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Munchkins
Author: Mike Sullivan
Cost: Free
Website: http://wso.williams.edu/~msulliva/campaigns/munchkins/index.html
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2001-08-01


Munchins is a few pages of text available free, along with a couple of other games, from the website of Mike Sullivan. It begins and ends with a single joke: what if tiny, dim-witted people lived in our houses and worshipped the television? Such a one-joke pony isn't going to go far in play, but to me, its value lies in any insights it might afford for further play of all kinds. Like a lot of games which were written as a quick lark, Munchkins ends up scoring pretty high in the insight index. It also had a bit more potential for in-game events than meets the eye.

Munchkins are pretty much all alike - they love beer, they worship the television and interpret its directives with fundamentalist fervor, and they cannot understand any human language. To them, the humans are bizarre, lumbering, insensate creatures who must be avoided and perhaps driven out so the Munchkins can worship in peace.

Character creation reflects this simplicity - characters vary a bit in their abilities, but not at all in terms of attitude or story role. I rather like the attributes, as they all involve problems and decision-making in terms that make lots of sense at the Munchkin-level ("Scamper," "Interpret Glowy Box," "Do Other Stuff"). The system is best described as Fudge-lite, grading up and down a scale of adjectives based on a d6 roll. It works fine for yes-no-how-much task resolution, but doesn't provide or reflect any other elements of play.

The real strength of the game lies in the role of the Glowy Box. It's easy: in-game, whenever the Munchkins manage to get a look at the TV, turn on the real TV and watch for a minute or two. Then snap it off, and have the Munchkins figure out what the Glowy Box must have been telling them, and of course they'll now run off to act on the divine instructions. As the rules state very well (did I mention that Munchkins is exceptionally well-written? It is), disputes and plans regarding the GB's divine guidance, as well as incompetently feuding against the humans, constitute the whole of play.

Role-playing the Glowy Box stuff is definitely fun. It works even better then the rules imply or anticipate. The players had absolutely no problem shouting "Got it!" within a minute or so, and launching their characters into a fervent fundamentalist debate over what the GB "obviously" had told them to do. Of course, the GM has to be quite responsive to whatever the players come up with, which is a welcome tendency in system design that I'm seeing a lot lately.

In our game, at one point, two of the munchkins decided that they simply must get into the refrigerator, as it was obviously the source of beer. As it turned out, they went to Hell! Hell was totally dark, freezing cold, and the beer turned out to be closed up tight. We all actually felt pretty sorry for the munchkins at this point, trapped in an existential moment of realizing that Beer Heaven was not and could never be theirs.

Meanwhile, the third munchkin in the game had managed to switch on the GB and witnessed a graphic shooting of a young woman, and concluded with some justification that he was to kill the human (a young woman) who lived in the apartment. This illustrates one of the tricky elements of playing the game, which is to say the munchkins' efforts to drive out or otherwise harm the human NPCs. It's potentially kind of gross, and as the rules suggest, a group might do best to divert these plot elements into a comedy of the munchkins' incompetence rather than a true assassination storyline. There's a line in the rules about getting an iron to fall on the head of an infant that I probably couldn't bring myself to apply "straight" in play it'd be more about how the munchkins would be entertainingly inept at rigging or planning such an event. Definitely the kind of thing one gets on the table with the whole group before play, I think.

Tasteless, bloody, horrifying Munchkins (with a nod to the doll episode in "Trilogy of Terror") could be done, though. I can even think of a few players who'd be pretty good at it.

I was surprised at how well the game lends itself to savage commentary on the humans themselves. As GM, I suggested the setting be the very apartment in which we sat (a trick from Army Ants, there), and provided the NPCs, who were the young woman and her two boyfriends, one a lounging, TV-junkie beer-swiller, whom the munchkins really liked, and the other a sensitive type who went from "just friends" to "not just friends." The metagame OOC discussion became intense, as it turned out that everyone had plenty to say about the behavior of the humans, and the activity of the munchkins (oblivious of course to the actual content of the relationships and interactions) became actually a tad less important for a little while there.

I imagine the same thing could occur in a setting with a whole family, or any other set of humans, like college roommates. I think that plain old human emotional conflict is an untapped resource in role-playing scenarios.

Overall, Munchkins is not going to be the One True Game which converts the group to happy unity forever. But it offers good laughs and a couple of surprising, useful elements of play. I think that the Glowy Box represents an excellent example of what I'm now thinking of as "springboard" elements of RPG design, that is, during-play mechanisms that put everyone, GM and player alike, into a plot situation that could not have been predetermined. Such things are working very well for our group these days.

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