What is Risus?
Just in case you didn't know, here is the low down on just what Risus is.
For those of you not in the know, “Risus is a complete Roleplaying Game (RPG) designed to provide an ‘RPG Lite' for those nights when the brain is too tired for exacting detail.” It is available as a free download from S. John Ross' Risus: The Anything RPG site (you can download a zip file containing the rules in rich text, text, and Adobe Acrobat format). This review is focused on the Acrobat document (it's only four pages and much prettier than plain text).
As I mentioned, the rules are encased in a 4 page document. As a reminder that the game isn't meant to be taken too seriously (it plugs itself as “a Universal Comedy System”), the artwork for Risus takes the form of stick figures with varying costumes/props. The pictures add a nice touch over the previous versions of the rules. Examples and notes are set off from the rest of the text inside light purplish boxes (they come out gray if you print it out in black and white). The font choice works well and is easy to read. I haven't noticed any grammatical or spelling errors. All in all, it's a nice clean text that is easy on the eyes.
In Risus, you are what you model yourself after: clichés — a quick way to describe what your character knows how to do (usually based off of stereotypes, etc.). The basic process is: name and describe your character, give it some clichés, and you are ready to go.
Coming up with clichés to choose from is a collaborative effort between the GM and the player. Risus does include a sample list of some clichés to help you out though. The basic rule of thumb is to come up with a cliché and see if your GM approves of it (you will need to give the GM some idea as to what the cliché is good for though).
Clichés are ranked in a scale going from 1 to 6 (1: putz, 3: professional, 6: mastery). This rank is the number of dice you roll (usually 6 sided, but there are optional rules I'll get to in a bit) whenever you want to do something that utilizes your cliché. Normally, a beginning character is not allowed to have a starting rank above 4 (but hey, if your GM want to allow higher, feel free). Check out the character gallery for some samples.
A word on equipment. You are assumed to have the proper tools for your given clichés. If for some reason you lose a necessary tool, your rank may be temporarily reduced (anything from half to down to one). It's hard to joust if you're a knight without a lance, but you're welcome to try.
The Game System
If you want to do something that the GM feels success isn't a given (or someone is opposing you), you pick an appropriate cliché (most of the time) and roll the dice. If you beat the target number (assigned by the GM), you succeed. Otherwise, you fail. The target number isn't rocket science (to throw a different kind of cliché into the review). The target numbers presented are a guideline, and they are very much based on the GMs estimation as to the appropriateness of your cliché.
Combat, or opposed actions, require both parties to roll against their cliché. Highest total wins. The loser must reduce his cliché temporarily by 1. This continues until one side or the other gives up or one side is reduced to a cliché of zero. If you are reduced to a zero cliché, the winner gets to determine the final outcome (death or dismemberment are quite common in combat situations depending upon the genre you are playing in — although if you are doing big time wrestling, you may just end up thrown out of the ring unconscious).
Rules are presented for using inappropriate clichés in combat (in keeping with the humor angle), teaming up in battle, what to do in situations when someone can't participate (the example is a pie eating contest and no one has any eating clichés), and character advancement. There are also advanced, optional rules available.
Yes, Risus is designed as a rules-light system geared towards just having a good time. However, Risus also works well for serious games (if you want). Risus doesn't contain some typical rule book conventions: there is no “what is roleplaying” section; there are no guidelines for creating adventures; there are no guidelines for creating a world. Basically, Risus is rules for people who either already know the basics of roleplaying or have someone willing to teach them. If the GM is experienced, Risus is probably one of the easier RPGs to teach to a newbie.
One way that I gauge whether or not a free game is worth checking out is the support for it. Does it exist? In Risus, you better believe it does. The main Risus: The Anything RPG website contains other Risus materials (GM Screen Sheet (to tape on one of your existing screens), dice (they may be paper, but they are free), and miniatures (a Sparks sampler)). There's a link to the Risus mailing list — a somewhat active list of Risus players and GMs sharing information, thoughts, and ideas (moderated by S. John Ross himself). S. John Ross also maintains a series of links to Risus resources created by other people (adventures, rule expansions, etc.). You can even find copies of Risus in languages other than English. There is this site here of course, Risusiverse itself. I would say that Risus is fairly well supported. Overall, the Style of the Risus PDF is Excellent. You can really tell that S. John Ross is a professional who understands page layout and design. The Substance is also Excellent. Risus has quickly become one of my all time favorite RPGs. You really owe it to yourself to check this game out if you haven't already.