Are you making your own DIY escape room? Below are some tips I’ve learned as I’ve been making my own. (And if you want even more tips, pointers, and tons of puzzle ideas, check out my book!)
Most escape rooms, commercial or DIY, have themes. Some examples? The old west, spies, pirates, the 80s, space travel, etc. A theme connects the clues in an escape room and makes it more fun. Whatever theme you choose, make sure your clues and puzzles fit the theme. For example, if you’re doing a Western themed room, don’t use a blacklight and invisible ink as a clue. What cowboy used a blacklight?
I think a plot is different than the theme. Not all escape rooms have plots. Some rooms are just a collection of clues and challenges. Some escape rooms might fit a theme well but not have a plot. The best escape rooms have plots, which have to explain several things:
- Why are players locked in the room? Did some bad guy lock them in there? Was it an accident, like a natural disaster that left them trapped? Is it part of a challenge that someone set up?
- Why do they need to escape? What will the consequences be if they don’t escape? Are they going to be thrown in jail? Caught by an enemy? Maybe they need to escape to help someone on the outside? Along with this goes a sense of urgency. Most escape rooms have a time limit, which the plot should explain. So is there a ticking bomb somewhere? Is someone coming back to the room after a certain amount of time? What will be your players’ motivation to work quickly?
- Why are there puzzles and clues in the room? This one is the trickiest, and something that a lot of escape rooms just leave unexplained. For example, if there’s a bad guy who locked your players in a room, why would he then leave a string of clues that lets them escape? So maybe he left the clues unintentionally. Or maybe someone on your players’ side left the clues there. For example, in one of my rooms the players’ friends leave clues for them, but need to hide them so the bad guy won’t find them. Maybe the clues are all out as part of a challenge of wits someone set up for your players. It’s a hard thing to explain, and it can take a lot of thought.
Your escape room doesn’t have to have a plot. Personally, I think it’s more fun if they do. And another thought: any escape room at all (and especially a DIY escape room) is going to require players to use their imaginations. Your plot doesn’t have to be flawless. It’s OK to expect your guests to use their imaginations or suspend their disbelief a little. Just keep in mind how much you’re asking your guests to do this.
If you’re writing an escape room with a theme, and for sure if you’re writing one with a plot, you want a setting. Is it a jail cell, an apartment building, a bank vault, someone’s library? Make sure it fits your theme and plot. You also might want to take into consideration the actual room you have to work with. For example, say you’re going to host your escape room in a bedroom. You could choose a bank vault as your setting. But making a bedroom feel like a bank vault isn’t easy. What if you chose a hotel room as your setting instead? It would feel more realistic.
Choosing a room
When it comes to choosing an actual room, I think the biggest consideration is how much stuff is in the room. A lot of the fun of an escape room is the searching. If your guests have freedom to search the room without you telling them “Oh, don’t touch that” or “You don’t need to search there,” they’ll have more fun. Take out any belongings that don’t fit the theme or that you don’t want your guests to touch. So maybe you want to choose a room that’s relatively empty to begin with. For example, one of my escape rooms takes place in an office building. We have an office, but it’s pretty cluttered. We also have a dining room which is pretty empty. When we hosted the escape room for friends, I chose to have it in the dining room because there was more space and it was a lot easier for me to set up.
One tip with choosing the room is tape: blue painter’s tape or masking tape. Use it to mark anything you don’t want your guests to touch (like taping shut a drawer you don’t want to empty). That way your guests know what not to touch without you having to tell them.
Funny story, we did an escape room at my mom’s house once. It was set up in her game room, which, well, hadn’t been deep cleaned in a while. My mom and I ended up feeling really sorry for the players who searched the couches thoroughly for clues only to find dust bunnies, lost socks, loose change, and pieces of popcorn instead. So be prepared for your guests to search everywhere unless you tell them not to. You might be surprised – they’ll think to search where you never thought they would (and more thoroughly than you thought they would). So clean first. 🙂
One of the best aspects of commercial escape rooms is the way stuff happens automatically: you move a lever and a door opens, you align objects in a certain way and a light turns on. In other words, as soon as you do something correctly, you know automatically that you have. In DIY escape rooms, it’s super hard to do this! Most of us don’t have cool magnetic doors or fancy combination locks at our disposal. So we have to be creative. You don’t want your escape room to be players solving clues and then being told by you if they got the answer right. They should know if they got it right on their own.
