After my post on Monday, I had a number of people ask for a full review of Play Dirty. Being the magnanimous blogger that I am, and with the Kickstarter for Play Dirty 2 going on, here it is.
Play Dirty is 118 page PDF available through Drivethrurpg.com for $5.00. You can get the hard copy (or the PDF) at John Wick’s website here. Play Dirty contains 11 articles that Mr. Wick wrote 15 or so years ago. Be warned, Play Dirty is rough. John Wick admits with his introduction to the book. He chose not to edit the book when assembling it, for reasons that I will let him explain. But they are reasons I can empathize with. The articles within have been called controversial, divisive, and, more than a little antagonistic. It is hard to tell if this tone comes across because it is the true nature of the author, or just the voice he chose to write in to convey his points. But the heart of Play Dirty, in my mind, is to provoke you to think about ways to push your game to be better. John Wick is sharing his stories and experiences as a GM, to make you question how you run games. A lot of them are shared out of context which can hurt the narrative. But, as in my case some 8 years ago, his goal help you raise the quality of your game.
One note. Writing a review of a product is usually easy for me, but I have struggled with this one. As Play Dirty is a book of GMing advice, reviewing a lot of the content defeats the purpose of buying the book. And, as it was so seminal for my GMing style back in the day, I struggled with objectivity. I will try to highlight the chapters that I feel either, exemplify the tone of the book, or the type of advice that it contains.
Episode 0 – Hit ‘em Where It Hurts & Episode 2 – The Return of Jefferson Carter
Episode 0, the article that lead to the column Play Dirty, talks a lot about character death. And a lot about how to dick with characters in your games. Reading through it you may begin to wonder, why the hell am I taking advice from this killer GM? And that is fair, John walks you through a number of ways to use character’s advantages and disadvantages to abuse them. This is a perfect example about the adversarial tone and the controversial advice I was speaking about above. But, look for the lie this chapter contains. As Mr. Wick admonishes, he says one thing but shows another. The second Episode provides more context to this episode, and it helps pull this opening article into perspective.
While these chapters portray an adversarial GM cackling maniacally as player after player quits his game, there is something else there going on. There is a GM who is delving into themes and stories at time where Narrative gaming was in its infancy. It is a bloody, messy affair that gave birth to what sounds like an amazing conclusion. These chapters remind me that the characterization and struggles I love in literature are not exclusive from the stories we bring to the table.
Episode 3 – Living City
The Living City chapter is indicative of John Wick’s unorthodox GMing techniques found in Play Dirty. Other examples of these can also be seen on his Play Dirty You Tube channel. (Check out the Dirty Dungeon Technique for another great example of this type of technique. Seriously, that technique is gold and my players have loved every Dirty Dungeon we have created.) The basis of the Living City technique is to get your players to do the heavy lifting of city design and management. Have them design, and even play if you are brave enough, the NPCs of the city. Have them establish scene and location specifics as they come up. Basically, push some of the narrative control of your story back at the players. This not only lifts a huge burden off your shoulders, but ties the players to the story and the events of the city. It raises their investment in the world and the story, which is always a good thing. And, perhaps, is the defining goal of John Wick’s play style and this book.
Episodes – The Rest of the Book
There is a chapter on dealing with problem players that makes me cringe (and always has). They are horrifying and brutal. I can only imagine they would solve the issue of a problem player, by driving them from the table. But, he does tell you real way to deal with problem players, which is not any of those techniques. Talking with your players is the way to deal with issues. It is this dichotomy that makes me believe that some of the antagonism is intention, to showcase the true advice. He also tries to impart the idea which seems like it should be intrinsic to the hobby, but I deal with on a regular basis in store games. RPGs are social, group events. Having fun in spite of everyone else is a surefire way to ruin that fun.
The rest of the book, in my opinion, is all about challenging player and GM perceptions. Perceptions about mechanics, the nature of the game, the stories you can tell, even the nature of the player characters. There is a lot of great, easy to digest material in the remaining eight episodes. These episodes are the less…. provocative, but no less informative.
As I said Monday, you will either love or hate this book, but you won’t look at your game the same way. I stand by that. I think that in the chaos of the original Play Dirty, John Wick shines the light on a lot of great GMing techniques. At the time, it was one of the few sources of Narrative GMing advice that now pervades the hobby. The Dresden Files RPG has more than a few of elements of the Living City. The World of Darkness embraces the kind of story-based tomfoolery of the original article. While controversial, I believe that Play Dirty was on the leading edge of an industry wide shift in perspective.
Play Dirty is entertaining, and serves as a reminder (and for me, the source) of many of the techniques I love to use at the table. I have never found these techniques or stories as controversial as many on the internet did. But, I have also had knockdown, drag out fights over how I run my games. For $5 is it worth the read. And for $10, you can get both Play Dirty, and Play Dirty 2 over at the Kickstarter.