Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: The Computer Is Your Friend

The Computer Is Your Friend is an anthology of five Paranoia short stories, forming an intro of sorts for the new Paranoia novels from Ultraviolet Books. Three of the stories are direct prequels for the novels, while two are stand-alones.

“Rule Zero” features Troubleshooters who stumble upon something mysterious (and deadly) while chasing after a helpbot and trying to assassinate each other. It ties in with the book Stay Alert, where a helpbot is also found in a critical role. “Hay Fever” tells the story of how Clarence-Y (from Traitor Hangout) found his pet mouse (or the other way around). “Data Exhaust” provides backstory on a certain coup at the Department of Threat Obfuscation, paving the way for the book Reality Optional. The other two stories are “Market Research”, where a “totally random” and “voluntary” market research survey slowly reveals a bigger conspiracy, and “Action Request”, where we learn the wisdom in never, ever requesting a Troubleshooter team to “fix your problems”.

I liked all of the stories, quite a bit. All of them work nicely as stand-alones, and the novel tie-ins expand on the stories without intruding on them. As a bonus, they aren’t quite by-the-book typical Paranoia tales (i.e. Troubleshooters shooting at each other, framed as a mission). Of course, that happens too, but the main plots mostly involve other groups with varying motives.

It’s a quick read, with a low page count – but as a nice bonus, the book is now available for free (just follow the book title link above). It’s a bundle of various ebook formats, with no DRM, so… there’s really no reason not to pick this up if you have an e-reader and want some light humorous summer reading. These tales should work nicely as an intro into Paranoia, even for people who have no idea of what the game is about.

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Minireview: Traitor Hangout, by WJ MacGuffin

Traitor Hangout, by “WJ MacGuffin”, the pen name of a certain Paranoia designer/writer, is part of the roll-out of new Paranoia fiction from Ultraviolet Books. It leans more on the “zany” side that the other books, somewhat mimicking the “Zap” style of gameplay in the new Paranoia edition. Since that style isn’t my favorite, I wasn’t really expecting much of this book to be honest… but I must say I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s an extremely fun book, and isn’t at all as much “zap” as I had feared.

The story features Efficiency auditor Clarence-Y, a “mandate nerd” who can cite any of The Computers mandates word by word, but is quite lost in the wild world of human interaction. While generally well-meaning, Clarence-Y is hopelessly naive and actually believes that the Computer has everyone’s best interests at heart. Normally, such blue-eyed optimism would lead to a very short career and a possible end run as reactor shielding… but somehow, Clarence is doing fine. Maybe it has something to do with his one treasonous act, the sheltering of a small lab mouse (named “Ignatius”) which he feeds with food scraps and carries under his coat.

In any case, in the name of Alpha Complex security Clarence is recruited to impersonate a notorious traitor, “Superstar Pirate”. An obvious suicide mission which nobody expects him to survive, making his survival all the more remarkable. Not to mention that he gets caught up in more and more conspiracies while doing his “job”, forcing him to infiltrate a number of additional secret societies armed with… nothing much. It should be impossible, but somehow Clarence, oblivious of danger, survives. And then things get messy.

It’s a fun and well-written situational comedy, with Clarence acting as the naive foil to all sorts of crazy stuff. Sure, people get incinerated, terminated and killed in various other ways – but it’s still a lighthearted romp.

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Minireview: Reality Optional, by Gareth Hanrahan

Reality Optional is a new Paranoia novel from Gareth Hanrahan, one of the main developers of the new Paranoia game edition. I’ve enjoyed his work on the game a lot, and I really liked this book too. In fact, it managed to be better than I was expecting, and I was expecting something quite good to begin with.

The story concerns one Jerome-G, a loyal (well, “ish”) employee of the Threat Obfuscation Department, tasked with creating new fake threats (so as to cover up real ones, according to the Computer’s brilliant plan). Things are fine and well (within Alpha Complex limits) until one daycycle when his “fake” threats start becoming real. The really do seem to be pirates (of the “yarrr!” variety) in the transtube tunnels, there really does seem to be a robotic independence movement, etc etc. Not that Jerome-G has too much time to worry about this, since he has apparently raised the ire of a Violet-level executive and his latest assignment (starting now) is reactor shielding duty. It’s a good thing he “accidentally” “found” this neat set of high-tech goggles, which allow him to view and bypass some Alpha Complex security settings. It’s a not-so-good thing that the goggles in question also seem to be raising a lot of interest. The kind of interest that wants to see Jerome-G become reactor shielding and the goggles moved to a more… deserving owner.

