We're an RPG history podcast, dedicated to the roleplaying games of yesteryear. Join us and don your rose-tinted glasses as we take a look at classic games, their histories and their impact they've had on the hobby today.

Back in my university days, I had a lot going on RPG wise. During Fresher’s week, I discovered the University’s roleplaying society and the Star Wars RPG’s joys. 

A trip into one of Glasgow’s Virgin megastores – a hallowed metropolis of roleplaying goodness! It led to me discover a locally produced game called “SLA Industries” that completely blew my mind and led to a campaign spanning many years. Years later, their “Karma” product still sticks with me as one of the most stylistically clever sourcebooks I’ve ever seen produced for an RPG. It might sound like I’m being guilty of donning the old rose-tinted specs here, but I’m not hyperbolic when I say that I don’t think I’ve ever got as much out of any other system’s supplement as I did out of this one. It was probably for this reason – the fact that the content was causing a near meltdown of my fragile little brain – that caused the book to self destruct into a pile of loose pages after only a few read-throughs. 

SLA Industries RPG: Amazon.co.uk: Allsop, Dave: 9780952217602: Books
Best game ever?

 A subscription to the beautiful “Valkyrie” magazine introduced me to a little-known (ha!) company called White Wolf, which resulted in a buying frenzy that some might have dubbed obsessive and a desire to own every new book and system they produced. Somewhat embarrassingly, it also fuelled a desire to run a crossover campaign; wouldn’t it be so cool to get all these supernaturals together in one game? Thankfully – mercifully – that never happened. I realised what a horrible idea this was and pulled the plug before this monstrosity was spawned. 

None the less, I ran games of Vampire, Mage and Wraith, and ended buying up other books that this renaissance of “darker” games birthed. Kult and Nephilim were two of my favourites. After one abortive attempt to run the latter, I realised how something could be good on paper and extremely impractical, complex and unwieldy in execution. 

However, competing for my attention – and the contents of my wallet – was a little something called the collectible card game craze. Like most gaming junkies at the time, I started with Magic but quickly moved onto Vampire: the Eternal Struggle – or Jyhad as it was known back then. Honestly, I can’t conceive of a poorer name for a gaming product, and I wonder how many CCG message boards, chat rooms and fan sites have been flagged for “attention” by the NSA and GCHQ for that reason alone… 

Magic: The Gathering - Wikipedia
Drugs would have been cheaper…

I enjoyed both games immensely, but, as Inquest magazine showed me, the market was filling up with hundreds and hundreds of games. If these two were good, why not check out the others? This is where the deceptive lure of CCGs is so insidious and so clever. Compared to investing in a new RPG, the entry footprint of a CCG is relatively small. A couple of boosters and a starter – at least back in the 90s – would set you back around a tenner. It was once you got hooked that they got their claws into you, and things started to hurt. None the less, I embraced this new hobby with gusto. In addition to Magic and Vampire, I dabbled in Star Wars, Star Trek, Illuminati, Rage, Middle Earth, Mythos, the X Files….the list was fairly long. 

The dangerous thing though? 

I enjoyed them all. And because of this, I wanted to COLLECT all of these games.

Yeah – that could be COSTLY.

Thankfully, another game came to my rescue and resulted in me becoming SO focused on it that I ignored all others…

Back in the late 90s, my “main” CCG was Star Wars. I was – and still am – a HUGE fan of the expanded universe, and after the first few expansions, the CCG had begun to hit its stride and was doing a great job of capturing the feel and theme of the films. It chimed nicely with the West End Games’ RPG that I was playing at the time, and besides, there was nothing quite like that feeling of opening a pack and getting one of the main characters in your rare slot… 

Depending on how you looked at it, I was also very fortunate as one of my friends owned a shop that primarily dedicated to collectable card games and RPGs. It was a great spot for hanging out, too; we did most of our gaming there – a wise move on the owner’s part as he knew full well that none of us could resist the urge to impulse buy a couple of boosters for whatever CCG we were currently playing.

It was there one Friday evening that said owner came over to me – I think I was just finishing up a game of Star Wars – and asked me if I was interested in a game called “Legend of the Five Rings”, or L5R for short. I had seen a few of the guys in the shop playing that game but had never paid much attention to it.  The whole samurai thing had never really done much for me, so I had largely just written it off as another fantasy game. He explained that he was running a sanctioned tournament in a few weeks – which was very dramatically named “The Day of Thunder” – and he was hoping to have a player represent one of each clan – the name of the game’s main factions. There was one clan that nobody was playing, and he made me an offer – he’d sell me a starter set and some boosters at “mate’s rates” and give me a whole load of cards for this clan that he didn’t use on the proviso that I entered the tournament. Never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth and forgetting that old drug dealer adage of “the first one is always free”, I acquiesced.   I had, of course, completely disregarded the fact that I had a week to learn a game that I had never played before to compete in a tournament full of guys who played this game religiously. 

Legend of the Five Rings | Board Game | BoardGameGeek
Friends don’t do this to each other…

I hurried home with my bundle of loot and plunged into the starter box, boosters and piles of cards that my friend had given me. After a weekend of poring over all my new goodies – when doubtlessly I should have probably been studying – I came to one, inescapable conclusion.

Everything about L5R BLEW MY MIND.

It wasn’t just the game – which I bloody loved, as it was largely about the interplay at the table between multiple players – but the setting, the story and the history. Alderac Entertainment Group had created an absorbing and immersive world, with an evolving plotline and some fascinating characters. Each clan had a distinct identity and an equally distinctive playstyle, but the little bits of fiction on the cards helped players understand the broader tale being told. I began collecting cards just to piece together the narrative – this was in the days before online Wikis existed to summarise everything in one neat place.

Therefore, imagine for a minute my face when the self same friend who got me hooked on the CCG came up to me a few months later, grinning widely and holding up an L5R RPG. 

He tapped the cover and then pointed at me before cocking his head to one side and raising an eyebrow.

I nodded.

Of course I’d play…

Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game - Wikipedia

Entertainment Group – henceforth known as AEG – published the L5R RPG in 1997. It is a fantasy RPG set in the fictional Empire of Rokugan – a place heavily influenced by the legends and myths of Japan and other Asian cultures. However, this isn’t simply another “hey, aren’t samurai so cool with their honour and everything” type of setting. Yes, feudal Japan could make a fascinating period to set a game, but the Emerald Empire isn’t feudal Japan any more than the D&D’s Forgotten Realms are medieval Europe. It’s ultimately a fantasy setting, so expect to find a cast of trolls, goblins, spirits, animal-people, demons, dragons and undead alongside everyday humans! 

One of the fascinating aspects of the rulebook is the time it devotes to describing Rokugani culture. This organisational decision helps make the point that this isn’t just “D&D with katanas”. Everything in Rokugan revolves around the samurai caste, and the samurai, in return, centre their existence around their honour-based code of bushido. Because honour is such a personal thing, Rokugani have to be VERY careful not to offend samurai because doing so tends to result in a duel (or being cut down if you’re not a samurai). As a result, a culture has developed that is painfully polite and extremely carefully spoken. Rokugani do not value honesty – they value people who appear sincere in what they say. Outbursts of passion are considered uncouth, and a samurai is expected to maintain a dispassionate, emotionless demeanour at all times. Needless to say, there are some characters who excel at needling away at this mask…. Indeed, a quick mind and a sharp tongue are just as deadly as a good sword arm in Rokugan, and the potential for courtly intrigue in this setting is huge. That being said, this unique culture does require some investment on the part of the players and the GM. It’s well worth it, though – as I said, without this backdrop, L5R can quickly just become a “generic fantasy game with an Asian twist”.

Unlike the CCG and its expansions, which forged ahead with the timeline of the Emerald Empire, the RPG is set before the main action of the card game – taking place a couple of years prior. The setting is vibrant – detailing everything from day to day life of the people of Rokugan, all the way to the creation of the world by the divine Sun and Moon. Players take on the role of samurai – the nobility of Rokugan – and they can choose to be either bushi – warriors – or shugenja – priests and priestesses who receive magical powers from the divine beings they worship. 

Because of how much care and attention has been poured into the setting and its background, it’s possible to run many different kinds of story, from investigative, to courtly, to horror based. As we’ll see later on, AEG took this diversity to heart when writing adventure modules.

D&D 3rd Edition Character Sheet 2.5.p65
The titular five rings look great on the character sheet

Character creation is points based, with players allocating values to traits – innate abilities such as strength, intelligence and perception – and skills – learned abilities that a samurai is taught throughout their life. Skills might be things such as swordplay, calligraphy or oratory – basically, anything you could learn. These were also broken down into high skills and low skills, with the former being courtly skills – the kind of things that samurai were expected to use in their day to day. Prowess with a sword, the tea ceremony, and origami – these are all good and proper high skills. Low skills, on the other hand…well…this includes things like poison, gambling and stealth. Things that are generally useful but considered beneath a samurai will probably result in the loss of honour if you’re caught using them…

Alongside these two numbers is the concept of rings and yes, there are five of them…. A ring is (with one exception) a pair of traits. For example, the ring of earth is made up of stamina and willpower. The ring’s value is the lower of these two values. The fifth ring – void or, more accurately, nothingness – represents an inner reserve of strength – and points – that a character can use to pull off great deeds in times of need.

The value of rings are essential for several reasons, but two major ones stand out – the first is that they are key to advancing your character’s insight. This is a number made up of your total rings multiplied by ten, and your total points in skills. This unlocks more powerful abilities at certain thresholds – for bushi, this equates to powerful moves that can be unleashed in combat, whereas shugenja become better at spell casting.

The second use of rings comes down to magic – each spell is keyed to a specific ring; a shugenja will be using the value of the ring when attempting to cast a spell of the corresponding element.

 Depending on what clan and role a player takes determines their honour and glory – two life facts that are of immeasurable importance to samurai. Glory can be thought of social rank. The Emperor – as the son of heaven – has the highest glory and everyone defers to him. Peasants on the other hand, have very little glory. Characters generally earn glory through great acts of derring do and courage. 

Honour – on the other hand – is a character’s investment in the concept of bushido – the code of the samurai – and their belief in its righteousness. Characters with a high honour are seen as trustworthy and are generally treated better than characters with a low honour. However, they have to constantly live up to higher standards than a character with a low honour who can generally behave in a much more selfish manner. When put into situations where they could compromise their beliefs, honourable characters can fall back on their honour ranks to salvage the situation.

A system of advantages and disadvantages rounded out character creation. The former were good aspects of your character that cost points, whereas the latter were detrimental to your character and gave you points. One fun aspect of this was that particular merits were cheaper for certain clans. Crab clan samurai were more likely to be big lads, and therefore the Large advantage cost them less, whilst those pretty boys in the Crane found it cheaper to purchase “Benten’s blessing” – the standard “You’re good looking and charming” advantage.

