This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.
Strap yourself in, folks. Whereas some Kickstopper articles document a fairly simple interaction, this is one of those which documents a rough and bumpy ride – and unlike the saga of the Call of Cthulhu 7th edition Kickstarter, this time the delivered goods are a bit too disappointing to justify the rough journey.
On one level, it’s hard to justify declaring a Kickstarter a failure when it actually delivers the tangible product it originally promised. However, the saga of Mongoose Publishing’s new edition of Paranoia reveals a development process in which the interests of rights holders, publishers, game designers and Kickstarter backers ended up at odds with each other, with the inevitable dysfunction that arises from such a situation. It also reveals a tabletop RPG whose previous editions have (mostly) been widely loved reduced into a cheap and tatty-feeling product which doesn’t feel like it lives up to its heritage.
Usual Note On Methodology
Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.
The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.
Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.
Mongoose Publishing, headed up by Matt Sprange, hit the tabletop RPG publishing scene in the early 2000s. They started out as one of the various publishers churning out third-party supplements for Dungeons & Dragons, whose then-current third edition had an extremely liberal policy on such things. Rapid expansion allowed them to obtain a range of significant licences to publish material in various settings (such as Judge Dredd or Babylon 5) or to produce new editions of classic RPGs (such as Traveller or RuneQuest).
Whilst over the years many of these licences have been lost – RuneQuest, Conan the Barbarian, Judge Dredd, Babylon 5 and many other properties besides are now gone from the Mongoose catalogue – Paranoia is one game which has remained with them over the years. Originally published by West End Games, Paranoia first came out in 1984 and, for the next few years, became a cult hit – but increasing mishandling of the line by West End over the 1990s left the line in the doldrums, and as West End was in the midst of various business woes after losing the Star Wars RPG licence the original creators of the game brought a lawsuit to regain control of the rights. (I’ll get deeper into that when I cover the past editions of the game later in the article.)
After the rights returned to the original designers, they eventually gave Mongoose a licence to produce a new edition of the game, subject to their approval of the new products to ensure quality control. This version, Paranoia XP, was a significant hit, spawning a healthy range of supplements, adventures, and updated reprints of classic material. A 25th anniversary edition of the game in 2009 largely consisted of a reorganisation and tightening up of Paranoia XP, but didn’t get a similar level of attention.
The purpose of this Kickstarter, then, was to produce a new and comprehensively updated version of the game for its 30th anniversary, presented as a boxed set. As part of the promotion of the Kickstarter, Mongoose made a great virtue of taking on the talents of James Wallis – a game designer and publisher whose Hogshead Publishing back in the 1990s and early 2000s was a mark of quality in the British RPG industry, and had proven his knack for designing comedic games with his Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen game. James was joined as main designer by Grant Howitt, who you may remember also had his own comedy RPG Kickstarter project in the form of the rather excellent Goblin Quest, but in terms of profile within the RPG industry it has to be said that James was undoubtedly the bigger name, and the one that Mongoose was the most keen to promote as being the head honcho of the development team.
The funding process was a runaway success, with a range of stretch goals hit and enthusiastic backers paying a premium for such special additions like rulebook PDFs annotated by Wallis and Howitt with their thoughts on them and a special “designer’s commentary” MP3 recording. All seemed rosy. Then the process of actually meeting the promises made began.
What Level I Backed At
Ultraviolet Plus: You get the complete Paranoia Box Set, special Ultraviolet Kickstarter Edition and all unlocked Stretch Goals (Mutant and Secret Society expansions, Forms Pack, GM Screen and the Ultraviolent and Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues adventures. You also get all the other Add-ons (Blank Cards, extra Computer Dice, Paranoia Marker Pens and an extra Player’s Guide. In addition, you will receive a PDF download of the playtest version of the rules before the end of the year so you can influence the design of Paranoia! Finally, you will receive a special PDF with annotations from the designers so you can see what influenced their writing, along with a series of MP3 files in which the designer’s talk about the design process.
Delivering the Goods
The estimated delivery date was June of 2015 for tiers with physical product; I didn’t get my box until April of 2017. The delay involved is appreciable, especially considering that during the Kickstarter campaign Mongoose declared (as you can see in the “Risks and Challenges” section of the Kickstarter page) that the bulk of the design work and playtesting on the game had already been completed, and their printers and distribution system had been primed to produce the product, so “we have done as much as we possibly can short of actually producing the game”.
Instead, 2015 came and went with the design work and playtests continuing, and without even the PDFs being delivered to the Kickstarter backers; in fact, James Wallis as design team head would not deliver text of the core booklets from the main boxed set to Mongoose until late January 2016/early February 2016. (The Kickstarter update announcing this to the backers went out on February 1st.) Even then, these weren’t forwarded directly to the backers – before they would do so, Mongoose went through the layout process and had to run the books past the Paranoia rights holders for their approval, and a preview version of the final product would not be made available to backers until July of that year.
Well, there was one major exception. One of the backers had planned to run a game of the new Paranoia at a gaming convention, and had got in touch with James Wallis for sight of the draft rules so that the demo game could go ahead. Wallis provided this to them, but this provoked an outcry among the rest of the backers, who – to my mind with some justification – deemed it to be ragingly unfair that this backer got a special inside preview that the rest of the backers weren’t given.
Then again, by that point backer morale was – as you might expect – pretty low, to the point where Matt Sprange had to do an extensive amount of smoothing things over. This post in the comments section from February 5th 2016 offers particularly extensive explanations, and some sections of it deserve further comment.
First, it’s worth noting that at this point a lot of people had noticed all that stuff in the “Risks and Challenges” section about how Mongoose and the design team had “done as much as we possibly can short of actually producing the game” as of late 2014 seemed to be strikingly at odds with the fact that Mongoose hadn’t received a draft of the core set until early 2016. Here’s what Matt had to say about that:
I stand by the text in the ‘risks’ section – at least, as far as it goes. Before this project was started, we had a firm plan, we knew how the game was going to work. It was just going to be a case of assembling everything together. Simples. (we really had learned from previous KS projects).
However, the game itself developed, new ideas crept in and, at one point, everything previous was effectively canned in favour of a new direction. We approved this because we could genuinely see it was going to result in a better game – and our mantra throughout this has always been Better Game before Early Delivery.
And that should have been fine too. Obviously other delays pushed us to the point where we are now.
I would therefore humbly submit to you all that what I wrote in that section was true at the time, but is not true now. For that, I apologise, but I still believe it was necessary and I truly think you will agree when you hold the final box set in your hands.
What’s interesting about this is that this isn’t actually the first Kickstarter project that James Wallis was involved in where it was claimed during the funding period that the product had been mostly written, only for the design to get laboriously picked apart and revised once funding had completed to the point of utterly rewriting the entire thing. The previous incident was his own Alas Vegas project, which over the years has been its own painful saga – a PDF of the product only emerged recently, some three and a half years late. The promised hard copies of the book have yet to materialise.
A full discussion of Alas Vegas from a backer’s-eye-view would take up an entire article on its own, but here’s a Paranoia-relevant snippet; as we backers were waiting for James to finally deliver Alas Vegas to us, he told us that an RPG publisher had approached him about helming a new edition of a major new game, which would be the subject of a Kickstarter, but he’d told them that he couldn’t commit until he’d finished Alas Vegas. Then the Paranoia project was announced, and James promised that he wouldn’t let it delay delivery of Alas Vegas. And yet the PDF of Alas Vegas didn’t emerge until some months after the PDF of Paranoia limped into view. This was highly reminiscent of James’ tendency in his communications to Paranoia backers during 2015 of committing to various delivery deadlines which, until early 2016, he missed.
In this and many other examples, James showed a Peter Molyneux-esque tendency to present a vague intention like it was a firm commitment or promise. Worse, he’d often only admit that a target or promise would be missed until after the fact – a habit that never looks professional. If you tell people you are going to miss a deadline before the deadline hits, they take it much better than if you wait until afterwards – in the former case it looks like you are managing your time effectively and showing respect to the person you are disappointing, in the latter you come across as a student shamefacedly explaining that the dog ate your homework.
Wallis, it is fair to say, is generally quite bad at backer relations; backer relations on the Alas Vegas project ended up even worse than Paranoia (since on Alas Vegas it was all on James, with no Matt Sprange to try and correct matters), to the point where he more or less stopped talking to his backers for an entire year until he had a PDF in hand to give them. (At the time of writing he has gone well over three months without addressing the backers again – leaving unanswered questions about why the supposedly-imminent printing and delivery of the hard copies haven’t happened.) On Paranoia, Sprange more or less stopped relaying updates from James to the backers in early 2016, once the core set had been delivered – even though James still had various stretch goal products to work on, it seems like Sprange made the decision that backers preferred to hear from him instead of James.
Wallis’s explanations for why Alas Vegas was greatly delayed involved a great deal of personal misfortune and family crises, granted, but also a large factor was the way he subjected it to a comprehensive rewrite just as happened with Paranoia. Wallis has talked about having a bad case of impostor syndrome, and having the sense that Alas Vegas funded well enough that he had to deliver a product a cut above the standard he’d originally drafted in order to make it worth the money, and it would be decidedly in character for the same to have happened in this instance, particularly given the pride he clearly took in his craft during the design process.
