Sunday, 15 April 2012

I've run the occasional live-action murder mystery for friends and taken part in a few others. I didn't realise how much of a mark it had made on my subconscious until I was asked for advice on how to do it and this just spewed out of my head. 


1. Never underestimate the stupidity of the party.

2. Never underestimate the...
OK, you get the idea but it is, unfortunately, true that people's inability to grasp what to you should be a simple point increases exponentially with the number of people in said group.

To use the old chestnut of three pensioners sitting on a bench:

Granny #1: "Isn't it windy?"
Granny #2: "No, I think its Thursday."
Granny #3: "Ooh, so am I, lets have a cup of tea.''

Now add in Granddads #4, #5 & #6 who, respectively, know that tea comes from Ceylon, that Ceylon is now Tibet (No, I know it's not but that's the point!) and that the Dalai Lama comes from Tibet. Rather than someone in the party going outside to see if the wind has dislodged a clue from the trees as you planned, you have six very earnest characters thinking their main goal is to free the Dalai Lama from Chinese oppression. And they'll get the rest of the party thinking the same way. The weird thing is, sometimes it's better that way – who wouldn't want to free the Dalai Lama? In once early instance this led to Dracula's castle being attacked by trampoline-launched methane-powered exploding cows. Actually it wasn't Dracula's castle, it was Frank n' Furter's Transvestite rocket ship because someone deliberately misled the party (you know who you are...)

3. Never expect things to go exactly as planned.
- people cancel at the last minute
- You run into problems. I did almost an entire night with no voice and had to substitute dodgy Clannad tracks for various chants that should have been included.

4. Mine! Mine! Mine!
People don't always share the information they should. Imagine Gollum sitting in a corner in fancy dress with a hoard of clues whispering "My precioussssses "and you won't go far wrong.

This problem can increase with the shyness/inebriation of the character in question.
- Best not to put all your eggs in one basket. Either give the same clue to different people or have an alternative distribution method held in reserve.

If you give everyone their own sub-plot in addition to the murder (who stole Auntie Ethel's gold-plated dentures?) they have to ask each other questions and then have to actively choose not to get involved /ignore information.

5. The "luvvie" syndrome.
  • Do I have to be ugly/poor/mean?
  • My character wouldn't pawn an old lady's false teeth."
People can get very into it and think they know more than you do, Depending on how
much background filling you've done, this could well be true.
Give them as much character history as you can. I try to do at least a couple of sides of A4 on the characters themselves and then another side of background info. 

It also helps if you can compare them to someone they'll know, e.g. 'Hugh Grant, but with actual acting ability', or 'a bargain basement Derek Acora, doing readings in pubs'.

Characters will still try to argue the toss but if you've told them they hate old ladies because they were brought up by their Gran who always dressed them in hand-me- downs and used their pocket money to buy FixaDent (yes – they stole Auntie Ethel's teeth!) it's a lot easier to argue your corner. And far less likely that you'll need to.

6. Stage fright.
what seemed like a good idea in the pub after a night of shots and improbably named cocktails (Combine Harvester, anyone?) suddenly seems far less do-able in the cold
light of day and the even colder courtyard of a castle dressed up in your Dad's old tweed coat pretending to be an archaeologist.

All you can do is give people plenty of warning and lots of background info. If you love them, set them free!

7. Zebras!
'If you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras'. In real life, the mundane explanation is usually the right one. In this kind of game, however, you need people to look for Zebras. You actively encourage them to look for Zebras because mundane is boring.

Unfortunately, once this zeal for the weird is released, it gets out of hand. They hear hoofbeats and think ..

Sometimes it's a little less exciting but will still send people off track. I left an iron in the bath once because I was behind with my prep. People started arriving and the iron was still hot. I started imagining all sorts of horrific keloid-scarring accidents happening if I left the iron where it was to cool down (Zebras!) and came to the conclusion that the only non-flammable safe place to leave it was in the bath. So in I popped it and closed the shower curtain so no one could see. Only later did I find out that this was discovered and declared to be the murder weapon. Though how you use an iron to shrink a man, strip the flesh from his bones and leave a desiccated skeleton and no mess at all, I have no idea.

You can't stop this happening – I'm not sure you'd want to.

8. The Font of All Knowledge.
Some people just know more than others. Annoying but true. Especially if they know more than you about the subject in question (murder, dismemberment, the occult... I didn't say they had to be nice people.)

