Paranoia – Fun Is Mandatory Citizen

After recording every Roll to Save Roundtable, myself and my co-hosts generally sit around and discuss what we’re going to cover next. After last episode’s discussion of Vampire we decided that something more light-hearted was in order for the next episode, and we settled on Paranoia.

For those of you who haven’t experienced the fun of Paranoia, it’s a roleplaying game of “a darkly humourous future”. I won’t go into the whole history here – that’s what our next podcast episode is for! – but it’s a game that started publication in the early 80s, went through some bumpy phases, re-emerged in the early 2000s and is still in production to this day. Paranoia was one of the first “funny” roleplaying games, and even though it’s 36 years old the premise it is based around is still largely unchanged to this day. There’s something about the concepts presented in this game – a mix of 1984, dark satire and a touch of genuine insanity – that gamers find inherently appealing.

I first came into contact with Paranoia in 1990 and had some wonderful experiences with it, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I actually really began to appreciate the setting and its potential. A lot of people approach Paranoia as an exercise in slapstick or as “the game where you get the players to kill each other”. These wacky, zaaaap style games can probably be fun – and I’m pretty sure all my early forays into Paranoia were like this – but the game REALLY comes into its own when its played – as the wonderful Paranoia XP book puts it – Straight.

That’s not to say “straight up serious” – playing in that world would be depressing beyond belief. However, it makes the assumption that Alpha Complex (the default setting for the game) is largely functional, and that The Computer – the digital despot that runs the Complex – genuinely has the best interests of the humans under its care at heart. With that in mind the humour comes from the dreadful situations and the competing agendas of the players. I learned long ago that in this setting the laughs come, not from something wacky like “Oh look – traitors in babushka hats speaking eeeen theeeek Rrrrrrrrashan ak-sents…” but from the team figuring out “How do we get out of this with our hides intact and as much personal glory as possible?” While I might write in the odd recurring joke, the game works so much more smoothly if the comedy unfolds naturally in the game between the players. It’s much funnier watching one player try to procrastinate their way out of doing something they really, really REALLY don’t want to do than it is to have someone rush in armed with a “custard pie launcher” or some other nonsense.

So, going back to the original point of this post, we’ve decided to do a Paranoia episode. As part of this, I agreed to run a game for my cohosts and some others, and we had our inaugural game today.

To refresh people’s memories naturally – not because I like torturing my co-hosts.

I took the premise from an old scenario, rewrote the main body of it (and the characters) and threw the players in.

It was a complete blast to run and the players – some of who had never played Paranoia before (hence the point of the game before the podcast) – really, REALLY got into it.

The best part of all of this? The comedy came very naturally to them – none of it was forced, and there was nothing in the way of wackiness and zaniness – something that came to characterise a lot of the later West End Games material and which sadly imprinted on a lot of people and is therefore what many folks think of when someone mentions Paranoia to them.

In fact, the only real running joke I had was distinct ring tones for each of the characters’ PDCs (Alpha Complex’s equivalent of a smart phone). I started introducing these early on, and the characters in question would try and slip away to answer it in secret as it was frequently a secret society contact or some other nefarious individual calling. Once the players became accustomed to this I would simply play the sound and there would be a flurry of activity along the lines of “Oh I go to answer my PDC” and “Oh I’m going that way too, let me walk with you citizen. Don’t worry, I won’t eavesdrop…” I was very pleased when one of the players said afterwards “I loved that you used the theme tune for “Bullseye” for the team leader’s ring tone…”

Paranoia – the original roleplaying game of a darkly humourous future. My players did a great job of being exactly that today – darkly humourous.

I can’t wait until the next session.

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