Paranoia, or Why It's Fun to Get Shot Six Times


When the call went out for someone to write an article about PARANOIA for Gamegrene, I immediately volunteered. Not only did I want to explain to the uninitiated exactly what makes PARANOIA a joy to play, but to repay a personal debt I owed to the game. You see, PARANOIA returned me to role-playing.

When the call went out for someone to write an article about PARANOIA for Gamegrene, I immediately volunteered. Not only did I want to explain to the uninitiated exactly what makes PARANOIA a joy to play, but to repay a personal debt I owed to the game. You see, PARANOIA returned me to role-playing.

Years ago, I got sick of playing D&D. Although I kept reading about role-playing, none of the systems interested me enough to get me rehooked. None except for PARANOIA, whose existence I first read about in small footnotes: InQuest had it listed in its humorous issue; Sean Fannon's The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer's Bible gave it the award of Funniest RPG Ever with only this for a description: "Hands down. You would have to read it to understand." If I wanted to get any additional information about the game, I would have to search for it on the Net. It's a good thing PARANOIA is the type of game that inspires a cult following.

a strange mix of pop culture sci-fi and ancient McCarthyism, rooted in Cold War paranoia

PARANOIA was a strange mix of pop culture sci-fi and ancient McCarthyism, rooted in a Cold War paranoia that I was too young to remember. It was set in a post-apocalyptic domed city named Alpha Complex, complete with clones and lasers and robots. That didn't really matter, though. As the sourcebook itself said, "PARANOIA is not a place, it's a state of mind." And no one embodied that state more than Friend Computer.

The integral part of PARANOIA's setting wasn't a location, but an NPC. Friend Computer was the seemingly-omnipotent AI in charge of Alpha Complex. Due to some faulty sensor readings and archived Cold War defense files, it believed that Commies caused the apocalypse and Alpha Complex was the only bastion of democracy and freedom left. Consequently, it decided to protect that by establishing a totalitarian state and exterminating the Commie mutant traitor conspiracy trying to undermine it. Human nature being what it is, most of the citizenry rebelled against its iron grip by secretly committing the very acts of treason it was trying to prevent.

The PCs are thrown head-first into this mess. As the Computer's elite (*snicker*) Troubleshooters, they are tasked with finding trouble and shooting it. Armed with massive weapons without the skills necessary to use them, they are given challenging missions without the information or equipment necessary to complete them. Most Troubleshooters quickly realize this and devote all of their energy to the one surefire means of promotion: uncovering traitors.

This was quite easy, as every PC was a traitor, a scheming devious cad of a citizen with illegal mutant powers and Secret Society contacts. Mutant powers could be vital for survival, but using them was treason. Secret Society contacts were also illegal but necessary for survival; the bloated bureaucracy of Alpha Complex is often apathetic (or outright sadistic) towards the needs of citizens, and sometimes the only way to get things done is under the table. In exchange, players' Secret Societies asked them to perform certain favors for them during their missions. In summary, the PCs pretend to work on their official mission while secretly completing treasonous assignments while watching their fellow PCs for any sign of treason while all of them try to do the same thing. Add in blackmail, sabotage, conspiracies, and the occasional equipment malfunction and even a simple delivery mission is anything but simple. (I've said you could keep PARANOIA players busy with an empty room and a piece of floss, provided the floss is strong enough to strangle someone with.) If that doesn't sound delightfully chaotic already, at the end of the mission the survivors get to march back to debriefing and try to explain what happened.

It was twisted. It was unlike any RPG I had ever seen. Just reading the description made me cackle in delight. I had to have it. I vowed to get it.

That was harder than I thought. PARANOIA had been out of print for 5 years when I started looking. It was originally released in 1984 by West End Games (best known for their Star Wars RPG). Although they tried to play it serious in the sourcebook, the half-dozen or so modules that followed quickly established it as a darkly humorous game. Second edition streamlined the rules and polished the humor. Everything was going great until the original developers left WEG. Things went downhill from there. After reversing an ill-made decision to crash Friend Computer, WEG released the hideous 5th edition. (The bad jokes about the lack of a 3rd & 4th edition were just the beginning.) After only one 5th edition module, the Paranoia line collapsed in 1997. No new PARANOIA products had been printed for half a decade when I started looking for them.

