What version of Paranoia should I play (and how do I make it funny)?

Since releasing our Paranoia podcast, I’ve been asked a couple of questions by numerous people so, rather than rehash the same answer (or something approaching it) over and over again, I thought I’d put it together this short blog post.

The first question is some variant of What version of Paranoia should I play?

So, to answer this, I’m first of all going to ask a question of my own, namely Are you asking me what setting should I play?

Because, the answer to that is easy – you want to play Paranoia set in the confines of Alpha Complex as defined in 1st edition, the initial release of 2nd edition, and Paranoia XP. That’s the setting where The Computer rules over all, where surveillance is rife, where anyone could turn on you at a moment’s notice, where the bureaucracy is enough to drive you insane, where authority doesn’t always go hand in hand with competence, and where secret societies with hidden agendas lurk in the shadows.

Given that the second question I’m always asked is How do you make Paranoia funny? these devices are what help you build that humour. Choosing the right setting goes a long way to making your game funny. Comedy doesn’t come from the unreliable gadgets, the puns, the slapstick, the gratuitous gun fights, or anything else that people who haven’t played Paranoia assume it’s about.

It’s the situations you present to the players and how they respond to them that gets the laughs.

Think about a classic Paranoia set up: you’re given a mission briefing that’s probably incomplete or contradictory, you’re given objectives from your employers and your secret society which probably conflict with the main mission orders, which might conflict with each other, and which definitely conflict with the other players’ agendas. You’re then sent off to complete your task with a group of people that know that the easiest way to claim something approaching success is by having ready made scapegoats in the form of the people they’re working with.

These situations are, in turn, enabled by the setting. If you didn’t have a totalitarian regime to move things along, players could easily say “Forget this – it’s impossible” and go and do something else.

If there was no reason to obey your shadowy secret society or your employer you’d probably choose to disregard your sub missions in favour of something more doable, and you certainly wouldn’t waste time on them if they started generating conflict with your fellow players!

If The Computer promoted citizens based on how well they did their job rather than on how much it trusts them, you might have a briefing officer that made sense. Likewise, if the system was an actual meritocracy, and not founded on the hot mess of…well…paranoia that inhabits the Computer’s circuit boards, you and your fellow players would actually band together to complete your missions – rather than spending the time playing “pin the tail on the traitor”.

With that in mind, it should be self-evident that you don’t need to try that hard to make your game funny. The best comedy moments in Paranoia come from the simple interactions between the players. In a recent game I ran, one of the players caused a robot to go berserk, killing one of the other players and resulting in a lot of collateral damage. The Team Leader – ever suspicious of his fellow Troubleshooters – demanded that everyone turn out their pockets. The guilty party made a big show of pulling out the device that caused all of this to happen, double-taking at it and demanding to know what it was and who had planted it on him. He immediately accused one of the other players, and all attention fell on him. The squabbling and back-biting that resulted was genuinely funny, wholly dictated by the setting, and utterly unscripted.

To further hammer home the importance of the setting when it comes to making Paranoia funny, let me offer you a cautionary tale. The Crash, the Reboot and the hellish miso-mash of nonsense that was Fifth Edition dispensed with the default setting entirely, so what they left you with was an unstructured free-for-all that got stale very, very quickly. The upshot (other than sales tanking)? You had a setting which forced you to try to make it funny. It was hard work. Imagine being told “Hey, we want to play D&D, but we want it to be funny D&D.” The setting itself isn’t particularly designed around comedy, so you would have to work to make it amusing. And that would show, believe me! I remember being struck by not only how “un-Paranoia” Crash Course Manual felt the first time I read it, but also how it simply wasn’t funny. I was used to reading Paranoia scenarios and chuckling as I imagined my players in the settings described, and the shenanigans that would result. This though? It kind of left me cold.

In fact, this is what basically killed the West End line dead in the water, and saw it descend into over the top puns, horseplay and parody. The setting itself had ceased to be funny, so the writers tried to cram in as much of what they considered “comedy” into a fairly turgid setting. That’s probably why only one post-crash adventure was actually set in post-crash Alpha. The rest were all set in other dimensions (or Australia for some reason…) because the default setting was utterly devoid of the potential for humour.

