Murder mystery parties are great fun and good team building activities with the added tension that your team mate might just be the murderer.
There are some good murder mystery boxed games out there, however they won't be adapted to your own group of friends or family, so if you're planning on hosting a murder mystery party one solution is to create your own murder mystery game!
This can seem like a daunting task and if you're not used to creating games, then I'd recommend starting with a small group (say 5 to 10 players) for your first one. A whodunnit requires characters to all be interconnected in different ways, particularly to the victim. Having a large group obviously makes this more of a challenge.
So, how do you set about creating the game?
Decide on the theme
Whodunnits make great theme parties where everyone gets to exercise their detective skills.
Is it a pirate ship, a high-school reunion, a 60's disco party, or something else? If the party's for a birthday or some other special event, consider tying that in to the theme.
If the event is part of a dinner party, or you're providing food of any type, consider whether you can incorporate the dinner into the theme and if you're inviting some creative cooks, ask them to bring something special.
Develop the basics for each character
Rather than deciding who is the victim, or who is the murderer, I prefer to start with the characters and let the story evolve naturally. I cut an A4 piece of paper or cardboard into 6 and write on each:
- The character's first name (For this I actually use the actors and actresses’ real names or a close variant, as it helps everyone remember who everyone is).
- The character's surname (Something funny that gives a clue about their role in the game or their personality).
- Job or reason they're there (They might be the ship's captain or a stow-away for example. One reason I write these on small cards is so I can move them around to make connections more easily, e.g. these are the friends, these are the co-workers, she's his ex-fiancée, etc.)
- Brief background (Anything interesting I think of to add to their back story).
Some characters that you might want to include are:
- Police detective who receives reports as the evening progresses to give to the rest of the group (make sure this is a player with a dynamic personality).
- Landlord (you may need someone to serve the drinks).
- Security guards
- Bank manager
- Boss and employee
- Compulsive gambler
- Grieving widow
- Animal rights activist
- Other characters that fit with whatever your theme is.
Decide who the victim is
No, I still don't know who the murderer is at this point, I just decide who the victim is.
Give every character a motive for the murder
That's right, I give EVERYBODY a motive for committing the murder. Sometimes this is more a 'reason to suspect this character' than an actual motive, but I list it as a motive on my character sheet. Possible 'motives' include:
- Love or jealousy (affairs are common in murder mysteries, or perhaps the character loves after the victim's partner).
- Money (a loan that can't be repaid, inheritance in the will, gambling debt, someone who gains something from the death).
- To conceal a secret (the victim knew something that the suspect doesn't want to get out).
- To right a wrong (if the victim is evil, or turns out to have committed a terrible crime, or be about to commit one, this works well).
- To protect a friend.
- Accidental murder (they meant to murder someone else, it can't be an actual accident, that wouldn't make it a murder mystery).
- Insanity (possible serial killer).
- Connection to the murder weapon (finger-prints on the dagger hilt, knows how to make poison, etc.)
- Proximity at the time of death.
Add more connections between characters
This is where moving cards around comes in handy again. Who knows what about who? Who did what to who? When? Make sure that if you add something to one person's character sheet you also add it to anyone else's character sheet who's involved. Nearly everything should be known by two or more characters, to be sure that the information has the chance to emerge during the course of the party.
After I have most of the connections sketched out, I normally switch to Word and start to type up each character sheet. This includes:
- 2 or 3 line intro - This is something that everybody knows about each character and that I include with the invite.
- Background - Brief bio of the character.
- Recent events - What's happened recently that is pertinent to the murder - make sure this includes 'Where you were at time of death' unless the murder was committed by poisoning, say, where it might not be so relevant.
- To Do - Give each character something they need to do during the murder mystery party. This might be a direct instruction such as "Ask Mr Compulsive to repay your loan" or something that gives the actor / actress more freedom, e.g. "Try to woo Miss Charming" or "Steal the gold". Characters will have other goals than just to solve the murder!
- Secrets - I normally write these separately, what each character's secrets are and what secrets they know about the other characters.
Figure out the details of the murder
By this point I've normally figured out who the killer is, what their motive is and the story surrounding this, which should involve several characters, even though only one actually knows that they've committed the murder. There should be some clues as to who the real murderer is, but plenty of red-herrings. Some options to consider:
- The murderer is trying to frame someone else.
