Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Hacking Friend Computer: Making a Custom Game of PARANOIA pt. 1

"The Computer" from PARANOIA
1st and 2nd Edition, by Jim Holloway
®1984 West End Games
Warning: This file is coded  ULTRAVIOLET  clearance. Any citizens of clearance  VIOLET  or lower may not read further. It is Treason for citizens of  INFRARED  clearence to read this warning. If you are of  INFRARED  clearence, please report to a Confession booth for self-termination.

I wanted to talk about building the perfect engine for a campaign of PARANOIA by looking back over the game's history and variations. All of which is probably highly treasonous. But we do it for the glory of our friend The Computer.

This comes out of a conversation I had with Russ from Yum/DM and Iain Wilson from the Roll to Save Podcast, as well as an episode of Roll to Save where Iain Wilson interviewed Allen Varney, author of Send in the Clones and lead developer of the PARANOIA XP edition.

PARANOIA has gone through a lot of editions which have had often radically different approaches to the game's core concept and setting.

  • PARANOIA 2nd Edition
  • [REDACTED; refs unproducts]
  • PARANOIA Troubleshooters / IntSec /High Programmer Edition
  • PARANOIA RED-Clearance Edition

I want to go over the evolution of the game and to discuss what sets the various editions apart, and what is worth hacking from them.

PARANOIA Retrospective 


Cover to PARANOIA, Gamemaster's handbook
Art by James Holloway 
©1984, West End Games
The 1st Edition of PARANOIA released in 1984 was the flagship product of West End Games. Its goal was to develop a futuristic dystopia role-playing game inspired by texts such as Cat's Cradle, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and A Brave New World. It was meant to be satirical of contemporary politics, pop culture, and the hobby of role-playing.

PARANOIA was very specific about the setting. The cause of the Earth's destruction (asteroid strike) , the location of Alpha Complex (there are 100, the largest in Des Moines, Iowa), the date (2281), the origin of The Computer (a repurposed traffic control system) and the cause of its insanity (filling in its knowledge gaps with McCarthyist propaganda and Civil Defense documents) are all clearly documented.

Most of the tropes people familiar with PARANOIA from newer editions, online discussions, or the video game PARANOIA: Happiness is Mandatory are already in place: Characters have six clones; the color-coded security clearance, Lasers, and armor are in place, the omnipresent Computer is there; as are the Secret Societies and Mutant powers. Other things were very different; clones are raised together from infancy in "families," The Computer is not omnipresent, and each replacement clone is briefed on the way to the mission. Alpha Complex is a glittering, clean Utopia. The year is called 194 year of The Computer. 

PARANOIA has bulky ruleset, with characters having eight attributes rated 2-20 with a roll-under mechanic involving rolling a number of d10s based on difficulty. They also had skill purchased along skill trees that are instead a percentile system to use. Overall the system was bulky, but not excessive. The biggest problem was that the complexity of the rules absolutely did not match the tone of the game. 

PARANOIA was intended to be played mostly straight, letting the black humor inherent in the setting and the absurdly out-there encounters carry much of the humor for the GM. It was relatively subtle and understated.

PARANOIA was blessed with an incredible amount of excellent content. Modules such as Send in the Clones, Clones in Space, Orcbusters, Yellow Clearance Black Box, and Hill-Sector Blues created a high bar. The game's only major Sourcebook, Acute Paranoia offered both some additional rules and included some devilishly funny adventures like "Whitewash" and "Me and my Shadow Mk. IV"


Cover to PARANOIA Second Ed., 
Art by Justin Carroll
©1987, West End Games
The second edition of PARANOIA was a major overhaul of the game released in 1987. The system converted to a d20 roll-under system with 8 attributes and shaved down the number of skills substantially, making them into ratings from 0-20 that used the same roll-under die. Characters became a little more fragile as well. The game was much cleaner and simpler than the first edition.

Generally speaking, the run of PARANOIA 2e can be understood as two phases. The Early Phase with the original development team in New York, and then the Late Phase, after the company had to be relocated and the team completely replaced.

During the Early Phase, PARANOIA 2e continued to release a lot of high-quality material like The People's Glorious Revolutionary Adventure and Alpha Complexities. The optional Sourcebook The Compleat Troubleshooter added in the Mandatory Bonus Duties, which added a new dimension to play and the setting.

When West End Games was forced to relocate (for tax reasons), it lost its original development team.  The replacement team had a very different idea about how the PARANOIA line should be developed. They moved from farce and satire to pop-culture loaded pastiche, blended heavily with puns, slapstick, and wacky humor. The Simpsons-like humor of this Late Phase often fell flat. The writing and design was often not up to snuff with the material released a few years earlier. As the line struggled, the quality took a swift, very visible decline.


The Late Phase PARANOIA 2e team eventually released a 3rd edition that they entitled the 5th edition. This edition was designed primarily to spoof the intrigue-laden World of Darkness games, with the PCs working as agents of factions vying for control over Alpha Complex. It was hated by most long term fans of the franchise.

