People play different games and they play for different reasons. Sometimes simply because they’re competitively-natured, sometimes it’s just to kill some time, sometimes to be entertained, and sometimes to be social. (These aren’t mutually exclusive reasons.)
Recently, my wife and I were over for dinner with friends, and we decided to play a game of Munchkin Cthulhu.
Our friends’ names are Chooch and Viv; I’m telling you this to make this anecdote flow. Allegedly.
At least one of those names is definitely a nickname. That would be Viv. Chooch might be a nickname. He looks like a Viking, so let’s just roll with this, shall we?
Everyone here knows how to play the basic set of Munchkin, right? If not, for a full introduction please check out Wil Wheaton’s YouTube episode of TableTop, where Wil plays the game with the lovely Felicia Day, the lovely Sandeep Parikh, and the legendary Steve Jackson – the creator of Munchkin.
If you don’t have 28 minutes to spare, I’ll give a super high level breakdown. It’s as if you were playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons (or the equivalent) but without a map or character sheet. Everyone starts at level 1. Each turn someone kicks down a door in a dungeon (not literally, a “door” card gets turned over and then the player might fight a monster.) Winning fights against monsters results in gaining combat levels and treasures for the player.
First person to level 10 wins. Often, everyone else in the game tries to prevent this from happening.
It’s GREAT FUN! (In this context, munchkins are not residents of Oz nor the delightful donut-holes that can be purchased at a specific donut shop, but refer to people who play non-competitive games in an aggressively competitive manner.)
We were playing the Cthulhu version of the game (Munchkin comes in many many different genre versions) so we weren’t elves or dwarves, fighters or wizards.
This was Lovecraftian. (I hope I don’t have to explain Lovecraft or his literary creation, Cthulhu.) This version of the game includes 1920’s tommy guns, mystical tomes, and tentacles.
The particular gaming session with our friends was a typical Munchkin run: some easy fights, some empty rooms, some running away from Things Men Were Not Supposed To Know, some team-ups when it was mutually beneficial, and many occasions of trying to make the current player’s combats go badly.
Along the way, Viv, my wife Lisa, and I were turned into cultists (a character class.)
We didn’t realize what effect this would have at the end. We cultists were just happy to have a +4 combat bonus.
Soon Chooch, Viv, and Lisa were all at level 9, so the game was close to being over since one of them was bound to win a fight sooner or later and hit level 10. (I was level 6 or something, so it was very unlikely that I was going to win.)
It was Chooch’s turn, and when “kicking open the door” to start his turn, he opted to play a monster from his hand to fight. This wasn’t some easy creature. This monster was Cthulhu.
The issue was this: if Chooch fought Cthulhu and won, he wins the game. All of us cultists would lose. (It didn’t matter that we were cultists, we’d lose if we were professors or monster bashers or investigators.)
But if Chooch could not defeat Cthulhu, and was caught by the big bad… he’d be killed and his new character would be a cultist.
That would make everyone a cultist. Munchkin Cthulhu has a rule, if all players end up being cultists, all the players lose and the Great Old Ones (or Elder Gods, one of those) win.
Things suddenly got weird. And familiar.
I’d recently re-watched the first Hellboy movie, starring Ron Perlman as the eponymous demon with a heart of gold and a fist of stone.
The movie’s been out forever, so if you’ve not seen it, I apologize for spoiling the ending where the good guys win.
The climax of Hellboy centers around the mad monk Rasputin planning on summoning something equivalent to Lovecraft’s Elder Gods (or Great Old Ones, I don’t want to split hairs.) He’s assisted by some crazed Nazis (as if there are any other kind) and has some leverage over Hellboy which serves to ensure compliance and assistance from the big red devil.
Hellboy eventually turns the tables, the summoners are all killed, but there’s a complication. Hellboy has inadvertently caused the materialization of a huge, tentacled, rapidly-growing creature. That can’t be good.
Just like Chooch choosing to play Cthulhu in a bid to win the game or have everyone lose.
To deal with this growing threat, Hellboy allowed the nightmare to swallow him along with the belt of grenades he was carrying.
BOOM! Game over. Good guys win.
Speaking of games…
In our game, Chooch numerically could not defeat Cthulhu. Until he played this…
BOOM! Game over (literally.) Good guys win? Well sure, since Chooch wasn’t a cultist, we’ll say he was one of the good guys. (He’s actually a great guy.)
As it turned out, none of us cultists had any cards suitable to help Cthulhu (and had we helped, we would have been risking a fate worse than losing. I think? Maybe?)
And this is why I like to play games. For all of the reasons that were outlined in the beginning, but also I like being told a story.
In ye olde dayes, my dad would eye me skeptically as I was graphing out a dungeon to be a setting for the weekend Dungeons & Dragons game with my buddies.
My dad did like games and he liked playing games with me. Provided that game was Chess.
His view of my awkward teenage chums and me rolling a lot of dice was this: random chance wasn’t interesting or worthwhile. There was nothing skillful about it.
(He also liked playing cards, but even though poker and its ilk are games of chance, they’re also games of skill. But that’s not my point.)
I didn’t have a good grasp at the time on why I enjoyed playing D & D so much and so I didn’t have a good counter-argument for my pop, but now in my wizened and enlightened adulthood, I realize that I wasn’t gaming as an exercise of skill or competition or just to waste time.
I was in it for the moments of storytelling.
Sometimes those moments came from the dungeon master and sometimes from the players. (And sometimes from the dice. I won’t be lying. We teenage DMs and players were clownish noobs when it came to narrative import.)
And even though the particular story being told to me by the events of Munchkin was a story I already I knew (i.e. the climactic plot of Hellboy) it doesn’t change the fact that my imagination was being engaged. I feel that I could have appreciated the story of Chooch, with his backpack of dynamite, fighting an eldritch horror with the fate of the world on the line, regardless of if I’d seen Hellboy or not.
This probably isn’t world-shattering news to anyone. I assume anyone reading this has had similar experiences where the turn of a card or the roll of a die has the emotional echo of a good book’s plot twist or a movie’s big reveal.
I’m sure we all have similar stories to tell.