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I'm Sorry, Citizen, but This Post is Above Your Security Clearance: My (Un)-History with Paranoia

I find it only fair (and, like Friend Computer, your humble Gamemaster is only ever fair) to introduce my favorite RPG the way it was first introduced to me:

Isn’t this the game that gives each player six duplicate characters because they croak so fast?

The very one.

And doesn’t it encourage players to lie, cheat, steal, and backstab each other?

Correct. Paranoia is a lighthearted game about terror, soulless bureaucracies , mad scientists, weird mutants, and insane robots. Paranoia is fun. The Computer says so. Do you want to play?

Sounds kinda dumb to me… Say, why are you looking at me that way?

The Computer says not wanting to play Paranoia is treason and grounds for immediate termination. Any last words, traitorous scum?

Gulp. Uh… Sure I want to play!
Paranoia is fun! The Computer is my friend! Oh boy! Let’s go terminate some traitors!

Excellent! You’re learning, citizen. Stay alert! Trust no one! Keep your laser handy!

That text was on the last page of the original hardcover edition of West End Games’ Star Wars RPG that I received for my tenth birthday. And something about it… stuck with me. It seemed weird and dark, like something hidden deep within one of my paperback MAD collections, and particularly perverse in that it contradicted so much of (excellent) roleplaying advice in the rest of the book. I would repeatedly read that, look at the tiny, black-and-white version of the cover and laugh and the sheer wrongness of it.

After college, many years later, I got an inkling to start looking into roleplaying games again, initially stemming my discovery H.P. Lovecraft and wanting to see how Call of Cthulhu built on his work. But Paranoia was still somewhere at the back of my mind, like a hypnotic suggestion or nefarious implant. Something must have set it off, I suppose, maybe I saw someone reference the game or its universe online. Maybe it’s appropriate that I don’t know what triggered it, but I found myself researching the game and learning about its publication history. I decided, though, that I wanted the version that first caught my eye fifteen years prior, and bought a copy of that legendary Second Edition on eBay.

I found myself reading and thinking about that book a lot. The way it was written, the sense of humor in the text and the setting it described, the general attitude of the thing, made it feel like it had been custom-made just for me. Not the me that first read that description, but the me I was at the time, who adored Sealab 2021, Transmetropolitan, and Thomas Pynchon, the me that was living the real-life paranoia and lunacy of the George W. Bush administration and its unending War on Terror. Eventually, I managed to cajole some friends into my very first group tabletop game, hosted (naturally) by Andy. And I do mean “first” - I had never played anything in a group let alone run a game myself, and it went… as first times usually go. The specifics of that particular game aren’t worth commenting on, simply that it scared me away from running anything again for a few years.

Flash forward to 2009, I was hungry to try it all again. This time, I went for the newest edition, the “25th Anniversary," as a bundle that included a CD-ROM with many supplements for the previous “XP” edition (of which this was essentially a re-skin). I fell even more in love with Paranoia than before. The roughly-sketched world of the Second Edition had been fleshed out into something surprisingly rich and complex, yet still incredibly funny. And, unlike all earlier editions, this one had gone for a strikingly different art style, more anime-influenced, but also brimming with crowded energy, befitting this densely-packed version of Alpha Complex. And the way the Troubleshooters in the art resembled Mega Man awoke something else witin me, an association with electronic games of the 80s, and the similar similar sense of dark comedy they often embodied. (More on that later.) But now that I’ve begun using Paranoia terminology, I suppose I should actually describe the game for the uninitiated. Any readers already familiar with Paranoia will need to fill out the accompanying form, indicating how they acquired information above their Security Clearance and should avail themselves of this opportunity to implicate their fellow conspirators.

