Sunday, November 12, 2017

I'm Not a Grognard, I'm a Post-Munchkinist

I should have liked to continue my NaCaCreMo posts today, but I left my hex paper at home when I left for work this morning.  That means no mapping, at least not until this evening.  But I have had a related subject (of sorts) on my mind. Fair warning: this post is going to get überly navel-gazey.

When I first got into role-playing as a kid, I didn't really know what I was doing, and neither did the friends who introduced me to D&D.  This is a common story; you even hear it a lot from within the OSR.  "I got a Basic Set for Christmas and didn't really understand how it worked until older gamers showed me how to play!"  An old chestnut, right?  And we've all learned to laugh at our past selves, who made amateur mistakes interpreting the rules ("percent liar", anyone?) or who just plain didn't grok the concept of the role-playing game.  Our early, flailing attempts at adventures and campaigns are a source of comedy, not tragedy—because we eventually came to know better, and everything turned out all right in the end.

That's the likely story, anyway.  But is it a true story?

My contention, oft-argued of late, is that mainstream role-playing (RPG) and my preferred style of strict-sandbox old-school gaming (which I've given the intentionally-generic label "tabletop", TTG, purely as a matter of convenience for when I have occasion to blog about it) are two different but related hobbies.  I believe that this distinction has its origin in the grognard–munchkin generation gap.  And explaining this will require an intrusive digression on what these words mean and where they came from—which happens with surprising frequency whenever I want to discuss topics such as this.

Nowadays, a "grognard" is just an old-school gamer, or a holdover who sticks to an older edition of his preferred role-playing game (any game).  And a "munchkin" is a powergamer, an optimizer, someone who wants to "win" D&D (or, let's be frank here, "win" Pathfinder) by having the highest numbers, the sickest feat combos, and the most game-breaking magic.  (Side note: another synonym for "powergamer" is "twink", which owes its origins to the overpowered Bladesinger kit from the AD&D 2e Complete Book of Elves; but this term has been consigned to the dustbin of obsolescence because of the fact that it is also an anti-gay slur.  Its last gasp of life was the title a column written by the author of 8-Bit Theater, called "Twinkin' Out with Red Mage".)  But these modern-day definitions deviate significantly from what "grognard" and "munchkin" meant in their original senses (as they pertain to hobby gaming, I mean—I'm not talking about elderly rum-swilling French soldiers and blue-garbed Ozites or singing little-people on an MGM sound-stage here).

"Grognard" (which is pronounced /gʁo-'nyar/, by the way) originally referred to a hobby-gamer who was "older-than-the-old-school": a war-gamer who didn't like the fact that the faddish popularity of D&D was causing role-playing to eclipse his own hobby; or, a short time later, the earliest crop of D&D-players, generally college-aged and older, who had gotten into it through war-gaming and were similarly curmudgeonly about high-school-age kids and younger getting into D&D via products like the Holmes Basic Set and bringing their immature sensibilities and total ignorance of war-gaming into it.  And it was these grognards who dubbed the younger generation "munchkins".

In other words, a "munchkin" in the original sense isn't just a powergamer, but anyone who didn't get into role-playing through war-gaming.  That describes me and also probably 99.99% of all five or six million role-players active in the hobby today.  Properly speaking, I'm not a grognard, I'm a munchkin; and if you're reading this, you probably are too.  Powergaming was simply one aspect of the munchkin "stereotype" from way back when; and over time, linguistic drift (coupled with the fact that "munchkin" isn't a terribly useful term once it describes most of everybody) caused the word "munchkin" to eventually come to mean "powergamer".

But according to this early definition of "munchkin"—"role-player who got into the hobby after 1977 or so"—the powergaming stereotype doesn't universally apply.  Sure, it's still a feature of mainstream role-playing, to the extent that Pathfinder still owns a huge chunk of the hobby; but I would argue that the true salient feature of the munchkin-in-the-original-sense is an obsession with story.  Weird, right?

(At least one person reading this essay just had their head explode.)

