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January 06, 2010

Game Design Is Murder, Part II

As I mentioned in the first part, the remaining parts of this little mini-series of posts will address how the following years' mysteries applied lessons learned from the first year.

As time went on, I became more adept at constructing the mysteries so that writing didn't take as long. Part of this was the lessons learned from the first post, but there were also benefits to be had from not having to recreate templates for each of the different types of documents I gave out (clues, participant booklets, and the like), which leads to our first tip from the "sequels".

  • Don't reinvent the wheel. Sure, I fiddled with fonts and presentation a bit from year to year, but basically? The files I used the first year returned every year, but with different content. For these mysteries, the content was the important thing -- not the way the booklets were laid out. In this case, they weren't broken, so I didn't fix them. It's often tempting as designers (and also as programmers, who have a tendency towards Not-Invented-Here-itis) to revisit something you've done before and perhaps even scrap it entirely, but until it either shows its age (by being unable to support new requirements) or is the area in which you intend to take a sequel further, leave it be.

1998: Death's Disco

  • Item 0: Focus on the fun. As this was set in the seventies, the era of disco, we got to bring in a bunch of archetypes from that time, from hippies/folk fans to heavy metal/rock to older Lawrence Welk fans to, of course, the disco types. I can remember a character named Lenny Hustle, and I know there were some based on real singers (maybe a Jean Bayou?). Though the menu from that evening is not something I remember, I know that we played a lot of disco, including the complete soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever¹.

  • Item 1: It starts with a hook. In the second year, the mystery involved the death of a disco dancer, and I started from a sort of mental image of something you might see in Police Squad: the dead man's chalk outline on the floor in the shape of John Travolta's classic pose. That was it, that's all I started with, and it was enough to keep me amused. That said, this is perhaps the mystery about which I remember the least; I don't recall who the victim was, nor the killer, so the hook, while amusing to me, probably wasn't sufficient to justify a full mystery. It was still a good time for all, but less memorable than the others at least in terms of plot.

  • Item 3: You *can* have too much content. As I mentioned in the last post, in this and all subsequent years, I reduced the number of accusations per character to one accusation and one response.

This was the first year I dropped liberal hints into the flow of the game to indicate how the murder could be solved. This is one of the 400 rules, I believe:

  • Give the players ample direction. It didn't help anyone nail down the murderer, I don't think, but multiple times the homicide detective in charge of the case (i.e. myself, the host) would remind the characters that means, motive and opportunity were going to determine the killer. Only someone who had all three could be the killer. In each subsequent year, I would drop such hints directly into the scripts.

1999: Gold Rush Garrote

This was a Western theme with a lot of broad humor; it involved the death of a young man who was the brother of the sheriff who was soon to arrive in a Gold Rush-era town.

  • Focus on the fun. We had all of the traditional Western types, lone cowboys, dastardly outlaws, crazy old men ("Cooter McGee", my uncle, who went without shaving for a week to look the part), prostitutes and madams, barkeeps, merchants, even the piano player from the local cathouse. Familiar archetypes (even clichés) are key if you are doing one-off fun productions such as these. 
  • It starts with a hook. The hook was that I was going to borrow a page from Sherlock Holmes, and be "in disguise" throughout the evening as a Chinese manservant who had come ahead of the sheriff to ready his home. In actuality, I was the sheriff himself and revealed my identity at the very end of the game. Prior to the mystery dinner, I shaved my goatee into a Fu Manchu and as dessert was prepared, I shaved the remainder off and kept my face low, mostly obscured by a conical hat² I had worn as part of my costume.

A new item from this year relates to the hook:

  • Keep it fresh. Each year I tried to stretch what our participants could expect from the evening, to add a little spark and pizazz to the types of plots they could expect. While they always used elements that were drawn from classic mysteries, I tried to change up what was actually going on, in this case, with the host actually being a different character in disguise. Having a big reveal at the end made for a big splash, and kept the games from getting stale.

I expect the final entry to come in the next few days, when I'll cover the remaining three mystery dinners I wrote, as well as my absolute favorite (and one I suspect that was the favorite of others as well), as well as why I came to write these posts...

¹For the record, Saturday Night Fever is an absolutely terrific movie even if it is set in discos in Brooklyn. Travolta is amazing in what is essentially a coming-of-age story. (back)

²Thanks to a friend, James Zhang, who had actually brought it back from China with him on a visit, if I recall correctly. I was authentic! (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at January 6, 2010 09:33 PM


Seems like you met with a lot of success right off the bat with these things - I learned a lot of game design the hard way by trying to GM - sometimes campaigns I had created myself, sometimes store-bought - and the first attempts went so horribly I'm surprised I stuck with it...but those were my first gameplay focus testing experiences.

Posted by: Jamie at January 7, 2010 05:15 PM

I did have a lot of success, for sure; but it's a lot more tightly constrained than most GMing. The players really can't do just anything they want; they have to do some very specific things each round, and between rounds there are actual scripts which recap. While I did some GMing when I was a kid, I don't remember it well enough to write up any blog posts about it.

Posted by: Brett Douville at January 8, 2010 06:16 AM