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?

JTA
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!

Simon
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?”

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!

Buying a House, Part 4 – Call To Arms!

This blog post is the third in a series about buying our first house. In the third post, Ruth, JTA and I had acquired some lawyers and started the conveyancing process…

We’re moving house! And we want your help!

There’ve been… a few hitches with the house move. A few little hurdles. And then a few big hurdles. It’s been a little challenging, is what I’m trying to say. I’ll write about that in Part 5, but for now: we need your help!

Here’s what we’ve got:

  • A weekend in which we want to move (27th – 28th July).
  • A van (probably).
  • A lot of furniture, piles of boxes, and all the board games in the known universe. – a lot of stuff!
  • Three people: one of whom has really dodgy knees, one of whom is pregnant, and one of whom managed to concuss himself last time he tried to move house – not the best crew in the world, perhaps.
  • Lots of alcohol that needs drinking.

Here’s what we need:

  • A couple of extra pairs of hands who are willing to load and unload vans in exchange for:
    • Pizza
    • All the booze you can eat
    • Being among the first to see our new home!

(cynical folks might notice that pizza, booze, rental vans and friends are a lot cheaper than professional removals companies, especially for short hops across to the other side of a city)

Simply put: we need you!

Can you help? Can you be free for some or all of the weekend of 27th & 28th of July, to come and shift boxes in exchange for good times, booze and snacks? If you are, we’d love to have you over. Ruth has written more about the wonderful perks that you’ll enjoy if you can help us, so – if you’re free and can get to Oxford – please come! And it’ll be lovely to see you, too!

Days Like Weeks

You know how when your life is busy time seems to creep by so slowly… you look back and say “do you remember the time… oh, that was just last week!” Well that’s what my life’s been like, of late.

Enjoying a beer at the launch of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest release of Three Rings.
Enjoying a beer at the launch of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest release of Three Rings.

There was Milestone: Jethrik and the Three Rings Conference, of course, which ate up a lot of my time but then paid off wonderfully –  the conference was a wonderful success, and our announcements about formalising our non-profit nature and our plans for the future were well-received by the delegates. A slightly lower-than-anticipated turnout (not least because of this winter ‘flu that’s going around) didn’t prevent the delegates (who’d come from far and wide: Samaritans branches, Nightlines, and even a representative from a Community Library that uses the software) from saying wonderful things about the event. We’re hoping for some great feedback to the satisfaction surveys we’ve just sent out, too.

The Three Rings Birthday Cake. It boggles my mind how they've managed to make the icing look so much like plastic, on the phone part.
The Three Rings Birthday Cake. It boggles my mind how they’ve managed to make the icing look so much like plastic, on the phone part.

Hot on the heels of those volunteering activities came my latest taped assessment for my counselling course at Aylesbury College. Given the brief that I was “a volunteer counseller at a school, when the parent of a bullied child comes in, in tears”, I took part in an observed, recorded role-play scenario, which now I’m tasked with dissecting and writing an essay about. Which isn’t so bad, except that the whole thing went really well, so I can’t take my usual approach of picking holes in it and saying what I learned from it. Instead I’ll have to have a go at talking about what I did right and trying to apply elements of counselling theory to justify the way I worked. That’ll be fun, too, but it does of course mean that the busy lifestyle isn’t quite over yet.

My sister Sarah, with TAS managing director Adrian Grant, at the UK Bus Awards.
My sister Sarah, with TAS managing director Adrian Grant, prepare to announce the winner of the Peter Huntley Memorial Award for Making Buses A Better Choice.

And then on Tuesday I was a guest at the UK Bus Awards, an annual event which my dad co-pioneered back in the mid-1990s. I’d been invited along by Transaid, the charity that my dad was supporting with his planned expedition to the North Pole before he was killed during an accident while training. I was there first and foremost to receive (posthumously, on his behalf) the first Peter Huntley Fundraising Award, which will be given each year to the person who – through a physical activity – raises the most money for Transaid. The award was first announced at my father’s funeral, by Gary Forster, the charity’s chief executive. Before he worked for the charity he volunteered with them for some time, including a significant amount of work in sub-Saharan Africa, so he and I spent a little while at the event discussing the quirks of the local cuisine, which I’d experienced some years earlier during my sponsored cycle around the country (with my dad).

So it’s all been “go, go, go,” again, and I apologise to those whose emails and texts I’ve neglected. Or maybe I haven’t neglected them so much as I think: after all – if you emailed me last week, right now that feels like months ago.

