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!

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.

Remember Go Ape?

Many of you will remember that we went to Go Ape as part of Ruth & JTA’s stag/hen night, last year… and that we dressed as superheroes.

Superheroes gathered with civilians outside Jordans YHA, at Ruth and JTA's Stag/Hen Weekend party.

Well: it looks like we made a big difference to one little girl. Do you remember the kid who was scared to go on the big “tarzan swing” until she was cheered on my a group of us, hanging from the next platform along? Well, it turns out that we were mentioned in that girl’s family’s review of the day.

A review of the day out, by Emily Sarwa. Click on it to see it embiggened.

That’s kind-of sweet.

In other news, we’ll be doing another Go Ape trip on 27th March, to celebrate Paul‘s birthday. More of you ex-Aberites read my blog than has, so – if you’re coming – Paul’s asked me to remind you to fill in the form on his blog post about the event (we need to do this so we can pre-book for the appropriate number of people), and we’ll see you there! (superhero costumes are not mandatory, but you know I’ll be wearing mine…)

Thirty – Part Two

Last weekend, I turned thirty. As I described earlier, I had originally planned to write a retrospective summary of what I’d been doing for my life so far (y’know; what’ve I been up to these decades). I wasn’t terribly satisfied with what I’d written, so far, and by the time that the party was over I’d changed my mind completely. So I threw out everything I’d written so far and wrote this, instead.

Part II: The bit that’s different from what I expected to write.

As I said in Part I, I had originally planned to write a long and drawn-out retrospective, looking back on my life. I wanted to try to encapsulate it in some kind of bubble or capture it in some way that condensed it into something concise and manageable. But every time I tried to begin to put down words to express it, it always came out looking cynical and pessimistic. And that doesn’t reflect how my life has been this far: to the contrary, my original plan to write about the last time years has nestled within it most of the very best years of my life thus far. I took a moment to contemplate my situation: why was I unable to describe this period with the liveliness and joy with which it deserves. And then I realised: the reason that I was writing so pessimistically is because – unusually, those who know me will surely agree – I’ve had a somewhat pessimistic view of the world, recently… and this depressing outlook was infecting my words.

This last year and a bit have been hard, for me. Things like this, and this, and this, and this – among other events – have worn me down and made feel, quite often, that I’m fueled only by nostalgia and that I’ve been struggling to find motivation for the future. Even happy events, like Ruth & JTA’s wedding, have often been an intense emotional rollercoaster ride, full of ups and downs that would be an easy ride under normal conditions but which were each just “one thing to many” when combined with everything else. In short: it’s been a tough year.

The last ten weeks or so have been the worst. Struggling with a variety of different issues and, buried deep in the cold and the dark of a particularly bleak and challenging winter, I’ve periodically found myself a very long way out into the Not OK half of the room.

It’s been particularly unpleasant: not just for me but, I’m sure, for the folks who’ve had to put up with me while I’ve been so irritable and grumpy.

But it’s not all bad. The worst has passed, I think, and things are getting better. I’ve got all the support I could need, and it’s been getting better a little at a time – a little more each day. My birthday, though, was different. It wasn’t a step forward: it was a flying leap! Where I expected to be looking back over the past, I instead found myself looking forwards to the future. And being surrounded by the wonderful (infectious) bounciness and enthusiasm of so many great friends, piled into one place, was incredibly liberating. For the first time in weeks I felt a surge of optimism that persists even now.

I managed to find the time – but not the words – to try to tell some of you who were there how important it was for me that you’d been able to come and make the party a success. I hope that this blog post makes everything clearer.

Thanks to everybody involved for a fantastic party.

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Thirty – Part One

Last weekend, I turned thirty. I had originally planned to blog this weekend in a retrospective manner- looking back over the last decade or so of my life: a particularly common theme for the time of year, when we look back over our resolutions and count the years as they pass, and also a common activity suitable for a birthday so (arbitrarily, but apparently appropriately) significant as one’s thirtieth. However, I’ve had a change of heart, for two reasons.

