Playing Dungeons & Dragons Like Royalty!

Dungeons & Dragons (or any roleplaying game, for that matter) is about telling a story together. Many Dungeon Masters go above and beyond to immerse players in the roleplaying experience.

Some use miniatures or models atop battlemats to help players visualize the events that are taking place (especially combat). Others use music to set the tone, create atmosphere, or provide dramatic effect.

These little bits of set dressing can be simple or elaborate, but they all contribute to a better roleplaying experience.

Now imagine if you could turn the dial up to 11 and really immerse yourself in your setting. Say, by playing D&D in an actual castle.

That’s the idea behind D&D in a Castle, a special event being held in Challain-la-Potherie, France, from July 1st to the 5th.

Check out the sales pitch:

Spend four days playing Dungeons and Dragons in a castle with world class DMs in a vacation like none you have ever experienced. Retreat into a magnificently restored castle for a spot of luxury, relaxation, and, of course, role-playing.

Yup, a team of professional Dungeon Masters help attendees to build their characters and familiarize themselves with the game before they even walk through the door. And after that, there are two daily RPG sessions and optional ones in the evening.

Over the course of the five days, you are guaranteed to play at least 24 hours of Dungeons & Dragons.

Now THAT is immersion.

With names like Jeremy Crawford (the lead rules developer for D&D) and Satine Phoenix (actress, artist, and DM) involved, this is sure to be a massively creative event, and I am thoroughly envious of anyone and everyone attending.

This will certainly raise the bar for D&D night at the house afterward. Dimming the lights and putting on some mood music will pale in comparison to the palatial spread at Challain-la-Potherie.

Of course, if you’re looking for a more affordable option here in the US, I highly recommend Troll Haven in Sequim, Washington. The Gate Keeper’s Castle is absolutely awesome, and the perfect setting for a LARP, an escape room, or some immersive D&D.

Just be careful if you invite a rogue to the castle, folks. They have sticky fingers.


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How Women Have Shaped and Changed the World of Roleplaying Games

About a month ago, I wrote a blog post about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, one of the founders of American cryptography as we know it. One of the goals of that post was to help correct the historical record and restore Elizebeth to the prominence, accolades, and attention she so richly deserves.

A friend of mine and fellow tabletop roleplayer read that post and pointed me toward this article from Kotaku last year about the early influence of women on the development of the iconic roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons. One of the first playable modules, the “Sage Advice” column of Dragon magazine, the inimitable art style (and maps), the long-running D&D series of novels… women played vital roles in crafting the world of D&D as many of us know it today.

This may come as a surprise to some people, given how pop culture tends to present roleplaying in general as an all-male nerdy pursuit. (The Big Bang Theory, for instance, often pushes the idea that girls don’t play D&D.)

But to me, it’s no surprise at all that women played such important roles in the development of one of tabletop gaming’s most famous franchises. Women have always been a part of roleplaying in my experience. Whether we’re talking LARPs (Live-Action RolePlaying) or tabletop, in my group of friends, female players were the norm.

The longest-running game I’ve ever been a part of — one that we’ve played on and off for over a decade — has had a brilliant female DM [dungeon master / game runner / storyteller]. Women made up half of the players in the Star Wars-based RPG campaign I ran for nearly seven years. The all-guy game that serves as the cliche sitcom punchline was rarely the case.

But I never want to assume that my experience is the same as everyone else’s. So I decided to reach out to some of the female RPG fans, game-runners, and creators I know to get their take on roleplaying games.

How did they get into RPGs? What effect has roleplaying had on their lives, their own personal creativity, and so on? And has the roleplaying world changed, either favorably or unfavorably, for them as women during their time as roleplayers?

To start, I think my friend Addie wrote the perfect intro:

Twenty years ago I was dating a guy who asked, “Do you want to play Dungeons & Dragons?” and not really knowing what it was I said, “Sure why not.” Ever since that first game it felt like I found something that I was looking for, a doorway to a fantasy world I was unfamiliar with yet interested in.

D&D was the first step into a world that introduced me to other means of roleplaying, from LARPing to MMO’s [massive multiplayer online games] to text-based games online. It allowed me to exercise my creativity and become more comfortable with writing. It lead me to learn that I love to write, especially creating characters, and eventually I even co-started a text-based Marvel game called MUCK that had a successful seven years until I burned out and couldn’t run a game on my own anymore.

