Wake Me Up Before You Go Go: A Review of Paranoia by Mongoose Games

Guest Writer:  Kevin Birge

The Jitterbug! (Clap.Clap.Clap.Clap.) The Jitterbug! (Clap.Clap.Clap.Clap.)

And as the long forgotten pop earworm bites into the brain of the sleeping clone, the clone thinks “It’s cold. I’m cold. It’s cold.”

And sits up, awake, and his Cerebral Coretech is flashing 12:00. His breath fills the room with vapor, a new and terrifying thing.
Is the smoke toxic? Is it a mutation? Is it….treason?

He wonders this and the voice booms across his mind:
Gooooooooood Moorrrrrniiiinnggggg Alpha Complex! This is your pal Rod-RRRRRR-Oooooooterrrr!

So that’s the opening. You have an A.I. that has evolved from a long corrupted file of every song that hit the top 100 on the pop charts in the entire decade of the eighties. Of course, the Computer hates the existence of any rogue A.I. And it really hates music from before Alpha Complex was created, since it insults the Computer’s skill at composing pleasing music for its human charges. So if the computer is looking in on this scene, it’s two treason points. So sad.

I’d use a boombox for this. Something loud. Paranoia is a game that I always played with props. In fact, with the exception of the Cerebral Coretech, this entire scenario could have easily been one of the games I ran for the original West End Games version. I loved this game when it came out. I ran it often. And I dug props. A backpack full of encyclopedia volumes to simulate a dangerously poor plasma cannon power pack. A roomful of vacuum cleaners to create the sound of a reactor chamber. And of course, I’m speaking as The Computer in my normal conversational voice. Miss any details? Treason.

And these memories are really key. What I don’t remember is spending a lot of time using the books or rolling dice for much more than dramatic effect. I had a scenario. I had a concept. I had the barest of the bare bones of the rules in hand so I could move the game along at the breakneck speed I thought it should move at. Paranoia, for me, was always a hell for leather dash to kill every clone of every player in increasingly hilarious fashion.

We loved it.

And if you haven’t figured it out, Paranoia is one of my top three games of all time, and I was there from the very beginning. So in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that if you hated Paranoia back in the old days you will still hate it. Everything you hated is still there. In fact, you have not yet begun to hate, since the things you hated most have been built upon in extremely inventive ways. It’s almost as if the designers were trying to goad you personally. Now would be a good time to press the Game Review Abort Switch, if that’s how you feel.

So OK. What was it about the original that caused me to go all E. Gary Gygax and completely ditch both the rules and the dice? The mechanics. They weren’t bad. In fact, they were quite good and held up nicely when you compared them with the other popular game systems of the era. The problem was, the concept was all wrong for any of the RPG rules approaches designers used at that time. There is an irony that a game about an unyielding power trying to pound the square peg of humanity through the round hole of Alpha Complex was guilty of trying to pound the square peg of its own rules through the round hole of its concept.

As good as the game was, and as much fun as it was, the character creation process was much the same as for any other game. The difference, of course, is that Paranoia was not meant to yield survivors or campaigns. Most of the time any effort was wasted, with the sole exception of watching a newbie who had no idea what the game was about lovingly craft his character.

Same with the rest of the rules set. There was nothing at all wrong with them, they would have been fine for nearly anything else–except a game about futility and sudden death. We made it work. And on the other side of this writing, I see a lot of you nodding along, seeing yourselves in these words. Subsequent editions came and went, and I missed em’. I never saw any need to upgrade what I had already. Somewhere along the way, my Paranoia collection got lost. And replacing it meant paying more than I wanted to pay for beater copies off ebay. I was ready to play Paranoia again, and just at that moment, we got a new one.

And what the heck! What ABOUT the new one?

Well, the new one is pretty much a total redo. New mechanics. New concepts. Even adds some completely new additions. Every aspect of this game has been redone, built from the ground up to serve the concept. Any reboot of this magnitude is asking for it. Paranoia not only has to compete with the mass of other games available on the shelf, but with memories like mine of how much fun the game was that have been polished to a high gold shine by time.

So here are my impressions of Mongoose Paranoia. Your mileage may vary.

The Box: A bit larger than the original Dungeons and Dragons box, but just a bit. Physically impressive, solid feel. Will last a while on the shelf. This box is still going to be solid for a long while after the images on the cover have begun to abrade away. Picking it up, there’s a weight to it. The box is full, as befits a fifty dollar retail price. Whatever is in here, it’s solid, and there’s a fair amount of it.

The Contents: We have a Player’s Handbook, A Gamemaster’s Handbook, and a Missions guide. The books are softcover, with a firm cardstock cover and glossy color pages. We have four smaller sized d6 and one normal sized red one. The red one has a computer symbol where the six ought to be. We have a half dozen dry erase character sheets, our first clue that perhaps the team doing the redesign understands where we are coming from. We have two packs of cards covering four concepts: Secret Societies, Mutant Powers, Bonus Duty, and Actions.

The box and components do suggest Mongoose intended to put out a durable, quality product. None of it looks or feels cheap and junky. Good for them.

