Risus: Thirty Years!

We're almost out of 2023!

This year has been the 30th Anniversary of Risus: The Anything RPG, the 20th Anniversary of The Risus Companion, and the 10th Anniversary of Risus 2nd Edition.

As I write this, we're at the end of December, and I feel like I should raise a glass to Risus before the year is done. I've kept quiet so far because I think it would be unseemly, nowadays, for me to parade the Risus name too much. But, 30, 20 and 10 years are worth taking a moment for, so I'll mark the triple-occasion with a story from the youngest of the three celebrants, the 2nd Ed:

It was a scary Colorado day, for the time had come to draw the Little Cartoon Bastards (the name my stick-figure "art" takes when the sticks pose specifically for Risus).

I always dreaded that part.

Not from dislike! I love the little idiots, and they represent the best of what Risus can be, but I can't draw. That's not some false-modesty thing. I hardcore can't draw. I can't-draw at a world-class level. I could fail to draw at the Olympics and win the can't-draw gold. Almost every Risus "illustration" took several drafts, and came from many false starts, and for every one that made the cut, there were six or seven that didn't, because they were worse.

But, the time had come, so I'd sit around doodling when I was hanging out with my players, hoping some of those doodles would work out.

Around that time, a Risus supporter I was following online got a guitar, and he was super happy about it, and his joy over it felt infectious, so I thought: "I should have a guitar-playing LCB for the new edition, as a shout-out to that gamer's new guitar!"

And I liked that idea almost too much? Like, I wasn't willing to let it go. I had a vibe in my mind and I wanted an LCB who would deliver that vibe: a triumphant vibe, a rock-and-roll-fantasy vibe. A happy LCB, shredding with joy.

But, see above. I cannot draw. So, it's a terrible, heartbreaking idea for me to develop artistic ambitions, no matter how humble.

I did something like 20 gods-forsaken drafts of guitar-playing stickmen. And they all suuuuuuucked.

I did many from pure imagination, and many from photographic reference. I searched the Web for classic images of triumphant guitar poses from the likes of Hendrix, Prince, Van Halen, Clapton, Page, Zappa, Buddy Frickin' Holly ... hoping that their moments of triumph could give me that triumphant vibe.

And if I could draw, that approach would have worked. I would have had the skill, the eye, the insight necessary to translate some of those moments into something sticklike.

But, see above. I cannot draw.

So, I was sad, I was adrift. I wanted a triumphant guitar guy. I couldn't let go of wanting that piece. But the chasm between my approach, and that desire, was blocking my path.

It took me a few weeks of beating my head against that wall before the tweety-birds circling my head got me a light bulb, out of pity.

It came to me when I was waking from a snooze, and I scooted to the computer to search for new references. This time, I was no longer searching for rock stars or guitar legends ... I was searching for people IMAGINING they were rock stars and guitar legends. I searched for pictures of people playing, not guitar, but AIR GUITAR.

Go ahead and try it. You'll see what I saw (well, ten years later, you'll see the equivalent of what I saw): that is the triumph I was craving. Not the reality of shredding guitar, but the fantasy of it, the love of it, the roleplay of it. The absolute frickiting nonsense of it. I wanted the joy of the daydreamer, and the air-guitar people are the people who GET that, and deliver it all the time, so I loaded my eyeballs with air-guitar triumphs and air-guitar dreams, and I stood, and I shredded some air of my own, because I knew this was was the missing piece that would snap the chasm shut, so I could stride across, as if I'd always known how.

I got it on the first (new) try. The little dude danced from my pen without further iteration. A triumphant doodle, by a guy who can't draw, of a triumphant performance, by a guy who can't play.

But we can pretend. Happy anniversary, little game (almost belated!), and here comes 2024.

May we all shred triumphant.


Staring Back at the Invisible

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We've come to the final entry in the Lexicon series. If you're new, hi!

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Back in our very first entry, we met the goofy metaphor of the “Invisible Rulebooks,” the rules which can't be found in the "rules" part of the Book of Rules ... but they're still rules, because in an RPG, any fact with tactical relevance is the equal of a rule, whether it's a "+1 to hit" kind of fact or "the Duke is self-conscious about his baldness" kind of fact or "this is a genre where protagonists can’t die just by slipping on a banana peel" kind of fact, or many others.

It’s a metaphor; Invisible Rules aren't always literally invisible. If an adventure module specifies that the Duke is self-conscious, it's right there on the page, plainly visible but still (in this context) an "Invisible Rule," because we won’t see it in the “Rules.”

