Melissa Covert told us about her The Karma Club party:
“We had the best Karma Club party. It was an all girls party, and it was so fun! Everyone dressed like their characters, brought some candy cigarettes, and made food and drinks in the 60s.”
Following on from our birthday post last month, I thought it would be interesting to show when we published each game. I’ve excluded translations to keep things simple…
- Death on the Gambia by Steve Hatherley
- Murder at Sea by Chris Boote (Murder at Sea was originally All at Sea, we later changed its name)
- Curse of the Pharaoh by Mo Holkar
- Way out West by Tracy Bose (consistently one of our best-selling games, particularly when we created a free version).
- Happy Birthday RJ by Lisa Butler
- Court in the Act by Mo Holkar
- Snow Business by Lisa Butler
- Death in the Fast Lane by Steve Hatherley (which never sold well and we withdrew it in 2011)
- The Night Before Christmas/Dazzled to Death by Tracy Bose
- Hollywood Lies by Steve Hatherley
- A Dead Man’s Chest by Mo Holkar (which quickly became our bestseller for a few years while Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean films were so popular)
- Casino Fatale by Lisa Butler
- Under the Big Top by Mark Schaefer
- Halloween Lies by Steve Hatherley (the Halloween version of Hollywood Lies)
- Who Shot the Sheriff by Tara Laben
- The Spy Who Killed Me by Anastasia Kulpa
- Arabian Nights by Lisa Perez
- A Will to Murder by Mo Holkar
- A Heroic Death by Becky Channon
- Pirate Island by Peaky Games
- Spellbound by Lisa Perez
- Trick or Treat by Peaky Games
- Monster Mash by Peaky Games (the non-Halloween version of Trick or Treat)
- Lord and Lady Westing’s Will by Rachel Wendel
- Death on the Rocks by Jessica Andrews
- The Reality is Murder by Freeform Games
- Christmas Lies (the festive version of Hollywood Lies) by Steve Hatherley
- Reunion with Death by Mo Holkar
- Death in Venice by Mo Holkar
- The Food is to Die For by Anastasia Kulpa
- Christmas Reunion with Death by Mo Holkar
- Murder on the Istanbul Express by Mark Jarrell
- Vanished in Vegas by Jennifer Vals
One of the things that amazes me is how my memory has changed everything. I think of A Speakeasy Murder as one of our newer games, but it’s now over seven years old! And was it really in 2009 when we published The Karma Club?
I ran both of these games during 2020, and both were held online using Discord. As with much of 2020, everything was done online—including casting.
What is casting?
Casting your murder mystery game means deciding who get to play which character.
This can be tricky, because everyone is different.
We include casting information in our casting table (at least, with our newer games—we are updating our older games to include this table). This highlights potentially problematic issues, such as where romantic or family relationships exist, and who the murderer is (not everyone wants to play the murderer).
This assumes that you know your guests. If you don’t know who will be coming, or you only know some, or you don’t know them that well, then the casting table is of limited use…
Form or not to form
For The Karma Club and Death in Venice, I used a Google Form for casting. I did this so the players could let me know who they were interested in playing. (And I hadn’t met some players, so didn’t know them very well.) Many of my players play a live-action roleplaying games and it’s normal for those to have simple casting forms.
Using a form made casting easy—I would do it for all games in the future.
My casting form
I created a form using Google Forms (you could use a Microsoft Form instead, or do it via email). At the top of the form I wrote a brief introduction:
This is the casting questionnaire for The Karma Club online game.
Please note that I will try and cast you according to your preferences, but I may not be able to give everyone their preferred role.
Also note that the characters have hidden secrets, and few are what they appear on the surface.
I need your email address as I am using Google Drive to manage items and money, and I need to share the folders with you. I won’t share your email address with anyone else.
For Death in Venice I changed the third and fourth paragraphs to say: Also note that I haven’t read the full game and I don’t know the game secrets or characters – that’s because I’m going to play as well. However, I expect the characters have hidden secrets, and some may not be what they appear on the surface.
