Introduction to Paranoia GMing

(Steve Criddle)

First, a word of warning about GM'ing Paranoia.  Expect it to be hard work.  Running RPG sessions can get a bit hectic at times.  When you run a Paranoia session it is hectic a lot of the time.  There is a lot to keep track of, and you also have to try to keep the game going at a good pace. Paranoia GM'ing is not for the faint-hearted.

When I ran my first Paranoia mission, things didn't exactly go according to plan. In fact, it's fair to say that it was a bit of a disaster. Fortunately the band of players were an understanding lot and didn't complain too much when we changed the format of the game halfway through the mission. This is probably because they were complaining a bit before that.

One essential item for playing Paranoia in CRD sector is a large pad of writing paper notes. I managed to acquire some pads of 4 inch square paper - probably around 4-500 sheets per pad. These are very useful during play, not only for players to pass notes to each other, but for players and GM to exchange notes too.

Note passing is very important in Paranoia. We get through an awful lot of paper during a session. If players want to work together secretly, they'll use notes to plan it. If they want to do something without openly declaring it, they pass a note to the GM when it's their turn. If a player uses a mutant power, both the request to use the power and the result are normally passed as notes. If a character discovers something that none of the other characters see, their findings are often passed as a note. As much as possible, we keep the players as ignorant of important facts as the characters are.

Notes should be kept as short as possible. This is partly because you want to be playing the game, not writing War and Peace, and partly because you don't want to spend all your time reading. You don't want to interrupt the flow of the game too much.

Paranoia is about people not having all the facts. If a character finds something of use, he won't normally share it with his fellow Troubleshooters. He'll keep it to himself because it might save his skin later. Or maybe it will help him to eliminate a traitorous colleague.

The problem we had with note passing was one of timing. During our first mission a stack of notes gradually built up beside me because I was dealing with what players were declaring aloud rather than what they were putting in writing. This was a bad idea. Players were declaring in notes that they wanted to shoot another clone when they did a particular thing, but the note wasn't being read until it was too late. It clearly wasn't working.

So we switched to a turn-based system. We found this system to be a lot better, and have stuck to it ever since.

The GM chooses what order players will declare their actions. I like to change the order regularly to keep the players on their toes. Sometimes it's based on where the players are sitting, sometimes it's based on what the characters are doing at the time.

The players can either declare their move openly, or can pass the GM a note saying what they want to do. Players can even pass a note and declare an action, but they only get one action per turn. This sort of thing is normally reserved for putting their fellow players on edge. The note will either state that it overrides what the player has said, or will just be a dummy note.

Players can also set things up in advance. This will normally involve telling the GM something like "when I say I'm going to adjust the tuning on my comm set, I really mean I'm going to shoot Citizen Suck-R". This sort of thing keeps the GM on his toes too.

Another effect of note passing is that occasionally players will manage to read a note which a player passed another player earlier. This is basically the equivalent of overhearing things. If it's done well, the other player won't even be aware that somebody else knows what they're planning.

As GM, make sure that players pass notes properly. For example, if two players are planning to do something secretly, they should both pass you notes about it. Don't accept a note from Gull-R-BUL stating that he and Loit-R-ING are going to do something together if Loit-R-ING hasn't passed you a similar note. Let Gull-R-BUL do his part if you feel like it, especially if Loit-R-ING has said that he's going to shoot at Gull-R-BUL when he does it. Make sure your players are aware of this ruling too.

Be willing to bend the rules and improvise. Be willing to make up your own rules if you want. For instance, if a clone shoots another clone at point-blank range, they are unlikely to miss. Yet the rules still say that you should make a skill roll. If he's got the target by the collar, with a laser pistol jabbed against his skull, he won't miss. You should still make the roll to check for weapon malfunction though.

Use figures and mark out room sizes. I normally use coloured card of different sizes to depict rooms and corridors. The players I GM for enjoy exploring and mapping (not just in Paranoia), so I give them areas to map out. By using card templates they can see how big rooms are without being told how to map them out.

If players are Red Clearance, only let them use red or black paper and pencils. If a player loses all his belongings, take them away from him. If he's the team cartographer, tough - the team shouldn't have pushed him down the incinerator chute in the first place.  (Yes, I have seen this done!)

The world of Paranoia is a very unfair place.  However, as GM you should be very fair.  Plan your missions so that unfair things happen to the troubleshooters, but GM the events fairly.  The players should feel that the world is against them, not the GM.  (Which is odd because normally it's the GM who devised the mission in the first place).

Paranoia isn't a normal roleplaying game.  It's a silly roleplaying game.  If a player suggests doing something funny, reward them.  You don't have to fix dice rolls, but there's nothing wrong with modifying dice rolls.  So if a particular action would normally be a normal difficulty, but the player suggested something you think would be funny, modify it into an easy difficulty instead.  That way there's still a certain amount of randomness involved.  It adds a certain amount of unpredictability to a mission.  (After all, GM's should have fun during missions too).

If a player suggests something which you hadn't thought of, but it would produce a nice bit of ad-libbed fun, follow it up.  No matter how well you plan your missions, players will always manage to come up with things you'd never even considered.  Rather than stopping them from doing it, play along until you feel the idea has run its course.  This will make missions fun for you (and you don't have to plan as much), and the players may even think they were really clever for solving a problem which wasn't really there at all.

When players use their skills, it's a good idea to make a note of what skills they tried to use (irrespective of whether they succeed or fail).  At the end of the session, allocate skill points which the players can "spend" to increase their character's skills.  Use your notes to show which skills they are allowed to spend their points on.  The reasoning here is that if a character didn't use a specific skill during a session, they won't have got any better at that skill.  It's also a good idea to say that they aren't allowed to spend more than 3 points on any one skill.  This will force them to become better at several things slowly, rather than being very good at only one specific thing quickly.

You don't need to worry too much about characters becoming too good at things.  They tend not to last very long anyway.

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