Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Good, The Bad, and The Guilty Pt. 1: How the West Was Fun

As long-time blog monkeys might recall, twice before The Singles have hosted Murder Mystery dinners, the first being a scripted Gangster tale with limited number of characters and an audience, and the other being a very loose, improvisational mystery with tons of characters and tons of mingling. Last Saturday we attempted our third not-so-regular Murder Mystery dinner, with this one being a Western whose structure fell somewhere in between the other two.

The mystery we were provided, entitled The Good, the Bad, and the Guilty, had a bit of a railroading structure, i.e. doing everything it could to keep the players on track. Originally designed for eight people, the game was divided up into four rounds of information exchange. Before the game started, each person was provided with a character description to share, as well as character information to keep concealed so that, for example, Helena Handcart was instructed to tell everyone she was the local land baron who had lost all 13 of her sons recently, while keeping secret the fact that her husband had gone crazy and she had locked him in their attic. With each round the characters were given more information to conceal and reveal, with each revealing question or statement leading directly to a piece of concealed information, so that at the end of each round all of the secrets given out in that round would be exposed. At the end of the fourth round, the players would each guess who the killer was, with not even the guilty party knowing the truth.

The rules were that while you could try to evade questions, you weren't allowed to lie about anything, and if pressed must give the info up. In hindsight, we probably should have left out the whole "you can evade" thing from the instructions since, while it probably would work fine with the 8 player version of the game, our version was a bit more, shall we say, complicated. As I mentioned earlier this week, we decided to take the general structure of the game and expand it so that every participant would have a character. The initial idea had been to split guests up into different tables, and have each table be comprised of the 8 main characters, but I hated the idea of segregating people like that and so was a vocal proponent of the "let's just have one big game" idea.

The upside to this was that at the dinner, we got to have a great group experience, with everyone there interacting with everyone else; the downside was that it took a lot longer to unfold than it would have with just eight players, as part of my attempt to make everyone feel involved was to take the revealing information and questions and split them up between all 25 participants. I tried really hard to make sure that the information to be doled out matched up with the character who was doing the doling*, and of course some characters wound up having more to do than others, but on the whole, I think the division of labor worked out fairly well. Except, of course for those few things that served as nice stumbling blocks.

The first is that while most people were giving up information left and right, others played it so close to the vest that some vital information never got revealed, and since the secretive folks were in the minority most people didn't realize they weren't giving up everything they knew and so weren't pressing them. The second was the fact that not everyone who signed up to come actually showed up. In a few cases this was okay, since we had a few people show up who hadn't signed up, and so were able to give the stray parts to them, but in the end I had four different character sheets sitting in front of me so I could make sure that all of the revealing information was given out.

The final stumbling block was a result of my reach exceeding my grasp. You see, part of my plan for the expanded version was to throw in several red herrings so that it wouldn't be immediately obvious that only the 8 main characters were viable suspects; I even gave several characters some "hidden" backstory information to conceal:

Belle Ringz: Before moving to Roadkill, you were an early member of Butch Chastity’s Amazon outlaw gang. You turned to a life of crime after your youngest child was taken from you under mysterious circumstances. You eventually realized the outlaw life would never fill that void and so created the new identity of Belle Ringz to start fresh in Roadkill.

Doc Tora L. Theesus: In addition to the everyday doctoring skills, you spend your limited spare time providing illicit drugs to Butch Chastity and her gang. Because of this, you are one of the few that know that a supposedly upstanding citizen of Roadkill is actually a former outlaw.

Frida Rhome:Your foster-father hasn’t the slightest idea that you spend your bursts of independence not riding aimlessly over the plains, but in emulating your late mother, who was secretly a member of Butch Chastity’s outlaw gang. Butch wouldn’t accept you into her crew, still feeling guilty for your mother’s death, and so you have gathered together a large group of like-minded youth and formed your own gang: The Malignant Seventeen. So far, your efforts have amounted to little in the way of real loot or notoriety, which actually disappoints your rebellious side.

Graize deFields: Nobody in Roadkill knows the true source of the deFields family fortune: organized crime. The real reason you moved out west was to escape the long arm of the law, and while it has been successful so far, you can’t help worrying that that 8th noose might be for you . . .

Lil Bighorn: Although you vocally blame the Cowpai’s for the death of your family, the truth is that your family, a clan of con artists, were actually killed by one of the parties they swindled; and while you know this, you have found that sympathy is much greater for a poor little orphan girl who suffered due to the heathen savages. You have put your knowledge of the world of illicit dealings to good use as advisor to the leader of the second-hand group of outlaws, The Malignant Seventeen. Although the nooses are supposed to be for your more high profile inspiration, you worry that the 8th noose might be for you.

Eve L. Ayestare: Your real reason for moving to Roadkill was not to tutor Frida; that’s just your cover. In reality, you are an undercover agent for The Pinkertons, trying to track down the leader of the new gang of second-hand outlaws with a second-hand name: The Malignant Seventeen. Of course, while you’re being paid well to bring them in, you wouldn’t be adverse to being paid even better by them to forget what you find out . . .

Liza Lotts: You’re no angel, that’s for sure, but neither are you as crooked and conniving as most of the residents of town. Sure, you’ve done your share of cheating and stealing and the occasional bit of blackmail and torture, but you’d never kill anyone . . . although recently some dealings with Judge Payne have made you question that conviction. Adela isn’t the only one whose land the judge owns, nor was she the only one whose property was in danger of being demolished.

May Shirez-Tinpeese: While you are above hobnobbing with the general riff-raff of Roadkill, you are not above rifling through their belongings when they check into your hotel.You’re too smart to take anything too valuable that might get a lot of notice, although occasionally if you stumble across something obvious illegal the temptation might be a little too overwhelming. After all, who’s going to report that someone has stolen their stolen goods?

However, a combination of factors, including the Great Denton Blizzard of Aught Eight and The NeverEnding Last Minute Murder Mystery Costume Quest -- not to mention Sleep Deprived Burnout -- kept me from doing a full-out red expanded mystery . . . which was probably a good thing, considering how long the evening ran as it is. Unfortunately, while I didn't do the full expanded mystery, I did throw in a few false hints into the mix which, due to my lack of time and energy to proofread and double-check the scripts, caused the mystery to come to a screeching halt a time or two.

The prime example of this was my ill-conceived idea to throw in a rival gang to the game's central band of evil-doers, The Malevolent Seven. My gang of young, fool-hardy, second-hand also-rans was named The Malignant Seventeen. In retrospect, a few words in the introduction phase about this other gang would have smoothed over the rough patches as those few characters I gave ties to the gang tried to figure out where they fit in the grand scheme of things, and what their subplot had to do with the main plot.

But despite these stumbles, I have to admit I had a blast coming up with all of the characters and the few bits of hidden back story here and there. I also had fun playing town drunk Tom Bullweed, although I'm mad at myself that I never thought to tell anyone that due to my oft inebriated state most folk's call me Tumblin' Tom Bullweed. Ah, well, that's what blogs are for, right?

Now, if we could just find a way to have a murder mystery that allows everyone to interact in a large group with segregating ourselves too much, but doesn't handcuff us to "you must say statement A at stage B in order to elicit reveal C" type structure, we'll be golden.

*I even made a spreadsheet to help me out; yes, I'm an obsessive geek, what of it?