- The murderer murdered the wrong person.
- More than one murder? More than one murderer?
- The murderer doesn't know they're the murderer?
I've hosted murder mystery parties where there's a 'body' that's found, or where someone dies during the mystery party and both options can work well. If you go for the second option, then don't tell the victim who killed them! This way they can come back as another character and while they will obviously have some information, they won't know the crucial piece of information. You can also allow the murderer to kill more than one person, perhaps tell them that they can make a second murder if they feel someone is getting too close (make sure you instruct them how they're going to do this to ensure that they don't get carried away!!)
Revealing whodunnit to the murderer
I was recently asked whether you should reveal whodunnit to the perpetrator of the crime. It's a good question and I thought it would be useful to add my thoughts here.
If you're organising a party for a group of friends and you know the murderer will keep it a secret and is a decent actor, then by all means tell them. It might help them prepare for any questions more thoroughly and if they seem a little suspicious, that's OK. If you're organising one for a group of strangers, or are writing a professional murder mystery, then it's best not to. This is for the very simple reason that if they reveal who they are (perhaps inadvertently after a few drinks), the game's up.
So, how can you not reveal the murderer, even to themselves? Here are a few options:
- They committed the murder while drunk or high and don't remember doing it. This works best if others were similarly inebriated.
- They have multiple personalities and only remember one of them.
- They suffer from an illness like B12 deficiency and have episodes where they forget what they were doing.
- They take prescription drugs and memory loss in one of the side effects. While several real prescription drugs have this as a side effect and some, like Fycompa even cause 'Homicidal Ideation', you never know what drugs the players or their family take. It can therefore be best to use a drug you invent. To keep things complicated, they may be unaware of this side effect, but another character could be a chemist or doctor. They could have a note on their character sheet that "Radivlo" causes a reduced libido and memory loss, for example, perhaps along with notes of the effects of other drugs that different players take. This way the player might suspect themselves, but not immediately.
Finally another option if you want to keep the killer a secret, even to themselves, is to announce to the group that "You can guess anyone, including yourself".
Make Clues / Riddles
Make some clues or riddle (or find some online) to add some spice to your party game. Examples are:
- A police report you can share with everyone half-way through the mystery.
- A diary written in code.
- An unsigned love note.
- A scavenger hunt where every clue leads to another.
- A code revealing a phone number / pass to a briefcase or safe, etc.
- Cryptic crossword clues.
- Musical notes (it's well known that in treble clef if you put notes between the 5 lines they spell "FACE", however you could also write some other clues, e.g.:
DECAF - Hide a full clue in the decaf coffee.
CAGE BAD DAD - A hint that the 'bad dad' should go to jail.
ACE BADGE - Wear a badge with an ace of spades on it and a clue on the back. If someone asks to see it, they get the next clue.
Read 13 more ideas with examples of murder mystery riddles.
Murder Mystery Party Invites
I find that feeding guests information about your murder mystery party little by little helps build up the suspense.
- 3-4 weeks before the party - Send an invite with the theme, date and time. Use phrases like "Your presence is requested" or "You are cordially invited to" and ask people to RSVP so you know who's coming.
- 2-3 weeks before the party - Send the list of characters and any further instructions (reinforce that characters should come in fancy dress and bring a dish and drink, if appropriate).
- 2-3 days before the party - Send each invitee a character sheet, so they have all the details of who they are in advance.
If you have just a few players then it's possible to revolve the whole story around one murder, particularly if you add plenty of red herrings, connections between characters and allow some characters to murder each other (perhaps they have to check with the host first to be sure you agree on the motive and method).
For large groups however, it can be fun to add an individual goal for each player that is unrelated to discovering who the actual murderer is. This might include:
- To become rich (if you include money in the game).
- To frame someone else.
- To go out with someone (you can always choose partners in real life, but only give this goal to one of them).
- To solve another mystery.
- To get hired by a company.
- To get revenge on someone in an unspecified way.
- To be a rumour monger and gossip about everything and anything with no need for substantial evidence.
- To be a peace maker.
