Murder in the Library

Two years after our last murder mystery party, almost three years since the one before, and much, much longer since our last in-person one, we finally managed to have another get-the-guests-in-one-place murder mystery party, just like old times. And it was great!

A woman dressed in a tweed waistcoat, glasses perched atop her head, sips a glass of champagne.
Full credit goes to Ruth who did basically all the legwork this time around. Cheers!

It’s still been been over a decade since we played a mystery that I wrote (though I’m hoping to rectify that within the year): this time we played D’Avekki StudiosMurder in the Library.

D’Avekki’s murder mystery sets use an unusual mechanic that I’ve discussed before online with other murder mystery party authorship enthusiasts1 but never tried in practice: a way of determining at random who the murderer is when play begins. This approach has a huge benefit in that it means that you can assign characters to players using a subset of those available (rather than the usual challenges that often come up when, for example, somebody need to play somebody of a different gender than their own) and, more-importantly, it protects you from the eventuality that a player drops-out at short notice. This latter feature proved incredibly useful as we had a total of three of our guests pull out unexpectedly!

Three people sit alongside a dining table: a woman with dark hair, holding her play notes, a man wearing sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt, grinning, and a short-haired woman in a conforming white off-the-shoulder top and bright red lipstick. There are beer bottles, champagne flutes, and Coke cans on the table.
Most of our guests were old hands at murder mystery games, but for Owen’s date Kirsty this was a completely novel experience.

The challenge of writing a murder mystery with such a mechanic is to ensure that the script and evidence adapt to the various possible murderers. When I first examined the set that was delivered to us, I was highly skeptical: the approach is broadly as follows2:

  1. At the start of the party, the players secretly draw lots to determine who is the murderer: the player who receives the slip marked with an X is the murderer.
  2. Each character “script” consists of (a) an initial introduction, (b) for each of three acts, a futher introduction which sets up two follow-up questions, (c) the answers to those two follow-up questions, (d) a final statement of innocence, and (e) a final statement of guilt, for use by the murderer.
  3. In addition, each script has a handful of underlined sections, which are to be used only if you are the murderer. This means that the only perceivable difference between one person and another being the murderer is that the only who is the murderer will present a small amount of additional information. The writing is designed such that this additional piece of evidence will be enough to make the case against them be compelling (e.g. because their story becomes internally-inconsistent).
A group of people sit around a dining table; one man, wearing spectacles on his floury face, is taking the photo in "selfie" mode. The other visible characters appear to be a chef, a vicar, a librarian, a thrillseeker, and an aspiring starlet. With the exception of the photographer, they're all looking off to the side, listening to an unseen character speak.
As I recently discovered, glasses make me look like an entirely different person.

The writing was good overall: I especially appreciated the use of a true crime podcast as a framing device (expertly delivered thanks to Rory‘s radio voice). It was also pleasing to see, in hindsight, how the story had been assembled such that any character could be the murderer, but only one would give away a crucial clue. The downside of the format is pretty obvious, though: knowing what the mechanic is, a detective only needs to look at each piece of evidence that appears and look for a connection with each statement given by every other player, ruling out any “red herring” pairings that connect to every other player (as is common with just about the entire genre, all of the suspects had viable motives: only means and opportunity may vary).

It worked very well, but I wonder if – now the formula’s understood by us – a second set in a similar style wouldn’t be as successful.

A party of unlikely characters stands around and points accusingly at the "murderer" among them: it's Kirsty.
Our classic end-of-murder-mystery-party photo post makes a comeback. Extra-special hat tip to Kirsty, who ended up by coincidence being the murderer at her first ever such event and did astoundingly well. From left to right: Rory (Major Clanger), Simon (Chef Flambé), JTA (Noah Sinner), Kirsty (Phyllis Ora), Ruth (Dusty Tomes), Liz (Ruby Daggers), Owen (Max Cruise), and me (Professor Pi).

That said, nobody correctly fingered the murderer this time around. Maybe we’re out of practice? Or maybe the quality of the hints in such a wide-open and dynamic murderer-selection mechanic is less-solid than we’re used to? It’s hard to say: I’d certainly give another D’Avekki a go to find out.


1 There are dozens of us. Dozens!

2 We made a minor adaptation to the formula to fit with our experience of what makes a compelling party, but the fundamentals here are as-published.

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Note #20998

A white man wearing simple round spectacles with a silver wire rim, his finger to the corner of his mouth, looks into the camera.

