Adding characters to Court in the Act

We were recently asked by Pam, one of our customers:

I’m getting ready to run Court in the Act in three weeks time. I was just sending out character assignments tonight, and realized I accidentally listed Sir Walter Raleigh twice in my list, so I have two different people down to play him! My cast list/assignments is full, and I already have Ginger Roberts assigned as a character.

I recall seeing somewhere that sometimes folks have made a role a ‘twin’ (two people play the same person), but before I go that route, I was just wondering if you happen to have any ‘extra’ characters floating around for this mystery that I can try out?! Or any other ideas you may have for me? Unfortunately I don’t have time to create an additional character role myself.

Our response:

It’s easy to make these kinds of casting slips! I’m sorry to say that we don’t have any more extra characters for Court in the Act, unfortunately — no-one has ever sent anything in for this particular game.

The simplest type of character to introduce at short notice would be another servant / lowly person — because it’s easier to explain the presence of someone like that than it is another important noble. They could be focused on information gathering / brokering — perhaps acting as an informal agent for one of the powers. Perhaps a secret Catholic? And some sort of interpersonal rivalry/affection/romance plotlines going on with Hobbs and Nagel? And they could maybe have information incriminating the murderer, as they are a little hard to identify at present.

Otherwise if you do decide to go down the ‘twin’ route (which means that the character’s are virtually identical in terms of goals and much of the background), that is of course very much in keeping with the Shakespearean theme — a twin Raleigh could be an interesting twist and cause a lot of fun.

Here are a few articles covering adding extra characters:

New extra characters for Court in the Act

We must have inspired Pam because then a couple of weeks later she sent us two additional characters for Court in the Act that she had written with her co-host Jeremy. We’ve now made them available for download when you buy the game files:

  • Carlos Santiago – Assistant to the Spanish Ambassador (M)
  • Syrino Foreal – Cardinal’s under-secretary (M)

Hollywood Lies – actual play!

So what does a Freeform Games murder mystery party really look like?

They’re hard to describe, and if you’ve not seen or played in one, they’re fairly hard to imagine.

So here’s a moment from Hollywood Lies, sent to us by Julie D’Augusta. In this scene, Jules Milton is being thrown out from the Post-Modern Freeform Movement (one of many plots in Hollywood Lies, and nothing to do with the main murder plot).

Investigating Pickpocket Crimes

Pickpocketing can be a divisive mechanic amongst experienced freeformers (although I’ve never heard any of our customers complain about it). On one hand it’s a useful mechanic for replicating a real-life skill (one that is thankfully rare); on the other hand it can be particularly demoralising to have spent all game trying to get hold of something only to have it stolen by someone unknown.

My experience is that some players hoard their items, and pickpocketing is a valid way of forcing items to move around the game. But if pickpocketing is so unpopular, what should we do about it?

I’ve been thinking about this, and solving other minor crimes, for a while. I wrote about it on my blog, following Shogun, a weekend freeform. Before that I’d written about solving in-game crimes, and about pickpocketing specifically.

And now I’ve finally done what I’d been promising myself I’d do – I’ve created an optional rules sheet for Investigating Pickpocketing for Freeform Games.

(There’s also now a standard rules sheet for pickpockets.)

How does it work?

The optional rules come in three parts – one for pickpockets, one for investigators (or detectives, sleuths, reporters), and one for judges.

Pickpockets: Those with the pickpocket ability get this:

They get one of these for each pickpocket use.

(The standard rules sheet has a sheet of these you can print.)

When a thief wants to use their pickpocket ability, they fill in name of victim, item to steal, and their name and then give it to the Host.

The Host then resolves the pickpocketing ability, and adds what was actually stolen (if different from what the thief was after). The host keeps the slip of paper.

Detectives: Give the following ability to detective-type characters – sleuths, investigators, police officers, and reporters.