Sometimes, it’s a boyfriend who introduces the game. Other times, it’s a friend, as in Lindsay’s experience:

I started gaming when I was 14 or 15 (1990ish) when my female best friend bought a copy of the AD&D Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual [the three core books required for D&D] on a whim one day and she ran a game for me and her brother and, I think, a friend of her brother’s.

I’d been exposed to the idea of D&D several years before when the blue box set came out, and another female friend’s brother had it and the dice on his desk. I was utterly fascinated by the idea and wanted to play, but of course we were the Little Sister and friends, so we weren’t invited.

In Jala’s case, it was her sister:

When I was 10, my sister brought home a boxed set of D&D (the original edition) which had a map, module & etc. She was my first DM and first tabletop RPG buddy… RPGs were a way to bond with my sister originally, and later on when online RPGs were a thing it was the manner in which my sister met her husband, and the way I met my best friend (now ex-husband, though we are still friends).

But no matter how they discovered roleplaying, it made an immediate impact.

Beverly credits quite a bit to her experience roleplaying:

It changed my life by helping me form and solidify friendships. I even met my second husband because of RPGs (online and not pencil and paper) and that’s pretty rad.

It also helped me gain some confidence early on when I started game-mastering. I was pressured (in a friendly way) to try my hand at being a game master. I didn’t think I could do it, but I was with a group of trusted friends and I tried it out. It went pretty well, and because being the leader and helping guide the story had gone well in that trusted environment, I felt more empowered to try it at a small convention with people I didn’t know as well.

Those people ALSO had a good time, and each experienced helped me feel more capable in speaking in front of strangers, and if I’m being perfectly honest, also how to fake a bit of confidence at first to help me get started.

Lindsay also credits gaming as a huge factor in her life:

How has gaming affected my life? I laugh: it has been one of the two biggest parts of my life for most of my life. I met the most important people in my life through gaming, whether it be tabletop, writing for the games, or LARPing: my best friends since high school, my general social group, and my husband.

Gaming certainly helped broaden my creativity — collaborating with my best friends when we wrote tournaments or created a whole world to set games in brought so much to the forefront. Cultural knowledge, intricacy in political situations, and depth of character all came into it and we all boosted each other’s creativity. I also like playing all different races, classes, attitudes, and genders when I play — just to see what it’ll be like and to bring different parts of my personality out.

That being said, there has definitely been a sea change in how women in roleplaying have been viewed over the last twenty to thirty years.

Beverly: I have been at it in some form or another since about 1992 and mostly I have had good experiences but there have been some pretty bad ones. I think it has gotten a bit better for me over the years, but admittedly I am not as into it as I used to be.

Addie: The world has definitely become more welcoming to female gamers, at least in my experience. For many years I hid my gender online when roleplaying or playing MMOs, tending to play male characters. I never told anyone I was female but I didn’t tell anyone I wasn’t male and just let them assume. I’m sure there are people out there who are still convinced to this day I was a dude behind the screen.

Now, I have no issues with hiding my gender. The harassment isn’t there like it used to be, I’m not the “golden egg” of female roleplayers anymore.

Lindsay’s experience working inside the world of RPGs grants her a particular insight into how things have changed:

As for my own career, I wrote and edited for several game studios throughout my 20s and 30s. White Wolf in particular liked employing women in the office, but I don’t think that was really because they were committed to diversity. I think it was more because “Wimminz In Gamez Iz Edgy and Cool.” Yes, the women were incredibly capable and remain powerful writers and gamers, but still.

I work in a comic, card, and game store now, the same one where I host and play games. The customers’ attitudes are a mixed bag, really, but overall they are friendly and respectful of me as a woman and an expert. Some are overtly sexist and assholes about it – “uh, can you get [man]? I have questions. No, I don’t think you know about this, can you just get [man]?”

And yep, I know more than the man does.

That idea of “nerd cred” being checked, unfortunately, isn’t the exclusive domain of male players. My friend Athena confessed that female players can also make it hard to get into gaming:

I didn’t want to identify myself as a female RPGer to those that may attack me. I readily tell people I enjoy tabletop, RPG, and other video games in real life, but often (especially in groups of people that already somewhat know me) when I say “oh I love that game”, I get checked for my nerd card. Testing responses from people trying to make me prove I actually am a gamer… I got into D&D in the early days of high school because it looked like fun and my friend-group played. Since then, I personally have always found it somewhat difficult to “break into” new groups.

