Murder Mystery Masquerade Party – the Report

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.

Background

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:

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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:

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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.

The guests

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!

Masks

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:

Drew Golden's mask
Drew Golden’s mask.

Once meant for Pram Peach
The mask originally intended for Pram Peach. Pram couldn’t make it, so now the mask is mine! Muahaha!

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.

Airbrushed masks
Most of the masks that I airbrushed. At the time I took this picture, the masks were intended for (left-right, top-to-bottom): Frankie Vermillion, Furen Copper, Tele Taupe, Finn Burgundy, Pizzy Sapphire, Bat von Aqua, Carney Cobalt, and Dylan Salmon. Some of these masks were later repurposed for other characters. Others I made just in case someone wanted to attend at the last minute, but that didn’t happen; Frankie, Pizzy, Bat, and Dylan were not there.

Mustard mask
Front and center is the mask for Mickey Mustard. He could not attend. I got my revenge as you’ll read below. Behind that mask are a couple of white masks, one for Bruno Ivory and one for me to wear as Riley White.

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.

Looking at Masks
These are masks I purchased rather than made. I originally planned to wear the one at the top, but I discovered that the paper masks were far more comfortable than the plastic ones. For the fate of these unused masks, see the next picture.

Leftover masks
After the party, I was left with about a dozen masks. I mounted them on my walls to join other mementos. Here I show as many as I could conveniently fit in a single photo. Riley White’s fully-decorated mask is on the far right. Freddie Fuchsia’s mask is on the far left; she left it behind after the party.

For over a decade, my Wicca group has wanted to do ritual work with masks. Now we’ve got the tools to do it!

Party prep

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:

A stinkin' badge

I got badge holders that came with clips. I also put double-sided fabric tape on the back of the plastic so the guests could choose the way they wanted to wear the badges.

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.

Surprises

The expected

The victim

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.

The drumming

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.

The unfortunate

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!

The unknown

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.

The party

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?”

Photos

Charlie and friends.jpg
At left is Charlie Periwinkle. He would win the award for the most Amazing Costume. In middle, Brad Olive chats with Danny Magenta. To the far right, Drew Golden lounges.

Riley White Pontificates
Mayor Riley White pontificates. On the left, Ashton Jade and Gary Gray look on.

Listening to the Mayor
The guests listen to the Mayor as he speaks. Who is that person in the lower right-hand corner? Does anyone remember inviting a “Jane Doe”?

Celebrity guests
Mayor Riley White introduces the celebrity guests. From left-to-right: Bruno Ivory, Omari Black, Deadbee Cyan, Brad Olive, Ashton Jade, Tele Taupe.

Clue Reference #1: “I’m sorry that astronaut Mickey Mustard could not make it. But after that interview he gave in Playboy, I’m not surprised. He’s now in big trouble. It seems that on the International Space Station, for the first time in space, “Colonel” Mustard did it in the lounge with a lead pipe.”

Brad Olive

Brad Olive.

Clue Reference #2: “Why do I have a problem with Brad Olive? Last year, Finn Burgundy put on that great production of Beauty and the Beast. Cass Chocolate did the amazing set design, and Izzy Maroon worked on the make-up effects. Well, that ham Brad Olive played Lumiére. His costume and his attitude caught the eye of my wife. And… well… Mrs. White did it in the bedroom with a candlestick.”

Scarlet and Black

Madison Scarlet and Omari Black.

Clue Reference #3: “We all know how kinky that federal agent is in her private life. In fact, just last week, Miss Scarlet did it in the kitchen with a rope!”

Bruno Ivory

Bruno Ivory.

Bruno Ivoey's card

Bruno Ivory got so into his role that he had cards printed up and handed them to other guests!

Scarlet and Mint

Madison Scarlet and Dr. Brin Mint. I was told that Brin also had cards printed up, but I didn’t get one.

Pewter and Scarlet

Peyton Pewter and Madison Scarlet. Peyton won the night’s award for Most Gentlemanly Costume.

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Freddie Fuchsia. Freddie won the night’s award for Most Ladylike Costume.