When it comes to the system, L5R uses AEG’s roll and keep system – in short, when faced with a task, the GM gives the player a Target Number – or TN – and they then roll several dice equal to the appropriate trait and skill, and keep several dice equal to the trait. If they roll equal to or over the number, they succeed. For example, in combat, a character will roll agility and their relevant weapon skill to hit. 

The system becomes more nuanced through the concept of raises.  If you want to do something extra fancy, you can raise the difficulty by five. If you then succeed in your roll, you pull off a more spectacular victory. Magic makes excellent use of this to do things like extending the duration, range and effect of spells that are cast. Often certain acts of preparation – for example, aiming with a bow – allow a character to get a free raise – which is to say they get the benefits of a raise without raising the TN.

One other feature of the Roll and Keep system is the concept of “exploding dice”; every ten you roll “explodes”, which is to say you get to roll that die again and add the second number to the ten. If you get ANOTHER ten, you roll again and so on.

While the system is a lot of fun, it does mean that combat is pretty lethal – a reputation that L5R established reasonably early on in its run! 

The great thing about the core L5R book was that it was a complete game – you had everything you needed to start running adventures out of the box. There was a complete guide to the history of Rokugan, an overview of life in the Emerald Empire, comprehensive character creation rules, two schools for each clan plus rules for Ronin – masterless samurai – for those angsty edge-lords out there, detailed skill resolution and combat systems, which included rules for skirmishes, duelling AND mass battles, more information on weapons, armour and equipment than you’d ever need, details on Rokugani religion, a magic system with a ton of spells, GM tips galore, a bestiary, some fun maps and a starter adventure.

Phew.

Somebody took a leaf out of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s book!

However, with hundreds of the CCG fans clamouring for more, the folks at AEG did not sit on their laurels. Over the next three years, they released no fewer than thirty-five supplements. Foremost amongst these were the “Way of the Clans” series – splat books that gave a detailed overview of Rokugan’s great clans’ history, structure, and culture, along with expanded character creation rules. A particular fan favourite, which played nicely with the theme of ancestor worship, was the history tables, which allowed you to establish a legacy for your character’s family. Perhaps your ancestor was a hero, a villain or something else – regardless, these tables were great fun for players and GMs alike! 

The Way of the Crab by Christina McAllister

In a nice nod to the CCG, each clan book also included sample decks for each clan. 

However, the most exciting thing in the clan books was the new schools they included. Schools were the “roles” the players chose for their samurai. In the core book, they were limited to bushi or shugenja for the leading families in a clan; the Clan Books allowed more variety. Why not be a diplomat, an engineer, a witch hunter or a courtier? These offered more variety for players and GMs alike and expanded the scope of what could be done with the game.

There were also extensive write-ups for prominent NPCs for each clan, and these, along with the substantive history chapters, helped breathe life into Rokugan. This is vital for a setting that wants to break away from accusations that its subject matter is entirely made up of idealised stereotypes. Having different characters with distinct personalities, motivations, and backstories goes a long way to show “Look! It’s not just some D&D samurai mash-up where everyone spends the whole time screaming about honour and killing themselves when they do something wrong.”

Of course, these books weren’t perfect – there was definitely a feeling of power creep, and that whichever clan had most recently received their clan book was “flavour of the month”. 

The Way of the Unicorn by Edward Bolme

Following these books’ success, “clan” books were released for the Minor Clans, Ronin, Monks and the Naga – the mysterious serpent people from Rokugan’s past. These broadened the scope of what could be played, but some players felt that they took away from what had always been the focus of L5R – the great clans and their families.

Fun as the clan books were, these weren’t the only products produced by AEG. A whole swathe of adventures, all dealing with different themes, were released between 1997 and 2000. Taking a leaf out of early D&D’s book, these were numbered and coded to give the prospective GM a good idea of what was covered. For example, the “S” series of adventures dealt with the Shadowlands, the “B” modules were themed around bushido, whilst the “M” adventures all revolved around magic. There were eleven modules released, with three dealing with the Shadowlands, two with Bushido, two with magic, one with the Imperial City, one with intrigue and two with the infamous City of Lies. 

Three of these products – City of Lies, Tomb of Iuchiban and Otosan Uchi were large, boxed sets that contained multiple booklets and other goodies such as maps. These boxed sets are generally held in high regard – City of Lies, in particular, is frequently cited as one of the high points of the original L5R run.

Otosan Uchi Boxed Set (Legend of the Five Rings, O-1 The Imperial City):  Ree Soesbee, Patrick Kapera: Amazon.com: Books

This use of numbered modules and boxed sets was also a clever marketing strategy; in a day and age where the market was dominated by “storytelling” games and where supplements were more concerned with character-building than published adventures, the L5R products tugged at a chord of nostalgia. The way they were presented was similar enough to D&D that many gamers – consciously or not – felt a natural affinity with them.

Various other sourcebooks were published that were neither splat book nor adventure, but special mention must be given to the Book of the Shadowlands. Printed like an “in-world” document, the Book of the Shadowlands essentially relegates any game “crunch” to sidebars and instead provides a highly atmospheric look into one of the game’s darkest settings. As someone once put it, this publication was more like an immersive storybook that just happened to have RPG rules included. Rereading this book, you get the impression that there was an intention to publish many volumes in a similar style to this. Whilst some later books attempt this, none comes close to Book of the Shadowlands in terms of presentation. 

Taking all of this into account, it should come as no surprise that L5R won the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game of 1997.

So far, so good. However, AEG were about to introduce something that would divide fans. You see, in RPG circles, and especially in an established setting, there is one word that can cause hackles to rise – metaplot. In essence, a metaplot is an overarching story that affects all aspects of the game. White Wolf are the most infamous in this regard – they’d release things in one book that would affect all other books they were going to release and, by extension, your campaign. L5R and its players were no strangers to this; the card game had had a metaplot for years. However, the RPG publishers had made a conscious choice to stay away from it, preferring to centre their game in a period that pre-dates the CCG’s metaplot events. 

For those unfamiliar with the CCG, the pivotal event that propelled the CCG timeline forward was an attempted coup by the Scorpion clan, which ended with the Scorpion being banished, a new Emperor in power and significant changes to the leadership of other clans. This sets the scene for a civil war in Rokugan and all the various events during the CCG’s arc. However, the RPG creators chose to put their game’s action before the coup – giving players and GMs a more durable canvas to paint on. After all, when one of the powerful clans is outlawed, and the other six are at each other’s throats, it makes it hard to conjure up a “…, and you all go on an adventure together…” premise.

L5R Legend Of Five Rings Scorpion Clan Coup Scroll 1 Sealed NIB Combo Box  631806055262 | eBay

AEG touched on the Scorpion Clan coup in their Otosan Uchi publication, which detailed the Imperial capital. In the third book in the box, The Scorpion’s Sting, a rough adventure framework is given for playing out the key aspects of that fateful event. However, it makes it quite clear that “not all gamesters, nor all players, will use this book”. The writers point out that this is a big event; it affects the entire Empire and, if you fancy it, you can mess around with it to have it fit your chosen timeline. It serves, if you like, as a bridging point between different points in Rokugan’s history, but it was never mandated in a White Wolf-esque “…and further supplements will take these events into account…” kind of way.

Then, in 2000, AEG released 2nd edition.

Now, it’s not strictly fair to say that 2nd ed was the first time AEG had played with the setting’s timelne – as mentioned previously Otosan Uchi included details of the Scorpion Coup, and several other later first ed supplements are set in its aftermath – but these jumps in time were fairly short and fluid – the coup itself is barely two weeks long. 2nd ed was when someone at AEG yelled, “FULL STEAM AHEAD!” and propelled the metaplot forward at a rate of knots. 

The 1st edition was set roughly two years before the Scorpion coup; the 2nd edition is set around two years AFTER the coup. In addition, this is considered to be the default setting for the new edition. This caused some problems for 1st edition players who had quite happily been plodding along in their pre-coup timeline and were looking forward to 2nd ed products…which were now all set in a future that hadn’t yet happened in their games…. Likewise, for new players who picked up second edition and had to take in all these “well, such and such a clan is now in hiding, and this family has been dishonoured and this thing is now happening over here” it could all feel slightly overwhelming and a bit like that time I walked into a cinema half an hour after a film had started…

However, this wasn’t going to be the only leap in time.

One of the earliest releases was Time of the Void – a supplement that detailed the entire Clan War arc encompassing the first few years of the CCG’s existence. To put this into context, whilst the entirety of L5R’s first edition moved the metaplot on by maybe a year or so, this one book looked to tie up several years worth of meta plot including – spoilers by the way – a civil war between the great clans of Rokugan, a plot to poison the Emperor, the Crab clan’s abandonment of their ancient oaths and their subsequent alliance with the forces of darkness, doppelgängers, the return of the Scorpion, the invasion of the capital city, the emergence of the Naga, the revelation that the emperor is possessed by a dark god who is planning on taking over everything, the rise of a disgraced ronin, the ascendency of an alliance of minor clans, a war between the forces of darkness and the monks, the corruption of one of the great clans, the opening of “The Twelve Black Scrolls” – yes, that’s as ominous as it sounds – and a massive finale in the form of The Second Day of Thunder. 

In short – it’s a LOT!

AEG L5R RPG 1st-2nd Ed Way of the Wolf VG - £21.75 | PicClick UK

Hold on to your hats though, because we’re not done yet! The Hidden Emperor sourcebook, released not that long after, detailed the next stage of the metaplot. Set two years AFTER the events of Time of the Void, this setting – detailed in a single book – takes up another four years of game time…. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that the stories being told were bad – quite the opposite in fact! The L5R storylines were rich in detail and flavour, and featured some amazing characters. The pace though… It was breathtaking – the setting had gone from being somewhere stable that you could set a campaign, to an ever changing landscape where the next supplement that came out might very well not be compatible with where you had currently set things. 

It should be noted that the addition of rapidly moving metaplot wasn’t necessarily a misstep – I, for one, have always enjoyed metaplot in games, and I know plenty of others do too. The point I’m making here, though, is that for some people, it was far too much metaplot, far too quickly. 

However, the biggest change to affect 2nd ed and arguably the game’s popularity was the change to the system. Previously, a player would roll dice equal to their skill and trait when making a skill test, and they would keep dice equal to their trait. In this equation, skill equated to learned proficiency and trait to natural talent. 

In the new system, you only rolled dice equal to your skill and kept dice equal to your trait. In addition, skills were now capped at 10 rather than 5, and a lot of skills included specialisations. Whereas in the old system you’d learn to fight with edged weapons, in the new one you could learn that skill, but then learn specialities for different types of weapon too.  

