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Friday, 30 November 2018

1998: The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen


1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


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The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is probably the only the roleplaying game where good manners, fine breeding, good company, and fine wine are de rigueur as are unparalleled skill with a sword and just in case, an invasion plan of Belgium. Published by the late, lamented Hogshead Publishing in 1998, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen both is and is not a roleplaying game, but it is definitely a game. It is also most definitely is a conceit worthy of any of the tales told by the Baron himself, and its focus on storytelling—literally in the case of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen—would prefigure the storytelling, ‘indie-style’ roleplaying games of the next century. Indeed, the publication of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen would lead to the establishment of Hogshead Publishing’s ‘New Style’ line of roleplaying games which would include John Scott Tynes’ Puppetland, Greg Costikyan’s Violence, Robin D. Laws’ Pantheon and Other Roleplaying Games, and Michael Oracz’s De Profundis.

The situation is this. Of an evening, sometime in 17—, men and women of refinement and good breeding—possibly stranded in a snow-drift near Salzburg—shall gather in the nearest inn to regale each with the tales of their extraordinary adventures, much in the vein of the good Baron himself. They shall take it in turns to tell of tale that another has asked them of, the listeners occasionally interrupting to offer objections and corrections, and perhaps to proffer a wager or two as to a particular detail in the story being told. Should a disagreement come about over such objections and corrections because neither side will back down, then a duel may follow. Only to first blood of course and so honour is settled, the veracity of the tale is concluded, and the stake—that which is wagered—is accepted by the loser who adds it to his or her purse. For fairness’ sake, everyone begins play with a purse of the same value. Then the next participant tells a tale of the same extraordinary scale, and the next, and the next, until all sitting round the table have had an equal turn at entertaining their fellows. In the finality, all decide who entertained them the best with the most enjoyable story by pledging their purses to them and the storyteller who has the largest purse at the end of the game not only wins, but readily pays for a round of drinks or the current bill from newly enlarged purse.

This then is The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen: A Game of Tall Tales and Playing Roles as told by James Wallis. It is a storytelling game of magnificent adventures, enticing escapades and escapes, derring-do and dangerous drama, and of “How did you get out of that?” (or “…into that?). Of honour and nobility, of courtesy and comradeship—especially to the ladies, and of being rude to the French. Particularly, the latter. It is best played by a handful of players, five being a good starting figure. They will need no more than a handful coins (or tokens) equal to the number of players. This is their purse.

At the start of the game, each player will take a name and title. This may be their own if they are already of the nobility, hold military rank, or are a member of the clergy. Alternatively, for the purposes of the game, they may adopt such a nom de guerre for so long as they are playing. Then, the person who last filled everyone’s glass turns to the person on his or her right and asks them to tell a tale of their exploits, which of course, must be fantastic. For example, “Tell me, Baron Fromager, how you came to be in possession of the light of Pharos and how you used it at the Siege of Vienna to save the day?” The player of Baron Fromager then tells the tale, hopefully in an entertaining fashion. In particular of how the dastardly Turks stole it from Alexandria and used it light their way across the world on dreaded night attacks when all good folk should abed and so expand their empire greatly.

