Author Archives: Steve Hatherley

Steve Hatherley

About Steve Hatherley

Steve is one half of Freeform Games and wrote Death on the Gambia, Hollywood Lies and Halloween Lies. He has edited many, many others. He lives in Yorkshire, England with his wife and daughter.

Post-party feedback

After a murder mystery party we like to get feedback from our players. We primarily do this to improve our games, but I’ve started asking for stories.

As well as celebrating the party’s success, stories are the only way I get to discover what happened. (As host, I am often the last person to find out what’s going on.)

Post-party feedback

So after I recently hosted Reunion with Death, I asked two questions (as an online Google Form):

  • What do you imagine your character will be doing in five years’ time?
  • Who would you like to give a star to – and why? (You can give as many as you like.) (Give stars to other players, to a moment in the game, or to an element of the overall experience. For example, you can award a star for – amazing roleplay, great character moments, another player’s generosity, a mechanic of the game system that really sang etc. A star is a thing you loved about the game.)

These are examples of the wonderful responses to these questions (names redacted to remove spoilers):

Epilogues: in five years …

  • … is helping to run a group of community youth groups.
  • … is running a video empire and getting high in luxury places.
  • … is still married!
  • … through hard work and diligence, is now a detective in the Holborrow police force.

(And some epilogues were too detailed to share here! And I may have changed some details to preserve the mystery.)

Lots of stars

  • … for all-round slipperiness
  • … for being a serious police detective questioning all the suspects carefully
  • … for one of my favourite lines: ‘Let’s be clear, if I was going to kill anyone in that situation, it would be …’
  • … did the shifty anger thing very well
  • … was a very good pushy, inquisitive journalist
  • … was so warm and enthusiastic about piecing together the mystery, and I loved the overt pining after …
  • … was easy to snark at!

Try them out

Next time you host a murder mystery, try asking those two questions as a feedback form and enjoy all the stories!

Kumospace tips

In our last post, Mark R told us about Kumospace, a spacial chat app he used to host Death in Venice.

So I thought I’d try it out and successfully ran Reunion with Death using Kumospace.

Reunion with Death on Kumospace – the pop-out map showing the whole floor is on the right

So here are my tips for using Kumospace:

  • Names: Ask everyone to change their name to the character’s name. You have to do that at the account level—you can’t have a name just for that session.
  • Rooms: Set up a room for the briefing and debriefing. Rooms mean that everyone in the room can hear each other—so you don’t need to be really close. I didn’t do that (rooms had only just been introduced, and I didn’t have time to work out how to set them up), and as a result, when we had the debrief everyone was piled on top of each other.
  • Announcements: For Reunion with Death’s game announcements, I copy-and-pasted them into the global chat window and then used the broadcast function to let everyone know that the information was there. (The chat gives a little bleep, but it’s easily missed if you’re busy roleplaying.)
  • Timetable: It’s hard to read the room in an online game—and I found Kumospace harder than Discord. So while I will sometimes vary the timings in a live space depending on how the game feels like it’s going, this time I stuck closely to the timetable and that worked fine.
  • Out of character area: I set up an out-of-character area that we all met in first so everyone could get used to Kumospace. (I used one of the templates—the beach. You can use anything.)

Pre-game instructions

I was sure nobody had tried Kumospace, so I sent the following pre-game instructions the day before the game.

If you’re new to Kumospace, here are some tips:

  • Please change your name to your character name (you’ll need to do this at your account level.)
  • There’s a chat function in the bottom left of the screen—I’ll use this to share game announcements.
  • The pop-out button enlarges your video and whoever you’re talking to so you can see them better.
  • The map button (rh side of the screen) shows the whole floor and where everyone is.
  • Try the “double-click to move” setting if you accidentally move around the room.
  • Some of the scenery is interactive—you can have your avatar drinking wine/coffee and eating. Have fun with them—they do not affect the game.

I’ve set up an out-of-character area (a beach setting from one of the templates) which we’ll start with. Once everyone has logged in I’ll do a brief introduction and then we’ll move to the game space, “The Hotel”. (You change floors by going back to the lobby and then choosing your new floor.)

For game abilities, you’ll have to read them out to whoever you are playing them on (and they will have to read out their Secret or Clue or whatever). I trust you not to cheat.

I’ll be wandering around, listening and occasionally making announcements. If you need me, we can either find a quiet spot somewhere or pop back to the OOC area.

