Sunday, January 1, 2012

Running JAGS

Thomas wants to know if I have any advice for running JAGS for the first time doing a zombie-style game. This is a more complicated question than it might seem as I have to figure out not only what I want to tell people--but also what I, myself, know that everyone else doesn't.

Here's an attempt:

1. Don't Bog Everyone Down With Character Generation
When I have introduced people to JAGS I usually do it with pre-gen characters and have them pick them. In some cases I have a character with a couple of options (including gear) and let them spend a small number of points themselves. This is especially good with GATs ("Here is a list of 3 GATs for this character--you pick.")

2. Use The Character Generator. The one linked (or I can email you a file) is done in JAVA and produces HTML character sheets. It's not perfect but it's pretty good and should generate decent looking output. This will help players know how much damage they do and such without having to "do the math."

3. Have the Players Pick Gear from Lists. This is a best-practice for any game--but especially survival style ones. It generates excitement and energy (for reasons that I'll admit I'm unclear on--but I have some suspicions). Do I choose the blanket, flares, axe, and first aid kit? Or do I go with the shotgun and five shells? Do I get two walkie-talkies ... or a survival knife and flashlight? Stuff like that. That's less a JAGS thing and more a best-practice thing.

4. For Running Combat: Use a sheet of paper. Write everyone's name down the side including NPCs. Across the top is the Round number. When you roll Init you tell everyone to roll and then call out "+5!" ("I made my Init roll by 5") or "-3" or whatever. You write the numbers down next to their names and go in order of action. For groups of enemies just roll one for each group (say they are being attacked by 12 zombies, use groups of 3).

5. Use ADP for Foes. Keeping track of wound levels for lots of opponents is time consuming. So is keeping track of wound effects. If you give a Zombie nothing by 12 ADP it's either "fine" or it's "dead" (really and truly dead) and that's a lot easier.

For human opponents, a Major Wound, regardless of wound-effect, is enough to take most combatants out of the fight. Henchmen will be crawling away or surrendering if they're close to Injured or Serious condition.

6. Every Attack is 5 REA. This is a bit of a simplification but I'd use it to start with (exception: usually kicks stay at 6 REA). Don't load up on the Advanced or Optional Rules for a first time.

7. Use the Search Function and the PDF. If you own a printed set of rules? Great--but keep a laptop open with a PDF loaded and use the search function if looking for rules.

8. Avoid Grappling. The grappling rules are complex. Unless someone is really interested, don't worry too much. The one exception is, of course, zombie grabs. In this case pre-calculate grapple scores for the zombies and the PCs. As they are not action heroes their Defensive Grapple Scores will likely be around 12-16. If a Zombie has an Offensive Grapple of, say 14, that gives them a 12- to grab an ordinary character. Just have the table printed out so you can refer to it easily.

I'd even hand this out to them--the Zombie Stats:

  • INFECTED BITE: 13- to hit, 1 try per Round, Must Have a Grab, 3 PEN. If you take 1pt of damage you are INFECTED!
  • ZOMBIE GRAB: 13- to hit, 1 try per Round, Close Reach. Grapple of 14 (compare to your Defensive Grapple. If your Defense Grapple is a 12, it has a 12- chance of success if it hits).
  • ZOMBIE BILE: 14- to hit, every other round, Acid burns for 8 IMP damage. GROSS!

And let them puzzle it out (you could even add some really weird stuff like CLOUD OF PESTILENCE that might not appear but could weird them out. Don't forget about RADIOACTIVE or BURNING zombies ...).

Put the damage table for each attack along then bottom so you don't have to calculate it during the game either.

9. Explain How The Dice Work. Train everyone to ignore 6's up front. Do a couple of practice rolls to show how it works.

10. Explain How Made It / Missed It By Works: If I need a 14 or less to succeed and I roll a 10 I "made the roll by 4." Often that's important and it's something that a lot of people seem to have problems with. Likewise, if I needed a 14 and rolled a 16 I "missed the roll by 2." In some situations that might be important.

I'm sure I'll think of other stuff--but that's all for now. Good luck! Let me know how it goes.


