An Arcane Followup

So, a while back I did an article looking back at Arcane‘s Top 50 RPGs list from back in 1996, as polled among their (primarily UK-based) readership. At the time, I said that no truly comparable list had been produced since, but I’ve recently become aware of Tabletop Gaming magazine’s June 2018 piece on the Top 150 games. This includes board games and card games, but RPGs are healthily represented there – in fact, the top game on the list is an RPG. It’s also a UK magazine which feels in some respect like a present-day update of Arcane with a wider remit and some somewhat deeper insights, and the list was also based on a reader vote.

So, I thought it would be interesting to extract just the RPGs from that list to get a “Top RPGs” sub-list, and compare it to the Arcane list. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it – the readership may well not be that similar – but it’s interesting to think about, right?

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A Retro Idea of Retro

I’ve previously discussed insights we can get from Arcane magazine’s Top 50 RPGs feature, but there’s one other feature from the magazine which I think has aged particularly interestingly. Rather than being presented in a single article, though, it unfolded over the span of the magazine’s existence.

This was the monthly Retro feature, each instalment of which offered a one-page retrospective of an old game, by and large (with a very few exceptions) one which was well out of print by the time. This is interesting to look back on now because when Arcane was being published the hobby was some 21-23 years old; this year it’s 46. In other words, more time has now passed since Arcane magazine ended than passed between the emergence of D&D and the appearance of Arcane. It’s interesting, then, to look back and see what games were considered to be old-timey classics from that perspective, and how things have developed since.

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The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now?

Arcane, a short-lived British tabletop gaming magazine from Future Publishing which ran from December 1995 to June 1997, is a name to conjure by for many gamers of around my age. I came to the hobby after White Dwarf had become a Games Workshop in-house advertising platform, and just as Dragon was on the verge of dropping its coverage of non-TSR RPGs altogether; that meant I got a brief taster of TSR having a broader scope of coverage, and missed out on the golden age of White Dwarf altogether.

With other RPG-focused gaming magazines available in the UK either consisting of patchy US imports or a few local magazines published on a decidedly variable basis (whatever did happen to ol’ Valkyrie?), the arrival of Arcane was immensely welcome. Sure, even by this early stage the Internet was already becoming an incomparable source of both homebrewed material and cutting-edge RPG news, but much of that was in the form of Usenet and forum discussions of variable quality or ASCII text files. To get something which was informative, read well, and looked nice, print media was still just about where it was at.

Truth be told, taking a look back at Arcane in more recent years I’m less impressed than I was at the time. It took largely the same approach to its own subject matter (primarily RPGs, with some secondary consideration to CCGs – because they were so hot at the time they really couldn’t be ignored – and perhaps a light sniff of board game content) that Future’s videogame magazines took to theirs, particularly the lighter-hearted PC Gamer/Amiga Power side of things rather than the likes of, say, Edge. That meant it focused more on brief news snippets, reviews, and fairly entry-level articles on subjects than it did on offering much in the way of in-depth treatment of matters.

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The Cost of Sincerity

How to explain West End Games’ oddity The Price of Freedom? Well, put it this way: had it come out in the mid-1990s, when West End Games were absolutely cuckoo for licensing movie properties to adapt them into tabletop RPGs without giving any consideration for a) whether there was a market for these properties as RPGs or b) whether it was even possible to adapt them into RPGs, then The Price of Freedom wouldn’t be called The Price of Freedom: it’d be the official Red Dawn RPG.

Yep, turns out that all that glasnost business was the sham that the John Birchers thought it was. After a “gutless” President signs misguided weapon control treaties with the Soviet Union – treaties the USSR’s tyrannical regime sees nothing wrong in breaching themselves – the Soviets are able to perfect a nigh-perfect missile defence system for the motherland whilst gaining an overwhelming strategic advantage against the USA. The President capitulates to USSR demands, and soon enough Soviet forces begin landing in the US (along with their Cuban and Nicaraguan buddies) to act as a peacekeeping force in support of a puppet government.

The PCs in The Price of Freedom are, much like the Wolverines in Red Dawn, an unlikely rabble of freedom fighters – ordinary Americans having to face up to extraordinary times, fighting against a regime near-indistinguishable from the Stalinist version of the Soviet Union. On the face of it, this is undeniably a fantasy scenario derived in a large part from the fears of the extreme right of the 1980s; the very concept that the Soviets would mount an invasion of the USA, and attempt to occupy it in the long term, was considered absurd by most even at the time. (After the Cold War ended, declassified Soviet-era documents revealed that not even the Soviets thought that an invasion of the US was a good idea – primarily because of there being way too many guns floating around.)

