Category Archives: Options

Help with hosting

In our larger games we recommend an assistant host to help run the game. For ex
ample in Spellbound, it can be particularly useful to have another host run the library
while the “main” host deals with the rest of the game.

Similarly with the larger games having another host to help with pickpocketing or combat can be helpful – particularly if the several players need the host at the same time.

However, some rules can be managed by the players themselves (perhaps overseen by a trustworthy player). For example, combat doesn’t require secret knowledge, or an awareness of the plot, and so could be something that the players manage themselves. On the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend allowing players to manage pickpocketing – that’s something a dedicated host needs to do.

Tips for players managing combat

Death on the Gambia

Death on the Gambia

Here are my tips for getting your players managing combat.

First, I wouldn’t get everyone to manage combat. Not everyone needs to know anything about combat – generally only the “dangerous” characters need to know something about it. so I would choose a small number of trustworthy players to become helpers. Id
eally they would be playing characters that I didn’t think likely would be involved in combat to keep the relatively neutral in the conflict they are overseeing.

Second, I would share our standard combat rules with those players.

Third, I would encourage them to practice the combat rules before the party itself, so that they understand how they work and any problems and misunderstandings can be ironed out. Ideally I would do this a couple of days beforehand, but if that doesn’t work you could simply schedule a training session before the party. I would also explain that I wouldn’t expect them to adjudicate combat that they are involved in themselves – they should either find me or one of the other helpers.

Fourth, during my introduction I would ask the helpers to identify themselves. That way the other players know that they can ask them for help if I am busy.

Fifth, I would just keep an eye on combat during the game, just in case there are problems.

Sixth, as part of my debrief speech I would thank the helpers for their help.

Other standard rules

We’ve also included other standard rules, including capturing player and poison, but I think that it’s combat that has the most potential for getting other players to help with hosting.

Adding Skype and cryptography to The Spy Who Killed Me

We’ve got something a bit different this time – a story from customer Mark Lemay about adding Skype and simple cryptography to The Spy Who Killed Me.

Here’s Mark:

When I ran The Spy Who Killed Me I created two additional characters who were only contactable by Skype. The players playing the characters were remote from the party, and I had two hidden laptops at the party.

The two characters were spymasters – the Soviet Heracles, and the British ‘S’. They joined the party 30 minutes after it started (which allowed the other players to start playing properly). Neither knew about the murder (until they were told about it by their agents).

The Spy Who Killed MeI wrote full character sheets for the two spies, with background, goals and information about other people. The main difference between these characters and the other characters is that they would have to do everything remotely, through their agents.

Heracles’ contacts were given a telegram that said: “Comrade, We have established a secure line of communication. In the back of the kitchen there are stairs to the basement. At the bottom of the stairs go right. At the back of the of the basement I will be waiting. Don’t arouse suspicion. Be sure you are not followed. Heracles”

(Those players who needed to talk to ‘S’ were given a similar note.)

I also sent Heracles the telegram on page 17 of the cards file when the party started. The two agents texted me messages that they needed to send to their ‘agents’. The only way the agents to contact Heracles or ‘S’ was by Skype.

I set the Skype ringtones to the appropriate national anthem, and Heracles set his Skype up so that only a silhouette could be seen. Neither ‘S’ nor Heracles knew that there was another spy Skyping into the party, and none of the players (with the regular characters) suspected that their out-of-town friends would be making an appearance.

At about 9pm I gave Heracles’ contact details to ‘S’ so that she could try and trick some information out of him.

It was fun for the people involved, and went surprisingly unnoticed by the people who weren’t. The biggest issue I had was not making the strict deadlines of the party clear to the remote players. Also, if I did it again, I’d give ‘S’ a few clues as to how to trick Heracles (such as pretending to be an Indian spy).

