This past weekend, I attended a Christmas party thrown by a LARPing friend of mine (though I, myself, don’t celebrate Christmas.) The hostess provided her guests with a Christmas-themed boxed murder mystery as one of the evening’s entertainments.
Many of the guests (and the hostess herself) were from the local theater LARPing scene (so I spent a good chunk of the party enjoying discussions on various LARPing topics, including a topic that I recently posted about and Intercon-related excitement.) I suspect this makes us a rather unusual group for a boxed murder mystery. Murder mysteries, I think, are typically designed for people entirely unused to role playing games. Only one player wasn’t a theater LARPer- amusingly, he was the only one who brought a costume to change into.
Basically, the plot was that the mayor, while dressed in a Santa suit for a party, was found strangled, and all of the guests at the party were suspects. We all had pretty basic characters- the widow, the mayor’s rival, the mayor’s assistant, a reporter, etc. and character sheets with two sections. The first section was “Share Information”- stuff we knew and were prompted to share freely. Mine involved my whereabouts at the time of the murder, who I was with, and some dirt I had on another character or two. The “Hide Information” explained my own secrets- basically, a reason why I would want the mayor dead (my character was in his will) that I’m sure was mentioned in a few other characters’ “Share Information” sections. The rules were pretty straightforward- no lying. Share your “Share Information” freely and admit your “Hide Information” if directly asked about it. After an hour, we filled out little sheets with our accusations.
I think the fact that we were so used to LARPs with complex plots to unravel, including murder mysteries (plenty of LARPs essentially are murder mysteries, and many that aren’t contain one or two) might have worked against us. The puzzle was extremely simple- basically, it was a matter of figuring out who didn’t have an alibi, which wasn’t particularly challenging since the rules forbade lying. (After the mystery, we mused that anyone could probably write one of these in under an hour.)
Pretty much everyone settled on the obvious villain who lacked an alibi. Only about half of the players accused him, however. A few wrote in joke responses (one person accused the hostess, who wasn’t playing) and a few others said, “he’s so obvious that it can’t be him.” It was so simple and straightforward, that people who were used to complex mysteries in role playing couldn’t accept that there wasn’t even a small twist. Me, I was having trouble with the alibis because some people’s alibis were written, “at the time of the murder, you were doing XYX with so-and-so” and the guilty person’s sheet said, “around the time of the murder…” because the game was written such that even the murderer doesn’t know who is guilty, so that player can also try to solve it. (Which makes for some weird amnesia issues that kind of just get ignored.) Since details on what time everything took place and where everything are deliberately sparse, the distinction between “I was in location X at the time of the murder” and “I was in location X around the time of the murder” seemed like it could easily be an issue of careless writing and deliberate sparseness of information.
I think the sparseness of information was created by the attempt to keep things as simple as possible. For example, my character was described as having a career, but it didn’t specify what the career was. At best, I could say “I have nothing more to say on that”- which was code for “there aren’t any more details specified in my character sheet, so if you’re looking for clues, you’re barking up the wrong tree.” But it came out very suspicious because the murderer’s lack of career was sort of meant as a hint at their motivation.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time playing and would definitely do it again for the laughs- we were very amused at how ridiculously simple it was. Plus, I was impressed that the same boxed murder mystery had several different options to choose from, which allows a host to run it for a party of multiple sizes.
Interestingly, boxed murder mysteries are often brought up as an example of something similar when trying to explain theater LARPing to non-LARPers. I wonder how a run of the same mystery would go with a group of people for whom role playing is completely foreign? Maybe the simplicity is necessary- not because it’s a difficult puzzle to solve, but getting into the mindset of roleplaying adds its own level of challenge. I think back to my first LARPing experiences and how unsure I was about what exactly it was I was supposed to do (and I had been playing table top RPs for years)… It would be interesting to compare and contrast.