Category Archives: Design

Fifteen playtest questions

Our next game, A Speakeasy Slaughter, has reached playtesting. It’s been playtested twice, but we want to test it one more time. When we test our games, we are looking mainly for player feedback (as opposed to feedback from the host, which is what we usually get from our customers). Here are the questions we ask our players:

  1. Which character were you playing?

  2. Have you played any murder mystery games before?

  3. Have you played any of our (Freeform Games) murder mysteries before? – if so, which?

  4. How easy was your character sheet to understand? – were there any specifics that you thought should be explained in more detail?

  5. What did you think about your abilities, Secret and Clue?

  6. How clear was the game background (the introduction, the newspaper, etc)? Were there any other things that you thought should be included in these background docs?

  7. Did you feel you had too much to do, too little to do, or somewhere inbetween?

  8. Did you feel the game started too slowly, or finished too anticlimactically, or any other timing-related problems?

  9. Did other characters interact with you as much as you would have liked? As many of them as you would have liked?

  10. Your character goals were meant to be realistic, reasonable and challenging – do you think they were?

  11. If you looked at your Tips for Beginners, did you find them helpful?

  12. Did you guess the murderer correctly? If not, who did you think it was?

  13. Do you have any recommendations for how we could improve your character?

  14. Do you have any recommendations for how we could improve other aspects of the game?

  15. If you’ve played others of our games, how did you feel this one compared for clarity and enjoyability?

Steve Hatherley

Game layout

We love it when our customers adapt our games and make them their own. We’ve seen bespoke invitations, badges, items, handouts and character booklets. In fact, I think that anything that could be customised has been customised.

 Of course, we’re slightly embarrassed that our basic layout isn’t a bit better. But we’re the first to admit that design layout isn’t our strength (our strength is, we hope, writing and developing hugely entertaining murder mystery party games).

Despite appearances, we do think about layout quite a bit. For example, we know that our games are often played in dim lighting by people whose eyesight probably isn’t as good as it once was. So we try to make sure our game materials are clear and easy to read. (Black text on a white background might not be trendy, but it’s clear and easy to read.)

Hollywood Lies Character Pack

A typical character pack from Hollywood Lies

Our games’ layout has also changed (and improved, we think) over the years. So we’ve combined the abilities, secrets and information into the main character files so reduce the number of different pieces of paper. (Unfortunately we still need to update the old games – there’s just too much to do!)

We’ve dipped our toe into the murky waters of “professionally designed” layouts with A Dead Man’s Chest. We have to be honest, we’re not completely convinced by the result. And sales are basically no different from before the change – which is encouraging as it suggests that the quality of our games is more important than how they look. But it has meant that we haven’t rushed to getting all our games professionally laid out.

Plus if the look of our games were “better”, it might take away our customers’ opportunity to be creative with the components.

In case you’re wondering how that works, we don’t use anything fancy for our layouts. Mo uses Microsoft Word and Steve uses Libreoffice and then we create pdfs from them. The big advantage of using a standard system is that we can provide the original files if one of our customers wants to customise their party. That’s not so easy if all we have is an Adobe InDesign file from a professional.

We’re occasionally talk about exploring other layouts for our games – but to be honest we’re unlikely to change the formula without good reason.

Steve Hatherley

Customising our murder mystery games

Dazzled to Death re-themed for a Mad Hatter's Tea Party

Dazzled to Death – Mad Hatter’s Tea Party style!

Our games aren’t always perfectly suited to your exact needs. Perhaps you want to set Casino Fatale in the 1920s, or perhaps you want to change the names of the characters in A Dead Man’s Chest to those of your favourite movie. Or perhaps you want to run Curse of the Pharaoh for children and need to rewrite the inappropriate plots.

Some companies won’t let you change their games, or they will charge you a fortune to make those changes themselves. And while we would have to charge for alterations if you wanted us to make them, we have a simpler solution: we’re happy for you to do it.