Three Parties

I’ve had a few weekends fully of party. It’s no wonder I’m knackered.

Andy’s 30th

First, there was Andy‘s 30th birthday. Ruth, JTA and I slogged our way over to Cardiff to celebrate in style with pizza, booze, and dancing.

Dancing to Black Lace at Andy's 30th birthday.
Dancing to Black Lace at Andy’s 30th birthday.

Siân‘s got more to say on the subject, but suffice it to say this: it’s been a long, long time since I’ve found myself dancing in a nightclub until half past two in the morning, then grabbing a thoroughly disgusting-looking (but remarkably good-tasting) portion of fried food as an after-club snack. Oh, and Alec drooled all over himself long before he ended up sharing a bed with me.

Honestly, I didn’t think I had it in me to party like that any more: I’m such an old man (having myself turned thirty a good year and a bit prior). Didn’t stop me from getting up before anybody else the following morning for a quick geocaching expedition, though…

Summer Party On Earth

The following weekend was the Summer Party On Earth: an event that started out with Ruth saying “Let’s have a summer party!” and finished as a nostalgia-themed marathon of epic proportions.

This… was a party with everything. It had kids’ toys like Brio wooden railway, Lego bricks, and a marble run; it had soup and buffets and a barbeque and cakes; it had board games and party games and drinking games; it had beer and wine and cocktails; it had the world’s tiniest and most-nettley geocaching expedition… and from the time that we first started entertaining guests to the moment that the last of them left, it lasted for an exhausting 36 hours.

Some early guests play Ca$h 'N' Gun$, a live-action game of gun-toting gangsters.
Some early guests play Ca$h ‘N’ Gun$, a live-action game of gun-toting gangsters.

It was particularly interesting to get together with people from all of our varied social circles: workmates, former workmates, local friends, distant friends, partners of friends… all kinds of random folks coming to one place and – for example – pointing foam guns at one another.

Gareth, Rory and Adam put the finishing touches on their (second) wooden railway layout.
Gareth, Rory and Adam put the finishing touches on their (second) wooden railway layout. I’m pretty sure we ‘lost’ them for more than half of the party as they disappeared into the ‘playroom’.

In order to help us identify, classify, and dispose of some of the vast collection of booze that Ruth has recently inherited, JTA invented a drinking game. What can I say about it? Well: it certainly brought us all a lot closer together to suffer through some of the drinks we were served…

Everything seems a little blurry, and Alec isn't grimacing as much as he did with some of the other drinks he's been forced to try.
Everything seems a little blurry, and Alec isn’t grimacing as much as he did with some of the other drinks he’s been forced to try.

As usual for any party at which Ruth caters, everybody was required to consume their own weight in (delicious, delicious) desserts, and we only just finished eating the very last of the party food, almost two weeks later.

Matthew & Katherine’s Wedding

Finally, then, just the weekend after that, was the wedding of two folks I know via the Oxford Quakers: Matthew and Katherine.

Matthew and Katherine cut the cake in the garden of the Quaker Meeting House.
Matthew and Katherine cut the cake in the garden of the Quaker Meeting House.

I turned down the curious “What to expect at a Quaker wedding” leaflet as I entered: after all, I felt like an old-hand now, after helping make Ruth & JTA’s wedding into one of the most spectacular events ever. Well, maybe I shouldn’t have, because every wedding is as different as every bride and groom, and Matthew and Katherine’s was no exception. They’d clearly put so much thought into exactly what it is they wanted to do to celebrate their special day, and – with their help of their friends and family – had pulled everything together into a beautiful and remarkable occasion.

The céilidh. More weddings should have cèilidhean.
The céilidh. More weddings should have cèilidhean.

For me, particular highlights included:

  • One of the most adorable couples ever.
  • Not just a “vegetarian-friendly” meal, but one where vegetarianism was the norm (and guests were required to state if this wasn’t okay for them).
  • Catching up with folks who I don’t see as much of these days as I might like (and meeting new people, too).
  • A céilidh! More weddings should have these (although it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a “first dance” where the bride and groom were given instructions on what steps to do right before the music started).

