Sunday, April 3, 2011

How to Host a Murder Mystery Party

Last night we had close to 60 people over for an “Old West” style murder mystery party. I chose to buy the plans for “Murder at the Deadwood Saloon,” which was designed by Night of Mystery Murder Mystery Parties ( We invited teens (our sons’ friends), their parents, and other singles and couples we knew. It was a wonderful evening and loads of fun!

One of the reasons we wanted to host a murder mystery party was so often lately, when we have families with teens over, the young people all go upstairs to play computer games while the parents hang out together. That’s fine some of the time (After all, how can parents tell stories about their kids if they’re around to listen and disagree with you?!! Tee-hee.), but not all the time. Personally, I like to see the generations interacting with each other; I think that’s beneficial for teens and parents alike.

I also like to see people interacting with each other who may not normally talk to each other, or know each other that well. When you’re in costume and either following a script or the objectives for your character, you have to interact with all kinds of people. You’re laughing and getting to see the “fun” side of people you might not normally get to see. It breaks down a lot of barriers.

If there’s people you might not normally think you have anything to talk about with, or maybe there are a lot “white-elephant-in-the-room” issues with certain other people you know, a murder mystery party is a good way to get your focus off that and onto something more fun and positive. Perhaps there are people you don’t know that well but you want to break the ice. These are all reasons why murder mystery parties are great for employee outings, neighborhood parties, school and church groups, and family reunions. You get to fill conversation voids with some entertaining interactions.

There are many options for hosting a murder mystery party. You can have as few as 8 people over for one, or you can go up to as high as 70 or 80 people. You can buy a murder mystery kit (either an actual game or a plan that you buy and download online; I opted for the latter) or write your own storyline. You can choose to have your guests read an actual murder mystery script, or have them act out their character roles improv-style (That’s what I did with our party last night; guests had roles and specific objectives they needed to accomplish during the party, but not specific lines.)

You can have just about any kind of setting for your murder mystery party. I opted for an Old West theme—Deadwood, South Dakota, in the 1870s—since costumes were fairly easy to come up with (especially here in Texas where I live!). After all, lots of people have cowboy hats, western boots, bandanas, etc. So guests didn’t have to spend a lot of money on outfits for the party if they didn’t want to. Of course, if guests wanted to rent or buy costumes (and many did), they can do that too.

If you do an online search for murder mystery games, you will see a huge variety of plans that you can buy. Night of Mystery Murder Mystery Parties (where we bought our plans) has created many different plans, from 1950s high school reunions and medieval themes, to luaus and wedding settings. For each plan, they have created a regular and “clean version” (which are good for teen and church groups).

Usually murder mystery parties also include a dinner during the evening. Choose a menu that relates to the setting for the party (e.g. gyros and baklava if the theme is a Greek Islands cruise). So while your guests are eating their meal, they can interact “in character” and play the game. Last night, we aimed for Old West food. My husband and I supplied barbecued beef brisket (using the recipe I posted in February), spicy “Cowboy-style” pinto beans in the crock pot, potato salad, cornbread muffins and whipped honey butter, cupcakes with cowboy toppers, western-shape cut-out sugar cookies, beer and wine for the adults, and a variety of nonalcoholic beverages for the teens. Our guests were asked to bring side dishes like tossed green salads, coleslaw, potato salad, veggies and dip trays, and desserts. Usually guests are happy to help out.

Decorations add a lot to the evening. I used many different items to try give an “Old West Saloon” feel to the first floor of our home: bandana pennant banners, wanted posters; fake gunshot hole stickers to put on mirrors, glass windows and appliances; fake gold bars; fake money bags; piles of chocolate coins covered in gold foil; brown glass beer bottles with homemade “Deadwood Brewing Company” labels on them; red gingham table cloths; saloon signs; red bandanas for doilies; metal pails with roasted in-shell peanuts in them; beer bottles with red silk wild flowers in them for table decorations; cowboy hats and spurs were on display; and on and on. I bought lots of red gingham ribbon and used that to tie around serving dishes, beverage tubs, and on the stems of wine glasses. To hold guests’ eating utensils, I put a set of forks, knives and spoons inside a bandana, folded it up, tied it with rope and put these in a large metal tub. I set up a poker table with Civil War era reproduction poker cards. And for background music, we played ragtime piano music. The atmosphere definitely Old West!