At one point he started making very grumpy noises on Twitter about one of Mongoose’s proofreaders constantly “correcting” a comedically misspelled word which had been clearly tagged on the proofreading notes as being an intentional misspelling, to the point where one of the Paranoia rights holders had to step in to publicly tell James that it was being sorted. (In case you are curious, the joke was referring to the Computer as “beneviolent” instead of “benevolent”.) Making a public dispute about a bit of work you are doing as a contractor to the point where one of the people who can yank the licence from the publisher you are under contract to has to step in and soothe your tantrum is a deeply unprofessional look, but you can certainly take away from this incident the fact that James cared deeply about the product and wanted to deliver the best version of his vision for the game he could. As we will see later from some of his sharper comments in the designer commentary MP3s and annotated PDFs, this would not be the only instance in which he felt like he and Mongoose’s editorial staff were working at cross-purposes.
The fact that James was working as an outside contractor, rather than a full-time in-house Mongoose employee, tended to exacerbate the issues with the slow, bumpy development process; several times backers ended up asking questions of Matt and his response would make it clear that he hadn’t actually been able to get in touch with James to get a full answer. Matt, for his part, seems to have found his reliance on waiting for James to finish the job chafing – back to his epic February 5th 2016 comment, he notes that “_If_ we were to do another one, I would ensure that it could be done almost purely in-house, and anything required from the outside was done, dusted, and approved before we even mentioned the project”, and “You mention control, and yes, it has not been in our hands, throughout 2015. Now the ball is back in our court, so is the control. And yes, as I mentioned above, if we were to do this again, it would be different.”
That said, much of what I have written above consists of a reasonably informed backer’s best guess as to the reasons behind the delays, based both on comments from James and Matt and on James’s form on the Alas Vegas project. When asked whether we as backers would ever get a full breakdown of the exact reasons behind the delays, Matt had this to offer:
Right now, this minute, on a Friday morning, I would be tempted to say that if everything now proceeds as has been agreed behind the scenes, it may be better to let sleeping dogs lie. If there is a repetition of previous events, it may well be worth giving them a kick. I do not expect that to happen, as all parties concerned are aware of the consequences. And that is probably all I should say on the matter at this time.
That’s not the statement of a happy man who is broadly content with his working relationship with the other parties involved in a project.
Despite being poised to do all the layout and art and approvals and get the material printed, it was still a good long while before Mongoose could sort out the production of the boxed sets. Those printers which had been standing ready during the campaign couldn’t stand idle, after all, and new arrangements had to be made there – moreover, Mongoose and the factories they used for printing in China had other matters on their plate, like a new edition of their version of classic SF RPG Traveller, which at this point in time seems to be their flagship game line.
That said, once Matt had the text of the books in hand he could at least give regular updates offering clear, substantive details on what had been accomplished and why delays had happened, which was much better than the limbo the backers were left in waiting for James Wallis’ latest pronouncement. Finally, after a long ride on a slow boat, the finished product made its way to Mongoose – at which point Matt Sprange and his small staff had the task of shipping all the boxes by hand to backers, because they either decided against using a professional fulfilment service to distribute the products or couldn’t afford to.
This seems to be a rather bizarre business decision on their part; as well as being useful for distributing mail order copies and the like, fulfilment services (such as the UK’s Kixto, which did sterling work shipping the Call of Cthulhu backer rewards to European customers) obviously have more capacity to post materials than a few people in an office whose job isn’t primarily focused around posting things to people. Doing all the shipping themselves meant that Mongoose both ended up spending weeks and weeks posting the boxes, and also ended up taking up a lot of time that they could have invested in other tasks – the opportunity cost has got to be a factor to consider there.
Still, eventually, at long last, a physical copy of the new Paranoia was in my hands. Was it worth the wait?
Reviewing the Swag
Paranoia is 33 years old this year, and as such it’s a game with a long history. The rights holders are justifiably protective of it after the mishandling under West End Games, and in the Kickstarter pitch Mongoose and James Wallis alike seemed acutely aware of the expectations involved. Therefore, before I get into reviewing the actual finished game, I’m going to spend a little while going over the history of its previous editions – first under West End Games, then under Mongoose – over the course of which I’ll hopefully convey enough about its unique style and iconic setting to give you some idea of the baggage the new edition had to deal with.
The Precedent, Part I: Incipient Paranoia
Paranoia was first published in 1984 by West End Games, as that company’s first foray into tabletop RPGs. The original concept was devised by Dan Gelber, who had come up with the original idea for the setting and had lashed together a quick homebrewed game in order to throw his RPG group for a loop. Additional design work was done by Greg Costikyan and Eric Goldberg, who according to the designer’s notes in the 1st edition seem to have done the bulk of the heavy lifting in taking Gelber’s notes and turning it into a commercial product. West End Games would later hit it big with the first licenced Star Wars RPG (also penned by Costikyan), which produced a wealth of material which would be used by Expanded Universe authors from Timothy Zahn on and come up with concepts which, even after the demolition of the Expanded Universe, would slip into canon here and there anyway; however, before that, Paranoia was a small critical and commercial hit in its own right.
For its premise, Paranoia mashes up various flavours of dystopian sci-fi with a healthy dose of comedy. It is the future, and a long-forgotten disaster has prompted humanity to dwell in vast enclosed cities for their own protection. (Whether these cities are underground, underwater, on the surface, or out in space is hard to tell; knowledge of the Outdoors is restricted information.) Back when the disaster happened, the Alpha network of AI computer systems that ran the various cities ended up becoming deeply confused; a combination of programming errors, accidents, bad data and miscommunications made each city’s main Computer convinced that a) the Alpha network was under attack from “the Commies” (a name dug out of ancient civil defence files) and b) all the other cities’ central computers had been subverted by the Commies.
In city after city, the local Computer sealed all the exits, cut off its communication links to the other Computers to prevent them subverting it, and put the complex on a war footing. (This, of course, prompted any Computers which hadn’t yet decided that the other Computers had been subverted by Commies to conclude that they had been subverted by Commies, ensuring that these emergency measures spread from city to city in a chain reaction.) In each city, the civil disorder which broke out as a side effect of the disaster, coupled with the panicked attempts of local officials to regain control of the Computer, only convinced the Computer that Communist saboteurs had infiltrated the city itself – thus, it had to defend itself not only from the other cities, but from the enemies within.
It was all a lot for the poor Computer to take – after all, it was a mere civil service AI designed in a peaceful era of mutual co-operation and general happiness, and its prime objective was to look after its citizens and keep them happy. Drastic measures were put in place to ensure the happiness of all as best as the Computer could, whilst combating the menace of subversives intent on ruining the happiness of their fellow citizens. As the measures it was forced to take got more extreme, Friend Computer got a little weird – and the weirder it got, the weirder conditions within the city got…
Centuries later, the world is dotted with sealed and secured remnants of the old city network. Each city’s Computer believes that it is the one true remaining member of the old Alpha Complex network, the other Alpha Complexes having been taken over by traitors. Each Computer also believes that it is fighting a constant battle within its own borders against bizarre mutants, members of secret societies like the Communists, and other traitors. Each Paranoia campaign, then, takes place in the referee’s own personal interpretation of Alpha Complex, with the version presented in the core book offering a standard baseline to jump off from. (Later editions downplay the backstory, largely because it will rarely become directly relevant in a mission but also to promote the idea that propaganda, misinformation, lies and ideological myths have crowded out the facts so entirely that the “history” of Alpha Complex has been entirely subsumed and can’t be reconstructed.)
The Computer has taken various measures to ensure the security and happiness of everyone in Alpha Complex. For instance, every citizen is spawned as part of a family of six clones. This means that nobody ever has to be lonely, and everyone can be reassured that if they die an untimely death one of their clones will be able to step in and complete their unfinished work. In addition, everyone enjoys a healthy diet of drugs to help control their behaviour and suppress awkward biological instincts which (the Computer’s records show) caused so much unhappiness in eras past.
Furthermore, everyone is assigned a job in one of the Computer’s various Service Groups, and everyone has a Security Clearance consummate with the responsibilities they bear and the level of trust the Computer has placed in them; security clearances begin with INFRARED-level drones, progress through the colours of the rainbow, and culminate at ULTRAVIOLET clearance. ULTRAVIOLET citizens are known as High Programmers, because only they are allowed to learn the secret arts of computer programming – after all, Friend Computer can only allow Its most trusted citizens to help with calibrating and adjusting its delicate inner workings. Naturally, the High Programmers abuse this responsibility to the hilt, crafting luxurious lives for themselves, engaging in massively wasteful feuds with each other, and contributing substantially to the Computer’s eccentricity – it’s hard to stay consistent when your left processor doesn’t know what your right processor is doing, after all.
Still, there are a few constants in Alpha Complex, and one of those is that it is under regular attack from Commie mutant traitors. This must be the case, because whenever things go wrong and the Computer asks pointed questions as to why, citizens tend to disavow responsibility and blame Commie mutant traitors for this act of sabotage, and why would they lie about that? On top of that, various secret societies operate in Alpha Complex to protect their members and advance their own goals, many of them formed in response to the Computer’s own excesses. (The Communist Party is one of them, but was invented from whole cloth by citizens who figured that the “real” Commies must be doing something right if they’re such a constant threat to the Complex; their take on Communism is based on what they can glean from official propaganda and involves much in the way of big furry hats and outrageous Russian accents.)
