Ask The GM: Escape Room Inspiration

By John Serpico on


Patrick asks – I’ve been racking my brain to thinking a way to come up with an escape room that my players would randomly fall into from above. Any thoughts on how I should go about doing this?

When coming up with an escape room, context is your best friend. Think about where this escape room will be and under what circumstances the party is likely to encounter it. The combination of location and situation should be taken into account both as a source of inspiration for the escape room and to ensure that it “belongs” in the adventure.

So before you go through the tactics of building the room, ask yourself these two questions:

  • Where is the room? A deep and murky cave? Ancient ruins? The sewer system of a sprawling city? A farmer’s barn? An abandoned castle? A fully occupied castle? Each location provides very different context, and the corresponding escape room should take that context into account. If the party was sprinting through a Yakuza-occupied highrise, they are much more likely to crash through a machinegun-weakened floor into a locked server room than a crystalline cave.
  • Is there a time crunch? Are people looking for them (see: Yakuza building above), or are they somewhere quiet? Were they chased towards it? Is it slowly filling up with water? An escape room without some kind of time limit can still be stressful, exciting and satisfying, but it will feel very different than one with spikes slowly extending from the wall?

With location and situation set, then you can start thinking about the color of the room by asking yourself a few more questions:

  • Is the room a trap room that was meant to be found? Said another way, did someone design this room the trap intruders, or did time and decay turn a location deadly? There’s a very different feel between having your party fall through a trapdoor into a room of clockwork horrors and having them fall into a pitch black underground lake.
  • How much dice rolling do you want the party to do? Do you want them to work together and use logic and teamwork? Or do you want the characters to roll the dice and test out their character sheets?
  • Do you punish failure? If there’s a room with a series of levers that need to be pulled in a certain order, what happens when they pull the wrong ones? Damage? Embarrassment? Or nothing at all?
  • Do you have a solution in mind? One particularly interesting way to design an escape room is to build the room but not the way out. To use the server room example from before, let’s say the party falls into a server room. The door out is locked from the outside and the only seeming way out is through the roof. The way to climb to the roof is over the servers that, let’s say, are sparking with electric current. Maybe just give them that information and see what they want to try to do – batter down the door, lightly electrocute themselves climbing up the servers, finding a way to hack a terminal and kill the power, etc. Let’s look at that underground lake example. They fall through the eroded floor of a cave and fall twenty feet straight down into cold water. The waterlogged pit is about ten feet wide and it’s dark. And then that’s it.
  • What kind of escape room does your party like to figure out? Do they like to think outside of the box? Do they like getting instructions or do they like iterating in an instruction-free environment? Are they super protective of their gear and would it add tension if they threatened that gear? You can get inspiration from an escape room by finding ways to really tie it to what your players like, or what their characters absolutely hate!

With all this in mind, let’s walk through these questions as an exercise. I’ll provide an answer to each one and see what it inspires:

Where is the room? It’s in the main hallway of a wizard’s stronghold. Is there a time crunch? Yes, because the wizard is there and he was alerted the second they all fell into the room, which is slowly filling with hallucinogenic gas. Was the room meant to be found? Yes, the wizard built the room to capture anyone that wasn’t wearing a special amulet of entry. How much dice rolling do I want the party to do? Just a little. I would love the party to observe that there are handholds, but some of the handholds are illusory. Do you punish failure? Yes. I’d love for the party to learn the handholds are illusory by falling from the walls of this room a few times. Do I have a solution in mind? Not a specific one. There isn’t some magic lever to pull or some magic phrase to utter. I want the party to just figure out how to teleport out, how to determine which handholds are illusions and which are real, or how to maybe find some emergency escape hatch. What kind of escape room does your party like? They love being scared, so let’s say the hallucinogenic gas makes the party see each other as their greatest fears.

You ask yourself those questions and all of a sudden you have a new, unique, compelling escape room puzzle. There are plenty of pre-generated escape room resources out on the internet, but there’s something far more satisfying about building something like this yourself. You’re the director of the movie, so make an escape scene you want to make.

Happy GMing!

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