Introducing New Players to Roleplaying Games!

A month or so ago, there was a marvelous article on Amazing Tales about how to make your child’s first role-playing game amazing.

Although the article was geared toward introducing younger players to the world of roleplaying games, the advice can be easily adapted and expanded to include new players of all ages. So today, I thought I would take the five points introduced by Amazing Tales and do just that.

So if you’re a new or inexperienced game-runner / dungeon master, or if you’ve only run games for people with previous experience playing roleplaying games, this is the place for you.

(And this advice should fit no matter what sort of game you’re running. Is it classic Dungeons & Dragons? Supernatural? Zombie horror? Space adventure? Knights of the Round Table? Explorers? Pirates? Monster hunters? Modern spies? Thieves in the Victorian era? No matter what setting or characters, this advice is universal.)

#1 Keep cool

It’s easy for the person running a roleplaying game to have high expectations for themselves and the story they want to craft. You want your new players to have fun. You want them to immerse themselves in telling a story. You want them to be excited and come back for more.

But that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, and a stressed or nervous game master can lead to stressed or nervous players. So don’t set the bar so high. Sit back and let the players interact; sometimes, you can engineer a scenario that allows for this, like a tavern scene. Or you can create an instant threat and let them jump into the action and work together to solve a problem as a bonding experience.

Don’t be afraid to take opportunities to ask if anyone’s confused. A first game is introductory by nature, and if someone feels left behind early on, it can be hard to catch them up later, or to make them feel included if they’re not gelling with the other players.

Sometimes when I’m starting a new game with new players, I’ll hold what I call a “session zero,” a safe game before the game kicks off, where the characters can play in the environment, interact, and test out the actual mechanics of playing (particularly if there’s a magic system or some other aspect of the game that might not be intuitive).

#2 Keep it small

You want your players to feel immersed but not overwhelmed, so party size (the number of players) is an important consideration. I try to keep my number of new players to three or fewer, because it can be hard to give meaningful attention to a larger number of players. It’s like a classroom; you want the ratio of experienced voices to students to be as small as possible, so you can get that one-on-one time to answer questions and help them find their footing.

For me, the ideal group for a newcomer-heavy game is two (or three) new players, one (or two) experienced players, and myself running the game. That way, each new player is balanced by someone with greater experience. You can even have a buddy system to get them acclimated.

A smaller group also means less time for players to sit out while other players get the spotlight. Never let the new players feel shortchanged or like their voices aren’t as important as those of the more experienced players. After all, if you’re an experienced player, you’re going to feel more comfortable speaking up and venturing forward than a new player might.

[Image courtesy of Lewis Brown.]

#3 Say yes to their ideas

Now, obviously, you can’t say yes to every idea a player has or the story could descend into nonsense. But trust your players’ instincts.

Let them wander down the paths they find most interesting. It might not be the path you intended, and it might take them longer to get to the desired end point, but it’s always better for players to reach a story point organically, rather than railroading them to the place and time you want. Even new players can sense when they’re being strong-armed in a certain direction, and that can leave a bad taste in players’ mouths.

Be flexible. I’ve always found that, no matter how thoroughly I think I’ve mapped out an adventure, my players (both new and experienced) excel at finding paths I hadn’t considered. That requires me to be quick on my feet, and I enjoy the challenge of pitting my wits, improvisational skills, and imagination against those of my players.

A roleplaying game is like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel writ large… whenever possible, let them feel in control of their players, their story, and their destiny.

[Image from Stranger Things courtesy of The Verge.]

#4 Take them where they want to go

This might feel like a repeat of the previous note, but it’s not. This point is a reminder to always consider the characters your players are playing. What are their strengths? What goals do they have? What are they hoping to experience and accomplish?

Plenty of game runners, myself included, can get so wrapped up in the story WE want to tell that we forget that it might not mesh with the story our players want to participate in.

Give them moments to shine. Give the fighters a chance to fight, give the magicians opportunity to ply their craft, and give the puzzlers puzzles to solve. If characters have wings, let ’em fly.

[Image courtesy of Digital Trends.]

#5 Make the ending awesome

No matter how simple the adventure starts — a theft, a murder, the discovery of a treasure map, the descent into a trap-laden dungeon — make sure the ending is memorable. You want the quest, however short or long, to feel worthwhile.

You can try the old cliffhanger trick in the hopes of leaving them wanting more, but that can come back to bite you if the players are dissatisfied that their first adventure doesn’t feel complete. Instead, give them a sense of accomplishment.

