Do Not Touch: Why These Stickers Are Flawed

I stumbled up on a video that explored the creation of the radiation and biohazard symbols.

In addition to some compelling history, this video posed an interesting question: 

Can we create a universal warning symbol that will last forever?

Personally I think that the answer is no… but that’s besides the point. 

All of this got me thinking about danger symbols in escape rooms and the common “do not touch” sticker.

Common Danger Symbols

Context is everything… and universality isn’t a thing with symbols. 

In an escape room, symbols for radiation, biohazard, high voltage, or the classic Jolly Roger communicate nothing but setting.

If someone were to put actually hazardous materials in an escape room and label them appropriately… everyone who played the game would die. There is an assumed safety. It’s normal to assume that anything threatening is there for immersion’s sake…

Unless that symbol is a “do not touch” symbol. 

A mixing board that is messily labeled, "DO NOT TOUCH OR SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN TO YOU."
I’ve been hanging onto this photo for years.

Do Not Touch!

Do not touch stickers are a fairly common escape room mechanic where a sticker applied to a prop signifies that the item is in one way or another out of play.

These stickers come in different varieties including colored dot stickers, the company’s logo, the classic hand in a circle icon, and tape that has the words “Do Not Touch” on it. 

Since these stickers first started appearing in early escape rooms, these symbols have been fraught with problems.

An electrical outlet with a blue do not touch sticker.

Fuzzy Meaning

Does “do not touch” mean, this item is completely out of play? Or does it contain visual information, but I do not need to touch it to find that information?

After playing some 700 escape rooms, I still ask to clarify the meaning of a “do not touch symbol” in an escape room. The meaning changes from company to company and sometimes even from game to game within one location. 

For those of us who actively try to follow the rules, sometimes this is difficult to do. 

A sharp torture implement hanging from a wooden wall, with blood painted onto the edge.
In this game, “the blood means ‘do not touch.'”

Visual Identification 

Sometimes these symbols are easy to miss. Maybe they are a tiny blip on a large object. Maybe I’m thoroughly in the zone and I don’t see it. 

On multiple occasions, I’ve been guilty of not seeing a “do not touch” symbol until after I’ve already touched. (I always feel bad.)

Similarly, I’ve been in rooms where most of the wall hangings have “do not touch” stickers on them, but one or two don’t (because they are in play)… but I looked at the ones that I could interact with first and then assumed that all of the wall hangings were in play. 

One thing to remember when gamemastering for “do not touch” violations is tone and word choice. It sucks when a gamemaster assumes that the player touching something with a “do not touch” sticker is dumb or deliberately breaking the rules. There’s a difference between a player deliberately prying something open and player confusion.

A prop with a with a blue do not touch sticker.
The sticker almost gets lost among the screws.

Immersive Damage

On the flip side, if the “do not touch” symbols are too big, too numerous, or too ugly, they can damage the aesthetic appeal of the game. 

Sure, there’s no excuse for missing the symbol… but at what cost? 

Inconsistency

I’ve been in games where a red dot sticker signified do not touch, but once I started playing, I saw an entire rainbow of dot stickers. Did they all mean “do not touch” or was it just the red ones? Is this a puzzle? A test? Or shoddy craftsmanship? 

The answer is almost always the latter… but nevertheless it’s confusing and it undermines the intent behind the symbol. 

Suggested Solutions

I have a few suggestions to mitigate these problems: 

Build Stronger

It’s easy to say, but hard to do. Build it better… especially if it is a core piece of game functionality. 

It’s baffling when the most interesting and important interactions are also the ones that we’re not supposed to handle. Escape rooms are a tactile adventure… or at least they are supposed to be. 

Hide the wires and anything else that we might be able to unplug, disconnect, or break. 

If your local code will allow you to cover outlets, do it. 

Draw Attention Deliberately

A lot of the “do not touch” stickers that we find are on props that are only in the game for ambiance. 

One sure sign of a weak game is useless decor that looks more interesting than the actual game mechanisms. It’s games like these that are usually overflowing with “do not touch” symbols because the things that we players want to touch and fiddle with are useless… and it’s easier to accidentally break a curious object that has no purpose than one that clearly has intent. 

Be Clear

If you need to use a “do not touch” symbol, use it sparingly and clearly. Define specifically what it means.

I personally prefer these symbols to mean that the flagged item is completely out of play because it means that players aren’t forced to parse meaning at all. 

Red Master Lock 410 beside its brass key and a quarter for size reference.

If you’re going to use a lock for reset or gamemaster access purposes, consider a lock that looks nothing like anything else in play. I am a fan of these Master Lock 410s.

I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with flagging something, but do it smartly, do it cleanly, and make sure that it’s effective.

As a thank you to our Patreon backers, we shared this post with them early and asked for their input! Please consider supporting us on Patreon.

From Quake to Fortnite to Escape Room: Learning From Your Players

I pretty much grew up with video games. I mean that in both senses of the phrase: 

  • I grew up playing video games
  • Video games grew up as I did

Obvious Controls

When I first started playing first person shooters (and suffering through them while they made me motion sick because they were choppy as hell), the arrow keys on the keyboard were the movement standard.

The arrow keys made sense. They were the obvious input mechanism for controlling motion. That was, until “WASD” came along. 

Close up of glowing WASD keys on an keyboard.

“Thresh” Hold

From Half Life and Counterstrike, to Portal and Fortnite, the movement control standard for first person games has been the “WASD” keys on the left side of the keyboard. This button mapping wasn’t obvious… and it didn’t come from a video game designer. It came from a player. 

Dennis “Thresh” Fong was the top Quake player back in game’s heyday of the mid 1990s. WASD was his button mapping; he went undefeated with it. Thersh was basically a folk hero among gamers back then. This layout caught on, partially because of his notoriety, but mostly because it worked. 

