Two more golden rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Hatherley

The three golden rules for hosting a murder mystery game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Hatherley

Real-world alternatives for some of our mechanical ideas

We provide safe, simple rules in our games, but sometimes it’s fun to make those rules more closely align to the real world. Here are some examples.

A player in one of our murder mystery gamesThese first two are from Denise Knebel in the USA.

The secret cupboard. One of our games (I’m not going to say which) has a secret cupboard which is normally managed by the host. Here’s what Denise did instead:

I cleared out a drawer in my dresser for the players to use. I retyped the cards and on the secret cupboard ones, I wrote where to find the cupboard. It worked out well and because it was in an open place, those who had access to it had to be secretive about when they were using it.

Also, it was fun to watch when someone who didn’t know about it when they were spying on someone see them open it. At one point, the murder weapon made it into the secret cupboard! For what purpose, I don’t know but the guests had fun with it!

One of the delights in using real-world locations for things like secret cupboards is that you don’t know who else will stumble upon the secret cupboard. (That’s very unlikely to happen with a virtual location managed by the host.) But that’s all part of the fun!

Poison: Several of our games include poison. Here’s Denise again:

Since I knew all my guests were drinkers, I bought some sample-size liquors. I tied a note to it with the card information on how to use it. (Obviously to add some in a drink and hand it to the person). My group had fun with that, and it was funny to watch when someone took a drink and made a face. Afterwards, I would show them the “you’ve been poisoned” card.

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

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

Pickpocketing: Cafe Casablanca uses these rules for simulated pickpocketing:

  • First, give those with the pickpocket ability a sticker – one sticker for each pickpocket use.

  • The the pickpocket must put that sticker onto the clothing of the person that they want to pickpocket.

  • Then they must find the host and tell them who they pick-pocketed (and what they want to pickpocket).

  • If the sticker is still in place, then the pickpocket attempt is successful. Otherwise it fails.

I’d still allow someone to prevent pickpocketing with a “Not so fast” ability, but forcing the pickpocket to place a sticker onto their target means they may be spotted by another player. What happens then is up to them, of course.

Steve Hatherley

Cafe Casablanca from the GM’s perspective

Last year I talked about how Mo and I attended The King’s Musketeers, a weekend long freeform. This year’s weekend game was Cafe Casablanca, and while Mo played Philip Marlowe, I was one of the six “directors” (ie, a host).

Mo as Marlowe

Mo, looking very dapper as Philip Marlowe

Cafe Casablanca is based on Hollywood thrillers and wartime dramas of the ‘30s and ‘40s – particularly those starring Humprey Bogart such as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.

Cafe Casablanca is broadly very like one of our games, but much much bigger. To get a sense of how much bigger Cafe Casablanca is…

Cafe Casablanca needed six directors – and we were busy for the entire game.

But that’s not surprising – we had 74 players to manage!

Cafe Casablanca took an entire weekend to play – from Friday evening through to Sunday lunch. I’ve worked out that we generated about 1300 hours of person-hours of entertainment!

I was the “harbour director” and responsible for overseeing all the mischief being done in the harbour. That’s another difference with our games – Cafe Casablanca had very definite locations, from the harbour, to the police headquarters, the Gestapo office, Rick’s Bar and the casbah.

Playing Cafe Casablanca

Cafe Casablanca in full flow

The harbour turned out to be quite an exciting place – I was never bored. I oversaw art robberies, sabotage, salvage operations (there were all sorts of things hiding in the harbour), shark attacks, and even a raid on a battleship!

Character envelopes

74 character envelopes!

It took us hours to complete all the character envelopes for this game – but that’s not surprising given that they contained:

  • A character booklet (typically 8 pages of tiny print)

  • The rules booklet

  • Extra rules for those that needed it, such as the gang wars that were going on in the casbah

  • Complicated name badges containing secret codes and symbols (that some people could read)

  • Abilities, including heart abilities and romantic requests

  • Cards for the the romance mechanic

  • Cards to allow certain shady characters to cheat at gambling.

  • Stickers for the poison and pickpocket rules

  • Contingency envelopes

  • Lots of items, including some with props, such as passports.

It was interesting to see how things have developed over the last few years. Cafe Casablanca was originally written over 20 years ago, and I’d do some things differently these days. For example, it wasn’t particularly easy to prepare. We provide a guide for preparing character envelopes in our instructions, but there was no such thing for Cafe Casablanca – there were various documents here and there, but no master.

