RPG Evolution - D&D Tactics: Escape Rooms

My family does a lot of escape rooms, and we've finally gotten good enough to finish one in record time. Those same tactics can help parties in tabletop games at conventions.

My family does a lot of escape rooms, and we've finally gotten good enough to finish one in record time. Those same tactics can help parties in tabletop games at conventions.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Escape Basics​

Escape rooms are essentially puzzle rooms where the only damage a player takes is time. The harder a puzzle, the more time it takes; in some escape rooms, players can get penalized by asking for hints from the game master.

Escape rooms are self-contained environments with limited forms of exit and entry. This helps player focus on an escape room the same way Dungeons & Dragons focuses on the dungeon: a character could theoretically tunnel through a wall, but for the most part play is confined to the four walls created by the dungeon master.

Do enough escape rooms and you start to learn some tactics that apply to all of them. This same advice applies to effective adventuring parties, particularly those under a time limit like at a convention.


Our Game Master's first piece of advice was teamwork. Because you're often thrown together with strangers in an escape room, this isn't always a given. We were lucky to have my family of four, and two families of a parent with their two kids, or ten of us in total.

For better or worse, the players you get are often a luck of the draw. I've played in D&D tournament games at conventions and while a great team can be magical, a bad team can totally sink a party.

The most important teamwork element is enthusiasm and willingness to play. People come to escape rooms for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that their mom dragged them there. We only had one player who was not particularly interested in the game; the other nine players made up for his lack of participation.

Fundamental to this is the understanding that you cannot work as individual units within the party. Everyone has to work together in a very short period of time. In D&D tournaments that's usually four hours; the average escape room is just an hour long, so you have even less time to figure out your rhythm. You make friends fast in escape rooms, which is why they're often used as team building exercises.


Hand-in-hand with teamwork is communication. Meeting new people is tough. Getting those people to communicate their findings is harder. It took us a little bit, but within the first 15 minutes we were sharing hints and clues.

In escape rooms, this is particularly challenging because players are attempting to solve multiple puzzles at once. It's critical that players communicate what they find. Most puzzles requires different players coming together to share what they've discovered, with one person opening a lock or deciphering a code.

Similarly, player characters in tournament play work best if they communicate. There's a reason for the phrase "never split the party" and why some players roll their eyes when the rogue goes off on their own. Even that can work though, as long as the party can communicate what they're seeing as it happens.

Play to the Game​

Escape rooms rarely have instructions. You figure out the game as you go, which means that a large part of your time in the first few minutes is understanding what it is you even need to do to escape. It's almost always in the form of puzzles that unlocks the next challenge.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, the way to beat an escape room is to play to the puzzles. That is, determine what the obstacles are first (locks, ciphers, etc.) and then work to solve those puzzles. If a clue speaks of three numbers and there's a lock that has three digits, the group's goal is to use that hint to open that lock. Similarly, if one of the locks uses five letters, you need to find a five letter word. If there's a cipher, the cipher's output determines what you're solving for (in our example, a lowercase and uppercase letter). Once this is figured out, we know the parameters of the rules and how to play the game.

Similarly, RPG tournament play doesn't allow for the free-form gaming that happens in home campaigns. One of the best elements of D&D is that anything can be attempted and therefore characters can try ridiculous things to solve puzzles that aren't part of the puzzle themselves -- a huge problem in escape rooms, where players will rip things off of walls, break locks, or just guess over and over to beat the game. But you just don't have the time to search a room for an hour in tournament play. To keep things moving along, you need to play to the game -- this means looking for the plot threads (find this murderer, deliver this package, etc.) and pursuing it.

Your Turn: What tips have you applied from your escape room experience to RPGs or vice versa?

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I would say that I've used my experience helped prepare me for escape rooms more than the opposite, but I suspect it is a virtuous circle.

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