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The Mission Will Be Very Safe and Fun for Everyone: Some Thoughtcrimes on Running Paranoia


I'm sorry citizen, but the question "why hasn't there been a Paranoia post in over fifteen months" cannot be processed. Records indicate that the previous post, "[Backstory Redacted] - Getting Ready to Run Paranoia" was activated in the Year 214 of the Computer, and, as this is currently Year 214 of the Computer, your internal chronometer must be malfunctioning. Rumors that is has always been Year 214 of the Computer are treason. Please report to Internal Security for cerebral re-adjustment. Have a nice daycycle.

So, why hasn't there been a post about Paranoia in fifteen months, anyway? The previous two have been quite popular, and, as I'm fond of saying, I've put more thought into this game than nearly anything else in my life, formal education included. As time went on, I found myself procrastinating on the follow-up. I didn't have enough time to work out everything I'd want to cover, I'd tell myself, or that some other topic, no matter how esoteric, was more pressing. The truth is that, for the first time since I started running the game regularly in 2011, I felt resistance to getting into the Paranoia headspace I need to plan, run, write, or even read about the game. Maybe it was exhaustion - without sounding too much like Friend Computer, I hope, Alpha Complex requires a lot of "runtime," and there was far too much else going on. Maybe it was the inability to run games in person: while Paranoia can be particularly well-suited to remote gaming (and even had a dedicated client platform early in the internet era), I greatly rely on physical cues to know if my players are engaged or bored, scheming or confused, all vital information in a game that relies so heavily on player buy-in. Or maybe the world around me seemed so broken and mean that even a comedic sendup was just too much for me.

A few days ago, though, I found myself singing the praises of my preferred edition of the game to someone online who had asked what they should get if they wanted to give Paranoia a try, and in explaining why I so love the one I do, I felt a little bit of that spark, the recognition that Alpha Complex, my Alpha Complex, was something special. What finally did it, though was something entirely practical: Bundle of Holding currently has the XP 2004 edition available for a steal, with a lot of the books that greatly expanded the setting and made Paranoia a game worth coming to again and again. Now, it would seem, it's finally time. Let's talk about the running this beautiful monstrosity of an RPG. This is based solely on my experiences with the 25th Anniversary/XP editions, so GMs looking to run newer (or older) editions may have to adjust.

The first thing you'll need, aside from your plans for the session, is player characters. If I can, I'll help people through the process of creating a character, since it gives me a chance to explain the setting and give them a little idea of what to expect. I'll show them the parts of the book related to their service jobs, secret society, and mutant power. If I'm doing a pickup game, or otherwise expect new players to show up, I'll have a stack of pre-gens (created with this excellent tool), with the relevant text copied from the book (one reason to have PDFs!) paperclipped to their character sheet. It's important to keep track of which ones you're handing to which players, though, since only you know everyone's secrets. Early on, I started making a grid to keep behind my GM screen, with columns for player name, character name, service group, secret society, mutation, power and access levels, number of shots fired, and (best of all) treason points. Rows will include the players that I expect to be present and any pre-gens I may hand out. I've found this to be such a useful tool that I expect I'll keep doing it for other systems... should I ever choose to run them.

In addition to the character sheets and backgrounds, I also provide players with what I call "damage cards" - pictures of the six damage statuses copied (once again) from the book. This version of Paranoia is incredibly loose in this area, only tracking damage through these six stages ("okay" to "vaporized"), so the cards allow players to show each other their current status without risk of their precious character sheets being seen. Additionally, the visuals help to set the tone at the table, which is very helpful for new players who don't know what to suspect. One aspect of the damage system that's too loose is that "maimed" category, since there's no system for determining exactly which body part has been blown off, should it not be obvious based on circumstances. Fortunately, a player once gave me a die with a list of body parts (created for a... very different variety of game, I suspect) allowing me to roll for random bodily harm, sometimes for particularly humorous effect.

