Far back in the days when Games Workshop used to be the UK's leading roleplaying games company, they produced a version of the Judge Dredd RPG which was simple but appealing. Now that Mongoose Publishing have taken on that mantle they too have produced their own version of Judge Dredd. Based on the 2000AD comic story of a futuristic lawman the game remains something that is only going to appeal to fans of the original stories. The writers of the new Judge Dredd RPG are certainly fans, and the whole book seems something of a labour of love. But the basic game rules are deeply flawed by trying to use the D20 rules and adapting the game to suit, rather than coming up with something original.
This is the first time I had read a D20 rulebook for something other than a fantasy setting and I was curious as to how the rules would suit Judge Dredd. The first thing I should note is that in order to play the Judge Dredd RPG you will still need the Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook. This, I think is included as a clause in the D20 licence, to ensure you spend some money on Wizards of the Coasts products. So you can't really blame Mongoose for this, but it does seem odd when playing a science fiction roleplaying game to be referring to a Dungeons and Dragons handbook for certain rules.
Apart from your old PHB looking out of place next to it though the Judge Dredd rulebook looks great. Each page is nicely framed by a Mega City One skyline and a metallic Justice Department badge. There are dozens of illustrations throughout, taken from the pages of 2000AD which really set the tone and mood of the game. In addition to this there are some really nice colour plates showing original artwork which any fan will love. They may take up a few pages but I always feel that the artwork is one of the most important parts of any rulebook, and can make or break a game.
The book starts with a brief Introduction and a Welcome To Mega-City One. If you've got to this point in the review but you don't know what Mega-City One is then this game may not be for you. This may sound a bit harsh but I don't think that someone could come to this game and GM it without having read a fair amount of the Judge Dredd comic in order to capture the style and mood of the world. Players will hopefully be able to learn about the world as they play, as long as the GM knows his stuff. For those of us already familiar with the comics the Introduction reassures us that these people really do know what they are talking about.
The first rules discussed in the game is the chapter on character generation. Unlike the old Games Workshop version of Judge Dredd this game gives you two options for characters - either judges or citizens. This has been cited as one of the major selling points of the game but unfortunately its clear that you can only really play one or the other as the two are simply not compatible. Using the D20 system is the biggest hinderance in the character generation system here as the game tries to force everything into classes. In D&D the class system works because there are a lot of them and their abilities compliment one another. In Judge Dredd though there are hardly any starting classes and the game system does not allow for much customisation.
Most games I imagine will focus on judges but there are only two judge classes - the street judge and the psi judge. The practical upshot of which is that half your players will probably choose one class, and half the other, resulting in a much greater number of psi judges than there should be in Mega City One. Alternatively there is one single class for the citizen character which has slightly different abilities depending on your background, but the same basic character template. There just are not enough options at character creation to make it interesting, partly due to the limits of the world but mainly due to the artificial nature of the D20 class system. If you had six players making up a party of judges the chances are after rolling them up half of them will be almost statistically indentical to the other half. In a world where said judges are supposed to suppress their personality and emotions this doesn't allow much scope for diversity in a judge campaign.
Later chapters detail prestige classes your characters can select. As usual in a D20 game there are requirements before a character can qualify for these though so you might have to play up to high level before these become available. Prestige classes include things like Tek Judges and Med Judges which I would have preffered as options when making up a basic character. Instead you are unlikely to qualify for these before level 7 and psi judges cannot choose these options at all ( a seperate supplement details special prestige classes for psi judges ).
The chapters on Skills and Feats as you might imagine try to crowbar the D20 system into a more modern setting. A lot of these are the same as are found in D&D with a few changes to reflect the nature of life in Mega City One. For example you still have a Ride skill but it refers to riding a bike, you still have the Quick Draw feat but it refers to drawing a gun. Once again any originality is stifled by the D20 system. Its worth noting that most of a street judges abilities come in the form of bonus feats, so these become the best chance you have to personalise your judge. Even so there are several skills and feats which stand out as better than others and most players would regard as essential.
