Murder Mystery

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.

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About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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26 Responses to Murder Mystery

  1. Ivan Zalac says:

    It’s very interesting that you brought this up 🙂 In fact, I just recently wrote a murder larp in Nordic style – which runs completely in a different way. It’s a 2 hour larp – 1 hour for gameplay, 1 hour for preparation and debriefing. A group of tourists is thrown in prison, on suspicion of murdering the Emperor of Japan. One of them is actually a murderer, but the larp isn’t necessarily about finding the murderer (though it can be about that), it’s more about group dynamics and personal relationships which are challenged by the situation and the dillemas they’re put in. The larp is for 4-8 people, it will premiere next weekend on a local mini-convention (around 100-150ish people) with two runs, and I did a test run this weekend with 6 people, and they liked it. One character confessed in the end – he wasn’t guilty, but he was suffering from a terminal cancer, having 3 months to live, a detail which the player chose himself – but by doing so he saved the rest of his friends, including the real murderer.

    I haven’t tried any of the boxed sets, they are not really popular where I’m from… Though from your description it doesn’t seem replayable. Seems like a lot of money for one evening of simple larping – correct me if I’m wrong (which I might be as I’m unfamiliar with these games).

    • Fair Escape says:

      The boxed sets aren’t terribly popular in our group- I think this is the first I’ve ever really played one. There is typically one run at Festival of the LARPs (Brandeis University’s smaller LARPing con) though I suspect they’re higher quality. Yours definitely sounds more like a typical LARP than a boxed murder mystery. I just double checked on the website- apparently, the one we played was $50 dollars, which seems a bit steep to me considering the quality, though I suppose if everyone playing chipped in, it would only be about $3.50 a person. It’s hard to say what’s a good deal- in our theater LARPing community, it’s pretty typical for players to play for free and for GMs to cover all of their own expenses, We’re a little bit spoiled that way. I think it would probably be a good thing if we shifted our cultural mind-set towards expecting a modest fee for LARPing.

  2. It’s hard to say what’s a good deal- in our theater LARPing community, it’s pretty typical for players to play for free and for GMs to cover all of their own expenses, We’re a little bit spoiled that way. I think it would probably be a good thing if we shifted our cultural mind-set towards expecting a modest fee for LARPing.

    In NZ, we expect to pay, largely because of the need to hire venues. In Wellington, where I larp, the standard price for a 3-hour threatreform is NZ$20 (NZ$15 with discounts) (um, US$16/12) – about the same as a movie.

    • Fair Escape says:

      We play a lot of theater LARPs in university function spaces and classrooms, and that’s usually free. I know of at least three mini conventions that take place at universities. (And Intercon, which is held at a hotel, is incredibly cheap compared to most conventions.) We have started running weekend long theater LARPs at about US$25 per person, (which includes dinner Saturday night,) and that’s been working well, so I suspect if we wanted to shift towards paying for theater LARPs, we could. Which might encourage GMs to run more often (if they know they won’t have to completely foot the bill) and provide higher production value when they do. (It’s pretty common here to run LARPs as cheaply as possible, with no props or set design… which I understand- I definitely see value in making the hobby as accessible as possible, but shouldn’t have to be the default way to run them.)

      • Well, if you get people to pay, you can spend money on set-dressing and give a more immersive experience. Which could in turn push people towards more costume (which feeds back into that experience and IME produces a better game). Once we started doing even minimal set-dressing (sticking a tapestry on the walls; covering up inappropriate furniture with cloth; using an appropriate stone idol rather than a card), we saw the benefits immediately.

        As for accessibility, a culture of loaning people stuff helps a lot with that.

        • Fair Escape says:

          Agreed- there’s definitely a sort of cyclical effect surrounding expectations of production value on the parts of the GMs and players. Though both quality of the game and accessibility are sliding scales, and there’s no one correct place to draw the line.

