« Play Unsafe » is a list of tips, insights and ideas about RPGs organized under 5 broad categories : Play, Build, Status, Tell Stories ans Work Together. I put 3 stars, but don’t let it fool you in thinking the book is not worth reading. It’s good : it makes you think differently about RPG, and can make you reconsider some things you do, thus improving your game. But I feel this would have been an excellent blog series : 8 US$ is a bit much, especially if you already read improv-oriented games or blogs and forums about this play style.
The thing is that if the book makes you realize and question some of your assumptions, it does not help you do much more than that. For each insight the author share, he gives a good short explanation and illustrate it with a helpful example, then proceeds to another insight. No deeper discussion, no analysis, no nuances are given; and if good practical advices are sometimes offered, they still feel incomplete. Sometimes this is no big deal, but it is often frustrating : « Don’t plan ahead » means avoiding to plan contingency plans (if A happens, B will, but if C happens, D will instead…) and Walmsley’s practical advice to help the reader is to « Hold ideas lightly ». But should I plan something, some kind of scenes maybe, or some places, or maybe an evil plan that some bad guy will put in motion, or some stats blocks, or a story hook, or NPCs? How much does that change if I play a crunch-heavy game versus a light-rule one? None of those issues are acknowledged, much less discussed; some tips, like « Screw with each other » or « Shooting ideas deliberately » are in dire need of that.
This superficial treatment leaves you at the end of the book realizing that for most of the tips, one or two sentences does not only sums, but basically says pretty much everything the book itself said about it. That does not make it bad or useless : the right one or two sentences can improve your game, and the book contains a healthy dose of « right ». But that still is an obvious lack of substance. Imagine a book of aphorisms and quips about entrepreneurial success : it can be uplifting, eye-opening, maybe even life-changing, but it’s leaves a lot to be desired if you actually try to start a small business. « Play Unsafe » is the tabletop RPGs version of this. To be fair, the author tells you at the very beginning about the « Zen of gaming » approach of his book, so in retrospect, that was to be expected.
Of course, the quality of those insights will also vary. For example, « Keep the action onstage » (« Never describe action from a distance […] when you can bring the action closer ») strikes me as either false (it’s actually a great way to give life to the universe and/or to hook the PCs on some adventure) or uselessly cryptic (of course you don’t want to describe in detail a great battle if the PCs cannot take part in it in some way; but why then not write « make sure PCs are part of whatever is happening » or « make sure you are not monologuing for more than one minute »?). On the other hand, « Get to the action » presented just before is great advice : instead of stalling cool things from happening (« we kill the usurper! ») with dull obstacles (« the usurper isn’t in the room we thought, but miles away! »), let them happen and continue the story from there (« we become the new rulers of the kingdom. ») Your mileage may vary, but I’m pretty sure that you’ll find some tips great and others quite bad.
In summary, « Play Unsafe » is a book that will help you reflect on how you play and see RPGs. It may change some of your attitudes, but do not expect much else beyond that. 8$ is probably too expensive, but it’s not a waste of money.