A Night of Murder…and Mystery

The lovely Miss Scarlet from the Relaxacon Murder Mystery

The lovely Miss Scarlet from the Relaxicon ’13 Murder Mystery

It’s taken me over a month to process the Murder Mystery I ran this year at Relaxicon. I wanted to do a blog post almost immediately after to discuss it, and in fact that’s the main reason I had the event photographed truth be told. I have a number of thoughts about it, and unfortunately I’m not able to rationally put them together in a way that actually makes a point. I thought about writing this as a bit of a how to guide, I thought about writing this as a synopsis of what happened at Relaxacon, I thought of quite a few ways to write this article. It likely will come off mostly as a stream of consciousness, and could work out as a guide of what to do, and what not to do, when organizing one of these things.  Either way I have to write this now or it’ll never get written.

I first thought of running a Murder Mystery about six years ago. I had played in Vampire LARPs before, generally enjoyed them, and was looking to throw a sort of theme party for Halloween that year. One thing I have just accepted, and I think most any “coordinator” or “event facilitator” will probably agree, is that I will never be able to re-create the magic I accidentally created with the first Murder Mystery. It was a close group of my friends, most of them relatively experienced role players, but inexperienced when it came to live role playing. The sheer newness and novelty of the event helped to really drive a bunch of awesome role playing, and a lot of innovative and fun stuff happened that first time. I ran the first event as a dinner party, just like the movie Clue, and as we were cleaning up the dinner table one of the players palmed another player’s dinner knife. He later used that knife to kill the cook, knowing the fingerprints on the knife would match the other player’s. It was that kind of stuff I didn’t expect, and was just blown away by.

Body count did seem a tad higher year two...

Body count did seem a tad higher year two.

I followed up the first Murder Mystery with a nearly identical setup the next year. I tweaked a few things in the game system, and while I did keep most of the principal players, I did invite a few more people. Second outing went much like the first, went as smoothly as could be expected. It didn’t have the same “feel”, but people still talked about it for months afterwards. Honestly, though, I’d have to look through my story notes from year two to remember exactly what happened.

Year three I started to run into some problems, and I think most experienced LARP writers/coordinators have run into these issues themselves. First off, I continued to invite more people without cutting out old players. Even if someone was a weaker player I’d rather work harder to incorporate them into the story, rather then exclude someone from the event. This created two separate problems. On the one hand I was really stressed out by the writing, and had to do more work to tie the characters together. The second problem was that I was stretched thin at the actual event. Since I wrote and ran these things I was one of the only people who could GM (for non-role players that means facilitate) the interactions between many of the characters. This lowered the overall quality of the event. Also, I had just watched the old Vincent Price version of House on Haunted Hill, and had gotten the excellent idea to give all the player characters guns as party favors. Experienced LARP writers are probably shaking their heads at the moment, as they can probably predict the direction this took:

Certain scenes of the game looked like something out of Reservoir Dogs

Certain scenes of the game looked like something out of Reservoir Dogs

It was still fun, but my game was getting bogged down with giant combats, which is even worse considering I was solo GMing. I did attempt to change things up in year four, only allowing weapons that could be found throughout the manor house to be used in murder. I made a few calculated errors this outing, though, that ultimately the game suffered for. I wrote the characters almost too adversarial, and within 30 minutes of the game start there were three characters dead. Then, later I had a player show up as a “stranded motorist”. The motorist was actually a hit-man, there to kill one of the other players. I made him a little two good at combat, and what followed was another minor bloodbath that lead to the death of another three player characters.

Not my best work. Also, the group was getting too large. I either was going to have to cut some people from the game roster, or enlist more GMs. It was about this time I enlisted the aid of the lovely and talented Elyssia McCormick . She and I both had a passion for the Tudors, and I had a desire to write a Tudor-esque Murder Mystery scenario in a medieval setting. Luckily, by enlisting the aid of Elyssia I was able to rope the godfather of the Newark gaming community into the mix, and Lee McCormick joined us to assist with brainstorming the plot and GMing the event.  When Lee sat down with me, though, he told me something very important regarding the game that has resonated in every game of mine since. Lee told me that he was not interested in running a game where player characters were dying left and right, that we as writers were investing too much into the game, and also the players were investing too much into the game to kill them off wantonly. I think that bit of advice really helped me pick up my game as a storyteller, and I am eternally grateful to him for opening my eyes in that respect.

Pictures cannot do it justice, it was beautiful

Pictures cannot do it justice, it was beautiful

Things went pretty smoothly for a LARP after that. We slated the game for 25 people, rented a small hall towards Elkton road, and both Elyssia and Lee were miracle workers with that game. Elyssia transformed that space into a Medieval King’s feast hall. I really regret not having many pictures of that event, it was gorgeous. Then once the game started Lee took what I had wrote, and just elevated everything to the next level. Once he got rolling I just got out of his way and let him do what he does best. To date I still don’t know exactly what the players that Lee pulled aside were doing necessarily, I just know that everyone was raving about how awesome the story line was after that. I got credit for that story line, and I will tell you right now, hands down, that was all Lee McCormick.

An old friend of mine, Elyssia’s brother Kyle, stepped in last minute to fill in a character role for me. Not only did he do amazing with the role, it actually gave us a chance to talk about our various LARP ideas and begin writing together again. Since I had managed to run a 25 person LARP with some help, and he had managed similar sizes, we began to do some preliminary writing for a mega 75 person LARP.

This picture is hilarious, cause it sums up our combined writing style so well.

This picture is hilarious, because it sums up our combined writing style so well.

We actually have a good amount of writing done for that, and there are some great ideas in there. That said, if we did three pages of background for 75 characters we would be writing the Great American Novel. I think we both plan on still trying to finish that LARP someday, but honestly writing all that burnt both of us out for awhile I think. We both took a long break from writing in general after that.