Feedback from Heracles

My friend who played Heracles was nice enough to write up his thoughts on the experience:

It was always clear that my participation would be more limited than that of guests physically attending the party, but I still enjoyed my role. Like a normal character, I had secret knowledge, relationships with characters, and abilities. Despite my separation from the party, I felt that Mark gave me enough choices that I could still employ strategy and influence the course of events. I had a means of contacting other guests at the party, and an incentive to strategically hide certain information from some of my associates, which was fun to roleplay.

There were a few things that could be improved. I was slightly discouraged from speaking with guests too frequently, because Mark was worried that I would give away information too quickly and take them away from the rest of the guests. It turned out that I probably could have spoken to more guests, and more frequently. Because I was isolated I wasn’t entirely in the loop about the timeline, and when the party was ending.

Cryptography challenge

Instead of using the mechanics suggested in the instructions, I modified the item cards to have an actual encoded message – the message encoded with the reverse alphabet. I added an additional book to the library that had an explicit key.

This was the perfect level of difficulty and while one person solved it quickly, nobody took longer than ten minutes. Instead of disengaging from the party to solve the problem, the players could work together in small groups. It was also one less thing I had to referee.

swkm_book_160The encoded journal

I tried a similar puzzled with the journal, but I didn’t want it to be too easy. I used a different substitution cypher on each page (but following a simple pattern) and left out spaces. I modified the key so it contained the information to decode the text.

A group of ‘student’ worked together to try and decode the journal. They became invested in solving the puzzle. Unfortunately, it was a little too hard (especially after all the drinks) and I had to give them the solution after 15-20 minutes. I think It would have worked out if I had left the spaces in the journal.

(A note from Steve and Mo: We don’t usually include codes like these to our games because it can be very difficult to judge player expertise. We also know how frustrating it can be to play an expert in codes but not be very good at it yourself. So we make sure we have other rules for dealing with codes. However, we’re always delighted when our customers change their games for their groups and incorporate these kinds of details.)

Staging the scene of the murder

I designated one small room as Beth’s room (the victim). This was mostly decoration, but the guests got pretty into it. First I thoroughly cleaned the room so there was nothing distracting – just a bed and a desk. On the floor, I made a roughly human shape out of (clean) laundry and covered it with a blanket. I put the description of the body under the blanket in case anyone looked. I decorated the room according to the description in the instructions. On the desk I put an assortment of math textbooks, and small photos of the boyfriend and best friend character.

At the beginning, after the introduction I announced that, “Beth’s room is up the stairs in the second room on the left… the police have asked the scene not be disturbed. So don’t go up there and try to investigate.”

It was good because even though only a few people would have thought to ask about the details of the room, everyone went up to see the room. Except the murderer, who purposely stayed away from it the entire night.

The Russian memo

I used Google translate to make a very Russian looking memo with the names and addresses in English and the names in bold.

I hid the telegram in a book and added its location into the encoded journal.

Playing two characters

Murder at Sea

First class passengers in Murder at Sea

I recently played in UK Freeform’s annual weekend game. Last year it was Cafe Casablanca (Mo played and I helped run it). The year before we both played in The King’s Musketeers. And this year it was Lullaby of Broadway: Into the Woods.

As you might guess by the title, Lullaby of Broadway: Into the Woods was based on Broadway musicals – lots of them!

I played two characters – the baker (from Into the Woods), and an assistant to the King of France (a generic “flunky” character and good friend of Cinderella’s Prince Charming).

I’ve mentioned playing more than one character in passing at least twice: once when talking about creating a crowd and also when talking about bit parts. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about playing two characters in a bit more detail.

Playing more than one character at once

About 20% of the players at Lullaby of Broadway: Into the Woods were playing two (or even three) characters.

The reason for this is that the game was undersubscribed, and rather than cut out ten or so characters and rewrite the game, the authors asked if any of the players would be prepared to play more than one character.

And because I thought that sounded like fun, I said yes.

Busy busy busy

In playing two characters, I had no time to be bored. Both of my characters had plenty to do – and doubling up just made me busier. (This is a good thing – I like to be busy in my games!)

