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In Defense of Munchkinism

So, your quadruple-classed 100th-level evil gold were half-dragon/half-tiefling is irritable because Demogorgon just cheated at cards and won the throne of the Abyss back? Bummer—you should have known better to play cards with a demon who's got tentacles and two heads. My 125th-level timelord Klingon archlich has a neutron bomb he can sell you if you want to give old Asmie a little surprise tomorrow morning, though. Or are devils immune to radiation? I forget.

Does this kind of scenario make you recoil and make signs to avert evil, or inspire you grab a pen and look around for the sign-up sheet?
There's a phrase in the AD&D community that grates on my nerves but seems to crop up a lot—munchkinism. The term can be applied to a single gamer, a particular character class or magic item, or an entire campaign. ("He's a munchkin, that's a munchkin class, Dark Sun is a setting for munchkins.") I've heard the munchkin label placed on just about every AD&D publication there is, particularly Skills and Powers, Planescape, and occasional supplements like Council of Wyrms.
I'd personally like to see the entire munchkinism debate dropped. I just don't think it serves any useful purpose. Munchkinism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Will accusing somebody of being a munchkin change his gaming style? I doubt it. (Note: I use the gendered "he" advisedly—in my 20-some years of gaming experience, I've found men more prone to power-gaming than women, although to some extent everybody does it ... see below.)
Now, I'm a firm proponent of heavy roleplaying and strict game balance, two things that munchkin games tend to lack. But despite that, I want to step back for a moment and sing the praises of munchkinism, because I think munchkin-bashing has gotten out of hand. So here they are, four arguments in defense of munchkinism.

(1) Munchkinism harms no-one. Okay, munchkins might be a problem if you're running a balanced game and suddenly one joins in, +10 Vorpal Avenger a-swingin' ... but what on earth are you doing allowing a munchkin into your campaign in the first place, if you don't like that kind of gaming style? And even if you do allow him in, why aren't you reining in his wilder tendencies? You're the DM—just say no. Either the player will quit the game or he'll learn a new style of playing. The best bet is to put all the munchkins in your gaming group together and let them do whatever they want. What do you care if the table over there has just taken over Sigil and turned it into an amusement park?
(2) You were a munchkin once. Don't deny it. I'll bet you've got an overpowered character tucked away in your notebooks someplace. We all do (unless, in a fit of righteousness, we threw it away). I've observed four general stages of gaming—any given individual's experiences may vary, of course, but most people have passed through (or are passing through) these stages at varying rates: (a) The Learning Stage, where you fumble with the rules and are lucky if you remember how to roll to hit. The whole system seems impossible—and if learning 1st Edition seemed hard, imagine how much worse it is now with all the new rules! (b) The Munchkin Stage, where you've learned just enough about the rules to be dangerous. This is typically the point where you try to run your own game, and you start power-gaming because it's fun and exciting and who'd ever get a chance to cast a 9th-level spell if they accrued XP by the rules, anyway? (c) The Roleplaying Stage, where you're finally tired of rolling dice and slapping deities around, and you start experimenting with different personalities and roleplaying challenges. Maybe you even (gasp) learn to enjoy a low-level game! And finally, (d) The Flexible Stage, where you've learned to enjoy all aspects of gaming, and though you have your preferences, you can move from one style to another as need or the mood demands. Sometimes you game to be dead serious, and other times you kick back for a cheesy "beer-n-pretzels" game.
(3) Munchkinism is fun. Kinda like summer disaster movies, fast food, and vegging in front of the TV all night, the occasional munchkin game is a guilty pleasure that most of us have indulged in at one point or another. Mindless, nutritionless fun. Let's face it, telling people your character died because she was mauled by wolves isn't half as cool as saying that she was run over multiple times by a Chariot of Sustarre, Disintegrated, and then swept through a planar rift. I'll bet you've got a good munchkin story or two, don't you? My favorite is my half-demon grandfather-of-assassins' birthday party, where we all sat around and brainstormed the most outrageous party games we could think of (potion miscibility contests, retributive strike contests, Mirror of Opposition duels, tug-of-war over pits of green slime, etc.) Yeah, it was stupid. But it was a lot of fun, too.
(4) Munchkinism is one way of playtesting the system. AD&D is pretty balanced at low and middle levels (by that I mean about 1 to 12, a range that may give you an idea of my gaming style), but it begins to really get skewed at higher levels (13 and up). I mean, mages should rule the world. Period. I'll write about this further some other week, but let's just take Polymorph Any Object as an example. A mage can cast it at 16th level. According to High-Level Campaigns, p. 22, Table 1, there are likely to be four 16th-level mages per 1,000,000 people. That means in, say, a single kingdom there are four mages capable of completely ruining the economy by flooding it with gold ... or turning all the gold into dirt. Scary, huh? And believe me, a munchkin will do it ... or worse. Seeing the abuses munchkin players levy on the world can give a DM the perfect opportunity to consider how high-level NPCs might act on his or her own world ... and implement preventative house rules accordingly!

What this all boils down to is that I, for one, am tired of the debates over what power level is the "best" for AD&D. IMHO, the worst thing gamers can do is start to take their games or their gaming preferences too seriously (that goes for nonmunchkins and munchkins, so both of you mellow out!). There's no right or wrong way to play. AD&D is a game. It's supposed to be fun. If you don't like the way somebody plays, leave. But on the other hand ... don't knock it 'til you've tried it. Did I ever tell you about the time my character was swallowed whole by an undead Tyrannosaurus Rex that sneaked up behind him...?

originally written May 9, 1998


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