#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)

#RPGThursday Retrospective – Behind Enemy Lines (FASA, 1982)

In preparing for this Retrospective series, I was very surprised to discover that the second-oldest RPG in my collection is Behind Enemy Lines (1st Edition) published by FASA in 1982. Behind Enemy Lines is an interesting RPG. It won the 1982 HG Wells Award for Best RPG Rules so one would really think it is an RPG. In reality, it is a WWII skirmish combat game with some RPG mechanics grafted in.

Behind Enemy Lines bills itself as the “World War II Role-Playing Game.” I see this game as very similar to a game I talked about earlier,Commandowhich is unabashedly a wargame with an RPG campaign system overlaid. Behind Enemy Lines comes across to me as a skirmish combat system using RPG mechanics. There is a character generation system focusing on the difference between urban and rural soldiers. The core mechanic, which is found in the Combat chapter, uses a “2d6 roll-over a Target Number” approach. Interestingly, the game is nearly GM-less. Yes, the system requires a GM to referee or guide the players/combat squad, but that is mostly accomplished through the use of Event Tables:

The heart of Behind Enemy Lines is the Event table. Each prepared scenario will include several event tables created especially for the situation; a number of tables for different circumstances and terrain types are included….Game Masters are encouraged to make their own tables in order to create new situations with which to plague the players with new problems or offer some variety. (“Say, didn’t we meet this same French peasant last week?”) – Behind Enemy Lines; Book 1: Character Generation and Basic Rules; Event Tables, p. 65

What I Thought of It Then – I remember just a few sessions of Behind Enemy Lines. As wargamers, my group preferred playing above the super-tactical, or skirmish level, so as a wargame it didn’t deeply appeal to us. As a RPG, it seemed very limited in scope (WWII infantry combat in Europe-where was the Pacific expansion?).

What I Think of It NowBehind Enemy Lines is a skirmish wargame with some RPG elements. There is little-to-no narrative play; the Event Tables guide the game (with GM direction – more GM deterministic than narrative). In some ways I view this game as Band of Brothers, The RPG.

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

  • System Crunch = 1.5 (Core Mechanic is strictly combat action-focused)
  • Simulationist = 5 (This is a combat game; event tables drive any “narrative”)
  • Narrativism = 1 (There is no Luck or Hero Points or Bennies or a Miraculous Escape Matrix)

#WargameWednesday Retrospective – My 1980’s Skirmish Wargames

As part of my RPG Retrospective, I looked at the game Commando by SPI published in 1979. I found it interesting that Commando is considered both a wargame and an RPG.

Looking through my collection, I found several other near-contemporary skirmish combat games from the early- to mid-1980’s. These games are Close Assault (Yaquinto, 1983), Firepower (Avalon Hill, 1984), and Ranger (Omega Games, 1984). Now Close Assault and Firepower are literally the same game just covering different time periods (World War II for Close Assault, post-1965 for Firepower). Ranger is more a simulation than a game; it plays like a tactical training aid for the military.

What I Thought About Them Back Then – Super-tactical, or skirmish-scale combat was not the preferred scale for my wargaming group. We were heavy into tactical battles, be it land (Panzer-series from Yaquinto), sea (Harpoon), air (the Battleline version of Dauntless), or space (Star Fleet Battles by Task Force Games). I had Close Assault/Firepower and later Ranger because we thought they could be used as an adjunct combat system for our Traveller RPG adventures. It never panned out that way though.

What I Think of Them Now – Each of these games still stand the test of time. Close Assault/Firepower are a bit more chart-heavy than more modern games, and the combat system still has a strong I-go/U-go feel to it, but it still feels like a good simulation (and fun wargame). Ranger is an interesting creation, and could serve as a great story/adventure engine for an RPG.

#WargameWednesday #RPGThursday Retrospective – Commando: The Combat Adventure Game (1979)

Commando: The Combat Adventure Game was published by SPI in 1979. I didn’t buy this game; it came to me thru a trade with a friend sometime between 1980 and 1982. I was running our (Classic) Traveller RPG adventures and use both the 1978 [Little Black] Book 4: Mercenary and the 1979 green box, first edition of Snapshot: Close Combat Aboard Starships in the Far Future for expanded combat. Given our group came from a wargaming background, we were looking for different combat rules. We avoided Striker (1981), likely because it was a set of miniatures rules and we couldn’t afford miniatures! At one point we tried to integrate Commando into our games. My copy has scribbles (like only middle schoolers can do) where weapons on tables were replaced with their Traveller versions. As I recall, this system integration effort didn’t get far mostly because Commando is a very rules-dense game with a very specific Sequence of Play. More importantly, the game is historically focused and us middle schoolers couldn’t wrap our heads around how to integrate the Fusion Gun, Man Portable-15 (FGMP-15) into the game. Far easier to just use Snapshot!

When preparing for this article, I was surprised to discover that Commando was the 1979 H.G. Wells Best Roleplaying Rules Winner. So is this a wargame or an RPG? Interestingly, the game has an entry both at BoardGameGeek and RPGGeek. The Historical Game is clearly a wargame. More specifically, it is a skirmish game of man-to-man battle. A 48-page rulebook uses the SPI classic Case System of numbered paragraphs. The other game of Commando is the role-playing game. This game is covered in a second 24-page rulebook. Here one finds the classic components of an RPG including gamemaster hints, character creation, and running a campaign.