It’s been a generation since the early days of D&D, and thankfully, being a female RPGer is far more common, even if it can be hard for new players to get started.

Addie: It’s also nice because female Roleplayers aren’t the rarity they used to be.

Lindsay: I also feel like being a woman among gamers gives us a way to feel special sometimes in a world that stigmatizes, belittles, or outright ostracizes smart, creative women who don’t fit the physical or otherwise mold of what a Strong Female Character ought to be. It seems like a poor sort of evaluation, but … it’s true. Among the usual population, we’re just kind of weird, with weird interests. Among gamers, we’re rare and fascinating. That’s nice to feel sometimes.

And on the other hand, that same rare and fascinating thing crosses very quickly, very often into creepiness and even sexual inappropriateness. It’s kind of scary sometimes as a woman to walk into a new game group and have no idea what the guys are going to be like.

Jala: I can’t say that I ever experienced the kinds of horror stories you read about on Buzzfeed, myself, so my personal exchanges have ranged from being blase (occasionally with new folks I didn’t know) to absolutely hilarious (when my gay male friend was playing a flirty straight woman and I was playing a straight man whom his character hit on for example, the role reversal was funny to everyone). The respect of my personal authority was never challenged even as a teenage female DM with older people as my players, although I did exasperate a DM or two with my out-of-the-box thinking as a player. That, however, had nothing to do with my gender.

Athena: Whenever I play tabletop games — Magic, board games, D&D. etc. — the (mostly male) players don’t care AT ALL who I am. It’s generally an extremely welcoming community in person.

Lindsay: Things have absolutely changed over time. Women have gone from being only princesses to be rescued; bar wenches; prostitutes; and the subject of lonely-artist posters to writing the rules systems; being the examples of particular classes or races in said books; having a voice and presence online and in media; and more respected equals as players and writers. We still have things to overcome, but we have come SO far.

Jala: Initially although my “core group” was comprised of my sister and whatever friends (all male) we could rope into it, these days there are many more female gamers of all flavors. From being an outlier in what was a fairly esoteric and clique-filled community, I have (female and male) friends who own comic & gaming shops and run games for kids and single-session adventures for those who can only drop in from time to time. I think that the voice of women is more pronounced now and there is definitely more representation of my gender out there which is great.

Addie: When I was at PAX EAST in 2014 and playing the Pathfinder Mods, one of the random groups my friend and I got put together with ended up being all females. We had so much fun we played three modules together and the GM was shocked to find out we weren’t a regular group, just a handful of pairs of strangers. We weren’t put together because all of us were female, we were put together because we were the players waiting for a group. Ten years ago, there wouldn’t be enough women at a Tabletop booth to put a 7-player group together.

Although things are changing and the pendulum of acceptance and inclusiveness is swinging in the right direction, it’s still amazing the impact that one or two strong female voices can have in attracting and empowering other players.

Lindsay: A guy came up to me at the game store I work at to ask me how many women play D&D. He said his wife and he had played some online D&D and loved it, but she in particular was hesitant to try it in person because she felt uncomfortable with the idea of being a female newbie in a room full of guys.

I realized that this reluctance might be more common than anyone realized, and I thought about the fact that even I, a lifelong gamer, am always reassured when there’s even one other woman on a table. Thus was born my Thursday women-only D&D table. Now I have more interest than seats available at the table! One of my players said, after the last session, that she really, really enjoys playing with just women, that there’s so much less pressure to know everything off the top of your head and that roleplaying is so much more fun.

My stated goal with the game is not only to give women a table of our own but also to welcome and encourage newer gamers or total beginners. It’s a safe space for all women, and I specified that trans women are women and therefore welcome too … Safe. Space. And we’re having a good time!

Addie: I’ve also found that being a female roleplayer with 20 years of D&D under her belt, I’ve been able to help other, younger, women with getting into tabletop roleplaying. A lot of the younger roleplayers I meet online nowadays are mostly younger females who do a lot of text-based roleplaying. Now that they’re starting to get their feet wet with tabletop, they’ve come to me with questions, and I thoroughly enjoy being a “Geek Mom” to young girls.

It was a privilege talking to these women and gaining some valuable insight into the world of roleplaying games from their point of view. Just reading these stories made me even more grateful that my personal experiences with RPGs have been so positive. Seeing these amazing, creative, hilarious, and brilliant women help to shape the roleplaying community for the better… it’s something special.