We’ll let you have the files in MS Word or OpenDocument (.odt) format for you to amend. Here’s how it works:

  1. You buy the game that you’re interested in.
  2. Then, drop us an email asking for the Word files and explaining why you want them. Please include the purchase ID so that we can check that you really have bought the game.
  3. We’ll then email you the files and you can amend them to your heart’s content.

If the changes you’re making are more extensive than simply changing names, we’d love to hear back. That’s partly because we really love hearing about our games are received, but also because we might want to consider whether we want to make those changes to the original game.

Some of the changes that have been made to our games include:

  • Setting Casino Fatale in the 1920s and 1960s, and moving it to Washington DC instead of Paris.

  • Changing Dazzled to Death to a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party theme.

  • Relocating The Spy Who Killed Me to a US Ivy League university rather than Oxbridge.

  • The Night Before Christmas has been customized to be a “who killed the boss” office party setting.

  • Turning A Dead Man’s Chest into a Prohibition-era mobster game!

PS: If you just want to customise your game by adding an extra character, then simply download the template – and see these tips for writing extra characters. If you send the character back to us and we publish it on our site, we’ll give you a free game in return.

Steve Hatherley

Updating our abilities

This could probably be filed in the “should have done this sooner” drawer. We’ve just finished an analysis of our many and various abilities. We’ve copied all the abilities into a single spreadsheet so that we have everything in one place.

And now that we can see all 500+ abilities in one place, we’re marveling at some of the contradictions.

For example, we found eight different variations on the Not so Fast! ability. We found some abilities that had different wordings in the same game. We found some abilities that have different effects in different games.

A sample ability

A sample ability

All this leads to inconsistency – we don’t want you to have to relearn the abilities every time you play. Once you’ve learned Not so Fast! you shouldn’t have to re-learn it.

This has crept up on us over time. Our approach to abilities has changed over time. As an example, an early version of Sudden Insight states “After talking for five minutes with any person, you realise that they revealed more than they intended. They must show you everything on their “Information” card.” Feedback from players suggested that some players were timing themselves to the second so that they could play the ability. That wasn’t really what we intended – we just wanted them to talk for a short while. So later versions said “After talking briefly to …” or even just “After talking to…”. But we didn’t then go back and change the original abilities.

So we’ve agreed on some standardised wordings for our “standard” abilities, the ones we use time and again. For example, Sudden Insight will now say: “After talking to another player, you realise that they have revealed more than they intended. They must must show you their Clue.” (As discussed previously, Clue is our new term for Information.)

And we’re going to sort out all our old games and bring them up to standard. (This isn’t going to happen overnight, obviously.) So when you see Sudden Insight in Court in the Act, you know that it’s going to have the same effect as Sudden Insight in Casino Fatale.

The only things that may change are flavour text and restrictions. We sometimes use flavour text to give the abilities a bit of colour and make them fit the character. And in some cases we put a restriction on an ability (in Happy Birthday R.J. the Harrington Stock cannot be pickpocketed, for example). However, neither flavour text or restrictions change the basic effect of the ability.

We will also ensure that the balance of abilities is about right. For example, Hollywood Lies currently has over 20 versions of “I love talking to people – I never know what I’m going to learn!” We’re going to replace some of those with abilities that do slightly different things so that there’s a good variety.

First games to get the new abilities will be Lord and Lady Westing’s Will (due 15th April) and Death on the Gambia

.Steve Hatherley

Writing an optional character for a FFG murder mystery game

Sometimes more guests attend a murder mystery party than you originally envisaged. While some of our games have additional character packs that allow you to add up to 10 extra characters, most don’t. In that situation you may need to write an additional character (or two).

