It’s been two weeks since the party. I said it then, and I’ll say it again: It was the best party I ever hosted. I don’t think I’ll host a better one for the rest of my life.
This is one of my longer blog posts. I want to get all the details down so that if I ever do this again, I can learn from my successes and failures.
I’m mindful that people doing web searches on “Ravenwood Mystery Party” might find this post. I’ve done my best to avoid major spoilers.
Privacy note: I’m going to refer to individual guests by their characters’ names. This is to preserve their privacy in a public blog post. The exception will be the characters who were the victim and the murderer; I’ll refer to them as V and M.
Let’s back up a bit.
For my prior two birthday parties, I hosted a LARP. They were at best moderately successful; some people just didn’t get the hang of improvisational role-playing.
A few years ago a friend of mine hosted a professionally-written murder mystery party. She offered me the role of the murder victim, since it required someone who could role-play well. In the game as written, the murder victim could come back as a ghost. I decided to take it to excess (a typical pattern in my life) and use the murder as an excuse for a role switch.
Before the murder, I was a tough take-no-nonsense gangster:
After my character was murdered, I went into the bathroom, shaved my beard, changed my outfit, and became the victim’s older brother. He was a total milquetoast:
As my 60th birthday approached, I became more enamored of the idea of hosting a similar mystery party. There was no reason to suspect a LARP I wrote would be any more successful than what I’d done before. Let a professional do the writing!
When I searched for murder mystery parties one could purchase on-line, I found a different company from what my friend chose. On their front page was a masquerade party. I felt that was a concept everyone would understand.
I wanted to get some idea of how many people wanted to come. The mysteries from MyMysteryParty have three levels: the basic mystery with 18 or so characters, an expansion with 6 additional characters (who can also be team leaders to accommodate more guests), and a second expansion to accommodate up to 16 more characters.
I wrote an initial blog post to get an idea of how many people were interested. I got enough of a response that I knew I’d have to get the base mystery and expansion #1 immediately. I followed that post with another more formal invitation. I got enough RSVPs that I purchased the second expansion as well.
MyMysteryParty offers a web site that hosts can share with the guests to so the they can see what other characters might come to the party. I didn’t like it. Mystery parties of this sort have “key” or “required” characters who must be there for the story to work; every other character is optional. On that web site, it doesn’t take much insight to realize that the key characters were listed first. I didn’t want any of my guests to feel they were second-class citizens.
So I copied over the character information from the mystery’s list of characters, but put the characters in alphabetical order by last name, from Omari Black through Riley White. It was a bit of an effort, but it also acted as a bookkeeping device so I could see which roles were available as more people RSVPed.
After I knew who was playing which character, I sent out materials via postal mail. It included:
- a colorful invitation that was supplied in the mystery party kit
- a description of the character (along with costume suggestions and optional pre-game activity)
- a copy of the newspaper cover page from the bottom of MyMusteryParty’s Ravenwood page
- the party kit’s guest instructions so they’d know what to expect
- for most of the guests, a copy of a ticket to the party
A couple of “uninvited” characters did not get tickets: John and Jane Doe. I knew they’d be there anyway.
I quickly discovered that I needed some way to keep track of all the guests, their characters, their email addresses, and their postal addresses. I used Microsoft Excel for that. For repetitive documents like the invitations, mailing labels, guest badges, and game envelopes, I used Swift Publisher 5. These tools showed their worth as I handled late-comers who asked to come after the RSVP deadline, and when I had to deal with a last-minute substitution.
To communicate with everyone, I set up both a Facebook event page and a mailing list. Every time I sent an email to the list, I also posted it on the FB page. This was to handle both those folks who were not on Facebook, and those who never check their email.
At its peak, the guest list had 37 people, more than any of my other parties! As we got closer to the date, 3 of them could not make it, leaving 34. That was a better attendance rate than my previous parties; typically a third didn’t show up. Thanks, folks!
One of the reason I chose a mystery set at a masquerade party is that it made costuming fun and simple. The characters all had last names based on colors (Mel Mauve, Izzy Maroon, and so on) so all you needed was a mask of the appropriate color. I knew better than to insist that everyone wear a mask, but as it happened everyone wore one anyway. (Again, thanks for that, folks!)
Most folks got or made their own masks. Ashton Jade went on a business trip to New Orleans, and offered to get masks for folks from the Land of Masks. She got some nice ones. Here are a couple:
There were people for whom finding a mask of the right color was a challenge; it’s not easy finding one for Furen Copper or Carney Cobalt. So I purchased a set of white masks and offered to airbrush them in an appropriate color. Several folks took me up on this offer.
The pictures above show the masks before they were decorated. The Guest Formerly Known as Robyn Teal (see below) came over and added details with glitter glue and metallic paint markers.