As well as having an entire Service Group dedicated to providing overt and covert policing (the dreaded Internal Security, IntSec for short), the Computer operates teams of Troubleshooters – individuals of RED clearance or above assembled from the various Service Groups and sent on missions to sort out problems that don’t fall under the specific purview of a single Service Group. (And the Service Groups are pretty good at making sure that they aren’t given sole responsibility for sorting out anything…)
The primary responsibility of a Troubleshooter is to shoot the sources of trouble, usually by rooting out traitors like mutants or members of secret societies. Since, like everyone else in Alpha Complex, all Troubleshooters are secretly mutants and members of secret societies, this leads to something of a conflict of interest. On any particular mission, each Troubleshooter will be outwardly trying to present a flawlessly loyal facade whilst simultaneously being expected to advance the agenda of their secret society, usually by completing a mission for them – and refusal to do so will result in fearsome reprisals from the secret society in question. If you want to stay alive and accomplish your overt and private goals, you’ll want to uncover other party members’ treasonous acts before they uncover yours, frame them for your own dirty deeds, or get them convicted of entirely fictional crimes. Or, if all else fails, shoot them in the back of the head when nobody’s looking and claim it was self-defence. The end result is that the life of a Troubleshooter is often brief, but never boring…
Paranoia is largely an exercise in how interesting play can arise in taking the traditional tabletop RPG format and then applying setting and character premises that fly in the face of commonly-accepted best practice. The vast majority of RPGs before (and most of the ones emerging after) the publication of Paranoia assumed that people would aim to run long-term campaigns using their rules, with a group of player characters who would mostly co-operate with each other to accomplish common goals; Paranoia issues each player a six-pack of identical player characters to encourage them to regard their PCs as disposable and other peoples’ PCs as being even more disposable, tends to work best for one-off missions or, at most, short campaigns of two or three sessions at most, and assumes that PCs will be working against each other more often than not. You end up writing lots of private notes to the GM when playing Paranoia in order to keep your actions secret from the other players – indeed, several of the gaming circles I’ve been involved with over the years have referred to notes passed between a player and the GM as “Paranoia notes” – and you consider yourself lucky if the Troubleshooters actually manage to make it to the end of their assigned mission. (Actually succeeding at said mission is a small miracle.)
The main success of the first edition of Paranoia, at least in its core book, is in presenting this above format; the game system provided is, whilst simpler than was the fashion at the time (which was for absurd overcomplexity in RPG design), still frankly several steps too complex for the sort of game it wants to be. Perhaps the worst part is the skill system, where you have to spend points to buy ranks in skills on a tree, and then convert your picks into percentages through an arcane process; subsequent editions would go for radically simpler systems.
Likewise, the adventure provided in the core book just isn’t especially funny – it would take West End several tries before they eventually hit on a style for published adventures which, at their prime, would be both funny to read and hilarious to actually play. My personal favourite first edition adventure – in fact, my favourite Paranoia adventure of all time – is Me and My Shadow, Mark IV, in which the player characters are assigned to guard an absurdly huge and impossibly powerful robot tank, said tank promptly having a crisis of self-confidence when it realises that the Computer a) doesn’t trust it to guard itself and b) believes that the Troubleshooters constitute an appropriate level of protection for the all-conquering Mark IV.
The second edition of the game came out in 1987, and was generally well-received. The text of the core book was tightened up substantially and was much less dry than the original core book, and the system got a much-needed simplification. However, at this point the standards of the West End Games line began to decline. Due to a combination of many of the old hands parting ways with West End (including key designers Greg Costikyan and Eric Goldberg, who left after a major dispute with West End owner Scott Palter), and the runaway success of the Star Wars RPG line making Paranoia a decidedly secondary priority for West End at the best of times, the quality of the game line became increasingly inconsistent, with products increasingly tending towards humour based on cheap slapstick, groan-worthy puns, and trite parodies of other IPs and veering away from the satirical content and clever ways to convince players to betray each other that the earlier line had so excelled in.
Where exactly you draw the line is a matter of some debate amongst fans, but the general consensus seems to be that, although a few duds preceded it, the last really solid adventure under West End Games’ tenure was The People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure, in which the Troubleshooters wake up to find themselves in a Communist-controlled Alpha Complex – or rather, Comrade Computer’s best guess as to what a Commie-controlled Complex would be like. After that, West End embarked on a quixotic project to invest the game line with something resembling an ongoing, centrally-dictated plotline unfolding over a series of products.
This is the sort of thing which was incredibly fashionable amongst RPG lines in the 1990s – White Wolf having been the pioneers of applying such “metaplot” to their games – but is irritating at the best of times, since a substantial constituency of gamers would prefer the storyline of their games to be determined by themselves and their players and don’t appreciate it when publishers make changes to game settings that invalidate or undermine their home campaigns. When applied to a game like Paranoia, which had always been a game that thrived more as something to play as a one-off or as a limited series of sessions rather than a platform for longer, ongoing campaigns, trying to work in a metaplot is outright absurd, since more or less no Paranoia campaign would actually last long enough for more than a fraction of this plot to unfold and part of the fun of the game is the way players almost always abandon the preplanned plot entirely in favour of their schemes and counter-schemes.
First, there was the Secret Society Wars, a metaplot event which mostly consisted of adventures bearing a notice on their front cover mentioning that they were part of the Secret Society Wars without ever actually explaining what the Wars were supposed to be. Then, there was the Crash, in which the Computer crashed and Alpha Complex balkanised into a mass of warring Alpha Simplexes. Then, there was the Vulture Warriors of Dimension X series, a long-term campaign in which player characters (as had become typical at this point) were expected to broadly work together like this was a regular, ordinary RPG and fight their way through a series of sloppy crossover adventures through the worlds of other, more popular RPGs. Then there was the Reboot, when the Computer came back but in a sort of half-assed way which tried to keep the Alpha Simplexes going in parallel with that. What this was supposed to accomplish is hard to see, but each time West End rolled out some new harebrained idea they lost more customers.
Briefly, a glimmer of hope could be seen when a new edition of the game was announced. Just about the kindest thing I can say about Paranoia 5th Edition (yes, 5th – they skipped two editions as a joke, which sort of tells you everything you need to know about the juvenile comedy involved in the line at this point) is that it firmly sidelines all of the metaplot; the idea of Alpha Simplexes as sectors of Alpha Complex which have become independent of Computer control is still in there, but that’s fine – the sample adventure in the 1st Edition book involves a sector that has gone rogue and been isolated from the rest of the Complex, so it’s not like it’s a radical departure from past precedent, and by itself the idea has a lot of potential – and otherwise the Crash and Reboot and everything surrounding them was neatly swept under the carpet.
Unfortunately, that’s more or less the only nice thing I have to say about this version of the game. The text of the game saw extensive rewrites, many of them entirely needless, which feels a bit like a bid to deny royalties to the original designers. On top of that, aside from the cover art the work of the exceptionally talented Jim Holloway (responsible for most of the best-loved illustrations in the series, to the point where Holloway’s art largely defines the look of Alpha Complex to many fans) is more or less absent from the product. In fact, all the artwork looks like cheap sketches knocked out at five minutes apiece, and on top of that the layout of the pages involves masses of white space and a whole lot of waste. Despite being about as thick as the second edition rulebook, I’d estimate that the 5th edition core book only includes about half to two-thirds of the information of 2nd edition, and maybe one-tenth of the laughs, with the rewritten text taking a patronisingly simplified tone and most of the jokes being annoyingly juvenile, as though West End had come to the conclusion that only the most tasteless, easily-entertained, and uncritical fans would buy the book. (To be fair, given the number of fans they’d driven away at this point, that wasn’t necessarily a bad assumption.)
In short, although the general format of Paranoia is just about communicated by it, the 5th edition does its level best to make readers dislike it, and encourages only the most lowbrow and slapstick interpretations of the game. Had this version of the game been rushed out in the midst of West End’s rapid decline into bankruptcy, the horrible art, botched layout, flat text, and insultingly simplistic sense of humour might have made sense; however, this came out in 1995, when West End were still a major force in the RPG industry thanks to the Star Wars cash cow. The 5th edition core book (and its horrible sole adventure supplement, the White Wolf-parodying Creatures of the Nightcycle) might not have been intended as a calculated insult to anyone with any affection for the game line, but I’m struggling to think of a single thing West End could have done differently if they genuinely had intended to drive all the fans away; even cancelling the game line altogether would have been less destructive than putting this miserable, debased version of it out there.
Someone at West End must have realised that they had utterly botched 5th edition, because a mere two years later after it came out, pages from a planned “3rd edition” of the game were displayed during 1997’s Gen Con. However, this edition would never see the light of day; West End went bankrupt in 1998 due to, and I swear I’m not joking here, a series of complex business entanglements with owner Scott Palter’s family shoe factory, and as a result Lucasfilm pulled the Star Wars tabletop RPG licence – killing off a game line which had arguably saved the entire Star Wars franchise back in the mid-1980s, and with it West End Games’ most reliable income stream.
