How To Spell Any 4-Letter Word in a Word Lock

“So, I’m a gamemaster and I made a bet with my boss that I could find a 4-letter word lock that we could spell ‘SWAN’ with. I’m struggling!!! Any chance you could help me out? I’ll buy multiple locks and trade the gears if needed. Thank you!!”

Anonymous Gamemaster (who is winning a bet)

This is a fun little problem that you have.

There isn’t a lock on the market that can solve this problem for you, but as you alluded to in your question, there are two locks that can combine to solve the problem.

The Problem

So the issue is that “W” is a rare second letter in English and therefore not included in the second disk on the various word locks with fixed disks.

A 5 disk alphanumeric combination lock.

This leaves you with the customizable Master Lock 1534D 5-digit letter lock… but that’s a problem because it has 5 disks, not 4. Master Lock doesn’t sell a 4-disk letter lock variant.

The Solution

The good news is that there is a solution.

A 4 digit number lock.

The Master Lock 1523D 4-digit number lock uses disks that are functionally identical to the letter disks of the aforementioned Master Lock 1534D 5-digit letter lock.

If you purchase both locks, and swap the disks, you can put in any 4-letter disks you want, in any order, onto the smaller lock. There you have a 4-digit word lock with the combination “SWAN.”

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.

The Bare Metal Directional Lock at Red Fox

We recently visited Red Fox Escapes in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they did something that I had believed impossible:

They made a Master Lock directional lock look both thematic and aesthetically pleasing – in a U-boat escape room.

They did this by stripping down the paint and exposing the bare metal with a Dremel and a file.

A Master Lock directional lock filed down to bare steel.

What Does This Fix?

Stripping a directional lock down to bare steel made it look cool – and like it belonged – even if it wasn’t period accurate.

Personally, I rarely ever think that period accuracy of mechanisms matters in an escape room. It’s huge just to make the room feel like everything belongs and nothing looks out of place.

Peeling away the ridiculous candy colored shell and “Master” branding transformed this from a silly escape room-y lock into a cool, curious object on a submarine.

What Doesn’t This Fix?

UI Challenges

This doesn’t make the directional lock more intuitive; it’s still a clunky contraption that requires explanation. Nothing is going to change this.

Breakage?

This isn’t going to improve the durability issues that directional locks have. They break, or at least, some large percentage break. There is a portion of the owner population that swears that they have never had to replace their directional locks… so maybe some are winning the manufacturer’s lottery?

Almost perfectly mirrored star ratings on both the high and low side for directional locks on Amazon.
Amazon

The directional lock that I own doesn’t work so well after casual use with proper operation in a clean environment. I honestly cannot account for the varied opinions, which are split evenly on 2,500+ Amazon reviews. The only thing that makes sense to me is inconsistent production on a manufacturing level.

The Bottom Line

Red Fox Escapes made an escape room cliché cool with a small alteration. They thawed my heart towards the directional lock. I’m thankful for this experience.

A different Massachusetts escape room owner from Outside The Box in Webster had said to me of his game The Body Shop that “nothing went into this game untouched.” They roughed up and patinaed everything in the game.

This is a smart way to build compelling escape room environments without breaking the bank. While it doesn’t cost that much more money to build this way, it does require a lot more thought, effort, and care. I truly respect it.

Visit this Lock

Buy your ticket to RECON, our escape room industry convention taking place in Boston in August. Red Fox Escapes is the closest escape room company to the Boston Marriott Cambridge, where we are hosting RECON.

RECON eye & penrose triangle logo.

Come visit Boston this summer for outstanding speakers, meaningful conversations, and new perspectives on escape rooms… and add in your own directional lock tourism!

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 Owners: Bathrooms & You

Escape room owners, it’s time for the talk.

Now some of you don’t really need this talk, but more than a few of you do… so I am going to try to add at least one or two thoughts to this that will help those that aren’t doing a stinky job managing their facilities.

Dan Egnor standing in an outhouse labeled "The Shitter" looking into the toilet.
Escape Room Guinness World Record Holder Dan Egnor peering into the abyss.

This 💩 Matters

A significant portion of your players – both experienced and inexperienced – are judging you by the quality and state of your bathrooms.

For years people have written in asking us to include bathrooms in reviews. For years we’ve elected not to – not because we don’t think that they matter – they sure as 💩 do.

Anecdotally, I believe that there is a correlation between the condition of an escape room company’s bathroom and the quality of the games and customer service. If someone isn’t cleaning up the 💩, what else is being neglected?

