Varney’s Curated Paranoia Classics

Part of the reason Paranoia XP remains the best version of Paranoia is the way core designer and line overseer Allen Varney built in support for various different styles of play. Denoted as “Classic”, “Straight” and “Zap”, these denoted respectively the delicious blend of satirical bite and egregious violence that characterised the best of the first two editions of the game, a more purely satirical take on the concept tonally reminiscent of Gilliam’s Brazil, and the sort of pun-heavy high-wackiness goofy slapstick nonsense that the game degenerated into in the late West End era, and which too many assumed was the default style of the line.

Varney makes little secret of the fact that there was a clear agenda here: namely, to cordon off the Zap stuff into a corner and emphasise the Classic style of play as the default, bringing Paranoia back to the roots which made it such a success in the 1980s and dialling back the excesses that had driven the West End line into the doldrums over the 1990s. Different people draw the line in different places when it comes to figuring out when West End Games’ management of Paranoia jumped the shark, but most fans (including me) tend to think things went seriously wrong after 1989’s The People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure – for one thing it’s after that point that West End stepped up the Secret Society Wars, an attempt to apply an ongoing metaplot to Paranoia that the game absolutely didn’t need.

Of course, if you want to help cultivate the best of West End-era Paranoia and consign the dross to unhistory, it’d be a good idea to have an updated showcase of the sort of mission you want to hold up as representing best practice. Thus, one of the first major accessories for Paranoia XP was Flashbacks, a lavish hardback compilation of the cream of West End’s Paranoia missions, followed a few years later by Flashbacks II. Between them, these two products more or less cover all the adventures released during West End Games’ management of the game line that fans care to revisit – whilst some stinkers preceded the cut-off point of People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure (I genuinely cannot recall Don’t Take Your Laser to Town as being anything other than a drably bland Westworld riff), the material that followed that certainly doesn’t measure up to the glory days of the game line.

Flashbacks

In his introduction to this volume Varney takes the time to outline differences in approach between the XP line and the 1st edition/2nd edition days, mostly so people would understand the context in which the adventures were written and be able to adapt accordingly. One thing which I note is that the bits which the previous editions don’t have tend to be the setting additions that most Paranoia players and referees seem to ignore in XP – the idea of service firms within the service groups, and of the game having an economic element, and of varying which service groups the Troubleshooters are doing a little extra side-favour for on their mission rather than just having them pick up new kit from R&D all the time, all seem to have fallen by the wayside. It’s interesting how Flashbacks, by being one of the first major supplements for XP, might have inadvertently helped prompt people to roll back those changes.

Another difference is that the adventures are revised to take out the puns, because Varney considered them a little too silly for Classic-style play (which the compilation assumes as a default); an appendix helpfully allows you to add them straight back in if you wish.

We lead off with three mini-missions by Ken Rolston, originally from the 1st edition GM screen pack; their placement at the start of the book makes a bit more sense once you consider Varney’s points about how Rolston, as line editor, was instrumental in setting the mood of the early Paranoia adventures. I tend to agree with Varney that the best one is Robot Imana-665-C, which has the Troubleshooters assigned a mission to fix a malfunctioning robot, and is an excellent case study in how lack of information (on the part of both PCs and NPCs), lack of expertise, and the dystopian conditions of Alpha Complex can conspire to make something which should be completely simple an utterly terrifying prospect.

Trouble With Cockroaches is mostly just a combat encounter, though one rendered unpredictable as a result of the absurdity of the combatants and the excessiveness of the weapons provided to the Troubleshooters. Das Bot is a submarine adventure where the main draw is the fun “submarine controls” handout which the PCs have to figure out through trial and error. Both feel like they would work a little better as incidents added into a longer scenario as opposed to scenarios in their own right.

The first full-fat mission we get is Vapors Don’t Shoot Back by Curtis Smith. As the first full-length adventure module for the game, this rather set the pattern for many of the adventures that follow – you have the usual set of linked missions (including at least one jaunt to the Outside), all linked by a higher agenda which the players might cotton onto, but equally may never manage to piece together at all.

In some respects the lack of substantial improvements shows here; in particular, all the pregenerated characters are dudes, and also some of them have briefs which depend on the presence of other PCs more than others, but there isn’t any guidance on which pregens should be dropped if you have less than six players. In addition, each of the missions effectively boils down to a combat encounter surrounded by absurd circumstances. Still, it’s a significant adventure for the purposes of setting a model for writing module-length Paranoia missions, and the underlying concept is in its own way fun enough that it’s worth looking at simply to borrow and recycle it.

John M. Ford (an actual award-winning science fiction author) penned the followup, The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, and notes the utility of adventure modules as resources to mine ideas from rather than things to run purely as written in his introduction to that. The module itself is well-written, and widely acknowledged as such – but can also be more fun to read than to run as-written. Whilst the various mission setups are ingenious, the actual resolutions seem to involve more railroading than is strictly necessary – for instance, the player characters are never supposed to get their hands on the titular black box, whereas to my mind actually succeeding at obtaining the box could conceivably just be the start of their problems.

