Monday, March 21, 2016


Okay, at long last, it's looking like next weekend I'll finally get to try out my Risus dungeon-crawling hack.  Next Sunday is both Easter and my birthday, so family is going to dominate my usual game-day; but the Saturday prior, the bulk of the gaming group can still get together.  Just not the whole group, so continuing D&D is out for this weekend.  The perfect opportunity to run a one-shot.

Now, my objective here is to essentially bench-test Risus and put it through its paces, to see how it fares as a dungeon-crawler RPG.  I've long held the opinion that OD&D is the best system there ever has been or will be for this sort of game, precisely because it wasn't designed around the idea so much as organically grown.  Rules were added as needed, no more, no less, the end result being a perfectly functional (and also fairly sleek and trim) little dungeon-heist wargame.

So what happens when I try to do the same thing with Risus?  Ultimately, the best way to test this out is to use a dungeon that I've run uncounted scads of times using uncounted heaps of systems—Escape from Zanzer Tem's Dungeon (an adventure which should need no introduction for anyone who, like myself, really came into gaming via the 1991–4 edition of OD&D).  It's a nice, simple, straightforward adventure: your party starts in a jail-cell in the center of a one-floor dungeon, owned and operated by a Chaotic 5th level magic-user who's been nabbing people off the streets to work his salt-mine.  Your objective is simply to get out of the dungeon, robbing the place of any treasures you happen to find along the way for that sweet, sweet XP.

I couldn't ask for a better scenario.  Now all I need to do is tweak the system.  To that end, here is my latest revision to Risus for Dungeon-Crawling, which is mainly inspired by two other fantasy Risus supplements floating around out there, the Hawkmoor Book and Uresia: Grave of Heaven.

Rules and Task Resolution

Yes on Pumps, Lucky Shots, and Sidekicks.
No on Double-Pumps, Questing Dice, Hooks/Tales, and Funky Dice.

Task resolution for any sort of conflict (single-action, opposed roll, or combat) uses the "Simpler Risus" rule variant, whereby the dice turn up failure (1–3) or success (4–6), and you count the successes (rather than totaling the dice and comparing to a target number).  This is very much like the difference between Legend d6 (from the Hercules and Xena RPG) vs. standard WEG d6.

Also, 6s explode, which is cool.  (Exploding dice are always fun.)  In fact, this gives me the perfect excuse to use specialized dice (namely, The One Ring dice), which have the 1–3 faces marked with open outlines ("failure"), the 4–6 faces marked with solid numbers ("success"), and the 6-face also marked with a little Elvish rune (a reminder that 6s "explode").

Using this system simplifies the target-number table as follows:

1—Trivial; 2—Easy; 3—Professional; 4—Masterful; 5—Heroic; 6—Legendary; 7—Epic; 8—You must be joking…; 9—LOL, no.

Character Advancement

What sets a dungeon-crawler apart from other sorts of RPGs?  Experience for treasure, of course.  But I've got to say, after a year of counting copper pieces and electrum pieces, I'm quite happy to shoot for a much simpler system.

To wit, dungeons will be full of "treasures", and it need not be more specific than that.  One treasure might be a chest of coins, another might be a handful of gems, and yet another may be a statuette or some other objet d'art.  The specifics don't really matter, beyond how bulky and cumbersome (in a handwavy sort of fashion) it may eventually be to cart an armload of "treasures" out of the dungeon.

Once the adventures have pulled some treasures out of the dungeon, they can earn advancement rolls for disposing of said treasures—spending them, donating them, gambling them away on a bender of debauchery and dissipation—so long as the treasure is firmly sent flying out of the characters' possession, it grants one advancement roll.  (The advancement roll mechanic is easy enough to conform to the "Simpler Risus" mechanic—just roll all the dice for the cliché you want to advance, and if you turn up all successes on the first shot, not counting any exploding dice, the cliché improves.)


Dungeons are fairly important to dungeon crawls.  Naturally, the amount of treasure found on a given dungeon level is dependent on its depth below ground.  For a given dungeon level n, there will be nd6 "treasures" (these can take any form the referee desires) spread out in different rooms on that floor; some floors may also have a "boss room" with a powerful enemy guarding a "hoard" of nd6 treasures.  Wandering monsters have a 5% chance per dungeon level to be carrying a treasure.  A character must spend one treasure in order to make one advancement roll; thus, with a party of, e.g., four player characters, the party must find four treasures if everyone is going to get an attempt at an advancement roll after that adventure.


D&D levels and hit dice don't by any means scale along with Risus cliché dice.  But for the sake of a very basic, works-as-a-kludge-most-of-the-time conversion, here's how things would stack up:

D&D HP/HD ——» Risus Cliché
1 hp ——» Monster (1)
1d4 hp ——» Monster (2)
1d6 hp ——» Monster (3)
1 HD ——» Monster (4)
2–3 HD ——» Monster (5)
4–6 HD ——» Monster (6)
7–8 HD ——» Monster (7)
9–10 HD ——» Monster (8)

&c., &c.  Basically, every two hit dice above six would roughly translate into one added primary cliché die.  Any monster that also has a secondary role would also have a secondary cliché, generally half the dice of the main cliché.  Your typical spell-casting D&D vampire with 9 Hit Dice, for example would probably translate into Risus as a Vampire (8), Magic-User (4).  Unless you want the vampire to have a name and personality and hobbies and a background and stuff, in which case you stat 'em up like a full character.  But I'm talking about generic, randomly-encountered type monsters here.