Firstly, but least significantly, the numerical significance of a decade of life truly is arbitrary. This was expressed quite clearly, I think, when Finbar looked at my birthday cake, and, misinterpreting the writing on top of it, said, “You’re… 3D years old?” After a few seconds of mental arithmetic, I replied: “Not for another thirty-one years, I’m afraid.” Unfortunately my joke – based on the implication that my age was being expressed in hexadecimal base – was wasted on those within earshot (Angharad, Ele, and Lee, I think), but still gave me a moment to think: seriously: is the significance of my age really dependent upon the fact that it’s an exact multiple of the (modal – this isn’t quite true for all) number of digits on the uppermost two limbs of a human?

But more importantly, the reason behind my change of heart was primarily because of a shift in my attitude, brought about, I think, as a result of the birthday celebrations. I’ll talk about that in the next blog post. But first, I thought I’d tell you all about the party:

Part I: Surprise! Or: how to organise a surprise party that’s still surprising even though the person being honoured knows it’s happening.

Ruth tried ever so hard to keep my surprise party a surprise. It’s generally hard for her to keep secrets about which she is excited, and she’d become ever so proud of herself for managing to keep her plans under wraps for so long. Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication, and Finbar first heard about the party without being told that it was to be a surprise.

I received a text message from him towards the end of last year:

Hey Dan, I haven’t been watching my inbox and Angharad tells me you’re doing a thing on the 6th for your birth cycle. If we attended, could we pitch a tent behind earth? Happy birth cycle, by the way. Hard to believe you’re already 25.

This caused some confusion. Not only had he gotten the date wrong (a separate misunderstanding), but he was also talking about an event about which I know nothing. I began to compose a response, correcting him and explaining that no, nothing is planned – but perhaps if he and a few other people were free we could get together anyway. As I typed, I quizzed Ruth to see if she knew from where the confusion might have arisen. And so: the truth came out.

A 'Happy Birthday' banner in the hallway of Earth.

Nonetheless, the party was a success. Particular highlights (and surprises) included:

  • The attendance of so many people, and from such far-flung corners of the country! I was honestly overwhelmed by the attendance of so many friends at (what felt to me, at my late discovery) such short notice.
  • A beautiful cake produced by Ruth to show a group of Pikmin of various colours crowding around a large object that would require 30 of them to lift it: a wonderful interpretation of the (adorable) Pikmin characters for the medium of a birthday cake.
My birthday cake. With pikmin on it!
  • Drinking cocktails out of the largest martini glass I’ve ever seen. Seriously: I could easily have drowned in this thing (sorry; no picture – others took some, though, and I’ll add one to this post if somebody can supply one).
  • A mixture of party games both silly (like the Christmas-themed pass-the-parcel which used up a lot of our spare Christmas supplies) and spectacular (like JTA‘s clever and complex treasure hunt, which has hampered only by the sheer number of guests involved even after Liz, Suz and I kindly offered to sit on the couch and take managerial roles). Even those games that didn’t get off the ground, like the short-lived game of charades, the on-again-off-again game of Apples To Apples which finally went ahead the following morning, and the ill-conceived fruit-passing game – not suitable for seated players, we now know – that ultimately lead to the spillage of lots of booze were fun in their own ways.
  • Discovering new things about old friends (the kinds of things that earn them even more Awesome Points™).
  • The thought and consideration that evidently took place in the minds of my fellow Earthicans, from the kids-party themed food and drink (plus alcohol, naturally) that I know that Ruth and JTA were up far too late preparing, to the blatantly catered-to-me playlist that first appeared on the music collection (thanks, Paul!). Even down to the detail of taking me outside again after everybody had arrived so that I could come in any everybody could shout “Surprise!”, as if I didn’t know (sorry, folks: I knew).
Leading candidates in the ad-hoc 'best boobies' competition. I still like Ele's.
  • Feeling like I was the core of a group of people that varied, over the course of the evening, between one and three parties (which shall be referred to as Party A, Party One, and The Upstairs Party).

Put simply, the party was fantastic. Everybody who came helped to make it awesome by bringing a bit of their own magical selves (or by contributing from afar by ordering the pizza, of course). Thank you all so very much.

The following morning, Matt eats a breakfast of muffins... and milk???

Edit: Part 2 is now online. It’s significantly less jolly, but ultimately optimistic.

