Recently, I’ve been thinking about how companies handle room failures, so I thought I’d put together a short post about that aspect of room design. I’m being quite vague with my definition of “failures” – this can include a combination lock getting set to the wrong code, a key snapping in a padlock, the GM resetting the room incorrectly, some tech failing or a customer losing a vital piece of the game. I’m specifically not going to talk about what you can do to prevent things going wrong – that very much depends on the particular failure – just about how you can handle these situations if they do happen.
I’m speaking here with feigned expertise. I’ve never run an escape room, I’ve never GM-ed a game where something’s broken. In fact, I’ve never even GM-ed a game. To be honest, I don’t know the realities of setting up and running an escape room. On the other hand, that’s also probably true of the vast majority of owners when they set up their games, and what I do have is a lot of experience of being on the other side of breakages.
One of my favourite escape room anecdotes is about Bewilder Box, the Brighton-based company that I visited at the end of 2016. During the reset for our game, they’d left something unlocked that I shouldn’t have been able to access when we entered the game. Most GMs would probably not have noticed for a few minutes and, when they did, would either have squawked over the sound system to tell us to put it back or just sighed, let us continue and chalked it up to experience. Fortunately, Bewilder Box were on the ball – they spotted the mistake as soon as I got there and the GM came straight into the game, in character, and explained that he needed to do some maintenance. Granted, they’ve got a storyline where that’s possible, but there are plenty of other rooms where that’s been true and they haven’t been so quick-witted. The impressive thing is that they took a mistake and made it a highlight of the game for me – an extra, unexpected character interaction – by being on the ball and having a clear plan.
My hope with this article is to help other owners move towards what Bewilder Box achieved and, at the very least, minimise the annoyance caused by escape room errors.
So as an owner, designer or GM, what do you need to do? Well, the first thing is to admit that it can happen. You can have the best GM in the world, the most robust piece of tech, the most precise reset script, the best quality padlock and you’ll still, at some point, experience a failure. Perhaps yours will come one in a hundred games as opposed to one in ten, but either way you’ll still get them. Even if you think your checklist is perfect (hint: it isn’t), what if someone loses a key or prop in the room and your GM can’t find it during the reset? With several players and a full hour to search, there’s a good chance the next team may find that lost item at an inopportune moment.
Step number two is empowering your GMs. It’s just not possible to allow for every eventuality, so you need to employ people who are attentive and can think on their feet, and then you need to support them to do so. In fact, that rule doesn’t just apply to breakages/mis-sets but to GMing generally. Exactly how you support your GM is up to you but, for example, I’d suggest not focusing on the original mis-set when doing a review but instead on what they did to recover from it.
Plan, Plan and Plan Some More
OK, so you know you’re going to hit problems and you’ve got a team in place that are ready to deal with them. Job done? Nope. The GM may be able to work out how to get around the problem, but you can make that task significantly easier by planning out some strategies and even designing the game to minimise the risks.
Firstly, put together some sort of diagram that shows how the game flow works – again, that’s good general advice because it really helps to understand the critical paths in your room. For each prop, puzzle or mechanism in the diagram, think about what you’re going to do if it fails or is put in the wrong place during reset. If a prop appears far too early, is it going to break the game entirely? The classic example would be not locking the exit key/final puzzle away (yes, it’s happened), in which case there’s a chance that players will be able to walk out the door almost immediately. A simple strategy to deal with that is to require multiple items for the final step. That works for some finales but, where all you need is a final key, you may not have the luxury of requiring multiple items. In that case, you need to focus the reset script on this being particularly important (OK, you could add a second lock to the door, but that’s probably horrible game design).
So, make it easy for the GM to get it right and have a specific strategy in place if they don’t. That may be as simple as a clue to the screen to tell the players to hold off using the item till later on, or it could be something more involved such as a plan for entering the room in character. For example, if you had a mafia room, you could have your GM enter as the mafioso’s right-hand man, asking the players what the hell they’re doing in the boss’s room. The GM can then demand the key, saying that it shouldn’t be left in the hands of amateurs, tell the players to get back into (say) the first room so the GM can complete the reset in privacy, and inform them that, as soon as the boss is back in an hour, you’re going to be telling him that they were trespassing in his office and, in the meantime, that you’ll be leaving them locked up in the room to make sure they don’t try to escape. You’ll need to judge how much leeway you give your GMs. For some, this would be a fairly natural extension of their outside-the-game persona, while for others it would be a massive and scary step up which is probably not worth the risk.
The Show Must Go On
Whatever else happens, the most important thing is that you can get the game going again. There should never be a puzzle or component whose failure ends the game. I’ve only rarely had to bypass broken puzzles, but only twice during my 400+ games have I actually had to stop playing a game halfway and not been able to re-enter. On one occasion a maglock wouldn’t disengage on a door, while on another a combination lock got into a bad state and wouldn’t open. Both of those caused doors between rooms to be blocked. Each should have had an easy fix: bolt cutters or a screwdriver for the padlock and a safety release button for the maglock (ideally one that could be triggered from outside the room). The fact that they both occurred on door locks is telling – they’re a major gating point of a game, so you should think carefully about how to deal with related failures.
Now, Tomorrow, Next Week
So, time to breathe a sigh of relief! You came up with a plan for various eventualities and your GM executed on it. Surely that’s the job done now? Maybe. Maybe not. In the case of a simple mis-set, aside from discussing whether there are sensible steps to avoid it in the future, you’re home and dry. Congratulations – thank your GM for a job well done, give yourself a pat on the back and sleep well.
If the room’s broken, though, you’ll need to work out a strategy to get you through the rest of the day/week. Typically, I’d expect owners to have an immediate strategy for bypassing specific puzzles during the game, a secondary strategy to get past the breakage for the rest of the day (which may be the same but with a warning to groups in advance), and then a tertiary strategy implemented overnight that sees the prop(s)/puzzle(s) replaced temporarily while working on a longer-term fix. Having that third option means that players are still experiencing broadly the same game but you’ve got time to put in a proper fix. Of course, in an ideal world, you’d have a spare prop that you could just throw into the room for the next game, but that doesn’t work in the case, for example, of embedded electronics.
Of course, by the time you get the proper fix in place, undoubtedly some ham-fisted idiot is going to have broken something else. You just can’t win, can you?