The Art: The illustrations and art direction are markedly different than what has gone before. There is both a different style and design sense at work here. Fitting for the magnitude of the changes that we will encounter within.

Character Creation: Out of the gate, we have a huge change. Character generation is a shared experience designed to build tension, distrust, and hard feelings between the players. There are five rounds of skill selection, from +1 to +5. Choose a skill, and the player to your left gets it at a negative value. No one else can choose that skill again. So it goes until everyone has their skills rated at -5 to +5. Everyone chooses three adjectives to describe their character. And then, everyone passes their sheet to the left–to the person they’ve been screwing for the last ten minutes–and that person gets to choose one of those descriptors and reverse it. Stats derive from skill groups. There. Done. Except for all the lingering animosity. It’s OK. The Computer worked this thing out a long time ago. Only a commie traitor would question it.

Basic Mechanics: Ah. Yes. This is what it all comes down to, doesn’t it? What Mongoose has done with the rules is create a completely new set of them. They are stripped down, clearly intended to run at high speed in play, and are deliberately kept simple. Good, good, good. The basic mechanic is to calculate how many d6 you roll for the task at hand, and roll them. Successes are good, and failures are bad. You roll the red Computer Dice every time dice are rolled for any reason. Roll the Computer, and the Computer shows up and attempts to help, which of course is the worst thing that can possibly happen. This causes your character to lose Moxie, and the best analogy for those of you who are reading this review in the bathroom because you forgot a magazine is that this is much the same as losing Sanity Points in Call of Cthulhu. The game is player facing, which means that the GM doesn’t roll dice at all. The GM acts to resolve successes and failures.

It is worth mentioning that the basic mechanics are simple enough that within a few games you will have little or no reason to refer to the books. What this means to me is that my style of GMing the game will not have to be adapted to accommodate the new edition.

Speaking of which: This by no means implies you don’t get to screw the players. Quite the contrary, you have more opportunities than ever before. Every action the players resolve is a one in six chance the Computer shows up. This will happen a lot. Every failure on every attempt at anything at all has consequences that increase exponentially. A badly blown handful of dice could be a TPK on the spot. Oh, and did I mention the cards? Yes. Many more good times for the GM wait within these decks. There is also a mechanic that allows players to lie to each other about what they have on these cards. The cards work extremely well. They speed the whole issue of mutant powers and secret societies up and get you into play faster. The Bonus Duty cards give the recipient both a sphere of authority to bully other players with and a genuine cause for anxiety, since the people they are depending on to back them up are the same people they screwed ten minutes earlier in character generation. The Action cards are by turns dangerous and useful.

The Concept: Mongoose intended to bring Paranoia into the post-privacy age, and they have done so. The concept of Core Tech is at the heart of it. The characters have a brain implant that interfaces them with the computer. They can access various “apps”, and have a heads up display that gives them valuable information such as how many treason points the other players have. XP is awarded and spent in game, a great innovation since living through the game is not guaranteed nor even the point.

Bonus but useless to most: This edition of Paranoia has the most beautifully sculpted explanation of what an RPG is and how to play it ever included in a game. The likelihood that any novice with no roleplaying experience obtaining a copy is nil unless it comes as a gift from some Grognard parent or uncle, which makes it double useless–the Grognards can explain it well enough. This could have been more conceptual content, but alas. I can’t gig them too much since they execute it so perfectly. Maybe somebody somewhere will appreciate this more than me.

The Humor: Perfectly captured. These rules are some of the most engaging and fun to read rules I’ve seen. The West End Games edition were a classic of RPG writing, a truly good read. That fact was not lost on Mongoose. They deliver a rules set that can be read simply for pleasure. You know you read rules for the hell of it. I do it, you do it, he does it, we all do it. Some of them are better than others. Remember Magic Realm? You either don’t know what I’m talking about or I just triggered your PTSD.

The Setting: In the original game, we had a fairly deep back story explaining the origin of the Alpha Complex. This version dispenses with that. The Complex is, The Computer is, things are as they are and the characters have zero chance of having any answers. The game is very specific about discouraging any sort of game where the characters make it outside. There may not even be an outside. This works for me. I never let the players out. I figured if they lived long enough to find an exit, I was underperforming as a GM. We do get a very good and detailed look at the various security levels, their functions, and the social constructs that have evolved around them in Alpha Complex.

Summation: Rules-lite format that suffices for the scope of the game. Both the concept and the humor arrive intact. Both the additions and the omissions reflect a deep understanding of the game’s concept and of good game design. Presentation is clear and relevant data is easily found, the editing is good. The artwork is adequate and the style is a good reflection of the content. The components are well thought out and durable, of better quality than the West End box I was familiar with. This game will last a long while with reasonable care.

Price: 50 dollars USD, but sometimes available for 35. (Fair value at 50, a steal at 35.)

Concerns: The glossy paper may or may not age well. This is a 25 years down the road issue, but anyone still holding on to 2nd Edition AD&D core books will know what I am talking about.

Buy this game if: You loved the original, and you aren’t married to the original mechanics.

Pass on this game if: You hated the original, or you are more in the market for a faithful adaptation of the first edition mechanics.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some props to round up.

Half a dozen vacuum cleaners and a boom box, perhaps.

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