Beginning to prepare/test my costume for an upcoming murder mystery party, I glanced into the mirror and briefly didn’t recognise myself. Glasses can do so much to change your face shape!

The Diamonds, The Dagger and One Classy Dame

On account of the pandemic, I’d expected my fortieth birthday to be a somewhat more-muted affair than I’d hoped. I had a banner, I got trolled by bagels, and I received as a gift a pizza oven with which I immediately set fire to several pieces of cookware, but I hadn’t expected to be able to do anything like the “surprise” party of my thirtieth, and that saddened me a little. So imagine my surprise when I come back from an evening walk the day after my birthday to discover than an actual (remote) surprise party really had been arranged without my knowing!

Matt, Suz, Alec, Jen, Dermot and Doreen on a Google Meet screen.
“Hello, remote guests! What are you doing here?”

Not content with merely getting a few folks together for drinks, though, Ruth and team had gone to great trouble (involving lots of use of the postal service) arranging a “kit” murder mystery party in the Inspector McClue series – The Diamonds, The Dagger, and One Classy Dame – for us all to play. The story is sort-of a spiritual successor to The Brie, The Bullet, and The Black Cat, which we’d played fifteen years earlier. Minor spoilers follow.

JTA (wearing a string of pearls) and Robin (wearing sunglasses)
“Hello, local guests. Wait… why are you all in costumes…?”

Naturally, I immediately felt underdressed, having not been instructed that I might need a costume, and underprepared, having only just heard for the first time that I would be playing the part of German security sidekick Lieutenant Kurt Von Strohm minutes before I had to attempt my most outrageous German accent.

Dan with his tongue out holding a glass of champagne.
Fortunately I was able to quickly imbibe a few glasses of champagne and quickly get into the spirit. Hic.

The plot gave me in particular a certain sense of deja vu. In The Brie, The Bullet, and The Black Cat, I played a French nightclub owner who later turned out to be an English secret agent supplying the French Resistance with information. But in The Diamonds, The Dagger, and One Classy Dame I played a Gestapo officer who… also later turned out to be an English secret agent infiltrating the regime and, you guessed it, supplying the French Resistance.

Jen drinking from the neck of a nearly-empty wine bottle.
As she had previously with Sour Grapes, Ruth had worked to ensure that a “care package” had reached each murder mystery guest. Why yes, it was a boozy care package.

It was not the smoothest nor the most-sophisticated “kit” murder mystery we’ve enjoyed. The technology made communication challenging, the reveal was less-satisfying than some others etc. But the company was excellent. (And the acting way pretty good too, especially by our murderer whose character was exquisitely played.)

JTA downing a Jeroboam of champagne.
The largest bottle, though, was with us: we opened the Jeroboam of champagne Ruth and JTA had been saving from their anniversary (they have a tradition involving increasing sizes of bottle; it’s a whole thing; I’ll leave them to write about it someday).

And of course the whole thing quickly descended into a delightful shouting match with accusations flying left, right, and centre and nobody having a clue what was going on. Like all of our murder mystery parties!

Google Meet transcript with the words "You are the Jewish", which nobody said.
I’m not sure how I feel about Google Meet’s automatic transcription feature. It was generally pretty accurate, but it repeatedly thought that it heard the word “Jewish” being spoken by those of us who were putting on German accents, even though none of us said that.

In summary, the weekend of my fortieth birthday was made immeasurably better by getting to hang out with (and play a stupid game with) some of my friends despite the lockdown, and I’m ever so grateful that those closest to me were able to make such a thing happen (and without me even noticing in advance).

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Sour Grapes… a Murder Mystery in Lockdown

It had been a long while since our last murder mystery party: we’ve only done one or two “kit” ones since we moved in to our current house in 2013, and we’re long-overdue a homegrown one (who can forget the joy of Murder at the Magic College?), but in the meantime – and until I have the time and energy to write another one of my own – we thought we’d host another.

But how? Courtesy of the COVID-19 crisis and its lockdown, none of our friends could come to visit. Technology to the rescue!

Jen, Dan, Suz, Alec, Matt, JTA and Ruth at Sour Grapes
Not being in the same room doesn’t protect you from finger-pointing.

I took a copy of Michael Akers‘ murder mystery party plan, Sour Grapes of Wrath, and used it as the basis for Sour Grapes, a digitally-enhanced (and generally-tweaked) version of the same story, and recruited Ruth, JTA, Jen, Matt R, Alec and Suz to perform the parts. Given that I’d had to adapt the materials to make them suitable for our use I had to assign myself a non-suspect part and so I created police officer (investigating the murder) whose narration provided a framing device for the scenes.