Eurovision Spectacular 2012

As I’m sure you’re aware, Saturday marks the final of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, the musical highlight of the year. You may also know that there’s been a long tradition among our group of friends to have a Eurovision Party to mark the ocassion, generally hosted by Adam. If you’ve somehow missed this event, then here’s some background reading that might help you understand how it came to be what it is: me, 2005; Liz, 2005; Paul, 2005Adam, 2006; Adam, 2007 (1); me, 2007; Adam, 2007 (2); Matt R, 2007; Adam on Paul’s blog, 2008Adam, 2008; Adam, 2010; Adam, 2011; me, 2011. Like I said… a long history.

For the last few years, though, the population of Aberystwyth has been dwindling, and Adam’s parties have turned from an immense hard-to-squeeze-everybody-in ordeal to a far more civilised affair. While simultaneously, groups of ex-Aberystwyth people (like those of us down in Oxford, and those who are up in the North) have been having their own splinter satellite parties.

And you know what? I miss doing Eurovision Night with you guys. So this year, we’re going to try to bring Eurovision Night back to its roots… with technology!

Google+ Hangouts
Google+ Hangouts. One of the technologies that will bring us closer this Eurovision Night.

Here’s where the parties are at, this year:

  • Adam’s house, in Aberystwyth – mission control
  • New Earth, in Oxford (hosted by Ruth, JTA, and I) – technical operations
  • …and… anybody else having one this year? One of you up in the North, perhaps?

If you’re one of the usual crew, or one of our newer friends, come on over and join the party! Or if you’re going to be watching from further North (Liz? Simon? Gareth? Penny? Matt? Matt? Kit? Fi?), let me know so that I can bring you in on my proposals for “sharing the experience”, drawing together our votes, and whatnot.

And regardless of whether you’ll be joining one of these parties in person, or not, I hope you’ll be joining The Party at Adam’s and The Party on New Earth digitally. If you’re among the 17 people who are actually on Google+, come and join us in our Hangout! Dust off that old webcam and point it at you or your little party, make sure you’re in Adam or I’s “circles”, and then log in on Eurovision Night and join us via the power of the Internet! You’ll have to provide your own crisps and beer, and (unless you’re at Adam’s) you’ll need to bake your own cupcakes with adorable European-flag icing, too, but at least you can be part of the moment with the rest of us.

See you online!

Ashes to Ashes (The Funeral of Peter Huntley)

Friday was the day of my dad’s funeral. If you’ve just tuned in, you might like to see my blog post about his death, and a second article about the things that have been hardest, so far, in its aftermath. I’m not inclined to say too much, so I’ll be brief and let pictures, and a video, tell the story. As usual, you’ll find that you can click on the pictures to enlarge them.

A convoy of buses arrive to deliver attendees to the funeral.

A remarkable number of people turned up to mark my dad’s passing on this sad occasion. I was genuinely surprised to see how many lives he’d touched (and to hear about a great many more from people who couldn’t make it). About 350 people struggled to fit in to the cramped crematorium, and many had to stand outside where – thankfully – there were repeater speakers.

The buses with digital display boards, provided by Stagecoach, had been reprogrammed to show my dad’s name and years of life.

My sisters and I were determined that this event would be a celebration of our father’s life. So rather than focusing on his tragic and premature death, we made every effort to commemorate his achievements and reinforce the lessons that we can all learn from his time with us. In a similar vein, we’d told everybody that we had the chance to that there was no need to wear black for this funeral: that people should wear what’s appropriate to them for their personal act of mourning and remembrance.

In memory of my dad, I wore his old-style bus driver’s license badge, as well as wearing both socks and sandals together, as he often would.

We’d hired a former minister, Ken Howles, to provide a (thoroughly secular, under threat of non-payment!) framework for the service, but we “rolled our own” so far as possible. Seven individual tributes and eulogies were given by people representing different aspects of my dad’s life: from my mother, from his partner, from the friend with whom he was walking on the day he died, from the managing directors of the company he founded and the company he last worked for, from the chief executive of the charity he was fundraising for, and – finally – from me.

(if you can’t view the YouTube video above, or if you want to share it with others, you can also view it on YouTube)

The contrast between the different tributes was stark and staggering, reflecting the huge variety in the different facets of my father’s life. From guerrilla gardening to trainspotting, lessons learned to tyres pulled, we collectively painted a picture of the spectrum of my dad’s life. The tributes given were, in order:

  • My mother, Doreen (watch), who talked about their adventures together as young adults and the roots of his career in transport
  • His partner, Jenny (watch), who shared the experiences they’d had together, and mourned for those that they would not
  • His friend, John (watch), who let us in on the things that they’d talked about during my dad’s final hours
  • Adrian, the managing director of the company my dad founded (watch), on his success in the world of transport consultancy, and working with him
  • A break in the middle to watch a video of my dad singing karaoke
A picture of the “Celebration of Life” order of service that we distributed at the funeral. Click on the picture to download the original (which includes a list of some of the charities my dad supported) as a PDF.


