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.
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…
SLA Industries – The Assumptions – Episode 4 – Roll to Save
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 1984, Brave 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 Cyberpunk, Twilight 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.
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.
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.”
That’s not the worst part though.
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.
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.