Well, think about it.  Everything that I call "mainstream role-playing" (which is a superset of everything that the OSR calls "new-school") is an outgrowth of those munchkins-in-the-original-sense flooding into the hobby circa 1980 or so and taking it over.  Some of them did indeed become obsessed with numbers and winning and game balance, and they became what we now call munchkins or powergamers.  And some of them became obsessed with making D&D "realistic"; they wound up writing all of those ridiculously complex and rules-heavy fantasy heart-breakers that dominated the 80s, books full of tables and charts and ugly black-and-white line-art.  But most role-players, I think, got drawn into the hobby in the first place through a love of fantasy fiction, and from there it was a short leap to the conclusion that RPGs should be all about role-playing your hero and telling an epic story.  They dominated the scene in the 90s (if it please the court, I now enter into evidence AD&D 2nd edition and Vampire: The Masquerade); but more than that, they pretty much won the ideological battle for the "soul" of the hobby ever afterwards.  The type-III munchkins got to define what the role-playing hobby is.

And then you realize that even the most optimization-obsessed Pathfinder player, running a character with a dozen prestige classes and a three-digit Armor Class, has probably gotten there by playing through adventure paths.  Railroads.  Pre-written, ending-already-determined stories.

* * *

The point is, for someone like myself, who got into role-playing in the 90s, gamer culture was positively saturated with the idea that story and character are everything, and it's never really gone away.  I was drawn to gaming because I already loved fantasy and sci-fi.  That was the appeal: play out your own fantastical stories.  It was a no-brainer—because, apparently, I never had the brains to question it.

But D&D isn't a very good vehicle for telling epic stories with Chosen One heroes and prophesied endings.  That's just a truism at this point.  And the fact that so many gamers want that out of an RPG is the source of tremendous strife and dissatisfaction.  There is an inherent, unresolvable tension between the completeness of a story and the open-endedness of a game.  It's led to countless other games coming into existence, it's led to the evolution of D&D over the years away from the old-school, and frankly it's led to a culture that puts all of that story-first gaming up on a pedestal even within the OSR.

Having come into gaming in this environment, and having wallowed in it for nearly two decades, can I blame myself or anyone else for thinking that story-first role-playing is the normative or the right or even the only way to play?  Of course not!  I know what it's like to be there: I was basically raised on that Kool-Aid.  (Look at the early posts from the first year or two of this blog if you don't believe me—it wasn't all that long ago that I was still a clueless, contrarian little shit.)  I myself contributed to it, I was wrong, and for that I apologize.

It look a long time for me to realize that a narrative-driven RPG—that trying to turn D&D into Epic Fantasy Novel Trilogy: The Game™—isn't just hammering a square peg into a round hole.  It's a fraud, an illusion, a phony.  Even if it could be made to work (and trust me on this: it really can't, boy-howdy), if the DM does get to tell that epic fantasy story he's always wanted to tell through the medium of dice and character sheets, what are the odds that the players had any freedom at all in getting to the ending that the DM has imagined?  Practically zero would be my best wager.  I'd say that they were probably permitted to play-act along the way, and they might have even had the best times of their lives in so doing, but they weren't actually playing a game.

What brought me to this understanding?  Two things: actually playing old-school games, and reading some of the OSR philosophy floating around out there.  I've enjoyed reading through the musings of Philotomy Jurament and the meanderings of James Maliszewski's Grognardia blog, and I haven't always agreed with what they have to say; but I have taken one piece of advice to heart: let D&D be D&D.  Approach the game as a self-contained artifact of its time that knows what it wants to be, and don't impose my preconceptions on it.  Once I started doing that, the light slowly started to come on.  (It was also in this time that I started to read the "Appendix N" canon—Conan, Elric, John Carter—and I finally came to appreciate its influence on gaming.  Before, I rejected pulp fantasy out of hand and out of ignorance; now I keep some and reject most of the rest by choice!)