  • Kevin, the managing director of Go North-East (watch), on the subject of my dad’s recent career and influence on British transport
  • Gary, chief executive of TransAid (watch), announced the future creation of the Peter Huntley Fundraising Award, and thanked my dad and his supporters on behalf of the dozens of charities my dad helped
  • And finally, me (watch), contrasting all of the above by talking about what my dad was like as a father and a friend, and the lessons we can learn from him

If you can’t watch YouTube where you are, you can also read the full text of my personal eulogy here.

JTA serves butter pie, mushy peas, and hotpot – classic Lancashire comfort foods – to guests at the wake.

Afterwards, we held a wake at Grimsargh Village Hall which, on account of the sheer number of bus industry attendees, rapidly became a micro-conference for the public transport sector! It was great to have the chance to chat to so many people who’d worked with my dad in so many different contexts.

Mourners gather near the (convenient!) bar at Grimsargh Village Hall. I’ve decided: all wakes should have a bar.

Between hot food provided by a local caterer, cold savories courtesy of Jenny’s daugher Eppie, and a copious quantity of cakes baked by Ruth, there was an incredible superfluity of food. These two, plus JTA, Paul, and Eppie’s boyfriend James, provided a spectacular level of “behind-the-scenes” magic, keeping everything running smoothly and ensuring that everything happened as and when it was supposed to.

Among other things, Ruth baked biscuits in the shape of buses, decorated in the colours of the different routes that my dad rebranded during his time at Go North-East.

We set up a “memory book”, in which people could write their recollections of my dad. I haven’t had time to read much of it yet, but one of them stands out already to me as a concise and simple explanation of what we achieved at the crematorium that day. It reads:

“Great funeral, Peter. Sorry that you missed it.”

It was certainly a great send-off for a man who did so much for so many people. Thank you so much to everybody who made it such a success, and to everybody who, in the meantime, has donated to TransAid via my dad’s JustGiving page (or by giving us cash or cheques at or after the funeral). You’re helping his memory live on, for everybody: thank you.

My dad didn’t teach me to drive. But he did teach me to read a bus timetable. Thanks, dad. I love you.

Argh! It Burns! Night 2012

Building on the success of last year’s Argh! It Burns! Night, we Earthlings once again hosted our “alternative” Burns Night this year, last weekend. Yes, we know that’s a little late for Burns Night, but many of us have been away touring Scotland or on honeymoon or otherwise busy.

The hallway whiteboard welcomes the guests. Why doesn't everybody have a hallway whiteboard in their house?

Again, the idea of the night is loosely based on Burns Night: we eat a meal of haggis, neeps, and tatties, accompanied by a dram of whisky (or Irn-Bru – Scotland’s other national drink – in the case of Paul, who doesn’t like whisky). But instead of making readings of classic folks literature and poetry, we put a twist on it by performing readings of really bad fan fiction.

At the appointed hour - five minutes to five - the whiskies are opened and drinking commences.

We got off to a late start because Liz and Simon got caught up in the heavy snowfall that poured down across this end of the country. But that wasn’t a problem, because the rest of us – Ruth, JTA, Paul, Matt P and I – just had longer to drink and catch up with one another’s lives while we waited.

As the snow began to fall, Ruth and I went out to make snow angels. So excited by the snow, Ruth didn't even bother to put her shoes on first.

To start the evening, Ruth – as last year’s winner – performed a reading of Garfield: King of Liberty, another Garfield-themed fanfic from “ShakespeareHemmingway“, the author of her winning piece from last year. I’m still not convinced that he’s not a troll, but he is pretty damn funny.

Highlight: With these words Garfield and his Liberty Ladies made love of passion that sparked skies like fireworks as they rubbed their bodies liked sand on water. Garfield delivered pleasure into their bodies like manly post office man delivering package of love explosion. Their love exploded like cannonball shots into night and went on for hours and days.

This year's prize - a can of premixed Famous Grouse whisky and caffeine-free cola.

