Tuesday 17 March 2009

Brain off? Risus on. The Anything RPG by S. John Ross

Risus by S. John Ross is a featherweight, generic, free RPG system with simply intriguing mechanics. Ideal for evening one-shots, convention games or Tea and Cake games (like Beer and Pretzel games but played in England). There is a huge amount of supporting material and a delightfully presented 6 page rulebook. It's one of those games that you should have in your game armoury.


Risus, like most featherweight systems, depends upon nouns and a description. It's about the feel of the character you're putting down, not a load of numbers. As such, page one, bold as brass, an example character and it's all about description and nouns. If you're good at nouns (no, not nuns, nouns) then you'll find character creation very easy.

Clichés are a series of nouns that describe what your character is about. The GM sets the setting and you decide on the Clichés. For example, if the GM said that the setting is Martian Monkey Baiting, you might dream up Soldier, Taunt and Fluency in Gibbon. You then have 10 d6 to assign to these Clichés. You can have up to 10 Clichés but it means you only get one dice in each - making you a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. In fact a jack-of-all-trades and crap-at-them-too! Make sure you write up a description of your character too so that others can mock you.

As for equipment, spells and monkey bait, you get anything that your Clichés say you should have. If you lose any of that stuff, you Clichés suffer. You leave your Gibbon-English dictionary on train to work again, then your Fluency in Gibbon will be cut in half. I like this as it suggests that a person's worth is not just their skills but the tools to make them useful. Implicit in many games but superb in its explicity (Google says that's not a word but I say Bollocks to Google).


For any action that isn't easy, you roll the number of dice associated with the most appropriate Cliché. Add them up and try and beat a target number. Opposed situation is handled by the GM stating what sort of Clichés are appropriate (this is a moveable feast - if a player can convince the GM that basket weaving is ideal in steering a space ship to Mars then that is ok), roll the Cliché dice and highest wins. If you lose, you temporarily lose a Cliché dice until the end of the combat. The ultimate loser of the combat is the person without any Clichés with dice attached. I like this system as it gives you a chance to try different Clichés to try and win.

There are rules for grouping NPCs or PCs together to make more interesting bundles of combat. To help keep everyone in the game (very important at a Con), if someone has a character that has the least appropriate Clichés (or really appropriate ones at the start but the players have gone off into brain-spasm land) then the GM can assign two dice to everyone - which gets everyone playing. Splendid.

There's More

Risus is sliced in two - the main rules which are quick and neat. It also offers some 'advanced' options too. Pick and choose depending on your player group. My group of barely evolved (or hurriedly created, depending on your religious views) hominids would relish the chance of more rules to bend, break or ignore so I would probably throw them all in on a six hour game but leave them out on an evening four hour outing. I'd recommend this to any RPG designers out there - if the rules are optional, stuff them at the back!

And More

Risus is buoyed by its support. There's an uncharacteristically long solitaire adventure called Ring of Thieves (that reads a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book), there is a Yahoo! Group, it is translated into a load of different languages and for those allergic to printing, there are compendia at a Lulu store (S. John writes under Cumberland Games). And more but I'm boring you.

Et tu, Brute?

Ever stepped away from a Con game and wished that it could turn into a Campaign game? Risus has enough weight to run a campaign with; and not just one of those frivolous trying-to-pull-the-attractive-blonde games but a serious, blood, guts, insanity and more teeth than the Osmonds campaign. However there isn't a free Risus setting to do that for you. The Anything RPG is stabbed in the back by its very own strength: no setting. Other featherweight RPGs have featherweight settings with them (Sketch, I'm looking at you). I can't actually download and run Risus without me or the other players putting in a fair amount of effort at the session. If I needed to put in effort, we probably wouldn't be playing Risus in the first place. I expect the bleedin' obvious solution to this problem is to use the Sketch settings. The website is a little disorganised and dated (white on black is only ok for small amounts of text) - I think that might put some off, which is a pity.

Final Thoughts

Risus is an excellently thought out, laid out and played out game. It builds on a solid, simple mechanic to provide fun at a moment's notice. I feel that Risus should not be constrained to that bracket, it should be picked up by any GM with a campaign setting but no fitting system. An easy read, bereft of errors and it is no surprise that is continues to thrive. Many thanks for sharing a superb game, S. John!


