseman in Ulster Park, New York, has been one of the premiere haunted houses in the country, complete with hayrides, a corn maze, and hundreds of employees working to surprise and spook you. Celebrated for their immersive storytelling, as well as scares designed to delight and terrify all at once, it’s a Halloween tradition in the Northeast.

But recently, they’ve turned their creative energies toward a more puzzly experience: escape rooms.

This weekend, my siblings and I (plus some friends) tackled one of Headless Horseman’s escape rooms, Houdini’s Workshop, and it was an absolute blast.

houdinis-workshop

Here’s the story behind Houdini’s Workshop, courtesy of the Headless Horseman website:

Houdini, the world’s greatest escape artist and famous magician, made a pact with his wife Bess to try and make contact from beyond the grave upon his death. They also set a deadline by which they would give up and Bess was to move on with her life.

As the hour approaches for the deadline, you and your friends are their last hope. You have one hour to discover the final item so that Bess may make one last attempt to contact her beloved husband.

And so, the ten of us piled into Houdini’s parlor and set out to explore… and there was plenty to explore! Hidden panels, riddles, brain teasers, and red herrings galore, not to mention a plethora of locks that would take cleverness, deduction, and teamwork to crack open.

How did we do? Well, I’m proud to announce that we escaped with 4 minutes, 30 seconds left on the clock. Everyone contributed to the solve, and everyone had a fantastic time.

Now, I can’t give you details on specific puzzles or anything like that, because that would ruin the experience for others who might accept the challenge of Houdini’s Workshop.

But it occurred to me that I could give you suggestions for other ways to exercise your puzzly mind and flex your mental muscles in the real world.

1.) Puzzle Hunts

fantasticrace

[Game Master Bob Glouberman instructs a batch of competitors
in the Fantastic Race. Image courtesy of The LA Times.]

Puzzle hunts are interactive solving experiences that often have you wandering around a certain area as you crack codes, unravel riddles, and conquer puzzles. Some only run at certain times each year as annual events, while others (like the Fantastic Race or the Great Puzzle Pursuit) run for a longer time before being retired.

2.) Murder Mystery Dinners

[Image courtesy of Vancouver Presents.com.]

Murder mystery dinners thrive on the theatricality of the event. Attendees can overhear arguments, catch snippets of banter and exposition as they walk around, and engage characters in conversation to learn more. The more you interact with the story, the better chance you have of solving the mystery, but even passive players will get the big picture.

Some restaurants and nightly cruises run murder mysteries, but there’s a growing trend of people running their own as party events. I ran two in the office last year for fellow puzzlers!

3.) LARPing

LARPing, or Live-Action RolePlaying, takes the fun and imagination of a tabletop roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, or Legend of the Five Rings, and puts it into the real world.

It might sound a bit bizarre if you’ve never done it, but as a longtime D&D fan, some of my favorite puzzles I’ve ever solved were physical puzzles I encountered during a LARP session.

Whether it’s reassembling a shattered piece of tablet to read the message on it or a mechanical puzzle where a door will only open after I’ve pulled a series of levers in the correct sequence, a tangible puzzle-solving experience gains another dimension of fun and challenge when it’s part of a greater narrative.

In fact, engaging in some of these activities gave me a lot of confidence going into the Houdini’s Workshop escape room. I’d never done an escape room before, but as a veteran of both murder mystery dinners and dungeon romps in Dungeons & Dragons, I was optimistic that my puzzly chops would prove useful.

And I hope my fellow puzzlers get a chance to do the same in the very near future.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Murder Mystery edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And in today’s post, I’d like to follow up on last week’s murder mystery post.

In the previous post, I gave you some of the backstory and logistics of our in-office murder-mystery event, and today, I wanted to discuss the event itself.

Our murder happened Monday night — the fictional J. Augustus Milverton Puzzlenationo would breathe his last breath near the photocopier — so Tuesday morning marked the official start of the game.

And since we’re an office full of puzzlers, the morning began with something of a logic puzzle, as the players were given a list of passcodes used to enter the building, but they needed to figure out who had used them and at what time.

You see, someone’s passcode being used at a certain time didn’t necessary mean that person was actually entering the building at that time. Someone could’ve used another player’s code. (Information involving times and identities was scattered throughout emails to all 10 participants, so it would take a fair amount of cooperation to unravel this.)

