In Season 5, episode 8, we have a lively chat with Dani Siller and Bill Sunderland of Escape This Podcast. Dani and Bill are the pioneers of the audio escape game format, which blends an escape room with tabletop roleplaying. They’ve been creating these audio escape rooms for their podcast listeners since 2017, long before the popularity of virtual escape games arose over the pandemic. Between laughs and reminiscing about ridiculous interactions in their games, Dani and Bill share their insights on creating the best experiences for this medium.
We hear about their podcast editing tricks for creating tension and avoiding tedium. They give us some really solid tips on creating puzzles for the audio medium, including “keyword matching,” which helps players make connections between components of a puzzle. I was also surprised to hear that mundane settings, as opposed to magical settings, often work best in this format because it’s easier for players to discern where the puzzle is and see the consequences of their actions.
This glimpse into the creative process behind Escape This Podcast brings new appreciation for the show that Dani and Bill have created. They shared a lot of tips and tricks for designing an audio escape room, and talked about design decisions they made early on that they wouldn’t repeat now. Dani and Bill are immensely entertaining, and if you enjoyed this episode, I hope you’ll check out their podcast.
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RECON Remote 23 will take place August 19 – 20, 2023, online.
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Topics Discussed in this Episode
- [2:41] Peih-Gee talks about being nervous the first time she made a guest appearance on Escape This Podcast. Bill explains how their podcast works. It’s an escape room mixed with a tabletop role playing game. It’s an audio escape room that you play like a text-based adventure.
- [3:41] We chat a little bit about old-school text-based role playing games like MUDs (multi-user dungeons.)
- [4:58] David talks a little more about feeling nervous when playing these audio escape rooms on podcasts, and he and Peih-Gee explain that creators feel compelled to give them more difficult games.
- [6:06] Bill talks to us about how the editing works for their podcast. He tells us about when to cut dead air and the importance of leaving in some of the struggle.
- [7:24] David talks about the first time he and Lisa were guests on Escape This Podcast. He says they listened to every episode and strategized about the roles they would play on the show.
- [8:43] Peih-Gee talks about the first time she was on the show, and shares the difficulties of trying to take notes while correctly spelling everything and also being funny, without breaking the flow of the recording.
- [9:13] Dani says that’s why they rarely have a single guest come on. They almost always have a pair of guests because if one person is puzzling, then the other one can be entertaining.
- [9:40] Dani and David reminisce about David’s antics on their show concerning a certain prop.
- [10:44] Bill tells us that they actually anticipate a lot of the silly antics that guests will do on the show, and it’s even written into their game notes.
- [11:53] Bill and Dan talk about what makes for a good or bad Escape This Podcast puzzle. They tell us that some puzzles that are fun in physical escape rooms don’t translate well to audio: for example, when you can’t find a loose brick in the wall until instructed on how to locate it.
- [13:26] Bill tells us about a different form of searching that you can do in the audio medium, which is keyword matching. He explains that it is the deliberate use of words to pair items together so players know they’re part of the same puzzle. He tells us about how they use keywords to spark a connection.
- [15:22] Dani talks to us about some puzzles she used to design that she wouldn’t anymore. She says that in season one, she was trying to create puzzles very similar to the type you would see in a physical room, and that they used more puzzle hunt-style puzzles that weren’t very fun for the listener to follow along with.
- [16:59] Peih-Gee mentions something like morse code, and Bill explains that things like morse code can actually be very fun when it’s about the moment of discovery that something in the room translated into morse code, and that they’ll just edit out the parts where the players are doing the actual decoding.
- [18:17] Dani and Bill debate the merits of different types of settings. They say that the only settings they’ll reject are the ones where they struggle to form an interesting plot.
- [19:44] Bill muses that they’re better set up to deliver narrative than a physical escape room because they have full control over the pace at which people receive information.
- [20:08] Dani says that she’s not crazy about very magical settings or deep sci-fi settings because it gets too difficult for the players to see the consequences of their actions.
- [20:42] Bill says that usually mundane settings are better because it’s easier for players to spot items that are supposed to stand out. They also talk about how it’s easier to avoid red herrings in audio escape rooms.
- [24:23] Dani talks about the number of games she’s designed.
- [25:50] Dani and Bill talk about playtesting their games. They tell us that generally, Bill does most of the playtesting, although occasionally some of their Patreon backers will help out as well. They tell us that another benefit of the audio medium is that you don’t have to worry about guests breaking items. Also, they will occasionally change puzzles on the fly if a guest comes up with a solution they didn’t think of.
- [28:23] David asks about a time when the episode went completely off the rails. Peih-Gee reminisces about the time she and David were on the show together and she got stuck on donut holes.
- [32:46] Bill talks a little bit about his role on the show, whether it’s editing, writing music for the episodes, or doing character bits and making jokes. Dani says that Bill makes sure the show runs like a podcast rather than just as a game.
- [35:01] David notes that some seasons of Escape This Podcast tell a single story throughout the course of the season, while other seasons are a collection of one-off stories. Dani says she considers herself a storyteller and says that she likes the variety of different lengths for her narratives.
- [36:38] Bill says one of the benefits of having longer story arcs is that it’s fun to have cliffhangers at the end of the episode that will encourage listeners to keep listening. He goes on to say that the connected story arcs are better for the listeners, but worse for the guests because they’re thrown into the middle of a story.
- [39:33] Bill muses that people must like chickens, because two of their most popular episodes happen to both feature chickens. Peih-Gee and David exclaim that this buys into their “escape rooms need more animal allies” theory.
