Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe is a short little intro to some improv techniques to free role-players from the burden of over-preparation and over-scripting, and help the creative sparks fly.
Printing. This 74-page digest-size book is well laid out, clearly designed with care and thought. No fancy fonts or art, but a very legible, clean, crisp tome. The only illustrations are chapter heads in grey scale, but then art is not actually needed. The white-on-black sidebars are a little unsatisfactory because Lulu’s printing makes the dark background muddy, but they are still legible.
Writing. The writing is direct, light, and simple, using lots of examples drawn from personal experience and a variety of game systems, from “Old School” to “Indie”. There is no game theory language, be it from The Forge or other source. The tone is calm and matter-of-fact, avoiding hyperbole and flippancy.
Quantity. OK, listen up: this is important. I give a “4” for the quality of the material and the ideas; however, in this case “meaty” is not a literal description of the amount of material. It’s food for thought, but in Nouvelle Cuisine style, not Outback Steakhouse.
This book is a very short read, a few hours at most—the first time. It does not provide lists of how-to, detailed play examples, or long arguments to support its points. Play Unsafe provides instead a series of ideas presented in short form with a few bullet point examples for each idea, and lets you mull these over. Some ideas may appear obvious or outlandish, depending on your own gaming habits; but they’re worth taking a few minutes to reflect on in a new context.
Content. There are five main sections: Play (making role-playing less like work); Build (building on other players’ ideas); Status (using status techniques to play your characters); Tell Stories (putting stories at the heart of the game); and Work Together (cooperating and competing with other players).
The Status chapter merits a bit of attention; while the other elements are often discussed either on dedicated forums like RPGnet or in individual role-playing games, this one is rarely addressed. Play Unsafe discusses the dynamic tension and the richer relationships that can happen in-game when the characters are of different status and when their status changes. He gives an overview of the merits and drawbacks of low and high status, of ways people convey status in their body language, and of reasons to prefer playing a given status. It’s certainly made me think about a few games I’ve played, like Ars Magica, Legends of the Five Rings, and Traveler where my experience supported his discussion.
Target Audience. This is a book for experienced gamers (including GMs) who want to improve their play experience, not for newcomers who want to learn about role-playing. Let me repeat: this is not “My First RPG Primer.” I don’t doubt that, as you read it, you will like me come up with hideous examples of potential misuse of the advice contained. This book will not make a bad or indifferent player into a good one; but it can help a good player get even better.
Something I appreciated about was that while this was certainly useful for game masters, it was directed at all players, not just GMs. There is a dearth of useful books for players interested in the craft.
Do I Want to Buy This Book?
For players who care about improving their skills and their approach, this is a sweet little bit of reading. Go over it a couple of times, thinking about what you’d like to try and how. Is it worth the cover price? $19 is a bit steep for something so quickly read, and for now no PDF version is available, though the author is considering offering one. [Edit, Feb. 7, 2008: A PDF is now available for $9 on Indie Press Revolution, and the print version has dropped in price a little.] It’s still a good purchase if (1) you plan on lending the book to your gaming friends after you’ve read it (you might split the cost), or (2) you’re offering it as a present.
If you do give it to someone else, give it to the best player in your group, not the worst! It will do the most good with people who like to stretch their role-playing skills. Players who like shared story control will particularly enjoy this book.