Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Paranoia the RPG

This is one of my most important RPG because of it combining dark humour with quite nice mechanics and making player conflict a pleasurable part of the game, rather than a serious problem. I like the setting in Alpha Complex, which is a huge underground bunker ruled by an insane computer and populated by the remains of humanity. In Alpha complex everyone is a mutant, which is illegal and a member of a secret society, also illegal. Characters are troubleshooters recruited by the computer to perform missions including seeking out members of secret societies or mutants and eliminating them. Troubleshooters missions can involve exciting chances to try new R&D equipment with its famous reliability or helping their friend the computer in many other ways.

The rules are simple and fairly easy to understand, though as a GM there was always the nice touch that any player knowing too much on the rules was obviously a traitor and therefore their current clone could be terminated preferably in an amusing way (amusing to the GM that is). The characters have a skill system which is used against a D20 roll with the aim being to roll below the skill level, this gives a clean easily understood definition of success though of course the GM should make sure as many potentially random modifiers as possible are applied so that players are not always sure what will be successful. There are no classes or levels in the game though within society clones have a security clearance between the Infrared drones at the bottom through to the powerful Ultraviolet High Programmers at the top. In a secret society a character can have a rank with this influencing what benefits they can get from their membership.

There is possibly more scope for different types of games with Paranoia than with many supposedly straight RPG as it can be played in the classic manner with a darkly humorous approach, as an outright straight RPG of a grim future or with the comedy element increased. Personally I've always favoured the classic manner as I like the combination of humour with the darker subject matter.

Paranoia is an unusual RPG in that player cooperation is deliberately made limited with all characters having good reasons to turn in the others as traitors and make themselves more popular with the computer. It is also nice in that it makes rules lawyering pretty much impossible, as arguing with the GM about the rules is one of the quickest ways to get a character terminated (at least till you run out of clones). Long term character development is again a small part of the game as it is rare that a player will not run out of clones before any character has completed a few missions with pregenerated characters often being a better way to play the game.

I have the hardback Games Workshop reprint of the rules which incorporated several small adventures and a number of others I bought at the time and recently on e-bay. Paranoia was one of the few RPG that kept my interest in the twilight years of my gaming between the late '80s and the start of the new century precisely because of the simplicity of the rules and the break with the standard tropes of RPG.

In short: Paranoia is fun, trust the computer, the computer is your friend. Other games are not fun and playing them is treason.

I was glad to see this revived by Mongoose with a new edition written by Allen Varney in 2004. To date I've not picked up the new Paranoia, but it has been well reviewed at

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Maps and Legends

Well after having seen the British Library's latest free exhibition London: A Life in Maps it has made me think about the fascination that maps hold for me. I always find historical atlases particularly fascinating both for the old maps they contain and the ones using modern topography that show events developing in history. I think part of it is being able to think what might have been and how things are often driven by landscape in the past with the low countries being fought over so much because of their location and topography.

It was striking seeing how long the roads that I know even in the outskirts of London have been there with 18th century maps of the environs of London having familiar roads like Ferry Lane, Wood Street and Marsh Street (now the High Street) in Walthamstow. Though from the rest of the content there is little around them except for farms and houses of the wealthy as retreats from the city, with Samuel Pepys amongst them. This applied to many other parts of outer London that I've been too with the development of the Railways showing up as the critical driver for growth. The outer areas and the East End are relatively little mapped until the 19th Century when the city was growing outwards and social reformers wanted to make their mark.

One of the most striking things is Henry Mayhew's maps of the social standing of areas showing that many areas of poverty were close to those of extreme wealth in a pattern that still continues today in London and in some other cities like New York. This survey called London Labour and the London Poor was one of the influences which lead to proper slum clearances in London and some efforts to replace the desparate conditions of the poor with housing by the London County Council and the Peabody Trust.

