Playing Paranoia: High Programmers

So I’ve had the chance, in the past month, to play in a couple of sessions of Paranoia: High Programmers. The guy running it is… well, I don’t know much except that he’s in the States somewhere, and that he was kind enough to organize a game that I could join from half a world’s worth of timezones away. (Friday mornings Korean time, if anyone’s interested: he’s open to new players.)

It’s been an interesting change of pace, and I thought I’d write a little about it here.

The first time I played, there were only two players and the GM. That, I think, was a good thing, because High Programmers is really unlike any other RPG I’ve ever played. I’m sure once one gets used to it, it’s no big deal, but that first time—and even the second session, which was last Friday—it felt a little bit like roleplaying a day in the life of an traffic controller at a busy airport or something.

(Well, an air-traffic controller involved in a conspiracy to get certain planes sent to the wrong airport and others planes’ passengers to jettison the cabin crew into a swimming pool filled with Kool-Aid while also trying to divert the plumbers tasked with fixing the airport bathrooms toward instead “accidentally” flooding a certain airline alliance’s elite passenger lounge while also trying to manage a team that’s turned out a roomful of confiscated luggage full of what seems to be alien pods down in the basement-that-doesn’t-officially-exist beneath Terminal A.)

That’s because High Programmers takes the setting of plain-vanilla Paranoia (in which characters mostly live near the bottom of the social hierarchy):

… and basically extrapolates how being someone at the top of that system—an Ultraviolet—might be like.

The result is a weird mix of subterfuge, sabotage, obstructionism, deceit, and intense resource management. It’s a strange and wonderful alchemy, apparently developed by Gareth [Ryder-]Hanrahan. (I know nothing about Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game and Nobilis, but supposedly it draws upon both those games’ systems.) You don’t necessarily want to solve the problems in Alpha Complex, so much as keep your Service Group and Secret Society minions happy while making it look like someone else is even less actively working to solve the bigger problems that threaten the complex. Of course, neglect that major problem within Alpha Complex too much, and you’ll piss off the Computer, your friend and dystopian master, and get deleted. So, you know, it’s a mix of cronyism, work soldiering (to use the Taylorist epithet), spouting ideological correct rhetoric, and Machievallian backstabbing. 

Of course, you will fail to deal with that major problem satisfactorily—you can’t help but do so, given the ineptitude, infighting, and broken resources at your disposal, and the fact that the deck is essentially stacked against you from the get-go anyway—so the Computer eventually will be angry with someone. But if you’re clever, then for today, you can redirect that anger at someone else. 

It took me a while to reinforce this habit of mind: that my job was to look like I was solving the Big Problem while mostly directing resources at pleasing my underlings and then using them to enrich myself. Specifically, one can miss out on the Secret Society directives—at least, if one is not a public figure in Alpha Complex—but one must fulfill a minimum number of your Service Group directives to avoid losing Access (which is the High Programmers equivalent of currency) and get oneself deleted.

And of course, since this is Paranoia, your Service Group directives directly contradict others’ or, if you were foolish enough to take on too many (or the wrong) Service Groups, you may end up with diametrically opposed directives heaped onto your to-do pile by other Service Groups you’re running. (One example in the last game was that I ended up running both Armed Forces and Internal Security: one of my Armed Forces directives was to start a war with Beta Complex; one of my Internal Security directives was to prevent war with Beta Complex. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.)   

Which is to say, this game can end up being not only at odds with the Computer and Alpha Complex and other players, but also in direct conflict with yourself, trying impossibly to fulfill two diametrically opposed directives. (It helps to choose Service Groups that don’t hate each other, but even that’s not a guarantee that you’ll avoid this sad fate.)

That was the pitfall I hit upon in last week’s game: I figured, “Hey, more Service Groups means more Minions! I’ll get more stuff done!” Sure, I did… but I also had a hell of a lot more to get done, and half the directives contradicted the other half. (I was tasked with both starting a war with Beta Complex, and preventing a war with Beta Complex.) My guy ended up with -8 access—not the worst fate in the room, his rival through the last two sessions actually ended up with almost -40, and is definitely gone—but erased is erased, and my character, too, is nothing more than a memory. 

