Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the Freelance Traveller web site in 1999, and was reprinted, lightly edited into this form, in the November/December 2012 issue of the magazine.
Risus is a complete Role Playing Game (RPG) designed to provide an “RPG Lite” for those nights when the brain is too tired for exacting 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 two minutes to create!
Characters are defined by Cliché (sometimes several of them). Clichés are a shorthand which describe what a character knows how to do. The “character classes” of the Neolithic Period of RPGs were Cliché: Fighter and Magic-User, Space Marine and Star Merchant. You can take a Cliché like that, or choose a more contemporary one, such as Biker, Spy, Computer Nerd, Supermodel, or William Shatner (formerly an actor—now just a Cliché). Which Clichés are permitted are up to the GM.
Clichés are defined in terms of Dice (by which we mean the ordinary six-sided kind). This is the number of dice that you roll whenever your skill as a Fighter, Supermodel, or William Shatner (for instance) is challenged. See “Game System”, below. Three dice is professional. Six dice is mastery. One die is a putz.
Characters are created by naming and describing them, and listing their Clichés. When designing your character, you have 10 dice with which to define his Clichés (a Normal Schmoe would be built on anywhere from 3 to 5 dice). A straightforward ’Star Viking’ character might look like this:
Vainsson the Swordworlder
Description: Tall, blond, and grinning. Likes to drink and fight and drink and chase blonde women and fight and rove among the stars and raid. Wants to write great sagas about himself.
Clichés: Armsman (4), Soldier (2), Rogue (3), Poet (1)
A character may have any number or combination of Clichés, but more than 10 different Clichés would be odd, considering the number of dice you get. Characters shouldn’t begin their career with more than 4 dice in anything, but Traveller characters (other than Psionics) are rarely beginners, however, so the maximum of six dice is available.
Following are some examples of Clichés and actions that they might be good at:
- Agent/Investigator (Sneaking, spying, being paranoid, resisting torture)
- Armsman (Shooting people, blowing things up, patrolling, intimidation)
- Barbarian (Killing people with pointy objects, drinking, riding animals)
- Belter (Prospecting, mining, being alone, not puking in zero-G)
- Bureaucrat (Paperwork, boring repetitive tasks, avoiding responsibility)
- Colonist (Eking out a precarious existence, being attacked by alien creatures)
- Cop (Enforcing law and order, catching criminals, eating donuts)
- Corporate (Making a ton of money at all costs, flagrant careerism, dressing well)
- Dilettante (Having lots of money, throwing wild parties, sleeping it off)
- Diplomat (Persuading other people to do things your way, and like it)
- Engineer (Fixing starships, performing miracles, speaking with an accent)
- Entertainer (Dancing, juggling, telling jokes, doing it your way)
- Gunner (Blowing things away at long ranges using very big weapons)
- Hunter (Following tracks, training animals, living off the land)
- Jack-of-All-Trades (Just about anything, but always Inappropriate, q.v.)
- Journalist (Uncovering the facts, slanting them for publication)
- Marine (Boarding actions, assault from orbit, snappy cutlass salutes)
- Medic/Doctor (Patching up your less fortunate teammates, buying drugs)
- Merchant (Finding sellers, buying low, finding buyers, selling high)
- Pilot (Dogfighting, not blacking out at high-Gs, bragging)
- Pirate (Preying on unarmed merchants, fencing goods, running away)
- Robot (Following orders, boring repetitive tasks, feeling no pain)
- Rogue (Conning people out of their money, stealing things, evading cops)
- Sailor (Sailing, not getting seasick, painting bulkheads)
- Scientist (Discovering Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, publishing them)
- Scout (Exploration and survey, drinking Scout Brew, not following orders)
- Spacer (Crewing starships, wearing vaccsuits, painting bulkheads)
- Technician (Fixing everything except starships, breaking and entering)
- Thug/Tough Guy (Beating people up, speaking with an accent, intimidation)
These are just examples to get you started - players should feel free to make up their own Clichés (subject to GM approval). In particular, note that the GM will require the “fine tuning” of any Cliché that he considers too broad. If the game is about Merchants (for example), then “Merchant” becomes too all-encompassing for the game, and Clichés like Broker, Ship’s Captain, Cargomaster, and Smuggler are more the order of the day.
