In Risus, a character typically starts with 10 dice to be divided amongst their skills (known as clichés), with a limit that no skill may start with more than 4 dice. So, you see a lot of 4/4/2 or 4/3/3 builds, spotted by the infrequent oddball builds like 4/2/2/2 or 4/3/2/1 or even 3/3/2/2. I'm here to tell you that anything other than 4/4/2 sucks horribly, and should be avoided at all costs.
Risus features two types of rolls. Generic rolls vs a static target number to see if you succeed at some standard task, and then there's combat.
Let's look at the non-combat rolls first.
According to the rules, rolls have a difficulty of 5, 10, 15, 20 or 30 (20 or 30 just sounds crazy to me, given that the hard-cap for a PC whose maxed out a trait is 4 dice at character creation and 6 dice after much XP spending).
Difficulty 10 is meant for things that should be challenging for a professional, and 15 is for "really inventive or tricky stunts". Then the GM is vaguely instructed to sometimes lower this if a given cliche is particularly appropriate, but only a handful of examples are provided and no real advice on adjudicating it. In my experience, this means most GMs don't really adjust the numbers much. Even if they do, as a player reading the rules you feel really motivated to get at least 3 dice in anything you ever want to do, because the rules state that 3 dice represents professional-level skill. Sounds like you want 3 dice, right?
Wrong. Here's the first wrinkle. Most GM's never have you roll against the lowest difficulty, which is specifically 5 in Risus. Someone at the table is going to have 4 dice in something (in fact, in my experience, nearly every PC has 4 dice in something) pertinent to the roll. The first time the GM sets a "5" difficulty, people grab their 4 dice and someone asks "why are we even rolling this?" There's a social pressure then to not roll vs difficulty 5 on 4 dice, as it just feels too silly. Most GMs pretty much default to difficulty 10 for average tasks worth dicing for, because it feels fair regardless of whether you got 3 or 4 dice to roll, and is a lot more interesting than difficulty 5. Perhaps some other number would be better, but 10 is nice and round, it shows up in the rules, and really who wants to deal with a sliding scale of improvised values in the middle of a fight?
So now 10 is your routine average difficulty, even though that's not really what the rules say.
- Chance of succeeding at difficulty 10 on 3d6: 63%
- Chance of succeeding at difficulty 10 on 4d6: 90%
Of course, in a typical gaming scenario, not everything is routine. GM's frequently want to make something a little tougher than average. Players also frequently come up with crazy ideas, and it's very normal for the GM to respond to that by raising the difficulty up one step. Officially, one step up in difficulty in Risus is a 15. But as it turns out, a 15 is terribly hard to score on 3d6:
- Chance of succeeding at difficulty 15 on 3d6: 9%
- Chance of succeeding at difficulty 15 on 4d6: 44%
So the 4d6 character is still reasonably proficient, but about half as likely to succeed as they were on a difficulty 10 challenge. Most GMs (and most players who have a 4-die stat) could live with that.
The PC rolling 3d6 however, is nearly guaranteed to fail at that test that's just 1 difficulty level above "normal". Already 3d6 is starting to suck, and we haven't even gotten to our first fight scene.
If the GM realized how low the odds were on getting that 15, they probably wouldn't use it as a difficulty very often. Chances are the GM hasn't realized how hard the 15 will be. Most people aren't that good at intuiting actual odds, that's how casino's make money after all. We remember the big successes more than the day-to-day failures. While gamers are often more math-savvy than the general public, we've all been kind of brainwashed by years of D&D optional character generation rules teaching us that a 15 stat isn't all that unusual. Don't believe it.
Combat in Risus has a somewhat infamous death spiral. If you fail a roll, your dice pool shrinks for the rest of the fight. Combat uses contested rolls, so each round one side of the fight grows weaker, while the other maintains their strength. It's in such a combat that 3d6 clichés really become a liability.
Two hypothetical characters (or players), Alison and Brad, are about to have a duel. Alison has a relevant cliche rated at 4 dice. Bradley's cliche is only 3 dice. What are the possible outcomes of the first round? Most of us would correctly deduce that Alison's got better than even odds, but how much better?
Alison's 4 dice are in fact 4 times more likely than Brad's three to win the first round of the fight. I ran the numbers on it this morning, and was a little surprised just how dominating that extra die is. Here's the results of round one:
- 75%: Alison (with 4 dice) rolls higher than Brad. Brad drops to 2 dice next round.
- 19%: Brad (with 3 dice) rolls higher than Alison. Alison drops to 3 dice next round.
- 6%: The rolls are tied.
- 4.5%: The rolls tie initially. The GM calls for a reroll, and Alison wins it.
- 1%: The rolls tie initially. There's a reroll, and Brad wins it.
- Half a percent: This round of combat takes 3 or more rolls to resolve. It's likely Alison wins eventually.