I remember being super skeptical of WASD as a button mapping, but it made everything more fluid and easier. Those keys were laid-out perfectly and the hand position gave access to plenty of other buttons, enabling complex actions that simply weren’t possible when your fingers were isolated over by the arrow keys. 

This story is beautifully told in this video: 

Why is this relevant to escape rooms?

Good escape rooms are built on top of decades of knowledge from other industries. Video games are certainly one of the biggest influences. 

I’ve encountered plenty of companies that learn from watching their players. Some learn from aggregate player behavior, using their games as large experiments and iterating on them based on player trends. 

I’ve heard of other designers taking inspiration for new puzzles or puzzle iterations by listening to the wrong ideas that players cook up while attempting to solve a challenge. 

As a player, I’ve adopted plenty of tactics from other players… and I’ve invented a few of my own. 

Two Questions

Players: What tactics have you learned from other players? 

Owners: What have you seen your players do that you think would make for great standards? 

I think that there is a lot to learn from great players, both in terms of improving one’s abilities to play, and as in the case with WASD, improving the way that games are designed. 

Blog Devoted to Images of Control Panels

Inspiration can come from all sorts of places. I’m usually partial to finding my muse in real life, because reality is strange. 

A strange geometric concrete pedestal with 8 buttons below a circular screen.
Volcanic Museum, César Manrique, Lanzarote Island, 1966-1968
Photos by Julian Weyer

Control Panel

Following up on the Flickr gallery devoted to images of control panels, here’s a companion blog to go with it:

Control Panel: In praise of dials, toggles, buttons, and bulbs. 

So many of these could make for beautiful escape room interactions. Enjoy. 

Found via BoingBoing.

Boogie Boards in Escape Rooms [Review]

Boogie Boards

Boogie Boards are popular writing surfaces for escape rooms across the United States. We’ve discussed writing in escape rooms generally; now we’ll look at what Boogie Boards offer.

As LCD writing tablets, they provide a simple, reusable, rapidly erasable surface for note-taking and and puzzle-solving.

Boogie Board offers different models. After exploring their offerings, I believe that there is a correct model for use in escape rooms… and it’s not the one we usually see.

A small boogie board that reads, "Erase me!" and points at the erase button.
Jot Series

Boogie Board Jot Series

The Jot Series is the traditional Boogie Board. I’ve seen this model almost every time I come across a Boogie Board in escape room. They come in a number of different sizes and forms, but they all work the same way:

Write on the surface with the stylus. Press the round button to erase the slate.

They are easy to explain to players and simple to use.

A small translucent boogie board with card under it that reads "Thank You," with tarot art. Atop, the boogie board reads, "I'm translucent."
Also available in a translucent model.

There are two main drawbacks: 

If you want to erase something, you have to erase everything. 

It’s almost too easy to erase them. I’ve seen players accidentally erase something that someone else was working on. This is the most common gripe that I hear from other players about Boogie Boards.

A large boogie board blackboard, pointing out the eraser button, the erase button, and the lock switch.
Blackboard

Boogie Board Blackboard

On the other extreme, there is the top-of-the-line Boogie Board, the new Blackboard model.

This thing is pretty damn awesome. It’s large and translucent (so it can draw over other things). With one button, it switches to an eraser mode where the stylus works as a focused eraser, like the end of a pencil would. You don’t have to blank out the entire slate to erase, but that is an option too. There’s a mobile app to store your work. 

Closeup of the boogie board blackboard's pointing out the eraser button, the erase button, and the lock switch.

I love using one of these at home. I highly recommend the Blackboard for at-home puzzle-solving and other creative work. It’s awesome.

I do not recommend it for use in escape rooms. It has too many options and requires too much explanation. It’s a little too big. Also, considering that it’s liable to get dropped, I think it’s a little pricey for this use case.

The Boogie Board Dashboard.
Dashboard

Boogie Board Dashboard

If the Jot is too simple and the Blackboard is too complex… the Boogie Board Dashboard is just right.

Dashboard is essentially a Jot with a safety switch that disables the erase button. This adds almost no additional explanation, but provides a significant benefit to the players.

The Boogie Board Dashboard locked.
Erase Lock: On
The Boogie Board Dashboard unlocked.
Erase Lock: Off

I’ve only ever seen these at Locked Murfreesboro in Franklin, Tennessee. The folks from Locked also made a small but significant modification to their Boogie Board Dashboards. They drilled a small hole and wired the stylus to the board ensuring that they travel together.

The Boogie Board Dashboard with the stylus attached to the body.

In my opinion Locked Murfreesboro’s approach is currently the best way to use Boogie Boards in escape rooms.

The two components that they use to wire the stylus board are: 

Boogie Boards certainly aren’t without drawbacks. They can be especially challenging in low lighting and they are pretty small. That said, they are a writing surface, not a tool to fix gameplay. If the lighting is too dim for a Boogie Board or the puzzle requires a ton of writing to solve, that’s a problem with the game’s design, not the writing surface.

We haven’t yet seen Boogie Boards integrated into the set and narrative of an escape room. That’s the next step.

Disclosure: Boogie Board provided Jot and Blackboard models for review. 

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.)

Writing Within Escape Rooms

Should escape rooms provide writing surfaces?

Today, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of writing surfaces in general. Tomorrow, I’m going to review Boogie Board’s product line for use in escape rooms. 

Don’t Force Me To Write

Escape rooms play better when the puzzles do not require writing.

Successful escape room puzzles are tangible and rooted in the game environment. They engage multiple active participants and enable onlookers to see the action.

Writing is a small, isolated experience. When I’m forced to write in an escape room, it’s usually to work on a puzzle that is best suited to a single-person solve. We might pass that puzzle around the group until it lands in the right person’s hands, but that’s not really a team solving experience.

