Unsafe and scary: A review of Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley

Yesterday I bought a book called Play Unsafe, written by Graham Walmsley. It was a pretty inspiring read, and as fate would have it, I actually got to apply some of the theory in a one-shot game of Dungeon World the same day.

The premise of the book is that if we plan less, we play more. Planning is hard work, and it can get pretty boring sometimes, as it quickly becomes a chore. This may not apply to everyone, but it does apply to me. If you buy into this premise, this book can be a real treat.

The book is divided into five chapters: Play, Build, Status, Tell Stories and Work Together. Each of these chapters offer some great advice for improvisation based play, including how to start games, and how to tell interesting stories by not working.

Often, we treat gaming like a job. We study rulebooks, we try to gain an advantage, we care more about experience points than enjoying ourselves.

While I could go in-depth with what the individual chapters are all about, I won’t. It would just be a summary, and I’d much rather share some of the advice from the book.

My favorite piece of advice is “be boring”. It sounds odd, but there’s a really simple trick to it. It’s not about going out of your way to make the other players yawn or anything like that, it’s about not trying to be clever. Instead of spending a great deal of time impressing your fellow players with your wit, which will mostly not work, then instead try to be obvious.

When describing something by being obvious, maybe the effects of an action or your intended action, you can add a great layer of descriptive details, because you already have a clear picture of the scene in your mind. It is after all exactly what you would expect would happen. It might seem brilliant to others however, simply because they haven’t got the same set of expectations as you do.

It is one of those techniques that are so incredibly simple, yet so powerful. I urge you to try it out sometime. In my game yesterday, it was consistently the “obvious” consequences that were more interesting and made the players more enthusiastic.

Another great piece of advice, one that is rare to find in any game mastering guide, is the advice given on starting a game. People make characters, we discuss them a bit, but since we haven’t planned anything, we don’t know what is going to happen. This might sound a little scary, but there’s a really good solution to this, one that goes pretty hand-in-hand with being “boring”; try and start without drama!

Start with a quite undramatic scene, like the heroes entering a tavern. Talk back and forth, describing the seemingly innocent and “boring” stuff in this scene, just to create a mood. Then introduce a tilt! A good example of this is given in the book, where the scene starts with a character walking into the tavern:

Player: “I sit down. ‘Evening, Dave.'”
GM: “The barman looks at you. he flicks his eyes to a tankard of ale he’d poured as you came in. ‘You’ll be wanting that.'”
Player: “‘Yeah,’ I say, drinking it. ‘Quiet in here, isn’t it?'”

Then the tilt is added:

Player: I draw my sword and aim the point at his throat. ‘It’s too quiet, Dave. What have you done with everybody?'”

The tilt creates a sudden situation with a huge potential for drama. It’s great because it also created a mystery; what have Dave done with everybody? The player monkey wrenched the game here, making it interesting. I love that.

The last advice I’d like to highlight is about the cooperative nature of roleplaying games. Walmsley suggests that to have a good game, it is everyone’s responsibility to make everyone else’s character shine. Be a fan of every character! Set the other characters up for success instead of focusing on your own! It’s quite profound in its own way, because it really shows how it’s everyone’s job to make it fun for everyone.

It is an enlightening read, especially if you covet improv like I do. This book will give you advice on how you can improve your game in amazing ways, without having to do any work. The book is only 82 pages long, and is a very light read. I bought it at the low price of 8$ and I would gladly have paid twice that amount.

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About Undreren

I'm a university student from Denmark, currently taking my candidate degree in Mathematical-Economics. I have played pen & paper RPG's since 2004, but my interest for the phenomenon sparked about 3 years prior to that. I'm an amateur programmer and knows Java and Haskell as well as some rudimentary HTML, CSS, PHP and Javascript.

2 responses to “Unsafe and scary: A review of Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley”

  1. chindividual says :

    You know what the tilt idea reminds me of? The kind of scene you see in every Tarantino movie. Everything starts off nice and quiet, with the protagonists just having a random discussion. Then, out of (almost) nothing, everything goes south and stuff hits the fan. It’s a great idea, and movies have proven time and time again that it works.

    I’ll get myself a copy of Play Unsafe ASAP!

    • Undreren says :

      Let me know what you think of it when you’ve read it! ๐Ÿ™‚

      I haven’t seen a lot of Tarantino movies, but I remember the beginning of Pulp Fiction. That’s pretty much like that ๐Ÿ™‚

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