Who’s Your Daddy?

This morning I took a cycle out to the post office to put in the mail redirection forms (which they wouldn’t let us fill in online, and – in fact – they rejected once I got to the post office because I’d used blue ink in one place on the form, rather than black… but that’s another story) in anticipation of the Earthlings‘ upcoming house move, and on my way out of the garage our neighbour came over.

“We’ll be sorry to see you go,” she said, gesturing at the “TO LET” sign at the end of the driveway.

“Hmm?” I responded. It took a while to sink in that she was talking to me: apart from an occasional “Hi” or “Bye” on the way in to or out of the house, we’ve never spoken to one another before.

To Let sign outside Old Earth.

“Oh yeah,” I said, after a pause, “We’re moving over to the other side of the city: we kind-of wanted a bigger place for the four of us.”

“Oh,” she continued, “I suppose it might be a little small in there for four. It’s a shame, though: you’re the best tenants we’ve ever had.”

Something in my head snapped, and unraveled, and it took a little time before I managed to re-assemble her sentence into something that made sense to me.

“You… own this building?” I asked, pointing back at our house. We’d never met our landlords (at least, I thought we hadn’t): everything had always been arranged through our letting agency.

There was another twang in my head as something else snapped. Then moments later, half way through my next thought, I realised how incredibly racist I was being. You see: our contract had stated that our landlord’s name was Mr. Patel, and that’s a name that in my mind had associated itself with a certain tone of skin colour. And it had, for a moment, seemed inconceivable that the plump white woman in front of me could possibly be part of the family of the imaginary Mr. Patel that had taken up residence in my head. As I worked to reprogram my brain with this new information (and perhaps a little less capacity for runaway assumptions), she continued:

“The previous tenants have all been awful,” she said, “The last lot broke all of the windows. The ones before that tried to burn the place down!”

This actually went some way to explaining the state of the building, with it’s various weakened and damaged parts.

“Well thank you,” I said,  “I hope you get some more great tenants next time.”

“Yeah,” she replied, “I was going to say that to your dad this morning when I saw him leaving.”

“My… dad?”

“Yeah: he left here earlier; just a bit before your girlfriend left. Sorry: is he not your father?”

Every string that still remaining intact in my brain snapped simultaneously. This woman had just blown my poor little mind. I investigated:

“Dark-haired chap, with a beard?” I queries, miming the shape of a beard because for some reason that made sense to me – you know, in case she’d never seen a beard before.

“Yeah, that’s him.”

“Wow. No, that’s JTA. He’s… like four years younger than me.”

“Oh God!” she said, “You can’t tell him I said that…”

But it was too late: the blog post was already half-written in my mind, taking up the void that had been cleared during the earlier series of mental implosions. This one’s for you, pops.

My "father" updates the Earthlings' "Jump Track", a metaphor borrowed from the Battlestar Galactica board game to represent our readiness to "jump" to our new home. It looks like moving now has a 25% chance of us leaving 3 people behind. Also, it looks like the Galactica has put on weight since it's last step.
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Beware: Necrophiliac Paramedics!

A conversation I had this morning with JTA, via text message:

I sent:

Boiler update: this is getting silly. The probability-weighted Markov-chain based predictive text system I’m using this morning saw me type “boi” and suggested “Boiler update:”? /sighs/
On the upside, I’ve successfully arranged for the new distributor valve to be installed on Friday, when I’ll be around.

To give a little background, we’re having trouble with the boiler on Earth. You may have observed that it broke last year, and then again this year: well – it’s still broken, really. Nowadays it’ll only produce a little hot water at a time, and makes a noise like that scene in Titanic where the ship begins to tear in two. You know – a bad noise for a boiler to make. Over the last two or three weeks we’ve repeatedly fought to get it repaired, but it’s been challenging: more on that in a different blog post, if JTA doesn’t get there first.

JTA replied:

On the plus side, at least this saga is overriding your phone’s memory of your previous life as a male prostitute. :-)

I was once mistaken for a gay prostitute, actually – by a gay prostitute – but that’s another story, I guess. In any case, I responded:

Until now! you’ve just mentioned that again, which means it’ll be the “last message received” when the paramedics go through my phone if I’m killed on the way to work this morning. And they’ll say, “yeah; I’d pay to have sex with him.”

Quickly followed by:

And his mate will say:
“Now he’s dead, you don’t HAVE to pay.”
If my corpse is raped by a paramedic, I’m blaming you.

To which JTA said:

You’re talking about people who drive blacked out vans full of drugs. I’m pretty sure they never pay.

From prostitution to necrophilia to date rape over the course of only a handful of text messages. What a great start to a Wednesday morning. I do like the image of an ambulance as “a blacked out van full of drugs,” though…

The Board Games Are Breeding

A a means to take a break from the code I was working on for half an hour (I’m doing some freelance work for SmartData in my spare time, since I left them to go and work for the Bodleian Library, in order to help wrap up a project that I was responsible for at the end of my time there), I decided to go downstairs and do some packing in anticipation of our upcoming house move.

The first four boxes full of board games.

I packed about four boxes worth of board games, and then stood back to take a look at the shelves… and damnit, they look just as full as they did before I started.

I swear that my board game collection must be breeding, somehow. “Perhaps that’s where expansion packs come from,” suggests Paul. Perhaps: but that wouldn’t manage to explain the optical illusion that makes it look like I’ve got four boxes full of games when in actual fact they’re all still on the shelves, unless they’re breeding as fast as I can pack them.

This might take a while.


The Murder Mystery Where Nobody Was Murdered

Warning: this blog post contains spoilers about the Murder Mystery Way Out West by Freeform Games. If you’re ever likely to participate in this commercially-available murder mystery, you might like to skip over this blog post.

A few weekends ago, as planned, we hosted Murder… Way Out West, the Earthlings‘ most-recent murder mystery night. My new job, among other things, has been keeping me busy at the moment, so I’ve not had the chance until now to really write it up: apologies to everybody who’s patiently waited to see the photos!

Some of our friends couldn't make it to this party, and so - in their honour - I made up about ten 'WANTED' posters of them. Here's Adam's poster.

We’d originally planned to host Murder at the Glam Rock Concert, which I’ve recently been writing, but an increase in my workload towards the end of my job at SmartData had simply made it impossible for me to finish authoring it in time. Instead, we purchased a prefabricated “print and play” murder mystery kit from online retailer Freeform Games.