First among this year’s competitors was Matt, reading Misadventures Of The ‘Tragedy’ Dorm, a 20%-homoerotic, 80%-creepy attempt to bring a variety of Shakespeare’s characters into the modern age.

Highlight: Romeo having a rant about what coloured board shorts to wear. “Which colour should I weeeeaaar!” Yep. All the usual stuff. 

JTA performs his reading.

Second was Simon, reading The Death Of Vince Noir, a Mighty Boosh fic, apparently (hampered by the fact that many of his audience have little to no experience of The Mighty Boosh). I hate to spoil it for you, but the twist is that it’s all a dream.

Highlight: When Mick Jagger stepped into the strange Daulston second-hand shop he was greeted by an odd sight. Instead of the screaming trendy fan who he had expected to meet, he was greeted by a giant ape comforting a man in the corner. Specifically, a bald man wearing last month’s leopard skin catsuit, wailing mournfully into handfuls of raven-black hair in a puddle of his own tears. The whole thing looked freakily fucked up.

Liz tries to explain why her story makes sense, and fails. Miserably.

Third up was Liz – strange that the random order put the three “new” players first – reading the first of two chapters of PokeAccident, a first-person perspective on a long bus trip with a pokémon with a full bladder. It reads like it’s been written by an austistic young teen with a urination fetish. And no grasp of geography.

Highlight: Charizard looked bored, and we were past Londen and into Edinbrugh, where it was raining. Now Charizard is used to rain, but he was now horrified to see it raining, it increased his need heavily by 15%, 38% of his meter were full , Charizard really didn’t see this coming at all, he tried to ignore it, but the rain was loud, making it hard to do so.

Ruth & JTA brace themselves for another piece of fiction.

Paul provided us with Halflife: Fulllife Consequences: the story of John, the brother of Half-Life‘s Gordon Freeman. It’s littered with awful spelling and abysmal grammar, all wrapped around a plot that makes no sense whatsoever.

Highlight: John Freeman had to go faster like the speed of sound and got there fast because Gordon needed him where he was. John Freeman looked at road signs and saw “Ravenholm” with someons writing under it saying “u shudnt come here” so John Freeman almost turned around but heard screaming like Gordon so he went faster again.

Matt, Paul, and Ruth listen as I read my story.

Ruth had settled on Frosty The Snowman!, an unusual take on the classic story, featuring lots of swearing and an Iron Man crossover, all in just over 200 words.

Highlight: With the power of magic, the snowman came to life and started to dance a bit, scaring the crap out of the children. “Hi there children! I’m Frosty the Fuckin’ Snowman! Follow me!” He said happily as he marched down the road. 

Simon & Liz listen to JTA's story. For some reason, they're not crying.

When it came to his turn, JTA has selected Legolas, now best known as “Legolas by Laura” after its author (who just coincidentally shares her name with the main character of the story – always a good starting point for a piece of really bad fanfic). With incredible run-on sentences and a complete disregard for any semblance of continuity, this is truly a work of epic failness.

Highlight: Mean while Legolas got to the cell where Laura is.Legolas said”Laura are you in there”and then Laura said”Oh Legolas you finally came”and then Legolas said”are you alright”and then Laura said”no I am not alright”and then Legolas said”they bet you up and raped you also the Dark lord gave you the posion”and then Laura said”how did you know that”.Then Legolas said”when I was your age they did the samething to me”.

An unfilled ordering/voting slip from Argh! It Burns! Night 2012.

I came last. This year, I’d chosen what is probably the only piece of fanfiction ever to be set in the universe of one of the worst video games ever made, Desert Bus. The story is Desert Bus Ride #1 – A Romance Story and for Ladies, and it makes about as much sense as actually playing Desert Bus in the first place.

Highlight: When they arrive, boyfriend was got shot. “He am hit by bullets!” Margaret thought very loudly. “This is all because terrorists!” Mr. Oakland punched fist into air with angry. He was angry.

Liz is awarded with her "prize".

After what turned out to be a remarkably close competition, Liz just barely beat JTA and won herself the “prize”. In accordance with the traditions of Argh! It Burns! Night, we passed the drink around and all suffered in it together: a metaphor for the experience of the evening.

Having performed a reading of "Legolas" earlier, the winner's drink is the second-most disgusting thing JTA's had in his throat all evening.