To this day, I don’t know why they changed from the old system to this “new” one. Indeed, given that they went back to the system of rolling trait and skill for third edition, I think that’s a tacit nod to the fact that this new system simply didn’t work.

Rokugan (Legend of the Five Rings: Oriental Adventures, Campaign Setting):  Trindle, D.: 9781887953382: Amazon.com: Books
Urgh…

Before we leave second edition, with its meta plots and added complexity, it’s important to note that it was during this time period that Wizards of the Coast – who had purchased the rights to the L5R card game – announced that Rokugan was going to be the setting for their “Oriental Adventures” line for D&D. As a result, aside from a few books released at the beginning of the 2nd ed run, most of its products were dual stat affairs – including D20 and Roll and Keep rules. D20 L5R didn’t survive for long, and I’m not sure its passing was mourned by many, but it was an interesting anomaly none the less.

Come 2005, a third edition was released, which included, amongst other things, an update to the storyline to bring it in line with where the CCG was at the time and a “Legend of the Burning Sands” sister game. In the L5R canon, the Burning Sands was an area roughly to the north of Rokugan, with its setting being a Gestalt of Near Eastern and European myths and legends. I never played this game – indeed, I bought a single starter for the spin off CCG and wasn’t too impressed – so I can’t comment on how it played. However, I think it could have worked as a sourcebook for another part of the world that Rokugan occupied but, then again, that took the focus away from the isolationist Rokugani and their drama. 

LEGEND OF THE FIVE RINGS 3RD EDITION REVISED CORE BOOK - RPG L5R AEG  ROLEPLAYING | eBay
This was a pretty cool cover

Production of new material for the L5R rpg had slowed massively by this point, and in the five years of the 3rd edition’s run, it saw only ten supplements released. 

However, third edition succeeded where second hadn’t, by returning to the system previously outlined in first edition, therefore making it compatible with the various excellent supplements released for that earlier version. Besides, the creators had put in some serious work to clean up some of the rules bloat that had accumulated over the first edition’s lifespan and clear up some of the “flavour of the month” power creep mentioned previously. The designers also made skills more desirable, with benefits for taking them at certain levels, eliminating the sometimes purely mathematical approach to deciding between traits or skills in the first edition. 

When it came to character creation, the core book expanded beyond the first edition options and allowed for characters to be bushi, shugenja, courtiers, or one of a clan’s more specialist schools. 

Just like first edition, the main rulebook was a complete product – you had everything you needed in here to run a game, AND you had rules for setting it in whatever point of Rokugan’s history you wanted without being tied to a constantly shifting metaplot.

In the run up to the fourth edition release in 2010, I stumbled upon the developer’s diaries that were put online cataloguing the game’s construction. By this point, L5R was something I had fond memories of, but which I was not actively playing. However, reading those diaries suddenly reignited my interest in the setting and the game! What was being described seemed to me to be the complete version of L5R! Not only did it include the cleanest set of rules to date – from everything from character creation to combat – it also was not tied to any particular part of Rokugan’s vast (and still developing!) metaplot, and instead provided advice for setting your campaign in whichever period suited your tastes best. This was a hefty book – over 400 pages in length – and it was simply packed. 

Legend of the Five Rings hardcover core rulebook (L5R 4th Edition RPG)  AEG3300
This IS a meaty book…

I won’t go into the ins and outs of every section – the 4th edition takes the structure of the core books that have gone before and builds on them – but one section that stood out was the GM’s chapter. In this, there is some fantastic advice on writing all different kinds of adventures, but the part that I really loved was the piece explaining the differences in structure between Western and Asian stories. It’s great reading, even if you’re not planning on running L5R!

Is it perfect? Of course not, but it certainly feels more complete and more L5R than the previous two editions.

This was the last version of L5R that AEG would produce, and in 2018 Fantasy Flight Games bought the license. They have since released the fifth edition. I’ll hold my hands up here and say I’ve never played it – Fantasy Flight’s penchant for bespoke dice for everything they produce has put me off – but reviews I have read seem largely positive. It certainly seems to keep true to the spirit of the original, with a focus on the culture and drama inherent in the setting rather than degenerating into an outing of “Katanas and Kaiju”. Oh, and like most Fantasy Flight products it’s beautiful to look at.

Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game | The Cardboard Republic

So there we have it; 25 years after the CCG released, L5R is still going strong as an RPG. If you haven’t given it a try, I’d strongly recommend checking it out. If the Fantasy Flight version seems a bit pricey (who am I kidding, it IS a bit pricey!), a quick sweep of eBay should be able to net you a copy of the first edition and everything you need to get started telling stories in Rokugan. It’s a vibrant, immersive setting – just be prepared for you and your players to spend the time learning the Rokugani culture if you truly want to get the full experience. Believe me though, it’s well worth it. 

Before long you’ll be verbally sparring in the winter courts of the Crane, delving into forbidden lore in the libraries of the Phoenix, foiling the machinations of the Scorpion, or fighting alongside the Crab as they defend the Empire from the encroachments of the Shadowlands. And believe me, you’ll love it.

After all, as a wise Rokugani saying goes, “We tell the tale of heroes to remind ourselves that we also can be great.”

Oh, and for those of you still wondering about that tournament that got me dragged into this whole thing in the first place, I ended up coming in second. Beginners’ luck, or a natural flair for strategy? You decide….

One of the best cards ever…

Join us as we explore the Emerald Empire of Rokugan! L5R is a fantastic fantasy setting that actually began life as a collectible card game of all things.

Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 5 Roll to Save

  1. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 5
  2. SLA Industries – The Assumptions – Episode 1
  3. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 4
  4. SLA Industries – Roundtable
  5. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 3

Join us as we chat with the lovely folks who make up the cast of the Chosen Ones visual novel! We talk about how they got involved in the hobby, their favourite moments from their podcast and how they make it such an immersive experience.

Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 5 Roll to Save

Greetings citizen!Join Troubleshooter Task Force Epsilon 718 as they take on another fun, routine task for your friend and mine, The Computer.  As with most Troubleshooter missions, this one will be perfectly safe for everyone concerned.After battling with suspect respirators, food vat chemicals and…well…each other, Task Force Epsilon 718 appear to have managed to get the food vat's bot brain to switch on.  That's progress, right?Thanks to our cast of @manticoretale, @4cornersgames, @ubiquitousrat, @great_lawful, @dicepopuli – check them all out on Twitter!EMAIL: roll.to.save.pod@gmail.comTWITTER: @savepodcastFACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/rolltosavepodWEBSITE: https://rolltosave.blogFRIEND COMPUTER: Keeley WilsonMUSIC & SFX: http://www.epidemicsound.comSupport the show (https://www.patreon.com/rolltosavepod)
  1. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 5
  2. SLA Industries – The Assumptions – Episode 1
  3. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 4
  4. SLA Industries – Roundtable
  5. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 3

Join us as we chat one on one with the man who brought Paranoia back from the dead with Paranoia XP. The delightful Allen Varney takes the time to share with us his history with Paranoia, his thoughts on what makes it funny (and what DOESN’T!) and just what exactly went into the production of Paranoia XP.

Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 5 Roll to Save

Greetings citizen!Join Troubleshooter Task Force Epsilon 718 as they take on another fun, routine task for your friend and mine, The Computer.  As with most Troubleshooter missions, this one will be perfectly safe for everyone concerned.After battling with suspect respirators, food vat chemicals and…well…each other, Task Force Epsilon 718 appear to have managed to get the food vat's bot brain to switch on.  That's progress, right?Thanks to our cast of @manticoretale, @4cornersgames, @ubiquitousrat, @great_lawful, @dicepopuli – check them all out on Twitter!EMAIL: roll.to.save.pod@gmail.comTWITTER: @savepodcastFACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/rolltosavepodWEBSITE: https://rolltosave.blogFRIEND COMPUTER: Keeley WilsonMUSIC & SFX: http://www.epidemicsound.comSupport the show (https://www.patreon.com/rolltosavepod)
  1. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 5
  2. SLA Industries – The Assumptions – Episode 1
  3. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 4
  4. SLA Industries – Roundtable
  5. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 3

Our latest episode is now up! Join us for a Paranoid roundtable, when we put on our RED tinted glasses, and reminisce about this most unique of games! Warning; this episode is a biggie, so be sure to find a comfy seat, a snack and a beverage of your choosing before devouring it. Oh, and at one point we go down a SLA Industries rabbit hole – that was Jason’s fault.

As was the sound problems we have mid way through. Honestly, the boy’s a veritable disaster…

Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 5 Roll to Save

Greetings citizen!Join Troubleshooter Task Force Epsilon 718 as they take on another fun, routine task for your friend and mine, The Computer.  As with most Troubleshooter missions, this one will be perfectly safe for everyone concerned.After battling with suspect respirators, food vat chemicals and…well…each other, Task Force Epsilon 718 appear to have managed to get the food vat's bot brain to switch on.  That's progress, right?Thanks to our cast of @manticoretale, @4cornersgames, @ubiquitousrat, @great_lawful, @dicepopuli – check them all out on Twitter!EMAIL: roll.to.save.pod@gmail.comTWITTER: @savepodcastFACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/rolltosavepodWEBSITE: https://rolltosave.blogFRIEND COMPUTER: Keeley WilsonMUSIC & SFX: http://www.epidemicsound.comSupport the show (https://www.patreon.com/rolltosavepod)
  1. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 5
  2. SLA Industries – The Assumptions – Episode 1
  3. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 4
  4. SLA Industries – Roundtable
  5. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 3

Join the two mentalloids who share half my DNA as they explore Palladium Games’ epic superhero game, Heroes Unlimited.

Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 5 Roll to Save

Greetings citizen!Join Troubleshooter Task Force Epsilon 718 as they take on another fun, routine task for your friend and mine, The Computer.  As with most Troubleshooter missions, this one will be perfectly safe for everyone concerned.After battling with suspect respirators, food vat chemicals and…well…each other, Task Force Epsilon 718 appear to have managed to get the food vat's bot brain to switch on.  That's progress, right?Thanks to our cast of @manticoretale, @4cornersgames, @ubiquitousrat, @great_lawful, @dicepopuli – check them all out on Twitter!EMAIL: roll.to.save.pod@gmail.comTWITTER: @savepodcastFACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/rolltosavepodWEBSITE: https://rolltosave.blogFRIEND COMPUTER: Keeley WilsonMUSIC & SFX: http://www.epidemicsound.comSupport the show (https://www.patreon.com/rolltosavepod)
  1. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 5
  2. SLA Industries – The Assumptions – Episode 1
  3. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 4
  4. SLA Industries – Roundtable
  5. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 3

Last night, my RPG group completed the Warhammer Fantasy Role-play adventure Shadows Over Bögenhafen, a game that I had enormous fun running for them. They’re a great bunch, with some really fun characters that I’ve really enjoyed getting to know. As we completed this chapter in our campaign, it got me thinking – I’ve run this module on and off over 30 years, and I’ve never failed to enjoyed it.