But since all of the players were suspicious of each other — which was wise, given that several “solvers” were actually following my orders throughout the event to fulfill certain tasks — the first day didn’t involve as much cooperative solving as I’d hoped. (That would come the next day out of necessity, as alliances began to form and more information was shared.)

As I fielded questions from players asking for further details — and several clues were discovered and analyzed — the first of several complications for the players was revealed: a fellow player was “killed.”

This not only upped the stakes for the players, but led to one of my favorite moments in the game. You see, when a fellow player stumbled upon the body, he wasn’t sad that his coworker was dead…he was sad because he couldn’t ask him any questions. (Though, intrepid solver that he was, he asked if a Ouija board was out of the question.)

For the rest of the day, I was fielding all sorts of instant messages and emails from players, asking for information, cashing in Holmes Tickets, clarifying things, and trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle into place. Early theories emerged. Some were wild guesses, and some were surprisingly close to the truth.

Our event played out in real time, so the players were aware that things could happen outside the workday that would impact the game. People seemed reluctant to leave, just in case they missed a clue.

Day Two opened with another red herring — punny threats sent to three of the players, delivered in envelopes that pointed to another player (a gambit by the killer to put the spotlight on someone else) — and a few secrets had already come out.

Players openly offered information to each other in a group email, which helped resolve some red herrings and put other pieces into place. More clues were uncovered, but the murder weapon remained elusive.

Lunchtime was orchestrated to be a tipping point. Not only would another murder occur, but other plans and clues would come together. I gave one of my collaborators two missions to accomplish while the players were away from their desks. Hopefully, she’d be able to accomplish both, but at the very least, she had to accomplish one of the tasks.

There were a few of these open-ended narrative moments written into the story where the players had the chance to surprise me with what happened and what didn’t. Not only did those moments make the game more fun for me to run, but it gave other players chances to really inhabit their characters and get into the performance side of the gameplay.

Lunchtime allowed for more group theorizing — something that the workday hampered, as you might expect — but the real fireworks awaited players upon their return.

A trap was sprung, and another player died unexpectedly. Although some chaos did ensue, most of the players realized this latest death was the work of another party, and several of the players solved it quickly before returning their attention to the first two murders.

In the midst of all this, two real-world complications arose on Day Two.

The first involved a player dropping out due to a mix of time constraints (she felt the game was distracting her too much from work) and general frustration with the format of the game (which, for someone unfamiliar with immersive storytelling like this, is totally understandable). I was sad to see her go, and adjusted the story accordingly, recovering a clue from her and redistributing it to an active player.

The second involved the pace of the game itself. I’d hoped to run it over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday and have it wrapped up that second day. But between the elaborate unfolding plot and the difficulty in balancing gameplay with, you know, actually getting our work done, things were progressing more slowly than expected.

That darn workday. Such a nuisance.

So the game rolled into Day Three, and players could sense the end was near. Most of the puzzle pieces were there for the taking, and several compelling theories emerged. (Honestly, one of them was better than the story I’d actually written, which was both funny and a little humbling.)

To add a bit of drama, I set a deadline of mid-afternoon. If the murders hadn’t been solved by then, the killer would escape scot-free.

Things finally steamrolled to their conclusion when the murder weapon was revealed — in the hands of a thief who had been woven into the plot — and one of the players came close enough to cracking all three murders that I declared the mystery solved. (And our ace detective did so before the deadline, so no escape for our dastardly murderer.)

It was different from any murder-mystery event I’d run before, and everyone seemed to enjoy it. There were certainly flaws in execution, as there are in any first attempt, but I learned some valuable lessons in this play-through that will make other such events in the future smoother, more satisfying, and more engaging.

Although…I hadn’t considered the potential consequences of the event on workdays going forward; everyone seems a bit more wary of each other. (And there are a few vengeful “spirits” lurking about, hoping to avenge themselves in future games.)


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Interactive Puzzling is Murder on a Work Day!

[Image courtesy of Carriageway.com.]

It all started with a board game at lunchtime.

TableTop Day is a popular annual event here at PuzzleNation, and several of my fellow puzzlers enjoyed it so much that they wanted it every week. Well, we couldn’t swing that — deadlines and all — so we play games every Wednesday during lunch.

