Have you ever died laughing? I have. Multiple times. Once it was because I talked back to a giant AI-powered tank known as a warbot. Once it was because I stepped in a hallway that was painted a different colour than the one I was wearing. Once it was because I hit a random control button on a panel that happened to be the ejector seat, and a different button on the panel controlled the roof opening.
All of these stories (and more) are from the Origins Hall of Fame classic RPG Paranoia, originally designed and written by Greg Costikyan, Dan Gelber and Eric Goldberg in 1984. As Dungeons & Dragons claimed its inspirations from various fantasy novels, Paranoia stemmed from a mix of various pieces of dystopian fiction such as Brave New World, 1984 and Logan’s Run. But it cut the darkest elements of the setting with a thick thread of humour that ran the gamut from Brazil to the Marx Brothers and Warner Brothers cartoons depending on the play group and edition.
Paranoia is set inside Alpha Complex, a supposed utopia run by an all-seeing, all-knowing Friend Computer. Alpha Complex is so perfect and the Computer so unassailable that it needs teams of Troubleshooters to handle problems caused by outside forces trying to destroy Alpha Complex. These forces include imperfect clones with mutant powers, outsider Commie terrorists and insidious secret societies looking to bring Alpha Complex down from the inside. (Spoiler alert: Every PC at the table is both a mutant and a member of a secret society.)
Every sacred cow in tabletop roleplaying is slaughtered in Paranoia.
Every sacred cow in tabletop roleplaying is slaughtered in this game. Player characters die multiple times over the course of a session only to return as their clone version. The GM is encouraged to be unfair and capricious. Players are encouraged to pass notes to screw over other players. The characters acquire dangerous devices that are as likely to blow up in their faces as to work properly even once. Every scenario is set up as a no-win situation as the players are caught between the impossible orders of Friend Computer, the intrigues of higher-ranking members of Alpha Complex and the folly of advanced technology. How has such a contrarian game lasted for nearly 40 years?
Reading Paranoia as a young designer was a revelation. Underneath the rules and the puns was an idea that’s stuck with me for decades; players make the game fun. The rules are there to facilitate fun but, if they get in the way, have the fun first and worry about the rules later. Telling the story is the key to a good game. In many ways, it was “say yes or roll the dice” long before its time.
If the rules get in the way, have the fun first and worry about the rules later.
The game also clearly sets its stakes. Everybody is out to get everyone. Characters have multiple clones to use during a session. So long as that’s clear from the word go, it gives permission for players to be as devious and tricky as possible. It’s the same wicked fun to be had as a game of Munchkin. Your rival dies, you die, you all laugh and come back in a few minutes more-or-less the same.
The most recent edition even uses a bluffing mechanic similar to Coup during combat rounds to reinforce the titular themes of the game. Play a facedown card and say you go first. If someone catches you, they go first instead. If you were right, they fall down the initiative order so everyone else shoots before they do. The card-based play of the current edition cuts away a lot of rules crust to turn the game into an almost board game-like experience. Fewer rules means more laughs, more violence and, naturally, more dead clones.
Death in RPGs is often some combination of dramatic and traumatic. Because of the clone system, it’s expected. Knowing that a character comes back makes death part of the flow of the game. It lets players set up blackout gags and little post-death grace notes. It also has an interesting, if anecdotal, effect on players. The friends I’ve played Paranoia with have had an easier time dealing with character death after our one-shots. Dying six (or more) times in a row helps deal with that loss one way or another.
The one-shot nature of the game helps as well. There have been attempts at campaigns and longer-form stories, but the RPG remains in its most powerful form as a single session. It shows players who only play Dungeons & Dragons how different things can be. It’s easy to set up a one-shot between campaigns or when the regular crew can’t all make game night. Paranoia has so many elements to sample that it can shape a table that plays it into a different game or a different genre. A spoonful of laughs helps players expand their horizons.
The satire remains sharp as ever. The original poked fun at Cold War fears of secret communists everywhere that echoes the ‘50s-that-never-was future of Fallout. The new edition released around the turn of the century adjusted the satire to the surveillance state coming out of 9/11. Terrorists became the new external threat as the game tried to balance cartoon violence with darker attempts at satire. The most recent edition turns Alpha Complex into a post-capitalism hellscape with treason star ratings and opportunities to buy extra clones that are thinly-disguised pyramid schemes. Even R&D is more like Craigslist or eBay, with that dangerous prototype equipment now being slightly used.
How does Paranoia reconcile these different versions of its dark future? It doesn’t. Alpha Complex is built on revisionist history so any turns into less popular areas - such as a time when Friend Computer shut down or an edition desperately published during the waning days of West End Games - are conveniently ignored. They could have happened. Or not. Alpha Complex has always been here and will be here. To say anything otherwise would be treason of the most unpleasant sort.