This all takes place in an unspace over a week; the time and distance coalescing into what seems like a straightforward interview. I’ve met James & Grant before* but I haven’t met Paul, so he remains a 2D sprite for the duration of this.
These three men are rebooting PARANOIA, the RPG. It’s a game I’ve never played, but have heard a lot about. And with three men whose brains I admire guiding its future, I’m excited. Indeed, if you want a vision of the future, imagine a reboot stamping on a human face – forever.
We meet in the stark light of a Google Docs. I’m curt enough with introduction, but mostly it’s logistical.
My first question is the bog-standard of interview openers – “What is this game (and why is it out to get me)?”
James is first to answer. “Paranoia is a humour RPG from 1984, in both senses of ‘1984’. It’s a dystopian SF game set in the post-disaster bunker-cities where the human race now lives and clones, under the ever-watchful eye of your friend the Computer, which keeps everyone safe against commies, mutants and traitors.”
His voice is compelling: it’s measured and unobtrusive. You get the impression he would read a brilliant bedtime story, albeit one stuffed with corruption and death.
“You are a Troubleshooter, meaning that you find trouble and shoot it on behalf of the Computer. Mostly that means hunting out mutants, traitors and members of secret societies. Unfortunately you are at least one of the above, and that means there’s a price on your head.
“The upside: if you get shot by one of your comrades, which you will, you have five more clones of yourself ready to roll out. So you can get shot lots more times by your comrades.
“The downside: the Computer is completely insane.”
There’s a slight shift in tone. I imagine a readjusting of posture.
“At least, that was the classic version. We’re rebooting it (“You traitors! Rebooting anything is punishable by execution!”), bringing it up to speed with a post-9/11, post-Snowden, post-Google Glass world. Paranoia has always had a reputation as a game that’s more fun to read than to play, and so we’re completely overhauling the mechanics to emphasise the chaos and inter-party tension that make the game’s core narrative so unique and enjoyable.”
Grant chimes in. He’s peppier – has a real enthusiasm for almost everything he talks about which surges in his voice.
“‘More fun to read than play’ is an interesting one,” he says. “In all my work on it so far I’ve tried to make it fun to read, but with an eye to get players thinking ‘oh man, that sounds GREAT, I can’t wait to try that.'”
Paul’s sprite nods along.
“The best games of Paranoia that I ever played were always ones that ended up light on the rules and heavy on the inter-party antagonism, on the one-upmanship and on the roleplaying of a group of barely loyal characters who are, probably, quite aware that their world doesn’t work the way that it should but who can’t really do anything about it. Living in Alpha Complex, the self-contained underground bunker city that James described, is a little bit like living in a psychotic Butlin’s, somewhere where participation and enjoyment is demanded to such a degree that neither is ever going to be possible.”
This is why I’ve been wanting to play this for some time. The conversation draws to a close, so it’s on with the next question.
Are you enjoying these questions? You might enjoy this.
“I love Dick** – ‘The Second Variety’ is a masterpiece in paranoia. How heavily is this edition influenced by literature of his kind?
“Honestly, if I had to pick a sci-fi inspiration,” says Grant, “it’d be the Red Dwarf books (and the show), because they’re about a group of useless, selfish bastards who all hate each other and are hanging out because there’s no viable alternative. Also because comedy.”
James is next.
“I wrote a paragraph of a bit this afternoon and realised I’d reinvented Fahrenheit 451. It’s probably sacrilege to say I’ve never worshipped Mr Dick; my reference points for the game are more Kafka, Joseph Heller, Hunter S Thompson and THX-1138–the original, before they messed it up with CGI effects.”
“James has described Paranoia as THX-1138 meets the Marx Brothers, a description which I will never ever be able to escape, so perfect it is,” says Paul. “It’s as slapstick as it is sci-fi. I guess Dark Star is in there somewhere, as well as maybe a touch of Brazil.”
“Gilliam! A perfect segue into my next question – I am holding out hope for a secret services Ms Jackson somewhere in the game. Who is your favourite Python persona?”
James shakes his head.
“That joke about Monty Python jokes was a joke.”
Grant looks quizzical.
“Do you mean that woman from the Outcast song?”
“No, from this sketch – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytJCuLh82cU ,” I say, somehow parsing hyperlinks into my speech. Okay, so the metaphor breaks down a little here.
“Oh, right,” Grant says.
Paul manages to turn this back into a useful train of enquiry.
“Well, I rather liked the argument sketch. I imagine a few things in Alpha Complex function this way.”
I’m keen to pick up the pace again, or at least the relevance – “So what’s the best thing about a game where you play multiple folks?”
James is careful to clarify.