On the other hand, the game was released by West End Games – known in RPG circles at the time mainly for Paranoia and Ghostbusters – and designed by Greg Costikyan, known both for his work on those games and on Toon. All comedic games – with Paranoia, in particular, incorporating a fat dose of Cold War satire. Was the game supposed to be taken seriously, or was it a really dry satire? Opinion at the time was sharply divided, with some convinced that the game couldn’t possibly be intended to be taken seriously, whilst others believing that West End had gone full Reaganite on its audience.

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Kickstopper: First as Farce, Then as Tragedy

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.

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Alpha Complex Leftovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supplements of Paranoia XP

Supplements (as opposed to prewritten adventures) for Paranoia are, as a concept, something the game used to struggle with a lot. Acute Paranoia for 1st Edition was basically an adventure collection with some bonus essays here and there of mixed quality; in 2nd Edition The DOA Sector Travelogue was interesting as far as an overview of a sector goes, but a bit bland, and was hampered by the intention to tie it into the start of the Secret Society Wars metaplot; later supplements like the Crash Course Manual or Paranoia Sourcebook were misguided attempts to make the game suitable for long-term campaign play and pander to a metaplot nobody wanted. As far as later editions go, the 25th anniversary version just had a few adventures released for it, whilst supplements for the latest version seem to take the form of additional card backs (doubling down on what I think is a fundamentally misguided design approach).

In between, though, was a golden age. Paranoia XP‘s supplement line wasn’t perfect, and there were some releases (like a supplement for playing Armed Forces troopers, or one about bots) which felt like a misguided attempt to rekindle bad ideas whose shortcomings had already been exposed in the late 2nd edition days. But that was late in the game line, when the bottom of the barrel was being scraped and a lot of the writers who had been producing Paranoia stuff had, for whatever reason, stopped and left Gareth Hanrahan to write everything. (Writers ceasing to work for Mongoose is a long-term trend, as is Gareth Hanrahan eventually taking on the bulk of the writing work for a line.) Before that, Mongoose actually produced some of the best non-adventure resources for Paranoia ever seen. Here, I’d like to take a quick look at a cross-section of them.

Criminal Histories

Lashed together by Bill O’Dea, this is an extensively expanded character generation system whose main draw is its extensive set of lifepath tables. (In a jocular dig at Traveller, the supplement notes that whilst in some games you can die in character creation, Criminal Histories allows you to die multiple times in character creation.)

The book suggests that its main use is for small games with only two to three players, so as to give the player characters a more developed set of personal issues and disputes and allies and enemies beyond the other party members. I can see the rationale there (it’s useful in such small games to give PCs additional enemies because it’s otherwise too easy for them to guess which PC is backstabbing them), but I actually think it’s even more useful for a different purpose – namely, coming up with pregenerated PCs for your home adventures to give out to your players. The pregens in the best prewritten Paranoia adventures were often the highlights, and a long pre-game character generation session isn’t really in the spirit of Paranoia, but using this process as a creative tool to make pregens would be really fun. (All between-game prep should be fun; if you don’t find aspects of it fun, adapt your GMing style to eliminate that.)

In fact, by creatively tying together the backstories here and extrapolating forwards, you could even make the construction of a pregen party with Criminal Histories step one in adventure design – simply have the crisis they are sent to Troubleshoot arise as a consequence of the nuttiness that happened in their background and viola, instant guilt!

Extreme Paranoia

This is probably the most ambitious supplement for XP: an expansive treatment of the rise through security clearances from ORANGE to VIOLET. Though not billed as a Straight-oriented supplement, the regular suggestions that you could totally run a campaign based off this material de facto shunts it into that territory, particularly since arguably “Troubleshooters shooting Trouble using the traditional Paranoia mission structure” is a hallmark of the Classic playstyle and this supplement is essentially a large brainstorming exercise in coming up with alternatives to that.

