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Sunday, 15 March 2020

Judge Dredd I

Before Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay with its grim and perilous world of adventure, there was the grim, but humorous world of Law Enforcement in the near future with Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game. Both were published by Games Workshop, the former in 1986, the latter in 1985, and since they shared one of the same designers, Rick Priestley, there are a number of parallels between the two roleplaying games. Now Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game was not the first homegrown roleplaying game to be published by Games Workshop—that honour would go to the highly regarded Golden Heroes: The Roleplaying Game of Super-Heroes in 1984—but it would be the first roleplaying game based on a British licence. In the years since, it has been revisited three more times with two editions—The Judge Dredd Roleplaying Game for both the d20 System and the Traveller, First Edition mechanics—from Mongoose Publishing and more recently, with the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD RPG Core Rulebook from EN Publishing. This is because with its ’punk attitude, its brutal setting and depiction of comic book violence, and its often dark, but definitely satirical humour, it has been seen as the quintessentially British roleplaying game (along with Doctor Who). 

Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game is based upon the Judge Dredd comic strip in 2000AD, the long-running comic which has been published weekly since 1977. It is set in the early twenty-second century after a nuclear war which irradiated much of the Earth and most of the world’s population is living in a number of megalopolises—or supercities. Each is home to millions and millions living in great city-blocks, most of whom are unemployed and turn to hobbies, brand new trends or crazes, or even crime to keep themselves sane. The teeming masses are difficult to police and it takes a special dedicated individual, one who has trained for nearly all of his or her childhood to patrol and enforce the law in these great cities. These are the Judges, trained to be the best, armed with the best equipment, and ready to patrol the streets as combined policeman, judge, jury, and executioner. They enforce the law and do so fairly—and none no more fairly than Judge Dredd himself, a figure who is both authoritarian and an anti-hero, the most well known and feared Judge in Mega-City One on the eastern seaboard of what was once the United States of America. On a daily basis, Judge Dredd has to deal with litterers and jaywalkers, slowsters and sponts, robbers and murders, smokers and boingers, illegal comic book dealers and gangster apes, and even Judge Death from a parallel earth. Over the years, the Judge Dredd comic has presented a carnival of crazy crimes and criminals, certainly more than enough to provide a rich, bonkers background for Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game when it was published in 1985.

Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game was published, like all good roleplaying games of its day, as a boxed set. Inside which could be found the seventy-two page Judge’s Manual, the one-hundred-and twenty-eight Game Master’s Book, a sixteen by twenty-two inch double-sided map sheet, a sheet of character cutouts, and four dice. The Judge’s Manual is the players’ book and explains how to create characters as well as the mechanics, whilst the Game Master covers background and running the game. Both the cutout characters and the double-sided map sheet are done in full colour, in 25 mm scale, one side of the map depicting an entrance to a stretch of underpass, the other the floorplans of a Shuggy (3D Pool) Hall. Each is used in the two scenarios in the Game Master’s Book. Notably, both the Judge’s Manual and the Game Master’s Book are liberally illustrated with both art and comic strips from Judge Dredd. All of which is superb. The artwork might be black and white, but it all comes from the comic strip which is also done in black and white. Remember that at this time, colour artwork really was a luxury! Nevertheless, the illustrations in Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game are very, very good.

Of course, what each player roleplays in Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game is a Judge. Relatively fresh out of the Academy, beginning characters are fairly bland,and mechanically at this point, there is little to distinguish one Judge from another. This extends to roleplaying too, since a Judge is not meant to express any emotion and his life is entirely focused on executing the Law, and certainly straight out of the Academy will not have any time for a private life. Now there is scope for a Judge to specialise as a Med-Judge, Tech-Judge, or even a PSI-Judge, but being able to do so straight out of the Academy is unlikely. This is not to say that roleplaying a Judge is akin to roleplaying an automaton, rather than thinking of playing robot, think of it as a Judge being highly dedicated. How he or she will react to the bizarre everyday life in Mega-City One is where there is scope for roleplaying as well his somewhat repressed personality.

