One Hit Wonders: Paranoia

I’ve wanted to play this for… over a decade at least. I also learned a fun fact when I went to run it. Paranoia “5th” Edition, which is the only version I own, is apparently reviled by die-hard Paranoia fans. One of the players brought it up at the session, and Wikipedia confirms it. And if it’s on Wikipedia, you know it’s true. SRSLY. It seems that the absurdist, slapstick “kill each other because everyone is secretly a traitor” is not the original setup for the game. It was meant to be more of a dark humor game with complex satire.

I find this extra amusing because I have always loved the 5th Edition rules and it was what made me want to play Paranoia in the first place. Huh.

For reference, there was never a 3rd or 4th edition. I guess it was a joke. Ha. Ha.


We’ve wanted to do this game for a while. We’d kinda postponed it because the OHW crowd tends to run slim and the person who mainly offered to run it thought we should have a larger group for it. We had an aborted attempt to have a non-OHW session of it, then we just decided to do it for OHW. Two days before we were to play, with a record 8 people who RSVPed, the GM had life crash down on his head and had to cancel. I bunnied up and frantically tried to learn the rules and prep a game over the next 48 hours. I had to draw heavily on my experience as a government bureaucrat.

As mentioned, I only had “5th” edition. I didn’t have XP. I’d considered buying it, but it came out at a time when I had little money for game books and so I didn’t pick it up. It has nothing to do with Mongoose declining to give me a job. Really.

Character Creation

I used the random character creation rules for this. They were faster and I figured Paranoia wasn’t really a game that you really had serious sparklypoo aspirations with. (Well, unless you’re really serious about the dark satire version of the game. I wasn’t.) The main challenge we ran into was that some players were Internal Security, and were undercover. Giving them results out of the book while maintaining the surprise was tough.

In Play

Before running this, I never thought of a set of game rules as being broken. Well, there’s a first time for anything. While the rules were pretty fast and loose, which is just what I would want in a humorous game, they were hard to make sense of and depended too much on a rather unnecessary chart. Assuming I read it correctly (and I might not have), the chart basically laid out difficulty levels vs skill levels, with the number where the lines crossed representing the die roll needed to succeed.

Or, you know, you could just roll a d10, add your skill value to it and compare it to a target number while dancing on the burning pages of the stupid chart.

Beyond the stupid chart, most tasks were scaled outside of the ability of the PCs. If you were maxed out in a particular skill at character creation (which, after derived values and whatever, becomes a +10 to your rolls), you had a 50% chance of succeeding at a “normal” task. While I can see being bungling idiots to have a comedic appeal, the max on an attribute was top tier human. 10 in Agility was “Olympic Gymnist.” If you’re going to say a character is good at something, let them be good at something.

That said, if you were a crack shot and shot someone who wasn’t very agile at point blank range (+4 bonus to your roll), they were likely dead. But for all other tasks…? You probably sucked.

What made the power level even more absurd was advancement. If you complete a mission successfully, the Computer might reward you with training in a skill. That’s ONE skill. Training involves rolling a d20 and, if you roll higher than your skill level, your skill level increases by 1. You can get up to +20 on your rolls then.

Is anyone likely to play a protracted game of Paranoia in order to advance that far? Is anyone likely to play Paranoia for more than a single pick-up game? Really?

The plot for this game was blantantly stolen from Logan’s Run, which has a big warm place in my heart. The Troubleshooters were tasked with finding out what “Sanctuary” was, they were given a picture of an ankh to go off of, and that was it. Everything else was classified. Their special R&D equipment was a package of diapers, a toaster and a prototype portal gun (a la Portal from The Orange Box).

The portal gun opened one end of the portal. They had no control over where the other portal opened up. When they first got it, the portal opened to Outside, several hundred feet above a forest. Going through killed them instantly. When they lost the Portal gun and got a replacement, it opened to Antarctica. Those penguins are clearly mutant traitors that must die. Clearly.

I randomly assigned team roles. Conveniently, there were 6 in the book. When they started, there were two “equipment officers,” two “loyalty officers” and two “communications officers.” They were to get their mission details from their leader. There was no team leader. They could get additional equipment with a properly approved requisition form. They needed a form requisition form to get the requisition form. They needed a form requisition form to get a form requisition form. They also needed to get a higher clearance clone to approve higher-end requisitions. There were lots of clever approaches to forgery utilized.

The secret societies and mutations were fun, though it was a lot of data juggling to keep track of who was doing what. I wanted to get copies of the information cards printed for people, but I couldn’t find a PDF online (not even a scan of the page) and didn’t make it to a copier to copy the pages. I had to rely on hastily jotted notes on Post-Its as we went. The secret societies were great for assinging missions, assuming I was able to think of anything.

The dynamic was interesting. The first half of the game was all either hijinks with their equipment, especially the portal gun, and killing each other as traitors. The latter half of the game saw them settle down into the plot and try to solve things as best they could. I was a little stunned, since usually other silly games I’ve run often sort of wind down to nothing after people run out of energy for silliness. And they usually run out of energy must faster.

The rough dynamic I saw is one that is common with many competitive games with very little rules (*cough*Amber throne wars*cough*): There was a bit of bickering between the players over whether or not something occured the way they described it. (“I got Item X from you because I’m the equipment officer.” “No you didn’t.” “Yes I did.” “No, you didn’t.” Etc.) It can easily harsh the comedy for this game as well as put me in the position of having to settle more disputes instead of fueling funny.

Compared to the Leading Brand

I haven’t played any of the other commercially available “silly” games, which are mostly all contemporary with Paranoia. I own games like Toon and Tales from the Floating Vagabond but haven’t really played them. (I did technically play a session or two of a “any game system” version of TFTFV, but I don’t think that was a typical experience.)

Really what this seems to ask for is a story game. I’ve found that often, but certainly not always, players are more willing to screw themselves over in a story game than in a conventional game. And you get a lot of energy behind ideas for how to make the shifting betrayals funny as all hell. Of the games I’ve played, Primetime Adventures and Wilderness of Mirrors seem like the best options. Maybe even InSpectres. None are without their flaws, though.

(Yes, I’m endorsing a story game here. Shock and horror. You can corner me at Go Play Northwest next weekend and call me a hypocrite.)

Primetime Adventures is great for an ensemble cast, but this will often involve each player setting scenes for themselves. Which doesn’t necessarily fit neatly with a “mission.”

Wilderness of Mirrors has the perfect setup. I mean, the players can brainstorm all the absurd twists of the mission in advance during the planning phase, and the more they put into it the better. The downside? There isn’t really a mechanic for PvP action. It lacks the competitive narration element that Wick developed for Houses of the Blooded, and Houses doesn’t seem well suited for slapstick.

InSpectres might be the best choice of the three. It seems like it has a bit more of a competitive narration setup and is geared towards mission play. I got so little taste of it when I played it a couple years ago, so I could be wrong. I haven’t seen testimonials in action, but that could be brillaint for Paranoia.

Final Verdict

Did I have fun? Yes. Was it in spite of the rules? Basically. The fun from the game was the players, not the sort of play the game encouraged. I might use the game out of the book again, but I’d probably re-scale the target numbers to something a bit less absurd. But what I’d want is a story game for something like this. It would help ease the player conflict as well as get everyone involved in the humor. Roleplaying games tend to be passive at times, which is really frustrating with humor games.

Next up is me on the hot seat again. I had a quick round of Instant Runoff Voting for our next game from a handful of options, and I’ll be busting out some Blue Planet action. Whales! With guns! Before then I’m hoping to get some other posts written, commenting about the current state of my gaming and some game ideas I’ve been mulling around.

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