But then I doubt Cafe Casablanca was ever written with the intention of being regularly re-run, so making that sort of thing easy probably wasn’t high on their agenda. We make our games as easy to prepare as we can because we hope they are going to be played many times!

Anyway, next year’s weekend long freeform is Lullaby of Broadway, which is inspired by Broadway musicals. And I’m going to be playing again.

Steve Hatherley

Tips for beginners

Our murder mystery games include tips for beginners to help them get started. There are always two tips, each one suggesting that the player go and talk to another player about something.

We include tips for beginners for two primary reasons:

  • First (and most importantly), the tips give a new player some idea of how our games are played. If you’re reading this you probably know that our murder mystery games are very different to others on the market, and if you’ve not played one before then it might not be clear exactly what it is that you’re supposed to do.

  • Second, the Tips for Beginners help lift the party’s energy at the start of the game by giving players a simple, concrete action that they can carry out immediately. That lets players dive straight into the game and start playing.

I can’t remember exactly when we introduced tips for beginners, but they weren’t present in our original games. When we did introduce them, we treated them as optional, with the view that only newcomers to a Freeform Games style of murder mystery would need them.

Then I ran a game (I forget which – possibly the Hollywood Lies playtest) that I hadn’t cast in advance – I was going to cast randomly on the night. The game was going to be played by a mixture of experienced players and beginners, but because I didn’t know who would be playing which character, I put the Tips for Beginners into every character envelope.

I was therefore surprised when I found that the experienced players were as likely to use the tips for beginners as the newcomers. And from that point they became a permanent feature on our character sheets.

We have a few guidelines (rather than strict rules) for writing tips for beginners:

  • The tips tend not to address the character’s main goals. We don’t want key plots being resolved too early, so we try to pick something that’s key to that character, just to get them started.

  • The tips must refer to something that’s already appeared on in the character background or Other People section. We don’t want to introduce something new in the Tips for Beginners.

  • Tips should normally require the player to talk to another player about something specific. Sometimes the tips will direct a player to an absent character (because not all the characters are being used), but that shouldn’t be a problem as there will be another tip that they can use.

Expanding Casino Fatale for 50 guests

Enjoying Casino FataleSometimes we are asked about expanding our murder mysteries to include many more characters than we had originally written.

Now, if you need just one or two extra characters, you can use the free extra characters that we and other customers have written for the games. Or you could write your own (and if you send that character back to us and we like it enough to include it in our list of extra characters, we’ll give you a free game in return).

But what do you do if you want to add 10 or 20 extra characters? If you have 50 guests coming to your Casino Fatale party then you need another 17 characters to write. It’s a lot of work to write another 17 full characters.

So instead, this is what I’d do:

  • I would write the 17 additional characters as minor roles, and I wouldn’t expect to integrate them fully into the murder mystery. Instead, I’d get them doing something else – and in Casino Fatale I’d ensure that there were some real casino games (backjack, roulette, and so on) for them to enjoy rather than getting completely involved in the mystery.

  • Each minor character would get a brief one-paragraph background, along with some simple goals (such as play blackjack or get involved with Casino Fatale’s charity auction).

  • I would give the minor players some clues so that they can interact with the main mystery if they wanted to. (That also gives the main players a reason to interact with them.) As for where I get the clues, I’d take them from the existing characters – in particular their Secrets and Clues.

  • I would be very careful casting. I would want to manage expectations and make sure that everyone playing a minor role was going to be happy doing that, rather than being fully involved. If someone desperately wants to be involved in the Casino Fatale, then I wouldn’t cast them as a minor character.

  • And I would also make sure that I had at least one assistant (preferably two) to help me run a game of this size.

If this has inspired you to expand one of our games, we’d love to hear about it.

Steve Hatherley

2013 in review

So how was 2013 for Freeform Games?

Actually, it wasn’t great. Sales were down by about 20% in 2013 compared to 2012. In fact, it was our worst year since 2005. Ouch! Affiliate sales were particularly badly hit and were down about 40%.

We believe that much of this is thanks to Google’s latest algorithm updates. Over the last couple of years Google has been “improving” the quality of its search results, and it has been targetting spammy websites and other “black hat” search engine tricks. We’ve not employed any black-hat tricks, but we think we’ve been caught in the wash.