I’d like to close with something Lindsay said. It is part optimism, part mission statement, and wholly appropriate to the subject at hand:

When things like Gamergate simply don’t happen any more because women’s voices are automatically respected, we’ll have gotten somewhere. Meanwhile, I’ll keep reaching out to women in gaming and helping the ones I can as well as doing what I love best.


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Designing Your Own Escape Room Event!

One of the most interactive puzzly challenges available to modern solvers is the escape room.

Although themes and scenarios vary greatly, the basic idea is this: a group of people are locked in a room, and tasked with escaping from it within a certain time frame (usually an hour).

They do so by searching for clues, completing tasks, unraveling riddles, and finally, unlocking the door to escape. Some rooms employ riddles. Others use word puzzles. Others still involve working together to overcome obstacles. (For instance, I hear about one escape room where the group was split in two and separated, and they had to work together to unlock the door that separated them.)

There are endless variations available to the intrepid puzzler. And a week or so ago, I had a go at creating my own and running it for a friend’s birthday. I’d never run an escape room per se, but having run roleplaying events before — as well as murder mystery dinners — I was excited to pit my dastardly puzzly mind against a worthy group of heroes and miscreants.

And so, I thought I’d offer a few tips on creating your own puzzly escape experience.


1.) Know your audience.

If your players aren’t engaged, the event is pointless. So you have to make sure that whatever obstacles you lay before them will interest them. If they aren’t partial to brain teasers, mechanical puzzles, or physical challenges, they’ll quickly lose any investment in completing the game.

In my case, I tried to use every puzzly tool at my disposal. There were riddles, puzzle boxes, combination locks to crack, door locks to “pick”, and tricky clues to unravel.

[I drafted two puzzle boxes from my collection into the game.]

2.) Give everyone something to do.

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to things like this. So use that to your advantage. Let the hardcore puzzlers tackle the puzzles, while the less puzzly people complete tasks like uncovering backstory, hunting for hidden items, or even doing battle with threats to the players.

Adding a live-action roleplay element like combat can not only add flavor to your game, but it allows players to contribute without having to struggle with puzzles that might not be their strong suit.

If everyone feels like they’re contributing, all successes feel shared. And shared successes are the best ones.

3.) Let imagination drive the game.

When tackling an event like this, it can be easy to splash out on locks, puzzle boxes, and all sorts of trappings for the game. After all, you want it to be an immersive experience, but that sort of immersion can grow expensive very quickly. And you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to create a great solving adventure.

[A 5-digit combination lock that lets you spell words (or mix letters and numbers), a directional combination lock, and two standard four-digit locks]

I had a small budget, so I bought a few combination locks, four small briefcases (so there was something to unlock and open), and some other bits and bobs. Locks run between $6 and $12, but there are few things more satisfying than cracking a puzzle, dialing in your answer, and feeling the lock open in your hand. The sign of a job well done.

But you can build one without spending much money at all. Get creative with it! You can replicate practically anything with a piece of paper — locks, puzzles, riddles — and a little imagination. Any box can become a treasure chest or a lockbox. Any room can become a laboratory or a dungeon or a high-security vault.

[I picked up this little lock for cheap on Amazon, drew the various characters in the combination on little slips of paper, and hid them around the room. It was up to the players to find them, put them in the correct order, and open the lock.]

The low-budget solutions are often the most satisfying. For instance, I mentioned above that, in my escape room, there were door locks to “pick.” I used quotation marks because I didn’t buy door locks to actually pick. Instead, I swapped in another, simpler method for testing someone’s digital dexterity: Jenga.

I stacked up a Jenga tower, removed 8 or 9 pieces, and then challenged the group’s lockpick to remove two or three pieces per door they “picked.” This simulated both the tension of the act and the level of skillful manipulation necessary, and for a fraction of the possible cost.

4.) Tell a story.

I’m a roleplaying fan. I love telling stories in my gameplay. And, to me, nothing adds flavor and depth to an escape room like a story. My favorite escape room experience was a Houdini-themed room that was loaded with the famous magician’s history and trappings — shackles, a straitjacket, and more — and all those little touches added so much to the atmosphere and the tension of the game itself.

So craft a story! Why are the players there? Why do they need to escape? Is there a villain? A curse? An evil artificial intelligence to battle? A diabolical millionaire or a mad scientist with an axe to grind?