Writing usually takes me out of the gamespace; it focuses my attention on a piece of paper. If I wanted to solve paper puzzles, I’d buy a puzzle book for less than half the price of an escape room ticket.

There are exceptions where writing works well in an escape room, but I haven’t encountered this often.

"Writing in escape rooms" written across boogie boards and different paper.

Do Allow Me To Write

While I’m rarely excited about a puzzle that requires me to write in an escape room, I do appreciate escape rooms that provide a note-taking option. This is especially true of more challenging or complex games.

The most important reason to provide a writing surface is that our brains don’t all process and retain information uniformly. Providing a writing surface is a kindness to those who need it.

In addition, I sometimes want to jot something down in an escape room because:

  • There is complex math or logic that I need to write out to solve.
  • I want to keep track of portions of a solution.
  • I derived a code, but don’t have anywhere to input it yet.
  • I noticed something obscure and I want to remember it.
  • I’m struggling to solve something simple and sketching it will help.
  • I want to keep track of wrong answers so that we don’t continually try them.
  • I want to sketch out how I derived a solution to help a teammate understand it.
  • There’s nothing for me to work on; I want to doodle… this is a bad room problem.
  • I want to leave a funny note for the gamemaster to find when they reset the game.

Writing Surface Options

Here’s our preferred hierarchy of writing surfaces:

In-game: The "Daily Specials" white board.

1: Environment Integration

The writing surface is a part of the set and belongs in the gamespace.

For example, we used an integrated writing surface in The Mall at Complexity in Farmington, Connecticut. The shopping mall’s Italian restaurant had a “daily specials” whiteboard on the wall. This simple, elegant writing surface made sense within the context of the escape room.

This is the ideal setup, if and only if the gamemasters maintain it as a functioning writing surface, not just as static set decor. If the writing implement doesn’t write properly, the moment is spoiled.

A small boogie board.

2: Boogie Boards

LCD writing tablets work in escape rooms because they are lightweight, easy to use, and impressively reliable. They don’t come with extra rules or risk.

Traditional writing media always come with the additional stipulation: “Don’t write on anything other than the paper or dry erase board.” While this is a perfectly sensible rule, it’s broken all too often… and then we find the remnants of the sketches around the room. These are almost always wrong because the kind of person who draws on an escape room isn’t usually an all-star player.

Traditional writing media also require ink or sharpening. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to ask for a pen/ marker that actually works I could buy admission to an escape room or two.

Boogie Boards skirt these maintenance issues that plague traditional writing systems.

That said, it’s usually difficult to integrate Boogie Boards within the narrative. They require explanation and some models can erase easily.

Are you interested in which Boogie Board to buy? Come back tomorrow for a deeper discussion on Boogie Boards.

Dry erase markers on a whiteboard.

3: Dry Erase/ Chalk Board; No Integration

I’ve already discussed the cons. The pro is size.

Dry erase / chalk boards can be large enough that entire team can be involved in viewing them.

A notepad that reads, "Please ONLY write on this paper!"

4: Pen/ Pencil & Paper

It’s better than nothing.

Expectations

In escape rooms, writing is regional. Some players expect a writing surface. That’s what they’re used to. Others will be baffled why one would write on anything. Be aware of the local norms and make a conscious decision about how to integrate (or not integrate) writing in your escape room.

What Do You Think?

I’m curious what others prefer to write with. What are your thoughts on the best and worst writing surfaces in escape rooms?

Interesting & Boring Escape Room Themes [Design Tips]

Put too many escape room enthusiasts in one place for too long and inevitably someone asks:

What escape room themes are you tired of seeing?

Recurring themes

There’s no shortage of common escape room themes:

  • Zombie apocalypse
  • Stop the bomb
  • Stop the disease or virus
  • Sherlock Holmes / generic detective
  • Bunker
  • Prison break
  • Spycraft something-or-other
  • Prohibition speakeasy
  • Ancient tomb raid
  • Surprise Satanism

This list can go on, but it doesn’t need to.

In-game a photo of a mundane set with a pair of white dressers. A globe and a lockbox rest atop the dressers.
There was nothing special about this.

Common themes aren’t the problem. There are good and bad executions of all of these themes. A great zombie escape room is still a great escape room even if I’m disappointed with how prevalent and persistent mindless hordes are in popular culture at large.

Eliminate the mundane

The themes that I’ve found inherently disappointing are the easily executed, humdrum, everyday life themes:

  • Apartments
  • Offices
  • College dorms
  • Hotel rooms

These are often themes of convenience and laziness. These themes give a creator license to buy crappy used furniture, tape posters on the wall, dump in a few puzzles, and start charging money.

Do the mundane creatively

If you want to create a dorm, do something creative with it. Build a world. 

Set it in the 1890s. Make it look authentic. Put the players in a secret society initiation where your group must puzzle out how to make an offering.

A shortcut to creating something interesting: combine two different ideas so that you aren’t executing one in a cliched manner. To illustrate the point, think of Star Wars as warrior monks in space.

Drawing of a centaur, half man, half horse.

Dead Air was a rock & roll radio station in the zombie apocalypse. The mixture of two different concepts paired with good execution gave birth to a creative, unique, and fantastic escape game.

Craft an experience

Your players are paying for an experience. Give them one.

Don’t throw them in a space that looks like a regular home. They live in one of those already.

Don’t ask them to pay to play in a space that looks like an office. They just left work.

Don’t sell the mundane priced as extraordinary.

Choose to provide your players with an amazing adventure in a cohesive and exciting world. Mind the details. Your puzzles, set, hint system, and story should all be part of this fantastic world and make sense within it.

Damn near any theme can be made interesting as long as you’re willing to put in the creative effort.

