Category Archives: Tips for hosts

From our mailbox: twins

Recently we were asked a question about having two people play the same character. (It might have been a mixup, and by the sounds of it the game was oversubscribed.)

Our answer was that while it was tricky, it was doable – particularly with the character she had chosen.

What we recommended was to make the characters twins.

To do this:

  • Give each player the full character pack, and explain that they are twins. (They can have the same name badge if you like – you could say that they look so alike that people can’t tell them apart.)
  • Tell the twins that they can work together or not, as they prefer.
  • Announce that the characters are twins that at the beginning of the game so that everyone understands what’s going on.
  • Don’t make any other changes – so don’t double up on (say) items that they might be looking for. Instead they will both be searching for that same item, and it either of them finds it, that counts as a joint success in the goal if they are working together (or a success for one and a failure for the other if not!)

In sides with distinct sides, creating a twin can unbalance things, but in this case it didn’t matter.

If you like the idea of trying this, here are a few things to consider:

  • It should be sensible for the character to be a twin – so we wouldn’t recommend twinning a parent, or anyone in a romantic relationship, or the Captain of a ship. That wouldn’t make sense.
  • We wouldn’t recommend twinning the murderer (!).
  • They shouldn’t have any unique items.

And of course, we don’t recommend doing this unless you absolutely have to – use all the characters (and free extra characters) first!

Note – we’ve not tested this – let us know if you try it out!

From our mailbag: absent characters

I am preparing Hollywood Lies and I have 27 or 28 students coming to play. Many characters are supposed to interact with a certain person, but they are character number 29. Am I missing something?

Unfortunately, running the game with a few characters missing does result in gaps. This shouldn’t be a problem as everyone should have enough other contacts that the missing characters won’t impact on the game too much.

However, if you are concerned that your guests will want to talk to the missing character, then you can do what I do and tell your players (during the introduction) that if they want to contact any of the absent characters, they can simply talk to you.

To make this happen, you need to print out all the absent characters and bring them with you. You can either have them in envelopes, or in a folder. Then, when someone comes up to you and asks to speak with an “absent” character, you can quickly scan the character sheet and role-play that character.

What you have to watch, however, is players who then try to “cheat” by using the absent characters to achieve their goals instead of interacting with the players present. I try not to let players do this – it’s better for everyone if they are talking and negotiating with the other players rather than with the host.

(For other ideas about using the absent characters, see here and `.)

How to Host a 1930s Murder Mystery Party (and get away with it)

(Guest blog post by Jessica Andrews, author of Death on the Rocks.)

Death on the Rocks

Death on the Rocks

Ok, I’m just going to tell it like it is: hosting a 1930s party, murder mystery or otherwise, is not that easy. Twenties is obvious – just cover everything indiscriminately in feathers and strings of pearls – and for fifties you can just bust out some pineapples and stick c
ocktail umbrellas into everything.

But the 1930s were a little sleeker and a little subtler; that’s why it’s my favourite decade and why you should definitely give it a chance too.

#1 Candles

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you cannot host a vintage party without enough candles to potentially burn your house down. Of course, you don’t actually want to incinerate your home or anyone in it, so I would suggest a) keeping the candles away from arm level to protect them from the wild gesticulations of your guests and b) putting something non flammable underneath them.

A good tip to maximise the light from your candles is to place them where possible in front of mirrors.

#2 Greenery

I know, not necessarily something you would imagine a necessity for a 1930s soiree, but believe me it
makes all the difference. Every Agatha Christie I’ve ever read seems to contain a – significant or otherwise – bowl of chrysanthemums (how does that even work?), but to be honest anything will do. Interestingly, I find potted ferns just scream vintage, and a good arrangement of classic roses also really adds the edge.

#3 Music

Even if this is the only tip you incorporate, I cannot stress its importance enough. The right music will immediately set the scene and make your guests feel more in character and more relaxed. For 1930s, think jazzy or sentimental and, if possible, crackly. You want your guests to feel like they’re in an old movie.

If you happen to have a record player and any 1930s records, this would, of course, be perfect; if not, YouTube is awash with vintage playlists or you can buy 1930s CDs online.

#4 Glassware & china

A party suddenly seems so much more vintage when the glassware and the china are old fashioned. If you happen to find some art deco style china in your local charity shop, amazing; if not, I really find anything a bit chintzy will do. And as for glassware, I have literally seen the shyest people in the world become positively RADA when clutching a champagne bowl or martini glass. I don’t know why, but it just works.

It will also make your event photos at least marginally less awkward on account of people having something to do with their hands.

#5 Backdrops & props

Let’s be realistic: it’s hard to vintage-ise your whole house without making some serious lifestyle changes and spending at least a month anxiously bidding on Ebay, so focus on just one wall or corner. Cheap art deco posters can be found online, and a wall of these will really add a vintage feel. And you definitely can’t go wrong with an old-fashioned telephone or cigarette holder for people to pose with.

