Risus: The Anything RPG
By S. John Ross
I seem to have gotten into a Rules-Lite RPG series here at Black Gate. Not sure how that happened. I didn’t plan it, I know that for certain…
A few weeks ago, I reviewed one of the classics of “beer-and-pretzels” role-playing games, Kobolds Ate My Baby! Although a great game, KAMB! uses a specific (comically specific) setting with rigid character types. If you want to unleash a beer-and-pretzels RPG night without any limitations, you will want to turn to Risus, a generic system perfect for the slam-bang quick gag game.
Risus takes the term “rules-lite” and goes to the minimum with it: the whole system fits comfortably onto six PDF pages you can download here. I have to take caution with this review, because I might risk writing one that’s longer than the review subject. But those six pages provide only a blueprint for endless parody-RPG weirdness; I’m reviewing the experience you might get from putting Risus into practice.
Risus (which is Latin for “laugh” and the root of the English word “risible”) has a simple design goal:
[to] provide an “RPG Lite” for those nights when the brain is too tired for excruciating detail. Risus is especially valuable to GMs assembling a quick convention game, or any late-night beer-and-pretzels outing. While it is essentially a Universal Comedy System, it works just as well for serious play (if you insist!). Best of all, a Risus character takes about 20 seconds to create.
I’ll object to the statement that Risus “works just as well for serious play”; the nature of character creation almost assures that you won’t take it seriously. But it really does take about twenty seconds to make a character once you know the system. Which takes about ten minutes.
And the system is… clichés! Essentially taking the old “classes” from D&D and other early role-playing games, Risus defines its characters through a series of clichés the player works out with the GM. They can run from general and broad (Barbarian, Super Spy, Galactic Mercenary) to weird and specific (Brooding Teen Vampire, Roller-Skating Waitress, William Shatner). The rules contain a handy list of popular clichés (Hairdresser, Bimbo, Mad Scientist) and what a player can achieve with them, but a good chunk of the enjoyment of the game comes from developing individual clichés to round out the characters in strange ways.
A player describes his character in a short paragraph, and then distributes ten points among his picked clichés. These points represent how many six-sided dice he will roll when attempting an action with the cliché. “Three dice is professional. Six dice is mastery. One die is a putz.”
When the player attempts an action using one of his clichés, the GM sets a difficulty number (5 is easy, 30 is insane), and the player rolls the number of dice assigned to that cliché. Beat or meet the difficulty number, the PC succeeds. If not, bitter failure and the whatever consequences the GM decides. The system is as simple as that.
The majority of the rules deal with “Combat,” which in Risus covers all forms of action resolution where one character opposes another. It could be a gladiatorial fight, a rapper insult duel, or an ice sculpture contest… Risus resolves them all the same way. The opponents (usually a PC and a GM-run NPC) roll dice based on their clichés most appropriate for the combat; the one who rolls higher succeeds, while the low-roller must temporarily subtract one die from his cliché—the equivalent of damage. A character who loses all dice in a cliché is out of the “combat” (dead, disgraced, injured himself with chainsaw).
However—and this is the really fun part—a player can use an inappropriate cliché in combat, like “Ice Sculptor” in a karaoke singing contest, or “Doris Day” in knife fight, “provided the player roleplays or describes it in a really, really, really interesting manner.” And woe is he who loses to inappropriate cliché: take three dice of damage, not one!
As you might have detected, a lot of Risus is acting out and describing everything as entertainingly as possible. There is so little dice-rolling action that the game’s engine runs on how crazy everybody can act. And that’s why it’s a beer-and-pretzels RPG.
The rest of the rules: PCs and NPCs acting en masse to save time, character advancement (although it’s unlikely you’ll ever plays a Risus campaign; it seems like a contradiction), and some optional rules that allow players to temporarily raise a cliché though “pumping.” There are also a scattering of stick-figure illustrations, keeping in sympathetic vibration with the tone of the game.
In my review of Kobold’s Ate My Baby!, I mentioned that even though that game offers a rules-lite role-playing experience, it would probably not work well for inexperienced RPG players: it still has too many rules, the character types are tricky to play, and the esoteric humor about gaming won’t connect with newcomers. But I can enthusiastically recommend Risus to anybody with an imagination, regardless of his or her experience with those funny-sided dice. Not only are the rules so slim that they fit onto six pages (with two dedicated to optional rules), but the system runs entirely on clichés that any one who has seen a movie, read a book, or gotten around more than St. Symeon the Stylite, will recognize and know how to act out. New players will warm up fast to playing established clichés, and experienced gamers will enjoy developing cliché types and finding bizarre ways to use them inappropriately in combat. Watch as I use “Casino Crawler” to defeat a three-headed ape!
Risus costs nothing, is shorter than a vehicle registration form, and will give you and your friends something new to try this Thursday night, so there’s no reason not to go check it out.
My next rules-lite voyage will turn to Fudge, perhaps my favorite RPG of all time.