So someone who has been pickpocketed can find a detective and ask them to investigate. The detective checks with a Host and plays scissors-paper-stone:

Host wins: The detective learns nothing.
It’s a tie!: The detective learns who was behind the crime, but doesn’t have definitive proof.
Detective wins: Proof of the crime! The Host gives the detective the completed Pickpocket Use slip as evidence that they have solved the crime. This is enough evidence to bring before a judge (see below.)

The detective can then go back to the victim with the news that they’ve either identified the culprit (and maybe even have sufficient evidence to try them) or that they haven’t.

Punishment: If proof of the crime exists, then the evidence may be taken to the
Judge, sheriff or whoever is responsible for dispensing justice. They should be given
the following slip in their character sheet:

As a guide, punishments should, if possible, improve a player’s game rather than detract from it.

Wrapping up

The intent of these additional rules is not necessarily to punish the wrongdoer, but to create more plot for the players by exposing secrets and shining light on dark deeds. Even if the culprit is known, the investigation doesn’t necessarily result in hard evidence that you can take to a judge. However, that shouldn’t stop the victim from dramatically confronting the pickpocket and demanding their goods back.

Not all of our games have a character suitable to give the sentencing guidelines to. In those games, evidence of pickpocketing can be dealt with during the game wrap by asking the investigating characters what they intend to do.

Big Money

I experimented recently with printing our money at approximately life-size, and it looks really good –  and feels much more like money.

This experiment was inspired by the photograph above from Way out West. Sent to us by Jaqui French, I was intrigued by the dollar bills. Those look like the graphics from our money cards, but printed extra large (they look about life-size).

And I think they look great.

So I thought I’d see what printing life-size money would look like for one of our other games, and as I’ve recently prepared and hosted Death on the Gambia, I thought I’d do that same.

The result is below – I also printed some of the normal money cards as a comparison. Overall I think they look much better.

All the money

If you want to do this yourself, here (at the bottom of this page) are the image files that we have used for all of our games so far. (As we add more, we’ll try and remember to add them to this page. If we forget, please don’t hesitate to nudge us.)

You may wish to print different denominations on different coloured paper – we’ll leave that up to you.

Printing the money

The easiest way we’ve found to print the money is to use the Windows print function – simply select the file, right-click, and select “Print”. This brings up a dialogue box (below). For Death on the Gambia I just selected four copies to a sheet. (I also printed them double sided.)

Money money money!

To download the files just right click on the image and select “save as…”. And enjoy!

Files from our customers

Kaye Anfield sent us these spooky $10,000 bills for use with Halloween Lies.

Kaye Anfield also sent us some old-style British notes:

 

Looking back at 2018

It’s the start of a new year, and that means it’s time for our traditional time to reflect on the previous year. We’ve been doing this since 2013.

Hollywood Lies - a Freeform Games murder mystery game

Hollywood Lies

2018 was our best year so far in terms of sales. We sold 28% more games on 2017, and we finally beat our 2011 previous best. No doubt the drop in the exchange rate has helped us there – we’ve never raised our prices in the nearly 17 years we’ve been trading.

However, in terms of things that we planned to do… well, let’s see.

Best selling games

Our best selling games for the year were Way out West, followed by A Will to Murder and A Speakeasy Murder. Clearly our policy of giving away Way out West (or at least, the 10 player version of it) is still working as this isn’t the first time it’s been our best-seller.

Overall our top three games accounted for 28% of our sales (similar to last year).

New and updated games

We finally published The Reality is Murder in 2018. This has been brewing for a while, and Steve is a bit ashamed at how long it has taken to get this far. But now that’s it’s finished, we’re really happy with it.

Murder at Sea - a Freeform Games murder mystery game

Murder at Sea

Freeformgames.com

In 2018 we removed the discussion forums from the site. They weren’t much used, and they were a target for spam. This meant that they required much more maintenance than we were comfortable with.

So we went through the forum and harvested all the great tips and advice and added that to a new set of hints and tips pages. Hopefully these are easier to use than the forum, and if you have a tip of your own please do send it to us via our Contact Us page.

What about our plans for 2018?