The other pitfall for me—this one was from last time—was struggling to prioritize tasks. What was more important, I asked myself: to screw over the other guy in terms of who looks like they’re ignoring the Big Crisis more, to fulfill Service Group Directives, to fulfill Secret Society Missions so I could free up the dough to pursue the other two goals? There’s no easy answer, except the obvious: you really want to just try and kill three birds with one stone—especially if the stone is one you’ve loaded into the other guy’s gun and which will cause a misfire that’ll blow his hand off in the process. Sometimes you get the tools to do that, but sometimes you don’t. Either way, the game demands creativity in the use of available resources, and also asks players to learn a kind of twisted, traitorous mentality that I guess comes easier for some than for others, but which anyone—I think—can learn.  

For me, the main psychological adjustments to this sort of hame have mostly involved forgetting cooperation (and embracing the imperative to hose the others), getting used to spending energy on pretending to do something instead of on actually doing it (something I despise in real life, and see turn into pathetic self-destruction all too often) as well as adjusting to the specific kind of resource management involved in the game. (I’ve played RPGs, such as Trail of Cthulhu, where resource management is a central thing, but even there, it’s in a pretty familiar context: you’re trying to solve a mystery and (usually) working cooperatively. Here, resource management and the backstabbing intersect directly.)

Note, player-versus player conflict in and of itself isn’t a problem to me, at all. I think it can be a source of great fun and drama, and was baffled when a player rage-quit (and collapsed) a game I was running not long ago because of a single instance of transient PvP conflict. 1 I don’t get that: PvP is definitely a feature in games I’m very interested in trying, too, such as Blades in the Dark and Legacy: Life Among the Ruins, and I’ve been thinking over for a while now the idea of designing some OSR-flavored, OSR-feeling social mechanics that can cope with a wide range of things including player-versus-player social conflict. 

Troubleshooters-level Paranoia (which, until the 25th Anniversary edition, was always the default level) has rules and mechanics for PvP play too, of course, but the feeling is more like a traditional RPG: you run a character with limited resources, an explicit mission or two, a secret mission, and whatever personal resentments might drive them. If you’ve played D&D with a group that tolerated low-level PvP stuff, this isn’t completely alien to you, though it’s still a world away from D&D in terms of the psychology you need to adopt in order to play it well. 

High Programmers, in contrast, takes it one step further by mechanizing (as player resources) all of the constituent parts of Alpha Complex: all of those Secret Society missions, Service Services, and even many missions from the Computer actually are coming from High Programmers—and serve their individual Ultraviolet-clearance needs and ends. In fact, I feel like Service Groups work even better in High Programmers than they do with Troubleshooter player-characters. Of course, part of the constraints and narrative governance for handling this stuff in-game gets baked into the setting, too: there’s the Computer, and there’s the Situation Room where all the High Programmers convene for the duration of the session, and so on. But it’s still worth a careful look for ideas about how mechanics and narrative constraints can be marshaled to make these kinds of stories work in game form. 

I will say that I can’t really imagine how one would run the game other than the way we’re playing it, which is via the online hphelper webapp (source code available on github), created by Logan Senjov, who has a blog (including helpful tips for running Paranoia: High Programmers) here. I especially liked his explanation of the various types of complications players must deal with in-game, which go beyond what I’ve sketched out above.

The hphelper software includes a character-creation assistant and record-keeper (the characters get stored persistently between sessions, too), and also automates a lot of things, from the Service Groups Auction and Access Pool tracking and notifications, to listing off missions and directives for your Secret Societies and Service Groups. It includes a dynamic tracker for various indices in Alpha Complex—you can see how Happiness, Hygiene, morale within various service groups, and more are doing at any given moment (and I assume the GM can adjust this in response to in-game events). It even creates lists of potential minions for each player’s Service Group and allows the queuing of public and private calls to minions, and has tons of built-in sound effects. There are a few things mission, of course: some means of directly sending private text messages to the GM would be nice, and so would a way of queuing calls explicitly marked as private, so that the Referee knows that’s the intention before starting the call. (VoIP would be the only other thing you’d need to make it a self-contained game app of its own, but that’s unnecessary given that options like Discord and Google Hangouts exist.) All told, it’s a pretty remarkable piece of web software, and well worth checking out if you’re interested in running High Programmers.