The Tale of the Smelly 💩

About a year ago we visited a company with one of Lisa’s oldest friends, Deb.

Now Deb will be quick to tell you that she “isn’t an escape room player” even though she’s probably played 40 games by virtue of being friends with us. Plus Deb manages a sports recreation business that is considerably larger than any escape room company in the United States. She knows stuff.

We played a fine, low-budget game in a small town. The game was clearly made with a lot of love. We all enjoyed it.

When we left, we went to dinner and took notes on the game. After we finished discussing the game itself Deb looked at us and said, “That guy doesn’t want to run a business.” One of us asked why she thought that. She pointed out that the bathroom hadn’t been cleaned in weeks and it smelled like something had died in it. There was only one bathroom in the small facility, so he had to know, and chose not to do anything about it.

To Deb, it seemed like this owner just wanted to design games, which he was pretty good at. He didn’t want to run a business. If he couldn’t take the time to clean the 💩, there must be other parts of his business that were starting to smell.

Within a few months, he closed his doors.

Give Your 💩 Some Love

A few pieces of actionable, tangible advice:

Clean Your Bathroom Regularly

Have a schedule. Make sure people are held accountable. Remember that in a small business, no one should be above cleaning the 💩.

If You Aren’t Responsible For Your Bathroom

Plenty of escape rooms are in buildings where someone else is responsible for the maintenance and cleaning of the bathroom. There are limits to what you can do here.

If you are thinking about renting in such a place, I strongly urge you to do two things:

  1. Check out the bathrooms every time you visit before leasing. Make sure they are being cared for.
  2. Put it in the terms of your lease that the bathrooms will be cared for. If the landlord is already taking care of such things, it won’t be a hard ask. If they are being negligent about the state of their facilities, then they’ll throw a fit. Either way, you have an answer.

Elevate The 💩 Experience

Design your bathroom. Make it thematic, make it elegant, make it something special.

A basket with floss, maxipads, tampons, mouthwash, and mints in a bathroom.

Also, you can do what we saw at Riddle Room in Rhode Island: leave a care basket with feminine hygiene products and other comforts. Most will probably never use these items, but if someone truly needs them, you probably just made their day.

Closing Thoughts

Running a business – any business – comes with some 💩 tasks. So much of the difference between success and failure is the willingness and discipline to just do that 💩.

The (Potential) Magic of the Single-Room Escape Game

We recently received a question about single-room escape rooms from Victor, co-creator of Sherlocked in Amsterdam. He recognized that making a compelling single-space escape room would be quite challenging and asked us if there were examples of successful ones, and what makes these successful.

Black & White, a lone person looking out a large window from behind.

When You Survey the Players

When asked, escape room players will tell you they overwhelmingly prefer multi-room escape rooms. (See the graph on page 4 of the 2018 Escape Room Enthusiast Survey.)

When most players answer that question, however, I don’t believe they are saying that multiple rooms are inherently more enjoyable. I think they are saying that most of the rooms they’ve loved – the rooms that have given them a sense of adventure, excitement, intrigue, and discovery – have multiple rooms.

It’s easier to deliver on these escape room virtues through multiple spaces.

The Lull of the Single Space

It is easy to make a mediocre single-room escape game.

When you spend 60 minutes solving puzzles in a single space, you begin to feel comfortable with the space. You’ve searched it thoroughly. You know everything about it. You won’t find anything new. You won’t be surprised. The excitement and sense of adventure subsides, slowly at first – and then quickly.

Unless…

You go out of your way to design an experience, not just a room.

The most successful single-space escape rooms make that room feel like it’s part of a broader world and story through a number of different tools.

The Narrative Twist

If the story changes, the players are in the same physical space, but they are experiencing something new there.

Let’s say that the team was put into the room on a mission to disarm a bomb. If the game ends with the diffusing of the bomb, there was no twist; there was no intrigue. However, if that bomb gets defused 20 minutes into the game and it turns out that something more sinister is afoot… that creates opportunities for surprise.

The Scene Change

If the setting changes – through lighting, sound, the addition or removal of props, or anything else – the space can once again feel new and discoverable.

Adding or removing things from the space can fundamentally change it. Additionally, large-scale reveals can create powerful moments. There are single-room games that feel like large puzzle boxes, slowly revealing big secrets and new interactions. This can be incredibly engaging. Arcane Escapes in California did this in The Hideout.

In-game: A wooden wall with pipes and a big red valve mounted to it.

