Updated: Feb 23
Murder mystery parties are the ultimate immersive literary event. With a few of your most adventurous friends, you can become a character in a dramatic story and lose yourself in a world of vintage elegance and affluence, romantic entanglements and jealous rivals, secrets and deception. You'll challenge your powers of observation and logical prowess, and you get to dress up as well! What could be more fun?
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To begin, choose your favorite downloadable party kit. These are available all over the internet, and you can find them by searching on “murder mystery game” or “murder mystery party” or even “murder in a box” -- they’re easy to find. Yes, it's possible to write your own murder party storyline, but that's a lesson for another day. Today, we'll use a simpler approach.
I’m going to use “Murder at Pendleton Manor” from The Storyteller’s Cottage as my example in this video, but whatever game you choose, the instructions that I’m going to share with you will essentially be the same.
BUILDING YOUR GUEST LIST
The success of your murder mystery party hinges on the enthusiasm of your guests and their commitment to immersing themselves in the character they’re playing. The more passionate your players are, the more boisterous and entertaining the whole evening will be. So that means that when you’re building your guest list, you’ll want to reach out to your extroverted friends first! Choose people who aren’t too embarrassed or intimidated to exaggerate their character’s personalities and really ham it up.
Now, you’re not just going to throw a bunch of invitations out there and see what happens. This part of the process requires some finesse to make the party work right, and is accomplished in two steps.
First, your murder party kit will specify the minimum and the maximum number of characters you need to play the game, and which of those characters are required for the game to work. So your first step is to reach out to the maximum number of players and just ask them if they’re available on the date of your party. For Murder at Pendleton Manor, that initial invitation will look like the photo above. Chances are, some of the people you invite will not be available, and you’ll need to reach out to your B-list to round out your numbers.
Only after you determine how many of your guests can actually come, and you know you have more than the minimum and less than the maximum number of players, should you move on to step two of the invitation process, which is assigning characters to each guest.
Start with the required characters first, and match up the personalities of your guests with the personalities of the characters, which will be described in your kit. You can choose to match them perfectly, where you would give your bossy friends a bossy character, or you can match up opposites for comedic effect, where might give a shy person the bossy character if you think they’ll have fun with it. In many games, you also have the option of swapping the gender of the character to accommodate the number of male and female guests you actually have. Check the instructions for your specific game to see if the swap will make a difference to the mystery - sometimes you’ll have a character who has to stay the gender they’re written, in order for the facts to make sense - for example, a female who might be pregnant or something along those lines.
Now you can go ahead and send out your in-game invitations, which let each guest know who they will be playing, and those will look like this.
You’ll also attach a character packet for each person … For Murder at Pendleton Manor those are called character dossiers… and in many cases you’ll also include a contact list, which is a list of the names and email addresses of all the other guests. Your friends will use this contact list to complete their pre-game tasks, if there are any. These are essentially little mini-missions that encourage the guests to reach out to another player in character and try to get some background information on them before the party. These pre-game tasks are a great way for guests who don’t already know each other to start to interact, and it also builds excitement for the game itself.
You can print out your invitations, customize them with your party date and time, and mail them with printouts of the character packets, or you can email your invitations and attach the character files, in which case you’ll customize the message in your email to include your party’s date, time, location or Zoom room link, etc.
CHOOSING YOUR PARTY STRUCTURE
Now you have some choices to make about how you want to structure your party. You’ll have the option of playing your murder mystery game in person, or online over Zoom or some similar meetup program. And you’ll also have the option of playing your game like a real party, or like a tabletop game.
By that I mean you can have your guests actually act out mingling at a party in character, and share their clues with each other in sort of an improvisational way, or you can have everyone sit down and take turns reading out their lines in a more structured way.
The simplest option is the online option. All you need to do is choose your online meetup program, set up a meeting and send out the login information. Your guests can dress in character if they want to, or not, and you can share those specific details about the costumes and the logins in the customized part of your in-game invitation.
The next option is your tabletop game structure. This is pretty straightforward to plan as well, and doesn’t require much additional work on your part. All you’ll need is a comfortable spot that can accommodate seating for all your guests, like a dining room table, or even a bunch of chairs arranged around a coffee table. Then at the party you’ll just have everyone sit around the central space and read off their character sheets in order. For this kind of party, you may want to serve refreshments, which will be really easy to do because you’ll have the perfect serving spot right in the middle of your space. We’ll talk about suggestions for what to serve later in this video.
Now if you decide to structure your game like a real party, it will be super fun and immersive, but you’ll need to spend a little extra time thinking through how you’ll make sure everyone hears every clue that’s shared, because even though this looks like a party, it’s still a game, and you won’t be able to solve the mystery if you don’t have all the clues.
