Escape Room Narrative: Player Roles
A short while ago, I was playing a horror themed escape room. Like all good horrors, it was more narrative driven and had a mystery to solve. We solved puzzles, we got scared, and overall we had a lot of fun.
At the end of the experience however something was nagging me. As we sat talking with our game master about the experience, I asked him a question: who were we in the room and why were we there?
He gave me a confused look and replied he did not know. Was it important that I did know?
I said, yes. Yes, it was quite important.
Back in my acting days whenever I was having trouble with a role or a scene, I would get asked a question by my director. It did not matter what the play was or who was doing the directing, the question was always the same.
What do you want?
Characters in any story, regardless of medium or genre, have one thing in common: they all want something. Sometimes it is something very specific (I want ice cream). Often it’s rooted in something generic and primal (I want happiness). Very often there is more than one want and sometimes those wants conflict with each other (I want ice cream but I also want to be thin). After all, we are human.
Those wants create goals to achieve. To get ice cream, I need to get money. It would be a boring story however if I simply got what I wanted with no complications. And so obstacles are thrown in. For instance, it might be a cash only store and I only have a debit card. Or even worse, the store might be closed when I get there.
At that point the character is faced with problems to solve in order to achieve their want. I could go home, not having achieved my goal, and despair (the sad ending). I could compromise and find another ice cream store and make a friend along the way (the happier ending. Or, if my want was high enough, I could break into the ice cream store to achieve my goal (the conflicted ending).
The important thing is I actually want ice cream right now…if that wasn’t already apparent.
Those Darned Player Characters
One of the challenges writing for an escape versus writing something like say…a movie…is in an escape room (and let’s face it, video games), your main character suddenly has agency to do whatever the hell they want in whatever order they want. Not only that, but you know almost nothing about them.
Chances are if a group of players have gone to the bother of researching, booking, and paying for your room, they have already partially agreed to experience your game on your terms. They are willing to suspend their disbelief in order to believe they are actually about to embark on an adventure.
They are willing to take on a role you assign them.
Types of Roles
Right now in escape rooms, there are two types of player characters that are utilized:
Players as Themselves
This is also known as the Myst Method of player character. Okay, it’s not known as it, I just wanted to mention Myst.
Players are themselves in this story. There are no other qualifiers on their character. They have simply found themselves in a strange situation with no clue how to deal with it. Because players are themselves, they do not need to worry about roleplaying.
Most often used in: Serial killer rooms, zombie rooms, basically any horror genre. It lends itself well to ordinary people being caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
Players as Themselves But With Another Job
In this method, players are still themselves however there is often an additional role they must take on. This could include archaeologist, scientist, thief, prisoner, etc. There is a bit more roleplay if they want to partake, but they can essentially still be themselves.
Most often used in: well…almost every other escape room. Escape rooms often have themes which require extraordinary roles. Themes like heists, ancient tombs, labratories, and crime scenes all require players to take on a role they often do not embody in their real lives.
So Why Use Player Roles
Before I go any further, I should say you don’t HAVE to create player roles. If you want to have a room full of random fun puzzles, that’s fine. If you want to have a generic theme in which there is no clear narrative (ie it’s a generic tomb with random puzzles), that is also fine. Players will have fun.
If you want to put more narrative in your experience, however, that is when assigning the player role becomes crucial. It should be one of your first steps in the design process.
Why? Giving your players a role means you are also giving them a want. Giving them a want shapes the goal they are aiming for. Knowing the goal they are striving for affects the design of your entire room.
How does that work? Let’s take a look at one of my favourite escape room themes: the spooky house.
The Spooooooky House
Alright, so you’ve decided you want a super spooky house. You have the history of the house worked out. It is sad and tragic and involves things like murder and possible hauntings. It’s all very ominous.
So! Who are your players?! Why are they there? What are their wants? How will that affect the room? There are a few possibilities:
Why They Are There: Some poor tourists were just trying to get to their dream vacation and wouldn’t you know it, their car broke down. The only place they can find is a creepy, abandoned house. They are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
What They Want: Being lost, the poor lost tourists obviously want to call for help.
What Are Their Goals: Being an abandoned, creepy house, the obvious goal would be to either get the phone to work or to restore power so they could charge their dead mobile phones (cause they were dumb enough to let them die…just go with me on this one).
However, when the spooky paranormal things inevitably begin to happen and the angry ghosts lock them in, the poor lost tourists will be in over their head and realize they have a new goal to achieve: get out of the house before the evil inside eats their souls.
Effects on the Game: It is unlikely the tourists will be learning much on the history of the house. There could be hints of how the family in the house died but otherwise these are simple people with simple needs: they want to survive. They will do whatever is necessary. Early puzzles could be finding the breaker to turn the power back on, only to discover that seems to have woken up the ghosts. Their call for help could result in a police officer trying to guide them out.
Why They Are There: If there are teens around a potentially haunted house, they are probably going to the ol’ murder house on a dare because dumb teens.
What They Want: Dumb teens accept dares because of one thing: They want to belong with the cool group of kids (ie the idiots you don’t actually want to be in highschool).
What Are Their Goals: The Dumb Teens will more than likely need to get some object as proof of their daring. It’s probably the doll that belonged to some murdered child or something sick like that.
Much like the tourists however, these goals are complicated when the ghosts of the house take issue with intruders.
Effects on the Game: You could have a lot of fun with the pre-room experience in this case. A GM could easily take on the role of the dumb jock who is initiating the dumb teens and quickly establish who they are and why they are there. Unlike the tourists, the teens could be told/have a passing knowledge of the legend of the house. The design goal here is to terrify, so separating the terrified players might be an option at some point.
Why They Are There: Paranormal investigators appear to be gluttons for punishment. They might have been hired. They might have taken it upon themselves to go. It does not matter. They want to be here.
What They Want: They want what any ghost hunter wants: proof of the paranormal.
What Are Their Goals: Let’s assume these are moral ghost hunters. Their goals are to both get a photo/video of a ghost and, if possible, put the spirits to rest once and for all.
Effects on the Game: These characters would be updated with the history of the family living in the house and the circumstances of their death. It would be their priority to actually attempt to get to know the ghosts and interact with them rather than run from them. So while this would still be a creepy atmosphere, it would probably not be as outright horror fest as the previous two examples (although I’m not ruling out the possibility of a malevolent presence getting in their way). Most importantly, ghost hunters have gadgets! That gives all sorts of gameplay possibilities!
Cold Case Investigators
Why They Are There: Some cold case detectives are following up on an unsolved murder at a coincidentally extremely spooky house. They only have another few hours before the case will be dropped so they, of course, must only do this at night.
What They Want: They want to solve the murder. Like good detectives.
What Are Their Goals: Their goal is to gather enough evidence to figure out who murdered the family in the house. While they would likely be scared by the sudden ghostly happenings, they would be skeptical enough to keep focused on their primary goal.
Effects on the Game: There would most definitely be a file with all of the details of the crime. Because they are more focused on solving a crime than paying attention to ghost, the paranormal occurrences would be far more understated than any of the previous examples. Being able to determine what in the house would be considered evidence would be important, so an understanding of the narrative and the history of the house would be essential.
These were just a few examples of how each player role changes the narrative game experience.
By giving four different roles to players, you end up getting four very different games. The player goals helps define the pre-room, set, puzzles, tech, atmosphere, and win state. This in turn results in a more consistent experience.
More importantly, it allows the player to be more immersed into the world. And the more that can happen, the better!
I would love to see more escape rooms play around and experiment with their player characters. What were some of the favourite roles you have played?