Ruth & JTA’s Stag/Hen Party Weekend, Part II

With their wedding just around the corner, Ruth and JTA had a combined stag/hen party weekend, a couple of weeks back. I wrote a little about it already – here’s the second of the three parts. As usual, click on pictures to embiggen.

Saturday

A Mighty Fry Up

Matt, Paul and I kick-started everybody’s morning with an enormous fry-up. We’d be needing every calorie for what was to come next.

Paintball

We spent most of the day at a nearby paintball centre. We got quite horribly lost on the way there, and it took a few attempts for our convoy of cars to finally find the place. I’ve never seen a paintball centre so large, before – everywhere I’d been has catered for up to about 80 people at once, maximum, but this place was enormous. Packed in with hundreds – maybe thousands – of other players, we were herded like cattle through our boot camp and equipment handout.

Party people planning paintball play preparations.
Party people planning paintball play preparations.

My team – Team Black – kicked arse, and not just because there were more of us than our rivals, Team Gold (which was especially true after a handful of Team Gold members were thrown out after one was messing about with his mask). I particularly enjoyed working alongside Ruth’s brothers as a three-man assault team during some of the more team-oriented scenarios.

Paul doesn't approve.
Paul doesn’t approve.

It wasn’t for everyone, though. Perhaps because of the atmosphere, or the stretched-to-breaking-point old equipment, or the half-arsed attitudes of the staff, it was only to be as much fun as you made it. And, of course – as with any war – there were injuries.

A bruised bottom.
That’s gonna sting in the morning.

The moral: in future, stick to the small, friendly paintball centres and not the behemoths.

Leaving the paintball centre.
Leaving the paintball centre.

Troma Night On Location

We raced back to Jordans to fight for the limited supplies of hot water for showering, and then got started at setting up for a wedding-themed Troma Night On Location. Ruth & JTA had chosen four films – an old one, a new one, a borrowed one, and a blue one – to use as our theme, but after a day of running around and being shot at, not one of us was particularly optimistic that we’d be able to sit through all of them!

Troma Night On Location kicks off.
Troma Night On Location kicks off.

Our first film was the topical How To Murder Your Wife, an underrated and fabulously funny adventure in lost bachelorhood. We ordered pizza from the nearest Dominos’ (still a couple of towns away), and had a large stack of pizzas dropped off with us only about 40  minutes; not bad considering the distance and how well-hidden the hostel is.

The film is paused for a surprise interim activity.
The film is paused for a surprise interim activity.

And then we stopped showing films for a little while…

Nurse Kitty

You see: as a Best Man, I have certain responsibilities, and there are certain traditions that ought to be upheld. One of these traditions is that it’s not really a stag night unless there’s a stripper. So I hired a stripper.

Given our mixed-gender/sexuality/outlook group, I made sure to warn everybody that this was going to happen… well, everybody except JTA, anyway, who seemed quite genuinely surprised when I announced that there was a special guest here to see him, and opened the door to “nurse Kitty”.

Nurse Kitty checks JTA's temperature and remarks on how hot he is.
Nurse Kitty checks JTA’s temperature and remarks on how hot he is.

“Did somebody call for a nurse?” she said, “Is… JTA here?” JTA’s hand went up, slightly sheepishly, as Kitty slid around in front of him and checked his temperature (I’m sure that when NHS professionals do this it involves less breast-on-face action) and pulse (I’m not sure that conventional medical practice requires that this is done with a thigh, but who am I to argue with a nurse who’s suddenly wearing a lot less than when she came in.

Peeping at the contents of her nurse’s bag as she put away the thermometer, I caught a glimpse of what was yet to come: baby oil… whipped cream… and – Lucky Stars? That’s a new one on me. But all became clear by the time the CD player had started the second song and the slender young lady in front of us was wearing tine cones of whipped atop her nipples, each topped with a small milk chocolate star. “I didn’t think I liked Lucky Stars,” JTA said, later, “But those were pretty good.”

Ruth had been worried that this diversion from the night would be incredibly socially awkward, but it wasn’t. Thanks to a little injection of humour and a little bit of warning (at least for everybody except JTA), everything was fun and friendly (as well as pretty hot). And Kitty hung around with us afterwards for a while to drink and chat, and turns out to be a really interesting person with a fascinating “day job” (I won’t mention what it was here because the last thing we want is to “out” her as a stripper to her mother, who doesn’t know about her other job).

