Graham Walmsley released his well-received roleplaying handbook, Play Unsafe, as a PDF earlier today. Since I’m in the process of packing up my worldly belongings to ship them elsewhere, I haven’t been keen on the idea of getting more stuff shipped here, so I’d been waiting for the digital download. I’m glad he finally released it in PDF form, and I think the price ($10) is perfect for what you get.
There’s a lot that’s good about Play Unsafe, so much in fact that we should get the only negative out of the way– that way, when you buy this (and you should buy this) you don’t ask, “Elizabeth! Why didn’t you tell me about the layout?” It’s not the best. Sometimes the blockquotes are hard to read. It’s not slick eye-candy, and you squint sometimes, but it’s worth dealing with that for the content.
Let’s get the normal review bits out of the way too, so we can get to what I’m truly excited about: the tone of the book is great. Graham talks quite a bit about playing outside the comfort zone, about relating things to personal tastes and fears– and he brings up some of his own. The tone is conversational without being too talky, and the fact that he brings himself into the equation does nice things; if, as he says, we tend to dislike characters with status higher than our own, the fact he speaks to the reader as a peer is probably one of the reasons this book is so likeable.
The content is spot-on. There are a lot of important concepts: collaborate with the players, don’t plan ahead, don’t try to be too clever, just build on the story as an ensemble. Create mysteries and solve them together. Figure out how to reincorporate elements, and be aware of accidental promises you make to the other players. My favorite bit of advice is one I’ve always tried to live by, so it only makes sense that it works for roleplaying too:
If you find something difficult, do it until it’s not. If something scares you, do it until it doesn’t.
The thing that excites me the most about Play Unsafe, however, is the idea of reversing the information here. There are games which encourage the kind of play this book evangelizes– Jonathan’s Transantiago is the immediate example that comes to mind, and I think there’s a decently-sized chunk of it in It’s Complicated as well. But why stop with rules that merely encourage this kind of play? Why not make games which specifically, through the mechanics and the general system requirements, prohibit planning? Railroad the players into spontanaeity and collaboration?
I feel like this approach could be the direct response needed to the great conversations Jonathan and Chris Chinn have been starting about RPGs and our wargamer roots. If non-gamers don’t understand stats, why have them? Everyone understands stories. If you give people the tools to tell compelling and fun stories with a minimum of effort– enjoyable effort– then, well, I think you’ve got a game worth playing, for gamers and non-gamers alike.
If you’re already playing games from the frontier, the concepts in this book might not seem too new to you– but if you’re having trouble wrapping your brain around some less mainstream games, you’ll find this a godsend. If you’re designing games on the frontier, these are concepts you may have thought about but not known how to articulate– this book is a great reminder of how deceptively simple it can be to create enjoyable play. And if you’re anyone who likes RPGs at all– but especially someone transtioning from the world of trad gaming– get yourself this book. When everyone at the table can point out why a story is good, and everyone has the confidence to adapt and trust and keep from trying too hard.. Well, that’s a game I’d want to play in.