Friday, August 12, 2011

Risus Review/Play Report

Did some gaming tonight. Only two players made it and one felt sick and dropped out halfway through.

The two players recently got married and did a lot of moving, so they had lost their character sheets. I figured that was the perfect opportunity to try out another game system: Risus.

Risus is a six-page, rules-lite, universal RPG. Characters are described by a name, a sentence or two of flavor text describing the character and, lastly, several "Cliches." Cliches are basically character classes, occupations or backgrounds. Players get 10 dice to divide between their cliches, which they make up. A sample character, presented in the rules, goes like this:

Grolfnar Vainsson the Viking
Description: Tall, blond, and grinning. Likes to drink
    and fight and drink and chase Viking women
    and fight and sail the high seas and raid.
    Wants to write great sagas about himself.
Clichés: Viking (4), Womanizer (2), Gambler (3), Poet (1)

Whenever a character is faced with a challenge, the player chooses whichever of the character's cliches seems most appropriate (or most fun, or most advantageous, depending on the style of play) and rolls as many d6s as the character has for that cliche. If the roll meets or beats the target number of the challenge, the character is successful; if not, the character fails.

When two or more characters engage in any sort of conflict, they roll however many dice they have for whatever cliche they are using for the conflict (conflicts can be anything from physical conflict to a battle of wits to a horse race to political maneuvering). The character with the lower result loses a die and they again roll their dice. When one character's cliche is reduced to no dice, the other character wins and the winning character's player gets to decide exactly what happens to the loser.

There are a few complications that let characters team up with each other and a few optional rules that let you mess with dice other than d6s and get to use more dice and things like that, but if you want to know about them you're probably interested enough in Risus that you should download it (for free) and read it. Like I said above, it's only six pages, and you can find it here.

The bottom line, before I get into the play report, is that we enjoyed ourselves. My players tonight are my more serious ones, but we tried to get into the spirit of Risus and loosen up more than usual. The characters played were James, a SWAT Operator who got the address for his SWAT operation VERY wrong (as in, we were playing in a pretty standard dungeon) and Smee, a handmaiden who moonlights as a black market bug smuggler. After Smee disappeared because her player felt sick, James met his doom at the hands of a huge animated omnibus edition of the Twilight series, which ate him. James found himself inside the Twilight saga, all of his guns malfunctioning, the prey of sparky vampires. So, yeah, we were pretty silly. It was fun.

We played in The Abandoned Temple of the Howling Obelisk, by STEM (thanks, STEM!), which was part of a recent Risus One Page Dungeon challenge. You can find all the OPDs here. Also, thanks to Risus Monkey for pointing them out to me; I've been wanting to give Risus a try for a while, but not having any adventures for it was holding me back. Risus OPDs removed that obstacle for me.

I went into Risus knowing that while it is rules-lite, it isn't an "Old School" RPG, though one of the influences it cites is Tunnels & Trolls. It wouldn't be fair, then, to critique it as an Old School game; that's not what it's trying to be. The fact that it has a unified mechanic, then, shouldn't be seen as a problem. What is is that we Old Schoolers like to say? "It's not a bug, it's a feature." The unified way dice rolls are based around the number of dice you have under your cliche is elegant, intuitive and is ridiculously easy to learn. I have a more difficult time explaining some house rules than I had explaining this whole RPG. That's really cool.

You're also supposed to roleplay descriptively in Risus, which is cool, and something I wish I was better at. I find myself falling into "the orc attacks you… [roll]… and hits for… [roll]… 3 damage" more often than I'd like, though I do try to be more descriptive than that. The Arduin critical hits and fumbles tables help with that, but not as much as Risus seemed to. First off, I'm amazed by how only ever rolling d6s simplifies things mentally, freeing up some brain-space to think about how to describe what's going on. Secondly, the advantage given to those who use "inappropriate"cliches (like "Hairdresser" in a barroom brawl) and describe how their character uses some ability from that cliche to engage in the conflict in a "really, really" entertaining way is enough that smart players will use this tactic, with the requisite entertaining verbal description, just about as often as possible. Getting to decide and describe what happens to whoever lost to your character also encourages roleplaying. (I wonder whether Tavis Allison got his "please describe your/your enemy's horrible death" from Risus…) Again, very cool.