Ghost Puzzles: Broken & Disabled Escape Room Puzzles [Design]

Let’s make this really simple:

If a puzzle breaks or you disable it, kindly remove every trace of it from your escape room.

A mastodon fossil on display in a museum.

Remove The Props

If it looked like a puzzle prop when it was a puzzle, it will still look like a puzzle prop after it has been disabled.

It doesn’t matter that it looks cool. Turn it back into a puzzle or remove it. Otherwise it turns into a Ghost Puzzle*, an aggressive red herring that reminds us players that we never had an opportunity to play with that cool thing in the room.

It’s always lame when the most interesting prop in the escape room is a red herring.

Paint Over Clues

If there are markings on the walls from removed puzzles or previous iterations of your game, please paint over them.

Don’t make me turn into an escape room archeologist, determining which pieces are part of the current game and which components are remnants from some long-forgotten or destroyed interaction.

*Thank you to Haley at Immersology for coining to term Ghost Puzzle earlier this week for our Erban Dictionary.

11 Principles of Tabletop Escape Game Design

We’ve played a ton of tabletop escape games over the past few years. Some were play-at-home escape games. Others were framed up as subscription mysteries. We’ve also played self-service puzzles games with narratives.

However the creator frames and markets these games, there are a few basics to abide by.

We see the same few mistakes entirely too often. Here are some of the biggest categories of problems. We’d love to see these permanently banished from our table.

An abstract, Picaso-esque image of red/blue 3d glasses, a cipher coin, and a joker playing card.

1 – Inventory

Each package should contain an itemized list of what’s included so that I can verify that everything arrived.

This list should be functional, not cute. Without any knowledge of the game, I should be able to compare the list of items to what I see in the box and quickly ascertain that everything has arrived.

This list should be exhaustive. If there are 9 items on the list, I should count 9 items in the box. No more, no less.

A missing item in a tabletop puzzle game is like a bad reset in an escape room with a derelict gamemaster.

2 – Case Sensitivity

CaSe mAttERs in self-administered puzzle games, especially when digitally inputting solutions.

If a puzzle resolves to a URL, depending upon how the site is built, the case may matter in the URL. We’ve played games where a puzzle resolved to an answer like “NASA” and we had to drop it at the end of a web address, but it only worked if we input it lower case even though the puzzle itself spit out uppercase letters. “/NASA” & “/nasa” aren’t the same thing.

The same thing goes for password inputs.

Ideally create software such that case sensitivity doesn’t matter at all. Either force all letters into a particular case or write the application to disregard case.

If I derive the word “Sherlock” as a password, the following should all work for this password: “Sherlock,” “sherlock,” and “SHERLOCK.” If they don’t, I might accidentally discard a correct answer… which sucks.

3 – Hint Systems

In my experience, the fun of a tabletop puzzle game can die in the hint system.

Crowdsourced Hints

Web forums or slack chats where players are supposed to help one another are a lazy and terrible idea. They lead to chaotic situations where I’m constantly receiving too much or too little information, if I can even find what I am looking for.

As a player, when I use forums I run a high risk of seeing hints and discussions about things that I don’t want to see.

Also, I bought your product; I’m not your %^&*ing customer service rep. Hint your own puzzles.

Email

I totally respect that you or one of your employees has to sit at a computer writing back stock hints. This can be fantastic if you’re sitting at your computer responding in realtime. If you aren’t there, however, needing a hint means my night of puzzling with your game has come to an unexpected and unwanted end.

Email is critical for problems that extend beyond a structured, self-service hint system (broken/ missing components or other critical failures). Email is subpar and a lot of work for run-of-the-mill hinting.

A small treasure chest with coins inside.

Structured, Self-Service

My favorite hint systems are structured and self-service. I can access the hints for a particular puzzle and get a series of progressively more detailed hints that set me straight. The more layers, the better:

  • Early hints should ask me basic questions that gently push me in the right direction or make sure that I have solved the prerequisite components.
  • Moderate hints should ask me questions about critical components and direct my attention at the nuance that I am missing.
  • Late hints should provide me with a foundation to finish the puzzle and provide as many granular hints as needed to provide coverage of every step of the puzzle.
  • Solutions should be the last resort. Solutions should explain how the puzzle was supposed to work.

The hint system’s goal is to nudge me just enough to make me self sufficient and get me puzzling again.

Similarly, the hint system should have as many steps as needed to provide nudges, regardless of where I am stuck. I hate it when I have solved 95% of a puzzle, but need to take a solution (especially one that isn’t explained) to finish out the puzzle. This is kind of heartbreaking.

The hint system can be printed and included in the game or it can be made available via a website. Either can work well.

I’ve already paid for your product. Let me experience it on my own terms.

PostCurious did this magnificently. If you’re making tabletop puzzle games, I’d suggest checking it out. 

4 – Tchotchkes & Other Junk

Why do so many play-at-home puzzle games add meaningless, cheap, junky props into their games?

If it doesn’t add to a puzzle or substantially embellish the narrative, cut it.

I’m always amazed when we receive a paper-based game in a cardboard box just so that the packaging can accommodate a piece of 1/2 cent plastic that added no value to the game. It boggles the mind that a garbage toy traveled halfway across the world on a journey that cost more than its own creation just so that I can be confused about whether it’s a clue or not.

The same goes for your branded pencils and other stuff.

We played a game where everything seemed relevant. When we received a pencil, we spent a stupid amount of time slowly sharpening the thing into a nub to make sure that no messages were somehow hidden in the wood. Boring.

5 – Auto-Responder Response Time

It’s pretty nifty when we email a “character” and receive an immediate automated in-character email response.

You know what’s not cool? Getting that response 20 minutes later after we’ve sat around staring at an email client and chomping on pretzels.