Rory (Judge John Paulson) consults his notes as he sits down to talk with Ruth (his old friend Runs Like A Deer).

Compared to the unscripted “freestyle” murder mystery games I’ve written, there were a few differences in Way out West that made me slightly apprehensive:

Firstly: the majority of the characters start the game with all of the information that will be given to them. This differs from my unscripted mysteries, which  have always introduced additional information at the start of a second act, at least. For example: in the successful Murder at the Magic College, Old Betty (Siân)’s second act envelope revealed that she had, between the acts, visited her greenhouse, which provided her with valuable information.

Saloon Madame Blaise Sadler (Liz) in her fantastic costume.

On one hand, I’ve always felt that drip-feeding information to characters in this way is somehow lying: in some of the less well-written “scripted” kits we’ve played over the years, the information that is introduced is pretty contrived – almost predictable, with some authors – and it doesn’t always flow nicely. However, it’s been my experience that it’s easier for players to get into character, faster, if they’re given basic information to start with and then a fuller explanation of their investigation once they’ve gotten underway (and have a couple of drinks down their necks!).

Good-time-girl Kalamata Kate (Becky) doesn't have a clue what's going on. Why has she been given a skirt from the stagecoach?

The other question that comes out of this discussion is should the murderer know that they’re the murderer right from the start? Freeform Games and I disagree on this one: they feel that the murderer should know. It’s my feeling, though, that this – counter-intuitively – makes it too hard for the murderer (who has to lie, more convincingly, for longer, unless he or she is given a sufficiently bulletproof alibi to work with), and it makes it particularly challenging to get into character (which many players already find hard).

Doc Faraday (Simon) stops his card sharkery for a few minutes to camp out by the buffet table (and practice his outrageous accent!).

Of course, there was one particular thing about this murder mystery that made this question somewhat redundant (and here’s where you really need the spoiler warning)… in this particular murder mystery… there is no murderer!

Clem Parham, brought to life by Matt R as one of the most completely evil and self-centered characters I've ever come across.

Wait a minute… what? Yes, it turns out that the “murder” victim actually died of a heart attack. Admittedly, he was probably under a great deal of stress after being beaten quite severely by Slick O’Hare (Kit), on the orders of Clem Parham (Matt R). And this may have contributed to his death; but let’s be clear here – the charges should be assault and manslaughter. And this isn’t a “Manslaughter Mystery”, it’s a “Murder Mystery”, damnit!

Nice-guy Mel Easton (Paul) probably can't afford what Blaise is selling from her self-appointed "office" of Earth's bathroom.

The author had obviously intended that Slick and Clem would want to try to cover their tracks (or else, failing that, to turn on one another in an attempt to save themselves). After all, the Old West probably isn’t that forgiving of the difference between murder and manslaughter! But by a combination of the broken concept and some slightly-sloppy writing, this wasn’t particularly clear. Despite having been with him when he died, I heard the culprits talking to one another early on, saying “Are we… the murderers?” You’d think that they’d know!

Preacher Elijah Entwhistle (Matt P) says a prayer on behalf of the pagan redface Runs Like A Deer.

The others were confused and perhaps felt slightly cheated by this quirk, too. I’d once considered writing a “murderless” mystery once, myself, in which the victim’s death was unrelated to any of the characters (suicide, perhaps) but where they all had motive to kill them, but I eventually ruled it out based on the fact that it wouldn’t be very fun and that everybody would feel like they’d been robbed of the experience of deducing the murderer. It looks like I’d have been right.

Mel sits with Lucy Calhoun (Fiona). I wonder if she knows by now that he's at least partially responsible for the death of her father?

Another thing that was unusual and different about Way out West, compared to our usual homegrown mysteries, was the emphasis that was put onto special abilities, item effects, and combat. In our previous events each character has had only two or three “special” things that they can do, whereas in this Freeform Games event each character had a great number of abilities, and most had a weapon and/or a special item (not directly related to the main plot, but possibly related to a subplot), too. I get the impression that these were initially a little overwhelming, but by the end people were using their abilities reasonably effectively (including a whole string of people pickpocketing one another!).

Slick and Lucy, just minutes before she threatened him with a gun and he quickly garroted her. His body was later found outside, picked clean of his possessions by a pair of prostitutes.

The combat aspect of the game was another unusual one. Aside from the actual murder (or not, in this case) and the tension-building, late-game “The Murderer Strikes Again…” cards in Magic College (carefully balanced with a number of characters who can and items that can be used to communicate with the dead), we’ve not seen much death during a murder mystery game before. Even sanitised as it was (most characters, most of the time, will recover from their injuries without assistance, eventually), I was worried that it might lead to griefing, but in actual fact it was used sparingly and people seemed to “get into it” pretty well (even going so far as to collapse with a scream, and those who discovered the body would express shock and concern).


Kate and Blaise; a pair of thieving whores.

Unlike most of our homegrown mystery nights, little guidance was given to players about the relative worths of their goals, but this seemed to work out reasonably well as players were encouraged to do “what felt right” to them: Deputy Dan Fairweather (JTA), for example, having won the heart of Lucy (Fiona), decided that the most important thing to him was to ensure that the Judge (Rory) wasn’t allowed to be compromised, even if that meant relieving him of his post (by force, if necessary). This wasn’t directly alluded to in his “things to do” goal list – just like Lucy’s plan for the possible division of her father’s land between Mel’s (Paul‘s) railroad company and her friend Blaise (Liz) as part of a deeper and more complex scheme by which she got hold of a map to a silver mine… couldn’t have been scripted, but fell together (with a lot of last-minute improvisation) without a hitch.

Players read the backgrounds of their characters.

As usual, Ruth did a fantastic job of laying out a feast of thematically-valid food: drawing from a variety of American cuisine and sprinkled with a lot of love and imagination (and all alongside playing a complex character with a complicated costume: fake tan and all).

The stagecoach is coming! The residents of Cactus Gulch gather to receieve news and mail from back East.