Something Happens

A big part of the dungeon crawl campaign is the anything-may-happen, even-the-referee-is-there-to-be-surprised aesthetic.  And D&D's random tables (reaction rolls, morale checks, wandering monster tables) are the perfect mechanics for this sort of thing.  So I see no reason to replace them.  But, rather like I did in writing Retro Phaze, I see no problem with making them simpler and more generic.

Wandering Monsters: In a dungeon, wandering monsters are encountered when a 6 is rolled on 1d6, checked thrice per hour. In wilderness, the chance of random encounter is the same, but the check frequency is once per day in semi-civilized borderlands, twice per day in the wilds, and thrice per day in dangerous badlands.

Random reactions for various situations can be determined by rolling 2d6:

Reaction Roll:
(2) … Friendly
(3–5) … Neutral
(6–8) … Cautious
(9–11) … Hostile
(12) … Violent

Reaction rolls are self-explanatory: when monsters or other enemies are encountered, a roll of 2d6 indicates their general disposition, unless the players do something stupid first.

(2) … Rout
(3–5) … Retreat
(6–8) … Fight On!
(9–11) … Rally
(12) … Go Berserk

Morale is likewise pretty simple. Halfway through most battles with monsters, the referee should check morale and see if the monsters flee for their lives, back off in a more organized fashion, just keep fighting, fight with added gusto and courage, or just plain go off the handle.

If the Bad Guys Win…
(2) … Humiliate, Aid, and Leave
(3–5) … Steal All the Treasure and Flee
(6–8) … Incapacitate and Capture
(9–11) … Wound and/or Maim
(12) … Kill and/or Eat

Finally, what happens when the player characters inevitably lose a fight with some inscrutably-motivated monstrosity?  In Risus, the victors in a conflict decide what happens to the defeated—but will the monsters kill and eat their defeated opponents?  Hack off a hand, just for the funsies?  Drop a handkerchief on them and humiliatingly declare, "clean yourselves up"?  Leave some bandages and a healing potion and amble away laughing?  You never know.  Freakin' monsters, man.

Needless to say, all of these tables now adorn the inside of my custom GM screen.

Special FX

For magical or psychical powers, the dramatic impact of the power indicates the difficulty of the roll needed to pull it off; whereas the actual degree of the effect determines only the casting time.  A spell that has minimal impact on the story, or actually helps move things along in an entertaining manner, is easy to cast; a spell that seeks to hog the glory or end the adventure is very difficult.  Meanwhile, a spell that doesn't do anything particularly impressive can be accomplished in moments, but a spell that does something grand and flashy takes a lot of time.

Target numbers (per level of Dramatic Impact) are therefore as follows: 1—Negligible; 2—Weight-Pulling; 3—Toe-Stepping; 4−Scene-Stealing; 5—Adventure-Ending; 6—Game-Breaking.

And these target numbers assume a spell-casting cliché which is perfectly suited to the type of spell in question.  If the magical effect that a caster wants to produce is generally at odds with their preferred school of magic, or otherwise lies outside their magical bailiwick and/or comfort-zone, the TN will get bumped up one or two points, or maybe even increased by half again as much.

Casting times, meanwhile, depend directly on how powerful the effect is, in terms of how much effort would be required to perform the action without magic (yes, this is just like Barbarians of Lemuria):

• Anyone could do it … the spell takes mere seconds (i.e. a combat round)
• Anyone could do it, with the right tool … the spell takes several minutes (i.e. the span of a combat)
• Anyone could do it, with a small army working on the task/problem … probably a couple of hours
• Nobody could do it without magic … probably a couple days of ritual, fasting, casting &c.

Now, advanced technology or mad science is going to use pretty much the same TNs as magic, but, since building a gadget or brewing a potion almost by definition involves creating "the right tool for the job", the time to invent and craft the desired device will instead run on a scale from hours to days to weeks to months.  On the other hand, an alchemist or a gadget-man will rarely suffer a TN penalty for going outside their school of magic.  Fantasy mad scientists tend to be masters of chemistry, machinery, and anything else amenable to natural science and steampunk engineering.

Schools of Magic

This is the part inspired by the Hawkmoor Book, which posits an old-school fantasy setting for Risus where the different kinds of magic-users wear different colored robes, and have power over specific elements, objects, and animals,  A Hawkmoor Green Mage, for example, can cast spells related to "serpents, emeralds, and perception", while a Red Mage can cast spells related to "demons, blood, or hunger".