It’s a really fun tale, and reads somewhat like an old-style spy thriller (with distinct Paranoia overtones). This time around, there really is a theme of “paranoia”, since Jerome-G needs to figure out who (if anyone) he can trust in a world where everyone has at least three ulterior secret motives. He is also convinced that a secretive uber-conspiracy controls everything in the background… and he may well be right. Gamewise, this book mostly reflects the “Straight” story style (with a dash of inspired craziness here and there) – while the Computer does at times execute citizens on a whim, the main dangers are getting demoted, fined, or otherwise lost in bureaucratic hell.

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Minireview: Stay Alert, by Allen Varney

Stay Alert is a new Paranoia novel, from the also new Ultraviolet Books. Written by Allen Varney, designer of the new Paranoia game edition (originally titled “Paranoia XP”, until Microsoft started making threatening noises), it’s a fairly “classic” Paranoia story, reading mostly like a complex Troubleshooter mission.

The main viewpoint is Fletcher-R, recently (as in: hours ago) promoted to Red clearance from the Infrared masses due to a happy accident. He quickly realizes that Red clearance gives him extremely nice perks (compared to lowly Infrared), but also that Troubleshooters may actually not be the bright and shining examples of righteousness he has been taught (and drugged) to believe. He manages to escape multiple quick deaths largely due to a new experimental drug called “Leery”, which – among other side effects – gives him hyper-alertness. Tasked with retrieving a lost helpbot (with distinct Microsoft Clippy overtones), he is also given somewhat conflicting objectives by his secret society, and a leadership position on his Troubleshooter team… which he quickly realizes puts him in the (laser) sights of the rest of the team.

As noted, it reads largely like a classic, complicated Troubleshooter mission, with massive confusion about what is actually going on and who is plotting what. To a large degree, this is good, as it mirrors the helpless confusion Paranoia players ideally feel. On the other hand, the writing is a bit unclear at times, and the reader becomes somewhat confused too, which is more in the “bug, not a feature” category. The same can be said about many of the more complicated Paranoia game scenarios, too, of course: they can be so convoluted that the GM is left somewhat bewildered even after multiple read-throughs.

It’s a fun read, with lots of black humor, and manages to mirror the feel of the game world very nicely. On the other hand, there isn’t all that much new here for experienced Paranoia GMs or players, which can be seen as a minor minus point. The title of the book reflects the drug the main character ingests, so since this is book one of a trilogy (“The Troubleshooter Rules”), I suspect the titles of the next two books (“Trust No One”, “Keep Your Laser Handy” I’d assume) will also reflect the themes in those books.

If you like Paranoia and/or are interested in learning how the game world works, this is a very nice and entertaining read. People reading it without any background information will probably end up somewhat confused (though possibly also entertained).

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Minireview: The Laundry

“Never cross the line of a pentacle or summoning grid. Remember, incomplete pentacles emit tentacles.”

The Laundry is a roleplaying adaptation of Charles Stross’ “The Laundry Files” novels, based on the same core mechanic as Call of Cthulhu (BRP) and written (among others) by Gareth Hanrahan of Paranoia fame. Since the books have been describes as “Cthulhu meets Dilbert, with a dash of Paranoia”, all that is quite apt. I’ll say this up front: it’s among the best, if not the best, book-into-rpg adaptation I’ve ever read.

For people who haven’t read the books: the stories deal with the life and times of one Bob Howard (not his real name), an employee in Her Majesty’s Occult Service, more properly known as “The Laundry”. Operating in the U.K., it tries to keep the country safe from supernatural horrors, while at the same time fighting the more tangible horrors of budget cuts, (literally) nightmarish bureaucracy, clueless supervisors and antiquated equipment. So yes, Dilbert meets Cthulhu. Many of the alien horrors here are quite explicitly from the Cthulhu mythos, though there is a twist: in this world, magic and mathematics are inseparable, and if you do clever simulations with computers you risk summoning something from Dimension X to eat your brain on the side. The general public is blissfully unaware of this, of course, so the Laundry has its hands full trying to quell demonic incursions caused by clueless hackers. Or cultists, can’t forget those.

So, it’s Cthulhu set in a modern-day environment where you’re actually working for a government agency (kinda sorta like Delta Green), but unlike DG this one is very British. It’s also not a rogue agency and actually has a budget… though it’s a very skimpy one. The books are heavy on the humor side, and the game mirrors that. It’s not a joke game, but there is a heavy humor element involved – witness the cover in which a Laundry agent fends off zombie hordes in a cubicle office, while wearing an XKCD t-shirt. Pop culture references are everywhere here, and a lot of the humor depends on being aware of them.

Gamewise, it uses the venerable old BRP engine. Now, this is both good and bad. Good because BRP is definitely in the “if it’s not broke don’t fix it!” department, it’s been the engine of choice for Cthuluoid games for decades now. Conversion of Cthulhu modules into Landry ones is (at least mechanically) easy, and experienced Cthulhu players will feel right at home. On the minus side, the engine is a bit old and creaky in places, and the Sanity mechanic as “mental hit points” is something that is done better by many other systems. The system used here is mainly straight-up BRP, with some expansions to handle the magic-via-math framework of the books.