Rules (of every kind) have some other qualities worth noticing, beyond Visible/Invisible. Let’s dive into our final set of terms, laying those crucial qualities bare.


Let's say we're imagining a merchant, in a fantasy world. My idea of what "fantasy merchant" means might come from a book of real history, or a videogame, or from personal memories of a hilarious NPC my favorite GM in the 80s portrayed with an AWFUL Cockney accent. Most likely it's all of those, and more. I think about fantasy merchants a lot.

If you and I have played the same videogame, we have some common ground. This makes that portion of our Invisible Rulebooks shareable between you and I.

If you and I haven’t read the same history book, I could loan mine to you, if you want, and if you're interested in the topic or if it seems really important to our campaign, maybe you'll read it. So that's another degree of (potentially) "shareable."

But there's no way for you to go back in time, in MY life, and experience the exquisite agony of that hilarious NPC with the terrible accent. The best I can do is describe it, which is another kind of "shareable" that's much more limited. If your own gaming life includes a similar NPC, that’s a kind of shareable too, though we might also be making assumptions about the similarity of our experiences that are only partially true.

If we're gaming in a gameworld we both enjoy, we've both probably delved into some of the published world material for it ... and, in certain playstyles (like mine) that's such a critical form of shareability that the facts presented in the worldbooks almost REPLACE the "core rules" as OUR core rules. Those rules are “invisible,” but they’re right there on the page, and they matter a lot to us if we care about this setting being our setting for this campaign.

Some of my impressions of merchants are also based on modern shop employees, or characters from movies, things like that. I'm only semi-conscious of that vast stew of influences, which makes them difficult to share. You probably have a comparable, but different, set of impressions. Those impressions can still inform how you roleplay, and how I GM, so they're still part of our Invisible Rulebooks, but they're poor on this quality of shareability.

And of course, one of the advantages of the Visible Rulebooks is they're super-shareable, and labeled explicitly as rules. One of many reasons why, in MOST playstyles, the core rules ARE the core rules.

Anyway, "shareable" is a useful concept, and it (in the main) means what it sounds like. Moving on.


Wait, didn't we DO this one? Sure did, but we started with a focus on resources the PCs can use to solve problems, back in this article.

But any fact with tactical relevance is a rule, and resources are just sets of facts. The existence of the Duke's toupee (a gameworld fact) is a rule. The law of universal gravitation that can make it flutter into a canyon, is a rule (most gameworlds have it, though it works differently in James Bond's world than ours, ditto for Wile E. Coyote). The formal game-system rules for falling damage if he dives after it and plunges 200 feet to the rocks below, are rules. They all live somewhere on the spectrum from the Ephemeral to the Reliable. The Duke’s toupee might be highly ephemeral if it only matters during one adventure, but the law of universal gravitation tends to stick around.

Worth noting: a fact the designer imagined as Ephemeral, or that the Game Master intended as Ephemeral, is something the PCs might still find creative ways to leverage, many sessions, even many real-world years, down the line in a long campaign, and that's awesome, and something we want to keep with us as we design. When the PCs concoct an elaborate plan depending on the existence of a toupee they remember from five years ago? Oh my god, yes please.

So, Ephemeral and Reliable aren't new to the Lexicon, but it's time to recognize that they're part of our set of descriptors for rules, because any fact can be a rule, which means we can design using any body of facts.


This one's pretty simple. Some rules have no flex. They are FIRM rules, rock-hard in some cases. If firing a crossbow takes a -10 penalty in total darkness, that -10 penalty is very clear, objectively-defined, and not something to be nuanced or haggled over. It just IS. It is firm. Visible Rules lean ... firmly (though not invariably) into firmness.

Many Invisible Rules are just as firm, though. Newton's universal gravitation is, in _most_ game worlds, extra-crazy-firm. The Duke is definitely bald. Firm rule. Diamond firm, Adamantium firm. Southern Moss-Type Elves can see in the dark? Firmly so. Only an equally-firm declaration of exception ("Rufus the Elf is blind") can change that, case-by-case.

But the Duke's self-consciousness about his baldness, while it may definitely absolutely exist, has a lot of room for nuance when we treat it as a rule. It absolutely IS a rule – it's a fact the PCs can make tactically relevant – but, there's flex because self-consciousness is a softer concept, with a lot of variables, a lot of range. It has gradients. It has tipping points. It has overlaps. There's a lot of latitude for the GM to interpret it very differently from another GM, with both interpretations being equally fair. That same lack of firmness – softness – can make it attractive to PCs looking to use it creatively, and for that to work, we (the players) must be confident that our GM will give us a fair shake when we do.

