I met Rey sometime in 2008 through OSU’s Medieval and Renaissance Performers Guild. We’d both joined it after coming to the university for grad school, which made us both odd, since almost all the other members were undergrads. I didn’t get to know her all that well until I moved back to Columbus from Berlin in 2010. She was known for her parties even then. Not wild boozing affairs, though. Masquerades. Games of Schrödingers Box (in which players take turns asking yes/no questions concerning the contents concealed in a box. They get to keep anything they correctly identify). Halloween shindigs. She had gathered around her a host of interesting and marvelous people; I soon counted myself lucky to be in her menagerie.
As I recall, I only started going to her events in the first place, because I was in the same circle as other members of the Guild she did know well. I received an invitation to something weird over Facebook: the first Espionage Party. I don’t even remember what it was called at the time. I might not have gone if I didn’t know the group of players to be such a good time. My roommate, who has since come to love Espionage Parties and created a few scenarios of his own, didn’t attend the early ones because he thought it sounded like a LARP. I thought it would at least be interesting.
Rey solicited individual requests for what kind of characters we would like to play. I asked for a character that be could plausibly be portrayed by Tim Curry. The game was set at an art gallery, which was to auction off a painting by a mystery artist. I played an art collector, who dealt in stolen paintings and wanted to figure out the identity of the mystery artist and kill them to drive up the price of their artwork. I completely failed at this set of objectives. I did, however, manage to pick up a stolen art piece from a fence also attending the auction. This involved meeting them alone in a room, giving them money, and then putting something in my pocket. I otherwise spent most of the evening standing around looking suspicious.
Despite being a fairly bad player on my first outing, I had a good time. There were some problems, though. Combat was done by rock-paper-scissors. Characters had limited use abilities that allowed them to do things like demand someone’s secrets or ward off an interrogation. These were features quickly discarded in subsequent Espionage Parties as inelegant; later we would find them both used in Freeform Games murder mysteries when we were looking into what similar products were out there. The feature of conversational abilities actually seemed to get in the way of playing more than it helped anyone. The mystery artist and his wife at one point had a confrontation where each was trying to figure out what the other was hiding from them. They went back and forth using their abilities to interrogate and counter the other until they both ran out. Then they were both like ‘you know what? Let’s just talk.’
Two more particularly big lessons were learned from this first outing. First, the importance of emphasizing immersion. Emily and Jeremiah were Russian spies masquerading as Americans. When alone together, they would speak in Russian accents. Amanda was listening through the door once and thought nothing of it, because this seemed to her exactly like something Emily and Jeremiah would just do. She had no idea she had discovered an important secret. By later emphasizing that anything a player does should be considered in character unless signaled otherwise, things like the Russian debacle would be largely avoided in the future. The second important lesson was the need for secondary characters. Emily’s secret Russian died later in the game, though still fairly far out from the end point. Left with nothing do, she naturally decided to be a ghost. This proved distracting, if funny. At one point she threw all of her character’s money at a couple other people trying to talk and yelled in her Russian accent, “Ghost money for shut up!” So that dead players wouldn’t get bored by being out of the game in the future, secondary characters would be used in nearly every scenario going forward.
Though this first attempt was in some respects crude, the game’s most important characteristics were already in place: interconnected characters with individual secrets and objectives, multiple concurrent plot lines, constant threat of character death and thematic emphasis on tropes of mystery and espionage.