Despite this setback, Palter intended to put out West End’s new edition of Paranoia in the summer of 1999. However the original designers were still disgruntled about, amongst other things, West End’s appallingly sloppy stewardship of the game line, and with West End on its knees they smelled blood and went to court in order to get the rights back. They successfully got the rights in 2000, and from there the history of Paranoia and West End parts ways, with the West End name and what IP they had left passing through various hands and various additional bouts of hilarious drama and bad business decisions before dying an undignified death, the remaining rights to what little of value it had left flying to the four winds.
Whilst some might accuse the original Paranoia designers of kicking West End whilst it was down, to be honest it was a kicking that was richly deserved. Costikyan and Goldberg had been lynchpins of several of West End’s most important releases, including the Paranoia, Ghostbusters, and Star Wars RPGs, and it’s clear that after they left the game line was increasingly at the mercy of people who just plain didn’t get the joke. The late 2nd Edition line made the mistake of taking it all a bit too seriously, attempting to make a conventional campaign-focused game line out of subject matter best suited to comedy one-shots; the 5th Edition products made the opposite mistake of taking it too flippantly, making the cardinal error that comedy means you turn off your brain and don’t bother with things like good production values, quality prose, or jokes more nuanced than a cheesy pun.
Most importantly, the intervention of the original designers meant that the rights to Paranoia didn’t get dragged into the hideous morass which was West End Games’ post-Palter existence; that by itself may have saved the game line from oblivion.
The Precedent, Part II: Paranoid Mongoose
Having reacquired the rights, the creators did not intend to let them go again; instead, they sought to licence them to a publisher who would develop new Paranoia products but subject them to their approval to ensure quality control. Mongoose Publishing got the nod, and their new version of Paranoia came out in 2004. (It was originally entitled Paranoia XP until Microsoft coughed meaningfully and asked them to cut it out.)
This edition’s design process was helmed by Allen Varney, an old hand from West End Games who was generally regarded by the fanbase as one of the better Paranoia designers outside of the game’s creators. One major design goal of the new version was to undo or mitigate a lot of the damage done to the game by West End’s mismanagement; that meant less forced puns, better quality control of the products, and careful promotion of playstyles which were a bit more involved and thoughtful than the “blast your teammates on the slightest pretext and damn the consequences” style that the sloppier latter-day West End products promoted.
This latter issue was a particular problem; there was a marked tendency for people who weren’t familiar with the game to assume that this “shoot first, make puns later, and never get around to doing any actual roleplaying” style was the only way the game was ever played, which a lot of people found off-putting. You can’t blame people for this, since the later West End products didn’t exactly contradict this impression, but it didn’t do justice to the possibilities of the game and it wasn’t really an approach which remained fun over a sustained session of play. At the same time, of course, there were a few fans who actually enjoyed that approach, and simply freezing them out could prompt needless drama within the fanbase.
Varney’s elegant solution to this was to present three distinct styles of playing the game, dubbed Zap, Classic, and Straight. “Zap” would be the pun-happy slapstick silliness and quick-fire nonsense that was the popular misconception of Paranoia, and generally is fun for about an hour or two before getting samey; “Straight” would occupy the other extreme, taking the drier style of the 1st edition rulebook and making it even more drier and satirical in tone until you hit something a bit like Gilliam’s Brazil, and is something which conceivably you could actually make last for a series of sessions like a conventional RPG campaign. “Classic” would be something more in keeping with the golden age of the West End Games line – late 1st edition and early 2nd edition, where you end up charting a course somewhere between the other two extremes and end up with a game where the Troubleshooter team probably won’t last more than one mission but where the game probably won’t fall to bits within an hour or two of starting play.
These different playstyles would be supported in the rules and setting material accordingly. Perhaps the best and most distinctive difference between them lies in their handling of treason accusations, which in most Paranoia sessions get levied by PCs against other PCs as much as (and often more than) by PCs against NPCs and vice versa. In Zap mode, nobody really expects you to muster any evidence at all before blowing each other away, in Straight you really need to extensively document someone’s guilt before you lay treason charges against them (and you may find it better to actually go through official channels rather than casting suspicion on yourself by blowing them away yourself), and in Classic you generally need some evidence, but the standard of proof is looser and typically the Computer is happy to give you a bit of time to come up with “evidence” after the fact. In short, Straight asks you to be really clever about it, Zap allows you to be extremely silly about it, whilst Classic allows you to have fun with it but discourages you from being outright stupid with it; Zap more or less obviates the need for any significant roleplaying, whilst both Straight and Classic require you to actually justify your actions (though how you do so will differ between the two styles).
This runs through all sorts of aspects of the game and setting – for instance, mutant powers are classified by what playstyles they are especially appropriate for, with especially cartoonish ones not being suitable for Straight play and particularly low-key ones not really fitting with Zap; likewise, when it comes to secret societies Varney digs up a couple of options which hadn’t really featured in the game much since 1st edition since, as the text points out, don’t really work outside of Straight games because they really need a bit more time in play to express their distinctive features. (These are the Programs Groups – the personal retinue of flunkies and gofers answering to whichever High Programmer sponsors the Group in question – and the delightful “Spy For Another Alpha Complex” option.)
Paranoia XP’s player section tips its hand to the player a bit more than that of the 1st edition rulebook. There’s still a lot of material which is classified ULTRAVIOLET and is therefore treason for players to display knowledge of during the game, of course, but Varney provides at least enough information to explain the different playstyles to players and make the distinction between them clear. This is essential to the approach taken here; no matter how much support is given to the referee in adjudicating the game one way or another, if the player group doesn’t buy into the selected playstyle as a whole – or, even worse, come to the table with radically different expectations – the game’s going to get wrecked pretty damn quick.
In keeping with the art of propaganda that’s so crucial both in the game setting and real life, Varney does an excellent job of framing the language surrounding these playstyles. By presenting Classic as being, well, classic, Varney cunningly presents it as the standard, normative mode of playing the game, and he consistently talks about it that way; similarly, whenever Straight is mentioned he emphasises how intellectual and calculating and careful it is, and whenever Zap comes up he makes no bones about presenting it as a juvenile aberration that most play groups should expect to grow out of sooner or later, if they bother trying it at all.
Classic was pretty much the default playstyle as far as Mongoose were concerned; whilst they did give Straight a little love, including WMD, an entire supplement of Straight-themed adventures, Zap was pretty much the runt of the game line and got no oxygen whatsoever (though admittedly you don’t really need much support to run a Zap game – just hand out pregens and let them start shooting). Indeed, as well as putting out new adventures, Mongoose also put out the Flashbacks series of supplements which packaged the best Paranoia adventures from the West End Games era updated to the new system and pointedly ignored the latter-day pieces.
In fact, Varney made a point of distancing the game line from West End’s excesses in a distinctly Paranoia way: by declaring them “unhistory” and asserting that, as far as the game line was concerned, pretty much everything published after The People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure (allegedly the first of the Secret Society Wars adventures, but basically a really funny standalone mission) was not worth bothering with. If your keeping track, that’s most of the Secret Society Wars, plus the Crash, plus Vulture Warriors of Dimension X, plus the Reboot, plus 5th Edition all tossed in the bin. They even made the layout and graphical style of the Paranoia XP rulebook and supplements reminiscent of classic-era 2nd edition materials.
(To give West End what limited credit they deserve, the fact that they were planning a “3rd Edition” of Paranoia before the rights got snatched back suggests that they too had planned to consign at least 5th Edition to unhistory – it’s certainly one of the few ways they could possibly have clawed back some goodwill from the fanbase.)
All of these tactics – consigning rubbish to unhistory, promoting high-quality material from the back catalogue and presenting new adventures promoting more interesting styles of play, and making a choice of three playstyles available in the core book whilst nudging participants towards the better-supported styles – served the overarching strategic objective, which was the reclamation of Paranoia’s reputation. These days, there is a much broader understanding in the wider audience that Paranoia wasn’t all just puns and comedy deaths and the excesses of West End are largely forgotten; we have Mongoose to thank for that.
In keeping with this back-to-basics approach, the game presents a fairly simple system which riffs on the basic principles of previous editions without being excessively bound by them. It’s functional and does the job, and the best feature may be the way it provides a system for adjudicating what happens with treason accusations where the referee hasn’t already decided what they want to happen: in effect, a credible treason charge is treated much like making an attack with a weapon, with damage worked out like weapons damage with a character’s standing with the computer counting as armour and different types of punishment standing in for different types of wounds and different charges having appropriate damage profiles.
A number of tweaks are made to the setting, most of which can be safely ignored by classic-era veterans but which largely add depth to the game. Service Groups now include Service Firms as a sort of mid-noughties spoof of public-private partnership projects, though you can fairly easily reskin the Firms to be subdepartments within the Service Groups if you want. Perhaps the most significant change to the setting is that your sixth clone isn’t necessarily your last – if you have amassed enough credits, you can buy additional six-packs, though clone number 7 onwards will start amassing a number of difficulties (like how a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy starts accumulating more errors).
For the most part, through, the setting details here mostly amount to an accumulation of the best additions made to the setting since the game originally came out. In particular, I like the inclusion of Mandatory Bonus Duties – particular posts within a troubleshooter team doled out to give PCs individual areas of authority and expertise (and new ways to make trouble), originally detailed in a supplementary booklet from the 2nd Edition boxed set. There’s even a fun little test you can make the players fill out in-character to delegate the tasks (which happens to be weighted so that whoever has the least knowledge of Alpha Complex ends up being Team Leader, for extra lols).
