Sex, Lies & Holovids: A Paranoia Adventure
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on Wednesday 19 November 2008
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Areala dishes about a fond memory of a game of Paranoia. Security clearance Ultraviolet only (but she knows you'll read it anyway, you traitors...)

Paranoia. You either love it or your hate it, no two ways about it. If you like playing a character whom you know has no chance of survival, if spitting furiously into the optic sensors of danger gets your heart rate pumping, if you know every word to the song "Alpha Complex Uber Alles", and if the phrase "giant radioactive mutant cockroaches" cannot help but bring a smile to your face, then Paranoia is for you.

If the idea of playing in an RPG where there's no character development, you aren't allowed to know the rules, and the Game Master can act in the most capricious, outlandish and blatantly favoritistic fashions known to humanity, then perhaps you should consider playing something else.

A brief overview of Paranoia probably wouldn't go amiss here. As the designers state, Paranoia is a roleplaying game of a darkly-humourous future, where you get six clones of your character because they frequently wind up getting killed in bizarre fashions, a hyper-paranoid Computer watches over everything and everyone looking for evidence of Commie Mutant Traitors to execute, and everyone in this would-be Utopia is out to stab one another in the back over information that they are not supposed to know. Think 1984 crossed with Catch-22, seasoned with the slapstick comedy of the Marx brothers or the Three Stooges, stir in the imaginations of the likes of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, add liberal doses of hard and soft sci-fi, simmer for twenty minutes and serve at room temperature. Voila: Paranoia. Serves four to eight Troubleshooters (whose jobs are to seek out trouble, and then shoot it).

You can't play Paranoia if you get overly attached to your PCs or if you have a penchant for being a rules lawyer. If you enjoy a good argument with your Game Master, Paranoia will leave you frustrated and annoyed. The idea of the game is that you just have to suck it down, no matter how hard things get. You have to think on your toes. You have to remember the Troubleshooter motto: "Stay alert! Trust no one! Keep your laser handy!" But most importantly, you have to entertain everybody. The easiest way to stay alive in Paranoia is to constantly make people laugh. With a good GM, it's not hard.

My gaming group used Paranoia as a handy diversion when we were all getting too bogged down in our serious campaigns and we needed a pick-me-up of sorts. It's difficult to take in large doses, but that's because it isn't meant to be. General consensus is that if your group is left alive after a mission, the Game Master screwed up somehow. I understand that in some groups, even accomplishing the mission you were assigned is a sign of GM weakness, but we never quite took things that far. We loved Paranoia, but we had respect for the stories, especially when someone took the time to craft their own scenarios as opposed to just using something pre-printed from the game store. And so it was with "Sex, Lies & Holovids".

Once again, my brother was behind the GM screen, which only made sense as this was his creation. And because of that, we behaved slightly less like ordinary Paranoia players and tended to play a semi-straight game instead of constantly plotting to kill one another with an inconvenient mission thrown in the way of our backstabbing.

I should point out that we were not told the title of the adventure prior to playing it (players of Paranoia are often left in the dark about a great many things), but this really only enhanced our enjoyment of the scenario, and the shock value at the end was just priceless. As with many adventures, this one started with a summons by a pair of High Programmers who ordered us to locate a certain holovid that is vital to the security of Alpha Complex, our home. We being lowly Red-clearance Troubleshooters are only too happy to obey our superiors, and everything would go swimmingly except for two small problems. First, this holovid we are supposed to find is clearance level Ultraviolet, and thus our mere possession of it is grounds for immediate execution. And second, we're not given any information at all about the holovid itself: no serial number, no information about the subject matter, no idea of who owns it, and no clue about where it is currently. To put this into perspective, imagine that you have been charged with finding a certain copy of a certain DVD that is known to exist within the borders of your own country, except that you don't know the title of the movie, the plot of the movie, any of the actors or actresses who starred in it, or even the rating...all you know is that somebody, somewhere, owns it and your job is to get it back. This sort of thing is actually more common in Paranoia than you'd think.

But we being a group of hardy Troubleshooters are not about to give up that easily. And fortunately it doesn't take long before our friend, The Computer, summons us to a briefing room to discuss the latest fun and enjoyable mission it is assigning to us. Unfortunately, the orders are quite contradictory, advising us to travel to the briefing room as fast as possible, but without running in the halls; move rapidly, but in a slow and orderly fashion. And naturally, directions to the briefing room aren't forthcoming either. Our team spends about ten minutes speed-walking through the halls looking for someone to accost who can tell us where the room is that we're supposed to be heading. Finally, after interrogating every bot and clone we can find and being no closer to a solution than we were at the start, a bunch of Blue-clearance Internal Security members show up to escort us to the proper place (while reprimanding and fining us all for wasting The Computer's precious time).

