From the Author: Becky Channon

Second in our occasional author profiles, this time it’s the turn of Becky Channon – author of A Heroic Death and A Speakeasy Murder.

Becky grew up in London, England, and (mis)spent her youth writing comic short stories with her brother. Much later, her brother asked her to write him a funny superhero-themed murder mystery party for his upcoming birthday. Becky wrote this in a couple of weeks, and the party was very successful.

A Heroic Death

A dramatic moment in Becky Channon’s A Heroic Death

Heroic submission

Having previously hosted both Curse of the Pharaoh and Death on the Gambia, Becky was already a fan of Freeform Games and saw on our website that we were looking for new writers. So after the party she decided to submit her game.

We were interested in her superhero game, but Becky was surprised to find that the process of transforming her game to fit the Freeform Games template (along with adding extra characters, playtesting, and editing) took considerably longer than writing the original game. However, nearly two years later A Heroic Death was released.

Speaking easy

As a fan of the 1920s, Becky had been disappointed that Freeform Games didn’t include a 1920s speakeasy-style game in our catalogue. And as there still wasn’t one after A Heroic Death was published, she decided that she’d have to write it herself.

A Speakeasy Murder

Enjoying Becky’s second game – A Speakeasy Murder

This new game was almost three times the size of her first, but Becky knew the process now and A Speakeasy Murder was produced and developed faster than her first game, despite it being much harder to find enough volunteers to playtest it.

Becky had enormous fun cramming the game full of as many cultural references as she possibly could. Can you spot them all?

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.

Playtesting Death on the Rocks

IMG_6111Back on 20th July we ran a playtest of our new game Death on the Rocks, in London.

Playtesting is an important part of our development process. However well a murder mystery game’s been written and edited, it can’t be considered finished until it’s been thoroughly tested.

We call it ‘playtesting’ because it takes the form of playing through the game in the normal sort of way that you would if you’d bought it yourself. We aim to make it as close as possible to what your experience is going to be like! The only difference is that afterwards, we ask the guests a bunch of questions about how it went for them.

Testing, testing…

Our usual preferred pattern is to run at least three playtests, once the game is complete in draft.

  • First, the author of the game playtests it themselves, on their own family and friends. This will reveal any elements that basically don’t work, or serious timing issues, or where something important isn’t being communicated properly to the player.
  • Second, once all those things have been fixed, we run a playtest ourselves; using experienced players who can be relied upon to identify inconsistencies, imbalance, characters without enough to do, characters for whom the game starts or finishes too quickly or slowly, and if there are any subtle problems with any new rules or bits of system that we’ve introduced for this game.
  • Finally, once all that’s been sorted out, we send the game out to a new host who’s never seen it before, and they run a party for their guests exactly as if they’d just bought the game. This is particularly helpful for exposing any parts of the host’s instructions that aren’t explained clearly, and also for how well the game works when there are less than the optimum number of characters. It’s also good for cultural differences: as most of our customers are in the USA, we like to have a US-based host run an eye over the game – particularly if it’s been written by a UK-based author, as most of ours are.

Any or all of these stages will get repeated more than once if there are serious problems that need re-testing after fixing.

So anyway, for Death on the Rocks it was actually a combination of stages one and two. Jessica the author wasn’t able to test the game herself, as she lacked the facilities. So we decided that as it was a pretty straightforward game with no new rules or complications, we would run a test together with her, using our experienced playtesters.

A cellarful of murder

IMG_6183We held the event in the basement room of a pub in central London that we’ve used a few times before for playtests. They know us now, so they’re happy to let the murderous mayhem proceed unabated! We usually use either London or here in Ipswich where we’re based, simply because it’s easier to rustle up 20 or so players for a given date in those places. We would like to run playtests elsewhere too, to spread the love, but it’s been difficult getting enough people together.

We ran the test over a Sunday afternoon, between 2 and 6. Most of our customers’ parties are in the evening, but that’s not quite so convenient when we have to think about last trains back home and so on. Customers’ parties often involve a good deal of drinking, too! – but we prefer to keep that restrained at playtests. The feedback at the end of the game might not be quite so useful otherwise!

How did it go?

Really well! Death on the Rocks is a game that we’ve been working on for quite a while – Jessica actually first came to us with the idea as far back as 2006! – so we were pretty confident that it would work properly. It’s always nice to have that confirmed, though!

Our playtesters gave us some excellent feedback on details that need attention, but generally they were very happy with the characters, with pacing, with how much they had to do, and so on. One general concern was that the murder was too difficult to solve – several of them did identify the murderer correctly, but by suspicion rather than by following the intended clue trail. So we’re going to make the clues a bit more prominent, and spread knowledge of them around a few more people.