The Game System
Whenever anybody wants to do something, and nobody is actively trying to stop him, and the GM doesn’t think that success would be automatic, the player rolls dice. If the total rolled beats the Target Number that the GM sets, success! If not, failure!
Target numbers follow this scale:
5: Simple. A snap. A challenge for a novice. Routine for a pro.
10: Routine. A challenge for a Professional.
15: Difficult. An Heroic challenge. Really inventive or tricky stunts.
20: Formidable. A challenge for a Master. Nearly superhuman difficulty.
30: Impossible. You've got to be kidding. Actual superhuman difficulty.
Every character is assumed to be equipped with the Tools of His Trade (at least the portable ones). Military types own field gear and good (civilian) weapons. Belters have vaccsuits, radscanners, laser drills, and claim beacons. Jacks-of-all-Trades have Swiss Army knives. Dilettantes have expensive speeders and funny designer clothes.
If, through the course of an adventure, a character loses any of these vital totems, his Cliché operates on half the normal number of dice (or not at all, if the GM rules that the equipment was required) until they are replaced.
A Barbarian(5), for instance, can fight without his sword as a Barbarian(3), but a Scientist can’t analyze a sample without his lab. If the Scientist manages to find another lab to play with besides the kind he’s used to, he can operate at half-dice.
Some special tools (high-tech artifacts, military ironmongery, and so on) may give bonus dice to your Clichés when used. Characters never begin the game with bonus-dice gear; they must be acquired in adventures.
Whether or not a Starship is a “Proper Tool”, and for what Clichés, is entirely up to the GM.
The Combat System
“Combat” in this game is defined as any contest in which opponents jockey for position, utilize attacks, bring defenses to bear, and try to wear down their foes to achieve victory. Either literally or metaphorically! Some examples of combat include:
- Actual physical combat: People trying to injure or kill each other.
- Arguments: People using whatever verbal weapons they have at hand to make their points. Truth is the first casualty.
- Bargaining: People trying to convince one another that the deal of the century is right before their eyes, if they would only see.
- Courtroom antics: Prosecution vs. Defense. The goal is victory. Justice is incidental.
- Dogfights: People in airplanes or spaceships flying around and trying to blow each other out of the sky.
- Dueling banjos: Musicians using strange melodies and trying to outdo one another.
- Dueling: Opponents square off with archaic weapons to decide questions of honor.
- Seduction attempts: One (or more) characters trying to score with one (or more) other character(s) who is(are) trying to resist.
- Trade war: Rival corporations (actually, their regional management teams) attempt to force trade concessions by any means, fair or foul.
The GM decides when a combat has begun. At that point, go around the table in rounds, and let each player make an attack in turn. What constitutes an “attack” depends on the sort of combat, but it should always be role-played (if dialogue is involved) or described in entertaining detail (if it’s physical and/or dangerous).
Attacks require rolls against character Clichés. The GM must, at the outset of combat, determine what type of Clichés are appropriate for the fight. In a physical fight, Clichés like Armsman, Gunner, Hunter and Soldier are appropriate. Clichés like Bureaucrat and Dilettante are not (but may still be used; see next section).
An attack must be directed at a foe. Both parties in the attack (attacker and defender) roll against their chosen Clichés. Low roll loses. Specifically, the low roller loses one of his Cliché dice for the remainder of the fight—he’s been weakened, worn down, or otherwise pushed one step towards defeat. In future rounds, he’ll be rolling lower numbers.