Way out West - a Freeform Games murder mystery game

Way out West

We set ourselves some goals for 2018. This is how we did:

  • Improve our website: While we did remove the discussion forum, we didn’t restructure freeformgames.com to make it simpler and more intuitive. We started the planning for that, but we didn’t actually implement any of the changes. At least, not yet.
  • Publish The Food is to Die For: We hoped that this would be ready for 2018, but sadly didn’t make it.
  • Publish The Reality is Murder: Success – we published The Reality is Murder in October 2018.
  • Publish Murder on the Istanbul Express: Again, we hoped this would be ready for 2018, but we didn’t make it in time.

So of our four goals we one solid success and one partial success (improving the website). We failed our other two goals.

Plans for 2019

Our plans for 2019:

  • Improve our website: We’ve started the planning for improving the website to make it easier to navigate, and in 2019 we’ll make those changes. (Although we’ve been saying that for a couple of years now – we need to make it happen instead of just talking about it.)
  • Publish The Food is to Die For and Murder on the Istanbul Express. Both are very close and just need pushing over the line.
  • Update Under the Big Top or Happy Birthday RJ. Both of these games are still in their original format, and need updating to our current format. We haven’t decided which of these to do yet.
  • Improve our use of Facebook: One of our customers recently asked if we were still in business because we hadn’t updated our Facebook page in over two months. That’s not a good sign, so we’re going to make more use of Facebook in 2019.

Brexit – the big unknown

We’re based in the UK and right now, despite being less than three months away, it’s still not clear how Brexit will affect us. That’s because our Government seems to be more concerned with in-fighting than providing a good deal and clarity for business.

From what we can see so far, our customers won’t see any difference, however there will be some additional administrative burden for us, particularly in relation to dealing with EU VAT (as we will lose access to the one-stop service that we currently enjoy as members of the EU). But as we aren’t reliant on a complicated supply chain, that should be about it.

But as I write it seems that there is still all to play for in Brexit-land, so who knows where we will end up.

TL;DR – 2018 was a great success

So overall, 2018 was a great success for Freeform Games, and we’re hoping we can build on that in 2019.

Court in the Act - a Freeform Games murder mystery game

Court in the Act

Never too old to learn new tricks

The recent playtests for The Reality is Murder worked really well. We asked for playtesters via our newsletter, and eventually had four groups providing us with great feedback that really improved the game and ironed out a few kinks that we hadn’t spotted.

And even though we have been writing and publishing these games for nearly 20 years, I’m still learning new things. So amongst all the specific playtest feedback, there were a couple of issues that appeared that I think we need to carry across to other games.

Missing characters

While we already provide instructions for what to do if some characters aren’t used, it seems that one of our playtesters missed them, and got a bit confused.

So I made the following change: where items are reassigned, I added a handout to be added to the affected character envelope. This should make it clearer as to what needs to be done when not all the characters are being played.

Solving the murder

One of our playtesters noted that towards the end of the mystery some of the characters had finished their goals, and if they had had a goal to solve the murder, could have been working towards that.

I didn’t want to add a goal to every character to tell them to solve the murder because that’s a player objective rather than a character objective. But I realised that the host could remind the players of that objective during the game.

So added a note to the hosts’ introductory speech about solving the murder: “At the end of the evening I will ask everyone to indicate who they think murdered Jeff Thompson. So see if you can piece the evidence together and work out who murdered Jeff, and why.”

I also added an announcement in the timeline (and Quick Reference Sheet) towards the end of the game, reminding everyone to try and identify the murder.

That way the players are reminded that they can still solve the murder, while the characters are still the characters.

Our other games

And with The Reality is Murder finally finished, these changes now need to be added (where applicable!) to our other games.

That’ll be something we do over time as we update our games – starting with Hollywood Lies and Halloween Lies (both of which have now been updated).

Looking back at 2017

It’s the start of a new year, and that means it’s time for our traditional time to reflect on the previous year. We’ve been doing this since 2013.

