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Murder mystery games are generally party games wherein one of the partygoers is secretly, and unknowingly, playing a murderer, and the other attendees must determine who among them is the criminal. This may involve the actual 'murders' of guests throughout the game, or may open with a 'death' and have the rest of the time devoted to investigation.
Murder mystery games may also refer to public performances in venues for events, team building or corporate entertainment, where the suspects are played by actors, and the role of detectives falls to the other guests.
Dinner party murder mystery games are generally played with small groups of individuals, e.g. 6-20. Murder mystery events for larger groups are usually run for numbers between 20 and 250 attendees, though events can be run with 400+ in attendance.
The Murder Mystery genre itself didn't exist until the 1800s; and began as a direct consequence of the Road Hill House murders committed by Constance Kent and detailed in the novel "The suspicions of Mr Whicher" by Kate Summerscale.
1935 saw the release of the first murder mystery game known as Jury Box. It’s vastly different game to the modern murder mystery games. In Jury Box the players or Jurors are given the scenario of the murder, the evidence presented by the prosecutor and defendant, two photographs of the crime scene and ballot papers. Jurors have to make the decision as to who is guilty and then a real solution is read out.
Cluedo or Clue in North America, the first murder mystery board game was released some time later in 1948, and has continued to be popular. However, Cluedo is again, a vastly different game to the modern role playing dinner party mysteries.
The earliest mention of role playing murder mystery games in their present boxed format is in the 1980s when they were thought to be a bit of a one year wonder in the game shops. Back then the scenarios were simple, the acting directions minimal, and the games relied on the guests being comfortable ad-libbing responses to each other's questions.
In the last 20 years those basic games have increased in complexity into the more complex role playing dinner party games available today.
Murder Mystery Games for dinner parties are often structured so that each guest is equally involved and designed to be played in the host's home, using boxed games or internet downloads.
Dinner party kits can take the form of structured games or freeform games. Structured kits are the style more commonly available to purchase, and suit a wide audience. Freeform mysteries are better suited to experienced role players who are confident ad libbing and who show initiative.
In structured mysteries the participants are told exactly what to say and when. They are often provided with introductory statements, questions to ask, answers to give and occasionally some shared dialogue to break the ice. Character information often comes in booklets which are read from throughout the course of the evening.
In freeform games the guests are provided with character backgrounds and they are given license to interrogate or perform actions or activities with the other guests which will help them solve the case.
The games for 6 to 20 players are usually played over 2–3 hours and the players use their character booklets and clues (i.e. the game contents) to delve into the background of the murder using the questions, answers, hints and clues provided. These are all designed to elicit more and more information about the murder, until the players are in a good position to suggest who they believe is the guilty party.
More often than not, players will be invited (by the host) to attend the party dressed as, and ready to play the part of, one of the suspects listed in the game scenario. The game is usually played over a 3 course dinner party, although freeform games can often be played as a mix and mingle style format.
Boxed or downloadable games are designed to be played by groups of friends or family, who are seeking to enjoy a fancy dress style party with an additional 'theme'. The setup of these games can be simple or elaborate. Some games require no setup beyond a way to randomly select the roles; however, some party hosts like to develop an elaborate menu and decorate extensively. As well as providing the food and drink for the evening, the party host is required to follow the simple instructions, prepare for the party in advance, and generally co-ordinate proceedings during the evening. Organizers of the mystery can select roles and characters based on their knowledge of the guests.
Some of the boxed or downloadable games are designed so that they can actually be solved by the players, using the clues provided, whilst others can't and are played just as a form of light entertainment. Players are usually required to 'act' as one of the characters/suspects involved in the plot, and must ask and reply to questions using the information provided in their character booklets and on clue sheets.
As not everyone can take a role in a large group game, the suspect roles are usually given to actors, who learn scripts or just ad lib a performance which will gradually reveal who the murderer is to the other guests. The actors are fully "in the know" about all aspects of the case.
The remaining guests will take on the role of detective and it will be their "job" to actively solve the case by examining evidence, finding clues, following and questioning suspects - whatever it takes for them to solve the mystery.
Large group events can be run in several ways including:
Large group games are often played in a hired venue, a restaurant, a hotel, or at a workplace. They are often used for fundraisers, team building and corporate events.
(*Live versions of Murder Mysteries shows, in which guests attend commercial venues such as hotels as paying viewers, are sometimes classed as Dinner theater or Mystery dinners, not Murder Mystery Games.)
Murder mystery games come in several different versions:
Summerscale, Kate (2008). The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Or the murder at Road Hill House. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-0-7475-8215-1.