I need your email address so I can send you the character sheets.
I used these fields for the form:
- Your email address
- Your name
- Your gender
- Do you mind playing a gender other than your own? (I don’t think this will be an issue, but just in case.)
- Of the characters listed, which three appeal to you most? (This then listed the characters in the order that they are in the game cast list, with those details. The first selection was “I don’t mind who I play”.)
- Of the characters listed above, are there any that you really don’t want to play? (This was just a free text field rather than another list. Sometimes it’s more important to know who someone doesn’t want to play.)
- Is there anything else you’d like me to consider when casting you? (This is so your guests can tell you if they don’t want to be the murderer, or don’t want to be involved in a romantic plot, and so on. Although as it’s a free text field, you may get some odd requests.)
- I would like to share online a screenshot/photo of the game being played. Are you happy for me to include you in the photo?
As an example of what that looks like, here’s my Death in Venice casting form.
Flagging contentious issues
Some of our games contain contentious subject matter—such as characters having an affair, or involving magic or the occult. I dealt with those when advertising the game to new players, but I could also have flagged that up in the casting questionnaire.
Issuing the casting form
Once you’ve created the form, Google provides several ways of sharing it (I imagine Microsoft Forms does the same). You can use a link, or email it out, or embed it as html in a web-page. As I used Facebook to organise my games, I sent all my players a link.
I sent the casting form link to the players about two weeks before the game, hoping that I would get everything back so I could cast and send character sheets out a week in advance. I had to nag one or two guests, but I kept to that timetable.
Using the results to cast the form
Once you have the results, it’s time to assign characters to players. Google provides the results in a spreadsheet so you can work with the data.
- First, I looked for characters that only one person wanted to play. I cast them first.
- Then I looked people who said that they didn’t want to play a character, and cast them.
- Then, I looked at popular characters and cast them.
- Finally use the people who don’t mind playing any character to fill in the gaps.
Tip – if you’re also playing a character (if you’re running and playing Death in Venice, for example), then I recommend being flexible in who you play.
With luck you can give everyone what they want – but if you can’t then I suggest contacting those players and manage their expectations.
Sending out the results
Finally, you need to tell everyone who they are playing. With each character sheet I sent out an email that listed the characters and who will play them, and any extra bits of information. For example, this is the email I sent for Death in Venice.
I’ve now cast Death in Venice, thank you for completing the form in good time. Your character booklet and the game background is attached.
Here’s the cast list:
- Jackie S is Mary-Lou Sinclair
- Meera G is Célestine de Vincennes
- Sara C is Tindall Nobbs
- Stuart R is Daniel Setters
- Dave T is JJ Kowalski
- Jon F is Landor Hammond
- Ahmed D is Courtney Keller
- Jan W is Lyra Spark
- Steve H is Cruz Vicente
Note I have a character and I’m playing. This means I know nothing about the characters other than the public information. If you have questions, I suggest that you hold on to them for now and we’ll resolve them after we’ve played. (As I can’t answer them!)
Please change your name on the Discord server to your character name. (I’ve changed mine to Cruz Vicente (Steve H GM).)
Abilities: If you can, print off your abilities and when you want to use then you can show them up to your webcam. If not, then you can either take a screenshot of the ability and post it in a message to whoever is asking. And if that doesn’t work, just read it out and we’ll trust you.
Clues/Secrets: Again, if you can print them off and should anyone need to see them then hold it up to the webcam. Or use a screenshot, or just read it out.
Announcements: There will be a few announcements during the game. They are to be read by different people (not always me), and I will send the announcement to that person to read out in the Common Room. I’ll then post the announcement itself as a jpg in the announcements text channel for anyone who wasn’t in the Common Room (you may have seen the background already in there).
Timetable: I plan to be online from about 13:30, and with a fair wind (and minimal technology issues) we’ll start playing at 14:00 and finish about 16:30.
I’m happy to answer questions about logistics. See you next Saturday!