(there’s a video somewhere which I’ll share with you if the person responsible for it ever gets me a copy)

There’s actually a whole blog post worth of writing about hiring a stripper to come to an inaccessible village in the middle of nowhere, how to handle cancellations, and more – but I’ll save that for another time, if anybody’s interested.

Back to Troma Night

And so we got back to Troma Night and our second film – one of my favourites – The Mating Habits Of The Earthbound Human. I really love this film, and it was great to be with folks who’d never seen it before; to see their happy little faces at the conception analogy used in the film, for example – a wonderful little joke in a brilliant movie.

Hanging out at the end of the evening.
Hanging out at the end of the evening.

And then, we gradually drifted off to bed, one by one. Nobody had the energy for even a third film, never mind a fourth, and we’d need a surprising amount of energy for tomorrow’s activity… [to be continued]

Ruth & JTA’s Stag/Hen Party Weekend, Part I

With their wedding just around the corner, Ruth and JTA had a combined stag/hen party weekend, a couple of weeks back (yes, I know it’s taken me a while to blog about it. Here’s some of the highlights. As usual, click pictures for bigger versions.

Friday

Jordans

Most of the party was to take place at the youth hostel in a Buckinghamshire village called Jordans. With a little sweet-talking to the lady who runs the hostel – which we’d rented outright for the weekend – we were able to check-in a little early, to at least be able to leave our bags and cars there.

Jordans Youth Hostel
Jordans Youth Hostel

Matt, who was to join us for the next part of the adventure, was running late, so we explored the nearby Quaker meeting house – one of the oldest, right on our doorstep, and the burial place of William Penn – while we waited for him to show up.

Ruth, JTA, and Paul, standing around wondering where Matt could have gotten himself to.
Ruth, JTA, and Paul, standing around wondering where Matt could have gotten himself to.

Eventually we had to set off to London without him, on the train. We hid his train ticket inside the least-likely-looking leaflet we could find at the train station, texted him instructions to find it, and got underway.

In which leaflet do you think we've hidden Matt's train ticket?
In which leaflet do you think we’ve hidden Matt’s train ticket?

Paul split from us shortly after Marylebone Station to pursue a quest of his own: to find a stack of foreign candy and purchase it. Meanwhile, we went on to…

Volupté

The festivities started with lunch in Volupté for Ruth and JTA, accompanied by maid-of-honour Matt (when he caught up with us) and I. You might recall that Ruth, JTA and I had been before for their “afternoon tease” a few months ago, and loved it. Volupté is a fantastic little burlesque club buried in the middle of London, and we enjoyed their ostentatious and eccentric cocktails as we ate our dinner, listened to some live music, and watched JTA help a young lady undress by tugging on the end of one of the series of wrap-around dresses she wore.

JTA and Ruth at what we've now decided is our 'usual table' in the cocktail lounge, waiting for Matt to arrive.
JTA and Ruth at what we’ve now decided is our ‘usual table’ in the cocktail lounge, waiting for Matt to arrive.

Given our dormitory-style accommodation, he probably thought that this would be the only time he’d be helping a young lady to undress all weekend, but this assumption would turn out to be false later in the weekend…

Ruth & Dan’s Stag/Hen Party Game Which They Couldn’t Agree On A Name For

Back at Jordans, our other guests were beginning to arrive. Ruth’s brothers, Owen and Robin, were among the first, followed by Alec and Suz, Siân, Adrian and Abby. That’s when we got the phone call from Liz.. giggling as she went (perhaps from the painkillers?) she wanted to apologise that she and Simon wouldn’t be able to make it, because she’d suffered a rather unpleasant injury. And so began the first of our evening’s entertainments: coming up with awful and tasteless puns about poor Liz’s accident.

The drinking begins. Here's to you, Liz, for being so unflappable.
The drinking begins. Here’s to you, Liz, for being so unflappable.

As our chefs in the kitchen prepared everybody’s dinner, Ruth and I began to explain the rules of Ruth & Dan’s Stag/Hen Party Game Which They Couldn’t Agree On A Name For.

