Thursday, April 23, 2015

12 Games April: Paranoia (Week 4)

The time has come for my final thoughts on this month's game, Paranoia.  This has actually been one of the harder reviews I've written as even describing this system is fairly difficult, but I'm gonna do my best so here we go.

The Good:
First and foremost I would like to say I LOVE this setting.  I'm all for tongue and cheek humor and Paranoia has that in spades.   The themes and tones are so rich that all I need is a basic goal like "go check out this room across the complex" and because of the sheer insanity that Alpha Complex is that will fill an entire session worth of game play.  If I have a crazy idea for something I can just do it and that goes double for my players.  I found myself saying "sure why not let's roll to see if this blows up in your face" way more than I expected.

Another big advantage is the fact that the writers of Paranoia know that their setting is 90% of makes this game special and actually encourage GMs to use whatever system they want meaning that if you don't want to learn new mechanics you don't need too.  That said, the system the game actually uses is so simple, elegant, and streamlined there's almost no effort in learning what is provided.  It relies heavily on GM digression and once I got the hang of it (after only one session) I was running the game without even needing to look at the book.  This made sure game play was fast and fluid.

The Bad:
This morning I was asked if we would be playing a long form version of this game and that's where the biggest issue with Paranoia comes in.  While the game does provide rules for a more serious and longer form game (as well as a much less serious and zany game) everything that makes standard Paranoia special is either changed or removed.  While I admire the writer's attempt to add a dial for how crazy or serious the game can be, the options provided are basically three different games entirely that all take place in a dystopian future run by an all seeing AI.  When you combine this with the fact that the setting itself can be picked up and added to any system you like it turns into the fact that I can write a "Paranoia-ish" game in a system I prefer that it already better equipped for longer running games.

There's a couple most fundamentals that don't really mesh well with a longer form game.  The first being the fact that Paranoia is all about back stabbing and getting your friends killed before they kill you.  While this can be fun once or twice my group isn't really adversarial towards each other and would rather work together than against each other.  This feel I think would me much stronger in a long form game when players want tog get attached to their characters and become invested.  Even in the four sessions we played my group was voicing their opinion on how this is for as a one or two time thing, but just don't have a desire to work against each other week after week knowing that for just about no reason at all the could be killed.

The final issue for longer play comes in with the ideology of the game itself.  There are three core rules to Paranoia: The GM is always right, Know nothing, Be entertaining.  Being entertaining isn't the problem, but the other two have a few issues.  While I agree that the GM should in fact always be right, in Paranoia this is cranked to eleven.  The GM rolls all the dice (as players don't know the rules and wouldn't know what to roll or why) and interprets all the outcomes.  If the GM says you died, even for no reason at all, then you're dead on to the next clone.  Sure you can play more like a standard table top game, but as this so tied in the over all feel of the game I would argue you're then playing a Paranoia-ish game again.  The way GMs are given power within this system remind me of "gaming of old" when an adversarial GM was the norm and bribery could be more effective than actual game role playing. The second rule, "Know nothing" has issues I think you can see coming.

With players not knowing the rules and not in control of their dice, the first few sessions can feel more like a "choose your own adventure" book than an actual table top game.  This does well for giving players the feel that Paranoia strives for, but in a longer game players need to know the rules and have at least a little control.  Personally I feel the "Know nothing" rule is there so GMs can run rail roads and do as they please while hiding behind dice roles and claiming that it's a result of the rules.  Additionally, if the players are part of a long form game and the GM has actually been following the rules they will eventually figure out the mechanics under the hood and rule 2 fades away.

Final Thoughts:
So on to my final thoughts and feelings about Paranoia.  There is so much I love about this game, but it just isn't meant to be played for long.  I will definitely keep this in my back pocket if my group needs a pallet cleanser and is probable the best "session zero" game ever.  With characters being completely randomized and the fact that players aren't expected to know the rules you can have prospective players ready to play after the amount of time it takes to them them what they are playing.  A session of paranoia can tell you a lot about a player including their willingness to go along with the GM, their creativity in odd situations, and their team work capabilities.

GMs can also use this as a tool to train your more troublesome players.  I will definitely say that doing so leans much more on the "stick" method of the "carrot", but that doesn't mean it's not effective. Have a player that constantly questions your ruling? See what happens when they're thrown in  a game where questioning the GM can have you killed on site.  Have someone that only wants combat and ignores the rest of the game? Throw them in a situation where the color of the floor you're standing on is just as deadly as a pistol.  Now as with any time negative reinforcement is used there can be blow ups and the most difficult of players might just up and "rage quite" storming off from the table, but personally I don't want someone that can't have a sense of humor or let things go at my table anyways.

 As a player this game can help you test out a GM as well.  Giving the GM absolute power can very easily inflate and highlight bad GM habits that other games reign in.  IF the GM finds out he can kill players for no reason and immediately chooses to kill everyone's clone for no reason you know you have someone that wants to be against their players or at the very least abuses power the second they get it.

In short I have to say that Paranoia is worth being in any gamer's library, just don't expect to be playing it all the time or for very long.  It's worth picking up for the setting alone and the game itself is a great tool for GMs.

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