Better Ways to Handle Letter Codes in Escape Rooms [Design Tips]

Morse Code, binary, Braille, and pigpen:

Letter encoding and decoding is a common thing in room escapes and puzzle hunts.

  • Set a radio to a specific channel and you’ll find a looping pattern of Morse Code dots and dashes.
  • Stick your hands into a dark space and feel the raised bumps of Braille.
  • Decode the line and dot patters scrawled on a wall in a pigpen cypher.

These are all acceptable, fairly common methods of hiding information in a puzzle game.

However, one problem with these can be the order of puzzle element delivery.

Paiting of the numbers "3039". Beneath the numbers are the braille representations of those numbers.

Standard letter codes

While they aren’t relevant to most people, and many are anachronistic, letter codes are standardized.

All rooms that I am aware of will rightly assume that their players have not memorized the translations for Morse Code, binary, Braille, pigpen, nautical flags, or semaphore (among others). If they are using one of these codes, they will provide a clear method of decoding.

Some companies will go so far as to translate Roman numerals.

This is great, but do not assume that no one can mentally decode these standards.

Translation key first, encoded message second

The room should deliver the decoding key before it provides a coded message that is encoded with a standardized letter code.

Players should discover the Braille translation key before they find raised bumps to decode.

Why?

Because if a player knows your code, they can and will solve the puzzle before they were supposed to.

Anyone with a ham radio license will know Morse, as will some people who were Boy Scouts.

Additionally, some of us escape room enthusiasts have started to memorize some of these codes (both intentionally and unintentionally).

I have picked up a little Braille completely by accident.

I also deliberately memorized Morse Code numbers simply because the pattern is simple to remember:

1) . – – – –
2) . . – – –
3) . . . – –
4) . . . . –
5) . . . . .
6) – . . . .
7) – – . . .
8) – – – . .
9) – – – – .
0) – – – – –

From a design standpoint, the key is to make sure that no one disrupts the game flow because they know a letter code.

Simple solutions

This situation can be solved with one of three simple fixes:

Place the translation key before the coded interaction

If you do this, then the player who already knows the translation finds redundant knowledge that doesn’t diminish their game, but it does make sure that all players reach the code on equal footing.

The player who has it memorized will naturally decode the message faster, but they will do it at the right time.

Don’t use letter codes at critical junctures

If a letter code is locking away an item that can be obtained at any point in the game without breaking the game’s flow, then a player popping the lock with outside knowledge won’t break the game.

Make your own letter code

If you create a letter code with your own symbols, then this whole discussion is irrelevant.

This is, admittedly, a tiny detail in game design. The issue won’t surface all that often, but if you plan for it, it will never be an issue.

2 thoughts on “Better Ways to Handle Letter Codes in Escape Rooms [Design Tips]

  1. I agree with your comments. As a puzzle hunt racer, many of these codes are at least partially memorized. However, in a room, I will force myself not to decode them until I find the key (and I am able to keep that ideal most of the time). I have not found a room that did not contain the key. That way I maintain the integrity of the hunt as planned.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I am creating a multi level puzzle or “treasure hunt”, I will sometimes use codes similar to these… but I will scramble the letters and have the key with the scrambled code be found when I want them to proceed (sort of like the typewriter with the keys mixed up trick). This way if someone knows the code system I’m using and tried to translate it before I want them to, they will just get garbled letters. Then when they find the key later when I want them to, they will be able to decode it properly.

    Liked by 1 person

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