  1. Thanks, Marco.

    Some of this was advice I'm going to have to ignore--the point in this mini-campaign was to give people a feel for character generation and at least the basic ins and outs of the system, so some of the simplification you suggested is contrary to the point, but there was no way for you to know that. A few others are made a bit moot by the nature of the zombies and PCs involved. That said, how you handle initiative and the suggestion to avoid advanced and optional rules as much as possible is well taken.

    Couple of questions come to mind though:

    1. Rereading the Grapple rules, it seems a little too easy (mostly in terms of being too safe) to initiate against an armed man. Is it your take that this gets handled in the need to close to Short range first? Otherwise it seems a pretty risk-free procedure to do if you get initiative, and I don't recall back in my old martial arts sparring days it being quite _that_ easy.

    2. Is there a link to the current version of the character creator somewhere that I'm missing? I've got a version of it, but one of my players claims the XML seems to show its not quite following the rules properly (something about secondary characteristics not being calculated right), and that may mean its an old version.

  2. Let me see about the character generator. I might email you a copy if it comes to that.

    As per grappling:
    1. A /grab/ is a 5 REA medium action from Short Range. It's easy--but it doesn't do anything in and of itself and the guy will then stab you.

    2. A /grapple/ is an 8 REA Long action which /will/ get you stabbed (and you have no block if they respond to the grapple by stabbing you). So it's not that easy.

    If you have Wrestling L3 you can "shoot in" from outside striking range but that's still a risk.

    So I don't think it's /that/ easy to grapple a weapon. But it is easy to grab an opponent holding a weapon.


  3. Perhaps I've gotten the Grab and Grapple conflated in my mind. I thought there were some effects on the Grab too; doesn't it make the range Close Combat, which constrains what you can do?

    (Its always possible I've just run so many games that I'm porting over rules from some other game system in my head, too. :P)

  4. Went back and looked. Grabbing does three things that seem like they matter:

    1. The eliminate both your AGI bonus to defense;
    2. They penalize longer weapons;
    3. They prevent you from moving away unless you can drag the other person.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but just #2 seems like a significant benefit for someone who finds themselves in a fight with no weapon or a dagger against someone with a sword. If you're up against someone who primarily parries (as I'd expect is a lot of cases with melee combatants), this seems like a winner, and it seems odd there's no downside to trying it on someone who has a weapon with reach on you. If it works (and if you hit, it probably will given the grapple mechanics) you've switched the benefit from the sword user to you for the most part.

    I think what's bothering me is the combination of its relative speed (it being a medium action) and the need for a Dodge to avoid it. That's probably not unreasonable with someone unarmed versus someone unarmed, but like I said, when trying that sort of thing back in my sparring days, it was a good way to get wacked before you could make it work with someone with a shinai or a padded staff, so something seems off.

  5. I think -- Marco, correct me if I'm wrong -- that you can block a Grab.

    Grapple explicitly lists "Defenses" and states you can only dodge, but Grab does not... so unless that's clarified elsewhere, you can block / parry a Grab.

    In the simulator we've seen that Grabs and Grapples are not (easily) dominant moves -- neither do damage in their basic forms, and even with a penalty to-hit, the guy grappling gets blows rained down on him until he reaches a hold or some kind of pin.

    In many cases that means getting cut to ribbons before the grappler can reach a position where he can attack from a position of impeccable advantage.

    Grabs that do damage (e.g. bites) come out about even with swords: the need to move into close combat seems to balance out with the advantages of the Grab and the penalty against longer weapons just replaces the lost AGI modifier.

    I think that in many-on-one fights, where some of the "many" are grappling it would be a different story -- having your buddies hold down your target while you stab him might well be a dominant approach (it is in real life), but while we could simulate that I don't think we have a good set of assumptions about how those kinds of battles ought to go.


  6. That's a different story, then. I suspect the distinction between Grab actions and Grapple actions is throwing me off, though you tried to make them distinct (and in fact, going back and looking at it, the Grapple entries say you usually have to have at least established a Grab before you can even try them).

    Given you do need to apparently close to Close range to start them normally, that's probably not a big deal then. It might be a tactic-of-choice for a certain subset of attacker, but its not going to be the best practice for even most people who find themselves unarmed against an armed attacker.

    Sorry about that. Glad I brought it up or I'd have run it wrong, though.