Playing with Paranoia

A couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to be the gamesmaster at a game of Paranoia. I want to tell a story about that game. Let me set up the situation:

For those not familiar with the game and/or are afraid to click on Wikipedia links (appropriate, as you are about to see), Paranoia is a tabletop role-playing game. It’s set in a darkly humorous dystopian future, in the depths of Alpha Complex, in which the players’ characters serve the all-wise Computer. The Computer is your Friend, Citizen!

In most role-playing games (RPGs), the players work together to accomplish a task. Not so in Paranoia. It’s one of the few player-versus-player (PvP) RPGs I know of; the only other one I can think of is Amber.

Paranoia players are given several goals. These goals often contradict each other, and usually target fellow party members. The Computer has an unreasoning fear of secret societies (especially Communists), mutant powers (the Computer can’t control them), and traitors in general. The players typically advance by demonstrating to the Computer that one of their fellow players is a treasonous Commie mutant traitor.

I enjoy playing Paranoia, both as gamesmaster and as player. The reason why is that the game penalizes cautious behavior, and rewards extravagant actions. The character who carefully walks along a corridor hunting for Commie traps every step of the way is likely to be executed by the Computer for delaying the mission. The character who runs down the corridor, throwing all their grenades into the air, screaming “All Glory to the Computer” is likely to be promoted; or at least their clone replacement will be.

All this is preliminary to the story.

At the start of the game, I tell the players:

“In the Paranoia games I ran 25 years ago, players would exchange notes with the gamesmaster. This will not be necessary in today’s game, because none of you will attempt to be sneaky or deceptive in any way. In a completely unrelated note (I pull out my cell phone and show a sign with my cell number), my mother has just discovered text messaging. She’s constantly sending me text messages. Perhaps you will take inspiration from this and send text messages to your loved ones. If, just after you send a text to your loved one, my phone should beep indicating that my mother sent a text, that is doubtless a coincidence and should be ignored by everyone.”

If you don’t get the double-think behind that announcement, then Paranoia is not the game for you.

I hand out character descriptions to the players:

“Inside these envelopes are your character’s statistics. It includes your character’s Service Group, which you can share with your teammates. It does not include your Service Group’s secret mission, because none of your Service Groups has a secret mission. It does not include your Secret Society’s mission, because none of you is a member of a Secret Society. It does not include any rumors, because listening to rumors is treasonous. It certainly does not include your mutant power, because none of you is a mutant.”

If you haven’t guessed by now that every character has a secret Service Group mission, that every character is a member of a Secret Society, that every character listens to rumors, and that every character has a mutant power, then Paranoia is _definitely_ not the game for you.

“In a perfect world, you could freely share the information on these pages with all your teammates. However, there are Commie mutant traitors everywhere, so it’s probably safer for you to keep the pages hidden.”

We play the game. The players often text their parents. My mother often sends me text messages. The majority of these messages are notes to the Computer to let it know of some treasonous action or other.

Then one player sends me a message: “Friend Computer, I have definitive proof that Funny-G-IRL is a traitor!” He includes a picture. And I lose it. I start laughing. If you’ve known me for a while, you know that when I really laugh, I start to whoop. I’m whooping for about five solid minutes.

The player texted me a copy of the other player’s character sheet, which of course included a description of Funny-G-IRL’s mutant power. Even though this is theoretically against the rules (the character sheets are not part of the game world), this fitted so well with the meta-gaming nature of Paranoia. It was not possible 25 years ago; to do the same thing a player would have had to steal another player’s character sheet, which is definitely a no-no. But sending a picture was so outrageous, and yet so fitting in with Computer-like technology. And it was Funny-G-IRL player’s fault for not keeping her sheet hidden.

I finally calmed down. I decided that the Computer was not about to have Funny-G-IRL executed for an out-of-game action. However, I awarded the reporting player a commendation. If that player’s character had survived (a rarity in Paranoia), they surely would have been promoted.

For the rest of the game session, that player continued to text me pictures of other player’s character sheets. You’d’ve thought that the other players would have learned from Funny-G-IRL. Or perhaps they just trusted their fellow players. This is always a mistake in Paranoia.

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