Introduction: A Beginner's Guide to Throwing a Murder Mystery Party

Murder mystery parties can go in many directions, depending on a variety of factors (such as number of guests, theme, complexity of the story, and more). While these instructions are not an all-inclusive list of precise steps to take, the ideas presented below are meant to provide guidelines and items of thought to help you plan your own murder mystery party.

Step 1: Pick a Theme

When picking a theme, think about how many guests you want to invite and what their interests are. It may be helpful to list out your ideas. What books do your guests like? What movies and TV shows do they like? Do they like sports? Looking at your list of interests, identify some commonalities between guests. Eliminate any ideas that don’t have enough characters for the number of guests you’re inviting. Of the remaining ideas, choose the theme that most interests you.

Step 2: Write a Story

There are many murder mystery stories already drafted, and using a prepared script will cut back on preparation time. But if you want to save money and be more creative, writing your own story is perfectly fine and fun.

There are generally two types of stories: scripted and free play. In a scripted murder mystery party, guests will read their lines from a prepared script. Their characters have written dialogue and actions. This allows for a quick-paced game and makes sure that guests don’t miss out on any elements.

With free play, there is no set script. There might be a general outline of speaking and acting prompts, but for the most part, your guests are allowed to act however they want. This allows for a looser game and gives your guests free reign and creative involvement with how they solve the mystery or play their character. Whichever story you choose depends on how precise you want the gameplay to be and how much you want the story planned. Both have their merits, and both are fun to try out.

The actual story for the murder mystery party can be as detailed or as simple as you want, but no matter how many elements you include, they must all be connected and point towards the solution (whodunnit?). Character descriptions can have red herrings and false accusations, but pieces of evidence should always relate to the solution. Guests can easily become confused and discouraged if certain elements or information are not helpful in solving the case. For everyone’s enjoyment, simplicity and brevity is key. As you host more and more murder mystery parties, feel free to make them more complex.

If you are writing your own murder mystery story, here are some basic elements you may want to include:

Introductory Story: This is what you’ll read to the guests before they introduce themselves as their characters. It should give the context of the murder and basic information that each guest would know based on their character.

Description Cards—Characters: Each character should have a simple bio outlining their occupation, characteristics of their character, clues about the murder, and connections to at least one other guest. Connections and clues will help the guests know where to start their sleuthing.

Example: You are Vanessa Chavan, a feisty journalist determined to uncover the truth. Nothing will stop you from discovering the murderer of your Great-Uncle Albert, who you spent many summers with during your childhood. Your cousin Leo is also here tonight, and you remember him always being jealous of the relationship you had with your uncle, his father. Before knocking on the front door of the mansion, you noticed Madame duBurgh shifting through the bushes by the dining room windows.

Description Cards—Evidence: As the guests find pieces of evidence throughout the game, a description card should be included to identify relevant props to the mystery.

Example: This candlestick looks like it’s been around awhile; the brass is losing its luster. You notice a bit of dried blood on the top end of the stick.

Example: A compact mirror that looks almost brand new. The insignia on the top is the Chavan family crest. There’s a long, black hair sticking out from the hinge of the mirror.

Solution: This is what you’ll read when the guests have come to their conclusions about who the murderer is. The solution should be reasonably derived from the characters, their stories, and pieces of evidence found.

Note: Some murder mysteries have five characters and three pieces of evidence while others have no evidence at all and rely solely on character insight. It depends on how you want to play the game.

Step 3: How to Play

The rules of murder mysteries are simple and few.

First, stay in character. Staying in character is the cardinal rule because it immerses all participants in the game. As the host, you can encourage this by always being in character yourself. This could mean having an accent, frequently interacting with a prop (like a wand, cigar, or shoulder parrot), and referring to your other guests by their character names. Everything else we’ll discuss (like decorations, food, and costumes) should help your guests to play their parts.

(Tip: You can offer your guests an incentive to stay in character by having a negative consequence if they break character. This consequence could be anything from putting cash in a jar to wearing a dunce cap until someone else breaks character.)

The second rule of a murder mystery is to follow the script. Each guest is given confidential information that can only be shared at a certain time in the game. Please impress upon your guests the critical nature of only revealing confidential information when the time is right.

And third, have fun!

Step 4: Find Costumes

Costumes play an important role in helping everyone get into character. You can either have props available for each guest or have them bring their own.

Option 1: Provided Props

Make a list of all characters and assign them to guests (or allow a random draw at the beginning of the event). For each character, think of an identifying item of clothing or accessory that makes them distinguishable. Obtain these items and make a goodie sack with the character’s name on it. Place the items in the sack and give it to the guest when they arrive.