For some reason, Simon actually enjoyed the drink, and finished the can on Liz’s behalf. Maybe he enjoyed the fanfiction, too. Maybe he’s a replicant. It’s just impossible to tell what we know for sure about him, after a revelation like that.

Simon "enjoys" the "beverage".

All things considered, a spectacular second Argh! It Burns! Night. If you’d like to come next year, let me know and we’ll try to arrange for it. Just remember: if you don’t suffer, you haven’t had enough fun yet.

Oh; and the following day was Matt's birthday, so we forced him to celebrate a little before he got back on the road.

Village Of The Bunnies

The other thing (other than building Tiffany2 and a second computer, to be described later) that happened last weekend, of course, is that it was my birthday! I share my birthday with David Bowie and Elvis Presley, so if you were ever looking for evidence about how astrology is bullshit: that’s it right there (I have no musical talent whatsoever, although I’m pretty good at Guitar Hero).

I didn’t organise myself a surprise birthday party this year, but instead had a quiet – but drunken – afternoon in with the Earthlings. Ruth had asked me earlier in the week, though, if “there’s anything special that I’d like to eat?” And, of course, I answered:

“A gingerbread village under assault from enormous gelatinous bunny rabbits!”

This was a convenient request, because we already had a lot of the ingredients to-hand. So Ruth and I spent some time building, decorating, and demolishing exactly such a scene.

Gummy-bear citizens gather around a candle lamp-post in the gingerbread village. Little do they know of the horror that approaches...
The village, under construction. The first bunny came out a little wet, so we decided that it was dead already, recently slain by the villagers.
Armed villagers spear the red bunny.
The green bunny, its maw dripping with gummy blood, advances through the ruins of the damaged North side of the village.
The first casualty; his gummy friends stand shocked around him. But with the orange bunny about to reach the South flank, there's nowhere to retreat: they must stand and fight!
The orange bunny proves to be a challenge to deploy. More warm water is needed.
The village is lit as the battle against the bunnies continues throughout the night.

This, you see, is what happens when I’m given cocktail-making equipment and supplies for my birthday. Nothing makes this kind of activity make sense so much as spending the whole day drinking champagne cocktails.

I’m not sure if it’s better or worse that as the scene came together I began developing a ruleset for a  tabletop wargame playable using gummy sweets.

In any case, it was a fantastic way to see in the beginning of my thirty-second year.

My Very Excellent Liz Just Brought Us Sixteen Pizzas

I hadn’t really talked about it yet, because I’ve been too busy… I don’t know… blogging about Marmite and beds and computers or something… but I had the most fabulous time at a New Year’s party hosted by Liz and Simon at their house in Macclesfield. There was drinking, and board games, and truly awful Troma films, and then at midnight we all counted down from 7, or 12, or something, and spontaneously broke out into a chorus of Auld Lang Syne. See: there’s a video and everything –


(can’t see the video? click here to watch on YouTube)

It seems that my mnemonic (as used in the title of this post) is broken, unless we reinstate Pluto as a planet and rename the fourth and eighth planets in the solar system to Lars and Septune, respectively. Which I think are better names, anyway.

It was a fantastic opportunity to catch up with folks I don’t see enough of, to talk about what had gone right (and wrong) about the year gone by, and what we were looking forward to in the year to come. Liz suggested that perhaps this should become a regular thing, a little like “fake Christmas” has begun to, and that seems like a good idea (and I’m pretty sure I heard Bryn volunteer to host it next year…).

By the way: do you remember how last year Paul, Ruth, JTA and I invented Argh! It Burns Night? We’re doing it again this year, and because so many of you expressed an interest in joining us, we’d like you to come too. It’ll be on the evening of Saturday 4th February (yes, we know this is a little late for a Burns Night, but the second part of Ruth & JTA’s honeymoon is going to get in the way otherwise): drop me an email if you want to come along for a night of haggis, whisky, and fanfiction.

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.

Liz & Simon

Last weekend, I got to go to the wedding of Liz and Simon. Particular highlights included:

Simon & Liz cut the cake.
  • Liz & Simon getting married! Aww. Congratulations to you both!
  • Catching up with ex-Aberites from far and wide. Drinking, dancing, and talking about religion, philosophy, and sex.
  • The céilidh, which is one of the best wedding ideas ever, not least because everybody gets to dance with the bride.
  • A fantastic venue: the beautiful St. Mary’s Guildhall, in Coventry (a city with, it seems, a half-dozen nice buildings nestled in between a thousand concrete monstrosities and a ring road modeled on Satan’s anus itself).
  • Delicious food! And cake! And (veggie) sausage sandwiches just as we were beginning to run out of energy to continue dancing!
  • Speeches – both moving and funny – from the bride’s father, the groom, and the best man… but all were beaten by Kellie, a 2 year-old guest whose own short but hilarious speech, “I’m pooing!”, which she shouted from the balcony of the dining room.
Simon & Liz heading off to take part in about a gazillion photos.