I had already known, just from getting back into old-school gaming to begin with, that I didn't want rules-heavy, I didn't want a rule for everything.  And I discovered pretty quickly just how amazing OD&D was at being "the best damned dungeon-crawl game", how the old game did all the work for you and made it easy to DM.  How it organically had rules where they were needed and no more or less than that.  But in trying out the OSR philosophers' let-it-be approach, it amazed me how good D&D was at just being itself.  It really was its own thing, free from the accumulated cruft of gamer culture and fantasy novels and, yes, even 1st edition Gygaxiana.  I already knew, from my early flirtations with the OSR, that old-school gaming was fun; what amazed me was how much more fun I had when I tried to play old games in accordance with the OSR philosophy.

And it really was incredibly fun, for a while.  But it was also at times dissatisfying, and at times it left me feeling downright empty.  I often wondered what the point of the sandbox was; I continued to rage against D&D's magic system.  (Magic in D&D, in any edition that I've played up to high levels, is just plain broken—zeroth, first, second, or third edition.  It's just that in the TSR editions, it's still a limited resource.  The crime of 3e was to make it unlimited.  It's not the high level spells that break 3e and make it the "caster edition"—it's the 750 gp wand of cure light wounds and its ilk.)  The frustrations built up and built up, and pretty soon I found myself ready to divest myself of D&D and the OSR altogether—to simply wash my hands of everything and pick  up some rules-light indy game, or any other RPG that I could find that might provide the mechanics I needed (demi-human characters, a decent magic system, and decent steampunk rules) to tell the kinds of stories I wanted to tell.

Cue the voice of Adam Savage:


Yep: even at this late stage, I was still blinkered, still trying to wrangle a story out of a game.  Still clueless, in other words.

And I might have stayed away from D&D altogether, if not for the fact that every other game I tried was in some way worse.  I had thought that my problem with D&D was the leveling system and high-level characters getting too powerful to challenge; but the other games I tried out either had the same problem anyway, or the characters didn't advance at all and that left the players too unsatisfied to want to keep playing.  No good.

So I just quit gaming for a while.

* * *

Time, it's true, really does heal all wounds.  After a spate of not-gaming, I felt the call again and started up an open-table OD&D campaign at my local game shop.  I now had all of this experience and philosophy floating around in my head, and I had a few clever ideas for keeping D&D magic under control which wound up working pretty well, and I ran a really successful campaign.

Then I ran another campaign with that same group of players, only this time I didn't need to house-rule D&D magic, because I had found Beyond the Wall magic to use in its place.  And from there I just… kept gaming.  I was finally happy with it, possibly for the first time.

I had begun to notice a few things for myself, bits and pieces of philosophy that I hadn't read anywhere else and hadn't occurred to me before.  I started to realize that the point of the sandbox was to make it a compelling place to explore and interact with, and that the dungeon had to have that same quality dialed up to eleven.  I saw for myself that the OSR was right, that pulp fantasy made a far better basis for gaming than high fantasy; but I also figured out how to work that into a genre that I personally preferred, namely the fairy tale.

And above all, I noticed that what I was doing really was strikingly different from how I'd used role-playing games before.  In fact, it was so different from what every other role-player that I'd ever known was actually doing with this game, these rules, this hobby, that it was in fact a different hobby.  Not really role-playing at all, if role-playing is to to be defined as that thing most new-school gamers do with dice and character sheets.

I'm doing something else—and I don't claim to have re-discovered some kind of ur-game, the "real" way to play, or anything that makes me a True Grognard™.  I'm not a grognard; I couldn't be, I wasn't there.  And from what I do know of Real Grognards with real Grognard Cred, they're an eclectic mix of wonderful people I'd love to game with and creepy assholes I hope I never meet.  The same as most other role-players, in other words.

No, I came up in a muchkin's world—steeped in story, marinated in narrative, seasoned with powergaming.  Rejecting all of that doesn't make me a grognard.  I think it makes me… a post-munchkin.  Post-munchkinist?  Something like that.

Nah, that sounds too pretentious.  I think I'll stick with what I settled on last time and just call myself a tabletop gamer.  At any rate, I'm sure as hell no longer one of them highfalutin storytelling role-players.

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