Every year good friends of mine from my gaming group host a Murder Mystery party around Halloween. They are fun affairs where you get to act like someone else, play a preassigned role, meet new people, and try to figure out which one of you is not who they claim to be. Here’s a hint, everyone.
It’s been years since I have hosted something like this myself, but I figured I have had enough experience to write a little bit about them, and talk about some tips to doing them well.
Please note even though I am referring to these dinner parties as “Hosting a Murder” not all of them actually involve someone dying or having died. It can be about a Curse, a Prophesy, a Secret Cult or many other things depending on what the plot is.
(Pictures in this Blog Post from Paramount’s 1985 movie CLUE. If you haven’t seen it. Do yourself a favor and watch this gem.)
Why Host a Murder
So you’ve been thinking about hosting one of these murder mystery parties but never pulled the trigger. Let me help. Murder mystery parties have a lot of fun side effects. First off, if you are an RPG gamer (which you are reading this blog you most likely are) a party like this is a good way to feel out slightly geeky coworkers or friends who don’t fully know your nerd side. You might find your friend really enjoyed playing a character or your coworker has a history with RPGs. Many a new member of a gaming group was found via a murder mystery.
Hosting a murder allows you to merge different friend groups seamlessly. Invite your work friends and your gamer friends. It also gives you an excuse to invite your child’s best friend’s parents to a social function that doesn’t involve your kids.
Hosting an event like this around Halloween is an excuse to dress up in costume, be it a character in the mystery or just because it’s Halloween. Saying ‘costumes are encouraged’ lets your guests decide their comfort level without forcing them into a theme. I also find that being in a costume(be it their character or just batman or a hotdog), helps guests that don’t normally role-play, more easily shed their personality and take on the character they are assigned.
Host a Murder? How Does it work?
So how do they work? First, everyone attending(except one host – more on that later) should be given their character ahead time. Just a few paragraphs of who they are, why they are there, what their relationships to the others are, and a few secrets. From there are a few different structures I have seen.
The first is like a three-act play. The party starts, you mingle, share a little gossip, then someone dies. Act 2 starts as everyone tries to figure out motive and opportunity. Odds are most everyone at the party is involved in a tangled web of motive so trying to ferret out all the red herrings is part of the fun. At the beginning of this act, the players are usually given a few more rumors and secrets to add to the mix. Then some catalyst happens and Act 3 starts the accusation phase.
The second basic type starts with murder occurring before the game begins. Usually, with this type one of the guests is playing a detective or cop trying to solve the crime. The detective usually has a couple of extra rules and things to do to push the game forward. Usually, in games like this, there are secret agendas some guests are trying to accomplish to win. Maybe there is a hidden Will, a secret treasure, and some guest(s) might not be who they say they are. (looking at you Inspector Detective)
The 3rd type is a bit more complicated. In this type, the guests are given items, have abilities they can use, and sometimes, someone (usually the host) is playing a moderator type role. This type can be a lot more daunting and require more prep and guest buy-in, but they also can be a lot more rewarding as a host, for you never know how your guests will use the abilities they have.
A 4th variant, one I have not played, is where the “killer” is not set before the game begins, instead, every guest has a possible motive and as the game begins you draw a number that decides the “Solution” adding new secrets and special information into the game. It’s an interesting twist but my friends who have run this type of game had this to say:
“On one hand, it was cool that, even as the host, I got to be surprised by whodunit and even participate, but the downside was that it in order to make a plausible case for so many possible murderers, it made the investigation part really turn into an arbitrary guessing game on the part of the guests. It was by far the least rewarding party we’ve thrown.”
How do I Host? What do I buy?
What do you need? Well, there are a lot of products out there, some good and some pretty weak. Some are highly involved while others are pretty bare bones. You need to decide how complicated you want things, how many people you expect to attend, and how long you want the evening.
How to Host Murder products that you can find at places like Target or Barnes and Noble are the easiest to acquire, and pretty cheap, but they are usually pretty bare-bones and sometimes pretty rubbish. I would do a little research online first if you go this route and read some reviews.
Most Board Game stores will carry Mystery games that are a little more involved and of higher quality, still, be sure to read reviews to make sure you are not getting style over substance.
Speaking of online, there are many you can find online. The latest one I took part in was by a company called Freeform Games. They have a ton of different types to choose for various size groups and lengths. (The one we played was called Spellbound it was a bit on the complicated side but very well written with a lot of interesting things going on. -highly recommend)
Do I have to Cook Dinner?
