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  • Writer's pictureMike Wilson

Tip: Types of Locks

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

In this post, we will discuss:

General Lock Tips

If you have ever done an escape room, you probably know that error in unlocking locks are very common. If you believe you have the correct combination to the lock but it's not working, ask a teammate to try to unlock it. There's a good chance you are lining up the numbers in the wrong place, in the wrong order, or in in the wrong lock altogether. A teammate might recognize a simple error that you're making, or he might have an idea of why the code is wrong.

Before you try to enter a key or code into a lock, check to see if the lock is locked. Every once in a while, a game master will fail to move the combination after the previous team opened it or in some other way did not fully lock a lock.

There are two categories of locks:

1. Generation one locks are traditional locks that are opened with a key or code, a combination of numbers or letters, or a series of directions.

2. Generation two locks are electronic and automated locks.

Generation One Locks

Spinning Combination Padlocks

Combination padlocks are the most difficult locks to open in a room, but if you went to high school, you probably aren't too intimidated by them.

To open them, turn the dial to the right one or more revolutions and stop at the first number in the combination. Next, turn the dial to the left one full turn, passing the first full number and stopping at the second number. Then, turn the dial to the right again, stopping at the third number. Then pull on the shackle to see if it will open. If it doesn't work, start over with the steps above.

When you see a combination padlock watch for three numbers. These can be jersey numbers, page numbers, a date (07/12/18), a time (01:23:21), coordinates, or any other combination of numbers that are less than forty. I have seen combination padlocks that have letters instead of numbers, but that is very rare.

Directional Locks

Directional locks can be intimidating because the instructions to open them sound complicated, and to be fair, I do think they are the second most complicated lock to open.

To open them, begin by reseting the combination. This is done by squeezing the silver shackle (pushing it into the lock) twice. Then enter the combination by sliding the center circle to the right, down, left, and up in the order of the combination. After you enter the combination, attempt to pull the lock open. If the lock does not open, you entered the incorrect combination, and you will need to reset the lock again by pushing the shackle into the lock twice. Then attempt the combination again or try a different combination.

When you see a directional lock, start searching for items in the room that have some kind of arrow on them. This could be hands on a clock, directions on a compass (North, East, South, West), spokes or cogs on a wheel, or anything else that could be interpreted as a direction. Designers will often place stickers with colors or symbols on each direction. Search for those colors or symbols in the room.

Number Locks

Number locks are usually opened with three or four digit numbers combinations. There will usually be a line or arrow that will show you where to line up the correct numbers, but sometimes those lines/arrow are very hard to see, especially in dark rooms. Some number locks require you to line up the numbers in the windows on the side of the lock, but others require you to line of the numbers on the front of the lock. If there are windows on the side, put the numbers in the windows. The answers usually move from top to bottom or from left to right, but not always. You'll probably have to try both ways.

When you find a number lock, watch for a dates (08/19), a time (digital or analog: 11:15), a house address, a year, or any other number that stands out.

Letter Locks

When you get stuck on a letter lock, familiarize yourself with which letters on the first turn dial. That will narrow your search for the clue. Because you can't fit all 26 letters on the dial, you can narrow your search to the letters that are on the dial.

Letter locks are opened in the same way number locks are opened. The line is usually right on the front, and the companies often use their logo/name as the line where the code should go. If you enter the combination, and it doesn't work, try pushing in on the shackle then pull on it.

When you find a letter lock, watch for letters in odd places, misspelled words, names of characters, or any other word that has the same number of letters as the number of letters on the letter lock. Watch for bold, italicized, or underlined letters. Watch for a clue that obviously points to an item that's name has the number of letters as the letter lock.

There are often blank spaces on one or more of the dials. If there is a black space, you're probably looking for a four letter word rather than five letters. I once opened a lock that had three black spaces, and the actual combination was the word "one." That was confusing, but when I saw the two blank spaces, I stopped looking for five letters and started looking for three. That is the only reason I was able to connected a number clue to a letter lock.

Some locks have letters and numbers. When that's the case, look for squares on a chess board (D2 to D4 can be read D22D4), the name of a Star Wars character (R2D2, C3PO), the model of an item (F150, ipad2), a Bible verse (Mark1), an ancient year (257AD) or any other number/letter combination.

Key Locks

If you find a traditional key lock, it's probably time to start searching. There's a key somewhere in the room. Search on top of the cabinet, in the books, in the dark corner of the room, in the corpse's mouth, under the table and rug, on necklaces, in a bucket of rocks, etc. If you can't find the key, it's probably locked in a box or drawer. In linear rooms, you'll need to unlock the locks in order, and if the key is locked in something else, you don't need to unlock the key lock yet.

After you successfully open a key lock with a key, always leave the key in the lock so that you are distracted by it later or get it mixed up with other keys. Then put that lock/key in your pile of used items.

One frustrating habit of many game designers is to give you a key ring full of keys. When you see that, organization is very important. Don't move so quickly that you forget which key you've tried. Hold the keys you've tried in the palm of your hand while you try the keys you haven't used with your fingers. Your adrenaline may cause you to doubt the value of this pointless, trial-and-error puzzles, but once you start, you need to finish trying all the keys unless you discover a clue that tells you to stop. If you stop, you'll lose your place on the key ring, and there's a good chance you'll be back at the lock later starting at the beginning.

Generation Two Locks

A generation two lock is a nontraditional, electronic lock. These locks are opened by placing objects on sensors, flipping a switch, plugging wires into an outlet, typing a code on a keypad, pointing a laser at a sensor, or completing/breaking an electric circuit in some other creative way.

I much prefer generation two locks because they are usually more immersive, but there is one main weakness of generation two locks. That weakness is revealed when game designers fail to include a feedback mechanism into the lock. I can't count the number of times I've successfully unlocked a generation two lock without knowing I unlocked it. Unless designers add some kind of sound effect, change in lighting, door that swings open, or some other feedback mechanism, a generation two lock can open with little more than a quiet click. As a result, you should regularly check the doors and boxes in the room that seem to have generation two locks on them.

If it's a generation two lock/puzzle that requires you to place items in specific locations but the solution isn’t working, try moving the pieces around to make sure they are on the sensors. There's a good chance you have correct solution but you're not exactly on the sensor. If this happens, make sure the game master knows what you are doing. If he is a good game master and he hears or sees that you have the solution, but it isn't working, he might give you a free hint about how to open the lock or place the items correctly. And when you are struggling with a lock, it’s always a good idea to have a teammate try it.


A Cryptex is a portable vault used to hide secret messages. They're like bicycle combination locks. The player must turn each letter disc to spell out the correct password. When the discs turn to the correct position, a cylinder is freed to slide out, and there will be a key or a note in side. In most expensive version, like the one in the DaVinci code, an incorrect combination entry will release a vial of vinegar that will destroy the message instead, making it unreadable. I have yet to see one of those in an escape room.

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