The equipment and weapons chapter is nicely done with all sorts of weird and wonderful items taken from the pages of 2000AD. Each weapon is given its own illustration which is a nice touch, with extra love given to the judges equipment. Once again judges have standard equipment so there is no chance to personalise your judge here either. It is nice to see though that the judge character sheet at the back of the book includes this equipment as standard which saves writing it out each time.
Combat in Judge Dredd follows the standard D20 rules with a few minor differences. The games designers have made some effort here to adapt the system to suit the style of the comic but they have had their hands tied. The most noticeable difference is the use of Defence Values instead of armour class. Armour, instead of making you harder to hit actually provides a reduction in the damage you take. While your defence value, derived from your Reflexes save and any nearby cover helps you avoid being hit in the first place. Its clear from this system that judges are designed to be pretty tough hombres as they start automatically at level 3, have excellent all over body armour and use the best weapons in the game. If you are playing as citizens however you are only likely to survive a fight if you are facing other citizens rather than judges.
The chapter following combat details Vehicles and Robots and again introduces some modified D20 rules. Essentially the aim is to speed up the D20 system to allow for high speed chases and rapid weapon fire. It seems somewhat forced and I can't help feeling that the writers would have been better designing a system from scratch rather than trying to use D20 at all. This chapter is a good example of the level of detail in the game though with all sorts of robots and vehicles described and illustrated with great accuracy and care.
Being a big fan of Judge Anderson stories the chapter on Psi Powers was something I was looking forward to but it proves to be a big dissapointment. Once again the fault lies with whoever decided to use the D&D system as these abilities are nothing more than spells. Looking like a limited section from the Dungeons and Dragons wizards spellbook the psi powers are described in the same format as D&D spells, only with power points being used instead of a spell point system. There are even some psi powers which directly copy D&D spells like Daze and Augury. This is such a wasted opportunity to come up with something original and it totally detracts from the style of the psi judge stories in 2000AD. When Judge Anderson used her powers it was always vague and unpredictable, the idea of her 'casting' Daze every round makes me cringe. This approach is completely unsuitable and I'm surprised the writers went for this system unless they had to as part of the D20 licencing contract ie "anyone using our system must also adopt our god-awful magic system into whatever game they are writing".
The following chapters provide a vast wealth of background material about Mega City One and its Justice Department. These chapters are lovingly detailed with information about the law ( something every judge player would have to have a copy of )and what it means to be a judge. More information is also given on running a citizen based campaign with the various past times and crazes detailed so you can decide just what sort of citizen you are going to be. Most as you might expect will turn to crime, and although this type of campaign allows for greater freedom it is also a lot less focused. With no common goal to work towards citizen characters may find it hard to work together, and as mentioned previously as soon as a judge turns up they are as good as dead.
One thing which I found to be missing in this rulebook was some statistics for standard judges and perps of each level. Instead there are some guidelines to creating NPC's and a 'monster manual' of non-human adversaries you could throw at your players. This seems a bit of a shame as GM's will each have to work out some standard statistics for random city encounters before playing, which is extra work a GM could do without.
The final sections of the rulebook deal with running a Judge Dredd campaign, and include a timeline and glossary for reference. Its a shame the book does not include an introductory adventure but these are very well written chapters which should give a GM lots of ideas for writing his or her own. Mongoose have also published a number of adventures and other supplements to support this line, so there is more out there if you want it.
So after all that you may still be wondering whether to spend your money on this product, it is expensive after all. I would suggest once again that you know something about Judge Dredd and his world before buying this, and also check with those you play with to make sure they would be happy playing it. This is definitely a game made by the fans for the fans and others may not appreciate the dark humour and style of Judge Dredd. It is however a flawed adaptation thanks to its use of the D20 system. As a result it may provide some entertainment for a few nights gaming but is unlikely to satisfy an extended campaign unless all players were extremely dedicated and willing to overlook its flaws.