Lou Violet

Lou Violet captured our attention with her card tricks and her conspiracy theories. She wove an elaborate tale of corruption involving Riley White, Omari Black, and Reese Cerulean. Her paranoid ravings were absolutely accurate, but we didn’t have the heart to tell her.

White and Charcoal

Mayor Riley White and Alex Charcoal.

Carney Cobalt and Furen Copper

Carney Cobalt and Furen Copper.

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Avery Lemon and Wolfe Indigo.

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!

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Deadbee Cyan was so cool that he didn’t bother to wear his mask. It stayed in his pocket most of the time.

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Logan Plum and Charlie Periwinkle. Logan Plum would win the award for the Most Likely Suspect.

Acorn Garden gang 2

A special circle of friends. Counter-clockwise from the left: Stevie Pink, Izzy Maroon, Mel Mauve, Cass Chocolate, Reese Cerulean, and Riley White. Note that Cass Chocolate’s mask is actually made of chocolate!

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Oh no! There’s been a murder! And one thing’s for sure: Someone’s responsible!

What’s that money lying about? Is her hand holding a piece of paper with the number “1” written on it?

Whodunnit?

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.

IMG_4935 (1)
If you look a bit left of center in this photo (stop staring at Ashton for a second) you’ll see Jane and John Doe. They rivaled Ghost V in their ability to creep people out.

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.

The awards

I created award certificates using Microsoft Powerpoint. They came out fairly well, I thought.

Certificates sample

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 [1] 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

[1] “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.

Cleaning up

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!

60th birthday – the invitation

I invite my friends (new and old, near and far) to my 60th birthday party.

Date: Saturday, December 7, 2019
Time: 6PM – 11PM
Location: This is a public blog post, so I’ll send the address separately. It’s the same place as my 40th and 50th birthday parties, and a few Yule celebrations.

The event: A professionally-published murder mystery, set during a masquerade ball.

If you’d like to come, please respond by Tuesday November 5 (Election Day!) with the information below. You can reach me via email, send me a message via Facebook, or text/call; my contact information hasn’t changed in 20 years. (I advise against replying directly to this WordPress blog post, as it’s visible to the public.)

Guests are welcome, especially those friends who did not see this invitation either via Facebook or email.

For each person who’s coming, I’d like to know the following information.

  • Your postal address, so I can send you game materials in advance.
  • An email address so your fellow players can contact you in-character before the party. If you only want to be contacted some other way, tell me; bear in mind that some of the other guests don’t use Facebook.
  • Your level of commitment to the mystery:

    • Category 1: “The show must go on! Neither daemons pouring from the gates of hell nor hosts of angels with flaming swords shall bar my way to Ravenwood Castle!”

      People in Category 1 will receive key roles. One of them may be a tragic victim. One of them may be a foul murderer.

    • Category A: “Stuff happens. I plan to be there, but I can’t make a firm commitment.”

      If you choose Category A, you’ll be in a role that offers clues to solving the mystery. You’ll be missed if you’re not there, but the other guests can forge on.

    • Category Alpha: “It’s hard for me to commit in advance. I might not even know if I can make it until a few hours before the party, or I could be late.”

      Those in Category Alpha will have auxiliary characters. If you can make it, you’ll be able to participate and provide more clues. Who knows? Your character might even be innocent of any wrong-doing.

  • The characters have color-based names (e.g., Finn Burgundy, Reese Cerulean). The game suggests people wear costumes and masks of that color to identify themselves. Let me know if you’d like me to help out with your mask.

    (You don’t have to come in costume, or even wear a mask. I’ll have name tags for everyone.)

We’ll coordinate food (it will be semi-potluck) and rides (e.g., more than one person may be coming from Philly) as we get closer to the date of the party.

Remember: NO PRESENTS! My response to any presents will be Shakespearean.

I look forward to seeing you there!

60th birthday – interested?

For my 20th, 30th, 40th, and 50th birthday parties, I organized events centered on gaming. As you’ll see if you click on the links in the first sentence, for my 40th and 50th I set up a LARP party. For my 60th birthday party, I’m going to take a simpler approach and host a murder mystery.

This is not an invitation to that party, at least not yet. This is to get a general idea of how many of my friends would like to come.