          • Ivan Zalac says:

            Payment for larp is a touchy issue over here as well. E.g. “Death of the Japanese Emperor” is a rather cheap larp – requiring only printing out five sheets of paper, most of which can usually be reused – and it can be played in any room, even in a small apartment – so I wouldn’t charge for it. However, some larps like “ConQuest of Mythodea” tend to charge a lot – ConQuest is now at 110€ if you buy early, (and at the start of the event it will be 140€) and it has 9000 players… But it does offer a lot. Some larps are even more expensive, but they include a lot more, such as location, props etc. (check out: http://www.celestra-larp.com/)

            Whether a larp costs anything is not a question. Whether it provides value for its cost is a much better question – and where larp is involved, we usually pay for costs like terrain rental and props, not creative input.

            The truth is, some players might not attend anymore if you start charging for events. Yet higher production values will likely attract some other players which would otherwise not join. I’ve seen it happen – it’s impossible to please everyone.

            I’ve been in excellent high-production larps and excellent low-production larps. But they were different kinds of larps, focusing on different things.

            Here’s a suggestion. Maybe your GMs could have a donation box? If a few players donated a bit, it could help them recover their costs.

            • Fair Escape says:

              Theater LARPs are frequently free around here, but boffer LARPs (or whatever you call campaign LARPs with live action combat- I hear some people only call it “boffer” if the weapons are padded, but call it something else if they’re latex) tend to run between $75 to $100 per weekend.

              There was a team of GMs who ran weekend theater LARPs- which tend to be larger than the typical 4 hour theater LARP and a lot more expensive to run. They used to ask for donations to cover the cost, but from what I hear, it wasn’t consistent. Sometimes they’d get a reasonable amount, sometimes they didn’t come even near covering costs. Which is why they switched to charging $25 dollars for the weekend. When they stopped running them, the next group took up the practice of charging $25 for weekend long theater LARPs.

              • Ivan Zalac says:

                The scene over here is changing here considerably lately. As I said, theater larp scene here is non-existant. Only Vampire larps have ever been organized in that style, but they’re gone by now (there’s still a healthy World of Darkness scene in Hungary though).

                Most our larps are what you’d call boffer (though we don’t really use that name, as weapon technology can be boffer, latex, nerf or something else). Our larps don’t differ that much regarding combat mechanics, but rather if they’re used or not, and if the larp is about combat or about something else (but still with a possibility of combat) or something in between. We have larp which is (for most) primarilly differenced by its setting and genre rather than rules and design principles – e.g. two fantasy larps will be seen as more similar one to another than either would be to a short, 1 hour modern horror larp, even if design principles of one of those are much more alike that 1 hour larp… Still, we mix and match a lot, and larps influence each other heavily regardless of style.

                $75-$100 for a weekend? That sounds like a lot, but I guess it would depend on the production value (I mentioned ConQuest pricing last post, here’s it’s trailer – I consider it a very high value production and a good value for money: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7bzF5BKXt4).

                Most larps of “boffer” style are about $8-$20 here, but it heavily depends on the terrain and whether any food/drinks are included (we usually get a campsite for around $150-$250, with nothing on it, plus $65-ish for chemical toilet, and we usually get 20-30 people on our larps). Our calculations usually end up on zero, sometimes with a net loss to the organizer – if not, any money earned is used for next larp. That’s the basic economy we have behind it. A few larps have driven prices down (to appeal to more people), and others had to cut corners for it… I think that part is bad practice.

                I like the diversity of the larp scene and the fact that there are free and costly larps (also worth noting is that in Europe we tend to play less often than in USA – a weekly larp has only been tried once and didn’t last for long), and that both can offer something and enrichen the scene.

                • Fair Escape says:

                  I don’t know of any LARPs that run weekly- the ones I play all run 4 weekends a year. Are the ones that cost $8 to 20 for a whole weekend? That’s impressive. The production values aren’t typically anywhere near Conquest of Mythodea, but I hear a campsite can cost $1600-2400 per weekend to rent. (We use summer camps- no renting chemical toilets; I think European LARPs run more in camping grounds, which is probably why it’s cheaper.)