Paul, Robin, and Ruth prepare dinner.
Paul, Robin, and Ruth prepare dinner.

Two teams were formed. The aim for each team was to help their team-mates traverse a Twister mat by competing in a series of challenges to win a number of “spins” of the Twister spinner. When a team-mate got across the mat, they were awarded a hat; and the first team to be entirely “hatted” is the winner. Easy, right?

Sian stands with one foot on the mat as her team-mates struggle to complete their first challenge.
Sian stands with one foot on the mat as her team-mates struggle to complete their first challenge.

The challenges were about as varied as Ruth and I could manage to come up with. The first, for example, had blindfolded players trying to solve a jigsaw under the (verbal-only) guidance of the rest of their team. Another required the team to transport water from a stack of jugs to a distant bucket using only a leaky length of guttering. A third had each team playing charades.

Alec and JTA, blindfolded, attempt to solve jigsaws.
Alec and JTA, blindfolded, attempt to solve jigsaws.

Remarkably, few people were hurt. Sure, the water-pistol-fight-while-carrying-lit-candles game was pretty safe, but the “human jousting”, which saw piggybacking riders attempt to dismount their competitors by beating them with foam swords, stopped barely short of bruising poor Suz as she was repeatedly whipped by Matt.

Human Jousting.
Human Jousting.

Quite-remarkably, Alec lost to Paul in a doughnut-eating competition. Meanwhile, the most spectacular bobbing-for-apples competition ever seen – between JTA and Owen – ended with a spectacularly close and exciting finish… and water pretty much everywhere.

Alec having lost a doughnut-eating competition; still wearing the blindfold, tiara, and earrings from two previous challenges.
Alec having lost a doughnut-eating competition; still wearing the blindfold, tiara, and earrings from two previous challenges.

Drunk, tired, and – in some cases – wet and covered in doughnut crumbs, we went to bed. Tomorrow was to be a long day… [to be continued]

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:

Dave!!! Highlights From Robin’s Birthday

Right now, I’m out in Oxfordshire for this a “code week” – a get-together for the purpose of hacking some code together – for the Three Rings project. That’s got nothing to do with this post, but helps to offer a framing device by which I can explain why I was in such proximity to London in the first place.

JTA at the Ops Room table

Last night, y’see, Ruth and I hopped on the bus down to London to meet up with Robin, her brother, for his 21st birthday. Starting out at The Dove in Broadway Market, we began an adventure of epic proportions, backed up by some of the least-consistent planning ever encountered in a pub crawl. At times, the revellers and I were as one unit, moving together through the capital, shouting “Dave!” in unison. Other times, keeping the group together and headed in the same direction was a little like trying to herd cats.

But progress was made, and a milestone birthday was celebrated. Highlights included:

Pub Jenga

Pub Monopoly is so last week: Pub Jenga is the new hotness. At each bar, we brought out a set of Jenga, the bricks of which had each been emblazoned – using a marker pen – with the names of diferent areas of London. When the tower collapsed, the brick responsible dictated where we would go to next.

Pub Jenga - The Next Big Thing

The person responsible for the destruction of the tower was required to drink a penalty shot of Jägermeister and be the bearer of the Jenga set and The Trowel until the next pub. Oh yeah, The Trowel. Robin’s plan was that, at the end of the night, the Jenga set would be buried forever at a secret location. As we’d left before this point to catch the bus back to Oxford, I’ve no idea whether or not this actually happened.

Another gripping turn of Pub Jenga

Mystery Pockets

Ruth and Robin’s older brother, Owen, had come prepared: having numbered each of his eight pockets and placed a mystery item in each, Robin was periodically charged with picking a number, at which point the contents of the pocket were revealed and used. Some of the items revealed were:

Face Paints


One of the first Mystery Pockets contained red and green face paints, with inevitable results. Also, I’m not sure what was in them, but quite a lot of people at the table started itching quite a lot after they were applied: whoops! Click the thumbnails for bigger pictures.

Party Poppers

After these were chosen, everybody managed to get ahead of Robin by sprinting down a tube station fire escape staircase, and hiding around the corner at the bottom. Which might have been more effective if not for the fact that it’s quite hard to hide a dozen people in a tight stairwell. Also, that Robin had decided by this point to “fall” down the staircase.

