[book report] Play Dirty + Play Dirty 2
(I am worried about politics in the USA, because how can I not, but in the meantime life goes on.)

John Wick's essay collections Play Dirty: 15th Anniversary (http://johnwickpresents.com/product/play-dirty/) and Play Dirty 2 (http://johnwickpresents.com/product/play-dirty-2/) [available either as print + PDF or PDF alone--at $5 for a PDF, I consider it a bargain] are ostensibly about the art about gamemastering for tabletop roleplaying games, with the occasional tip for players.  I am certain that they make great food for thought and even advice for that task.  Sadly, I have pretty much never been able to put this stuff into practice because I last GM'd tabletop in undergrad.

On the other hand, these two books by Wick are some of my favorite books about writing.  I picked up the original version of Play Dirty when it came out years ago and reread it regularly.  Play Dirty 2 came out in 2015, but it was also a pleasure to revisit.

I'll talk first about the gamemastering side.  In the Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist triad, the style of gamemastering that Wick advocates is, as far as I can tell, almost pure Narrativist.  Wick is about making Story happen for the player.  He explains tabletop roleplaying as the only art form in which the actors and the audience are the same.  When he says "play dirty," he means using all the tricks at the GM's disposal to give the players a narrative payoff.

Now, not every gamer is a Narrativist.  When I was younger I was a split Narrativist/Simulationist; if you dig hard enough into Fidonet archives, you will probably find some (embarrassing!) records of young!Yoon Ha arguing earnestly about whether AC represents damage reduction or damage prevention in AD&D 2nd ed.  Yeah.  That kind of gamer.  My husband, Joe, is almost pure Gamist.  He has acquired a reputation at the local Pathfinder Society for min-maxing.  I outsource character generation to him because in a crunchy, mechanics-heavy game like Pathfinder, I basically want to do X and he will find a way for my character to do X.  My first character I said, "I want to hit things," and he used teamwork feats to design us (him, me, and our daughter) lean, mean, monster-smashing barbarian team.

So if you're in a Gamist-leaning group and y'all are happy, this may not be for you.  But if you want to use Narrativist techniques, then Wick has a lot of them.  And on top of that, he's a fabulous storyteller--Story is how people learn, and he demonstrates this over and over, through example.

You want examples?  Well, here's one from Play Dirty, which is Episode 3, "The Living City."  In order to run NPCs in a LARP, he created a "city in a box."  Each NPC got an index card with their name, three stats (Fighting, Thinking, and Talking), their home, goal, and resources.  At need, he'd hand one of those index cards to one of the *players* and have the player run the NPC in the scene.  Swap out as needed, etc.

In Play Dirty 2, Episode 9 is "Little Things" that can be dropped into a system you're already using.  For example, a character quiz:


Each question has a mechanical benefit of some kind.  Players only get this benefit if they answer the question to your satisfaction.  (Note, there are no "yes/no" questions.)

By the way, "Gain 100 XP" is code for "gain the appropriate amount of in-game reward for your game" and "Gain a d4" is code for "insert here a mechanic that fits your game."

1.  Name something your character does not want to lose.

Gain 100 XP when you lose this item.

Gain a d4 when trying to get this item back.

2.  Name something your character would die for.

Gain 100 XP when you defend this cause.

Gain a d4 when fighting for this cause.  (70) 


A running theme with Wick's methods is the idea of finding out what the player wants for their character and finding ways to give it to them.  One basic example he gives is if a character decides to play a fighter, this is usually code for "I want to hit things."  But Wick wants to encourage the player to go beyond that and really develop the character.  And the way to do that is to reward desired behaviors.  Another example that could be dropped into most preexisting games is the idea of giving each player an "experience point" or bonus die or whatever per session--that they have to reward to *someone else* for their roleplaying/actions/etc.

The first Play Dirty in particular was apparently controversial (the essays originally ran in Pyramid), but whether or not you agree with Wick's methods, they're definitely thought-provoking.  I love how he expands my ideas of how a GM GMs.

As for writing, the reason Play Dirty and Play Dirty 2 work so well for me there even though it's not their intended purpose is, in fact, the focus on characterization.  I struggle a lot with characterization so I figure I need all the help I can get.  Even better, Wick believes on explaining through stories of games that he's run, or that his friends have run.  And by relating the methods to systems I can see how things could be adapted to static fiction.  A book I'm reading right now on writing character arcs is probably really good for other writers, but it's very checklisty and abstract, and I'm having difficulty connecting to it method-wise.  Wick is what works for me.

Examples, you say.

Episode 1 from Play Dirty takes the idea of reversing good guy and bad guy roles.  He illustrates this by spinning an alternate version of Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber.  What if Corwin's "transformation from egocentric bastard to sympathetic martyr" (26) is a lie?  Maybe the Corwin who lost his eyes was a shadow manipulated by the real Corwin, and so on and so forth.  Wick also suggests a Good Guy Vader and Evil Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda.  In gaming terms the idea is to shake things up for players who think they know everything about the setting.  Let's face it: how many players ever stop when a gaming supplement says, "Stop, this section is for GMs only"?  I sure as hell kept reading, not least because when I was sitting on a pile of gaming materials inherited from my friend Robert M., I wasn't going to get to *play* half that stuff.

From a writing perspective, this helped me think about how characters perceive themselves as "good guys," and how different characters will perceive each other.  One of the things I liked about the original d10 RPG Legend of the Five Rings (which John Wick was involved heavily in!) was that in the section where you have rundowns of all the different clans, it tells you what each clan thinks of the other clans.  And boy, are they opinionated.  When I was working on some of the political stuff in the hexarchate books, I did a similar breakdown for the major characters and how they felt about each other in my setting bible.

And the Living City?  I "stat out" my characters just as a rough guide, and ended up borrowing Fighting, Thinking, and Talking.

Finally, Wick has an interest in theme and ethics that I find very powerful.  He spends Episode 5 from Play Dirty 2 talking about different tricks you can use to run a scary Halloween game, everything from running the AC very cold to stuffing all the players in a dark bathroom with glowsticks (he must have bigger bathrooms than we do, heh) to playing spooky music to hiding a "ringer" in a closet to knock on the door when cued to scare the hell out of the players.  But he ends the episode with this note (reminiscent of John Tynes' RPG Power Kill):

"Just remember this: your players want to be scared.  They have shown up on Halloween to play a horror game.  If they don't, they should go play a roleplaying game where they get to be the serial killer.

"You know.  A game where they wander around murdering everything in sight, plundering from dead bodies, and moving on without any consideration for the life they just took or the moral consequences on their conscience, becoming more and more powerful with each murder they perform.

"Oh, if only I could think of one.

"That game would be really scary."  (44)

In any case, I hope you're looking forward to a good weekend, lovely patrons.