In terms of how it worked, I only played one character at a time. Other players could tell who I was playing by my namebadge. If they needed my other character, they just asked me.

One consequence of that was that I didn’t achieve all my goals – there were just too many for me to do in the time. But I had a go at my main goals – and I had a wonderful time doing it.

And as far as I can tell, so did the other players who were running two characters. In fact, from asking around, most of them enjoyed the experience and would do it again.

So given that playing two characters is a lot of fun, how do you make it happen in a Freeform Games murder mystery? I’ve put some thought into that.

Tips for giving players two characters

Playing A Heroic Death - a freeform games murder mystery

Superheroes plotting in A Heroic Death

These are my tips for giving two characters to a player.

  • I would check with the players first. I wouldn’t try this out with an in-experienced player, but if you’ve got a murder mystery veteran, they may enjoy the challenge.
  • Limit the number of players with more than one or two characters. I would only have one or two players (possibly three with a big game like Murder at Sea) playing two characters. 20% of the players with more than one character was probably a bit much!
  • Think about costuming. I was able to switch quickly between assistant’s frock coat and my baker’s apron. Depending on the game, switching name badges might be enough. You need to leave it up to the player to decide when they switch between characters.
  • Money and items: I kept money and items for each character apart by storing them in different pockets. (Although to be honest, it probably didn’t matter all that much.)
  • Selecting characters: I would probably use optional characters for those who are doubling up. I would definitely try to avoid giving someone two core characters (unless I absolutely had to). And while I might give someone playing two characters the murderer, I don’t think I’d give them a detective character.
  • Separate plots: You don’t want characters who are in the same plots. At one point in the game I got a bit confused between my two characters. It didn’t really matter, but most of the time the two characters were doing very different things which helped keep them separate.
  • Tell everyone! If you’ve got people playing two characters – don’t forget to tell everyone at the start of the game! And you will need to explain to your other players when they are talking to those with two players, they need to check their namebadge to see which character they are playing.

Try it for yourself!

So next time you don’t quite have enough players for all the characters in one of our games, maybe you can persuade one of your players to play two characters.

Creating a crowd out of unused characters

Note – this is a thought experiment for experienced hosts and players. I’ve yet to try this out – so I don’t know if it works.

There’s a style of freeform/larp known as a “horde” game. These normally involve six to eight “core” characters and typically dozens of smaller roles. The players playing the fixed characters stay with those characters for the whole game, while the other players take on the other roles, usually playing them for a much shorter period of time. It’s not unusual for a “horde” player to get through a dozen characters.

A crowd playing The Night Before Christmas murder mystery game

A crowd of players

A good example of a horde game is Victoria Junction: All Change Please! This was written at Peaky in 2009 and the six core characters consist of the staff of a railway station in Victorian Derbyshire. They have to cope with guests trapped in the hotel, missing travellers, troublesome orientals, a military train, and even a royal visit.

So is it possible to use the horde idea in one of our murder mysteries? I think it might be.

Creating a crowd

Let’s imagine that you’re running Murder at Sea and you have 22 guests. Normally you would use the first 22 characters, leaving 11 left unplayed. Murder at Sea works perfectly well with 22, and you should have a great time with it.

But if you’ve got some players who feel up to the challenge, you could create a horde (and I think I prefer the term “crowd”) instead. So cast the core 17 players as usual, and let the remaining five players play the other 16 characters. This is how I’d do it.

First I’d divide the unused characters into four sets of three characters and one set of four characters. Where possible, I’d arrange it so that linked characters are in different sets (so the husband and wife team of Mr and Mrs Dumlop are in different sets).

Then I’d give each of the “crowd” players one of those sets – those will be their characters for the evening. (So in this example, four of the crowd players would have three characters for the evening, and one would have four.)

If you wanted to, you could give all the ship’s crew characters to one or two players, which might help with costuming.