Like most mystery party games of this sort, the Ravenwood Masquerade had a series of cards for each character. Each card is revealed in three successive rounds.
I purchased the game as a set of PDFs. MyMysteryParty offers pre-packaged kits with all the cards printed out and rolled up with a ribbon. I chose not to use that, and went with something fancier: I printed out the cards and created sets of envelopes, one set for each round. Each round’s cards were in envelopes of a different color, so both the players and I could tell which envelope applied to which round. All the envelopes were labeled with the character’s name, player’s name, and round number; Swift Publisher was handy for this.
I created another set of “pre-game” envelopes that I gave to the guests as they arrived. Each envelope contained the character’s name badge and a starting amount of play money (more on that below).
The PDFs came with images to be used as name badges. They weren’t bad, but I chose to use my own. I created these with Swift Publisher:
In the PDFs from MyMysteryParty, they have suggestions for additional games to play along with the mystery. I took one of their suggestions, and offered an award for the player who had accumulated the most play money by the end of the evening. I told the players, “We shall be shocked (shocked, I tell you!) if this encourages bribery, blackmail, extortion, or illegal gambling.”
I had decks of cards and social tabletop games at the party just in case someone wanted to play poker or something to get money. In the end, no one touched the cards.
I also created a trivia contest. All the questions had to do with real-life lives of the people at the party; e.g., “How many have taken a martial arts class?”, “How many have been to Australia?”, “How many have fed a tiger?”, “How many have been in a shipwreck?”
I created a sheet with the trivia contest, instructions about the play money, and space for people to vote for various awards: Most Suspected, Most Amazing Costume, Best Role-Playing, and so on.
I’ll tell you how well the money and trivia games worked below.
Since I knew these questions and votes (and later on, notes on the mystery) would require writing, I purchased a couple of packs of pens, both black and colored. Getting clipboards for each guest would be expensive, so I went with getting a pack of chipboard. I even got some of the colored pens back at the end of the party. I’ll use those for my own art projects.
I also arranged for a photography station, since I knew a lot of folks would want to preserve the memories of their costumes. I got a photography backdrop. Wolfe Indigo was kind enough to set it up at the party. He warned me that a backdrop of that size would accommodate only two people at most. As you’ll see from the photos, he was right.
If you remember the start of this blog post, I did a complete costume change when I was a victim at my last murder-mystery party. I considered being the victim to do the same thing again, but after 15 seconds of thought I realized that as the host I couldn’t be away from the party long enough for a costume change.
I glanced through the cards in the PDFs just enough to determine which character was the victim. There was one potential guest who I knew was as into costuming as I was. When “V” RSVP’ed, I contacted them and asked if they’d consider playing the role of the victim. They enthusiastically consented.
V decided to play the victim role in the manner MyMysteryParty suggested: To come back as a non-speaking ghost. After V’s “body” was discovered, V changed into an all-white version of the same costume they’d been wearing. They then proceeded to creep out other guests through silent stares and body language.
I knew that I was going to end the evening with a drum circle, and told the guests in advance. To transition into it, I worked out a bit of theatrics with Peyton Pewter: At the end of the awards, I said, “And now, the final award, for the most persistent drummer goes to–“. Peyton didn’t let me finish the sentence; he just started drumming. He got the drumming started and won an award at the same moment!
There was one more fun surprise. This one involved Ashton Jade, and I’ll describe it below.
There was one unwelcome surprise: As I mentioned above, some roles in the mystery are “key” roles; the story can’t proceed without them. When casting the roles, I tried to be sure that the most reliable people I knew were given those roles. (I myself took a key role, to be sure.)
On the day of the party, one of people with a key role tole me they couldn’t make it. It was a health issue, and I wished them well, but it left me a slot to fill. The role was Reese Cerulean, so I started by looking at those guests who might have already purchased a blue costume. I contacted the first one I saw on my list, and she accepted.
That was how the Guest Formerly Known As Robyn Teal became Reese Cerulean. She only had a couple of hours to prepare, and she did an excellent job, really getting into the role!
There was an unexpected surprise: a stranger showed up. I was confused; I thought she might have come to dispute the hall rental. It turned out that she’d seen in the event in the hall’s rental list and decided to check it out.
I left it to others to describe what was going on. At one point I overheard her say with anticipation, “Is it possible that I could be the murderer?”
As it turned out, she could have been. Finn Burgundy had to leave just before we started read to the cards for Round Three. I asked the stranger to read Finn’s card in Finn’s stead.
During the drumming, the stranger danced with us.
In no way was this advertised as an open event. I’m not sure what she expected or if there might be consequences down the line. But she did leave her email address and asked to be notified of any future events like this.
She might have to wait ten years.