I was immensely impressed, yet again, as the players outdid themselves (yet again, again, for many of them) in terms of the dedication they threw at their characterisation, costumes, and performances. Clem was sickeningly evil and looked down on the other characters from the side of the room, flipping his (genuine) silver dollar from the actual year in which the event was set. Slick spent far too long (and too much pain) getting his scar “just right”. Dan Fairweather’s gun was only a little bit of drilling away from being a legitimate firearm, and had a weight to it that made you feel that he could actually club somebody to death with it. Blaise showed a lot of flesh, but also showed a lot of character with a faux Southern drawl and grainy photographs of the girls she had for hire. The characters expressed love and concern for (and hatred and disgust with) one another and all because the players worked so hard to bring them to life. It was beautiful to watch.

The classic, traditional, "we caught a murderer" shot.

In the end – despite the fact that most folks were correctly pointing the finger at one or both of the culprits (not that there was a murder, but you see my point) – the deputy sheriff’s final decision was that “it would be too obvious” if the two most nasty characters turned out the be the murderer. Obviously he’d not picked up yet on quite how transparent and single-dimensional some of the writing was: thankfully we have such outrageously imaginative friends that they managed to pull the night off anyway! In any case, he decided to hang Blaise Sadler, so we all get to see a photo of Liz looking… what I think she wanted to come across as “shocked”, but which could equally be termed “blowjob-lips”.

Liz is, umm, "shocked".

Despite all odds and some mediocre source material, a great night was had by all. You can find a download link to get all of the photos in the sidebar of the official website.

Murder at the Glam Rock Concert will still happen, someday, so get those dancing boots and that glittery make-up ready (yes, guys too!) for the next Murder Mystery Night. Hope to see you there!

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The Crack

There’s a man in the house. He carries a hammer in his toolbelt and shows the crack of his bottom over the top of his worn workwear even when he’s not crawling around on the floorboards. He’s been sent to repair a few bits of Earth, our perpetually-falling-apart house, and to quote for a handful of further improvements that he’s hoping to persuade the landlord to let him install after we’ve gone.

He repairs the wobbly floorboard in my office while I try to get on with some work. The floorboard sinks considerably when it’s walked over, and feels like it might at any moment send me plummeting down into Paul‘s room. It’ll be good to have it repaired, even if this does occur only weeks before we are due to move out.

I’m listening to a Radio 4 program about disenchantment with contemporary financial establishments and cyber-trading and the recent growth of interest in gold trading as a “safety net”. A panellist says that for the first time in recorded history, the majority of gold is held by private investors, rather than by central banks. At some point, another panellist describes the expertise required by financial traders and a post-capitalist economy as being esoteric.

The builder pulls his head out from below the floorboards and speaks. “Ee-sow-terick?” he says, “I don’t even know what that means!”

“That’s subtly ironic, then!” I reply, not sure whether or not he’s being serious.

The builder makes a grunting sound that I interpret as being a derivation on the word “Huh?”

“Something esoteric is… something known only to a few; to an elite minority, perhaps,” I begin. “Like the word itself, it turns out,” I add, after a pause.

The builder grunts again; a sound that expresses his disinterest even more thoroughly than did his last utterance. He rolls the carpet back to where it belongs, and – by way of demonstration – jumps up and down. Somehow, in the last two minutes, he’s managed to repair the fragile floorboard. I didn’t even see what he was doing: one moment there was a hole in the floor, and now… everything was fine. I’d have been no less surprised if he’d produced the Nine of Spades from behind my ear. Perhaps I was merely distracted by the radio, but I’ve got no idea how he did it.


Murder… Way Out West

Howdy, everybody!

On the evening of Saturday 26th March, Earth will host it’s latest Murder Mystery Night: Murder… Way Out West! It’ll be a rootin’, tootin’, barrel of fun, with gunslingers and prospectors and natives scheming and dealing and trying to catch a murderer: or to get away with murder!

Whether or not you’ve been to one of our murder mystery nights before, here’s a great opportunity to come visit, catch up, dress up, and act like a fool. If you’re free, get in touch! The more, the merrier: but let us know so that we can assign you a character!

For those of you that care about the setting and plot of these things, here’s what you need to know:

It is the spring of 1884. America’s west coast is slowly being populated with small towns full of settlers, come to prospect for precious metals, set up ranches and run dubious saloons and now the railroad is coming! Cactus Gulch is one such small town, founded 20 years ago and tonight it has a festive air as the townsfolk get set to start their 20th anniversary celebrations.

However, all is not running smoothly. Land disputes, disreputable card games, strange folk from out of town and hostile Indians all add to a tense atmosphere. Join us in the Silver Dollar Saloon as celebrations begin and find out how the evening unfolds…

Hope to see you there, pardner.

Finding my Geographic Centre

Have you come across GeoMidpoint? This web service will help you find the midpoint between any number of geographical points. They’ve got all kinds of proposed uses for it, like finding a convenient restaurant that’s equidistant from each of you and your friends, but one of the more frivolous activities you can enjoy using it for is to find your home “centre of gravity”. Put in everywhere you’ve lived (and, optionally, how long you lived there for, as a weighting factor), and it’ll show you the centre point.

I gave it a go. Here’s where I’m centred.

Dan's centre point (the green 'M' pin).

Okay, you think – it’s not so surprising that the centre point is near Preston: I spent over a decade living there. But here’s the quirk: my addresses weren’t weighted by how long I’d lived there. All I did is put in everywhere I’d lived for six months or more, and let these places all have equal weight.

Curious, then, that the centre point comes to within a quarter hour’s drive of either of my parents’ houses, in Preston.

I suppose there are some balancing factors, here: places that cancel one another out quite nicely. The Northern bias of Scotland is counteracted by the comparative Southernness of Aberystwyth, Oxford, and Surrey. The strong Western bias of the many different places I lived in Aberystwyth are invalidated by quite how far East Aberdeen and London are. But still, it seems to be a quirky coincidence to me that the centre point would be so close to where I did most of my growing up, despite how much I’ve moved around.

New Earth, where we'll be moving later this year

This observation comes only a little while after the other Earthlings and I have finished signing the paperwork on what is later this year to become our new home, New Earth. It’s still in the Oxford area, but provides us with some nice things that we’re looking forward to, like more space (something we never seem to have enough of!). And any of you who’ve visited by car will probably appreciate how much more accessible the driveway is…

We’ll be moving this Summer, and in doing so we’ll pull my little green triangle over into Chorley. Better that, I think, than out in the Irish sea, which is where it’d be if I weighted where I’d lived by the amount of time I’d spent there!