Finally, players will get a set of poker chips representing their "Perversity points" and badges to indicate their Mandatory Bonus Duty, both of which I've discussed in earlier posts. I'll have a system based on the color of the available chips for values of 1, 5, or 10 and for some reason, players will fall over each other to take on the role of "banker." If you're using the expanded set of Mandatory Bonus Duties from the Extreme Paranoia supplement, this would be a good job for the Financial Officer. Since returning players carry their Perversity points over from  previous sessions, it's important to track what everyone has left at the end of the game. Each player will also get a small stack of colored notepaper. When the game really gets going, so does the notepassing - having individual colors lets you know instantly who's passed what. Make sure that they keep their stacks visible so you can look over and see what color belongs to who, or note it in your GM grid.

When all this is set up, I'll give new players a chance to ask any out-of-character questions about the setting or system. When I've provided (or evaded) answers for everyone, I'll cue the music and start my opening narration to describe a few things going on in Alpha Complex. After I conclude with "... now commencing Paranoia!" (a phrase that's s been in the front section of a number of editions), I'll ask players what they think their character is doing at the moment. This gives them a chance for a little open roleplay. Anything compatible with the setting will work, and I'll usually start with veterans so they can give newbies a feeling for what they might want to say: working, catching up on the latest episodes of Teela-O-MLY, Troubleshooter, about to dig into a tray full of Security Clearance-appropriate foodstuffs, you name it. Whatever they're doing, it's about to be interrupted, and when they've all gone, I'll reveal how they receive their mission briefing. After they all describe how they stop doing whatever their characters were up to, I'll pull everyone aside, one at a time, for individual conferences.

Meeting with players one-on-one is vital to Paranoia. This is their only chance to speak freely without divulging secrets, so try to have them in another room if possible, or at least some distance away from the table with your voices down. (I'll usually keep the music going at the table throughout meetings as an additional cover.) This is when players will get in contact with their Secret Society, receiving the instructions for their own mission and any extra equipment. It's also a chance for new players to ask questions specific to their character, especially how their mutant power works. Important as they are, these meetings should be kept brief, keeping the rest of the players in mind - you want to do everything you can to reduce the risk of boredom setting in. A new GM should have as much prepped in advance as possible to get through these meetings quickly, as you become experienced, you'll have an easier time winging it.

After the last meeting, when everyone sits back at the table, the game is finally in the hands of the players. Over time, I've concluded that the best way to run Paranoia is to think of events and scenes as obstacles for the players to overcome in whatever way is most entertaining for everyone involved. Story is largely the connecting tissue between these events, and, if I'm not running a pre-published adventure, is largely improvised based on how the players have dealt with obstacles and what I intend to throw at them next. Even if you're following the classic mission structure (mission alert, briefing, receiving secondary mission from service group, outfitting, adventure, debriefing, punishment/reward), each step of the way will be something the team has to contend with. The briefing room doesn't officially exist and their transport refuses to take them there. They have to wear shock collars in the briefing, and the Briefing Officer sets them off every time they ask a question. When they go to pick up their equipment, they're told it will be a six to eight weekcyle wait. And so on. Paranoia is very much an exception to the "yes, and..." school of roleplaying: it's all about players repeatedly being told "no" in one form or another, every step of the way, and part of them "getting it" is accepting that and understanding that the point is for them to find ways to circumvent that. This can be quite the hurdle for some players - I can still remember the look of confusion and growing rage one new player gave me when they were told "no, you can't have the equipment you need" for the first time. Once they do get it, though, the fun begins. It can be helpful, especially with new players, to have a few "outs" in mind, but you don't want to push players in those directions unless they really can't think of a way to deal with something themselves. This isn't a game about coming up with clever solutions to puzzles, it's about solving problems in the most entertaining way possible, frequently causing mayhem in the process. After all, what's the point of having six lives if you aren't going to use them?