My name's Rob Lang and I am an egomaniac. I love reading about me. If there was a magazine called 'Lang' and it was entirely about me each month - no sod it, it would be a weekly - I'd subscribe at the drop of a hat. And this month I've had my very own slice of fame with an interview in the Free RPG eZine ODDS. Now in its seventh issue. Good ole Jon Hicks of Farsight Games has published the interview unabridged so you can read about me and how fabulous I think I am!


Unknown said...

Complaining about no setting in a 6 page rule book seems a little rude; especially where there are dozens of links to completely free fan made settings right on the Risus website (and there are more on the Risusiverse wiki).

Rob Lang said...

Ah, perhaps I should make myself clear. The rulebook doesn't need to have the setting in it but I think you should have:

Download the Risus rules here!
Download the Risus setting here!

There isn't that clarity - there isn't a no-brainer get hold of setting too. And that's what you need for a light game!

Unknown said...

Sure, the web page is a bit dated (design wise), but there are dozens of settings in the section of the page labeled Campaigns, Adventures, and Expansions by the Risus Community.

There is no "THE" (official) Risus setting. There really doesn't need to be (you could use any published setting really easily, or use own of your own, or use one from the community).

Rob Lang said...

Absolutely! There is a huge amount of community content but that is a different thing to official content. You read Risus and you know it is of a high quality. Well thought out, measured, structured, beautifully written. Now you need a setting - so you wade through advert ridden sites to a PDF of unknown quality. It seems unfair to the original game to judge it by setting provided by others. Which is why I didn't.

Bound as I am to find something to whinge about on each review, this is definitely a niggle. Not a show stopper but something that makes me think 'oh.'. You cannot download Risus, download the Setting and Go! That's where I'd like Risus to be. Supported by a setting of similar quality.

As I say at the end, it is not stopping you from play! Risus is a wonderful game, I would not have reviewed it if I didn't think so. If you are happy that there is no setting, then great! I feel honour bound to mention it though.

Many thanks for the thoughts, keep me on my toes. ;-)

Unknown said...

Hopefully sometime soon S. John Ross will release Uresia using Risus (since Guardians of Order went under), and then you will have your wish for a setting (I would like that to happen myself).

You posted a very nice review!

Little Shepherd said...

The impression I got from Risus is that it's a much-simplified version of the already-pretty-simple PDQ rules(possibly predecessor since I think RISUS came first).

And I agree. RISUS Uresia would definitely rock.

Sectorbob said...

Actually I think the main strength of Risus is that it has no setting. That is why it is the Anything RPG! It's made to be able to just sit down and start playing anything.."Ok you are all Steampunk mecha pilots for an alternate evil British Empire. There will be high class parties and some detective work.. you have 20mins to make your characters.. startinggggggg NOW!"

Rob Lang said...

Thanks for the comment, I am sure many agree. Howeser, it's fine if you have the sort of player group that can spring a setting from nothing but many do not. Some just want to play, not to create the setting first. You could argue that any generic system can be used in the way described - not just Risus.

For a Free RPG to get me frothing with delight, it needs to have all the elements needed for any gaming group to play and a generic system simply does not meet that need. So, I will continue complaining about a lack of setting in free, generic RPGs.

Lite games should be set up such that you can just sit and play without having to create first. It is unfair to put the onus on every gaming group that might try and pick it up. Make it easy for them! And for that, include a sample setting.

Many thanks again for the comment, no doubt many share your point of view but I stubbornly disagree!

matt said...

FYI I have it on good information that Uresia for Risus should be released sometime THIS year!

The man with nothing to say said...

Pshaw. I'm too cool for settings. Most of my Risus campaigns are just whatever i think is cool and/or silly. For example, i created a Detective character who is also a samurai/cyborg and who's ultimate goal is to find the perfect taco.
Okay, i made that last part up, but it fits the idea i'm trying to get across. Risus was originally intended as a comedy rpg. Settings are trivial.

The man with nothing to say said...

I think you are misunderstanding the purpose of cliches. They are broad categories of people, the nouns you were talking about. One of the cliches you mentioned fit this (soldier), but one was a verb (or ability), which was Taunt. The last, Fluency in gibbon, was merely a trait. You could have Soldier, Hilarious Taunter, and Fluent Gibbon Speaker. Those are all nouns. Cliches are more things like "detective" or "doctor" or "zombie".

mythusmage said...

Any body who can't adapt reality to a game as basic as Risus is missing a few neural connections.