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[Backstory Redacted] - Getting Ready to Run Paranoia

Greetings, Citizens! For scheduling reasons Due to Commie sabotage, the benevolent and exceptionally well-prepared individuals in charge of Never Say Dice have chosen to follow up the recent Paranoia post with another, this time about what you need to do before the game. Readers unfamiliar with Paranoia should take this opportunity to educate themselves before their ignorance is discovered and punished, and any readers uninterested in Paranoia should join the line for the nearest Termination Booth forming here. Please fill out the Citizen Satisfaction Survey before stepping into the booth. Have a pleasant daycycle!

When we last spoke, I had covered the setting and talked a little about my first (successful) Paranoia session, but closed without sharing the lessons I had learned from my years of running the game.

Players: Welcome to Alpha Complex, Six Death Minimum

I must admit to having a certain advantage in my pool of available players that other Gamemasters might not: I live in the greater Washington DC area, specifically in the suburbs between the District of Columbia and Baltimore. Living here, one thing you learn is that, when someone gets vague about their job, you don't press them any further. With Dulles to the south and Ft. Meade to the north, you'll find a lot of people employed, directly or indirectly, by three-letter government agencies, especially people who work in tech. In other words, exactly the people you'd want to recruit for atabletop RPG game! And, where real-life security clearances and Top Secret job postings are commonplace, you'll find a lot of people already predisposed to "getting" Paranoia. I've had more than a few players comment that the game was "just like work, except fun."

Even if you aren't gifted players by the Military Industrial Complex, most people are frustrated by bureaucracy and nonsensical rules in their daily lives, whether it be in academia, the corporate labyrinth, or just the Department of Motor Vehicles. If you're pitching the game to someone, you can always suggest it as a "cathartic experience." It's exactly like the worst parts of your average day... just with more superpowers and explosions. 

If  you know a little about your potential players' tastes, you have another potential an "in." As opposed to when Paranoia first premiered, a wealth of sci-fi comedy exists today. In 1984, the only well-known properties were the film Dark Star and the works of Douglas Adams. And, while fans of either would very likely be into the game, a GM would probably have to pitch it as "1984 or Logan's Run... but funny." Fortunately for early adopters, though, Terry Gilliam's Brazil premiered the next year, hitting a lot of the same points as Paranoia, albeit in a retro-inspired alternate, present rather than the game's post-apocalyptic underground civilization - nonetheless, the movie remains a "must-see" for GMs and players alike. Today, though, examples abound. Red Dwarf, Futurama, and the Orville all skewer sci-fi tropes in a way similar to Paranoia, although Red vs. Blue and (my own biggest influence) Sealab 2021 specifically incorporate the same kinds of themes and humor as the game. On the electronic front, the Portal (as mentioned last week) and Fallout games are extremely similar in tone to Paranoia, and I suspect it was an influence on their respective creators. One game series even shares a creator with Paranoia: Warren Spector, who wrote the early pre-published adventure "Send in the Clones," would go on to build his own (more serious) future dystopia with the Deus Ex games. If anyone professes to be a fan of one or more of these media properties, they're likely a good prospect for Paranoia play.

We should probably also talk about the kind of people who aren't likely to take to Paranoia. If players consider roleplaying an opportunity to grow a character over time, accumulating (in-game) wealth, status, and capability, Paranoia is probably not the game for them. If a player believes an in-depth familiarity with a game's rules and mechanics is a requirement for enjoyable play, this is definitely not the game for them - the second rule of Paranoia for players is , after all, "knowledge of the rules is treason." (The first being "the GM is always right" and the third "entertain or die.") That third rule, in particular, probably defines the person who will enjoy this game - it's for folks who laugh and contribute when the story goes sideways, when their characters die in new and creative ways, and when presented with (apparently) insurmountable obstacles. The player who throws their hands up in these circumstances, who says "I don't see how we're supposed to do what we're ordered to if we aren't given the resources we need," or argues about whether something in-game makes logical sense, is not likely to have a good time with Paranoia.

Having said this, though, a player's compatibility isn't as purely as binary as it may seem. Someone, particularly one familiar with other ("non-fun," as the official Paranoia materials say) RPGs) may start off opposed to the required playstyle, but come around as they get a feel for what's expected and the types of things that happen in the game. This is where it's particularly helpful to have a veteran player in the group, who can set an example for how a player engages with Paranoia, its setting, and everyone at the table. If you haven't yet had a chance to amass enough masochists to build a recurring player base, it will all be on you as the GM to ease everyone into this unique variation of roleplaying. Which brings us to my next topic: tone.

