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.

Stuff

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 o 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.

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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.

Continue reading “Playing It Straight”

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.

Continue reading “Varney’s Curated Paranoia Classics”