In 2009 Mongoose would put out a 25th Anniversary version of Paranoia, presented as three separate core books. Paranoia: Troubleshooters would effectively be a condensed version of Paranoia XP, with some stuff like the Service Firm bits excised and only Classic supported so as to boil the game down to its essentials. Paranoia: Internal Security casts the player characters as mid-ranking BLUE-clearance Internal Security operatives for a more high-powered game, based on the classic supplement HIL Sector Blues. Paranoia: High Programmers casts the player characters as ULTRAVIOLET-clearance overlords of Alpha Complex, overseeing vast plans against each other. These latter two options are interesting, but ultimately it’s the Troubleshooter-focused game which has always been Paranoia’s key premise and big draw, and Paranoia XP was the best expression of that idea.
The Product Itself: Paranoia Red Clearance Edition Boxed Set
The new edition comes in a short, thick box containing a selection of books and card decks. The cards include action cards for use in combat and similar situations, secret society and mutant power cards to summarise the relevant information for players in a convenient format, and equipment cards summarising the rules for special equipment. As far as the books go, the individual volumes being the size of a standard trade paperback book rather than a US Letter-sized RPG rulebook. This means that each page is about half the size of a page on the previous edition, and with the total page count of the books here not being inflated accordingly this means that Wallis and his team have a very limited palette to work with.
That’s even more the case if you don’t have the nice Kickstarter edition, which includes an extra book – the Guide to Alpha Complex. This is a document written from an entirely in-character perspective, designed to give new players a nice introduction to the basic premises of the setting. That’s really handy, because you don’t get a lot of these details in the Player’s Handbook, which is mostly focused on conveying player-facing rules information; it glancingly conveys some setting stuff, but a lot of what’s in the Guide just doesn’t come across there. The Gamemaster’s Handbook even kicks off with a summary of the setting information that’s supposed to be conveyed in the player book, but an awful lot of it is only really presented to you in the Guide, so even referees may suffer from not having it to hand.
For Kickstarter backers, that’s all well and good, because they have the Guide – but for everyone else who buys the set after this, that’s going to be an enormous issue, because it either places the burden of conveying this information to the players on the gamemaster or it means that new players just get dumped in it in a confusing fashion – and we’re not talking a funny, Kafkaesque confusion here, just an annoying confusion which makes a game unapproachable and not fun to play. Of course, Alpha Complex is an old setting and is well-known in gamer circles, so those who already know it well should be fine – but a game that does not provide a convenient onramp for new participants is a game which dooms itself to a slow decline into irrelevance, and the design of this edition certainly suggests that the intention was to provide a smooth introduction to the setting.
To be fair to Mongoose, they do make the Guide available to non-backers separately from the core box, as a purchasable PDF download. To be harsh to Mongoose, it’s eleven frigging pounds fifty pence for a 40 page PDF with rudimentary art and not an especially high word count, an absolutely shameless scam.
This issue extends to the sample adventures in the Mission Book (one of which tells the GM to give the players the Player Book if they ask to consult Alphapedia, the in-character online encyclopedia – when Alphapedia is actually in the Guide). The main set of adventures in there is a highly linear, programmed series of encounters (which includes instructing the referee to read to the players from a pre-set text, which is a surefire recipe for dull droning on the part of even quite experienced referees), but perhaps the biggest fault in them is that they never instruct the referee to assign the player characters with secret societies. This is not a mere lapse – it’s in the context of a very carefully directed series of scenarios, designed in such a way that you can start playing them more or less immediately without reading any of the other books in the box, telling you exactly what cards to give the players when. (As I’ll get into a bit, you assign people their secret societies and mutant powers in this game by dealing them a card from the mutant powers and secret societies decks.)
Now, contextually it absolutely makes sense in the first scenario in the set that the player characters would never have had a chance to join a secret society. In both it and the second mission, some NPCs may attempt to enmesh the PCs in secret society stuff, but in the first case there’s really no support given to help novice GMs work out what instructions the PCs might receive if they take the bait and in the second one it reads more like a one-time blackmail thing rather than full-blown recruitment. (Moreover, the mission breaks if the players start out as members of the secret societies in question, so presumably you aren’t supposed to give them secret societies at that point.) In the third mission, it seems to be assumed that the player characters somehow now have secret societies, but it only becomes relevant in the event that if they missed a particular item in the first mission (or didn’t play it) their secret society can pop up, hand it over, and disappear again.
Moreover, none of the scenarios offer anything in the way of secret society missions to assign to the player characters, beyond the plot-central one in the second mission. Each mission, in fact, seems to be written in such a way as to assume that most of the time the player characters are going to collaborate to try and accomplish the mission at hand smoothly, and that working at cross-purposes will be an exception rather than a rule.
In short, the sample scenarios seem to be massively unrepresentative of the standard mode of play in Paranoia, which makes them enormously unhelpful as introductory adventures. In particular, they don’t seem to work in the central joke – namely, that Troubleshooters are tasked with hunting down mutants and members of secret societies, but they are actually all mutants and members of secret societies themselves, and they spend more time sabotaging each other than helping each other – and an introduction to Paranoia that doesn’t include the main joke feels a bit pointless.
In fact, between this and there’s actually two “No Secret Society” cards in the secret society deck, Wallis and his co-designers seem to have underestimated how important it is to give a secret society to each player character in Paranoia. Having a secret society giving you a personal mission early on in a scenario is a really good way to get the players working at cross-purposes and doing treasonous stuff, because you can use the secret society as both a carrot and a stick to stop players turtling up and just going into survival mode – they can offer both rewards for successful completion of missions and threaten reprisals for failure at missions.
Players can avoid their mutant powers being a liability if they ignore them, and whilst they can’t necessarily avoid being given the blame for things going wrong on the mission, it’s less funny if a genuinely innocent player character who was just trying to loyally serve the Computer gets punished for something they didn’t do than if a treasonous player character gets punished for something they didn’t do whilst getting away with something they did do. Giving characters secret societies automatically as of game start makes them traitors from the get-go, and giving them secret society missions and making it clear that there will be brutal reprisals if they don’t engage with the mission ensures that they don’t just stay quiet and do what they’re told and avoid drawing attention to themselves. These are all things which I think that’s tremendously important to the game – especially considering that player characters don’t have much else differentiating them.
The GM rulebook text even suggests that not all clones in Alpha Complex have mutant powers, which just doesn’t work for me – if everyone in the Complex is a mutant and a member of a secret society, that at least gives them some form of defiance and pushback which a character without the edges that secret society membership and mutant powers offer would lack, and thus makes them less passive victims than they might otherwise be. It also seems to go against the general advice to referees to crank the dystopian aspects of the setting up to the point where they are absurd rather than upsetting. If there is a minority of people in Alpha Complex who are genuine innocents, then their oppression is miserable and horrible. If, however, every single citizen is (by supporting their secret society) a contributor to the overall dysfunction of Alpha Complex society, then that’s deliciously satirical in its own right.
On top of this, the Mission Book seems to clash with the suggested best practice in the Gamemaster’s Handbook in some ways. A particularly glaring example of this is how at the start of the first mission it is suggested that everyone should put their electronic devices out of reach, face down. Sensible as a way of ensuring everyone’s paying attention, right? Except at the same time the Gamemaster’s Handbook specifically recommends using instant messaging of some sort as a substitute for the traditional passing of handwritten notes to send private messages to the GM. Which is it, guys? Again, this isn’t cool Kafkaesque confusion, this is just plain mixed messages – and in this case, mixed messages sent to the GM, who’s the one person the game isn’t supposed to be trying to put one over on.
So, the bulk of the missions in the Mission Book are kind of duff. Original-wave Paranoia writer Greg Costikyan dives in to provide Whitewash, an updated revision of a mission he originally wrote for the West End Games 1st edition supplement Acute Paranoia. This is a somewhat better standalone adventure, but the presentation here also lacks secret society missions for the player characters and I suspect it would run better under an experienced GM who knew how earlier editions of Paranoia tended to work than it would under someone new to the game. Between this and the lack of the Guide in non-Kickstarter versions of the game, my feeling is that this edition is going to fail to make much traction in terms of bringing groups of entirely fresh players into the game. A referee who already knows Paranoia is going to find this edition offering a potentially useful set of tools, but one who doesn’t is going to be rather lost.
So, about those tools. As I mentioned, as the cards to provide players with summaries of mutant powers, secret societies, and bits of equipment, you also get action cards representing special moves and exploits you can use in combat. Cards also give you an Action number from 0 to 10 (either a flat total or something worked out from one of your stats), which provides a neat way of handling player initiative in combat (since who goes first is of massive importance when two people are aiming laser pistols at each other) – each combat round, players put down a card and the GM counts down from 10, and you can take your move for a round at any point you choose to declare it. If you bluff by declaring at a number that is greater than the Action value on your card, and someone calls you on it, you go at 0; if you call someone’s bluff but they turned out to actually have the Action value they claimed to have, you go at 0.