Sour Grapes clue showing on an iPhone screen.
Actually, the interface didn’t work as well on an iPhone as I’d have expected, but I ran short on testing time.

I threw together a quick Firebase backend to allow data to be synchronised across a web application, then wrote a couple of dozen lines of Javascript to tie it together. The idea was that I’d “push” documents to each participants’ phone as they needed them, in a digital analogue of the “open envelope #3” or “turn to the next page in your book” mechanism common in most murder mystery kits. I also reimplemented all of Akers’ artefacts, which were pretty-much text-only, as graphics, and set up a system whereby I could give the “finder” of each clue a copy in-advance and then share it with the rest of the participants when it was appropriate, e.g. when they said, out loud “I’ve found this newspaper clipping that seems to say…”

The party itself took place over Discord video chat, with which I’d recently had a good experience in an experimental/offshoot Abnib group (separate from our normal WhatsApp space) and my semi-associated Dungeons & Dragons group. There were a few technical hiccups, but only what you’d expect.

Sour Grapes' command centre: the Host Panel
Meanwhile, I had a web page with all kinds of buttons and things to press.

The party itself rapidly descended into the usual level of chaos. Lots of blame thrown, lots of getting completely off-topic and getting distracted solving the wrong puzzles, lots of discussion about the legitimacy of one of several red herrings, and so on. Michael Akers makes several choices in his writing that don’t appear in mine – such as not revealing the identity of the murderer even to the murderer until the final statements – which I’m not a fan of but retained for the sake of honouring the original text, but if I were to run a similar party again I’d adapt this, as I had a few other aspects of the setting and characters. I think it leads to a more fun game if, in the final act, the murderer knows that they committed the crime, that all of the lies they’ve already told are part of their alibi-building, and they’re given carte blanche to lie as much as they like in an effort to “get away with it” from then on.

Sour Grapes: participants share "hearts" with Ruth
Much love was shown for the “catering”.

Of course, Ruth felt the need to cater for the event – as she’s always done with spectacular effect at every previous murder mystery she’s hosted or we’ve collectively hosted – despite the distributed partygoers. And so she’d arranged for a “care package” of wine and cheese to be sent to each household. The former was, as always, an excellent source of social lubrication among people expected to start roleplaying a random character on short notice; the latter a delightful source of snacking as we all enjoyed the closest thing we’ll get to a “night out” in many months.

This was highly experimental, and there are lessons-for-myself I’d take away from it:

  • If you’re expecting people to use their mobiles, remember to test thoroughly on mobiles. You’d think I’d know this, by now. It’s only, like, my job.
  • When delivering clues and things digitally, keep everything in one place. Switching back and forth between the timeline that supports your alibi and the new information you’ve just learned is immersion-breaking. Better yet, look into ways to deliver physical “feelies” to people if it’s things that don’t need sharing, and consider ways to put shared clues up on everybody’s “big screen”.
  • Find time to write more murder mysteries. They’re much better than kit-style ones; I’ve got a system and it works. I really shout get around to writing up how I make them, some day; I think there’s lessons there for other people who want to make their own, too.
Planning a murdery mystery
Those who know me may be surprised to hear that the majority of my work planning an original murder mystery plot, even a highly-digital one like Murder… on the Social Network, happens on paper.

Meanwhile: if you want to see some moments from Sour Grapes, there’s a mini YouTube playlist I might get around to adding to at some point. Here’s a starter if you’re interested in what we got up to (with apologies for the audio echo, which was caused by a problem with the recording software):

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The Ambassador’s Notebook (Murder Mystery)

Short version of the review: a few teething problems aside, we all had a wonderful time and we’d certainly consider a Daggerville game for our next murder mystery party. The characters were, on the whole, wonderful characters well-realised and fully-developed within the constraints of the genre, the twist was clever, there were moments of great hilarity (such as the point when we realised that there’d been a veritable conga-line of people stealthily following one another around the hotel), and the event built up to a fun and satisfying conclusion. I’d suggest that you all keep an eye on Daggerville in the future.

As implied earlier this week, this weekend Ruth, JTA and I had planned to host the latest in a long series of murder mystery party nights (a handful of which have been reviewed on this blog). Despite our earlier worries, we eventually filled the “missing” slots in our party with our friends Liz and Dean: exactly the couple we’d planned to fill it with in the first place, but they’d been painfully slow at RSVPing.