Before we can enter the briefing room, of course, it is necessary to pass a simple security procedure of placing our thumbs on a scanning pad to verify our identities. This causes no end of problems, as we've all played Paranoia before and are certain that somebody is going to get killed at this point. To get the ball rolling, I volunteer to go first. My scan goes without a hitch, as does the scan of the next player behind me. The third player gets a very nasty (though non-lethal) electric shock from the pad. Player four is equally clear. Player five, however, does not scan as himself, but instead as the traitorous clone John-WOO, who is wanted by The Computer for a compulsive habit of pulling out twin Violet-clearance laser guns and firing wildly into large crowds. Naturally, Internal Security and The Computer are both very keen to know why our Red-clearance Troubleshooter buddy is scanning as an Infrared traitor. Fortunately, Perry comes up with a very entertaining story about how he is, in fact, impersonating Citizen John-WOO, but for the express purpose of serving Alpha Complex and The Computer by performing great deeds in their names so as to make people think John-WOO has reformed himself in the hopes that those traitors who work with John-WOO will believe that he has turned traitor to their treasonous causes and thus exterminate him.

It goes without saying that Paranoia is a game that requires a lot of fast thinking and the ability to lie convincingly through your teeth. Luckily for us, The Computer was quite satisfied with that line of thinking and even rewarded Perry's character with a coupon for extra ColdFun on his next trip through the food line. Lucky clone...

Finally, we get into the briefing room, only to realize that the techs inside are all wearing earplugs. We discover why when the speakers all over the room thunder to life as The Computer's voice assaults us in full 9.4 UltraSurround Modulated glory. The techs are trying to repair the speakers, which are all broadcasting at different volume levels and suffering from some delay, so there's all kinds of wicked reverb. Thankfully we're in the basement, because Michael is yelling at the top of his lungs at us and adding on his own annoying fake-reverb at the end of every sentence. "GREETINGS, TROUBLESHOOTERS... SHOOTERS... OTERS... ERS...!" Hands over our ears, just like our characters, we manage to learn that The Computer has a simple task for us, which is to locate a certain holovid that has gone missing. Nobody is dumb enough to mention our previous meeting with the High Programmers, but we all are positive that it is that holovid. Now, of course, we're in a worse pickle, because two factions want the holovid, and letting either one of them down is going to result in our executions. And, as luck would have it, my own secret society, The Romantics, want very badly to keep that holovid at all costs, which puts me in the very unenviable position of having to decide which two groups I want to irritate at the expense of currying favour with a third. But that's life in Alpha Complex.

The Computer is marginally more helpful than the two High Programmers, however, and gives us the serial number for the holovid as well as its last-known location in BRA sector. Yes, my brother has a warped sense of humour.

Before we can leave for BRA sector, however, there's the small matter of a quick little trip to R&D so that we can test some very valuable computer property. Testing R&D equipment is commonly known as a great way to reduce whole sectors of Alpha Complex to radioactive dead zones, but refusal to work with The Computer on these matters is treason, so we grin and bear it down to R&D.

Loaded down with a diverse array of equipment, including the Alpha Complex equivalent of a 20th century vacuum cleaner that only works properly around 25% of the time (the other 75% of the time it either malfunctioned by blowing dirt all over whatever we were trying to clean with it or else the motor kicked into high gear causing it to adhere to whatever surface it was cleaning), some elbow-rocket-powered jet skates (they were as dangerous as they sound), a Treason Detector (we assumed this was broken, as every time we turned it on the needle dove into the red zone no matter where we pointed Michael assured us after the game session, though, it worked perfectly as it was always surrounded by five citizens of Alpha Complex who all had mutant powers and were members of secret societies, which are both treasonous things to be), and finally a really spiffy prototype holovid player/recorder.

We weren't in BRA sector for very long before Chris managed to use the R&D vacuum to blow a huge amount of dust all over a Green-clearance citizen. Then, after apologizing profusely and attempting to clean him up, Chris accidentally adhered the vacuum to the protesting citizen. R&D would be so pleased that their invention worked.

The other problem we faced were the hordes of Internal Security who were checking each and every holovid device that they could find in an effort to locate the machine that actually made the holovid we were looking for. Needless to say, we were a group of Troubleshooters carrying around a very large, very bulky holovid player/recorder with no serial number that R&D denied having anything to do with which required us to do a lot of fast-talking until we got the bright idea to show the IntSec agents the mission recorder that proved we got the device from R&D and did not, in fact, steal it from its legal owner.