The nice thing about this system is that you are never obliged to take the action on the cards – you can use a Basic Action to try and do anything else which seems appropriate and roll dice for success. In fact, I reckon you could handle combats very neatly in this without using the cards at all – just have everyone roll 1D10 and cover up the result, uncovering it if their bluff is called and going at 0 if they are caught manipulating the result after rolling, and you’re good to go. (Whilst some of the action cards I do like – generally the ones involving little situational edges of the sort you’d expect to come up a lot in Alpha Complex – some of them, like the reaction cards which just allow you to declare an action a critical failure or success, feel a bit cheap and boring. Where’s the story there? What’s the in-character justification?)
Another fun game mechanic is the Moxie economy. Your Moxie points are spent to power your mutant power, and are also eroded whenever you suffer traumatic events or you roll a 6 on the computer dice – a die with the Computer symbol on the 6 spot that you roll along with your usual dice pool whenever you make a roll. Whenever the Computer icon comes up, something unfortunate happens – usually as a result of the Computer taking an interest in what you are doing – and the slight Moxie erosion that happens as a result represents your increasingly frayed nerves as a result of living in the absurd world of Alpha Complex. When your Moxie hits zero, you Lose It – an opportunity to crank your character’s quirks and personality traits up to 11 and go wild until someone stops you. Moxie can be regained either through rest – deeply unlikely to happen during a mission – or through the use of drugs administered by the party’s Happiness Officer (the team member entrusted with the mind-altering pharmaceuticals).
One thing I’m not so sure about is the character generation system, in which you go around and around the table picking a skill to give an increasingly large bonus to and inflicting a penalty to the same skill of the corresponding magnitude on the player neighbouring you. On the one hand, it is presented as a way to develop intra-party resentments before play start. On the other hand, because the default system means you can’t choose who you inflict your penalties on, it’s slightly meaningless – it’s hard to bear an in-game grudge against someone for inflicting a penalty on you when they didn’t have the choice to inflict it on someone else – and also it feels wrong-headed. As fun as it is to have the characters at each others’ throats, why develop grudges between players – even playful just-for-fun grudges – which have no basis in any in-character reality? It wasn’t your PC who gave your neighbour’s character that penalty, after all, so why should the player characters in question have a grudge against each other based on that interaction?
The now-traditional attempt to update Paranoia with some fresh ideas has mixed results this time. I find the general substitution of “terrorist” for “Communist” misguided. For one thing, the game does not follow through on the satire; the fear figure of the terrorist that has been aggressively pushed by the West for the past couple of decades isn’t some dastardly infiltrator who otherwise looks and acts just like one of us – it’s a brown person with a religion that’s subject to regular demonisation. Whereas the Red Scare worked on the bodysnatcher principle, a means of Othering people who could not be Othered by visible and obvious cultural markers, the current rhetoric around terrorists works along racial lines. When I was younger, a terrorist was someone from Northern Ireland who was beastly to other people from Northern Ireland, some (but not all) of whom were other flavours of terrorist, and whose beastliness occasionally spilled over into the Republic and Britain. Today, we call those people “paramilitaries”. Not acknowledging how racially and religiously charged “terrorist” has become as a term, especially in the current political climate, feels flat-out irresponsible.
Furthermore, it’s less funny. The whole Communist thing in Paranoia started out being funny because the game came out during the last hoorah of the Cold War. In subsequent editions it became funnier and funnier precisely because Communists had ceased being the hate group du jour. The more time went by, the more the Computer’s obsession with Communist enemies seemed like a creaky old anachronism. Wallis and company seem to have decided that the fact that it’s an anachronism hurts the joke, but I say the anachronism has become the joke – the whole point about the Computer is that it’s absurdly out of touch, after all.
A much superior addition to the setting is the Cerebral Coretech. This is a brain implant and augmented reality system which allows the Computer and clones to communicate directly (providing a nice IC basis for any private notes players and GMs want to exchange with each other), and which allows clones to record things they see for later replay and allows the computer to provide a sort of head-up display projected directly via the user’s optic nerve. This means that, providing the wifi signal holds up, the Computer can do stuff like make having “treason stars” appear above the head of miscreants (operating in a manner amusingly similar to wanted stars in Grand Theft Auto games), cram so much useful data into someone’s visual field that they can’t actually see anything very well, and pixellate out people and things the Computer thought it would be bad for security or too distressing for the user to see.
This is a bit of technology which not only offers a (now slightly stale) parody of the whole Google Glasses thing, but also is a perfect vehicle for a marriage of dystopian sci-fi and hilarious comedy, and is therefore a great addition to the game. It also enables two other nice tweaks to the setting. The first is the gamification of the economy – XP are an actual in-character currency awarded to clones for accomplishing Achievements and can be used to buy stuff, including promotions – and the second are the DAIVs. DAIVs are Deviant AI Viruses – essentially rogue bits of Computer code that sneak about Alpha Complex’s data systems mucking things up. The Computer is naturally terrified of them and makes a big deal out of any attempt to scrub them out, and the way they can hop onto a clone’s Cerebral Coretech and try to convince them to advance the DAIV’s agenda, which is likely to be even more absurd than what the Computer wants them to do.
So this is a version of Paranoia with an OK system – but with the same “ignore the system” attitude that previous editions have had, making the system tune-ups feel a bit less necessary than they’d otherwise be (and I’m still not convinced you need the cards), some nice additions to the setting (though I suspect after a while they’ll start feeling a bit dated – the treason stars thing already feels a bit old), a bit of a crap mission book and some introductory setting material that only Kickstarter backers get to see. What are the overall production values like? Well, I’m really not sold on them. It feels like a rather cheap product, with the dice provided in the set being sad little things and the layout and artwork feeling… hm.
Well, for any artist who isn’t Jim Holloway to take on art duties for Paranoia is a tough call and was always going to be a tough call, but the actual material we get here just isn’t up to scratch. Even taking into account the fact that it’s being presented on smaller pages or on cards, it’s what I’d frankly describe as “moderately skilled beginner artist with a DeviantArt account” level. There’s many standards by which you can judge art and objective quality is a rare thing, but in general I think if someone is trying to do an illustration that provides representations of specific objects which are supposed to be recognisable by the viewer, and I spend more than a few seconds staring at it thinking “What the fuck am I looking at?”, they’ve failed. They aren’t helped by the rather eccentric layout of the cards and the book pages, which I think is supposes to suggest nutty paranoid chaos but just looks messy and amateurish.
The covers of the booklets and the boxed set are by a different artist, but they have their own problems; people’s proportions look all wrong, and their facial expressions are unconvincing and weirdly repulsive. Providing red marker pens and a set of wipe-clean character sheets in the boxed set is a fun idea, but pencils and erasers and photocopied character sheets would work just as well. (Also, as others have noted, the tips of the marker pens are too thick to write legibly on the pokey little character sheets provided, despite thinner-tipped marker pens being available; this could almost be a joke, but it’s one which stops being funny when it becomes an active barrier to actually playing the game.) The Kickstarter backer-exclusive Ultraviolet edition of the box has this all-white look with the name and computer logo embossed on the front and sides, a concept which sounded fun in theory but feels a bit shabby in practice.
In short, the whole package feels cheap and tatty, in a manner which feels like a depressing reminder of the general decline of Mongoose’s fortunes. “Mongoose” and “professionalism” have often been far apart, and I’ve never felt like they were a company which took much pride in their own work, but compared to, say, the basic but functional standards of the Paranoia XP core book it feels like a real step down.
That said, I can see why compromises may have had to be made. This product was, after all, funded by the Kickstarter – but the delays in Wallis’ writing process threw the original production process out of whack, and I can completely understand how that would have various knock-on effects for the budgeting of the product. Still, compared to just how nice and pleasant the XP book is to read and look at and the sheer amount of quality material it is stuffed with, and considering the strength of the XP product line, I have to say that on balance I don’t consider the system tweaks or novel setting ideas to be quite worth abandoning XP for. Picking up the ideas of the Cerebral Coretech and DAIVs and implementing them in XP is trivially easy, and it shouldn’t be too hard to work in an equivalent of the “bluffing initiative” concept which I consider to be the best improvement of the present system.
By far the greatest problem I have with this game is the fact that it just doesn’t hang together as an overall vision. The rules system and setting details have their good sides, it’s true, but like I explained above the missions book and the gamemaster handbook end up radically differing in terms of what they consider to be best practice, with the missions providing what are in my mind a massively, intrinsically flawed introduction to the game, not least because they don’t reflect how standard missions are supposed to go. That’s exacerbated by the fact that the Guide to Alpha Complex is cut from most editions of the game and made a separate product.
Sprange and Costikyan alike have taken the view that it’s not necessary, because everybody already knows the setting, but the thing is that the people who already know the setting probably already have a perfectly good version of Paranoia, and I don’t consider the tweaks and changes here to be sufficiently good reason for them to buy a new one. More importantly, I don’t think the materials here are sufficient to give new people much of an introduction to the setting, particularly the brand-new features of the setting which people are less likely to have picked up from osmosis via RPG message boards and the like. This new Paranoia needed to both offer enough high-quality new material to satisfy the old players, and explain all the old bits for the new players; to my eyes, it does neither.
The PDFs of the rulebooks with James Wallis and Grant Howitt’s comments added in give some insights into the issues which I have outlined above. For instance, the annotated Guide to Alpha Complex confirms that most of the in-character setting introduction material in it was cut from the player book, as I suspected – making the fact that the Guide isn’t in the standard version of the box pretty shameful.