It’s ok to abandon some realism for expedited storytelling and gameflow. It’s lame when I send a character information for them to “act on” and then get a message saying, “I’m going to do that… It will take me about 20 minutes to get there” and then literally have to wait for that 20-minute timer to get more information.

6 – Assumed Gear

There are plenty of things that you can assume your players have access to:

  • Writing implements (pens, pencils, markers)
  • Calculator
  • Straight edge
  • Computer or mobile phone
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Glue

You are absolutely free to go more outlandish, but do so knowing that it might be a major strain on your players. The farther out of my way I need to go to acquire additional gear, the higher my expectations will be for the interaction.

Black & white image of a cassette tape on a map of the US.

For example, if you want me to get a cassette or record player, I am going to feel pretty peeved if there was no practical reason why I couldn’t just get a digital recording other than the “purity of your vision.”

My preference is to be able to open the box and puzzle without having to stop because I need to go to the store or borrow something from a friend. If I truly need special gear, I’d sure be appreciative if y’all just said so up front.

7 – Responsive Web Design

If you’re incorporating a website into the game, please, for the love of puzzle, make sure that there is 100% parity between the desktop and mobile versions.

As of February 2018, 20% of Americans only access the internet via mobile phone from home (Pew). Maybe none of them are puzzlers, but that number is significant.

Pro Tip: This means that you cannot rely on mouse hovers for anything. They are garbage on mobile.

8 – Expectation Setting

A lot of these boxed puzzle games are shockingly opaque.

  • How long should I allocate to play?
  • Should I play in one or multiple sessions?
  • How much table space do I need to play?
  • Do I need an internet-connected device? If I do, how much do I need it? (Just for hints or for most everything?)
  • How many people should I play with? And I don’t mean, “how many people can I play with?” I want to know how many people the game was designed for.
  • Will I need any puzzle or craft supplies that I am unlikely to have on hand?

9 – Legacy (answer tracking, backtracking)

If your game spans more than one session… please, please, please tell me up front if I need to track all of my work and previous answers.

While we’re at it, make it clear if I need to retain certain items from earlier episodes for backtracking.

Also… please don’t make backtracking a hellish slog. Flag items that I’ll need multiple times or clue me directly to the thing that I need.

The longer a game runs, the more there is to backtrack through. It can become a nightmare to manage it.

A glowing handheld blacklight.

10 – Blacklight

While we’re on the subject of backtracking… let’s talk about how cruel a blacklight can be in a sprawling, multi-month game.

I’ve played games where after a few months, we received a blacklight in the mail. Upon receiving it, I had to search every inch of every component that I had received prior to that mailing just to be sure that something hadn’t been hidden in past components.

Similarly, once you’ve sent me a blacklight, I have to assume that every item moving forward must be illuminated to verify that nothing is hidden. (Because the one time I don’t do this, something will be hidden in blacklight.)

If you’re using blacklight, please provide direct cluing as to its purpose and use. If you don’t need it, consider dropping it. It’s cliché and overused.

11 – Make Something Special

Entirely too many tabletop puzzle games look or play like garbage… and cost too much money to justify the purchase.

If I want to play a collection of puzzles, I can crack open one of the many past Puzzled Pints for free. If I don’t want that, I can buy a ton of puzzle books for less money.

If your game is basically a puzzle book in loose-leaf form, that’s fine as long as it doesn’t cost that much and sets clear expectations.

Save your pricey subscription for a puzzle game that offers something special.

ERban Dictionary: Escape Room Glossary

For our 1,000th Room Escape Artist post, we present the ERban Dictionary: Escape Room Glossary.

We consider this a living document. We welcome suggested edits, submissions, examples, and other enhancements through our contact form or in the comments below.

A book titled, "The New English Dictionary" that is actually a combination locked safe.

Escape Room Glossary

Actor – (noun, singular) a person with a character, commitment, and costume, designed to enhance immersion. They may or may not double as your gamemaster.

Aha Puzzle – (noun, singular) a type of puzzle where you can suddenly understand a previously incomprehensible concept and at that moment you have the entire solution to the puzzle.

Alternative Solution – (noun, singular) a perfectly rational solution that wasn’t the one that the puzzle designer had intended.

Anagram – (noun, singular) a word, phrase, or name formed by rearranging the letters of another.

Backseat Solve – (verb) to stand behind someone and tell them what to do because you’re frustrated your hands aren’t on the puzzle. This is generally discouraged.

Backsolve – (verb) to reverse engineer a puzzle solution.

Blacklight – (noun, singular) a handheld or stationary light that emits ultraviolet radiation that is invisible to the human eye. This is a common prop in escape rooms.

Blind Choice – (noun, singular) an interaction where players have to make a decision (frequently an ethical decision) without enough information or context to make an informed decision.

Bonus Content – (noun, plural) puzzles that offer something to the players in addition to escaping or completing the room escape’s main objective. These side quests can take place alongside the main objective or the completion of the main objective can trigger new objectives.

Bottleneck – (noun, singular) a point at which only one puzzle is available to the entire team that usually results in the entire team crowding around that puzzle.

Braille – (noun, singular) a form of written language for blind people, in which letters and numbers are represented by different configurations of a 2 by 3 grid of raised dots.

A visual braille alphabetic guide.
Created by Kosuke Takahashi

Breakage – (noun, singular) any prop that no longer functions as intended due to malfunction, poor design, wear, reckless players, or vandalism.

Brute-Force / Guess – (verb) the act of plugging numbers into a lock until it pops. This term can be confusing in escape rooms as it is sometimes used to mean “excessive physical force.”

Bypass / Circumvent – (verb) to skip over a game element. This can be intentional or unintentional. It can result from hints, guesswork, lock exploitation, game design flaws, or faulty game resets.