“You only play your clones one at a time. Although that does give me an idea for an adventure…”
I know this is an area of interest for Grant. “I guess, as ever,” he says, “it gives you a freedom to explore things with your character like exciting plots, or secret society intrigue, or unshielded reactor bays, without worrying about what’s going to become of them next game.”
James elaborates, “Really it’s like a video game. You value each life, but losing one doesn’t interrupt the flow of the game and lets you carry on. Also there is no greater pleasure than getting someone back for killing you earlier.”
“It allows you a free reset when things go disastrously against you,” adds Paul. “And it allows for things to go disastrously against you in a way that most tabletop RPGs don’t permit. Frequently. Constantly.”
I get the impression that this is something Paul is very pleased of.
I realise that this is a cracking opportunity for some rather selfish questioning.
“On a scale from emotional tone to mechanical crunch, what generally drives your games design? How did these combine between the three of you?”
Grant opens: “I design rules-lite games – kind of one-night stand games, even, more than one-shots, as in they’re the sort of thing you tend to play drunk – and that’s where Paranoia’s been since its inception, I think, it’s designed to be fast and hilarious and punchy but not the sort of thing you end up playing a long-term campaign of. I’ve tried to make rules with that idea at the forefront.
“I think, as well, that I’ve tried to give more power to the players. (TRAITOR! Zap zap zap, etc) Don’t worry: the GM is still king, this is still Paranoia, but I love having a bit of narrative control in games… so I’ve tried to parcel that out in the cards. I can’t do into too much detail right away, but Critical Failures – the absolute worst, god-awful, blow-up-a-street ones – are probably going to be inflicted on you by other players, rather than the GM, more often than not. So play nice!”
“I am absolutely a rules-light guy,” says James, “but that doesn’t mean I’m against a game being structured or tactical. The thing is, you don’t need pages and pages of rules to do it. It’s easier and better to describe a character better in a few deft strokes than in a hundred different stats and percentages. Clarity and elegance are really important in good game design.
“One of the most important rules I was taught by one of my many mentors is that you should be clear what you’re modelling with your mechanics. So we dissected the key parts of Paranoia’s narrative: the sense at the start of the mission that wow, that sounds not ridiculously dangerous, maybe we can succeed this time; the mounting tension, the cascading chaos, and the final descent into all-out mayhem as everyone snaps and just starts shooting. And we’ve built mechanics to do all of that.”
Paul starts nodding at the mention of mechanics.
“I think there’s very much both a playful and an antagonistic tone to these mechanics,” he says. “We’ve been trying out systems that allow players to both compliment and contradict each other, as well as pushing to keep things simple. Paranoia should be an organic game, a game of conflicts that naturally develop, of personalities and motivations and objectives. There’s no need to make and enforce a lot of rules for things like these, just give the players enough of a system to dance around in.”
Now of course, we’re each at different computers, in different parts of the world. The glare of the Doc dips slightly as it autosaves. This doesn’t feel like the most comfortable place in the world, but it serves a purpose. The men seem more comfortable across this e-space and James is happy to clarify.
“For working together, we’ve been using Slack, another of those online project-management tools with an emphasis on team-communication – useful when the design team is spread across the UK, Australia and Western Canada. We like Slack.”
I’m conscious of the time – though coalesced in this way I also feel weirdly powerful. This feels like a collection of moments rather than a solid progression through the clock. It’s both timeless and imminent.
One last question.
“In terms of running games, what do you feel is the most important aspect?”
“I like people to understand the system and the setting, and for these things to not get in the way of the story; I work continually to lower barriers to entry, because there’s a stigma around games that they involve lots of homework and maths, and that puts some people off… so I make games that anyone can play with very little preparation.”
“What Grant said,” James nods. “Traditionally tabletop RPGs have been massively front-loaded: there’s been a huge amount of setting and rules to digest before you can start playing. Paranoia has always been guilty of that, and so we’re working hard to create a first-timer experience that make the game and the world easy to get a grip on.”
Paul’s sprite readjusts to what amounts to a summative posture. “I think tone is always the biggest deal, because that also defines expectation. A game that tells a group of players it’s going to make them powerful dragonslayers and learned wizards tends to presuppose you toward certain systems and behaviours, as does a game that tells you you’ll be a team of flapper detectives investigating a paranormal mystery. If we say ‘The future is broken, Everything is a mess, you’re going to die and the best way to get ahead is treading on someone else’s foot,’ everyone can tell our tongues are in our cheeks.”
And with that, we each log-out. Our avatars no longer in the Doc, we’re safe from being traced there. Though it does leave behind a full transcript of our conversation. And a changelog. These are worrying facts.
PARANOIA has kickstarted. Get in early, it’s set to go big.
If you enjoyed these questions, you might want me to ask similar questions about your game. Doing that will make it better.
Or I can take you back.
* In fact, read each of their minds as part of my Wax Mystical audio series.
** Philip K