Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Paranoia at Gamers of Winter 2013

This is one that I had been wanting to play since the mid-eighties. I don’t think anyone sitting down at the table had any idea what they were getting involved with. (Just one of the other of the six players was an old grognard like myself.) The game master struck me as someone that knew what he was doing, so I grabbed one of the red D20’s on the table and settled in.

We got bright red pre-gens for our characters. After a brief introduction, we got some kind of alert on our PDA’s. We all worked at different locations, so the introductory puzzle was to find our way to the briefing. The game master took every opportunity to hassle and intimidate the players. One of the girls stole a camcorder to record an image of a map… got reported for theft… then had to explain herself to her supervisor. One of the guys didn’t quite pick up on the whole thing about mutants being illegal– when he telekinetically flew around, he was gunned down and his clone was revived. (The game master wanted to have a bystander take over that clone in order to maximize the carnage, but it didn’t work out.)

Two of us had gotten to the briefing room quickly. The game master pulled us aside and read the first part of it to us loudly. I took notes on it and didn’t quite pick up on who the other guy with me was. Then we sat back down and the others came in… and the game master read the rest of the briefing. This confused the heck out of them. I’m not even sure if they understood that some of us had heard the first part of the briefing. When I tried to explain it, they got really suspicious and could not or would not allow themselves to listen.

Then the guy that had already gotten killed showed up, claimed to be internal security, and started threatening me. The guy would not stand down and didn’t seem to want to cooperate in any way. I turned to the game master and said that I’d shot him with my laser barrel. The game master explained that all I had was… the barrel. I didn’t actually have a gun part! This action didn’t do much to build confidence in my peers, so I finally just ran off to the mission location without them before they could gang up on me.

Filling out our forms at the beginning of the game. It was like clicking “okay” on a dozen EULA agreements…! (Heat-ray girl is on the right.)

They all argued about what to do, but I had a chance to one at a time explain the full message of the briefing to each person as they caught up with me. By the time Mr. Internal Security showed up, we were all arguing about how to proceed through a yellow zone that we weren’t authorized in. The guy was sufficiently distracted that he seemed to forget about our altercation, so I breathed a sigh of relief. (Gamer distraction: it can save lives.) After a lot of debate, we realized we had no choice but to just take our chances and stroll through.

We got to our mission location and looked inside. There was a broken cleaning robot, some large thing that I never figured out what it was,  grey goo all over the floor, a broken wall camera, and a large broken camcorder unit. We examined things uselessly for a long time and I took pictures of everything with the camcoder I’d picked up in the briefing. Some low ranking ultra violet guy came in the back door and we chased him down and bullied him into helping us. Based on his behavior, I think he actually knew less about what was going on that we did!

While we uselessly examined more stuff in the room, the front door opened and three orange guys burst in while a yellow dude pushing a water cooler came in behind them. They told us not to move and to drop our weapons. The heat-powered girl set one on fire. Internal Security and one other guy tried to bluff them. One player decided I was still part of the problem here and tried to convince the other players to turn on me. (In my most sarcasm-heavy tone, I said… “oh yeah… like the middle of combat is just the perfect time for the party to back stab each other.” She backed down.) I used my mutant freezing powers to cool down the yellow guy. Heat-girl got shot badly… then accidentally melted one of our party member’s hands off. A flash bomb went off… and when we could finally see again, the two would-be bluffers were gone and the water cooler was knocked over.

Mr. “Internal Security” is to the far right. The other guy that arrived to the briefing on time is in the middle. The guy that I thought had arrived with me is on the left.

Now, we’d been told up front that the game was unfair and that we wouldn’t have any idea what was going on. I didn’t feel like interacting with anything at this point because everything seemed deadly, so I took the relevant mission stuff and walked out. (I bullied the ultraviolet guy to help me carry a broken camcorder thing.) The remaining party members argued about what to do while heat-girl complained that her character was useless. I just walked straight back to the briefing room and left them behind.

I put all the stuff back into the briefing room box. Nothing seemed to happen, so I told the game master that I’d gone back to work. He agreed to that. The other party members came back and put their stuff into the box… and then while they were arguing, they got debriefed…. and then sent back to get the memory crystals of that cleaning robot. I was effectively out of the game while they went and took care of that… then they returned, got debriefed again, and then got sent to the hospital for cybernetic parts. The game master then called my character back to the briefing room where I was asked to recount everything I’d seen… and the game was then completely over.

