[Games Anatomy] Monkeys Optional

A couple of weeks ago, Aurenian asked a rather searching question of me: “how rules-lite is too rules-lite?”, and it came with the suggestion that I turn my scathing gaze on Risus, ‘the Anything RPG’, by S. John Ross.

Risus posits itself as a complete game in six pages, ideal for those occasions ‘when the brain is too tired for exacting detail’ and, cheeringly, presents us with a 20 second character creation process.


Rather than conventional ‘classes’ and ‘statistics’, Risus characters are defined by Clichés – shorthand which describes a character’s capabilities in much the same way as a D&D class does. We know a Fighter can fight well, we know a Wizard can fling spells around, we know a Druid is a tree-hugging waster with too much silver jewellery* – moving outside that, if we say, ‘Biker’ or ‘Escaped Lab Monkey’, there’s a picture borne out of Western pop cultural understandings that emerges there. Each Cliché is defined in terms of Dice, a pool of six-siders which are flung whenever your skill as a Fighter or Lab Monkey is put to the test. You have a pool of ten Dice to divide among as many Clichés as you see fit – one die in a Cliché represents next to no competence, six represents absolute mastery, four is the recommended cap for a character who’s at the beginning of their career. So far, so White Wolf, and fairly reminiscent of other rules-light designs like Discordia! or PDQ. Let’s put that 20 second thing to the test, shall we?

Description: bearded, British, fond of big coats, silly hats and elaborate sentence structure. Slightly smug, slightly posh, slightly overweight, slightly overzealous.

Clichés: British (3), Amateur Dramatist (2), Goth (2), Nerd (3)

That took longer to format than it did to think up. At this point, it occurs to me that the Risus pledge is probably really spot on if you have a clear idea of Who You Want To Play at the start, what I believe the blogopshere cool kids call ‘storygaming’, but if you just want to play Some Generic Dude and work out who they’re going to be as you go along, it probably grates and grinds a bit. Presenting someone who is still at the “how is RPG formed?” stage with a blank slate seldom results in anything more inspiring than brain-farts, and even the most seasoned of players, when told “you can play absolutely anything”, tend to flounder for a bit. It’s a rare soul who immediately comes up with “Leopold Leamington-Smythe-Smythe, a Pretentious Leopard” or “The Mole of Misconception, a Tiny Superhero”, unless you’re running for a bunch of demented art students. That said, there’s a fairly decent list of sample Clichés and what they’re good for, which also sets the comedic tone for the game. Apparently you can play Risus straight, but that’s suggested once and then promptly forgotten about for the duration.

Actual gameplay is set very much in the ‘set a target number and roll to beat it’ school. I’m quite keen on the “whenever anybody wants to do something, and nobody is actively trying to stop [them], AND the GM doesn’t think that success would be automatic, the player rolls dice” call-out, ’cause this is something which I think most roleplayers eventually come to internalise but which doesn’t always make itself explicit to first-timers. I also like that the target numbers are relative to the character’s Clichés – a task which might be dead easy (target number 5) for one character might be a real challenge (target number 20) for another. It might be tremendously easy for Von to stomach a slice of black pudding while hung over (he is British, after all), but not everyone likes the taste of fried, congealed pig blood in the morning.

You eat WHAT? With WHAT on the side?
Humans are sick.

Equipment is abstract; every character is assumed to be carrying the stuff they need to do what they do. (Answers on a postcard in ref: what is required to be British). Characters might conceivably lose their gear by cocking up an outside-chance task, in which case the Clichés which tie into that gear either operate at half dice or not at all until the gear is replaced. Which it is depends on how essential the gear is. How do you tell if that Goth’s a Goth when they’ve lost all their remotely morbid clothes, eyeliner and Sisters of Mercy CDs?**

Combat, meanwhile, is one of those nice systems which covers any sort of conflict in which any character is trying to beat someone else at doing things. I do like a good universal combat system which also covers social or intellectual situations and isn’t limited to purely physical attacks. At the end of the day you’re using your resources and capacities against someone else’s and trying to do better at it than them, and I don’t think an extra set of rules for doing that with words or weapons or spells or copies of Eats, Shoots and Leaves is really warranted, let alone an extra set of rules for each of those things.