Mechanically, a Judge is defined by eight attributes. These are Strength, Initiative, Combat Skill, Drive Skill, Street Skill, Technical Skill, Medical Skill and Psi Skill. Strength is used in hand-to-hand combat and measures how damage a Judge can do as well as how many Wounds he can take. Initiative represents a Judge’s agility and when he can act in combat; all combat actions are handled by Combat Skill; the Drive Skill enables a Judge to drive any vehicle, from his Lawmaster motorbike to a spaceship; the Street Skill represents his area knowledge as well as authoritarian presence and being able to spot lies; Technical Skill is ability to use and fix devices and machinery of all types, including computer use, picking locks, and defusing bombs; Medical Skill covers first aid, trauma surgery, diseases, and related knowledge; and Psi Skill, a Judge’s skill with psychic powers if he has any or resisting them. All of these are rated as percentiles, except for Strength which ranges between one and three.

Creating a Judge is simple enough. A four-sided die is rolled and one deducted for Strength. Everything else is determined by rolling two ten-sided dice and adding twenty to the total. If any Attribute is equal to forty or more, then the player can choose an Ability. For example, Agile and Instant Reactions for Initiative, Crack Shot and Knock Out for the Combat Skill, Avoid Collision or Lawmaster Leap for the Drive Skill, Analyse Chemical or Use Date for the Technical Skill, Aura of Cool or Sense Crime for the Street Crime, and Detect Intent or Psychic Block for the Psi Skill. (As an aside this combination of attributes as skills plus abilities does feel reminiscent of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.) If this is for the Technical Skill, Medical Skill, or Psi Skill, then the Judge can become a Specialist Judge like a Tech-Judge, Med-Judge, or Psi-Judge respectively. Judges who start with a Strength of one do get a bonus to the Psi Skill, but nevertheless, becoming either a Tech-Judge, Med-Judge, or Psi-Judge is unlikely but possible during character creation, being more likely as a Judge gains Experience Points, improves his attributes to first forty, then fifty, sixty, seventy, and so on. 

Judge Smith
Strength 2
Initiative 27
Combat Skill 34
Drive Skill 31
Street Skill 30
Technical Skill 34
Medical Skill 34
Psi Skill 31

Unless a player has to select an ability, character generation is quick and easy. Indeed, more attention is paid to the equipment carried by a Judge than to character generation! This is understandable, since this equipment plays a vital role in a Judge’s day-to-day duties, whether it is a Birdie Lie Detector, Pollution Meter, or his infamous Lawgiver handgun with its multiple ammunition types. Both Lawgiver and its multiple ammunition types—General Purpose, High Explosive, Armour Piercing, Incendiary, Rubber Ricochet, and so on—along with the equipment takes up a fair portion of the character sheet. Further, each Judge’s Lawmaster, a self-driving motorbike equipped with  twin 20 mm cannons and a Cyclops laser has its own character (bike?) sheet. It should also be noted that the Lawmaster is as good as any starting Judge in combat and when dealing with technical matters, and as is twice as capable as the average Judge when it comes to the Drive Skill. So in general, unless a starting Judge is brilliant and begins play with a high Drive Skill of forty and a Drive Skill-related Ability, it is definitely better that the driving be left to the bike!

Mechanically, Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game is simple and straightforward. It is a percentile system, a player rolling the dice to get equal to, or under the appropriate attribute, for example, Combat Skill in a fight or Technical Skill to access a computer. This can be modified by the situation or by equipment, such as the Birdie Lie Detector which adds a 50% bonus to a Judge’s Street Skill when attempting to determine whether a perp is telling the truth or not. Combat is more complex in that each combat round is divided into ten phases and when a Judge or perp can act and how many actions he has depends on his Initiative. For every ten points of Initiative—rounded up—a character has an action. So a starting Judge will have either three or four actions, acting on phases three, six, and nine or two, four, six, and eight respectively. Actions themselves are discrete in that a character can do just the one thing, so that might be to after a perp, crouch, use an object, aim a weapon, fire, dismount a vehicle, and so on.