In my own settings, instead of clerics and mages, I like to divide magic into white wizardry (which taps into the subtle power of the divine) and dark sorcery (which involves binding spirits to do the arcanist's bidding).  This results in a few different types of magic-users, each of which is its own cliché:

White Wizardry: Spells that ward off evil, lift curses, and encourage the weary.
Ch'i Kung: Psychic abilities appropriate to a fantasy martial artist: sensing vibrations in the air, slowing a fall, limited ability to levitate or blast an enemy with ch'i.
Djinn-pact Sorcery: Spells that involve smoke, desire, and physical strength.
Ifrit-pact Sorcery: Spells that involve fire, rage, or blood.
Kami-pact Sorcery: Spells that involve wind, respect, or birds.
Ondine-pact Sorcery: Spells that involve water, love, or discovery.
Noldor-pact Sorcery: Spells that involve, stone, peace, or secrets.
Jötnar-pact Sorcery: Spells that involve frost, courage, or wolves.
Manitou-pact Sorcery: Spells that involve sound, hunger, or serpents.
Sluagh-pact Sorcery: Spells that involve shadow, fear, or disease.
Glastig-pact Sorcery: Spells that plants, sorrow, or temporality.

That looks like a good mix of genies, fairies, and esoteric nature-spirits, eh?

Demi-Human Races

Finally, following up on my previous post, I settled on four non-human races which are common to the setting I'm going to be playing in.  This is sort of a re-shuffling and synthesis of earlier portrayals of these beings that I've used previously, but I think it also distills them down into something that positively screams "fairy tale!", or at least "80s fantasy moive!!!"

Dwarfs: These are your standard forest-dwelling little people.  They look like short humans, they don't live too much longer than humans do (maybe an extra decade or three), and they're not terribly strong or brave.  Most dwarfs don't want to go adventuring; those that do are bored, or desperate, or a little crazy.  Even then, your average dwarf is going to be something of a coward, only engaging in hand-to-hand combat when completely cornered, otherwise preferring the distance and quiet afforded by a bow.  Dwarfs make great burglars and scouts, and positively deadly archers.  (Inspiration: they're D&D gnomes and halflings rolled up with Snow White type dwarfs.)

Fairies: To be perfectly precise, the beings that most people call "fairies" are actually changelings, that is to say, the hybrid offspring of mortal humans and those inscrutable immortals known variously as fays, elves, sidhe, or whatever you want to call the insufferable and ultra-powerful demi-gods that always remain deep in their forest or mountain strongholds and never go adventuring.  An "elf" is someone like Elrond or Galadriel; they would never be caught dead scrabbling around in a dungeon for a few gold coins.  But their mortal offspring?  These guys are out running wild: adventuring, swashbuckling, craving every hedonistic experience that they can possibly partake in within the span of their 250–300 year (but still very finite) lives.  "Reckless abandon" doesn't even begin to describe a fairy adventurer.  They're more like adrenaline junkies with a rapier and a musketeer-hat.  Yes, they're out to collect treasure (especially magical treasure, chiefly for the novelty), but mostly they just want to explore, experience, and live life with gusto.

Goblins: Imagine for a second that you could take Tolkien dwarves and Tolkien orcs and roll them together into one race, seasoned lightly with the gold-grubbing goblins of 80s fantasy movies (and, apparently, Harry Potter) and L. Frank Baum's nomes.  That's how I'm re-imagining goblins.  This is the secretive, tunnel-delving, mountain-dwelling race that's known for crafting objects of immeasurable beauty (even if the goblins themselves are held to be rather ugly by the standards of other races).  Like dwarfs, goblins are small and therefore not very strong or brave; but that's more than made up for by the fact that goblins are clever.  Cunning.  Byzantine and backstabbing.  A goblin's attentions will usually be focused on blacksmithing and forging, tunneling, engineering, tinkering, inventing; or perhaps on accumulating wealth; or on inter-clan political intrigues and assassination plots.  I envision goblin society as entirely plutocratic: whichever goblin-clan has the most wealth (without having their family patriarch or matriarch knifed in the back by a ninja) gets to rule the roost.  Adventuring goblins, therefore, are out to bring home the bacon—to acquire mass quantities of gold for the sake of the family honor and potentially become King-Under-the-Mountain.

Ogres: Finally, a bruiser race.  Ogres are your typical big green-skinned barbarian types, wandering the tundras, or being noble-savage one-with-nature shamans with a favorite totem animal.  (Blizzard/Bethesda orcs, in other words.)  Basically, "bro-tier" honorable warriors that you definitely want watching your back rather than getting in your face, like Worf or D'Argo or any of a number of other cliché "big tough guy/gal" fantasy character types.  You gotta have a character like that in the lineup. :)


  1. YESSSSSSSSSSS Zenzer frickin' Tem. During my first run as Dungeon Master ever, the foul wizard met his end when the elf used the web scroll from earlier in the dungeon and the fighter cleaved him in twain with a two-handed sword!

    1. Dragon's Lair, Saturday at 4, if you want to see how it plays out under Risus…