For what the game master seemed to be trying to do, he implemented it relatively well. The players still did not take to it, though– several of them were clearly peeved. This was basically a one room scenario where everything was almost a complete mystery… and none of us seemed to be able to do anything constructive. (We’d all need to make skill rolls to put our shoes on and we’d have a serious chance of failure.) I think our collective response (besides turning on each other) was to gradually just shut down. If anything and everything can kill you regardless of how well anyone plays, that’s just too oppressive and painful from a gaming perspective no matter how much ironic dark humor it is supposed to have.

Here are three things that might have improved the session in my opinion. One: if several people had died in entertaining ways and then were quickly brought back into play with some sort of signal that this is typical in this game, maybe we would have all relaxed a bit more and played along for the laughs. Two… I think we could have been at least allowed the illusion of hope and progress before we were utterly humiliated. And three… I think the player vs. player suspicion stuff could have been engineered a little better instead of just seeming to emerge due to the players just not knowing anything substantial about what was happening. I like this game a lot, though, and I think I would enjoy running any of the adventures published for it back in the eighties if I had the chance.

11 responses to “Paranoia at Gamers of Winter 2013

  1. phantomwhale January 29, 2013 at 6:40 am

    I got back into Paranoia recently – picking up the new 25th Anniversary edition and the reprint of the classic 80’s adventures updated. The updated rules really help polish back the great parts of the game without brining back some of the too-much crunch or over-the-top puns in the earlier editions.

    I have found it hard to get players into the spirit of Alpha Complex, and GMing this well with new players has been tougher than I’d thought. That said, the book offers some great hints on how to get the players to backstab each other and giving them enough rope to hang themselves without being unfair or just outright vindictive.

    It really did sound like some of the players didn’t really have the setting / style explained to them at all – whilst Paranoia thrives on bureaucracy gone mad and mis-information, but not actually KNOWING that it thrives on mis-information means people can often not “get it”.

    If you ever get the chance to play “Stealth Train” – a true modern paranoia adventure classic – I’d encourage you to do so. It’s a masterpiece of Paranoia, and one of the few adventures I’m keen to run AGAIN, just to see how another group handles it.

  2. benbr January 29, 2013 at 7:28 am

    I used to love playing this gam with Arthur Erickson and friends in the late eighties. You have relax and goof off and accept that in Paranoia the computer always wins! I also loved the robot extension pack if you can find that.

    • jeffro January 29, 2013 at 8:17 am

      Arthur showed me his boxed Paranoia set– I love the covers on the three booklets. Alas, he wouldn’t let me look inside the referee’s manual…!

      • earlburt January 30, 2013 at 9:37 pm

        I still aspire to run a good Paranoia game, but I think it’s one of tougher settings to get right. I actually can’t imagine a more ranting task as a GM. But even fumbling through as adolescents in the 80s, it WAS super fun. I never really knew how to go about completing a mission to the Computer, my job, and my societies’ satisfaction… but I knew to try not to get in trouble with them, and somehow that made for a fun game.

  3. RogerBW January 29, 2013 at 9:49 am

    In the traditional game, you should be in danger of running out of clones before you even leave the briefing room. :-)

    • Jason Packer January 29, 2013 at 2:16 pm

      See, that’s how we played it as well, back in the day. For all that we rarely got out of the briefing with any lives left, there were some moments that stuck with me – as when one of our players was issued “a firkin of neutronium.” We went off to get a dictionary (hey, I’m old!) and look up what a firkin was. Looking now, I see that there were many possible answers, but the one we found at the time was “a quarter of a barrel” or roughly 9 gallons of the most dense stuff in the universe.

      Really set the tone for the game.

  4. Robert Eaglestone January 31, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Sounds like the mutual-suspicion angle could have been played up a bit. Going into a room where nothing seems to be what you’re looking for sounds like a set-up; since the game is called Paranoia, there would have to be elements in the scenario which would make the meaninglessness of the room meaningful.

    Someone is staging an ambush, or a kidnapping, or a rescue, or an escape. Or someone staged that, but security was notified and a counter-trap was set. Or security supposedly found incriminating information at the target location, but someone managed to switch out the map, so perhaps there was something to that…. but wheels within wheels are hard to do in a one-shot scenario.

    • jeffro January 31, 2013 at 11:12 am

      Reading up on Paranoia in various issues of Space Gamer, I see that we did not leverage the secret society angle of the game. That would have given us a structural reason justifying mutual suspicion and our general inability to cooperate.

  5. Robert Eaglestone January 31, 2013 at 11:05 am

    As an aside, I can totally see running a Paranoia scenario using Traveller.

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