So are you ready to host your own murder mystery party? It’s really easier to pull off than you might think. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

1. Before you buy a murder mystery plan or script, survey at least a few of your potential guests to see which one they might be interested in. I emailed about a half dozen couples before I finalized which plan I wanted to do, to see if there was interest out there and to see which setting/theme people liked the most. I wanted to make sure there was the interest, before I started doing too much planning. Your murder mystery party will go much better if your guests are “in” to their characters and the storyline.

2. Start planning early—at least a month before the date of your party. Assign your guests their characters at least 3-4 weeks before the event, and send them basic character descriptions in advance. This will give them time to figure out what costumes they want to wear and to really understand their roles. Your guests may decide to order costumes online, or do a lot of running around to used clothing stores like Goodwill to look for costumes, or they might sew one of their own. They’re going to need time to do this. Some of my guests told me they read a little about late-19th century Western United States, just so they could better understand how people talked and lived, and what the culture was like at the time. The more advance prep your guests do, the better prepared they’re doing to be for the party and the more smoothly everything will run. As the host, you’re also going to need time to get together all your decorations. I ordered a lot online, and that takes time to all arrive. My costume alone—which was billed as a Civil War dressy gown—took 5 weeks to arrive from the U.K. of all places. It’s a good thing I ordered that in February!

3. Let your guests know how the party will run BEFORE they show up at your door. I sent out several emails explaining these kind of details to my guests in the 1-3 weeks before the party. I wanted them to know in advance what was going to happen at the party and what they were going to need to do. I told them how they were going to be given envelopes with their objectives at the party for before the murder and after the murder. They were told that they would have to be conducting their own personal investigations at the party to try to figure out the murderer, implicate others and prove their own innocence. They also knew they were going to get fake “Bank of Deadwood” money, which they would be using during the party. I told them that the party would last about 2-3 hours, and that the victim and murderer wouldn’t know who they were until they opened their “before the murder” and “after the murder” envelopes during the party. I wanted to explain all this ahead of time, rather than try to explain this to 60 people in a crowded family room.

4. Choose a simple menu. This is especially important during a murder mystery party. As the hostess, the hour before the party last night I was trying to make myself look like my character. In particular, I was trying to make the wig I ordered in the mail (which came in a compact envelope and the hairs were smashed together like a box of frozen spinach leaves) poof up and frame my face correctly. I was also dealing with a hoop skirt and dress that could have fit around our center island, and try to make it fit around my waist. All that took time. Usually I am spending the hour before company arrives by doing last-minute food prep. Last night, my costume was more important. I had made the cornbread muffins in advance and frozen them, I had put the briskets in the oven earlier that morning (and my husband was doing the last-minute carving), got the beans going in crock pots that morning, the desserts and potato salad I made was prepared the day before, and on and on. Several male guests were there early and they had fairly simple costumes, so when they volunteered to get beverage buckets ready and arrange buffet lines, I took them up on their offer. Having my guests bring side dishes also helped. There are too many details that need to be taken care of for a murder mystery party, to have too elaborate of a meal.

5. Give each of your guests a list of the other guests and what characters they’ll be playing—before the party. Have character nametags to hand out to them when they arrive. I made nametags out of red gingham fabric and cardstock, and then bought self-adhesive pin backs for the back of the name tags. The guests had specific people they need to talk to during the party, and the nametages made it much easier to know who was who.

6. Carefully assign characters. Look over the character description of characters, and try to really match up your guests with characters you think they’ll do well at. With the “Murder at the Deadwood Saloon” plan we used last night, there were 20 main characters (who were vital for the game), and another 14 general characters (who were optional, but still added a lot to the party because these people helped reveal more clues in their sleuthing and interactions during the party) that could be assigned as many times as I needed them. I assigned the first 20 roles to the first 20 people who RSVP’d to the party, and then the extra characters as others were added to the guest list. You also have to be ready for cancellations and changes to the guest list (There’s a good chance someone will have to back out last minute; it happened to a few of the roles for last night’s party.). Have a back-up person in mind who could fill in for one of the main roles (perhaps someone filling a general character role) if needed.

