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Risus Supers v. 1.0


Many thanks to S. John Ross (whom you may find here) for creation of Risus and giving it to the Web community. Risus cuts the awful Gordian knot of ever-escalating game mechanics that try to do everything except allow players to have fun. Risus is copyright 1999 S. John Ross. All material original to Risus Supers is copyright 1999 Stacy Allston.

What Is Risus?

Risus is a free game provided to the world out of the goodness of the heart of freelance game and supplement designer S. John Ross, whose work has appeared in publications by many game companies, most lately Steve Jackson Games.

Risus leaves balance up to the players and referees and opens the session for game-playing and storytelling; it therefore provided an optimal model for a game based on the satirical treatment of superheroes. Also, since it costs nothing, and lives on the Web, anyone with a browser or a friend with a browser can have a copy. In fact, if your interest so inclines you, you can put a Risus button somewhere on your own pages to lead to it, like this one:

. . . which you can connect to Risus itself with the following snippet of code:

<A HREF=""><IMG SRC="risusbtn.gif"></A>

. . . where risusbtn.gif represents the name you give to the graphic when you save it.

What is Risus Supers?

Risus Supers attempts to provide some simple mechanics for simulating superheroes whom no one needs to take seriously, such as the characters that appeared in the old Mad Comics or Marvel's Not Brand Ecch, in humorous superhero cartoons, or creations invented by players. These additions to the basic Risus concept, although they do add a few optional rules and many superheroic Cliches, still leave the game mechanics simple enough that a player can create a character in five minutes and detail his important traits on a small index card.

Thanks to Clarence Thomas, General Tecumseh Sherman, the Beatles, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Zane, Richard Nixon, and the Axis and Allied leadership for modeling for the superhero art.

Some Superhero Cliches

These Cliches cover much of the basic idiom of superhero comics. Note that the vagueness of some of these definitions leaves a lot in the hands of the Referee. Since things work that way in Risus anyway, the basic, stock game probably ill-suits rules lawyers and munchkins vying for advantage anyway.

The Titanic Triumvirate look back, nostalgically, to their Golden Age careers.

Also note that the vagueness of the descriptions allows or requires the player to define his actions more specifically than the die rolls suggest; a fantastic roll with a power might involve a tremendous kick in the nay-nays or a crueller attack in which a superhero shoves his opponent’s face in his armpit. You don’t need a table of maneuvers for this; it would just slow down the game to the pace of rules-heavy and “realistic” games in which a single fistfight can take three hours to complete.

Desperation Dice

Bad Hygeine Man, after his first war to rid the world of deodorants. Many superhero stories allow a hero a way out of a situation by calling on some dubious tissue of panicky fabrication in the form of a power that hero uses once, then never uses again. This represents the desperation or ineptness of writers who paint themselves into corners and must contrive a way out. The last-minute escape typical of comics since the Almighty attended grade school occur often enough that it deserves a specific mechanic to treat. For this, we have a specialized Cliche we henceforth designate as Desperation Dice.

Treat Desperation Dice like a Cliche, in that the owner buys them at the same cost as a Cliche, excluding “double-pump”as an option, but allowing any “funky” dice the game otherwise allows. Note that a hero must justify, in speech, his use of Desperation Dice. For instance, “Maggot Man realizes he’s really, really hungry and eats his way out from the bottom of the garbage heap, emerging on the other side with a belly the size of a whale.” The better a character describes his Desperation Dice roll, the more slack a Referee should provide in allowing it.

A player may use his Desperation Dice in whatever quantity (up to the total) he desires, after he has lost a conflict. He creates, on the spur of the moment, a Desperation Cliche, like “Incredible Armpit Smell” which he uses as an attack versus his enemy, resolved with a SINGLE Cliche contest (for instance, if he sought to bring down a villain who just defeated him, a baddie with Obsequious Armored Moron (6d6) as his relevant Cliche, and had 6 Desperation Dice to use on this, he would roll ONE contest of “Incredible Armpit Smell (6d6) versus Obsequious Armored Moron (6d6). If he lost, assume that his attack either failed miserably or turned back against its user.

Note that Villains can buy Desperation Dice too. Most of them seem to, since even mainstream heroes do a dreadful job of keeping these guys in check. However, since a Referee could get the same effect as Desperation Dice with simple cheating, Referees do not have to purchase them. They simply provide an excuse for the villain getting away again.

Desperation Dice do not increase with experience as per the normal Risus increasing skills roll. After a character uses them, he "zeroes out" his Desperation Dice and may not use them again that adventure. If the hero makes an advancement roll on his Desperation Dice at the end of the adventure (i.e., rolls all evens on a roll of all available Desperation Dice), he recovers them. This prevents a PC from using his Desperation Dice every adventure, and makes them unlikely to appear in proportion to the number of Desperation Dice a character possesses.

Types of Contests

Risus can handle any type of contest the Referee allows. For instance, he may allow a character with the Cliche Accountant (6d6) to attempt to stop a meteor headed toward Dreadful City by proving mathematically that it could not hit, then storming off in a snit until the story makes more sense.