Firm's a simple term with big implications. Some of the Invisible Rules are firm, but a lot of them are soft, and we like that. It's good for the kind of gameplay I build for, and the kind of gamer I am.


I need "diegetic" a lot. I don't enjoy the word itself, but I try to use standard game-design terms when I can, and it's a standard. A fact is diegetic if it exists within the gameworld. The Duke's toupee is diegetic; the Duke's self-consciousness is diegetic. The rules for falling damage are NOT diegetic. They're extradiegetic rules that enjoy clear correspondence to a reality within the gameworld, but the Duke doesn't know about the Visible Rules. He doesn't even know he's fictional. He's troubled enough by his baldness, so please don't tell him.

The idea of "clear correspondence" between diegetic and extradiegetic elements can be important if you lean a lot into the Visible Rules. I don't often, but when I do, correspondence is a useful concept. Very briefly: if “one point of ammo” for a bow [a game mechanic, and thus extradiegetic] exactly and reliably equals one arrow in the gameworld [the arrow is diegetic], that’s a case of clear correspondence. If “one point of ammo” equals a variable number of arrows because we’re modeling a week-long series of battles abstractly with just a few die-rolls, that’s a looser, less-clear level of correspondence. Game systems play at many levels of correspondence clarity (and tightness, and causality) for a lot of good reasons.


This is super-crazy-important. Something is character-facing if the Player Characters have direct awareness of it. So, the Duke's self-consciousness probably doesn't begin play as Character-Facing ... it's something of value the PCs might or might not discover, and if they do, they can exploit it or leverage it in some way. And if they never learn it, it remains diegetic (it exists in the gameworld) but it's something the PCs can't use.

The Visible Rules are never character-facing. The PCs can understand that "falling into a canyon can kill you," and some PCs can calculate acceleration and terminal velocity and stuff ... but they can never read the corresponding game-rules for falling damage. This distinction is huge; I can’t overstate it no matter how desperately I want to. The Visible Rules can in many cases be leveraged by the players, but only character-facing facts can be leveraged by the characters.

In the style I design for, the thing this entire series has been laying groundwork for discussing, the players would rather be left out of things, thank you kindly. We prefer to game by roleplaying, at least as much as possible. We game through our characters, so to solve the problems presented by the adventure, we need tools we (the characters) can know, and think about, within the imaginary world. That desire creates some style-specific needs for adventure design.


Let’s go back to the comedy-action version of the Wild West, where we are rootin' and (mayhap) tootin' as well. In our Invisible Rulebooks relating to genre conventions, we have some very interesting rules when it comes to these other qualities. They are (in many games) firmly Invisible (not codified by the game system), but are they diegetic? Are they character-facing? If we are to impress the villain by shooting his hat safely off ... he's going to be LESS impressed if he's conscious of the genre convention, and MORE impressed if he's unaware of it.

But that doesn't make it a bright line ... in order to make the shot, we (the rootin'-tootin' imaginary we) must have some confidence that we can shoot the hat safely. And maybe we misinterpret it as our pure skill, or the hand of providence recognizing our righteous good-guy intentions. And more to the point, maybe exercising genre convention means stepping halfway out of character, because that kind of convention, while it isn't wholly diegetic, and isn't wholly character-facing, can be crystal clear to the players.

This isn't meant to provide some kind of conclusion about genre convention, but to illustrate how I examine each rule when designing an adventure, a world, a resource, or even a system. A lot of this stuff, as always, is mushy, and spectral, and we try to notice.


Some folks have taken the Lexicon series as design or play theory, and maybe it's useful for that to some degree, for some folks, but that's not what I've been writing it for. This series builds the ground floor to talk about the kind of game-design techniques I'm passionate about without (fingers crossed) too many distracting asides.

And I want that very much. To talk about game design. With you. With people who game and design differently from me, but who might want to (in the grand tradition of our hobby) rummage through my stuff to pluck out a few tidbits to enhance yours. That kind of rummaging, and that kind of sharing, is good stuff.

I also hope to make connections with others who game near to my own neighborhood, but the sharing is good whether you do or not.

