Alpha Complex Leftovers

There comes a point in the publishing history of many Mongoose Publishing product lines where an increasing proportion of them end up getting written by Gareth Hanrahan. Whilst in some respects Mongoose has had its issues keeping hold of freelancers – the lads at Design Mechanism have more than a few stories to tell about their frustrations with Mongoose’s editing process,  for instance. Then there was James Wallis and Grant Howitt not even hiding their frustration with Mongoose in the annotated PDFs and designer discussion podcast released to Kickstarter backers of the new Paranoia.

Of course, the breakdown in relations between Mongoose and Wallis does not seem to be entirely one-sided. Wallis delivered late on Paranoia, just as he’s continuing to deliver late on his massively delayed Alas Vegas Kickstarter (to the extent that all he seems to have accomplished this year is getting the books printed, and then pulping them because they weren’t up to scratch), and Matt Sprange of Mongoose hasn’t exactly hidden his frustration with James. According to Sprange’s most recent comment on the subject, as of September 2017 they’d only been able to get in touch with Wallis through an intermediary – Sprange said this “is a ridiculous situation for grown adults to be in”, and I can’t really disagree.

On that basis and in the light of the Alas Vegas Kickstarter, you might want to write off James as simply being unprofessional. However, the fact that he seems to share these frustrations with Howitt – whose Goblin Quest Kickstarter was delayed for completely understandable reasons, which backers were kept fully appraised of, and ended up delivering the goods marvellously – makes me inclined to think that there’s some substance to those complaints. (That doesn’t mean that James isn’t unprofessional, mind – just that a sufficiently professional, honest, and competent individual is backing him up on some of his complaints, which makes me more inclined to give them credit than if James was making them by himself.)

The fact is that it seems like James is a perfectionist to a genuinely paralysing degree – not the joking “Ahaha, my main faults are I’m a perfectionist and I work too hard!” job interview sort of perfectionist, but the type who is so critical of their own work that given the opportunity to do so they will fiddle with it and polish it and tweak it and at some points entirely dismantle and rebuild it (as happened with Alas Vegas) and generally hold up progress in perpetuity. This isn’t great in any project, but it’s apocalyptically bad when coupled with a publisher with a lax attitude to editing, proofreading, and basic production standards – something which Mongoose has unfortunately proven itself to be time and time again. At the root of Wallis’s frustrations with Mongoose, from his side, seems to be the impression that they simply aren’t taking the same level of pride and carefulness with the project that he is.

Enter Hanrahan. With the quasi-cancellation of James’ last outstanding Paranoia productUltraviolent – I say “quasi” because Mongoose say they will publish it if it shows up, but at this point do not seriously expect to receive anything – Hanrahan has entered the breach yet again, penning Implausible Deniability as a means of filling the gap in the production schedule – a job which he seems to be perpetually willing to do for Mongoose as writers drift away from product lines and new material is needed to fill the gap.

Hanrahan’s willingness to do this for a wide range of different product lines, along with his publication history, suggests that he earned his RPG publishing spurs as a good old-fashioned hack. I don’t mean a hack in the derogatory sense of the word in that he churns out shit – his batting average is such that whilst he isn’t in that Greg Stolze-esque pantheon of designers where I’ll at least sit up and listen to the sales pitch when they’re attached to a project, at the same time he isn’t in the James “Grim” Desborough league of writers whose presence on a project makes me actively less likely to buy it. I mean, instead, a hack in the original 18th Century sense of the term, denoting a writer who is cheap and reliable and will churn out the number of words you require on the subject you’ve chosen in a brisk fashion, yielding prose which might not sparkle but is at least serviceable.

This is a tier of writer that’s been with us ever since publication of the written word, in whatever format, became a serious business rather than the purview of scholars and monastic sorts. It has become a pejorative term, largely through classism and sneering – the fact is that over the years a great many perfectly good writers have had spells of doing hackwork in order to make ends meet, and others have been lifelong hacks and been perfectly good at it. It is a necessary niche in publishing, and sneering at people for doing the job isn’t on. In the RPG publishing industry, not everyone gets to be Gygax or Rein-Hagen and make their first big splash with their personal dream project – sometimes they have to work their way towards that, and being a reliable hack who can put out game product quickly and efficiently is a good way to get your foot in the door.

In Hanrahan’s case, my feeling is that he’s the sort of guy who can churn out a suitable number of words for a particular game with a suitable tone fairly quickly and effortlessly – at the very least, quickly enough to make cranking this stuff out for the extremely limited per-word rate that you get in the RPG industry – and that once it’s out of his hands he isn’t especially fussy about the subsequent handling of the project (its production being a mercenary act on his part), which means that he doesn’t especially mind when Mongoose botch the material with their sloppy production values.