The book is well organized and is a great read. It’s damn funny in places and presents the material in a way that makes things easy to follow. The artwork is nothing brilliant, but solidly in the “good enough” category. The beginning of the book concentrates on the mechanical details of creating a character, along with the BRP mechanical details. After that we get a huge pile of detail on the Laundry, along with a wonderfully byzantine organization diagram, a list of key NPCs (along with pics), some “ingame” case file notes, a list of antagonists (otherworld horrors, cultists, and other fun stuff). There is also a fantastic section on CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, which is Laundry-speak for the end of the world, the time when the Stars Finally Are Right, so you could actually run a game series set around that. It probably wouldn’t be a very happy game series, but the book does give you the tools with it. Finally, we get three scenarios: “Going Down to Dunwich” which is your basic intro scenario, and not a bad one at that (the PCs get sent to a seashore village for a training session, and things… don’t quite go as planned). The scenario gets plus points for some quite clever red herrings, especially aimed at experienced Cthulhu players. Assuming things here might just get you killed (or worse). The second scenario is “A Footnote”, which is a short romp which can be plugged into the middle of pretty much any Laundry game. It’s ok, but nothing awesome. Lastly we get “The Greys”, in which the PCs investigate an alien which (reportedly) appeared in a local pub and then vanished. It’s the most complex of the three scenarios and also the best; figuring out what the hell is actually going on will need a bit of work, and the final answers aren’t all that happy ones.

As I noted in the beginning, I really liked this book. It captures the feel of the books near-perfectly, and (like the books) is a very good and at times very funny read. The presentation is excellent, and while I could quibble a bit with BRP as the engine, there is no doubt that it works. As a game, being agents of a government agency is a great mechanism for giving a game structure, and gripes about “what is this crappy mission and can’t we just go home instead?” become perfectly valid in-game, also. GMs who are fans of Paranoia also get a great excuse to throw some bizarre paperwork at the players. In triplicate, and to be signed in blood.

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MInireview: The Thin Green Line (Paranoia)

While the base Troubleshooters book covers the happy and carefree life of an Alpha Complex Troubleshooter, Internal Security covers the sort-of police force, and High Programmers covers the life of the elite, to date there hasn’t been all that much coverage for the armed forces. Enter The Thin Green Line, a quick overview of the military side. Unfortunately it’s a bit lightweight, clocking in at 64 pages, but it does provide some help for GMs who want to help their PCs volunteer for a stint in the glorious infantry. Volunteering for the army is strictly voluntary, of course. Every citizen is quite free to say no (and so prove their traitorous tendencies, of course).

We get some bits and pieces about the Book Camp process, but unfortunately it’s quite high-level and most of the content is reduced to a table or two about the results of said Boot Camp. I would have liked to see an actual playable Boot Camp section, but no such luck (due to page count limits, probably). So, GMs who want to subject their victi… err, players to some good old fashioned drill sergeant abuse will just have to watch Full Metal Jacket a few extra times and improvise. After Boot Camp, recruits are sent to the various branches of the army, which could be anything from a low-level grunt to a glorious Vulture Warrior… and of course, the selection process is completely fair, scientific and methodical.

After that we’re given a list of various Big Guns and assorted mayhem. The PCs get to shoot Really Big Weapons here, at least in theory, and of course this translates to various versions of: “you blew up what?!? On whose orders!?!”. And of course, Alpha Complex shares that eternal military curse: the weapons are made by the lowest bidder.

The included adventure is quite hilarious. It sends the PCs off to the Outside to investigate a military outpost which reported a full-scale attack by the Enemy, and then went silent. Lots of possibilities for mayhem here, and ample room for the PCs to totally screw up. The only minus point is a missing map; the text refers to a map of said outpost on page so-and-so, but that page (or any other page, for that matter) is totally missing any sort of map. While quite illustrative of yet another military snafu, your average GM would actually like that map, thanyouverymuch. Anyway, the adventure is fun and it’s not that hard to improvise some sort of map on your own.

A decent supplement for anyone wanting to add some military “fun” to a Paranoia game. While I would have liked to see some more pages on the subject, especially on the Boot Camp side, I’ll take what I can get.

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Minireview: Stuff 2: The Gray Subnets (Paranoia)

When I wrote about the original “Stuff” book for Paranoia, I noted that it’s an excellent book with one major flaw: the GM notes for all the equiment entries are combined with the “for the players” descriptions, making it useless for direct in-play use without heavy cut+paste. Well, apparently I wasn’t the only one complaining, since the authors of Stuff 2: The Gray Subnets explicitly note that as a flaw in the original book (and one they don’t repeat here). Yay!

