Category Archives: Rules

Posts about rules clarifications.

Goodbye Scissors-Paper-Stone

When I grew up we played scissors paper stone. And I still much prefer saying “scissors paper stone” to “rock paper scissors” (which, to be honest, always sounds a bit ugly to me).

But as this chart from Google shows, rock paper scissors has soundly thrashed scissors paper stone. So it’s time to change. But we’re not going to rush into it. We’re a (very) small team with a huge to-do list. So for new games, and as we update old games, we’ll make the change.

Rock Paper Scissors v Scissors Paper Stone

Since the mid 90s, rock-paper-scissors beats scissors-paper-stone

So why do we use rock paper scissors for our resolution system?

We use rock-paper-scissors in our murder mystery games for several reasons:

  • First, almost everyone in the entire world knows how to play.
  • Second, you don’t need any special equipment to play.
  • Third, the only outcomes are win/lose/draw – which is enough for our resolution system. (I’ve written about making sure you know what happens on a draw before here.)

(By the way, we don’t use rock-paper-scissors-lizard-spock (or any of the other variants) because it’s neither well known nor intuitive. And we don’t need the added complexity.)

But I’m not very good at RPS?

One of the downsides of RPS (and perhaps it’s biggest failing), is that it isn’t completely random. There’s a psychological angle – people aren’t completely random. Here’s a clip of Derren Brown winning time and time again against football fans. (And here’s a blog post analysing Derren’s technique.)

This article from the BBC highlights some strategies that players adopt that prevent the game from being completely random.

  • Players who win, tend to stick with their winning rock, paper or scissors.
  • And players who lose, tend to change – but they tend to follow the order of rock, paper and scissors. So players losing with paper tend to change to scissors for the next game. (I don’t know if that also applies to those of us who grew up calling the game scissors paper stone…)

So now you know that, you can use this information to beat your friends. (Unless they’ve also read the article, in which case all bets are off.)

In fact, if you’d like to test your skill, try this RPS simulator.

Truly random rock paper scissors

And if you’re still uncomfortable playing rock paper scissors, I picked up these dice on Amazon.

RPS dice

Rock-paper-scissors dice

Steve Hatherley

Two more golden rules

I talked about our three golden rules recently, in the context of hosting Cafe Casablanca. However, there were two other rules that I use as a GM or host:

First, if possible, always answer a query by sending a player to another player. ( I believe that it’s more fun if the players interact with each other than spend all their time with the host.)

A group of pirates playing A Dead Man's Chest murder mystery game

So in Death on the Gambia, for example, if a player asks you a question that another character could answer (such as the Captain), then direct them to the Captain and get them to ask.

Even if the Captain doesn’t know (and has to come and ask you), that’s much better than just answering the player directly. If you do just answer the player, then the Captain doesn’t know that you’ve told them – and it’s something he might choose to withhold.

Second, when running a scissors-paper-stone challenge, I try to determine what each outcome (win/lose/tie) means before starting the challenge, rather than try and figure out what happens afterwards.

The problem with scissors-paper-stone isn’t usually success or failure, as it’s often fairly obvious what happens in those situations. The problem is to create an interesting result for a tie – repeating the challenge is pretty dull.

So I try to make sure that I clearly state what the outcome of the challenge will be before we do the challenge. And if I can’t think of an interesting result for a tie, then I’ve found that the players are often more than willing to help me think of something.

Steve Hatherley

The three golden rules for hosting a murder mystery game

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

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

  1. Is it fun?
  2. Will it spoil the game for anyone else?
  3. Make it up!
Chocolate needed for Cafe Casablanca

The fourth golden rule we don’t like to admit to – make sure you have lots of chocolate to hand!

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

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

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

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

  • Is it fun? Well, not really. More importantly, I felt that denying the opportunity for a scene full of conflict (as would happen when the other players turned up) would be less fun.

  • Will it spoil the game for anyone else? No, after all, someone had to get the bag.

  • Make it up! As I decided that it would be more fun to wait until the other players arrived, I delayed Harry and Eddie just long enough to allow the other players turn up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviewing absent characters

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!)

Death on the Gambia

An investigation during Death on the Gambia

Interviewing Absent Characters: Sometimes it can be useful for the detective characters to interview absent characters to eliminate them from their inquiries.

Here’s what you do:

  • When you’re preparing the game, print out all the characters – even if you know that you haven’t got all the roles filled.
  • Also print out the items and other handouts for that character – and put it all in that character’s envelope.
  • When the game is running, if one of the players wants to ask a question of one of the missing players, you’ve got all the information in one place so that you can answer the query. (This is easy if the detective has the “I’d like to ask you a few questions” ability as you can simply show them each characters’ Information/Clue.)

An advantage of bringing the complete characters to the party is that if you do get someone arriving at the last minute, you can easily get them involved by giving one of the spare characters to them.

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