Meet the Campaign: Straight Paranoia

Paranoia, West End Games’s RPG of comic dystopia, has become a meme in gaming circles, one of the few games with as strong a play identity as D&D itself. Shouts of ‘treason’ and ludicrous extensions of the color-based ranking system help evoke the feel of a Paranoia session, which tends to consist of different uses of the Alpha Complex backdrop as excuses for players to find more and more inventive ways to accuse each other of treason and/or being a communist or mutant, and then kill each other. Neither West End Games nor Mongoose Publishing, the publishers of the most recent edition of Paranoia, ever did anything to dissuade this. That said, the game has been designed to allow for something a tad more sophisticated.

It should go without saying that all text from this point hence is of ULTRAVIOLET clearance! Do not read, under pain of disintegration (or if you want hidden parts of the game to stay a surprise)!

Playing Paranoia as a straight game is not only possible, it was the intended playstyle of the first edition of the game, released in 1984 (yes, seriously). Paranoia got sillier and sillier as time went on, to the point that the third edition of the game (called the Fifth Edition for inside joke reasons, to give you an idea) was received very poorly and later erased from the game’s canon and continuity. For Mongoose’s first edition of the game, the original designers got together and purchased the rights from the bankrupt West End Games. The new game, originally called Paranoia XP, provided rules variations for “Straight”, “Classic”, and “Zap” gameplay, which went from subdued to completely bonkers. The next edition of Paranoia (25th Anniversary) focused on Classic, a still-silly playstyle that resembles Paranoia as we collectively envision it; “Zap” and “Classic” were relegated to an appendix. In the most recent edition of Paranoia, there is further focus on this playstyle; due to the use of card-based mechanics the other options were excised.

The reason I want to focus on Straight Paranoia is that it’s the best way to explore parts of the game that, though they’re obviously in the book (even in the later editions which don’t have Straight Play as an option), don’t get much exposure. I’m willing to bet that 99% of you who have played Paranoia didn’t for a second consult the gear section of the book, or looked at the cost-of-living guidance for each rank level (admittedly, as the GM probably told you reading the rules was treason, it may have been difficult). These things don’t come up in Classic Paranoia, but in a Straight game they can have some interesting effects.

There are ultimately two elements you need to make a Straight game of Paranoia interesting: first, you need a campaign idea that works against the backdrop of Alpha Complex. Second, you need player buy-in, but especially buy-in that the game will be more than just constant backstabbing and bootlicking. I’m not going to claim that Straight Paranoia won’t be funny or silly, it likely still will. However, using the worldbuilding from the game as well as some good thinking around conspiracies and dystopias can get you something more fleshed out than passing notes and screaming ‘TREASON’ across the table for four straight hours.

Player Buy-In

There is a section in the Paranoia XP core rulebook about player buy-in, and it basically boils down to making the characters suffer for their violent ways. Ultimately, I don’t find this is advice that flies in this day and age, and it’s not all that effective at making a fun game to boot. Before you set up your game, make sure your players know what you’re going for. The game is still likely to be comic, but this isn’t the sort of Paranoia where violence breaks out at random or where the Hygiene Officer is going to be crowing ‘Keep It Clean’ at the table until someone offs him to make it stop (this definitely isn’t an example from a game I actually ran. Of course not). This is going to be a game about Alpha Complex, but it’s going to be a game that looks into what Alpha Complex actually looks like, as opposed to just being a background for Friend Computer.

Speaking of Friend Computer. In older traditional games, the Game Master was the master of the game, writing the entire world around the characters. In Paranoia, you as the GM are an unreliable narrator. By taking on the role of Friend Computer, in a game where the most important character attributes are literally hidden, you are going to lie to your players. This is something you need buy-in for. For the game to really pop, some of the, well, paranoia needs to be real. If you’re playing Friend Computer, you’re being, at best, obfuscating, but you will be spending a lot of your time moving things around behind the scenes and not telling anyone how or why. If your players are in for a conspiracy game, and willing to be comfortable with distrust at the table, it’s possible to make Paranoia sing.

