Monthly Archives: March 2014

The three golden rules for hosting a murder mystery game

I talked a couple of posts back about helping to run Cafe Casablanca, but what I didn’t talk about is how I used our “three golden rules” to guide my decisions during the game.

As our hosts know, we have three golden rules when it comes to hosting a murder mystery game:

  1. Is it fun?
  2. Will it spoil the game for anyone else?
  3. Make it up!
Chocolate needed for Cafe Casablanca
The fourth golden rule we don’t like to admit to – make sure you have lots of chocolate to hand!

So I thought I’d explain how I used these rules, with an example from Cafe Casablanca. (It’s useful to use Cafe Casablanca as an example as I am in no danger of giving out any of our game secrets!)

So, to set the scene, the first scene I ran in Cafe Casablanca is low tide at Casablanca’s long pier. At the long pier, players were gathering to try and recover a suspiciously heavy bag that had been thrown into the water. At low tide, when the mudflats were revealed, the bag could be recovered.

(Note that this is not a normal situation for a Freeform Games murder mystery. Our games don’t have discrete scenes like this, but hopefully that won’t spoil it as an example.)

Two players, Harry and Eddie, arrived at the long pier before everyone else. They had a boat and a diving suit and wanted to get the bag before anyone else arrived. I used the three golden rules to decide whether they were successful or not:

  • Is it fun? Well, not really. More importantly, I felt that denying the opportunity for a scene full of conflict (as would happen when the other players turned up) would be less fun.
  • Will it spoil the game for anyone else? No, after all, someone had to get the bag.
  • Make it up! As I decided that it would be more fun to wait until the other players arrived, I delayed Harry and Eddie just long enough to allow the other players turn up.

Delaying the recovery of the bag meant that at least a dozen other characters were involved, some of whom were spectators. The bag did end up in Harry and Eddie’s possession (along with a third character), and created some interesting scenes later in the game.

Was it the right decision? I don’t know – we certainly had an interesting scene as a result of me not allowing Harry and Eddie to get the bag, but as I don’t know what would have happened had I allowed them, I can’t say whether it was strictly the right decision. I do know, however, that I’d make the same decision again.

A minor caveat on spoiling the game for others – I don’t mind one player doing something that gives them an advantage over another, but if they’re trying to do something that is likely to upset lots of other players, that’s when I become cautious. That wasn’t really an issue in this case, though – I just wanted to delay Harry and Eddie because I thought it would be more interesting for the scene if there were more players present. And it was.

Real-world alternatives for some of our mechanical ideas

We provide safe, simple rules in our murder mystery games, but sometimes it’s fun to make those rules more closely align to the real world. Here are some examples.

A player in one of our murder mystery games

These first two are from Denise Knebel in the USA.

The secret cupboard

One of our games (I’m not going to say which) has a secret cupboard which is normally managed by the host. Here’s what Denise did instead:

I cleared out a drawer in my dresser for the players to use. I retyped the cards and on the secret cupboard ones, I wrote where to find the cupboard. It worked out well and because it was in an open place, those who had access to it had to be secretive about when they were using it.

Also, it was fun to watch when someone who didn’t know about it when they were spying on someone see them open it. At one point, the murder weapon made it into the secret cupboard! For what purpose, I don’t know but the guests had fun with it!

One of the delights in using real-world locations for things like secret cupboards is that you don’t know who else will stumble upon the secret cupboard. (That’s very unlikely to happen with a virtual location managed by the host.) But that’s all part of the fun!

Poison: Several of our games include poison. Here’s Denise again:

Since I knew all my guests were drinkers, I bought some sample-size liquors. I tied a note to it with the card information on how to use it. (Obviously to add some in a drink and hand it to the person). My group had fun with that, and it was funny to watch when someone took a drink and made a face. Afterwards, I would show them the “you’ve been poisoned” card.

(Here in the UK we call the sample-size liquor bottles “miniatures”.)

Obviously you wouldn’t want to do this with children, teetotallers or drivers present in your game!


Cafe Casablanca uses these rules for simulated pickpocketing:

  • First, give those with the pickpocket ability a sticker – one sticker for each pickpocket use.
  • The the pickpocket must put that sticker onto the clothing of the person that they want to pickpocket.
  • Then they must find the host and tell them who they pick-pocketed (and what they want to pickpocket).
  • If the sticker is still in place, then the pickpocket attempt is successful. Otherwise it fails.

I’d still allow someone to prevent pickpocketing with a “Not so fast” ability, but forcing the pickpocket to place a sticker onto their target means they may be spotted by another player. What happens then is up to them, of course.

Cafe Casablanca from the GM’s perspective

Last year I talked about how Mo and I attended The King’s Musketeers, a weekend long freeform. This year’s weekend game was Cafe Casablanca, and while Mo played Philip Marlowe, I was one of the six “directors” (ie, a host).

Mo as Marlowe
Mo, looking very dapper as Philip Marlowe

Cafe Casablanca is based on Hollywood thrillers and wartime dramas of the ‘30s and ‘40s – particularly those starring Humphrey Bogart such as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.

Cafe Casablanca is broadly very like one of our games, but much much bigger. To get a sense of how much bigger Cafe Casablanca is…

Cafe Casablanca needed six directors – and we were busy for the entire game.

But that’s not surprising – we had 74 players to manage!

Cafe Casablanca took an entire weekend to play – from Friday evening through to Sunday lunch. I’ve worked out that we generated about 1300 hours of person-hours of entertainment!

I was the Harbour Director and responsible for overseeing all the mischief being done in the harbour. That’s another difference with our games – Cafe Casablanca had very definite locations, from the harbour, to the police headquarters, the Gestapo office, Rick’s Bar and the casbah.

Playing Cafe Casablanca
Cafe Casablanca in full flow

The harbour turned out to be quite an exciting place – I was never bored. I oversaw art robberies, sabotage, salvage operations (there were all sorts of things hiding in the harbour), shark attacks, and even a raid on a battleship!

Character envelopes
74 character envelopes!

It took us hours to complete all the character envelopes for this game – but that’s not surprising given that they contained:

  • A character booklet (typically 8 pages of tiny print)
  • The rules booklet
  • Extra rules for those that needed it, such as the gang wars that were going on in the casbah
  • Complicated name badges containing secret codes and symbols (that some people could read)
  • Abilities, including heart abilities and romantic requests
  • Cards for the the romance mechanic
  • Cards to allow certain shady characters to cheat at gambling.
  • Stickers for the poison and pickpocket rules
  • Contingency envelopes
  • Lots of items, including some with props, such as passports.

It was interesting to see how things have developed over the last few years. Cafe Casablanca was originally written over 20 years ago, and I’d do some things differently these days. For example, it wasn’t particularly easy to prepare. We provide a guide for preparing character envelopes in our instructions, but there was no such thing for Cafe Casablanca – there were various documents here and there, but no master.

But then I doubt Cafe Casablanca was ever written with the intention of being regularly re-run, so making that sort of thing easy probably wasn’t high on their agenda. We make our games as easy to prepare as we can because we hope they are going to be played many times!

Anyway, next year’s weekend long freeform is Lullaby of Broadway, which is inspired by Broadway musicals. And I’m going to be playing again.