2017 was pretty successful for us in terms of sales, as we were slightly up on 2016 sales, although 2011 still reigns supreme.

However, in terms of things that we planned to do… that’s a different story.

A Will to Murder in full flow

Best selling games

Our best selling games for the year were Way out West, followed by A Will to Murder and Casino Fatale. Way out West has consistently been our best seller for several years now, which suggest that our policy of giving it away (or at least, the 10 player version) is working.

Overall our top three games accounted for 29% of our sales.

New and updated games

For the second year in a row, we didn’t publish any new games in 2017. We had hoped to get The Food is to Die For ready, but Real Life interfered. Instead we should be able to publish it soon.

We did update Snow Business, however.

Freeformgames.com

The main change to our website is that we added Facebook comments to most of the pages. They’re not heavily used yet, but we’re starting to see questions and comments being asked via these, and they’re another channel for our customers to contact us (alongside our Facebook page).

We also signed up to Trustpilot, an independent review site. We did this because although we’re really proud of our testimonial page, independent testimonials are better. If you’d like to leave a review on Trustpilot, you can do so here.

What about our plans for 2017?

We set ourselves some goals for 2017. This is how we did:

Improve our website: So we had plans to update and improve our website, but that really didn’t happen. We’re still in the planning stage, and other things got in the way.

Update Curse of the Pharaoh: We didn’t do it in 2016 and we didn’t do it in 2017….

Update Snow Business: Hurrah, a success! We did this.

Publish The Food is to Die For: We thought we’d get this ready for 2017, but alas things slipped away from us.

Re-start work on The Reality is Murder: We did restart work on The Reality is Murder, but we haven’t finished it yet (as we had hoped last year).

So of our five goals we only one solid success. The others were either complete fails or partial successes.

Plans for 2018

We were a bit over ambitious in 2017, so we’re keeping 2018 simple.

Improve our website: We have two main plans for the website. The first is to retire the discussion forum, which means taking the best of it and putting that elsewhere. The other thing we’d like to do is restructure freeformgames.com so that it’s simpler and more intuitive. At the moment it can be a bit confusing to navigate.

Publish The Food is to Die For: It really isn’t too far off being ready for publication, so it should be available during 2018.

Publish The Reality is Murder: We’ve made a lot of progress on this, and we should be in a position to publish towards the back end of 2018.

Publish Murder on the Istanbul Express: Another new game that is nearly ready and has been through three rounds of playtesting.

So here’s to 2018 – and lots of new games!

“Best” Murder Mystery Parties

Here’s a roundup of murder mystery party games by Hexagamers. They’ve taken a good long look at the various murder mystery companies that you can find on the internet and are trying them out to judge which really are the best.

Happily, we’re in the list – but they have yet to try one of our games. We’re looking forward to their feedback when they do.

Unbiased reviews

One of the things they talk about is the lack of unbiased reviews on the internet. Everyone puts testimonials from satisfied customers on their sites – and we do it here: Your murder mystery stories.

But they do point out the lack of negative reviews. After all, as a company we’re incentivised only to put up the good stories. That’s only human nature, obviously, but it’s not the only story. Most of the time we only receive positive reviews – and I think that’s because if the party has gone well, then people like to share their enjoyment. If it hasn’t gone well, they’re less likely to want to send us feedback.

But the point about unbiased reviews remains.

There are options for unbiased reviews such as Trustpilot, so that’s something we might explore.

Facebook likes

It’s also interesting to see how many Facebook likes the other companies have. We don’t push Facebook particularly hard and so we haven’t chased Facebook likes, but clearly we could do a bit better.

From our mailbox: twins

Recently we were asked a question about having two people play the same character. (It might have been a mixup, and by the sounds of it the game was oversubscribed.)

Our answer was that while it was tricky, it was doable – particularly with the character she had chosen.

What we recommended was to make the characters twins.