All I know right now is the date of the party: Saturday, December 7, 2019; the place is somewhere in the Rockland County/Bergen Country area. The exact location, the setting of the mystery, and other details depend on how many are coming. I’m leaning towards a masquerade party, but we’ll see.

If you’d like to come to my 60th birthday party, please let me know.

Fiddly bits

  • Please let me know before mid-October.
  • You can reach me via Facebook, or send me e-mail, or text me, or call. None of my contact information has changed in the past 20 years.
  • If you reply to this WordPress blog post, please leave your name. Otherwise the only thing I’ll see is the IP address, which won’t be enough for me to know who you are.
  • Guests are fine, but please let me know how many would be coming with you. The total number of people affects the location of the party and possibly the mystery’s setting as well.
  • I’m not asking for a commitment to attend, just general interest. I will ask for a commitment when I start assigning roles for the mystery.
  • Unlike the adventures of my last three birthday parties, which I wrote, the mystery will come from a professional publisher. Even I won’t know whodunnit.
  • NO PRESENTS!

    I was a dick about this at my 40th. I was a total dick about this at my 50th. I’m prepared to go completely Richard III at my 60th.

    I don’t want stuff. I have enough stuff. Friends and laughter and back rubs are what are important to me at this point in my life.

    One more time:

    NO PRESENTS!

Peking Duck

My 30th birthday took place at one of the threshold times in my life.  I had recently read The Spiral Dance, and was in the process of looking for a Wiccan group.  Six weeks later I would attend my first Wicca class/ritual, and my life would be forever changed.

That change hadn’t happened yet, but I was aware of the potential.  I wanted my 30th birthday party to reflect that sense of transition.  I was determined to do things I had never done before.

I’ve already mentioned one thing I did that was different: a two-city Star Wars RPG session over the phone.  But somehow, that wasn’t enough.

I’ve had a long-time love of Chinese food, but there was one item on the menu I’d never tried: Peking Duck. I had no clear idea of what it was or how it tasted, but it sounded exotic.  Almost every Chinese restaurant I’d even been to had a note next to Peking Duck in the menu: “This item must be ordered at least 24 hours in advance.”  What could it mean?  What exotic method of food preparation required a full day?  And why did it cost so much?

I did a little research (not enough, as will be seen, but these were the days before Google).  I found that the reason that Peking Duck took so long to prepare is that it involved some kind of slow-cooking process that allowed the fat to drain.  This whetted both my appetite and my curiosity.

I decided I was going to try Peking Duck for my birthday.  And if I was going to try it, why not let the party guests try it too?  Peking Duck for everyone!  At least, for everyone who wanted it.  Almost everyone was as ignorant and curious as I was and wanted to go along with the idea.

I made arrangements with a Chinese restaurant near where I lived, and with one in the area where my Chicago friends lived.  I arranged to pay for dinner at both restaurants.

The managers of both Chinese restaurants independently contacted me when they heard that I placed the orders for Peking Duck in advance.  They essentially both asked the same question: “Are you sure you want this?”  “Yes, I do,” I replied enthusiastically.  They were trying to warn me, but due to a combination of language difficulties and my eagerness for the project, I didn’t pick up on it.

The same thing happened at both the restaurant in New York and in Chicago: My friends all sat down, hungry after a long gaming session.  The waiters came out bearing mountains and mountains of duck.

You’re way, way ahead of me, aren’t you?  What I didn’t understand is that Peking Duck is an appetizer that’s meant to be shared among four people; that’s part of the reason why it costs so much.  I asked for one order of Peking Duck per person.  The result: More duck than even a bunch of gamers could comfortably consume.

I was eating leftover duck for two weeks afterwards.

For the amount it cost me, I could have flown out to Chicago and had a separate birthday party with that group of friends.

Oh, well.  I learned something.  Maybe

I haven’t had Peking Duck since.  It’s not that I’m afraid of it; it tasted good and it’s a pretty low-fat dish.  It’s that I haven’t been to a sit-down Chinese restaurant with three or more other diners who planned more than a day in advance to order it.

Say, want to try some Peking Duck?