The Rules

As seen in an earlier article, the rules of Paranoia have changed a bit over the years. While I believe it’s possible to run Straight Paranoia in any edition (maybe not “Fifth Edition”), I’ll be using Paranoia XP as my baseline. The first edition released by Mongoose Publishing, Paranoia XP was later shortened to just Paranoia because of a cease-and-desist notice from Friend Computer itself, Microsoft. Still, you should recognize this edition from its red-bordered cover with a Troubleshooter’s smoking boots on the front. The main reason Paranoia XP is a great place to start is because it has gameplay advice for running a Straight game already in the text, and unlike earlier editions it takes care to differentiate running a Straight game from other, sillier variants. The rules advice noted here should be at least somewhat applicable to earlier editions of Paranoia, but doesn’t quite work for the most recent edition, which changed up the mechanics fairly significantly.

The most important thing here is that in order to run Paranoia straight, you must dispense with the notion that you can change the rules on the players…even though the book tells you to do just that. You can still play Friend Computer as hyper-literal, capricious, or illogical, but you need consistency. If you want players to spend more than one session in a setting like Alpha Complex, part of what will both make it tolerable and make them come back is the discovery that, even though there is a certain amount of nonsense, there are underlying rules. In a way the setting does make this clear…Friend Computer’s programming might be insane, but it is insane in a consistent manner. Other humans need not be so consistent, and like in many dystopias, it’s ultimately the greed, laziness, and caprice of the humans that will really make things crazy.

The one rule I need to highlight here are the hidden stats: Power and Access. Power is the, well, power of a character’s mutant abilities. Whether you tamp it down or keep it random, it should be possible for players to figure out whose ability is most potent. Of course, logical players should be trying to hide their mutant abilities whenever possible. More on this later.

Access is important because it’s the measure of how far into Alpha Complex one can get. The book suggests setting Access for a Straight game at 1…this may be a good start, but it can’t be the end point. Whether it be color rank, discovery of odd keycards, or groveling to Friend Computer in just the right way, Access should go up, and players should key in to the fact that they can slowly get into more and more places. On the other hand, keeping Access low may force some creativity as far as getting to places goes, and give more opportunity for treason. You don’t need to crank it up…but keep it dynamic. I’d go so far as to say that if you had to choose an advancement mechanic for a Straight Paranoia game, I’d make it Access rating.

The Campaign

Alpha Complex is an early example of a highly dynamic, table-facing setting. There are no official maps of Alpha Complex, nor is there a defined location, population count, or even stated purpose. That said, there are core setting assumptions which define Paranoia and can’t be ignored:

  • In Alpha Complex, clones are the primary method of propagating new humans
  • Citizens of Alpha Complex are sorted into a color-based ranking system that starts at ‘Infrared’ and goes up to ‘Ultraviolet’
  • Alpha Complex is run by a sophisticated but buggy AI called Friend Computer
  • Friend Computer’s primary player-facing goal in running Alpha Complex is to root out traitors
  • Traitors include Secret Society members and mutants
  • Characters, by definition, are all Secret Society members and mutants

For the most part, these setting assumptions should not be altered. The one exception, of course, is the final bullet…but not really. The game’s tension is broken if you don’t immediately make every character a traitor. At the same time, do not feel the need (especially with new players) to inform the players of this…making people think there’s only one mutant among them or they only have a 20% chance of being in a Secret Society increase the dread and tension when the player finds out their Secret Society and mutant power. Of course, this gambit will only work once (or twice, if you look trustworthy), and it’s equally likely you’ll have players play dumb when it comes to their own setting knowledge.

