Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Retrospective: Paranoia

Paranoia was first released, appropriately enough in 1984. Set in a sealed habitat called Alpha Complex sometime in the future after a nuclear war has destroyed human civilization, the game centers on the missions of "troubleshooters" working on behalf of The Computer, an artificially intelligent machine that acts as lord and God of Alpha Complex, both maintaining it and protecting against enemies internal and external. Paranoia's central joke -- the game is, after all, a broad satire of the Cold War and then-contemporary culture -- is that The Computer is insane, having ordered human society within Alpha Complex into something humorously inhuman and who sees imaginary enemies everywhere, most especially from secret societies (such as "Commies") and mutants. Naturally, all player characters are both mutants and members of secret societies as well as troubleshooters, fostering an atmosphere of madcap secrecy and dissimulation that plays nicely into the game's central premise.

Consequently, the missions on which the characters are sent by The Computer are often absurd, based on false premises and riddled with untruths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods, because the society of Alpha Complex largely functions by lies agreed upon. Thus, characters, as well as NPCs, must continue to say and do the "right" things, even when they know that those things are mistaken or incorrect, because, to do otherwise runs the risk of one's being denounced as a traitor and executed. And while Paranoia provides each character with six clones, thereby making it easy, both rules-wise and in the game's setting, to replace a dead character, self-preservation is nevertheless a prime motivation for many, if not most, characters, especially if it can be achieved at the expense of another character's own quest for the same.

It's here, I think, where a large fault line in Paranoia lies. Paranoia is an unambiguously "confrontational" game. Or perhaps it might be better better to call it "competitive." Regardless of the term used, the GM most definitely is out to get the player characters and player characters can advance by backstabbing their fellows. Now, those of who enjoyed Paranoia recognized this dynamic as all part of the fun and, given that Greg Costikyan was one the game's designers (along with Dan Gelber, Ken Rolston, and Eric Goldberg), I think it's safe to bet that this dynamic was intended, at least in part, as a commentary on the way many roleplayers enjoyed their hobby. However, not all gamers, then or now, find Paranoia's explicit encouragement of slapstick-riddled betrayal to be enjoyable. Indeed, I've known several roleplayers who considered Paranoia to represent everything they hate about the hobby and their fellow gamers.

Now, I've always had a soft spot for Paranoia, in part because it plays to my strengths as a referee. I'm good at creating quirky, possibly insane NPCs and portraying them in an amusing, if slightly sinister, fashion. Likewise, I have little difficulty switching between Three Stooges-esque hijinks and black humor, both of which are, in my opinion, essential to a good Paranoia game. Note that I didn't say "campaign." While there are rules in the game for improving one's character over many adventures, I can't recall ever using them. Likewise, though I've played the game many times over the last 25 years, I've never run anything more elaborate than extended one-shots with it. I'm not sure that Paranoia could be played over the course of many adventures, except in very special circumstances. Instead, like many humorous RPGs, I enjoy it most as a change of pace, a "palette cleanser" to be played between longer campaigns of a more "serious" sort.

Which reminds me: a note on "seriousness" seems in order here. Paranoia is a humorous game. On the face of it, you're not supposed to take any of it seriously and I think that attempts to play the game straight bleed some of the joy out of the game. At the same time, I don't think there's any question that, like all satires, its designers meant for its critiques and commentary to elicit thought and examination about the real world. The jokes here aren't all just pratfalls and Warner Brothers-style lunacy; they're intended to serve a purpose.

In my opinion, it's here, rather than in all the player vs. player and players vs. GM silliness, that Paranoia's biggest fault line lies. Many gamers -- and rightfully so -- don't want a RPG to be used a platform for political discussion (or diatribes), however thoughtful or amusingly presented. In the hands of an unskilled referee or one with a transparent agenda, I suspect Paranoia could prove a very unenjoyable experience for many players and that's the game's real Achilles heel. However, to eliminate the political/social satire would similarly drain away the much of the zany genius that makes the game so appealing to those of us who love it. It's a fine line, one that many referees simply cannot discern, making a good Paranoia adventure difficult to pull off. But in the hands of the right referee, it can be a thing of beauty.


  1. The only RPG I have ever run without knowing any of the rules.

  2. I've had fun with Paranoia, but you're right. It's more a one shot type game then a campaign game.

    It can be said that it's one of those games that's more fun to read the rulebook than it is to play.