To a large extent this is a problem of the “multiple connected missions” format – in order to coherently write the next mission, the outcome of the previous mission must be highly constrained, with the result that only the last mission in a pack can really be particularly open-ended when it comes to its results. (It’s worth noting that for their own shiny, new mission packs, Mongoose went for collections of self-contained missions rather than following the model of these early West End Games releases, which seems much more sensible to me. It’s useful to remember that whilst this compilation represents the best of West End-era Paranoia, some aspects of best practice were never picked up on by West End but have only become apparent with years and years of hinsight.)

Another issue with the set that it incorporates a lot of background material which either has no particular impact on the mission or, at most, has an impact which is so obtuse that the player characters never have any particular hope of either figuring it out or even realising that there’s a mystery there in the first place – for instance, I cannot see how the High Programmer disputes underpinning the last mission in the set could actually really interestingly manifest during the mission. This is another hallmark of the way the module feels like it’s written to be read rather than written to be actually played; whilst having a clear explanation of everything that’s going on presented to the player characters is obviously against the spirit of Paranoia, overloading the referee with information which doesn’t have any real prospect of becoming relevant doesn’t feel like best practice to me.

Still, as a confectionary box to cherry-pick encounter ideas or mission structures from, Black Box Blues is pretty good; amusing as the actual nature of the titular McGuffin is, its tenuous connection to the action of any particular mission means that cutting it out and dropping in whatever McGuffin you want to use for your home adventures is nice and easy. Plus the variety of mission types is an improvement over Vapors Don’t Shoot Back – rather than solely focusing on clumsy combats, there’s also dungeon-crawling, escape sequences, even negotiation if the player characters are inclined to it.

Varney himself teamed up with Deus Ex mastermind Warren Spector to produce Send In the Clones. Though not the first Paranoia product to introduce the running joke of Teela O’Malley, the widely beloved propaganda star who acts as the game’s main vector for parodies of celebrity culture, it’s the product which actually gets the deepest into that angle. Aside from an occasional overreliance on boxed text (a plague of most adventures in most RPGs of this vintage), it’s actually really nicely written with an eye to playability as well as being a hoot to read. There’s actual women included with the pre-gen characters, for instance, and there’s a really neat bit of backstory entangling all of them (but, once again, no guidance on how to do without one or more of the relevant characters). There’s a good mixture of combat encounters and noncombat encounters. There’s an entire mission which is taken up with a big bureaucratic runaround to get the equipment needed for the last mission. There’s the funbot, one of the best ever Paranoia NPCs. I might even be inclined to call this the best full module-length mission pack of West End’s time with Paranoia.

The best West End mission, though, is Me and My Shadow, Mark IV. from the supplement Acute Paranoia. It’s a single mission about as long as one of the meatier missions from a module, which makes it substantial enough to really dig into its premise but short enough that it doesn’t become overreliant on railroading (since the mission outcome isn’t constrained by the requirements of a followup mission, so you can let the action implode as it will). It also doesn’t have pregens and doesn’t make assumptions about number of players, which adds flexibility.

Written by Steve Gilbert and Peter Corless, the mission has the Troubleshooters undertaking guard duty – a job rarely focused on in tabletop RPGs due to its passive, reactive nature, but which it makes perfect sense for Troubleshooters in Paranoia to be called on to do. At least, it would make sense if the thing being guarded were not the prototype Mark 4 – an arrogant, massive robot tank who is insulted by the very idea that it needs to be protected by a squad of low-ranking Troubleshooters. The mission essentially offers a string of encounters which each illustrates a different absurdity of Alpha Complex guard duty, each of which is open to a wide range of outcomes based on player character action.

Flashbacks breaks from chronological order here in order to offer 1988’s Alpha Complexities by Edward S. Bolme, which is easily the best mission published during the game’s second edition era. This makes sense because Complexities includes, among other things, a welcome return of Mark 4 – or at least, an iteration thereof, since the mission is based on the idea that there are multiple Alpha Complexes out there, each claiming to be the only uncorrupted part of the original network, and the module is based around an invasion of the players’ Complex by an enemy one.

Bolme’s style involves a boisterous amount of slapstick and a willingness to repeatedly go to the Star Wars parody well, but retains enough deftness with the satirical catch-22s to keep the adventure broadly within the Classic playstyle. Some of the situations depicted are positively ingeniuous, like the “invisible Commie” subplot, and the major difference in the way the enemy Complex handles things is a great way to shake things up, putting Alpha Complexities on a par with Send In the Clones.

