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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 18 of 21 Next

17. Paranoia (Troubleshooters)

Published first by West End Games, more recently by Mongoose Publishing

Type: Three-or-more participant dystopian competitive role-playing game

Depth: Moderate

Designed by: Greg Costikyan, Dan Gerber, Eric Goldberg, and Allen Varney (with some help from others)

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: A role-playing game. Players take the role of "troubleshooters," agents of a future Orwellian police state called Alpha Complex, sent forth to do the official will (seeking out subversives, punishing free thought, enforcing doctrine), often with powerful weaponry.

But what could be an incredibly dark game turns out to be amazingly hilarious and a tremendous amount of fun, all because the main focus of the players isn't so much the elimination of traitorous elements in the game world as stabbing each other in the back...

Play Summary

This is one of two pen-and-paper role-playing games on this list. Paranoia deserves special mention because of its great atypicality; it purposely de-emphasizes empathic immersion, and to some extent even storytelling, in favor of aggression between characters. It is a game that asks players to create personas that are thin shells for their own selves.

This suits the game well: it allows maximum scope for skullduggery and backstabbing (which work best as game mechanics if there is some aspect, however slight, that bleeds over into real life), and helps to keep the characters disposable, because, even for a game in which everyone gets six lives, character lifespans are short, and you'll be making up a new one before long.

Death is so common, both from missions and the machinations of other players, that players are given many lives, or "clones." There is sometimes no way to succeed at the mission, and failure is itself treasonous, so instead players must come up with excuses for why they fail. Often, these excuses involve scapegoating the other players.

So here's how it works. The players all play troubleshooters, agents of The Computer, the totalitarian ruler of Alpha Complex. Their job is to seek out and terminate traitors. There are a variety of missions, but eliminating this dread foe is always a sub-goal. The primary traitors are the hated Commies, but there are many paths to treason.

In particular, all secret society members and all mutants are traitors by definition. However, all player characters are secret society members and mutants, and often commit countless other forms of treason on missions besides. It is probable that everyone in Alpha Complex is a traitor in some way.

The catch is that The Computer doesn't know that, has a powerful military and secret police to back up its decisions, and is homicidally insane in a way GLaDOS could only dream about. Since it doesn't know it, you don't know it either -- if you know what's good for you. Furthermore, finding traitors is one of the few routes up the social ladder in Alpha Complex. As it happens, there are several potential traitors close-at-hand: the other players.

The players are given special objectives by their secret societies, many of which have to do with assassinating other players or ensuring the failure of the mission. They are also given many reasons to use their mutant abilities, which tend to be of the X-Men super power variety. But openly displaying either is a recipe for suicide. So is just shooting anyone; you can't just open fire on bystanders and teammates, you have to find evidence of their treason first, and that's what makes Paranoia more than just a shoot-'em-up.

The ultimate weapon in Paranoia is knowledge: knowledge of societies, knowledge of powers, knowledge of treason, and each player, in their society briefing, gets information the other players don't have. The intricate web of interlocking, often conflicting goals, opportunities and dangers make for an extremely rich game with experienced players. And yet, Paranoia's reputation is of a mindless blastfest. When run by a skilled GM, nothing is further from the truth.

This may be because it is so easy to die, and shooting your teammates is fun whether treachery or mere bloodlust is the reason. If a player deserves to die, kill him. There are five backups waiting in line, and making a new one is nearly painless, so why not? Emphasizing this, Paranoia has no hit points. Instead there is just a wound state, ranging from OK through Stunned, Wounded, Incapacitated, and Killed... and then one more, Vaporized, just for kicks. You're more likely to get killed outright than by degrees.

Recent versions of the game add an interesting new play mechanic, an evolution of "brownie points" from the classic RPG Ghostbusters, called perversity points. Whenever a player does something the GM finds clever or entertaining, at the drop of a hat really, he may award the player one or more of these points, typically given physical form as poker chips. They are intended to be used freely, and awarded just as freely.

Each chip represents a one-point (that is, 5 percent) bonus or penalty, of the player's choice, that can be bought on any die roll, for or against any player. Players can spend perversity to cause other characters to fail as readily as to help themselves succeed. This tends to mean the person who'd really want an accident to "mysteriously" happen can have it happen more often, but only if he's willing to pay. They also can be wielded against you, of course.

Perversity points are considered to be possessed by the player, not the character, so even if one character kicks the bucket for the final time these points carry over immediately to the next. Players whose characters perish in especially entertaining ways may thus find their next character starting off with an ample supply.

As stated before, treachery works best as a game motive when some aspect of it bleeds outside the game; perversity points recognize this fact. Ultimately, perversity points are a game realization of the idea of karma, that good things happen to good people, or players.

What can we draw from this game?

It's rather amazing that there aren't many other RPGs like Paranoia, where the players compete more than cooperate. Mark my words: the company that first adapts Paranoia, or the kind of play that Paranoia sponsors, successfully to the MMORPG sphere will go down in history. First-person shooters are a start, but are too direct to really work up the properly paranoid atmosphere, although the Spies of Team Fortress are something of a start.

The players matter for a lot for how the game atmosphere should run. Recent editions of Paranoia actually support three styles of play: Straight, Classic, and Zap, of escalating craziness.

Most people who enjoy the game consider Classic to be the true Paranoia, but some people who only know of the game from single sessions or reputation think it's Zap: a constant gunfight in a world with cartoon physics. Straight is relatively serious and offers the chance for long term, more traditional RPG play, but it might be a bit too much of a reaction against the excesses of Zap.

Article Start Previous Page 18 of 21 Next

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