Monday, March 4, 2019

Judge Dredd is Lawful Evil

I've talked a lot about alignment over the years on this blog, with previous posts like Alignment is Performative as well as the installment that started this occasional feature Absolute Good, Absolute Evil, and Alignment in RPGs. However, since a discussion on this particular topic keeps cropping up in my feed over and over again, I figured I'd leave my two cents on it this week.

Because it disturbs me that so many of my fellow gamers are rooting for the fascist power fantasy, while missing the satirical soul of Judge Dredd.

Because if this doesn't look like a poster from Franco's Spain, I don't know what does.
So this week I thought I'd dedicate some time to this, and get us thinking a little deeper.

Who is Judge Dredd?


For those of you who somehow aren't familiar with this character, let me catch you up on the basics. Dredd lives in the post-apocalyptic future of world of 2000 AD. The character is a Judge, empowered by the legal system of Mega City One to dispense justice according to the laws. The unbroken concrete hellscape is not a forgiving place, though, which means that the offenders who cross Dredd's path can expect to spend decades in total isolation at best, or summary execution at worst.


The character and his world are a satirical take on the power fantasy we see in a lot of action movies, which is one reason Dredd seems like an amalgamation of famous musclebound stars. Stallone's chin, Arnold's chest and biceps, Lundgren's sheer towering height, etc. He also tends to fall into the same category as Rorschach from Watchmen... which is to say that the British audience he was made for understood that he was a totalitarian nut job who believed he was doing what it took to keep order, while the American audience mistankenly thought the character was a hero.

The reason we never see Dredd remove his helmet is that he is not a human being. Dredd is an idea; he's the police state if it was a person. He is the militarization of law enforcement to the point that it exists for its own sake; an arbitrary force of nature that rains down hellfire on those who break the law.

Why Dredd is Not Good, Nor Neutral


Don't misunderstand me, here. The character of Judge Dredd is a ball, and the world he exists in is full of batshit bonkers stuff. State-sponsored cannibalism, raves of mutagenic drug addicts, ghoulish parodies of justice from other dimensions, and so on. If you don't have the film Dredd on your DVD shelf, and you haven't taken a look at Judge Dredd and The Worlds of 2000 AD Core Rulebook, then you should totally go do that.

You will thank me for it later. Now, let's get started.

To address the folks in the, "lawful good doesn't mean lawful nice camp," I agree with you on principle. Just because you have an LG in your box, that doesn't mean you visit orphans on the weekends, and plant daisies in your front garden. But it does mean that you attempt to do what is right. This is an important distinction, because you'll notice that Dredd often talks about bringing judgment, but never justice.

Because Dredd is not concerned with what is right; he is concerned with the law, and only the law. Sometimes enforcing the law means he saves people from vicious gangs. Sometimes it means he ends up splashing people's brains all over the wall for nonviolent offenses. His obsession with the penal code, and the fact that everything is filtered through it (along with the fact that mercy is not a quality he possesses, though he is well within his rights to exercise discretion should he so choose), is further evidence that doing what is good does not cross his mind.

And if performing any of the atrocities we see him commit on the regular bothers him, we never see that either.

Judgment Intensifies
As far as the, "He enforces the law, and that makes him neutral," crowd, I also acknowledge that you have a point. Someone who applies the law equally and fairly would normally fall into the LN category on a character sheet. They're impartial, trusting in the law to bring justice.

However, the system that Dredd supports is blatantly and satirically broken. The answer to every problem in the 2000 AD world is the most cartoonishly evil one you could possibly have that still solves the problem. People are hungry because most of the nation is an irradiated wasteland? What if we made it an open secret that we were recycling all the dead bodies into meat products to keep people fed? And increased the penalty for a lot of crimes to summary execution to make sure the supply stayed fed? Unemployment is skyrocketing! Well, let's crack down on more crimes to store unwanteds in a colossal prison complex to keep the population under control. There are too many crimes to deal with processing offenders and accused offenders? Eh, just do away with the whole court system, and put all of our trust in a single person to carry out the sentence.

Dredd is just doing his job. The same way certain jackbooted personnel during Hitler's Germany or Franco's Spain were just doing their jobs. Perhaps the best statement on the whole matter is from one of the corrupt judges in the Karl Urban film. "You know what Mega City One is? It's a fucking meat grinder. We just turn the handle."