It also made me feel mega-old…

When I first ran Shadows Over Bögenhafen waaaaay back in 1988, it was actually the first ever supplement I bought for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. The fact that I bought adventure two in the series instead of adventure one says everything you need to know about me…

However, back then I had no grand designs of running the vaunted The Enemy Within campaign. In fact, aside from a reference in the main book, and the words “The Enemy Within Campaign” being picked out on the front of Shadows I hadn’t even heard of it. No, I just wanted an adventure I could run for my players. Besides, this one had a really cool cover…

It’s a testament to how well designed this module is, that I could happily run it as a standalone without even having to reference the material that came before it. Sure, there’s a section dealing with the fall out from the previous game, but otherwise this module is its own beast.

The story itself is interesting, as it’s in a fantasy setting, but it’s largely an investigative exercise. It begins innocuously enough; the adventurers attend the local fair, have a great old time, and ultimately agree to go spelunking into the town sewers in pursuit of a goblin that has escaped from the freak show. After much too-ing, fro-ing, and falling into effluent, they don’t find the goblin, but they find…something else that makes them realise that there could be sinister goings on beneath the comfortable, easy-going veneer presented by Bögenhafen. What follows is a twisty-turny investigation that seems to hint at corruption in the highest echelons of society, and a race against time to stop something really bad happening to the town.

There’s some combat – especially during the finale – but not as much as the fantasy setting might suggest, so a lot of the time the player’s social skills and investigative abilities will serve them more readily than a strong sword arm. Shadows gives the impression of an orderly, well-kept town; the sort of place where the powers at be won’t tolerate gratuitous violence and blood flowing in the streets. The watch maintain a strong presence throughout the story, and I’ve yet to have a party of players who thought “I know – let’s just fight the law!” WFRP is a system famed for its lethality, and its always struck me how comfortable people who have played this scenario are with turning tail and running – especially when pursued by mobs of angry townspeople! Other systems might see the players assume the roles of unassailable threshing machines, but in Shadows players very quickly come to realise that discretion truly is the better part of valour!

As a games master, one thing that I’ve always appreciated about Shadows was the fact that the players aren’t guaranteed a happy ending. I read enough RPG modules in my time to know that there’s a default assumption that players will either succeed, or die trying. Very few of them touch on “What happens if they fail but live to tell the tale?” Well, Shadows doesn’t shrink from this. It reads:

If…the adventurers had ample opportunity to stop [the baddies – spoiler protected!] but failed to do so, you should not shrink from inflicting the full consequences on them…This option, detailed in Apocalypse, below, is extremely dangerous, and could lead to the entire party being wiped out if the adventurers do anything stupid, but will provide a more exciting climax to the adventure.

They’re not kidding either – the “bad ending” is truly apocalyptic in nature.

Adventure aside, the contents of the module always impressed me, and still does. As well as the main book, there’s a couple of maps: one “player safe” (and which is quite beautiful) and the other for the GM with all the secret locations marked for easy reference. I made a scan of the player map for use in Roll20, but sadly it didn’t render in anywhere near the quality I’d hoped for.

There’s some gamesmaster’s references printed on sturdy card which don’t have to be separated from the main book, and a sheet of good quality handouts. I always remember, in later years, that feeling of disappointment I’d get after buying an RPG adventure only to find that the handouts were part of the main book, and would therefore have to be photocopied. Thinking back to how good those found in Shadows were always made me feel slightly short changed.

The book itself also came with a pull out “Gazeteer of Bögenhafen” which was invaluable for the GM – both in terms of describing the city, but also if you wanted to use it as a reoccurring setting (providing things hadn’t got too apocalyptic of course…).

The art work is a particular highlight. From the eerie cover, to the moody interior pieces, Shadows really set the bar high for my expectations from future RPG products on what quality art should look like. There’s plenty of books nowadays that use computers to create their illustrations that don’t come close to the atmosphere Shadows creates.

It’s not all roses though; one thing I found on rereading this book last year was something that my younger eyes probably didn’t pick up on – namely that it is a complete mess of organisation. Looking at the various sections in the book, and knowing the content, I’d expect them to be laid out something like:

  • Introduction
  • A guide to the city (information on city structure, politics, key locations and individuals)
  • The story so far… (IE “What to do if playing this as part of a campaign”)
  • A timeline of the adventure
  • Details of the adventure itself
  • Aftermath
  • Appendix of characters stats / profiles

Instead, what we get is more like:

  • Introduction
  • Rough timeline
  • Start of the city guide
  • Start of the adventure
  • The story so far…
  • Continuation of the adventure
  • Pull out section with a continuation of the city guide and stats for some but not all NPCs
  • A timeline of key events
  • Common knowledge in Bögenhafen
  • Continuation of the adventure
  • A guide to key locations and encounters
  • A separate guide to temples
  • Continuation of the adventure
  • Aftermath

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that it can be exhausting to use.

Here’s an example – and bear in mind that this is coming from someone who has run this plenty of times before. There’s a point in the scenario where the adventurers will probably end up coming to the attention of the authorities in the course of their investigations. As a result, the powers at be send one of their number to speak to them to offer reassurance that things aren’t as they think they are. Now, this is a key event in the scenario. It gives the players an important contact – one who becomes instrumental in the climax of the adventure. Think of it as heralding the opening of the second act – when the players have their suspicions confirmed, and are driven to dig deeper. Now, where to find this event? Well, thankfully there’s an Events section in the book, which lists various happenings that occur throughout the course of the adventurers’ time in the town, you’d assume it would be found there.

It’s not.

Ok, so maybe it’s not there, but it is centred around a key NPC so maybe it’s found in the NPCs’ section.

It’s not. Little side note here, the NPCs section lists details for only THREE of the main NPCs. The other ones have their stats and descriptions scattered throughout the book. Minor NPCs are on the Gamesmaster’s reference sheet.

Instead, you find the encounter buried in the “Key Locations” section. In addition to this, when you read the rough timeline at the beginning of the book, it is stated that this encounter happens as a consequence of the adventurers’ gradual investigation and enquiries. The exact wording is:

In the course of their enquiries, the adventurers are approached by [NPC]..

In other words, this is one of the pivotal story events. There are a lot of optional side encounters that the players can have, but this one is essential to the plot. Indeed, if you’ve run this more than once you’ll know just how crucial this encounter is! However, taken as written in the “Key Locations” section the encounter will only happen if the adventurers do one, very specific, thing. Unfortunately, if the adventurers don’t do this thing, it makes running the climax of the adventure really difficult, because without encountering the key individual, it is extremely unlikely that the players will ever end up anywhere near the finale.

As I said, I’ve run this plenty of times and was therefore aware of how to bring this event into play (I just couldn’t find the bloody thing!) but for a new GM this would be a real head scratcher, and could lead to a very unsatisfying conclusion. Either the GM would have to railroad things so that the players end up where they need to be – which would feel forced – or else inflict the consequences of failing to put the clues together. Now, some might think “let the chips fall where they may”, but without the information that the encounter provides it would be unlikely that the players would be in a position to appreciate what had just happened when the GM presses the red apocalypse button…

Imagine you’re one of the Avengers at the end of Infinity War (spoilers btw). You and your team have battled Thanos, but he’s managed to get his big, purple paws on the six gems and BOOM! He snaps his fingers and you watch in vain as half of existence is annihilated around you and, before you can do anything, he disappears. You realise what’s happened, it’s horrible, but you’re driven to think “Was that my fault? What can we do next? How can we UNDO this?”

Now, imagine the same film, except this time Thanos proceeds in such a way that the majority of the Avengers are not aware of what he’s up to. Perhaps he kills Hulk and Thor so they’re not able to warn anyone of his plan? Maybe he goes after the stones in a more subtle way? Regardless, a major clue is missed, and there the main characters are, carrying on with their day-to-day, and suddenly a load of people just turn to ash around them. Why did this happen? Who is behind it? Why didn’t I have a chance to do anything?

That’s a very long and convoluted way of explaining how the player characters would feel in Shadows if they miss this vital encounter that is obfuscated by how badly the book is organised! In the first example, they had the chance to stop the big bad, but failed. In the second instance they simply aren’t even aware of it but are punished in an over the top and confusing way regardless…

However, having a toddler organise the book aside, Shadows Over Bögenhafen remains one of my favourite adventures of any game system. Atmospheric, cerebral and logical, it’s the perfect break from treks around the wilderness slaying goblins. If you fancy something gritty, low-magic and dark, you could do a lot worse.

Since releasing our Paranoia podcast, I’ve been asked a couple of questions by numerous people so, rather than rehash the same answer (or something approaching it) over and over again, I thought I’d put it together this short blog post.

The first question is some variant of What version of Paranoia should I play?

So, to answer this, I’m first of all going to ask a question of my own, namely Are you asking me what setting should I play?

Because, the answer to that is easy – you want to play Paranoia set in the confines of Alpha Complex as defined in 1st edition, the initial release of 2nd edition, and Paranoia XP. That’s the setting where The Computer rules over all, where surveillance is rife, where anyone could turn on you at a moment’s notice, where the bureaucracy is enough to drive you insane, where authority doesn’t always go hand in hand with competence, and where secret societies with hidden agendas lurk in the shadows.

Given that the second question I’m always asked is How do you make Paranoia funny? these devices are what help you build that humour. Choosing the right setting goes a long way to making your game funny. Comedy doesn’t come from the unreliable gadgets, the puns, the slapstick, the gratuitous gun fights, or anything else that people who haven’t played Paranoia assume it’s about.

It’s the situations you present to the players and how they respond to them that gets the laughs.

Think about a classic Paranoia set up: you’re given a mission briefing that’s probably incomplete or contradictory, you’re given objectives from your employers and your secret society which probably conflict with the main mission orders, which might conflict with each other, and which definitely conflict with the other players’ agendas. You’re then sent off to complete your task with a group of people that know that the easiest way to claim something approaching success is by having ready made scapegoats in the form of the people they’re working with.

These situations are, in turn, enabled by the setting. If you didn’t have a totalitarian regime to move things along, players could easily say “Forget this – it’s impossible” and go and do something else.

If there was no reason to obey your shadowy secret society or your employer you’d probably choose to disregard your sub missions in favour of something more doable, and you certainly wouldn’t waste time on them if they started generating conflict with your fellow players!