My kind of design, when examined from a “rules” perspective, likes to emphasize tactical roleplaying with lots of potential for characterization, and while I use every tool at my disposal, it mostly lives and thrives through adventure design focused on in-character creative problem-solving. When designing problems (clusters of which form the tactical core of these adventures) I have a clear preference for the qualities of the rules I choose to design around: They tend to be Invisible, Diegetic, Ephemeral, Character-Facing, and frequently Soft (but a mix is great). Those problems need to be as non-presumptive as possible, to give the PCs (not the players) maximum latitude to create and implement solutions.


I'll be collecting the entire Lexicon series into a spiffy little PDF, knitting it all together, probably with some fresh edits and side-notes. It'll be released next to a handful of other PDFs, some of which are just fun and fluffy tools, some of which are kind of hardcore design-methody. Some will be free, some for sale. These blogposts will remain, and the PDF collecting them will be one of the free ones.

And I'll finally use the "T" word! See you there.

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This image is a Hammondal thing.
It has nothing to do with the Lexicon.
I just like it.


Flavors of Presumption

It’s time for another dip into the RPG Lexicon, where I explore the terms I use (for the concepts I need) to design RPG stuff.  If you’re new to this peculiar series, you can check the tags for the whole caboodle, hit the Glossary page, or start with the Invisible Rulebooks.

Today’s term gets us deeper into the heart of design: presumptive. In order to design a scenario for the kinds of RPGs I love, the designer (whether the GM homebrewing or the pro seeking to publish) must master the art of non-presumptive problems. They are the construction material that allows the design to stand. They are the stuff of adventure.

But while “non-presumptive” is North on my compass, it’s a term that depends on “presumptive.” So, in problem design, what makes a problem a presumptive problem, a presumptive challenge, a presumptive obstacle? What does such a thing presume?

A presumptive problem presumes the approach the PCs will (in some cases must) take. Any problem with a finite range of viable approaches is, to some degree, presumptive. A more assertive near-synonym is prescriptive. The most common “flavors” of presumption are:

The Dongle-Slot

When there’s just one, and only one, exactly one solution, I call that a Dongle-Slot problem, to honor the action-movie cliché of the special USB thumb-drive (or far-future equivalent) that, when slotted into the right port, averts the nuclear disaster. We could just as easily call it a push-button problem or a dozen other names, but the term “Dongle-Slot” feels more closely akin to “Porn Logic” (which it is), and it makes me giggle, which is how the science works around here.

Dongle-Slots are the epitome of finite, but they can take infinite forms, from the passageway that can only be traversed by destroying the Statue Guardian to the Fair Folk who will only lift a finger to help if you join in their special Vernal Equinox Dance to the evil ritual summoning that can only be disturbed with a splash of the correct blood from the correct priest at the correct hour after said priest was correctly murdered, there are uncountable ways to present a lock that cannot be picked, broken, or circumvented, and that has but One True Key.

When an adventure design subverts a Dongle-Slot by making it a reward rather than a problem, I call that a Dongle-Slot Surprise, but that’s a subject for another day!

The Exclusionary

A few times a year, GM or designer friends of mine will brag that they’ve designed a problem that “can’t be solved with combat.” This is the most common expression of the Exclusionary: a problem designed to prevent or discourage an approach, and it’s basically a Reverse Dongle-Slot. You can do anything for love … but you can’t do that.

While “can’t be solved with combat” is the most ordinary expression of the Exclusionary, it’s important to stress that violence (or reducing it) isn’t the issue. The limits are the issue … the desire to diminish Tactical Infinity into something less tactical, not infinite, or both. Doesn’t matter if you’re excluding violence, excluding trickery, excluding the mage’s favorite spell, or excluding that thing your specific PCs like to do with the sack of potatoes and a leprechaun in a cage, going out of your way to prevent an approach is what makes this presumptive.

Speaking of exclusion, more broadly: I don’t consider presumptive problems taboo. Sometimes, you just want to put a magnetic storm in the upper atmosphere so the crew of the Enterprise can’t use the transporter. I get that. I do that. Around here, the design goal isn’t to avoid presumptive elements, but rather to recognize them, to keep them at the non-critical edges of a design: they are parsley, not steak. Plus, again, “presumptive” is a spectrum: most problems you’ll design will be to some degree presumptive. The goal is to reduce that, to break out of the lazy habits that get us there … not to eliminate it in puristic terms.