So, with the setting question out of the way, what edition should you play? Unlike a lot of games, where the rules and how the players interact with them are a big part of what makes them, Paranoia is purposefully rules lite. Certainly, first edition is probably the most crunchy of all of them – this was still an early 80s RPG after all – but that others are much of a muchness. My personal preference is XP – when the rules come up what is detailed there is clean and streamlined. I’ve not played the newest edition, so I can’t comment on that, but I’m generally put off by games that need special dice and cards.

The other great thing about XP – and what goes a long way to answering the question of How do I make Paranoia funny? – is that it talks about three different styles of play; Classic, Zap and Straight.

Classic is that style of play that most people think of when asked of Paranoia; freewheeling craziness, where everyone is out to get everyone else, and where “the winner” is generally the player who survives to the debriefing with no-one there to contradict their story. All of the great scenarios from the early days of Paranoia are in this style. Likewise, Mongoose – the publishers of XP – created a stack of them too. If you want guidance on how to write a really funny Classic-style Paranoia adventure, check out Flashbacks from Mongoose – it brings together some of the best Classic scenarios, all updated for use with XP. There’s some absolute gold in there – I’ve been running Me and My Shadow Mark IV on and off for nigh on thirty years and it still gets laughs.

Zap is that unhinged, over-the-top insanity that people who haven’t played Paranoia think of when it’s mentioned and which – in its worse form – was what West End promoted from the Crash onwards. Incessant gun fights, puns, parodies and generally “zaniness” (and I mean that in the most basic, pejorative way possible). I guess this can be fun if all you want to do is shout “TREASON!” and zap other players, but hopefully you will evolve to a more mature playstyle eventually.

Straight is that style that assumes a functional Alpha Complex, a place where bungled briefings and malfunctioning equipment exist not because “hey, this place is cur-azzzzzzeeee!” but due to human error. A place where there are traitors trying to co-opt you, but this time they’re not wearing furry Russian hat, but they’re actually scary terrorists. A place where you and your team mates can get conflicting orders again – not due to any out-of-this-world wackiness – but because other people are setting you up to take the fall for their own shortcomings. In short, the setting is pretty much like the real world, but skewed through the lens of dystopian sci-fi. Bleak as this sounds, I believe that this style is the one with the most comic potential.

Think of the film Brazil. Near the beginning, a jam in a printer causes an arrest warrant to be misprinted and the wrong man is arrested. He subsequently dies in custody, and this leads to the main character having to return a refund to the widow of the wrongfully arrested man. It’s funny, but when we laugh at it, we’re laughing at the mess of red tape and the genuine ineptitude of government. We can relate to it – that’s what makes it amusing. We’re not chuckling because a man died!

Likewise, in Dr Strangelove the bombers that form part of the nuclear deterrent have communication devices that only respond to a certain code. Once these bombers launch on their mission, the only way they can be recalled is with this code, and it is known to one man. Who also happens to be insane. We’re laughing again, but we’re laughing nervously because this could happen.

In Catch-22 (the final example, I promise!) the eponymous catch describes paradoxical situations which an individual cannot escape, usually because of equally paradoxical choices that they have to make as part of trying to escape the original situation. The most famous example referenced in the novel refers to the fact that airmen who are evaluated to be insane cannot be allowed to undertake combat flights. However, airmen who request to have their sanity evaluated in the hope of being found unfit to fly missions in an active war zone are, by their very action, demonstrating their own sanity, and thus cannot be declared insane. Once again, it is funny, but we’re laughing at the absurdity of the situation, and probably relating it to some situation we’ve personally encountered.

In short, Straight Paranoia is best described as dark satire and it’s without a doubt my favourite form of play. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of the Classic Paranoia adventures, and a lot of them are laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s a different type of humour. Only last week I was running a game that was fairly straight in style, part of which involved the higher ups in Alpha Complex parroting fairly meaningless slogans to the player characters in the hope that these nuggets of wisdom would help them get the job done. This got a lot of laughs. Why was it funny? All of us playing have worked in corporate environments long enough to have seen the same kind of behaviour – buzzwords, jargon and quotes from business books thrown around as if they were wisdom handed down from on high. We related to it, so we found it funny.

In fact, I guess that’s the best way to describe making Paranoia funny to your players – if they can look at what is being described and think “Oh no – I work in Alpha Complex IN REAL LIFE!” then the GM is doing a grand job.

Just don’t take a laser gun to the office, ok? I’m pretty sure that’s not allowed at any security clearance citizen…

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