I've seen a few GMs try other tie-breakers to avoid delays from rare consecutive ties. Usually these tie breakers are either "highest stat wins", or "highest single die wins". Either of those basically make the 6% tie chance into another case of Alison's 4-die stat delivering a win.
So there's about an 80-20 split in favor of the 4-die character. And that's just round one, where the difference in stats is just 1 die.
Round two now deals one of two situations.
It's 80% likely that Alison won the first round, and is still rolling her 4d6 against Brad's now weakened 2d6. Her odds of winning the second round have just shot up to 96%. Brad's hosed.
The other 20% of the time, Brad will have gotten lucky and won the first round. Alison's 4-dice are knocked down to 3. That means both characters are rolling 3 dice. Even though Alison lost once, she's still got a 50-50 shot at winning the second round. If she does, she's retaken the advantage.
So a true break-out of the full results of the 4-dice vs 3-dice fight are basically thus:
- 80%: Alison trounces Brad without ever taking a hit.
- 10%: Alison takes an unlucky early "wound", but still manages to win the conflict.
- 10%: Brad defies the odds and comes out the victor.
Even if Brad's got the second-best build, 4/3/3, he's still likely to come up short in a fight. Let's see how that 4/4/2 vs 4/3/3 conflict plays out over several rounds of combat.
Rounnd 1: Alison with 4/4/2 vs Brad with 4/3/3. Both characters roll 4 dice.
50% A wins round 1: Rnd 2 is A4/4/2 vs B3/3/3. A has advantage.
50% B wins round 1: Rnd 2 is A4/3/2 vs B 4/3/3. Even dice next round.
Round 2: Number of dice adjusted by who won round 1.
40%: A wins rnds 1 & 2. Rnd 3: A4/4/2 vs B 3/3/2. A has advantage.
10%: A wins 1, B wins 2. Rnd 3: A4/3/2 vs B3/3/3. A has advantage
25%: B wins rnd 1, A wins rnd 2. Rnd 3: A4/3/2 vs B3/3/3. A has advantage.
25%: B wins rnds 1 & 2. Rnd 3: A3/3/2 vs B4/3/3. B has advantage.
32%: A wins all three rounds. Rnd 4: A4/4/2 vs B3/2/2 A has advantage
8%: A wins 1 & 2. B gets lucky on round 3. Rnd 4: A4/3/2 vs B3/3/2. A has advantage.
8%: A wins rounds 1 and 3. B wins 2 Rnd4: A4/3/2 vs B3/3/2. A has advantage.
2% A wins rnd 1. B wins rounds 2 and 3. Rnd 4: A3/3/2 vs B3/3/3. Even dice, but breaking in B's favor.
20%: B wins 1. A wins rnds 2 & 3. Rnd 4: A4/3/2 vs B 3/3/2. A has advantage.
5%: B wins rnds 1 & 3. A wins rnd 2 only. Rnd 4: A3/3/2 vs B4/3/2. B has advantage.
5%: B wins rnds 1&2. A wins rnd 3 only..Rnd4: A3/3/2 vs B3/3/3. Even dice, but breaking in B's favor.
20% B wins all 3 rounds. Rnd 4: A3/2/2 vs B4/3/3. B has advantage.
So at the end of three rounds:
- There's a 68% chance that Alison (who started with 4/4/2 stats) has a strong advantage of being able to roll 1 more die than Brad can.
- There's a 25% chance that Brad (who started with 4/3/3 stats) has a strong advantage of being able to roll one more die than Alison can.
- There's a 7% chance that they're rolling the same number of dice next round, but that Brad has a minor long-term advantage that may allow him to outlast Alison.
Just how big of a deal this advantage ends up being has a lot to do with the GM, and what the stats are of the challenges they throw at the players. PC healing rates are totally a matter of GM Fiat in Risus.
Even with a very generous GM who hands out free heals after every conflict and doesn't put you up against NPCs with lots of dice or back-up stats, there's still never a situation where you'll regret a 4/4/2 build. Some GMs might be easy enough you don't _need_ to go 4/4/2, but there's never a downside to doing it. Risus' clichés are so open-ended (you can use "hairdresser" in combat), and the "penalty" for using an inappropriate skills is so unthreatening (it's actually an advantage), that you should have no trouble coming up with just two big cliches that cover everything you really want the character to do and a minor 2-die stat on the side just for flavor.
The basic rules give no advice on how to handle the implications of the math behind rolls, nor does it give any good advice on how to stat out NPCs. Heck, one of examples in the rulebook casually throws out a horde of rats that roll 7 dice, with not even the slightest mention of the fact that 7-die horde is a TPK waiting to happen. I just spent this huge article talking about how much better 4 dice is than 3, and I assure you 7 dice would be a damn spot better than that.
A few other numbers that may be useful as data points:
4 dice beats 3 dice 80% of the time.
4 dice beats 2 dice 96% of the time.
4 dice beats 1 die 99% of the time.
3 dice beats 2 dice 90% of the time.
2 dice beats 1 die 90% of the time.