Liz and Dean
When they eventually turned up late, but still earlier than our other guests, Liz and Dean quickly found themselves back in our good books.

We’ve played a lot of murder mystery games over the years: we could probably be described as connoisseurs of the genre, and that might be worth bearing in mind when you read what we had to say about this particular event. To enumerate, there’s been:

That said, this latest party really had the opportunity to cross the board, with Liz and Dean having never been to a murder mystery night before and (other) Liz and Simon having been to only a few. And to top it all off, we were working with a completely new game from a creator of whom we’d had no experience. What could be more exciting?

See: even JTA’s excited.

You see: I was contacted a little over two months ago, via my web form, by a Martin from Daggerville Games, a new murder mystery party provider of the “buy-and-download” variety. Upon visiting their website, I was immediately struck by some of the similarities between their signup form (which asks for player names to be associated with characters, genders to be chosen for characters whose gender can be selected based on the gender balance among the players, and email addresses to which invitations will be sent) and a prototype one of my own design, used in the construction of my upcoming games Murder at the Glam Rock Concert and Murder on the Social Network, the first of which we hope to host in about a year’s time. I mentioned this to Martin, in the hope that they won’t think I’m ripping them off if I eventually put some of my pieces online for the world to play, too.

The players discuss the "Fingersniff", after mishearing a line.
One of the quirks of Daggerville is that they email fragmented scripts directly to your players, which they’re then welcome to read completely before they turn up (or not; whichever they prefer).

The Daggerville folks, perhaps anticipating that I would be likely to blog about the event in hindsight and thus provide them with some free publicity, offered me a voucher for a free game of my choice, which I accepted. After a little discussion, we settled upon The Ambassador’s Notebook, a 7-player murder mystery set in a rural 1920s hotel and revolving around the untimely death of a Mr. Sullivan, presumably related to a valuable journal that was in his possession.

Liz G ponders.
But who can the murderer be, Liz ponders, from her comfortable chair in the Accusing Chamber.

In order to keep the spoilers at the tail end of this blog post (there’ll be a nice big warning before you get to them, so you can refrain from reading them if you’re planning to someday play this game yourself), I’ll cut to the chase and first provide a summary of the night as a whole.

Dan Q
Right before I opened the “Deus Ex Manilla”, otherwise known as the “Miss. Marple Envelope”, in which the solution would be found, I – as usual – encouraged a vote on who we’d be turning over to the police.

We all had a fun time: as usual for these gatherings, there was good wine, great company, and spectacular food (Ruth had, once again, put together a wonderfully thought-out and thematically-sound menu): honestly, under these conditions we’d be pretty-much guaranteed a good night no matter what. The murder mystery itself was a scripted affair similar to those you’ll find in any off-the-shelf kit, but with a few quirks. For a start, as hinted above, everybody gets their fragments of the script (along with dialogue entry and exit cues) very early on: it’s possible, permitted, and even encouraged that players read their script before they arrive for the event. Some of us were concerned that this might result in “spoilers”, and a few of those of us who did pre-read our scripts said that they regretted doing so, so be aware: it’s a spoiler-risk.

Guests at the Murder Mystery
If you pay attention to following a fragmented script, you might lose track of a clue. But if you pay attention to the clues, you might lose track of your place in the script. It’s a challenge.

Unlike similar-styled games, though, players aren’t given additional information outside of the script, and we all felt that this made things challenging when it came to the discussion breaks. All that we had to go on for our deliberations was exactly what we’d all heard, just minutes before, tempered by our own speculation. Sometimes somebody would ask, or consider asking, a valid question after somebody’s whereabouts, alibi, or history, but no answer was forthcoming because all that we had, collectively, was the script. This caused additional confusion when, for example, Liz’s character mentioned JTA’s character by his first name, it was a surprise to everybody… even JTA, who had no idea to begin with that it was supposed to be his name!

The lack of “character sheets” did encourage imaginative ad-libbing, for example, such as Simon’s decision that his character had just come over from Australia.

None of the problems we experienced “broke” the game, and we found our way to a reasonably-satisfactory conclusion. A majority of us voted correctly, determining the identity of the murderer, and Ruth even managed to identify an important twist (albeit not based on anything more than speculation: the “flash” was a little subtle for us). There were a few anachronisms in the script, but they’re of the kind that only nerds like us would notice (the National Theatre is mentioned despite the fact that it won’t be founded for another four decades or so, and a character makes a reference to a frozen turkey, even though freezing of meat in the West wasn’t yet commonplace, for example). We’d have really liked to have each had a brief – even just half a page! – to tell us each more about our own characters (their names, for example, as well some of the secrets that they might be concealing and any established relationships they have with other characters), and if we knew that Daggerville were adding this feature, it’d make us far more-likely to buy their products in future.