Further reading:

Instead Of Blogging…

Things I’ve been doing instead of blogging, this last month, include:

  • Code Week: hacking Three Rings code in a converted hay loft of a Derbyshire farm, as mentioned on the Three Rings blog.
  • Hoghton Tower: as is traditional at this time of year (see blog posts from 2010, 2009, 2005, 2003, for example), went to Preston for the Hoghton Tower concert and fireworks display, accompanied by Ruth, and my sister’s 22nd birthday. My other sister has more to say about it.
  • Family Picnic: Joining Ruth and JTA at Ruth’s annual family picnic, among her billions of second-cousins and third-aunts.
  • New Earthwarming: Having a mini housewarming on New Earth, where I live with Ruth, JTA, and Paul. A surprising number of people came from surprisingly far away, and it was fascinating to see some really interesting networking being done by a mixture of local people (from our various different “circles” down here) and distant guests.
  • Bodleian Staff Summer Party: Yet another reason to love my new employer! The drinks and the hog roast (well, roast vegetable sandwiches and falafel wraps for me, but still delicious) would have won me over by themselves. The band was just a bonus. The ice cream van that turned up and started dispensing free 99s: that was all just icing on the already-fabulous cake.
  • TeachMeet: Giving a 2-minute nanopresentation at the first Oxford Libraries TeachMeet, entitled Your Password Sucks. A copy of my presentation (now with annotations to make up for the fact that you can’t hear me talking over it) has been uploaded to the website.
  • New Earth Games Night: Like Geek Night, but with folks local to us, here, some of whom might have been put off by being called “Geeks”, in that strange way that people sometimes do. Also, hanging out with the Oxford On Board folks, who do similar things on Monday nights in the pub nearest my office.
  • Meeting Oxford Nightline: Oxford University’s Nightline is just about the only Nightline in the British Isles to not be using Three Rings, and they’re right on my doorstep, so I’ve been meeting up with some of their folks in order to try to work out why. Maybe, some day, I’ll actually understand the answer to that question.
  • Alton Towers & Camping: Ruth and I decided to celebrate the 4th anniversary of us getting together with a trip to Alton Towers, where their new ride, Thirteen, is really quite good (but don’t read up on it: it’s best enjoyed spoiler-free!), and a camping trip in the Lake District, with an exhausting but fulfilling trek to the summit of Glaramara.
Setting up camp at Stonethwaite.

That’s quite a lot of stuff, even aside from the usual work/volunteering/etc. stuff that goes on in my life, so it’s little wonder that I’ve neglected to blog about it all. Of course, there’s a guilt-inspired downside to this approach, and that’s that one feels compelled to not blog about anything else until finishing writing about the first neglected thing, and so the problem snowballs.

So this quick summary, above? That’s sort-of a declaration of blogger-bankruptcy on these topics, so I can finally stop thinking “Hmm, can’t blog about X until I’ve written about Code Week!”

Halloumi & Mushroom Skewers

Last week, I was invited to a barbeque with Oxford’s Young Friends. Despite being neither a Friend (in their “capital-F” meaning of the word: a Quaker) nor young (at least; not so young as I was, whatever that means), I went along and showed off my barbecue skills. It also gave me an excuse to make use of my Firestick – a contemporary tinderbox – to generally feel butch and manly, perhaps in an effort to compensate for the other week.

Anyway: this is how I discovered halloumi and mushroom skewers. Which may now have become my favourite barbeque foodstuff. Wow. Maybe it’s just the lack of mushrooms in my diet (we operate a cooking rota on Earth, but Paul doesn’t like mushrooms so I usually only get them when he or I happen to be eating elsewhere), but these things are just about the most delicious thing that you can pull off hot coals.

Aside from meat, of course.

Update: we just had some at the Three Rings Code Week, and they were almost as delicious once again, despite being hampered by a biting wind, frozen mushrooms, and a dodgy barbeque.

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!