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When the Grognards Were Munchkins

Happy New Year to all!

The premise of this blog is still my thinking about role-playing games and getting oriented to gaming today as a reawakened gamemaster well into my middle age. Today's entry is about generation gaps.


I first came across the term "munchkin" in a gaming context in 1982, reading an issue of Dynamite magazine that someone had given to me because it contained an article on Dungeons & Dragons, then my new hobby. (I think it was issue #94.)

The article described a visit to a games store with tables reserved for players. This strange new kind of game (role-playing games) was featured. One group of older D&D players was observed to have a serious and mature game. Another table, full of kids, was making far too much noise, and they had to be told repeatedly, finally at a shout, to quiet down. These were described contemptuously by the older players as "munchkins," rowdy and immature kid gamers.

When I read this, I understood the reference to the annoying little people from The Wizard of Oz. As a middle-schooler, I instinctively disliked the term and the slightly pejorative way it was used. I did not want to be regarded as a munchkin. Still, as I did not play much with anybody outside of a limited circle, my schoolmates at the time, it didn't really matter.

As Jon Peterson describes it in his recent book The Elusive Shift (my review of it here), the term came into use around the end of the '70s. He cites (p. 204) a "Wargamer's Encyclopediac Dictionary" from 1981 as contrasting the munchkin, "a young wargamer, generally under 14 or 16 years of age," with the grognard, "a wargamer who has been in the hobby for a very long time." The latter term had been around among wargamers since before D&D, because, as Peterson points out, the generation gap among gamers is cyclical.

He also cites the complaint of Bill Seligman in Alarums & Excursions 58 (June 1980) about the "Munchkin Hordes (crowds of D&Ders less than 15 years old)." He feared that their youthful, unthoughtful play-style would be the future of the hobby, relegating the artful achievements of the first generation to the margins.

In Dragon #36 (April 1980), Larry DiTillio wrote about the dilemma of morality and moral instruction of youngsters in role-playing games. He noted, before advocating the use of D&D as a medium for modeling tolerance of others' sexuality and race for youngsters, that

As we all know, a large percentage of those who enjoy fantasy gaming are youngsters between the age of 12 and 16. They appear in gargantuan hordes at every con, madly seeking games in a fashion that is best described as True Chaotic. DMs in their 20s 30s and 40s often shun these kids as players, or patronize them contemptuously, attitudes I find distasteful to say the least.

The large new wave of pubescent D&D players was quite noticeable in the hobby at the time, and some game stores even instituted rules to cap the number of young players in the house at once.

The concern of the experienced D&D players then was that munchkins were not role-playing. In their view, the munchkins were missing the point of the game. They were going on juvenile ego-trips, centered on treasure and power, and treating the new kind of game as a game, rather than something more, which it clearly had the potential to be.

Munchkins were perceived to play in immature ways. As literally immature humans, they had the potential to lower the hobby. Nobody had the reach to teach so many new players otherwise. The munchkins played to rack up powers and magic items, not to develop characters or stories. It was worse than the reports of 100th-level characters at CalTech in '75, because this was not the localized threat of a single group of brainiac nerds, but a general demographic boom.

TSR notices and responds

The "hordes" of "munchkins" could not go unnoticed at game conventions. TSR saw the opportunity and profited from the new market. In my view, in doing so they boosted the hobby enormously. These kids were exactly the crowd of new players to whom Tom Moldvay's D&D Basic Set (1981) was marketed, "ages 10 and up." By virtue of my birthdate, I was a munchkin in 1981 and I did not even know it.

If you look at Moldvay's Basic with the generation gap in mind, some of its distinctive details make more sense. Although the AD&D Players Handbook (1978) mentions briefly, in tiny type, "There is no 'winner', no final objective, and the campaign grows and changes as it matures" (p. 7), Moldvay's Basic is the first D&D rules that I know that address this in a separate section with its own heading entitled "How to 'Win'," with the word win in scare quotes. It says (p. B4),

"Winning" and "losing", things important to most games, do not apply to D&D games! The DM and the players do not play against each other... The DM must not take sides... Player characters have fun by overcoming fantastic obstacles and winning treasure, but this does not end the game. Nor is the game "lost" when an unlucky player's character dies, since the player may simply "roll up" a new character and continue playing. A good D&D campaign is similar to the creation of a fantasy novel, written by the DM and the players.