One issue we ran into is actually a problem I'm familiar with from toying around with Tunnels & Trolls. In both T&T and Risus (if I'm understanding them correctly), when you have opposed rolls during a conflict, losing a round of that conflict decreases your likelihood of winning the next round of a conflict because you lose some of whatever makes you able to engage in that conflict, whether it's dice under a cliche in Risus or more complicated stats in T&T. The less well you've done, the less likely you are to do well this time around; I think I've seen it described as a death spiral somewhere. That's both been an issue for me when I've tried solo games with T&T and it was an issue in the game today that James' player brought up during a break.

Risus does offer a few partial solutions to this death spiral. One is allowing players to team up with each other during combat. All of the team leader's dice count, as well as all team members' rolls of 6, and if the team loses a round and one team member elects to take double damage, the leader gets double the dice during the next round of the conflict. That double damage/double dice, from what I can tell, leads to both sides getting in death spirals together instead of the first party to take damage pretty much automatically losing. It also allows a party to have a fighting chance against a single powerful foe.

The ability to switch which cliche you use from round to round during the same conflict, and some other tactical options (trading more dice this round for automatic dice loss at the end of the round and destroying three enemy dice instead of one if the cliche you're using is both inappropriate and entertainingly described) all help to mitigate this issue, but it still remains. Sure, you can take this monster with these tactics, but what about the next one, and the next one? You'll be too worn down from this fight.

So the death spiral remains an issue for me, especially because Risus strikes me as aiming for a laid-back, light-hearted style of gaming and the only way I can see a death spiral as an integral part of the game is when the players are doing resource management of their hit points, which can be fun, but is a different kind of fun than Risus strikes me as having as it's goal. Any illumination that anyone experienced with Risus (or T&T, for that matter) can give me on this topic would be especially appreciated.

This death spiral isn't a deal-breaker for me, though. Risus won't be my go-to RPG anytime soon, but it's certainly an RPG I'm glad to know how to play. It's something I'll keep in my mind as a great RPG for quick one-shots, especially when all the materials that are available are scratch paper and d6s. It's also a game that I'd like to play more. Over the last year or two I've run a few face-to-face one-shots with friends, trying to drum up interest in a campaign. If I ever try that again, I'll probably try using Risus, both because I want to mess with it more (and use advanced options, like pumping dice) and because it will be easy to use and easy to create characters for. Chargen alone should take less than half the time it usually does.

So, next time you're casting about for a new system to try out, especially if it's a one-shot, why not try Risus? It's quick and easy to learn, it encourages both role-playing and smart mechanical tactics, and it's as much silly fun as you want it to be.


  1. One thing about the death spiral that people forget is that Risus is a universal comedy game. In comedy, it's funny when the main character loses.

    We've trained ourselves in RPGs to always win. When the equation is Lose = Death, you really want to win.

    Risus isn't like that. There are many, many things in Risus that are "combats" that don't involve actual combat. Sometimes losing isn't a big deal.

    And another way to avoid the death spiral is to run away. Since you can't take out that monster by just fighting, you have to think up another way to defeat it (avoid it, or bribe it, or find its kryptonite). Once you've done that, you can come back, deal with that "monster", and get on with the game.

    Hope this helps!

  2. Lemme tell ya, man, one gamer to another --

    -- some of the best 10 bucks I ever, EVER spent on a gaming supplement was on the Risus Compsnion.

    That thing is loaded chock-full not only with Risus stuff, but with general GAMING stuff. I found it multiplied the possibilities of my Risus game AND my abilities as a GM.

    Remember -- I don't get all serious like this all the time. Kodak Moment. I cannot recommend the Risus companion highly enough.

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  4. @Will Douglas: Thanks. That does help some with my perspective on the death spiral. I think some of the problem was more with us not having enough practice playing RPGs in a silly way. It's really too bad that our much more silly player missed out on this session. I wonder what would have happened… Anyway, continuing to try Risus out should be a good way to stretch being silly, describing actions in entertaining ways and generally exercising muscles that D&D can easily not exercise, but that make for better D&D when they're used.

    @Dr. Rotwang: Thanks for the recommendation. I'd seen other recommendations of it before, but I'd mostly forgotten about it. I need to look into getting it…

    @rainswept: Thanks! All of those look like great ways to mitigate the death spiral. I'll have to figure out which one to try first the next time I try Risus.

  5. You might want to check out Serious Risus, which does some nice things for the system. I also second the Risus Companion, an amazing supplement that you should definitely pick up.

  6. I did end up buying a PDF of the Risus Companion. It's really good. Thanks for the recommendation of Serious Risus. I'll check it out!