Attempts at adapting Judge Dredd to an RPG setting have been intermittent but persistent over the years. Mongoose Publishing landed the licence and gave it a D20 treatment back in their OGL shovelware days, before producing an adaptation of the setting to Traveller which I’ve reviewed previously. More recently, ENWorld’s publishing arm has attempted it with their What’s Old Is New system, a generic system which seems to have made almost no waves and gained no attention outside of ENWorld itself (though arguably, it’s a big enough forum that they don’t need to).
The original stab at it, however, was a 1985 effort from Games Workshop. Boxed sets of this edition (complete with maps for the scenarios and cardboard figures) circulate for a fair bit of money; if you just want the rulebooks, however, you can get them separately at a cheaper rate if you look. Divided into a Judge’s Manual and a Game Master’s Book, coming to a total of 200 pages together, this provides a system very much focused on playing Judges (which I think is the only sensible way to approach a Dredd RPG) and a setting guide to the world Dredd inhabits which is dripping with flavour. (There was also a hardcover release which compiled the two books into a single volume, though this is quite rare these days.)
Making liberal use of the original black-and-white comic panels for artwork, the game is thick with the flavour of peak Dredd. Whilst the series has been going more or less continuously since 1977, it took a little while for Judge Dredd to really kick into high gear. By 1985, not only had it well and truly come into its prime, but it had also told most of the really major stories which fans of the series harken back to. The Cursed Earth, The Day The Law Died, Judge Death, the saga of the Judge Child, Block Mania, The Apocalypse War… all of that happened before this game came out.
Whilst the comic series has, of course, had major plotlines and events happen since then, eyeballing the list of major storylines on Wikipedia reveals that a great many of them either have their roots in earlier storylines or are riffs on comparable themes to past storylines, largely because older stories already took most of the really interesting themes available to play with in the context of the setting. (Someone Really Bad Takes Over The City inevitably has parallels with The Day The Law Died; Extradimensional Horror Invades, Mass Death Ensues, as happened with Judgement Day, is basically a reskin of the Judge Death stories; Dredd Gets Allocated An Unusual Posting is basically a riff on the Luna-1 storyline from the series’ formative years.)
There’s only so many times you can repeat the same basic themes in the context of an ongoing, open-ended comic series before they lose their freshness – and in particular, once you really nail a particular story concept, every time you go back to that well again it’s going to pale in comparison to that one time that you really nailed it. (Every Joker origin story will forever and anon be compared to The Killing Joke, for instance.) I’d say that, for the most part, the best renditions of the core Judge Dredd concepts were all out there by the time this RPG came out, and even the few exceptions constitute superior retellings of ideas the series had already hit on.
Perhaps the only really new concept added to the Judge Dredd series since this RPG came out, in terms of a significant recurring strand in the series, is Dredd’s glimmerings of sympathy for democratic movements and social justice for mutants. There, however, the 2000 AD writers seem to have set themselves up with a problem: the more time passes without the democracy or mutant tolerance movements making significant headway, the more ineffectual they look, whereas if they’re allowed to make actual lasting, genuine, fundamental reform of the system, it’s not Judge Dredd any more. I can see the necessity of telling stories where Dredd ends up questioning the Mega-City One system – spending this much time with an unabashedly pro-fascism protagonist in the name of satire wears thin – but all of this doesn’t really shake my impression that the golden age of Judge Dredd was the original late-1970s-to-mid-1980s run which told 90% of the stories which everyone remembers.
As such, when you compare the setting material presented here to, say, the setting material offered in the core rulebook of the 2009 Mongoose Traveller version, they’re actually remarkably close. To a large extent, the major difference is that the timeline of Mega-City One presented in the Traveller version takes in an additional 24 years of major storylines – and the fact that it is still very recognisably the same setting as it was in 1985 suggests that those major storylines haven’t really made all that much of a change.
Interestingly, the subject headers in the Traveller version use the same comics-style font as those in the Games Workshop original. Sure, it’s probably one of the 2000 AD in-house fonts, but even so it does feel like Mongoose were very much following the lead of the Games Workshop version of the game, with the only difference being the system.
As far as the system goes, it’s almost all contained within the Judge’s Manual, and it’s pretty interesting. Designed by Rick Priestley, it might have been influenced by internal work happening at Games Workshop on the development of WFRP, since it resembles a very simplified version of that system in some respects. Stats and skills are folded in together – so you have, for instance, a Street Skill total to cover all of your “exert control through your intimidating presence and/or other social leverage” stuff, and similar skill totals for Combat, Drive, Tech, Medical and Psi Skills – a radical simplification from then-extant percentile skill systems, but a sensible one given that driving about, fighting people, using cool tech, healing up and (in the case of Psi-Judges) using cool powers are all the things you really want a Judge to do. Further specialisation is possible once you hit 40% in one of the skills, at which point you can start selecting special talents.
The roots of WFRP‘s percentile system is visible here, but because WFRP is a much broader game in terms of the types of character it wants to model, WFRP ends up being substantially more complex. In fact, I dare say that D20, Traveller, and what I’ve seen of WOIN are all a bit overengineered when it comes to a Judge Dredd RPG, given that Judges are basically fairly simplistic characters in terms of their personal capabilities.
Other aspects of the system are designed to encourage Judge-like behaviour from the players; for instance, Judges are legally supposed to issue a verbal demand to surrender to perps before blasting away at them, and there’s actually a legit chance (modified by circumstance) that perps will actually surrender, a nice example of a game system actually rewarding you for behaving in the way the game wants to encourage you to behave rather than screwing you over for it.
As for the Game Master’s Book, as well as providing a useful commentary on the system and some referee-specific details, it largely concerns itself with communicating ideas for how you design scenarios for the game. Judge Dredd is one of those games which communicates a really strong model for how scenarios should generally be structured and what gameplay should focus on – as opposed to one of those games where they give you a broad character generation system and then when you say “but what do PCs do?” just unhelpfully say “Whatever you like!”. Judge Dredd encourages you through its system and through its scenario design advice to structure game sessions along the lines of a Judge Dredd story.
The successor games to this original all have the challenge of trying to fit that within the context of a broader generic system, whereas this edition has the advantage that its system is designed from the ground up to support the intended mode of play. As such, it’s rather converted me to be a Dredd grognard; I can’t see myself running a Judge Dredd game with anything else.