Some contests occur in a comics medium more often and therefore deserve specific discussion: these include Slugfests, Races/Chases, Beauty/Ugly Contests (Posing Contests), and Oratorical Contests.


As pleasant to the mind as we may find the image of costumed combatants pelting one another with slimy creatures from beneath rocks, in this context a "slugfest" describes grownup superheroes engaging in the kind of fisticuffs considered beneath sane and rational people. In general, if a character hits, kicks, stomps, stabs, shoots, throws, grapples, or hammers something, the contest belongs in this category.


Superheroes (and regular people, too) may want to defer the onset of some other type of contest, particularly the inevitable but sometimes painful slugfest. Where one character (or group of characters) wants to stay clear of another such character (or group), he can opt to engage in a chase.

A chase contests the relevant Cliche of the attacker (chaser) versus the defender (chased) until one wins. If the defender wins, he escapes; if the attacker wins, he corners the defender. The normal rules about relevant Cliches, inappropriate Cliches, or no relevant Cliches apply.

Once one corners a target in a chase, other contests may proceed.

Beauty and Ugly Contests

Kool Rich Kat congratulates Cosmick Stink bug over a recent victory. Characters who wish to stall the onset or progress of a fight may engage in a beauty or ugly contest. Note that contestants may pit an “ugly” Cliche against a “beautiful” one as if the two represented parallel traits, owing to the lack of self-criticism typical of ugly, but vain, characters.

A Beauty or Ugly contest resolves itself with competing Cliche rolls against the relevant Cliches until someone wins or loses. The outcome of this contest does not affect the outcome of the contests the player(s) wanted to stall or interrupt, but once the Beauty/Ugly Contest resolves itself, neither character can invoke such a contest again during the fight.

(Consider an example of this the Plastic Sam v. Imposter Plastic Sam contest from the early 1950s Mad Comics, although in that case, each character sought to prove his realness as Plastic Sam).


When a combat looks like it will not go your way, or when you feel like stalling or boasting, a character can initiate an oratory. He can also do this between rounds.

Eyeball-o-Doom and the Grinning Skull plan global conquest.

Heroes and Villains contest their oratorical Cliches. Whoever wins the contest can decide whether to prolong or cut off oratory for the rest of the fight. Note that two long-winded characters could keep this crap up indefinitely unless the Referee decides to evoke Boredom and cut off the Oratory. Even in comic books, we have to observe some limits.

This rule allows bigmouthed loser heroes to brag their way out of difficult situations if they have the actual gift of gab necessary to con some villain who intends to fry them into little black things with a crunch like overdone tempura by means of his Inimitable Evil Ray of Death. Also, sometimes someone may need some exposition, just to make sure that the story actually doesn't make sense. Properly explained, it won't.

Oratory also serves to move Hordes, either to calm them down, or pursuade them to attack somebody. To manipulate a neutral Horde, contest the relevant Oratorical Cliche against the Horde size. The Orator must wear the Horde down to zero to get it to do his bidding (it’s all or nothing, for no particular reason). If the Orator himself loses down to 0 on his Oratorical Cliche, the Horde turns against him. See Hordes.

Property Damage (Optional, but Amusing)

The Human Flyswatter spontaneously affects affection for Mr. Steam. Comics lacks something unless the contending supers happen to wreak great damage on the local architecture. Sometimes heroes do this as strategy, but often it just happens because the spandex-clad morons don’t really care how much mayhem accompanies their self-aggrandizing rumbles and posing for the local news.

Making a contest roll by a good margin implies the possibility of property damage. If the contest involved forces that can knock down a wall (such as zapping, fighting, exploding, or grinding the universe under one’s jackbooted heel), use the leftover points to contest the materials of something nearby.

For instance, Pesto Man, who attacks by flinging great overpowering globs of creamy sauce at his enemies, takes on Dr. Halitosis, who destroys his enemies with bursts of effluvial-smelling bad breath. Pesto Man has the Cliche Zapper (4d6) and Dr. Halitosis similarly has Zapper (3d6). Pesto’s roll in a Contest comes up a 20; Zapper unfortunately only counters with a 7, leaving 13 leftover points. This 13 applies to an attack on nearby materials, such as cars, roads, walls, etc.

The Referee creates such items on the spot. Some typical values might include:

Also consider that the values given in Risus for throwing things (tanks, motorcycles, etcetera) can serve as useful figures for smashing those same objects up really well. If the numbers seem high, cut them down (say, to 2/3 their stated value); if the numbers seem low, double them. Don't worry too much about realism, because comics abandoned that a loooooong time ago, and parody comics never had to deal with reality in the first place.

Remember, the better the fight, the more unconscionable carnage must result. A really good fight should, at the very least, do such damage to Downtown that traffic has to detour around it for days and days. Naturally, Heroes remain completely oblivious to the millions of dollars of wrack and ruin they inflict, at least until the local law decides to drag them in for it.

Do enough damage and you have a pyrrhic victory on your hands. That means the cops drag you away forever to some awful superprison where a blue-skinned slavering moron with insatiable hormones will take more than a platonic liking to you forever and ever. Fortunately, "forever" seldom lasts until the next adventure; nonetheless, slobbering same-sex assaults can do a great deal of damage to the dignity of even the most hardened comics character. So remember: Watch out for Big Blue Koko and think up an excuse to blame the property damage on some sidekick.