Before the mystery
Most of the guests arrived a bit early; I’d said they could if they wanted to help me set up. At my previous parties, many guests had a problem absorbing the idea of role-playing. At this party, to my delight, the guests got into their roles the moment they walked through the door.
The trivia contest went better than I hoped. I did not anticipate that the players would form teams and share whether the answers applied to them. It gave people something to do for first hour of the party, before the mystery started: “Yes, I’m taking Tae Kwon Do. How about the rest of you?”
Wolfe won the award for gaining the most play money at the end of the night. It was a beautiful bluff: He walked up to everyone and said, “I don’t understand how we’re supposed to get more money.” So people handed him money to show him!
As the evening progressed, something fascinating happened: Whole new stories developed that had were not on players’ cards. Examples:
- Charlie Perwinkle made a deal with Maria Lime to dump well-wrapped six-foot-long parcels out at sea and not ask any questions.
- Riley White paid Furen Copper to tell Freddie Fuchsia that there was nothing wrong with her horse Dark Sail.
- As Riley White, I made a deal with Danny Magenta to handle my social media presence for the next election.
- I pointed out to Mel Mauve that if Omari Black got the lead anchor role at CBC news that she (Black) would have influence on what new shows got on the network.
With all the role-playing, I think few folks made a serious effort to solve the mystery. I shared the clues on my card to whomever asked. I remember Tele Taupe, Drew Golden, and Madison Scarlet trying to put the facts together.
As we sat down for Round Three, I asked for a vote for who people thought was the murderer. Most people picked me, but I declined the award since I was the host. I gave the award to the second-most suspected character, Logan Plum.
We then read the Round Three cards. Whodunnit? “M”, of course!
The big finish
There were some other awards, then we went over the trivia contest. The answers surprised me: It turned out there was more than one person who had fed a tiger. There was some friendly debate over what constituted a shipwreck; my final decision is that if someone made jokes about a three-hour tour, it was a shipwreck.
When we got to “how many at this party had LARPed” one of the guests (I believe it was Maria Lime) pointed out that everyone here had LARPed… at this party. I realized she was right. Brad Olive objected, saying that the question clearly was about the time before the contest. I had to reply, “You were role-playing at the moment you walked in through the door. You were LARPing! You are a LARPer! I call thee LARP!” He conceded the point.
But the trivia discussion was, in part, a smoke-screen. Its purpose was to give Ashton Jade a chance to sneak off and change into a belly-dancing costume. When the drumming started (remember the theatrics with Peyton Pewter?) Ashton Jade jumped into the circle and started dancing.
I pulled out my drums and other percussion instruments and started handing them to people. Some joined in the music, others in the dance, and others watched or talked or whatever. In other words, a typical finalé to a party, though a standard beginning to a pagan celebration.
I created award certificates using Microsoft Powerpoint. They came out fairly well, I thought.
After printing them all out, on the day before the party I realized I spelled the word as “EXCELLANCE” on the seal in the lower right. I quickly revised the certificates and used Staples to print them out on card stock. A couple of folks commented that misspelling “EXCELLENCE” was a cute joke, but I wanted it done right.
To the best of my recollection, here’s who won the various awards:
|Celebration Dedication ||Finn Burgundy|
|Masquerade Support||Madison Scarlet|
|Masquerade Support||Wolfe Indigo|
|Masquerade Support||Reese Cerulean|
|Portraying the Victim||V|
|Most Suspected||Logan Plum|
|Being the Murderer||M|
|Best Role-Playing||Brad Olive|
|Most Gentlemanly Costume||Peyton Pewter|
|Most Ladylike Costume||Freddie Fuchsia|
|Most Amazing Costume||Charlie Periwinkle|
|Gaining the Most Money||Wolfe Indigo|
|Most Trivia Questions Answered Correctly||Izzy Maroon|
|Cleaning Up After the Party||Too many to remember, but they all got awards|
 “Dedication” in this case meant she was at my 40th, 50th, and 60th birthday parties. Such a long time putting up with me surely deserves an award.
It was in the rental hall contract to leave the place at least as clean as we found it. About 10 people stayed late and made sure everything was spic-and-span. (If any of those folks did not get a certificate, let me know.)
It was only when I got home that I discovered that the clean-up crew had put almost three trays of leftovers into my car. SO MUCH FOOD! I spooned it into plastic Chinese take-out containers I’d saved and put it in my freezer.
It’s almost two weeks later and I’m still having the leftovers for dinner. I’ve got at least another week’s worth to go.
One last thanks
I’ve thanked a lot of people for helping me out. It was an amazing experience, and it was my guests who made it so.
My final thanks goes to Dr. Bon Blossman, the author of the Ravenwood Masquerade Murder. We didn’t play the game the way you intended and we didn’t follow the solution to the mystery. We still had fun!