If The Computer promoted citizens based on how well they did their job rather than on how much it trusts them, you might have a briefing officer that made sense. Likewise, if the system was an actual meritocracy, and not founded on the hot mess of…well…paranoia that inhabits the Computer’s circuit boards, you and your fellow players would actually band together to complete your missions – rather than spending the time playing “pin the tail on the traitor”.

With that in mind, it should be self-evident that you don’t need to try that hard to make your game funny. The best comedy moments in Paranoia come from the simple interactions between the players. In a recent game I ran, one of the players caused a robot to go berserk, killing one of the other players and resulting in a lot of collateral damage. The Team Leader – ever suspicious of his fellow Troubleshooters – demanded that everyone turn out their pockets. The guilty party made a big show of pulling out the device that caused all of this to happen, double-taking at it and demanding to know what it was and who had planted it on him. He immediately accused one of the other players, and all attention fell on him. The squabbling and back-biting that resulted was genuinely funny, wholly dictated by the setting, and utterly unscripted.

To further hammer home the importance of the setting when it comes to making Paranoia funny, let me offer you a cautionary tale. The Crash, the Reboot and the hellish miso-mash of nonsense that was Fifth Edition dispensed with the default setting entirely, so what they left you with was an unstructured free-for-all that got stale very, very quickly. The upshot (other than sales tanking)? You had a setting which forced you to try to make it funny. It was hard work. Imagine being told “Hey, we want to play D&D, but we want it to be funny D&D.” The setting itself isn’t particularly designed around comedy, so you would have to work to make it amusing. And that would show, believe me! I remember being struck by not only how “un-Paranoia” Crash Course Manual felt the first time I read it, but also how it simply wasn’t funny. I was used to reading Paranoia scenarios and chuckling as I imagined my players in the settings described, and the shenanigans that would result. This though? It kind of left me cold.

In fact, this is what basically killed the West End line dead in the water, and saw it descend into over the top puns, horseplay and parody. The setting itself had ceased to be funny, so the writers tried to cram in as much of what they considered “comedy” into a fairly turgid setting. That’s probably why only one post-crash adventure was actually set in post-crash Alpha. The rest were all set in other dimensions (or Australia for some reason…) because the default setting was utterly devoid of the potential for humour.

So, with the setting question out of the way, what edition should you play? Unlike a lot of games, where the rules and how the players interact with them are a big part of what makes them, Paranoia is purposefully rules lite. Certainly, first edition is probably the most crunchy of all of them – this was still an early 80s RPG after all – but that others are much of a muchness. My personal preference is XP – when the rules come up what is detailed there is clean and streamlined. I’ve not played the newest edition, so I can’t comment on that, but I’m generally put off by games that need special dice and cards.

The other great thing about XP – and what goes a long way to answering the question of How do I make Paranoia funny? – is that it talks about three different styles of play; Classic, Zap and Straight.

Classic is that style of play that most people think of when asked of Paranoia; freewheeling craziness, where everyone is out to get everyone else, and where “the winner” is generally the player who survives to the debriefing with no-one there to contradict their story. All of the great scenarios from the early days of Paranoia are in this style. Likewise, Mongoose – the publishers of XP – created a stack of them too. If you want guidance on how to write a really funny Classic-style Paranoia adventure, check out Flashbacks from Mongoose – it brings together some of the best Classic scenarios, all updated for use with XP. There’s some absolute gold in there – I’ve been running Me and My Shadow Mark IV on and off for nigh on thirty years and it still gets laughs.

Zap is that unhinged, over-the-top insanity that people who haven’t played Paranoia think of when it’s mentioned and which – in its worse form – was what West End promoted from the Crash onwards. Incessant gun fights, puns, parodies and generally “zaniness” (and I mean that in the most basic, pejorative way possible). I guess this can be fun if all you want to do is shout “TREASON!” and zap other players, but hopefully you will evolve to a more mature playstyle eventually.

Straight is that style that assumes a functional Alpha Complex, a place where bungled briefings and malfunctioning equipment exist not because “hey, this place is cur-azzzzzzeeee!” but due to human error. A place where there are traitors trying to co-opt you, but this time they’re not wearing furry Russian hat, but they’re actually scary terrorists. A place where you and your team mates can get conflicting orders again – not due to any out-of-this-world wackiness – but because other people are setting you up to take the fall for their own shortcomings. In short, the setting is pretty much like the real world, but skewed through the lens of dystopian sci-fi. Bleak as this sounds, I believe that this style is the one with the most comic potential.

Think of the film Brazil. Near the beginning, a jam in a printer causes an arrest warrant to be misprinted and the wrong man is arrested. He subsequently dies in custody, and this leads to the main character having to return a refund to the widow of the wrongfully arrested man. It’s funny, but when we laugh at it, we’re laughing at the mess of red tape and the genuine ineptitude of government. We can relate to it – that’s what makes it amusing. We’re not chuckling because a man died!

Likewise, in Dr Strangelove the bombers that form part of the nuclear deterrent have communication devices that only respond to a certain code. Once these bombers launch on their mission, the only way they can be recalled is with this code, and it is known to one man. Who also happens to be insane. We’re laughing again, but we’re laughing nervously because this could happen.

In Catch-22 (the final example, I promise!) the eponymous catch describes paradoxical situations which an individual cannot escape, usually because of equally paradoxical choices that they have to make as part of trying to escape the original situation. The most famous example referenced in the novel refers to the fact that airmen who are evaluated to be insane cannot be allowed to undertake combat flights. However, airmen who request to have their sanity evaluated in the hope of being found unfit to fly missions in an active war zone are, by their very action, demonstrating their own sanity, and thus cannot be declared insane. Once again, it is funny, but we’re laughing at the absurdity of the situation, and probably relating it to some situation we’ve personally encountered.

In short, Straight Paranoia is best described as dark satire and it’s without a doubt my favourite form of play. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of the Classic Paranoia adventures, and a lot of them are laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s a different type of humour. Only last week I was running a game that was fairly straight in style, part of which involved the higher ups in Alpha Complex parroting fairly meaningless slogans to the player characters in the hope that these nuggets of wisdom would help them get the job done. This got a lot of laughs. Why was it funny? All of us playing have worked in corporate environments long enough to have seen the same kind of behaviour – buzzwords, jargon and quotes from business books thrown around as if they were wisdom handed down from on high. We related to it, so we found it funny.

In fact, I guess that’s the best way to describe making Paranoia funny to your players – if they can look at what is being described and think “Oh no – I work in Alpha Complex IN REAL LIFE!” then the GM is doing a grand job.

Just don’t take a laser gun to the office, ok? I’m pretty sure that’s not allowed at any security clearance citizen…

If George Orwell ever wrote an RPG, it would be Paranoia.  Indeed,  when you consider that the game’s premise is a futuristic dystopia, ruled over by an omnipresent, all-seeing ruler; where anyone could turn on you at a moment’s notice, where facts that are patently true are denied in favour of the party line and where surveillance is rife, it’s hard not to imagine a more Orwellian setting.


It is therefore fitting that Paranoia was released in the year 1984.

t has always been a very unique game, and this was doubly so in the year of its release.  Whereas previous years had seen a surge of fantasy and sci-fi games, 1984 saw no less than five superhero themed games released.  The likes of “Golden Heroes”, “Marvel Super Heroes” and “Heroes Unlimited” suggested that there was an appetite amongst the roleplaying public to don spandex, fly through the air like a speeding bullet and fight crime with an array of dazzling powers.


These games – more so even than their fantasy and sci-fi counterparts – saw the players take on the roles of larger than life heroes, bristling with raw power and all the advantages that came with it.  These characters would fight for truth, justice and all that was good and pure.  They would band together in mighty super-heroic teams, take on villains and generally make the world a better place to live in.  There was no obstacle they couldn’t overcome, no enemy they couldn’t face.  They were brave, heroic and honourable.

Anyone who knows anything about Paranoia will know that this is pretty much the antithesis of anything played in that game…


The brain child of Greg Costikyan, Eric Goldberg and Dan Gelber – a trio of World Famous Games Designers at West End games – and conceived at the height of the Cold War, Paranoia invited players to explore Alpha Complex – an underground city existing at some vague point far in the future.  Set some time after a cataclysm had wiped out most of humanity, players in Paranoia took on the roles of Troubleshooters – elite (ha!) agents of the benevolent Computer that rules over Alpha Complex.


And this is where the Paranoia begins…


You see, in a bid to understand the event that devastated the world the Computer searched its (incomplete and damaged) memory banks and pieced together the (limited and incomplete) information it had access to.  The Cataclysm had devastated and damaged a lot of The Computer’s subsystems, so a lot of the information it had access to was was mostly in the form of Cold War era civil defence files, leading the Computer to the logical conclusion that all this chaos was caused by “The Communists” and that they might – AT THIS VERY MINUTE – be trying to infiltrate Alpha Complex and put an end to this last bastion of freedom.  Concerned for its citizens, the Computer put Alpha Complex on lockdown, and it has remained that way to this very day.


Not only that, but in a bid to defend its citizens from the evil Commie mutant traitors who were working insidiously to collapse society, the Computer instituted a system of surveillance, internal security and constant monitoring of activity for the duration of the emergency.  Reasoning that happy citizens are loyal citizens, the Computer took control of all means of production and distribution and sought to provide those that lived in Alpha Complex with everything that they’d ever need.  Shelter, food, entertainment, meaningful work – the Computer provided all of these and more.


Those of you who are astute students of history are probably smiling at this point.  That’s right; in its fight against “the Commies” the Computer has essentially created a miniature Soviet Union… 


Ok – so it’s got a dystopian setting, but so what?  There’s plenty of sci-fi games around.  What makes this so special?


Well, for starters, the Computer’s paranoia is infectious.  Think about it – when your all powerful leader is convinced that there are enemies everywhere, what are you going to do to prove that you’re not one of those enemies?  That’s right – you’re going to start rooting out the enemies.  And what happens when the majority of those enemies are more imagined than real?  Right again – you’re going to find evidence proving that they are real and, more importantly, prove that you’re not one of them.  And what do you think uncovering actually enemies does to an already paranoid yet all powerful ruler?  Yup – they’re going to realise they were right, and they’re going to double down on rooting out more enemies.  And what are you going to do…? 


You get the idea…

Unlike most roleplaying games that are co-operative experiences, Paranoia actively pits the players against each other.  The cleverest part?  Each of the players actually IS a bonafide traitor!  In Alpha Complex it is illegal to be either a member of a Secret Society or a Mutant.  Each player is both, and everyone KNOWS this – they just need to find the evidence…


What is more, Paranoia actively encourages the GM to stir the pot.  The best Paranoia adventures gives the players pre-written characters – characters that are pre-written with objectives that bring them into conflict with the other characters.  In any given game your character will have a mission that the group has to complete, but you’ll probably be given a mission by your Service Group or Secret Society that will bring you directly into conflict with another character and probably with your team’s mission.  


