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Risus: Toast of the Town

August 12, 2016

And now for something completely different…

Work and vacation schedules have kept up from our Kingmaker game. Instead of playing with a small subset of the usual group, Joe’s roommate wanted to test out a one-shot on those who could make it. So we ended up learning a new system, an extremely rules-light RPG called Risus: The Anything RPG, and playing through the “Toast of the Town” adventure.

Characters in Risus are super-simple. They’re made up entirely of Clichés, which are basically the same as Aspects in FATE or Distinctions in Marvel Heroic/Cortex+. So, a short phrase that describes an important aspect of the character. Each Cliché also has a number rating; when you use a Cliché, you roll that many d6s, sum the results, and hope to meet or beat a target number. There are a few extra rules for contests, assists, and ways to boost your dice, but it’s pretty much just rolling Xd6 where X is on your sheet and adding the results up.

The adventure came with some pre-gens, which we parceled out amongst ourselves. And so it came to be that an unusual band of travelers were on a boat, sailing for the coastal town of Trostig. They were:

  • Gin Giria, a Regretful Ex-Assassin (3) who had turned his life around and was now a Plant Mage (4) and Amateur Alchemist (1). Played by me!
  • Morgain, a Sneaky Demonic Talking Cat (4) who was also a Talented Dabbler in the Mystic Arts (4). Morgain is a demonic spirit summoned by a wizard into a cat form in order to serve as a familiar. When his master died, he liked being a cat so much he decided to stick around rather than go back from whence he came. Played by Bill.
  • Nikolai Bedykov, a Hard-Partying Dwarf Warrior (4), Mountain Scout (3), and Apprentice Tunnel Engineer (2). Not much more to say there. Played by Joe.
  • Manciple, a Acrobatic Brawler with Mystic-Martial-Arts Pretensions (4), which is to say a D&D monk, who found the monastery too stifling and ended up as a Second-Story Burglar (3). Manciple has a dog companion, Whisper (3), whose spirit passes on to a new dog whenever the current Whisper dies. Or so Manciple says; he’s currently on his 14th dog companion. Played by Thomas.

Morgain the cat had received a letter from an old acquaintance, Lionel Draeger, inviting him to come to Trostig. But the letter was delivered with undo haste and at great expense; odd for a mere invitation. And coding within the letter informed the demon cat that his old pal was perhaps in some danger. And so Morgain had called up his adventuring buddies to go investigate! After all, Lionel gave Moragain “the best pets,” and if he was in trouble the demon/cat wanted to help. He did not want to live in a world without his friend’s silky hands and firm strokes.

It should go without saying that everything that follows is major spoilers for the “Toast of the Town” adventure!

The Investigation Begins

Upon disembarking, the group discovered that Lionel’s place of employment, a potion shop owned by one Doleman Drake, had caught fire the previous evening. Some folks had died in the incident, but details were not known. “5 gold says that your friend is dead,” Manciple said to the cat, who merely hissed in response from his perch on Gin’s shoulder. The adventurers headed to the town square to learn more; there was a tavern there where Lionel spent most of his time, according to his letter.

trostig-squareTrostig Square, it turned out, was really more of a circle. The “square” was centered around a massive, ancient oak tree (“Oooh!” cooed the nature mage), which was in turn surrounded by market stalls and vendors. The Headless Horse tavern, Lionel’s home away from home, was just off the square, as was the town chapel. Strangely, in front of the church sat a hastily-constructed scaffold, from which hung the form of… an unconscious demon! Red skin, wings, claws, tail, the whole works. A group of guardsmen milled about at the foot of the structure.

From the leader of the guards, a man named Boraz, the adventurers learned that Doleman Drake’s potion shop was attacked by demons the night before, and had only been driven off by the bravery and sword arms of Boraz and Drake himself. Some of Drake’s employees perished in the attack. They had captured one of the demons, but the others fled into the catacombs under the city. A lynch mob was being put together to go wipe out the rest; they were going to head down into the catacombs that evening, and would have a celebratory feast once the job was done. Boraz invited the PCs to join them, but the mercenaries declined unless they were to be paid in something other than food.

While Boraz and the guards were distracted, Morgain the cat leaped up onto the scaffolding to get closer to the unconscious demon. Despite being a demonic spirit himself, Morgain did not really know what this guy was. He was obviously hurt very badly, though. The cat licked his face a few times with his raspy tongue, but that did not rouse him. Morgain shrugged and returned to the others.