This is pretty clearly a mission statement for D&D: it is a collaborative story-telling game to generate an enjoyable shared fiction. That was the explicit goal of the game, in the introductory rule book.

I think this paragraph was intended to address the phenomenon of "munchkins," the younger players at whom this set directly aimed. I can tell you that I read this section carefully and took it to heart. I remember telling some of my first players, as a young kid, "This is not a game where you win or lose!"

Gary Gygax's adventure module B2 Keep on the Borderlands was included in the box with this Basic Set, making it the gateway to adventure for many, many players at the time, including me. It is clear that the module was printed with the plan that it would be distributed this way, as the module explicitly anticipates that many players may already have a copy of it, so that the DM would have to change features of the scenario. Although Gygax's advice to players typically centered around his concept of D&D as creative problem-solving, he nevertheless directly exhorts new DMs to take on the roles they play and to act them out using funny voices and noises and gestures. He acknowledges that this may seem "too difficult" to some DMs, but basically says you should try anyway because you will get the hang of it and you will "exercise your imagination and creative ability to the fullest."

Again, I think that words like these were intended to incite young "munchkins" to experience the story-telling power of this unusual new type of game that was not just about winning or losing, getting powerful items and bashing things with them. It was about the enjoyment of creativity.

In other words, the Moldvay Basic set was designed to embrace the new "munchkin" audience while explicitly teaching them the goals and behaviors already elevated by the numerically fewer role-players of the first generation, and to avert antisocial and game-limiting munchkin-like behavior. It did this cleverly by not prescribing to munchkins what should be considered bad fun, but by telling them that there was a more lofty goal in the game than merely winning over and over.

The munchkins grew up

The munchkins who kept playing got the message one way or another and participated in vivacious role-playing, as many of my generation will attest. We never called ourselves munchkins (a term requiring an older point of view), but we had our own version of the label. We disdained "power gamers," a term I first heard in high school from a GM a few years older than me, Ben (whom I wrote about once). It was not that we thought the vicarious thrill of imaginary power was bad. It was that the power rush should not be the goal of the game, but rather merely a fun side effect.

The gamers I knew never called anybody grognards. It was a term unheard of when I was young.

As I wrote when I started this blog, I abruptly left role-playing games in the '90s as my professional life demanded all my attention and I moved away from all the players I'd known. Upon returning little by little in the last year or two, aided by my children, I found that munchkins were back, in a sense, and so were grognards. They just referred to different things.

The idea of the munchkin had gone from stereotype to brand. Steve Jackson Games, headed by an old-time genuine grognard and member of the first generation of D&D players, eventually published a popular game about this type of gamer, Munchkin, in 2001, with the tag-line "Kill the Monsters. Steal the Treasure. Stab your buddy." That certainly encapsulates the original complaint about what munchkins did: anti-social power-gaming. It does not appear that the term munchkin has really come back into use, though, as a general term. It seems mostly to refer to the game.

The flipside term returned, too: grognard, originally the term of contrast with munchkin. Quite a few aging players of role-playing games have adopted the name grognard for themselves, playfully or not. By the looks of things, though, for the most part they are the same people who were, like me, considered immature munchkins in those days: players of D&D who were 15 or younger at the end of the '70s or in the very early '80s. Some of the new self-described grognards are even younger.

People can call themselves what they want, of course, and there is no harm in this name. If grognard means just that you have been playing for a long time, everybody gets to be a grognard if they hang on long enough. But I think it's funny to notice that the original munchkins now get to be grognards. A lot of the experienced and most thoughtful DM bloggers are, in fact, of the "munchkin" generation.

And there is another funny side-effect of this. Some of the new grognards/former munchkins have wanted to revisit their earliest play experiences. I too feel the pull of nostalgia, like a tractor beam from the Death Star. But in the process, some among them have insisted, in various ways, that the game is merely a game, not a vehicle for story-telling or simulating a novel. That's exactly the kind of attitude that some of the first D&Ders lamented about them when they were munchkins. When former munchkins tried to recreate their own original play-style, as in the OSR movement, they naturally edged up against the very play-style that the first generation of D&Ders looked down on: munchkinism. Yet now, unlike then, parts of this approach (kill monsters, take treasure) are supported by a vast array of truly thoughtful justifications and rationales, a whole philosophy about why gold pieces should give power-ups and why the least coherent, original rules are the best. If you read these essays you may well be persuaded, too. Why not play it just as a problem-solving game, nothing more profound? There's no harm in that, either.