The short review would be: a few teething problems aside, we all had a wonderful time and we’d certainly consider a Daggerville game for our next murder mystery party. The characters were, on the whole, wonderful characters well-realised and fully-developed within the constraints of the genre, the twist was clever, there were moments of great hilarity (such as the point when we realised that there’d been a veritable conga-line of people stealthily following one another around the hotel), and the event built up to a fun and satisfying conclusion. I’d suggest that you all keep an eye on Daggerville in the future.

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Spoiler warning: reading beyond here could result in seeing spoilers. Don’t read on if you’re likely to ever take part in a game of The Ambassador’s Notebook.[/spb_message]

Aside from the lack of character “introductions”, another thing we found difficult in this game were issues in the script. The script for “The Neighbour” ended up one-number out of sync in the middle of Scene 2, where her ‘line 42’ indicated that a different person should be talking to what the rest of the scripts said. On another occasion, the script for “The Proprietress” seemed to be missing a line (although other characters had the ‘tail end’ of that line). The character of “The Journalist” can be played by a man or a woman, and although I selected “male” when I filled in the form, some of the scripts referred to the character as a woman! At first I thought that this might be related to difficulties some of us had had receiving the emailed scripts (Martin at Daggerville was incredibly helpful at sending out fresh ones, though), but we found at least one instance in which one person flip-flopped between referring to “The Journalist” as female or male!

(there’s a video I’ve put together of some of the highlights of our evening, but there’s possible spoilers in it)

Dean is accused of the murder.
Our traditional end-of-game shot shows the murderer, played by Dan, accused by the rest of the participants. (Ruth is behind the camera)

Personally, though, my favourite moment of the night came right at the start, as we all introduced our characters. One of the Liz’s, an American, had decided to play her character as an American, and introduced herself as such. “Oh,” said the other Liz, whom she’d just met, “Are you going to do an accent?”

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Wanted: Two Murder Suspects

We’re hoping to have a mini-murder mystery this Saturday, 2nd November, in Oxford, and after a series of people who can’t make it, we’re in need of two people to come along and play. If you want to come then, basically, you’re in, and we’d love to have you.

The Ambassador's Notebook
We’ll be playing a scenario called The Ambassador’s Notebook, courtesy of Daggerville Games. But only if you turn up!

We’re looking for either two women or a man and a woman, but even if you haven’t got a “date” to bring, if you can make it then let us know and we’ll try to find somebody to fill the other gap. Just leave a comment and I’ll get back to you soon!


A Vintage Murder

Another successful murder mystery party! This one was a prefabricated “kit” one, unlike many of our recent ones, in the Inspector McClue range.

As usual, Murder Mystery Night starts a day or two earlier, with Ruth preparing a monumental quantity of food.

I was slightly worried that – with only six people (we four Earthlings and Ruth‘s brothers) in attendance, that the evening might be a little too “quiet”, but Robin and Owen did a pretty good job of ensuring that this wasn’t the case by any stretch of the imagination.

Maurice de Cheval (Robin) and Wallis Simper (Owen)

My character was Marlene Deepditch, a German wine merchant. Not wanting to take things by halves, I put a perhaps-excessive amount of effort into my last-minute costume, even going so far as to shave off my beard… as well as my sideburns… chest… armpits…

My dress wasn't quite as long on me as I'd expected, and I'd neglected to shave my legs, unfortunately.

The night yielded three surprises:

  • Paul wasn’t the murderer.
  • The straight-edge razor I wrote about the other week is remarkably good at removing body hair in bulk.
  • Regrowing chest hair is remarkably itchy.
Hilarity ensues as the combination of wine and outrageous accents kicks in.

All in all, a fantastic night, full of exactly the kind of delicious chaos that’s usually reserved for larger murder mystery parties – watch this YouTube video (may contain spoilers) to see what I mean.

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Chaos at A Vintage Murder

At “A Vintage Murder”, a kit murder mystery night on Earth, all hell breaks loose in the middle of Chaper 2, for no apparent reason. Eventually, order is restored. From left to right, the characters we see are Phil Quimby (Paul), Maurice de Cheval (Robin), Wallis Simper (Owen), Marie de Cheval (Ruth), and Phillipe Petomane (JTA). Behind the camera is Marlene Deepditch (Dan).