Other ways of casting
That isn’t the only way of casting, and we’d be interested in hearing your ideas for casting in the comments below.
Note: We now include a guide for online play with all of our murder mystery games. That guide was largely based on these tips, although there’s a little more detail here.
Four key aspects
The four key aspects of an online game:
- Setting it up – making sure everything works before you start hosting
- Video chat – which video chat system you use
- Announcements – you will need to make announcements
- Game mechanics – how you will deal with items, abilities, combat, locations and so on.
I’ll discuss each in turn below.
Setting your party up
In many ways, preparing for an online party is much the same as for a regular party. You still need to send out invitations, check that everyone is attending, cast your game and so on. However there are also a few differences…
Most of the differences are around deciding on which video chat to use and how you are going to manage announcements or items, and I’ll cover those below.
For The Karma Club, I was inspired by one of our customers who ran Murder at Sea. They had set up a website for their online party, with links to the Zoom rooms, Google Hangouts and to their character folders. I did the same and built a Karma Club website using Google Sites (which is free and easy to use). I included the game details, links to the character folders, and details of how the game would work.
(I originally had links to the game rooms, which I set up using Jitsi. But that didn’t work – more on that below.)
There’s no reason you can’t set up a website for your regular parties of course. (If you’ve already done that and would be happy to share, we’d love to see your websites! Click here to tell us about them.)
There are lots of different video chat systems now available, but whichever you choose it needs three key features:
- It needs to be able to cope with the number of players and GMs in one room (mainly for the briefing and debriefing). Some systems (eg Google Hangouts) have a maximum size of 10.
- You need lots of smaller rooms (or channels) for people to talk in small groups.
- It needs to allow people to be present for about three hours. (Most do – but the free version of Zoom only allows group calls for 40 minutes max.)
I don’t have experience of many video chat systems, but I’m going to cover a few of the more well-known systems.
Zoom is one of the most popular video chat apps. The basic plan is free, and you can host up to 100 participants, which is more than enough. You can also create breakout rooms for everyone. The downsides of Zoom are that the meeting host has to move people in and out of the breakout rooms, and that the free plan only allows groups to chat for 40 minutes (but you can rejoin).
Google Hangouts is really easy to use and doesn’t require any special software. However, it only allows 10 people at most, and while you can create separate hangouts, you can’t easily see who is in them. (But that’s not that different from playing in real life…) Hangouts’ biggest flaw is not knowing how long Google will continue supporting it, particularly now that they are promoting Google Meet (which I’ve not used).
Jitsi is a free alternative to Google Hangouts, but will manage bigger groups. However, I have found it to be very unreliable – I had planned to use it for The Karma Club, but it was so unstable we moved to Discord instead.
Discord is the system I would recommend – providing you have access to someone who can set up an area for you to play in. Discord has been used by gamers for years for voice chat while they play online – it’s stable and doesn’t use much bandwidth. But it has a fairly steep learning curve if you are setting up a server (it’s a much simpler if you’re just using it to play a game). Discord allows for lots of sub-rooms, and players can move themselves from room to room. (Click here for our tips for setting up a Discord server.)
Video chat tips:
- If possible, arrange a test beforehand to make sure it works with everyone at the same time. Be prepared to change if things don’t go according to plan.
- Give your rooms/channels appropriate names. But don’t use in-game locations, if they are used as part of the game. For example, in The Karma Club I had set up a video chat space as “Bob’s Room.” My thinking was that Bob could use that for a private chat. But if players then wanted to hide something in Bob’s room then they’d instinctively go there to do that (and that was a problem if I wasn’t there to supervise). So next time I will use different names (or locations completely unrelated to key game locations) so that people can say “Let’s go to the Purple Room” and if someone needs to hide something in Bob’s room, they know to talk to me.
- If your video chat system allows it, get everyone to change their screen name to their character name as that will make it easier for everyone to find each other.
- Set up an “out of character” room for everyone to congregate in before the game and where you will deliver the briefing and debriefing.