James Wallis also notes that the cards were a dictat from Mongoose Publishing (who presumably decided that by including cards it would be harder to pirate the game, or perhaps thought they could sell more product quickly and easily by offering expansion card packs), and as such they had to incorporate them into the design appropriately. Given that everything other than the action cards simply constitutes an alternate way of presenting information to players instead of printing out handouts to go with their character sheets, and given that the action cards themselves primarily act as an initiative system you could implement with D10s, my suspicion is that had the cards not been demanded by Mongoose, the cards would not have been a factor – they just don’t do enough to justify the extra production complexities and extra space taken up by the box, to my mind.
Greg Costikyan himself drops in to explain that the rights owners themselves decided that the time was right to use “terrorist” in place of “Communist” in the game, since terrorism is being used as the main justification for limiting civil rights these days, but at the same time I think that’s already become dated, at least in a US context – now “refugees” and “immigrants” are the hot-button words, and I think an attempt to constantly chase the current xenophobia trigger phrase is doomed to always be dated. That being the case, you might as well steer into the crash and go for a really dated trigger phrase, “Commie” having the advantage of being the most old-fashioned one which simultaneously a) isn’t some sort of beyond-the-pale slur and b) suits the sci-fi bunker aesthetic of the game.
At one point there’s a reference in the GM book text about how the existence of future supplements dealing with life at other security clearances (as have existed for previous editions of Paranoia) might end up existing at the whim of the publishers, and Grant Howitt throws in a comment that more or less directly says that this almost certainly isn’t going to happen. It makes me wonder what the story behind that is, particularly given the very pessimistic tone of not just that comment, but a range of other designer comments.
This is pure speculation on my part, but it seems to me that if the rights holders had lost patience with Mongoose and/or Wallis during the Kickstarter fulfilment process, it’d put everyone in a very awkward position – legally speaking, they could totally veto all sorts of stuff in the approvals process, and depending on the terms of the licence they may well be able to outright yank it, but if they did then suddenly there’d be lots of Kickstarter backers no longer getting the product they backed, and the rights holders would have set themselves up to be painted as the villains. Better to let the product come out, let the Kickstarter project and other products in the pipeline slip out, and then quietly let the licence die after that. Like I said, pure speculation – but it does strike me as rather extraordinary to see game designers pouring cold water on the idea of future supplements for a game line in the pages of an annotated PDF going out to Kickstarter backers like this.
In some respects I am astonished that Mongoose even released the annotated PDF, given how harsh James and Grant are in it at points. (I half-expect Matt Sprange to notice what’s actually written in it and replace it on DriveThruRPG with an excised version.) For instance, James and Grant are quick to point out lots of proofreading bits and tweaks that made it through to the final version, and it feels like Mongoose’s long-standing tendency to utterly halfass any proofreading and editing process and make a horrible botch of it has bitten them in the ass yet again. These errors are generally all present in the final printed versions too, which seems outrageously sloppy – especially in a Kickstarter where they had extensive numbers of backers who would have been happy to do crowdsourced typo-spotting – and James places much of the blame with Mongoose, since at particular points he notes how some typos were definitely not in the manuscript he had sent them.
To give representative examples of the designers’ chagrin, James treats us to the zinger “I promise there were a lot more commas in this manuscript when I sent it to Mongoose. I wish they’d kept some of them“, and Grant says in response to an in-text mention of their editor “(this gag written back when I thought we had an editor)“. Honestly, at points I think they’re actually funnier writing this commentary than they are when writing the actual rules.
Other gems reveal that extensive amount of material was cut from the set for page count reasons (it may well have been possible to keep it had the layout been better and the page size been standard for RPG books, but Mongoose gonna Mongoose), and there was originally going to be a Losing It deck to allow you to draw a random wild way to abandon all self-control when the absurdity of life in Alpha Complex got to you. At points in reading these designer notes you can almost see the project’s scope and ambition peeling off in layers, like ablative armour bearing the assault of cockups and circumstances, until it was left with the greatly reduced product of diminished expectations we actually got.
The annotated Mission Book reveals that in the three-parter, James wrote the first part, Grant the second, and Paul Dean the third, with James then revising them all for consistency. This only confirms me in my suspicion that I really don’t like James Wallis’ approach to adventure design. James talks about how the structure of his section, which allowed you to start playing without reading any background or learning every rules, was inspired by the obscure mid-1980s RPG oddity Sandman: Map of Halaal – nothing to do with Islamic dietary laws or Neil Gaiman – which was designed in such a fashion and was intended to be the first part of a series to be played like that. (It was a slightly wonky attempt at the concept, though, and the later parts of the series never came out – though recently Goblinoid Games, having gained the IP of the Pacesetter RPG publishing house that produced it, rereleased it as a PDF, and I hear rumours that the later parts of the series are finally going to see the light of day.)
He also admits that the mission isn’t really that successful, because it doesn’t work so well with such a high-concept game with such an odd background like Paranoia. Fair enough, I’m glad he admits its weaknesses – but it is basically a concession that it’s not so hot an adventure. I kind of wish Mongoose had just scrapped it and given him time to write something superior, and I get the impression that James might wish that too – but then again, with the existing delays, would the Kickstarter backers have stood for it? Would the IP owners?
It’s a headache and illustrates what an impossible position everyone ended up in, once what made sense for the designers stopped working for the backers and publishers, and what made sense for the publishers stopped working for the backers and designers, and what made sense for the backers stopped working for the designers and publishers. When everyone’s interests end up opposed like that, producing good collaborative work becomes near-impossible. I still think this new edition of the game is a mixture of lukewarm nonsense and actual disaster, with a few good ideas sprinkled on top of it, but I at least have a better understanding thanks to the annotations as to why that is the case.
Designers’ Commentary MP3
This is essentially a one-episode podcast where James, Grant and Paul talk about the design process, which includes additional insights. For instance, they discuss how they spent a lot of time thinking about how the nuclear jitters that influenced the original seemed less urgent than ecological collapse when they were designing it, only for the production delays to end up making nuclear armageddon seem much more current and relevant.
They also talk a lot about how their design process was intended to strip back a lot of the rules from previous editions, and I can understand the impulse there but given that this edition promotes the exact same “ignore the rules and make shit up” ethos of previous editions it feels like you only get limited benefit out of that (and Paranoia XP really wasn’t that rulesy anyway). Had the game’s ethos been “use the rules as written as much as you can”, then obviously you would get maximal benefits out of that, but we’re talking a game where the rules for how armour work literally come down to “arbitrarily pick a rule for armour from this list or make one up, and change it up every time armour comes up”.
Moreover, trying to make reliable rules that the players come back to in Paranoia feels to me like it misses part of the satire. The Paranoia character sheet is an exercise in providing a veneer of legitimacy that allows the GM to pretend that it’s the rules and not the NPCs or (more commonly) the other PCs that are screwing them over. This marvellously parallels how oppressive governments use the law as a veneer of legitimacy that they don’t actually consider themselves bound by in the slightest.
One thing that I think is actually quite interesting is that, even at the late stage they were at (they mention doing the annotated PDFs prior to this), they still talk like the Guide was supposed to be an intrinsic part of the boxed set. I would be extremely interested to know what they feel about it not being included in the standard edition.
There’s an anecdote in the Gamemaster’s Handbook about how when designing the GM screen they were very, very tempted to just have the GM-facing side read, in friendly foot-high letters, MAKE SOME SHIT UP. Frankly, that’s funny enough that simply by telling me that anecdote they’ve made me resent the screen for not implementing that idea.
The player-side design is an ugly graphic design that is meant to represent a computer interface, with little spaces to play your cards on. When you play your cards on particular spots rather than on the game table, special effects happen, based on a table provided to the GM. So far, so fun – right? Well, there’s a problem: because the spaces are on the players’ side of the screen, there’s no convenient way for the GM to go check what they’ve played their cards on and whether they’ve positioned them properly (bad shit happens if you don’t position them right). It stinks of a gimmick someone came up with but didn’t think through how it would work in actual play and I hate it.
A paper pad of forms, with accompanying PDF to allow you to print off more. These include both the character sheet and more specific forms for specific purposes. The eye-watering blue-on-white text makes it hard to read – again, in a “this is not OOC fun” way rather than a fun Kafkaesque way – and the cramped presentation due to the smaller paper size doesn’t help either. Forgettable.
And Here’s Where I Give Up
After digesting this unhappy little pile of disappointment, I contacted Matt Sprange and told him not to bother sending me the hard copies of any stretch goals yet to go out to backers due me; I had seen enough and I was done with this misadventure.
I did end up with some additional thoughts after looking over the PDFs of The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, a revised update of a classic 1st edition adventure. For one thing, I note that the sections of prewritten text to read out to the players aren’t brilliantly distinguished from the rest of the text, which constitutes two different flavours of problem to my mind. The first is that it’s hard to see which text you are meant to read out (it’s indicated by italics, but the difference is not distinct enough to eliminate squinting), and the second is that the adventure still uses the awful, awful, awful technique of giving the referee a prewritten script to read out to the players. Whether this is intended to relay NPC dialogue or room descriptions of whatever it is always a terrible mistake; almost nobody sounds good reading from the script, and it disrupts the question-and-answer between players and referee which is the key to the tabletop RPG experience.