Also available on YouTube.

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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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.

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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Murder… In Space!

Friday night was Murder… In Space!, our most recent murder mystery party. This is the second of our murder mystery nights that I’ve been the author of (the first one was Murder In The Reign Of Terror), and I took a lot of what I learned from the experience of writing and co-hosting of that mystery… and then disregarded about half of it.

Dan in contemplation
Me as the hologram of Ground Control Director Dan Griffin

One of the things that I thought we’d do differently from normal was a more “freeform” roleplaying experience. Instead of communal debates punctuated with pre-scripted dialogues, I wanted to create an atmosphere that felt more… like a group of people trapped together, where one is a murderer! I wanted distrust and backstabbing, secrets and lies. So instead of scripting dialogues and drip-feeding clues to the players between courses, I gave a lot more information “up front” and relied on the characters to develop their own social interactions, with mixed success.

Adam and Claire
Captain Rusty Schweiper (Adam) issues a mission patch to reporter Robyn Morse (Claire)

As I expected, I disregarded my own suggestion to myself to refrain from committing to a date for the event until I’d written at least half of the materials. Unfortunately, this was coupled with my incorrect assumption that writing a murder mystery in which I didn’t pre-script the dialogues would be somehow easier or faster than the contrary. Also my mistake in thinking that writing for ten people would only be 25% harder than writing for eight (in actual fact, complexity grows exponentially, because each person you add to a murder mystery has a theoretical relationship with everybody added before them).

The players sat around many red pieces of paper.
Little red pieces of paper abound in the early stages of the game

The game proved challenging early on. Without the structure of initial dialogue and with no formal introduction phase, it took some time for the players to get into character and to understand what it was that they wanted to achieve and how they might go about it. In addition, a lot of the characters held their cards very close to their chest, metaphorically-speaking, to being with, resulting in a great shortage of “free” information during the first half of the game. However, the “space age” multicoloured cocktails did their work quickly, and after a sufficiency of liquid lubrication virtually everybody was slotting into their position in the group.

Ruth in a lab coat.
Helen Shaman (Ruth), the biologist

Once the players got into the swing of things, including (for those who’d attended this kind of event before) culturing an understanding that it was encouraged, perhaps even necessary, to meet up with fellow crewmembers in smaller groups and swap information and plot items – something that was new to this particular adventure – everything went a lot more smoothly. As I’d hoped, characters would take time to creep away in twos and threes and gossip about the others behind their backs. At least one character attempted to eavesdrop on others’ conversations, which was particularly amazing to see. In addition to the usual goal of “detect the murderer”/”make a clean getaway”, I’d issued each character with a set of secondary (and tertiary) goals that they’d like to achieve, typically related to learning something, preventing others from learning something, or acquiring or retaining a particular plot item. Some characters had more complex goals, relating to keeping the blame on or off particular other characters, making good early guesses, or being the first to achieve particular milestones. I felt that this added a richness to the characters which is otherwise sometimes lacking, and it seemed to work particularly well for helping the players play their roles, although I should probably have put the goals higher up on each player’s character sheet in order to make it clearer how important they were to the overall plot.

Claire, Matt and JTA in the kitchen
Robyn Morse (Claire), Sir Richard Virgin (Matt P), and Steven Win (JTA) in a private discussion

As usual, it was inspiring to see characters I’d invented brought to life in the interpretation of their players. As with Murder In The Reign Of Terror, I’d quite-deliberately avoided assigning characters to players, instead letting Ruth do that based on my preliminary character descriptions, thereby providing me with a number of surprises (and an even greater number of interesting coincidences) when it came to seeing how everybody chose to portray my ideas. Particular credit must go to Matt R for his stunning performance as the self-aware android, TALOS-III, and to Adam for the extraordinary amount of effort he put into his costume (including a silver jumpsuit, “moon boots”, and a cap and t-shirt emblazoned with his name, insignia, and the mission name). That said, everybody did an amazing job of making their character believable and love (or hate)-able for the characteristics they portrayed: there were moments at which it was easy to forget that this was all make-believe.