Brownie balls and monster cakes

I said that I would tell this story, and here I keep that promise.

For my 20th birthday party, I held an all-day event at my house.  Good food, good games, good people (not in that order, of course).

I’m a workman-like cook.  I can’t come up with much that’s new or innovative, but I can follow a recipe.  As a meal planner, I’ve always had difficulties; I’ve described my problems with Passover Seders, and I wasn’t any better when I was 20.

Among the many dishes I served that day, I decided to offer both cheese fondue and chocolate fondue.  Some 30 years later, I know that’s a mistake.  Oh, I know that other people do it besides me; it sounds like a cool idea.  But the fact that many have done it doesn’t make it right.  The older me knows that part of a meal is balance, and having two dipping courses in a single day is not good balance.

The cheese fondue turned out all right, but let’s focus on the chocolate fondue.  Normally, one dips fruit or chunks of pound cake into the melted chocolate.  I didn’t like fruit (I don’t especially care for it now), but I thought that only offering pound cake would be boring (another mistake; nowadays I would have fruit available too).  So I decided to make chocolate balls to dip into the fondue (yet another mistake; good taste experiences usually involve contrast).

I made the chocolate balls from a brownie mix, baking them a day or two before my party.  I put them into a container and left them; I had plenty of other things to prepare for the big day.

We come to the day of the party, at the time I’m serving the dessert.  I bring out the chocolate fondue, the cut-up chunks of pound cake, and the brownie balls.  My friends are playing games in the living room, so I set up the food in the dining room.

If it had been a sitcom, it could not have been better directed.  Each of my guests came into the dining room one-by-one.  Those that were already there had had the experience, and kept quiet as they watched the newcomer go through it: the unsuspecting victim would stick the fondue fork into the brownie ball, they’d dip it into the chocolate fondue, maybe they’d blow on it to cool it down, and they’d stick it into their mouth whole.

The brownie balls had hardened into rocks while sitting for two days.  Each person found themselves with a hot chocolate-flavored golf ball in their mouth.  They’d tried to chew it, while the rest of the guests would laugh themselves silly, remembering that long-ago minute when they’d been the one to look like a fool.

Later (years later!) a more experienced friend figured that I’d let the brownie balls dry out.  It doesn’t matter; I’ll never repeat that experiment again.

As for the monster cake:

I’ve had a weight problem for most of my life.  As I was approaching 20, I decided I’d deal with it.  I exercised and dieted, and lost quite a bit of weight.  (Yes, I did it to impress a girl.  No, she wasn’t impressed.)

One of the guests at my party, who was also a player in my role-playing game, was a wholesale baker.  Even though I told no one to bring any food, because I had plenty, she decided to bring a birthday cake for me.  It was one of those huge sheet cakes, the kind that you get for a wedding for a hundred people, about 3×4 feet.   Some of the guests (those who weren’t satisfied by the brownie-ball experience) had a piece, but basically that entire cake was left over after the party.

Here’s the part of the story that’s difficult to believe: Over the course of the next two weeks, that cake leaped from the table and wrapped itself around my mid-section.  Eventually I threw it out (there was about a third left), but it was too late.  The monster cake had claimed a victim.

The successful attack of the monster cake had nothing to do with that girl not being impressed by my dieting.  Nothing at all.  I don’t know why you’d make that connection.  Let’s change the subject.

My tale of birthday food disasters did not end with my 20th birthday.  Next: the tale of the Peking duck.

Birthdays and decades

Last Wednesday was my birthday; I’m now 49. If you forgot, it’s OK; birthdays are my affectation, and I don’t expect everyone else to have the enthusiasm I do.

I spent the evening in the company of friends, playing Munchkin. Afterwards my best friend stayed for a while and we hung out. He did some measurements and sketches for my second tatoo. All in all, a pleasant and happy birthday.

I’m already thinking about my next birthday, my 50th. To understand why I’m planning my next birthday party year in advance, we have to set the Wayback Machine to 1979.

