Designing Escape Room Crawlspaces

Tunnels and crawlspaces are fun. They poke that same childhood nostalgia button as ball pits do.

They are a strong scene divider because they require players to stop, change body posture, and proceed forward in a different fashion.

As with so many different aspects of escape room design, there are some good, bad, and potentially dangerous ways to design crawlspaces. Let’s explore them.

A cat with striking blue eyes inside of a tube.

Padding Please

I love a good crawl… my knees? Not so much.

Frankly, I and so so so many other players are thrilled to trade a little realism for some comfort. Pad the floor of your crawlspace.

Also it’s not a bad idea to round off or pad the corners of the crawlspace entryway and exit. Speaking of head injuries…

Consistent Dimensions

Your tunnel should be the same size on both ends. Keep the crawlspace height consistent throughout the tunnel (unless there is a climb or some other deliberately designed obstacle that is clear and visible).

Recently I had to scurry through a dark crawlspace that had height variation. It was fine going one way…

Animation of David entering a tunnel.

Going back, however, I missed a critical detail of the tunnel’s design:

Animation of David hitting his head on an unexpected corner and falling to the floor.

It’s all fun and games until someone loses some brain cells.

No Rushing

Transitioning scenes under pressure can be good fun. That said, I strongly dissuade you from adding artificial tension during a crawling segment.

Adults can really hurt knees, backs, and heads if they aren’t accustomed to crawling or are required to do so in a hurry. It’s also worth noting that not everyone is up for it.

Bypasses

You should have a way for some players to bypass crawling segments.

In the United States, if you don’t have a way of bypassing crawling sections, you’re probably in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Take this one seriously.

The easy bypass technique: have a door that can be immediately opened once one person has crawled through to the other side. This is an elegant solution because anyone who wants to crawl can do so and anyone who isn’t into crawling or cannot crawl doesn’t miss out on much.

The Curious Case of the Hatch Escapes Kickstarter

We’re big fans of Hatch Escapes in Los Angeles, California. Their first game Lab Rat won a 2018 Golden Lock-In award.

Hatch Escapes recently launched a new Kickstarter campaign to fund the launch of their largely built next game, The Ladder.

I’ll open by saying that I backed this campaign… and I’m watching it closely because nearly 3 years ago we declared the crowdfunding of escape rooms (more or less) dead.

kickstarter logo

2017 Escape Room Crowdfunding Study

At the beginning of 2017 we pulled data on all of the escape room-related Indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns that we could dredge up and analyzed it year over year.

The results were pretty grim, showing that most escape room crowdfunding efforts failed. Those that succeeded had low goals.

The study went into a lot more detail; you should read it.

We’ve been meaning to revisit this and likely will in the not-so-distant future.

Why the Hatch Campaign is Interesting

This Hatch Escapes campaign is intriguing for a few reasons:

  • The $25,000 goal is ambitious.
    • The most successful Kickstarter that we had identified in our 2017 study was Oubliette Escape Rooms and Adventure Society out of the United Kingdom. In 2015 it raised $16,674.
  • Hatch Escapes has an amazing reputation and a strong following.
  • The campaign, like Hatch Escapes’ games, is well written.
    • The video and writing in the campaign far exceed what we’ve seen from most other escape room crowdfunding efforts.

Implications

The big question is: can Hatch Escapes buck the trends and raise enough to meet their goal?

I am truly rooting for them.

As top-tier escape room builds become more complicated and expensive, it is important for new funding methods to emerge. I would love to see a future where escape room creators with proven track records are supported in kind by the community of players.

Check out Hatch Escapes’ Kickstarter and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

And on the subject of crowdfunding and supporting creators…

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist, like buying from Amazon after clicking into the links included in this post or backing us on Patreon.

The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.

An Exploration of Escape Room Hint Systems

I firmly believe that escape room experiences live and die largely based on customer service.

Amazing escape games can feel cheap and cruel when paired with poor customer care. At the same time, mediocre games can feel oddly charming when administered by a passionate and caring gamemaster.

With that in mind, I want to explore hint systems, the most persistent customer service touchpoint.

There are a great many ways to craft and administer hints. I’m going to do my best to look at the pros and cons of as many as I can. Before we dive in, I want to establish a few baselines.

An orange life ring floating in a pool.

Hinting Baseline

Definitions

I often hear the words “clue” and “hint” used interchangeably. I don’t think that this is a great idea. We’re particular in how we use these two words on Room Escape Artist.

