Serious Risus

Copyright 2003 Lars Erik Larsen

Vers. 1.02

This Risus supplement builds upon the basic Risus rules. Risus is a free RPG lite system made by S. John Ross.

This is how I prefer to play Risus in "serious" settings. Of course others may prefer it another way. There is no wrong way to play Risus.

Although Risus in it's original form is focused on humorous setttings, and make no mistake: I love the wacky nature of original Risus, it can easily be used for serious settings with a few tweaks. It won't be a deeply detailed lengthy simulation but Risus will do the job and first and foremost: it will enable you to actually play instead of constantly having to dig into a heavy stack of rule books. I really like the absence of endless skill lists. Wham bam! There! Your character is ready for action.

The rules here draw from my "Rules Tidbits" section and the gold that is poured on the very recommendable Risus Mailing List and RisusTalk Mailing List.

When playing in serious settings I do not use pumping or funky dice. Hooks however are mandatory and tales are preferred.

The Three Forms of Conflict

To recap the original rules there are 3 forms of conflict all of which can be used for attacking an enemy:

  1. Target Number (TN)
  2. Used when then enemy has no influence on the success of your attack. A sniping shot against an unsuspecting enemy for example.

    Beside this TN is mainly used for testing success of PC actions.

  3. Single Action Conflict (SAC)
  4. The double sided conflict system is a clever integrated part of original Risus. It is still used in serious Risus but I also frequently use a wider definition for onesided attacks against an active defender.

    This form of SAC does not require the participants to perform the same action such as diving for a knife on the floor. One may attack. The other try to evade or withstand either physically or mentally.

    SAC is used when your attack is an action which is not prolonged against an enemy who will try to evade or withstand your attack. He is not attacking back, only defending. For example firing your weapon against an enemy trying to get to cover or trying to keep his morale high.

  5. Combat
  6. Used when fighting against an enemy fighting back in a prolonged fight. For example a shoot out. See also "Advanced Combat" for a more detailed way of handling combat.

Things to Tweak

In order to play in serious settings I tweak a few things:

  1. Smaller steps between cliché levels
  2. To smooth out the rise in power between levels an alternative dice roll counting method is used in opposed contests. I use the "High Dice" option mentioned by S. John Ross in message 1095 on the Risus ML.
  3. All clichés need to be directly comparable
  4. In a humorous setting a level 4 is always a level 4 no matter what the content of the cliché is. This contributes greatly to the wacky style. An "Inferior Skinny Underachiever(4)" is an even match for a "Godlike Superbeing who eats Medium Sized Galaxies for Breakfast(4). In a serious setting the content of the cliché needs to be taken into account. I use "Bonus Dice" to accomplish this by using a simple way of "comparing clichés".
  5. Damage of more than one die
  6. In certain situations such as gunfire I use an alternate way of measuring the damage caused by a successful attack. Using "Graduated Damage" means the victim risk loosing more than the usual one die (3 if inappropriate cliché) depending on the degree of success of the attack.

  7. Exceptional rolls to measure degree of success
  8. When I use the task resolution system, both when playing original Risus and when playing "Serious Risus", I let "exceptional rolls" show the degree of success.

  9. Initiative counts in combat ...sometimes
  10. The original clever combat system is fine for most combats, especially for the abstract ones, but for the most important of the "real" physical ones I use an "Advanced Combat" system (actually quite simple and traditional but advanced in Risus terms) where the turn order depends on each characters initiative and where only one side at a time attacks.

High Dice

Instead of adding all the dice rolled in a "Single Action Conflict" or "Combat", combatants use only the highest die rolled with multiples counting. So, if an Angry Punk(5) attacks with the result of 5/4/4/4/1, his total for the combat is still 5 (since he only has one instance of his highest face). If Merely Irritated Punk(3) responds with a 4/4/1, his own total is 8 (the pair of fours). The Merely Irritated Punk wins.

The "High Dice" option is one of several mentioned by S. John Ross in message 1095 on the Risus ML. I use this one as it fits well in with the Graduated Damage rules I use.

Bonus Dice Gear

I widen the concept of "Bonus Dice Gear" to incorporate more than ordinary gear.

Treat all matters a PC interacts with, which cause him to gain an advantage or suffer a disadvantage in opposed conflicts, as bonus dice gear. Even if the "gear" at hand isn't physical gear.

Always keep bonus dice positive no matter who is taking his turn. A disadvantage for you means your opponent will receive the bonus dice even though it is your turn. Noone should not roll less dice. Instead someone else should roll more.

  • If you fire at a running enemy he will receive a bonus for his defence roll because he is harder to hit while he moves. When he afterwards takes his turn and fires at you while still running you will receive the bonus for your defence roll because he can not shoot as well when moving. He does not roll less dice even though it is his running which causes the effect. Instead you roll more.
  • Very often terrain will result in bonus dice to you or your opponent depending on who gains an advantage from it: who has high ground, consealment, cover?