I spent six months searching. First I hit every gaming shop from Omaha to Minneapolis, digging through dusty archives for forgotten modules. I even hunted one down on a trip to California. Only when I set up an Ebay account did my search begin to pay off. Within a month, a worn-out, battered copy of the 2nd edition sourcebook arrived in my mailbox. I read it so much the pages began to disintegrate.

Fear and ignorance; ignorance and fear. These are our watchwords.

There are too many sourcebooks that you read just for the rules. I read PARANOIA's sourcebook for a laugh. How many sourcebooks include hilarious one-liners sprinkled throughout the book (delivered with a dead-pan monitor by Friend Computer himself) or introduce the Rules Section with a picture of the GM making paper cutouts out of it? "Here's what we think: rules were meant to be broken." Not only did they say that the GM was free to change any rules he wanted, but the mere act of arguing with a GM about rules was treason. (This was followed by an example of a treasonous Rules Lawyer getting gunned down by his teammates.) The sourcebook was more concerned about helping GMs get the tone right instead of running combat properly. "Fear and ignorance; ignorance and fear. These are our watchwords." Combat and conflicts were to be resolved according to the Golden Rule: "The more entertaining tactic will win out over the more deliberate wargaming tactic." And if the players weren't entertaining enough? "Kill the bastards!" Since each PC had multiple clones, death was a commonplace occurrence. "Killing characters in Paranoia is remarkably easy. The weapons are powerful and deadly – hell, even the elevators are deadly." The most dangerous parts of the game weren't even combat. In the included mission alone, the players faced doom from a malfunctioning sub, their psychotic break-dancing walker, and negotiations with a pair of invulnerable giant radioactive mutant cockroaches.

As I continued to compile my Paranoia collection, I discovered that not only were the mission modules fun to read and easy to run, but their quality was a step above other RPGs' modules. Each module included a pre-generated set of PCs designed to conflict with each other and the missions as much as possible. Stats were rare, relegated to small footnotes and GM handouts, while there were multiple paragraphs about NPCs' personalities, quirks, secret motivations, and funny accents. Location descriptions didn't cover dimensions, they described the numerous items PCs could steal, tinker with, or blow up. (Vapors Don't Shoot Back contains the benchmark I measure abandoned warehouses by, with over a dozen things to screw around with.) The emphasis wasn't on combat, but on scenarios. One module, Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, included thousands of citizens engaging in drug-induced tap-dancing and ended with the destruction of Alpha Complex itself. (Did I mention they weren't concerned about setting consistency?) Another mission, the popular Me and My Shadow, Mark IV, drove hundreds of players insane trying to solve a scenario simply named "Something Falls Off". Players were asked to do everything from painting a high-clearance corridor to escaping their televised executions.

Each mission emphasized ingenuity over combat prowess, creative solutions to twisted scenarios over number-crunching, and severe mind-racking by the players as they attempted to one-up their fellow players. Even in home-made missions, the clone replacement system gave GMs the freedom to toss near-impossible situations at their players just to see if they could solve it. Despite being a humorous game, I believe PARANOIA is the most mentally grueling RPG out there. The developers even acknowledged that it seemed to drive players to new levels of thinking. "These players have learned an awful truth – that even the Paranoia GM, armed as he is with Paranoia's unparalleled resources for coercion and PC oppression, is at the mercy of a group of players with equally twisted imaginations and perverse problem-solving strategies." Playing PARANOIA just seems to spawn ideas.

I was frustrated by the abandonment of this great game system. I soon started up my own Paranoia website and began working on a free, unofficial new edition of the system. My thinking was, "If it's truly dead, I'll be able to revive it. If it's not, I'll be the first one to know when they contact me about copyright infringement."

Eight months later, Greg Costikyan sent me an email asking me to remove all information about my new edition of Paranoia from the website. "We are fighting for the Paranoia rights to make a new edition, so we would appreciate your cooperation." Naturally, I complied.