Adam's trainers, spray-painted silver.
Adam’s “moon boots”

As usual, Ruth put an unbelievable amount of work into making the food fit the theme, and she’d tried to have food that represented the nationalities of all of the astronauts present, in addition to making the food look like “space food”, even where it wasn’t (which resulted in the up-side that the foil containers out of which dinner was served needed no washing up when the party was finished). She’d also put a lot of thought into “space age” drinks, which mostly consisted of brightly-coloured cocktails prepared from ingredients brought by individual guests, which worked really well (although I apologise for the disparity that I’ve since discovered in the varied prices of the drinks people were asked to bring).

Paul is the murderer, and everybody points at him.
Pointing at the murderer, pilot James McDivvy.

As seems to have become traditional – although I swear that this is just another one of those coincidences – Paul‘s character, James McDivvy, turned out to be the murderer: he’d poisoned the victim using carbon monoxide in his space suit’s air supply when he went for a spacewalk. In the photo above he’s seen holding a data disk containing the program that controls the TALOS-III android: he played upon the fact that nobody could find it to imply that whoever had it must have somehow used it to reprogram the android to perform the murder, playing upon everybody’s natural suspicion of the creepy robot amongst them, and this worked well for him, distracting many of the others from the evidence that would have implicated him. You can also clearly see Rory‘s (Akiyama Toyohiro) fabulous SG-1/Japanese space geek costume, including his digital scrolling Twitter feed hanging around his neck.

Angharad (Svetlana Svetyona), a first-time Murder Night attendee

As usual, there are lessons to be learned. In the hope that I’ll pay some attention to myself next time (yes, there’ll be a “next time”, hopefully before I leave Aber – and I’m hoping to make something even bigger and cooler out of it), I’d like Future Dan to remember the following lessons:

  • I know you’ll ignore this anyway, Future Dan, but do not commit to a date for a murder mystery until you’ve got at least half of it written already. There’s lots of stress, lots of panic, and a higher freqency of typos and other embarassing mistakes when you write the last few thousand words in the last day or two.
  • Similarly, have more leeway for additional characters: I know it feels like “wasted words” to write for characters who’ll probably never be used, but it’s better to plan for about 10% of your cast to be playing optional characters, so that when they pull out (or more people want to come) you’re already prepared.
  • Plan for a structured introduction round in which the host more-fully explains “the story so far”, and perhaps pre-script the first conversation(s) that players are likely to engage in, in order to make breaking into character a little less like diving in at the deep end.

Anybody got any other suggestions or feedback? Leave me a comment!

Further reading

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Murder… in SPACE!

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

This repost was published in hindsight, on 20 March 2019.

Rory wrote:

Awesome murder mystery, props to Dan for writing and hosting. I’ll post some photos when I’m more sober. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised I’d probably been at the space cocktails a bit too much >_< Until next time Akiyama Toyohiro is signing off!

Cross-reference: Murder… In Space.

Murder in the Reign of Terror

Paul in his wonderful English aristocrat costume
Paul as Sir Percy Blubbery

Apologies to those who’ve been waiting to see the photographs. Since my last blog post I’ve been kind of distracted and not had the chance to blog properly.

On Friday 31st October, Ruth hosted another of her fabulous murder mystery nights in Paul‘s end of The Uberflat. The major difference with this one to all of the previous ones, though, was that instead of opening and playing a “kit”, this murder mystery was written by me.

And wow; it turns out that writing a murder mystery night is actually quite a lot of work. It’s like writing ten separate stories at the same time, which must all be internally-consistent with one another, but simultaneously must all neglect information that is known to one another in a dynamic and engaging way. After a few months of it (on and off) and a week or two of it (every spare waking hour) I felt like I had an understanding of the characters I’d invented so intimate that even their own imaginary mothers would be put to shame by my encyclopedic knowledge of them.

Adam as Mr. Gerry Knuckles
Adam as Mr. Gerry Knuckles

In order to minimise the risk that I would simply write the plot such that Paul would be the murderer (we’ve an ongoing joke about Paul always being the murderer, after he was for a couple of murder mysteries in a row), I didn’t choose who would play which character. Instead, I wrote a number of different characters and left it up to Ruth to match them up with guests.

This also had the added benefit, in my mind, that the characters were not written to match the people who would play them: and as a result, I was pleasantly surprised to see my creations brought to life through the improvisation of my friends, interpreting the characters as they saw fit.

I was remarkably nervous about whether or not I’d “got it right”: had I given enough detail about the characters that the guests would feel comfortable performing them, but not so much detail that they would feel stifled and unable to add their own flair to them? Had I given enough clues as to who the murderer was, but not so many as to make it obvious? Had I written enough dialogue for the time planned? Was the plot sufficiently gripping that the guests would actually care about defending their characters to the bitter end?