    Mongoose Game's Mandatory Bonus Fun! actually captures the feel of playing Paranoia without investing too deeply in an RPG.

    Finally, I find it interesting that you cover Paranoia the day after DEVO releases their first new album in 20 years.

    We must repeat...

  3. I agree that Paranoia is a one-shot game, not intended for campaigns. However, I also feel the same way about Cthulhu (for different reasons).

    My favorite Paranoia campaigns are the ones that are frenetically-paced -- where the game master talks like a farm auctioneer.

  4. At every convention I have ever gone to, the people in the room that were obviously having the most fun (evidenced by the frequent bouts of hysterical laughter) were almost always playing Paranoia. I've owned the first edition of the game since roughly 2000 (picked it up secondhand for cheap), but I have never actually played it, unfortunately, so I can't really speak to how it plays.

  5. Oh, wow, Paranoia. I haven't thought about this in years.

    I like the CoC comparison Walker makes. For me, it's because of the high mortality rate. With both Paranoia and CoC, you already know your character will die (or go mad), if you are really playing to the true spirit of the game. This makes the goal of staying alive, which is primary in most games, subjugated a bit. I think it encourages players to actually do what the character would do, instead of what they know is best for the character. In the long run, that's so counter to our nature that it's only fun in small doses.

  6. Some of the most fun I've ever had GM'ing were with Paranoia. Most of the modules held up well as straight reads too, which is good, as my players rarely went where the plot was taking them.

    I actually play tested an early Paronoia module at the old West End Games offices in Manahttan in 1985 or 86. Wish I could remember who ran the play test. Fun times.

  7. Ah the glory days of WEG. I remember my first game of Paranoia being pretty chaotic and basically a PVP free-for-all, but still fun with a lot of laughs.

  8. I loved Paranoia. Of course, at the time, I didn't get the political satire; I was a junior in high school and more interested in women. We played it only twice, but I recall madcap fun. During a mission, we turned up a Blue Security Card, which we weren't cleared to have. But it opened up all kinds of doors and terminals, so we held on to it. The guy who had it stupidly showed it to some guards in an attempt to bluff his way out of a situation. He was executed (but it was mad fun watching him try to talk his way out of it), and the card was conveniently dropped on the ground. For the rest of the night, all the players tried to find ways to plant the card on other players and get them executed in a sick game of hot potato. I love this game.

    Recently, I've been musing over buying the latest edition, just for nostalgia.

  9. The best game of Paranoia I played in required a competition to determine who would get the various team slots. The competition was a game of Twister that we actually played. Do you know how hard it is to play Twister when 3/4ths of the playing field is above your security level? But the Computer is ordering you to touch it?

    Fun times

  10. The premise sounds like it could be used for a very 'grim', serious game. Why is it comical? Is it just the writing?

  11. My goal in Paranoia was always to see how fast I could kill off all of my clones in as outrageous yet not out-right suicidal ways as possible.

  12. Odd, we were just talking about this game. Its one of the few games that I haven't played.

  13. @Anarchist:

    The writing is part of it. The way the text casually mentions commies and mutants in a matter-of-fact way, explains what happens to these people, then basically accuses you of being a commie mutant traitor if you don't get on board with the game.

    As James says, the central premise is that the computer is completely insane. It has garbled most of its programming, sort of like how HAL 9000 decides that it's a good idea to kill off Dave and Frank. It's been told that commies are the enemy, so it keeps on the lookout for commies. Rational decision. However, it defines what a commie is. And it's pretty much in charge of your life support since you're in an underground complex. Oh, and there are other humans who believe everything the computer tells them. So if computer says you're a commie mutant traitor, there are plenty of humans who are willing to execute you.

    Yes, the game could be quite grim if played straight. But I don't see how that could be done, because the premise is so ridiculous. Try to imagine HAL 9000, the computer from Logan's Run, and the computer from I, Robot all getting together. That's who you're working for. It will send you out on a mission beyond the dome to retrieve the Mona Lisa, then when you come back it will accuse you of being mutated and carrying contraband. Of course, you know this will happen, and so take steps to protect yourself. This generally takes the form of blaming someone else in the group.

