Going off of a recommendation from a friend I recently picked up the new (well last years) Judge Dredd movie and to my surprise I not only enjoyed it but found myself rewatching it the next evening. The reason for that, I think, is the movie hits pretty much every aspect of the dystopian cyberpunk genre and does so without compromise. From the outset Mega-City One is presented as a violent, brutal and uncaring place to live with the focus firmly centered at street level. Dredd himself is presented as an unflinching enforcer of the law and while much happens over the course of the story (which comes across as a typical day for Dredd) no attempt is made to humanise him or to develop his character. He is the epitome of a faceless system where citizens are little more than numbers in the dataflow and as such makes the perfect counterpart to the rookie Judge Anderson.
My aim here, however, isn’t to review the movie as perhaps unsurprisingly the movie got me thinking about how I would run the movie as a game. In thinking about this (during my second viewing) one particular line caught my attention:
They’ve killed 30 plus and haven’t even taken a scratch…
Until I picked up on this line I had initially been thinking along the lines of fairly traditional cyberpunk RPGs, where the PCs are often tricked out killing machines with hundreds of options at their fingertips. The issue with this thinking though is that in each of the games I’d looked at combat becomes a central focus, requiring multiple turns, complex tactical choices and generally only allow for each PC to engage a single enemy with any given action.
None of which is keeping with the feel of Dredd, where most of the fight scenes are over in seconds, with a dozen or so enemies felled before they even get a chance to act. Fighting, while an integral part of the movie, is also incidental. It has to be when the Judges are so highly trained, which is also why the longest fight scene sees Dredd facing off against a handful of corrupt Judges. Even the final confrontation with the drug baron Ma-Ma (brilliantly played by Lena Headey) is brutally direct and short, ignoring the Hollywood desire for a drawn out climax.
So given all this how would I run a Dredd as a tabletop game? Primarily by avoiding making combat the focus. PCs would still be nigh unstoppable killing machines thanks to Judge (or Judge like) training but the combat itself would be short, fast and brutal with a focus on the consequences. Mechanically I can think of a number of systems that could achieve this but my personal choice at the moment would be a tweaked version of Cortex Plus, incorporating aspects from the Action and Dramatic variants. Why? Most importantly the system already allows for extremely quick combats, which can be completed in as little as a single roll while entire groups of enemies can be represented by a single die (and therefore taken out in a single action). Despite this the system also scales well, incorporating NPCs capable of individually challenging the PCs without any trouble. The second reason is the flexibility of the system which is easily modified to suit the needs of an individual genre or setting, as demonstrated by the success of the Cortex Plus Hackers Guide. With that in mind it would be relatively easy to incorporate all of the required aspects into the game, such as Distinctions that encouraged Dredd to be heartless or even introduced additional Trouble / Complications when he wasn’t. Likewise Anderson’s psychic abilities could be easily represented and triggered through use of plot points while her compassion could also be designed to earn her plot points when it made her hesitate in carrying out her duties. For a game with only two players it would even be possible to design Distinctions which played off of one another, with plot points flowing back and forth between the players instead of player and GM.
As always this is one of those things that everybody will see slightly differently depending upon their individual preferences and what they see as the most important focus of the game. For some it will be being badass enforcers of the law, for me it’s the development of the characters while enforcing rigid and unyielding justice. Or as Dredd himself would say
I am the law