Tone: You are in error, Citizen. No one is screaming.

Getting the tone right for your group and the kind of game you want to run is essential for Paranoia. It's important for any game, of course, but in most RPGs there exists a general sense of agreement as to how things should feel. While there is room for variation, players will come to a D&D table with an expectation of how the game will run, which will be brought further into focus if they already know what the campaign setting or scenario is going be - it's what they agreed to play, after all. For games based on existing properties, like Star Wars or Call of Cthulhu, this expectation is a selling point, and one reason I think licensed games are a particularly good entry point for total beginners unsure of what to bring to the table (both literally and figuratively) .

But where does that put Paranoia? It's officially described as a "darkly humorous" game, and humor is subjective. While a new player may have some familiarity with the game's reputation, or even play experience with other GMs, they don't know what this Paranoia game will be like, or what their fellow players will find funny. Ideally this will be worked out over the course of the session (particularly if they already know each other), and the commonality of humor will be determined through interaction, just as with general light conversation (unconsciously) and improv comedy, consciously.

The GM, of course, doesn't get the luxury of being reactive - they have to get things started long before they sit down at the table, and even before they've started to come up with ideas for the session. The GM needs to start off by deciding how the game should feel. I mentioned last time the way I drew inspiration from the adventure games of the 1980s, where amusing character deaths were a selling point (ask any fan of Sierra games which titles were their favorites, and the answer will usually be determined by the funniest "game over" screens), and the player's relationship to the game (and, by extension, the invisible narrator) was often a light-hearted antipathy.

We've also talked a little about my choice of chiptune music (primarily from the North American Commodore demoscene), but even within that sound, I am very selective about using tracks that convey the precise feeling I'm looking for: subtly creepy, even within the inherently cheesy context of old computer music. One thing that's changed over time is that I've removed anything originating from commercial video games or is a cover of a known (non-computer) song. While the Portal 2 and VVVVVV soundtracks served me well over many games, I now prefer to avoid using anything the players may already have associations with. Not only are familiar songs potentially distracting, but their presence subtly suggests the re-use of story beats from the source material. Additionally, while I haven't been recording games, the use of music from non-copyrighted or Creative Commons sources does make it easier to present recorded sessions online.

Recently, I've started to open sessions with a quick monologue of current happenings in Alpha Complex, using language from the introductions of the various editions. So, for instance, I started one session by reading:

It is the Year 214 of the Computer. The war against the Communists continues. Rumors abound that episodes of “Teela-O-MLY, Troubleshooter” in syndication have removed popular subliminal messages to make way for more advertising time, inspiring dedicated fans to start a "Bring Back Classic Mind Control" campaign. And Friend Computer is happy to report that the number six and the letter "H" are no longer classified. Now commencing PARANOIA….

When I have a chance, I'll select a song with a lengthy buildup (this one, for example), write out the buildup time in my session notes (31 seconds, in this case), and time the monologue to end just as the music kicks in. It takes a little pre-game practice to get right, but when I do, it absolutely sells the feeling I'm trying to convey, even to players completely new to the game.

Finally, there are the"Classic," "Straight,"and "Zap" playstyles from the XP and 25th Anniversary editions of Paranoia. In XP, these take the form of actual play mechanics, substituting an elaborate system of fines for less-treasonous activities in the "Straight" style, for instance, instead of the more comedic punishments in "Classic." (25th Anniversary treats these as more a set of guidelines than an alternate rule system.) This is a helpful model for setting tone, even if you aren't using any of these rules - particularly when considered as a range. If you decide where you'd like the game to fall in the spectrum when you're first putting things together, it will make the tone more consistent during the rest of your prep and in running the game. I have found it easier to the prep assuming a more "Straight" tone, and allowing the players themselves to determine how silly things get - it's far easier to shift the game from more serious into goofier territory than it is the other way round. Plus, it definitely contributes to the players' sense of, well... paranoia when they're the only ones with pun names! 

 Story: It's all true. Especially the lies.