IMG_6254 Next up

So those changes are in process now, and in a few weeks we’ll be sending the revised and improved version of the game to our next tester. This is Matthias, who’ll be running his playtest around the end of August–beginning of September. We’re looking forward to hearing what he and his guests make of Death on the Rocks!

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

From All at Sea to Murder at Sea

Murder-at-Sea

First class passengers enjoying Murder at Sea

All at Sea was our second murder mystery game and is written by Chris Boote. Apart from amending a couple of errors we haven’t really touched it at all since its release in 2002.

However, since then we’ve changed our game layout (more than once!) and as All at Sea is one of our more popular games, we thought it was worth bringing it up to date.

The most obvious change is it’s title. All at Sea is now Murder at Sea. We changed it’s name for two reasons. The first is that Murder at Sea is a better description of what the game is about, and the second is that putting “murder” in the title of the game helps the search engines realise that our site is about murder mystery games. (If you cast your eye over our current range, that might not jump out at you, and we may may one or two similar changes in the future.)

Here are some of the other changes we’ve made:

  • We’ve added a detective to Murder at Sea – Aggie Marbles (who first appeared in Dazzled to Death / The Night Before Christmas). Aggie is 26 in Murder at Sea, and we’ve written a solution to the murder for her to read out at the end of the party.
  • With Aggie added to the game, Murder at Sea now needs 17 players as a minimum.
  • We’ve reformatted the character sheets. Each is now 8 pages long, including rules and abilities, so that you can now print it in booklet format.
  • All of the characters now have three abilities – originally they had only two. Our modern games all give our characters three abilities, and we’ve used our current ability template which helps them be consistent across our games (at least, those that we have updated, anyway!)
  • Each character now has a Clue. Previously everyone only had a Secret, but now we’ve given everyone a Clue as well.
  • Items and cash now have graphics to go with them.
  • We’ve changed the cash from pounds sterling to dollars, on the basis that the ship flies an American flag and has just sailed from New York. (I guess in reality they would use both on board, but to keep things simple we’ve just gone with dollars.)

    First Aid Kit

    First aid now administered by the stewards and stewardesses

  • The stewards and stewardesses now have first aid kits. That means that players can get medical attention from another player rather than the host.
  • We’ve tweaked a few of the characters to give them a little bit more background and to help draw them into the game better.
  • Scissors-paper-stone is now rock-paper-scissors.

  • We’ve improved the instructions, and added a summary of the characters to help with casting.

If you’ve already bought All at Sea you can download the Murder at Sea right now using the same link and password that we’ve already sent.

Note – the update is for the English version only (at this time).

Steve Hatherley

Reporting from Peaky 2014

Back in April Mo and I attended the Peaky 2014 freeform writing weekend. (I wrote about that last year.) This year Mo and I both pushed boundaries – his group took his idea from last year (“What Happened in Blackpool/Picking up the pieces”) and expanded upon it to create a version (currently unnamed) that works for up to 40 players! (They tested it with 18 – I wasn’t part of the testing group but it sounded like the players were having a lot of fun.)

Upper Rectory Farm Cottages

Upper Rectory Farm Cottages in Leicestershire – where the Peaky Writing Weekends are held.

I, meanwhile, co-wrote The Truth, a team-building business politics game for 15 to 30 players. We were under quite a bit of pressure for a couple of reasons. First, there were only two of us in the team. A normal Peaky writing group has at least four or five members, sometimes more. So having only two people meant that all the writing was done by just the two of us – and we didn’t do enough proofreading. However, it also meant that there were fewer arguments and once we had agreed what we were doing we could just focus.

Second, Jerry, my co-writer, had promised that he would run a game for an annual trade union conference just four weeks later. So the game had to be playable by non-gamers from the very beginning. That’s unusual for Peaky – the games are normally written by gamers for gamers.

Luckily, once Jerry had outlined the kinds of things he wanted to include in his games (we had a sheet of paper listing design goals), I realised that I could use much of what I had learned from previous Peaky writing weekends, and we were able to write and play a workable game over the weekend.

So what’s The Truth about? Well, it’s a politics and negotiation game. The players are all employees and managers of Megalith plc, a financial services company. (What the company actually does is irrelevant.) Everyone starts the game assigned to one of five offices, each of which has office goals(for example to host the annual Christmas party, or to be the best at something). Individual employees also have goals (such as recruiting union members or moving office). Sometimes those goals coincide – but more often they don’t… The characters are purely roles – there are no personalities in the usual sense.

