How to write a murder mystery game for a dinner party

Murder mystery games are one of the most popular choices for home parties, whether it's a family get together, a Christmas or Birthday party or a Stag or Hen weekend.

There are loads of ready made boxed up sets you can buy from many good stores or online, but what if you want to use some of your own creativity? What if you want to play a murder mystery game that no one else has played before?

I've been writing custom murder mystery games for several years now here at you-dunnit.com, and this is my simple guide for writing a great game that will amaze your friends and give them a murder mystery game night they will never forget.

Steps to write a murder mystery game:

So let's get started! Here's your guide to how to write a murder mystery game

1. Assemble your murder mystery game cast

Now this might seem like an unusual first step. “Surely you write your story before you decide on your cast?” I hear you scream 😱

Well, one of the most creative and funniest things you can do is actually base your characters on your real life friends – ideally the people you want to play your game with. 

Imagine going to a party where you actually get to play yourself – or better still, mix it up and play each other.

The real benefit for doing this is that you don't have to imagine up all your individual character's traits and quirks – your guests themselves will supply those golden nuggets simply through their own personalities and oddities.

(Yes, if you think hard enough about all your friends, you'll realise we've all got a bit of odd-ness in there somewhere). 

Things you might pick up on and include in your story:

  • The job they do
  • Hobbies they have
  • Any stand-out skills they have (or party tricks)
  • Funny stories everyone remembers about them (did they ever do anything embarrassing?)
  • Relationships they have (or have had!)
  • Ambitions they have

The really important thing to remember is that you do want to stay friends after the party – so be kind not cruel, be tongue-in-cheek not foot-in-stomach with what you include!

You might however not be 100% sure who is going to come to your party, or you may even change your mind, or perhaps there might be some people coming along who you don't really know yourself. So why not, as an alternative, base your characters on famous celebrities that everyone in  your group has heard of?

Finally, I've found over the years writing several custom murder mysteries that it's usually a good idea to tweek your character's names. Especially if you don't have explicit consent from the people who you're basing your characters on!

For example, Uncle John Robinson becomes Uncle Robin Johnson, Taylor Swift becomes the cruise ship swinger Sailor Twift.

2. Set the (Murder Mystery) Scene

OK, we can begin to have a bit of fun here. This is where you can think about where your murder mystery game is going to take place and also, rather grimly, who is going to kick the bucket. 

Now, once again you can use real life details here. For example, if you're hosting a murder mystery game dinner party or a murder mystery game weekend you can use the name and details of your actual party location for inspiration.

This could be really easy if you're going somewhere grand already, such as a posh hotel or exciting restaurant.

Your guests would love it if the game they are playing is set in the Savoy Hotel in London and they look up to see they are actually right there! (Well, let's be honest, they'd love it if they were there anyway, whether they were having a murder mystery game night or not).

But even if you're just having a house party, you can still ‘grand it up'. Perhaps 17a Belton Crescent can be transformed into Belton House? Or 83 Sixfields Close can become Sixfields Grand Hall. 

Additionally, think about some local landmarks, or interesting buildings. Or even your favourite pub. You can include these too. Perhaps you live around the corner from Clumber Park. Could that be the location where the victim's body is found? 

Choosing your victim is the second part of setting the murder mystery scene. You've got to think carefully about who it is that is going to suffer at the hand of your murderer.

Here's some things to consider:

Your murder victim should not be someone who is coming to your party

Otherwise they are going to have a very boring night sitting out for most of it while the rest of you have fun quizzing and accusing each other!

Don't be tempted to go for the obvious choice

What I mean by this is, don't just kill off the person who annoys you the most in real life, be that your boss (for a group of work mates) or that annoying person who irritates you all the time, or even (dare I say) an estranged spouse or partner!

Choosing a victim like this has all the potential of spoiling your evening by being a bit too close to the bone or might hit some raw nerves.

And if your boss finds out your team have met together and imagined their death, well I wouldn't want to be in your next team meeting.

A fictional character is the way to go

This is the character that you can make up from scratch. But here's a few suggestions:

  1. Invent a character who has some level of authority or importance. This will make your story telling loads easier later
  2. Make sure your character can connect to lots of different characters. As you will see in the next step, you need to give all our your guest's characters a reason to know the victim well. 

3. Give every murder mystery character a motive

There are two words in 'Murder Mystery'. Your game will be super dull if you have a murder story but absolutely no mystery at all.

Imagine reading an Agatha Christie ‘Poirot' novel only to discover that there is only one really obvious suspect and the police arrest them in Chapter 1 and they are sentenced in Chapter 2. The End.

The book is hardly going to get any good reviews. Poirot wouldn't have become a household name. David Suchet would only be known as ‘the brother of the news reader and Classic FM presenter, John Suchet. (Did you know that?)

