...How you circumnavigated the world without leaving your house.
...How a portrait of Henry VIII saved you from being attacked by lions.
...Why every fifth child born in Brussels is named after you.
...How you became the first man to descend Mount Blanc, before any man had climbed it.
This is certainly not a traditional roleplaying game. In fact, I would say it is barely a roleplaying game at all. Yet, Baron Munchausen is one of the most enjoyable roleplaying game books I have ever read. In this “paperless” age of digital game books, I plan to add the “dead tree format” of this book to my shelf.
At its core, it is a very simple game. It is really a story-telling activity in which players interrupt each other to comic result. Less briefly; players take the role of nobility, telling of their adventures at a tavern or house party. The character creation process is limited to developing a noble name and title. The process of play is for four or more players to take a turn telling a five-minute story of their own entirely truthful adventures during the Eighteenth Century. Each tale must attempt to out-do the previous tale and begins with a prompt like those given above, asked by the nobleperson on the teller’s left. Both the game and the roleplay aspects come in during each tale as each player has a purse of tokens equal to the number of total players. Each player is allowed to interrupt each teller once by offering them a token and asking for clarification about an element of the tale, pointing out an inconsistency, asserting the story may have happened differently, or otherwise trying to trip up the storyteller with comic or challenging suggestions. The current tale-teller may simply accept the token and the addition and work this new detail into their tale; or they may add their own coin to the stake and offer an insult to the interrupter to put them in their place. Likewise, the interrupter may take the stake and accept their rebuke; or add a third coin to the stake, offer their own insult and insist the teller acknowledge their original suggestion. This back-and-forth may continue until one player exhausts their purse and must admit their error. If they are still unwilling, a duel may be initiated (decided by best of three rounds of rock-paper-scissor) with the loser forced to submit and take the stake. If, during the insults and raising, either insults the other’s noble rank, proud parentage or outright calls them a liar, a duel may begin immediately. When each tale concludes the teller prompts the player on their right to tell the next tale. When all tales have been told, players each pass their entire purse (converting it to a bounty) to the person whose tale was the most extraordinary. Thus the winner of round is the player with the largest bounty, and now being flush with cash as well as honor, is compelled to “buy the next round” and offers the prompt for the first tale of the next round.
In the book, these rules are summarized in two pages and there are eight pages of sample prompts. However, what makes the book a joy is the comic style in which it is written. James Wallis, who is a veteran game designer, has channelled the spirit of the original Baron Munchausen material. It is presented as a dictation by the Baron himself to various members of the Wallis family line and as such is filled with the Baron’s own stories of himself, his opinions, and numerous digressions from the through line of actually explaining the game. The book also presents a number of variations on the game, from one in which interrupting means the interrupter becomes the teller with the object being to be the first actually finish your story, to a variation for younger players, to a whole list of suggested genre implementations of the game such as cavemen, vampires and supervillains.
I have played this game twice and as is true of anything dependent on social interactions it flows better if players are willing to submit to the premise of the game. Those with better comic timing, more inventive or quick-thinking minds and larger vocabularies of “old timey” words will be more likely to tell the most extraordinary stories, but it is not a guarantee of success. It seems the best moments come out of the unexpected way a teller incorporates their interaction with the interrupter. In one game the winner did not know the rest of the players as well and his story took on a hyperbolic nature while the rest of us relied more on our shared history. In the other game the winner had been called a liar, escalated the interruption to a duel, but then lost and so chose to completely capitulate and when back through their story renouncing each aspect and telling how what really happened was far less impressive. This idiosyncratic interpretation of the standard rules was singularly comical and so unexpected it won the round.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is not a game for everyone and certainly not for anyone all the time. It is not the sort of game to play a campaign with, or even to play very often. However, as a pallet cleanser between other games or as a one-off event at a game night or convention, this is a great option. Whether you ever play it or not, it is worth a read as a light piece of pseudo-historical comic writing. I enjoyed it very much.