Around here, we love a good mystery, and one of our favorite things to do is to host murder mystery parties for our friends. In fact, I’ve even written several murder mystery games from scratch, so today I’m going to use some of that insider information to help YOU solve the next murder mystery game that YOU play, so you can identify the murderer and impress all your friends!
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Murder mystery games are written so there are clues built into EVERYTHING … every quote from a suspect, every item someone is holding, and even every thing that’s part of a costume or nearby each suspect. Every detail is there for a reason … nothing is ever included just for fun. Either that detail is meant to direct your attention to the killer, or it’s meant to eliminate a suspect from the list.
So as you’re walking around in character, interviewing all the other suspects at your party, there are three things you need to ask to solve the case:
What did the killer NEED to commit the crime
Who COULD have had those things, and
Who COULD NOT have had those things
You may recall that in the board game Clue, each player has a little sheet with a grid on it to keep track of who was in what room and what weapon they might have had…. You will need to grab a notebook and set up a grid like this for yourself as you collect information about the suspects in your game. Once you fill in all the missing pieces, one suspect will stand out as the obvious killer.
Let me use a very simplified example to explain what I mean. Let’s say your victim was killed at 9am on a weekday, and he was hit on the head with a 50-lb bag of rocks while he was in his house. Your suspects are an elderly neighbor, a school teacher, and a plumber.
What does the killer NEED?
1) to be at the house during a workday and
2) to be strong enough to lift a 50-lb bag of rocks.
Who COULD have those things? Both the neighbor and the plumber COULD have been at the house during the day, but the teacher COULD NOT, since she would have been at school. The plumber COULD be strong enough to lift the rocks, but the elderly neighbor COULD NOT … SO we eliminate the teacher and the neighbor and that leaves us with the plumber as the killer.
Now, that was an extra simple example just to get us started, but remember, the best murder mystery games throw in a few misdirects to keep things exciting. There is usually more than one person who could have had the motive for murder, and more than one person who had the means or the access to the victim. So now you need to look for more subtle clues to help you eliminate suspects and hone in on the real killer.
Let's take a more difficult example. There’s a fun new show on Netflix called Murderville starring Will Arnett as a bumbling detective, and in each episode he has a different celebrity join him as his partner. It’s a cute show because the twist is that the celebrity doesn’t have access to the script before they come on the show, so their entire part is ad-libbed. The celebrity partner has to actually collect the clues and try to guess the murderer at the end of the episode.
But this makes Murderville a great case study for our purposes, since the clues are all laid out pretty clearly in half an hour, and reviewed at the end so the celebrity knows how they did and what they missed.
In Episode 4, called Murder by Soup, Annie Murphy from Schitt’s Creek is the celebrity guest. The victim in her case was a health inspector who was poisoned with the venom from a South American tree frog. He’s found face-down at his desk in a bowl of soup. The three unusual things that stood out at the crime scene were 1) the soup was delivered from a restaurant, but not in the original restaurant bag (it was in a white bag, not a brown bag). 2) No one saw the delivery person, but they did hear whistling 3) The poison was definitely in the soup, and can only be found in South America.
The victim had three enemies, so there are three suspects - a chef, a kindergarten teacher, and a mob boss. All three had motive, so to solve the crime, Annie Murphy had to listen to their statements and look around them at the items the show writers had chosen to stage the scenes with.
When she visited the chef, there were all kinds of distractions, but in a throwaway comment she learned that the chef hates the sound of whistling. That’s the kind of random information that is often overlooked, especially when so many other things are going on, but remember, everything is there for a reason. If a character mentions something - anything - it’s important. Write it all down so you can sort through it later.
When Detective Annie spoke with the mob boss, she noticed he had white bags full of cash - the same white bag as the soup had been delivered in. Here again there was a longer conversation with a lot of back and forth about pancakes and traveling to Connecticut, but hidden in all the chatter the boss mentioned that his passport had been confiscated long ago. Sometimes these important details are purposely buried in conversation, so again, take notes as suspects share information with you. Circle anything that stands out so you can go back to it later and see if it fits your theory.
And lastly, when Annie visited the teacher, she saw a map on the wall of all the places the teacher and her students had visited, and saw that the teacher had been to South America. The teacher also had white bags in her classroom that she used for craft projects. ANd there was a book in her classroom titled Dangerous Animals. AND she whistled to get Will Arnett’s attention.
So by process of elimination, Annie figured out that the killer couldn’t have been the chef, because she wouldn’t have been whistling. It might have been the mob boss, but he couldn’t have traveled to South America without a passport. So it must have been the teacher, who was literally surrounded by clues that pointed to her.
When you’re playing a murder mystery game, you’re looking for two things – the obvious, and the obviously planted. Search for the obvious clues, like the actual murder weapon, AND the extra details that the game writer planted for you to find, like the suspect who is allergic to gunpowder, or lost their glasses and can’t see well enough to drive at night.
Ask the obvious questions of all the subjects, like where were you at the time of the murder, and what was your relationship with the deceased, but listen carefully to their answers and make sure to ask yourself WHY did that suspect share that piece of information with me? Did they really need to mention that they always visit Florida in February? There must be a reason.
And step back and scan the visual clues carefully. WHY is that suspect carrying that umbrella, or wearing that hat, or seated in that strange place? That suspect has a dog, who probably would have barked, or that suspect has a limp, which would affect the sound of their footsteps … Every detail is there to help you solve the mystery.
Then once you’ve spoken to every suspect, work through your chart and compare the characters who COULD have access to whatever was needed for the murder and who COULDN’T have. If you find two characters who both fit the bill, go back and ask them any question you need to eliminate one or the other. Sometimes you don’t know what to ask on your first go-round, but once you’ve narrowed down the variables, it will become more obvious – like maybe between two suspects, one doesn’t have a driver’s license, and that’s the detail that makes all the difference.
Have fun at your next murder mystery party, and good luck finding the killer!
If you’d like to play one of the murder mystery games that I designed for The Storyteller’s Cottage, please visit our Etsy shop.
If you’d like to playtest new murder mystery games before they’re available for sale, you can become a Patron of the Storyteller’s Cottage.