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Class 7 - Characters

When I began experimenting with murder mystery evenings, I really enjoyed creating the characters to set the desired mood. I tried my best to create an open arena without rules, tapes to play, game boards, clue cards, or prepackaged scripts. I merely invited eight to ten guests under the pretense that someone would die before the evening was over. I staged, as realistically as I could, an actual murder (it was all arranged and rehearsed), and then let everyone solve the mystery using whatever skills they brought with them. I really wanted them to feel like it was real and let them experience solving a real murder. As I struggled to come up with a diabolical murder that would challenge the guests, yet leave everyone saying, "Oh, I can't believe I didn't catch that…" I began to see the power of creating characters. You see, not all of the guests for these evenings were really 'guests.' I always had a small group who was 'on my payroll.' I learned to control these characters to say and do whatever I needed them to in order to create the perfect murder. I was able to write a murder mystery as controlled as a novelist while the guests marveled at how 'everything just seemed to come together.' When I transferred this idea to my Quests, a brand new dimension was added.


Do not let this addition intimidate you. This is what everyone will be talking about long after your dinner party, fundraiser, or youth event is over. Characters may not seem worth the effort at first, however, if you were creating an exciting adventure with a storyline, characters are essential and the return for your effort is astronomical. The following are a few characters that I have used in Dark Fortune, a pirate themed Quest I did for Sam's Club, and their parts in the adventure:


Bartholomew was a drunken pirate in a tavern. He overheard an argument in the Captain's Quarters on board the S.S. Dark Fortune just before it mysteriously sank. Although a bit on the incoherent side, he does not mind telling the teams whatever he knows as long as they keep his rum glass full.

The barmaid was named Clarise. She did not tolerate any drunkenness in her tavern and threatened all offenders with a free night in the local jail. She seemingly did not know anything about anything, except how to keep people's glasses full.

From Willoughby, the mapmaker that sold the teams the map, they learned of a crazy woman who mumbled about an argument she was in with the Captain aboard the SS Dark Fortune. She, they also found out, was being held in a prison cell for the time being.

The crazy woman (who turned out to be mute from the shock of the sinking experience) was named Rose. Rose knew the actual longitude on their map of where the lost treasure was located. However, how would they get to speak to her, she was in prison?

The prison was not coincidentally right next to the tavern…or NOT coincidentally. Teams figured out that if they made enough commotion in the bar, Clarise would make good on her word and summon a soldier to take them to a cell in the prison area, where, it just so happened, they would end up sharing a cell with good ol' Rose.

This entire chain of events took about 15 minutes for the teams to experience, from when they first buy the map, to meeting Bartholomew, to learning where Rose was, to getting thrown in jail, to finding out the information that they needed, to even escaping from prison soon after. Now, not a single character told any team that if they acted drunk in the tavern they would get to find out the longitude, the teams figured it out for themselves, and that made all the difference in their adventure. If done properly, each team will finish feeling as though their own experience was unique to everyone else's and that if they did it over, they could have done it entirely differently. You know better, but they do not.


You'll choose your characters when you are designing your Quest. They come out of necessity. You'll find that at some point you'll need to give your teams a map. Well, how will you give them that map? It looks like you might need a mapmaker in town to sell them one…and slowly your world/community builds.

Ideally, you will have an unlimited supply of professional actors (like the movie The Game with Michael Douglas) but that is likely not the case. I have worked with casts of 1 to 30. The number of characters you have does not determine the level of your success, what you do with them does. I've found a good ratio of characters to players is one character for every two teams (this concept does not apply if there is only one person/team going through the adventure.)


Depending on your resources, this can be a very challenging task. Let me dispel a couple of fears first. The best people to play your characters are not necessarily trained actors. It depends entirely on the personality of the character that you want to bring to life. There have been numerous times when I needed to create a character entirely around what I thought a certain person could pull off, because of a severe lack of volunteers. In no way, however, am I insinuating that the quality of the character suffered from it. Most of the actors I've hired were not actors at all, but rather personality types who enjoyed having fun for a little bit of cash. If I needed a boisterous barmaid, I simply found that "character" (or someone that COULD be that character) in my life and asked them to participate. You would be surprised how many people would love to participate when you put it in the right light. With few exceptions, I have not had problems finding enough people to play my characters (some even had a hard time accepting money for their time because of the great fun they had! A few individuals actually refused once the event was over.)