Martin at Amazing Tales said it well:

Make sure your child’s first ever role-playing game features an epic ending. Face to face with the villain on a cliff edge as the counter ticks toward zero; returning the stolen jewels to the temple moments before sunset while pursued by ghosts; wrestling the controls of the star-ship from the pirate moments before it crashes into the sun. That kind of epic.

You don’t necessarily need to go epic, but certainly make it memorable. Nothing sells a big win like giving the bad guy a funny line before he turns to ash.


Here’s hoping this advice encourages aspiring dungeon masters and storytellers to get out there, find some players, and spin some marvelous adventure yarns. (Or maybe it’s inspired some new players to try roleplaying themselves!)

What’s your favorite memory from your early roleplay sessions, fellow puzzlers? (Either as a game runner or player.) Let us know in the comments section below!


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Playing Dungeons & Dragons Like Royalty!

Dungeons & Dragons (or any roleplaying game, for that matter) is about telling a story together. Many Dungeon Masters go above and beyond to immerse players in the roleplaying experience.

Some use miniatures or models atop battlemats to help players visualize the events that are taking place (especially combat). Others use music to set the tone, create atmosphere, or provide dramatic effect.

These little bits of set dressing can be simple or elaborate, but they all contribute to a better roleplaying experience.

Now imagine if you could turn the dial up to 11 and really immerse yourself in your setting. Say, by playing D&D in an actual castle.

That’s the idea behind D&D in a Castle, a special event being held in Challain-la-Potherie, France, from July 1st to the 5th.

Check out the sales pitch:

Spend four days playing Dungeons and Dragons in a castle with world class DMs in a vacation like none you have ever experienced. Retreat into a magnificently restored castle for a spot of luxury, relaxation, and, of course, role-playing.

Yup, a team of professional Dungeon Masters help attendees to build their characters and familiarize themselves with the game before they even walk through the door. And after that, there are two daily RPG sessions and optional ones in the evening.

Over the course of the five days, you are guaranteed to play at least 24 hours of Dungeons & Dragons.

Now THAT is immersion.

With names like Jeremy Crawford (the lead rules developer for D&D) and Satine Phoenix (actress, artist, and DM) involved, this is sure to be a massively creative event, and I am thoroughly envious of anyone and everyone attending.

This will certainly raise the bar for D&D night at the house afterward. Dimming the lights and putting on some mood music will pale in comparison to the palatial spread at Challain-la-Potherie.

Of course, if you’re looking for a more affordable option here in the US, I highly recommend Troll Haven in Sequim, Washington. The Gate Keeper’s Castle is absolutely awesome, and the perfect setting for a LARP, an escape room, or some immersive D&D.

Just be careful if you invite a rogue to the castle, folks. They have sticky fingers.


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Making Board Games More Accessible Than Ever!

[Image courtesy of Make Board Game.]

I’m a huge proponent of the idea that there’s a game out there for everybody. Some prefer fun, lighthearted fare. Others like the high-stakes of a winner-take-all scenario. Some thrive in cooperative games where victories are shared and losses softened by camaraderie, while others like one-on-one strategic battles.

But no matter who you are, there’s a game out there for you.

Unfortunately, for colorblind gamers or those dealing with visual impairments, some of the most popular games are less accessible.

[Ticket to Ride remains one of the more colorblind-friendly games on the market today. Image courtesy of Board Game Duel.]

I’ve had several colorblind friends tell me that the color-and-pattern-matching tile game Qwirkle is a no-go, because the game’s colors (as well as the black tiles on which those colored symbols are set) can cause serious confusion that hampers gameplay.

Although there’s no official colorblind-friendly edition of Qwirkle on the market, there is a colorblind-friendly version of the game that has been shared online. The color palette is more accessible, and instead of black tiles, the base tiles are gray.

Other games have also picked up on the need to keep their multicolored games accessible to a broader audience. As mentioned in a recent post on the official Tabletop Day website, the game Lanterns: The Harvest Festival incorporates specific symbols for each of their differently colored cards to make it easier for colorblind players to distinguish them.

And if you’re a visually impaired game enthusiast, there are other companies out there working hard to ensure you have the widest possible range of games to enjoy.

The folks at 64 Oz. Games produce specialty sleeves and other modifications for established board games and card games, allowing visually impaired players to play alongside their sighted pals.

[An image from their successful Kickstarter campaign a few years ago.
Image courtesy of 64 Oz. Games.]

A combination of Braille and clever use of QR codes has opened up games like Munchkin, Cards Against Humanity, Coup, Love Letter, Seven Wonders, King of Tokyo, and numerous roleplaying games to a previously excluded audience.