Items, money, pickpocketing and combat

Like Zoom and Discord, you need to have a way to manage items, money, pickpocketing and combat if you’re running an online game with those features. Reunion with Death was designed to be run online, so it has none of those features, so I didn’t have to worry about that.

We have some thoughts on managing this in this post on our blog.

Player view

Overall feedback from players was that they liked Kumospace and it felt more natural than Zoom or Discord. The one complaint was that videos could be smaller than you get with Zoom or Discord. But they’d be happy to use Kumospace again.

Virtual murder parties – Kumospace review

Mark R recently wrote to tell us about Kumospace. In Mark’s words…

We did Reunion with Death back in 2020 using Zoom. The game was great, but Zoom is a bit clunky since the host must admit people to rooms.

Kumospace layout

I just bought Death in Venice. I’ll use a different service this time: Kumospace. I haven’t used it yet (other than to play around in it), but I believe it could be the ideal tool for hosting online.

Your video feed (about a 1″ square) is placed in a room that you can move around in. At all times, it has a large circle drawn around it (you see only your circle). This indicates the area that you can hear and be heard. So, rather than use different channels or breakout rooms, everybody roams around the same room as they were really there (but you can create multiple rooms if you wish). The proximity-based volume makes things like private conversations and eavesdropping possible.

The site offers some pre-made rooms, or you can create your own to fit the game theme using their drag and drop furniture, accessories, etc. You can also upload custom images. If you want to keep it simple, just pick something like the pre-made living room.

The host has broadcast capability, so when announcements need to be made, the host just goes into broadcast mode and all players can hear. All you have to do is login and create a space (it’s just a name and a URL). Then you share your space’s URL. The learning curve for using it is practically non-existent.

It’s free for up to 30 people in a room and runs in a browser window. As a test, I went into a room and walked away. Eight hours later, I came back, and the session had not timed out. I also googled kumospace time limit, and got no hits, so I don’t think there is a limit.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

After party report

After his party, Mark then told us how it went.

We hosted/played Death in Venice yesterday using Kumospace. We opted for the in-person setting (all of us confined to the Casanova’s saloon rather than to individual rooms). We had a great time, and at the end, everybody said they preferred Kumospace over Zoom.

It played very much like an in-person game with no need to have a “platform host” to manage breakout rooms.
The broadcast feature was great for announcements. I cut/pasted announcements into the chat box for all to read. The only problem we ran into there was with the two long “solution” announcements–apparently, there’s a character limit for the chat box. Both of those were too long, but that was easily worked around.

We did run into a few minor glitches with cameras/mics. However, these were easily remedied by exiting/re-entering, which can be done in a matter of seconds.

I’m guessing that Discord might do as well, but from playing with it a bit, it seems more complicated – at least for setting up.

I highly recommend Kumospace.

Trying Kumospace

Based on Mark’s recommendations, I though I’d see how easy it is to set up a space in Kumospace.

And it’s ridiculously easy. A couple of seconds to sign up, then you create a space. You’re presented with a standard layout that you can then customize—the tools are very intuitive and it took me about ten minutes to create the layout at the top of this blog.

(My biggest challenge in using Kumospace was finding the chat box that Mark mentions – it’s at the bottom right of the screen…)

All I need to do now is try it out!

Alternatives to Kumospace

Kumospace isn’t the only virtual space out there. We talked about Gather Town a while back, and I’m also aware of Bramble (free version limited to 10 participants) and Wonder (currently completely free).

If you try Kumospace or any of the alternatives, let us know how they work!

Murder mystery party games you can simultaneously host and play

Our murder mystery games require a separate host because we include items and money and abilities like pickpocketing and rules such as combat and arrests. We find a dedicated host helps the game run smoothly.

However, the games we developed during lockdown (Reunion with Death and Death in Venice) are more straightforward because we designed them for online play. So they don’t include combat or items that need swapping between characters.

Playing in person – you can’t share food like this online!

And so, as we wrote before, with care, the host can play a character.

Sales

Initially, in 2020 when the pandemic was new and terrifying, and we were all in lockdown, sales of the two games were good.

However, since then, sales have not been so good.

We think there are two reasons for this.

First, as lockdown has eased, people meet in smaller groups. That means they can host our smaller games, such as A Will to Murder or Murder on the Istanbul Express. (And that theory is backed by the improving sales of those games.)

Second, as life moved online during lockdown, we became more familiar with using online video chat such as Zoom.