Eventually, one side will be left standing, and another will be left without dice. At this point, the winners usually decide the fate of the losers. In a physical fight or duel, the losers might be killed (or mercifully spared). In Courtroom Antics, the loser gets sentenced by the judge, or fails to prosecute. In Bargaining, the loser gets taken to the cleaners.
You needn’t use the same Cliché every round (unless you’re part of a team; see below). If a Barbarian/Scout wants to lop heads one round, and swing on chandeliers the next, that’s groovy, too. However, anytime a character has a Cliché worn down to zero dice in combat, he has lost, even if he has other appropriate Clichés left to play with.
Dice lost in combat are regained when the combat ends, at a “healing” rate determined by the GM. If the combat was in vehicles (space fighters, battlesuits, grav tanks) then the vehicles themselves are likely damaged, too, and must be repaired.
As stated above, the GM determines what sort of Clichés are appropriate for any given combat. An Inappriopriate Cliché is anything that’s left. In a physical fight, Bureaucrat is inappropriate. In a Psionics duel, Armsman is inappropriate.
Inappropriate Clichés may be used to make attacks, provided the player role-plays or describes it in a really, really, really entertaining manner. Furthermore, the “attack” must be plausible within the context of the combat, and the genre and tone that the GM has set for the game. This option is more valuable in silly games than in dead-serious ones.
Jack-of-All-Trades is a special Cliché; it is possible to use it in any type of combat, but it is always Inappropriate, and its use must be carefully (and entertainingly) described.
All combat rules apply normally, with one exception: If an inappropriate Cliché wins a combat round versus an appropriate one, the “appropriate” player loses three dice, rather than one, from his Cliché. The “inappropriate” player takes no such risk, and loses only the normal one die if he loses the round.
Thus, a recalcitrant Bureaucrat is dangerous when cornered and attacked unfairly. Beware.
When in doubt, assume that the aggressor determines the type of combat. If a Hunter attacks a Barbarian with his rifle, then it’s Gun Combat! If the Barbarian attacks the Hunter with his sword, then it’s Melee Combat! If the defender can come up with an entertaining use of his skills, then he’ll have the edge. It pays in many genres to be the defender!
Note: If the Hunter and Barbarian both obviously want to fight, then both are aggressors, and it’s “Physical Combat”, where swords and firearms have equal footing.
Two or more characters may decide to form a team in combat. For the duration of the team (usually the entire combat), they fight as a single unit, and are attacked as a single foe. They roll a number of dice defined by the most powerful Cliché in the team (the “Team Leader”—a title that must be designated if there is a tie), plus one die for each team member beyond the first.
Clichés being added together need not be identical, but they all must be equally appropriate or inappropriate. This means five Marines could band together in physical fight with no problem. It also means that a Bureaucrat, an Entertainer, and a Dilettante could team up in a physical fight if they have a really good description of how they'll use their skills in concert to take out the Marines!
Whenever a team loses a round of combat, the team’s dice-value is reduced by one (or three!) normally. In addition to this, one team member’s dice are reduced, as well! Any team member may “step forward” and voluntarily take this personal “damage” to his dice. If this happens, the noble volunteer is reduced by twice the normal amount (either two dice or six!), and the team gets to roll twice as many dice on their next attack, a temporary boost as they avenge their heroic comrade. If no volunteer steps forward, then each member of the team must roll against the Cliché they’re currently using in the team: Low-roll takes the hit, and there is no “vengeance” bonus.
Disbanding: A team may voluntarily disband at any time between die-rolls. This reduces the Cliché each team-member was using in the team by one, instantly (not a permanent reduction—treat it just like “damage” taken from losing a round of combat). Disbanded team-members may freely form new teams, provided the disbanding “damage” doesn’t take them out of the fight. Individuals may also “drop out” of a team, but this reduces them to zero dice immediately as they scamper for the rear. Their fates rest on the mercy of whoever wins the fight!