This might be my desktop background

Paranoia describes itself as “the Roleplaying Game of a Darkly Humorous Future,” and was the first tabletop RPG marketed specifically as comedic. Said future takes place centuries after humanity has fled the Earth’s surface, after a long-forgotten disaaster, into an massive underground city called Alpha Complex, run by an artificial intelligence called the Computer, or “Friend Computer” to its friends. Which would be everyone in Alpha Complex, where the first and most basic law is “the Computer is your friend.” Such a jovial atmosphere is maintained through the second law, which states that “happiness is mandatory.” To maintain all this happiness, information is strictly controlled, and Alpha Complex is divided according to “Security Clearances” based on how much the Computer trusts a citizen, and ranged according to the ROYGBIV color spectrum, with Infrareds at the bottom with the fewest freedoms and the most menial or dangerous jobs, and Ultraviolets, also known as “High Programmers,” at the top, allowed permission to alter the Computer’s very code and whose every whim and desire is satisfied by armies of snivelling cronies. Citizens live their lives according to their Security Clearance, and are only allowed to wear, touch, or consume things of their own Clearance or lower, and can only enter areas (or learn information) appropriate to them. 

Additionally, to minimize all the strife associated with the traditional methods of human production (and maintain a consistent supply of humans in event of treason, accident, or Computer displeasure), all humans in Alpha Complex are grown in vats and spend their lives on a regimen of hormonal depressants to cut down on any throbbing biological urges unapproved thought patterns. This has the additional benefit of being able to produce backup copies of any given human, and the Citizens of Alpha Complex are generally given a total of six lives. (Early editions present this as a “clone family” of identical citizens who grow up, live, and work together, with one taking over from another if when something unfortunate takes place. Later editions change this clones being decanted one at a time, but with their memories transferring to the citizen’s next body in event of death. The “six life” limit was maintained, however, with bodies past the sixth becoming increasingly unreliable and expensive far beyond the reach of most citizens.)

Even in the midst of all this mandatory happiness, the Computer is terrified of anyone who may be a threat to Alpha Complex, particularly Communists. (It doesn’t know what Communists are, exactly, but that just makes them even more of a threat.) There’s also the growing issue of citizens mutating beyond their standard design specification and developing… unnatural powers. To make matters worse, a number of treasonous Secret Societies are active in Alpha Complex, believing all and engaging all sorts of unapproved things, and possibly even plotting the overthrow of the Computer itself! In addition to maintaining a large Internal Security surveillance and enforcement apparatus, the Computer will draft low-clearance citizens as “Troubleshooters,” and given them the task of finding trouble… and shooting it. Troubleshooters are a readily expendable resource the Computer can send on dangerous or suicidal assignments, without having to risk well-trained and well-equipped Internal Security operatives. As such, Troubleshooters are given no training, and little in the way of equipment.

The players start as newly-promoted Red Clearance Troubleshooters, and tasked with finding and terminating Communists, mutants, and members of secret societies. Their characters are, incidentally, mutants and secret societies members, and need to hide these facts from their fellow teammates lest they be (rightly) terminated. Troubleshooter teams are sent on assignments rarely based on nonsensical, self-contradictory orders and are severely punished when things go wrong. Meanwhile, the players will be attempting to carry out missions for their secret societies, hide their mutant powers, and survive Alpha Complex and their fellow teammates to make it to Debriefing having died as few times as possible. Paranoia is a game of secrets, lies, and betrayals that all the official game materials insist on referring to as “fun.” And, for people of a certain mindset, it absolutely is.

Paranoia is often thought of as a one-shot game. Something light to run between larger, more serious campaigns, and certainly not anything anyone would want to play regularly - not to mention everyone who says they "just don't get it." Even the rulebook itself suggests that a Paranoia campaign isn't a likely possibility. And yet... I have done exactly that: campaigns across numerous sessions with players keeping the same characters (until they run out of backup copies), who love coming back for session after session, even with all the abuse I heap upon them. To be sure, I've been lucky to get players that "get it" and contribute massively to each game, but I've also put more thinking time into running Paranoia than anything else in my life... and certainly more than any piddling activities involving employment or education. All this has helped me nudge players into "getting it" more easily - I think, across more than twenty-five sessions and dozens of players, I can count the number who came out saying "this isn't the game for me" on one hand. A non-mutated hand, no less, featuring the standard approved number of fingers!

