Guest Author - Jay Shaffstall
Death on the Gambia is a murder mystery game published by Freeform Games, a British company that sells murder mystery party games.
This wasn't the first of the Freeform Games games that I ran, but it is my favorite. Before we get into the specifics, though, let me talk a bit about what's different here from the typical boxed set murder mystery party.
The boxed sets normally work by giving each player a series of envelopes. Those envelopes detail what your character knows at each stage of the game, and new envelopes are opened at specific times during the evening. Play is general done while sitting around a table during dinner, and is limited to questioning other characters to find out what they know. The murderer doesn't know that they are the murderer until the last envelope is opened.
That form of game provides a lot of structure, but also limits the fun. The few times I've played that sort of game, I'm always frustrated because of the limited knowledge, and the limited interaction between characters.
The Freeform Games game remove those limitations. You know, at the start of the game, everything your character knows. If you're the murderer, you know it. The games are not played sitting around a dinner table (although dinner may be part of the setting), but rather moving around a room during a party or other gathering. You make small talk with other people, move from group to group, all just like you would do during any party.
But in a Freeform Games game, you do it in character. So when you go up to someone and introduce yourself, you introduce yourself as your character. Your character has likes and dislikes, and may love or hate other characters. You portray those feelings however you like. You can lie if that's the sort of thing your character would do (the murderer certainly will lie about that!)
If you can interact during a party, you can play one of these games.
So if any character can lie about anything, how can the murderer ever be found? Each character has skills and abilities. Some of those skills and abilities represent the potential for talking someone into revealing more than they would like to reveal. Your character might be good at fast talking someone, or seducing the opposite sex, etc. Rather than force you to really fast talk someone, you simply fulfill the condition of your skill or ability, and then show the other player that you have that ability (by showing them the card representing that ability).
As a concrete example, maybe you have the ability to force someone to reveal one of their goals. The condition for that ability might be to talk with another player for two minutes. So you make small talk with the other player for the required amount of time, and then show them your ability card. They they show you one of their goals.
Only a few of the abilities require the intervention of the person running the game. Pick pocketing usually does. In general you talk to another player for the required amount of time, and then go to the GM and tell them what you want to steal. They'll go retrieve it, assuming that you have the pick pocketing ability.
Okay, so that's the basic system.
The setting of Death on the Gambia is an African riverboat in the late 1930s, heading from one city to another. The passengers are the characters in the mystery, and they all have their own secrets to conceal, and their own goals to pursue. This is one of the few murder mystery games that doesn't start with a murder, but rather it's likely that one or more characters will be killed before the game is over.
While I can't reveal too much without spoiling the game, I can share that one of the more enjoyable bits of this game was the way that many copies of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile were floating around. By the time the game started, each character who'd started with a copy of the book had managed to misplace their copy and ended up with someone else's copy. Players have great fun trying to retrieve their own copies without arousing suspicions.
When I run the game, I print out covers for Death on the Nile, found on Wikipedia, and tape them over the right number of hard back books. Having large physical books to carry around makes it far more fun than representing the books with item cards. And makes it far more interesting for someone to steal a book without the owner noticing!
This particular game works well with relatively few characters, 8 to 11. And one of the required characters, Jane Carter, can be eliminated without affecting the plots too much, if you only have 7 people.
If you like a game where nobody is quite what they seem, and the challenge of figuring out who everyone else is while not revealing your own secrets, Death on the Gambia is a great way to spend an evening with friends. And the best part is, they won't even realize they're role playing.
You can read more about the game by downloading the introductory PDF about it at the Freeform Games Death on the Gambia page.