No, the best Murder Mysteries games play heavily on the mystical element. And that is not so hard to achieve. All you have to do is make sure every one of your characters has a plausible motive to kill your victim.

So, you have 8 characters. That means you need to think of 8 motives. Thinking these up needn't be taxing.

Here are some of the main reasons/factors why some people commit murder:

Revenge

Getting them back for something nasty they did to your character in the past…

Money

Killing someone for financial gain. Perhaps they want their inheritance early? Perhaps they owe the victim lots of money and want a way out of having to pay them back?

Relationships

Punishing someone for stealing their partner, or even punishing an unfaithful partner

Avoiding Exposure

Perhaps the victim knows a secret about them and they want it to stay that way. What if there is a high risk of being exposed?

Revolting/Rebelling

Perhaps the victim has made a bad decision as someone with authority and a rebellion against it has gone too far…

To improve their own situation

What if the victim stood in the way of promotion? Or had that coveted job but didn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon?

4. Create character backstories

A nice little life motto is to ‘live in the moment'. Well, when you are creating characters you must remember this nice little life rule: ‘no one lives only in the moment'. Everyone has a backstory. Everyone has a past.

When you write your characters into existence, don't just think about the events of the night; bring some flavour to them!

Your murder mystery game evening wants to feel as natural and real as possible (except for the elephant in the room: the dead body).

Think about any party you've been at with friends. What do you talk about? Anything and everything! We enjoy telling each other stories. We love to gossip. We like to reminisce. 

A nice little tip for storytelling is to ‘start at the beginning'. Well, think about someone you meet for the first time. Do you start at the beginning? Do you tell them about your birth, pre-school days and early childhood? We rarely start at the beginning. Good storytelling starts in the moment, and uses backstories to fill in the gaps about a person's character, lifestyle, value and so on.

Here are three things you can gain from a good character backstory:

1. They give context to your characters – including the murder victim

They give context to your characters (including the victim) and to the events of the evening. What led them to where they are today? What previous life experiences do they have? Embellishments to your story will, as a rule, always help to bring it to life.

2. They help you to explain your character's murder motives 

What secrets are they harbouring? What has previously gone on between your character and the victim in your story? What grievances do they have?

3. They reveal those all important connections between your characters

They reveal those all important connections between your guests. Perhaps Dave and Rachel are in a secret relationship! Perhaps Simon owes money to Sofia. Could it be that Jasmine and Ahmed have a failed business together?

This provides you with ‘double motives'... perhaps your character isn't only looking after their own interests, maybe they are acting in the interests of a loved one?

This is where your story starts to take shape. You can call it the ‘threads' of the story. All the little tit-bits of information that you feed your guest, leaving them to decide what is important and what is irrelevant.

5. Slow reveals and red herrings

A lot of people writing a good story make the mistake of getting to the best bits too quickly. They have a wonderful idea and can't wait to write it down.

Sometimes, if it's a book, an author is worried that the reader will get bored and put the book down, so they want to reveal the juicy bits early on.

The truth is, readers love two things:

  1. Mystery – what on earth is going on now?
  2. Suspense – what on earth is going to happen next?

The thing you have in your favour is that you have a captive audience! They are staying with you until The End. 

As you will read in the next section, your game is going to take place over a number of stages, or parts. Once you have your character's stories and connections worked out, think about how to stage your reveals.

Don't reveal everything in the first stage and save the most outrageous stuff till the end. Here's my tips to make this element of your story work:

1. Create intrigue in each character at each step of the game

Try to have your guests constantly asking ‘why?' It's not enough to learn that ‘Jermaine works in the local post office' as round one reveals.

Try, ‘Jermaine has been coming to work later and later every day at the post office looking more and more dishevelled'.

2. Include threads for all your characters at every stage

It might seem easier to reveal everything about Characters 1 and 2 in your first round, then everything about Characters 3 and 4 in the next, but that will just make half of your guests bored and sidelined when it's not their ‘moment to shine'.

Give just enough about each of them each round and progress each of their stories gradually along the way.

3. Throw in a number of red herrings! 

This is where your motives and double motives come into play. You certainly don't want your story to come to a linear conclusion, where everyone makes the same judgement.

Your story needs to be more like a tree with lots of branches, different little sub-plots that can lead your guests in the wrong direction.

That's what makes a murder mystery game so much fun; getting your guests arguing over what bit of information is important, who believes who, who is the most suspicious!

6. Make it a game

This may seem a little obvious, but when you're writing a murder mystery game, you're writing a game to be played, not a story to be read.

It needs to be interactive, not just a group of assembled guests reading through a script, like they're at a first reading for a Shakespeare play.