For example, your team might be instructed to repair a malfunctioning robot.  However, your character works for Power Services and the leaders of Power Services want to make Technical Services – their biggest rivals – look bad, and the robot is Technical Services’ responsibility, so maybe you could ensure that the robot malfunctions in some spectacular and public way?  Meanwhile, one of your team-mates, who works for the Armed Forces, has been instructed to alter the robot’s programming so that it only takes instructions from Armed Forces soldiers, while your colleague from Research and Design has been instructed to outfit the robot with some experimental gizmo that does dear-knows-what…. Oh, and all the while you don’t want to make it look like you were the one who sabotaged the robot.  In fact, it would be much better if you made someone else take the fall for this…


Couple this with missions that characters are given from their Secret Societies that will inevitably bring them into conflict with yet more people, and it’s easy to see how players in Paranoia very easily become…well…paranoid


Given that in most cases treason is punishable by summary execution, and given that all Troubleshooters carry powerful weapons, it is also easy to see just how lethal this game can be.
And that’s why – thank you Friend Computer – that every character has six clones; identical copies of each other than can be activated in the event of a previous clone’s unfortunate demise.  This simple device leads to most Paranoia players having a fairly cheerful and nonchalant attitude to death – and it also ensures that players don’t take it personally when one of their characters is caught doing something naughty and then subsequently terminated.
There’s also the small matter of information control.  

You see, one of the first things that the rulebook encourages the GM to do is to foster an atmosphere of “fear and ignorance”.  The Computer has enforced a system of security clearances across Alpha Complex, which corresponds to the electromagnetic spectrum.  At one end is INFRARED (represented by the colour black) and at the other, higher end is ULTRAVIOLET (represented by white).  In between are Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet.  Everything in Alpha Complex, from people to corridors to equipment is assigned a security clearance.  You must remain in areas that are equal to or lower than your security clearance.  You can only use equipment of the same or lower security clearance.  Most importantly, you can only access information available to your security clearance.  Many Paranoia players, after asking the GM a question, will automatically start mouthing the phrase “I’m sorry, citizen.  That information is not available at your security clearance.”  This fact, whilst amusing the first few times you say it, works nicely to help the GM shape adventures.  Most Paranoia adventures would be fairly easy if the characters had access to the correct information.  When it’s not available, and the players have to fumble around in the dark, that’s where the humour begins.

Oh, and the game’s rules?  They’re security clearance Ultraviolet.  That’s right – apart from the rules outlined in the players’ section of the rulebook, knowledge of any other rule is illegal!  Again, whilst largely a humorous device, this rule does make it so that the GM can focus on making the game entertaining rather than having to deal with rules lawyers.


With all of these conceits, it is easy to see why the authors chose the tag line of “The roleplaying game of a darkly humorous future”.
That being said, first edition Paranoia took a fairly serious tone.  However, as supplements were released over the course of 1985 and 1986 the game and its play style took on the lighter tone that is usually associated with it.  Gone were the allusions to 1984 and Brazil and instead scenarios encouraged a much more playful, free-wheeling style.  Rather than assuming that the players were trying to survive in an insane, nightmarish dystopia, most supplements played up the comedy aspect of Paranoia – putting players in touch with wacky characters and wacky situations and encouraging a cheerful, carefree attitude to death.  Adventures were clearly written as one shots – the very notion of a Paranoia campaign was ridiculous given the high levels of mortality – but most of them were great fun.  


At that time, Paranoia adventures introduced several staples into their scenario design which most Paranoia GMs and future writers followed faithfully.  Amongst these were running jokes that rapidly got out of hand, insane firefights involving dozens of participants, situations of escalating degrees of danger that would probably be fairly easy to navigate if only PCs would co-operate with each other and crazy, malfunctioning equipment that the players were obligated to test.  

Unlike a lot of RPG companies that flood their release schedules with various splat books, player and GM guides and other “accessory” books, first edition Paranoia simply focused on the publishing of adventures.  There was a GM’s screen, but other than that the entire first ed run was all scenarios.  A lot of these early Paranoia supplements were genuinely funny, and a pleasure to read even if you were never going to run them.  

One of my absolute favourites was Acute Paranoia, a volume that included (amongst other things) the excellent adventure Me and My Shadow, Mark IV which sees the players assigned to guard the new Warbot Model Mark IV – a gigantic weapons platform with enough firepower to take on the entirety of Alpha Complex’s armed forces single-handedly, and with a suitably smug and arrogant personality to boot.  Every time I’ve run this I’ve loved watching the players debate amongst themselves who’s going to have to go and explain to Mark IV that they’re there to guard and protect him…. This adventure does a brilliant job of introducing all the elements that make Paranoia scenarios so much fun, without going off the rails into the realms of over the top cartoon craziness (although, it COULD be played that way if you wanted to – there is an optional Will-E-Coyote style ending)…


Unsurprisingly, Paranoia won the Origins Award in 1984 for Best Roleplaying Rules, and one of its supplements, The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, won the H.G Wells Award for Best Roleplaying Adventure of 1985.


It should be noted at this point, that both first and second editions were published in two separate forms – one by West End Games in the US, and one by Games Workshop in the UK.  The West End Games first edition was a boxed product consisting of the Player Handbook, the Gamesmaster Handbook and an Adventure Handbook.  It also came with a couple of ten sided dice.  The second edition was also boxed, and came with a new introductory adventure, two twenty sided dice and a guide called “The Compleat Troubleshooter” which included details on “Mandatory Bonus Duties”.  These were assignments for team members like Team Leader, Loyalty Officer and Recording Officer that have since become a staple of the setting.  The idea is that each player is given some extra responsibility to make their life that more…interesting, and to give their team mates another reason to be more Paranoid…


The Games Workshop first edition was a hardcover volume that included all three books from the basic set as well as three additional short adventures that were published with the first edition Paranoia GM’s screen.  It also didn’t come with dice.  

GW’s second edition was identical to West End’s second edition except, again, it was bound as a single hardcover, and it didn’t include the Compleat Troubleshooter or dice.

Come 1987, the second edition of Paranoia was released.  This was much more rules-light than the first edition, abandoning complexity in favour of a much looser system that favoured Paranoia’s crazy, fast-moving style of play.  
As shown by the rules changes, Paranoia second edition fully embraced the move from the dystopia suggested in first edition’s main rulebook, to more comic territory.  With Ken Rolston as line editor, Paranoia defined a style for itself; a style that was funny, clever, irreverent and utterly unlike any other roleplaying game out there.  Jim Holloway’s superb artwork brought this dark, insane world to life.  Players found themselves falling in love with this game that was utterly unlike anything they’d played before.  After years of being told that RPGs were about collaborating, here was a game that actively encouraged you to hose your friends!  2nd edition – at least initially – was generally considered to be the high point of the original line.    

And then 1989 happened…

Actually, I should back up for a moment and give this some context.  With the release of second edition in 1987, West End Games were pretty slow in getting supplements out.  Three adventures eventually showed up in 1988, but until then Paranoia GMs were left either running old adventures or writing their own.  Ken Rolston left at around this time, as did the main line developers.  

However, regardless of this, 1989 suddenly saw a deluge of supplements released, and what’s more four of them were apparently connected in an arc called “The Secret Society Wars”.  
It’s here that I’m going to provide two warnings – one for spoilers, and one for the rant that I’m probably about to embark on…

The “Secret Society Wars” were the beginnings of what we’d probably nowadays term “meta plot” – that is, an overarching storyline, the outcomes of which could affect your game and would affect the development of future supplements.  Those of you familiar with White Wolf products will know all about this – the kind of supplement that says “Yeah, you’re free to ignore this stuff but future books will take it into account”.

Full disclosure – The Secret Society Wars that these books reference aren’t really a war per se or something that the players can easily get involved in without substantial work on the behalf of the games master.  For example, in The DOA Sector Travelog, the first book in this series, it is simply mentioned that someone is targeting members of the Sierra Club secret society for termination.  That’s it.  I’m not even sure they address who this someone was in a later supplement.

Anyway, as I just mentioned, The Secret Society Wars begins with The DOA Sector Travelog – a guide to an entire sector.  On the face of it, this is an ok idea; up until this point there had never really been any guidance as to what a sector actually WAS.  How big was it?  Who lived there?  What went on there?  Then again, one of the most beautiful aspects about Paranoia was it vagueness – Alpha Complex could be anything you wanted it to be.  Did we actually need things defined?  There’s also the problem of absurdity.  Unlike the original premise of Paranoia where the humour came from the situations that arose simply trying to survive in Alpha Complex – a lot of which was fairly dark in nature – this supplement is rooted firmly in the wacky.  
Take its entry for the Junior Citizen Nursery Station.  This is one of the areas detailed in the Travelog, and it’s where the clones of Alpha Complex are raised and educated.  Now, if you were to choose to go down the “darkly satirical” route you could probably conjure up a lot of black humour with the possibilities afforded here.  Images of 1984Brave New World and Soviet education spring to mind.  Here young clones are indoctrinated, and this is where we see the roots of Paranoia beginning.  Fear and ignorance is fostered in the youth of Alpha Complex so that, when they go out into the world as adults, they do so looking over their shoulders; seeking to get ahead through duplicity and backstabbing rather than co-operation.  Rather than create the next generation of bold clones who will change Alpha Complex for the better, The Computer, in its paranoid state, has sewn the seeds of mistrust and misery, and contributed to another cycle of things deteriorating across the Complex rather than improving.
Instead of this, what the Travelog treats us to is a room filled with conveyor belts, babies on the conveyor belts, servo-arms flinging baby food around the place, and characters with names like Sesame-Y-STR-5 and Mister-R-GRS-2.  Yes, this book goes all in on the pun names, and the pop culture parodies…
However, bad puns and wacky humour aside, the one thing that really stood out to me when I opened this book was the art.  Or rather, the fact that it’s not Jim Holloway art!  For long time fans of Paranoia, Jim Holloway’s drawings defined the setting.  They absolutely captured the insanity of living in Alpha Complex, and really helped the setting come alive.  These drawings though…they’re not bad exactly, but they just don’t feel the same.  Also, there are far too many Commies in furry hats for my liking…


The second book in the Secret Society Wars cycle is The People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure.  Now, again, spoiler warning here.  On the face of it, this adventure itself is actually based around a fairly clever conceit.  In a bid to understand the Communist threat and what makes supposedly loyal citizens join them, Friend Computer has walled off a disused sector, and set it up as “Alpha State”, even going as far as turning the resident compode (which is to say, that part of Friend Computer that oversees the sector) into “Tovarich Computer”.  It then populated the sector with lots of citizens of proven loyalty, who were all given hypnosis drugs and told that they were Commies.  Each of these citizens was given a carefully constructed past, and none had any memories of life in Alpha Complex.  The Computer then settles back to see what happens.
Again, handled correctly, this would be a really interesting adventure.  Having the players realise that their entire existence is a lie, all the while also realising the Alpha State isn’t actually that different from Alpha Complex could be a lot of fun.  However, the way the adventure is presented…
In the section on roleplaying suggestions it says “Everybody in Alpha State Talk with good, tick, Rrussian accent!”  This is followed by a section that begins “Everybody knows all Russians have BIG moustaches!  Even the women.  Just look at any Russian Olympic team, and tell me the women weren’t shaving at a younger age than most American males.”
Right.
Crass stereotyping aside, how does the adventure play?  As I said before – it’s wacky.  It features mud pies, pun names, far too many tractor jokes and a plane armed with banana peel dumpsters and confetti bombs.
Yes.
There is another nod to the “secret society wars” which at this point is simply three masked men wiping out another small group – again, no explanation is offered.