All those elements can add to the experience. The escape room I designed and ran centered around a evil wizard and the aftermath of his reign of terror. My players warded off ghosts, avoided automated traps, and even held a Beauty-and-the-Beast-inspired seance — since the wizard had turned several of his staff into furniture — as they moved from place to place.

[The remains of a room well-escaped.]

With a little ingenuity, forethought, and creativity, you can craft a one-of-a-kind puzzle experience.


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The Great Escape (Room)!

room

For years now, Headless Horseman in Ulster Park, New York, has been one of the premiere haunted houses in the country, complete with hayrides, a corn maze, and hundreds of employees working to surprise and spook you. Celebrated for their immersive storytelling, as well as scares designed to delight and terrify all at once, it’s a Halloween tradition in the Northeast.

But recently, they’ve turned their creative energies toward a more puzzly experience: escape rooms.

This weekend, my siblings and I (plus some friends) tackled one of Headless Horseman’s escape rooms, Houdini’s Workshop, and it was an absolute blast.

houdinis-workshop

Here’s the story behind Houdini’s Workshop, courtesy of the Headless Horseman website:

Houdini, the world’s greatest escape artist and famous magician, made a pact with his wife Bess to try and make contact from beyond the grave upon his death. They also set a deadline by which they would give up and Bess was to move on with her life.

As the hour approaches for the deadline, you and your friends are their last hope. You have one hour to discover the final item so that Bess may make one last attempt to contact her beloved husband.

And so, the ten of us piled into Houdini’s parlor and set out to explore… and there was plenty to explore! Hidden panels, riddles, brain teasers, and red herrings galore, not to mention a plethora of locks that would take cleverness, deduction, and teamwork to crack open.

How did we do? Well, I’m proud to announce that we escaped with 4 minutes, 30 seconds left on the clock. Everyone contributed to the solve, and everyone had a fantastic time.

Now, I can’t give you details on specific puzzles or anything like that, because that would ruin the experience for others who might accept the challenge of Houdini’s Workshop.

But it occurred to me that I could give you suggestions for other ways to exercise your puzzly mind and flex your mental muscles in the real world.

1.) Puzzle Hunts

fantasticrace

[Game Master Bob Glouberman instructs a batch of competitors
in the Fantastic Race. Image courtesy of The LA Times.]

Puzzle hunts are interactive solving experiences that often have you wandering around a certain area as you crack codes, unravel riddles, and conquer puzzles. Some only run at certain times each year as annual events, while others (like the Fantastic Race or the Great Puzzle Pursuit) run for a longer time before being retired.

2.) Murder Mystery Dinners

[Image courtesy of Vancouver Presents.com.]

Murder mystery dinners thrive on the theatricality of the event. Attendees can overhear arguments, catch snippets of banter and exposition as they walk around, and engage characters in conversation to learn more. The more you interact with the story, the better chance you have of solving the mystery, but even passive players will get the big picture.

Some restaurants and nightly cruises run murder mysteries, but there’s a growing trend of people running their own as party events. I ran two in the office last year for fellow puzzlers!

3.) LARPing

LARPing, or Live-Action RolePlaying, takes the fun and imagination of a tabletop roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, or Legend of the Five Rings, and puts it into the real world.

It might sound a bit bizarre if you’ve never done it, but as a longtime D&D fan, some of my favorite puzzles I’ve ever solved were physical puzzles I encountered during a LARP session.

Whether it’s reassembling a shattered piece of tablet to read the message on it or a mechanical puzzle where a door will only open after I’ve pulled a series of levers in the correct sequence, a tangible puzzle-solving experience gains another dimension of fun and challenge when it’s part of a greater narrative.

In fact, engaging in some of these activities gave me a lot of confidence going into the Houdini’s Workshop escape room. I’d never done an escape room before, but as a veteran of both murder mystery dinners and dungeon romps in Dungeons & Dragons, I was optimistic that my puzzly chops would prove useful.

And I hope my fellow puzzlers get a chance to do the same in the very near future.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Murder Mystery edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And in today’s post, I’d like to follow up on last week’s murder mystery post.

In the previous post, I gave you some of the backstory and logistics of our in-office murder-mystery event, and today, I wanted to discuss the event itself.

Our murder happened Monday night — the fictional J. Augustus Milverton Puzzlenationo would breathe his last breath near the photocopier — so Tuesday morning marked the official start of the game.