    It's all madcap fun, once you get into the vibe. And since you are not cleared for this information, kindly report to a suicide booth for your immediate termination. Thank you for your cooperation, commie mutant bastard.

  14. I fundamentally like Paranoia; I think it's well-done. One of the more heavily played non-TSR games for me.

    My main critiques are:
    (1) By the combat tables, shooting a fellow player with a laser is not nearly as lethal as the backstory makes it sound. In fact, it's pretty darned hard to damage an agent of the same level.

    (2) The enormous credibility gulf of "You're executed for being a mutant Greenpeace agent", and then your clone shows up (same in every way including this one), why isn't he executed for the same reason? Honestly never quite got that to work in play.

    (3) The adventure "Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues" (esp. first chapter) is one of most raw railroad adventures ever written (literally control of PCs taken away from players during game). Actually one of the most sour gaming experiences I ever GM'd.

  15. > Many gamers -- and rightfully so -- don't want a RPG to be used a platform for political discussion (or diatribes), however thoughtful or amusingly presented. In the hands of an unskilled referee or one with a transparent agenda, I suspect Paranoia could prove a very unenjoyable experience for many players and that's the game's real Achilles heel.

    Pretty much any RPG can be used as a platform for sociopolitical viewpoint pushing by the GM. This should actually be /less/ of an issue with Paranoia owing to the not atypical 600% TPK rate vs. the idea of "buying into" a longer-term campaign where it's a lot more difficult to back out should there be such "issues".
    If the GM irks you in Paranoia, just up the ante and have fun...

  16. I remember talking about it all the time with my players back in the day, but it I never had any real desire to run it. Even my Cthulhu campaigns were long-running (I don't think about "end game" in anything I run - I'm in for the long haul), so anything with a one-shot formula doesn't appeal to me. I can see it being fun for conventions, but I don't go to conventions so there ya go.

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  18. > The premise sounds like it could be used for a very 'grim', serious game. Why is it comical? Is it just the writing?

    "The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Weighted Companion Cube will never threaten to stab you and, in fact, cannot speak. In the event that the Weighted Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice."

    Oops, sorry, wrong game (...just about ;)

    Grim and comical can work well together, even if that's more typically better for shorter periods, and kinda glad the current generation of (computer) gamers haven't yet been lulled into some totally fluffy My Little Pony wish-fulfillment MMORPG without having to suffer - and even enjoy - knockbacks along the way. :)
    If you wish to try to "convert" a die-hard computer gamer to tabletop RPG gaming as well, Paranoia's a pretty good first port o' call, IMO.

  19. I like the game for the very same reasons James doesn't: the PVP & player vs. GM attitude. Plus with a huge dose of black comedy, you have Paranoia.

    I think it's one of those games where you aren't expected to take it seriously, and to a larger degree the RPG scene should be like that too.

    Just this past week I got into a HUGE debate with someone about how detect evil/good works at another forum. IT got to the point where he was quoting page and paragraph out of the DMG to me...because I wasn't doing it "Right".

    Eventually I had to say that this discussion is pointless because we're arguing over a rule in a game about dragons and fairies. Lighten up people!

    Eventually we got over the whole thing with no hard feelings.

    And that's what Paranoia is: a way to "lighten up" and not to take RPGs too seriously.

  20. I like the game for the very same reasons James doesn't: the PVP & player vs. GM attitude.

    Um ... I do like the game. I'm not sure why you think otherwise.

  21. Um ... I do like the game. I'm not sure why you think otherwise.

    Perhaps blackstone read "fault line" as "fault"?

  22. I love the feel of the original Paranoia. It's a great game to run, because at heart, the objective of the game is for the players to amuse the gamemaster (and be amused in turn). It's not a game that should be run seriously, but like all good comedy it should be played straight. You're not out to hose the players, but are there to let the players hose themselves.

    It's also a great game to run semi-freeform. A good paranoia game will be immersive. Even with a tabletop play, get your players to act appropriately. Encourage them to ham it up. If you ever get to the end of an "adventure" then you are probably doing it wrong. That's because the players themselves will take it off the rails and do your work for you.

    Although one common elementary mistake is players shooting each other for treason. This is fine. The traitor is dead (he must have been a traitor because The Computer's loyal troubleshooters killed him, qed). Then execute the character for wasting The Computers valuable resources (to whit, the "treasonous" troubleshooter). Curbs that behaviour right off.