With large groups I also find it best to have unofficial sub-groups, so there are for instance two murders at the start of the game and while characters have some overlapping stories, most are connected to one or another.
Playing a murder mystery requires a lot of thought. If it's an adult game some players may be tipsy later on in the evening, so even with a large group it's worth aiming to keep the game to a couple of hours maximum.
Script, dinner, or party?
You can write a whodunit in several different formats and each has their own pros and cons.
Writing a Script
A script is written very much like a play. It gives you the most control over what happens, with each character having a precise set of things to say and being told the order in which to say it. A murder mystery script works best if you yourself enjoy writing and want to ensure that things don't get too out of hand. If you feel that the players will be sufficiently good actors to follow a script, but might lack the ability to spontaneously improvise a character, then a script is a good choice.
Organising a Dinner
During a murder mystery dinner party you can only converse easily with the people next to you, or immediately opposite you. If you're planning to organize a game around a sit-down dinner, with a large group I recommend splitting the party into several smaller groups, and instead having several separate games going on simultaneously, as it's essential that everyone can interact with everyone else and this is impossible with a very large group during a sit-down dinner. You can always allow one person from each group to be the 'messenger' during dessert and go and quiz other parties on who they think the murderer is. This creates some interaction between the groups as they try to hunt a killer. This way, anyone who is struggling can get extra input from the other players.
A dinner works best for a smaller murder mystery game, and is best designed so that you provide new clues with each course. This gives you a natural progression as to how the evening unfolds.
Hosting a Party
A party format is my favourite, but also has the most potential for things to go wrong. In it, everyone is given a character with actions that they must complete as the evening progresses, then mingles with the other detectives (one of whom will also be the murderer, of course).
You could also start a murder mystery party with a script, to ensure that certain information is given at the start of the evening. If you go for a party format, I recommend writing one or two back-up clues in advance and if you feel that no-one has any idea whodunit, giving those clues out later on in the evening, however if several players are correctly figuring out what is going on, you can always just keep those clues in your pocket, so that it's not too easy, as it's no fun if the mystery is solved in the first ten minutes.
Check out more tips on our game design blog. This includes examples of whodunnit riddles plus tips on creating board games, cryptic crosswords and more.
On The Day
On the day of the murder mystery make sure you have:
- A copy of each character sheet to give to the characters (and perhaps a second copy for you, the host).
- A separate page with 'Secrets' - this will be the first time that actors / actresses see the secrets and they shouldn't show them to anyone else.
- Stick one or two of the 2 to 3 line character summaries on a wall so everyone can refer to them easily.
- A condensed set of notes you can refer to, so you don't forget everything that's going on.
- Decorated the space in the appropriate theme.
- Set out seating to encourage mingling in small groups (e.g. 3 - 4 chairs around a table in several separate rooms).
I normally start the party one hour after the invite says to allow everyone time to arrive. Either ask everyone to introduce themselves in character, or just introduce the event yourself. If you already have a 'body', this can start with the discovery of the body, if not, characters can mingle in character and complete some of the 'To Do' items before the murder takes place.
Encourage players to stay in small groups (maximum 3 or 4) as this ensures everyone doesn't have the same information to go on and makes it more interesting. Players should feel free to invent extra background information about their character if they dont' know it.
During the start of the evening go round and listen-in to make sure everyone's enjoying themselves and be on-hand to answer any questions. At some point, reveal the clues (either to everyone, or to one or two characters, whatever you think best). Alternatively you can hide clues that will then be found spontaneously and it's up to the character who finds them whether to share them with everyone else or not.
In the second-part of the evening, particularly if you feel that people don't have any idea who the murderer is, you can take on the role of the private detective. Announce that each player can see you once and ask you to investigate another character. You can either give an immediate answer or come back to them later (this gives you time to think). When you act as a private detective, present information as if you were discovering it, e.g. don't talk about a loan, instead say "so and so received a bank transfer for $30,000 a month ago" or "phone records show that they speak nearly every day".
My experience is that with a reasonably outgoing and imaginative group of friends or family, everyone will quickly get into the swing of things and love acting out the roles without needing more than a page of information per character.
I hope you have fun and your party goes great. If you've found this information helpful, please share this post or link to it from your own blog.