Long, long ago, I hosted a disastrous costume party. Instead of an action-packed night of hilarity, it turned out to be a group of eight almost-strangers sitting quietly in my living room as if we weren’t dressed as witches and werewolves. Someone yawned and everyone went home early. As I stood in my empty hall and let the weight of disappointment that comes with failure settle over me, I swore to myself that next time would be different.
Different is just what I did the following year, and for four years after. Freeform Games, a company that specializes in interactive murder mystery games, has enough variety in their themes to last a lifetime. Starting with Victorian-era Egypt and traipsing through the centuries and back, my guests and I made life-lasting memories playing these games. The five years I hosted these parties were lessons in creativity, organization, and bliss-filled fun.
The last year I threw one of these parties, our group of players were familiar with how things worked and hard-core players. It was a pirate theme and we nearly tore down the house having so much fun. Our pirates were scraggly thieves, our wenches were bawdy opportunists, and the natives and priests were anything but innocent and saintly.
How Freeform Games work
Freeform Games are all about interaction and, as their company name suggests, it’s about freeform interaction. Players are given a character to play, along with goals to achieve, tools to use, and a few tips to get started. Otherwise, there is no script. Even the idea of solving the murder is up in the air, although there usually are a few characters in the game whose goal it is to solve the mystery. The key is to use the basic outline to go out and have a blast pretending to be the kind of person your mother warned you about; someone who lies, cheats, steals, and gets revenge!
Success starts in June
The planning to host this kind of party for Halloween begins earlier in the year. I tended to start in June. The earlier you plan, the more time you have to play around with options and ideas while, bit by bit, collecting the things you’ll need to make the party a success.
After you pick out the theme, tempt those you plan to invite with “secret intelligence” about the upcoming game by dropping a “Save the Date” email or card. Meanwhile, seek inspiration for the invitations by Googling “pirate invitations”, “flapper style”, or “Egyptian party”, depending on the theme, and begin compiling props to help the game feel more realistic.
Invitations set the tone
How you go about inviting your guests to your murder mystery party can impact the game itself. Freeform Games provides invitations you can send out, but if you take it up a notch and show your own creativity and enthusiasm with invitation design, it tells your guests that’s the level of creativity and enthusiasm you hope they bring on the night of the party.
One idea for invitations is to go through a place like Paper-Source or PaperDirect.com to get easy to print and assemble invitations. Below is an example from the year I hosted Happy Birthday, RJ!, a take on Dallas, the 1980s-era television series. Everyone came dressed as wealthy Texas oil men and women set in that time period. The design I chose for the invitations was inspired by the Cowboys football team. PaperDirect.com had just the thing.
Another idea is to create your own invitations. I did this for the pirate game, A Dead Man’s Chest.
For this invitation, I took the information for each character and input it into a three-columned document in Word. Then I printed it on 8.5×11 sheets of parchment paper. Using craft scissors, I cut in between and around the columns to achieve a rustic treasure-map look, then I stacked those pages on top of each other, and punched two holes in the top. Twine laced with beads and feathers was threaded through the holes, which became the binding for the packet. Finally, I used a sueded, dark-brown paper to create a crude envelope before tying it all together with a twine bow. It was the most labor-intense invitation I made, but was definitely the most fun!
Tip: Official invitations should be delivered about a month and a half before the party to allow your guests a chance to put together their costumes and gear up for the game. A couple of weeks before the big night, send out an email to check in with everyone and see if they have any questions.
Characters make the game
While it’s true the invitations help drum up enthusiasm for the party, the people you invite, along with their interest in getting into character, really make the party a night to remember. Anybody who enjoys playing games, who was in theater in high school or college (or now!), or who simply likes to have a good time will have fun playing a Freeform Game.
Of course, there are those who do not see themselves as outgoing, even enough to hide their shyness behind a costume. Sometimes these people will ask if they, or a friend they would like to bring, can come but not play. My view has always been that there can be no observers. It saps the energy of the game. If you know them well enough and you know they would make a perfect character in the game, try to convince them to play anyway, even a little bit. If, however, you don’t know them well, or they’re super shy, give them a non-playing part, but make sure to keep them busy by assigning them jobs as servers, bartenders, or busers. My rule: If you don’t come to play, you come to work.