Some former munchkins also became game designers going other directions. Jonathan Tweet, lead designer for D&D 3e (2000)--but who should be best known as co-designer of Ars Magica (1987)--related in an interview how the DM of the college players he played with when he was 12 (1977 or 1978) killed him off to get the kid out of the game. This is the very generation gap that soon after came to be signaled by the term "munchkin." Yet Tweet deserves credit as one of those who did the most to develop systems that prioritize the story-telling aspect of role-playing games.

I had a similar experience of unwittingly being a munchkin. My mother noticed that I was dying to play my new D&D game more, but I needed more regular players besides my sister and schoolmates too many blocks away. In the summer of 1982 she signed me up for a "D&D club" at the local park district within walking distance. You paid a small fee, got dice and a lead figurine and access to a few sessions in a multi-purpose room with a big table. This was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and the term "Advanced" impressed me mightily. I made a gnome illusionist with the guidance of the DM, who was in his 20s. But the room was packed with players, mostly ambitious and commanding teens, and nobody heard a word I said once the dungeon adventure began. Desperate for something relevant to do, I finally acted out. I tried to steal something from the party, not even realizing that this was the munchkin stereotype, and I got neutralized somehow. I barely remember the details, but I remember not having fun, not keeping up, and not knowing what was going on. Afterwards I was playing exclusively with age-mates, for whom I ran modules as we all entered adolescence and acquired somewhat greater cognitive and reflective power.

A word to the young from the formerly young

For young players who read this (and by young, I mean younger than 35), there is an epimythium. The aspiring geezers like me who talk today about how it used to be will soon enough disappear into the megadungeon of eternity, never to return, in the TPK railroad scenario that is life. This will leave you to grow gray-haired in turn, to acquire plenty of experience (not for gold pieces, I note, but only for showing up and good role-playing), and perhaps even to level up in the course of time. One day, if you hang on, you can play the part of grognards, if you like the name. Then the younger players of the future may listen to you as you tell the tale about what it was really like in the old days, when there were people still alive who had met Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and had touched the Original Magic and who were initiated into the inner mysteries of gaming. Or maybe the younger players will sigh at you as politely as they can, ask you to stop telling them how to have fun, and play as they wish, because the Original Magic is always available, not the property of a single generation. As a former munchkin who did not even know it at the time, I hope that's what you do now.

Oh, and also: welcome younger players, give them meaningful choices to make, and listen to them.


  1. I'm not sure when I first heard the term 'munchkin', but by the time it was in common currency amongst the people I was gaming with, it was synonymous with 'power-gamer' and had lost all connnotations of age, though definitely indicated poor behaviour. This would have been the early 90s, back when we didn't really have the internet to standardise usage.

    My first gaming group was a bunch of 9 and 10 year olds who got started with Moldvay's basic in '81. I'm certain we weren't paragons of maturity when we started, but we didn't know true munchkinism until we fell under the influence of one of the player's older (teenage) brother. It was he who introduced us to the idea of setting all PC attributes to 18. Pretty soon our characters were all armed with +20 swords and sporting platemail +1 & shield +1 (no need for inflation there as -3 was as low as AC went...). It was just us in our closed group, though, so there was no one to find us disruptive, and intra-party rivalry was unheard of.

    The campaign got boring really fast, and one day we reset all our characters to 1st level and re-rolled their stats (keeping a free 18 in a prime requisite, though). We played Basic & Expert set for a while, then slowly started introducing bits of AD&D -- mostly monsters and magic items. We resisted the Players' Handbook at first. I remember a serious discussion in the school lunchroom with my friend where, with all the gravitas of 11-year olds, we expressed our reservations about the increased hit dice of AD&D characters, and how it would totally over-power our game.

    I think a lot of the current grognards have selective memory about their original play-styles. All the reflection and justification is fine, but there seems to be very little admission of any excess in the olden days, as if they were serious, mature gamers from the start, having burst forth from the skull of Gygax in full panoply.

    1. As the father of an 11-year old DM, I am charmed by your tale of the debates about the merits of different strains of D&D in the old days. I see it happening all over again, although my boy runs a tight ship with nobody gainsaying his rulings.

      Your point about overpowered games becoming boring is a good one that seems to me too often overlooked. It's not that playing powerful characters is bad. After all, there are genuine superhero games. It's when the challenges disappear that the problem arises.

      About selective memory, I think you can guess that I agree with you!


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