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When we woke up this morning Oxford was caked with a blanket of snow, about two inches thick and growing fast. Ruth, JTA and I thought that we’d make the most of it and go for a walk along the Cherwell, and by the time we were heading back the snow was ankle-deep. Reaching the corner of the street where we live we helped a few stranded motorists whose vehicles had taken one look at the hill near our house and said “fuck this for a lark.” Specifically, we helped them by pushing their cars off junctions and out of the way of other cars. It didn’t take long to realise that the chaos that was the series of junctions on the main road was only getting worse, and, caught out by our own sense of social conscience (and perhaps at least a little inspired by a recent story we’d read), we decided that we could be doing more.

We trekked back to Earth and collected hardy boots, hi-visibility jackets, shovels, and brushes, and made our way back to the junction. And, for the next hour or two, we worked at clearing the road and rescuing motorists. Before long there were others coming out of their houses and workplaces and helping: pushing cars up hills and clearing snow and ice from troublesome parts of the road. Highlights included:

  • Rescuing dozens of motorists who’d otherwise have been completely stuck.
  • Shoveling clear an escape road for vehicles that couldn’t make it up the hill.
  • Giving directions to motorists whose routes were blocked, to pedestrians whose buses had been cancelled, etc.
  • Stopping all traffic in order to prioritise ambulances, as we’re on a hospital approach road. You’d be amazed how many motorists will do what you tell them when you’re wearing a flourescent jacket.
  • Getting thanked by a great number of people.
  • Getting complaints from a minority of people who were angry that we were shovelling and not salting/gritting: presumably they thought that we were employed by the council.
  • Meeting like-minded helpful people who came out of their houses and workplaces to lend a hand.

We returned to Earth and drank mulled wine with Hanna, a woman who lives up the road from us who came out and helped. She’d been expecting her boyfriend (who’s visiting for the weekend) but he’s among the thousands of people stuck out in the snow, and even five hours after he was expected he hadn’t yet arrived. Then we made snow angels in the garden.

And because karma doesn’t believe in us, the universe repaid our kindness by having our boiler break down again (but in a different way) this evening. So now we’re sat in blankets in the living room.

Hectic (so let’s look at Paul, instead of writing a proper blog post)

Between SmartData work, Three Rings work, freelance work, strange new bits of voluntary work, and the rapidly-looming wedding between Ruth & JTA (along with handling all of the crises that come with that, like the two mentioned on the wedding blog and the threat of rail strike action on the weekend of the event, which may affect the travel plans of guests from Aberystwyth), things are a little hectic here on Earth. And I’m sure that I’ve not even got it the worst.

So in order to distract myself from it during this 5-minute moment-to-breathe, I’d like to share with you some photos on the subject of “living with Paul“. As usual, click on a picture for a larger version.

Paul in a supermarket under a sign that reads "Single Lemons".
Paul – Single Lemon

Our shopping trips have become in different ways both more and less organised, thanks to Paul (seen here posing under a “single lemon” sign). More organised in that Paul does a sterling job of making sure that our shopping list whiteboard is up-to-date, and less organised in that we’re even less likely to comply with it… not least because it’s cute the way that his little head explodes when we deliberately and maliciously make minor deviations in our shopping plans.

WALL-E holding a "just plain gone" sign.
Paul’s current status, according to WALL-E.

Well-known as somebody who outright rejects Twitter, Facebook and the like, Paul’s come up with his own mechanism for sharing his current status with those he cares about: the low-tech alternative – note cards. Held up by a WALL-E figurine at the door to his room, Paul keeps us up-to-date with a series of about half a dozen pre-written messages that cycle in accordance with what he’s up to at any given time. They’re quickly out of date (right now, it says “In. Please wave.” but he’s clearly not here), limited in length, and mundane, just like the vast majority of Twitter posts… but at least he’s not attempting to subject the world to them. I’m still not sure, though, whether this tiny protest against social networking (if that’s what it is) is sheer genius, complete insanity, or perhaps both.

Yorkshire pudding!
Yorkshire pudding!

Paul is now officially in charge of all Yorkshire pudding production on Earth, after we enjoyed this gargantuan beast.

Right: my break’s over and I need to get back to my mountain of work. If you’ve not had your fill of Paul yet, then I point you in the direction of a video he’s just uploaded to YouTube

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Murder At The Magic College

A week last Sunday – just a couple of day’s after Paul‘s arrivalEarth hosted a housewarming event combined with our latest Murder Mystery, Murder at the Magic College. While we’ve had our fair share of Murder Mystery Nights before, this is only the third one I’d authored (after Murder in the Reign of Terror and Murder… in Space!), and only the second to use the non-scripted approach that many of have rapidly become fond of.

As usual, planning actually started about six months prior, when I made the first notes about what would eventually become the plot of the event, but that’s reasonably unexciting (although everybody does seem to be shocked when I point out that excluding all of my notes, the final printed materials given out at the party itself totaled a little over 26,000 words: just a little shorter than my dissertation!). Instead, let’s skip to just before the party, so I can have an excuse to show off the enormous amount of shopping we had to do in advance (as usual, click on any picture to embiggen):

Ruth and JTA with a huge amount of shopping.

Ruth did her usual heroic quantity of cooking, starting several days before the event, and she was still sorting things out when Liz, Simon, and Finbar arrived, and quickly got roped into helping out.

Simon laying out food.

Turn up early, will you? That’ll teach you. Ruth had gone all out on the magical theme to the food, with treats appearing on the table such as rat-on-a-stick, spider pies (with legs sticking out of the top!), pastry “bones”, cakes decorated with magic wands and witches hats, and spacey twinkles on everything.

Earth's galley kitchen.

As the time came around for the party to start, a crisis occurred – as is traditional, just to keep my blood pressure from getting too low. This time around, my sister’s friend Zara had been hospitalised following an asthma attack, and this was destined to keep my mother, her partner Andy, my sister Becky, and her friends Zara and Jemma, from coming on time. As Zara got herself onto a nebuliser I re-jiggered all of the characters and got as many guests to Earth as possible, so that we could kick off.