And since we’re an office full of puzzlers, the morning began with something of a logic puzzle, as the players were given a list of passcodes used to enter the building, but they needed to figure out who had used them and at what time.

You see, someone’s passcode being used at a certain time didn’t necessary mean that person was actually entering the building at that time. Someone could’ve used another player’s code. (Information involving times and identities was scattered throughout emails to all 10 participants, so it would take a fair amount of cooperation to unravel this.)

But since all of the players were suspicious of each other — which was wise, given that several “solvers” were actually following my orders throughout the event to fulfill certain tasks — the first day didn’t involve as much cooperative solving as I’d hoped. (That would come the next day out of necessity, as alliances began to form and more information was shared.)

As I fielded questions from players asking for further details — and several clues were discovered and analyzed — the first of several complications for the players was revealed: a fellow player was “killed.”

This not only upped the stakes for the players, but led to one of my favorite moments in the game. You see, when a fellow player stumbled upon the body, he wasn’t sad that his coworker was dead…he was sad because he couldn’t ask him any questions. (Though, intrepid solver that he was, he asked if a Ouija board was out of the question.)

For the rest of the day, I was fielding all sorts of instant messages and emails from players, asking for information, cashing in Holmes Tickets, clarifying things, and trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle into place. Early theories emerged. Some were wild guesses, and some were surprisingly close to the truth.

Our event played out in real time, so the players were aware that things could happen outside the workday that would impact the game. People seemed reluctant to leave, just in case they missed a clue.

Day Two opened with another red herring — punny threats sent to three of the players, delivered in envelopes that pointed to another player (a gambit by the killer to put the spotlight on someone else) — and a few secrets had already come out.

Players openly offered information to each other in a group email, which helped resolve some red herrings and put other pieces into place. More clues were uncovered, but the murder weapon remained elusive.

Lunchtime was orchestrated to be a tipping point. Not only would another murder occur, but other plans and clues would come together. I gave one of my collaborators two missions to accomplish while the players were away from their desks. Hopefully, she’d be able to accomplish both, but at the very least, she had to accomplish one of the tasks.

There were a few of these open-ended narrative moments written into the story where the players had the chance to surprise me with what happened and what didn’t. Not only did those moments make the game more fun for me to run, but it gave other players chances to really inhabit their characters and get into the performance side of the gameplay.

Lunchtime allowed for more group theorizing — something that the workday hampered, as you might expect — but the real fireworks awaited players upon their return.

A trap was sprung, and another player died unexpectedly. Although some chaos did ensue, most of the players realized this latest death was the work of another party, and several of the players solved it quickly before returning their attention to the first two murders.

In the midst of all this, two real-world complications arose on Day Two.

The first involved a player dropping out due to a mix of time constraints (she felt the game was distracting her too much from work) and general frustration with the format of the game (which, for someone unfamiliar with immersive storytelling like this, is totally understandable). I was sad to see her go, and adjusted the story accordingly, recovering a clue from her and redistributing it to an active player.

The second involved the pace of the game itself. I’d hoped to run it over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday and have it wrapped up that second day. But between the elaborate unfolding plot and the difficulty in balancing gameplay with, you know, actually getting our work done, things were progressing more slowly than expected.

That darn workday. Such a nuisance.

So the game rolled into Day Three, and players could sense the end was near. Most of the puzzle pieces were there for the taking, and several compelling theories emerged. (Honestly, one of them was better than the story I’d actually written, which was both funny and a little humbling.)

To add a bit of drama, I set a deadline of mid-afternoon. If the murders hadn’t been solved by then, the killer would escape scot-free.

Things finally steamrolled to their conclusion when the murder weapon was revealed — in the hands of a thief who had been woven into the plot — and one of the players came close enough to cracking all three murders that I declared the mystery solved. (And our ace detective did so before the deadline, so no escape for our dastardly murderer.)

It was different from any murder-mystery event I’d run before, and everyone seemed to enjoy it. There were certainly flaws in execution, as there are in any first attempt, but I learned some valuable lessons in this play-through that will make other such events in the future smoother, more satisfying, and more engaging.

Although…I hadn’t considered the potential consequences of the event on workdays going forward; everyone seems a bit more wary of each other. (And there are a few vengeful “spirits” lurking about, hoping to avenge themselves in future games.)


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Interactive Puzzling is Murder on a Work Day!

[Image courtesy of Carriageway.com.]

