REVIEW: Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley

First published in 2007 and based upon a series of threads posted on the old Story Games forum, Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe is a book about how to use improvisation to run RPG sessions. Only 74 pages long, the book is short on detail and substance but long on wisdom and insight.

Reading Walmsley’s book, I was reminded of the scene in White Men Can’t Jump when Woody Harrelson’s character slips a Jimi Hendrix tape into his car stereo to the complete incomprehension of the Wesley Snipes character. When asked why he’s playing Hendrix, Harrelson explains that he likes to listen to him and Snipes responds that this is the problem with white people: They listen to Hendrix, but they don’t hear him. In other words, though white people might be able to listen to the notes that Hendrix plays and dance along to the beat, their lived experience of whiteness fundamentally precludes them from ever enjoying a deeper connection to the music. Surveying some of the reviews and reactions to Walmsley’s book, I am struck by the fact that while anyone can read Play Unsafe, not everyone has the lived experience that would allow them to understand the ideas that Walmsley is trying to get across. As Walmsley puts it:

“Many roleplayers will want things they can do to improve their game.

Now, of course, I’ll describe techniques like this: reincorporating items in stories; changing status; building on other players’ ideas. These techniques will, I hope, improve your game.

However, techniques are only half the story. Many of the ideas in this book are Zen-like: they involve doing less.”

The book is broken down into five separate chapters:

  • Play
  • Build
  • Status
  • Tell Stories
  • Work Together

Each chapter is further broken down into a series of story-telling techniques. The idea being that you learn the techniques, internalise them to the point where they become instinctive, and then deploy them in play.

This much will be obvious to anyone who ‘listens’ to Walmsley as they’re the kind of broad improvisational techniques that have long-since become part of the folk wisdom surrounding how to run games. It’s all very simple intuitive stuff like not becoming so attached to a narrative that you wind-up railroading the group and responding to your players’ requests with either a “yes, and…” or a “no, but…” but every now and again, Walmsley will make a reference to the idea that you’ll *feel* when it’s appropriate to deploy a particular technique and this is where it starts to get a wee bit mystical.

Despite both being rooted in improvisational theory, Play Unsafe adopts a completely different approach to something like James D’Amato’s The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide. The difference is that while D’Amato’s book is all about guided exercises and techniques that can be used to augment an existing approach to play, Walmsley is more interested in helping you to change your entire approach to GMing.

While each of these techniques may feel somewhat underwhelming when looked at in isolation, taken together they comprise a more-or-less complete toolbox which, once understood and internalised, should allow you to run entire games without notes or preparation. However, in order for this approach to work, there can be no half-measures: You read the book, you learn the techniques, you internalise them, and then you submit yourself to the logic of the system. This is why Walmsley stresses the importance of things like emotional openness and cultivating creative relationships with other people at the table; the whole point of these techniques is to unleash your creative instincts and allow them to drive the game.

Okay… I realise that this is all very abstract and ‘Be the Ball’ but Walmsley is talking about those moments when a player makes a strange decision or a dice-roll produces an unusual outcome and you, as GM, are forced to go off script and start making stuff up on the fly. For me, it is in these moments that roleplaying exceeds any other art form as there is nothing quite as magical as those times when you make stuff up, and the players make stuff up, and things keep spiralling further and further out of control. Utterly in the moment, your imagination suddenly comes alive and the ideas just seem to pour out of you while the players laugh and roar their approval. No pre-written series of set-pieces can hope to capture the freshness and spontaneity of stuff made up on the fly and no classic scenario will ever feel quite as vibrant and real as something you just plucked out of thin air. All gamers experience these moments of joyful chaos and Play Unsafe is all about extending those moments, increasing their number, and making them central to the way you run your games.

As someone who enjoys improvising a lot more than he enjoys world-building, writing, or preparing adventures, I felt as though Play Unsafe gave me permission to lean into the aspects of GMing that I most enjoy. As such, this book constitutes a welcome and interesting corrective to an RPG scene that has increasingly come to fetishize not only pre-written scenarios, but pre-written scenarios with elaborate hand-outs, detailed sub-plots and pre-generated characters with intersecting backstories. Step up to campaign level, and the tendency towards front-loading creativity becomes even more obvious as companies are falling over themselves to re-publish older material with additions that serve only to make them longer and more involved. Play Unsafe suggests that, rather than having all creative decisions made before play, why not surrender to the moment and discover where your creativity takes you?

The structures and techniques that Walmsley suggest are excellent; aside from the now universally-known dictum that you should always go with (or, at worst, modify) players’ suggestions, he also suggests we do stuff like pay attention to status as a source of dramatic energy. For example, most traditional RPGs are (in one sense or another) about the acquisition of status through wealth and power, but status can also provide dramatic energy on a more fine-grained level. Think of all those times an NPC mouthed off at a PC and earned that player’s enmity. Think of all those times a group of NPCs thwarted the players’ plans only for the characters to gain power and overturn that power imbalance. If you pay attention to questions of status when reacting to things at the table, then chances are that you’ll be able to pull stuff together to form a dramatic shape as, on one level or another, most RPGs are about status and even players who protest that their characters are outcasts will always respond to offers of status or attempts to have their status taken away.

Play Unsafe is full of these kinds of psychological observations and tips on how to use them to guide your improvisation at the table and that makes this an incredibly valuable and thought-provoking book. My only regret is that the book was not a little bit longer as a bit more time and space devoted to how this approach to play works in practice would make the whole thing feel a lot less Zen. For example, one thing the book under-plays is the fact that the best preparation for this kind of play is simply to consume and remember a broad range of media. The more films you watch and the more books you read, the more improvisational solutions will pop into your head. One of the more interesting observations made in this book is the idea that what you consider ‘common sense’ or ‘boring’ can often feel wildly creative to another player because they are not approaching the situation with the same set of assumptions. The more weird and singular stuff you consume, the weirder and more imaginative your output will seem to others.

It is fascinating to read this book after reading the work of James D’Amato as while D’Amato boasts about being an academically-trained improviser, his approach to improvisation often feels rigid to the point of being reductive. Conversely, Walmsley is less interested in providing you with a list of exercises that might be used in a corporate brainstorming session and more interested in helping you put yourself in a position where you revel in the thrill of your own creativity. This is a great book, read it and be changed.

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