Once they had won the rights to Paranoia from the now-bankrupt WEG, Allen Varney was chosen as the new edition's developer. At the time, I only knew of him as "the guy that worked with that guy from Deus Ex". (Warren Spector, the creator of the Deus Ex series, had worked with Allen on three published Paranoia missions during the 1st edition run.) I hoped he would keep us updated on how the new edition was coming. He did one better by making a blog for the game and regularly posting new ideas for discussion on the forums, letting the die-hard fans argue with him about everything from skill divisions to player rewards.

Allen, wishing to devote all that enthusiasm towards something more productive, developed a Paranoia Lexicon called the Toothpaste Disaster. Twenty-one members of the forums were invited to write an entry for each letter in the alphabet explaining how the Toothpaste Disaster happened and what the heck it was. I was one of the authors chosen. Our entries grew as we gleefully set the pieces of the conspiracy together. By the end, individual entries were larger than this article. (Dan Curtis Johnson's entry on Secret Societies involved in the disaster was over 8000 words long and later recycled to form the framework of the sourcebook's Secret Society chapter.) Our Lexicon became the largest on the Net and provided a springboard for many of the mission and equipment ideas that followed. By the time we were done with it, the XP edition of Paranoia had hit the printers.

Paranoia XP did all the old things right and introduced some new ideas. The disastrous 5th edition was stricken from the record and its existence vehemently denied. The theme returned to dark comedy. Perversity Points were added to reward players for creativity, humor, and plain exuberance. Three different play styles (Straight, Classic, and Zap) were explained to cover every type of PARANOIA game from slapstick to dark & tense. Jim Holloway, whose artwork defined the look of Paranoia, even returned as the main artist. The first print run quickly sold out.

...from black hole bazookas to sentient sanitary napkins...

Of all the changes to the new Paranoia XP edition, the most important was the change to its method of development. As the sourcebook headed to the printers, Allen gathered over a dozen of the contributors to the Lexicon, myself included, into the informal Traitor Recycling Studio. Every product in the Paranoia line has been developed and proof-read by these 17 dedicated fans. So far, the amount of ideas shows no signs of slowing down. Take the upcoming Paranoia STUFF equipment guide, for example. Over 300 items, covering everything from black hole bazookas to sentient sanitary napkins, were created by the Recycling Studio. Even after doubling the book's length from 64 to 128 pages, over 100 items had to be cut, prompting Allen to add Paranoia STUFF 2 to the schedule before the first one made the printers.

It's been three years since I discovered PARANOIA. Now not only do I play and GM it, I write modules for it. I've even regained interest in D&D, although I brought a few ideas from PARANOIA into it (much to the dismay of my players). Despite the time, I'm more interested in it than ever. Why? PARANOIA inspires creativity & comedy. You can see it in the missions, in the ways players try to take advantage of each other, and in the forum threads about the advantages of crippling PCs instead of killing them and how to properly run a Star Trek parody in Paranoia (with nary a rules argument to be found). Nothing can compare with the joy of devising a new way to take advantage of your fellow PCs or kill them outright. As my motto goes: "You're a Troubleshooter! Scheme, dammit! SCHEME!"

Want to get in on the fun? Head to There you can download JParanoia, our free Java program for running & playing in Paranoia games over the Net, and join our forum discussions with Allen Varney, Jazzer, and company.

Bravo, Mike-U!

I've been playing Paranoia for about 15 years. I find it hard to sustain, for reasons which I think are self-evident...but every so often, particularly when my gaming group gets fractious amongst its members, I find it a welcome change from the heroic fantasy and dark horror settings that are my norm.

I still sign off some of my private RP board posts with a quote from a mission alert in Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues...


Some ten years ago, I developed my own Paranoia setting: Gamma Complex, a version of Alpha Complex aboard a space station orbiting the planet Jupiter. The mass-transit system involved armpit trolleys and trampolines; the UV citizens were giant, mutated white lab rats in rolly-balls; and half the skills on the character sheets I designed were marked [CLASSIFIED] instead of explaining what they were.

I'm glad to see people are still bearing the torch! I leave you with the Gamma Complex Fight Song (sung to the tune of the Notre Dame fight song, and required of all players to sing at the start of each mission):

Go, Gamma Complex, go, Gamma, fight!
Kill us some mutant Commies tonight!
The Computer loves us well!
It wants to blow Commies to hell!
Go, Gamma Complex, on fight we now
We'll mangle every mutant somehow
With happiness, teamwork, and cheer
And quality fighting gear!