I've had plots derailed because someone who knew Latin translated a clue about two hours too early. Once a character (a priest) came under undue suspicion because he lost his place in the prompts he'd been given and instead of giving the last rites started quoting lines from The Exorcist leading another character to think 'they're not the right words … HE'S NOT A PRIEST!'

While it's not necessarily a bad thing – a little extra suspicion goes a long way to getting people into the swing of things – it will keep you on your toes. All you can do is make sure you do your research well and give the characters the info they're going to need and enough time to absorb it. Other than that, there's not a damn thing you can do about it.

9. Keep your friends close...'
The people helping you need to know what's going on. Unfortunately this means that if they see a way they think they can improve things they might act without consulting you. Suddenly you've got a whole new subplot to consider and work around. If you're really lucky, you'll have more than one!

Other than asking/telling them to speak to you first, there's nothing you can do. In the heat of battle, people do really strange things.

10 Alcohol is a deceiver...
A little drink beforehand can make people relax. Too much and you can have World War Three on your hands. People either can't think through plot devices and alibis or they think they know everything.

11. Beware of invisible plot holes.
No matter how many times you read/work through your script/plan, you will miss something, You might as well just take that as a given. The only thing you can do is hope it will be some small thing the whole plot doesn't depend on but at some point you will get that horrendous roll and flip of your stomach as someone says "No... hold on a minute..."

12. The Case of The Missing Character.
- the dog stole my character sheet.
- The kids are sick.
- The roads are flooded.
- I'm sick.
- Great Uncle Octavius died and wants his ashes FedExing to the Congo so he can be at one with the Gorillas.

People will be missing on the night. Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes because they just couldn't be bothered. Sometimes the excuse is so good you really wish they could have turned up – they'd have fitted right in!

Whatever the reason, you'll suddenly find yourself frantically writing your way around a clue-shaped hole in your plans for the night and again, there's no way round it. You're never going to second guess who'll go AWOL. Well, not unless you're a billionaire who's managed to predict the right lottery numbers every Saturday for the last ten years. All you can do is make sure any major clue or plot device isn't given to just one person and be prepared to play a couple of parts yourself if you really have to.

13. If you're going to be a murderer, why stop at one body?
Lay down ground rules - what is allowed (Enthusiasm, getting into the part) and what isn't (physical violence, property damage, whatever else you choose). I'd imagine there will be far more rules if you're doing it somewhere public for profit than for friends.

You can always kill off a character as a last resort if someone persistently refuses to play by the rules. One person out of control could spoil everyone else's night so don't be afraid to wield your tools of office (candlestick, untraceable poison, laxatives... well, two out of those three maybe). More bodies keep things exciting, anyway.

14. You can't fit a square peg into multidimensional hole offset in time and space.
There's no point giving the part of a Mata Hari wannabe to a 60 year old Nun from Kidderminster if she's going to be too uncomfortable to do it justice. If you don't know the people coming, ask them what kind of things they would like to do.

15. The engines cannae take it captain...
People can find it hard to stay in character all the time, especially if they're novices. Every one wants a bit of validation their first time (am I doing it right? should I twist and jiggle or jiggle then twist? Should I really have put that banana in the statue's ear...?)
Rather than have people popping in and out of character as they choose (and when) and ruining the flow, you might want to designate One room a "chill out" room where People
can go to (briefly) to let off steam and chat as themselves (… I see... the banana was for the icecream...) Talk about the actual game plot is forbidden, though. And don't let anyone stay in there too long. It's like falling off a horse - the longer you leave it, the harder is to get back on. I know - I was that newbie!

16. Oh look! There's a line from the original plot...
Sometimes, no matter what you do, people get far more interested in the little sub plots you gave them than they are with the overriding story arc. If they're having more fun that way and you really can't coax them back on track – give in. You're putting it on for them after all – the fact that they're massacring your carefully woven masterpiece is neither here nor there. And you can always make them suffer later.

17. to summarise (which was probably all you wanted in the first place).

- Never underestimate the stupidity of the party, But you will. Oh, yes.

- If it can happen, it probably will. Unless you want it to, in which case - no chance!

- Don't give just one person an important clue (or be prepared for someone else to find it if person #1 does nothing.)

- Give your characters time to prepare.

- Give yourself enough time to prepare!

- Try and have fun.

- Try not to do yourself any permanent damage!

These are not all my ideas – I'm still a relative newbie too. I have friends who do this far more than I do and have shamelessly plundered their experiences to round this out!