A clue is a detail or component within the game that the players should interpret, combine, and solve in order to escape.

A hint is an additional piece of information from outside of regular gameplay delivered by the gamemaster or an automated system to assist a team in forward progress.

A detective finds clues. Hints are given by someone who knows more than the person solving the mystery.

Put more simply: hints are surrender; clues are the game.

The act of calling for a hint is a sign that the team is:

  • no longer having fun and wants the fun to come back
  • feeling time pressure and wants a speed boost
  • seeking to bypass something (either because they don’t want to do it or they can’t do it)
  • frustrated because something isn’t working properly

Whatever the reason, they’re calling for air support. It’s the gamemaster’s job to step in and ensure enjoyment.

Intent of Hint Systems

I’m also going to state my assumption that every escape room has built their hint system with the intent of helping pace the players through the experience.

I assume that a hint system is primarily there to ensure that players can enjoy their time in an escape room. It’s plausible, and encouraged, that the hint system could add to the theatrics of experience in some way. However, if your hint system is functioning as an obstacle unto itself, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Hint Frequency

It’s ultimately up to individual designers to determine how many hints they expect an average team to take in their games… but I suspect that companies with lower hint rates are usually doing a better job.

If a puzzle requires the same hint 50% or more of the time, that puzzle needs refinement. You’ve basically created an elaborate coin toss system… so that should be fixed.

If a puzzle almost always requires a hint, it’s not hard; it’s broken. Fix it.

Hint Delivery Mechanisms

With that in mind, let’s look at the pros and cons of some common hint delivery mechanisms.

I’ll state up front: My opinion on the “best hint delivery mechanism” is that it’s the one that fits the environment/ narrative most organically while allowing the gamemaster to properly support the team.

TV Screen

The wall-mounted television quickly became the industry standard hint delivery vehicle early on. When the players ask for a hint, the gamemaster triggers a hint to appear on the screen. It’s simple, intuitive, and easy to explain.

It caught on like wildfire because of systems like Escape Room Master and, more recently, Mythric Mystery Master (M3). These systems offer out-of-the-box game control functionality with minimal effort and expense.

It’s good, fast, and easy.

I only have one knock against this. Often the television and screen interface are wildly out of place in the set. Ideally, the television is mounted in a way that fits the environment and the interface is customized such that it makes sense in-world. Sometimes this is easier said than done.

Additionally, font selection, font size, and color contrast can make or break a screen-based hint system.

Written Notes

The first time that we started seeing written notes slid under a door was in Buffalo, NY… where we saw a lot of companies doing this.

Hands writing a note on a notepad.

Initially, I thought this was the laziest, cheapest thing that I had ever seen. As the games went by, however, I started to appreciate 3 things about written notes:

  • The hints were always good because the nature of the system requires an attentive gamemaster.
  • It could be (but often wasn’t) delivered in character.
  • The team didn’t need to take the hint as soon as it was delivered because they were either folded, face down, or delivered in some container. We could elect to wait a minute and see if we would solve the puzzle naturally. I came to really appreciate this level of control.
  • These hints can be prewritten and delivered elegantly.
A hand holding a handwritten note that reads, "phone a friend."

The downsides to written notes are that:

  • By my observation, most players think it’s cheap and won’t notice the virtues that I’ve mentioned above.
  • It usually comes with a time delay. If the players don’t understand the hint, it’s a pain for the gamemaster to help the team work through it in real time.

Walkie-Talkie

I’m not going to dive too deep into this one because I wrote an extensive piece specifically on hinting with walkie-talkies.

The short version is: walkie-talkies can be thematic and they are super cheap to setup. However, they have a terrible interface, require practice to handle them properly, and tend to have mediocre speakers.

The best way to use a walkie-talkie usually involves doing some surgery to them.

“God Mic”

This is a cute name for hint delivery through the room’s PA system. The gamemaster speaks into a microphone and it sounds to players like the “voice of god” coming from up high. The speaker can also be mounted in other objects, which is usually preferable.

A microphone with the words "Speak Up" scratched into it.

This is fantastic when the gamemaster is comfortable voice acting and the speaker is mounted in an object that the character should be speaking through.

One key downside of the God Mic (or any other spoken word system) is that it requires the gamemaster to always exercise control over their tone of voice. Any hint of sarcasm or disdain will make things uncomfortable.

Additionally, if someone doesn’t hear the clue, it needs to be repeated in its entirety. This can get especially difficult if the team’s native language is different from that of the gamemaster.

