How I Escaped the Panic Room: A Broken Mind Review
  • How I Escaped the Panic Room: A Broken Mind Review

    My wife recently surprised me with an escape room outing for my birthday. It gave me an appreciation for the basics of how escape rooms work and how they can be applied to tabletop role-play.

    Still Escaping After All These Years

    Escape rooms are a recent gaming craze that's been steadily evolving. Inspired by video games and (depending on who you ask) live action role-play, escape rooms are an opportunity to put your puzzle-solving skills to the test. In essence, you are placed in a room with some clues and must figure a way out before time's up. While they don't usually require role-playing, they do require problem-solving and teamwork, skills tabletop gamers have honed over the years.

    Our ten member team played A Broken Mind: Psych 102:

    The evil psychiatrist, Dr. Elesdy has been captured. Just as he was about to disclose his evil plan to the authorities, an attempt was made on his life. Dr. Elesdy is now stable, but his mind is breaking down! Venture inside the mind of deranged psychiatrist Dr. Elesdy, as you attempt to stop an attack on a global scale. Can you solve your way out of his mind, and put an end to this nightmare once and for all?

    The game begins immediately when A Broken Mind splits the party. You are essentially diving into a villain's mind, a premise explored in movies like Inception, Dreamscape, and The Cell. To represent the two parts of Dr. Elesdy's mind, one room is a well-lit doctor's office while the other is pitch black. I was in the dark room and my four companions had one flashlight between us.

    Escape rooms frequently rely on puzzles, and A Broken Mind was no different. The dark room was loaded with numeric locks, alphabet locks, and directional locks (in which you push the lock up, down, left, or right to determine the combination). These three combinations create endless possibilities, further magnified by the other room, which had a locked door between us. We could see our friends through a one-way mirror, but couldn't easily communicate with them.

    One of the first things A Broken Mind forces you to do is figure out the basics of teamwork. You can't see very well and there's only one flashlight to start, so someone has to manage the light while someone else fiddles with the locks. You can't easily communicate with the other team -- and it becomes apparent quickly that the teams have to work together to figure out the puzzles -- so figuring out the basics of how you will share information becomes a priority. And of course there's the ever-present screen/camera combination in which the game master monitors your progress. You can ask for three clues which are shared via monitor.

    The biggest challenge of all, as you fumble in the dark with the clock relentlessly ticking away, is getting along with your companions.

    Hell is...Other People?

    Jean-Paul Sartre's play, "No Exit," takes place in a single room that is a form of hell. There's nothing to do and nowhere to go, but eventually the residents discover the real torture is being with others. Escape rooms will test your relationships in a similar fashion.

    Our team consisted of my wife and I, a friend of ours, and another married couple. This was important, because I've gamed with my spouse on many occasions and we've worked out how we play together. The other couple and our friend had skills complementary to ours, and their combination of outgoing personalities, fearlessness, and engineering made us a powerful combination.

    When you're in a dark room like A Broken Mind, communication becomes muddled. Each completed puzzle rewards you with more tools to solve future puzzles, but until you get to that point morale flags. It's easy for players to become stuck in a rut, trying the same thing over and over; or to become trapped in groupthink where everyone fixates on the wrong solution without fully understanding the puzzle. Failing fast and moving on is key.

    Of equal importance are little wins. Every time we unlocked a combination, the success palpably lifted our spirits. There's a reason escape rooms are used for team building exercises, and it's because they create little victories that help a team bond.

    About halfway through the game we were able to enter the other room, and the difference was stark. My teammates didn't WANT to leave the dark room and although we were working together as a team across the two rooms, it was difficult to suddenly jump into another team's dynamic. That dynamic involved problem solvers who jump in with both hands and folks who hang back and analyze while offering helpful suggestions. Successful escape rooms encourages both styles of play.

    Inspiring Escapes

    The premise of coordinated play between two teams has great possibilities for tabletop tournament play. Each team has codes that the other needs, and creating a filtering mechanism to hinder communication (perhaps the players can only write to each other in code, or must make successful dice rolls to be "heard" by the other team) will ratchet up the tension.

    Speaking of tension, a countdown mechanism can keep things moving. Perhaps wrong guesses for each cipher create further complications (summoning monsters or traps); PCs could lose health as a clock ticks down; a literal race against time could have dire consequences somewhere else outside of the room.

    Additionally, the alphanumeric and directional locks are a great way of creating ciphers that are relatively easy to solve. Imagine a dungeon lock where the code is the directions you just took to get there, or the password to a lock is the name of a beloved king's toy. Escape rooms demand your attention, and these sorts of puzzles require players to fully engage at the table.

    In the end, we were two locks away and about five minutes from solving the room before time was up. We all had fun though. Just as important as the game itself was decompressing afterward at the bar to compare notes!

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 3 Comments
    1. JustinCase's Avatar
      JustinCase -
      That's a very intriguing idea, using escape room fragments in RPGs, and I like your suggestions!

      I did an escape room for my bachelor's party, and we solved it with literally 50 seconds left without knowing the time. Yeah, we meant to do that.
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      There's an intriguing overlap as you say. Timed adventures - stop the ritual, save the sacrifice - are a common tool. But because these often involve combat encounters they usually go by in-game time since it can vary so much from wall-clock time. But that misses the tension created by real life timers ticking the seconds away. A puzzle-primary scene (or set of scenes) can allow us to bring that into our games.
    1. JustinCase's Avatar
      JustinCase -
      My wife tells me she often uses a running hourglass to create the sense of urgency. Sure, it's OOC time, but there is nothing wrong with equating that with IC time for that particular scene.
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