game master

Nate Martin's Escape Room Pet Peeves

I’m frequently asked for escape room design decisions that I think are bad. I almost always dodge the question for two very important reasons:

  1. As a known entity in the industry, I’ve more than once made the mistake of voicing my own opinion without properly caveating it. This has had outsized consequences, and it’s generally better to keep my mouth shut. Life pro tip for everyone.

  2. Critically, liking something doesn’t make it good. Not liking it doesn’t make it bad. In all creative mediums, it is extraordinarily tricky to properly label criticisms (positive and negative) of designs made by creators. Two examples from recent films: I loved Bad Times at the El Royale, but recognize it had several elements that wouldn’t land with many audiences. I absolutely hated The Post. I normally love political thrillers, it was nominated for 6 Golden Globes, made several best-of-the-year critics lists. Good? Bad? These are subjective terms.

Now, that said, there’s plenty of escape room design decisions that I don’t like. Or even hate. As a player. It’s important to distinguish that these are simply not-my-thing. There’s surprisingly few designs that can be objectively labeled.

Nate’s Personal List of Escape Room Oh No No’s, Part 1

These designs do NOT treat-my-self.

These designs do NOT treat-my-self.

  • Permanent low lighting. Not to be confused with complete darkness, ambient lighting, or temporary-we-get-the-lights-up-later scenarios. My vision isn’t perfect, and I do not respond well to artificially inflating the challenge of a game by making things harder to see. It’s (often, but not always) lazy design, and frequently used to mask less-than-perfect production design.

  • Unlabeled Lock Orgies

  • Getting blindfolded/hooded before entering a room. I don’t have too strong a beef with this, but I also think it adds little to the immersion of an experience. Importantly, the teammates I most frequently play with have severe issues with improperly disinfected items coming into contact with their mouth and face. How often do they wash these things, we’re left to wonder.

  • Inattentive Game Masters. Not strictly a design decision, but an exacerbating factor. If an escape room design requires precise hinting (not necessarily a bad thing at all), an inattentive/inexperienced GM can immediately sink the experience.

  • Multiple color puzzles. I’m color blind. I cannot do most color puzzles. This is fine, my teammates can see color just fine and I can often find other things to work on during a color puzzle solve. However, if puzzle after puzzle after puzzle contains color elements, the experience is dead to me.

  • Red herrings. Ugh.

Also ruin things.

Also ruin things.

 

Stay tuned for parts 2 – N!

-Nate

Dubbed the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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Tips for Escape Room Game Master Excellence

By and large, escape rooms are curated experiences. In most cases, this important task is handled by intrepid game masters, who monitor the game and provide guidance. Sometimes in the room, sometimes out of the room, sometimes in character, but always of paramount importance: Great GMs can create and enhance world class experiences. And we at Puzzle Break work diligently to ensure our game masters help to deliver a time our players will never forget. Excellent game mastering comes in many shapes and sizes, while improper game mastering have many universal hallmarks.

Game masters have ultimate control over the escape room experience. For better or for worse.

Game masters have ultimate control over the escape room experience. For better or for worse.

There is no such thing as the perfect one-size-fits-all escape room experience. Each and every team of players brings different levels of experience, group dynamic, and skills. It is up to the game master to ensure 100% of players get the absolute most of the experience.

Game Mastering Tip #1: Give the right hints at the right time.

Giving hints in an escape room is an art form. An excellent GM must know exactly what hints to give for the situation, and when to give them. 
Hints must contain the right level of information. A proper hint must contain enough information to nudge the team in the right direction while simultaneously opaque enough to allow the players to feel satisfaction when they eventually conquer their objective.
Give hints too often, and the players are robbed of precious "A-ha!" eureka moments. Not often enough, and players can get stuck for too long, enthusiasm can be thwarted, and frustration will diminish the experience.
There is no hard and fast rule for how many hints is "correct". As I've said, each group and game is different, and a master-level GM will know in their bones what's appropriate. Frequently, the biggest challenge in this area is for well-meaning GMs to hold their tongues. The other biggest challenge?

Game Mastering Tip #2: Have complete knowledge of the game and team progress.

A common refrain I hear from players of less-than-good escape room experiences is the hints they received had nothing to do with their situation, or contained information they already knew. This is awful, and can ruin even the most world-class escape rooms. There are two root causes for this problem:

  • Game masters not paying full attention to the game

This is an unfortunately systemic problem I see at many, many places. In an effort to save costs at ill-advised companies, GMs are often monitoring more than one game. This is very bad. At Puzzle Break, we have a minimum of 1:1 GM:room ratio, and in some cases up to 3:1! This ensures our game masters have full and complete knowledge of each and every player's progress, allowing for the most surgical of hints.

  • Game masters not having intimate knowledge of the game content.

This is less common, but even worse. Giving proper guidance to players requires full and complete knowledge of every aspect of the experience. Regretfully, we sometimes see untrained GMs tasked with curating an experience they have no hope of doing correctly. At Puzzle Break, our game masters go through intensive (borderline ridiculous) training and testing on each experience before they are considered to run a game solo.

In-fiction game masters can be sidekicks...or villains.

In-fiction game masters can be sidekicks...or villains.

Game Mastering Tip #3: If appropriate, in-room staff are able to provide the best curation.

This is a controversial stance I feel strongly about: Game masters in the room with the players are equipped to provide the absolute best game curation imaginable. GMs who remotely monitor games have comparatively limited information with which to do their jobs. In-room GMs have complete knowledge of every player's strengths, weaknesses, attitude, and game progress. This information is incalculably valuable. Additionally, in-room GMs can be given an in-fiction acting role to further enhance the immersion. Last but not least, in-room GMs are able to give subtle hints that don't disrupt the experience. However, finding great staff who can pull all this off is challenging, and for smaller experiences, in-room GMs can become awkward for players and not worth the trade-off.
At Puzzle Break, some of our larger experiences feature in-room game masters and our smaller experiences typically feature remote GMs. As with many things in this arena, there is no monopoly on the right way to do things.

 

-Nate

Dubbed the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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