Add items like their 3D printed Braille roleplaying dice and a touch-based game called Yoink! that is based on tactile gameplay, and you have a wonderful resource for all sorts of game fans.

As we gear up to celebrate a day dedicated to gathering with family and friends to enjoy playing games, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to acknowledge those who are going above and beyond to make sure as many people as possible can participate.

It’s a beautiful thing.


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How Women Have Shaped and Changed the World of Roleplaying Games

About a month ago, I wrote a blog post about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, one of the founders of American cryptography as we know it. One of the goals of that post was to help correct the historical record and restore Elizebeth to the prominence, accolades, and attention she so richly deserves.

A friend of mine and fellow tabletop roleplayer read that post and pointed me toward this article from Kotaku last year about the early influence of women on the development of the iconic roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons. One of the first playable modules, the “Sage Advice” column of Dragon magazine, the inimitable art style (and maps), the long-running D&D series of novels… women played vital roles in crafting the world of D&D as many of us know it today.

This may come as a surprise to some people, given how pop culture tends to present roleplaying in general as an all-male nerdy pursuit. (The Big Bang Theory, for instance, often pushes the idea that girls don’t play D&D.)

But to me, it’s no surprise at all that women played such important roles in the development of one of tabletop gaming’s most famous franchises. Women have always been a part of roleplaying in my experience. Whether we’re talking LARPs (Live-Action RolePlaying) or tabletop, in my group of friends, female players were the norm.

The longest-running game I’ve ever been a part of — one that we’ve played on and off for over a decade — has had a brilliant female DM [dungeon master / game runner / storyteller]. Women made up half of the players in the Star Wars-based RPG campaign I ran for nearly seven years. The all-guy game that serves as the cliche sitcom punchline was rarely the case.

But I never want to assume that my experience is the same as everyone else’s. So I decided to reach out to some of the female RPG fans, game-runners, and creators I know to get their take on roleplaying games.

How did they get into RPGs? What effect has roleplaying had on their lives, their own personal creativity, and so on? And has the roleplaying world changed, either favorably or unfavorably, for them as women during their time as roleplayers?

To start, I think my friend Addie wrote the perfect intro:

Twenty years ago I was dating a guy who asked, “Do you want to play Dungeons & Dragons?” and not really knowing what it was I said, “Sure why not.” Ever since that first game it felt like I found something that I was looking for, a doorway to a fantasy world I was unfamiliar with yet interested in.

D&D was the first step into a world that introduced me to other means of roleplaying, from LARPing to MMO’s [massive multiplayer online games] to text-based games online. It allowed me to exercise my creativity and become more comfortable with writing. It lead me to learn that I love to write, especially creating characters, and eventually I even co-started a text-based Marvel game called MUCK that had a successful seven years until I burned out and couldn’t run a game on my own anymore.

Sometimes, it’s a boyfriend who introduces the game. Other times, it’s a friend, as in Lindsay’s experience:

I started gaming when I was 14 or 15 (1990ish) when my female best friend bought a copy of the AD&D Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual [the three core books required for D&D] on a whim one day and she ran a game for me and her brother and, I think, a friend of her brother’s.

I’d been exposed to the idea of D&D several years before when the blue box set came out, and another female friend’s brother had it and the dice on his desk. I was utterly fascinated by the idea and wanted to play, but of course we were the Little Sister and friends, so we weren’t invited.

In Jala’s case, it was her sister:

When I was 10, my sister brought home a boxed set of D&D (the original edition) which had a map, module & etc. She was my first DM and first tabletop RPG buddy… RPGs were a way to bond with my sister originally, and later on when online RPGs were a thing it was the manner in which my sister met her husband, and the way I met my best friend (now ex-husband, though we are still friends).

But no matter how they discovered roleplaying, it made an immediate impact.

Beverly credits quite a bit to her experience roleplaying:

It changed my life by helping me form and solidify friendships. I even met my second husband because of RPGs (online and not pencil and paper) and that’s pretty rad.

It also helped me gain some confidence early on when I started game-mastering. I was pressured (in a friendly way) to try my hand at being a game master. I didn’t think I could do it, but I was with a group of trusted friends and I tried it out. It went pretty well, and because being the leader and helping guide the story had gone well in that trusted environment, I felt more empowered to try it at a small convention with people I didn’t know as well.

Those people ALSO had a good time, and each experienced helped me feel more capable in speaking in front of strangers, and if I’m being perfectly honest, also how to fake a bit of confidence at first to help me get started.

Lindsay also credits gaming as a huge factor in her life:

How has gaming affected my life? I laugh: it has been one of the two biggest parts of my life for most of my life. I met the most important people in my life through gaming, whether it be tabletop, writing for the games, or LARPing: my best friends since high school, my general social group, and my husband.