It’s likely that some of the crowd’s characters will clash a bit with each other. For example, one character in a set may have information that another in that set needs. That’s okay – it’s just something you’re going to have to live with. It’s doesn’t really matter if some of the crowd’s characters can easily achieve a couple of their goals – it’s not as if they will be short of things to do!

When starting the game, I’d introduce those playing the crowd and explain who was going to be playing which character so that the other players know who to talk to. (A cast list might also be a good idea.)

Playing the crowd

As someone playing the crowd, here’s how I would do it:

  • Play the characters one at a time, and keep everything separate. So I’d keep money and items separate for each character, and try not to get them mixed up. (But it wouldn’t be the end of the world if they did get mixed up.)
  • Set aside a space where the crowd can keep the character packs, plus any costume changes they might want to employ.
  • Start the game by playing each character in a rota, one after the other, for about five to ten minutes each. After that I would then play the characters as needed – so for example when another player asks if they can talk to one of “my” characters, I’d go and change into that character.
  • I would remember to interact with the other characters playing with the crowd. It might be tempting just to interact with those who are playing the “core” characters, but I would try and make sure I talk to everyone.
  • I would also play to lose – by which I mean I wouldn’t worry if my crowd characters didn’t fulfil all their goals. In many ways I would consider myself as helping the host make sure that everyone has a good time. And besides, losing can be a lot of fun.

We have a “no deaths before a certain point in the game” rule to make sure that everyone has a satisfying game. For crowd characters, I might be tempted to remove that rule and let them be killed earlier than normal. After all, a crowd player has other characters they can then play, so being killed is much less of a problem.

Key to crowd success

The key to making the crowd a success is having players who are prepared to step into the role and try it out. I would only try it with players who have already played a couple of our games – I wouldn’t try it with newcomers.

Playing the crowd might also be a useful role for players who have played the murder mystery previously but still want to be involved.

Is a crowd better than a horde?

One of the dangers of a horde game is that they are very frantic. That’s partly because the characters in the horde are minimal – there really isn’t much to them. The sometimes consist of little more than a paragraph, and the expectation is that you will normally play them once and then move on to another.

Using unplayed characters may overcome that limitation, as each crowd character has as much information as any of the core characters.

But as I’ve said above, I’ve not tried this out. So if you do give it a go, please let us know in the comments or on our Facebook page. (And I promise that if I give it a try, I’ll report back here.)

Steve Hatherley

Real-world alternatives for some of our mechanical ideas

We provide safe, simple rules in our 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 gamesThese 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.

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

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

Pickpocketing: 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.

Steve Hatherley

Rules for Locations

A Heroic Death introduced a new concept for us – locations. And with locations comes rules for using them. We’ve since also use them in Lord and Lady Westing’s Will, and also the 7 expanded characters used for All at Sea. While each game will have its own specific location rules to suit that particular game, these are the rules upon which they are based.

Locations

Some locations within the game will contain important clues or items. These locations are not necessarily accessible to everyone (access may be restricted to those with a key or a special ability) and must be managed with location logs. The log is simply a sheet to track key information about the location – an example is below.

Location log

Sample location log

During the game, keep the log updated as things change. So if Cat Burglar sneaks into the room and steals the money, give her the money and update the log (cross off the money and make an entry in the notes to say that Cat stole the money).

Keeping the log up to date means that you don’t have to remember everything, and if you are using more than one host then the log keeps things consistent between them.

A couple of abilities that are relevant for locations:

  • Observant: You are very observant: if you spend extra time studying an item or area, you can sometimes uncover additional information. See the Host for details.

  • Pick lock: You are skilled at picking locks. See the Host if you want to pick a lock.

Adding locations to existing games

You can, if you want, add these rules to one of our existing games. For example, you might want to create stateroom locations in Death on the Gambia so that the players have somewhere to hide their stuff. Here’s how you might go about that:

  • First create a log for each stateroom.

  • Decide on who can access each location – in this case I suggest whoever is staying in the stateroom, plus the Captain and the First Mate (you could make up some “Skeleton Key” cards for them).