The rules cover most situations, whether that is weapon malfunctions, breaking down doors, or vehicle combat and chases. What is notable is that a Judge only wears armour on his head, arms, and legs, and it only provides a 25% chance of protecting him. Then when he does take damage, it is rolled for on the personal damage table, the roll modified by the attack or ammunition type, such as +1 for High Explosive ammunition. Now Judges typically have between one, two, or three wounds, and whilst it is possible to lose one or two wounds when suffering damage, most of the time, a Judge will suffer Stun effects, which will lose him actions as well as temporary points from his Initiative attribute. What this means is that a Judge is actually stronger than he looks on paper, not by much, but this certainly emulates the brutal comic book violence of the source material.

The other notable thing about combat in Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game is that it is rarely initiated by a Judge. He is duty bound to issue a challenge for the perps to surrender first before taking direct action, and this takes an action. Similarly, aiming takes an action and a Judge is expected to aim unless he wants to shoot an innocent bystander by mistake. Further, he likely to issue another challenge later in the combat. The point is that as much as the mechanics in Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game focus on combat, combat, at least not to kill, is not the point of the game. This is supported by a solid example of play and an arrest. Further help in the Judge’s Manual for the player comes with sentencing—the next step after making an arrest, calling for backup, Justice Department organisation, and a guide to both Mega-City One and Mega-City One slang.

In comparison, the Game Master’s Book is almost rules light, nearly all of the rules to Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game being in the Judge’s Manual. Instead of rules, Game Master’s Book expands greatly on the setting of Mega-City One and running the game. There is excellent advice to that end as well as on how to write scenarios, before examining how to handle character generation, combat, making arrests, getting around Mega-City One, and running campaigns. Stats and background are provided for NPC Judges and the Sector Houses, out which the Judges will operate, plus all of the perps, criminals, punks, dunks, pongos, futsies, heisters, mobsters, psykers, and more to be found on the streets of Mega-City One. There are also rules for aliens and muties, and the city-blocks where most of Mega-City One’s citizenry lives, as well as stats and backgrounds for some of the most notable perps to appear in the comic strip, from the meaner than mean Angel Gang and the mobster Uggie Apelino and the Ape Gang to the vigilante Blanche Tatum and the infamous Judge murderer, Whitey. The Dark Judges—led by Judge Death—are listed under famous and infamous Judges along with Judge Dredd and Psi-Judge Anderson.

The Game Master’s Book also includes two scenarios—one short, one long. The first is ‘Firefight – On a Hot Summer’s Night’, a short encounter with car wreckers designed to teach the players how the game’s rules work. It is easy to run as a first encounter before the Game Master runs, the second, longer scenario, ‘The Ultimate Crime of Tony Thermo’. This is a fully detailed scenario, designed as a proper introduction to playing Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game, and sees the Judges attend a briefing, go out on patrol, deal with an issue or two before evidence of a crime in progress and having to thwart that. Where ‘Firefight – On a Hot Summer’s Night’ will last a single session, ‘The Ultimate Crime of Tony Thermo’ will probably last two. Overall, it is a solid starting adventure.

If there is an issue with the Game Master’s Book, it is twofold. One is that it feels jumbled in its organisation of its subject matters, so that stats and backgrounds for generic perps are one section, famous and infamous Judges in another, that of notable perps in another, and so on, interspersed sections on other subject matters. As a result it makes it a little difficult to find things in the book. The other is that it actually has one section which the players will find useful—an expanded section on sentencing, much more nuanced than that given in the Judges’ Manual. For the most part though, the Game Master will not be needing to consult the Game Master’s Book during play.

Physically, Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game is solidly produced. The books are well written and it is clear that the authors have done their research. Plus with access to hundreds of issues of 2000AD, both books make great use of the comic strip. What is clear from the examples and the scenarios is the successful efforts of the designers to match the humour of the comic, much of which poked fun at the gaming industry of the time. The maps and cutouts are excellent, the maps of course being designed to work with the range of miniatures that of course, Games Workshop produced for the roleplaying game. The dice though, are cheap, and well, nasty.