In-room Gamemaster or Actor

Just like the God Mic… but without the tech. A gamemaster or actor is there, physically present in the game (or summoned) delivering hints as needed.

Having a good actor in the space can be magical.

Having a regular out-of-character gamemaster in the space… well… that’s less than magical.

All of that being said, there are many nuances to actor performance that can improve or detract from the experience. It’s a world unto itself.

Escape Room Boss

Then there’s Escape Room Boss… which I already bludgeoned like a piñata at a frat kegger.

Hint Triggers

Now that we’ve established what a hint is and the methods of delivering them, we can talk about the thing that I actually set out to write about: hint triggers.

Player-Requested

The one, the only, the original hint trigger. A team is stuck… so the team asks for help.

Upon requesting a hint, the gamemaster delivers a scripted or custom hint.

A hand reaching up out of dark waters.

The big variable with this system is quantity. Are they:

  • limited to the traditional 3? (which is laughably arbitrary for how common it is)
  • capped at some other number?
  • unlimited?

This system is good because it ensures that the team never feels undercut by the delivery of a hint for a puzzle that they were “about to solve.”

The downsides here are that this system can fall apart if a team has the right mix of pride and incompetence… and the gamemaster can be stuck watching a team give themselves a miserable experience.

Similarly, incompetent teams can burn through rationed hints and find themselves twiddling their thumbs in the later portion of the game.

Gamemaster’s Discretion

The gamemaster watches the team play and when the gamemaster thinks that the team needs a nudge in the right direction, they deliver it.

The upsides here are pace control and engaged gamemastering (which I am told makes the job a bit less boring). Additionally, the hints aren’t tied to a team’s ego.

It is also possible to deliver the hints through an actor or interface such that they don’t feel like hints to most players; they are just part of the experience.

The downside of hints triggered at the gamemaster’s discretion is that the gamemaster can botch the delivery. If they give too many or too few hints, it ain’t good. If the gamemaster delivers hints just as someone is solving the puzzle, it can undercut the moment. Speaking from experience, this feels bad.

This surprises a lot of folks, but assuming a competent and attentive gamemaster, this is my favorite hint trigger by a wide margin.

Time Release

Time-released hints usually work by setting up goals. If a team hasn’t solved a particular puzzle by a certain time on the game clock, they receive a hint. Each hint has a release time and the hint is only released if the team hasn’t solved the corresponding puzzle.

The upshot is that this is fair and easy to administer, or even automate.

An hourglass with blue sand sitting atop pebbles.

The downsides are numerous.

For one, a hint mindlessly delivered can come with the same undercutting potential as the gamemaster’s discretion… but that’s just the start.

Fully automated hints are usually imprecise and can provide the team with information that they already have, which is frustrating. Similarly, the hints could avoid the nuance that the team is missing, which leads to all manner of rage.

A team that’s just slightly slow can find themselves being dragged through the experience with endless hints.

Or maybe the worst-case scenario: a good team finds themselves way ahead of the time curve until the last puzzle. When they finally need a hint, they find themselves waiting for 30 minutes, spinning in circles, until the time trigger hits.

Automagical

Automation is an interesting beast. The basic concept is that all puzzles are electronically tied to a computer that is aware of what the team has accomplished, what the team is working on, how much time is on the clock, and possibly how well the team is performing. Based on all of this information, it doles out hints either at the players’ request or at its own discretion.

Depending upon how this is executed, it can have the pros and cons of any of the other hint triggers.

A friendly looking robot looking up into the camera.

To execute this smoothly, puzzles need to have regular machine-readable checkpoints. If any puzzle goes too long without the computer knowing what’s happening in the room, the hints will be off-base.

It’s absolutely possible to build compelling games that are fully automated.

One added benefit of automation is that the game can also adjust difficulty by adding or removing content, which will allow all teams to finish the game regardless of skill.

I think that this is one of the futures for escape rooms. The companies that build the infrastructure to properly support this will have a significant leg up on their competition, if only because they’ll save on labor costs.

I suspect that I will explore automation in more detail in future posts.

Closing Thoughts

The best hint system is ultimately the one that fits a game’s narrative and a company’s ability to execute it predictably.

It’s also perfectly acceptable for a company to mix and match systems, adjusting for the individual needs of a given team.

A game’s success will frequently be built on its hint system.

My general advice: do not let any team sit and stew for too long on any one puzzle. Escape rooms are timed adventures and pace matters a lot.