However, another player in his character as a person of good birth or station, may raise an objection or suggest a correction to the Baron Fromager during his telling. Continuing the example, Lady Trumpton may interject with, “But surely my dear Baron, how could you steal it from the hands of the Ottoman Empire if they could see you coming miles away by its very light?” Lady Trumpton must, since she is raising an objection, proffer a wager of a coin (or token if no coins are being used). This sets the stake. The storyteller can accept both this and the object, adding the stake to his purse and working the objection into the continuing narrative of his story. Alternatively, he can naysay the interruption and add his own coin to the stake. In this case replying, “I fear my dear lady, that perhaps the fine bouquet of our wine has tonight overcome your senses, for you forget that it was not I who was seen approaching the Turks, but my good companion, Riccardo, renowned in all of Christendom for the strength of his bite and the mirror-like sheen of his teeth. So when he smiled, The Light of Pharos was reflected back at the Turks, temporarily blinding them and so I was able to sneak in and steal the light without them seeing me.” At this point Lady Trumpton may elect to accept both explanation and the stake, or she may escalate the objection, adding yet another coin to the stake. This can continue until one side backs down and accepts the stake, or one side runs out of coins and will not back down or the exchange leads to the slighting of a participant’s honour. In the case of the latter two, satisfaction is demanded, and a duel will ensue.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen has much to say on the matter of duelling—indeed, it has a lot to say upon a great many number of things—but what it boils down to is a duel with swords to first blood. If one or neither of the duellists have the requisite schooling in the art of swordsmanship, it is recommended that they wait until both are sufficiently skilled, which should take about fifteen years. If that improves an unviable option, then rules are provided as to ‘Duelling for Cowards’. Which involves several rounds of ‘Stone—Knife—Paper’ until there is a winner and honour is satisfied. The loser gives his purse to the winner and his involvement in the game ends.

Should the storyteller have been victorious, then he may continue in its telling and preferably within five minutes bring it to a rousing conclusion to the pleasure of everyone else round the table. He then has the duty of turning to the player on his right and asking him or her to tell a suitable tale of such and such… This continues until the end when everyone has had their turn and then they get to vote for the greatest tale pledging the whole of their purses to their preferred tale. The person with the most coins at game’s end is the victor.

These then, are the rules to The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and simple they are too. Simple though, does not mean simplistic, for they are also elegant and easy to grasp, which when combined with the good Baron’s words and advice help encourage the participants to get into their selected roles and attempt to tell entertaining tall tales. This simplicity and this elegance makes the eminently portable and easy to run with little in the way of preparation. It helps that the tome comes with two appendices. The first, ‘Tell us, Baron, the story of…’, lists some two hundred ideas for those participants unfortunately bereft of imagination, whilst the second, ‘The Rules in Brief’, should be obvious to anyone in its intent. But these are handy references to have in mid-game and a bookmark is probably a useful tool to mark their pages.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is not a game without tactics, but like its rules, these are equally as light. They come down to maintaining a balance between having coins in your purse so that you may object to or correct an aspect of a rival storyteller’s tale—for if you have none, you can do neither—and filling the purses of the other participants for it is their purses that will decide the winner at the end of the game. This is not a means of guaranteeing a victory though, for it must be backed up with a story that others have found entertaining enough to favour—and remember at the end of the evening. Of course, building a large purse to be able to influence the decision of who told the best tale and so avoid having to pay for the next round of drinks is an ignoble tactic worthy of accountants and poltroons.

Then there is that conceit. Which of course, is that Baron Munchausen himself dictated the rules of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen to the designer’s eighteenth-century ancestors, who also happened to be games designers and publishers, but never actually published them at the time. Of course, some two hundred years later they fell into the hands of the designer and so Hogshead Publishing was able to release the game, somewhat late, in 1998. The conceit has a quite singular effect—it enables the author to engage us by writing in the good Baron’s voice, which he does at length, because the rules to The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen really amount to no more than a page or two in length. The effect of that voice is not only to hide the author’s own—more readily apparent in his recent Alas Vegas, but also to give context to the game’s rules and to very much set its irreverent tone. That tone of course, matching that of the Terry Gilliam 1988 film of the same name such that you wished that the late John Neville would join you for a late-night game.

As to whether The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is or is not a roleplaying game, the answer is ‘yes’. Yes, it is a roleplaying game because the participants are playing a role, that of a noblemen, soldiers, clergymen, or other persons of good character, and yes, it not a roleplaying game because the characters have no stats or abilities in terms of mechanics, they do not progress in terms of those abilities, and despite the fact that stories and adventures are involved, there is no progression between them, and lastly, because there is no Game Master or referee. The atmosphere in which it was played and the lack of structure in comparison to other roleplaying games also lent credence to the idea that it might be a ‘party game’ rather than a roleplaying game. Yet there is nothing casual about The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It takes wit and imagination to play and ultimately roleplaying, for you are not telling a tale, but roleplaying someone who is.