Reviews at the time of the publication of Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game were polar opposites and reflected the then divided camps of British roleplaying magazines. In the one corner was Games Workshop’s White Dwarf, in the other was GameMaster Publications, the spiritual successor to TSR (UK), Inc.’s Imagine magazine. The review in GameMaster Publications Issue 2 (December, 1985) concluded that, “It is a good interpretation of the strip in game form, and the books are lavishly illustrated with panels from the comics. Most importantly, the designers have researched the subject in meticulous detail, trying to capture all the bizarre sides of life in Mega-City One. Stats for all the Perps that have appeared in the strips are presented — which may or may not strike you as odd given the way most of them have been blasted to atoms by Dredd — and several tables provide methods for creating new mutants and other potential opponents. But everything is going to depend on your ability to think up new and fitting perps, crimes and city events if you are going to progress beyond see ’em and blast ’em over and over again.” Unsurprisingly, Jason Kingsley, reviewing Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game in White Dwarf Issue 73 (January, 1986), was far more positive. Awarding the roleplaying an overall score of ten out of ten, he concluded, “All in all, Judge Dredd - The Role-Playing Game is an excellent product, for detail, value and content. Dredd fans will be pleased with it.”

The retrospectives would begin in 1996 with Arcane #3 (February, 1996), shortly after the licence for the Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game expired. In the Despatches section, Paul Pettengale said of it, “It’s fast, it's frenetic, and it’s more than a little fraught; but above all Judge Dredd, The Roleplaying Game is - or at least was - damned good fun.” and that, “The two rule-books - one each for the player and the ref - flesh out the campaign setting, giving a brief history of Mega City One, its peoples and its many quirks. Both are enjoyable and, like the game itself, they last forever.” This was followed up later in Arcane #14 (December, 1996) when it was included in ‘Arcane Presents the Top 50 Roleplaying Games 1996’ in the twenty-first slot, stating that, “This is one of the best roleplaying systems ever created. It oozes atmosphere and spits out gritting violence and playability, and generally makes for a very good time indeed. The excellent way in which the rules are laid out (and written), helps referees to start running the game almost straight out of the box. In our eyes, it should have featured in the top ten.” More recently, The Grognard Files—rated the number one Roleplaying Game Talk Podcast of 2019—discussed Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game and interviewed Marc Gascoigne in Episode 18 (Part 1) and Episode 18 (Part 2) of the podcast.

Right out of the box, Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game is complete and relatively easy to learn and start playing. The rules are simple, and really covered in just a few pages, leaving the rest of books to detail and explore the maniacally rich and complex world of Judge Dredd and Mega-City One, which it does in meticulous detail. There is something to be said of the suggestion that Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game is more of a ‘roll-playing’ game rather than a ‘roleplaying game’, and yes, whilst there is an emphasis upon combat in the rules, apprehending suspects is the point of the game and that often does involve combat. Yet, there is roleplaying to be had in investigating crimes, interrogating suspects, and in general, dealing with the citizenry of Mega-City One. So in some ways, Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game should be thought of an action roleplaying game—a police action roleplaying game (rather than as a superhero game as it is sometimes categorised). Then there is the rich detail of Mega-City One to dig onto, whether as a Judge to patrol and explore, or as the Game Master to develop crimes and investigations.

By modern standards, Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game is perhaps a little one-note in what characters the players roleplay and somewhat limited at the start of play. So yes, it can be hard to distinguish between player characters and they are often less than competent as you might wish, but the setting and its humour is worth it. And that is even before a campaign escapes Mega-City One into the Cursed Earth or other Mega-Cities. Plus, the Judges will begin to diverge as their players choose different abilities and perhaps become Specialist Judges. For the Game Master though, Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game is not so one note, for it comes with  an incredibly rich background with which to work and develop her own cases, which only really covers the first decade of Judge Dredd and 2000AD.

A combination of simple mechanics and background rife with humour and grit, Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game is still very playable. Those mechanics, and that grit and humour would undoubtedly influence Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay the following year, but it is here that they were first seen. 

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