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Thursday, 6 November 2014

Dirty Pool Old Man

Back at the turn of the millenium, John Wick was contracted to write Play Dirty, a column about game mastering advice for Pyramid Magazine, Steve Jackson Games’ online weekly. Over the course of the eleven columns that he would write for Pyramid Magazine, Wick would arouse controversy, ire, and irritation. His columns were a real talking point for the magazine. Subsequently, they would be collected and published by Wick himself in 2006 in a volume entitled Play Dirty. The book also included the original column that appeared at the website www.gamingoutpost.com which would spur the then-editor of Pyramid, Scott Haring, to engage Wick as a columnist. As Wick launches Play Dirty 2: Even Dirtier on Kickstarter, it seems appropriate to look back the original essays and see what made them so controversial.

So what is the fuss all about? Well, the GM advice in Play Dirty is about doing one thing. It is also about not doing one thing. The thing it is about doing is the GM entertaining his players. The thing it is not about is the GM being fair or even honest to the players. Play Dirty is about the GM doing anything and everything to ensure that his players have a good time—and that includes lying, cheating, and stealing; being mean—even cruel; and when it counts, being a bastard. All in the name of good storytelling and good drama. 

To do so, Wick not only gives the reader tricks, traps, and tactics aplenty that will enable the GM to get down and dirty with his players, he illustrates them with anecdotes from his own games and those of others. For example, in Episode 0, ‘Hit ‘Em Where It Hurts’ the author examines the weakspots of every player character—his Disadvantages—and shows you how to punch them hard. Not out of spite or because he can, but to maximise their drama potential. After all, is that not why the player took those Disadvantages? Well sometimes not, because they are often just a means to gain more points to make the character stronger elsewhere. In one example, Wick shows us how he had an outwardly helpful and friendly NPC push the heroes about in a Champions campaign by using (NOTE, not threatening) the heroes’ dependents and their luck, pushing their immunities and their psychological limitations, and so on. In Episode 7, ‘What’s It Worth?’ he talks about player assumptions, that they assume that they are doing the right thing, that they are the protagonists, and that the world revolves around them. Other episodes make Darth Vader the good guy, explain how the players can get involved in running a city campaign with the GM, how to deal with problem players, make combat lethal, and so on and so on. There is even an episode entirely for the players about how to play dirty with the GM.

Not all of the episodes are adversarial, or at least not confrontational. For example, Episode 3, ‘The Living City’ describes a means for the players to get involved in running and adding to a city campaign. All in the name of good drama—plus cutting down on the GM’s workload of course. Yet there are many episodes that are adversarial. Take for instance, in Episode 2, ‘The Return of Jefferson Carter’ he describes how he makes a player roleplay his character whilst the character is stuck in prison. For six weeks.

That is being adversarial. That is being a bastard.

The question has to be asked, “Did you really do that John? Did you make a player sit and seeth for six weeks? Or were you simply trying to make a point?” (Technically, this is three questions, but all of them have to be asked).

It does not help that throughout Play Dirty it feels as if John has got up on stage, cane and straw boater in hand, a gleaming smile plastered across his face and preached at us. Play Dirty involves chest beating aplenty and all of it John’s. Yet if none of his advice is intended to be fair or honest in application, then why should his tone and writing be fair, honest, or even measured?

Now the original Play Dirty columns appeared in 2000—plus the last column that appeared in 2003 for Pyramid’s tenth anniversary—and were brought to print in 2006. As the author states in 2006, they were written by a younger version of himself, a brasher, more pugnacious version. It shows. In many cases it feels like Wick’s advice is obvious and that what he has done is taken said advice and ‘turned it up to 11’, but even by 2006 that advice had entered the mainstream. Perhaps not to the extremes that Wick pushes it, but it was there. By 2014, some fifteen years after the advice was first written down, it is no less useful or at least no less thoughtful, but it does feel staid. That in part is because the gaming hobby has aged and moved on, and few gamers have the time to devote to the type of game that this advice applies to—the long game, the campaign game. Even by the time that Play Dirty was published as a book, gaming had moved on with the advent of the Indie Roleplaying  movement.

To be honest, John Wick’s advice may not be to everyone’s taste. It is likely to be too ‘unfair’, too confrontational, and too much in their face. If applied, it is likely to upset their players and thus the apple cart that is their game. To some, John Wick’s advice is bad and John Wick’s advice ruins games. If this is the case, then Play Dirty and thus Play Dirty 2: Play Dirtier will not be for you. Perhaps instead Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering by Robin D. Laws will be of use to you. (In fact, I might just dig out my copy of that and review it…)

Physically, Play Dirty is a plain, buff book. There are no illustrations. The words draw the pictures for you.

Play Dirty is a quick and easy read. In fact, I read it on my commute to work and back again today—not all of my commute as reading and walking is not the safest of activities. Indeed I suspect that writing this review will take longer than it did to read Play Dirty. (I was so keen to start the review that I cut myself shaving for the first time in decades. So, Mister Wick, your book has blood on its pages).

Now to the point. Is Play Dirty a good book? Is its advice useful and helpful? Well yes, no, and yes. Yes, because its advice can be taken and applied with the end result being a good game, even a memorable game. No, because it is not going to suit every game, every GM, every set of players, or every campaign. It has the potential to upset each and every one of them. Lastly and most importantly of all, ‘YES’.

Yes, Play Dirty is a good book and its advice is useful and helpful. For this very important reason. It will make you think about your game. Even if you never apply the advice in its pages, it will make you think about your game.