Conspiratorial magicians.
(if anybody is concerned about Zara’s health, I wouldn’t bother – she was later spotted smoking a cigarette in our garden, obviously feeling a lot better for her hospital trip)

Plotting and interrogations.
As the Harry Potter films’ soundtracks played quietly in the background, the news came that the Dean of the Faculty of Runic Magic, Lewis Sloman, had been murdered, and the investigation was underway. Thanks to a few refinements made to the structure of the evening since Murder… in Space!, people managed to get “into character” quite quickly and the plot progressed reasonably smoothly all by itself.

Liz and Finbar
This Murder Mystery gave me the opportunity to try out a few experimental new ideas, which were – with one exception – reasonably successful. One new idea was the possibility for the murderer, later in the evening, to “Strike Again!”, taking extra victims in a bid to escape detection. Normally I would be very wary about adding the capability for a character to be “knocked out” of the game (after all, what does the player do for the rest of the evening, then?). However, at the Magic College, death doesn’t have to be the end, and a deceased character can continue to haunt the halls as a ghost (although they’re only permitted to communicate with particular other characters, and only under special circumstances).

JTA and Doreen
In addition, most of the characters (all of the faculty and students, but not so much the muggles) were “spellcasters”, and had not only one or two Ability cards to make use of, but also one or two Spell cards. The Spells were powerful (typically) one-shot abilities, but most of them were capable of being “recharged” by getting hold of a handful of “magic herbs” from the magic herb seller (who knew full well what her wares were worth and made a killing out of them).

My dad looks puzzled by his script among a sea of magic-users.
Another experimental feature of this Murder Mystery was that a handful of the characters could read one of the two “magical languages” of the land: “Runic”, and the “Language of the Mystics”. Characters who could read one, the other, or both of these had simple substitution cipher decoder keys printed on their character sheets. Now and then a clue would turn up that was written in one or the other language, so it was critical that characters had found multilingual characters that they could trust if they wanted to work out what these clues said.

Second act notes are dispensed.
I’d deliberately tried to keep the pressure on, pushing events onwards throughout the evening and making sure that it was impossible for each character to achieve everything they wanted to with every other character before each Act ended. I wanted to create a mild sense of panic and urgency and an slight out-of-control feeling, but moreover, I wanted to give the players the sense that no matter what subplots they’d discovered and how close they were to working out who the murderer was, there was always something else going on that they just didn’t have time to look into right now.

Spectating a monologue
By way of example, here’s a list of some of the subplots – aside from the murder – that comprised the event (if you were there, how many did you pick up on?):

  • All of the Faculty (Vesper Martini [JTA], Alan Tworings [Andy], Maggie Vixen [Liz H], and Sybil Scrawny [Doreen]) had a motivation to become the new Dean, but how important it was to them varied from character to character. Vesper Martini eventually achieved this goal by making outrageous promises to get people on his side.
  • All of the Students wanted to pass next week’s Potions exam, but there were different ways to achieve this. High-flyers Harriet Plotter [Liz V] and Eskarina Smythe [Ruth] would pass without effort, but Ronald Ferret [Simon] and Daniel Paulson [Statto] wouldn’t. An answers sheet stolen by Ron would guarantee a pass, as could Sybil Scrawny’s exam exemption certificate, but Eskarina had the more-challenging goal that she wanted to get the highest mark, which involved ensuring that Harriet had to sit the exam and that no other candidate cheated.
  • One muggle, Melinda Spoolreel [Rosalind], actually had a Spell that they were capable of casting.
  • Old Betty [Sian], formerly known as Bethany Spoolreel, was actually the mother of Melinda Spoolreel, who for most of her life she’d believed to have been deceased. Had the late Dean’s plan to in-source the production of spell reagents gone ahead, it was Betty’s daughter who would lose out the most.
  • Harriet and Ron were both addicted to the consumption of magical herbs, and worked together to try to ensure that none of the faculty discovered their habit (while still trying to feed it!).
  • Eskarina was infatuated with her teacher, Vesper Martini, but he took her interest in him and his work mostly as her being just a promising and dedicated student.
  • Daniel was due to be expelled this afternoon by the old Dean – he’d even gone so far as to sign out the expulsion form (which began in Alan Tworings’ possession, and could have been a great way for a faculty member to threaten a student! Of course, by the time Daniel turned up (late – he was busy smoking magic herbs with Harriet) to his appointment the Dean was already dead, and as such wasn’t answering the door.
  • Lewis had been cheating on Alison with Sybil, but had called it off in an attempt to turn over a new leaf and repair the relationship with his wife.
  • Eskarina’s Spell, Reveal, let her get herself and two other characters together and all put their Secrets in a heap, then flip a randomly-selected two of them. Old Betty’s Ability, Stoicism, could temporarily counteract the ability to expose her secret, so, unlike all of the other Ability cards, it was printed on the same-coloured card as the Secrets were, in case she were targetted by Eskarina.
  • Harriet had the unusual second-Act goal that she wanted some people to accuse her of being the murderer! (but not enough to have her executed, of course)
  • The old Dean was aware that money was disappearing from the Library’s funds (because Alan Tworings was diverting them to the greenhouses, much to Old Betty’s surprise, to ensure that her Skeleton Key Tree was ready for his use), but he’d mistakenly assumed that librarian Eric Lazyman [Finbar] was embezzling. This had strained Lewis and Eric’s relationship and almost cost Eric his job.
  • The murderer didn’t know that the deceased would be given minor clues as to their identity, and didn’t necessarily know that the deceased would be able to communicate with the living (until Maggie Vixen leapt excitably across the room shouting about how thrilled she was that the body was still warm and the soul still fresh).
  • Vesper Martini was trying to recover a pendant to which only he knew the name (but it was on his Secret card, if anybody exposed it) that could, when worn by somebody who knew its name, protect the bearer from death.
  • Vengeful Alison wanted her husband’s killer brought to justice, and was also quite keen that the “other woman” in his life died, too.
  • Horny Ronald wanted to get a date with Harriet, Eskarina, or Maggie, but failed miserably.
  • Mark Woodbury [Peter] wanted to get hold of the magic bookmark or the alchemy textbook to include in his muggle-world theme park.
  • Maggie’s Womanly Wiles Ability would not function against Alan Tworings (who, as we all later found out, was gay), but had she tried, she wouldn’t be told specifically why it had failed.
  • Both Maggie and Sybil wanted to show off their abilities, which required them to cast their Spells and to later share the knowledge they’d gained with others.
  • Eric’s library book contained on the inside front cover a library slip that demonstrated that Alan was last to take it out before it was reported damaged, and only borrowed it for a single day.
  • Alison wanted to finish the evening in possession of her husband’s last letter: some time after Eskarina put it up on the whiteboard for everybody to see, it mysteriously went missing…
  • Every Minor Character had a clue: did you get them all?