Gaming certainly helped broaden my creativity — collaborating with my best friends when we wrote tournaments or created a whole world to set games in brought so much to the forefront. Cultural knowledge, intricacy in political situations, and depth of character all came into it and we all boosted each other’s creativity. I also like playing all different races, classes, attitudes, and genders when I play — just to see what it’ll be like and to bring different parts of my personality out.

That being said, there has definitely been a sea change in how women in roleplaying have been viewed over the last twenty to thirty years.

Beverly: I have been at it in some form or another since about 1992 and mostly I have had good experiences but there have been some pretty bad ones. I think it has gotten a bit better for me over the years, but admittedly I am not as into it as I used to be.

Addie: The world has definitely become more welcoming to female gamers, at least in my experience. For many years I hid my gender online when roleplaying or playing MMOs, tending to play male characters. I never told anyone I was female but I didn’t tell anyone I wasn’t male and just let them assume. I’m sure there are people out there who are still convinced to this day I was a dude behind the screen.

Now, I have no issues with hiding my gender. The harassment isn’t there like it used to be, I’m not the “golden egg” of female roleplayers anymore.

Lindsay’s experience working inside the world of RPGs grants her a particular insight into how things have changed:

As for my own career, I wrote and edited for several game studios throughout my 20s and 30s. White Wolf in particular liked employing women in the office, but I don’t think that was really because they were committed to diversity. I think it was more because “Wimminz In Gamez Iz Edgy and Cool.” Yes, the women were incredibly capable and remain powerful writers and gamers, but still.

I work in a comic, card, and game store now, the same one where I host and play games. The customers’ attitudes are a mixed bag, really, but overall they are friendly and respectful of me as a woman and an expert. Some are overtly sexist and assholes about it – “uh, can you get [man]? I have questions. No, I don’t think you know about this, can you just get [man]?”

And yep, I know more than the man does.

That idea of “nerd cred” being checked, unfortunately, isn’t the exclusive domain of male players. My friend Athena confessed that female players can also make it hard to get into gaming:

I didn’t want to identify myself as a female RPGer to those that may attack me. I readily tell people I enjoy tabletop, RPG, and other video games in real life, but often (especially in groups of people that already somewhat know me) when I say “oh I love that game”, I get checked for my nerd card. Testing responses from people trying to make me prove I actually am a gamer… I got into D&D in the early days of high school because it looked like fun and my friend-group played. Since then, I personally have always found it somewhat difficult to “break into” new groups.

It’s been a generation since the early days of D&D, and thankfully, being a female RPGer is far more common, even if it can be hard for new players to get started.

Addie: It’s also nice because female Roleplayers aren’t the rarity they used to be.

Lindsay: I also feel like being a woman among gamers gives us a way to feel special sometimes in a world that stigmatizes, belittles, or outright ostracizes smart, creative women who don’t fit the physical or otherwise mold of what a Strong Female Character ought to be. It seems like a poor sort of evaluation, but … it’s true. Among the usual population, we’re just kind of weird, with weird interests. Among gamers, we’re rare and fascinating. That’s nice to feel sometimes.

And on the other hand, that same rare and fascinating thing crosses very quickly, very often into creepiness and even sexual inappropriateness. It’s kind of scary sometimes as a woman to walk into a new game group and have no idea what the guys are going to be like.

Jala: I can’t say that I ever experienced the kinds of horror stories you read about on Buzzfeed, myself, so my personal exchanges have ranged from being blase (occasionally with new folks I didn’t know) to absolutely hilarious (when my gay male friend was playing a flirty straight woman and I was playing a straight man whom his character hit on for example, the role reversal was funny to everyone). The respect of my personal authority was never challenged even as a teenage female DM with older people as my players, although I did exasperate a DM or two with my out-of-the-box thinking as a player. That, however, had nothing to do with my gender.

Athena: Whenever I play tabletop games — Magic, board games, D&D. etc. — the (mostly male) players don’t care AT ALL who I am. It’s generally an extremely welcoming community in person.

Lindsay: Things have absolutely changed over time. Women have gone from being only princesses to be rescued; bar wenches; prostitutes; and the subject of lonely-artist posters to writing the rules systems; being the examples of particular classes or races in said books; having a voice and presence online and in media; and more respected equals as players and writers. We still have things to overcome, but we have come SO far.

Jala: Initially although my “core group” was comprised of my sister and whatever friends (all male) we could rope into it, these days there are many more female gamers of all flavors. From being an outlier in what was a fairly esoteric and clique-filled community, I have (female and male) friends who own comic & gaming shops and run games for kids and single-session adventures for those who can only drop in from time to time. I think that the voice of women is more pronounced now and there is definitely more representation of my gender out there which is great.