Option 2: Guest-Supplied Props

Rather than providing the props for each guest, which can become costly, considering having each guest bring their own distinguishing props. This further personalizes the game and helps your guests invest in their character. In the invitation, inform each guest of who their character is and tell them that they are required to come in costume or bring a prop that identifies their character. You may include some recommendations that you’ve brainstormed.

Step 5: Décor

After you’ve chosen your theme and secured a storyline, think of several identifying characteristics or objects that pertain to your theme. While they should be relevant, clever, and authentic, most of your guests should know what the décor refers to.

Use this list of identified characteristics to think of decoration ideas. Simple décor could include a tablecloth in a color associated with your theme or a sign on the wall. If you would rather have more complex décor, you could include ceiling hangings or banners, use table centerpieces or special utensils, etc.

For a murder mystery party based on The Office, simple décor could include a Dunder Mifflin, Inc., sign and a brown tablecloth to represent the conference room table. Complex décor could consist of character nameplates, a water cooler, food served in the “break room,” a video camera set up for die commentary, a stapler in Jello on a desk or table, or Pam’s painting of the office building.

A Harry Potter-themed party’s simple décor could have colored plates to represent different Houses and the Harry Potter soundtrack playing in the background. More complex décor could include candles hung from the ceiling, Platform 9 ¾ on the door, a wand for each guest, four containers filled with a candy that represents each House (examples: lemon drops, blue Jolly Ranchers, Hot Tamales, and green jelly beans), a picture of Moaning Myrtle on toilet, the Chamber of Secrets message scrawled on wall, or a “Wanted” poster cutout to take photos.

Step 6: Get Your Grub On

Your guests may come for the party. But they’ll stay for the food.

Without snacks and refreshments, your guests may become distracted or disinterested with the game at hand. The perfect murder mystery menu is one that will keep the players in the game while also satiating their rumbling stomachs. You could provide light refreshments or more of a sit-down meal, if it’s appropriate for your party (HarryPotter parties could have a sit-down meal in the Great Hall, for example).

Food all depends on theme. A 1920s Gatsby theme would require some gilded-glam hors d’oeuvres (think cocktails/mocktails, crudités, charcuterie), while a Harry Potter-style party would include the treats found at Honeydukes: pumpkin pasties, licorice wands, chocolate frogs. If you’re thinking something more modern (such as a The Office-themed party), you could prepare something with pop-culture references: Michael Scott’s homemade potato salad, pretzels for pretzel day, Kevin’s chili, or Big Tuna sandwiches.

Scour Google to find out appropriate foods for the era or theme of your party. There are many blogs dedicated to theme-specific foods, and mainstream websites such as Food Network can also have many recipes and ideas. Make the food as authentic as possible, as the food could be used as a prop. Like costumes or decorations, the food will transport your guests and help them get into character. But beware: extremely messy foods or non-finger foods could distract the guests from the actual game—and you don’t want to risk ruining costumes.

You don’t need to break the bank or spend hours slaving away in the kitchen to pull off the food. Easy finger foods that can be prepared quickly in advance or simply set on the table before are ideal and just as effective with creating an immersive party ambience.

Step 7: Invite Your Suspects

Every party needs an invitation—especially murder mystery parties. If done well, your invitation will set the tone of the party long before your guests arrive.

Although your invitation design isn’t critical, it’s a nice touch to have your invitation match your theme. (If you don’t have a specific theme—like Harry Potter or The Great Gatsby or The Office—then murder and mystery are your go-to themes.)

If you want to design your own invitation, you can find photos that are free for personal use on sites like Unsplash or Pexels. You can find free templates and vectors on Freepik, Vecteezy, or Vector Stock. (Make sure you follow the downloading and author attribution instructions.)

If you’d rather have a template, sites like Zazzle or Minted have templates available for purchase. Though you’ll likely pay a couple bucks per invitation, the results will be pretty unforgettable.

Once you’ve found or created a design that you like, make sure your invitation includes the party’s date, time, place, and RSVP information. (RSVPs are especially important for murder mystery parties. After all, how can you assign characters if you have an extra guest or a guest who’s missing?) The invitation is also a great place to include costume information if you want your guests to arrive dressed for the occasion. And speaking of occasions, make sure your invitation indicates whether or not the party is celebrating someone’s birthday. (There’s nothing more awkward than showing up to a birthday party without realizing it.)

Remember that your invitation doesn’t necessarily have to be mailed out. You can send invitations through text, email, Facebook, or even in person, depending on who your guests are.