I’ll try remember to take a screenshot of it next time I play High Programmers, just so the curious can see how it looks during a game. Though you can’t see the software in action here, it seems to have been used in running this Twitch-streamed session, which was run by the author of the software—at least judging by the sound effects—so that could give you some sense of how the game flows using this app, though be warned that the “private calls” are private, so you can’t hear them and they result in little periods of silence throughout the video:

Watch Paranoia: High Programmers from lsenjov on

I also happen to think it could probably be cloned and reworked (with the necessary addition of that in-game private-to-GM chat text window, I think) to provide similar integrated automation for running Troubleshooters- and Internal Security-level games, as well as integrating the Mission Blender, though that’s already been excellently automated by Alan de Smet, albeit not as an open-source project:

(I contacted de Smet about the online Mission Blender about a year ago, asking about whether he’d consider making it open source because I was then considering the idea of running a game of Paranoia set in an alternate Alpha Complex (such as on one of the many ideas suggested here), but I haven’t heard back, so I suppose if one wanted to duplicate the Mission Blender, one would have to do it myself by hand—or look into Logan Senjov’s code to see how his code generates crises and contradictory directives and missions… which I’m assuming it does, because otherwise our GM is doing a lot of prep that’s not even getting used in-game.)

Meanwhile, there is also one piece of dedicated software I found for running and playing Troubleshooters-level games—The Computer’s Paranoia XP RPG Tool—but it isn’t open-source either, and honestly, when I tried to use it I found it kind of baffling. But hey, maybe it’s just me:

Anyway, what I can say is that Paranoia: High Programmers has turned out to be every bit as fun as I’d been led to imagine it would be, and I can see how computer-assisting apps can really help a GM in certain kinds of games. 

As for the collection of XP-era books I picked up last year, I’m slowly working my way through it… but I’ll probably shift gears and read through High Programmers next. It’s odd: despite enjoying the books, it seems to take me absolutely forever to get through them. I’m not sure why, beyond, I guess, the fact I’m busy, and trying to read more fiction when I get any reading done at all. 

Bonus #1: if you’re interested in High Programmers, you can get a brand-new copy of the hardcover rulebook for less than $12 on ebay—Mendelsohn’s has a number of copies available. (If you click through, you’ll also see that they also have the second 25th Anniversary core rulebook ParanoiaInternal Security for even less, and the GM Screen for 25th Anniversary Paranoia, as well: you can get all three for less than $25 plus shipping, and they should indeed be brand new, and in mint condition—at least, they copies I got from from this seller all were. 2 Sadly, though, they don’t have Troubleshooters: you can’t get that for a sane price on eBay, or at least I haven’t seen such a thing in the last few years. But then, if you have Paranoia XP, it’s mostly the same, save for the re-addition of the 2nd edition Treason Points system and a few other minor changes.)

Bonus #2: someone made a video explaining the basics of plain-vanilla Paranoia in Korean! I’m a bit amazed. Here it is:

… and here’s a Spanish language blog about the game

  1. And while there was actually more to it—it was a group on its last legs to begin with—I suspect misogyny lay at the heart of that reaction, especially after talking to the female player on whose first day with the group it happened.

  2. I also picked up the Mongoose-era softcover (“Servants & Wives”) edition of James Wallis’ The Extraordinary Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, from them, and it’s also available at a very low price. This is slightly more amusing since Wallis was one of the primary designers of the new edition of Paranoia. If you’re a fan of Traveler, Judge Dredd, Runequest, Glorantha, or Elric, you may also want to look around and see what Mendelson’s have on offer.

2 thoughts on “Playing Paranoia: High Programmers

  1. Sounds fascinating… And yeah, good to have the automation tool. It was almost reading like a computer game at times.

    1. I’m sure a really on-the-ball GM could run the game without, but the automation tool really does seem to make it a *lot* easier to run… and play, for that matter!

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