Addie: When I was at PAX EAST in 2014 and playing the Pathfinder Mods, one of the random groups my friend and I got put together with ended up being all females. We had so much fun we played three modules together and the GM was shocked to find out we weren’t a regular group, just a handful of pairs of strangers. We weren’t put together because all of us were female, we were put together because we were the players waiting for a group. Ten years ago, there wouldn’t be enough women at a Tabletop booth to put a 7-player group together.

Although things are changing and the pendulum of acceptance and inclusiveness is swinging in the right direction, it’s still amazing the impact that one or two strong female voices can have in attracting and empowering other players.

Lindsay: A guy came up to me at the game store I work at to ask me how many women play D&D. He said his wife and he had played some online D&D and loved it, but she in particular was hesitant to try it in person because she felt uncomfortable with the idea of being a female newbie in a room full of guys.

I realized that this reluctance might be more common than anyone realized, and I thought about the fact that even I, a lifelong gamer, am always reassured when there’s even one other woman on a table. Thus was born my Thursday women-only D&D table. Now I have more interest than seats available at the table! One of my players said, after the last session, that she really, really enjoys playing with just women, that there’s so much less pressure to know everything off the top of your head and that roleplaying is so much more fun.

My stated goal with the game is not only to give women a table of our own but also to welcome and encourage newer gamers or total beginners. It’s a safe space for all women, and I specified that trans women are women and therefore welcome too … Safe. Space. And we’re having a good time!

Addie: I’ve also found that being a female roleplayer with 20 years of D&D under her belt, I’ve been able to help other, younger, women with getting into tabletop roleplaying. A lot of the younger roleplayers I meet online nowadays are mostly younger females who do a lot of text-based roleplaying. Now that they’re starting to get their feet wet with tabletop, they’ve come to me with questions, and I thoroughly enjoy being a “Geek Mom” to young girls.

It was a privilege talking to these women and gaining some valuable insight into the world of roleplaying games from their point of view. Just reading these stories made me even more grateful that my personal experiences with RPGs have been so positive. Seeing these amazing, creative, hilarious, and brilliant women help to shape the roleplaying community for the better… it’s something special.

I’d like to close with something Lindsay said. It is part optimism, part mission statement, and wholly appropriate to the subject at hand:

When things like Gamergate simply don’t happen any more because women’s voices are automatically respected, we’ll have gotten somewhere. Meanwhile, I’ll keep reaching out to women in gaming and helping the ones I can as well as doing what I love best.


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The Weird, Wonderful World of Dice

[Image courtesy of ThoughtCo.]

Dice have been an integral part of gaming for centuries. They’re the simplest way to introduce randomness to a game.

The six-sided die is, by leaps and bounds, the most familiar die. The d6, as role-players call it, is a staple of classic board games like Yahtzee and Clue, as well as the centerpiece of role-playing systems like GURPS.

But the d6 is hardly the only kind of die you see in gaming. Plenty of games and role-playing systems rely on dice of other shapes in order to run smoothly.

[Image courtesy of Wikimedia.]

If you play World of Darkness role-playing games like Werewolf or Vampire: The Masquerade, then the d10 is your friend. If you enjoy updated editions of Dungeons & Dragons (or even board games like Unspeakable Words or Scattergories), the d20 is a familiar sight, whether it has letters or numbers on it.

A standard dice set for beginners Dungeons & Dragons contains six different dice shapes: a pyramid-shaped d4, a d6, a d8, a d10, a d12, and a d20. (Many come with 2 d10s, one with single digits and one with double digits, allowing you to calculate percentages).

[Image courtesy of Instructables.]

Heck, if you think about it, flipping a coin to decide something is simply rolling a two-sided die.

But when you start delving into the history of games, it’s amazing to see just how far back some of these traditions and conventions go.

Did you know that The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a d20 in its collection?

Dating back to Roman times (somewhere between the 2nd century BC and the 4th century AD), the above die is inscribed with Greek letters. It’s not certain if this particular die was used for games or religious divination, but there’s no doubt it’s a beautiful example of craftsmanship.

And this is just scraping the surface. One of my favorite dice in my collection is an oversized 3D-printed d20 with Braille markings for every number. Such a cool piece.

Can you think of any strange dice in favorite games of yours, fellow puzzlers? We’d love to hear about them! (Unless they’re fuzzy dice hanging from your rearview mirror. Those don’t make reliable rolls in regular gameplay.)


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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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