Caesar Cipher / Caesarian Shift – (noun, singular) an encryption technique made famous by Julius Caesar, using a substitution cipher in which each letter in the plaintext is replaced by a letter some fixed number of positions down the alphabet.

Cipher / Cryptogram – (noun, singular) a text written in code.

Clue – (noun, singular) a detail or component within the game that the players should interpret, combine, and solve in order to escape. This term can be confusing as it is sometimes also used to refer to a hint (see below).

Combination Lock – (noun, singular) a lock that opens when the correct numeric, alphabetic, or symbolic password is input.

A 5 letter WordLock closed, the word "Spell" appearing.

Communication Puzzle – (noun, singular) a type of escape room challenge that requires at least two parties to exchange information.

Cryptex – (noun, singular) a tube with a combination letter lock built in as a self-locking mechanism. The concept originated in the Dan Brown novel The Da Vinci Code and was turned into a tangible product by Justin Nevins.

Nevins Cryptex / Real Cryptex / Good Cryptex – (noun, singular) a high quality Cryptex handmade by Justin Nevins.

Locked cryptex beside a $10 bill for size reference, it's a few inches longer and a little wider.

Dark Room – (noun, singular) an escape room played in complete darkness. This is not to be confused with dimly lit rooms.

Decor – (noun, singular) the furnishing and decoration of a room to provide ambiance. This is not to be confused with red herrings.

Destructible Puzzle – (noun, singular) a puzzle that requires the players to irreparably break a prop to achieve the solution.

Difficulty by Darkness – (noun, singular) a type of escape room made intentionally more challenging (and frustrating) by dim lighting. This is not to be confused with a dark room (see above.)

Do Not Touch Sticker – (noun, singular) a sticker or piece of tape affixed to props and set pieces that are “out of play.” The definition of “out of play” varies by escape room.

Drag – (verb) to feed a team so many hints as a gamemaster that the team no longer feels they were responsible for the win. This tends to be the result of an incompetent team and/or an incompetent game.

Easter Egg – (noun, singular) an unexpected or undocumented feature in an escape room included as a joke or a bonus.

Errol – (verb) to take off one’s shoes in an escape room for both comfort and attention.

Escake – (noun, singular) a celebratory delicacy used to mark the completion of a milestone escape room, traditionally cake. The concept of escake originates with the prolific UK-based “S2” escape room duo of Sera Dodd and Sharan Gill.

Escape Rate – (noun, singular)

For players: the win/loss percentage of an individual escape room player or team out of their total games played.

For rooms: the percentage of teams that escape the room in the time allotted. This is often ballparked or blatantly misreported.

Escape Room Logic – (noun, singular) a puzzle solution that makes sense in the context of solving puzzles within the game, but not within a game’s narrative. E.g. You’re a fugitive on the run from the police hunting for the information that will clear your name. Why are you counting the cups in a cabinet to get a lock combination?

Filler / Junk / Noise / Fluff – (noun, plural) subpar escape room content (puzzles, interactions, props, or story content) that is included for the purpose of lengthening the experience.

Frontsolve / Forward Solve– (verb) to solve a puzzle as the designer intended.

Game Clock – (noun, singular) the official countdown timer. This is frequently displayed within the game.

Game Flow – (noun, singular) the connective tissue between puzzles or game elements. Game flow describes the whole experience, how one puzzle branches out into others or funnels into a meta-puzzle. Game flow be mapped as a visual representation of the escape room.

Gamemaster / Host / Guide / Game Guide / Cluemaster – (noun, singular) the person responsible for overseeing the in-game experience, providing hints, and delivering and enforcing rules.

Gamespace / Set – (noun, singular) the gaming environment.

Generation / Gen – (adjective) refers to a taxonomy for differentiating games according to their technology usage.  e.g. Gen 1, Gen 2, etc. Note that technology is not inherently good or bad in escape rooms. It is one of many tools for creating experiences.

Ghost Puzzle – (noun, singular) remnants of a previous iteration of a puzzle that has since become irrelevant to the game, but is still lingering among the clues and confusing the hell out of the players.

Glyph – (noun, singular) a symbol that (should) mean something.

Head to Head / Competitive Games – (adjective) describes two identical escape rooms that can be played simultaneously as a race. Teams competing in head to head escape rooms to can sometimes interact during the game.

Hint – (noun, singular) an additional piece of information from outside of regular gameplay delivered by the gamemaster to assist a team in forward progress. This concept can sometimes be referred to as a clue (see above).

Hint Penalty / Clue Penalty – (noun, singular) The punishment for needing an additional piece of information from outside of regular gameplay. It is commonly extra “time” added to the escape time whereby if a team escapes in 55 minutes but used a hint, it’s counted as if they escaped in 58 minutes. It can also be an in-game action, such as dancing, that the team must do to receive the necessary outside information.

Hint System – (noun, singular) the method by which hints are delivered.

Human Circuit – (adjective) describes a puzzle that requires players to form a human chain between metal props to complete a circuit to trigger an event.

Immersive – (adjectives) describes an escape room that creates such a compelling fiction that as a player, you feel that you are a part of it and forget the world outside the escape room.

Individual Role / Individual Goal – (noun, singular) a type of escape room where players are each assigned characters and/or objectives outside of the team objective. This can put the players in competition with one another, but it doesn’t have to.

Inescapable Room with a Margin of Error – (noun, singular) an escape room with a less than 5% escape rate.

Informed Choice – (noun, singular) an interaction where players have to make a decision (frequently an ethical decision) based on enough information that they can understand the context of their choice

Interaction – (noun, singular) a designed action within the game.

Jump Scare – (noun, singular) a technique often used in horror escape rooms (and horror films) intended to scare the players by surprising them with an abrupt change to their environment.