So, in a way this is more of the same: a big book of “stuff” (mostly equipment, but also some services etc) for a Paranoia game. Where the first book was a listing of items from the official Alpha Complex eBay clone (C-Bay), this one focuses on the black market (the “Gray Subnet”). All of the items and services listed here at at least slightly treasonous, with some meriting a direct trip to the execution booth if caught. Of course, since this is the black market we’re talking about here, it’s even more likely that you’ll get ripped off in some way – hey, who are you going to complain to? On the other hand, many of the items here are actually very useful and might save some random Troubleshooter’s day. If they don’t kill him first, and if Internal Security doesn’t catch him.

The first half of the book contains the actual item/service listing, divided by the dubious source they can usually be purhased from. The listings are formatted to look like web pages, some intentionally crappy and some intentionally mimicking the look&feel of certain real-life web stores. Oh, and the sidelines contain ads and other fun stuff. It’s a nice bit of flavor, and the listing can be directly shown to the players without fear of leaking what the things actually do.

…since that’s what the second half of the book contains. Some of the items actually are pretty much what they claim to be, but all have some sort of hidden “feature”. Many are quite amusing. Many are also potentially quite lethal to the PCs… but not all. It would be an useless book if everything was a deathtrap, so most things here aren’t. They just have hidden qualities or ramifications which may or may not become clear to the players.

It’s a great companion to the original “Stuff” book, and the smarter formatting on this one makes this much easier to use in-game. Good job.

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Minireview: None of This is My Fault (Paranoia)

None of This is My Fault is, besides being a very fitting Paranoia book title, is also a collection of three scenarios for the High Programmers edition of Paranoia. Since High Programmers has the players playing lofty Ultraviolets and lording over hordes of lesser minions, the scenario design here is quite a bit different than for normal Paranoia.

The first outing is Joy in the Morningcycle, where the PCs compete to steal a master chef for themselves (and away from a certain other High Programmer, of course). Of course, said chef has an agenda of his own and gaining his services might get… problematic. A bit on the zany side and definitely a humor scenario, it also features food recipes that are plain impossible (and fatal). Amusing enough, but a bit on the lightweight side.

The main scenario here is The Iceman Returneth (Again), which is (as far as I know) a new edition of an older scenario which I haven’t read. This is pretty fun stuff, and features the revival of an ancient pre-Alpha Complex computer technician who suddenly becomes the de-facto New Boss. Naturally enough, this isn’t something that causes much joy in the aristocracy of Alpha Complex, so of course vicious office politics (with added gunfire) commences. I don’t want to spoil the scenario here so I won’t go into specifics, but this seems like a lot of fun.

Last off there is When Things Were Interesting, more a mini-game than an actual scenario; it has the PCs managing FunBall teams in their so-called spare time, with some lightweight mechanics for figuring out how the teams fare. Nice filler to insert in among the “actual” events.

As a whole, it’s a decent set of extra material for High Programmers, and right now also the only expansion material available for that game, which raises its value somewhat.

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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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Minireview: Alpha Complex Nights 2 (Paranoia)

Like the first “Alpha Complex Nights” book, Alpha Complex Nights 2 is a scenario collection. Well, “scenario duo”, to be more exact. The 64 page book consists of two scenarios which both share the theme of putting the PC in charge of something – with predictably bad results for everyone involved.

The first scenario is “The Communist Cafeteria Conspiracy”, where the brave (or not) Troubleshooters are put in charge of a huge and expensive cafeteria complex. What could possibly go wrong? The scenario features weird mind control devices, suspicious “French” food and chefs, invasion by the Armed Forces, Infrared revolts, and other normal everyday Alpha Complex events. It’s a fun romp, though it does go pretty far in the “zany” direction at times (the ingredient list needed for a certain recipe is… not “Straight” material). I liked the structure here; the PCs get quite a lot of freedom to choose their actions, but certain events happen at certain times and (naturally) most choices the PCs can make only make their predicament worse. Classic Paranoia, in other words.

The second half of the book consists of “Viva La Revolution!”, where the revolution actually happens. Well, kinda sort of (there is an amusing back story about the how and why of things). The PCs suddenly discover that they are in the middle of the People’s Glorious Revolution, and get the choice of heading the People’s Glorious Firing Squad or being put in the laser sights of said squad. Most PCs will probably choose the “avoid getting shot” option and start deciding the fates of various Enemies of the People. Naturally enough, all decisions made by the PCs will have repercussions later, and the Glorious Revolution doesn’t seem all that stable either. Another good scenario, with classic “screwed no matter what you do” choices to be made by the players… with the extra bonus that not quite all the choices result in doom. Smart or lucky Troubleshooters can navigate this one without running out of clones, even though they are yelling Communist slogans one minute and professing their love for Friend Computer the next.

It’s not a huge book, but both the scenarios presented here are quality ones (assuming you want the “Classic” style of play) and the price is right. Recommended.

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