Updated: May 31
Today let’s talk about decorating for your murder mystery party on a budget. You’ve decided on your game, you’re excited to get into character and have all your friends over, and you look around your house or apartment and think, “Hmm, this looks nothing like a Victorian manor house”, or a Gatsby era speakeasy, or whatever setting your game story takes place in.
What can you do to make your guests feel like they’ve entered another time and place when they come to play your murder mystery game?
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Clearly you don’t want to break the bank on an event that will only happen once, so today I’m going to give you three strategies to create an immersive space on a very affordable budget:
Repurposing items you already have around your house
Hitting up your local thrift store and what to look for
How to make a few DIY decorations yourself
But first, you want to figure out WHAT DEFINES YOUR LOOK. Your game takes place in a fantasy world - what does that world look like?
You won’t be removing every single item from your house and replacing it with themed decorations – that would be insane. Instead, you’re going to intentionally highlight a few special items that EVOKE the feeling of your theme, and place them front and center so all your guests, who are already primed to pretend they’re in a fantasy world, will focus on those items and ignore everything else.
So you’re going to start by spending some time determining what really screams your theme.
For example, if I’m hosting an Alice in Wonderland themed event, the things that come to mind when I think about that world are teacups, rabbits, pocket watches, that top hat with the price tag on it, green grass and flowers, playing cards, roses, and bottles that say drink me.
All those individual items don’t mean anything special when they’re scattered all over your house, but when you pull them all together, it’s clear to anyone who looks at that still life that it’s meant to evoke Alice in Wonderland.
So for your theme, what you want to do is think about what 5 - 10 items really represent the world you’re trying to build. If your game takes place in a mansion, things like candlesticks or candelabras, silver trays, fancy glass decanters, top hats, even old books, when grouped together, telegraph that message that this world is fancy and old fashioned.
Or, if your game takes place in the Roaring Twenties, things like wooden liquor crates, black and gold dishes or frames, long strings of pearls, huge fluffy feathers, even boxes of cigars, all combine to give you that speakeasy type of feeling when you look at them as a group.
So open up your trusty Pinterest app and search on the theme of your game. You don’t even have to click through to each pin - just look at the search results as a whole, and you’ll see certain items that come up over and over. Make a list of some of those things - like teacups, rabbits, playing cards - then scour your house to see what you can come up with. Pile everything up on a table, and you’ll be surprised how much progress you’ve already made toward creating a themed look.
And remember, these items don’t need to be specifically branded to your fantasy world. If you’re playing a Harry Potter themed game, you don’t need to get a hold of Harry’s trunk and a Nimbus 2000 – you just need an old truck and a broom - and when you put those together with a couple of accessories, it will be clear what you’re trying to recreate. Everything in this photo is a normal item that someone contributed to our still life, with the one exception of the Hogwarts scarf. And you can see how together, it all sets the stage.
So now that you have your pile of miscellaneous decorations, what do you do with it? If you think about the spaces that your guests will see – probably your entry hallway and the space where you’ll play the game, whether that’s your living room or your kitchen table – you want to group your decorations into deliberate displays in the places that your guests will see first or spend time in. You don’t want to spread them all around because that will dilute their impact. If I put my one teacup over here and one stuffed rabbit over there and some playing cards on the table, it’s not as clear what I’m trying to say as when I have everything in one spot.
So depending on how your space is arranged, you’re probably going to have one fairly large display that people see first when they enter, one nice big display in the center of the table where you’re playing or eating, and a few other smaller displays dispersed around on side tables or covering up items that don’t fit the theme that you can’t move out of the way.
Now look at what you have, and look at how much space you want to cover, then fill in the gaps with some nice solid mysterious basics. These are things like a black tablecloth or some piles of old books or an old coat on a hook - these things can provide a nice background that not only covers up your newer furniture or walls, but also sets off your themed items and gives you a way to create a layered display that looks more natural, as opposed to just a line of random items on a flat surface. When you put your displays together, try to combine items of different sizes, shapes and heights in each group.
You can also look for items that say “detective,” like magnifying glasses or a Sherlock Holmes pipe, or items that say “mystery” like old bottles or old maps or old keys in a jar, or even items that say “murder” like a knife or a skeleton from your Halloween decoration box. These kinds of things aren’t specific to your theme, but they complement it because clearly, there has been a murder and someone needs to do something about that.
Now once you’ve searched exhaustively through your basement and your closets, and you’re still feeling like you’re lacking the full picture, it’s time to hit up your local thrift store. I have had spectacular success at my local Goodwill shop, where I’ve scored teacups for a dollar, gold frames for two dollars, little candles that look like skulls for a dollar, even wooden boxes that look like treasure chests for just a couple of dollars – it’s a gold mine. But since you never know what you’ll find on any given day, you might want to check more than one shop, or go back to the same one a few times if you have enough time before your party. Keep an eye out for anything in your color scheme as well – this gold mirror, black gloves, white pearls and gold votive holder are a good example of how grouping things in the same color scheme can turn basic items into a themed still life.
And lastly, you can fire up your crafting skills and modify a few cheap items to fit your theme. Grab some dollar store bottles or vases and spray paint them black or gold, or cover some old Amazon boxes with cut up grocery bags and print out some liquor signs then stack them up so they look like crates of bootleg booze. Or grab an old deck of cards, use a hole punch to put a hole in the top corners, then string them up like a garland. Easy, cheap and simple.
And let’s talk printables. There are a ton of cool things you can print out to set your scene, from Top Secret markings to glue onto a folder, to signs that you might see in your world, like Platform 9 ¾ for a Harry Potter party, or 221B Baker Street for a Sherlock Holmes theme. You can design these yourself or there are zillions of free downloadables online - which you can elevate by putting into one of your $2 gold frames from the thrift shop!
And if you’re really committed, you can even build one of those huge bulletin boards with all the suspect photos and newspaper clippings all tied together with red yarn, like you see detectives using to work out the solutions in the movies or on tv. Everything on that board can be a printable, and if you make it huge - just tape everything to the wall - it can become a real focal point.
And this is the message I want to leave you with. If your decorative display is eye-catching, your guests aren’t going to notice anything else in your room. You don’t need to spend a lot of money buying fancy themed decor. Just use these tricks I just taught you, direct their attention in a deliberate way to your special evocative displays, and your guests will all come away from your party feeling like they really did travel to another world, which is kind of the reason any of us play murder mystery games anyway, right?
So good luck decorating for your murder mystery party! Let me know in the comments about your favorite decorating tricks :)
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