I can guarantee you’ll end the night with some wall-gallery worthy photos of your party and a lot of happy guests!

Jessica Andrews

Jessica is the author of Death on the Rocks, our 1930s murder mystery set in an English village.

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.

When to end a murder mystery game

We provide a timetable with all our games, covering the murder mystery party in detail. The timetable typically includes the briefing, key events (such as when clues are released), the point at which characters can die (for those games that involve fighting), and the end of the game.

Casino Fatale playtest

Casino Fatale playtest in full flow – I’m monitoring the energy in the room to judge the best time to end

We estimate that our games take about 2.5 to 3 hours to play through. However, these times are approximate – some groups will be faster and some will take longer.

Experience and size

The main variables on the length of game are player experience and size of group. In general we’ve found that a larger group takes longer to play one of our murder mysteries than a smaller group. (Even the same game takes longer with more players.) The main reason for this is that is simply takes longer to find those you need to talk to in a larger group – and you may be drawn in into other people’s stories.

As for experience, less experienced players tend to take longer to work out what they need to be doing. An experienced player can read our character sheets and quickly work out what they need to do first. It takes an inexperienced player a bit longer to figure that out, and so the game will take a little bit slower.

So given those variables, when do you draw the murder mystery to a close?

A mixture of chemistry, character and personality

Towards the end of the murder mystery, you will start to find players who have achieved all they are going to achieve, while there will be others still chasing around trying to finish their goals. In my experience (as a player and a host), this always happens and is a natural result that arises from mixing of the following:

  • What the player has brought – their personality and how they are feeling.
  • The character they have been given – whether it “works” for them.
  • The chemistry between them and the other players.

So this variation means that some people will “finish” their game sooner than others. So when do you end the game?

When to end the murder mystery

My preference when I’m playing is that I would rather run out of time (and not quite finish everything I need to do) than have too much time (and be waiting for the game to finish).

As a host, this therefore means that once all the other timed events have passed and we’re in the last segment, then I am monitoring the game. It’s hard to explain exactly what I’m looking for, but I am monitoring the overall energy in the room. I’ve found that as a game progresses towards its climax, some players become less involved because they have achieved all their goals (or some of them have become unachievable). And as more players become less involved, the energy drops – and that’s the time I draw the game to a close.

Sometimes I’ll see players who appear to have stopped playing the game. If that happens, I usually check with them to see if they have actually stopped, or whether they are just taking a break for a couple of minutes before resuming.

It can sometimes be challenging to monitor the energy in the room, particularly if the murder mystery involves combat. If I’m not careful, overseeing combat involves so much of my attention that I can forget check the rest of the game. (This is an excellent job for a co-host, if you have one.)
So of course this means that I can’t predict the exact end time of the game – it will be an approximation. So if the scheduled end time is approaching and the game still seems to be going well, then I will let it continue. Conversely, I will draw the game to a close early if things have slowed and some people have stopped playing.

Once I’ve decided to end the game I make an announcement that the game will be ending in ten minutes. This gives those that haven’t finished sufficient warning that the game is ending – and quite often the ten minute warning creates extra activity (and energy!) as people suddenly realise that they are about to run out of time. (That’s not a reason to keep playing beyond those ten minutes, though!)

Art not science

Timing the end of a game is an art, not a science. Ultimately it comes down to a host’s judgement – but it’s worth remembering the old adage “Always leave them wanting more…”

Dealing with late guests

Despite the best laid plans, sometimes real life intervenes and a guest or two may turn up late to your murder mystery party. Here are some ideas for how you can deal with latecomers.

Unplanned latecomersPlaying Curse of the Pharaoh

The worst situation is when you don’t find out that someone will be late until they don’t turn up on time. In this situation I would delay the start of game by 10-15 minutes to give the latecomer a chance to arrive.

If they still haven’t arrived, then I’d start the game anyway (although see below). As part of my starting announcement, I’d explain which character was running late and explain that they would join in later. Then, when they do enter the game, I’d make another announcement so that everyone knows they have arrived.

I would also check the game timetable and delay any game events that they need to be involved in.

Very small games

For very small games (say running Curse of the Pharaoh with only six players), losing one character can be so unbalancing that it may be better to delay the entire game. Similarly, if several guests are late then I suggest delaying the game as long as possible. There’s no hard and fast rule on this – it’s a judgement call.

Planning for latecomers

If a guest has already told me that they will be late, then I can plan for that. For example, if I know who will be late before I cast the game, then I will try not to cast them in a role that is critical during the first part of the game.

Getting up to speed

It’s worth remembering that anyone who arrives late will be at a disadvantage to everyone else. They won’t have had the same time to settle in to the game and get to know everyone. As a result, I might give them a little bit more guidance than normal. If they look a little lost, then I wouldn’t be afraid to step in and give them some advice as to whom they should talk to.