So we’re trying to improve our website (you’ve probably seen the redesign), both from our visitors’ perspective, and Google’s. And as Facebook becomes more important, we’re being more active on Facebook. But we’ve still got a lot to learn.Way out West - one of our top selling games of 2013

Highlights of 2013

  • Our stalwarts continue to sell well – Casino Fatale, Way out West, Hollywood Lies. Pirates seem to have lost their lustre; A Dead Man’s Chest used to be one of our more popular games, but appears to have fallen from favour. We need Disney to reinvigorate Pirates of the Caribbean!

  • We published one new game, Lord and Lady Westing’s Will in 2013.

  • We’ve continued our Facebook page, and I think we’re starting to get the hang of it now. We see Facebook as a place where you can contact us easily, and where we can ask questions and post things that interest us that we think might interest you.

  • We started this blog! And we’ve posted over thirty times – roughly once a fortnight. We see this blog as an opportunity to talk about our games in a bit more detail than on Facebook.

  • We also now sell games in multiple currencies – US $ and Euros as well as good old pounds, shillings and pence. So now if you are buying our games from the USA or Europe, you know exactly how much you’ll be paying.

Things we should do better

  • Playtests – we didn’t run any playtests ourselves in 2013, partly because A Speakeasy Slaughter wasn’t quite ready. But we did commission three that others ran for us – two of Murder on the Dancefloor and one of A Speakeasy Slaughter.

  • Unlike our Facebook page, our Google+ page isn’t anywhere near as popular. Google+ is a different audience – we probably need to think about how we make the best use of G+, instead of simply reposting everything that we post on Facebook.

  • Pinterest – we’re on Pinterest, but not really so that you’d know it.  We need to do better.

  • Twitter – we have a Twitter feed, which currently echoes our Facebook page. But it’s another way that you can get in touch with us.

Looking forward into 2014

  • First priority has to be to get the website into healthier place. We need to get it re-liked by Google, and we also need to make sure it’s visitor-friendly.Playing Casino Fatale

  • We are hoping to publish two games in 2014: Murder on the Dancefloor and A Speakeasy Slaughter. We might also get Death on the Rocks out as well.

  • We’ll update All at Sea, bringing it into line with our recent games.

  • Mo and I may get together one weekend to see if we can write a game together, a bit like Peaky. If that’s a success, we’ll do more of them and that may mean we can publish more games each year.

  • And we’d love to hear from you – what do you think we should be doing in 2014? Or what should we stop doing?

Why do we have a separate host for our murder mystery games?

Our murder mystery games are different from many others in many ways, one of which is that our games need a dedicated host. Instead of playing a detective or a suspect along with everyone else, our hosts oversee play and coordinate events and the rules.

 

The Karma Club

Things get tense at The Karma Club

I know that some people would like to be able to host their game and play in it, but our games really do need a separate host. We didn’t have to write them that way – so why did we?

With our background in tabletop roleplaying games, it was perhaps inevitable that Mo and I would write games that require a “gamesmaster” role in our games. But that’s because the kind of games and events that we want to write about require such a thing. They can’t easily be done without a dedicated host.

So here, in no particular order, are just some of the reasons our games require a dedicated host:

  • There’s no need to worry about inadvertently reading a game secret when you print out the game. If the host is also a player, then they have to be very careful about what they read, just in case they find out the identity or the murderer or some other piece of key information. (And that’s assuming they resist the temptation to cheat.)

  • A dedicated host allows us to introduce rules that require a neutral referee, such as combat and pickpocketing. If we didn’t have a neutral referee we wouldn’t include these rules.

  • It’s easier to cast your players if you can see the characters first. The host usually knows most of the players, and can cast accordingly.

  • A host can focus on making sure that the party is an overall success, and won’t be distracted by trying to achieve their in-character objectives.

  • They can adjudicate on any of the wild and wacky ideas that the players may dream up. This is perhaps one of the most important roles of the host, as our murder mystery games give the players considerable flexibility in how they achieve their goals. Instead of endless, overly complicated rules, the host oversees the game and adjudicates on player requests to ensure that everyone has a good time.

Having said all that, we’ve written before with tips for playing a character and being the host.

But if you want to both host and play our games, then the best solution may be to host one game, and then get a friend to host the next.

Steve Hatherley

3 tips for a successful Christmas murder mystery party!

First choose the right game!

