During the first few months of 2020 I learned how to host online murder mystery games using video chat.
Here’s what I learned.
Three key elements of online murder mystery parties that are different from face-to-face parties:
I’ll discuss each in turn below.
Note: These tips assume that each player has their own computer and will log into the online video chat separately. I've not tried playing games with players sharing the same video chat.
There are lots of different video chat systems now available, but whichever you choose it needs three key features:
I don’t have experience of many video chat systems, but I’m going to cover a few of the more well-known systems.
Zoom is one of the most popular video chat apps. The basic plan is free, and you can host up to 100 participants, which is more than enough. You can also create breakout rooms for your guests to have private conversations. The downsides of Zoom are that the meeting host has to move people in and out of the breakout rooms, and that the free plan only allows groups to chat for 40 minutes (but you can rejoin).
Google Hangouts is easy to use and doesn’t require any special software but (as mentioned above) it only allows 10 people in a hangout. You can easily create separate hangouts (for those private conversations), you can’t easily see who is in them. But that’s not that different from playing in real life…
Hangouts’ biggest flaw is not knowing how long Google will continue supporting it, particularly now that they are promoting Google Meet (which I’ve not used).
Discord is my preferred system and has been used by gamers for years for voice chat while they play online – it’s stable and doesn’t use much bandwidth. But it has a steep learning curve if you are setting up a server - so get someone to do that for you. (It’s much simpler if you’re just playing.) Discord allows for lots of sub-rooms, and players can move themselves from room to room.
Video chat tips:
It can be difficult to make announcements during an online murder mystery game. And as most games have announcements at various times such as clues to the murder and so on, it’s important that players hear them..
How do you make those if everyone is in their own video chat?
Some systems (including Discord and Zoom) allow you to send updates and messages to all the players. But, if your players are concentrating on their game, they may not see them straight away. That doesn’t matter if you tell everyone where you will make the announcements - they can go back and read them later. You can also ask other players to mention that they’ve seen an announcement while they are playing.
Rules briefing: Don’t forget to do a full rules briefing at the start, including how things like abilities and items and locations will work online. Even though you’ve probably explained in advance how these things will work, you can guarantee that someone hasn’t read that or has forgotten what you told them.
Here’s a suggested agenda for your rules briefing:
Many of the murder mystery games here include special abilities, items that move from character to character and (occasionally) specific game locations. This works well in a face-to-face party, but needs thinking about when playing as an online murder mystery party.
A second host may be needed!
Abilities: Where a game uses abilities, then it’s best if the players print out that part of their character pack. Then, when they want to use an ability they can hold it up to their webcam.
Alternatively they can have the character booklet on their phone/tablet and hold that up.
Items and money: I set up individual Google Drive folders for each character, and into those put their character packs, items, money and anything else that they start with. For items and money, use the Windows Snipping Tool to turn all the items and money into graphical png files. I suggest naming each file with the item name (so you can recognise it from the filename), plus a unique number (“notepad-72.png” and “USD100-23.png”). The unique number is needed because some files are duplicated - particularly the money.
See below - note the unique number in the filenames.
Before the game, give each player access to their character’s folder, but no others. During play if a player wants to give another character an item or some money, then they can let you (the host) know and you can move the relevant files from one folder to another.
Locations: Very few games use specific locations, but for those that do then it’s generally best if players speak to the host when they want to access a specific location.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well online murder mystery parties work. I don’t expect them to fully replace the experience of a face-to-face murder mystery party, I expect that the advantages (no need to travel, you can play with people from different time zones) mean that even after this crisis has passed they will still be played now and again.
Reunion with Death - a lockdown murder mystery for 6-9 players played using online video chat. Click here for more details.
Here's my suggested quick route through the site:
Step 1 - Go to Choosing a Game to choose the game that suits your party best.
Step 2 - Review the Tips for Hosts for helpful advice.
Step 3 - If you want to keep up to date with the latest murder mystery game news, click on my What's New page.
Step 4 - Once you've had your party - tell me how it went! Click here to tell me your murder mystery party story.
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