#RPGThursday Retrospective – Paranoia (1st Ed), 1984

Once again, I am surprised that I have yet another award-winning RPG in my collection. In this case, Paranoia (1st Ed) was the 1984 HG Wells Best Roleplaying Rules co-winner with Twilight: 2000. Unlike T2K, which I consider a wargame with an RPG engine for character creation, Paranoia is a true RPG, albeit unlike any other before, and maybe ever since.

In Paranoia, the player characters are Troubleshooters in service to the computer in Alpha Complex. Alpha Complex is at war with the “commies.” Every resident of Alpha Complex has a security clearance; the higher the clearance the more you know. All residents belong to one of eight service groups with articular responsibilities to Alpha Complex. Troubleshooters are “elite” members assigned by the computer to root out trouble. Trouble comes from Secret Societies, membership in is treasonous and grounds for execution. All residents are members of secret societies. There are also mutant powers; but having a mutant power is treasonous and grounds for death. All residents have mutant powers. Always remember that the Computer is your friend. The Computer wants you to be happy. If you are not happy, you may be used as reactor shielding. (Player Handbook, 1.2 Setting)

The extreme differences between Paranoia and other RPGs was clearly laid out in Notes to Experienced Players:

  1. The Tone: Paranoia is designed for the humorous and farcical side of dramatic action-adventure. Other games tend to be more melodramatic, often to the point where the fun is neglected. Translation: Paranoia is fun. Other games are not fun. Play Paranoia.
  2. The Dramatic Conflicts: The conflicts in Paranoia will be as much with the other player  characters as with the gamemaster’s plotted obstacles. There is no more perilous threat than that represented by another hostile player character. Translation: If you think surviving a gamemaster is difficult, try surviving player characters.
  3. Player Character Mortality: Anxiety about player character death is often a major block to fun in role-playing games. The trauma of losing an imaginative alter ego, the destruction of a work of art (the personality of the player character) representing an investment of time, imagination, and spirit, and the inconvenience of having to roll up a new character from scratch – these are good reasons for being anxious about player character death. (Player Handbook 2.3)

Character generation is very well laid out, starting with “Take a character sheet” and ending with “Make a copy for the gamemaster.” Primary Attributes are straight die-rolls, Secondary Attributes are derived, and skills are purchased in trees.

The Core Mechanic has two forms, Attribute Checks and Skill Checks. Attribute Checks compare the Primary Attribute against an escalating number of D10; from Extremely Easy (1D10) to Outrageously Difficult (5D10). Success is rolling UNDER the Attribute on nD10. Skill Checks are a percentile (d100) roll against the Skill Level with the base percentage suitably modified by the gamemaster for difficulty (often base percentage x2 for Easy, down to base percentage x1/2 or even x1/4 for Very Difficult). Any “difference” in the roll is used as “a clue to how dramatically successful or unsuccessful the character is” (Gamemaster Handbook 11.1).

Combat in Paranoia uses the Dramatic Tactical System. As laid out in the Gamemasters Handbook:

Many role-playing games use complicated, time-consuming methods to resolve combat. These systems involve careful placement of metal miniatures on a table or counters on a hex-map to indicate the positions of characters, set movement rates which involve counting hexes or measuring distances when characters move, complicated rules for when characters may fight each other, and involved systems for calculating how damage is inflicted, how many “hit points” a character suffers, and where the wounds are located.

The problem with systems like this is that they turn what is supposed to be a role-playing game into a wargame….

If Paranoia is a movie, it’s a lot more like Dirty Harry than Terms of Endearment; characters fall like flies.

In summary:

  2. Don’t give them time to think.
  3. Reward flamboyance and strange ideas.
  4. Kill the bastards.
  5. Most important, KEEP THINGS MOVING.

This commitment to a Dramatic Tactical System is all the more surprising when one realizes Paranoia was developed by many of the same people that did Commando just five years earlier.

What I Thought of It Then – Although my group loved the idea of Paranoia, we didn’t “get” the idea and sessions developed into simple shoot-outs with little adventure. Very quickly, Paranoia ended up on the shelf not to be played.

What I Think of It NowParanoia could be considered my first “storytelling” RPG. Although the tone of the game is totally opposite of all other RPGs of the day, the narrative elements and simple Core Mechanic are to be deeply respected. It certainly takes the right group to play this game, and the setting does not lend itself to a longer campaign, but the narrative elements make for a great RPG adventure.

From an RPG-perspective, I give Paranoia a Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

System Crunch = 2.5 (Simple Core Mechanic)
Simulationist = 2 (Very cinematic – not strict realism)
Narrativism = 4 (Dramatic Tactical System – all in the players heads)

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