Looking at the game today, The Designer’s Notes and Expansion Notes at the end of the role-playing game rules are true treasures. Note that in the late 70’s I was not a Dungeons & Dragons (Original or Basic/First Edition) player – I actually avoided D&D because I preferred science fiction over fantasy genres. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, these notes capture the dynamics of the competition between wargamers and the rising RPG community. There is so much goodness here and I hope the legacy SPI copyright holders can forgive me for some lengthy quotes.

First off, some choice lines from the Designer’s Notes written by Eric Goldberg in 1979:

Role-playing is perhaps the fastest growing genre within the wargaming hobby. Boosted by the phenomenal success of fantasy role-playing, the field is branching out from its roots into more conventional endeavors. There is no serious doubt that fantasy role-playing will continue to hold sway within the field, but there are many other possible applications of role-play. While fantasy does have some problems of its own (chief being the need to define magic numerically, which strips it of its mystery), designers of fantasy role-playing games can justify almost anything through magic.

One of the first design mechanics resolved was the use of the Miraculous Escape Matrix and the incorporation of a Character in a fire team. Because the Historical Game was already being used as the combat system (a choice which makes eminently good sense; Players appreciate a game being complete when received – generally not a custom observed by role-playing designers), the fatality rate of Characters was at a level unacceptable to the average Player. After all, a Player would have little incentive to build up and breathe life into his Character if he knew the odds had it that he would have to start all over again every five missions. There is no recourse to the fantasy role-playing solution – the last Man purported to be resurrected was a gentleman of Nazareth, but that was 2000 years ago, and it was understood He had considerable help from the man upstairs.

Character generation systems have proliferated in recent months, but basically represent two schools of thought. One holds Characters should be different, and this difference should be determined randomly (generally by dice). The logic behind this approach is that life isn’t fair in distributing physical and mental characteristics to you and me, and why should it be any different in a role-playing game? The illogic in the use of the system it that it clearly proved the better dice-roller is Homo Superior. The other approach is the all Characters are equal, which is usually resolved by a point assignment system – Characters may have “X” points assigned to their various characteristics in a particular fashion. Thus, Characters are molded to their players’ preferences. The argument for this system is obvious; free choice of character-type and all Characters are equal. In truth, the second claim is a sham; there is not one role-playing game on the market which will work equitably with a point assignment system. The general problem is that one or two characteristics are extremely important, and therefore, to be competitive, all Characters will be essentially similar.

Commando breaks a bit of new ground in role-playing games by the very nature of its subject, and also because of its design approach. The game will appeal to those who feel most comfortable with suspense fiction, and those who can easily make the transition from tactical game or role-playing games. There is certainly tremendous unmapped territory to be gone over in this field. Commando is nearly the groundbreaker.

Greg Costikyan contributed Expansion Notes (again from 1979):

…true role-playing games can be divided into two general categories (with some overlap between categories occurring); closed-system role-playing games and open-ended role-playing games. An open-ended role-playing game requires a Gamemaster to invent a world, construct adventures for the characters, and provide new rules as necessary to round out his world. The rules to an open-ended role-playing game are designed not so much to limit the Gamemaster, as to provide a flexible framework of rules to be amended as he desires, and which aid him in the construction and operation of a world.

A closed-system role-playing game, by contrast, may not even require a Gamemaster. The best example of this is En Garde! A closed-system role-playing game provides a set of rules that are closer to the rules of standard historical games in spirit than the the rules of open-ended role-playing games. The rules cover every eventuality that may arise in the course of play; they are a closed-system not requiring outside interference.

…the existence of a Gamemaster in Commando means that the game can be readily developed into an open-ended role-playing game with comparative ease. Doing so requires junking the scenario generation system, because an open-ended games must deal with the everyday life of the characters, as well as whatever combat actions they involve themselves in. (Thus, in a good fantasy role-playing world, the emphasis of the game is not on hack-and-slash monster fighting, but on development of characters and the world.)

…. In an open-ended game, anything (well, almost anything) is possible; the game is limited only by the flexible framework of the rules, and the imagination of the Gamemaster and Players….The appeal of even badly-written role-playing games lies in this potentially infinite variety; while one may be bored with a boardgame after the fifth playing, one will never be bored with an open-ended role-playing game (assuming a sufficiently imaginative Gamemaster).

Unbeknownst to me at the time, these notes actually captured much of what I was feeling in my early role-playing days. SPI was one of the powerhouses of wargames; as a true grognard if this was their perspective I needed to pay attention! With the benefit of nearly 30 years of hindsight, I can now see that my wargaming roots started me out as a closed-system aficionado. As I go though my retrospective of RPGs, its going to be interesting to see how my tastes evolved over time.

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

  • System Crunch = 5 (Combat system from Historical Game is rules-heavy)
  • Simulationist = 4 (There is a reason you create a Character and the Fireteam)
  • Narrativism = 1.5 (The Miraculous Escape Matrix necessitates a large suspension of reality)