The other day I was sufficiently incautious to mention that 30-some years ago I had had a little side gig — in cooperation with the late great Greg Kramer, mystery novelist, stage magician, actor, and polymath — producing live murder mystery games. You demanded more details in the comment section, and I can but comply. Honestly, I’m happy to tell the story. I think this little pattern for game production allows a small group of actors to earn some extra money in an easy and fun way, and I have long wanted to see such a thing in my vicinity that I didn’t write myself, if you know what I mean.
How this came about was, Greg and I were young and energetic and wanted to make some extra money using our joint expertise in mysteries. We had access to a group of impecunious young actors who were always up for a chance to work, regardless of how small the reward, and who enjoyed this sort of improvisational game, once they grasped its basics. So together we wrote a script and tried it out; asked a handful of friends to cover our costs in return for a chance to play, and it was very successful. We had a day of fun, running around in costume solving a mystery, and at the end of it all a banquet where the solution was revealed. Unfortunately the preparation was also very time-consuming, with smaller returns than seemed adequate for all the work, and eventually after some wonderful and unique games that a handful of people will remember forever 😉 we decided to pack it in. It was either that or take the business full-time, and both Greg and I had other irons in the fire at the time.
But we realized that the actors themselves could run such an enterprise if they had a pattern with which to work; they didn’t need us to make dinner arrangements, for instance, or find costumes. It’s not a good idea to repeat the same game over and over, since that cuts down dramatically on repeat business. What we wanted was a way to generate a game that was roughly similar each time but with variations in the details that were easy to remember. One actor with whom we were working wanted the opportunity to create “corporate” games and we tried to bear this in mind.
So we created a process that generates a game that uses nine actors and can host about 20 to 30 paying guests. It should take about six hours and the final 90 minutes or so are a banquet; everything should take place in the same conference room at a hotel, no running around.
As you’ll see the gender of the actors doesn’t really matter until you start generating the details of the script; any role can be pretty much any gender. What we found was popular is when we created scripts that had characters that our audience “knew” — that were recognizable parodies of real people. This seemed to strike a chord somehow and made people more enthusiastic to interact with strangers if that stranger was dressed like, and acting like, Elvis Presley or Hugh Hefner or Hillary Clinton. But note that these are just suggestions; you don’t CALL the character Hugh Hefner, because you need the details to be useful rather than correct.
So you begin with three people all in the same line of work who are having some sort of competition amongst themselves. I’ll give you a sample one but of course you can fill in these blanks in any way you want, as long as the characters are related in a certain way. We used three “movie stars” who were competing to be the on-air representative of a very large company, Mysterico: one based on Bette Davis who smoked a lot and swore, one based on Joan Crawford, very heavily made up and flirtatious, and one based on Mary Pickford, who was swathed in white ruffles and far more elderly than she was willing to let on. (I’ll just use those names here for convenience, but don’t you do it.) If you have more male actors than females, make it three famous sportsmen — it can be politicians, any kind of public figure, or if you are doing a corporate job, it’s three job candidates competing for a job at the very company that’s hosting the day.
Each of those three main characters gets one relationship. Bette Davis had a handsome young “boy toy” who was very much on the make financially; Joan Crawford had a daughter who only spoke in whispers and was terrified of strangers; and Mary Pickford had an elderly husband who was a famous movie producer, under instructions to not reveal his or her age.
So that’s your six main suspects; three groups of two. Then you add another actor who’s running the game — in the role of the president of the Mysterico company. She tells the participants when to get things rolling and acts as a person that the audience can ask process questions (where are the washrooms, what do I do now).
Another actor plays two roles as identical twins. He begins the day as an investigative reporter for a gossip magazine who hints that he has a juicy piece of gossip about one of the three stars, and is promptly murdered. His identical twin returns after lunch in the same role — hey, identical twins can work at the same magazine! — with all kinds of information about the backgrounds of the stars but is remarkably hard to get interesting clues out of. He is, indeed, what I called elsewhere the SEP, Somebody Else’s Problem.
And finally you have one actor impersonating a famous detective: Nero Wolfe or Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, but not by name. The detective character leads the audience through the process of trying to solve the crime.
You start the day by “introducing” the movie star characters to the group — the audience gets to vote on who will make the best spokesperson for Mysterico, so the stars try to be on their “best behaviour”. Their three associates are in the background, available to talk to whomever is clever enough to see them sitting to one side and approach them, but mostly the three movie stars will be talking to a large-sized group of people, in three sub-groups.
Here, they lay the first plot trails. There has to be a plot trail that takes each of the six suspects to two murders (you’ll understand more after I tell you how and when the murders occur). So you start before the murders, of course, and keep it going all the way to dinner. Essentially each of the movie stars has something in her background that she doesn’t want anyone to know; she herself might not kill to keep it a secret, but her associate suspect might. And of the three movie stars, at this point if you’re listening, A will give you a hint as to the secret of B, B has a hint to the secret of C, and C has a hint to the secret of A.
So you do an hour to get things rolling where the first half-hour is taken up by the movie stars introducing themselves to the audience, then in the next half-hour each star acknowledges the relationship with their significant other, and all six actors are working to get across (subtly) the hint that they have available for anyone who asks them. Bette Davis is broke; Joan Crawford is about to be indicted for child abuse; and Mary Pickford, decades ago, used to be a man. Since Pickford is going to be the murderer, that’s the “dread secret” — more about that later — and you need a secondary secret at the same level, which in this case is that she’s over 80 and trying to pass for 50. Note at this point that anyone can have the dread secret and you don’t even need to tell all the rest of the cast what it is. It just has to be a stronger motive than the rest.
