Flexible Paranoia

Over the years, Paranoia has done a lot of weird things: Introduced capitalism, blown up the Computer, parodied Mad Max and Westworld, unironically used the phrase “it’s 2016” to try and shame GMs into pro-social behavior. Some of these things worked better than others. I’ve been tinkering with my own very different take on Paranoia lately (I’ve talked about it before), and one thing I’ve been thinking about is what elements of Paranoia are necessary to make it Paranoia and what you can shuffle around. The “Post-MegaWhoops” Paranoia of late 2e is generally agreed to be very bad, but nobody minded the introduction of the very overt and pervasive consumer capitalist dystopia of Paranoia XP (in fact, the prevailing opinion seems to be that Paranoia XP’s version of Alpha Complex is the best, and while that’s more to do with how thoroughly detailed it was than with its consumer capitalist dystopian elements, the latter clearly did not turn people off at all, despite being a major change to Paranoia). So what do you need to retain to make something feel like Paranoia, and what you can change?

-The Computer. Possibly the biggest takeaway from the Post-MegaWhoops failure is that Paranoia does not feel much like Paranoia without the Computer around. The Computer is a flexible concept, though. The Computer needs to be able to observe most of Alpha Complex, while also having blind spots that can be exploited by secret societies and Troubleshooters trying to get away with offing troublesome teammates, but that observation can take the form of any combination of cameras, microphones, informants, and Cerebral CoreTechs plugged directly into citizens’ brains. The Computer needs to be in charge of the Troubleshooters, able to have them reassigned, rewarded, and executed basically at-will, but isn’t necessarily in charge of Alpha Complex – it may be explicitly outranked by high-clearance citizens like ULTRAVIOLETs, for example. The Computer needs to be intelligent but insane in the way that only a machine running 500 zettabytes of spaghetti code can be, so that it can slingshot between scary-competent to uselessly negligent to using tacnukes to tie shoelaces as the situation demands, thus ensuring the Troubleshooters seek to interact with this almost-but-not-quite-omnipresent entity as little as possible. The Computer’s unstable nature also allows you to use it as a blue shell, something aimed at the most successful players to prevent their advantage over the others from snowballing. If one Troubleshooter is starting to amass enough influence/XP/material as to dominate the group, the GM can have the Computer pay special attention to that Troubleshooter for any reason or none at all until they’ve been sufficiently hosed to make the game competitive again.

-Troubleshooters. Paranoia is about troubleshooters, people whose job it is to find trouble and shoot it. You can have higher-clearance troubleshooters, but they still need to fundamentally be Troubleshooters. GREEN grunts on the frontlines of a warzone against the Red Menace might find it much easier to find the trouble and much harder to shoot it, but they’re still a team of paranoid backstabbers who shouldn’t be trusted with string, loaded down with military grade weaponry and experimental R&D tech, then sent to kill the enemy, hopefully more than each other, which means they’re fundamentally troubleshooters. Elite BLUE IntSec agents might be more like Judge Dredd, empowered to serve as judge, jury, and executioner with very little oversight from the Computer, but they’re still basically troubleshooters. Plain old RED clearance troubleshooters have a lot of flexibility, too. They can be bottom-rung freelance mercenaries trying to make enough money to pay rent, and so long as they’re still subject to the Computer, that makes fairly little difference. INDIGO, VIOLET, and ULTRAVIOLET play gets trickier, however (as does INFRARED play, although no one’s clamoring to play as a blissed out INFRARED drone). I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it does seem like you’re hardly even playing Paranoia anymore at that point.

-Clones. Any time the action moves somewhere like Outside or outer space where it’s hard to justify new clones showing up to replace the old in a hurry, some kind of contrivance is required to solve this problem. A big part of Paranoia is the lethal slapstick, and in order to keep players playing, that means clones need to be available in decently large quantities (the standard six-pack works) and they need to be delivered to the action in a maximum of five minutes, preferably more like thirty seconds. Contrive as much as you need to in order to make that happen, and don’t feel bad if you need to handwave, for example, why a clone-delivery cannon can fire a capsule containing a fresh replacement to within a few dozen yards of the team’s current position, but cannot fire the team to within a few dozen yards of their objective.

-Security hierarchy. The exact electromagnetic-based security clearances of Paranoia aren’t strictly necessary, but you definitely need something like them. Distinguishing between RED and ORANGE clearance has always been kind of tricky, for example, and the edges between BLUE and GREEN or VIOLET and INDIGO are similarly fuzzy. You can lean into that, with the actual difference in authority between different clearances being as vague as they are vital to avoiding execution, but you could also switch to a new system with a smaller number of more clearly defined ranks. Or you could go the other way and give each of the eight service groups their own independent hierarchies that interact with each other in a confusing and Byzantine way that can result in authority loops where an R&D project lead is outranked by an Armed Forces colonel is outranked by a CPU general manager is outranked by an R&D project lead.

-Speaking of: Service groups and secret societies. These two elements give each Troubleshooter two different sub-cultures they are a part of, one public and one deeply illegal. Each of these two sub-cultures cuts through the security hierarchy, so that a RED clearance PLC worker and a GREEN clearance PLC manager are both PLC, and that gives them something in common, but a RED clearance PLC worker and a RED clearance CPU clerk are both RED clearance, and that gives them a different something in common. And also secret societies have their own internal hierarchies that don’t map to the security clearance hierarchy, so that a RED clearance PLC worker might also be a high-ranking officer in Psion, who can issue commands to lower ranked members of that secret society, even if they’re higher-ranked in official security clearance. Secret society hierarchies take precedence over official security clearance amongst their membership, but mean nothing (and indeed are kept secret) from anyone not part of that specific secret society. Not only do these two fairly straightforward concepts help make different troubleshooters feel unique the same way something like ancestry and class would in D&D, they also make society sufficiently labyrinthine that it becomes basically impossible to keep track of who’s double-crossing who while dressed as each other. And when you can’t keep track of that, the best thing to do is to be paranoid about everyone all the time. Secret societies also provide secret objectives, which are often contradictory to at least one other Troubleshooter’s secret objective, if not to the main mission objective.

-Mutations. D&D classes give characters a unique theme, a role played by service groups and secret societies in Paranoia. But D&D classes also give characters unique powers, and in Paranoia, that’s covered by mutations. Mutations are one more thing you need to keep secret, but they’re also something that’s useful and cool. You want to use yours, but you can’t let other people know you have one. It doesn’t have to literally be a mutation, so long as nearly everyone has one and they’re illegal to have. It could be tech from before the Computer or from alien invaders which the Computer doesn’t understand, or a connection to some kind of cosmic horror that provides eldritch powers (you’d probably tie that one directly to what secret society a troubleshooter is in), or a specific software script that allows the troubleshooter to override the Computer in a certain, specific way, like turning off cameras or taking control of automated turrets or deleting a specific conversation from its memory.

Basically everything else is optional. There’s a lot of elements of Paranoia that are fun and which people like, but which aren’t necessary, like Bouncy Bubble Beverages, or assorted bot types like scrubots or warbots, or standard equipment like lasers and reflec, or taking place entirely underground, or having an item, area, or person’s security clearance indicated by the literal color of the item/walls/clothes. Removing them just because you can would probably be unwise, but nobody ever minds when someone puts Alpha Complex in space, or replaces transbots with manually piloted trains/busses because they want to have train/bus drivers, or when I replace lasers with regular firearms just because I like the dakka dakka noises. On the other hand, people cared a lot when the Computer was gone for like three years.

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