Puzzling over the clues
Another distinction setting this Murder Mystery apart from others was the Minor Characters twist. Pushed for time and with more and more potential guests (and with several guests saying that they didn’t really want to have to take part in a huge way), I came up with the idea of casting some people as Minor Characters, with a lesser role to play. This backfired somewhat, it seems, because the Major Characters, stressed at having to discover clues at speed, tended to ignore the Minor Characters (who were less use to them), making them feel left out. I’m not sure that Minor Characters are unfixable, but they definitely need more “bang” if they’re going to appear in any future Mystery I write.

Chilling with secondary characters.
This Murder Mystery had the greatest proportion of “newbies” of any I’ve ever been involved with, with the exception of the very first. Of the 13 Major Characters, only 4 had any kind of previous interactive Murder Mystery experience, and only 2 of those had experience of an unscripted interactive experience like this one. I was a little nervous that people would be able to get into character, but adding “just read it out” style introductions and a handful of tips of “things to try first” seemed to make all the difference, and the characters all sprung to life remarkably quickly (aided, perhaps, by the copious quantities of alcohol available).

Tworings' interrogation.
In fact, I’ve been told that in some cases people’s enthusiasm for playing the part of their character and wanting to show off their trivia and silly accents actually got in the way of the players’ investigative efforts. Everybody was having so much fun playing make-believe that they sometimes completely forgot to gather clues and achieve their goals, instead simply chatting about their projects, about upcoming exams, about who they think will become the next Dean, and about tasty tasty rat-on-a-stick.

Finbar and Doreen conspire.
There were plenty of secret negotiations, alliances made and broken, and plenty of lying and backstabbing. I’d given more-than-usual freedom to the characters to lie about things than ever before, this time, and some imaginative (and in some cases accidental) lies quickly turned into rumours and spread via gossip throughout the cast. At one point I heard Dirk the Dragonslayer [Paul] talking about something “he’d heard” (which I knew not to be true: I’d never written anything of the sort, and it directly contradicted some of the less well-known evidence), and later heard a cluster of other characters trading this gossip it as information.

Finbar watches Jemma flounce past.
Yet again, the players exceeded my wildest expectations in their ability to bring my characters to life. For anybody not aware of my process, I don’t write particular characters to fit particular players (I couldn’t if I wanted to: when I start writing the characters up to half a year in advance of the party, it’s far too early to plan such things), and in fact it’s not even me that assigns the characters. Instead, I write the characters and then have Ruth – who only gets to see one or two sentences about each – assign them, and so it’s particularly amusing to me when a secret character trait appropriate to a player gets coincidentally given to them. And in the other cases: well, that’s what role-playing is about, isn’t it – getting into a character that isn’t yourself, and it pleases me immensely to see the characters I’ve spent months crafting brought to life through the interpretation of my friends.

The Whiteboard of Secrets and Lies
At the end of the evening the votes came in as to who everybody thought was the murderer. Alan (actually the murderer) took the first few votes, and then Ron (innocent!) rocketed ahead. I couldn’t understand this: why were so many people suspecting poor Ron? It turns out that it was all because of a lie he told early on: in order to try to cover for the fact that he’d stolen the answer sheet to next week’s exam, he tried spread a rumour that he was busy revising in the Library during the afternoon. It later became apparent that this unsubstantiated alibi (which could only have been exposed by persuading his friend, Harriet, to come clean and tell everybody that they’d been together, doing drugs, at the time) placed him unfortunately right where many people suspected that the murderer must have been at that time! Worse yet, those who realised that he was lying about his whereabouts at about the time of the murder quickly made the assumption that he must be doing this to cover for having been the killer!

The Accusation
Another quirk to this particular party was a final secret ballot to nominate the new Dean and to pick the favourite costume, acting, and best investigator from the group. Alan managed to get away with the murder (and with managing to also kill the librarian, during the evening, whose strong and very vocal public accusations were starting to intimidate him), but didn’t quite manage to take the Deanship: that was snatched by rival Vesper Martini, who’d spent the evening spinning a web of false promises, playing to the characteristics that everybody wanted to see in their new Dean.

So there we go, another fabulous Murder Mystery – perhaps the best yet! I’ve learned a lot, as always, that I’ll be using for the next Murder Mystery, Murder at the Rock Concert (working title), that we’ll be running in the New Year sometime. This new Murder Mystery will be set at the backstage party of a 1974 glam rock concert where the lead singer will turn up dead, so find yourself a pair of platform soles and some glittery make-up (guys too!) and we’ll see you then!

Further reading:

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Working From Home

The phone rings. It’s clear to me by the sound it makes and by the image on it’s display that this is a business call.

“Good morning, SmartData; Dan speaking,” I say.

The caller identifies themselves, and asks to speak to Alex, another SmartData employee. I look to my right to see if Alex is available (presumably if he was, he’d have answered the call before it had been forwarded to me). This is possible because of the two-way webcam feed on the monitor beside me.

“I’m afraid Alex isn’t in yet,” I begin, bringing up my co-worker’s schedule on the screen in front of me, to determine what he’s up to, “He’ll be in at about 10:30 this morning. Can I get him to call you back?”

Not for a second did it occur to the caller that I wasn’t sat right there in the office, looking over at Alex’s chair and a physical calendar. Of course, I’m actually hundreds of miles away, in my study in Oxford. Most of our clients – even those whom I deal with directly – don’t know that I’m no longer based out of SmartData’s marina-side offices. Why would they need to? Just about everything I can do from the office I can do from my own home. Aside from sorting the mail on a morning and taking part in the occasional fire drill, everything I’d regularly do from Aberystwyth I can do from here.