Speaking of setting knowledge. Each character in Paranoia is given, in addition to their attributes, skills, mutant power, and secret society, a service firm. The service firm is roughly akin to the character’s ‘job’ in Alpha Complex before becoming a Troubleshooter. This is likely the best place to start in terms of campaign development. In a classic game, service firms had little role other than to call the Troubleshooters over to do distracting tasks in addition to their mission, something the book called ‘Service Service’. For a Straight game, though, the service firm should not be ignored as it represents the majority of the characters’ day-to-day lives in Alpha Complex prior to becoming a Troubleshooter. Setting up a shared service firm for all of the characters can also provide hooks if you’re looking for inspiration for your campaign.

Day-to-Day lives are a big part of building out a Straight game, because unlike in Classic Paranoia, your Troubleshooters should evolve as characters and need to come from somewhere. The core rulebook provides an interesting overview of living arrangements by rank, and also discusses how the informal economy came about. This is something that gets almost completely ignored in Classic and Zap Paranoia games, unless the GM decides to make the Troubleshooters try to buy their own equipment (and then it’s just another gag). In Straight Paranoia, though, there’s an interesting phenomenon: Troubleshooters are under economic pressure because they have to buy their own clones. Whereas NPCs might be looking for bribes or shakedowns out of greed (for all the hatred of communism Alpha Complex does sometimes smack of a neo-Soviet society), Troubleshooters need the money to stay alive. That’s an interesting dynamic…and an ignored one in most Paranoia games.

The other dynamic of a Paranoia game that deserves special care is the eponymous paranoia. What drives a Classic Paranoia game forward is the fact that everyone knows that everyone else is a traitor, they’re just looking for proof, or an excuse. This is not different in a Straight game, though the outcomes should be. In any game of Paranoia, all of the characters essentially have guns to each other’s heads once it’s clear that everyone’s a traitor…the primary difference between Straight, Classic, and Zap is just how willing the players are to let their characters pull the trigger. Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that just because you don’t want characters shooting, you should try to get them to put their guns down. No matter how subdued you’re trying to make the game, your goal should still be to sow the seeds of distrust among your players…just give them common goals to make that more awkward. Keep encouraging your players to pass notes, but consider using your phones instead of real paper. Texting the GM is less obtrusive than a physical note, and everyone will quickly keep their phones up to keep the others from knowing what they’re doing. And if someone opens Candy Crush? It’s still Paranoia…have their death be comically ill-timed.

The one last thing a campaign should consider is Alpha Complex itself. One of the most fascinating bits of worldbuilding from the latest edition of Paranoia is some reality around Alpha Complex and its slow decay. Abandoned sectors, sewer lines, even cave systems and routes outdoors could all exist somewhere. Alpha Complex can present itself nearly as a dungeon crawl…and when you use the Tension Level mechanic, which assigns a probability to your actions being seen and reported, there becomes an incentive for characters to find areas they aren’t being as carefully watched. Of course, that’s also an area where the other characters aren’t being watched…mutually assured destruction becomes a dynamic wherever you go.

The key to running straight Paranoia isn’t to eliminate the backstabbing and double-dealing; in fact, there’s likely to be more of it. The difference is in the slow burn. Instead of players looking for funny cover stories to shooting each other’s characters, they’re going to be gathering evidence quietly, sneaking off for secret society meetings, and using each other when convenient to further their goals. By increasing the risks (through clone pricing) and rewards (through the promise of a game running long enough to see the characters get rich, powerful, or even outside), Paranoia can offer an intriguing (and safe) environment to sow distrust and plan grand betrayals. Get buy-in from your players, lean in to the aspects of the setting that get overlooked when you’re playing a Zap one-shot, and the game will feel quite different. And hey, it’s even possible that the characters may actually work together long enough to find out the truth about Alpha Complex. And in your game, the GM gets to choose just how sinister that is.

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3 thoughts on “Meet the Campaign: Straight Paranoia”

  1. I just bought Paranoid XP today and I’m looking forward to running it. Having said that my group has indicated they want to play it straight and that worried me a bit. This article provides good advice on how to accomplish that so thank you! That said is there one or two scenarios that work better in “straight” mode?


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