Key – (noun, singular) a small piece of shaped metal with incisions cut to fit the wards of a particular lock that can be inserted into the lock and turned to open or close the lock.

Key for Key – (noun, singular) a key locked up behind a key lock.

Kimmy Schmidt Crank – (noun, singular) a crank that must be regularly turned to keep the power on.

Linear – (adjective) describes a game that follows a rigid puzzle structure wherein each puzzle leads to the next. All escape rooms have some degree of linearity.

Live – (adjective) describes an element that you know will move or open in the future.

Lock Guy / Lock Girl / Locksmith – (noun, singular) the one teammate who always wants to input the combination or open the lock. This is sometimes a player who doesn’t feel they can contribute to actually solving the puzzles and opening things makes them feel like the hero.

Lock Whisperer – (noun, singular)  the teammate who can always get the locks to open. They just have the special touch.

Lockout Safe – (noun, singular) a box or cabinet with a combination locking mechanism that will shut down for a period of time if multiple incorrect combinations are input. Lockout safes are generally frowned upon by escape room players.

Image of a safe with a digital keypad on the front.

Lock Picking / Lock Exploiting – (verb) Using a design flaw within a locking mechanism to open the lock without solving the corresponding puzzle.

Logic Leap – (noun, singular) a tenuous connection between a clue and a puzzle solution.

Mag Lock / Magnetic Lock / Sensor-driven Lock – (noun, singular) an electromagnet used to secure a door or compartment. These locks are opened when they receive a signal from a button, sensor, or other controlling electronics.

Magnet Maze – (noun, singular) a common escape room prop where a small object (frequently a key) is behind a barrier and must be navigated out with a magnet.

Meta Puzzle – (noun, singular) a puzzle that unites several puzzles that feed into it. A meta puzzle is usually set late in the game and players must complete a series of other puzzles before they can tackle the meta puzzle.

Morse Code – (noun, singular) a code in which letters are represented by combinations of long and short signals of light or sound. Morse Code was originally designed for long-distance communication rather than obscuring messages.

A morse code visualization that shows the layout of the alphabet in a branching tree structure.

Muggles / Rookies / Newbies / First-time Players – (noun, plural) the previously uninitiated.

Non-Binary Win Condition – (noun, singular) a type of escape room that doesn’t result in simply win or lose; it has different degrees or types of winning.

Non-Linear – (adjective) describes a game that does not follow a rigid puzzle structure wherein each puzzle leads to the next. Multiple puzzles can be completed at one time. Different teams can tackle puzzles in different orders.

Number Soup – (noun, singular) an escape room with so many numbers and combination locks and lack of correlation between the numbers and the locks… that your brain feels like a soup.

One-time Use – (adjective) describes props that will only contribute to one puzzle solution.

On-ramp – (noun, singular) the first puzzle in the escape room. It should stand out and be easily approachable.

Order Preservation – (adjective) describes puzzles that can no longer be solved if players move certain items from their original state.

Outside Knowledge – (noun, singular) understanding derived from outside the gamespace that contributes to puzzle solving within the escape room. What exactly falls into this category is controversial. e.g. Roman numerals (especially large numbers).

Over-locked / Lock Orgy – (adjective / noun) describes a single item that is shut with many (too many!) locks.

Padlock – (noun, singular) a portable key- or combination-activated lock.

Paper Puzzle / Homework Puzzle – (noun, singular) a puzzle that does not require the gamespace and could be solved anywhere.

Parallel Puzzle – (verb) to complete multiple puzzles at once with different teammates working on each concurrently. Some escape room design allows this. This can refer to teammates working in parallel in the same gamespace or in different gamespaces as part of the same escape room.

Physical Force – (noun, singular) physical strength used to open things. This is usually in violation of game rules and may result in breakage. Note that some escape rooms require physical force.

Pigpen / Masonic Cypher – (noun, singular) an 18th-century substitution cipher created by the freemasons that exchanges letters for geometric symbols that are fragments of a grid.

All 4 pieces of the Riddle Factory Freemason's Cipher key.

Pipeline / High Throughput Model – (noun, singular) a type of escape room where multiple teams are in the experience at the same time, but in separate rooms, always moving forward through the experience, never backtracking, and never running into other teams. This is the 5 Wits style.

Plaintext – (noun, singular) any text that is not encoded.

Play the Blame Game – (verb) to blame a failed escape on puzzles that make sense to 99% of players just because one is salty about not escaping.

Private (Ticketing) – (adjective) refers to a ticketing model where an entire group experience is purchased at once. This eliminates the possibility of strangers sharing the same experience. It is the most common ticketing model outside of the United States.

Process Puzzle / Taskwork  – (noun, singular) a type of puzzle where after you understand a previously incomprehensible concept, you must complete the work to derive the solution to the puzzle.

Prop – (noun, singular) an in-game item. It can be part of a puzzle or a red herring.

“Psychic” – (noun, singular) a player who stands or crouches in front of one lock for the entire game trying to guess the combination instead of playing the game. The psychic never actually guesses the combination.

Public (Ticketing) – (adjective) refers to a ticketing model where admission is purchased by each individual player, thus allowing for the possibility of strangers sharing the same experience. This is a common ticketing model in the United States.

Puppet – (verb) to act as an additional set of hands in an escape room you already know how to solve. This is a technique by which a solo player or small team can complete an experience designed for more people. Most often, a gamemaster puppets by coming into room and following the player’s instructions to help them complete the multiplayer challenge.

Puzzle – (noun, singular) anything that the team solves to advance through the escape room.

Puzzle Snatching / Puzzle Yanking – (verb) To take or steal a puzzle or component of a puzzle from another player, generally considered poor form.

Randoms – (noun, plural) strangers with whom you are teamed up in an escape room due to a public ticketing booking system (see above).