    One of my favourite games had 3 different Troubleshooter teams receive the same Mission Alert, and then receive only enough equipment for one team. (Yes that is 18 players; Paranoia becomes easier the more people you have playing). There were even survivors (and by that I mean a player who made it through on their first clone [by not drawing attention to himself by either being in the forefront or clinging to the background; he even got an award for the multicorder record of the game he made), so I promoted him to Mission Leader for the next one. <grin>

    My favourite secret for running the game is that the game works very well if The Computer (yourself) really is Your Friend. Works even better if it the Friend of the last person who speaks to it. [If they want combot support, give it to them. This...

    <crash><bang><zap zap zap zap>

    [I'm sorry, but Pa-V-ANE-3 is no longer available to talk to you at the moment. While you exit through the Alpha Complex Gift Store, may I suggest picking up some excellent Paranoia fiction, such as Stormshooters and Troubleknights, Extreme Paranoia: Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Shot, Title Deleted For Security Reasons, and the comic.]

  23. @Ross: I found the latest version to be rather disappointing compared to the original game. It's very different.

    Part of this is the different style of writing, which is much dryer and more rulesy,* but the other thing is the rules are a lot looser.

    A good part of the fun in the old game was having the Players book explain a highly intricate and detailed simulation system which the gamemaster subsequently totally ignored.

    And the new gamemaster screen is no longer guaranteed to blind people who look at it. =8(

    But at least it's not as bad as the infamous 5th edition (although it does want to head that way).

    [*In addition to having a tendency to parody itself, which is never a good idea.]

  24. Sometimes I think that this is the best RPG yet made. It's been years since I've played, so the nostalgia factor may weigh in here, but I don't think I've ever run any other game and had such a good time and felt pretty confident that the players had too (those that could get into the absurd spirit of the thing)

  25. Some of James's analysis is invalidated by the current (Mongoose Publishing) edition of PARANOIA, which Gareth Hanrahan wrote based closely on my 2004 edition. The 2004+ rules encourage the GM to adopt an attitude of Skinnerian conditioning of players, dancing them like puppets and turning them against one another for entertainment value. This contrasts with the original PARANOIA's encouragment of an openly malevolent GM.

    Those who repeat the conventional wisdom that PARANOIA isn't suitable for campaigns should look at the 2006 mission collection "WMD." The lead mission there, Dan Curtis Johnson's "Hunger," brilliantly brings the PCs from lowly RED Clearance all the way up to BLUE, and along the way shows how an RPG scenario can be effective satire without hitting players (as opposed to Troubleshooters) over the head.

  26. Played it once. I killed off all the characters in the first encounter, well... those that didn't kill each other. One of the players actually had his character stand up and announce during the firefight that he was a communist, at which point everyone on the battlefield shot him.

    Of course, what do you do for an encore after that?

    I found rules to actually be worthwhile just by themselves and adapted them into a fun Robotech: Invid Invasion campaign.

  27. Paranoia is to RPG's what Diplomacy is to boardgames. If you can handle that your friends MUST lie to and betray you, great fun.

  28. Sorry James. I did misread your post.
    D'oh! (slaps forehead)

  29. Oh, we had soooo much fun with this one back when it came out. My brother was already known for his wacky sense of humor, and so we naturally elected him referee.

    He turned his science-fair display board, made from pegboard, into a white (of course) Screen of Fear and Ignorance, from which we couldn't see him most of the time.

    The only game in which I've ever laughed so hard at facing a giant rubber chicken.

  30. paranoia is responsible for some of my fondest rpg-memories. monty python meets 1984... simply awesome.

    loving paranoia is mandatory, citizen!

  31. To be honest, I had more fun reading [i]Paranoia[/i] than playing it. It never quite worked for me, as a game. Not sure why.

  32. Paranoia was one of the most-anticipated events, when it came to play-testing (and, apparently, playing) at SIMCON, the years it was run (which was multiple).

    But the most amusing - and fun - was the LARP that was run in the late-teens/early 20s of SIMCON. Including the famous Hidden Elevator of Meliora Hall, with a sign loudly proclaiming its entry status as INFRARED on the outside...

    ...wait for it...

    ...and another sign proclaiming it's exit status as INDIGO on the inside of the elevator.