It is also definitely a game, a structured form of play and entertainment, with rules—very light rules—and tactics—very light tactics—in which the players (and their characters) compete against each other and from which there can be a winner. Which of course, in 1998, ran counter to the core concept at the heart of any roleplaying game in which there is no single winner, but that we are all winners. This marked The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen as something radically different to the traditional roleplaying games released alongside it that year, and although it was well received, even being nominated for the Origins Award for Best New Roleplaying Game in 1999, it did not win. It was though, included in Green Ronin Publishing’s 2007 Hobby Games: The 100 Best, wherein Allen Varney championed it as an “...[S]trikingly original exercise in competitive storytelling…”

It is impossible to disagree with Mister Varney, but not impossible to elaborate. The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen was not only ‘strikingly original’, but also very simply put, ‘unique’. It introduced a new way to both roleplay and play games in a genre that was all its very own and it was also the perfect ‘beer and pretzels’ game—or rather ‘wine and canapés’ game, in that it could—and can—be played in a bar with no more than a few tokens and a tipple of your choice.

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Of course, just like the good Baron himself, this was not the end of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, for a second edition was published by Mongoose Publishing in 2008. It expanded greatly upon the twenty-four pages of the original edition, introducing what would turn out to be the first of many variants upon the original rules. The first variant would be ‘Es-Sindibad’s Rules’, accompanied, of course, by an account of the Baron’s adventures in Araby. The variant is played with tea and dates instead of alcohol and wagers and sees the participants telling their own stories whilst also incorporating the stories of those persons who were telling stories before them. The other two variants—really variants upon each other—of ‘My Uncle the Baron’, are designed to be played by younger storytellers or those who are somewhat the worse for wear. These are essentially games of one-upmanship in which the participants attempt to outdoor each other in simply describing the fantastic feats of their esteemed uncle. Examples are of course included. Again, the new edition was well received and was nominated for an award, this time the ENnie for Best Writing in 2009, but again, sadly, it did not win. 

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And there The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen would have rested, but like the Baron’s tales grow in the telling, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen grows with each new edition. The 2008 edition was followed by a third edition in 2016, this time published by Fantasy Flight Games. Where the Mongoose Publishing added a mere three variants, the third edition adds a round dozen. Spurred on by an encounter with the Baron’s modern descendant, the author takes the rules of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen and adapts theme after theme to them. They start off with ‘Soviet It Goes’, in which the Comrades tell of their equal feats in service of the Motherland, such as ‘Tell me Comrade, how did you persuade that great Soviet musician, John Lenin, to be Back in the USSR?” and run through a gamut of genres both grand and parochial. The grand is ‘Guttenberg’s Revenge’, a game of literary figures and their mixed adventures across the novels of other figures, the parochial is ‘Munchausen Crescent’, in which the storytellers tell of their amazing adventures around the public transport system of London. These are a fine mix of variants and themes, but there is a point at which they become just a little far-fetched and perhaps their titles are puns too far…

This, the third edition of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen comes as a digest-sized hardback, which points to the portability of the game. Done in full colour, the fully painted illustrations, all of Baron Munchausen himself, are simply exquisite. But then there is the writing. It is all conceit at best, all balderdash at worst, but it never lets up and it perfectly captures the voice and attitude of the Baron himself, so that even if you could take the original rules and fifteen variants and pare them down to fit in the twenty-four pages of the game’s first edition, you would still want the other one hundred pages or so of the third edition, because they are nothing less than  verisimilitude upon verisimilitude which is such a delight to read.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is quite possibly the cleverest storytelling game you have never heard of, prefiguring as it did, and perhaps being eclipsed by the very many storytelling games that have followed in its wake. Its core idea is simple, its mechanics are both simple and elegant, the verisimilitude of the writing perfect, but its theme is magnificent. The resulting combination is a thoroughly civilised roleplaying game, both in design and character.