This 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 a Murder Mystery. You can see that here:
Warning, this post contains spoilers for the game I ran at Relaxicon 2015. We may run it again at some point. If you have an interest in playing in the game someday in the far future you may want to stop reading here.
The latest project we (my writing partner and I) were working on had a touch of inspiration from a number of different sources. I think the show True Detective had a lot to do with our mindset, although the original idea was rooted in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Essentially in this instance we wanted everyone to have a crack at being the murderer, and we ran with the idea that this spirit was possessing various players throughout the night. We also wanted the game sort of rooted in reality besides this particular mechanic, something along the lines of a gritty Cthulhu-esque game. (see Call of Cthulhu for more of an idea on that thought)
So looking first to various film noir examples as inspiration, we began to put a game together. We needed a remote location so that the players were trapped there with little to no chance of escape, and so we evolved the story line so that it would occur at the site of a Mayan archaeological dig-site. This would allow us to draw heavily off of Cthulhian mythos, as disturbing ancient artifacts or entities is like the bread and butter of the setting. The Cthulhian goddess Yidhra worked well as the spirit possessing players, but we went with a “child” of Yidhra to give the players a fighting chance.
This set the scene nicely for an isolation-like/creeping horror game. Also, we set it back in the 1940s after World War II so we could control the technology available, as well as introduce some interesting costuming options. I am a big House on Haunted Hill fan, and so we went with an eccentric millionaire backer for the dig-site. The millionaire, Frederick Manning, was hosting a party at the dig-site to show off a few new finds to his rivals. Of course, in reality he was secretly a worshiper of Yidhra’s, and was seeking to unleash her “child” upon the world. Therefore, he invited a large number of his enemies and rivals to the dig-site with the express idea of all hell breaking loose.
We then took some influence from Raiders of the Lost Ark and gave Manning some rivals, a French archaeologist and a German archaeologist. In the spirit of film noir we introduced the standard conniving wife, the femme fetale ex-lover, as well as a few other staples from the genre to round things out.
This is a bit rambly, but the emphasis I want to make is that if you’re developing a Murder Mystery for yourself, or your friends, draw inspiration (or outright rip off if you have to) from media sources that you love. This is standard fare for your conventional LARP writers, but I’ve had some people ask me how I write my own stories. Work with the standard tropes that exist in movies like House on Haunted Hill, Clue, Chinatown, etcetera and then work from there. As you develop the characters the plot portions of it will likely begin to write themselves. Get some props, work up some ideas.
I know for our game we bought some Incan, Mayan, and Aztec pieces to use as props and they helped us tremendously with working up ideas and plot lines. It doesn’t have to be mystical or magical either, props such as old time family photos, documents like family wills or land deeds, anything like that will help you to work up story and further immerse your players/characters. The dual benefit is then you don’t necessarily need to work up a formal “rules system” as the players will be trying to steal the items, figure out what their significance is, hide them around the game space, etc. I can’t emphasize enough that some well thought out props will help tremendously. Especially when it is something that your players can physically hold and examine.
Now, for the Murder Macabre event we introduced a complicated mechanic with the possession idea, so overall I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone starting out running Murder Mysteries. I would say it’s best to keep things simple regarding rule mechanics so that they don’t bog down game play, and also so that there’s little chance of any broken rules being abused over the course of the evening. You want the players to have the ability to influence the outcome of the evening, but you should be in control of the game.
The final point I want to make here is sort of a call back to a similar point I made at Ignite Newark, and that is you need to write in enough conflict to ensure the players will clash throughout the evening. If this does not happen naturally you need events to occur such as blackouts, non-player character attacks, or other similar happenings to push the plot forward. Alternatively, when you are writing in conflict make sure not to go too overboard in writing enemies for particular characters. In this game I wrote the German scientist as a former member of the Nazi party with a large number of enemies gunning for him at the event. Turns out he died fairly early-ish into the evening. Who knew everyone would be gunning for the Nazi? I didn’t see that coming…
Overall, as long as your group is one that is intent on having a good time, and acting out a cool story, then it’s very hard for one of these to go horribly south. Yes, you definitely need to take in to account players that are over competitive, and you want to have someone look over your story lines at least once to ensure there are no gaping plot holes, but ultimately the best advice I can give regarding a Murder Mystery is to just jump in and try to do a small one (6-11 people), as I guarantee you’ll learn a lot from your first outing.
As long as you orchestrate one murder, and your guests enjoy themselves, I’d call your evening a success.