A Surly Northern Barbarian Woman Eager to Taste the Blood of the Coastlanders (3) isn’t any more or less “powerful” than a Barbarian (3), but we get a clearer picture of what she’s capable of, and what she’s like. We know she’s probably better at being intimidating than ingratiating, that her survival skills are oriented to cooler climates, and that she’s probably not comfortable with a crabbing net or a conch shell. Her explicit hostility to the Coastlanders implies that she’s firmly rooted in her home culture, and unlikely to change her ways. The whole package is evocative and informative. She’s distinct from her partner, the Cheerful Alcoholic Northern Barbarian Eager to Better Himself in the Broader World (3). He’s a Barbarian (3), too, but a very different one. A rundown of the many things a cliché might include:
Profession: This is the core of most ordinary clichés; a job, like Private Eye or Fighter Pilot. Of course, some characters don’t really have jobs. For those, skip this kind of cliché entirely, or insert the nearest equivalent: what they do to pass the day, put food in their tummies, that kind of thing. Frequently, a Vampire (3) is just a Vampire (3) – that’s what he does. He goes around … vampiring. Sometimes, though, he’s a Vampire Wal-Mart Greeter (3) or a Vampire Attorney (3).
Race or Species: An Astronaut (4) is one thing; a Minotaur Astronaut (4) is a whole ‘nother ball of twine. He’ll need a bigger bubble-helmet, for one thing. Character race (or species, if your GM celebrated the new millennium a year later than normal people) makes an excellent modifier to color a humdrum cliché, or to add the snap and pop to one that already crackles. It’s best to tag this onto your primary cliché – the one that most defines the core of your character or (barring that) the one with the most dice. If a character is a Dwarvish Dervish (3), we’ll be able to guess that he’s “Dwarvish” in all his other clichés, too (unless he’s a both a Dwarvish Dervish and an Elven Archer, in which case most of his Phat Dungeon Loot will soon belong to his therapist).
Cultural Background: In some game worlds, there’s no such thing. Barbarians (4) are from “wherever it is Barbarians (4) come from.”* But in more interesting game worlds, culture won’t just affect your roleplaying, but the specifics of your abilities, too. Everyone knows that a Glorbedrian Crayfish Sorcerer (2) learns entirely different techniques of the Deadly Claw Dance than a Jaclomadrian Crayfish Sorcerer (2), and that’s the kind of detail that can bring a whole campaign to life. What if your Minotaur Astronaut (4) is from the Land of Purple Lightning? What if he’s from Cape Town?
*A Mommy and Daddy Barbarian, who Love Each Other Very Much (4).
Personal History: Normally, a cliché is a very present-tense concept, but some excellent clichés imply what a character used to be, and perhaps can be again, if the occasion demands it. Just throwing in the word like “former” can change the character of a cliché considerably, and allow clichés that would otherwise contradict. There’s lots of precedence for heroic good-guy types being a Former Criminal (3) for instance – giving them a convenient mix of redemption-driven motives, unusual social contacts, and handy breaking-and-entering skills. Comparably a Cynical Self-Interested Nightclub Owner (2) might be a Former Heroic Mercenary Known for Defending the Underdog (4), and just needs a good woman (and a dashing Frenchman) to bring him back into fighting the good fight. Or an Artist (1) might be an Artist Formerly Known as Prince (1).
Degree of Dedication: Sometimes, the present is as tenuous as the past. You can imply a more distant connection in a present-tense cliché by being a Weekend Warrior (2), a Dabbler in the Dark Arts (1), or an Amateur Brain Surgeon (3). Conversely, you know a cliché is near and dear to a character’s heart with clichés like Devoted Priest of the Hairy God (3), Overzealous Combat Medic Forever Running Out of Gauze (2), or Barry Manilow’s Absolute Biggest Fan (6).
Religion or Philosophical Bent: An Irish Minotaur Astronaut (4) is groovy, but an Irish Shinto Minotaur Astronaut (4) is really cooking with gas. Always keep in mind, when designing your character, that combat in Risus is a many-splendored thing, and if somebody attacks you with a stream of rhetoric, it’s just plain classy to be able to fight back without resorting to Inappropriate Clichés.
Social Class and Financial Means: For many clichés, this detail is hardwired to profession: if a character is a Gumshoe (4), we know he’s a working-class Joe with a battered fedora, without asking. On the other hand, if it’s the Depression (and it often is, with those gumshoes) maybe he’s a Gumshoe On the Skids (4) – he’s lost his office and he’s living in the shantytowns, protecting the dispossessed (‘cause the cops sure won’t). For other kinds of clichés, it can just be a fun gloss to point out if they’re rich or poor, working hard or hardly working. Since, in many settings, wealth is closely tied to which social circles a character moves in, it can be a crucial detail in an adventure.
