Greg Costikyan, Dan Gelber, and Eric Goldberg’s dark-comedy roleplaying game Paranoia was first published in 1984. The most recent edition, by James Wallis, Grant Howe, and Paul Dean, was released in March 2017, just in time for the Reds Under the Bed review series. How providential!
Life in Alpha Complex is pretty sweet. Most citizens (the NPCs) have all the mood-numbing drugs and meaningless drudgery they want, as well as enough carefully vetted entertainment to fill any empty hours. Their every need is fulfilled by the all-wise, all-seeing Computer. Indeed, it is against the rules for them to notice anything that might disturb them.
Player characters are not as lucky.
Alpha Complex was built ages ago to weather some long-forgotten calamity. It was not designed to be inhabited as long as it has been. The Computer was not designed to run for as long as it has. Various attempts at repair by various programmers (some poorly informed, some malicious) have not improved its efficiency. The Computer is attempting to repair itself. Its diagnosis: some people, very likely Communists, whatever those are, are sabotaging Alpha Complex.
Players play, not as uninformed citizens, but as those poor doomed souls whom a paranoid Computer has recruited as Troubleshooters. It is their task to track down and deal with the traitors the Computer knows must be hiding amongst the citizens. Of course, any sensible saboteur would infiltrate the ranks of the Troubleshooters. Hence, the troubleshooting PCs are also under suspicion. And of course, any sensible Troubleshooter will soon realize they can ingratiate themselves with the Computer by exposing the traitors working beside them. Safety lies in tattling first. Since pretty much every PC starts off with a mutant power and membership in a secret society, they are all traitors by definition. And each Troubleshooter’s coworkers are potentially their worst enemies. Well, the second-worst; the Computer will always be Enemy #1.
The Computer is eliminating Troubleshooters right and left. They each have six clones, so death is not always the end. Memory recordings allow serial reincarnation — but only six times. Nor are the memory recordings entirely reliable. Amazing how fast one can run through all six clones….
Included in the box set are:
The Players Handbook
This 72-page perfect-bound booklet gives players all the information they need to generate characters. Sadly, it does not give them enough information to keep those characters alive for long. That’s kind of the point of the game. PCs are ignorant and doomed. Survival is rewarded with experience points and promotions up the colour-coded clearance system. It is not rewarded with contentment or happiness.
There is no index.
To help players get in the right mood for the game, character creation is done in a group and the mechanics are such that giving one’s own character benefits means screwing over the character of the player next to one. The game mechanics are fairly straightforward.
The Gamemaster’s Handbook
This 128-page perfect-bound booklet gives the game master all the information they need to run Paranoia. In addition to all the background information denied to the players, the book also has advice on how to run the game and how to avoid having the deadly rivalry between player characters leak into the real world. Hmmm, I think I just understood why it is that there’s no Paranoia LARPing.…
There is no index.
Fans of improv theatre will find some of the advice familiar. This is not coincidental, since role playing games are essentially a form of improv.
This 88-page perfect-bound booklet provides three starting adventures, plus necessary ancillary information.
There is no index.
Also included in the box:
- Sturdy card stock character sheets (which I would expect people will want to photocopy rather than use)
- A small packet of dice
- Two decks of cards
There are no indexes. THERE ARE NO INDEXES.
Game play requires the card decks, so try not to lose them. I believe there is a PDF edition of the game. Not having seen it, I don’t know how it deals with the card decks.
It occurred to me that American and British gamers, living under the governments they do (assuming the May government does not fall in the two days between my writing this and posting it to my site) may find the setting and its ferociously ignorant and cruel ruler just a bit too spot on1. Not recommended for those already taking meds to control Trump-May anxiety.
It’s not clear whether this is suited to long-term play or if it’s better to use the game for a bit of dark humour between sessions of murder-hoboing and futile wrestling with eldritch horrors2.
Please email corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com.
1: I kept having flashbacks to my time on the FASS 2016 committee. On the bright side, I now have a lot of new ideas about coping mechanisms should I ever be forced to work with those people or people like them again.
2: Back when I had a store, one of my reliable customers was a facility for criminally inclined youths. The staff found roleplaying games were a good way to teach the kids how to work cooperatively. Board games led to fist fights. We agreed not to test to see what the game Diplomacy would lead to.
Handing those kids Paranoia would have been a very, very bad idea.