Next up is a “best of” selection of the Code 7 adventure seeds from Acute Paranoia – Code 7s being IC Troubleshooter slang for a suicide mission (because it requires at least 7 clones to resolve and you only get 6) and OOC a term used for adventure fragments written up by designers but not developed into fully-described missions. The first two chosen for reprinting are by Varney himself; An ARD Day’s Night has fun with the idea of saboteurs messing with the Complex’s day/night cycle, whilst Reboot Camp offers suggestions on how to handle a scenario where the Computer crashes and then reboots itself from redundant backup systems. Not only does Reboot Camp predate the later Crash/Reboot metaplot by some years, but it also handles the idea in a far more tonally appropriate way. (For one thing, it doesn’t propose running without the Computer on any sort of long-term basis.)

The last Code 7 presented is Greg Costikyan’s Whitewash, a simple but ingenious idea (a corridor got repainted the wrong security clearance colour and the Troubleshooters have to sort it out) which also got reprinted in the mission book of the latest Mongoose edition in apparent attempt to include something resembling authentic Paranoia play in there. It’s pretty excellent.

The book is rounded off by a new mission – Pre-Paranoia, intended as a gentle introduction to the setting and the game’s expectations, though to be honest I tend to think the only introduction worth a damn with a high-concept, high-backstabbing game like Paranoia is having a sensible OOC chat about preferences and expectations and ensuring people are down with it and then just jumping in head-first. There’s also a useful article on converting old material to the XP system, which is useful for anyone trying to use un-Flashback‘d WEG material (bad idea) or homebrew stuff prepared for old editions (better idea!).

Flashbacks II

Back in Flashbacks, Varney mentioned in passing that the Orcbusters mission would be included in a Zap-themed compilation at some point in the future. Although Flashbacks II does not overtly bill itself as a Zap-themed compilation, the three adventures in it all feature healthy dollops of unsubtle parody of a type which certainly feels like it would sit awkwardly with the Classic-style humour of the adventures in Flashbacks.

It’s no secret that Zap-style play was the poor cousin of the Paranoia XP era, since it was the style of play Varney was trying to wean people off of. In keeping with this, Flashbacks II feels like the poor cousin to Flashbacks. As well as being a softcover product instead of hardcover, it also cuts the pregenerated characters from all the adventures, half-asses the removal of pun names (there’s a bunch where the original pun is still pretty blatant), and doesn’t provide an appendix listing all the original pun names for those who want to put them back in. There isn’t even an introduction by Allen Varney to offer his thoughts in retrospect on the adventures provided.

Of these issues, the lack of pregens hurts the missions here the most, because it’s those which provide the players with the personality quirks and conflicting service group and secret society missions that stimulate the intra-party backstabbing that is the defining feature of Paranoia. In general, the best Paranoia adventures always remember that they are mostly there to provide a backdrop to that backstabbing; the missions collected here tend to forget that a little, but this would not be so much of a problem if they at least each had a set of solid pregens with juicy hooks into the scenario and reasons to backstab each other. Without them, and without even pointers on what home-rolled PCs’ service groups and secret societies might want, this is greatly to the detriment of the product.

The first adventure here is Orcbusters, Ken Rolston’s infamous D&D parody from 1986. The basic scenario is that an accident with an experimental bit of R&D kit – the Transdimensional Collapsatron – has transported a number of grumpy wizards (plus their apprentice Randy the Wonder Lizard) to Alpha Complex, and they are wandering about the place using magic to interrogate people, wreak mayhem, and generally make trouble in the process of trying to get back home. Naturally, once they manage to get transported back home, the PCs are whisked away with them, and have to endure a delightfully linear dungeon crawl in order to get the Collapsatron back and go home.

To be honest, it’s the last stretch of the mission I have the biggest problem with. The early phases are alright, but too repetitive – there’s too many encounters which boil down to “the wizards are somewhere important and the Troubleshooters fail to capture them”, and not enough variation between those episodes to keep them fresh. But the sequence in the wizards’ home realm of Dimension X boils down to a long series of daft D&D jokes where, so far as I can tell, you’re expected to let the characters survive (unless you are happy with an anticlimax ending) because there isn’t any plausible mechanism offered for the delivery of clone backups. Whilst some Paranoia referees wouldn’t let that stop them delivering the backups anyway, as far as I am concerned Paranoia‘s status as a comedy game doesn’t mean in-world logic ceases to be important – I don’t ask for perfect realism, just for internal consistency on the game world’s own terms. (Indeed, the best Paranoia missions arise from an internally consistent series of fuckups, snafus and betrayals.) It’s very clear that you need a Collapsatron to get to Dimension X, very clear that supplies are limited, and very clear that the characters have no means of calling home to request clone replacements anyway. The adventure doesn’t even include a debriefing segment, a crucial part of the Paranoia mission structure for the opportunity it offers to spread the blame around.