SUPPORT ROOM ESCAPE ARTIST’S MISSION

There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist like buying from Amazon after clicking into the links on this website or backing us on Patreon.

We shared this post with our Patreon backers a couple of days early and asked for their thoughts. We thank our community for their insightful comments, which were incorporated into this post. We hope you’ll consider joining these dialogues by backing us on Patreon.

Dirty vs Dirty-Looking Escape Rooms

We’ve played some games over the past quarter that were really %^&*ing dirty.

I’m talking about the kind of game that demonstrates to my teammates that “yes, I do, in fact, have allergies.”

A dirty, dusty, dark room with a pair of old and open liquor bottles casting long shadows.

“But it looks good”

I’m not talking about games that look deliberately dirty. Companies like THE BASEMENT go miles out of their way to simulate filth. Fake gross is cool.

Real dust isn’t a prop and it doesn’t constitute set design.

There are plenty of techniques for making a place look dusty, dirty, and disgusting without real dust. Hire a haunter… they’ll be happy to create that aesthetic for you (once their season is over).

Flu Season

Finally, we’re coming up on flu season, and I know that a lot of you have “outbreak” rooms. That doesn’t mean that you should be creating patient zero.

Disinfect once in a while. It’s the professional thing to do.

Loaner Reading Glasses in Escape Rooms

Here’s a quick read for you.

Last month we traveled to Colorado and played 31 games in 4 days. All of the reviews are written and will publish throughout the rest of 2019.

While we were there, we saw something that I thought was just lovely.

Loaner Reading Glasses

While visiting Locked In Escapes in Colorado Springs, we noticed a small bowl on their front desk filled with reading glasses.

The Locked In Escapes logo above a bucket of loaner reading glasses.

People who use over-the-counter reading glasses are notorious for forgetting to bring them when they go out. Some people can get by fine when the lighting is good. Many really struggle to read or see digits on a lock in dim lighting.

With a bucket of loaner readers, should a player forget to bring their own, they could borrow a pair for use in the game.

What Should You Buy?

Our team on our crazy Colorado escape room marathon included optometrist and fantastic escape room teammate Dr. Chris White.

I asked Chris what should be included in a loaner reading glasses box. He said that they should at least cover the correction range of +1.25 through +2.50.

An easy way of covering that range (and then some) is to buy an assortment pack. The pack that Chris suggested includes 25 pairs ranging from +1.25 through +3.25.

This is a simple, sweet thing to offer your players.

I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that other companies are already doing something similar, but Locked In Escapes was the first place we saw this, so I’ll give credit where it’s due.

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist, like buying from Amazon after clicking into the links included in this post or backing us on Patreon.

The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.

A Dynamic Guide To Adhesives

So… this is the coolest utility website that I didn’t know existed:

This To That, a source for all things glue.

Glue dripping down the top.

Solving Adhesive Woes

Sticking things to other things is a struggle… especially if you need them to last… especially especially if you need the bond to withstand the weapons-grade destructive force of an escape room team.

Solving the puzzle of “which glue do I use for this problem” is a function of chemistry and This To That solves it with two dropdown menus.

Screenshot: This To That reads, "Because people have a need to glue things to other things." There are two dropdowns to choose what to merge.

Do you need to attach ceramic to leather or metal to rubber? Apparently E6000 is your non-flammable solution.

How about adhering glass to fabric? Weldbond is your solution.

So many of the possible combinations on This To That never occurred to me… but the answer is there waiting for that special day when I have a desperate need to stick leather to glass.

Silicone II… for what it’s worth.

Check out This To That to solve your sticky situations.

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist, like buying from Amazon after clicking into the links included in this post or backing us on Patreon.

The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.

Adhesive Residue – The Silliest Immersion Breaker in Escape Rooms

The silliest immersion breaking-detail that is often overlooked is super easy to fix.

Yet it’s the kind of tiny detail that even good escape room creators sometimes overlook:

Labels & Label Residue

We’re frequently searching a room when we lift something like a steampunk statue and underneath it we find the residue of a label.

The residue of a tron sticker.

Now, this is not the kind of nitpick that typically finds itself in a review, unless the game is operating on such a high level that we feel justified in picking the nits.

Is it a catastrophe? Hell no.

Is it a cheap and easy detail to mind? Hell yeah.

Easy Adhesive Removal

If you’re looking to get rid of this stuff easily, here are two fantastic tools to get the job done:

  • Goo Gone – A liquid adhesive and sticker remover.
  • FOSHIO Plastic Razor Scrapers – A plastic razor blade that when used with Goo Gone makes quick work of stickers and the adhesive residue.