Another thing to clarify is the degree of difficulty involved. In your own mind, you have to arrange the relationships of your entire little world…who knows what and to what degree. Where certain things are hidden. How long. When. Why. How. AHHHH!!! However, your characters do not. This is worth repeating. Your volunteers/actors do not have to know anything beyond what their own character would know, which is usually very little. I found out early on that the actors get confused about what information they were and were not allowed to release to the teams. They actually knew too much. The best thing is to tell each actor what he needs to know for his specific task only. This way, there is only a fact or two to remember. For example, the only instructions that I gave to Clarise, the barmaid in the previous example, was that teams would be coming into her tavern and that she needed to treat them like customers. In addition, at some point in serving them, warn them about getting drunk in her tavern and about the possibility of spending the night in jail over it. I also told her that if teams DID cause a ruckus, then she needed to follow through with her threat, and call a soldier of the neighboring prison to take them away. She literally knew NOTHING MORE, which is exactly what Clarise would probably have known if she had actually existed. The actress playing Clarise had a great time enjoying her role, watching teams trying to act drunk and getting a little rowdy attempting to get themselves thrown in jail. It was not until after the Quest was all over, when all the actors got together, that they got a chance to compare notes to figure out what exactly happened. Everyone had fun telling their fellow cast members what their crucial piece to the story was.

So, who would qualify as a potential actor/actress? Family members (young and old), friends, co-workers, casual acquaintances, anyone and everyone. It depends entirely on your characters. Preferably someone reliable and who is quick on their feet. It is okay to have a volunteer who is a real stick in the mud…providing you give them a character that would fit that personality! See what I am getting at? Create the world with what you have.


Communication is the key. Once you have approached your potential volunteer character, set a time over coffee when the two of you can be alone without distractions. Prepare for this meeting ahead of time so you will know everything you need to say, and ONLY what you need to say. Remember, the less they know, the easier it is for them and chances are the more successful they will be. If they want to know more, tell them enough to satisfy their curiosity without giving away too much. Inform them that when the event is over you would be more than happy to explain the entire story.

Write it all down for them. Make it clear on a single sheet of paper everything that you are discussing with them. They can reassure themselves that no matter how nervous they might get, that they know exactly what is expected of them and they only need to know their small part.

Make sure they understand that they need to be ON TIME, no matter what time you set. Being late, even if only minutes, will not be an option. Have them arrive IN COSTUME, if possible, ready to go. If they need help with costumes, then make sure that they have what they need according to your expectations for the character.

Okay, so you have chosen your volunteers/actors and they understand exactly what they are supposed to do and what relevant information they possess that the teams will need. However, how quickly should they reveal this information? Would it be best to have a character simply walk up to a team and blatantly tell them a key piece of the story? Since more than likely there will be more than one team competing, I developed The Reward System. This is described as having all your characters in an initial state of a severe lack of awareness and interest in the teams that are invading their town/world. Therefore, it is up to the teams to initiate the conversations, to figure out how to 'get to know the character.' The stronger the effort that the actor feels the team is making to really try to get into the story, the more quickly the actor will reveal what he knows. For instance, if a team walked up to the drunken pirate Bartholomew in the above example and just started saying things like "Can you tell me how we can win this treasure hunt?" then he might respond by passing out on them. However, if the same team came in, sat down at his table, and told Clarise to pour a glass for everyone at the table (including old Bart), I think they would have Bart's attention. The way to penalize a team is to waste their time. The way to reward them is to give them exactly what they need quickly. Remember the former example from Nosferatu about the sick girl who needed certain items to combat her vampire transformation? Well, what I didn't mention earlier was that there was a doctor that was guarding her bed making sure that she got her rest and that she didn't have any visitors. One team, when stopped by this doctor, had a team member that thought quickly and immediately rustled up some fake tears and explained to the doctor that the sick girl was her sister and they had some important news from their dying father. The actor that played the doctor thought that that kind of quick thinking was worth rewarding and let them through without any more delaying. This team got the most out of the adventure and, not coincidentally, was the first team to finish.


Do your best to have a variety of characters' personality types. Even if all your characters are pirates, they can have different personalities. A big gruff type, a small weasel/pick-pocket, a compulsive liar, a drunk, a scam artist, a stutterer, etc. Perhaps you could have a tavern keeper, the head of a brothel, a couple colonists, some Spanish soldiers, a sea captain, a couple children….let your variety create your realism. In real life, there are all types of people. Your Quest should reflect that reality.

Name all your characters. Even if their names are never mentioned, it will help the actor/volunteer be more convincing if he/she feels like their character actually exists. It will also help you as you are planning and creating.

A character does not have to have anything to do with what the participants need to finish their mission, goal or Quest, too. In Dark Fortune, I had two college students who did nothing but roam the streets of the small town dueling each other. They knew nothing about the storyline or what the teams were trying to accomplish. They merely continued fighting every time they saw they had an audience. Sometimes they chose a frequented pathway to block for a couple of minutes just to add an obstacle for the teams. It did wonders for adding atmosphere. Another character was held in leg shackles near a much-frequented part of town. Above his head was a sign that read "Liar." I explained to this character that his sole job was to stop teams and try to delay them, typically by trying to elicit help from his bonds. Despite the sign, you would be surprised at how much time the teams wasted with this person. Halfway through the Quest, most of the teams had caught on to the fact that he actually didn't know anything and was only a distraction. He was probably the most memorable and talked about character of the entire Quest.

Continue the course with
Class 8: Teams