Wednesday 3 April 2024

Paranoia's Iceberg of Secrecy

I've always been aware of Paranoia, but I only played it for the first time at Grogmeet in December.

Its reputation as a silly game of backstabbing and betrayal sounded perfect for a convention one-shot.

This was true! I had a lot of fun playing it, but it stuck with me more than I expected. I've been hoovering up what I can from the new Mongoose edition, the older XP-edition, and any other scraps I can find around, with one eye on running a one-shot when my Traveller campaign wraps up. I'll probably use the core system of the latest edition with bits and pieces pulled from XP. For those in the know, I'm leaning somewhere between straight and classic styles.

Players-conflict is all good fun, but I think it works best when the objectives are carefully designed. It reminds me of Matrix Games, and the importance of setting clear objectives that drive conflict with the rest of the group, but still allow opportunities for cooperation... or at least conspiring.

This is al turned up to eleven with Paranoia because you're likely to start the game with... well, up to six objectives each depending on how you look at it!

Let's see them one-by-one, working our way down the Iceberg of Secrecy. They differ by edition, but here's the configuration I'm working with.

Troubleshooter Job
The only objective that's shared by the whole group. It could be as simple as "deliver a sandwich to this address" or something bigger like "scout out this lost sector and deliver a full report". At first you might think this is the most important objective, but I really see it as a way to shove the group together and kick off the game. There's so much going on beneath the surface that I think this one can be anything that pushes the group into interesting locations.

Mandatory Bonus Duty
Everybody in the team gets a special role, from equipment officer to hygiene officer. The member least qualified for any of them is declared Team Leader instead. The group know each other's MBDs, so it gives some immediate surface-level tension. They're all-responsibility, zero-power, but the Computer will assess your performance during the debrief.

Experimental Gear
R&D are always looking for opportunities to test their creations, so everybody gets one experimental device that they should put through a proper field-test when the opportunity arises. Potentially useful, likely disappointing, often devastating.

Service Group Mandate
The other players know which Service Group (essentially government department) you belong to, but not necessarily the special Mandate you've been handed as their representative. A member of the Power Service might need to recall all batteries from unused devices to recycle their energy, while an Internal Security member might be tipped off to Communist activity in the area you're headed to. These are generally legal, so can be shared with the group, but you never know if one of them is working against you. Maybe it's best to keep it to yourself.

Secret Society Mission
Every character also belongs to a secret society. These are completely illegal, so you definitely don't want the other players to know! In addition to offering the chance to call in favours, you'll be given a secret mission. If you're a member of Haxxors you might need to copy a virus from a rampaging bot you've been advised to avoid, or if you're a Free Enterprise spiv you might have a case of stolen pharmaceuticals to sell-on. Yeah, selling stuff is illegal, so be careful. These missions are especially fun when designed to conflict with each other.

Mutant Power
As if that wasn't enough, you each get a mutant power. Being an unregistered mutant is treasonous in Alpha Complex, but registered mutants often have it even worse, so keep it to yourself. You can just ignore this power and never use it, but I like the powers that tempt you into using them just this once.

Winning the Game
Most RPGs say there's no such thing as "winning the game" but I absolutely plan to count up how many of these objectives each player has achieved and declare a winner.

No reward beyond the victory, but what a victory it could be!


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  1. I picked up a bunch of Paranoia PDFs from a Humble Bundle recently so this is timely! Definitely curious to see how the party conflict feels in play.

  2. Once I played a Paranoia opening session where the GM gave us each a character sheet from a different game to fill in as we pleased. What followed was Calvinball chaos, in that vein yet slightly more structured a "mechanics gimmick" session occurred to me. Not directly appropriate for Paranoia mind (I had the Prisoner in mind while brewing it) but perhaps applicable for one-off madness.

    The idea is that the GM and Player are directly opposed in that the former's trying to "crack" the latter and get them to cooperate/defect/confess. So far so simple in-setting. The rub is that this is reflected "mechanically" in that the GM doesn't know what's on the player's character sheet and is tasked with setting up scenarios which allow them to deduce and coerce that information.

    Of course none of that works without a referee so a third player is all the NPCs who are neither reliably on No 2 or 6's side (ambiguous motivation's a big thing in that show) and perhaps a set director for "things go awry" confounding both parties' plans. Anyway, as I said it's not directly applicable but perhaps minable as an insane one-shot/intro. In a Paranoia sense the players could collectively fill the "referee/third party" role as they supposedly go along with Friend Computer's schemes to gaslight/mind break an unsuspecting dupe with all the additional motives complicating the attempt.

  3. I read this and it immediately remembered me about Mythic Bastionland. Not sure If you'd vibe with it but:

  4. I played a lot of original Paranoia as it came out. Each mission definitely has a winner. If you're the only survivor, there is no one to contradict you at the end-of-mission briefing.