Giant Monsters

Treat Giant Monsters like characters, except that the Referee gets to make and control them and therefore does not suffer from all the limits that apply to characters.

The smiling Beat-em-Up Brigade

For instance, if the Referee decides to honor the six-dice limitation, remember that he can specify almost any type of die to use for the monster. He could, for instance, create a creature named Won Ton Goo and invest it with the Cliche Big Annoying Ditko-Kirby Monster (6d100). Or course, heroes would tend to remain fairly helpless against such a monster, unless they numbered in the hundreds (which suggests a quick call to the nearest superhero temp agency might serve them well).

Referees could also ignore the 6-die rule for giant monsters, giving Won Ton Goo a Cliche like Flamebreathing Walking Entree (40d6).

However, the Referee should consider precisely how much imbalance he intends to use in the process of inflicting obnoxious and unbeatable monsters against his players. The Referee should justify really horrendous unfairness with comparable entertaining storytelling. For instance, perhaps one really lame superhero has a power he can use only at the cost of waking up Won Ton Goo (who will wander through the fight, trampling everyone, hero and villain, into a pulp).


The team work rules from Risus don’t thoroughly approximate the numbers of worthless expendible baddies a superhero may have to trash in a given fight. Consider a Horde a body containing a number of 0d6 critters, soldiers, ninjas, agents, or whatever, and translate the number constituting the horde into their efficacy this way:

Origami Man recalls a particularly poor grade of construction paper that foiled one of his cases. Remember that this applies to no-die critters only, and use the normal teamwork rules for teams of actual NPCs and PCs! But when a hero has to confront a slavering Horde of Blue Meanies, telemarketers, Green Bay fans, slavering fanboys, Mardi Gras drunks, cardinals, political pollsters, tofu chefs, or similar aggregate menaces, use the Horde rule. Remember, when the individual properties of the compenent figures do not matter, you probably have a Horde on your hands.

A Horde may appear in various forms, including friendly (willing to do your bidding), hostile (intent upon planting you in a pine box) or neutral (vulnerible to pursuasion). A character may attempt to pursuade a Horde with a relevant Oratorical skill (or the likes of “Idol to Millions”).

If two characters attempt to control a Horde to rival ends, contest their Oratorical Cliches, then give the winner the command of the Horde.


The Cliffhanger makes comic books worthwhile. To simulate them in a game, either end a session just as something must happen immanently (if you want your cruelty to drive your players away forever), pause to go to the kitchen after setting up the dramatic Last Page Cliffhanger, or just declare “Cliffhanger!”

At this point, the Referee can do almost any godawful thing to the players because he can take it back just as soon as the action starts up again with a “oh, wait, he’s not really dead, that’s just gas” or similar copout.

Note that the Cliffhanger also provides an excellent opportunity for the Referee to go to the bathroom.

Losing and Death

Dr. Beefcake gives a freebie to the papparazzi. In a humor story, death involves little more than a panel or two where the decedents appear in white robes, clip-on haloes, dime-store wings, and a cheap out-of-tune harp scowling at each other (or, sometimes, in the wardrobe and accessories of the Other Place).

Unlike realistic games, even the most complete death doesn’t affect the character any more than the player wants it to. If he wants to come back, that’s his business; he can change the subject whenever nosy other players start prying about something that is a personal matter between a hero and his undertaker.

Also, Losing may constitute a winning scenario for a game, depending on the flair a player manifests on his way down. The Referee may also make some kind of loss inevitable. Comedy deals with pain, remember? Plastic Sam in Mad Comics ended up in a freezer in jail forever; Superduperman ended up cleaning spittoons; Not Brand Ecch’s Stuporman ended up crowded out of his own comic book by the onset of Marble Superheroes.

Who needs to win, anyway? Besides munchkins?

Index: Characters fit for Risus Supers

These characters have distinguished themselves by some absurd thing or another. They either lack the dignity inherent in the pompous business of superheroing, or represent parodies of specific heroes or of the genre, or act like morons in their own comic books. Note that, since all of these characters represent someone’s intellectual property, you might ask any living creators for permission before you post descriptions to the Web. Of course, the relentless dogs of the oppressive intellectual property police can’t reach you within your Stanktum Stanktorum, can they? Nonetheless, Southern courtesy requires that no one make off like a bandit with someone else's copyrighted stuff, especially when someone can catch you doing it, so please recall that the stuff in this list belongs to people like DC Comics, Marvel Entertainment, Don Simpson, Gilbert Shelton, Terrytoons, Warner Brothers, National Lampoon, Fox, and possibly others I don't have the smarts to remember.

While clever-clever players will prefer to create their own dubious superhero creations and bypass the issue of worrying about remaining consistent to someone else's concept, the following listing provides a source of examples to provide the flavor one would expect of the superhero parody medium.

Email the author of Risus Supers.
Visit the Blue Room, Risus creator S. John Ross' page that hosts not only Risus but a plethora of variegated themes (with enough stuff to make you lose a good day's work, easily, just from checking it all out).