Risus Strikes Back

Created 28 Dec 2020 • Last modified 30 Dec 2020

Risus Strikes Back is a variant of the tabletop RPG Risus by S. John Ross. Like Risus, Risus Strikes Back is a generic rules-light system. Strikes Back modifies Risus's core mechanic to (a) make it easy to reason about the relevant probabilities in your head, (b) require only one die per roll, and (c) remove warts such as target numbers and brevet dice. Strikes Back also provides a simple system for leveling up.

This is my Risus hack. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Over the years, I've used it successfully for several one-shots and campaigns, which varied in both genre and degree of levity.


A character in Risus Strikes Back comprises one or more clichés. Each cliché is a phrase describing an aspect of the character, such as "Warrior", "Space Pirate", "Samurai Pizza Cat", "Accountant", "Mysterious, Wise Drifter", or "Overeducated Princess Who Dreams of Being a Boxer". Each cliché has a level, an integer that indicates the character's expertise or experience in living up to that cliché: an Archer (4) is more skilled than an Archer (3). So a starting character might look like:

  • Grizzled Detective (3) -2
  • Science-Fiction Fan (2) -3
  • Handyman (1) -4

Here, next to each cliché's level, I write the modifier, which is simply the level minus 5 (and hence, usually, a negative number). Modifiers come in handy for task resolution, which is described below.

A level-3 cliché is a typical professional or journeyman level—competent, but not expert—whereas a level-1 cliché represents only a little knowledge. So, this character is an experienced detective, knows a lot about Star Trek without necessarily being able to win every trivia tournament, and can fix a few things around the house. When you create a character, the gamemaster (GM) will tell you how many clichés you get and what level they should be. A 3-2-1 setup like our detective's is typical.

The clichés you can choose are limited only by your imagination and GM fiat. Creativity is encouraged. Even clichés that sound bad, like Blind Man and Terrible Poet, can be useful in campaigns with the right tone: a Blind Man could have an expert knowledge of common sounds, and a Terrible Poet could make enemies beg for mercy by reciting his work.

Clichés represent not only skills, but also equipment and social connections. A Fisherman (3), in addition to his knowledge of the sea and how to exploit it, could be expected to own rods, nets, lures, bait, appropriate clothing, and perhaps a fishing boat of his own. He probably knows several other fishermen and may be familiar with local dock workers or government officials associated with the wharf.

A cliché can be temporarily lowered by anything from bodily injury to loss of equipment to loss of confidence. How to restore it—whether you need a healing spell or a pep talk—depends on the source of loss. Similarly, favorable circumstances, such as a good defensive position or magical equipment, can boost a cliché.

Conflict resolution

Many tasks are easy and don't require rolling any dice, especially if you have a relevant cliché. For example, a Pastry Chef (2) can be assumed to succeed at baking a basic cake in an everyday situation. But when the Pastry Chef has to bake a truly amazing twenty-layer cake to appease an angry alien overlord, or he has to make a cake with only camping supplies before the orcish war party arrives in two hours, or he tries to apply his frosting-art skills to do some spot welding, it's time to roll the dice and pray. To determine whether a task is hard enough to hit this threshold, argue with the GM.

Supposing you lost the argument, let's roll. Describe how you want to use your cliché, roll a 10-sided die (the "0" side, if any, should be read as 10), and add it to the modifier for the cliché; i.e., the cliché level minus 5. The GM represents your obstacle or opponent with another cliché, such as Cranky Alien Overlord (4), possibly modified according to circumstances (e.g., +1 for being especially picky about cakes). If the sum of your roll and your modifier is strictly greater than the opposing cliché, you succeed. Notice that this means that:

  • A cliché has a 50% chance to beat another cliché of the same level.
  • Each 1-point difference in clichés means a 10% difference in probability of success: a Warrior (3) has a 60% chance to beat an Orc (2) because 3 - 2 = 1 and 50% + 1*(10%) = 60%.
  • If the opposing cliché's level exceeds yours by 5 or more, you automatically fail. The GM might still give you a 1-in-20 or a 1-in-100 chance to succeed, representing incredible odds.

Easy tasks can have cliché levels that are 0 or negative. Furthermore, you can opt to use many clichés that aren't actually on your character sheet, such as Runner or Eater, at level 0, which is good if you don't have an applicable cliché for the task at hand. But, creativity in how you use your clichés is definitely encouraged. A Sailor (3) who has been poisoned could try to resist the poison by calling upon his experience in resisting seasickness and choking down maggot-infested hardtack.

A natural 10 may have especially good effects, above and beyond mere success, and similarly a natural 1 may be especially bad news.


"Combat" in Risus Strikes Back need not be a literal fight; it could as well be a rap battle or a legal showdown. Combat represents multiple characters trying to use their clichés to compete against each other. Characters take turns and use a cliché of their choice against an opponent's cliché. If they succeed, the opposing cliché is reduced by 1. If any of a character's clichés hit 0, they're out of the fight.

Notice that, in or out of combat, there are no opposed rolls in Risus Strikes Back. In every contest, one cliché is rolled for and the other acts as a static difficulty level. Generally, the attacker or instigator is the one who rolls. In ambiguous cases, the GM decides.


In a multiple-session campaign, you can advance your character by leveling up clichés and buying new ones. At the end of each session, the GM awards experience points (XP) according to how cool you were and how much trauma the GM threw at your characters. You start each campaign with 0 XP, but you can save up unspent XP over the course of multiple sessions. It costs 1 XP to buy a new cliché at level 1, 2 XP to increase a cliché from level 1 to level 2, 3 XP to increase a cliché from level 2 to level 3, and so on. The total XP cost of a level-n cliché is then the nth triangular number, which is n(n + 1) / 2.