Silly String!

Silly string! It's so silly!

It’s silly. ‘Nuff said.

People Of London

Our travels put us into contact with a variety of people from around the city, like:

The Moon Man

In Covent Garden, we got a small audience as a result of our various exploits, but this one – persuading a random stranger to bare his colourful underwear to the world, might be the best. In the background, you can just make out an unrelated group of partygoers, about to tie themselves together with a long rope left lying around by a street performer.

The Moon Man pulls his trousers down

Owen’s Fans

The two women at the next table from us in a bar in Oxford Circus, who seemed quite pleased and impressed when Owen tore his shirt in half in a show of manliness. I’m pretty sure that if he’d have asked, they’d have paid to see more.

Jamaican Me Crazy

A busker with drums who we persuaded to play the most reggae interpretation of Happy Birthday To You that has ever been heard.

Lay down some beats! Dancing might have been involved on my part.

Dave!!!

I can’t even remember how, but it quickly became our callsign that – in order to make sure that everybody was together (at least, after we’d lost the enormous Papa-Smurf-penis-styled balloon, fresh from Owen’s mystery pockets, that had previouly been our beacon), we’d all shout “Dave!!!”, as if we’d lost somebody by that name. No, I can’t explain it either.

But... where's Dave? DAVE? DAVE!!!

A Cornish-Pasty Themed Pub

Seriously, such a thing exists. We almost gave this one a missing, mistaking it for merely being a late-night Cornish Pasty Shop (yes, that was more believable to us at this point), before we noticed that it had a bouncer. “What kind of bakery needs security?” “Ohhhhh.”

Playing Jenga In Unusual Places

Like the game on the steps of St. Paul’s Church.

I'm still amazed that we didn't attract a larger audience than we did, playing Jenga in this famous spot for street entertainers.

Racing Around The Transport Network

You know all of those signs about not playing on the escalators, not running up the escalators: all that jazz. Apparently some of the group didn’t think that they applied to them, with hilarious consequences. Honestly, I’ve never seen somebody slide all the way down the central reservation of a 100-foot escaltor before, “bouncing” over every sign and emergency-stop-button as they rocketed down along the polished steel. And if I never do again, that’ll be fine, because I’ve seen it now.


Meeting Some Fabulous People

Turns out, everybody who came along to Robin’s birthday – most of whom I hadn’t previously met – were all awesome in their own unique ways. It’s been a long time since I’ve hung out in the company of such a lively crowd. Thanks to you all for a fantastic night out.

Macclesfield

Last weekend, I found myself in Macclesfield to celebrate the engagement of Liz and Simon. Highlights in brief included:

  • Board games with the happy couple and their friends, as well as the Aberites who were present. Just like old-school Geek Nights.
  • Liz & Simon’s awesome new house. Also, their cats, one of whom took a special interest in Bryn‘s crotch for the duration of his visit.
  • Seeing people I don’t see often enough. Meeting lots of fabulous new people.
  • A surprising heavy dump of snow, tramping around in it, and attempting to sledge on a sleigh made from – by the looks of things – a plank of wood and two chair legs (not particularly successful).
  • Tasty pizza. Followed by the chef coming out to ask me how it was, presumably because I’d been overheard talking about the art of pizza making, the consistency of their dough, etc.: I’ve been eating a lot of pizza, recently, as I’ll explain in a future post.
  • Dancing until late to awful music on a knackered old sound system by a foulmouthed transvestite DJ. It’s always a pleasure to get the chance to dance with Liz, one of the few people who seems to enjoy flailing around to music almost as much as I do.
  • Brief game of I Have Never… in Liz & Simon’s kitchen, after the night out: even more “just like old times” than old-style Geek Night, for a handful of us at least.
  • A quick geocaching hike the following morning, to a handful of caches nearby.
  • Finding a pub with an amazing sign (well, I was impressed): click the pictures for larger versions.

A big thanks due to Liz and Simon for a fantastic party!

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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 "moon boots"
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).

Pointing at the murderer, pilot James McDivvy.
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

Paul Isn’t A Murderer

Much thanks to Ruth and Paul for running an awesome murder mystery party last night, and to Rory for snapping some great photos. We played Death By Chocolate, in which American tycoon Billy Bonka had been murdered, but by whom?

