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Paranoia (ex-XP) Reviewed


A Historical and Political Review of Parnoia XP; or "How I learned to stop worrying and love the War on Terror"
The recent debauchle where a rat fink bastard reported Mongoose to Microsoft and forced them to rename Paranoia XP; at the moment to just plain Paranoia but we'll see what it eventually becomes, has reminded me I meant to make a brief rant about Parnoia XP for quite a long while now.
Paranoia.. what a great game, what a spectacular history, what a sad series of tragic events that have constantly plagued this game; the greatest of which is its fall of reputation into a mindless "Zap!Bang!Pow!" type of cartoonish humour game.
What many don't know (other than real Paranoia fans of course) is that the very earliest beginnings of Paranoia weren't as a humourous game at all.  The original Alpha complex was meant to be a totally dystopian postapocalyptic nightmare with 1984 as its primary influence.  The Paranoia was real, not for laughs.
But it very quickly evolved into a game of black humour, still very dark, but with the kind of amusing elements creeping in that we have come to know and love in Paranoia.
The  high point was the second edition of Paranoia; a game that poked fun in a very topical way at the very real "paranoia" of the age.  One thing that has to be remembered is that Paranoia as a game was very much a product of its time; the 1980s. The grand finale of the cold war where the 60s were long since past and it was once again cool to hate commies. Where movies like Red Dawn and TV miniseries like "The Day After" struck terror in north americans' imaginations with scenarios of Russian Invasion forces or Nuclear Annihilation.

And if you were a rare thinker in that decade, you had to despise the Reagan government and its ability to manipulate people with these fears.  The "evil empire" of the USSR, painted as an enemy capable of anything, which of course justified absolutely anything the government had to do to stop them. Anything from trying to overthrow the legally chosen governments of Grenada or Nicaragua, supporting anti-communist death squads in El Salvador, spending billions on a program to make space lasers that could shoot down nukes, or funding dictators like Saddam Hussein (he was America's great friend back there, remember), and sending Donald Rumsfeld over to Baghdad to shake the great Pres. Hussein's hand and sell him weapons of mass destruction so that he could slaughter the Kurds.
And naturally, if you disagreed with these things, you were a "New York liberal", a pinko who was soft and weak and didn't understand the "Very Real Danger" that little children and old women in El Salvador represented; a muddled intellectual whose sympathy for things like "human rights" would lead to the downfall of the American way.  In other words, you were a traitor.
Paranoia was great because it mocked that very mentality, and created a world that was the natural conclusion of that sort of jingoism.  It was Doctor Strangelove the RPG; the fear about the "nuclear gap" leads to nuclear war, which leads to survivors living in deep mine shafts, which leads to fear about the "mine shaft gap". Paranoia breeds paranoia.
Eventually the game became mismanaged, and Paranoia became a more mindless kind of absurdist cartoon humour.  This wasn't nearly as fun, or rather it was fun but not sustainable, so Paranoia disappeared.  Its last edition was bad, and the last sourcebooks of that edition were very very bad.  If Paranoia had been a TV series you'd say it "jumped the shark" (the term used for a once-good TV series that reaches a point where it becomes irredemably stupid), and as such perhaps Paranoia was not remembered with as much fondness as other classic dead RPGs.  Most people who've never played Paranoia, or who only got to play it when it was already on its last legs, only think of it as a game where "everyone tries to blow up everyone else for being traitors".
But now, Paranoia XP is back. The system has been fixed to be better than ever, and the setting updated. Most of what Mongoose has done with Paranoia is brilliant, but in one very BIG way they chickened out.
The brilliant parts are in the system and the design. The game is mechanically better than any previous edition. Having learnt from D20, Mongoose made a system with one basic mechanic; and also kept all mechanical elements as simple as possible.  In terms of deisign they added two very special features that have made the game especially good.

