Faster, Higher, Stronger

Dealing with Munchkins

"Oh, but if you please, what are Munchkins?"
(Dorothy, Wizard of Oz)

"Citius, Altius, Fortius", or "Faster, Stronger, Higher" in English. These words sound great as a motto for a sporting event who's logo is a collection of colorful rings, but sounds terrible for a roleplaying game.
In this article, I'll try to review the reasons for Munchkinism, and some methods to deal with it.

What is a Munchkin?

The word Munchkin originates from L. Frank Baum's classic book The Wizard of Oz. From there it is taken, figuratively, as a derogatory term for people (usually children) who participate in certain actions without truly understanding their meaning or essence. For example, in British slang a Munchkin is a minor official who lacks any true power or influence, and in the world of software development a Munchkin is a kid who read Teach Yourself BASIC In 21 Days, and is sure he is a top class hacker.
In the same sense, in the roleplaying world, a Munchkin is someone who participates in roleplaying games without actually role-playing. For a Munchkin, the game is no more than an ongoing quest for better game statistics, power, riches and personal glory.

Where Do Munchkins Come From?

A new player, making his first steps in the world of roleplaying will quickly see that he is a stranger in an even stranger land. Notably, this is a game, but it is unlike any other game he has ever played - he does not have a defined goal or target. He cannot formalize victory or defeat in concrete numbers or terms. Even though the new player might consciously be aware of this fact, actually understanding this new concept is much harder than it may seem, and without a guiding hand this player would quickly fall back to the patterns of thought he is accustomed to - striving to increase his game statistics in pursuit of some abstract notion of victory.
Players who were lucky enough to receive this guiding hand form their early days around the gaming table usually outgrow these childhood sicknesses and become roleplayers in the full meaning of the word. This article will not deal with these players. This article is aimed at helping the GM who encounters players who have Munchkinism rooted deep within their habits, or to paraphrase the movie Jerry McGuire - "Help him help them".

Munchkins in a New Campaign

As a GM starting a new campaign or even a new one shot, your task is relatively easy. You don't have to deal with the residues of a full misguided campaign, but "just" with the background and inclinations of your players.
The first issue to address is your choice of a gaming system. Many GMs and players claim that this or that specific system automatically causes the gameplay to take on a certain style. From my experience (and without trying to blow my own horn, I've seen a thing or two in my day), the system itself has some impact on the style of play, but it is negligible compared to the impact the GM and the style he tries to dictate have. I've witnessed great games played in so-called Munchkin systems like D&D or AD&D, and I've witnessed some displays of pure Munchkinism in systems that supposedly encourage deep roleplaying like Vampire: the Masquerade and in systems which are supposedly too realistic to allow Munchkinism like Rolemaster.
As GMs, your job is not to "choose a system that doesn't allow Munchkinism", but to encourage (i.e. to make) your players actually roleplay. How is it done? Your first step should start already at character creation - simply do not allow your players to portray characters which are no more than a collection of game mechanics. Force them to flesh out their characters with personalities and backgrounds. Make them create characters who adhere to some internal logic by bombarding them with questions about their characters - "Where did the character come from?", "What made her leave her home and go adventuring?", "Where did she learn the skills that appear on her character sheet?"
Creating fully fleshed-out characters will help you later, when you actually try to make your Munchkins roleplay, an issue I'll address in the next paragraph.

Munchkins in an Existing Campaign

Now we've reached the really tough part - you have your players and their characters, and you have to turn the next gaming session to a real roleplaying session, not another episode of the Ultra-Super-Duper-Mega-Power-Rangers-The-Next-Generation. I like to separate this aspect of the process to two parts - the change of scenery and beating them in their own game.
First of all - the change of scenery.
The common Munchkins are used to a game full of fighting and looting, which exist only to make their characters stronger and stronger. First of all, throw them off balance by a sharp change of scenery. No more fights and dungeon-crawling, but scenarios filled with diplomacy, intrigue and mental games of chess. Place the characters in city based scenarios where they are no more than puppets in the hands of powers much greater than them (crime families, the law, a mysterious wizard of even The Secret Society of the Care-Bears). Force them to keep their swords in their scabbards and their hands in their pockets, and to resolve situations using their tongues and brains, not their swords and fireballs. Usually, such a change would only be perceived by the Munchkin as a new challenge to meet. However, during the scenario, without noticing, the seeds of true roleplaying will be planted in him.
Second, when everything else has failed - beat them in their own game.
Some Munchkins are more stubborn than others, and even when the GM tries to steer the scenario towards diplomacy and intrigue, they insist upon drawing swords (And axes. And morning-stars. And magic staffs. And multi-purpose assault rifles. And Pepto-Bismol bottles) and to exterminate whoever stands in their way. The novice GM might suffer a minor shock when the Munchkin blood-lust shatters his carefully planed scenario, but you must remember that you are the Game Masters, not the players. The scenario is your home court, even if you need to deviate slightly from your style. Your players want to Hack and Slash? Beat them in their own game. Make them understand that no matter how many magical items and fresh vegetables they stockpile in the group's Bag of Holding, when they try to attack the city guards, they'll lose. In a humiliating way. Eventually, as a last resort, they'll try a different strategy - actually roleplaying.

The ideas I've presented in this article are just the tip of the iceberg. Each GM has his own way to deal with Munchkins, and to those of you who don't - You've probably never encountered Munchkins. I envy you.

This article first appeared in issue #12 of The Orc.