Then the gossip columnist announces that he knows something about one of the movie stars that will sink her chances in the contest; of course, she immediately leaves the room without saying what it is, gets killed off-stage (in such a way that any of the six suspects could have poisoned their drink) and you introduce the detective character by having him discover the body and begin to run the investigation.
All the questioning is done in public. This is now stage 2, and a new set of hints is available. Each star knows something about the partner of one of the other stars; for instance, Bette and her boy-toy were the ones who dropped a dime on Crawford’s abusive lifestyle. Crawford knows Pickford’s age for a fact, because she used to interact with her daughter (who also remembers her). And Pickford’s husband is fully aware of Bette’s financial situation and is hoping to use it to get her to make movies at a cut rate. No one gives any hints yet about the “dread secret”.
That questioning doesn’t take long, but now you need three set pieces to move the action along. Essentially this is three arguments between any two of the six suspects — so as to involve all six — such that some can of beans ends up getting spilled. Except it’s generally a can of beans of which the smarter members of the audience are already aware; Davis pays her male companion, Crawford beats her daughter with a coat hanger, Pickford remembers hearing about the Hindenberg on the radio. This lets the slower-paced detectives feel as though they’re getting somewhere.
Meanwhile, the identical twin of the morning’s victim returns and says, “I know about the dread secret that my sister was hinting about this morning.” The identical twin, though, has a very difficult situation; her instructions are to delay telling anything about the dread secret until dinner starts. She gets people away from piercing her defences by being unpleasant or difficult — she cries, she’s drunk, she’s in shock, she only wants to talk about Jesus or UFOs or megavitamin therapy. But she will generally create a crowd to distract people from the second murder.
At this point, one of the six suspects should get killed; ideally in a dramatic and public way. Corpse #2 is usually the person who wants money the most, because they’ve tried to blackmail the murderer and gotten killed for their pains. Let’s say that this is Bette Davis’s boy toy. He has to see something that leads him to the “dread secret” — here, that Mary Pickford was one of the first to undergo a sex transition. He mentions something about a “little white scar” to Bette Davis, who doesn’t realize that he’s referring to the place where Pickford had her Adam’s apple shaved down, and then goes off and gets poisoned. Davis has to find a way to get this clue over to people very casually without making a big point of it.
About 45 minutes before dinner, the second body is discovered and all the other suspects go crazy. Here, you have at least two reversals. Everyone’s thought all afternoon that Bette Davis was supporting her boyfriend — in fact he was supporting HER by his work as a doctor doing sex reassignment surgery. (One of my favourite lines from this production was, “It wasn’t just Ramon — it was DOCTOR Ramon.”) Pickford’s husband announces that he’s done lying for her, and reveals that she’s 84 years old and way, way, WAY too old to play the roles she wants to play. If you have time to do all three, Crawford’s daughter can suddenly worm-turn into a feminist who refuses to obey her mother any longer. The point is to make things happen in a dramatic way that excites the audience and gives them a little information. Anyone for whom these things are news is hopelessly behind in the solution process — at this point there are usually one or two keen-eyed people who have figured it all out and are dying to see what happens next, but for the rest of us there is drama and excitement, even if it’s not all that useful to the solution.
Then you pass out voting materials for the audience to vote on “next Mysterico spokesperson,” and on who was the killer. Serve dinner to everyone except corpse #2 — who has to eat in the kitchen (we added this in because we had an actor with a restaurant job that required him to leave early, so we made him the second corpse).
Serve dinner, wait until dessert, and then reveal the results of the poll. Then the detective character takes over and leads the audience through the process. Limit the number of suspects, tell everyone exactly what each movie star’s secret was and how they could have known it; then tell them about the tiny little physical clue (the white scar painted on Pickford’s throat) that they COULD have seen to solve the mystery. Reward anyone who actually did solve it and all the actors should take a bow as you end the evening.
Once your troupe of actors gets the hang of it, it’s actually super-easy to produce. You can arrange for roughly the same pieces of information to be revealed at roughly the same time, over and over again, so that your actors aren’t worried about what they should be doing at any given point. It should be clear to everyone in the cast when their turn is to make a scene and upon what point; if someone else is making a scene, just hang back and don’t pull focus. You can’t really rehearse, but you can have meetings where you can be sure that everyone is on the same schedule as far as what happens when.
All you have to do to change the ending is create a new “dread secret” and find a way to give a small physical clue to its existence. (A jacket with a missing button from corpse #1, for instance.) One key thing is to pick the same hotel and establish a working relationship with them so that you can depend on each other mutually to get the timing of dinner right; then you can use your surroundings more creatively if the staff is okay with you running around. You can also get a dependable idea of your dinner costs, which will be crucial in setting the price per person for the day’s activities.
The crucial aspect is — have fun. Your audience wants to be laughing and having fun right along with you, so this is not the time to address significantly depressing social elements. You have to play the most horrific things for a laugh — I remember choking on my beverage when a “famous hockey player” announced his dread secret, that he had eaten his deceased colleagues when the team’s plane had crashed into the Rockies. “And they were delicious!!”
So if you know an energetic actor who is looking for a way to make a little money and get some acting experience, pass them this blog post and hope you get invited to the premiere LOL. Let me add that I am far, far too lazy these days to actually put together such a lot of effort and make one of these happen; if you have an idea you want to share in the comments, by all means, but honestly I won’t consider producing anything any more.
I must add that all of the photographs I used to illustrate this story were selected from the internet — none, alas, represent any of the fun we used to have in the 80s in Vancouver. I merely searched for people having fun playing a mystery game to break up the big blocks of text a little 😉