You’ll need to arrange an open space that’s big enough for all your guests to stand around cocktail party style, whether that means moving some chairs against the walls, or making use of your front hallway … whatever you need to do to make sure everyone has room to stand in the same place at the same time. You won’t be able to put a few people in the kitchen and a few in the living room and a few in the back bedroom, because they’ll end up not being able to hear important things that other people say.
When everyone arrives, before you start your game, give them a little rundown of the rules, and make sure everyone knows they need to make a point to visit with every other person and exchange information with them. You can set your guests loose to mingle freely and collect facts - maybe with a checklist of the names of the other characters to guide them, OR you can arrange them in pairs in a circle, kind of like speed dating, and give them say five minutes to speak with their partner, then call time and everyone switches off to pair up with the next person on their left. Whichever option you choose will depend on how realistic you want your game to feel. They all work - they just feel like different types of events. So it’s really all about which type you like best. For this kind of party it’s also nice to offer each of your guests a little notebook and pen so they can keep track of the clues they hear, and their theories along the way.
We’ll talk more about the specific details about running your game when we get to the gameplay section, but right now you’re just deciding which format you want to use, which will influence how deep you need to get into planning your decor and your food.
How will you decorate for your party, especially if you’re trying to create an immersive atmosphere? Well, if your party is on Zoom, you can encourage everyone to download theme-appropriate backgrounds, like an old-fashioned kitchen for the cook character, or a vintage car or garage for the chauffeur character. That’s a lot of fun.
If you’re hosting a tabletop game type of party, you’ll just need to add a few fun accessories to the one room where you’ll be playing. And it’s actually fun to search around for specific items that kind of embody your theme - you really don’t need to go out and buy anything special - it just takes a few iconic things to suggest a particular atmosphere, and often you or a friend will have these lying around the house.
For example, if your story is set in a magical castle, you can set up some candles on the table, collect some empty bottles in different shapes, fill them with food coloring in water and call them potions, hang up a few fake cobwebs and spiders leftover from Halloween, throw a dark tablecloth over your central table, and you’re there.
Or let’s say your party is set in a mansion, like Pendleton Manor. Same idea, but lean into the fancy version of those candlesticks, and maybe add some flower vases and some sparkly crystal items or glittery gold items to suggest wealth. A glittery tablecloth is a great centerpiece for this look. It’s amazing how grouping random things together into sort of a still life can really evoke a theme or an atmosphere. You really don’t have to recreate a full “set” for your theme.
Now if you’re hosting a cocktail party type event, you’ll have more space to cover, but you’ll use the same strategy to decorate, this time spreading out those evocative items around your larger space. If your space is more modern than you like and you feel like you need to cover up some of that to make your theme work, you can spring for some larger decorative items that don’t cost a lot but take up a lot of space, like helium balloons with the ribbon hanging down, or those gold foil curtains, or even really big feathers in a bottle that you spray painted gold. Just deploy these strategically in the places where your eye falls first, and you won’t need to cover the whole room.
One last thing to consider is themed background music - that will really make the whole event feel completely immersive.
Choosing the perfect themed food to go with the theme of your game is one of the most fun parts of planning your party. Pinterest is a great place to start, both for inspiration and for specific recipes, if you decide you want to cook. You can serve tea and scones if your game has an Alice in Wonderland vibe, or some nice thick chili in little cauldron bowls if you’ve got a medieval castle theme, or some really fancy bacon-wrapped filet mignon bites for your dinner at the Manor, or deep red cocktails that look like blood! But whatever you decide, keep a few practical tips in mind.
As the host, you want to be realistic about what you can achieve without a catering staff. You don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen with the food when everyone else is playing the game, since you’ll be playing a character too … so you want to choose a menu that is completely cooked ahead of time, and can sit out at room temperature for a few hours. No last-minute fussing with your sauce or your oven …
An appetizer table or a dessert buffet (or both) is an ideal solution, along with a serve-yourself bar. You can set out absolutely everything before the party even starts and let everyone help themselves between the rounds of the game. Choose finger foods so no one has to balance a plate on their knees and wrangle a knife and fork along with their drink and their character sheets … And for cocktails, you can set up pitchers of fancy mixed drinks that are labeled with their ingredients so your guests can pour their own. No bartender necessary.
A fun way to start your party is to hand everyone a glass of something bubbly when they arrive, then let them pick at the appetizers and tapas as they play, then after you solve the mystery, sit down to celebrate with dessert and maybe even a champagne toast!