[warning: contains spoilers for the Death By Chocolate murder mystery pack]

Most remarkably, it wasn’t Paul’s character this time, as has become traditional. Instead, it was Rory’s: Mike Bison – a loudmouthed American boxer who Rory really brought to life (and whom the rest of us – all “civilized” Europeans – mocked mercilessly). I might have guessed correctly – Claire did – if it weren’t for the fact that I disregarded some of Claire’s character’s – Dame Barbara Carthorse’s – observations because she presented it so drunkenly. That’ll teach me!

I played Dr. Sigmund Fraud, pre-eminent psychoanalyst, which was a fabulous role to be cast as, because it gave me license to blame everybody’s faults on the forgotten traumas of their youth. And also talk about phalluses (phalli?) a lot.

Much credit also due to JTA (Monsoir ‘Chocolate’ Bertrand, rival chocolatier to the deceased), whose already-awesome French accent only became more ludicrous and pronounced as he got more and more drunk, and to Elizabeth (Dr. Doris Johnson, explorer, adventurer, and expert in Aztec culture), who was brave enough to come along to one of these things for the first time, and survived.

Ruth and I have started talking about the potential for the next one to take place near the end of October. Hope everybody can make it!

Congratulations Alec & Suz

Alec and Suz‘s wedding was this weekend, and I went along to the wedding reception on Saturday evening, along with Claire, Jimmy, Liz and Simon. We turned up stylishly early, and took advantage of the bar while we waited for anybody else we knew to appear (okay, so there was the bride and groom, of course, although they were generally pretty busy socialising with all their other guests, and a handful of others like Andy and Siân).

All said, the night was amazing. The venue the happy couple had chosen was County Hall, the Marriott hotel across the river from Westminster Abbey and a stone’s throw upstream of the London Eye, which is an amazingly beautiful hotel in a great location. The balance of traditional and modern wedding reception themes was strikingly cool. Oh, and Alec and Suz both looked fabulous, if a little exhausted.

It was great to catch up with so many folks I haven’t seen even remotely enough of late, like Bryn, Matt R, Matt P, Liz, Andy, Siân, and Sundeep, as well as hanging out with folks I still see regularly, like Ruth and JTA. It was also fab to re-meet folks I’d only ever met in passing before (in Aber, like Caroline, or in the bigger wider world, like Simon).

And so we drank and danced the night away to a (generally) great selection of music. Liz has an impossible supply of energy and kept dragging Aber-folk up to the dance floor, and getting down to the bangin’ choons with the old gang filled me with a sense of nostalgia. I’m pretty sure I even saw Jimmy dancing when there wasn’t a girl dancing with him, which is a first, although he’ll certainly deny that ever happened.

Also of note was the hotel’s response to Matt P’s arrival. Matt P turned up late in combat pants and a t-shirt, and carrying a backpack, and strolled in to the five-star hotel, and I’m pretty sure that – as I helped him change into the suit he was carrying, in the gents toilets – at least one member of staff came in to check what somebody dressed like that was doing in their hotel. Fun and games.

There was other stuff. Having travelled as far as London it made sense to do a couple of touristy things, too, as well as to meet up with a London-based potential new volunteer developer for a software project I’m working on, but the wedding reception will remain the highlight of the weekend, and perhaps the social highlight of the year. It’s occurred to us that with QParty last year, Alec & Suz’s wedding this year, and Ruth & JTA’s planned wedding in 2010, that we’re lacking an excuse to get the usual suspects together for any reason in 2009. As it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see a wedding or similar event on behalf of, for example, Andy & Siân, we may have to find some other reason to have a get-together in the coming year. Claire’s looking into the possibility of a group holiday (like the Pembrokeshire fort trip early this year), which is an option, and Matt R proposes Cardiff Is Amazing 2009, a party which (so far) has no more premise than can be inferred from it’s name. Nonetheless, Alec & Suz’s wedding has reminded me how much I miss many of the people I used to spend time with on a weekly basis, and I’m keen to see one or both of these plans come to fruition.

Oh, and – congratulations, Alec and Suz! Have a great honeymoon, and enjoy the rest of your married life together!