Gender: Some – even many – character clichés imply the character’s sex. Say words like “inventor” or “cop” or “astronaut” or “mercenary” and the default image is a dude. By contrast, clichés like “prostitute” or “nurse” or “witch” conjure images of women in most minds. This says a lot of things about both adventure fiction and our culture – things too deep and important to be hinted at in a Risus book. It can be helpful, though, to indicate gender in your primary cliché, especially if your cliché includes some concepts traditionally associated – fairly or not – with a different sex. Of course, your character’s name can provide a clear enough indicator, too, but I never pass up another way to pad my clichés out to ridiculous lengths, nor should you.
Group Affiliation: In many settings, there are powerful groups that act as global puppeteers, commanding entire nations from the shadows, ancient conspiracies that permeate every level of society. They know who you are. They know what you’re doing right this instant. Everything is under their control. This is the kind of thing an Irish Shinto Minotaur Astronaut Freemason (4) would know all about. On the other hand, it might just be fun to know that your Grim Vigilante (5) is a Grim Vigilante Scout Troop Leader (5), or a member in good standing with the Columbia Record Club.
Demeanor: Cheerful, surly, defeatist, haughty, starry-eyed and innocent, weather-beaten and cynical … A little personality goes a long way to sprucing up a cliché and making it different from the cliché next door. If given the choice between being murdered by a Jolly Grandfatherly Hit Man (4) and a Cold-Hearted Twitchy Hit Man (4), which would you prefer? I’ll take my chances with the one played by Wilford Brimley.
Appearance: Handsome, muscular, wiry, pale … Looks aren’t everything, but they can be a lot. Some points of appearance are keys to clichéd personalities, too. Everyone knows that a Beady-Eyed Little Sneak (4) is even less trustworthy than an ordinary Sneak (4), and that a Square-Jawed Football Hero (3) is even more heroic than one with a curvier countenance.
Ham-Handed References: You can’t have too much ham, not in Risus. You can build some excellent clichés by making direct (or sly) references to actors, actresses, fictional characters, or genre conventions. Simply calling a character a Woody Allen (3), Jackie Chan (5) or Margaret Dumont (4) can speak volumes in the right context, no less than being a Sherlock (2), Shylock (3), Romeo (4) or Redshirt (1).
Goals: Never overlook the value of this one; a character’s goals determine how he develops his skills. A Genetic Engineer Determined To Cure Cancer (4) probably doesn’t share office space with a Genetic Engineer Bent on World Domination (4), even though they may have roomed together in college (the Reed Richards/Victor Von Doom effect).
Self-Image: Frustrated, self-righteous, humble, self-loathing … This is a useful cousin to a character’s goals; sometimes a cliché can tell us what a character is and what he thinks he is, all at once. Decide if your character over- or underestimates himself, to transform a Swordfighter (2) into a Swordfighting Legend in His Own Mind (2) … or to flesh out a Gentle Giant (3) to a Gentle Giant Convinced He’s a Monster Unfit to Live (3). It only takes a little dressing to make a snack a meal, when you’re dining on cliché.
Subplots and Relationships: No cliché is an island, and clichés can include other people in them. They’re that cool, clichés are. For example, a Fighter Pilot The Other Guys Seek Out For Romance Advice (3) is bound to have some cool roleplaying moments between (or even during) dogfights. Similarly, a Globe-Hopping Archaeologist Secretly In Love with the Hot Redhead Who Keeps Stealing His Finds (4) is just asking for a rollicking new dimension to the same old ruin-delving story. That kind of asking is good stuff.
Problems: For years, fans have asked, “Why would anyone want a negative cliché?” They don’t mean a Fighter (-2), they’re usually responding to a character I’ve made, something along the lines of a Lecherous Blind Swashbuckler (3) or a Dirt Poor Necromancer With An Unmentionable Problem in the Bedroom (4). Accustomed to the notion that “flaws” and “disadvantages” are burdens only borne in exchange for character-mojo-booty, the notion of spending dice to be a blind person strikes some as odd. Am I crazy? Like a fox. A Lecherous Blind Swashbuckler can score plenty of Haughty English Lass (3) with a sympathy routine, and baffle his opponents by extinguishing the candles and defeating them in the dark. Sure, his Target Number to read the Necronomicon in a single night will be outrageous, but that just means he wakes up in the morning still sane and cuddled up with chicks while Professor Bespectacled is staring into other dimensions and drooling on his cardigan. And besides: troubled, challenged, and imperfect characters are just more fun to believe in. In a comedy game, they’re funnier. In a dramatic game, they’re more dramatic. It’s a win-win.
This Risus article is an Uncle Bear exclusive excerpt from the Risus Companion, 64 pages of Love Energy provided to paid members of the International Order of Risus (the grooviest fan club on earth). Read about it at the Cumberland Games & Diversions site. This article is Copyright © 2003 by S. John Ross and reproduced with permission.