Back when I was young, I remember reading a book once which talked about advances in technology and had wonderful pictures of what life would be like in the future. This wasn’t a dreamland of silver jumpsuits and jetpacks; everything they talked about in this book was rooted in the trends that we were already beginning to see. Published in the early 80s, it predicted a microcomputer in every home and portable communicators that everybody would have that could be used to send messages or talk to anybody else, all before the 21st century. Give or take, that’s all come to pass. I forget what the title of the book was, but I remember enjoying it as a child because it seemed so believable, so real. I guess it inspired a hopeful futurism in me.

But it also made another prediction: that with this rise in telecommunications technologies and modern microcomputers (remember when we still routinely called them that?), we’d see a greap leap in the scope for teleworking: office workers no longer going to a place of work, but remotely “dialling in” to a server farm in a distant telecentre. Later, it predicted, with advances in robotics, specialist workers like surgeons would be able to operate remotely too: eventually, through mechanisation of factories, even manual labourers would begun to be replaced by work-at-home operators sat behind dumb terminals.

To play on a cliché: where’s my damn flying car?

By now, I thought that about a quarter of us would be working from home full-time or most of the time, with many more – especially in my field, where technology comes naturally – working from home occasionally. Instead, what have we got? Somewhere in the region of one in fifty, and that includes the idiots who’ve fallen for the “Make £££ working from home” scams that do the rounds every once in a while and haven’t yet realised that they’re not going to make any £, let alone £££.

At first, I thought that this was due to all of the traditionally-cited reasons: companies that don’t trust their employees, managers who can’t think about results-based assessment rather than presence-based assessment, old-school thinking, and not wanting to be accused of favouritism by allowing some parts of their work force to telework while others can’t. In some parts of the world, and some fields, we’ve actually seen a decrease in teleworking over recent years: what’s all that about?

I’m sure that the concerns listed above are still critical factors for many companies, but I’ve realised that there could be another, more-recent fear that’s now preventing the uptake of teleworking in many companies. That fear is one that affects everybody – both the teleworkers and their comrades in the offices, and it’s something that more and more managers are becoming aware of: the fear of outsourcing.

After all, if a company’s employees can do their work from home, then they can do it from anywhere. With a little extra work on technical infrastructure and a liberal attitude to meetings, the managers can work from anywhere, too. So why stop at working from home? Once you’ve demonstrated that your area of work can be done without coming in to the office, then you’re half-way to demonstrating that it can be done from Mumbai or Chennai, for a fraction of the price… and that’s something that’s a growing fear for many kinds of technical workers in the Western world.

Our offices are a security blanket: we’re clinging on to them because we like to pretend that they’ll protect us; that they’re something special and magical that we can offer our clients that the “New World” call centres and software houses in India and China can’t offer them. I’m not sure that a security blanket that allows us to say “we have a local presence” will mean as much in ten years time as it does today.

In the meantime, I’m still enjoying working from home. It’s a little lonely, sometimes – on days when JTA isn’t around, which are going to become more common when he starts his new job –  but the instant messenger and Internet telephony tools we use make it feel a little like I’m actually in the office, and that’s a pretty good trade-off in exchange for being able to turn up at work in my underwear, if I like.

Busy Weekends Part III

As if we hadn’t been busy enough the weekend before last and the one before that, there’s more that I’m only just getting around to blogging! It was only when I thought about writing this up that I realised how much I’d neglected to write about already (and had promised people would be “coming soon”). So, without further ado; here’s what Ruth, JTA and I got up to last weekend.

Aside from our two attempts to conquer the Dunwich Horror (both attempts were failures, although the second was ever so close, ending with Ruth’s character in a one-on-one deathmatch with a Great Old One), our major event was a trip down to London on Saturday. After all, since the move to Earth, London feels like it’s pretty-much on our doorstep: so there’s no excuse not to take in a bit of culture once in a while in the heart of the capital. Of course, when we say culture

Ye Old Cock Tavern

We started out in Ye Old Cock Tavern on Fleet Street, because – hey – early afternoon is a perfectly good time to start drinking on a weekend. They did some pretty good chips, too, which we picked at as we drank our pints and watched a crowd gather for a wedding at the church up the road, nestled between the old newspaper buildings.


Next up was Volupté, a burlesque club with a bi-monthly lunchtime Afternoon Tease. We started with a few fabulously-mixed and ludicrously ornate cocktails: only the first of many. The bar staff are simply entertaining to watch

Dan, Ruth and JTA drinking cocktails in Volupte
Aside from the ongoing stream of cocktails (I particularly enjoyed the Porn Star Martini – which I’m seen drinking in the picture above – I don’t even remember what was in it, except that it came with a “shot” of champagne to drink before starting it), Afternoon Tease consisted of:

  • Drinking champagne and eating finger sandwiches
  • A guy dressed as Elvis, spinning hula hoops in ways that I didn’t think possible, to a medley of Elvis hits.
  • An extraordinarily erotic, genuinely tantalising peacock dance from a young lady going by Vicky Butterfly. She later returned for a second, different performance; not quite so arousing but equally mesmerising. That’s her in the picture, above.
  • Volupté’s special take on traditional tableaux vivants – gateaux vivants: a wonderfully mischievous woman posing behind little more than suspenders and a cake (with a fabulous parody of M&S food adverts gone by).
  • Scones and tea
  • A Miss. Rose Thorne, performing a tribute to Doris Day; and I can honestly say that I’ve never before seen a pair of gloves removed with such…  deliberate choreography. Very impressive.

By the time we staggered out into the afternoon sun, we were very entertained and quite spiffingly drunk. Volupté gains my recommendation, although I shall have to check the state of my bank account before trifling with their cocktail bar again!

The Golden Hinde

Next up, we made our way over the Thames to visit the replica of the Golden Hinde, the ship in which Sir Francis Drake completed his famous circumnavigation of the globe.

The (replica of the) Golden HindeYeah, it’s just a big boat (and not even that big). Ruth was pleased, though, but she is almost a big a fan of boats as she is for optimised road junctions. Of course, not to break the theme, we stopped for a drink in each of the two nearest bars to the vessel, as well as a snack to give us the energy for the next leg of our adventure, when we whipped out our Oyster cards and zipped down to Hammersmith for…

Penn & Teller

Yes, the Penn & Teller, during their 4-day-only visit to the UK (the first in 15 years), doing their usual mixture of magic and comedy in their in-your-face style, in a spectacular London show. If you’ve gotten this far down the post before you realised how awesome my weekend was, well, what took you so long?

