Paranoia is pretty much the reverse of every other RPG at the time. Whereas they tended to focus on teamwork and rules, Paranoia fosters backstabbing and terrible unfairness. It takes place in a post apocalyptic world (post-Mega Whoops in the games parlance), where surviving humans live in a place called Alpha Complex, governed by The Computer, an over-protective and insane artificial intelligence.
The players play Troubleshooters, agents of The Computer who deal with treason perpetrated by mutants, secret societies and above all, Commies. Because of the threat of these dangerous traitors, The Computer kindly has everyone cloned six times. It turns out though that everybody in Alpha Complex is a mutant and member of a secret society, Troubleshooters included. And so the actual game play tends to merely hang on the thinnest excuses of plot, instead focusing on the players’ attempts to secretly commit treason, while attempting to accuse/incriminate/kill every other player.
For all but one of our gaming group back then, this was the first RPG we’d played. Some might say it’s worst possible game to start with, but I disagree. A couple of us were into drama at school and I think this game appeals more to that sensibility of mine than some of the other early RPGs I played.
Here’s what I love about Paranoia from a purely gaming perspective:
Paranoia fosters a disrespect in the GM for both rules and plot. The rules in the 2nd Edition are, for the most part, deliciously simple and grossly unfair. Because they are so simple you can freely bend them as you see fit with little complaint.
But it’s the disrespect for plot and narrative that I think is more important. I like playing roleplaying games mainly for character and dialogue. Not only do I think that an overly structured narrative is unnecessary to the enjoyment of a game, I think it is more often than not detrimental to the enjoyment. The great thing about Paranoia is the narrative structure is pretty much the same every adventure, you just have to think of characters to slot into that structure. You don’t even have to worry about how to move from one scene to another – you can just have the nigh omni-present Computer order the characters to do something – even if they don’t you’ll likely have more fun as the players start reporting one another of insubordination.
To talk about RPGs generally for a moment, I tend to “write” my own adventures rather than run pre-written ones. I’ve known folks who are great at running those sort of adventures, but it’s not for me. I find them to be too limiting, requiring too much preparation, and have too many long paragraphs of non-fun descriptions to read. As a player there’s nothing I hate more than having to hear a description of a building, countryside or town that goes on longer than a sentence. My approach is to write out a list of scenes and list things I want to have happened in each scene, then wing it from there. That way you can’t get upset if the players completely ignore that place you spent an hour mapping and writing flowery descriptions for. Also you can easily put in stuff you think up on the spot, or get suggested to you by what the players say or do. I won’t go too much into that now as there are some later games I will talk about that I think support this approach wonderfully.
Back to Paranoia. As much as I like the simplicity of the rules in general, there is one place it gets a bit clunky, and it’s not a place the players ever really see. I’ve a thing about keeping the maths as simple as possible on any given gaming action – and while to the players it seems a straight over or under d20 roll, in the case of damage the GM then has to do deletions and chart cross referencing, and that slows the pace a little in what is supposed to be a zippy game. The latest edition Paranoia XP, as good as it is, annoyingly makes it even more complicated. It’s still real simple compared to some games, but not as polished as I’d like.
The creators of Paranoia were Greg Costikyan, Dan Gelber and Eric Goldberg, with Ken Rolston and Paul Murphy additionally getting credit on the 2nd Edition. XP was by Allen Varney, Aaron Allston, Paul Baldowski, Beth Fischi, Dan Curtis Johnson and Greg Costikyan. There was the jokingly named “Fifth Edition” in 1995, but by that time the game had become a shadow of it’s former self. The original game was very much a product of the Reagan-era and can be seen as part of the post-apocalypse pop culture that threaded through the Eighties. To have it return in 2004 made perfect sense as a reaction to the US politics of today.
Of the original developers, Costikyan is probably the most noticeable today for his various essays/rants on game design/games industry and the founding of Manifesto Games. Rolston, who was one of my favourite games writers, recently retired and is probably more well known today for his work on Morrowind rather his tabletop games work.