What's your Security Clearance, Citizen? 


Art by James Holloway 
©2004 Mongoose Games 
After several years of being an effectively dead product line, PARANOIA's rights were sold to its original creators in 2004, the majority of whom were now affiliated with Mongoose Games. Mongoose appointed Allen Varney, who had made some of the most outstanding products in the original PARANOIA line to rebuild the line.

PARANOIA XP underwent several tonal and conceptual shifts from the original line:

  • It embraced the idea of the GM and the Players as being in a semi-adversarial relationship. Contrary to previous editions it suggested being arbitrary within the limits of fun, and suggested the goal of PARANOIA was to get the players to entertain the GM, not the other way around. 
  • The PARANOIA 5th Edition was declared an unproduct and at-table discussion thereof is Treason punishable by (PC) death. 
  • The year was changed to 214y.c.
  • The Setting's technology was advanced; PCs carry PDAs with them to record, communicate with the computer, and serve as a homing beacon, creating a genuine Surveillance Society. 
  • Cybernetic implants that record memory are introduced. Rather than having a clone-family waiting for in the wings, Clones are kept in suspended animation until needed. On character death, clones are decanted,  and all the characters' memories are uploaded into the new brain.
  • The detailed history of the disaster that ruined the surface world was omitted. GMs were encouraged to deviate from canon to create a unique vision of Alpha Complex. Possibly excluding the idea of multiple Alpha Complexes.
  • Service Sectors, the divisions that handle different labor operations in Alpha Complex are divided into firms with corporate structure designed to better satirize office politics. 
  • Mandatory Bonus Duties were made a core component of the game.
  • Based on observations of how PARANOIA is played, three styles of play were identified: Straight, Classic, and Zap! Many GMing sections offer clearly demarcated advice on how to encourage a given style, including different character generation and combat procedures.
  • The tone of the game was deliberately moved to be satirical and farcical, moving the tone of the game back to its more "dark humor" rather than "wacky" style of the original PARANOIA and Early Phase PARANOIA 2e. Separating out Zap! style play from the default in particular was a part of an effort to create a specific tone.

Mechanically, PARANOIA XP was further simplified and GMs were encouraged to avoid use of game mechanics in favor of adjudication. It moved as much as possible towards being "Rules-light". Characters have six skills and a number of specializations that modify the value of the skill by +4 or +6 for a d20 roll-under. The character has two attributes, but they are secret and tracked by the GM. Otherwise the PC has a constantly refreshing pool of "Perversity Points" that they may spend to modify any roll. 

Due to the need to release a re-titled version of the game (Microsoft threatened legal action the use of "XP") a slightly streamlined update, PARANOIA Service Pack 1 was released a couple of years after the initial release.

PARANOIA Troubleshooters / IntSec / High Programmers

Cover to PARANOIA Troubleshooters
Art by Chris Quilliams
©2009 Mongoose Games
Collectively referred to as the 25th Anniversary version of PARANOIA, these three self-contained games were released by Mongoose in 2009.

While they were mechanically very similar to PARANOIA XP, they added mechanics like Tics that were designed as a way PCs could earn "Perversity Points" through quirky role playing. Likewise, games included meta game challenges, such as stealing and eating a note in transit to the GM, tricking players into using a specific phrase, etc, that were rewarded with "Perversity Points" and changed the PCs performance evaluation during the debriefing at the end of the game. These pushed the game back towards a sillier "wacky" tone even in Classic play. To ally, it felt closer to Late Phase PARANOIA 2e, although the quality of the writing was much higher. 

PARANOIA Troubleshooters focused on the standard campaign premise. This edition has fewer remarkable modules, but the adventure Mr. Bubbles List is often included in discussions of definitive PARANOIA adventures. PARANOIA IntSec created a police drama style of play that recalled the 1st Edition module HIL-Sector Blues

PARANOIA High Programmers focused on  ULTRAVIOLET  Clearance citizens and their intrigues and manipulation to shape the future of Alpha Complex. 

These editions of PARANOIA removed the Service Sectors, as they were an underutilized concept in the game from its inception and added one more divided loyalty for the PC to track, without the benefits of Secret Societies. 

PARANOIA Red Clearance Edition

Cover to PARANOIA Red Clearance Ed. 
Art by Will Chapman 
©2017, Mongoose Games 
Paranoia Red Clearance Edition was released in 2017 after a kickstarter campaign. It was in many ways a radical reimagining of the game. (Although I have previously owned 1st and 2nd Edition, this was the first edition of PARANOIA I actually played.) 

The Red Clearance Edition rewrote the mechanics of PARANOIA , discarding the 1 to 20 stats and roll under. Instead characters have four attributes, each of which has four subskills. The attributes are rated zero to four and skills are rated negative to positive five. The default character generation system is adversarial, designed to set players against one another to bid for the skill ratings they want, whike inflicting negative skill ratings on others. Attributes are derived from the skills the characters have selected.

