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.

Writing gender neutral characters for Hollywood Lies

As I mentioned in our review of 2014, I am updating Hollywood Lies and bringing it into our current format.

However, one of the things that it making this harder (and therefore taking much more time than it otherwise should), is that I am making all the characters gender-neutral so that they can be played by men or women.

Hollywood Lies

Hollywood Lies – our movie themed murder mystery party game

My reasons for doing this are threefold:

  • Firstly, it helps make casting easier if you haven’t got to make sure you’ve got the right number of male and female guests. We include a few gender neutral characters to help with numbers, but making all the characters gender neutral takes that issue away completely.
  • Second, it means that when we are asked for an all-female game, we can direct customers to Hollywood Lies. (While we get the occasional request for an all-female game, we almost never get a request for an all-male game.)
  • Third, Hollywood Lies is set in the modern day and we shouldn’t be constraining any of our roles by gender.

For those of you who have played Hollywood Lies – yes this does mean that there will be some plots and characters that will change. That’s just making the task of updating the game more complex.

An invaluable tool for names

I’ve found Wikipedia’s Unisex Name page invaluable for finding gender-neutral or unisex character names . It’s a great place for getting gender-neutral names that we haven’t used before (it’s very easy to fall back on the usual ones).

Challenges in writing unisex characters

The main challenge in writing unisex characters is avoiding the use of he/she/him/her. Usually I find that a sentence can be simply rewritten to avoid these pronouns – and at worst case I end up using the character’s name instead.

(I don’t like using “they” as it often doesn’t sound right.)

Some examples:

  • Original: Edward is your agent and charges a standard 10%. He was Tom Speed’s agent as well.
    Rewritten: Eddie is your agent and charges a standard 10%. Eddie was Tom Speed’s agent as well.
    Original: James was fired after setting fire to the office. He was seen shortly before the fire drunk and smoking in a prohibited area. He hasn’t worked since.
    Rewritten: Joss was fired after setting fire to the office. Joss was seen shortly before the fire drunk and smoking in a prohibited area, and hasn’t worked since.

Plot challenges

As well as changing the written language, turning all the characters gender neutral is having a few other changes.

For example, our games often include characters who are romantically linked to each other. That might be as a married couple, or someone in love with another character, or possibly even having an affair with another character.

Not everyone is comfortable with same-sex romances, so I am removing these relationships. (And that changes several plots – such as those characters who are married or seeing each other and so on.)

Arguably, this gives Hollywood Lies a wider appeal: it becomes more kid-friendly and also less constraining in terms of who can play which character.

A challenge

Writing Hollywood Lies to be completely gender-neutral is proving to be a bit of a challenge, for all of these reasons. I’m having to carefully check the wording of every character, and also writing a few new plots to replace those that I’ve dropped. The core game is the same, though.

And no, I’m not sure when it will be ready. 2015 is all I’m committing myself to at the moment!

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.

Looking back at 2014

So it’s that time of year again when we look back at the past twelve months and review how we did. We did this for 2013, and now it’s time for 2014.

Sales overall – a bit flat

2014 was overall a bit flat for us – a rise of just over 1%. However, that figure hides quite a bit of good news, as although the first few months were generally very bad, since the beginning of September our sales picked up and showed typically 10-20% year-on-year growth.

Hopefully that trend will continue into 2015.

We believe that the improvement is down to two things: first, we’ve improved our website and made it more user-friendly (and thus search-engine friendly). Second, Google changed it’s algorithms again. A couple of years ago Google changed their algorithm and penalized low-quality websites. Unfortunately it seems that they were a bit over-zealous and we might have been caught by that change. Last year they re-tweaked their algorithms and we appear to be one of the beneficiaries. Hopefully future tweaks will only be to our benefit!

Best selling games

Once again, our best selling games were Way out West (by some way), then Casino Fatale, and followed by Hollywood Lies. The overall levels of sales were broadly the same as for 2013, with Casino Fatale dropping a bit. Overall, the top three games accounted for 28% of our sales.

Way out West goes Steampunk

Way out West – our best-selling game of 2014

We believe that Way out West’s popularity is boosted as it’s our free game – so presumably customers are upgrading to the paid version when they want to add more players. One thing we could do to test that is to change the free game, and that’s something we may think about in the future.

New and updated games

Murder on the Dance Floor

Murder on the Dance Floor – one of our two new games for 2014

We published two new games in 2014: Death on the Dancefloor and A Speakeasy Murder. We also updated one of our older games, Murder at Sea (originally All at Sea), bringing it into line with our current format.

Sales of A Speakeasy Murder have started strongly, and in 2015 it may be challenging Hollywood Lies for a top three position.

Doubling our newsletter’s readership

In 2014 we doubled the readership of our newsletter, which was its best growth for a long time. By signing up to our newsletter you also get to download our free copy of Way out West, which no doubt helps explains some of the growth!

Improving the website

Last year we identified that we needed to improve our website and as a result we:

  • Made a few cosmetic changes (including more photos) and rearranged the layout to make it more friendly.
  • Changed the site header to the montage photograph when testing proved that it was more effective than a testimonial.
  • Added a page for customers new to our games.
  • Updated the FAQ and pulled it all into one place (it was tucked around in different places before).
    combined the stories and pictures pages into a single page, which makes them easier to see (and avoids duplicating content which can be a search-engine black mark).
  • Kept the blog going fairly consistently for most of the year, but towards the end of the year Real Life got away from me and I was unable to update is as much as I liked. I’m hoping to be a bit more regular again in 2015.

Overall the website changes seem to have worked, so I think that’s a success.

Looking back at our plans for 2014

We set ourselves some goals this time last year. Here’s how we did:

  • Get the website into a healthier place: Overall traffic was flat, but that hides a dip in the early part of 2014 and an encouraging upward trend since the start of September. So hopefully that will continue.
  • Publish Murder on the Dancefloor and A Speakeasy Slaughter: success. We thought we might get Death on the Rocks published as well, but that has slipped.
  • Update All at Sea: success, and now published as Murder at Sea.
  • Mo and I talked about possibly getting together one weekend to write a game (a bit like Peaky), but that didn’t happen and it was always optional.

Looking forward to 2015

Our plans for 2015 include:

  • Continuing to improve the website, and keep an eye on its performance.
  • Publish Death on the Rocks.
  • Update Hollywood Lies, bringing it into line with our current format.
  • Publish our standard rules. Our outstanding action from the feedback we received last May was to prepare standard rules that can be shared and sent out in advance. We’re well on the way with this.

Here’s looking forward to a good 2015 for Freeform Games!

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