Posted on November 18, 2008 by Flames
Nearly all RPGs have a section devoted to the theory of how RPGs should be played. In fact, this is the part of a corebook I find myself rereading for inspiration. The skill of these chapters range from the banal to sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll goodness. If you want how-to theory that feels like Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, then John Wick’s Play Dirty is the book for you. Making connections between the two proves simple. Heck, both books have a series of rules to follow. While we won’t talk about the rules of Fight Club, I will share Wick’s two rules:
Rule One: There are no rules.
Rule Two: Cheat anyway.
Play Dirty (2006, 113 pages) is a collection of fourteen articles primarily designed to helping Game Masters make their games leave a lasting impression. An article or two in the book turn the tables in that they come from the Players perspective; however, the bulk of the book is about being a dirty playing GM. While there is an immense amount of discussion on how the author “Wicked” Players over the years, offing players isn’t the moral of this story. The author wants your gaming experience to transcend a little bit; he wants to make things uncomfortable.
Another anthem of the text is creativity. In one of the rare articles aimed at the player, Wick repeats the idea that keeping ideas moving will keep the game moving. He offers examples of planning your own character’s death, overhauling your character’s core persona, and using out-of-character knowledge to enrich the game. The author makes it clear that he is not talking about derailing campaigns just for the fun of it (No, Luke doesn’t just kill Princess Leia when he reaches the Death Star). It’s about making creative moves that liven up your gaming sessions.
Grammar and Style
Wick’s brisk conversational style hooks the reader. It is this gritty style that lends to why I read the book in one setting. You feel like the author is speaking directly to you (and he’s kinda in your face at times). After taking a barrage of grammatical punches and spin kicks, you find yourself wanting more. Sadly, you do reach the end. The Hemingway-crisp text is written and edited terrifically. Wick trims down what would be four pages in some books to four lines. In doing so, he makes more sense and leaves a more enduring impression on the reader.
Play Dirty also has a nice layout. In choosing a straightforward novel format that is barren of graphs and distracting sidebars, the author keeps the reader focused. Of course, this means there is little artwork to speak of expect for the cover art and interior design by Daniel Solis. All that can be said of the interior watermarks and borders is that they suit the book. Each chapter heading is written in what appears to be blood splatter. There are coffee rings on the blank pages, pages which really should have just been omitted. The visual breakdown looks nice and only adds to the writing. It’s intentionally messy at times because the ideas in the book are.
One problem with most books or chapters of books that provide a how-to section on gaming is the dreaded “Example-of-Play” section. This is the section of the book where a gamer describes what a typical gaming session is like. It always ends up a dry attempt at humor between friends with no apparent social skill at all (the worst example of this that springs to mind is The Book of Mirrors). In twenty-plus years of gaming, I’ve seen plenty cases of minimal social skills, but no existence of the kind of behaviors one sees in these EOPs. They are usually just the worst kinds of fluff one finds when reading RPGs.
Play Dirty doesn’t have this fluffy nonsense. The stories in his articles are not fictionalized accounts of a group of drone-like gamers. No, his tales are from his own life experiences, which makes the book all the richer. Again, John Wick talks to you through his book. You should listen.
His topics are laser-specific and range from using PCs’ disadvantages creatively to letting the players create the gaming environment for their characters (a term he calls the “Living City”).
Scattered throughout the book are ways to make up rules that are 90% anticipation and 10% BS. Wick wants to put the thrill back into your gaming session and he has solid ideas on how to do it through such novel concepts as egg-timers, veiled threats, and sheer reputation (the first two you can use out of the gate; you have to earn the third).
The advice in Play Dirty works. After reading the book, I couldn’t wait to try out Wick’s ideas and found that they could be recycled with minimal effort. I listened as my gaming group chattered on about Villain Dice, the Laws of the Table, and changes to Experience; furthermore, I realized just how much more intense the game became. This is the point of the book and it serves that point well.
The book doesn’t really stop with the last page though. No, the author maintains semi-regular video segments through both YouTube and his LiveJournal. These viral feeds are just as entertaining to watch as they are to read (some of the feeds are refreshers of these articles while others are total originals).
Play Dirty earns a 9 out of 10 for the sheer amount of ideas that can be mined from it. A reader can revisit this book time and time again and take something fresh from it. I want to give this book a 10 out of 10 because I so rarely find one that deserves it. The temptation to give it a perfect score cannot be denied, but John Wick is about pushing people to give a little bit more. It appears I am about that too.
Review by Todd Cash
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