Wednesday, July 30, 2014

[Book Review] Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsey

Amazon UK: £11.54 (Paperback)/£3.07 (Kindle)
Amazon US: $16.20 (Paperback)/$5.21 (Kindle)
DrivethruRPG (PDF): £4.71/$8.00
Indie RPGs Unstore (PDF): $8.00 
In this book, Graham Walmsey takes tips and techniques he learned while taking an improv course and talks
about how they can be used to make the roleplaying experience more enjoyable for individual players, the GM and the group as a whole.

Walmsey assumes no prior knowledge of improv theory on the part of the reader, clearly explaining techniques and how they can make your play experience more fun (though he does suggest some additional reading to explore techniques further). After a brief introduction to the book's agenda and the inspiration behind it, the text is split into five distinct parts: Play, Build, Status, Telling Stories, and Work Together (which is actually mistitled in my Kindle copy as Play again).

Over the course of these five sections, Walmsey briefly explains theories on techniques, how they work in practice and gives examples of the techniques in use. The first part discusses how roleplaying can end up feeling like work, and discusses how to cut out the work aspect and get straight to the fun. The second talks about how we often shoot down other players' ideas in play, and how not doing that (through techniques such as the 'Yes And' method) can be more fun for everyone. The third gives tips on how to roleplay characters of different status, and why playing different statuses can be fun whether we're playing as beggars or as kings. The fourth part gives tips on story structure and how to apply that knowledge in play to build a story as we go. The last section talks about how to work with other players; making sure it's fun for them, entertaining and challenging them.

A lot of it sounds like common sense, and yet these nuggets of advice are things we often forget or just don't think about when we're at the gaming table. After reading this book for the first time, about a year ago, I promised myself I'd reread it at least once a week to remind myself of all these techniques, and try to put them into practice in my weekly gaming sessions. Sadly, it was a habit I didn't quite get into - I blame it on being distracted by other books - but it's one well worth getting into. The book is easy enough to read and it doesn't take that long to finish.

Which brings me to the bad point about the book. At eighty-two pages, it's pretty short. That alone isn't a bad thing, since it succinctly puts across the tips and ideas it wants to put across and doesn't ramble on needlessly, perhaps repeating certain points later on, but only to build upon it with new advice. What is problematic is the cost of the book relative to its size. The UK Kindle price isn't terrible: £3.07 is perhaps a pound or so more than you'd expect for a book this size, but it's not unreasonable. The paperback edition, on the other hand, costs £11.54 and even I would begrudge such an amount despite the wealth of advice within those pages.

That aside, I don't really have any complaints. Some of the techniques and suggestions in this book certainly won't work for everyone or be appropriate in all games, but the author himself acknowledges that in the text, suggesting players gauge their fellow gamers to be sure they're comfortable with you pushing boundaries such as, for example, introducing sexual content in games. (I have to admit, that's something I've never been particularly comfortable with in roleplaying, and I share the author's nervousness about trying out Bacchanal, which is a game all about drunkenness, sex and debauchery. However, in part thanks to this book, a personal boundary I have started pushing past is playing evil or immoral characters and it was great fun.)

Overall, I feel like this is a book every roleplayer should read at least once, if not on a regular basis. The tips and techniques given in here lay out a style of gaming that we should all aspire towards, where we cooperate and build upon each others ideas, and give up a certain degree of control in order to improve the story for the whole group. Not all tips will work for everyone, but everyone should find something in this roleplayer's improv toolkit that will be of use to them at the gaming table. You'll probably not be willing to part with the cash for the paperback edition, but if you have a Kindle or other e-reader, and can spare about three quid, it's well worth a look.

Undecim Rating: +3

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