We searched for clues for a while before a commotion arose in a hallway not far from where we were, and we rushed to investigate. What we found was a fairly intense running gun battle between two secret societies: Death Leopard and The Romantics. It quickly became clear that the Romantics had the holovid we were looking for, but that Death Leopard wanted to acquire it very badly. Being a Romantic myself, I drew my gun and started firing at the Death Leopard groupies. The rest of my squad, assuming I had a good reason for suddenly baking targets with my laser, drew their weapons are fired with equal vigor until Death Leopard withdrew and the one remaining member of the Romantics made a madcap dash towards a service shaft in the hopes of escaping.

Ben decided at this point that now would be a good time to test the elbow-rocket-powered jet skates, as they were the only device that would allow us to catch the fleeing Romantic, and promptly rolled a critical failure. Only one of the rockets ignited, causing Ben to spin in a circle for roughly five minutes until the fuel burned out. Ben's clone spends the next ten minutes trying to remain upright without throwing up.

By now, IntSec has shown up and has cordoned off the whole hallway while they investigate. To show they mean business, they have a group of bots begin to paint the corridor blue, making it off-limits to us Red-clearance Troubleshooters, who are forced to return to The Computer and admit that we failed.

Usually in Paranoia, this is grounds for terminations all around, but for some reason, The Computer seems to be in a very forgiving mood today and decides to grant us a second chance: we'll be going back to BRA sector in an effort to set things right.

We're allowed to return to R&D to return their equipment, including the vacuum cleaner with the very angry citizen who has been stuck to it this whole time. He didn't really have a choice, of course, as Chris's clone kindly pointed out to him that he had to come with us, since failure to do so would mean he was stealing valuable Computer property, which is, of course, treasonous... The very nice R&D guy promised the citizen that they could deactivate the device and get it off him and led him off into another room where, a moment or so later, we heard a very loud explosion and observed lots of smoke beginning to waft under the door. Satisfied that our problems were now over, we filled out the proper forms, returned everything to its proper place, and left R&D to go back to BRA sector.

As luck would have it, one of my contacts tells me that the Romantic with the holovid is hiding out in the sewers in an effort to avoid surveillance by The Computer, so after I leave the lavatory after "properly adjusting my jumpsuit to Computer-designed specifications", I suggest that we check the sewers. The GM makes general comments about how we're all a bunch of perverts for wanting to get a look at what's under BRA, and down we go.

After a few minutes, we were going out of our wits, because we kept hearing noises and seeing shadows that seemed to indicate that another party was down there, and before long we discovered how right we were as The Computer had apparently decided in its infinite wisdom that if one party of Troubleshooters looking for the holovid was a good thing, then two parties of Troubleshooters was even better. Perry's character even vanished for a little bit until we found him again, working with this new party of Troubleshooters. Words were exchanged, then lasers were exchanged, and in the end I executed Perry's clone for treason after we had dealt with our rivals. His replacement clone shows up in a few minutes and thanks me heartily for dealing with the obvious bad seed in his clone bank family.

After a while longer of slogging through the sewers and everyone getting irritated with me for suggesting it in the first place, we find the Romantic with the holovid hiding out in a dead-end. After a significant display of force that convinces him it is in his best interest to hand over the holovid, we finally have our hands on the object we were sent to recover. And the serial numbers even match (joy of joys!)

Now, of course, we're all in serious trouble for possessing this Ultraviolet-clearance holovid. In addition, there are at least three competing factions that want it given to them. Thankfully, the guy with the multicorder has been aiming it at everything but the holovid, and we've all paid him off to keep talking loudly and proudly about everything he is recording anytime anybody is discussing anything even remotely treasonous, but we're having all sorts of problems deciding what to do with the vid.

It's only then that David realizes he was in the bathroom while we were returning our equipment to R&D, and he never crossed his item off his character sheet: he's still got the holovid player/recorder...and a devious plan starts to form in our deranged minds, and we decide that, since we're already all traitors, we should just go ahead and watch the thing. And naturally, it winds up being a vid of the two High Programmers who hired us "getting it on" (which is so amazingly against the rules in Alpha Complex that The Computer doesn't even talk about that sort of thing). Now, of course, not only do our clones understand what's going on in the vid, but we're in even more trouble since we were instructed both by The Computer and the High Programmers not to view the holovid. After a short period of discussion, we come to the conclusion that there are entirely too many of us who need copies of this holovid to provide to people other than The Computer or the original High Programmers. It isn't until David points out that this thing he's been carrying throughout the whole mission is both a player and a recorder that we realize we have but one chance to save our skins.