The way it adapts the mutant power system to offer a rough simulation of magic is quite fun, but honestly Orcbusters feels like an idea for a Code 7 adventure seed padded out way beyond what the underlying concept can support. (It also opened the doors to the later Vulture Warriors of Dimension X series, a string of modules indulging in cheap parodies of other RPGs and part of West End’s massively misguided attempt to inflict an ongoing metaplot on Paranoia, the single RPG least suited to such a thing in the entire industry.)

Erick Wujick’s Clones In Space saves its most Zap-like moment for the end – the big threat in the mission turn out to be bug-eyed tentacular aliens who Want Our Women (seriously, guys?) and who speak in comedy British accents. This is exactly the sort of contextless random wackiness that would become the hallmark of the worst West End Paranoia products eventually, and in my opinion really isn’t in the spirit of the underlying satire. In the best Paranoia products – particularly those which understand the humour of the game and how to get the most out of it – the threat comes not from some external force but from the internal absurdity of Alpha Complex as a system (or, in the case of Alpha Complexities, as one of several competing basically-identical systems). An alien invasion is the ultimate threat-out-of-nowhere which doesn’t really serve the central premise at all.

On top of that, the mission forcibly propels the players through linear environment after linear environment, in a situation where actually opening fire on each other or otherwise trying to backstab each other would just result in mutual destruction (because it’s space and if you blow that hull everyone dies), and without any of the totalitarian surveillance (or intrusive debriefing) that forces players to maintain the pretence of being loyal citizens. Indeed, it’s got something of a reputation as being a remarkably fragile mission – it’s very easy for overexcited players to blow up something essential for the mission’s progression, such as their entire supply of replacement clones. Plus there’s the usual mistake of the mission hosing the player group as a whole, rather than encouraging them to turn on each other. On balance, I suspect that Wujick just didn’t quite get Paranoia on some level.

Edward S. Bolme’s The People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure has a really solid central premise fatally weighed down by goofiness. I may as well spoil the premise, because it’s the sort of concept where even if a player susses out what’s going on, it doesn’t necessarily help them get out of the horrible Catch-22 they’re in. The idea is that Friend Computer has decided to study the Communist threat by creating Alpha State – a simulated Communist-controlled Alpha Complex situated in a disused sector, populated by citizens swiped from their everyday lives and brainwashed into thinking this is the normal state of affairs. The end result is, of course, startlingly close to Alpha Complex itself bar for the ideology and propaganda, which is reconstructed from the Computer’s best guess as to what Communism is actually like. (This guess is about as reliable as the actual Communist Party secret society’s idea is – in other words, not at all.)

On the face of it, that’s a really nice concept because it places the characters in an impossible bind: if they don’t play along and act like good Commies, they get blamed both by Comrade Computer during the simulation for being bad comrades and by Friend Computer afterwards for messing with the simulation. On the other hand, if they don’t show some signs of resentment at the dysfunctions of Alpha State, Friend Computer will suspect they enjoyed it too much – but if their complaints about Alpha State start sounding too much like complaints about Alpha Complex they start sounding like traitors again. On that level, it’s pretty clever.

Unfortunately, the adventure buys into the “Alpha Complex Commies all wear ridiculously huge furry hats and speak in outrageous Rrrrrrrroooossian accents” trope hard, which shoves what could have been a great Straight or Classic mission concept into hard Zap territory. Whilst you can probably get away with that sort of thing as a side encounter in a mission – after all, the Alpha Complex Communist Party is explicitly a cargo cult lashed together from cartoonish anti-Commie propaganda from the mid-20th Century – immersing yourself in it for the duration of an entire mission strains the joke a little too much.

In short, the adventures in Flashbacks II are lukewarm affairs whose exclusion from the original Flashbacks is largely justified, because in general those missions stand head and shoulders above the material here (even if you take into account the fact that the Flashbacks II missions are sad, mutilated reprints that lack the pregens of the originals). That doesn’t entirely contradict Varney’s assessment that People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure was the last decent adventure from the West End line – yes, it’s too goofy for my tastes, but it at least has a smart central premise, which is more than you can say for more or less anything West End published for Paranoia after it. The drop in quality between Flashbacks and Flashbacks II is notable, but the drop in quality between Flashbacks II and the West End material that Mongoose didn’t even bother to reprint is vast.

My advice, then, if you are interested in West End’s curation of Paranoia: the 1st Edition core rules are interesting to look at as a curiosity, and the 2nd Edition core book rivals Paranoia XP as being one of the clearest, funniest and overall best presentations of the game. Beyond that, Flashbacks has the real gold, whilst Flashbacks II need only trouble you if you really like Zap-style play and anything else is a matter solely for completists or those curious as to how poor a game line can get.

One thought on “Varney’s Curated Paranoia Classics

  1. Pingback: Playing It Straight – Refereeing and Reflection

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