As I discussed in an earlier post, I started gaming in the early 1970’s and by 1979 I was an avid gamer, as were most of my friends. So on Dec 3, 1979, I had a gaming party at my home for my 20th birthday. I’d spent the previous week cooking special dishes for the party. On the day itself, we spent the day playing different board games; we were all into RPGs, but I knew I’d be spending too much time in the kitchen to participate in one. (I’ll save the story of the brownie balls and the monster cake for a future post.)

By 1989 I’d finished taking data for my thesis experiment at Fermilab in Chicago (though it would be another 7 years before my data analysis was over). I had gamer friends in both New York and Chicago. This time we held an two-city RPG, a Star Wars game. This was before the days of the Internet (it was also before West End Games ruined the Star Wars RPG rules), so we held the game over the phone. There was both a Chicago GM and a New York GM (me); some of the action was independent at both sites, while some was co-ordinated between the two groups. (I’ll save the story of the Peking Duck for a future post.)

In 1999, I was involved with LARPs. I got the folks from Mystic Realms to help me present the story. The idea was that people could come as a character from any idea they had in time, space, or fantasy. If they did, they would have a role in the story, with LARP-style abilities that reflected that character. I rented a hall, had lots of food (far too much!), and set out drugstore cameras so folks could take pictures. You can see the results on this web page.

What will I do for my 50th birthday party? The reason why I ponder this now is that, for my other decade parties, I knew what I wanted to do months in advance; for my 40th, I had the idea two years in advance. Right now I have no clear idea of what I want to do.

Here are the bits and pieces that I want to fit together:

  • I want it to be another gaming party. The only other group social activity in my life that’s more important than gaming is Wicca, and I am not going to hold a Wiccan ritual for my birthday. Aside from the fact that it would be using my religion out of pure hubris, I just don’t want to do it.
  • The earlier portions of my life were characterized by some big social changes. No one who attended my 20th birthday party also attended my 30th; I had lost touch with them by that time. Two people who attended my 30th birthday also attended my 40th (and one more called in).

    In contrast, almost everyone who attended my 40th birthday party is still in my life and will be invited to my 50th, along with a bunch of new friends.

    In my mind, this creates some sense of continuity. I know that almost none of those who attended the party nine years ago will remember that plot for next year’s party, but it would be nice to link the two somehow.

  • At my 20th and 30th birthday parties, all of the attendees were gamers. At my 40th, most of the attendees were not gamers. I’d say at most half got into the spirit of the story and game; the rest sort of tolerated it. They liked coming in costume; I think I can keep that concept.
  • If you take the time to read the plot of my 40th birthday party, you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that there was too damn much.

    I wanted to give everyone something to talk about and something to do. Instead, I think it came off as confusing and opaque to anyone who wasn’t a gamer. I also put enormous effort into telling stories that most of them never heard.

  • One reason why many of them never heard a chunk of the story is that about a third of the people who said they were going to come did not show up. I don’t mean that some of my friends didn’t accept the invitation; of course, many did not and I did not expect them to. I mean that about a third planned to come, created characters, I crafted a place in the plot for them, and then they canceled at the last minute.

    What can you do? It’s a party, not a trial date. (Actually, if you read the plot, it was a trial date :-)!) But it meant that parts of the story didn’t work.

  • One thing that clearly “failed” at the 40th birthday party was bringing in the complex rules of a LARP to the event. The concepts of hit points, mana, spells, combat actions, etc., were just too much to absorb. I made sure that none of these things mattered to the plot, but they were there as background.

    I may get Mystic Realms involved again in helping me with the 50th birthday party, but it won’t be a full-fledged participatory LARP experience.

My thoughts at this point:

  • Keep it an (optional) costume party. If you come in costume, you can play as the character.
  • My original game design was based on the How to Host a Murder games, but I got too elaborate.

    Instead of a page or two of information for each character, write down “something you know” on a card, no more than a sentence or two. Hand out the cards during the party, with more cards handed out as time goes on. Keep it simple; keep it flowing.

What story do I tell? How do I tell it using “information cards”? How can I make it a mystery, or at least something to hold my friends’ interest?

Most important (at least to me), how can I do it in such a way that it’s their choice, not mine, as to how much they get involved in the telling of story?

You know, one event every decade is not often enough to playtest a concept!