Almost inevitably, players tune out during the reading of such “boxed text” (so called because it’s traditionally presented in little boxes, though they didn’t bother with the boxes here), partly because almost no referee is able to deliver it without droning, mumbling, or tailing off as they look down to check it, and partly because it inevitably sounds stilted and unnatural because it will never have the same cadence and word choice as the referee’s natural speech. It’s much better to simply provided a bullet-pointed list of the information that the referee should be conveying and let them put it into their own words, but almost no adventure writers do this, especially in Paranoia. It is maddening and has to stop. (The fact that it is deployed in the missions book in the core set is another big point against the adventures there.)
Another thing I noticed is that the distinctive new setting features of the new edition barely feature, to the point where they basically don’t exist for the purpose of the adventure. The Cerebral Coretech is mentioned precisely once, only to note that it won’t work in a particular situation where the players might think of using it, and that’s it. With a game-changing setting feature like that, you would think that substantial revision work would be needed to integrate it into the adventure, but it seems like Mongoose took the easy way out yet again by simply updating the stats to the current edition and calling it a day.
In terms of the presentation, the layout is deeply uninspiring, the artwork is just as poor as the core set (which is bizarre given that they have plenty of perfectly good Jim Holloway art from the original), and the small number of additional cards feel pointless and poorly integrated into the core system. (They include things like excuses to use in conversation, which feel pointless when the cards are more or less entirely intended for use in the combat system in the core set.) If this is the sort of boxed set adventure presentation Mongoose is going for in the new edition, it feels like a lot of flash and fuss for little payoff compared to just selling a dang book, and I suspect the production values won’t be that much better than the core set – if nothing else, how embarrassing would it look if the core set ended up looking much shabbier than the supplemental adventures?
Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?
Just Wrong, absolutely. I already own the definitive version of Paranoia in the form of the Paranoia XP rulebook, and its nicely extensive supplement line gives me plenty of material, and frankly as far as I am concerned this whole miserable slog wouldn’t have been worth it even if I just paid for the PDFs and got them in a timely manner – and certainly wasn’t worth the money I plunged into it or the massive delays both on James Wallis’s design work and on Mongoose’s production process. I should never have gotten involved.
Would Back Again?
Absolutely not; I would never dream of either backing a project that James Wallis was involved with or a project that Mongoose was running. In the case of Wallis, the combination of his perfectionism and his Molyneux-esque tendency to overcommit and overpromise means that even if he claimed to have learned his lesson and had all the text of a new product written already when the funding period was happening, I couldn’t believe it (because that was claimed for Alas Vegas and this, and in both cases the design work got largely scrapped and redone).
In the case of Mongoose, it’s the opposite problem – I can’t trust them not to cut corners, cutting corners has been their modus operandi from the get-go, they cut corners on every product line they’ve done to the extent that they could get away with and they cut corners here. I cannot, at this point, believe they won’t continue to cut corners in the future, especially considering that when you’re struggling as a company it’s overwhelmingly tempting to cut corners. Mongoose has been reduced to a shadow of its former self as a result of the rise of substantially more professional companies puttng out superior products with much better production values (Cubicle 7 and Pelgrane Press both being significant British-based ones), and frankly I should have walked away from their products long ago.
Final Thoughts: Why, Mongoose, Why?
Frankly, I am of the opinion that if a new edition of an RPG isn’t designed with at least half an eye on the question “Does this give new people a suitable onramp for getting into this game?”, it’s doomed to failure. If someone comes to me and asks “How do I get into (insert title here)?” and I find that the best answer is “Buy an out of print edition, because the current edition is excessively dedicated to preaching to the choir”, that means your game line is in the shitter, I’m sorry. You’re not alone in there – the latest edition of Exalted is an ungodly behemoth which seems almost deliberately designed to drive away anyone who isn’t an Exalted superfan – but you’re there, circling the drain, waiting to disappear.
That goes double if the game is presented in a cheap and tatty format with shonky cover art, in a market full of beautifully presented games in a variety of interesting styles – the days when Paranoia was the only dark comedy RPG out there have been over for a long, long time. I can see a future for Paranoia in the RPG industry, but frankly it involves Mongoose losing the licence and someone else tackling it with the production values it deserves – particularly since going with this comparatively component-heavy approach makes Mongoose’s production shortcomings even more noticeable than they would be if they’d just made a nice book. (They are still capable of making nice books; apparently the new edition of Traveller looks rather lovely.) This raises the question of why they took this approach in the first place.
It seems to me that they were acting in imitation of Fantasy Flight Games’ third edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which went with a similarly component-heavy approach to presenting a tabletop RPG but which benefitted from Fantasy Flight Games being a major boardgame producer able to deliver excellent production values. The parallels are extensive – you have a licenced RPG, you have excellent previous editions with extensive support material, you have a system completely rewritten so as to break backwards compatibility with the old material (presumably to encourage those who adopt the new system to buy new supplements rather than relying on old ones from the second hand market), and of course you have additional little components and bits added into a game which previously didn’t rely on them.
In both cases this strategy seems to have two major purposes: to deter piracy and to increase the amount of space on game shop shelves taken up by the product (thus maximising product visibility). There’s two major problems with Mongoose taking up Fantasy Flight’s approach here. The first is that the only non-book components to pirate in this new Paranoia are the cards, which are eminently printable from PDF; there’s a bespoke Computer Dice, but it’s trivial to just use a six-sider of a distinctive colour for that and remember that a 6 on that means that the Computer acts. This is in stark contrast to Fantasy Flight’s approach, which relies in particular on bespoke dice (an idea subsequently used in their licenced Star Wars RPGs and their upcoming universal RPG Genesys) which would be genuinely fiddly to pirate.
The second problem is that you only get to monopolise that sweet, sweet shelf space if the owners of the shops in question choose to give you that space in the first place, rather than dedicating it to better-selling products. Fantasy Flight Games were able to get game shops to dedicate a substantial amount of space to the massive Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition core set and its scarcely less huge supplemental boxes thanks to two important advantages.
The first and more obvious is that Fantasy Flight, as a major producer of boardgames, already provided a lot of stock to those stores and had a proven track record of making gorgeous games that sell; that earns them both a certain amount of leverage with store owners and sufficient goodwill that I suspect the leverage never has to come into play – quite simply, nobody selling boardgames, either back when WFRP 3rd Edition came out or now, is going to rejected whatever the new hotness is that Fantasy Flight are putting out there, because they are one of the more reliable hallmarks of quality product in the business. The reputation of Mongoose Publishing in 2017 is nowhere near as good, and I can’t seriously see them as being in the “must stock” category for many shops.
The second is that the 3rd edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay line was a stunningly beautiful series of products. They weren’t to my personal taste – I was much more keen on the first two editions of the game, whose system had been entirely jettisoned in favour of the new component-heavy approach of the third edition; I am about as biased against WFRP 3rd Edition as anyone is. Despite that, I freely admit that those boxes were gorgeous beasts. A shelf dedicated to those boxes would be an eye-catching highlight of any RPG section of your friendly local game shop, and as such it would be decidedly worth giving the boxes that space – if only to entice customers in to take a closer look at them.
Conversely, the Paranoia boxes are small and shabby-looking, with production values to match. The cards and dice are basic and functional, the layout of the booklets is of a standard which bedroom developer indie RPG designers exceed regularly, and you already know my opinion on the art. Were I a store owner, I genuinely think I wouldn’t want to give much (if any) shelf space to such an ugly, amateurish-looking product.
It also feels like Matt Sprange, Greg Costikyan, or someone else at some point in the chain between the rights owners and Wallis & Howitt decided that cards would a cool way to make Paranoia a nice, easy pick-up-and-play game and imposed that on James and Grant as a design criterion, rather than allowing the two of them to work out for themselves how to optimise Paranoia for a pick-up-and-play approach. I feel like this was a mistake; in particular, Grant’s own Goblin Quest is a flat-out excellent pick-up-and-play comedy game in a very Paranoia-ish mode, and I bet it’d be far easier to convince shops to stock a thin little book like that (provided it has nice production values) than an ugly space-guzzling boxed set.
When one of your own designers’ personal project ends up outshining the main event, you know you’ve lost the initiative. Paranoia is no longer the best in-print game of its style available, and Paranoia XP is sufficiently widely available that I have few to no qualms about sticking with the old edition. Ultimately, the fun of Paranoia comes from its gleeful subversion of the traditional RPG format, and the rules you use for it are consequently arbitrary – if anything, the more the rules genuinely matter, the more you miss the point of the joke.
The fact that I spent over £100 to learn that lesson means that the joke is probably on me.
Update: Since the original publication of this article on Ferretbrain, Matt Sprange put out an update on the Kickstarter announcing that Mongoose now considered Ultraviolent to be a dead project.
Ultraviolent was going to be a mission pack written by James Wallis, who after being extremely late delivering the core rules on this project and the main product of his own Alas Vegas Kickstarter campaign seems to have remained true to form by being extremely late delivering Ultraviolent, to the point where Mongoose have given up hope on it being delivered at all.
I’m kind of floored by Sprange talking about being unable to get in contact with Wallis except through an intermediary, but on the other hand he’s also shown similarly extremely avoidant behaviour in dealing with his Alas Vegas backers so it perhaps isn’t so surprising. The line about “a ridiculous situation for grown adults to be in” kind of says it all, really.