Friday, November 14, 2008

Simple Systems Are The Best

Last night, I played Risus.
  • Of the rules-light RPGs I've played lately, Wushu is still my favorite. Wushu, however, is very much a "Hippy Game" - it's got an unconventional structure, that takes some getting used to. It's very easy for a new player (or GM) to miss the point of Wushu and fail to make it deliver to it's full potential. If I was GMing for a new group of random players I'd never gamed with, I'd run Risus over Wushu. Both have about the same potential for abuse by a player who defines excessively-broad attributes, but Wushu adds to that the potential to fall flat if the players are timid, since the GM does less in Wushu than in most RPGs, and the players have all the power.

That said, Risus, too, is not without it's problems. At it's core, Risus is a game with a terribly broken fundamental flaw. Yet despite that glaring problem, both times I've played it, I've really enjoyed Risus. The rest of the rules are so simple, that both GMs were able to compensate for the flaw and keep it from mattering. There were no ripple effects to account for when you altered one of the games handful of rules / paradigms.

The primary mechanic (and source of the flaw) is that each player has a small number of attributes/skills (known as "Cliches") numbered from 1 to 4. Whenever you take an action, you roll d6s equal to your relavent cliche and add them together. Where this breaks down is how it relates to damage. Each point of damage (you get one each time you're hit, or each time you fail a roll) reduces one of your Cliches by one die. As you can imagine, this leads to a quick and nasty spiral of death. I get one bad roll and mydie pool drops by one. Which makes it more likely I'll have another badroll. One unlucky roll means you're going to lose the entire fight,unless your foe rolls even worse (despite now being a die up on you) twice. Once you hit zero dice in any Cliche, you're incapacitated.

The two GMs I've played under have both managed to entirely sidestep this fatal flaw.
  1. Honestly,I don't recall how Jeremy dodged it, probably because the game he ran was 2 to 3 years ago. If forced to guess, I'd say it was via a house-rule that changed how damage worked. I remember him discussing the flaw before the game started, so he was aware of it, and probably had a work-around.

  2. Last night, Malachi got around it by providing healing potions at various points during the game. This felt pretty forced, he was obviously pulling our fat out of the fryer. Not that we complained. Still, it didn't feel balanced or natural, and therefore eroded his verisimilitude.

  3. Solving it via the age-old tradition of fudging the dice is unlikely to work. There's 99% transparency on the monster stats. Die pool equals one stat minus damage, so if you see the GMs roll just once (not even the result, just the number of dice rolled) you can conclude the monster's strength, hit points, and capabilities. Therefore, it's fairly hard for a GM to fudge things without the players noticing he'd just thrown them a bone.

The secret to why I've enjoyed Risus is that it's so incredibly freeform. The system lends itself to light-hearted goofiness, and both one-shots started out ostensibly serious but quickly developed unique quirkiness. This can be directly attributed to the Cliche system.
Cliches can be:
  • traditional ("Ranger" or "Smart"),

  • over the top ("Blood-Sucking Vampiric Fiend"),

  • damn-near useless ("Philosophy Major"),

  • a wee bit odd ("I know I've got one of those around here"),

  • or truly bizarre ("Oh, dear God no, don't tell me I'm actually a Unicorn").

Description is just that - flavor text only. Yes, "Hollywood Vampire" allows forsome cinematic effects that are harder to justify from "PhilosophyMajor", but mechanically it's no better. Nothing really stops you from doing damage with "Philosophy Major" as long as you think quick and describe how your actions make the enemy doubt themselves. One or two bad die rolls while turning into a Bat, and your vampire stops being so fanciful and cinematic.

That said, there's a definite advantage to having just a couple of broadly-defined Cliches, and rating them as highly as you can. Standard character creation involves spending 10 dice, and you can't take anything above a 4. Three stats at 4/4/2 respectively seems pretty darned optimal, though I could see a case for a 4/3/3 build if you didn't have two Cliches you felt were likely to cover everything you'd want the character to do. That said, PCs with just three defining characteristics/concepts tend to besomewhat flat.

One or two of the 6 PCs last night were built differently than those two models, and it was noticable. The player with 3/3/2/2 had trouble being useful - she could do a lot of very different things, but none of them very well. Further, a 3-Cliche PC could fail 7 rolls and still be on their feet (though reduced to one very vulnerable die in everything), where as the 4-Cliche PC is in that dire strait after just 6 failed rolls. Luckily it was a one-shot, since being the unintended sidekick would suck heavily after the second or third session.

I'd recommend Risus for one-shots and short-shots, especially if you don't mind the game getting a little goofy. However, you'll need to be prepared to handle the out-of-control PC-death-spiral, and you'll want to keep an eye open for PCs that are spread too thin at character creation. Still, Risus is free, so you expect it to be a little rough around the edges.

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