Following the book, More Songs About Food Vats was released, and it was so memorable that I’m afraid that I can’t remember what it was even about.  I own a copy, but something is preventing me pulling it off the shelf and reading it.  Probably some kind of post traumatic defence mechanism.


Finally, the grand build up of the Secret Society Wars pays off in the form of The Iceman Returneth – which I think honestly left a few people going “Huh?” as so far the wars had amounted to two “on screen” scenes and one “off camera” reference in the Travelog.
This book met a mixed reception.  On one hand, some fans applauded West End for trying to do something new to “freshen up” the setting.  On the other hand there were people who pointed out that the setting didn’t need freshening up, and that by doing so the line developers broke it.  
Iceman featured the return of a cryogenically frozen programmer from the past – one of the Computer original programmers in fact.  He is horrified in what he sees in Alpha Complex, and enlists the players’ help in setting things right.  
Like The People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure the premise is rather interesting.  What WOULD Alpha Complex look like to an outsider, and could it be saved?
However, also like The People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure it falls down horribly in the execution.  The main character is uninteresting, there’s more shenanigans with “non-lethal weaponry” (which is the authors’ excuse to put in more custard pies, water pistols etc), some indestructible leaflets and underwear inspections…
What’s more, the plot is ridiculously contrived and railroaded.  For example, near the end, the PCs are in a direct position to threaten the Computer itself.  If one of them dies WHY would the Computer activate their clone replacement?  Simple answer, it wouldn’t.  Yet it does, so that the plot can happen.


Prior to recording this podcast, I ran a game of Paranoia for my cohosts and some friends.  The thing that really struck me about it was that it was a genuinely funny experience – I actually laughed out loud a few times – but that all the humour came through the players’ interaction with the scenario and the other characters.  There were no jokes per se written into the scenario – sure, each of the characters was given objectives that clashed with those of other characters, but nothing was written as “funny haha”.  There were no pun names, and there was no ridiculous slapstick.  Yet people still found humour in the situations.  One of the players said that he loved when the Computer would randomly interject and ask for a status update, usually at the most inconvenient moment.  None of the players would say anything particularly comedic at these moments, but watching the object of the Computer’s scrutiny trying to think on their feet whilst everyone else around them desperately is hoping that they would fail – that’s where the humour would come in.
This probably explains why I’m so down on The Secret Society Wars supplements.  Something like Me and My Shadow Mark IV finds humour in Alpha Complex’s bureaucracy and simply trying to stay alive in such an insane world.  The Secret Society Wars scenarios find humour in people slipping on banana skins and being hit by custard pies.


Anyway, back to The Iceman Returneth – the players end up killing the Computer.

Yes.

Seriously.

At the end of the scenario they cause the Computer to crash.

And this is what is the focus of the next supplement, Crash Course Manual, and the next iteration of the meta plot.
I bought Crash Course when it first came out as the setting intrigued me.  Actually, if I remember correctly, my friend Callum and I chipped in together to buy it when we were in the Virgin Megastore in Glasgow, but as I was usually the GM I ended up having it round my house more often and now, 31 years later, it’s living here in the US with me – sorry Callum!
Anyway, this was the book that described Alpha Complex WITHOUT the Computer.  It had a few nods to the Secret Society wars, but no real conclusion.  Oh, and remember earlier how I mentioned that in the DOA Sector Travelog the writers had started to include pop culture references like Mister-R-GRS-2?  Well, starting with the Crash they went ALL IN on parody.  The sample adventure that came with the manual, A Passage to NDA Sector, contains enough on its own – the expedition is led by Marco-B-OLO, the transport is the SIMBot (and it looks like an elephant), they come across Ollie-B-ABA who has forty odd thieves as his cohorts, they encounter a sailor called Sin-B-ADD, and meet the would be king of IAM sector called Yul-B-RNR.  Actually, just reading these out you realise how stupid they are.  In earlier supplements, a pun name like Johnny-B-GUD worked, because it sounded like it was written.  Ollie-B-ABA though?  It’s clearly meant to be “Ollie Baba” but it doesn’t work when said out loud.
Anyway…
It doesn’t stop there though.  There are FSA sector battle bots.  There’s a troubleshooter team called Kell-Y’s heroes.  Again, another case where it works better written down than it does said out loud).  There’s a clone wandering the corridors who doesn’t adhere to any security clearance colours, known as Dan-G-ALF the grey.  There’s even a clone called Mad-O-NNA.  In the illustration she looks like 1980s Madonna.
You get the idea.
Bad puns and parodies aside, although the setting is interesting as a premise, it practically guts Paranoia of everything that makes it worthwhile.
What makes Paranoia funny?  It’s certainly not slapstick or pop culture references.  No, the humour in Paranoia comes from the setting.  It comes from struggling in a dystopian world where you’re constantly under surveillance, where everyone wants you to fail, and where you’re serving the needs of an inept bureaucracy and trying to satisfy a well-meaning but insane ruler.  
Take all of that away and you have to manufacture your humour as the post apocalyptic setting that you’re left with isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with comic potential.

This is readily apparent in the other supplements that were released for the Crash.  
Take, for example, Gamma-LOT where part of Medieval England is teleported into LOT sector.  See what they did there?  They’re not using anything to do with post-crash Alpha for the humour, they’re dredging it up from outside sources.
We then have the Vulture Warriors From Dimension X trilogy, which is a series of time travelling adventures where the Troubleshooters are sent back in time to stop the Crash.  What follows are three adventures that parody CyberpunkTwilight 2000 and Dr Who.  In a bid to be innovative, the first two adventures include rules for crossover play, to allow characters from the systems being parodied to be played alongside the Paranoia characters.  I guess this could be fun as a one off, but it’s not really explored in great detail – the adventures are all presented from the Troubleshooters’ perspectives.  Anyway, they end up resolving nothing and return to a Crashed complex.  
Again, this is a case of wasted potential – these adventures could be interesting if they weren’t so damned insistent in cramming in tired, unfunny gags.   

Look at Twilightcycle: 2000 for example,  The main antagonist in this is an ultraviolet Communist called Bigbro-U-THR.  But when he’s hanging around with 21st century Soviets he goes by the name Bigolas Brudderkof.  Oh and, of course, he speaks with theeeeeck Rrrrrrrasssian accent.
Really?


Following these books comes Death, Lies and Vidtape – supposedly the conclusion to the Secret Society Wars and an adventure in which the Computer returns.  Yup – after West End killed it off they decided a couple of years later to bring the Computer back.  Amusingly, this adventure was written by Allen Varney – a very talented writer who went on to head up Mongoose publishing’s release of Paranoia XP in the early 2000s.  When asked about Death, Lies and Vidtape he described it as something he “wrote because of an urgent cash-flow crisis – one of the sorriest projects in my bibliography”.


Following the conclusion of The Secret Society Wars (such as they were) West End started the next phase of their meta plot with The Paranoia Sourcebook that gave a guide to Post-Reboot Alpha. 
I’m not going to bother going into masses of detail here, because by this point Paranoia is limping along like a lame dog.  There’s a phrase in TV – “Jumping the Shark” – to describe that moment where a show that was once widely popular but which has since grown less popular, resorts to increasingly desperate tactics to keep viewers’ interest.  If the Crash was Paranoia’s attempt to Jump the Shark, Post Reboot Alpha was an attempt to turn the boat around for a second pass.  
The supplements that were produced were bland, unfunny, and lacked everything that had once made Paranoia great.  In fact Allen Varney, the line developer for Paranoia: XP sums it up best when he says “Top to bottom, stern to stern, front to back and throughout, the meta plot was poorly conceived, disastrously executed, hermetically free of actual humour — in short, a complete waste of time and effort.
However, the worst was yet to come…

In 1995 West End Games released “Paranoia: The Fifth Edition”.  “Wait a minute”, I hear you say, “This is only the third edition, right?”  Yup – calling it fifth edition was a HILARIOUS joke.
That really sums up all you need to know about fifth edition.  Oh, other than the artwork…. Remember how I was bemoaning the fact that Jim Holloway no longer did the art for a lot of second ed?  Well, the artwork for fifth edition is so bad – so cartoonish – that it makes the non-Holloway art of second ed look like a breath of fresh air.