- [41:07] Dani and Bill talk about the episodes when they have guest designers on the show who have written an audio escape room for Dani and Bill to play, like Sarah Willson, who writes for Room Escape Artist, or Tommy Honton, who was a guest on Season 3, episode 7 of REPOD.
- [42:16] Peih-Gee tells a story about how much Tommy playtested his audio escape room and the group chats about Tommy’s iterative design process.
- [43:51] Bill says that some of the best rooms have been designed by first time designers, and he and Dani have a discussion about how many rooms Jen McTeague has designed for them. They also give a shout out to Scott Weiss.
- [45:23] Bill talks about how they were likely the original creators of the audio escape room, and how awestruck they were the first time a fan told them they had created one in the same vein.
- [46:11] Dani talks about suffering from an inferiority complex after hosting guest-created escape rooms because she thinks they’re so good. Bill says he needs to remind her that they’re just iterating on her original ideas.
- [47:11] Bill talks about some wild ideas their guests have concocted including really meta ideas, like an escape room inside an escape room, inside an escape room. While recounting this story, Bill and Dani realize this is the room designed by Jen McTeague that they were trying to recall earlier.
- [47:46] David asks about how they keep the content fresh and avoid burnout. Bill says that they just keep creating new shows like Solve This Murder, where they design Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries for the other person to act as the detective to solve.
- [48:27] Dani and Bill muse on running out of ideas, but conclude that, much like physical escape rooms, it’s all about recombining puzzles, narratives and styles in different ways to stay fresh. They say that bringing on guest designers also helps them avoid burnout.
- [50:59] Peih-Gee says she thought bringing on guest designers was a smart move, and talks about how they did the same with the Spoilers Club episodes. She explains that Spoilers Club is Patreon exclusive content featuring walkthrough recaps of iconic escape rooms. She says that originally she and David were playing games and taking meticulous notes for the recap, but that eventually they invited the creators on the show, and it made for better content overall.
- [52:37] Listener Michael Anderson, the author behind ARGNet asks who would be their dream partners for a sponsored episode. Dani and Bill tell us that they don’t really like having ads on the show, but might be open to creating a themed room. Their ideal partner would likely be a game or video game, like the new Zelda game coming out.
- [55:31] Bill talks to us a bit about their other podcast, Solve This Murder. He explains that there aren’t really any puzzles. It’s more about teasing out the truth from a series of witnesses and evidence.
- [56:15] Bill explains that there are two different types of crime shows. One is the procedural, where it’s much more linear, interviewing a person who says something weird, which leads you to interview another person, which leads to a location, etc. He says that early on in the podcast, he was playing it like a procedural, whereas Dani was designing it more like an Agatha Christie-style mystery, where there’s several suspects and you need to cross reference their interviews to figure out who did the murder.
- [57:55] Bill talks about how Solve This Murder is an earnest attempt to solve a mystery. He tells us that it’s much more difficult when the author of the mystery and the detective are two different people.
- [58:29] David compares this to playing Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and says that while he loves the game, he gets frustrated by the scoring system that says they should have solved the crime in some low number of moves, which seems impossible.
- [59:42] Bill talks a little more about the difficulties of creating the mysteries for Solve This Murder.
- [1:01:37] Peih-Gee mentions the tabletop role playing game Gateways that Bill designed. She says it reminds her of a fantasy novel called The Redemption of Althalus by David Eddings. She talks about playing it on a livestream with Paul Williams, one of the hosts of New Zealand Taskmaster.
- [1:02:43] Bill talks about designing Gateways and how the mechanics worked. He recalls the game Peih-Gee played where she ended up in the future, split from her party.
- [1:04:12] Bill talks about his early years of playing roleplaying games, especially a game called MERP, Middle Earth Role Playing. He says that it involved a lot of consequence tables, and that he really loves that mechanic.
- [1:05:13] He says that in Gateways, every time you create a portal, there’s an opportunity for the portal to corrupt, and then you will need to roll to see what consequence you get, anywhere from emerging with a funny new hat, to being yeeted 20 years into the future.
- [1:06:16] Bill tells us about their Twitch channel, @playthisgame_live where you can watch Dani do speed runs or browse the archives where they played all the Nancy Drew games.
- [1:07:19] Peih-Gee mentions that all of Dani’s audio escape rooms are available for free on their website with meticulous notes so you can run them for your friends.
- [1:11:33] Bill tells a bonus story about the time he and Dani decided to play an escape room in pure silence and never talk, not even when props fell on their heads.
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Resources Mentioned in this Episode
- Consume This Media main website
- Guest Appearances by David and Peih-Gee:
- Season two, Chapter 10 with Lisa and David Spira
- Chronomaly (Season Six), Chapter 1 with Lisa and David Spira
- Chronomaly, Chapter 4 with Peih-Gee Law and Brian Corbitt
- What Alice Found (Season Eight), Chapter 2 with Peih-Gee Law and Adam Klein
- Escape Roompaloompa, Part 4 with Peih-Gee Law and David Spira
- Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective
- Gateways TTRPG
About Bill Sunderland and Dani Siller
Dani and Bill created Escape This Podcast in an attempt to bring escape rooms into the audio space with TTRPG-style gameplay. The experiment worked, and since launching the show in 2017 they now work full time as podcasters and game/ puzzle designers with a second show (Solve This Murder) and a variety of other creative projects.
With backgrounds in science, musical theatre, writing, TTRPGs, trivia, and more, Dani and Bill’s eclectic interests are on display across all their work, from escape rooms set in laboratories, to murder mysteries on planes, to digital puzzle adventures where magicians steal the Sydney Opera House.
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