7. Anticipate ahead of time what supplies are going to be needed for the party and have them on hand. Also, have a plan for certain people to perform particular functions. I had a crate set out with the “before the murder” and “after the murder” envelopes for each of the guests (These envelopes had their money, nametags, objectives, etc. in them.). There were pens out for the voting at the end of the party (ballot voting for best costume, etc.). I also had masking tape to give to the person playing the marshal (since he was going to need that to outline the body after the murder). I had my son ready with his cap gun on the second floor, and our photographer who was going to flip the breaker to turn out all the lights when the “murder” was supposed to occur. They knew ahead of time what verbal cues to listen for so that they could get into position. I also had sealed envelopes placed in a hidden location (that only I knew) with the evidence and solution in it. Everything was organized so that all the materials were accessible and where they needed to be. You need to work out all these kind of details in advance. Once the party has started, it’s too late to think about these things.

8. Read over the script/scenario for the murder mystery party so that you know what needs to be happening and when during the party. I didn’t read over all the objectives for each individual character, but I did skim it enough so that I could have a good understanding of all the characters. I also wanted to know who the victim and murderer was. I didn’t let on what I knew to anyone else though. But I wanted to know myself just so I could have a good overall idea of what needed to be happening and would be able to step in if something wasn’t progressing as it should. Even though I knew the identity of the victim and killer, it was still fun for me. The enjoyment was seeing the interactions between characters and watching everyone’s performances.

9. Have awards for best costume, best acting and who figures out the murderer. We also had an award for who had the most money at the end of the party. I printed up certificates (and had duplicates on hand, just in case there were ties). In guests’ second envelopes, there were ballots for voting for best costume and acting, and also a place to guess who was the murderer and write down how much money they had collected (guests paid each other money for revealing/keeping secrets). Once I tallied up the results, I wrote the winning names in calligraphy on the appropriate certificates and presented them at the end of the party. That was a fun way to close the evening.

10. The last point: Go with the flow and remember you’re all there to enjoy yourself. I told myself before the party that even if nobody “got into” their characters and nobody figured out the murderer, that we were still going to have fun just dressing up and being together. Most our guests really DID seem to get into their characters. With some of the guests, I was surprised what good actors they were. That just added to the fun. Everything went as it was supposed to. There were several guests who were able to guess the murderer too. So that tells me we were successful at getting the guests to play their roles and follow through on their objectives. There was also a lot of laughing that night. It was truly a wonderful evening. Now I am just thinking about what type of murder mystery theme we could do next….


  1. What a great write up! Looks like you had a wonderful time! Would love to feature this as a "guest blog" on our site. Please contact me!

    ~ Night of Mystery

  2. I would be happy to feature this blog post on the Night of Mystery website. Please send me your email address so that I can contact you directly.

    1. Hello! I just saw your reply (I was never notified before). I am from Night of Mystery and would love to feature this on our FB page, however, could you remove the picture of the victim, so as not to spoil anything for those who have not played the game? Please let me know - thanks!

  3. im going to do my party for my 30th bday.... cant wait

  4. Thanks for sharing! I'm in the middle of planning my Night of Mystery murder party now!

  5. I am planning to do this party in a month or so. I downloaded the preview and as I don't think any of the males would be comfortable reading to and addressing the group do you think it would work to have Henrietta read the introduction etc?

  6. Hm, just stumbled onto planning a Student Worker Appreciation Luncheon (in a WEEK!) and would love to modify this to about an hour - any suggestions for an extremely condensed version? Thanks!

  7. That looks fun a really fun mystery party. I'll have to try a wild west themed one some day.

  8. Rebecca - I would love to see samples of the emails you sent giving the directions for all the guests before the party...thanks for the tips!

  9. We are co-hosting a Murder at the Deadwood Saloon party over Memorial day weekend. Invites are out and most roles are assigned. Thanks for the tips, much appreciated!