Here are some ideas of escape room elements you can do at home that create that “automatic” feeling:
- Of course, locks. Combination locks and locks with keys. You can use multiple in a room – but don’t overdo it.
- Puzzles. When players put together a puzzle, like a jigsaw puzzle, they know when they’ve done it correctly. They don’t need to check their solution.
- Computers. Use a laptop and create a guest account with a username and password. Hide the username and password in the room, or have another puzzle lead to the username/password. Maybe hide a USB drive with an important file on it in the room, too. You could also use a smart phone or iPad they have to unlock.
- Challenges. Think minute-to-win-it type challenges: stacking cups, balancing things, moving things from one place to another. The hard thing about these is tying them into the plot (it might take a lot of imagination, pretending things like cups are something other than cups). Also, I don’t love that players are essentially on the honor system for this. What if they just don’t do it? What if they don’t do it correctly? They could still escape. It’s not like a lock where they’re forced to find the combination or it won’t work. Of course, if players are going to cheat, they’re just cheating themselves out of the fun, and you would hope your players understand that.
- One thing that I use (that I understand most people can’t) is websites with usernames or passwords or tasks players have to complete. Maybe you have a technical friend who can help you out with this.
It may not be possible to have a room with only these kind of automatic puzzles. Maybe for the sake of the plot or for variety, you have some puzzles where players need to be told if they got the right answer. Just be aware of the balance and try to include at least several automatic-solution type puzzles. They’re more fun. 🙂
One thing to be aware of with escape rooms is how sequential they are. I’ve done escape rooms where all clues must be done in a certain order, one after another. Personally, I don’t like this approach. If you have a big group, some players might be bored because there’s basically only one thing to do at a time, and it was also frustrating because we didn’t know the order of the puzzles – we just had to keep checking all the locks in the room until we found the next one that opened.
I think a better approach is to have multiple goals, or multiple parts to a puzzle that players can be working on simultaneously. For example, I threw an escape room that ultimately ended with a combination lock. I had three separate puzzles (or really series of puzzles) that each ended in one of the combination numbers. Different players could work on different parts at the same time.
Another thing to consider that might be handy for DIY escape rooms is side goals. Sure, your players are trying to escape, but what if they have other goals, too? Are they trying to bring something with them? Save the world? Disable an alarm before they get out? Having multiple goals could be a handy way of making your room not too sequential.
Hiding places can be so fun! Just remember to start with a clean room and be creative. I have a post on some hiding place ideas. Oh, and my other tip: make a list of where you hide everything! More than once I’ve had players searching for one last clue that, embarrassingly, I couldn’t remember where I had hid.
There are two things that can make an escape room difficult. One is to have clues that are difficult – ones that players have to make a big logical leap to complete, or that they’ll sit and ponder over for some time before it makes sense. If you do it this way, you might not have a lot of puzzles/clues.
The other way is to just have a lot of puzzles/clues, lots of layers of clues they might solve. Some might be easy to tell what to do, just time consuming or even somewhat tedious to complete. For example, one of my escape rooms has a color-by-number grid. I’ve played one where we had to beat a video game to get a clue.
Personally, I like escape rooms that make themselves difficult with more clues or more layers of clues, not with super hard clues you have to think a long time about. Of course, you want a balance. You do want some clues that are hard or not apparent right away, because the longer your guests have to puzzle about them, the more rewarding that “a-ha” moment will be when they finally figure it out. But don’t make it too hard, because they’ll feel defeated if they have to end up getting a hint or being told how to do it.
All commercial escape rooms I’ve done have offered hints. I think it’s just so hard to predict what different guests may or may not struggle with. You can build hints into the structure of your escape room (like hiding hint cards that players have to find before they can ask for a hint). You can also just be there to offer hints and guidance if they ask for it. I would say always control yourself and ask if they want a hint before you offer one. You don’t want to cheat your guests out of the fun of solving it on their own. Just watch how much they’re having fun/how frustrated they are. If they’ve been stuck long enough to feel frustrated, it might be time to ask if they want a hint.
I hope these hints help you if you’re designing your own escape room! If you’d like to check out mine, visit Science Lab Breakout and Color Crisis. Good luck and I hope you and your guests have fun! If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear!