Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Risus Sorcerers

Apropos of nothing at all, I was thinking about Risus this morning on the way to work and how you could use it to make magic systems in just about any game. Or, you could use it to create a game in which the characters are all uber-powerful archmage demigods who can bend reality to their very will. Sort of like Exalted or Nobilis, except good.

For those who don't know anything about Risus, a brief precis: characters are created with four attributes, ranked 4, 3, 2, and 1. These numbers represent the size of the dice pool (in d6) for the relevant attribute. Attributes can be anything, though usually a noun-phrase is preferred: e.g. "Tough guy", "Poet", "Womanizer", "Slimy courtesan", etc. The beauty of the system is that it models physical and social combat very simply and effectively, before the Burning Wheel or Dogs in the Vineyard guys were twinkles in their respective fathers' eyes. Basically, it boils down to rolling the dice pool for a chosen attribute, with whoever scores highest whittling away the dice pool of their opponent until they have none left, whereupon the winner decides the fate of the loser. (It could be "I blast his face off with a fireball" if it's magical combat, or it could be "I win the argument and convince the King to let me marry his daughter" in a social combat.)

I have two ideas for a Risus-based magic system:

  1. Characters begin with 4 "schools of magic" attributes, a la Warhammer, Magic: The Gathering, Elements, etc. They can make up their own or choose from a big "I'm the DM and these are the magic schools in my game world" list. So you might start off with Fire 4, Earth 3, Water 2 and Air 1 (say). This is in addition to the standard 4 attributes that a Risus character gets. The DM might set restrictions on what kind of stuff a player can do with that given magical school (green magic is for healing, blue magic is protective, yellow magic is to do with time, that sort of thing) or they might limit it only to player creativity.
  2. Characters just have one "magic" attribute from among their four, allowing them to do literally anything they choose with their innate magical ability.
PCs would be able to cast spells as and when the situation requires, narrating what they do - for example, "I cast an earth spell and open up a chasm beneath the feet of the orcs!" or "I cast an air spell and summon a breeze to blow our ship safely to port!", or "I use my magic to blast the blacksmith's sanity and turn him into a gibbering moron!" The fun comes in coming up with interesting descriptions for how you use your magic ("I cast a fireball" is okay, "I summon a demon from the plane of fire to burn out the eyes of my enemies" is better.) Spells would go off without a hitch unless it came down to magical combat, in which case dice pools would come into play. Or, for the slightly less uber-powered game, the DM might assign target numbers depending on how ambitious the player is being: casting a fireball might have a difficulty of 5, but summoning an Efreet from the plane of fire to lay waste to an entire army might have a difficulty of 22.

The style of campaign it would support is, of course, one in which the characters are already extremely powerful at the beginning - able to smite mere mortals with impunity. The only genuine limit on what they can do is what the players can think of. As with Amber Diceless, the assumption from the start is that PCs can beat an ordinary human, and can only be challenged by mightily powerful opponents. Or each other. Usually, I prefer my campaigns to be more low-level and "gritty". Still, could be a lot of fun for a Very High Fantasy game of adventuring archmages.


  1. Spells need not go off without a hitch if you want to play a more reasonable power level either.

    "I use my magic to blast the blacksmith's sanity and turn him into a gibbering moron!"

    The blacksmith resists with his Burly Incarnation of the Moral Strength of the Community [4]... double pumpable if the lives of innocents are in play.

  2. Well yeah, there's that too. That's the beauty of Risus.