                  • Ivan Zalac says:

                    We usually camp on privately-owned grounds of whoever we can find who has a decent-looking terrain willing to rent it cheaply. That’s the price for the whole weekend, usually those larps start Friday late afternoon or evening, and end Sunday in the early morning hours, everybody sleeps over and leaves in the morning or early afternoon. Some larps – like “Utvrda Svijetlosti” or the Serbian “VLARP” – get to use their terrain for free by the municipality which sees it as promoting tourism and culture. But there’s a lot of variety on this – and prices for Croatian larp are usually cheaper because land usage costs are lower here than in most of the Western Europe (as well as the living standard of people). ConQuest is organized on a large horse property (horses are put in stables for the duration of the larp).

            • Here’s a suggestion. Maybe your GMs could have a donation box? If a few players donated a bit, it could help them recover their costs.

              I did that when I ran “Serpent of Ash”; it neatly covered costs, with a bit of leftover for the local gaming club. Its a workable model for the right sort of game with the right cost structure.

  3. Micah says:

    L. likes to play the Festival dinner mystery game since it is a pretty laid back game. While the production values are pretty high (invitations, glossy booklets, place cards, CDs/DVDs), the mysteries themselves are still pretty mediocre. Not sure they could be written in an hour, but that could actually be a neat experiment.

    I would love to see more mystery larps. There was Murder By Death at Intercon a few years ago, but nothing so clearly themed since then that I saw. Some Agatha Christie stories could probably provide some interesting structures for a larp.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I had a great time at Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll, but for me that LARP was all about playing the character, not really solving the mystery. Sounds like the boxed sets that run at Festival are much higher production values than the one I described above- it was all just print-out sheets.

    • Good murder mystery LARPs are surprisingly difficult to write. I find them much more difficult to write than the typical LARP, because several things have to happen. 1) You have to kill someone off in a scripted way. 2) To play fair, you have to use a method that leaves an investigative trail that someone can follow. 3) The murder has to be done at a scripted time and place in a way that provides several suspects beyond the actual murderer. 4) The detective(s) have to be played by a kind of player you might not expect, because a) they don’t have the time to conduct a proper investigation, b) they can’t just stop all the other action, and c) they have to reveal information to the other players that a real detective would never do, in order for the others to participate in the detection process (if they want to).

      I’ve played in many wonderful murder mystery games. I’ve written four. Fair Escape has had the chance to play in Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll, which was my first.

  4. In 1989, I got to play a whole bunch of the “state of the art” boxed murder mysteries, which were very hot at the time. They were all ridiculous. What we played a few weeks ago was very similar to those old games, probably about the average for the ones we “play-tested”.

    The reason these games were memorable after so many years was because we played them in-character. We were in a weekend long murder mystery LARP, where our characters were play testing.these games, which were “written” by one of the other characters in the LARP. It was a wonderful experience.

    At the time, we were paying about $200 each for the weekend LARPs, which included food and lodging at an inn (which we would fill). This one, however, was a little pricier, because the inn was on the coast of Wales. We also rented a tour bus to take us around and sightsee in the morning, and then come back to play in-character for the afternoons and evenings, over a long, wonderful weekend.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Sounds like a real cool meta twist. And combining it with a great vacation sounds like icing on the cake. I’d love to try something like that.

      • That trip was special, but even the “regular” weekend murder mysteries were amazing. We’d take over this place: http://www.whitehouseinn.com/ and had the run of the grounds, and even the neighboring fields and woods. We filled the place. The mechanics for searching were actual searching; rooms had to be unlocked for the weekends, so I “broke into” many of them, trying to find things (or potentially plant evidence). The place even has a “secret staircase” hidden behind something you wouldn’t expect to move…

        • Fair Escape says:

          Man! Where do I sign up? And if they don’t run anymore, why not?

          • Alas, they wrote their last LARP in 1995. You’ve seen how I write my LARPs; I learned about writing characters and LARPs from them. Their weekend murder mysteries were dense, involved, and detailed, with hundreds and hundreds of pages of material for each game. That’s a lot of effort.

            It took two years before I could crack the waitlist for their games. They always filled and were never rerun. (A terrible shame, as I would have loved to play their Casablanca game, or their Big Chill game, or anything else they’d done.)

            I was the youngster in their games – and they’ve since retired, to run their charities, travel the world, and pamper their grandchildren.

            Trust me, I’ve tried to bring them back into the fold, but it’s not going to happen.

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