Home > For Gamemasters, For Role-Players > A Review of Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley

A Review of Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley

I first stumbled on this guide to “How improvising can change the way you roleplay” on Amazon.com through my usual “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” surfing. I must not have looked too closely at the reviews, or perhaps I glossed over them, because it was met with only three reviews averaging out to a score of 3/5 stars, below my usual threshold for spending money on books.

Or maybe I was just so jazzed at the concept. Really, you’re going to tell me how to incorporate more improv into my sessions? That’s great! Since I’ve really taken to the Savage Worlds school of “less prep, more fun,” it seemed like the perfect supplement for me.

Play Unsafe

by Graham Walmsley

Often, we treat games like work. We buy shelves of thick books. We plan detailed adventures. We memorise rules. In Play Unsafe, Graham Walmsley explores what happens when you throw the serious stuff away: when you stop working, stop planning and start playing. This book explains how to make roleplaying less like work and more like play; stop killing other players’ ideas and build on them instead; and put stories at the heart of your game.

In Play Unsafe, Graham Walmsley explores what happens when you throw the serious stuff away: when you stop working, stop planning and start playing.

This book explains how to:

  • Make roleplaying less like work and more like play.
  • Stop killing other players’ ideas: and build on them instead.
  • Use status techniques to play your characters.

One of Three Crits

The Verdict:

There’s really not enough advice in the book to justify the $8 asking price for PDF, let alone $18 paperback. Sure enough, there are a few gems in its pages, but I’ve come to expect being able to get that much from blogs, or more in $5 PDF’s, like John Wick’s Play Dirty. As other reviewers have said on Amazon.com and elsewhere, you’re better off printing off forum threads or consulting the myriad resources of the ‘net on improvisation and role-playing (see Further Reading for my picks). Then again, if you consider yourself a Newbie haven’t been exposed to the RPG Blogosphere, you might find Play Unsafe worth it.

Format & Structure

The “meat” (I use the term loosely) of Play Unsafe clocks in at sixty two pages of text (sixty three, technically, but can I conscionably count this page?), leaving the extra twenty of the PDF for the Table of Contents, Section Breaks/Title Pages, Glossary, and Acknowledgment fluff. The pages are 6×9” with 1” margins and lots of extra linebreaks and whitespace, so I’m getting even fewer words on those already-scant pages. I suppose I could have easily polished it off in a single sitting, but it honestly didn’t hold my attention long enough, and I only really got through the second half by thinking, “well, at least I can review it and generate content for my blog.”

Coming from an academic background, I look to a book’s introduction to know what’s in each chapter (so I can read the least amount possible for my research paper, of course), and it’s telling that he only spends two sentences on each, whereas normally you’ll get a full paragraph, if not a page. Oh, I’m all about brevity, but there’s a difference between being concise and glossing over the material. Unfortunately, Play Unsafe does the latter most of the time.

Additionally, the Table of Contents offers another hint to this effect: the Sections last only a page or so each, or in some cases, not even. Do you really need to give me a page-by page play of your “82” page piece? The ToC should’ve been a half a page, not three.

Ah well, at least now I know everything that’s going to be covered in Play, Build, Status, Tell Stories, and Work Together, each of which averages a whopping twelve pages.

Play, Build, ???, Profit

In Play, he goes over the most fundamental principles of gamemastering off-the-cuff, which are already covered extensively elsewhere: Don’t Prep as Much (your players will derail it anyhow), instead thinking moreso in terms of Concepts, and Stop Trying to Be Cool.

“Be Boring,” “Be Obvious,” he tells us. Sure, there is something quaint about being “Plain and Simple,” but I also feel like what strikes most people as boring and obvious makes for boring and uninteresting RP. When my players come out with an ingenious idea, it’s not because they were trying to dumb it down, but because they were trying to problem-solve and come up with what seemed like the best answer to them.

“Whenever I try to be good, I’m bad,” he writes. I’ll agree with him that when you think you’re being clever and cunning it often comes off as pretentious, but don’t try to dumb it down, either. Be creative; try to think out of the box. Better to follow the maxim, “Don’t Try Too Hard.”

Build could be retitled, “Yes, and…” This is probably the #1 Rule of Gamemastering. Go look it up. It’s everywhere. It’s even in the 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide. Come on. Either add something to the conversation or leave it to the Pro’s.

Next up is his Chapter on Status, which simplifies your job as a GM greatly–either turn your nose up at the PC’s, or grovel at their feet. He gives a few tips for physically conveying these emotions and when/why, but acting has never been an issue to me, and the world knows I’m no thespian. And I’d say the best way to act is to be Confident and Comfortable with your group. Once you stop being worried about looking like an ass in front of your friends (of course you look like an ass, the point is, they like it, so you shouldn’t be worried), it all flows so easily.

One point he did make well was his suggestion to bring the high low and the low high to help create stories, but unfortunately the chaff outweighs the wheat by far. Again, other gamemastering books (that I already own) cover playing NPC’s perfectly well.

Perhaps the most valuable bits of advice come in Tell Stories. At least here, he gives you four solid theories (variations on a theme of making the ordinary extraordinary) for taking what you’re given by the players (or your own whims) and making it an actual conflict, i.e. plot, on the fly. So too does he discuss foreshadowing, termed “reincorporation” in his book. The difference lies in the timing: foreshadowing requires pre-planning and thought, while “reincorporation” is taking those things that already came up and “recycling” them in your plot so you give the illusion of planning. Reincorporation is also a method to generate new plots by drawing on previous material and applying the previous four theories to it.

It’s these things that I’ve used most in my sessions–having “plot props” show up more than once, throwing in last-minute complications to keep building on a good idea, and forcing difficult choices on my players (ah, the joys of utilitarianism, or the ends versus the means).

Finally, he talks about Working Together at the table. Having read all the source material for Houses of the Blooded, it seemed to me to echo the different play styles of friendly or cutthroat games, but if you’ve never 1) Read about or 2) Experienced both, the section could be of use to you. There’s a lot of OOC advice to help achieve the most fun for all, but it really comes down to trust. Do I trust you guys enough to open up? Do I trust you guys to not run rampant with my character? Do you trust me to fuck with you, but only insofar as it adds to the game? Though he does touch on these, I wish he’d spent more time on them, instead of chugging right along through group dynamics and energy. But I suppose these topics are covered in other books.

The Bottom Line

Was it worth the price? Meh. Not least of all because I bought through LuLu originally and got ripped off at $10 when it goes for $8 at the UnStore. At $8 it seems more reasonable, but given my layout qualms and the lack of depth, and the sheer repetitiveness of material that’s freely available on the internet, I wasn’t as pleased as I could have been. One out of three crits.

Further Discussion

Since the review was also published on RPG.net, those with an account there can deliberate my review here.

Further Reading

Walmsley’s short bibliography centers on two books, Impro and Impro for Storytellers. I haven’t read them myself, but it seems like they’d be a better source–I’d rather get more detail at the expense of the “conversion” into role-playing games. I can do that by myself, most likely.

Otherwise, you might want to read “Focus on Transitions” and “Just Enough Rope” on Gnome Stew.

For “Yes, and…” see “How To Be a Better Improvisor,” as well as the multitude of videos on YouTube.

For Playing NPC’s, see Chapter One, “Techniques of Terror,” in the Ravenloft Dungeon Master’s Guide p33-36.

And for collaboration with your players, read the DMG and John Wick’s Play Dirty, especially the Chapter on “The Living City.”

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