Our best-selling mystery at this time of year is of course The Night before Christmas. This game, set in a high-class New England family’s hunting lodge, is for 12–15 guests and a host, and we also have 5 free extra characters that you can add in if you need more.

Of course, The Night before Christmas isn’t just for the 24th December – it works well at any time in the run-up to the big day. But if you’re organizing your party after Christmas itself, then you want Dazzled to Death instead! This is basically exactly the same game, but with the specific Christmas theming removed.

Or if you don’t have that many guests, check out Snow Business, our other winter-themed murder mystery – this one is for 10–12 guests, and it’s set in a ski chalet with another murderous family get-together.

Second, pick the right music!

You want something appropriately festive, but also suiting the period. The Night before Christmas is set in the 1950s, so Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, Judy Garland’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and other classics like Let it Snow!, Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Baby and Sleigh Ride are absolutely perfect.
Snow Business is set in the present day, but in a cheesy Alpine resort, so a selection of more modern Christmas songs would be great – Last Christmas, Do They Know It’s Christmas, All I Want for Christmas is You, Fairytale of New York – that sort of thing. With some Euro dance music mixed in!

Third, serve the right food and drink!

We always recommend our games are accompanied with finger food rather than a sit-down meal, and Christmas nibbles are ideal for this. Here’s a great list of simple but delicious recipes from the BBC, and here are some more ambitious and impressive canape recipes from taste.com.

As for drink, there’s the traditional punch (alcoholic or not), mulled wine, eggnog, and hot chocolate. Here’s a good mixture of those together with some festive cocktails, from the BBC again. And eatingwell.com has a great selection here of non-alcoholic drinks, for everyone to enjoy!

The other important tip is: get planning well in advance! We recommend starting two weeks beforehand, ideally. If you don’t have that long, that’s OK, but you’ll have to be organized: don’t leave it to the last minute before printing out the character booklets!

We at Freeform Games will be on duty throughout the holiday period, here to answer your inquries and help with any problems. But if you follow these tips, everything should go just fine and you and your guests will have a terrific and murderous Christmas party! Do please let us know how it goes…

Bryant and May and the Invisible Code

It may seem a bit of a surprise, given that I write, edit and publish murder mystery party games, but I read very little crime fiction. I don’t really enjoy them, and I don’t find them that useful as inspiration because in our games, the murder is often just one of many different plotlines. Also, in crime fiction the murder plot is often so difficult to unpick that we couldn’t write our games that way. In our games, we can’t rely on the brilliant detective solving the mystery – everyone has to have a fair chance.

Bryant and May and the Invisible CodeSo I read very little crime fiction. I don’t even watch that much crime drama on television.

I make an exception for Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series, though. Arthur Bryant and John May are a pair of elderly, decrepit senior detectives well past their retirement date. I’ve just finished Bryant and May and the Invisible Code, the 10th in the Bryant and May series (although they appear in a number of Fowler’s other novels as well).

Bryant and May head up the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU), a much-maligned unit that the Home Office would love to shut down – except for the PCU’s incredible success rate at solving strange crimes that nobody else can solve. John May is procedural and proper, while the Arthur Bryant eschews traditional detection methods and consults with witches, occultists and other fringe characters.

Arthur Bryant is possibly my favourite fictional character: blunt, eccentric, erudite, rude, esoteric – and often laugh-out-loud funny. John May is Bryant’s straight man, and while the rest of the PCU team have their moments, none are as memorable as Bryant.

In The Invisible Code, the PCU are investigating yet another bizarre murder and become embroiled in a sinister conspiracy of silence concerning key government figures. And I’m not going to say more than that, because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

Each of the books can be read on their own, but there’s a definite sense of time in the later books (from White Corridor onwards) as the PCU relocate to new offices and new characters are introduced.

If you’re interested in reading more, I wouldn’t start with the first in the series, Full Dark HouseFull Dark House chronicles Bryant and May’s first meeting during the London Blitz, but to enjoy it fully you really need to know who the characters are in the first place, as it recreates the Blitz through flashbacks.

So instead, I suggest starting with the second book, The Water Room. The Water Room is quite bizarre, and definitely my favourite of the series – if you don’t like The Water Room then you probably won’t like the rest. I’d then follow that up with Seventy Seven Clocks (third in the series), before returning to Full Dark House.

So as Christmas approaches, you might want to put this on your Christmas list.

Steve Hatherley