To do this:

  • Give each player the full character pack, and explain that they are twins. (They can have the same name badge if you like – you could say that they look so alike that people can’t tell them apart.)
  • Tell the twins that they can work together or not, as they prefer.
  • Announce that the characters are twins that at the beginning of the game so that everyone understands what’s going on.
  • Don’t make any other changes – so don’t double up on (say) items that they might be looking for. Instead they will both be searching for that same item, and it either of them finds it, that counts as a joint success in the goal if they are working together (or a success for one and a failure for the other if not!)

In sides with distinct sides, creating a twin can unbalance things, but in this case it didn’t matter.

If you like the idea of trying this, here are a few things to consider:

  • It should be sensible for the character to be a twin – so we wouldn’t recommend twinning a parent, or anyone in a romantic relationship, or the Captain of a ship. That wouldn’t make sense.
  • We wouldn’t recommend twinning the murderer (!).
  • They shouldn’t have any unique items.

And of course, we don’t recommend doing this unless you absolutely have to – use all the characters (and free extra characters) first!

Note – we’ve not tested this – let us know if you try it out!

Playing A Will to Murder

Cornelius and Janice conspiring on the balcony

We don’t often get to play our games, but last weekend I played in A Will to Murder.

Guy, one of my tabletop roleplaying friends, had bought A Will to Murder, and wanted to try one it with some of his friends. Although he didn’t ask me to run it (I thought he was going to), I said I was happy to play when I heard he was organising it.

Luckily, I couldn’t remember the plot of A Will to Murder. I last read it back in 2010, when I was proofreading it for Mo (who wrote it). Seven years is enough time for me to have completely forgotten about it, particularly given that I’ve not played it.

(So that explains why, if you ask a question about one of our older games, sometimes I’m a little slow in replying: I’m busy refreshing my memory. I’m pretty sure Mo has a much better memory.)

Even if I had remembered the plot, I would still have been happy to play and help make up the numbers. (If that had happened, I wouldn’t have played to win – that wouldn’t have worked as I would have known too many game secrets. Instead I would have played to help give everyone else a good time.)

Guy cast me as Alan Trode, the motorcycle dealer/mechanic who has married into the dysfunctional O’Leary family. The costume hint suggested biking leathers or denim jacket, so I wore a pair of jeans and a leather jacket – although it was so hot (we played in June, on the hottest day of the year so far) that I only wore the jacket for a few minutes.

Alan and Corey inside (with Janis and Cornelius on the balcony outside)

We played A Will to Murder with the minimum of six players. I think A Will to Murder works better with slightly more players, but a couple of players who had promised to attend had to drop out. A Will to Murder still works fine with six, but it would have been better with more.

None of the other players had played a Freeform Games murder mystery before (and Guy hadn’t run one either). Apart from a slightly slow start, though, they all seemed to take to it like old hands.

From what I could see, the slow start was partly because most of the players knew each other well (and had some catching up to do) and also because we only had six players. With few players, it’s possible that everyone in your Tips for Beginners is already talking to someone else. So that means you must:

  • Interrupt, which isn’t a natural action for a reserved Brit like myself.
  • Strike up a conversation with someone else with someone you don’t know. You should do this anyway, but at the start of a game conversations with someone your character doesn’t really know can be a bit awkward as nobody wants to give anything away too soon.
  • Wait (which is what happens after you’ve finished that awkward conversation in the bullet point above…).

I’m not going to talk about the plot of A Will to Murder because, well, spoilers, but I’m happy to report that for me, I had a relatively successful game (as measured by number of goals achieved, which isn’t a proper measure of success). I had four goals, and I succeeded in two of them. As one of them was effectively impossible (keeping a secret is always doomed to failure in one of our games!) I regard that as two out of three. That’s pretty good for me – I’m often hopeless at achieving my character’s goals.

Regina and Gillian

And that’s not really how I measure success anyway. It’s all about whether I had a good time – and I certainly did. I enjoyed the game, I enjoyed watching everyone get into character, and I enjoyed the stories and the laughing at the end as everyone’s secrets were revealed.

So overall I had a lovely time playing A Will to Murder. I met new people, and hopefully I will get to run another game for them soon.