Runbooks Are Weak Escape Room Clues

Welcome adventurers! It’s time to test your ability to share a single book between 8 people, follow explicit directions to the letter, and maybe even interpret vague imagery. Have fun!

An ornate leather wrapped notebook resting on a map.

Some Scenarios

Let’s set some scenes…

Star Chores

You’re on a space ship attempting to resolve some terrible crisis before the countdown timer runs out. The “good news” is that there’s a process to follow to stop the impending crisis… if you are cunning enough to follow all of the directions on a screen.

Missouri Smith and the Plunderers of the Forgotten Book Club

You’re in an ancient temple, seeking some fantastic artifact, and you’re being “guided” by the journal of some archeologist who basically figured out everything you’re going to need to know to attain the Holy McGuffin.

Runbooks

Both of these scenarios are driven by runbooks.

In escape rooms, a runbook is a procedure or routine, presented as a document, which will tell you step by step how to solve all or most of the game. 

This is a word that we’ve been using for a few years now. We co-opted it from the runbooks in the information technology world. The original definition is:

“In a computer system or network, a runbook is a compilation of routine procedures and operations that the system administrator or operator carries out… Runbooks can be in either electronic or in physical book form. Typically, a runbook contains procedures to begin, stop, supervise, and debug the system. It may also describe procedures for handling special requests and contingencies” (Wikipedia).

Indiana Jones walking up old temple stairs and opening his father's journal.

Origins of Runbooks in Escape Games

I have no idea which escape room first used a runbook, but I am certain that Henry Jones’ deus ex machina journal from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had inspired a lot of escape room creators to include runbooks in their ancient ruins games.

I suspect that this normalized the concept within escape rooms.

View of a journal depicting a Knight taking a leap of faith to get to the holy grail.

Nowadays, we see variations on runbooks all over the place… and it would be great if we could see fewer of them.

Why Are Runbooks Weak Clues?

Access

If there is one book and multiple players, then the runbook is a bottleneck. The more critical the runbook is to the success of the team, the more that bottleneck binds up the gameplay.

“Well, I have multiple copies in my game,” you say. Read on…

Distraction

Hypothetically, I am going to assume that we are talking about a really great escape room with a runbook. The set is beautiful and the interactions are memorable.

Why on earth would I want to have my head in a small book for half of the game?

If the gamespace looks great, I don’t want to constantly be forced to leave that world and bury my face in a little book. This defeats the purpose of having built that amazing environment in the first place.

Reduced Scale

The size and tangibility of escape room puzzles is one of the critical factors that differentiates them from other forms of puzzle-based entertainment.

I can buy a great puzzle book for far less than the cost of one escape room ticket and get far more than one hour’s worth of enjoyment out of it.

Book-based interactions, especially book-based interactions that span most of a game, are missing the point of escape rooms.

To Do List

All too often, these runbooks become to-do lists. Teams are rewarded for following the list and not really thinking about it.

Where’s the fun in that?

Cryptic Nonsense

On the other extreme, the runbook has only a few useful bits and a ton of sketches and phrases that are meaningless red herrings.

This is at least as frustrating as following a to-do list… and maybe even worse because you never know when you can stop staring at the pages and start enjoying the physical environment that you paid to visit.

Glossing Over Weakness

When I see a runbook in an escape room, more often than not, I think that the runbook has been added to fill in gaps in the game design and clue structure.

It usually seems like someone designed a beautiful set and cool interactions, but struggled to fill in that pesky gameplay part of the design. Instead of reworking the set and the interactions, they found a justification for stuffing a journal in to fill all of the gaps in clue structure. Runbooks are a cheap and easy way to duct tape a broken game together.

Loving Games with Runbooks

I don’t love runbooks… but I will openly admit to having loved a few escape rooms that contained runbooks. Some, like 13th Gate’s Tomb of Anubis, have even won Golden Lock-In Awards.

Is a runbook game-shattering? No.

Would a great game with a runbook be better without it? Yes.

How Do I Runbook-ectomy?

A general rule for escape room design: scale everything up.

Make every interaction big enough that everyone can experience it.

With that in mind, our advice on runbook elimination is to work the clues into the set itself:

  • Embed iconography into the set to convey the clue.
  • Plaques, engravings, painting on the set… just get it out of the book.
  • Strategically light the game to draw attention to critical information.
  • Use sound to convey the clues.
  • If it must be on paper, make it one sheet of paper for one puzzle. A page from a journal is better than a whole journal.

Be creative. Make sure that your players aren’t stuck with their noses in a book for your entire escape game. I guarantee that it will make for a better, more fulfilling experience.

6 thoughts on “Runbooks Are Weak Escape Room Clues

  1. I’m conflicted on this. I totally agree that most runbooks are a time suck and hard to access when playing with a larger group. Oftentimes they include a lot of reading with little return so it feels like busy work.

    We have a game that has a journal that’s only need for two puzzles but gives a few helpful nudges for another puzzles and it works well and fits with the theme. We keep the writing to a sentence a page so it’s not much to take in. I personally like it because it’s tangible, isn’t laminated but sturdy AND doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

    When I read your article, I thought, “Should we revamp this?” and my answer was no, I’m happy with how it fits with the game. I do think that these shouldn’t be overused though and appreciate you discussing items like this in game design.

    1. If it’s working, it’s working.

      I don’t think that runbooks are inherently game killers. I think that can be, and I have played some games that are gameplay disasters taped together by a runbook. It doesn’t sound like that’s what’s going on in your case.

  2. Adding insult to injury is the presence of a run book in low light environments. While the dim lighting may help set the mood, adding a runbook to “duct tape together” the game play is not a solution without side effects. The article is spot on – if a runbook is part of the game, make sure it is for the RIGHT reasons.

    1. I totally agree… and the lighting point is a good one that I didn’t get into.

      Low Lighting + Runbook = ☠️

  3. Thanks for the definition. We were not sure how to call such an escape room element. I totally agree, it’s a week element and feels weird to work through a book. It’s like playing a computer Adventure in an escape room 🙂

    1. Thanks. Lisa and I have been using the word for a long while and decided that it was time to share the thoughts with the community.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.