Exposition Dump

Next the investigators went into the Headless Horse tavern. The proprietor was a friendly and jovial man named Maxwell Holligan who, it seemed, had been a good friend to Lionel. “Had” being the operative word – Lionel was indeed dead, and his body was currently being prepared for burial at the big chapel. Maxwell knew a lot. In fact, he was an exposition machine that dumped the entire plot on us. To summarize, the demons are a people from another world known as the Huzzrael who can produce a substance with restorative powers. Doleman Drake has been exploiting them and passing the substance, the “Emerald Oil” off as a potion of his own invention. While working in Drake’s potion shop, Lionel discovered the Huzzrael, befriended them, and threatened to blow the lid off of Drake’s scheme. So Drake staged the attack to get rid of Lionel and now was going to eliminate the Huzzrael as well.

While he told his tale, Maxwell mixed some special cocktails for the group. Seeing as Gin the nature mage’s name was… Gin, Maxwell made a gin and tonic for him. But in an ironic twist, Gin hates gin, and was not too pleased at the bartender’s assumption. In a happier twist, Nikolai the dwarf had already gulped his own entire drink by that point and eagerly downed Gin’s as well.

Before heading off into the catacombs, the group decided they should head over to the chapel and pay their last respects to Lionel. His body, along with those of his two co-workers, were laid out and wrapped up according to local customs. Two priests were nearby, arguing about what to do with the bodies: Doleman Drake had ordered them put on display in the square to whip up the mob, but that was against traditions of the Ellantine faith. While Manciple the ex-monk distracted them by getting involved in their debate, Gin the ex-assassin used his knowledge of anatomy to probe the bodies for causes of death. And it was fairly clear that they had died from blunt trauma and sword wounds, and not from the teeth and claws of the Huzzrael. Maxwell’s story checked out – Drake had killed Lionel and others to cover up his lies. That bastard!

Springing Into Action

Maxwell had told the group of a secluded entrance to the catacombs in another part of town known as the Snarl that they could use to get to the Huzzrael. But the mob would be using the large main entrance that was at the base of the ancient oak tree, and so before the party left the “square,” Gin the nature mage wanted to take a moment to have a chat with the tree. Manciple the monk and his faithful dog Whisper volunteered to run interference.

Manciple drew the crowd’s attention with a dazzling display of acrobatics and martial arts moves that were perfectly coordinated with his canine companion. It was quite the show, and the bulk of the crowd was drawn to watching their amazing act. Unfortunately, a mis-timed kick, or maybe a mis-timed jump on the dog’s part, resulted in Whisper’s untimely demise. Which was a further distraction, and quite a sad one, all on its own. While all that hubbub was going on, Gin gave the huge tree a big hug and started talking sweet nothings to it. Soon the tree’s mighty roots shifted and grew until they had woven themselves through the grate covering the entrance to the catacombs, holding it fast! It wouldn’t stop the mob completely, but it would hopefully slow them down. Before departing, the mage apologized to the tree in advance, in case the townsfolk resorted to cutting the roots.

On the walk over to the catacombs entrance in the Snarl, a friendly pooch ran up to Manciple. “Whisper!” he exclaimed. His buddy had been reincarnated!

Underneath the town, the adventurers followed Maxwell’s instructions to the home of the Huzzrael. They were weak and emaciated, for they had been forced by Drake to secrete as much Emerald Oil as possible. They knew one of their number was missing, but were unaware that the poor soul was strung up in the town “square.” About a dozen of their kind remained.

There was a trapdoor set in the ceiling of a side-chamber; Drake and his cronies used it when they came to collect the Huzzrael’s secretions. Manciple the burglar, with the dwarf engineer’s help, managed to pick the lock on the door and get up to the floor above. There they found barrels and barrels of the Emerald Oil; it appeared that Drake was well-stocked to keep providing it long after the Huzzrael were dead (especially since he watered it down before selling it to the townsfolk). The Huzzrael had explained that the oil was their very life essence in a liquid form, and so Manciple got the bright idea of giving it back to them, in the hopes that it would turn them into a fighting force! A barrel was hauled back down to the enclave and tapped, and the Huzzrael drank deep of their own harvested essence. They soon became hale and hearty, and were able to follow the party up through the trapdoor to freedom!

If the concentrated oil had that effect on the Huzzrael, Manciple wondered what it might do to already-healthy humans! But first, to be safe, he fed some to his dog Whisper to test it out. Unfortunately, the substance was too much for the poor animal, who slumped over into a blissed-out coma. Oops.

Boss Fight

The storage room was the cellar to the kitchen at Drake Hall, Doleman’s home. The adventurers cautiously peeked outside and surveyed the grounds. There were guards – a lot of them – patrolling around a manor house wherein, it had been said in town, Drake himself was currently holed up. Even with the help of the Huzzrael, the party was not sure that they could deal with so many armed men.

But Gin had a trick up his sleeve! With an assist from Morgain the cat, the nature mage cast a spell that caused all of the plant life in the courtyard to come to life and grab the guards! The GM set a high target number for this feat, but I used my remaining “lucky shots” – extra dice you can use each session to boost your rolls – and I rolled really well. My total was way over what I needed, so the GM ruled that I immobilized everyone.