They released one supplement for it – Creatures of the Nightcycle – that was a parody of Vampire: The Masquerade.  
It was bad.
Really bad.
The pun names were awful, and yes, you’re probably thinking “But characters have always had bad pun names in Paranoia.”  True, there have been puns throughout Paranoia’s history.  But whereas in previous editions you characters like Sue-R-RAT, and Barb-R-ELA at least you could shorten them to thinks like Sue-R or Barb-R when your characters were interacting with them.  In this monstrosity (yes, THAT pun is fully intended!) you’ve actually got sentences that read like “Mag-Y-ICK approaches Mask-R-ADE…” and “Bramst-O-KER used to be a mystic…”  How do you exactly bring those characters into the game?  “Bramst-O is waving at you?”  “Looks like Mask-R wants a word with you.”
Urgh.
That’s not the worst part though.
The writing…
I think they’re trying to come off as glib and casual, but it’s just really bad and forced.  Again – Paranoia doesn’t need humour hammered into it, the situations it creates, when played properly, should be funny enough in themselves.
In one paragraph where it talks about tips on getting the PCs to travel to a certain location it reads “I don’t know, have giant alien ships that run on DOS (TM) fly over the Complex and kill everyone except the characters who, because they’re the protagonists, can hide in the one doorway that doesn’t get blown down, and then retreat to the secret underground laboratory from which the can save the world with their PowerMac.  Or something like that.”
I’ve reread that a couple of times and I still don’t know what they’re aiming for with it.  Yes, Independence Day had some plot holes, but I don’t understand what it’s got to do with getting your characters to travel from A to B…
Compare this style to a piece written in one of the Ghostbusters’ supplements, that was produced at around the same time as 2nd edition Paranoia was at the height of its powers, and penned by the same folks that made that edition of Paranoia so memorable.  The context is the same – it’s offering the Games Master advice on getting the players to do what they’re supposed to do.
Now we’ve set everything up in a nice, neat order for you.  Are your players going to follow that nice, neat order?  Well, probably.  Real clever players may think up ways to bypass a couple of steps.  Real cheerful players may resolutely pursue self-destructive, impractical approaches.  We never promised you a rose garden.
The message is clear – know your audience Mr GM! – but the way it’s delivered is amusing.
However, the agonising writing style of this book isn’t the worst thing about it.  No sir.
There’s scene in a lab where there are two R&D techs who are straight up copies of Bunsen and Beeker from the Muppets.  Nope – I don’t know why either.  
Oh wait, I do.  You see, this scene leads to a song and dance act…  
I kid you not.  It actually reads “Then suddenly, a broad smile moves across his face and music begins to play.  As he sings, mutants pop out of the walls next to him, joining in…”
What follows is a parody of the opening song sung at the beginning of each Muppets episode.  And because it’s in bold it means that the GM has to read it aloud to the players.
It should be noted that this isn’t the only song in this adventure…
There’s a clone that can only speak in song and rhyme.
There’s a parody of The Timewarp.
There’s even a parody of the Jack Rabbit Slim’s twist contest from Pulp Fiction…
Ok, enough.  This isn’t good for my blood pressure…

Sadly, or perhaps mercifully, this bloated, humourless, mess of a supplement was the last thing that West End Games published for Paranoia.  According to the introduction to Paranoia: Flashbacks the whole Secret Society Wars arc, the Crash, the Reboot and the abomination that was Fifth edition resulted in West End games seeing a 90% slump in sales.  When the company went under shortly afterwards, many thought that Paranoia was dead and buried for good…

…until in 2004 when those nice folks at Mongoose Publishing released Paranoia: XP (shortly followed by Paranoia: XP – Service Pack 1).  Mongoose had to drop the XP part – apparently a certain tech giant had issues with it – but this game was – how do I put this without sounding hyperbolic – bloody amazing.  XP did several things.  Firstly, not only did it take Paranoia firmly back to a Computer controlled Alpha Complex, it also made the bold move of declaring most of the Secret Society War adventures and everything following them (including the Crash, the Reboot and everything fifth edition related) as “unproducts”.  As bold as this Orwellian statement was, it was welcomed by almost all fans of the game, as it made it quite clear that XP and any of its up and coming supplements would remain fully rooted in the setting that made Paranoia great.  
What’s more, the developers acknowledged that there were different ways to play Paranoia, unlike the assumption that had crept in towards the end of the West End reign that wacky craziness was the default.  
Firstly, there was Classic; the play style made popular in the halcyon days of first edition and early second edition.  This is the Paranoia of rapid fire hose jobs, malfunctioning equipment, stifling and sanity blasting bureaucracy, and jokes that reoccur with terminal frequency.  Troubleshooters may go through a clone or two before the mission starts, and probably will say goodbye to all of them before the mission is over.  Players are generally at each others throats from the get-go, and work frantically to pin an accusation of treason on their rivals.  
There was also Zap – that style that people who didn’t play Paranoia associated with it, and which proliferated the last days of West End Games.  Pop-culture parodies, cartoon physics, custard pies, silly-string and cries of “TRAITOR!” punctuated by laser fire every time someone so much as opened their mouth.  Character names were always outlandish puns, without any nods to plausibility.  Chaos and mayhem abound.

I’m not lying; there’s an adventure in here, the implications of which are chilling…


Now, whilst these two were acknowledged as the most common ways of playing, Mongoose made the bold step of also suggesting a third way, a style they called Straight (or sometimes Dark).  In this mode, Alpha Complex is actually functional.  The Computer is present, but not omnipresent.  Rather than focus on the crazier aspects of the setting, Straight play focuses on fear, ignorance and power.  There’s even a chance for (whisper it) the players to succeed.  Rather than running around, pointing at their team mates and screaming “I BURN HIM WITH MY LASER!” Straight play encourages players towards mutual suspicion and the careful collation of evidence against rivals.  Troubleshooters didn’t always turn on each other at the drop of a hat, and this resulted in an environment where tension and paranoia rapidly built.  Think about it – in Classic you knew that EVERYONE was out to get you.  Here you didn’t.  Which is scarier?  This version of Paranoia is much more 1984 than Laurel and Hardy.  Mongoose even released an entire supplement of Straight adventures, which includes the darkest scenario ever written for Paranoia.
As well as bringing the rules up to date, XP did the same for the setting.  Alpha Complex now had much more in common with Communist China than it did with Communist Russia.  The Cold War fears of the 80s were replaced with….well, the Paranoias of the early 2000s.  Filesharing, computer viruses, terrorism, WMDs, spam and an unstable economy were now de rigour.  This made the whole thing much more relevant to newer audiences who had perhaps only heard of Paranoia by reputation before.


Mongoose went onto publish a whole swathe of wonderful supplements for Paranoia: XP between 2004 and 2009.  Special mention must go to Flashbacks which revisited some of the classic Paranoia adventures from the glory days of 1st edition and brought them up to date for the new edition.  

Also of note was the Traitor’s Manual which went into depth on each of the secret societies.  For those of us who liked dabbling with the new Straight style of play, this book was a God send.  Thought that Paranoia Commies were moustachioed Cossacks, wearing most glorious furry Babushka and taking in Rrrrrroooooshian accent?  Take a look at them in Straight play where they are genuinely scary terrorists that blow up buildings full of innocent people…

Come 2009, Mongoose released the 25th anniversary edition of Paranoia; this time having three different rulebooks, which allowed players to create Troubleshooters, Internal Security Troopers, or….wait for it…High Programmers!  Now, playing as different clearances of characters was nothing new; back in first edition there was the HIL Sector Blues supplement with rules on playing Internal Security Troopers, and XP had published Extreme Paranoia that included rules for citizens all the way up to Violet.  However, rules to play High Programmers?  Blimey.  Production continued until 2012.

Finally, in 2017 Mongoose released the Red Clearance Starter Set.  Featuring completely reworked mechanics and updates to the setting, this edition none the less carried on the tradition of fear and ignorance started over thirty years previously.  I’ve not played this edition, so I can’t comment on it, but the reviews I’ve read seem favourable.

So there you have it.  One of the funniest roleplaying game ever made, conceived and firmly based on the mindset that made the prospect of nuclear armageddon a very plausible reality for decades.  Despite being almost forty years old, I’d argue that Paranoia remains as tangible and relevant today as it did in “glory days” of the Cold War.  Sure, we might not be huddling in fear of the Commies unleashing a hellstorm on us from above, but just turn on the news and tell me that a game dealing with fear, ignorance, hatred of those that are in someway “different”, shadowy conspiracies, terrorism, excessive bureaucracy, technofear and excessive gun violence isn’t topical.  In fact, when you see who’s in charge these days, suddenly Friend Computer doesn’t seem that bad.  At least in Alpha Complex you get six lives… 

After recording every Roll to Save Roundtable, myself and my co-hosts generally sit around and discuss what we’re going to cover next. After last episode’s discussion of Vampire we decided that something more light-hearted was in order for the next episode, and we settled on Paranoia.

For those of you who haven’t experienced the fun of Paranoia, it’s a roleplaying game of “a darkly humourous future”. I won’t go into the whole history here – that’s what our next podcast episode is for! – but it’s a game that started publication in the early 80s, went through some bumpy phases, re-emerged in the early 2000s and is still in production to this day. Paranoia was one of the first “funny” roleplaying games, and even though it’s 36 years old the premise it is based around is still largely unchanged to this day. There’s something about the concepts presented in this game – a mix of 1984, dark satire and a touch of genuine insanity – that gamers find inherently appealing.

I first came into contact with Paranoia in 1990 and had some wonderful experiences with it, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I actually really began to appreciate the setting and its potential. A lot of people approach Paranoia as an exercise in slapstick or as “the game where you get the players to kill each other”. These wacky, zaaaap style games can probably be fun – and I’m pretty sure all my early forays into Paranoia were like this – but the game REALLY comes into its own when its played – as the wonderful Paranoia XP book puts it – Straight.

That’s not to say “straight up serious” – playing in that world would be depressing beyond belief. However, it makes the assumption that Alpha Complex (the default setting for the game) is largely functional, and that The Computer – the digital despot that runs the Complex – genuinely has the best interests of the humans under its care at heart. With that in mind the humour comes from the dreadful situations and the competing agendas of the players. I learned long ago that in this setting the laughs come, not from something wacky like “Oh look – traitors in babushka hats speaking eeeen theeeek Rrrrrrrrashan ak-sents…” but from the team figuring out “How do we get out of this with our hides intact and as much personal glory as possible?” While I might write in the odd recurring joke, the game works so much more smoothly if the comedy unfolds naturally in the game between the players. It’s much funnier watching one player try to procrastinate their way out of doing something they really, really REALLY don’t want to do than it is to have someone rush in armed with a “custard pie launcher” or some other nonsense.

So, going back to the original point of this post, we’ve decided to do a Paranoia episode. As part of this, I agreed to run a game for my cohosts and some others, and we had our inaugural game today.

To refresh people’s memories naturally – not because I like torturing my co-hosts.

I took the premise from an old scenario, rewrote the main body of it (and the characters) and threw the players in.

It was a complete blast to run and the players – some of who had never played Paranoia before (hence the point of the game before the podcast) – really, REALLY got into it.

The best part of all of this? The comedy came very naturally to them – none of it was forced, and there was nothing in the way of wackiness and zaniness – something that came to characterise a lot of the later West End Games material and which sadly imprinted on a lot of people and is therefore what many folks think of when someone mentions Paranoia to them.

In fact, the only real running joke I had was distinct ring tones for each of the characters’ PDCs (Alpha Complex’s equivalent of a smart phone). I started introducing these early on, and the characters in question would try and slip away to answer it in secret as it was frequently a secret society contact or some other nefarious individual calling. Once the players became accustomed to this I would simply play the sound and there would be a flurry of activity along the lines of “Oh I go to answer my PDC” and “Oh I’m going that way too, let me walk with you citizen. Don’t worry, I won’t eavesdrop…” I was very pleased when one of the players said afterwards “I loved that you used the theme tune for “Bullseye” for the team leader’s ring tone…”

Paranoia – the original roleplaying game of a darkly humourous future. My players did a great job of being exactly that today – darkly humourous.

I can’t wait until the next session.