Recap / Thought Journey – (noun, singular) a mid-game or late-game explanation to teammates of how a puzzle or series of puzzles has resolved in order to get the entire team in sync again.

Red Herring – (noun, singular) an in-game item or piece of information that does not contribute to a puzzle solution, but could potentially lead players to waste time thinking it would be involved in the puzzle solving process. It may be intentional or unintentional. It may also be the result of wear, breakage, or vandalism. See Ghost Puzzle and Decor for additional information.

Reset

(verb) to revert an escape room to its starting position whereby a new team can begin. e.g. “I need to reset the room for the next team.”

(noun, singular) – the act of reverting the escape room to its starting position. e.g. “We experienced a faulty reset.”

Reset Fail – (noun, singular) an improper reset where not every aspect of the escape room is reverted back to the correct starting position thereby adversely affecting the room play.

Resting Puzzle Face – (noun, singular) a look of concentration while solving puzzles that is easily mistaken for discontent.

RFID – (noun, singular) an automatic identification technology that uses radio-frequency electromagnetic fields to identify objects carrying tags when they come close to a reader. RFID is frequently used in escape rooms to release mag locks or trigger other events, often feeling magical.

Runbook – (noun, singular) a prop that outlines all or many of the steps that the team must complete in order to escape.

Safe – (noun, singular) a box or cabinet with a keyed or combination locking mechanism.

Sandbag – (verb) to hold back in an escape room as an experienced player to maximize the enjoyment of muggles or randoms.

Search / Hunt / Scavenge – (verb) to look for hidden clues within the gamespace.

Search Fail – (noun, singular) failure to find a hidden clue within the gamespace.

Seizure mode – (noun, singular) a handheld flashlight state where the light flashes incessantly. Some flashlight have this mode. This should not be confused with a weak and flickering flashlight.

Self-resetting / Automatically-resetting – (adjective) describes an escape room that is ready to play again immediately. Players do not have to wait for a gamemaster to reset the experience. This is usually associated with pipelines.

Semaphore – (noun, singular) – a system of sending messages by holding two arms or two flags in certain positions that correspond to an alphabetic code. Semaphore is used as a cipher in escape rooms.

Visual guide to the semaphore alphabet.

Set Piece – (noun, singular) a self-contained segment of the gamespace.

Signpost – (verb) to direct players to what they’re meant to be working on through subtle in-game cluing

Spin – (verb) to stall in an escape rooms and take the clues in all sorts of ridiculous directions instead of taking a hint.

Split Team – (adjective) a style of escape room where the team is separated into different gamespaces for some or all of the experience. Split team design is most commonly used as the starting situation, with the team coming together later in the experience.

Strategic Hint – (noun, singular) a hint used because of gamesmanship in order to speed up the team’s performance.

Sudden Death – (adjective) describes an escape room where you can take an action that results in losing before the game clock runs out. e.g. cutting the wrong wire on the bomb.

Surprise Satanism – (noun, singular) a genre of escape room where the initial gamespace is comfortable and welcoming, but a later gamespace reveals blood, guts, and pentagrams… or anything unexpectedly sinister.

Tech – (noun, singular) something that runs on electricity that the player cannot control completely with an on/off switch.

Trap Door / Hidden Door/ Hatch – (noun, singular) a hidden or obscured doorway.

Used Pile / Done Pile / Discard Pile – (noun, singular) a pile of single use props that have already been used. Used piles are created by players to keep organized.

Vouched-for Randoms  – (noun, plural) randoms whom you haven’t actually met, but you are less wary about playing with due to their connections to the escape room community.

Walkthrough – (noun) a post-game overview of the puzzles and game flow delivered by the gamemaster after a team has completed the escape room (win or lose).

Wear – (noun, singular) marks or changes to a prop as a result of regular use or handling. Wear frequently exposes solutions. e.g. “There is wear on Boston on this map. It must be the answer.”

Light Bleed, Seams, & Trap Doors [Escape Room Design]

Trap doors are one of the great joys of escape rooms.

The more unique, unusual, and unexpected a trap door is, the better the unveiling is.

Sadly, too many otherwise brilliant trap doors are betrayed by obvious seams or light bleed.

Surprise Matters

This should go without saying: the point of a trap door is that it’s hidden and surprising. If it’s neither hidden nor surprising… then it’s just a door.

Dana opening her refrigerator, a warm otherworldly light glows from within.

This Ghostbusters scene with Dana opening her refrigerator and finding another world within wouldn’t have worked anywhere near as well if the fridge had been glowing before she approached.

Unfortunately, it is pretty normal to see a glowing perimeters around trap doors in escape rooms.

Light Bleed & Seam Consequences

Aside from betraying a great reveal, trap doors with obvious seams and light bleed also take an extra beating from well-meaning players.

I’ve absolutely noticed unopened trap doors and given them a push or a tug. I am certain from seeing some of the wear and tear on these doors that other less knowledgeable or less considerate players have been much rougher on them.

If as players we don’t see the door, we won’t be as hard on it.

Using Light Bleed For Effect

While I’ve seen a lot of unintentional light bleed, I haven’t seen anyone deliberately use light bleed as an in-game event or effect.

Dana slowly turning and noticing a strange light emanating from around a closed door.

When done deliberately, I am certain that light bleed around a previously hidden passageway, or even a recently unlocked door, could be badass.

As with all design decisions, being deliberate matters.

Some Potential Fixes

Because every trap door is unique, the engineering needs will vary. With that in mind there are a few methods that consistently work well:

  • Build the facade of the door large than the frame.
  • Build an oversized frame that covers the edge of the door.
  • Tack up some weather stripping around the door.
  • Turn off the lights behind the trap door until after it has been opened.

Whatever you choose to do, protect your big reveal.