A lot of my approach stems from the first 25th Anniversary Edition game I ran (also at Andy's house), with one of the scenarios included in the rulebook: "Robot Imana-665-C." My timing was incredibly lucky - Portal 2 had been released that week, featuring an extremely similar tone to Paranoia, and most of my players had already been playing it. Another big factor was my selection of a game soundtrack. I had originally thought of using a laptop and speakers for sound effects and the like (at one point, the characters can make a call to their home base, but, thanks to some Commie sabotage, get a recording of "The Internationale" instead,). But that 80s retro feeling I mentioned earlier kept coming back to me... and I remembered that archives of music made for the Commodore 64 were available online. I had been an avid follower of the Commodore demoscene in the 90s, and a lot of the music had a vaguely dark edge to it, despite the inherent goofiness of coming from an old computer. I soon found a massive archive of recordings, and, after selecting a few I'd remembered from demos and games, arranged them into various playlists according to mood: one for combat, one for creepier moments, and a general one that I could leave running the rest of the time (and fit most scenarios if I got too busy with running the game to switch lists). This ended up become my most powerful tone-setting tool, even players who have strong associations with Paranoia from previous games get an immediate sense of what I'm going for once they hear the music. Over the years, I've built up the soundtrack to over twenty hours, and I put it on whenever I'm doing any kind of game prep to get in the proper headspace.

That first session muddled along for a bit, with the players not quite sure how to carry out their mission with misleading information and malfunctioning equipment, but not ready to start sabotaging each other... that is, until they heard the Internationale. It was like a switch flipped - they immediately began accusing each other of listening to Communist propaganda. From there on, it got a lot easier. Some additions from the XP and 25th Anniversary Editions helped things along as well. One was the Mandatory Bonus Duties" - assigned roles for team members such as Hygiene Officer, Happiness Officer, Equipment Guy, and (of course) Loyalty Officer. Being Paranoia, there's a form for players to fill out, determining what role they'd be best at, with the one least suited to any assignment appointed Team Leader. This gives the players something immediate to latch onto while they work out how they should be approaching the game, as well as giving them plenty of ways to antagonize each other once it does "click."

The other major addition is "Perversity Points," which are generally represented by poker chips. Each player starts with a set number, but they can be awarded to players (not characters) if they do something particularly impressive at the table - one rule of mine was to give one out for anything that makes everyone laugh. Even though they're a reward for player behavior, though, they do have an in-game function: a player can spend Perversity to either increase or decrease the difficulty of a roll... whether their own or someone else's, with a maximum of five per roll. This leads to some amazing moments of back-and-forth spending as players betray each other, or (usually towards the end of a session) throw in together to stop the catastrophe and save the day. Tossing a chip to a player for doing something really clever (or stupid... or both) is one of my favorite moments as a Paranoia GM.

One reason I've been able to keep players coming back for session after session rather than burning out on the game has been a careful focus on tone. The XP and 25th Anniversary Editions offer options for "Zap" (extremely silly and cartoony), "Straight" (extremely dry and dark - essentially Brazil: the RPG)), and "Classic" (a point between the two, and assumed as the default). I think a lot of the players who got sick of Paranoia with other GMs were experiencing something close to the "Zap" side of the spectrum, whereas I try to walk a fine line between "Classic" and "Straight" - funny, but not goofy. I leave a lot of it up to the players themselves, and present Alpha Complex as dysfunctional, but generally played straight. Thus, they're the ones making causing the comedy and mayhem, rather than having it forced on them by the Gamemaster, and allows me to fine-tune things based on their responses. The result is far closer to improv comedy than most games, and strongly promotes player involvement. I also tend to downplay the "rapid death" aspect many Paranoia GMs do - even in this system, I won't usually actually kill a character unless they make both a bad decision and a bad roll. (Unless it's a really, really bad decision.) This generally results in an interesting situation where players build up their suspicion of their teammates mutant powers and secret societies over time... but can't accuse them of treason without revealing themselves. This form of Mutally Assured Destruction is entirely appropriate to Paranoia, and greatly adds to the atmosphere across multiple games. As such, they tend to go more for the "carefully arranged accident" and "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you" form of betrayal, which has been far more conducive to player camaraderie than brutal (and obvious) violence. If you hold out long enough, Alpha Complex will usually do the murder for you... especially when I'm in charge.

Another thing that's helped has been keeping an eye on player energy and involvement levels, and knowing when to start wrapping things up. And I feel that we're hitting that point about now. Obviously, this game is something I feel strongly about, and will be discussing further in later installments. Until then, stay alert, trust no one, and keep your laser handy!

- B

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