Lost Members: If any member of the team leaves the team for any reason (either dropping out or having his personal dice reduced to zero), the team’s value is instantly reduced by one die to account for the loss. If the team leader ever leaves the team for any reason, the team’s value is not affected: rather, they must disband immediately (or after their next attack, if the team leader was taken to zero by volunteering for personal damage!).
Conflicts That Aren’t Combat
Many conflicts that arise in the game cannot be defined as “combat”; they’re over too quickly, defined by a single action. A classic pistol-duel isn’t combat—the two duelists simply turn and fire, and then it’s all over. Two characters diving to grab the same gun from the floor isn’t combat. Two cooks preparing chili for a cookoff isn’t combat; there’s no “wearing down of the foe” and no jockeying for position. Such “single-action conflicts” are settled with a single roll against appropriate Clichés (or inappropriate Clichés, with good role-playing). High roll wins.
When Somebody Can’t Participate
It will often occur that characters will find themselves involved in a Combat or quicker conflict where they simply have no applicable Clichés, even by stretching the imagination. Or maybe one character will have an appropriate Cliché (or Jack-of-All-Trades), while the others feel left out. An example might be a pie-eating contest. One character was wise (or foolish) enough to take “Disgusting Glutton(2)” as a Cliché. The other characters are Diplomats or Corporates, neither of which traditionally engorge themselves on pie.
In situations like this, give everybody two free dice to play with, for the duration of the conflict. This includes characters who already have appropriate Clichés (or Jack-of-All-Trades). In the example above, the Diplomats and Corporates would get Pie-Eating(2), while the Disgusting Glutton would be temporarily increased to Disgusting Glutton(4), and the Scout with Jack-of-All-Trades(1) would get Jack-of-All-Trades(3) (which is still Inappropriate, and must be described). The Glutton, naturally, still has the winning edge, but anyone can try to eat lots of pie. This “temporary promotion” applies only in opposed conflicts, not in challenges based on Target Numbers.
A Word Or Two About Scale
No standard time or distance scale is provided for Risus; it really depends on what kind of action is happening. However, the GM should endeavor to stay consistent within a single conflict. In a physical fight, each round should represent a few seconds, and characters should act accordingly. In a long-term trade war between rival Corporates, each round might represent an entire Month (Month one: Corporate X’s “pirates” destroy assets belonging to Corporate Y; Month two: Corporate Y’s adventurers uncover evidence linking Corporate X to “pirates”; and so on until one side drops from exhaustion or the affair becomes Unprofitable).
At the end of each adventure, each player should roll against one Cliché that was used significantly during the game (player’s choice) using their current number of dice. If the dice land showing only even numbers, this indicates an increase by one die for that Cliché. Thus, advancement slows down as you go. No Cliché may go higher than Cliché (6), although if Pumping is allowed (see below), they can be pumped past (6).
Anytime you do something really, really, really spectacularly entertaining that wows the whole table, the GM may rule that you may roll instantly (in the middle of the game!) for possible improvement, in addition to the roll at the end of the adventure.
Adding New Clichés: There may come a time when a character has grown and matured enough to justify adding an entirely new Cliché to his character sheet. If the player and GM agree this is the case, and agree on what the new Cliché is, the player rolls for Character Advancement as usual, but any of the new dice earned may be put toward the new Cliché instead of the ones that earned them. This can also be applied to “in-game” improvements, if the situation warrants it!
Hooks and Tales
Normally, a character is created using 10 dice. Players can bargain for extra beginning dice by giving their character a Hook and/or a Tale.
A Hook is some significant character flaw—an obsession, a weakness, a sworn vow, a permanently crippling injury—that the GM agrees is so juicy that he can use it to make the characters life more interesting (which usually means less pleasant). A character with a Hook gets one extra die to play with.
Playing an Alien is a Hook in a mostly-Human campaign, so long as the “alienness” significantly restricts the character compared to others in the campaign. Playing a Human in a mostly-Alien campaign can have the same effect.
