Playing It Straight

As I’ve previously covered, part of Allen Varney’s agenda with Paranoia XP was to reclaim the game from the morass of lazy parody and cheap puns it had slid into under the custodianship of West End Games. Part of this process was to present three different playstyles in the core Paranoia XP rulebook – Zap, Classic, and Straight. Zap was the poor cousin of the edition, the old puns-and-pointless-violence style that Varney specifically wanted to discourage. Classic was the style Varney mostly wanted to aim it – the original approach which won over the gaming world back in the 1st edition and early 2nd edition days of the game. Straight was what you got if you turned the dials the other way – more purely based on satire as opposed to other forms of comedy, more subtlety and preparation required for flinging about accusations of treason, and a slightly more functional Alpha Complex that could conceivably form the basis for campaign play if that’s what you really want to do.

Of course, one of the best ways to delineate the difference between these play styles is in offering worked examples of each. The West End back catalogue had a decent number of high-quality Classic missions, hence the Flashbacks compilation – but though their latter-day missions were, I suppose, examples of Zap play, they were also kind of shit and not really worth reprinting, and examples of Straight were nonexistent.

Thus, Crash Priority and WMD, two of the earliest adventure supplements for Paranoia XPCrash Priority was the first all-original mission collection offered by Mongoose, coming hot on the heels of the XP core rulebook; WMD came out a year later in 2005, making it the second all-original mission collection for the edition. WMD consisted of all-Straight missions (Classic fans got Flashbacks in 2005, which was more than enough to be getting on with for a good while), whilst Crash Priority in principle offered missions of all styles but went heavy on the Straight – three Straight missions, one Classic, and one Zap tucked in at the back.

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Varney’s Curated Paranoia Classics

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

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

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

Flashbacks

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

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

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