Category Archives: Design

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.

And now hosts can play too!

We occasionally receive criticism about the role of the host: some people want to be able to host a murder mystery game and play it at the same time.

While we’ve written before about hosting and playing our games, it’s not always satisfactory because of what the host needs to know and manage.

But that changes with Death in Venice and Reunion with Death.

Designed for lockdown play using video chat, neither of these games include tricky rules (such as combat or pickpocketing) that require a separate host.

So now the host can play!

We’ve created a separate pack for hosts to download if they want to play our game as well as running it. That’s to keep everything separate, to minimise the risk that the host reads a key piece of information.

(So that’s like Way out West, which includes a self-contained kid-friendly version.)

So you can either host the game separately (as with our other games) or as a player. It’s up to you.

A caveat

The main downside that we can see of hosting and playing is that casting becomes a little trickier. If the host is playing they have less control over who plays which character.

We’ve provided some casting hints about each character – but obviously you don’t get as much depth as you do when you can read the characters themselves.

And as host you might even end up as the murderer! (If as host you don’t want to be the murderer, you can drop us a line and we’ll suggest a different role for you.)

We want to hear your stories!

If you try this out, please let us know how you get on. You can contact us either via Facebook or via our contact page.

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).

Death on the Gambia and Snow Business updates

Front cover for the Death on the Gambia cover booklet

Front cover for the Death on the Gambia cover booklet

You probably haven’t noticed, but we’ve given Death on the Gambia a refresh.

Death on the Gambia was our first game, and it’s been in need of a refresh ever since we reformatted our games. So it now each character has a character booklet like all our newer games.

Unlike our recent Hollywood Lies revamp, we haven’t changed Death on the Gambia. It’s the same game, just in a new format. You can see what the front of the new character booklets look like above.

Snow Business

Snow Business

Snow Business

With Death on the Gambia updated, we’ve also started updating Snow Business. This is a work in progress, but you can see what the front of the character booklets look like below.

Snow Business is another of our early games, and it’s one that I’ve not looked at in a while. I had been a bit worried that it was a bit dated, but I’m very pleased at how well it compares our current games.

With a bit of luck the Snow Business update will be done by the end of the year.

Adding eight pirates to Pirate Island

We’ve just tweaked Pirate Island so that it now works with up to 32 pirates. I’m going to explain the how and the why of doing that.

The why

Pirate Island had been bugging me for a while – because it’s actually a bit fiddly to prepare.

Pirate Island

Scout Master Richard running Pirate Island – and on his 50th birthday as well!

Pirate Island is a team game, where the pirates are all members of a ship’s crew, trying to be the best pirate crew. To be the best, they have to enter contests, track down treasures and trade items with each other.

Everyone in Pirate Island plays a pirate. Either a Captain, a Gunner, or a Crewmate. And in keeping with our other murder mystery games, each of them has a character sheet.

A full game of 24 pirates has eight ships, each with three crew. However, with only 23 pirates, then we use seven ships with three pirates, and one ship that has only two pirates. That two-pirate ship is functionally the same as the one it replaced, except that it has a different name and only a Captain and a Gunner. By having four such ships (with two and three pirate versions) Pirate Island is fully flexible for 6-24 players.

But it’s a bit fiddly to prepare. Unless you are absolutely certain of your numbers, you have to print out all the ships just in case someone drops at the last minute. Or you get an extra unexpected pirate. Pirates can be so unpredictable!

When we came to Trick or Treat / Monster Mash, we simplified all this by creating team envelopes that didn’t require specialised roles. That way a team can be two or three (or more!) monsters – and there’s no extra printing required.

So one of the things that I wanted to do, given time, was to do the same with Pirate Island and tweak it to make it simpler to print and run, along the lines of Trick or Treat.

That’s not what happened, though.

What happened next – the Cub Scouts

Instead, I was contacted by a friend, Richard Salmon, who had purchased Pirate Island and wanted to run it for his Cub Scout group (the 1st Nork St Paul’s Scout Group). The problem was that he had over 30 cubs coming, and that would mean an awful lot of the generic extra Crewmate character. We had written the additional Crewmate to allow for one or two extra pirates – not nine!

Could I sort something out?

So rather than my original plan, I made the more-or-less identical ships more unique. The main change I made involved the pirate quests.

Questing for Treasure

In Pirate Island, each ship has a map to a Treasure mappirate treasure (such as Blackbeard’s treasure, or the wreck of a treasure ship). To find the treasure means solving three puzzles, and the answers are scattered amongst the pirates – so they have to team up to solve them.

The more-or-less identical ships had the same treasure map, so I made them all unique. Instead of writing brand new clues, I simply re-used existing clues from the existing quests. (I had to choose the clues carefully to make sure that I didn’t accidentally give them all to one ship.)

Other changes involved tweaking item cards a little and checking that I hadn’t messed the game up anywhere else.

Feedback

So how did the new, expanded game go? I asked Richard for feedback and was told that:

“It went very well – they all seemed to have a good time.