Note that damage is taken from the cliché dice not from the bonus dice. You could say that the cliché dice represent your stamina and the sum of your cliché dice and any bonus dice represent your power.

Comparing Clichés

I make opposing clichés comparable by reducing them to a common denominator with added bonus dice "gear". I strip them of adjectives and weapons, maybe even downgrade the clichés until they stand naked like recruits at their first health inspection. Then I translate each component into bonus dice "gear" and put it back on.

For example "Delta Force Rifleman(4)" against "Rifleman(3)":
"Delta Force Rifleman(4)" could be split into:

Delta Force Member(+2)
So when using the "Delta Force Rifleman(4)" cliché in combat against the ordinary "Rifelman(3)" the player rolls 6 dice (and takes damage from the 4 cliché dice). The exact value of the bonus is of course up to the GM.

What if the opponent instead was a "Partisan(3)"?
If you want to stress that partisans lack the training of a soldier you could choose a lower common zero and split the "Delta Force Rifleman(4)" further into:

Armed Civilian(4)
Delta Force Member(+2)
So the "Delta Force Rifleman(4)" would fight with 4 dice plus 3 bonus dice against the "Partisan(3)".

Graduated Damage

You can graduate damage results by using the attack/defend roll ratio:

  • attack > defend: damage 1
  • attack >= 2 * defend: 1d6 damage

"Graduated Damage" is really just an example of the use of the wider term "exceptional rolls" in an opposed conflict.

Exceptional Rolls

For opposed conflicts I use the model shown above in the "Graduated Damage" section. For Target Number rolls I choose 3 Target Numbers:

  1. The border between catastrophic failure and failure
  2. The border between failure and success
  3. The border between success and fantastic success
In some games I choose the first and third Target Number based only on feeling. In other games I choose them based on the number of dice rolled N:
TN(failure) = 2*N
TN(fantastic) = 5*N+1

For example rolling 3 dice to beat a Target Number of 10:

TN(failure) = 6
TN(fantastic) = 16
So 3,4 or 5 would be catastrophic. 6-9 would be failure. 10-15 would be success and 16, 17 or 18 would be fantastic. Excactly what a catastrophic or fantastic result means in each specific gaming situation is up to the GM.

Advanced Combat

This is another way to fight out main combat scenes where you want more detail in the combat than you get using the faster normal combat resolution. You should stick to normal resolution in non important fights to keep the plot moving along and save this for the "important" fights.

This method uses initiative and permits the combatant with the initiative to get his attacks in first and be able to react to the enemys actions.

Phases of Advanced Combat

  1. Initiative
  2. Combat Rounds:
    1. Declaration
    2. Action

Phase 1: Initiative

Initiative is determined by rolling against an appropriate cliché. Highest roller has the initiative. Reroll for ties. In order to keep things simple initiative is only determined once in a combat. Larger battles may be broken down into smaller combats to keep things dynamic.

If there are more than 2 combatants initiative goes from highest to lowest roll. For some combats like ambushes initiative is predetermined as belonging to the attacking side but individual initiave order on each team still need to be determined.

Phase 2.1: Declaration

In reverse initiative order (lowest to highest) players state their action for the next 5-10 secs. Moving, firing, throwing, disarming, giving medical assistance or any other action or part of an action that can be carried out in that time frame is allowed.

Players with higher initiative will know what the slower combatants are up to and can plan their own action with this knowledge.

Phase 2.2: Action

In initiative order (highest to lowest) the players now try to carry out their declared action. The results are found. The damage taken. If the combat is not over a new combat round starts with a new declaration round (phase 2.1).


Vehicles are given an armor cliché rating and a weapon bonus dice rating for each weapon system.

Of course you could detail it further with clichés for armor, each weapon, speed, maneuverability. You could even detail the armor into front armor, side armor and back armor. But after all this is Risus so why should you unless you really need it. The GM will be smart enough (he's a Risus GM ain't he) to reward attacks against the tracks or back of a tank, without the need of detailed rules for every little excruciating detail.

When firing from the vehicle the gunner uses one of his clichés appropriate for gunnery with any available bonus dice from the vehicle weapon used. Damage however is taken from the vehicle dice until depleted at which point the vehicle is damaged and the character starts taking damage.

An alternative approach would be to consider the vehicle and its crew as a Risus team and so leaving it up to the crew to decide whether the vehicle or one of the crew members should take the damage inflicted.


Armor is given a cliché rating. Personal armor, such as a flak jacket, vehicle armor or building armor, such as a bunker, all work the same way: The armor will suffer damage until depleted before the character covered by it starts loosing dice.

An alternative approach would be to consider the armor and its user/users as a Risus team and so leaving it up to the user/users to decide whether the armor or the user/one of the users should take the damage inflicted.

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