During a particularly spirited round of 10 Minutes to Kill — a game where every player controls a hitman trying to take out three targets without being identified by the other players or the police — the subject of murder mysteries came up, and I let slip that I’d helped write and run several murder mystery dinners in the past.

[Image courtesy of Vancouver Presents.com.]

So, naturally, the idea of running a murder mystery at work became a recurring topic of discussion.

As a huge fan of interactive storytelling — be it tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, improv theater, LARPing, or other group activities — the idea appealed to me.

Of course, I had one huge hurdle to overcome: the work day.

You see, murder mystery dinners thrive on the theatricality of the event. Attendees can overhear arguments, catch snippets of banter and exposition as they walk around, and engage characters in conversation to learn more. The more you interact with the story, the better chance you have of solving the mystery, but even passive players will get the big picture.

But in a normal workday, I can’t stage big elaborate sequences, like a failed marriage proposal or someone tossing wine in another’s face. I’d have to find another way to deliver information, mysteries, and drama.

Thankfully, as a puzzler, I’m accustomed to writing clues. Cluing is simply delivering information in unexpected ways. Whether it’s through deceptive wordplay, puns, or connections with other entries, crosswords and logic problems are excellent training for being creative and stealthy while presenting important information.

So, I mapped out the murder and the characters I’d need to pull it off, and cast those characters from a group of fellow puzzlers. At the same time, I gauged interest from other coworkers to see who’d be interested in trying to crack the case, and began devising ways to weave them into the narrative. (This was more intimate than writing your usual murder mystery dinner for random attendees, since the latter is more about creating scenes than tailoring it to specific people and circumstances.)

[Can’t have a murder mystery without an animal for someone to pet fiendishly.
In this case, my trusty armadillo in a cowboy hat, Armando.]

My goal was to get everyone prepped to play on Monday, and then actually run the mystery on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the murder having occurred overnight.

Which led to another big hurdle. I couldn’t exactly stage an elaborate murder scene in a way that was unobtrusive to the workday, so I’d have to describe the scene to the players and let them ask questions about it.

But how do I leave clues for the players that are readily identifiable as clues and not just the ephemera of a working office? After all, any good murder investigation needs some convenient clues to uncover that will help unravel the mystery.

I opted to mark any clue (which were most often color pictures of actual items, like a stashed wallet or a threatening letter) with the symbol below, to remove any doubt that this item was involved someway in the murder mystery:

Okay, that takes care of the clues. But what about the actual interaction, where players ask questions of characters and gain the valuable knowledge needed to solve the crime?

Sure, a lot of that can be done through group emails and instant messenger programs, encouraging the investigators to share what they’ve learned, so there wouldn’t be random gaggles of investigators creating a distraction as they ponder the latest clue found or deduction made.

As a storyteller, whether you’re running an RPG or a murder mystery, you not only need to know the details of your story backwards and forwards, but you need to anticipate what questions the audience will ask.

And no matter how prepared you are, I assure you, the players will ALWAYS find a way to monkey-wrench your plans, whether they approach the problem from an unexpected direction or they ask for information you hadn’t prepared in advance. There had to be a simple way to reflect this in the actual gameplay.

To deal with this, I borrowed an idea from Lollapuzzoola and created Holmes Tickets, which were catch-all requests for deeper insight or information than had been provided. Basically, anything that would require outside intervention or skills beyond that of the casual investigator could be revealed by spending a Holmes Ticket.

Dusting for fingerprints, getting ahold of a coroner’s report, uncovering information on a missing check…all of these and more were results of investigators cashing in their Holmes Tickets at various points in the investigation.

So, how did the actual murder mystery go? Well, I’d love to tell you, but it’s not finished yet! The work day proved more intrusive than expected — damn those pesky deadlines and responsibilities! — so we’re rolling into a third day of passive gameplay.

By hook or by crook, the story will be wrapped up today, and I’ll be able to fill you in more on the actual story, clues, and progression of each investigation. For now, I’ll just let you know that there are currently three bodies to account for (our killer has been busy since Monday night), and a host of theories, but no firm accusations yet.

We shall see if justice is served or if our crafty killer gets away.