The Optimal

One of the slippery ways a problem can be presumptive is when the range of approaches is theoretically wide open … but there is one approach (or a forcibly tiny set) that is objectively optimal. This can undermine Tactical Roleplaying, because when one approach is optimal, it becomes kind of stupid not to do the optimal thing … and when it’s kind of stupid not to do the optimal thing, that chokes out the potential for characterization, keeping it in the shallows, because “is this PC kind of stupid YES or NO?” is about as shallow as it gets.

So lets say a designer has the “passageway that can only be traversed by destroying the Statue Guardian” in their adventure design, and wants to keep it, but fix it, to make it less of a creative chokepoint … But also just desperately wants the PCs to destroy the Statue Guardian. So, instead of really doing the work to make the problem more creative, the GM just notes that, technically, the stone around the corridor can be bored through with the right magic or equipment, and also, technically, there’s another path that would take the PCs 30 miles out of their way, and, technically, the Statue Guardian can be rendered inert by a spell the PCs don’t have, but they could abandon the quest for a few days to go acquire it. This kind of design can get really technical.

That’s an extreme example to illustrate the point, but the Optimal is truly the subtlest of presumptive flavors. It’s worth your while to develop your senses to spot them and improve them (and not just with technicalities). Ironically, the tools of the Optimal can even be used to dismantle it, and we’ll get into that in a later entry.

The Videogame Choice

This one gets bandied about under many names: the Big Choice, the Moral (sometimes Ethical or other) Dilemma, the Quandary, the Trolley Problem. In tabletop RPGs, it's when the design just gives up on creative problems where PC priorities will emerge organically through the solutions they create … instead, we just shove a microphone in their face and demand they pick a side. Another way to knock characterization into the shallows.

I use the term “Videogame Choice” for a several reasons, but mostly to highlight that this is the kind of gameplay that can work really incredibly well in videogames, where a canned narrative can create a truly knotted, even gut-wrenchingly difficult choice (the ending of Life is Strange, virtually everything in the Walking Dead series, much of the Dragon Age games, and on and on).

Saints Row IV Boils It Right Down

But the reason they work so well in videogames is that, since videogames must be programmed, they thrive on the finite, even when sometimes managing an illusion of something more. When we’re playing a face-to-face RPG with a living, creative Game Master … we can, and should, expect much more than just a moment of selection. Videogame Choices can be very dramatic, but they are just giving up and shoving the mic, and as GMs we can not only do better, we can do better by many orders of magnitude.

Note that Videogame Choices include not only literal questions posed to the PCs, but any situation where there’s a clear A-B or A-B-C type choice: there’s just enough of the plague cure for Village A or Village B and the PCs must decide where to deliver it, etc. In fact, we could call it ...

The Menu

In truth, the Videogame Choice is a subset of the Menu, the umbrella term for any problem that boils down to selecting from a set of prepared somethings, instead of creating and implementing personal solutions.

A Menu doesn’t always try to be BIG or emotionally weighty, and menus can exist at many layers of RPG design. Sometimes, they’re provided as a consolation prize for other kinds of presumption: "yes, the only optimal approach is to fight the bandits, but you have over 200 spells and 30 pole arms to choose from!" And again, with emphasis: it’s not about the fight. It’s about the presumption.

And sometimes, the menu can be so large that it feels like a kind of freedom, if not any kind creation. And sometimes, the interplay between choices can result in emergent solutions that do feel like creation, at least a little. And sometimes that really is a suitable consolation prize. But if we leverage the potential of the Game Master sitting right there … we can do much, much better, if we want to.

Closing Notes

As with many of the most important conceptual tools in RPG design, the idea of the “presumptive problem” is slippery, mushy, spectral, and sometimes highly subjective. We can get lost if we forget that ideals are stars to sail by, not destinations. But if we never even look up, we begin lost, and our designs suffer.

Where we hit our stride is seeing those stars as whole constellations. By its lonesome, the ability to spot and repair a presumptive element is trivial … but when we marry it to other awareness like Tactical Roleplaying, Characterized Roleplaying, Porn Logic, and exploring the upper ends of the Invisible Rulebooks, it becomes an essential part of our toolkit.

My own ideal is what I call the half-dozen rule: I should be able to rattle off a half-dozen viable approaches to any critical problem without breaking a sweat ... then, after breaking a sweat, I should be able to rattle off a half-dozen more, and state with honest confidence that if I kept on sweat-breaking, I could keep on rattling, to infinity ... or at least to the limits of my ability to describe approaches.

And sometimes I get very near that star, but even when I can't, I sail by it.