A lot of these parties are dinner parties but having all your guests sit down at a table and eat dinner at the same time is not required. In fact, the eating dinner part is sometimes when the game grinds to a halt. (not always a bad thing, sometimes you need a break) If you want to serve food a buffet-style can work well. However, you can also forgo a full meal and go with heavy hors d’oeuvres instead to keep things moving.
However, there are some games that the structure has the murder taking place ‘at a dinner party’ in these cases, of course, a sit-down meal may make the most sense for the theme. Keep this in mind when choosing which game to buy. If you don’t want to cook or can’t sit 15 guests you may want to try a different mystery.
(As always, make sure you accommodate and plan for any dietary restrictions of your guests. Be sure to ask them beforehand.)
Preplanning your Murder Mystery party is a very important step. First, someone has to read all the material involved. This person obviously cannot take part in the mystery as a guest, but can sometimes play the person being murdered or play a moderator type role if your game requires one.
Second, you need to pick a date/time and send out preliminary invites with RSVPs required. You need to know who is coming and who cannot before you assign people roles.
Third, this is where things get tricky and you have to start rating your friends. You see, you will have a no show or a last-minute cancel. Life happens. You need to pick the most likely person or people that will do such a thing, and make sure you don’t assign them a pivotal role. Having the killer not show up to the murder is a bit of an issue. However, you also don’t want to be obvious. Assigning your trusted most reliable friend, or your spouse the role the killer will probably be expected by any of your other friends who know you well.
A lot of games come with a number range of characters. For example, the game needs 8 but can accommodate up to 12 players. This means there are 8 core characters needed. Those you should assign to your most reliable friends. The other 4 characters are less integral to the plot. Be sure to read through these characters though. Some games have some pretty poorly written throw-away characters that your guest may not enjoy playing.
After roles are assigned make sure everyone gets all the material they need in time to read it and digest it before the day of the event. This allows them to become more comfortable with the role as well come up with any costume pieces or affectations they want to incorporate with their character. I’ve been to parties where your character is assigned after you arrive. This will eliminate the no-show risk but usually makes for a very messy first half of the game because people are trying to figure out who they are more than who everyone else is and what is going on.
One reason the host should read all the material is so they can be on the lookout for something my friends term “Clue Bottlenecks” This is where guest A forgot they were holding onto a clue or guest B didn’t know an item was important to Guest D. This can result in players spinning their wheels rather than progressing the story. This is where the host can come in, playing the role of the butler, cook, or helpful servant and nudge people in the right direction. “Professor Plum was so tired this morning he had 3 cups of coffee, I wonder what he was doing up so late the night of the murder.”
With a lot of guests sometimes a couple key people may never seem to link up. A simple “Ohh I heard so and so was also asking about that….” can be all it takes to get the right people to start comparing notes.
Don’t be too heavy-handed, however, you don’t want to influence their deductions on who did what, just move things forward if you see people have stalled or forgotten an important clue.
One thing to keep in mind when buying a murder mystery product is the gender roles of the characters within. Most games will list them. A lot of the older games have a specific number of male and female specific characters with very few characters whose gender is not specified. Make sure you are buying a game that can accommodate the guests you are inviting. Rewriting can be a bit tricky as these games often will involve affairs, liaisons, and stranger characterizations that can be hard to adapt to what the player has in mind. Also as you start assigning roles to your guests be sure to have a conversation with any of your transgender or genderfluid guests beforehand on what they are comfortable with. It can be uncomfortable being addressed by strangers all night by the gender of the character you assigned them if it is not the gender they identify with. You want to make sure everyone has a fun evening and not feeling awkward.
But I’m an Introvert
A lot of people are introverts, they can be uncomfortable around strangers, and find it hard to talk to people. This can be problematic for a game like this where players need to reveal clues, spread gossip and learn information. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invite them. Though talking to your friends before the event about their comfort level is advisable. A lot of games have options for a few side characters that aren’t vitally important. If they think they would have a hard time engaging assigning them this type of role may be a good compromise. Be sure to talk to them first, however, some introverts find events like this a little easier to deal with because they are playing a role.
Who are you again?
Unfortunately, a Murder Mystery event is not the best place to meet new people. I have gone to many events where I chatted with people all night, but by the end of the evening I only knew their character names, not their real names, nor did I know anything really about the real them. Make sure that after the Mystery part of the party is over there is time for the guests to discuss what transpired during the event and who said what to whom and get to learn who the other guests are as people.