For each Security Clearance, the book offers both an alternate model of what Troubleshooters are doing at that security clearance (ranging from mission dispatchers to personal assistants to High Programmers) and an entirely non-Troubleshooter-related model for Clearance-appropriate Paranoia play. That’s all quite sound in principle, but with only 128 pages to cover all this (plus general considerations of how the security clearance system works and a fun chapter on extracurricular clubs) the supplement doesn’t have enough space to properly develop any single one of these ideas, with the result that you’re left with broad brushstrokes of something which might lend itself to an interesting one-shot scenario but an awful lot of development left to do in order to make something gameable out of it.

The major exception is the BLUE clearance chapter, which is fatter than the others because it consists of a reprint of the first edition supplement HIL Sector BLUEs by Ken Rolston. This has the premise of having the player characters acting as BLUE clearance Internal Security troopers, with more reliable weapons and armour than typical Troubleshooters, and an assumption of better co-operation between player characters (enforced by the team leader being able to control when the PCs’ guns can fire). On the plus side, this includes a fairly well-developed Internal Security station of NPCs for the characters to bounce off; on the minus side, it just doesn’t feel like Paranoia any more so much as it’s a wry riff on Judge Dredd. (It also has the unfortunate side-effect of highlighting just how underdeveloped the other clearance chapters are by comparison.)

Reading Extreme Paranoia feels like you’re watching the Traitor Recycling Studio – and, for that matter, Mongoose Publishing and the rights holders – in the process of thinking out loud. The question of “what can you do with Paranoia aside from Troubleshooter-based stuff?” is one which has vexed the line since 1st edition days – HIL Sector BLUEs, after all, was an attempt by Ken Rolston to address the issue, and supplements late in both the 2nd edition and XP lines made further attempts at the matter.

The reason for this is, I suspect, quite simple: the more you can diversify Paranoia, the wider the range of supplements and add-ons you can sell. The Troubleshooter-focused game is a classic, of course, but at the same time it’s also well-understood enough that people can keep running it indefinitely from the core rulebook, and there’s only so many resources for that style of play you can put out before it starts feeling like you are repeating yourself.

The problem Extreme Paranoia has is that whilst most of the ideas it offers feel like they’d make an interesting one-shot, none of them feel quite as iconic and archetypal as Troubleshooter-focused play – and few of them are developed to the point where you could take this supplement and make a decent one-shot out of them without substantial further development on your own part. To do justice to every single idea in here the supplement really needed to be at least twice the length it currently is, though that said I’m not convinced every idea in here needs to be developed to that extent; an error may have been made in trying to shoehorn in a concept for each security clearance from ORANGE to VIOLET.

For the 25th Anniversary Edition of Paranoia, Mongoose revisited this idea by putting out three different core rulebooks; Troubleshooters presented the classic Troubleshooter-focused style of play, Internal Security was basically HIL Sector BLUEs expanded to a full standalone game, whilst High Programmers took a leaf from the VIOLET-level chapter here and casts the PCs as ULTRAVIOLET-clearance characters who must tackle crises in Alpha Complex in a “situation room”-type model of play, with the usual backstabbing taking place on a much grander scale than usual. Focusing on just three concepts rather than eight (Troubleshooter-style play and the seven different concepts offered here) is, in retrospect, a much better idea than this rather hubristic attempt.

(That said, some of the additional content in here is worth a look even if it isn’t enough to rescue the supplement as a whole; in particular, the alternate Mandatory Bonus Duties are a hoot, as are the details on extracurricular clubs.)

Service, Service!

This supplement concentrates on the various service groups that manage life in Alpha Complex. Rather than giving a boringly detailed breakdown of their internal workings, the supplement instead gives some general details on how they end up as spectacularly incompetent as they are and then delivers for each service group a brace of ideas for little tasks and duties they can attach to Troubleshooter groups or individuals to complicate a mission, a cluster of additional service firms (presented as public-private partnership-type businesses here due to the satirical targets of XP, but easily reskinnable as bureaucratic subdepartments if you prefer), and a short Troubleshooter mission which involves getting all up in the service group’s business. (The best one is probably the one where the Troubleshooters are assigned to give sensitivity training to battle-hardened Vulture Troopers.)

It’s a simple formula and it works out pretty well, nicely fleshing out an aspect of the setting which is often neglected but probably shouldn’t be, seeing how it’s the basis of the PCs’ legitimate day jobs.