    Lockpicks

    Lockpicks

  • Decide who else might be able to access the room – some of the shady characters might have suitable skills. You could create lockpick item cards for them, or just remember that they’re the kinds of characters who could pick a lock and let them do so when they ask.

  • Decide if any items start in those rooms – if you do this you will need to tell those characters that’s what you have done.

  • You might also want to create some blank location logs – just in case someone during the game comes up with a good idea for a location.

You probably don’t want to create location logs for every single location in your game – that shouldn’t be necessary. (We only do it for key locations.) If you do, then you might want to think about some help as the host – you could give your co-host the job of looking after the locations.

Steve Hatherley

Bit parts

Way out WestHere’s an idea that you may wish to include in your game. (Note that if you’ve not played our games before, we suggest that you stick with the basic rules – but if you’re an old hand, go crazy!)

Bit Parts: Use a co-host or two to play the “absent” characters as bit-parts or minor roles. The co-host would play all of the “absent” characters, each of them in short bursts depending on what was going on at the time.

Tips for those playing the bit-parts:

  • Remember that you’re helping the host.

  • Give yourself plenty of time to read the extra characters.

  • Don’t play a single character for very long – you should be prepared to chop and change between the characters.

  • Try not to worry too much about solving your goals – your main purpose is to help the “main” characters with their goals.

  • Expect for any rules issues to go against your current character. After all, if that one is killed (or locked up, or has all their money stolen) you can simply take your next character.

  • It may be useful for you to know some of the rules (such as the combat rules) so that you can help the host when needed.

Steve Hatherley

Using props

Using props in Who Shot the Sheriff

What’s in the yellow bottle?

While we provide item cards for all the key items in our murder mystery games, you can create a better atmosphere if you replace the cards with real props. There’s an obvious practical reason we use item cards in our downloads as opposed to physical props, but there are other issues with using real props that we’re going to explore here.

One of the problems with using real props instead of cards is that they can become confused with ‘costume props’ (those that your guests have brought along as part of their costume) and scenery.

For example, a couple of our games include notebooks containing key information as items. If you provide your guests with notebooks and pencils for them to take notes, then also providing the items as props presents a potential source of confusion.

One way around this is to attach the game item card to the appropriate prop, perhaps with a luggage label or sticky tape. That way it is clear when something is an in-game item or just part of someone’s costume.

Some items you might not want to re-create as props. Some people are phobic of spiders and snakes, so you might want to think twice about creating props for those if the game has them. (And one or two do!)

Real props can also be awkward to carry around all the time, especially if they are quite bulky and/or heavy. Some of our props have included a box, a record collection, a staff, a roll of material and we certainly wouldn’t want to spend the entire game carrying them around. While we don’t mind burdening characters with all this stuff, we’re more considerate about burdening our players.

Bottle of spiders

A bottle of spiders – perhaps not the best thing to reproduce as a prop

Unlike props, item cards are easy to conceal which means you can keep something hidden that you don’t want others to know about. Most items in our games start out concealed, so you may need to provide character-appropriate baggage for your guests.

There’s a school of thought that suggest that larger items (say weapons such as swords) should always be displayed if they are being carried. We haven’t formally included that in our games because we don’t believe it adds anything significant, but we’re very happy if you would like to implement such a rule. One approach would be to display such items with your namebadge.

Realistically, our characters probably aren’t carrying their items around with them all the time; they would probably hide bulky items somewhere secure until needed. However, our games don’t usually a way of interacting with the environment – there are rarely rooms or cupboards or hiding places. Instead, our item card approach abstracts all that away – but if you want to create the additional complexity then go for it. (In that sense the Pickpocket ability may not be actually stealing something from someone – it’s general theft.)