These policies are not huge secrets in Dredd's universe. He's witnessed plenty of them firsthand. He sees people being executed in droves, he sees the riots and the fear, and he knows that what he is doing is perpetuating the system. He does not question it. He turns the handle, because that is his job. And by willfully participating in this kind of structured evil, he has become a willing party to all of its acts. He is, in many ways, the best representation of the State he serves; the glitz and polish of militarized force, barely concealing savage violence, the gold accents of his uniform spattered with blood.

Why We Want Dredd (And Characters Like Him) As Heroes


If we take a step back, and look at Dredd objectively, we realize that he is exactly the sort of character we typically use as a lieutenant villain in RPGs. Someone who summarily executes people without gathering evidence or presenting it to a court is exactly the kind of sign DMs give to players to let them know they're in an evil kingdom. The only way to make it more blatant is to have him beat a confession out of someone.

We saw it with Rorschach in Watchmen, and we see it in a lot of takes with Batman. We see it in every iteration of Superman when he decides to rule the world. We see it in the Deathwish films, and to an extent we see it in the Punisher. Part of it is that they play into the myth of victory by force. The vigilante, the hero cop, the old soldier, and other archetypes that all poke the American psyche in its happy places. They allow us to justify might-makes-right without putting ourselves into the category of the cruel ogre, the slave driver, or the wicked knight because their goals have been painted as noble, or necessary in some way.

It lets us have our cake and eat it, too.

The other part of the appeal is that these characters are often presented with the right beats that we don't think about the implications of what's beneath the skin. Something Paul Verhoeven did with Starship Troopers, for example.

For more on this topic of casting the folks we should see as villains as heroes, and the tricks we often fall for, check out the following video by Wisecrack!



Final Thoughts


Does liking characters like the protagonists mentioned above make you a bad person? No, of course it doesn't. Hell, I've actively enjoyed reading/watching most of what I've mentioned in this article. And sometimes you just want a game where you can mow down waves of unthinking, particularly evil enemies without worrying about your conscience, or what effect it could have on your alignment.

I get that.

However, discussions about alignment often reveal more about us than we think. And if you find yourself arguing that the billionaire who puts himself above judges while ignoring the law of the land, or the masked lunatic who tortures people for information deserve to have a G or an N in their alignment boxes, stop and ask why. Because no one ever claimed that Jack Bauer, Dredd, or even Charles Bronson's leads weren't effective at achieving their goals. But getting the job done doesn't make you a good person.

Just some food for thought!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday! For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, as well as Dungeon Keeper Radio. And if you'd like to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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4 comments:

  1. Something I've always said when making an Evil Character is that they hve to have a code, even more so than Good characters because hat's how they excuse their actions to themselves, even in face of evidence behind the inherent evilness of their methods. Having a code, humanises them, and if the code is particularly understandable "No Woman, No Children" or "Only if I'm paid" it makes the evil acts they are more willing to do. (Guns down several body guards that could have been stealthed around 'cause it's easier, kills Orcs out of casual racism because "Vermin don't count as people") far more abhorrent by comparison.

    Combining that with this, makes me woder why I've never had the same thoughts on Dredd's alignment as this article, although I'm willing to put that down to my great ignorance of the satire Dredd comics are pushing.

    Although I used the same arguments for Commissar's in WH40K so... I dunno.

    PS: Both of those code / violation examples are assassin characters I've played, both were LE, both were fun as heck to play within their limitations.

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  2. For the argument of Evil and no Neutral, you would have to show that Dredd would actively fight to keep these satirically evil laws in force rather than just changing to enforce any new legal codes implemented. I think Dredd would fall in the latter - he isn't there to make the laws or influence them, he is there to enforce it and "be the physical manifestation of the law and its punishments." In other words, I see a LE person as someone who uses the laws to gain the advantage/benefits for themselves and keep themselves in power; a LG person is a person who wants to enforce an authoritarian/top-down system to ensure everyone treats everyone else fairly; and a LN person just believes in laws for the laws sake - you don't go against what has been decides just because you do or don't like the effects of the law (and if you don't like the law, change it rather than break it).

    Of course, the whole notion of a D&D alignment system is horribly laughable and is just designed for game reasons and to appeal to our need to justify evil actions done by "good" heroes. I think Palladium's alignment system is an improvement, as is Pendragon's virtues - but those systems that just don't bother and have players merely optionally define motivations, quirks, beliefs, etc seem to be doing "alignment" right.

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  3. "Because it disturbs me that so many of my fellow gamers are rooting for the fascist power fantasy, while missing the satirical soul of Judge Dredd."

    Same, but I've notice people seem increasingly unable to spot or understand satire in general.

    ReplyDelete
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