John Corridin, one of the managers of Days of Knights and the Relaxicon coordinator, had been asking me for years to run something at Relaxicon, and so since I hadn’t written in awhile I agreed to run a Murder Mystery. I was coming off a two year hiatus, and honestly I figured if I kept the number under 11 it would be like a mini writing vacation. I mean, I had written a giant 25 person LARP. How hard could 11 people be after that?

I had underestimated how stressed I would be in writing for a completely foreign audience. Also, honestly I wasn’t that fond of the idea of running an event at Relaxicon. Anytime I gamed with any of the crowd that hangs out there, well, typically I get marginalized in whatever I’m playing. While I always greatly respected the group of folks that game in that crowd, I felt like they have been gaming with each other for years, and since I was younger and not really well known I typically didn’t get the respect a regular member of their group would. Suffice to say, I wanted the event to be picture perfect, if I was going to jump into this I was going to do it right.

Mrs. White, reading about who she knows at the party.

Mrs. White, reading about who she knows at the party.

Thankfully, I went out for drinks with Kyle while he was in town, and when we were out we got around to discussing the ideas I was tossing around. He helped to really guide my thought process on what kind of story line to aim for, and really fine tuned what sort of system we should run the LARP under.

One of the best suggestions he had was character knowledge cards. Previously, anytime I’ve written one of these things I front loaded all the knowledge the players had in their backgrounds. This created a lot more reading for the characters, and if they didn’t do their reading they could screw up the entire plot. Kyle suggested we let them learn about what they know regarding the other players through note cards they would received when they arrived. This was brilliant. It played out a lot closer to the actual movie Clue, and also if someone didn’t show up to play their character we could get a replacement and drop them in the role with relative ease. Didn’t realize that last point until we lost a player last minute, and it really helped save our behinds.

Another key to this year’s success was the gentleman we got to play Mr. Boddy. I had gone through a couple different options with Kyle in the weeks coming up to the event, but ultimately we both sort of agreed that we needed someone we could trust absolutely to carry Mr. Boddy, because he would have to have almost as much knowledge as we did regarding the backstory of the game. We were leaning towards having one of us play the role, and were discussing it at lunch one day with Lisa Edwards at the table with us. Lisa said, “Wait, you need someone to play an asshole? Why don’t you get Alan?”.

This man knows how to play a smug asshole.

This man knows how to play a smug asshole.

Watching this man work was like watching Lee McCormick two years prior in my other game. He knew EVERYONE’S background by heart, and managed to work up insults ahead of time so that he could take veiled digs at them throughout the evening to make them want to kill him more. He added an entire new layer on top of the game that I didn’t expect to be there, and I told that bastard what I’m going to tell you again right now: I will not be able to replicate this game again without Alan Edwards because Alan Edwards IS Mr. Boddy in this story. He just owns it now.

Mr. Green pocketing Dr. Black's journal

Mr. Green pocketing Dr. Black’s journal

His wife Lisa also played a very memorable maid, however, any compliments I could give her would pale in comparison to how I just gushed over Alan. I definitely want to say she did an excellent job playing the maid and helping to move the plot along. Most all the players, in fact, were excellent. All of the costumes were amazing, the role-playing was some of the best I’ve seen in years. I would fawn all over the individual events, but I wrote the game so that I could run it again. I will say it was almost like year one all over again, the magic was definitely there. You just can’t be nostalgia, can you?

Now there are some problems that did arise this year. These are problems I had with the other games, and these are ones Kyle and I already discussed solutions for in the event we run this again next year. First off I heard someone utter the death knell of any Murder Mystery early on in the game this year, which is a player stating,”If we all stay in one room, well, the murderer won’t be able to kill anyone!”. After that we had a second issue that came up, which was someone saying,”Why don’t we just leave?”. Now, we thought we’d defeated this second objection by having them dropped off in a car service, and having it storm like hell outside. Apparently some folks were willing to brave walking for miles and miles in a torrential downpour. That’s fine, I’ve had that issue before, and in the House on Haunted Hill game I just had the groundskeeper lock them in for the night. There are some other work arounds as well, I think it won’t be a problem at all next time out.

All that said, well, I hope all this information is useful to someone. I have general tips and tricks I guess I could share, but those secrets took me awhile to learn, and I’m not giving those up as easily. Also, I still have to plan for next year, and I’ll need a few tricks up my sleeve for that outting. All this was just stirring around inside my head, and if I didn’t get it out on here now I probably wouldn’t ever get it out.

Anyway, thank you again to everyone that has played in my games, and helped me run my games, over the years. I don’t think I ever enjoyed anything as much as I enjoy running these, and I will continue to run them as long as people want to play in them.

I will say there has been an awful lot of dead maids over the years.

I will say there has been an awful lot of dead maids over the years.

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Posted in Gaming, Movies
9 comments on “A Night of Murder…and Mystery
  1. Mike Handlin Jr. says:

    This was an incredible event I had the honor to have attended. Every aspect of the murder mystery had the appearance of being well thought out (whether true or not). The details of the information cards, the props, the costumes, the scenery, the players, and the event staff made this evening a night I will never forget. It is only when everyone embraces their character’s motivation and executes it flawlessly that evokes a sense of real drama. Kudos to Pete, Kyle, Allysia, and all those who helped to make this happen and to Brian for capturing the highlights.

  2. Kimberly says:

    Is your Clue based murder mystery story available for purchase anywhere?

  3. […] is a bit of a follow up to my previous post “A Night of Murder…and Mystery”. It’s also an addendum to my presentation that I made at Ignite Newark a year ago on hosting […]

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