Monday, April 25, 2011

Mystery Dinner Game: Hyenas, Tuskers, Chaos

By Ann Littlewood

[Originally posted at]

Shortly before we left on our huge-deal safari to Kenya, one of the trip organizers suggested I dash off one of those role-playing mystery dinner games for a group activity.

"You write mysteries, right?"

Yes, but I'd never seen, much less played, such a game, and I was trying to draft the first 100 pages of the next zoo mystery so it could steep while we were gone, and meanwhile pack, finish a bathroom remodel, get typhoid shots, and arrange dog and house care and ...

So I said, "Sure!"

I resuscitated my corporate communications chops and welded them to mystery conventions and worked my aging ass off. I stole freely from a game I bought and customized it for a zoo keeper group in Kenya. The final package had invitations with a rhino logo, instructions, name tags, clues in envelopes, and player booklets. The setting was, of course, a safari camp. The game had a cunning murder, wacky characters, a false confession, gunshots, and plenty more. Naturally there was no time for a rehearsal before we left.

One night it was raining too hard for a red-light game drive, so instead of lurching around in an open van looking for leopards and hippos, we gave the game a try. I was a little trepidatious. Not nearly enough, it turned out.

On the plus side, we were all pretty well lubricated -- Tusker beer for many, wine for some. The women were keen to do it and argued over who got which of the four female parts. On the other hand, the men were not so enthusiastic. My husband and two other men agreed to give it a try after some arm-twisting, but we were a guy short.

We were staging this at the dining area of the camp and several of the Kenyan staff were on duty to open beers and so on. They thought this game sounded great.

One of them was John (not his real name), a tall young Maasai warrior (apparently all Maasai men are warriors), draped in his red robe and beaded head covering. He's learning the safari business from the ground up, waiting tables on his way to become a driver/guide, for which he will also need three years at the university in Nairobi. (The drivers had extensive training and knew everything.)

Aside from being a sweet, wide-eyed heart-throb (I say that in a motherly way), John was fearless, and he stepped in to take the last role.

I whipped up name tags for people who wanted a role and didn't have one -- the murdered woman's ghost (a brilliant idea, if I say so myself), hyena, leopard, lion, bushbaby, giraffe (a non-speaking part), tortoise (also non-speaking), and so on. Everyone who wanted to get in on it had a part, even if it was mostly to growl at random intervals.

And so we commenced. But, honestly, I had no way to know that the illumination at this eco-resort would be dimmer than candlelight. Reading 12 point type meant standing right next to one of the scarce little light bulbs. So we had a few issues with the script.

John had a key role, a big part. He speaks at least three languages (his tribe's, Kiswahili and English), but reading English was a tiny bit challenging. He got the words, but some of the flavor fell overboard. We applauded and kept the momentum. People loved hamming up their character. They vamped and whined and boasted and sneered and mostly forgot the player booklets.

And every time really crucial clues were about to be revealed, the two bartenders, hunched under a blanket together, ran through the middle of the group whooping like hyenas (exactly like hyenas). This aroused the leopard (in her spotted pajamas) to snarl and claw at them which set off the rest of the animals. I think the giraffe stampeded and the tortoise may have been trampled. It was hard to tell in the dark.

After extended chaos and considerable hysteria, the murderer threw her hands in the air and shouted a confession. We cheered.

So all you mystery writers, learn from my tale.
  • Need I say "Tuskers?"
  • Set up characters to be either gender.
  • Be ready for audience participation.
  • Don't expect anything complicated to work at all the way you intended.
And bring a flashlight.

Ann Littlewood is the author of the Zoo Mysteries featuring zookeeper Iris Oakley. The newest title in the series is Did Not Survive. Ann began her career at the Oregon Zoo where, as a nursery keeper for 12 years, she reared a variety of mammals and birds. She left the zoo to work in corporate America as a technical writer and publications manager. These days, she writes mysteries and short stories.

Mystery game photos by Liz Quinlan.


Sandra Parshall said...

Ann, I'm wild with envy! A trip to Africa -- complete with mystery. Does it get any better?

Kate Gallison said...

What a hoot. For a gig like that I could almost bring myself to get on an airplane.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

This was fun for me to read, because I write this type of mystery. I don't know if one of my games has been played in such a setting, but you never know!

Sally said...

Maybe you should put your game on the market? Sounds like oodles of fun and possibly a story idea. Out here in La-La Land, mystery dinner theaters are a big draw.

Ann Littlewood said...

Elspeth, I wish I'd known to contact you for advice! I got carried away and threw in a raft of melodrama with tricky timing--characters needed to reveal clues in a certain order. Fun in its way, but too complicated I think.

Sally, I revised it and sent it to my daughter-in-law, a real pro at games, to give it a try. If that works out, I'll see if there are any future opportunities.

Ann Littlewood said...

Sandra, I'll be posting pictures on my blog from time to time. I still can't believe we really did it--I thought I'd never make it to Africa. Now I want to go to Nepal and see wild Asian elephants.

Nancy Lauzon said...

Sounds like so much fun! Enjoyed the post, thanks!