It's also not a game for strict adherence to to the rules, especially when it comes to rolling. I don't usually fudge numbers, but I don't let the dice get in the way of a great/stupid plan, either. We've talked before about the effects of failure, and Paranoia is definitely a game that works best with the "failure makes things go sideways" approach. Messing up never should never cause nothing to happen. The problem is still there, only now it's on fire. Whatever the team just did, it's attracting a crowd, and they're going to have to explain a very new and very large hole in the floor... Success, of course, also should have unintended side effects - if they follow the rules, they'd never be able to get anything done. Regardless of the circumstances, the players are causing things to happen. This is especially true in combat.

Most editions of Paranoia state that the combat system should only be used if the GM doesn't already know what's going to happen, and, while this is mostly tongue-in-cheek, I do find that it's more accurate than one might think at first. I never railroad players, but I will accelerate things if the pace seems to be dragging. The "everything happens at once" approach to initiative means that combat doesn't work too differently than regular play, which I greatly appreciate. As a player, I always felt my heart sink when a GM started setting up for a combat session, because I'd be limited in what I'd be able to do for the foreseeable future. To counter that, I try to encourage players to think beyond their weapon skills, and approach other ways to engage in fights. Once again, it's really just another obstacle to overcome in whatever way is the most fun for the group... which can certainly still involve a lot of shooting.

Eventually, things will need to draw to a close. If it looks like my players are starting to drag, I'll usually scoot things up to the climax, or decide that whatever they're dealing with at the time is going to be the climax. This isn't usually very difficult, since any moving parts are kept hidden away from them. I do try to make sure something big goes down requiring everyone's involvement before shuffling the players into their debriefing. A big firefight, a bomb to defuse, even running away before an airstrike levels the area... I've done them all. This tends to be when players who might have been more cautious throughout the game tend to pull out all the stops and get into the mayhem. When they finally do manage to deal with the emergency and extricate themselves, everyone's got a least a little treason on therm.

Here's where I should address one way that my Paranoia games tend to differ from expectations, since debriefing is usually when players finally turn on one another, the backstabbing begins in earnest and everyone accuses everyone else of treason. Except... that doesn't tend to happen in my games. After everyone's seen everyone else engage in crime after crime, there develops a sense of camaraderie via Mutually Assured Destruction. And, while some might say it goes against the spirit of Paranoia, I think I prefer it this way, especially since it's one of the things that allows me to turn this (usually) one-shot game into ongoing campaigns. Even during the mission itself, even when they've been told specifically by their Secret Societies to eliminate team members, there's rarely active antagonism. I've found that, at most, my players tend to operate on an "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you" basis. Stay alive long enough, and the environment of Alpha Complex will do your murdering for you. Which, as the one responsible for the murderousness of that environment, I'm perfectly okay with.

Not to say that debriefings go smoothly, of course, once again, it's an obstacle to overcome. The players have to address all the collateral damage, the mission they were assigned has suddenly disappeared from records, or they've become patsies for some higher-clearance citizen's misdeeds. If they've made it this far, they'll probably be able to roll with it and talk/bribe/trick their way out of this mess, too. Mostly, I treat debriefings as an opportunity to make the players fill out forms that rarely have anything to do with whatever the mission was about. Paperwork always seems like the most fitting way to wrap up a session.

The last thing I'll do post-game is ask players to name the most memorable things their teammates did during the session, and I'll award Perversity points or credits. I've found this to be very effective at bringing groups together, because who doesn't like to hear that other people enjoyed something they did? Most of all, of course, it ends things on a bit of positivity, after all the chaos, destruction, and dystopia that's happened along the way.

There's more I could say, naturally, but this post has gone on long enough, and recognizing the limits of patience is a major part of running games, particularly comedic ones. I hope that all this has at least encouraged folks to give this game a try, or to try it again if they've had bad experiences before. No matter when or how you play, it will always be the Year 214 of the Computer, and, ironic as it may be, that little bit of consistency does give us something to hold onto.

- B

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