We provide templates so that you can create your characters in the right format so that they don’t stand out too much from the “real” characters. And we will also award anyone with a free game if they create a character that we like and publish on our site. But what we haven’t done is provide advice on how to write those extra characters. Until now

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to create a couple of imaginary optional characters for an imaginary murder mystery party: Murder at the Ball. Murder at the Ball is a murder mystery set in the world of fairytales – characters include Prince Charming, Cinderella, Snow White, the Wicked Witch, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty, the Beast and other familiar characters. The setting is the grand ball, where all the plots will unfold.

Two extra characters

We’ve realised that we need two extra characters as we have two more guests coming than originally expected.

Here are some typical types of extra characters that we find fairly easy to add:

  • Assistants, deputies, underlings.

  • Rivals and enemies.

  • Family – close relatives (sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers and sisters).

  • Characters linked to plots that involve lots of people.

  • Investigator-types – reporters, extra detectives.

  • Spies or diplomat in a national diplomacy or espionage games.

So the first thing to do is to decide what additional characters to add. Having read through the game we’ve decided to add Fairy Tulip, an assistant to the Fairy Godmother, and Jack the Giant Killer (from Jack and the Beanstalk). We’ve decided to pick these two because we believe the Fairy Godmother already has plenty to do and Murder at the Ball has a plot all about electing a new Mayor, which involves a lot of people and we can fit Jack into.

Way out West

Way out West

Background

We usually start our character backgrounds with a brief summary of who the character is and why they are present in the game:

  • “You are Fairy Tulip and you are here to help the Fairy Godmother.”

  • “You are Jack the Giant Killer and you are here because you want to become Mayor.”

Then we explain any background information that the characters know (including links to other plots), along with what they need to achieve. So for Fairy Tulip, this would include some of the things that the Fairy Godmother is working on that she can help with. We would refer to the Fairy Godmother’s character sheet for examples – but we wouldn’t copy it word for word, but instead write it from Fairy Tulip’s perspective.

For Jack, we would look at other Mayoral candidates and use their description of how the election works in Jack’s background.

Do the same with other plots. For example, we would normally tie them into the murder plot. For example, it could be that Fairy Tulip was a close friend of the victim, and is therefore motivated to find the murderer. With Jack, on the other hand, we might decide that some of the clues that point to the murderer also point to Jack – turning him into a suspect.

Where possible we try to include conflict in our plots. So Fairy Tulip might not agree with all of the Fairy Godmother’s plans, and might actually be working to foil one or two. Similarly, Jack could be a rival to one of the other Mayoral candidates.

Goals

The goals section of our character sheets are a reminder and clarification of that character’s objectives. They shouldn’t add anything new that isn’t already covered by the background. The number of goals varies from game to game and character to character, but four goals is a good number to aim for.

 

Death on the Gambia

Death on the Gambia

Other People

We use the Other People section of the character sheet to add useful snippets of information about other characters in the game that our new characters know. We try not to repeat the information on the cast list as that doesn’t add anything new. Instead, we prefer to add something that lets our character strike up a conversation, either with that person or someone else.

Our new characters should need no more than five or six Other People entries, so they won’t need an entry for everyone.

We find it useful to look at the Other People sections of the original characters. In many cases those entries can be copied word for word as they often reflect things that they have seen or have heard stories about – and our new characters might have seen those same things or heard those same stories.

Some examples:

  • Prince Charming: You met Prince Charming earlier and he told you that he was looking for a glass slipper.

  • Snow White: You’ve heard a rumour that Snow White has been living in the forest with some dwarves.

Tips for beginners

Tips for beginners consist of two actions that the person playing your new character can do at the start of the game. The idea is to give them something to get them going, to start the game with a bang. We don’t tend to include actions that will directly solve their goals – the idea is to get a new player started, not solve their goals for them.

In our example, Fairy Tulip might have an action to report to the Fairy Godmother and ask if there is anything she can to do help, while one of Jack’s actions might be to talk to Prince Charming about the glass slipper.