Inner London has seen remarkably little change with parts of the City of London still having the medieval street plan, with this really showing up on the ground in the narrow alleyways say between St Paul's Cathedral and the Thames. The area of the Great Fire was originally planned to be replaced with a gridded system, but Wren and co were not able to get this adopted leading to the traditional roads largely surviving. Indeed it is still possible to navigate through many areas using Victorian or earlier maps. This is less true of the West End where schemes like the building of Kingsway or Shaftesbury avenue have changed the road layout considerably. A major driver has been commercial speculative development and this is shown by exhibits where a developer was soliciting contributions before building new roads and the shopkeepers would have pre allocated areas.

Another striking feature is areas changing name as some of the old names have fallen into disuse for example at one time Elephant and Castle was known as Newington as was Stoke Newington in north London.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


RuneQuestII or RQII was one of the first RPG I bought rather than using my elder brother's copy, though it was preceded by Metamorphosis Alpha, Bunnies & Burrows and Flash Gordon and the Warriors of Mongo.

As it broke away from the D&Disms like levels and classes it was intriguing mechanically and far more comprehensive than early versions of D&D and the other really strong factor was the background of Glorantha.

The mechanics using the D100 or percentile rolls for success became the Basic Roleplaying System (BRP) that Chaosium used for other games including Call of Cthulhu. The BRP system works pretty well, but like any other ruleset has its limitations, which are mainly that it focused mechanically on low level skills and character attributes in common with most of the other early RPG. Advancement in skills by successful use or practice is a mechanism that I prefer to the level based 'okay I killed a dozen orcs so suddenly I'm better at opening locks' from D&D.

Magic in RQII is more pervasive than some settings, but the common battle magic is quite limited in its effects and the powerful Rune Magic takes a long time to be available to a character and requiring membership of a cult. The cults in RQ are a better approach to depicting religion in game in my opinion than the default options in D&D, with this helping to integrate the rules into the gameworld with the choice of cults and their associated gods.

Dragon Pass and the other areas in Gerentela were the usual settings for the game with this area of the world of Glorantha having also been used as the basis of the board game that was released as White Bear and Red Moon and later rereleased as Dragon Pass. As a setting it contains many common fantasy tropes, but with distinctly different takes on them. The Aldramyi (Elves) are actually plant folk rather than generic humanoids, Trolls have a mix of types and are more interesting than in many games, the Dragonnewts are a complex race related to the dragons that give Dragon Pass its name and there are no 'orcs' as such.

The races of RQ include the much maligned Ducks, who I always felt gave an interesting edge to the game being a race under an ancient curse that could be played straight or for comic relief. Personally I tended to play the ducks fairly straight though at times with a temper resembling that of Donald Duck.

This is a game that I'm really keen on playing again as it brings back good memories and I feel that mechanically it still holds up quite well in comparison to more recent games like 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer FRP. I prefered this edition to the later Avalon Hill produced RQ3 as it is fundamentally the same mechanisms, without the sorcery rules for magic which I don't regard as a loss. Most importantly though RQ3 lacks the Gloranthan setting which to me is a major loss as that is one of the critical things in the games appeal.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Dragonmeet 2006

Well I went yesterday and thought that the Dragonmeet games convention in London was probably better attended than last year. I'm glad that this con is running regularly again as I remember the 1980s version with some affection and it is good to have a con that features RPGs as a major item in London. At the moment London seems better served for miniatures wargames cons, such as Salute than RPG ones.

It was good to catch up with some of my gaming friends who don't live in London anymore so I don't often see. We ended up playing Shadows over Camelot getting the team win and defeating the traitor player, the old GW Judge Dredd which is the antithesis of team play and Munchkin Impossible. With Munchkin Impossible I was impressed by the cards where there are some fun descriptions and monsters, though the rules are pretty much standard Munchkin.

I didn't go mad to buy stuff only getting my brother an xmas present and a Mighty Armies Wild Elf army from Mongoose for myself. I was saved a bit of temptation by the fact that there were not as many minis companies as at the wargames shows as I might be able to resist most RPG stuff on the grounds that I have plenty of things to run, minis still have that "shiny" factor.

Now just a case of looking forward to next year's con I suppose.