How to make searching fun

By | July 2, 2019

While I do sometimes mess up escape rooms by overthinking, the most usual reason I end up needing a hint from the gamemaster is because I’ve failed to find something, usually because I didn’t bother looking very hard in the first place. Nor am I alone in that – other enthusiasts frequently nod and declare that they too are terrible, terrible at searching.

But at the same time, lots of players say how much they enjoy searching! The truth is, it’s not the searching that’s fun – it’s the finding.

Searching becomes painful when you don’t know whether you need to do it or not, or how thoroughly. The bigger and busier the room, the more hiding places there are and the more work it takes to search it thoroughly. But do it right and even the most jaded, lazy players (me!) will enjoy the search tasks.

Searching is tedious busy-work (sometimes)

Imagine a room where you discover you have to flip through a ten-page diary to find the one page that has a highlighted word on it – that’s not a particularly inspired puzzle idea, but it’s easy enough to do. Now imagine you have to do the same thing, but you have an entire bookshelf of books to check and you don’t know which of a hundred books has the marked page. Or you think one of the books has a marked page, but you’re not certain; or maybe there might be multiple marked pages, so even when you find one you have to keep looking for more. Suddenly it’s turned into a tedious time-consuming chore.

Thoroughly searching every nook and cranny in a large escape room is much the same. Experienced players are often ‘lazy’ about searching because they check the most likely hiding places then move on to anything that looks like a puzzle. Covering the usual suspects takes a minute or so (under tables and chairs, behind clocks and pictures, under the rug, false bottoms in drawers, …). Thoroughly ransacking every possible hiding place that an inventively devious designer might have used to conceal a small object takes much, much longer, with a much lower chance of producing anything useful.

Okay, fine, I’m trying to frame my own bad habits as strategic efficiency here, but the point stands: if something is too well hidden then I’m not going to spend the time searching for it any more than I’m going to try to open a three digit padlock by trying all thousand combinations.

Searching is only tedious with poor design. Discovering something cunningly concealed can be and should be a thrill, and it’s not hard to keep it that way. Here’s a set of ideas to help.

Tell the players when they need to find something

“Look and you will find it – what is unsought will go undetected” – Sophocles

You don’t have to write it on a sign. If there’s an altar with six indents in it, and a voodoo doll in a corner that exactly fits one of those indents, players will start looking around for another five dolls without any further prompting. Or you can spell it out: maybe there’s a note addressed to a housekeeper asking that they put the backdoor key in a better hiding place, thereby tipping off the players that there’s a key to find somewhere.

Often this happens organically – the players realise they need something and figure they need to look around to find it. But if your players are regularly getting stuck without realising that that’s because they’ve missed a search target, then you should consider signposting it more.

Tell the players how many things they need to find

“I do not search. I find.” – Pablo Picasso

Say for once I’ve done a decent job of searching the room and have found five sheets of paper each showing a possible murder suspect, do I need to keep looking for more before I try to work out which of them is the answer to a puzzle?

Often the structure of the puzzle makes it obvious whether the players have all the items they need, but sometimes the only way to know there’s something missing is to attempt the puzzle and find it can’t be solved. That’s a recipe for frustration, as players waste time overthinking something they don’t have enough clues for, or fruitlessly keep searching because they haven’t realised they already have everything they need.

Many times there is a set of items to collect, some of which are hidden around the room and others are locked away. That’s a very natural design, but it makes it hard to know when to stop searching, particularly if some items are hidden much more thoroughly than others. A good option is to have items locked away in a way that’s visible, so that players know where they are even though they can’t get to them. “Okay guys, we found five doodads in the first room and I can see two more inside that locked glass box, but there’s probably going to be eight in total so let’s check if we’ve missed one somewhere.”

Hide things in plain sight not in obscure corners

“I search myself, I want you to find me…” – The Divinyls

This often isn’t practical, but if there’s something hidden in the middle of the room where my eyes have passed over it a dozen times without seeing it, then finding it will be a good experience even if the GM has to tell me where it is.

Conversely, if it’s attached to the inside back corner of a filing cabinet where I can barely reach let alone see, I’m going to roll my eyes at how unreasonable that is even if I somehow stumbled on it without help.

Guide players towards really hard hiding places

“Lead us not into temptation. Just tell us where it is; we’ll find it.” – Sam Levenson

I’m a lot more willing to spend the time doing a really, really thorough search of one small part of a room than I am of the whole thing. If there’s something telling me that the desk contains a hidden compartment, then I know roughly where to focus my efforts and I know that I’m not searching in vain, and you can be quite sure I’m not going to stop until I’ve found it.

One good approach is to hide something in an extremely hard to find place, but at some point in the game give the players a clear pointer to it, such as a photo showing where it’s hidden. Opening a box and finding a clue telling you where a key is hidden is equivalent to just having the key in the box, except that there’s the frisson of knowing the key could have been found all along. (Naturally, if you do that you need to make sure it doesn’t mess up your game sequence when a group does find the key early on.)

Don’t make players find everything

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” – W. C. Fields

If the players need to find twelve golden coins, hide sixteen coins in the room. Then you can go wild with the hiding places, because teams don’t need to find them all, they just need to find enough. (Obviously, make sure the players know how many they need…) This works even better with a score-based games where the search targets are bonus objectives.

Put search puzzles at the beginning

“Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem.” – Zig Ziglar

When players start your game, or when they enter a new area, their immediate instinct is to explore their environment. Rapidly they’ll switch to focusing in on the interesting puzzles they’ve found, and will likely only go back to searching when they get stuck. Players going back to finish an unfinished search is fine; what’s not fine is when they’re casting around re-checking everything they’ve already looked at because they’re getting nowhere. If a search target is hard enough that your players don’t find it until desperation drives them to check absolutely everything with a fine toothcomb, you should probably make it easier – by giving them something that clues them to what they’re looking for, or where to concentrate on, or something else that narrows the search space.

You can encourage thorough searching by having players enter an area and find there’s nothing immediately usable – such as a bunch of powered down machines connected to an empty power box, and a set of power cells around the room needed to turn everything on. Just make sure it’s very clear that that step needs to be completed before anything else will work.

Force players to finish any search tasks sooner rather than later, by having the search items required to progress beyond a certain point. Don’t allow players to get right to the end and then realise they need to go back and check everywhere to find the 24th postage stamp that they failed to find earlier – it’ll turn the big finish into a damp squib.

Apply common sense

“Common sense is the knack of seeing things as they are, and doing things as they ought to be done.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe

Ignore or adapt everything above where it doesn’t apply to your games. Remember that what works well depends on team size and experience level. With a big group of first time players, some tricky searching can be a good way to make sure everyone stays busy. (Even so, purposeful searching where you know there’s something to find is more satisfying than speculative searching where you’re looking around on the off-chance.)

Ultimately the proof of good design is how your players react: watch how their energy levels change, see what they focus on, monitor for signs of frustration or boredom or feelings of helplessness. And experiment with ways to keep making the experience better.

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