Whenever I run a game at Peaky I always have pen and paper to hand as I find I am taking copious notes – there are always things we missed during the frantic writing. The Truth was no different, and Jerry took my notes and his away to fix them prior to running it for “real”.

From the feedback I’ve seen, The Truth was really well received at the conference. Jerry did quite a bit of work beforehand, and the game was more polished than when we ran it. Where there was criticism, it was aimed mainly at the opening instructions rather than the game itself. (We were probably guilty of that at Peaky as well – but we were playing with experienced gamers who we thought knew how this kind of game worked. But more instructions would have helped.)

I would have liked to seen The Truth being played at the conference to evaluate the market for business-related games. It’s not something that Peaky Games nor Freeform Games have any experience of. Not yet, anyway.

Steve Hatherley

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

Customer Feedback

We love getting feedback. Our favourites are the unsolicited emails we get telling us about your parties, but sometimes we send out our feedback form. In March we did just that and sent out 1200 feedback requests to our most recent purchasers of our games.

Actually, when I say we’ve got them back, we only received 11 responses. We think a lot of this is due to the emails being caught in spam filters, but perhaps we need to redesign our emails to make them more appealing.

Players enjoying Lord and Lady Westing's Will

Lord and Lady Westing’s Will

Anyway, thank you to everyone who responded. We’ve read all of them and here are some of the key points.

Just the numbers

Most of the feedback was returned within 48 hours, and it mostly came from the United States (no surprise as that’s where most of our customers are), but also from the UK, Canada, and Australia.
Most people had found us via the internet or a search engine, although 3 (27%) found us through word of mouth. We’d like to improve our search engine presence, but word of mouth is valuable too.

We ask our customers to rate how likely they are to recommend us. From this we’ve calculated that our “Net Promoter Score” for March 2014 was 64%. (Note – Net Promoter Score is a registered trademark of Fred Reichheld, Bain & Company, and Satmetrix.)

Party size ranged from 9 to 16 players, but that’s not surprising as the feedback came from just four games: Curse of the Pharaoh, Davy Jones’ Locker, Spellbound and A Will to Murder. None of those are our larger games.

Comments

Our feedback form has some space for customers to write their own comments – here are the key themes:

  • There were several comments about the host role being too complicated for a first-time host. I’ve got a bit of sympathy for this. While we design our games so that anyone can host them, some of them are more complicated than others – particularly those that involve combat. We’ll consider highlighting the games that we think are most suitable for first-time hosts – perhaps a section on our site with games for beginners.
  • Several people commented that a second host would have helped. We often recommend that in our instructions, but it’s not always possible to arrange.
  • One person suggested sending rules out in advance to the players so that they could become familiar with them – that’s something we could look at making easier to do.
  • Two people liked the smaller games (8-12 people) and one person specifically appreciated the fact that we have gender neutral roles that make it easy to cast.
  • Quite a few people gave lovely comments such as, “EVERYBODY LOVED IT”, “Everybody was talking to everyone else, despite them not having met previously” “All attendees said they had a good time”.

Our actions

There’s no point asking for customer feedback if we’re not going to do anything about it! So here are the actions we’re taking from this feedback:

  • We are going to see if we can redesign the request for feedback emails to improve response.
  • We’re going to look at a section on our site covering games for beginners.
  • We’re going to see if we can make it easy to share game rules in advance.

Steve Hatherley

From the author: Murder on the Dancefloor’s Terence Smith

To coincide with the launch of Murder on the Dancefloor, we asked the game’s author, Terence Smith, for a few words describing where the game came from:

“My involvement with Freeform Games began with my 15th birthday in 2010. I was a drama student at school and, along with my friends, played Lei’d to Rest. This was followed by many more over the following years including Under the Big Top, Who Shot the Sheriff?, Casino Fatale, The Night Before Christmas and a playtest of A Will To Murder.

Terence Smith (right)

Terence Smith, our newest author, in Under the Big Top

Terence playing Under the Big Top

“The first playtest of Murder on the Dancefloor in 2012 was also the first time I had hosted a Freeform Games murder mystery (until then I’d always played a character while someone else hosted). That was quite an experience! I made some changes to the game, and it was again playtested in early 2014 in England. I was on holiday in the UK with my parents at the time, and I had the pleasure of meeting Mo and helping to host the game for another very successful playtest. I had a real sense of accomplishment from seeing the characters and storylines (revolving around Ricky’s murder and the dance-off at the diner) take place in front of my eyes.”

Murder on the Dancefloor is now available here – we hope you like it!