Getting topside as quickly as we can, we clean ourselves off furiously, then go about acquiring some Red-clearance holovids and proceed to use the experimental holovid player/recorder to dub off copies of the holovid to everyone who needs one in addition to the copy we're going to give back to the High Programmers and the original which we will return to The Computer. It's a brilliant plan, and everything works just fine...until a week or so later, when Death Leopard uses their copy to hack into a very public video stream and broadcast it all over the Complex as a very elaborate prank. We never hear from the High Programmers again. And The Computer rounds us all up, demanding to know why the holovid we gave to The Computer several days ago has suddenly and rudely broadcast all over the place.

Naturally, we all point the finger at David's clone who, after all, was the one carrying the holovid player/recorder, and thus was the only person who could have possibly made copies of said holovid. David's clone is swiftly executed, while the rest of us receive promotions to a new security clearance. We are all then promptly terminated for having viewed an Ultraviolet-clearance holovid.

Sometimes, a clone just can't catch a break. But that's life in Alpha Complex. With any luck, our replacements will do better.

All told, it's this kind of session that makes me glad to be a gamer. I can't think of a time when I've laughed more in my gaming life, and I'd encourage anybody who is sick of "hard" roleplaying to invest a little time and energy into a session of Paranoia. Chances are, you'll come out a better gamer for it. And no matter what happens, you'll always have a great story to tell a bunch of other people. :)

Areala, what edition of Paranoia were you playing? Have you had experience with multiple editions? If so, do you have any comments on the differences or maybe a favorite edition?

[ Comment by Sleepy :: 21 Nov : 08:10 ]

At the time, we were playing the 2nd edition, but I have experience with every edition with the sole exception of XP, which I own but have yet to either play or GM.

The first edition of Paranoia was very well done, but 2nd just tightened up the rules a bit and added a larger dose of humour/satire. It's considered "Classic" Paranoia for that reason, as it strikes a very nice balance between the "shoot-everything-that-moves" 5th edition and the almost a little too serious 1st edition. Note that there were no 3rd or 4th editions of Paranoia ever printed. Basically, 1st edition's ruleset was of the opinion that you just had to accept you were all going to die and that was that. 2nd edition altered this so that you knew you were going to die, but it actually might be possible to survive longer than everybody else if you were a quick thinker and were willing to behave in a suitably irresponsible fashion so as to curry GM favour; no GM worth his or her salt wastes a Troubleshooter for making everybody else laugh (unless, of course, by wasting the Troubleshooter, you can make everyone else laugh even harder).

5th edition tried to make Paranoia even wackier, by introducing an enormous number of parodies of 90s popular culture, especially White Wolf's World of Darkness. It also attempted to create an overarching storyline for Alpha Complex, but this was in direct contrast to the way 5th edition was meant to be played which was, as the XP version puts it, "Zap" style. In "Zap" style Paranoia, virtually everything is treasonous, and you don't need a reason to cause a lot of damage or destruction, nor do you care because you know you're going to die whether you do everything right or not. 5th edition also earned a great deal of resentment from me for not featuring the artwork of Jim Holloway, which had been a Paranoia staple for years. Nobody does Alpha Complex and its citizens better than Holloway's eccentric, slightly exaggerated but still very believable style.

While I've not gotten to play it yet, it looks like XP may be the best of all worlds, offering ways to cater to Zap-style, Classic-style, and even Straight-style play groups, which is what we eventually evolved into once we realized that there were actual stories and missions out there that we were not accomplishing, yet that we had paid good money to own and GM for others (especially John Ford's "The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues," which should be mandatory reading for anybody who wants to understand how a "real" adventure with a multi-part storyline can work under Paranoia rules; it really is that good, and the utterly hilarious "Me and My Shadow, Mark IV" which essentially forces the PCs into committing larger and larger acts of treason out of sheer boredom coupled with mind-wrenching fright; anybody who can think on their feet actually has a chance of surviving this one, while those who can't are in for a world of hurt).

2nd edition was always our favorite, though, so that's the ruleset we used up until our group all got out of high school and started moving all across the country to attend college.

Which colleges? I'm sorry, Citizen, that information is not available at your security clearance...

[ Comment by Areala :: 21 Nov : 08:56 ]

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