A quick reminder: Way back in my first blog post, I introduced myself as Brittney—your friendly neighborhood game master. I said then that being a game master is sort of like being an adventure guide, a mentor like Dumbledore or Yoda on your epic puzzle journey. At the time I was just starting out, and that seemed all there was to it. I could never have imagined how many different ways there are to be a game master, or all the work that really goes into it.
Game masters have several functions before, during and after the game. Before, their job is to prepare you so that you can hit the ground running. They have to establish the rules, your method of communication, and for those who’ve never played before, just what exactly they’ve gotten themselves into. That means giving examples of the puzzles they might find, without ever giving too much away. It means going over the functions of different combination locks so that your team isn’t stuck just because the lock won’t open. And it means establishing a relationship so that when players need to ask for clues, they don’t feel embarrassed to do so.
After, it means debriefing the group, explaining puzzles that some team members feel that they missed, and taking pictures to commemorate the memory. And then it means finding all the props and resetting the game from scratch. Just hope that none of the players walked out with keys in their pockets!
But the actual mastering of the games comes during your one-hour gameplay. The more games I play, the more I realize how vastly game master styles can differ. Here are just a few game master stereotypes I’ve encountered.
Gandalf the Grey
This kind of game master really has the potential to be a great friend, because they are with you every step of the way. And when I say with you, I mean with you. Like, inside of the room.
I’ve only experienced this kind of game play once or twice, when our game master was positioned in the room to monitor us and help us at any turn. There were so many puzzles in that game that there were no clue limits. You could ask a question whenever you wanted, and that question would be answered. Even with all that help, we barely made it out in time.
PROS: There’s no anxiety about asking for help. One of the worst parts of the typical “three clue rule” is knowing that if you use up your life lines, that’s it. With a Gandalf the Grey, you never have to worry about that. They’re on the journey with you, so they can see when you’re struggling and offer help at any and every turn.
CONS: A lot of groups don’t enjoy being constantly monitored. It’s like having your friends over to hang out, but you have an adult in the room the entire time. Even if you’re not explicitly doing anything wrong, there’s the annoying feeling of being watched, monitored, and judged. And this can be doubly troublesome if your game master doesn’t establish a firm relationship that helps you get along. Like it or not, you’re stuck together for the hour.
Gandalf the White
I have not experienced this kind of game mastering personally, but boy am I excited to. I’ve only read a few cases of these, and none in my immediate area, but it sounds incredible.
The difference between a Gandalf the Grey and a Gandalf the White is simple—this person is with you every step of the way in character. That means if you’re doing Escape the Haunted Hotel, there’s an ominous bell hop in the room with you at all times, or NASA scientist in your spaceship escape. Very rare, very powerful.
PROS: For people looking for an immersive experience, this hits the jackpot. The person offering you help is still in universe, and not an employee reminding you that you have a game. You can really dive head first into your journey and stave off returning to reality.
CONS: There is still someone in the room with you judging you at all times. Additionally—this is more of a game master con than a player con—this kind of game mastering is hard. You’ve got to be straight faced and know your game inside and out. You have to be able to predict people’s reactions, and find a cryptic yet helpful way of explaining things to a variety of players who are not going to help you stay in character. Imagine being a character at Disney World. Simultaneously the coolest job, and also the most daunting.
Agent 007, meet your new Quartermaster.
This is, for the most part, what I like to consider myself. Q is always there to help you in a variety of ways. They might help you over the coms or a walkie talkie, but when the mission requires, they might step out into the field and give you some hands on help. Got a question? Q is there when you ask for help, but also offers assistance when you don’t. We’ve got the blueprints in front of us and our eye on the time.
PROS: This is one of the more versatile types of game mastering, which makes it easy to adapt to people’s needs. It’s also very experience oriented, putting your enjoyment ahead of the actual rules of the escape room. No one enjoys sitting in a room for thirty minutes because they’ve hit a dead end and have no lifelines left. In that situation, Q would come in for something like a “progress report” and offer some assistance anyway. You might not make it out in an hour, but at least you’re always moving.
CONS: A lot of players are sticklers for rules. They want to do the entire puzzle by themselves, whether or not they make it out. They want it to be their work and their work alone. Even when they do ask for assistance, many players don’t enjoy the experience of having someone from the outside world inside of their game. It can damage the pressure and excitement of being trapped, and ruin the immersion.
This is very similar to Q, but stricter. With an Oracle, you are given a limited amount of lifelines, and that is it. Once you use them, it is over, and there’s no more assistance coming for you. Or in some places, you can ask for additional clues in exchange for a time penalty. Oracles are fair and by the book, and are there for you only when you ask them. Don’t look for benevolent handouts.
PROS: This kind of game master is ideal for those people who want to pull their own weight. You can ask for some assistance when you need it, but most of the time you are left to work in peace. Oracle game masters are also more likely to communicate to you via radio or some kind of screen, which preserves the illusion that you are trapped and really need to escape in under an hour.
CONS: For some people, Oracle game mastering can be full of anxiety. Personally, I spend more time worrying about whether or not I’ll need a clue later to ask for a clue in the moment. This results in me sitting around for 15 minutes not asking for a clue, because I’m afraid I’ll need one more badly later. Or on the flipside, if you’re not careful with your clues, you might end up stranded until the timer goes off…
In the age of technology, there are some game masters that work behind the scenes. Whether it’s a high tech television, or a touch screen monitor, there are hundreds of cool ways to interact with players in a non-humanoid way. KIT might speak to you via text on the screen, being quickly typed out from a separate control room, or KIT might be entirely automated. I’ve heard some stories about players who were given iPads and then they took a picture of the barcode for the item they wanted a clue about. The iPad would take off the appropriate amount of time and display the clue on the screen.
PROS: This works doubly for immersion. Not only do you not have any game master in your game, you barely interact with a human game master at all. No one is coming into the room, no one’s voice is throwing you off your game. And if you’re doing an escape room like a heist or a space shuttle, then having a computer you can talk to is off the charts on the added coolness factor.
CONS: Tech-heavy systems can be hard to control and upkeep. Relying on televisions and screens and radios means that the moment you have a technical glitch, the entire system is upset. How do you dispense clues if the television screen is damaged? Or if the computer system you use just gets a random bug you don’t know how to fix? Additionally, automated systems can be hard to personalize. How does a computer gently redirect a team when they ask for a clue on a box they won’t have the ability to open until the solve another three locks? Being inside the computer can be fun, but it’s not always practical for the experience.
What kind of game mastering do you find the most enjoyable? Seen something else that’s not on this list? Let us know in the comments!