Playing Way out West using Zoom

And our customers have used the technology to host our other parties (and they’ve shared their stories with us). That means they don’t need a dedicated online game—they can host our existing games online.

We think those two factors mean our ‘online-only’ games are less appealing and haven’t sold so well.

Hosting and playing

So we have re-branded the games and changing their focus.

The games work well, and they work well face-to-face. They play just like our other games—except there’s nothing that needs a neutral host (such as combat) and no items to swap.

So rather than focus on hosting them online, we’re emphasising that the host can both host and play a character in these games.

Therefore, we’ve updated the game files with the default assumption that the host will play a character, and the game will be played face-to-face. That meant some changes, as the games assume that players will be isolated from each other.

For example, in Reunion with Death, it is assumed that everyone is locked in their hotel rooms during the party. However, in a face-to-face game, the hotel is still in lockdown following the murder, but everyone is in the hotel ballroom and can mingle as they would at an ordinary party.

Of course, you can still play them online, just like our other games.

And if you want to host them without playing a character, you can do that too.

Photos!

However, the only problem at the moment is we don’t have any photographs of people playing Reunion with Death or Death in Venice in person! So if you have played them in person, please share your photos and tell us your stories!

Updating Happy Birthday R.J.

We’ve recently updated Happy Birthday R.J. to our latest format.

Happy Birthday R.J. was originally published in 2003. It was our fifth game and was written by Lisa Butler (who later wrote Snow Business and Casino Fatale). Next year it celebrates its 20th birthday!

Taking place on SouthSpoon Ranch in 1980s Texas, Happy Birthday R.J. is full of glamorous oil people. It uses lots of tropes (and similar names) from the Dynasty and Dallas tv shows and is for 11 to 15 guests, plus one host.

The game is a little different from many of our murder mysteries—there are two murders, and we don’t know who the murderer is for one of them. The host will decide the identity of the second murderer during the party, and it could be any of the other guests!

The changes we’ve made include:

  • Each character now has an eight-page character booklet (previously they were on two pages).
  • Rewritten the instructions to be clearer and in line with our current format.
  • Given images to all the items (although this game doesn’t have many).
  • Added a solution—which was tricky given we don’t know who the murderer is.
  • Increased the value of the money to better reflect the wealth of the attendees.
  • Given it a light edit and tidied up some of the language.

So if you’ve purchased Happy Birthday R.J., you can download it again using the same login details as before.
Let us know what you think!

Adding fighting and poison to a murder mystery party

One of our customers recently wrote to us asking which games have combat in them.

(I’m not sure if they were looking for games that had combat, or games without combat. Not that it matters.)

We realised we hadn’t made it easy for our customers to work out which games have combat and which ones don’t, so we have added icons (from game-icons.net) to our choosing a game page to make that clear.

Includes rules for combat.

Includes rules for the use of poison.

Uses superpowers instead of our usual combat and poison rules.

No combat, no poison. No combat, no poison.

One character will die during the game, and will be replaced with a new character for that guest.

The host can either play one of the characters or can just be the host, as they prefer.

Written by Peaky Games, and only recommended for people who have hosted one of our murder mystery games before.

Standard rules

We also have our standard rules (combat, poisoning, pickpocket, capturing and arrest) which anyone can use—either for their own games, or to add to a game that doesn’t normally use those rules.

A Speakeasy Murder – includes our combat rules

But how do you do that?

To explain, I’m going to show how I might add combat to Murder on the Istanbul Express (which is set aboard a luxury train where fighting would normally be forbidden).

Option #1—in the background

The easiest thing I could do is simply have the rules in my back pocket should they be needed. The game includes items that could be used as a weapon, and if one player decides that their character really must attack another, I would use our rules to adjudicate that (rather than forbid it).

First aid kit

I would also provide a first aid kit as an item on the train (perhaps in the kitchen).

But I wouldn’t advertise this in advance—I’d just use the combat rules if they were needed.

Option #2—announce it in advance

The next option is to announce that the fighting rules will be used during the game briefing, but don’t introduce new abilities or items (except the first aid kit mentioned above). Simply identify which of the existing items could be used as a weapon, and let the game commence.

Could this lucky horseshoe be a weapon?

Use common sense when working out which items could be used as a weapon—and be prepared for players to improvise.

Option #3—add abilities and items

Finally, I would embrace combat and announce that not only that the fighting rules will be used, but I’d give out suitable abilities and possibly even weapons.