The first is the multiple "play styles".  You can choose from "straight", "classic", or "Zap!". The first being a purely black -humour way to run in the style of the first edition, the kind of Dr.Strangelove style.  The second is the classic silly-but-not-stupid kind of game that was Paranoia 2nd edition; my favourite style of play and the previous edition that produced the finest source material for the game. And the third is the totally-silly cartoon style that was the last edition.
The other brilliant addition to the game is the use of Perversity Points. Each player starts with a pool of these points, that they can spend on a one-to-one basis to give themselves a bonus to any skill check, or to give a bonus to any other player's skill roll, OR to give as a PENALTY to any other player's skill roll.  Thus the concept of betrayal and competition reaches a new height, where players carefully manage their perversity points to try to royally fuck over their fellow troubleshooters at the most critical moment, or to help their allies in the party when it serves their purposes for that ally to succeed (probably to fuck over some other player who's an enemy).
These elements are all fantastic.  There is one element that was a cop-out, though, and that was the setting.  They've definitely tried to update Paranoia, adding things like the black market called "C-bay" where you bid on mostly useless items, the Computer's efforts to hunt down illegal "file sharing" (the sharing of secret computer files), the "XP" in the title (and later "Service Pack 1"); that sort of stuff. But Mongoose chose to wimp out on the really big issue: they didn't make the game about the "War on Terror".

The farce called the "War on Terror" is our own modern day commie-hunt. Its the key issue of the moment, and the current excuse for the American government to violate international law, strip its own citizens of their rights, commit acts of torture or disrupt foreign governments.  And of course, the justification to quash dissent.  To disagree with the importance of the "War on Terror" in the United States is to be unpatriotic at best, and a traitor at worst.  If you dare to question the policies of the Bush gang, the "Terrorists will win".
The original Paranoia game was so brilliant because it satirized the Reagan government's use of paranoia about communism to control the american people; and the new Paranoia game had a golden opportunity to do the same about the Bush regime.  In a way, it makes sense that the 90s was a bad decade for Paranoia, because America was in-between the "evil empire" and the "axis of evil", it was a confusing time for Americans, they weren't totally clear on who they were supposed to hate, or why they were supposed to obey.
Now its crystal clear again, the same gang of motherfuckers who were in power way back when they elected a totally senile ex-actor mental lightweight as their puppet are the ones who are running the show now with the idiot dauphin of the director of the CIA as the new puppet.  Its a very good time to be paranoid in America, and I just wish Mongoose had grown a pair and played that to the fullest.
Ah well, there's still time. And other than its tiptoeing around the real source of the zeitgeist of our age here and now in this Foul Year of our Lord 2005, Mongoose has done a very good job with their game.  It will be better if their collective testicles finally descend and they start getting politically relevant, but at least they have created an adequate vehicle for DMs everywhere to create their own relevant modern political parody.

RPGPundit July 14 2005

Mr. Analytical:
Actually the "straight" game is just that... playing Paranoia but not for laughs.  The Dr. Strangelove-style game would probably suit the classic style better.

The straight play style is Kafka and Stanislaw Lem and The Great Leap Forward and all other situations in which bureacracy comes to terrorise the lives of ordinary folk.  It's bleak, it's dark, it's absolutely unique in RPGs.

I notice this because I think that the idea of the straight play style is an absolute stroke of genius and instantly turns a rather creaky comedy game into something far more interesting.

Agreed, Mr A, but the one time I tried to pitch that everyone wanted gonzo so I didn't bother.

For me, the game played straight looks a hell of a lot more interesting than what I grew up with, but convincing others tends to be an uphill struggle and convincing anyone with any history of the game is practically impossible I've found.

To me, all three versions have to be seen as humourous in a way; only Straight is supposed to be very dry black ironic humour, whereas Classic is mild gonzo, and Zap is cartoonish looney tunes.

I like Classic best by far, especially if you consider Dr.Strangelove to fall under classic instead of Straight, which I'll concede Strangelove borders somewhere between the two and might fall closer to Classic.



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