 Likewise, players choose 3 personality traits, and then another player gets to invert one of them. These character traits affect the character supply of Moxie a sanity score that depletes as the character is stressed out by no win situations, or stressful ones like having the undivided attention of The Computer. A character who reaches zero moxie has some kind of psychotic break, ideally role-played by the Player.

Dice pools are formed by adding one stat and one skill, and then adding an additional Computer die representing technological assistance. If the dice pool is positive, five and sixes count as successes. If the dice pool is negative, 5 and 6 is count as successes, and everything else cancels out successes.  A five or six on the Computer die counts as a success, but a six also represents the sudden, unexpected, and unwanted attention of The Computer, which ends up costing the player character moxie.

Mutant powers and secret society membership are dealt from a deck of custom cards. In a radical departure from previous editions of paranoia, many of these cards include options where in the character has no secret society membership or no mutants powers, and are in fact loyal, unmutated citizens.

"Jam" Action Card
From PARANOIA Red Clearance Ed.
©2017, Mongoose Games 
Characters have hands of cards representing various moves (called Action Cards) and equipment they may use over the course of the game. The Action Cards represent the players gaining Fiat over the story. For example cards include things like hey helpful infrared do showing up who can be ordered around, or a weapon jam, an explosion, or the character exploiting a nearby malfunctioning device. Some of these cards can be played during the course of an action sequence. This creates a level of player agency well above the usual bounds of traditional role-playing games.

I may go into greater detail about the engine as a part of a review of this edition of the game. However, I will say that the cards control initiative during action sequences, and create another means of backstabbing and sabotage for the game. Entering them into a virtual tabletop like roll 20 requires significant prep time. It took me 4 hours to set up a campaign, and I am unable to export those cards to another campaign..

Aside from the significant mechanical changes, and a change in philosophy that hands the players much more control over the narrative, other changes have been made to the style and structure of the game.

Hygiene-O-Matic 9000 Item Card
From PARANOIA Red Clearance Ed.
©2017, Mongoose Games
Credits have been replaced with a digital point system, XP Points. The computer has gamified everything in Alpha complex. Characters can earn XP Points for doing their duty, for being cheerful, for reporting insubordinate and treasonous activities, taking on extra duties, etc. These  not only allow characters to pay their upkeep and purchase equipment, they are also used for character development.

Red Clearance Edition takes the conceps of cybernetics and expands them greatly. All characters have a series of brain modifications called Core-Tech that turns each and every one of them into a living recording device and camera as long as they are within the range of The Computer's wi-fi. They may also download information such as maps, and have HUDs with information such as another characters name displayed at all times. A character can have new skills and abilities loaded into their brain increasing stats in exchange for XP points. And even have software upgrades to things like their eyes allowing them to see in the dark.

Treason is also gamified. Instead of the invisible 1 to 20 treason rating that was used to determine when the character will be executed, characters are now awarded Treason Stars for insubordinate behavior. The number of Treason Stars will serve as a measure of how much of a pariah the characters treated as, and their execution will be ordered at five stars. Executing a character with five Treason Stars carrirs significant XP reward, which really incentivizes characters reporting each other's treason.

"Psion" & "No Secret Society" 
Secret Society Cards
From PARANOIA Red Clearance Ed.
©2017, Mongoose Games

A number of the secret societies have been removed for seriously changed in the context of the updated technology. Because cold war references are now seeming parochial, the importance of Communists in the game has been vastly reduced. Instead, much of the computers fewer is aimed at "Terrorists," making the satire a little more contemporary. This has also required the removal of several other tropes such as confession booths.

The system recognizes the three styles of play Zap!, Classic, and Straight. However, it's definition of what is Classic play has shifted somewhat towards wackier humor reminiscent of late era second edition and the 25th anniversary edition content. The cards reinforce this, with things like literal jam floods, explosive red barrels left around; slapstick and pastiche having baked into the game, undermining  any attempt at playing the game Straight or with a darker tone of Classic.

In general while PARANOIA Red Clearance Edition can be played without going into a Zap! style, it must be played in a sillier style.

My Objective 

What I'm looking for is a quick and simple way to play PARANOIA online. I also want a game that I can play with a darker tone. There will be at a certain amount of farce and satire, but I'm not interested in having a huge amount of slapstick or pop culture intruding on my game.

Obviously, I could pick an Edition to do that PARANOIA XP is the closest one to what I'm looking for. However, there are elements of the minimalist rule set, not to mention the changes in setting in PARANOIA Red Clearance Edition that I rather like. I also would love to be able to tap some of the classic modules of first and second edition, which means balancing some of the changes between editions. 

So rather than settle for one edition, I'm going to talk about how I'm going to hack together a custom version of PARANOIA for my purposes.

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