The Mutant Experience

Though its centrepiece is an impressive expansion of the mutant powers available in Paranoia, along with suggestions for delicious variants on and unexpected consequences of them, The Mutant Experience is a really nice, detailed unpacking of all sorts of issues surrounding the subject. You get stacks of equipment and drugs relating to mutant powers, suggestions on different ways to interpret Alpha Complex’s take on mutant powers, really useful suggestions on how to run mutant powers that have clearly been developed in actual play, a fun table to roll on when characters get exposed to mutant powers, and so much more! No, the mutations are not at all balanced, but that’s part of the fun of them, and the more options available on this front the better so far as I am concerned.

The Traitor’s Manual

This is the secret society-focused supplement, and rather than adding a whole bunch of new ones it instead provides additional depth on the existing ones (including plenty of subfactions, and quips about how they could have done White Wolf-style splatbooks for each of the secret societies except they couldn’t face the prospect of writing an entire book about the more shallow ones like the Mystics).

To be honest, this strikes me as being the right call: the Acute Paranoia supplement for 1st Edition made a token attempt to introduce a bunch of new secret societies, but most of them ended up being variations on the existing ones (the Trekkies, for instance, could have happily just been a subfaction of the Romantics, and even the Clone Arrangers of Send In the Clones, perhaps the best new secret society added to the game since the original core book, can basically be seen as a specialised Free Enterprise project). As it stands, the book gives just the right level of information on the various societies it details, making it handy both for longer-term games where the player characters might actually interact more than once or twice with their society and as a source of ideas for referees to develop missions from.

My main gripe with the book is that it doesn’t give any attention to the two secret societies that could really do with the most development – these being the Spy For Another Alpha Complex option and the Programs Group (in which you are not working on an ideological basis but are simply doing favours for a High Programmer in the hope of advancement that way). These options are both great for Straight games, and yet don’t get any love in this book whatsoever – a huge oversight given how keen the designers clearly were to push Straight as a viable playstyle.


Somehow this equipment supplement doesn’t do it for me; I suspect it’s because I’m happy to wing it mostly as far as equipment in Paranoia goes, but also because of the presentation of the supplement as a series of advertisements on C-Bay, the Alpha Complex eBay parody, which comes under the “jokes from this edition that never really got traction and have been abandoned in subsequent editions” category and, unlike repurposing service firms as service group subdepartments, isn’t so easy to smooth over.

The Underplex

Drawing inspiration more from urban exploration than typical RPG dungeon concepts, this slim booklet introduces the idea of the Underplex – a vast labyrinth of abandoned and sealed-off Alpha Complex infrastructure (and the odd natural cavern complex) that’s largely been forgotten by the Computer and become the habitation of mutants and outcasts and a convenient place for secret societies to get up to all sorts of shit. Despite the occasional forced pun, the supplement largely (by its own intention) hovers in a sweet spot between Classic and Straight styles, which is where I personally think the magic resides, and the Underplex is a nice, creative addition to the setting which adds an interesting new dimension to Alpha Complex but feels natural next to established precedent. (I particularly like the idea of Undercommuters – ordinary citizens who have to divert into the Underplex to get to work because there’s otherwise no route permitted to their security clearance.)

Mandatory Fun Enforcement Pack

This is the booklet that came with the GM screen. As well as containing some fun forms to inflict on the players, it has the Mission Blender – a magnificent set of tables for random mission generation that’s a handy spur to creativity, particularly since it’s quite good at judging when to step back and let you fill in the blanks and covers most of the archetypal situations you could possibly face in a Troubleshooter mission.

Citizen’s Guide to Surviving Alpha Complex

While I’m at it, I may as well discuss this freebie that was thrown out to promote the 25th Anniversary edition of Paranoia. Making extensive use of recycled text, it offers a brief setting introduction for players, a rules overview for referees, and a sample adventure. The problem is the layout, which is extremely basic and when it comes to the sample characters is actively bad – you want to have one PC to a page or otherwise do the layout in such a way as to make it nice and easy to photocopy and cut out and stick together people’s character sheets, but here that’s totally botched.

The whole point of these Free RPG Day-type samplers is to give an easy, minimum-friction way to start playing a game quickly – with this botching of the PC writeups, the Guide blows this requirement. The art, whilst more competent than the ugly monstrosities gracing the latest edition, is a bit bland compared to Jim Holloway’s characterful work too.

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.


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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