Abilities

The easiest way to give abilities to our new characters is simply to copy some abilities from the other characters. If you’ve played one of our other games, you could also copy an ability from that game.

We normally give each character three abilities (some of our older games don’t follow this rule, however – do whatever suits the game, but three is about right).

Secret and Information/Clue

Most characters have a guilty secret that they don’t want anyone else to know – that’s what goes in their Secret. This is usually pretty incriminating, although we don’t put the identity of the murderer in Secrets because we want the murder to be solved by using deduction rather than abilities!

Information/Clue contains a piece of information that the character knows. This relates to one of the plots, often the murder plot. We put key information here to ensure that it circulates around the game (to those that need to know) via the use of abilities.

Items and money

Our new characters may need items that are both needed for their backstory and help with other plots. For example, Fairy Tulip ought to have a wand and Jack the Giant Killer might have some magic beans, a golden harp and (perhaps) and axe.

Information for the original characters

Once we’ve finished our characters we need to link them to the original characters. If we don’t do that then our new characters may struggle to interact with the original characters.

We first decide who needs to know these new characters. Where we have created an assistant or a family member then they will need to know who this new character is, but there will also be other characters who will know something about your new characters.

In our example, clearly the Fairy Godmother will need some information to introduce Fairy Tulip, and Fairy Tulip may well be known by other characters as well.

Where we’ve told one of our new characters that they have interacted previously with an original character, then it is important to tell that character of the interaction. For example, we added to one of our characters that Prince Charming had told them that he was looking for a glass slipper (see Other People, above). It’s worth telling Prince Charming that he has asked Jack the Giant Killer about the glass slipper but that Jack didn’t know where it was.

When we give our characters guilty secrets, we make sure that another character either knows their secret already, or has clues that they aren’t what they seem. For example, suppose we decide that Jack the Giant Killer is a fraud and didn’t actually climb the beanstalk and kill the giant. In this case we might give Rapunzel some additional information that she recognises that Jack is really Rumplestiltskin.

Send your characters to us!

Once you’ve written your characters and used them in your games, please send them to us! If we like them we’ll upload them to our site (after we edit them a bit) and give you a free game in return. (Note that any characters you send to us become our property and copyright of Freeform Games, and we may use them in future releases, although we will credit you as author.)

Note on intellectual properties: We’re very happy if you want to include characters based on existing intellectual properties (such as Captain Jack Sparrow for A Dead Man’s Chest, or Harry Potter for Spellbound). However, if you write those characters up we will change their identities to avoid infringement.

Steve Hatherley

Clarifying “Information”

We’ve had a couple of questions about “Information” lately, in particular what do we mean when an ability says something like “After talking briefly with another player, you realize that they revealed more than they intended. They must show you their Information.”

Of course it’s obvious to us – but that doesn’t mean it’s obvious to everyone.

So to be clear, when we say “Information” we mean the small nugget of information on page 6 of the character booklet (or on that character’s information card on our older games).

However, with our new game (Lord and Lady Westing’s Will, due soon) we’re going to try using the word “Clue” instead. If that’s successful, then we’ll slowly move our old games over to the new terminology.

(That means that the ability will say: “After talking briefly with another player, you realize that they revealed more than they intended. They must show you their Clue.”)

As for what Information/Clues actually are, they’re really just a clue to a plot. It’s something that the character knows that, in game terms, we’d like to see deliberately circulated around the game. (Sometimes they pertain directly to the murder, often they don’t. And sometimes they are red herrings. We’ve made that clearer in the new game.)

We created the Information/Clue mechanic because our experience is that some players like to hoard information. This can cause problems because for our games to work best, the players need to share information. That way when a player learns a key piece of information that they need for one of their character’s goals, they can act on it. If everyone hoards their information then plots can fail and our games aren’t as much fun as they should be.

We have found that the more you play our games the more likely you are to share information, so the Information/Clue mechanic becomes less critical the more experienced your group is.

Steve Hatherley