I couldn’t even pick out my favourite part of the show. Perhaps it was one of these:

  • Teller “drowning” at the end of the first act as part of a card trick (yes, really!) gone wrong.
  • A whole series of fabulous tricks done with evidently-confused members of the audience (especially the one with the woman they had blindfolded and throwing knives towards Penn, and narrowly missing – it was all done with electromagnets, see?).
  • Stunning examples of cold-reading done using jokes randomly selected from joke books, with a predictive “hot reading” twist at the end.
  • The thought-provoking ending, in which Penn (between bouts of fire-eating) asks the audience to think not about how they do what they do, but why, along with some clues related to his experiences as an audience member of various shows.


By remarkable coincidence, Sundeep and her partner, Ashley, were also at the Apollo to see Penn & Teller! Wandering back from the bar during the intermission we just bumped into her. As she doesn’t blog these days, for the benefit of those who might be wondering: she’s doing well, still on maternity leave and looking after Vanessa, her daughter (who’s looking quite cute in many of the billion or so pictures she carries around with her on her phone), and both are happy and healthy. Ashley – whom we hadn’t met before now – seems nice: he has a certain rugged-but-cute French look and he works for a very worthwhile charity, both of which give him good points in my estimation.

Mexican Tapas

After leaving the show, we were peckish again, so we went around the corner to a cramped but wonderful-smelling Mexican restaurant for a round of Mexican-style tapas, which was delicious. By this point, we were just about ready to settle into a bus for the long but comfortable journey home, when…

Penn & Teller, Again

…wandering back, we spotted a small crowd of people near the Apollo. Wandering over, we discovered that Penn & Teller themselves were hanging out with folks outside the theatre, signing things and answering awkward questions.A crowd outside the theatre.
Needless to say, we hung around for a few minutes and got the chance to meet the magicians themselves.

JTA, Ruth, Dan, and Penn
Ruth – perhaps as evidenced by her expression in the photo, above – did her usual thing when in the company of a celebrity (as those of you who knew how she behaved around Lloyd Kaufman will know) of becoming a giggling little girl. She also managed to make a fool of herself by mumbling a question about the stage lighting to Teller, to which he didn’t have an answer (not a result of his on-stage muteness, though: he’s certainly happy to talk in person).

Ruth, JTA, Teller, and Dan
Meeting some of the most fabulous (and eccentric) magicians in the world is perhaps the best way to end a night out in London. But there was one more stop on our journey as we worked our way back to a Oxford Tube stop (avoiding the Circle Line, which wasn’t running):

White City

Yeah; perhaps not actually the highlight of the night, but as we were passing, Ruth insisted that we should get one more photo – for Adam‘s sake:

Ruth and JTAIn case your eyes aren’t up to it, or if you’re simply unable to recognise this iconic London landmark, that’s the White City BBC Television Centre in the photo.

We got back to Oxford a full 15 hours after we’d first left: considerably more exhausted, more drunk, and merrily surfing the buzz of all the fabulous things we’d gotten up to over the course of the day. Sunday became very much a day of rest (and recovery) – we’re not as young as we used to be, as I discovered to my horror during my last party-sized jaunt into the capital. Exhaustion aside, however, this was a fantastic day out.

How’ve your weekends been? Not as legendary as mine, I’m sure.

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Offshore Oil Strike

The Metro have a fabulous article about this board game:

Yes, it’s a game about drilling for oil using offshore digs. With a remarkable picture on the front of a rig in distinctly stormy seas. And look – there’s BP‘s logo on it: yes, Offshore Oil Strike got their official endorsement when it was released in the 1970s, but it’s coming back to haunt them now as board game collectors dig out their old copies and give it one last go (apparently it never sold very well, not least because it’s a dull and uninspiring game).

I was particularly amused by the card which reads “Blow-out! Rig damaged. Oil slick clean-up costs. Pay $1 million.” – one of the worst cards to draw as a player. A whole million dollars?

That diversion aside, there’s more fun and games here on Earth:

  • The other night, we got the chance to try Fat Boyz Pizza, our second-nearest local pizza place (after the Pizza Hut Express just around the corner). I was reasonably impressed: good-sized pizza at a reasonable price, very tasty, and only slightly too greasy (we’re talking a little bit too much grease, not Hollywood Pizza – from whom whose menu we ordered for many, many years back in Aberystwyth – here).
  • We have a green woodpecker who visits our garden. I’ve never seen a woodpecker in an urban environment before, but this one certainly seems keen. We speculate that his appearance right after we overturned a couple of ants’ nests while digging the garden is not a coincidence, though, but rather a tasty treat.
  • We’ve started planting! Only herbs and flowers, so far – and we’re probably too late in the year to kick off many vegetables – but it’s a start. Our garden still has a long way to go.

There’s Somebody At The Door

I was hacking away towards a deadline, this afternoon, when I heard a knock at the door. It’s not so unusual at the moment – we’ve had a lot of packages delivered to our new house over the last week or so – but what was a little strange was that today’s visitor was a County Court bailiff here on behalf of Her Majesty (okay, not her personally, I assume, but her courts at least).

Thankfully, it didn’t take much persuasion to get him to see that I wasn’t Mr. Parakesh, and he went on his merry way. And so, we learn a little more about the last occupiers of this house.

Weddings and Secret Gardens

Ruth, JTA and I – later joined by Matt P – went to Jen & Nick’s wedding over in Belfast this weekend, and it was awesome. They’re an amazing couple and it was great to get to be part of their celebrations, to meet the fabulous folks they’re related to, and to drink ourselves under the table. Ruth has already written a little about it, so I’ll just point you in the direction of her blog.

Jen & Nick's Wonderful Wedding Cake - each of the four layers is a different cake, including a layer that's gluten-free and a layer that's suitable for vegans. The sunflower theme was carried through the entire wedding.

In other news, I’ve been exploring OS maps and it turns out that the garden here on Earth is actually about 20-24 feet longer than we’d previously believed! There’s a fence at the “end” of our garden with a concealed mystery gate, behind which is land overgrown and bramble-filled… but a little research indicates that this, too, is our garden, and we’re now preparing to mount an expedition (with machetes!) to explore and conquer this new land. And then turn it into a vegetable plot.

The end of our garden, inset with some of the annoted maps I've been using to find the boundries of the property.

Right: time for lunch and to register with a local GP.

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