Now here's where i'm revealing my secret: my murder mystery game 5 step rule:

  1. Script
  2. Evidence
  3. Questions
  4. Vote
  5. Repeat x2

Let me break this down for you. 

1. Script

This is a really nice way to ease everybody into the game and into the start of each round. Whether you're at a murder mystery game dinner party, or a murder mystery game weekend away, you really must make sure everyone is equally included.

You don't want the show overpowered by two or three gobby people while the quieter ones end up simply being onlookers.

A script is a neat way to ensure that everyone has something to say. It's also one of the nice ways you can introduce characters and elements of the plot and backstories, through a conversation between your characters.

For example:

Robin: You haven't changed, Libby. You always get people into trouble, just like you did last Christmas.

Jacko: Why, what happened last Christmas?

Libby: Don't you dare tell them!

Robin: They deserve to know! Last Christmas, while everyone slept off their Turkey Dinner, Libby snook upstairs and...

Or something like that. Anything witty or outrageous is a bonus, try to keep it quite comical and not too serious!

2. Evidence

Receiving an email or a letter from the ‘Chief Inspector' is one great way of informing your guests about some new piece of information that they would not have been aware of before.

It might be a way or revealing a connection between two of your characters, or it could be a threatening letter to the victim.

It could even be the other way round, such as a threat of blackmail from the victim to one of your guests… revealing a motive!

Try to include no more than two pieces of evidence each round, and try to share it out between your guests so that a good few of them get to read one out.

3. Questions

This is the fun part of the round where your guests can freestyle a bit! They may have heard something interesting during the script section or while some evidence is being read out that they want to question another guest about. 

It's really important to help your guests out here… if you leave it fully to them to ask the right questions, you could either have an awkward silence, or some over enthusiastic guest interrogating another who really doesn't know how to answer their questions!

I like to include some prompts for each guest such as:

ASK: After Jonny has talked about his sister's car accident, ask him if he can remember anything about the truck that hit her…

IF ASKED: If anyone asks you about the truck that hit your sister's car, become upset at the memory of it, then tell them you remember the truck had the name of a carpet cleaning service written on the side...

4. Vote

If you save the vote only till the end of the game, that would certainly work. However, I like to give my guests a chance to ‘have a punt' after each round.

‘Based on the evidence so far, who do you think is the most likely suspect?' They may change their minds after a future round, it all adds to the suspense and excitement of the night! After all, what is a game if no one has a chance of winning it?

If you're clever about it, you might even create a scoring system, such as: 

  • 10 points – for guessing correctly at the end of the game
  • 5 points – bonus for every additional round you also guessed correctly
  • 25 points – total if you guessed correctly in all three rounds!

5. Repeat

A good game will have about 3 rounds, that's enough to make a great murder mystery evening of it. Any more, it might begin to drag out, any less and you might not have much substance to your story and it's all over before you've started. 

The key is, as mentioned before, don't reveal too much, too early. Reveal something new, for each character during each round

7. The Slip Up

In many murder cases, despite a murderer's best efforts, they are usually found out over a sloppy bit of evidence they forgot to cover up or an accidental slip up, where they revealed something that incriminated themselves. 

In your story, everyone will have a motive. Anyone could have done it. So what's to distinguish the actual culprit from the rest of the characters?

The trick is to slip in some piece of evidence or a throw-away comment that not everyone will pick up on, though the most alert and attentive might make a connection. 

For example:

Ruby: That was a wild party, do you remember it?

Oliver: Yeah! I lost count of how many drinks got spilled on your carpet!

Spot the slip up? Ruby's carpet was covered in spills… and Jonny's sister's car was hit by a Carpet Cleaning Truck… could you have just made a connection that others might have missed?

So there you have it! My 7 tips for writing a murder mystery game.

Write your own custom murder mystery game... quickly!

If you haven't got the hours (and I honestly mean hours and hours) to sit down and craft a game from scratch, then thankfully, we've created a super simple ‘game builder'.

It allows you to put in lots of little personalised details such as character and place names, hit ‘Build My Game!' and out comes your own, tailor made, custom, personalised murder mystery game that your mates will be astounded at.

It will be something that no one has ever played before and you will be an instant legend.

Why not save yourself some time (it takes less than 15 minutes) while still using your creativity over at you-dunnit.com.

There are loads of themes to choose from, you can select the number of players – or even play a large group, such as a murder mystery game for corporate events.

Play a murder mystery game on your phone with your friends

What's really smart about it is that everyone can play on their phones… there's no waiting for a box to arrive in the post, no paper booklets to faff about with.

Everyone logs in to using a unique game code that you create, selects their character and your off!

Take a peek at what's on offer and be amazed at what you can create.

Who dunnit? You Dunnit!