The Characters Emerge

In games with actors, these characters can change the space with their presence. They will move through it and interact with it, drawing players to see it in different ways.

A live actor can also affect the setting in planned ways that a player cannot. SCRAP does this so well in San Francisco’s Pop Star Room of Doom.

In-game: view from one apartment window through another. Across the way is the popstar's blue walled apartment covered in 90s references.

The Outside World Exists

Having the room feel like it is within a broader world is powerful. This is part of the magic of Strange Bird Immersive’s The Man From Beyond.

Image via Strange Bird Immersive

Incredible things can happen when it feels like the actions that you take within the room are changing the world beyond the walls, and similarly, outside forces are affecting you.

There are many other ways to do this. The key is to build drama. If the players get too comfortable with the setting and the story, then their excitement will wane. Keep the space in flux – in reality or in their minds – and single-room escape rooms can be incredible.

Single Room Hate

Players often look down on single-room games because the single room is frequently an indicator that the game was under designed. For every Man From Beyond, Pop Star Room of Doom, and The Hideout, there are many more forgettable single-room escape games.

We’ll never knock an escape game just for being a single room. We’ll argue against anyone who thinks that one room is an automatic indicator of bad quality. That said, we understand why an escape room player might draw the conclusion that single-room games offer a lower quality experience.

Case in Escape Room Tech

CaSE, iT MAttErs.

We live in a civilized society with rules. Respecting case is one of them. The utility of letter case is rarely discussed… and we’re not going to get into any of that today.

We are going to dig into how case regularly breaks puzzle inputs in stupid, avoidable ways.

Close up stylized image of the shift and caps lock keys on a Mac keyboard.

What Escape Room Designers Must Know About Case

Everyone knows that there are 26 letters in the English alphabet, right?

Well to a computer, there are not 26 letters in the English alphabet, there are 52. Unless a computer is told otherwise, it will treat upper case letters and lower case letters as different entities.

When, as players, we find ourselves inputting a puzzle solution into a digital interface, case frequently presents a silly, easily avoidable, joy-killing barrier.

Solutions & Case Sensitivity

My team just solved a puzzle. The solution is “sherlock.” We are confident that we have to input this solution into a computer… so we type it in… and it’s rejected.

In most instances where a password is typed into a digital interface, there are 3 different options for case:

  • sherlock
  • Sherlock
  • SHERLOCK

As a player I can confidently tell you that I don’t give a $#!% which one works. I do care, however, when my right answer fails because I used a lower case “s” when I needed an upper case “S” or vice versa.

This problem is magnified when a team doesn’t stop to think about the implications of case. They might just walk away from a correct answer and dive down some useless rabbit hole. It happens. I’ve seen it.

Keyboards, Shift, & Caps Lock

These problems are often exacerbated by the shift and caps lock keys on a keyboard. Often, when a password is inputted into a computer, the display looks like this:

******** or ●●●●●●●●

UNDER THESE CIRCUMSTANCES I MIGHT NOT NOTICE THAT MY TEAMMATE POKED AT THE CAPS LOCK BUTTON EARLIER… AND NOW I AM SHOUTING MY SOLUTION AT THE COMPUTER LIKE A CRAZY UNCLE FORWARDING A 10-YEAR-OLD POLITICAL CHAIN EMAIL!!!!!!!!

Solutions

There are a few easy solutions to these problems. The right combination of solutions will change based on the game’s individual circumstances.

Program Different Cases

If you’ve custom built the software that accepts your password, you can likely code it to accept multiple responses.

Allowing your software to accept “sherlock” OR “Sherlock” OR “SHERLOCK” nullifies the problem.

Normalize or Ignore Case

Again, if we’re talking custom software, you can usually drop a line of code into the program that either normalizes case or ignores it entirely.

Normalization is probably my favorite solution because when you start typing, it always types in the case that the system wants. I type in “Sherlock” but what displays is “SHERLOCK” and there is zero room for confusion on my part or the computer’s.

Ignoring case is useful as well because I can type “ShErLoCk” or any other permutation of case and the computer accepts it. It’s not limited to the pre-programmed solutions.

Programmatically Disable Shift & Caps Lock

Depending upon the computer you have and software you’re running, you may be able to programmatically disable the shift and caps lock keys so that they do not function.

This could be useful under circumstances where you have full control over the computer, but not the software that needs to accept the password.

Physically Disable Shift & Caps Lock

Finally, if all else fails, you can go nuclear and crack open the keyboard and break the shift and caps lock keys so that they cannot function on a mechanical level.

