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Minireview: High Programmers (Paranoia)

The basic trope of Paranoia has always been playing a low-level hapless “goon”, at the mercy of your (generally clueless) superiors and the whole huge faceless bureaucratic machine. The hope of promotion is dangled in front of you like a carrot, but it rarely if ever materializes – and if it does, it proves to be more a curse than a blessing. The recent “Internal Security” book explored what like is like for some of the “upper middle class” citizens, those elevated to the lofty heights of Blue security clearance. No big surprise that it’s not all that different than life for Red Troubleshooters… sure, there is less direct shooting of your esteemed team-mates in the back and more of doing it via subtle sabotage and office politics, but the basic theme stays strong: you’re screwed.

High Programmers takes that to the ultimate: the PCs are now Ultraviolet-clearance “High Programmers”. They get to select entire Sectors as their private sanctums, they have hordes of obedient flunkies servicing their every need, their life is one of hedonistic luxury (should they wish). So it’s rest and relaxation while sipping Martinis, right? Well, no. It’s sleep-deprived sheer terror, crammed into a Situation Room for days on end trying to solve the latest series of Complex-threatening crisis situations (which may of may not actually exist), desperately hoping that your orders will be carried out in some fashion, and hoping that the Computer doesn’t notice your various treasonous activities on the side. So it’s pretty much like life in the Troubleshooter ranks. With Martinis. Or, as the blurb has it: “Yes Minister, with ray guns”.

The nice thing here is that this game is different from the base game, while driving home the point that the “life of luxury” in Alpha Complex may not be quite the paradise lower-clearance Citizens imagine. High Programmers don’t run down endless corridors trying to find that briefing room, they don’t engage in firefights (usually), they don’t do much themselves directly – and the game reflects that. In a way it’s played on two levels: the High Programmers are all seated together in a Situation Room, getting remote reports from various teams. A game statistic of Access is the currency here, players use Access to gain control of various teams (Troubleshooters, Troopers, Infrared work groups, whatever) in the hope that said teams will solve the crisis in a suitable fashion. Access can also be used for things like talking privately with the GM, accessing their Secret Society etc, since the PCs are all gathered together and doing things without the others noticing can be tricky. Hence, Access, representing the use of various bits of misdirection, fake “I have to take this” calls, etc. There is a fun bit at the beginning of the game, where the players can bid Access against each other in order to get control of various internal Alpha Complex groups. One player/PC might (temporarily) gain control of the local R&D department, for example.

For old Paranoia players, all this has the potential to work in a very amusing fashion. For one, the players finally get to boss Troubleshooter teams and other expendable flunkies around and give them impossible and/or overly vague and deniable orders. Revenge is sweet. On the flipside of that coin, the players should be quite aware of how “competent” Troubleshooters are at actually solving the given mission (as opposed to killing each other, causing immense collateral damage, and lying their asses off). So when that bright-eyed Troubleshooter team informs them that “everything is totally fixed now, sir!” and “there were absolutely no problems, sir!” while missing half their team members and with smoking ruins in the vidcam background… well, the players should get a suitable sinking feeling about the whole mess.

The game rules also contain some un-Paranoialike player empowerment tweaks, like scene framing (along with an optional indie-style scene budget mechanism). It’s all fine and good, still, since the players do deserve some illusion of being in control and having a say in things. It makes them easier to screw over later.

It’s an admirable effort to produce a game about the leaders of Alpha Complex, while keeping it a game (“you spend another day being massaged by athletic young clones, while eating caviar” is all fine and good, but isn’t much of a game). Extra points for keeping the good old “you’re mostly screwed” Paranoia feel, while giving the GM new tools for that and giving the players a lot of rope to hang themselves with. I have no idea of how well all this would work in practice, the idea of playing on two levels (one gives orders, the other is the “what actually happens” part) can be a bit challenging to actually implement. The book suggests the possibility of actually having multiple sets of characters: one set of High Programmers, and then “one-shots” given by the GM to represent one of the “on site” teams. A bit of work for the GM, but could be a lot of fun.

An interesting and somewhat experimental Paranoia book, with potential for a lot of fun. Probably only suited for people with some previous Paranoia background, a lot of the irony here would be lost on first-time players.

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