But who to give them to?

  • Characters looking for revenge and their targets
  • Law keepers
  • Heroic types
  • Villains

I would give all of these a weapon of some sort, and an ability from the list in our Combat Rules.
And to balance everything, I would give other characters either an extra ability (from those used in the game) or a first aid kit (for doctors or anyone who might reasonably have access to one).

I would also share the combat rules with everyone as part of their character packs.

To add combat or not?

For me, though, I probably wouldn’t add combat to a game that doesn’t already have it.

I know our games without combat work fine without it, and adding combat can create unnecessary complexity that it doesn’t need.

Freeform Games’ review of 2021

As you might expect, the pandemic dominated 2021 for Freeform Games, but we slowly started to recover from 2020.
We’ve been doing these reviews since 2013 – you can read them all here.

Online and offline play

While 2020 showed a strong interest in playing our games online (using Zoom or similar), in 2021 we sold fewer copies of our online games (Reunion with Death and Death in Venice). Instead, our smaller games continue to sell well (a trend that started in 2020).

Playing Way out West in 2021

We suspect that’s because although many restrictions have been lifted with the vaccine rollout, many people are still wary about large gatherings. However, smaller groups (maybe family and close friends) appear to be okay, hence the popularity of our smaller games.

And while October and November had strong sales (compared to 2020), December’s dropped back. This was presumably due to the Omicron variant and fewer parties being held. (That’s not surprising – our own party season was quiet, too.) We’re keeping a close eye on how Omicron plays out, but early signs are looking promising.

Best-selling games

Our best-selling games for 2021 were Way out West (10-24 guests), then A Will to Murder (6-9 guests), then Casino Fatale (15-30 guests). Casino Fatale sold half as well as the other two, demonstrating the popularity of games for smaller groups.

As mentioned above, Reunion with Death (6-9 guests) and Death in Venice (5-9 guests) didn’t sell well, despite being for smaller groups. I think this is because we promoted them for online play. Both can be played in person—and because they are simpler (no combat or items) they are suitable for the host to play. So we are thinking about promoting them differently.

Our new game, Murder on the Istanbul Express (7-11 guests) has started strongly, although time will tell if that’s just because it’s the new game.

New and updated murder mystery games

We published one new game in 2021, Murder on the Istanbul Express. It’s been on our to-do list for ages, so this year we knuckled down and pushed it over the finish line. We’re really pleased with it.

We also updated The Night Before Christmas and Dazzled to Death to our current format.

We also updated the covers of all our games to make them more striking and obvious.

Scratching an itch

We created a page on itch.io for our games. Itch is ‘an open marketplace for independent digital creators with a focus on independent video games.’ It also has roleplaying games and larps, and we thought we’d add some of our games.

Our itch.io page

We’re not expecting sales through our itch.io page, but we have our free version of Way out West there and it gives us a little exposure to the indie gaming scene that we might not otherwise have.

Last year’s goals

We set ourselves a few goals in 2020:

Improve our website: We made a few improvements this year:

  • We added a banner made up of lots of customer photographs.
  • As described above, we changed all the cover photos for the games, making them brighter and clearer.
    We created theme pages for bestsellers, Christmas games and Halloween games.

Publish Murder on the Istanbul Express: Published!

Another new online game: We talked about another online game, but given the drop in sales of Reunion with Death and Death in Venice (as noted above), we didn’t push that.

So that’s two out of three goals achieved.

Plans for next year

Improve our website: Specifically, we have plans to expand the game themes and bring a little animation to the book covers.

Resolve the payment process glitches: We’ve had a few payment glitches lately—customers not receiving the download email (or it going straight to the spam folder). So we’ll investigate and fix that.

Continue to work on new games: We have a few new games in the pipeline, but realistically I don’t think we’ll be ready to publish any in 2022.

Run games online: We will try something new and run an occasional game online. We’ll promote this using our Facebook page.

Games the host can play: Change the focus of our two online games and promote them as games the host can play. As they don’t include items or money or the complicated rules that require an independent host, they are ideal if you want to host and also play in a game. (Steve ran Death in Venice this way back in 2020.)

Summary

Although 2021 was bad, we weathered the pandemic and released a new game. Sales are slowly recovering and as normality returns, hopefully we will return to playing our games in person.