This $15 solution and a little elbow grease will help you maintain immersion and look more professional.

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist, like buying from Amazon after clicking into the links included in this post or backing us on Patreon.

The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.

“Escape Room” Enters-Merriam Webster Dictionary

With new concepts come new words. “Escape Room” was among the 533 new words that Merriam-Webster added to their dictionary in their latest batch of updates.

Today we’re going to look at their definition and see if we can improve upon it.

Merriam-Webster’s definition of escape room

a game in which participants confined to a room or other enclosed setting (such as a prison cell) are given a set amount of time to find a way to escape (as by discovering hidden clues and solving a series of riddles or puzzles)

Stylized image of a dictionary open on a table.

Parsing This Definition

They nailed a lot of the key elements here with “game,” “participants,” “set amount of time,” “discovering,” “solving,” and “puzzles.”

We don’t love that “confined” is part of the definition. That gives some people the wrong impression that this activity is dangerous or claustrophobic. That said, as written, this captures that physical space is a key element.

It seems strange to argue with “to find a way to escape” as part of the definition, but in this aspect of the wording, I think Merriam-Webster is just a bit behind. This was true for quite some time, but the term now encompasses broader goals.

Why we love Merriam-Webster

We love Merriam-Webster because they are dedicated to describing the language we use. They watch as terms gain staying power or evolve. They make updates. And they are descriptivists; so are we.

The Room Escape Artist Definition

Escape Room – (noun, singular) a game where a group of participants collaboratively discovers and solves puzzles, tasks, and challenges that require no outside knowledge at a physical venue in order to accomplish a goal within a set amount of time.

In our ERban Dictionary, we also define two synonyms: Room Escape, Escape Game

Room For Discussion

In escape rooms, players both “discover” and “solve” the challenges. There aren’t any directions provided. Discovery is part of what separates an escape room from other types of puzzle games.

“No outside knowledge” separates escape rooms from puzzle hunts. While both are challenging, puzzle-solving activities, escape rooms should be self-contained and shouldn’t require any specialized knowledge.

“Physical venue” separates escape rooms from video games and VR. The idea of real-life or meetspace is a crucial differentiator.

We define escape room and escape game as synonyms. At present, these terms are mostly used interchangeably… except when we don’t want to argue the finer points of a “room” when discussing experiences that take place outdoors, around a table, or in a ballroom, stadium, or theater.

And these points are, of course, arguable. Our definition encompasses physical venues that are outdoors or that hold more than one team at once. These are atypical, but we still see them as escape rooms.

More Room for Discussion

The elephant in the physical venue is the word “escape.” Why is the activity called “escape room” when the goal is to find a relic, steal a McGuffin, or disarm a bomb? In these cases, there might not even be any escaping.

This takes us back to Merriam-Webster. Dictionaries don’t ask why. They describe how language is used.

This term has evolved since its early usage in English somewhere between 2010 and 2012 when “escape” described the sole goal of the activity. That’s what we recognize in our definition.

A Quick Thought on VacuForm Panels in Escape Rooms

VacuForm panels are plastic wall mountings that can be purchased, painted and hung in theatrical environments. They are a quick and easy way to handle some aspects of set design.

A white vacuform panel that looks like a mistrure of stones and skulls sealed with mortar to make a wall.
Unpainted VacuForm

They are reasonably common in escape rooms. Some of the common textures that escape room players encounter are Egyptian tomb hieroglyphics, steampunk gears, and brick walls.

While I don’t think that VacuForm is the peak of set construction, I also see few issues with it when compared to regular drywall. It’s fairly affordable and quick to set up. If a designer finds the right panels for their set… I’m in favor of anything that raises quality and keeps timelines and budgets under control. It’s way better than seeing drywall in an Egyptian tomb.

That said, I have one suggestion:

When using VacuForm, ask yourself this one question, “Can the players reach this?”

Can I Reach It?

VacuForm has a lot of flex to it because it’s hollow. If you touch it, it will usually give… a lot. The result is a sharp break in immersion because your brain is telling you that the wall is made of stone or metal, but then it’s plastic.

The easy fix is to fill in the back to provide it more rigidity. It might still feel like plastic, but it won’t give way to my touch.

Touching hollow VacuForm is like a kid seeing Santa Claus in the mall parking lot getting into a 2002 Pontiac Aztek and driving away. Where the hell is his sleigh?