“Took a bit of time to get started and the motto and performance contests were less popular. The quests all seemed to work out and there was a flurry of trading of items at the end. The winning team got nearly fifty doubloons, but some only collected a dozen or so (mainly because they didn’t do the contests).

“With cubs if something not engaging them; they start chasing one another about and generally messing; we didn’t have any of that for the hour they were playing; so that means they were really quite into it.”

Here are some photos from the scout group’s Facebook page. And here.

Overall

So while we’ve adjusted Pirate Island, we’ve taken it in a different direction than the one I had originally expected. I’m very happy with the way this has turned out, and maybe now that Pirate Island is bigger more groups will think about giving it a try.

And it really works for cub scout groups!

Our standard rules

We use some standard rules in our murder mystery games to cover situations such as combat, poisoning, death and the like. We’ve now made these available in pdf form so that you can share them with your players.

(Note that we have more rules than this, but these are our most commonly used rules.)Derrenger item card

  • Basic rules – these are our basic rules that apply to all our games.
  • Combat – there are our full combat rules. We use these in a lot of our games – they are quite simple, but can be deadly. These rules include healing and death.
  • Poison – some of our murder mystery games include rules for poisoning others. This is how they work. These rules include healing and death.
  • Capturing another player – sometimes it’s important to be able to capture or restrain another player. This also includes our Arrest rules.

You can find these rules on this page, which also includes some ideas for using the rules.

Rationalising the rules

It’s taken us a while to get to the point where we can publish our standard rules because for a long time they weren’t actually standard. Our games have evolved over time, and we’ve incorporated tweaks and improvements as we’ve gone along. But what we haven’t been very good at is going back and updating the older games.

Poison ability card

Now that we’ve published our standard rules, we’ve gone back to our old games and made sure that they are consistent. After all, we don’t want to confuse anyone with different sets of rules.

The rationalising process has resulted in quite a few discussions here at Freeform Games HQ, as it hasn’t always been obvious which is the best version to use. Our rules for arrests and poison in particularly needed quite a bit of looking at. Overall, however, our approach has been to use the simplest version.

We’re happy with them now, and standardising our rules will make it easier for our future games.

Let us know what you think: have you shared our standard rules with your players? And if so, did it help?

Developing Hollywood Lies: Part 2

In Part 1 I talked about updating Hollywood Lies – bringing it into the modern format, making it completely kid-friendly, making all the characters gender-neutral, and including the extra character pack in the main game. In this post I talk about how I did it.

Preparing the character booklets

Hollywood-Lies

Detective Chase (right) investigates the murder.

The first thing I did was to prepare the character booklet format. When we first wrote Hollywood Lies our character sheets were on two pages – story on one side, goals and people on the reverse.

Our current format is an 8-page booklet:

  • Page 1 – Cover, including a few words setting the scene (the same for each character)
  • Page 2 and 3 – Background and goals
  • Page 4 – Other People and tips for beginners
  • Page 5 – Abilities (previously on a separate card)
  • Page 6 – Secret and Clue (previously on the same card as the abilities)
  • Page 7 – Rules
  • Page 8 – Cast list for our shorter games, blank otherwise. (Blank for Hollywood Lies because the cast list won’t fit unless the font is microscopic.)

Once I was happy with the format, I then cut and pasted the character text from the original files into the new format.

(An aside, Mo and I do this differently. Mo has all the characters in a single document, while give each character their own document. I do this because I’m often switching from one character to another, and I haven’t found a way that works for me when everything is in one document. The downside is that if I need to make a change to a piece of boilerplate text, then I need to open every single document whereas Mo can just do find-and-replace.)

The character spreadsheet

With the characters all in the new format, I then created a character spreadsheet that did two things: ranked each character, and tracked changes.

Character ranking: I ranked each character numerically based on things like the number of goals they had and how much background text they had. This resulted in a score, and those with a low score compared to others needed more work.

This was particularly an issue because at this point while I’d deleted plots (such as affairs and the photos discussed last time), I hadn’t replaced them with anything. So some characters were definitely weaker.

(I didn’t completely rely on the ranking, but it was a good start to identify those characters that needed more work.)

I has used a similar system for for Murder at Sea, which I wrote about here.

Tracking changes: I also used the spreadsheet to track the changes. For example, I changed the introductory text and I used the spreadsheet to ensure that I changed every character booklet.

The spreadsheet included a tab with all the secrets and clues on them, so that I could check that the murder trail worked. (I didn’t want to make it easy, but it needed to be possible.) Other tabs also tracked who knew who, so that I could fill any gaps.

Changing plots

As I said previously, some plots were removed and I replaced these by fleshing out some of the other existing plots and writing two new plots.

Other changes

Other changes arose due the the new format. Our previous format had the Other People section before the Goals, the new version puts Goals ahead of Other People. That meant that there were sometimes goals that referred to information that the player hadn’t read yet (because it was now further down the character sheet in the Other People section).

In our view goals shouldn’t add new information but instead they should summarise the background and act as a reminder. So in those cases I moved the Other People information into the background so that the character sheet flowed from start to finish.