    The referees took an informal count. At one point, there was apparently half a dozen people in that elevator, as the jerks inside would cheerfully not tell people entering what the trick was....

  33. "In the hands of the right referee, it can be a thing of beauty."

    This is true of many games, but PARANOIA very much so -- to make it work right, the players AND the referee need to have the right mindset, the right attitude, and balance neatly between "cooperative play" and "kill everyone else at the table."

    Weirdly enough, PARANOIA is the only game I can think of that I've played consistently over the years where an argument NEVER erupted at the table. EVER! Blow a PC's head off without warning or save? Your buddy stab you in the back and toss you off a cliff? No one griped, ever. You simply activated your next clone and plotted your revenge...

  34. My group loved this game. We weren't quite as malevolent as some posters are describing, but we really hammed it up and went for the cheap jokes constantly. We wouldn't play it all the time, but we played often enough, and everyone had a blast. Would love to play again, but that group has long since disbanded. Maybe for a reunion...

  35. I think it's a mistake to consider it a "GM vs. player" game. In Paranoia it's the GM's job to portray a malevolent universe, but he's not doing it to "beat" the players. The ultimate goal is still to entertain (and be entertained).

    Because of GMs thinking "no more Mr. Nice Guy" meant "you're in it to win it", the essential element of Paranoia was lost: In other words, the paranoia. It's a fine line between a well-tuned Tomb of Horrors and "Rocks Fall, You All Die", but it's an important one.

    Of course, it's not just GMs: I've seen plenty of players ruin the game, too. Comedy is hard. Comedy gaming is harder.

    But very rewarding when it can be pulled off successfully.

  36. Oh -- Back circa 1988 I had a Paranoia game where every piece equipment was given as a physical prop (toys guns, towel cores for laser barrels, etc.) I can remember how aghast the one guy put in charge of equipment looked at receiving this big box (lose or break anything, treason, of course) -- then appointed an assistant equipment guy and highjinks ensued as they tried to entrap each other.

    Also, the party videocam was an actually camcorder, so I got the whole thing on tape by the player assigned to recording duty.

  37. You said that many people see Paranoia as everything they hate about games and gamers. Those are people who don't understand satire. In addition to satirizing cold war paranoia, it also satirizes gaming. The guy who invents reasons to shoot PCs in the back? The guy who dies in a stupid way then creates a "new" character who is exactly the same? The GM who creates an underground dungeon that's just an excuse to throw inescapable traps at the party? That is all a part of the Paranoia world. It's a satire of old school dungeon crawling.
    People who hate Paranoia for that reason don't realize that Paranoia is mocking the things they hate.

  38. There's an unofficial card game here:

  39. I dearly love this game, but definitely recall a tinge of melancholy. In particular, as GM I recall the players being assigned to disable a robot. The secret is that the robot is harmless. The halls and rooms the characters traverse are filled with destruction, injured people, radiation alarms, etc. They finally reach the room with the robot. The robot begins to roll towards the players harmlessly enough, but the players immediately cower in the opposite corner trying to find ways of defending themselves.

    My thought at the time was that the situation was hilarious, but it was a pity that I as the GM was the only one in on the joke.

  40. When the first MMORPGs started revealing their weaknesses as sandboxes for actual role-playing -- idiots running around being absurd and griefing each other, no consequences for dying, pointless fetch-quests handed out by the designers and their soulless quest-dispenser NPCs -- my first thought was that the only RPG that would work as designed in this environment was Paranoia. I still think the idea has a lot of potential. In fact, my sense is that playing World of Warcraft is actually closer to the experience of playing Paranoia than anything else.

  41. I loved this game. Yeah its more for one shots then continuity and it has a poltical tinge, but some of the best laughs I ever had came from this game.

    Its alot of fun.

  42. Paranoia is a great campaign game! Our DM started by having a massively deadly briefing (everybody ended up dead but me), sent us out on a mission with me as party leader (I got killed pretty quickly), and then we started the campaign. Not really as much secret society and backstabbing action as there could have been, but the DM was keeping us busy doing various troubleshooting missions. The campaign ended with a huge struggle between us and some Vultures, with us armed with a whole Vulture van full of weapons, which would have been great except that our team leader tacnuked everyone. The DM put him through a horrifying debrief, complete with real darkened room and spotlight on his face, but his Fast Talk triumphed and he was promoted. Awesome.