What is it about Paranoia that inspires jingles? Personally, I would never start any live game of Paranoia without a rousing rendition of the Alpha Complex Battle Hymn.

Paranoia was the first book that I ever read that was laugh-out-loud funny. It taught me more about proper GMing than any amunt of experience has since. It was (and is) a subversive lesson in RPGs. If the players are having fun, they don't mind if they 'lose'. Even the players that argue and whine aboout rules and losing in other games line up for another heapin' helpin' o' clones! It's a game to pull out for players to knock them on their hoops when they get bored with the kill'n'loot of DnD or the plot-plot-plot of WoD.

I have a fairly complete Paranoia collection, including the Edition. I'll hang on to it all, even the Crash stuff, which has always struck me as your favorite rock band going off and doing a jazz album. There's some good stuff in there, buried under the junk.

When XP sold out at GenCon, it was like watching a kid walk past the new releases rack at a record store and ask a clerk to point them to the Beatles. It warms the heart.

Excellent, as always Mike.

I picked up some XP stuff at GenCon SoCal. Words can't describe how happy I am to see this game rolling again.

sounds good to me, where do i sign up? :)

Well, if you're looking to get the books, you can grab those from Mongoose Publishing, Amazon, or from the Paranoia-Live store. If you're looking for an example of a game being run throgh JParanoia, you can read through some of the posted logs here, though, that's never as much fun as being there when it's happening (they encourage and welcome spectators to hosted JParanoia games, so don't feel shy about lurking once or twice - oftentimes, if player drops out, they'll ask any of the lurkers to be a replacement)

Ask? I drafted all of my lurkers. You wouldn't believe how much whining they did...

i'll check it out
- have mercy on the newbie -

Good work Mike.

As far as noob-friendlieness goes, Paranoia is about the most open-armed game I've ever seen. When a newbie is at the table everyone thinks "Easy prey" but easy prey isn't as satifying as blowing away the One-Who-Should-Have-Seen-It-Coming. And GM's tend to warp the game around a bit (protective/recruiting SS missions being the easiest method in my experience.)

well, i just bought Paranoia XP and will be reading through it in the next few days.

let the dementia begin!

- have mercy on the newbie -

I am sorry, citizen. Dementia is treason. Please report to PSY sector for implosion testing.

Thank you for your cooperation, Troubleshooter!

[ in comes zipdrive-GRN-R-2 ]
...err, anyone mentioned implosion?

zipdrive-R-GRN-2, you mean :)

Citizen, you are in possession of an erroneous designation. Errors are treason. Please report to SKY sector for free-fall impact testing.

Have a nice day.

Failure to report treason is treason.

Failure to report failure to report treason is treason. I will report to the Cone-Rifle Range for Mandatory Voluntary Moving Target duty before INTSEC catches up to me.

Perhaps my replacement clone, CoC-Y-TUS-4, will be able to make a better accounting of himself.

Honestly one of the most fun aspects about paranoia whn i first played it was how different it was from every RPG i've ever played. While you work together to finish the mission from the computer, I had almost as much fun figuring out how to off the rest of the group, and I got almost everyone. It was a blast.

well, i've read the first five pages of the book , woohoo!
errmm...scratch that.

i liked the "things to forget" box and the non-example :)

I think one of the things that makes Paranoia so great for newbies is that they don't have the normal gaming preconceptions. They don't worry about teamwork, or reprisals, or logic. They just try things. It's a glorious feeling to watch a newbie waste the rest of their party

I saw XP on the shelves a couple of months ago, and spent about an hour reading it in the store. I'm so happy that it's back. Why? Because happiness is mandatory, citizen. That and I never did managed to run anybody through Clones in Space :-)
And I'd just like to say for the record, I can't even guess how many clones have valiently laid down their lives during "Something falls off"

I am looking for a specific image,

A troubleshooter is sitting in a chair next to The Big C and he is looking rather nervous, The Big C's Screen is filled with the word LIE! It is a hilarious picture and I havent had that edition in a while. Does anyone have it?