Adding 20 players to Hollywood Lies

We were recently asked how we would add around 20 additional characters to Hollywood Lies. That’s a lot, and as we’ve already talked about that for Casino Fatale, I thought I’d explain what I would do for Hollywood Lies.

Hollywood Lies starts with 32 characters, and there are two additional characters. So an additional 20 characters means you could run Hollywood Lies for 54 guests! You’re going to want at least one more host for that! (And this applies to Christmas Lies and Halloween Lies as well.)

Overall approach

Cover for the Hollywood Lies murder mystery game

As I mentioned in the earlier post, I wouldn’t write detailed characters (with secrets and bespoke goals) for these extra 20—that would be a significant amount of work. So these would be more minor characters, mainly focussed on solving the murder and making movies.

I’d give each character:

  • A clue—duplicated from the other characters.
  • A goal to help solve the murder.
  • A goal to be in the movies.
  • A goal to help their friends.
  • Another goal—related to either the Hollywood Charity Ball (maybe buy a ticket), the Post-Modern Freeform Movement (maybe as a member, maybe wanting to join), Club Monte Carlo (to join), find an agent, or be hypnotised by Les Tytan.

I would make sure that each of the new characters had two or three good friends they could support (hence the goal). Ideally, you would cast real-life friends in these roles.

I’d also give them abilities (based on the existing ones) and money to make sure there’s still enough money in the game for all the movies to be made.

More ability uses

With more characters, ability uses will be scarce. So to counter this, I would give everyone five blank “Tear this up instead of marking an ability use” cards.

Making movie changes

I would change the making movie rules slightly to ensure that everyone can make a movie.

Hollywood Lies starts with five producers and movie teams of 5-8 people. I would increase the team size to 8-10 and add a sixth producer—so theoretically, we could have up to 60 people making movies.

Six producers gives us flexibility, although it does mean the party will last longer as there will be another movie to show off. (With an additional 20 characters, the party will take longer than usual because it will take the players longer to find the people they need to talk to.)

Assistants

I would also create assistants to help the original characters. In particular, an assistant for each producer and the detective.

Copying existing characters

I would also copy some of the existing character types (similar to the new producer I mentioned above).
These would be new agents, another Hollywood reporter and maybe an amateur detective.

20 additional characters

So here are my 20 additional characters:

  • One extra producer, whose main goal is to make a movie
  • Six assistant producers
  • One assistant detective
  • Two new agents
  • One rival Hollywood reporter
  • One amateur detective as a rival to the police detective
  • Four actor/directors (who can do either role)
  • Four actor/screenwriters (each with a screenplay)

And if I needed even more, I’d increase the number of actors/screenwriters/directors.

More tips on adding characters

A question

Would you be interested if we produced an additional 20 characters for Hollywood Lies? (And Halloween Lies and Christmas Lies.) Let us know in the comments below.

Updating The Night Before Christmas

We’ve just updated The Night Before Christmas into our current format. Written by Tracy Bose and initially published in 2004, we haven’t significantly updated the game in over a decade and it needed a reformat.

Reformatting

So while we haven’t changed the plots or characters, we’ve made numerous changes:

  • The characters are now in the 8-page booklet format, which includes their Secret, Clue and abilities—along with the rules and the cast list.
  • The abilities are now all in the latest format.
  • Items are now all illustrated.
  • We gave the text a light edit to make sure it flows.
  • We caught a couple of minor errors still there after 17 years!
  • We improved how the free extra characters are integrated into the game by linking them to more plots and characters.

But besides that, it’s the same 1948 game set at the Evington-Browne’s Christmas Eve cocktail party, held in their hunting lodge in the mountains north of Boston. A valet has died – is it murder? (What do you think?)

Purchase or re-download the game files

You can purchase The Night Before Christmas here.

If you’ve previously purchased The Night Before Christmas, you can re-download the new format using the exact location as the previous files. (We will write to anyone who has made a recent purchase.)

Send us your feedback

We love to hear from you about your parties – you can let us know via Facebook or our contact page.

Our games by year…

Following on from our birthday post last month, I thought it would be interesting to show when we published each game. I’ve excluded translations to keep things simple…

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2018

2019

  • Christmas Lies (the festive version of Hollywood Lies) by Steve Hatherley

2020

2021

One of the things that amazes me is how my memory has changed everything. I think of A Speakeasy Murder as one of our newer games, but it’s now over seven years old! And was it really in 2009 when we published The Karma Club?