Steve Hatherley

Being the Host and playing a character

Arabian Nights

Ismet and Kalila from Arabian Nights

Our games are designed so that one person is the Host and everyone else takes the part of a character. The host usually takes a minor role – often a servant. But what do you do if you want to play the game as well? Or if you don’t quite have enough people and you need to play the game as well as host it?

These are two slightly different situations but they have a lot of overlap.

Making up the numbers: If you don’t quite have enough guests for your game (or someone drops out at the last minute), you may want to take on a role just so that you can make up the numbers and actually host the party.

For example, Hollywood Lies is for 16-22 guests, plus a host. If you only have 15 guests, then you will need to take on the role of one of the characters so that you have the minimum number of characters.

Deciding which character you should take is a matter of taste – but we recommend choosing one that has least impact on the game. If you’re making up the numbers, this may be difficult because all of the mandatory characters will have some impact on the game. I recommend that you don’t play either the murderer or the detective (if there is one) as that won’t really be fair.

Wanting to take part: On the other hand, you may have enough guests to play the game, but you just want to take part. In that case you should take one of the optional characters. Again, deciding which character to take is up to you, but it should be easier to choose a character with less impact on the game as you will have more to choose from.

(If you’ve filled your party, you will have to write your own character!)

Impartiality and Playing to Lose: In both cases, it’s important to be able to separate when you’re being the host and when you’re playing the character. As the host you need to be impartial and you will probably need to make some decisions that affect “your” character.

We suggest that if you’re put in the position of having to make a decision that will either benefit or hinder your character, you should always hinder your character so that you aren’t accused of cheating! (In fact, it can be a lot of fun setting yourself up to be duped and swindled by the other guests.)

Also, if someone is having difficulty achieving their goals, you can help them. (For example, if one of the agents in Hollywood Lies is having difficulty signing anyone up, then you can sign up to them yourself!)

Tips for playing and hosting simultaneously: If you play a character as well as host a murder mystery game, please remember the following:

  • You will know who the murderer is so you should leave solving the mystery to your guests.

  • You will know many other characters’ secrets and problems – you are on your honour not to take advantage of that fact.

  • You will need to act as host for much of the time. Therefore you shouldn’t take a key role – leave those for your guests.

  • Don’t forget that as well as the host’s game duties, you need to think about catering and housekeeping as well. Don’t become so wrapped up in your character that you forget all of that.

  • We suggest that you shouldn’t expect to use any abilities.

  • Try to avoid playing characters that will become heavily involved in things like combat.

  • Make sure that you explain to your other guests at the start of the party that you are playing a character as well as hosting.

Steve Hatherley

Reporting the news

Here’s an idea that you may wish to include in your game. (Note that if you’ve not played our games before, we suggest that you stick with the basic rules – but if you’re an old hand, go crazy!)

Reporting the news in a Freeform Games murder mystery game

Reporting the news!

Reporting the news: We have written a free extra reporter character, “Ginger” Roberts, that can be used for many of our games.

You can have extra fun with Ginger (and other reporters that may be already in the game) by creating a system that lets them actually “post” news items. Here are some ideas:

Headlines: Put some sheets of paper on the wall, and let the reporter write news headlines. For example, “German Ambassador is really a woman!” or “I’ve had an affair, admits famous movie star!”. A flip chart board is ideal for this – let the reporter post the headlines, and when the sheet is full you can tear it off and stick it on the wall.

News stories: If your cub reporters are keen, they can actually write out the stories. You could even provide them with an old typewriter for them to do this (although it might be quicker if they just hand-write the pieces).

Bylines: The problem with actually writing the stories is that the person playing the reporter may end up spending all their time writing news reports instead of playing the game. So instead of typing up a story, get them to write their name next to their headline – and tell everyone at the start of the party that if they want to “read” that story they should talk to that particular reporter to find out the details.

You can use any of the above to create some rivalry between journalists. For example, you can create a competition to see who writes the most news stories, or even a give a prize for the wackiest headline.

Remember to give the reporters a notebook and pen so they can jot down the facts as they research their stories.

Steve Hatherley