Murder, she wrote – or how to run a Murder Mystery event

ELSA University of Glasgow organised its first Murder Mystery evening on the 29th of October 2019. In the dark and gloomy Glasgow night 25 people threw themselves into solving the mysterious death of Mr Archibald Lefferts, an oddball philanthropist living in Berlin during the Cold War. The evening was filled with drama, suspense and the threat of a major diplomatic crisis – in the end it was Mr

Lefferts’ long lost son who turned out to be the killer. How did this all come together?

The concept of a Murder Mystery event is relatively simple. A group of people interact with each other as they normally would in any social event. However, instead of being themselves, they are each assigned a character. The way they interact with different people is therefore dictated by the character’s quirks, motivations and secrets. Each guest will get a detailed character sheet prior to the event which explains who they are and why they are at the event. It also lists their relationships to other people at the event, which is the first way to create suspicion and clues.

For instance, say your character is an eccentric, but slightly dishonest, chef – someone whose reputation precedes them but who has a dark secret involving use by dates. The goal of this character would be to discuss cooking and emphasise their skills, while at the same time ensuring people don’t discover that they are dishonest and sloppy with health and safety. The chef has therefore at least two connections at the party – someone who admires them and, say, an investigative journalist who is determined to get to the bottom of rumours about food poisoning.

The character sheets, along with an overarching theme, which in our case was a dinner party in 1960s Berlin, are the foundation of the event. To encourage guests to play their parts, they are each given clues and tasks during the night. This will keep the game moving forward, allowing guests to create their own theories based on what they find out during the night.

Going back to the chef example, the first task of the journalist could be to bombard the chef with questions and find out what other guests think about the rumours concerning the chef. The following clues would get the journalist progressively closer to the truth, which the chef is of course trying to hide for as long as possible. To combat the questions, the chef’s task could be to spread rumours about the journalist to get other guests suspicious. The result of both of these strands of actions is that there are two major questions – whether the chef is guilty of poisoning the victim or not and what the reason behind the journalist’s nosiness is.

The trick is to ensure that each of these storylines is meaningful, while at the same time giving some characters similar clues which will eventually lead everyone to suspect a few select people. In our case, this meant that 5 people were each given a clue about how they went to the same school – they were guided to reminisce about the past which was a key element in finding the killer. Think of these storylines as one massive Venn diagram – there are side storylines which never lead to the killer, others which overlap and give clues, and ones which interact with each other extensively and will lead to the killer.

In order to keep the flow of the event going, it is important to keep guests on their toes. This, in practice, means peppering the event with dramatic revelations and turns of events that only the organisers know about. One of our dramatic turns of events was a mishap communication by CIA spy bosses to one of their undercover spies. This acted as an ice breaker, and also prompted a hunt for spies among the guests, which propelled the story forward and brought in a whole host of new suspects.

And so, our dinner party with ballet dancers, cosmonauts, spies and writers was built and executed. Despite extensive planning and careful work, we did have to improvise in the end to make up for the fact that some guests never turned up and to build a clearer ending for the event. The beauty of a Murder Mystery event is that you can do just this – plan every miniscule detail but also build it organically and react to how the guests interact with each other. As a social event it is perfect, as it can be organised for a very small group or a very large one, and the writer can make it as complex or as simple as they please. It is inclusive, does not require the guests to have any previous acting skills and, because it is different from a lot of other socials, will be a memorable experience whether the killer is found or not.

Want more detailed guidance? Please email secgen.glasgow@uk.elsa.org for more information.

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