Several editions of Paranoia include tables for randomly generating story and mission ideas, labelled "What's Going On," and "What's Really Going On?" Even if you don't use the tables themselves, this is exactly the approach you'll need to take when coming up with your scenario specifics. While there will be the occasional situation where the Troubleshooters might be given an assignment that (mostly) matches what they need to do (in which case, the issue will be all the things that go wrong), most missions have some basic task that (intentionally or not) intersects a larger issue. Experienced players should wince every time you mention having to repair a vending machine. I've never had a set approach as to which should come first, the mission or the backstory, but I probably tend more toward the latter: coming up with an elaborate or complex situation (often powerful, high-clearance citizens or service firms messing with one another), then thinking of an assignment given to the players that will lead to them stumbling on it. I've had those broken vending machines lead to secret labs and money laundering operations, with the players usually in the predicament of having to deal with the larger problem to stay alive, but also needing to keep quiet about it and making it look like they still did the thing they were ordered to... whether it was possible or not.

When I've come up with the mission first, it will often be inspired by another piece of media. My favorite film is Apocalypse Now, and the order Captain Willard is given ("terminate with extreme prejudice") feels exactly like something a Troubleshooter team would be assigned. If they actually pull it off, they can all easily be terminated to maintain secrecy. In the scenario the movie inspired me to write, "The Terrible Secret of Arkon-V," the players are sent into the Outdoors to find and terminate Arkon-V, an Armed Forces officer who has gone AWOL and may be assembling a small army to take over Alpha Complex. What the players don't know is that Arkon-V is a powerful machine empath hiding from Friend Computer, that his army is made up of former Troubleshooters who had been given the exact same mission as the players, and had their brains replaced with bot hardware. The players are essentially the latest delivery of materials, and it's all been set up by Mysterious Forces looking to study gestalt intelligence. Of course, I left getting out of this situation entirely up to them, which brings me to my general attitude to Paranoia story prep.

 Another time, in a scenario inspired by an episode of Sealab 2021, the players are (in a roundabout way) sent into a supposedly abandoned sector, to deal with (as best they can determine) a monster that's been devouring people. The "really going on" in this case was that the "abandoned sector" story was a cover for a massive drug production and smuggling operation, and the "monster" was the operation's enforcer, who had a mutant ability to astrally project himself. Finding all that out, and then doing something about it, certainly cost a number of clones.

I'm sure there are Paranoia GMs who put everything on rails, and while there are plenty of pre-published adventures structured that way (including Dan Curtis Johnson's "Stealth Train," probably the best Paranoia scenario ever written, and full of "GM rail-roading" jokes), I tend to take a much more "free-form" approach. While keeping the "what's really going on" in the back of my mind, I'll plan out specifics for the opening, briefing session, and equipment outfitting, along with a basic concept for debriefing (or at least where it will take place). I'll also come up with three or four set pieces that I plan to hit along the way, say "an ULTRAVIOLET awards ceremony dinner," "a high-clearance park with real plant life," and "a fake secret taskforce called CRAMIT." (You've probably guessed at this point that these are all from yet another scenario I've run.) And how do I string all these together? I let the players determine that.

With so much hidden from the players, Paranoia is unique in its capability to construct things while the game is taking place. And, once players get a feel for it, they'll concoct fantastic ways for you to connect your ideas. We'll talk about that more in a later post on actually running Paranoia. Prep time is best coming up with NPC names and personalities, so that you'll have characters to cast in all the crazy scenes your players will help you create. The supplement "Mandatory Mission Pack" features a few tables for this. It's a great book all around, with various random situations and challenges you can throw in to vex your players while they're doing all that idea-stringing. The randomness also presents a quality that seems to be unique to the XP and 25th Anniversary editions, which is a sense of strangeness and unreality, suggesting ways to make the players doubt the experiences their characters are having... which is a rather strange concept in a tabletop RPG, when you think about it! Things like a room of typists... who have been typing out the Troubleshooters adventure all the way up to the point they enter the room. Or a Briefing Room where, instead of a Briefing Officer, there's a pre-recorded tape with instructions for the mission... and somehow pre-recorded answers for everything the Troubleshooters ask.

Another randomization tool for GMs is the Mission Blender, originally included with the XP edition's GM Screen (and still available should you buy a PDF version of the screen from, but also as a fan-created web version. This will, based on a few specifics for your game, generate locations and people for your game, in a way that's just random enough to a little off-putting, like the "Mandatory Mission Pack" tables. If possible, I'd recommend getting an offline version and rolling manually - the random number generation in the web version leaves something to be desired. There were potential outcomes I didn't even know were possible until I tried it offline, and I've literally run the online version thousands of times over the years. No matter how you go about it, though, it's a good way of getting those set pieces ready to install in the modular madhouse your players are going to build.

As for how to help them build it? That, Citizens, must wait until next time.

- B

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