This is a combination of qualities which would have made him a genuine asset in the early years of Mongoose, when they started out as a D20 shovelware mill, and has led him to bigger and better things; come 2008 he handled the core rulebook for Traveller, and after being let go when Mongoose had to drastically contract in the wake of their divorce from Rebellion he’s landed on his feet writing for Pelgrane Press, helming the well-received Laundry RPG line from Cubicle 7, and doing the occasional bit of freelancing on the side too. It also meant that, back when Mongoose decided to take writing of material for Paranoia XP entirely in-house rather than having Allen Varney and his merry band of helpers at the Traitor Recycling Studio writing most of the material, it was Hanrahan who had to fill the gap.

Given the generally high quality of the material produced under Varney, I have to question the wisdom of this decision, especially since even if Hanrahan was up for the challenge, Mongoose wasn’t up for delivering on it. Few supplements demonstrate this more than the matched pair of Alpha Complex Nights and Alpha Complex Nights 2. These each contain a set of missions which, with their individual separate contents page (including, bizarrely, an individual copyright message for each), seem to have originally been intended for individual release before being slapped together in these compilations as a hasty cost-cutting measure.

The various missions at best have interesting concepts, but tend to read a bit like unpolished first drafts. It doesn’t help that the layout on many of them is pretty awful – Spin Control, the first mission in the collection, is perhaps the least eye-wateringly difficult to read and navigate, though its “zombie apocalypse” plot feels a bit trite for Paranoia purposes. Most of the missions in the first book don’t come with pregenerated PCs (the exception is My First Treason, where the PCs are all kids and therefore aren’t character types easily produced using the usual character generation system), whilst in the second book you do get a party of sample PCs at the beginning of the book – but they screwed up the layout so that some of the sections of the PC writeups end up spanning multiple columns or even multiple pages, making photocopying them and cutting them out for your players vastly more inconvenient than it could otherwise have been with a more sensible layout.

(And of course, the secret society missions provided are rather generic, rather than being tied to the individual missions, which I think misses a trick – if you are going to provide pregenerated PCs with the mission, give them secret society-based motivations to engage with the mission, preferably in a less-than-constructive fashion.)

As far as the missions themselves go, probably the most interesting idea is the one driving Sweep of Unhistory, in which the PCs volunteer to have their genetic patterns and memory records stored in an emergency response system, so if ever a crisis arises in the future which requires a backup team of Troubleshooters and absolutely nobody else can be spared, new clones can be rapid-grown and memory-imprinted to yield a perfectly cromulent Troubleshooter team ready to kick butt. The rest of the mission has them resurrected increasingly far into the future, ranging from a near future when their now highly-promoted selves are the targets of a conspiracy to an astonishingly far future where the Sun’s about to go out.

That’s conceptually neat, but the concepts of most of the eras Hanrahan plays with can’t really be properly fleshed out in the space he’s given here. What’s more, the Troubleshooters of course get rapidly cut off from contact with their Secret Societies, robbing them of many of the motivations that differentiate them. It ends up being a sort of Paranoia mission that not only is endemic to these supplements (Viva la Revolution! is also like this, as in some respects is Spin Control) but was also a hallmark of other adventures, whether written under the auspices of Mongoose or West End Games, which simply Didn’t Get It.

Specifically, I am thinking about the sort of adventure which devolves into a sort of railroad where the player characters just see a bunch of absurd stuff and have a bunch of absurd stuff happening to them, and the nature of the stuff in question tends to prompt them to set aside their differences in a desperate bid for survival, rather than having them turn on each other under pressure (or boredom). It’s not like top-notch adventures like Me and My Shadow, Mark IV or Send In the Clones or Stealth Train want for funny scripted incidents – but between the secret society briefings given and the nature of the crises the PCs are thrown into, they always maintain the illusion of “I can survive this if I just pin the blame on the other party members.” Keeping the game in that area and not crossing the line into “The only way any of us survive this is if we work together” is difficult, but I’d argue that it’s the central, iconic difference between Paranoia and every other traditional RPG, and you really don’t want to lose it.

So you have a mixture of lukewarm writing and poor layout – what else? Well, you also apparently have Jim Holloway getting off the train – his illustrations grace the first Alpha Complex Nights book, but not the second (aside from the cover), and his replacement turns in a disappointingly cartoonish style slightly too reminiscent of the ass-awful art of Paranoia 5th Edition and Creatures of the Nightcycle, the last squeaky farts of the West End Games line.

If Mongoose dropped the ball here on handling the text and throwing it out like this rather than giving it additional writing and layout passes, the rights-holders to Paranoia also seem to have dropped the ball. My understanding is that they have approval rights on Paranoia products, but if they aren’t going to use them to block the release of mediocre product then what is the point of them? I don’t know what the full inside story is on the circumstances surrounding the release of these weirdly mediocre books, but there has to be a story here – if only because of the gulf in quality between this and previous XP releases. Even those I didn’t particularly enjoy at least had decent layout work and editing compared to his.

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