It all started with a board game at lunchtime.

TableTop Day is a popular annual event here at PuzzleNation, and several of my fellow puzzlers enjoyed it so much that they wanted it every week. Well, we couldn’t swing that — deadlines and all — so we play games every Wednesday during lunch.

During a particularly spirited round of 10 Minutes to Kill — a game where every player controls a hitman trying to take out three targets without being identified by the other players or the police — the subject of murder mysteries came up, and I let slip that I’d helped write and run several murder mystery dinners in the past.

[Image courtesy of Vancouver Presents.com.]

So, naturally, the idea of running a murder mystery at work became a recurring topic of discussion.

As a huge fan of interactive storytelling — be it tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, improv theater, LARPing, or other group activities — the idea appealed to me.

Of course, I had one huge hurdle to overcome: the work day.

You see, murder mystery dinners thrive on the theatricality of the event. Attendees can overhear arguments, catch snippets of banter and exposition as they walk around, and engage characters in conversation to learn more. The more you interact with the story, the better chance you have of solving the mystery, but even passive players will get the big picture.

But in a normal workday, I can’t stage big elaborate sequences, like a failed marriage proposal or someone tossing wine in another’s face. I’d have to find another way to deliver information, mysteries, and drama.

Thankfully, as a puzzler, I’m accustomed to writing clues. Cluing is simply delivering information in unexpected ways. Whether it’s through deceptive wordplay, puns, or connections with other entries, crosswords and logic problems are excellent training for being creative and stealthy while presenting important information.

So, I mapped out the murder and the characters I’d need to pull it off, and cast those characters from a group of fellow puzzlers. At the same time, I gauged interest from other coworkers to see who’d be interested in trying to crack the case, and began devising ways to weave them into the narrative. (This was more intimate than writing your usual murder mystery dinner for random attendees, since the latter is more about creating scenes than tailoring it to specific people and circumstances.)

[Can’t have a murder mystery without an animal for someone to pet fiendishly.
In this case, my trusty armadillo in a cowboy hat, Armando.]

My goal was to get everyone prepped to play on Monday, and then actually run the mystery on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the murder having occurred overnight.

Which led to another big hurdle. I couldn’t exactly stage an elaborate murder scene in a way that was unobtrusive to the workday, so I’d have to describe the scene to the players and let them ask questions about it.

But how do I leave clues for the players that are readily identifiable as clues and not just the ephemera of a working office? After all, any good murder investigation needs some convenient clues to uncover that will help unravel the mystery.

I opted to mark any clue (which were most often color pictures of actual items, like a stashed wallet or a threatening letter) with the symbol below, to remove any doubt that this item was involved someway in the murder mystery:

Okay, that takes care of the clues. But what about the actual interaction, where players ask questions of characters and gain the valuable knowledge needed to solve the crime?

Sure, a lot of that can be done through group emails and instant messenger programs, encouraging the investigators to share what they’ve learned, so there wouldn’t be random gaggles of investigators creating a distraction as they ponder the latest clue found or deduction made.

As a storyteller, whether you’re running an RPG or a murder mystery, you not only need to know the details of your story backwards and forwards, but you need to anticipate what questions the audience will ask.

And no matter how prepared you are, I assure you, the players will ALWAYS find a way to monkey-wrench your plans, whether they approach the problem from an unexpected direction or they ask for information you hadn’t prepared in advance. There had to be a simple way to reflect this in the actual gameplay.

To deal with this, I borrowed an idea from Lollapuzzoola and created Holmes Tickets, which were catch-all requests for deeper insight or information than had been provided. Basically, anything that would require outside intervention or skills beyond that of the casual investigator could be revealed by spending a Holmes Ticket.

Dusting for fingerprints, getting ahold of a coroner’s report, uncovering information on a missing check…all of these and more were results of investigators cashing in their Holmes Tickets at various points in the investigation.

So, how did the actual murder mystery go? Well, I’d love to tell you, but it’s not finished yet! The work day proved more intrusive than expected — damn those pesky deadlines and responsibilities! — so we’re rolling into a third day of passive gameplay.

By hook or by crook, the story will be wrapped up today, and I’ll be able to fill you in more on the actual story, clues, and progression of each investigation. For now, I’ll just let you know that there are currently three bodies to account for (our killer has been busy since Monday night), and a host of theories, but no firm accusations yet.

We shall see if justice is served or if our crafty killer gets away.


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