- If you’re suffering from lag issues it may be due to your computer rather than the chat server or your broadband speed. Try closing other apps (that may be causing conflicts), update your drivers or even reinstall the software. I also know someone who when they checked their Task Manager found that they had 5 instances of Discord running – which won’t have helped!
One of the downsides of online play is that it can be hard to make announcements during the game. For example, most of our games have announcements at various times such as clues to the murder and so on.
How do you make those if everyone is in their own video chat?
- Some systems (such as Discord) allow you to send updates and messages to all the players. This is probably the simplest way.
- If you’ve got a small game and you’re using something like Google Hangouts, it’s quite easy to drop into each chat and paste the announcement into the chat window.
- For The Karma Club, I had set up a Facebook event page so that I could post updates as the game approached and for announcements during the game. There were two problems with this idea: First, not everyone was on Facebook. Second, not everyone saw their notifications – so if you’re going to do this make sure everyone has their notifications enabled for the event.
Rules briefing: Don’t forget to do a full rules briefing at the start, including how things like abilities and items and locations will work online. Even though you’ve probably explained in advance how these things will work, you can guarantee that someone hasn’t read that or has forgotten what you told them.
Ending the party: When I am running a live game I will often decide when to end the game based on the energy in the room. When the energy is high (lots of people whispering in corners) then I know the game is going well. As players start to achieve their goals and run out of plots the room will start to get quieter.
That’s obviously much harder to do online and for The Karma Club I just used our game timetable.
Our games include special abilities, items that move from character to character and (occasionally) specific game locations. We’ve designed the games to be played face-to-face, and these aspects of our games need some thinking about when playing online.
You might want a second host to help run the abilities and items (Mo helped me with The Karma Club.)
(Our two online games, Death in Venice and Reunion with Death specifically don’t include items, money or locations so that they are easy to play online.)
For The Karma Club, and our online games, we recommend that players print out their abilities, Secret and Clue. That way they can hold them up to their webcam when either they need to use an ability or reveal their Secret/Clue.
For those who don’t have a printer at home, then trust works equally well. (Or you could have the character booklet on your phone/tablet and hold that up.)
Items and money
For The Karma Club I used the Windows Snipping Tool to turn all the items and money into graphical png files. I named each file the item name, plus a unique number (“notepad-72.png” and “USD100-23.png”). The unique number was because some of the files had duplicated names (particularly the money).
I set up Google Drive folders for each character, and into those put their character sheet and their items and money. The players had access to their own folders, but no others. If they wanted to give an item or some money to another player, they sent me a message and I moved the files from one folder to another.
- Make sure you move the files, don’t just copy them!
- Keep a complete set of the files you’ve created in a spare folder that only you can see, just in case something goes wrong!
You can also do this with Dropbox or OneDrive or whichever cloud storage works best for you.
You could also do this with a spreadsheet to track items and money.
Very few of our games use specific locations, but for those that do then it’s generally best if players speak to the host when they want to access a specific location.
And as I mentioned above, be careful naming your video chat rooms. It’s very tempting to give them “realistic” names to give your players a sense of moving around the physical space, but that can create confusion if the players think that that’s also where they interact with the locations.
Another option for locations is to create a folder for each (using Google Drive/Dropbox/OneDrive/etc as above) and put a description of the location in each folder (in a Word file or similar). Then players can go into those folders to “visit” the locations. If there are items there they can be in the folder and they can then take those items themselves, without needing a host to manage. (I know of a group who did this, but I worry about players accidentally deleting or duplicating something, so I didn’t do that for The Karma Club.)
Online games in summary
I’m pleasantly surprised at how well our games work online. While they’ll never fully replace the experience of playing face-to-face, I expect that the advantages (no need to travel, you can play with people from different time zones) mean that even after this crisis has passed they will still be played now and again.
We’re always interested in hearing about your stories – so if you successfully run one of our games online or face-to-face, please let us know!