Dr. Manatee and his daughter, Lucie; as played by JTA and by Ruths mother
Dr. Manatee and his daughter, Lucie; as played by JTA and by Ruth's mother

My fears weren’t helped by the fact that I had to make a number of last-minute changes to the script to accommodate the fact that Rory – one of the guests – had a family emergency and had to drop out. By the time I’d finished (re-)writing the last of the dialogue, I still hadn’t had a chance to read through all of the script and make sure that all the loose ends were tied up: and, in fact, they weren’t, as I discovered to my horror some way through the night.

Mlle. Plosh and Mr. John Basterd; played by Claire and Matt P
Mlle. Plosh and Mr. John Basterd; played by Claire and Matt P

The evening kicked off reasonably well. There was a little awkwardness, as usual, as people tried to fit into the shells of their characters, but – again, as usual – the guests’ reservations turned out to be soluble in alcohol, and by the time everybody had gotten a drink inside them, things began to pick up steam. A second cause of difficulty at the beginning of the night is that nobody knew who they were supposed to be in relation to everybody else. I had expected that Ruth (who had told everybody who they were) had sent the full character list to everybody who was coming, but owing to a mis-communication between the pair of us she’d only sent everybody their own character description. As a result, we had whole families of characters who were not aware that they were supposed to already know one another. Thankfully I’d reprinted this information on the inside cover of the sourcebooks, and handed these out as people came in through the door, which resolved the issue.

Re-branded wine. Who brought this? I dont remember.
Re-branded wine. Who brought this? I don't remember.

Yet again, Ruth produced a fantastic and wonderfully theme-fitting meal, with a variety of French-themed, freshly-made courses. Paul, again as usual, put together a playlist of music of the period. Everybody’s costumes were superb, right down to the detail of Dr. Manatee’s eccentric quirks (JTA brought a spoon which he constantly fiddled with and refused to let anybody else touch) and Sir. Percy Blubbery’s wonderfully accurate English aristocrat’s clothes (Paul had sent me a text a week or so before the event in which he’d derided my costume suggestion for him and proposed his own, based on his research into the period).

A remarkable number of people, and particularly Ruth’s mother and Matt P, spoke a remarkable amount of French, which caused endless confusion for poor old me, who hadn’t spoken any, really, since high school. Had I thought about it, I might have tried to put a little more effort into ensuring that the grammar and spelling of what little French I’d put into the script was more correct.

There were only two fuck-ups worthy of note:

  • After I’d hastily removed Rory’s (absent) character from the script, I’d neglected to add back to the dialogue an important point that he makes, early on: a fact about a particular door in the inn being creaky, which, combined with other information from the other characters, could be used to conclusively demonstrate the whereabouts of the murderer at the time of the murder.
  • Worse yet, another part of the same evidence tree, to be delivered by Mrs. Marguerite Blubbery – played by Ruth – had also been broken by my sloppy last-minute editing. In her sourcebook, I’d given Ruth two conflicting pieces of information, and she’d opted to interpret the first one as being correct and the second one as being false.

In other words, fewer things “went wrong” than they have with a number of the professionally-made kits that we’ve bought over the years, which have, from time to time, had plotholes so big that youcould park a plane in them, or even mis-prints which have resulted in clues being revealed in the wrong order!

The guests point the Finger Of Blame at the murderer!
The guests point the Finger Of Blame at the murderer!

Nonetheless, a strong motive (to those who noticed it) and a weak alibi allowed about half the guests to correctly identify the murderer, which suggests to me that the mystery might have been slightly too easy (had I correctly implemented the two clues, above, everybody would probably have guessed). Still, it turned out okay as a result of my mistakes!

Unlike playing murder mystery “kits”, as we have before, having one of us write the story gave us the benefit that one of us – in this case, me – knew the entire plot from the start. I played a narrator/investigator role, therefore, similar to that played by audio CDs, DVDs, and paper-trail clues in many of the kits that we’ve used, and this actually turned out to work really well: I was able, for example, to keep the flow of conversation moving, to make sure that no crucial clues were completely missed, and to generally “host” the mystery part of the evening.

I’ve also learned a lot about how to write this kind of mystery, and I know what I’d do differently next time. In fact, I’ve already started work on a new mystery which I’m hoping we’ll be able to run late in January: Murder… In Space! Hopefully I’ll see some of you there!

Finally: if you want to see all the photos I took on the night, here they are.