Improv 101 — Chain Murder Mystery

One of my personal favorites, and an easy game to teach to beginners is Chain Murder Mystery. This isn’t a warm-up game, or a large group game, but is the first of dozens of a category I haven’t talked about yet: ‘hoop’ games. These are very loosely described as games in which there is no scene per se (meaning CROW is not established or necessary), but the actors are required to jump through hoops, or rules in order to play correctly.

As with most team games, (games that don’t involve large groups of eight or more), Chain Murder Mystery works best with four people. The idea here is to play a game of improvisational telephone. The actors must each convey three ideas to each other using only pantomime and gibberish. So, three actors leave (where they will not hear or see any suggestions), and the coach gets suggestions from the audience of a location, occupation, and murder weapon. (As far as suggestions for murder weapons go, take things that can’t easily kill people, like a crumpled piece of paper, or a broken heart. It’s more entertaining to get abstract stuff than “a tire iron” or something).

Once the suggestions are given, the improviser that remained in the room will have ninety seconds to accurately describe each of those three suggestions to the next actor. (Indicate
which idea you are conveying by using three specific pantomimes: Stomp on the ground for location, tap your chest for occupation, and pantomime the psycho holding a knife above his head for murder weapon. That way everyone knows what you’re doing when you transition to the next idea). After the ninety seconds are up, the newcomer will pantomime killing them with whatever they thought the murder weapon was. The next person comes on stage, and they now have sixty seconds to convey the same three ideas (though those ideas may have shifted a little because it’s hard to be completely accurate!) When the timer’s up, the person pantomiming gets murdered, and the process repeats one last time, only now the improviser only has thirty seconds to get those same three things across. All-in-all, only two actors will ever be on stage simultaneously with this game.

When the third and last person gets murdered, the improvisers line up and take turns saying what they thought the location was, starting with the last person on stage. This should get more and more accurate as the guess get closer and closer to the first person that performed. After that, everyone says the occupation, and finally the murder weapon.

There are a few extra things about this game, though. It’s very simple, and honestly hard to mess up with how entertaining it is. With most games, though, there are things you have to keep in mind in order to play it effectively.

First, and this is the hardest pill to swallow, this game is most entertaining when you give your actors complicated suggestions. Don’t give them “the mall” for a location, give them “the mall during a zombie apocalypse”. Don’t give them “doctor” for an occupation, give them “telepathic heart surgeon”. Admittedly, those are incredibly difficult to accurately pantomime in thirty, twenty, or ten seconds, but that’s not the point. It is not the improviser’s goal to successfully portray all three ideas across all four actors. That’s boring! The real entertainment of this game is watching as each person pantomimes radically different ideas from the last person because they don’t get what the other person was trying to say. Complex suggestions do all the work for you in that regard.

Lastly, do not repeat actions. It’s something of a pet peeve of mine, but every beginning improviser does it the first time they play this game. If somebody is given the suggestion of a bowling alley, and they pantomime bowling, you are not allowed to pantomime the same action. There are two reasons for that. The first is that it’s a cop-out. If you’re copying what they did, it means you didn’t have to really understand the location, and you’re just trying to skip the responsibility of thinking how to transfer the same message. Second, it’s boring for the audience. They don’t want to see the same actions over and over again. I don’t care if there’s only one way to pantomime bowling alley (which, by the way, isn’t even remotely the case). Don’t repeat actions.

2 thoughts on “Improv 101 — Chain Murder Mystery

    1. Hm. Colonel Mustard isn’t really an occupation. That suggestion works better when you are looking for ‘accomplice’, as in the game Interrogation. And do I typically have a ‘conclusion’ for my improv posts?

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