Friday 24 October 2008

Jags Revised by Marco Chacon

Jags (Just Another Gaming System) is a free generic game system by Marco Chacon which is anything but just another gaming system. Jags is a professionally produced, high quality game system with excellent graphics. Like much philanthropy, Marco's vision of Jags has been supported by a cast of proof readers, editors and artists, all listed prominently on the front page. Every effort has been made to describe, explain and demonstrate every facet of the high crunch system. Marco has clearly worked incredibly hard to bring Jags about. Jags won the Best Free Game at the Indie Awards in 2006 and rightly so.

The book

The layout is professional, a strong border encloses each page with an easy to read font and a chatty writing style. Images scattered throughout are black and white and of a high quality. The game is a single column, which means line lengths are rather long in some places. Important notes, Examples, Changes and Designers notes are pulled into coloured callout boxes, which does a good job of breaking up the text. Interspersed are snippets of stories (put back in from previous version upon request) placed in non-descript settings. Page numbers, contents page and lists in alphabetical order all help in presentation and the pages are set up for a book style print with the number of facing pages moved. At 270 pages, it's a monolith if you're going to print it or beat someone to death with it. Those pages are jam packed with words, too.

The core mechanics

The core mechanic is a simple addition of 4D6, with 6s treated as 0. This is then compared against a target number, with modifiers and a concept of degree of success. The rules and examples demonstrate these mechanics so that there would be no confusion. Degree of success is well described, with examples, which is a delight. Failing by '1' often means very little but in the Jags ruleset, descriptions of what these mean are described with examples. Success Points, which are gained by roleplaying traits, can be used to assist in passing. Beyond that there are Effect Rolls and Drama rolls. Effect rolls allow a table to be used to control the outcome. Drama rolls are less obviously described but have an affect on the situation the characters are in. Combat is where the crunch really kicks in but the example is informative enought to demonstrate a complex system at work. There is nothing shocking here, rounds of 6 seconds, initiative, taking actions in turn, hitting, blocking, calculating damage type and amount and then repeat. After the example is a detailled description of combat with a mind boggling breadth of options, each with their own rule modifications. I'd imagine many GMs would skim over many of the specific rulings to keep the pace of the combat up, especially with a group of 6 noisy players. It hints at the end that a lot of the rulings are optional or advanced but it is not immediately obvious what can be dropped and what is core.


A character defined by Statistics, Traits and Skills. Statistics, of which there are 12, are mental and physical facets of all characters. Traits are personal flaws or advantages to be roleplayed and skills represent a trained or natural ability. The character is created using two points systems: one for the generic character creation and one for genre-specific items (magic, cyberware etc). Character generation has all of the points I'd want to see in any system: concept of the person before statistics and so on. The stats system has a medium level of crunch as you have three types: Primary, Secondary and Figured. Primary stats act as a grouping (Physique) and secondary ones act as more specific areas (Strength). There are number of crunchy interactions between these two types with caveats attached. Further crunch is added using Stat modifiers, such as 'Powerful' that shows you are a meat mountain. Finally there are eight Figured Stats, which are derived abilities based on Primary/Secondary Stats and traits. These extra values show how fast you move and so on. The skill list (normally a dead give-away of intent in most generic systems) is biased toward the modern (or near future) setting, each skill containing its own rules, caveats and provisos.

Tools and GM Help

The Tools section of the rules gives more information regarding how the system interacts with the real world, such as how physics are counted. Rather than providing more assitance, it actually provides more rules, which I imagine most would take as optional. The profusion of tables and charts is a good indicator of the crunch involved here, the other coin face from an incredible inclusion of every possible solution.

For the future of Jags

How would I like Jags to be improved? For that, I'll have to become picky beyond measure as it really is well put together system, so please take with a pinch of salt. The initial contents page is somewhat jarring by its size (see what I have to work with here?). Is it useful to have so many items there for quick reference? I would argue that only large headings should be in the contents at the front with detail included in an index at the back. Even for a book of 270 pages, a 7 page contents is only going to induce repetitive strain injury through scroll wheel use. Rather than jumping straight into the system, Jags first attempts to justify its own existence. I would prefer the same content to be rephrased as "This is why Jags is good for you!" rather than "Jags solved the problem of genericity and we think it's really good at it". Jags is bloody good, there's no need to justify it or generic systems at all! There is a change list, while useful is better kept on the website.
Throughout, there are designer's notes which aren't really neccessary for learning the game system and although might be interesting to some, would be better placed on the website. Gamesmaster notes and hints should be placed in their own section so that the GM has a single place to pick up all of those nuggets.
There are a few colloquialisms and non-standard roleplaying terms are used: Jags' resisted rolls are really opposed rolls. A common language for roleplaying is not really a requirement but reduces the effort a GM would have to pick up the game. The colour callout boxes do no print well on my HP 1010 laser as the contrast between colour and text is not high enough. The notes and important rules should just be part of the text in many cases as the page sometimes gets very crowded and the flow of the rules are difficult to follow. Rounded boxes everywhere! Character skills and traits are grouped together at the end of the character creation section but do not make them any easier to find by doing so. Much better to have them at the back of the book or leave them inline with the skill/trait description. I think Marco has pre-empted most of these comments by producing a cut-down 20 page Jags called Jags-2. I'll review that at some other juncture but it's a simpler form of the 270 page Jags-Revised.

Community and settings

Jags has successfully taken the leap from free PDF to being free and a published book (definitely a good thing). Think of the PDF as try before you buy. There isn't much community to speak of at the moment, it appears that Marco is in the process of revamping the website after some villians hacked it so I will be keeping a beady and excited eye on that. There are four settings available: Wonderland, an intriguing moder day horror setting; The Thirteen Colonies (Marco and Eric Chacon) is set in an alternate near-future; and Have Not (Marco), a post-apocalyptic setting. No generic fantasy here, marvellous! It's a little out of the scope of this review to go into detail but they appear to be of similar quality.


Is Jags free? You'll have to pinch yourself but it is. A fully featured PDF, with good content and excellent artwork in free format (GNU Free Document License). It appears to be the labour of love of Marco almost entirely and as long as he keep ploughing on, you can expect more excellent material. I am not convinced that the system is completely generic as the skills/traits bend away from fantasy or historical settings. I also wonder if 270 pages is a little too large for most gamers to get through. That's 270 without any setting. If you're looking for a crunchy (and I mean take-your-teeth-out crunchy) free system to base the setting that's been bimbling around inside your brain for a year or two, then check out Jags. There aren't any parallels.


Zachary Houghton said...

Nice work, Rob. I will say the 13 Colonies is an excellent work that's given me some solid ideas as well.

Ricardo said...

I noticed that the JAGS document itself doesn't appear to be licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License, or any kind of free/open content license at the moment.

Rob Lang said...

@Zach, I'll be reviewing 13 colonies in the future. After a quick scan, it looks very cool indeed.

@Ricardo, Well spotted! It does say on the website but some nod to freeness inside would not go amiss for sure.

Marco said...

Alright--so this is great! The review is well done and insightful: I commend you on supporting free games--something that is much rarer than it ought to be!

The JAGS Revised rules aren't open-source but JAGS-2 is. We also have computer program character generators for both games and a good deal of other content that isn't up on the sight (Fantasy rules for treasure and such).

We had problems with hackers repeatedly and moved to flat HTML. We are in the process of completing the massive JAGS Revised Archetypes which is more than 75% complete and will have full rules for cyborgs, mutants, chi martial artists, action-heroes, and more.

We can share "alpha" copies of the PDF with people who are interested (email me at mchacon at gmail).

Thanks for the review!