To make an attack, you describe what you’re going to do – in entertaining detail or theatrically – and nominate a target for it. The GM decides which Cliché you’re using to attack and the defender decides which Cliché they’re going to use to defend. Then you both roll the appropriate dice pool, and the low roller loses a die from their pool, representing being worn down in some way. Whoever runs out of dice first loses, and whoever wins decides the fate of the loser. You can swap Clichés in and out during a combat – if Von decides that facts are a better bet than dodgy poetry and switches to rolling the Nerd pool rather than Goth, that’s fair enough, but if he runs out of dice in any Cliché, he’s lost.

Hordes of enemies, rather than having their own individual sets of cliches, just have one bigger-than-average Cliché pool to roll, sticking together as a team until they’re defeated (although there’s always one left over for the winners to victimise). Player Characters can likewise team up to pool their dice, in which case one PC – the one with the highest relevant Cliché pool – is designated Team Leader. All their dice count toward the team’s total in combat, as do any sixes rolled by the rest of the team. Damage is randomly farmed out to any member of the team – however, if anyone ‘steps forward’ and volunteers to take the damage, they take twice the normal amount, and the team leader gets to roll twice as many dice in the next round as they avenge the fallen. Breaking a team in combat inflicts a die of ‘damage’ on each member, and dropping out of a team reduces the drop-out to zero dice as they run off and hide.

Healing damage, the time each round takes up, effective ranges and suchlike are all dealt with by the GM, set to whatever scale is appropriate for the conflict being mediated. Which, again, I like – it means that subtle conflicts like passive-aggression within a marriage over several weeks can be resolved using the same basic system as a punch-up that’s over in seconds. Making me learn extra systems for the sake of learning extra systems is Not Good. I do, however, wonder how well this one would fare for the kind of player who likes jockeying for advantage and comparing resources – sure, there’s room to be inventive in the applying of inappropriate Clichés, but there’s a slight hint of “you may use your initiative, intelligence and imagination only in these permitted avenues” to any system as abstract as this one. To some people, it matters whether they have the higher ground, a longer weapon, a higher-quality helmet; to Risus, it really doesn’t, just get on with it and roll.

There’s one more twist for particularly silly games, and it is suggested that this one be reserved for silly games – the Inappropriate Cliche. If you can roleplay or describe how you use Goth to win a boxing match, you can try it. If you win a round of combat by doing so, the opponent loses three dice, rather than one. Basically, Risus rewards the ridiculous – if you can be amusing while you’re doing it.

Now, this is all well and good unless you’re a player who is more into the ins-and-outs of mechanics and tactical combat, more into dungeon-crawl-as-resource-management-board-game-and-puzzle-system than flouncing about pretending to be a beautiful elf princess. If that’s you, Risus is frankly Not For You. It’s perfect for people like me and lousy for people like my housemate K, who is a boardgamer to the core and actually quite likes complex systems, mechanical choices and granular details, while loathing improvised dialogue and descriptions.

Hmm. I don’t like games which aren’t flexible enough to include all my friends, Von.

Neither do I, monkey.

To its credit, Risus does offer a few crunchier options, but they’re mostly wired into the existing mechanics character creation or dice pools; there’s nothing in there that actually factors back in the kind of granularity that some people enjoy, nothing in there to differentiate between a guisarme and a Bohemian ear-spoon if that’s your thing, nothing to add a consistent scale or a structure for character definition and growth. Nothing, in short, that actually makes it more inclusive. Sure, you could add those things, but… well, the difference between house-ruling things into abstractions and
starting out abstracted is simple. If someone says “too abstract for
me!” in the first case, you can just go back and restore some things
you’ve taken out. In the second case, you’re stuck either changing games
or making up systems from scratch, which isn’t always as easy as it

Bottom line: Risus is more or less what I end up house-ruling
any game into after a while, but I know for an honest-to-god fact that
at least one of the people I currently roleplay with would despise it
and I’m not sure how well it would go down with the others.

* – note – this is not in point of fact the case. Von supports druids and the playing of druids. Especially if your game has those nifty shapeshifting ones.

** – if you answered ‘they’re still Goth on the inside’, you are deeply overestimating the depth of subcultural allegiance, but you’re also a decent, forgiving soul, and probably a better person than me. For whatever that’s worth.

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