Paranoia is a tabletop role-playing game of betrayal, conspiracy and slapstick humor set in Alpha Complex, a futuristic underground dystopia. Players take on the roles of Troubleshooters, dangerously unprepared special agents who undertake bizarre missions for The Computer, Alpha Complex's whimsical dictator. To play this classic RPG, all you need are a rulebook, pencils and paper, some 20-sided dice and a group of friends you don't mind stabbing in the back.
Acquire a copy of the rulebook. The most recent edition is 2009's "25th Anniversary Edition," published by Mongoose Publishing. The 25th Anniversary Edition is a slight simplification of the 2004 version of the rules, also published by Mongoose. The "Troubleshooters" rulebook is the place to begin if you're not familiar with the game. The "Internal Security" and "High Programmers" books add new ways to play, but aren't necessary. Although these books are no longer in print, second-hand copies are not hard to find. Select one player to be the Gamemaster (GM). The GM is responsible for adjudicating rules questions and describing the world and its characters to the players. In particular, the GM is the voice of Friend Computer, the psychotic, malfunctioning computer that runs every aspect of life in Alpha Complex.
Naming Your Character
Each player, apart from the GM, now needs to create a character. In most games, characters will be Troubleshooters with a starting security clearance of Red. Paranoia character names are a little unusual: they start with a first name and are followed by a letter denoting security clearance and a three-letter code representing the character's home sector within Alpha Complex. It's traditional to make this into a little joke. For instance, a Red-clearance Troubleshooter from THR sector might be called King-R-THR. A perpetually lost Troubleshooter might be called Ware-R-WEE. Of course, this joke will break down as soon as your character is promoted to Orange security clearance, but don't worry, the chances of living that long are slim. Each person in Alpha Complex is one of a family of six clones; when a character dies, a replacement clone is activated. The number at the end of the character's name indicates which clone he is. For example, the first of the King-R-THR clones would be called King-R-THR-1.
The Finishing Touches
With the name out of the way, it's time to actually create the character. Each player either randomly rolls the values for skills such as Stealth, Management, Violence and Software, or distributes a number of points between them. All players should use the same method, so agree beforehand. Each skill also has a number of specialties, which players can use to further refine their characters. To use skills in the game, players must roll equal to or under their skill score on a 20-sided die. Players then choose their characters' Service Groups, ranging from the tiresome bureaucrats of Production, Logistics and Control (PLC) to the tiresome bureaucrats of Housing Preservation, Development and Mind Control (HPD&MC), or even the knuckle-dragging thugs of Armed Forces. Each player then randomly determines their character's mutant superpower and which underground secret society the character is part of. Both mutant powers and secret society membership are highly illegal in Alpha Complex, of course.
A Typical Mission
Every session of Paranoia is different, but many missions follow a similar format. The Troubleshooters will be summoned to a briefing and told to look into a problem somewhere in -- or even outside of -- Alpha Complex. This can involve anything from an attempt to find a mysterious artifact to a hunt for suspected traitors to a voyage into outer space. The Troubleshooters are then issued inadequate, malfunctioning, possibly deadly equipment and sent off to take care of the problem. Each Troubleshooter will also have their own secret agenda, which they must carry out while being watched every second by heavily-armed comrades desperate to cover their own crimes by executing them for treason.
Theme and Tone
More important than an exact knowledge of the rules or setting is a mastery of Paranoia's distinctive tone. The game blends absurd humor with a bleak view of society and human nature. Alpha Complex is simultaneously a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare and a goofy satire of modern society. Published scenarios oscillate wildly between outright slapstick, affectionate pop-culture parody and slightly-more-serious long-term investigative gameplay. If the players are laughing while simultaneously scheming to betray each other, the game has hit the perfect Paranoia tone.
- Paranoia; Allen Varney et al.
- The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues; John M. Ford
- HIL Sector Blues; Ken Rolston
- Vulture Warriors of Dimension X; Joseph Anthony and David Avallone
- io9: Why the Paranoia RPG’s Alpha Complex Is the Greatest Dystopia of All Time
- RPGnet: Review of Paranoia XP
- RPGnet: Review of Paranoia XP