I also checked that the balance of Other People was about right – that nobody was left out and that nobody knew too much about one particular person.

Remaining files

Once I was happy with the characters, I then updated the other files such as the instructions, quick reference sheet, and the cards file.

Then followed a thorough proofread, and that was it!

On reflection

Updating Hollywood Lies seemed to take a long time – but I think I was being a bit ambitious. The two big changes (making it gender neutral and kid-friendly) made a significant impact that I then needed to address, and all that took time.

However, I do believe that the game is better as a result.

Developing Hollywood Lies

So for much of 2015 I have been spending my spare time updating Hollywood Lies and bringing it into our current format. We finally released it in early December.
As well as re-formatting it (to bring it up to our current standard, as I had done recently with Murder at Sea), we had a few other ideas for developing Hollywood Lies:

  • To make Hollywood Lies gender neutral.
  • To make the game kid-friendly.
  • Incorporate the expansion pack into the main game.

I have talked previously about making Hollywood Lies gender neutral, but the last two deserve a bit more explanation.

Kid-friendly

Hollywood LiesOriginally Hollywood Lies had an “adult” version and a “kids” version. That’s because when we wrote it we didn’t think that our customers would want to run it for their kids – we should have thought that through!

Having two versions made it clunky for our customers, and harder for us to update when we find an error.

And to be honest, wasn’t much difference between the two:

  • The nude photos plot in the adult version (which was inspired by a plot in Notting Hill) were replaced with embarrassing photos.
  • The affairs were changed to “secretly seeing” (but no change in the actual plots).

And that was about it.

As the changes were just cosmetic, some parents were understandably concerned with their children playing characters who are in affairs (whether ‘secretly seeing’ or otherwise). With the new changes all these affairs are removed, and anyone can play, and it will still be lots of fun for everyone.

The expansion

We also incorporated the expansion into the full game. While we like the idea of having optional expansions for our games, practically they present a couple of problems.

  • First, they end up more complicated as there’s a second set of instructions and more bits of paper everywhere.
  • Second, the characters in an expansion never seem as fully embedded in the game as the original characters. (Although that might just be my perception rather than reality.)

So for Hollywood Lies we’ve included the characters in the main game. If that proves a success, we’ll do it with our other games as well.

So that’s what we’ve done. Next time I’ll talk about how I did it.

Writing a murder

As part of this year’s Hollywood Lies update, one of the changes I have made was to the murder plot. The original murder plot involved a love affair, and that was no longer appropriate as I was making the game more kid-friendly and gender neutral.

So this is what I did.

Plotting a murder

The first thing I needed to do was work out the basic plot – and most importantly the motive. I didn’t change the murderer’s identity, nor did I change how the murder was committed (the means). But I needed a new motive, and I needed to change when the murder was committed (the opportunity).

Obviously I don’t want to say too much about it here, so the rest of this post is about how I developed the plot rather than the details of the plot.

Once I’d worked it all out, I wrote it down in bullet points.

Hollywood Lies death scene

The Hollywood Lies death scene – but is it murder? (Probably.)

Clues and red herrings

With the murder outline in hand, I wrote down the clues that I needed that would lead to the murderer.

I also needed some red herrings, and other suspect. Our victim, Tom Speed, was a nasty enough character that he had a number of enemies.

I used a table (along the lines of the one below) to keep track of the murderer and suspects (and to make sure that one of the suspects didn’t have too many clues pointing to them).

murder-suspect-table

Writing the plot

Then I wrote the murder plot out in full, written from the murderer’s perspective. One of the challenges I find of writing the murder plot is that if it’s too involved, then there’s no space left for the murderer to have any other background or goals. So I made it concise enough to leave space for other plots, but detailed enough that the murderer knew what they had done.

Then I worked through the other characters.

I concentrated on the ‘core’ characters first. These are the characters that are always used in the game – the ones used when you’re playing with the minimum number. The clue trail has to work with them, so I made sure that all the clues were spread amongst the core characters.

Incidentally, this is why it’s difficult playing with fewer than the minimum number. You have to be really careful who you drop, in case the character you drop has a key clue that you can’t solve the murder without.

The denouement and other handouts

With the core characters done, it was time for the denouement, or the solution to the murder mystery that’s read out by the detective at the end of the party.

I like writing denouements. I imagine Poirot making a speech in front of all the suspect, and it’s about the only space in our games for a little dramatic flair.

With the denouement finished, my next task was to write the murder plot handouts that are needed during the game. In Hollywood Lies, this consisted of a few timed handouts relating to new information provided by forensics.

A fake body lies at the bottom of the stairs

Another death scene – this time from Snow Business

The other characters

With the core characters, the denouement and the handouts finished, I wrote up the remaining characters.

For the remaining characters, I repeated the clues that I had already used for the core characters. The reason for this is that with more characters in the game, it’s possible for an individual clue to be overlooked. Multiple copies of that clue makes it less likely that that will happen.

Murder all wrapped up

That’s how I updated the murder plot for Hollywood Lies, and it’s pretty much how I write any murder plot, whether I’m starting from a clean sheet or adapting an old game.