The Homebrew Review, #2: Risus


Anyone who runs an ongoing campaign is likely, at one time or another, to grapple with the phenomenon of burnout. Developer S. John Ross makes the purpose of Risus abundantly clear from the start: it is "designed to provide an 'RPG Lite' for those nights when the brain is too tired for exacting detail... While it is essentially a Universal Comedy System, it works just as well for serious play (if you insist!)."

Anyone who runs an ongoing campaign is likely, at one time or another, to grapple with the phenomenon of burnout. It happens when you're tired, your real-world concerns are intruding on your game, you're out of ideas, and you just can't get the week's adventure prepared in time. But in situations like this, most GMs are understandably reluctant to cancel the session. After all, your players have been looking forward to the night's activities all week and expect something resembling an evening of gaming. If this sounds all too familiar to you, relax; the Homebrew Review is here to introduce you to Risus: The Anything RPG, a looney-friendly, almost moronically simple system that's easy to learn and play and perfect for those times when you can't come up with anything else.

Developer S. John Ross makes the purpose of Risus abundantly clear from the start: it is "designed to provide an 'RPG Lite' for those nights when the brain is too tired for exacting detail... While it is essentially a Universal Comedy System, it works just as well for serious play (if you insist!)." In other words, Risus exists to give you an excuse to play those absurd character concepts, test out those ridiculous plots, and say and do all those things you'd never get away with in a more traditional game. This also means that it's not the kind of game you go back to week after week for an ongoing campaign (unless your gaming group is really, really silly), but it makes for wonderful filler.

The primary factor contributing to this light tone is the amazing simplicity of the system. In my experience, the one thing that keeps GMs from running their "joke" games is the prohibitive amount of time and energy they would have to put into what is essentially a big goof. But the Risus system is ideal for running these kind of one-shots, because it is without a doubt the simplest one I have ever encountered.

Risus character creation is so simple, a trained chimp could do it. Characters can be anyone or anything, and are defined by nothing more than a short description and several Cliches which determine their usable skills. Players get ten dice (the game exclusively uses D6s) to allocate among Cliches of their choosing. Other than the rule that beginning characters aren't allowed to put more than 4 dice into any one Cliche, it's all up to you what you take and where you put your dice. Wisely, Risus provides a list of "Some Sample Cliches (And What They're Good For)" for the benefit of players who feel a little overwhelmed by these seemingly endless possibilities. The list includes such suggestions as Gambler (good for betting, cheating, winning, and running very fast), Latin Lover (seducing, loving, running from irate husbands), Soldier (shooting, hiding, partying, catching venereal disease), and Vampire (self-pity, erotic blood poetry, wearing black). Not only is the list extremely amusing, it demonstrates the mood (and twisted sense of humor) of the game better than any lecture ever could.

Risus is no more complex when it comes to actual gameplay. When performing actions, the players roll their appropriate Cliches against a target number (ranging from 5 [simple] to 30 [ridiculously hard]). In combat or other types of confrontation, both the attacker and the defender roll their Cliches, and the low roller subtracts one dice from his Cliche. This continues until one party is left without any dice, at which point the winner gets to decide the loser's fate.

But my favorite Risus rule (and the one that makes this game a true looney's paradise) is the one dictating what happens when a character finds herself without any useful Cliches for a given situation. "Inappropriate Cliches may be used to make attacks, PROVIDED THE PLAYER ROLEPLAYS OR DESCRIBES IT IN A REALLY, REALLY, REALLY ENTERTAINING MANNER." In other words, if your character is a better Hairdresser than she is a Soldier, she can attack with the Hairdresser Cliche so long as you come up with an amusing description of how she stabs the Big Nasty with her scissors. Not only does this add many more humorous elements to the game, it effectively eliminates those boring lulls where you have to sit around twiddling your thumbs because you're stuck in a situation where your character has nothing to contribute. But most importantly, this rule also assures that every Risus session will be fun and action-packed for everyone, even those fish-out-of-water characters that a game this all-encompassing is bound to have. I applaud whoever came up with this idea.

There are a few more minor additions to Risus, such as rules for teaming up and character advancement, but it's entirely possible to play using nothing more than the rules I've just outlined. The developers also provide a few optional "advanced" rules, such as hooks and tales (significant character flaws and written character backgrounds, respectively, which give extra Cliche dice to players who put a little work into their characters), pumping (temporarily boosting Cliches for one round by taking "damage" to them in later rounds), and Funky Dice (introducing dice other than D6s to represent the stats of superheroes and/or demigods). If your group is full of players who love lots of rules, or trying to run an ongoing Risus campaign (God help you), these might come in handy, but I'd avoid them for one-shot games or beginning players. After all, adding too many rules to Risus would seem to defeat the purpose of the game in the first place.

Risus doesn't have much of a setting or background, but unlike The Window this doesn't really present a problem. After all, it exists to give GMs a break from more complex games and a place to put their most bizarre ideas, so a built-in setting would be counterproductive. This might be bad news for GMs whose burnout extends to complete idea blockage. Fortunately, the Risus homepage has tons of supplementary information, mostly created by fellow Risus players, to jump-start your creative process. There you'll find great tools if you're really starved for ideas, including modules, rules modifications for alternate settings from Star Wars to Red Dwarf to the Cthulhu mythos. (And as long as you're there, be sure to download the Big List Of RPG Plots. Not only is it a great tool for putting together a Risus game on the spot, it's proven invaluable to my more serious games as well.)

The only real problem with Risus is that I doubt it would stand the test of time. It's fun for a session or two, but go much longer without playing something else and you'll soon find yourself craving more substantial games. But in the end, Risus is a delightful little game that I highly recommend - even if you're feeling anything but burnt out right now.

How Risus Measures Up:

  • Playability: A
  • Presentation: A
  • Setting: B
  • Overall: A

Interested in Risus? Check it out for free at

The Homebrew Review Game Supplement

Babylon 5 Characters (for Risus). Fans of the unofficial greatest TV show ever, rejoice! If The Babylon Project is a little too complicated for your gaming style, these character templates are the perfect way to incorporate B5 characters into your story. Toss them into your next Risus campaign and watch the fun begin...

John Sheridan

Earth Alliance Commander (4)

Messianic Figure (4)

Susan Ivanova
Earth Alliance Officer (4)
Telepath (1)

Michael Garibaldi
Security Officer (3)
Recovering Alcoholic (3)

Minbari Ambassador (4)
Proverb-Spouting Religious Figure (2)

Marcus Cole
Ranger (4)
Angst-Ridden, Ill-Fated Sex Symbol (5)

Monk (3)
Long-Suffering Sidekick (4)

Londo Mollari
Centauri Ambassador (3)
Drunkard (4)

Narn Ambassador (4)
Revolutionary (4)

Kosh Naranek
Vorlon Ambassador (5)
Cryptic and Secretive Mentor Figure (5)

Puppet of the Shadows (6)
Tricky Bastard (3)

Vir Cotto
Endlessly Put-Upon Ambassadorial Assistant (4)

Stephen Franklin
Xenobiologist (4)

Cool system concept. I like the Bab-5 example. I'll have to play this.