Manciple and Nikolai immediately wanted to murder all of the helpless guards. Gin, who had left his killing ways behind him, objected as strenuously as he could while maintaining the spell. His companions ignored his pleas, and went out to slaughter the bound men in cold blood – it was just more expedient that way. Caught between allowing the murder spree and ending the spell, which would probably result in the guards killing his compatriots, Gin reluctantly kept the spell of entanglement going. But once the horror show had ended, the regretful ex-assassin – now with extra regret! – released the plants from his magic and walked off-screen while whistling some sad-Hulk music.

The rest of the group, backed up by the Huzzrael, entered the big house and started searching the rooms for Doleman Drake. Along the way, Manciple befriended Drake’s dog, who was obviously Whisper reincarnated into a new body! Soon after, they found the “hero of Trostig” in his study, where he spit defiance at his accusers. They wanted him to confess his crimes to the town; but Drake would not even acknowledge that he had committed any crimes. And so it was time to fight!

But instead of killing him, Nikolai the dwarf used his axe to bash Drake’s sword out of his hands. The clever and tricky duelist produced a hidden blade to continue the battle, but Manciple and his new Whisper worked together to disarm him again. Surrounded by an angry dwarf, a dozen pissed-off Huzzraels, a martial artist, and even his own dog, Drake surrendered.

“You realize that you will have to explain to the town why you murdered all of my men,” the defeated villain said to the adventurers.

“No!” shouted the dwarf. “You will!” This comeback made no sense but it was timed and delivered so perfectly, that we were all laughing hysterically.

Although Drake would not confess, nor explain how his guards came to be murdered, the testimony of Maxwell and the Huzzrael and proof of the source of the Emerald Oil made the case against him nonetheless. And everyone lived happily ever after! Well, aside from the villain. And the dead. And Gin the ex-assassin/nature mage. And Morgain the cat, who would never be petted by Lionel Draeger’s wonderful hands ever again.

Wrap Up

This was an enjoyable little game with an extremely easy-to-use system. Risus has rules for advancement and the like, but I don’t think I would ever use it for anything other than a one-shot. While I no longer care for rules-heavy games, it’s a little too light to sustain long-term interest, I think. At least for me.

One aspect of more free-form games such as this vs., for example, D&D, that I noticed here is there’s a bit of an imagination tax on the player. In modern D&D, everything is so codified that if you can’t think of anything to do, you can at least look over your character sheet and see if your spells or skills or magic items or random possessions offer up any ideas. Here, the capabilities of, say, a wizard are up to the player to produce, and then to run by the GM for approval. That freedom can be exhilarating, but players may not always be up for that level of engagement. Sometimes we just want to turn our brains off and roll some dice. And I’ve found that some folks really rely on those codified rules to function. My players ran into some similar issues when we played Marvel Heroic Roleplaying a few years back, and playing Risus brought that experience back to mind.

  1. Pinkius permalink

    I’ve been playing Monster of the Week and Maids as of late along with my pathfinder group, and I gotta say, having the right people with the right system makes a world of difference.
    I know my pathfinder group would be paralyzed with mechanical queries through the Maid and MoTW campaigns, but in the other group we’ve been rolling with whatever the next person says wonderfully.
    In Pathfinder last session we delved through part of a robo-overlord’s stronghold, fought some assassins in the dark, stomped a few clericy-acolytes and got into a pincer attack with some robots from behind a locked door and some orcs, took about 4 hours.
    In Monster of the week we made our characters and connections, roleplayed an intro-scene, chatted up the employees of a shady bar and beat up a bunch of goblins, took about 3 hours.
    In Maids we had an absolutely ridiculous time where a snow leopard was anime-cooked, we took a ghost ship to the master’s favorite restaurant, got it haunted, mercilessly shutdown his childhood friend from revealing her crush, got split up into 3 teams (there are 9 maids but 6 of us were there, counting the butler) and fought a parade of bosses, including a master ghost controller, a not-a-vampire-Dio with Sailor moon villian dark roses, and a giant mecha dog-android duel which came down to a magical girl beam attack. Oh, and the childhood friend with a crush got abducted by a vampire, took about 4.5 hours.

    • having the right people with the right system makes a world of difference.

      Words of wisdom. Tricky part is that most groups I’ve been in are mixed in terms of what system would be a good fit for each player.

      • Pinkius permalink

        Turns out, I lied, the monster of the week thing took 6 hours

  2. candide2015 permalink

    Excellent review of Toast of The Town and Risus! I’ve GMed one-shot Risus for some years with great joy. And I plan to GM a campaign over the next few months.

    Would you mind including at the beginning of your post that it is a whole spoiler?

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