Psionics in Traveller are required to take some kind of Hook, such as Secret, Outlaw, Traitor, or Sociopath.
A Tale is a written “biography” of the character describing his life before the events of the game begin. The Tale needn’t be long (two or three pages is usually just fine); it just needs to tell the reader where the character is coming from, what he likes and dislikes, how he became who he is, what his motives are. Some Tales are best written from the player’s omniscient perspective; others are more fun if written as excerpts from the character’s own diary. A character with a Tale provided before gameplay begins gets an extra die to play with.
In an emergency, any character may pump his Clichés. If the Hunter(3) comes face to face with a Monster(6), it might be necessary.
When a Cliché is pumped, it received a temporary boost in dice. This boost lasts for a single round of combat, or a single significant roll otherwise. However, after that round or roll is resolved, the character loses a number of dice equal to the number he gave himself in the pump. This is treated like “injury” to the Clichés sustained in combat, and must “heal” in the same fashion.
Example: Rudolph the Hunter has come face to face with a Monster, who attacks him. Rudy doesn’t have much of a chance against such a powerful foe, so he opts for a tricky tactic: Since the Monster has attacked physically, Rudolph decides his first round will use his skill as a Cajun Chef(3)—a decidedly Inappropriate choice! He also opts to pump it by two dice up to five. He’s really putting his all into his cooking for this fight.
So, the first round happens. The Monster rolls six dice, and the Hunter (quickly whipping up a tempting Gumbo spiked with tranquilizers and offering it to the monster) rolls five dice.
If the Hunter loses, then he is instantly defeated. His Cajun Chef Cliché drops by two to Cajun Chef(1) just for the pump, plus another die for losing the round. The Monster decides to eat Rudolph instead of the Gumbo.
If the Hunter wins, however, the Monster(6) is dropped to Monster(3), and his Cajun Chef(3) drops to Cajun Chef(1). In the rounds that follow, Rudolph will switch back to ordinary Hunter tactics—and be on equal footing with the sleepy Monster!
A risky maneuver, but worth it.
Pumped Clichés are legal in any situation except single-action conflicts.
Characters may be created with double-pump Clichés. These Clichés, when pumped, give you two dice in the pumped roll for every die you’ll lose at the end of it. Thus, a Psionic could be a Psionic for a single combat round, at a cost of three dice. This option is required for Psionic abilities and Noble status (which are too universally powerful to be treated normally). It is also appropriate for any other Clichés the GM approves.
Double-pump Clichés cost twice as many starting dice to buy. Thus, the following would be a legal starting character:
Sinzibrlozhiepr the Zhodani
Description: Thin, spindly and mysterious, with a tired beaker on his shoulder. Likes to poke around where Man Ought Not, discover secrets unobserved, and the like. Likes the woods.
Clichés: ESPer , Scientist (2), Hunter (2)
The [square brackets] indicate a double-pump Cliché. Since it costs double, Sinzibrlozhiepr is effectively a 10-dice character.
Each Psionic ability—Telepath, Clairvoyant (or ESPer), Telekinetic, Teleport, Aware, each Special—is a separate Cliché, and must be bought separately. Most characters should start with a maximum of one (double pumped) die in any Psionic ability.
Noble titles are awarded on the basis of the initial number of dice. Subsequent increases from experience improve the Noble’s ability to make use of their title and influence, but higher titles are only granted by the GM under extraordinary circumstances. Titles corresponding to initial dice are:
Noble  Knight
Noble  Baron
Noble  Marquis
Noble  Count
Noble  Duke
Overall, double-pump dice are less useful than ordinary dice at the beginning, but since they improve at the same rate as ordinary dice, they are a good “investment.”
Risus: The Anything RPG™
By S. John Ross ©1999-2012
Travelling Light built on Version 1.4
Current (2012) Risus version 1.53