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Demystifying Role-Playing Games

When you hear the words “role-playing game,” what comes to mind? A bunch of nerds in a basement, hunched around a table debating weird and esoteric rules? Practitioners of the black arts, thumbing their noses at God and all that is natural? Or nothing at all?

Some TV shows, like Community and Freaks & Geeks, have displayed role-playing games in a positive light, but for the most part, role-playing games in general, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular, have gotten a bad rap over the last few decades, maligned as (at best) a game for lonely friendless types and (at worst) a tool to corrupt children.

(This might sound ridiculous to many of you, but folks like Pat Robertson continue to talk about role-playing games as if they’re synonymous with demon worship.)

But in reality, role-playing games are simply a way for a group to tell one collaborative story.

There are two major elements to this storytelling. The first is managed by a single person who oversees that particular game or gaming session. In Dungeons & Dragons, this person is called the Dungeon Master, or DM; in other games, this person is the Game Master, the Storyteller, or bears some other title tied to the game or setting. For the sake of simplicity, from this point on, I’ll refer to this person as the DM.

So, the DM manages the setting and sets up the adventure. In this role, the DM will describe what the player characters (or PCs) see and explain the results of their actions. The DM also plays any characters the players interact with. (These are known as NPCs, or non-player characters.) Essentially, the DM creates the sandbox in which the other players play.

Which brings us to the second element in role-playing storytelling: the players. Each player assumes a role, a character, and plays that character for the length of the session, or the game, if there are multiple sessions. (Some games last months or years, so these characters evolve and grow; players often become quite attached to their characters.)

The PCs navigate the world created by the DM, but their actions and decisions shape the narrative. No matter how prepared a DM is or how carefully he or she has plotted out a given scene or adventure, the PCs determine much of what happens. They might follow the breadcrumbs exactly as the DM laid them out, or they might head off in an unexpected direction, forcing the DM to think on the fly in order to continue the adventure.

That’s what makes role-playing games so amazing: you never quite know what you’re going to get. The PCs usually don’t know what the DM has in store, and no DM can predict with perfect clarity what the PCs will do. You’re all crafting a story together and none of you knows what exactly will happen or how it all ends.

For instance, I run a role-playing game for several friends that is set in the universe of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and my PCs routinely come up with solutions to problems and puzzles that I didn’t expect, but that nonetheless would work. They constantly keep me on my toes as a DM, and it’s one of my favorite aspects of the game.

Oftentimes, major events and key moments are determined by dice rolls, adding an element of chance to the story. (In some games, players have replaced dice rolls with a Jenga-style block tower, and they must remove pieces from it to achieve certain goals. That adds a marvelous sense of real-world tension to the narrative tension already present!)

And while I’ve talked quite a bit about the game aspect, some of you might be wondering where the puzzly aspect comes in.

Some of the best, most satisfying puzzle-solving experiences of my life have come from role-playing games.

These puzzles can be as simple as figuring out how to open a locked door or as complicated as unraveling a villain’s dastardly plot for world domination. It can be a poem to be parsed and understood or a trap to be escaped.

There are riddles of goblins and sphinxes, or the three questions of trolls, or even the brain teasers and logic problems concocted by devious fey hoping to snare me with clever wordplay. I’ve encountered all sorts of puzzles in role-playing games, and some of them were fiendish indeed.

One time, during a LARP session (Live-Action Role-Playing, meaning you actually act out the adventure and storytelling), I thought I’d unraveled the meaning of a certain bit of scripture (regarding a key that would allow me to escape the room) and acquired a sword as my prize, only to realize much much later that the key I’d spent the entire session searching for was the sword itself, which unlocked the door and released me.

And designing puzzles for my players to unravel is often as much fun as solving the puzzles myself. Especially when they’re tailored to specific storytelling universes or particular player characters.

(Trust me, it doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with a Jedi or a paladin; riddles stop pretty much everybody in their tracks.)

Whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, Legend of the Five Rings or Star Wars, GURPS or Ninja Burger, there’s a role-playing game out there for everyone, if you’re just willing to look.


This post was meant as a brief overview of role-playing games as a whole. If you’d like me to get more in depth on the subject, or if you have specific questions about role-playing games, please let me know! I’d be happy to revisit this topic in the future.

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