The Bottom Line

Whichever route you go, the net benefit is that you’ll eliminate a point of needless confusion and friction for your players.

This will also eliminate an entire category of hints and completely streamline a segment of your game that really isn’t supposed to be a challenge in the first place.

Everybody wins.

Double Inputting in Escape Room Tech

Double inputting is a silly source of player confusion in escape room tech, but it’s easy to eliminate.

Double inputting is a silly source of player confusion in escape room tech, but it’s easy to eliminate.

Stylized image of a horizon with two rainbows.

What is Double Inputting?

I’ll set a scene:

I’m at an altar with my team. It’s the end of the game. We have collected a series of magical items and we must place them on the altar, then remove them in a particular order. If we do it correctly we will summon the all-powerful God of Interface Design and win the game.

We place our objects one by one in the correct order… and nothing happens. We were right, but it didn’t work.

It turned out that when placing one item my hand shook just a little.

Stylized image of a birthday a with a "2" candle on it.

What happened? The RFID chip in the object moved in and out and then back in range of the reader. The result is that it read as the same object twice. Thus the entire sequence was considered incorrect.

There are a lot of circumstances where signals or inputs can be duplicated quickly and without the player realizing that it has happened.

When this happens, the result is always the same: the solution is incorrect and it’s frustrating.

In some instances this happens so frequently on a particular puzzle that the gamemaster pops onto the hint system to say, “It’s ok guys. You have the right answer. It happens to everyone. Just be really quick and deliberate… and it will work. If you can’t get it, I’ll come in and do it for you.”

Stylized image of a double decker bus in London.

Solution: Read Delay

There’s a pretty easy software fix for this problem:

Add a “read delay.” After an input is accepted, put a few second delay on reading another signal. That way if someone’s a bit shaky or fumbles the pieces, the computer won’t get confused by the action.

Exactly how long that delay ought to be is going to vary based on the individual interaction. Take your best guess. Then test it with real players and adapt accordingly. The goal of the timing should be that it doesn’t slow down their pace, but it should prevent double inputs.

Pushbuttons and switches have a similar problem, called “bounce.”

When a read delay is used for buttons, it is called “debouncing.”

Solution: State Machine

Another fix is a “state machine.” A state machine is a list of states and a list of transitions that take you from one state to another. This allows you to control exactly what is/ isn’t considered an input in the sequence.

More Technical Details

The following explanation is thanks to Brett Kuehner:

For example, let’s say you have 5 props: A, B, C, D, and E. You want them placed on a single pedestal, one at a time, in that sequence. If the players make a mistake (i.e. A, B, D) you want them to have to start over from the beginning. The diagram below shows a state machine with 6 states (circles), and transitions (lines) between them:

State machine explaination diagram.

Where there is a line between states, it indicates that the program should move between states if that condition is true.

This gives you complete control over what happens for each input. Each correct input moves the players from Start towards Finish. Each incorrect input sends them back to Start. A duplicate input does nothing because there is no transition. In the example, there is no transition from state 2 when the players place B on the pedestal. They can place B on and off as many times as they want, and the puzzle stays in state 2. When the players get to Finish, the system can unlock the lock, play the fanfare, and flash the lights. You know the only way it can get to Finish is if the exact sequence was followed.

State machines are a robust way to describe puzzle behavior because you can draw a diagram of exactly what you want and to turn it into rules for your control system to follow. Once you have a generic state machine routine, you can easily describe complex puzzles with minimal code or without any code at all. It is just data describing the states and transitions.

Here’s what the code might look like:

AddState(“start”, { DoStuffToResetThePuzzle(); });
AddState(“solved”, { UnlockTheDoorAndSoundTheTrumpets(); });

AddTransition(“start”, { return CheckTheSwitches(); }, “solved”);
SetState(“start”);

There are just 2 states: start and solved. The system continuously checks the current state of every puzzle, and sees if any of the transition conditions are true, which makes that puzzle move to another state. When the system goes to start, it resets the puzzle. (Doing this in start guarantees that every way you reset the puzzle will do exactly the same thing.) If “CheckTheSwitches” becomes true, the state machine goes to solved, which triggers the door to unlock to the trumpets to sound.

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Black & white stylized image of two large birds flying overhead.

The Bottom Line

These kinds of details matter a lot. They are the difference between the technology being invisible and the moment triumphant… and the tech being obvious, broken, and the moment frustrating.

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.

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