Experience has taught me that even these people get in on the game. During our 1920s party, for example, one guest came to be a background player, the dealer of a casino-style card table. He ended up becoming a shark before it was over, winning more fake money for The House!
Another guest came to work as a busperson. I asked her to wear black and then gave her an apron to wear. This apron happened to have a pocket in it, which she then used to steal fake money and other property from other guests. By the end of the evening, she was the surprise winner of the award for “Wealthiest Player”!
Setting the stage
Any party I host is not hosted lightly. Furniture is moved, tables are rented. Things have to be just right.
Whether you rent tables or not, remove all but a couple of chairs. If your guests lounge, they might fall into talking about reality–and nobody wants that. This is about getting lost in a different world for a few hours, having fun pretending, just like you did when you were 10. Keeping people on their feet helps keep the energy moving and encourages the less enthusiastic to cross paths with those more enthusiastic and energetic.
Secondly, if you can turn down some of the lights, do so, and light some candles or hang some twinkly lights. There needs to be enough light for people to see their way around your place, but a darker room creates a sneakier sort of mood. It also helps people feel a little more comfortable acting like 10 year olds playing pretend.
Whatever you can make or afford as a prop also helps set the stage for the game. It provides a more realistic feel to the surroundings.
Tip: Make sure fake guns look fake. For example, rather than silver toy pistols, use purple or orange water guns. There have actually been several incidents related to people being shot by police because they thought the person was pointing a real gun, when in fact, it turned out to be a toy.
Rewarding bad behavior
Awards are always a great way to wrap up the party. Freeform Games provides a timeline for the game, but there really isn’t a way of knowing who won, so to speak. In each character packet, add a voting ballot for different awards to be given out at the end of the evening. When my guests learned there would be awards, they rose to the occasion to try to win them. Some favorites were “Wealthiest Player”, “Best Costume”, and “Most In-Character”.
You can make your own award ribbons using a spool you buy at JoAnn Fabrics and a paint pen, or you can go through your local trophy company–the place where little league and bowling teams get their trophies–to purchase trophies or medals etched with the award titles.
Nourishment for your villains and fiends
A party is not a party without food and drink. For a party like this one, you want finger foods, things people can pick up and eat on the go. Here’s an example of items people can eat on the go:
- Marinara meatballs
- Poached prawns with dip
- Mini veggie quiches
- Classic vegetables with dips
- Baby cheesecakes, brownies, and mini pastries.
The number of people at your party will determine how much food you need. If you expect 15 people, provide three to five different kinds of foods to choose from and, of those choices, have enough that each person can have two to three servings from each tray. If you know your guests are big into pastries, get lots of those. Keeping in mind vegetarians and those with other dietary restrictions by providing a particular tray devoted to them is a thoughtful way to welcome all of your guests. If you don’t know how your party-goers eat, do a tray of each kind of finger foods: 1 meat choice, 1-2 veggie items, and desserts.
Tip: It never ceased to amaze me that, no matter how much shrimp I provided, it was always the most popular item on the table. There were never leftovers.
Finally, it’s better to have too much food than not enough. Hungry guests are not happy-go-lucky guests and you can always send leftovers home with others.
We cannot forget the bar since, so often, this loosens up your guests’ nerves and their tongues! Have one of the friends who asked to observe the game be your bartender, or set the bar up so guests can help themselves. Get things started by pouring a few rounds ahead of time and having them available as soon as people start walking in the door.
Tip: Make sure to provide non-alcoholic options for those who do not drink and for the designated drivers, and be prepared to cut someone off if you see they have had too much and are planning to drive home.
Fun for all
Of course, the ultimate goal is that you and your partiers have a great time making memories together. To be a good host means you have put yourself into the shoes of your guests. Imagine what it is you would like if you were attending the party and make it happen. The real key is for you to have a welcoming spirit. Go into it with joy and excitement for the party. Welcome your guests enthusiastically. Do what you can to help your guests have a good time, and you will all have a great time.