It's Your Game

It's Your Game
Player-Prompted Paranoia

Allen Varney | 2 Aug 2005 08:05
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I didn't know it at the time, but in late February 2004, I was Rick Jones. There's probably tens of thousands of Rick Joneses, but I was specifically Rick Jones from the Marvel superhero comic The Incredible Hulk.

An innocent freelance game designer, I'd blithely accepted the contract to design a new edition of a classic tabletop paper-and-dice roleplaying game, PARANOIA. I was as oblivious to my imminent peril as was Rick in that 1963 origin issue, playing his harmonica out on the New Mexico testing ground, with the terrible gamma bomb ticking away. But on the Internet my salvation was at hand, like Dr. Bruce Banner racing across the desert to push Rick to safety, even as the explosion bathed Banner in the gamma radiation that would make him a savage monster - uh - no, wait a minute -

My metaphor has gotten away from me, but the point is, I was in trouble. I had three months to write, playtest, edit, and lay out a 256-page rulebook for release in August 2004. Tick tick tick....

And - appropriately, given that the game was PARANOIA - I was being watched. Closely.

"Trust The Computer! The Computer is Your Friend!"
Originally published in (appropriately) 1984 but out of print for ten years, PARANOIA (designed by Dan Gelber, Eric Goldberg, and Greg Costikyan) was the first successful comedic RPG. Set in an underground city of the future ruled by an insane Computer, PARANOIA inverted the traditional cooperative play of most games. As elite "Troubleshooter" agents, players hunt traitors, including mutants and members of secret societies - but each Troubleshooter is, him- or herself, secretly both a mutant and a secret society member. So play consists of gathering evidence on your teammates and shooting them before they shoot you.

As much a psychological exercise as a game, PARANOIA became a legend in the hobby. A decade after the last edition, the game retained a devoted fan following in various Web communities, especially the remarkable Hundreds of forum members showed passionate love for, and strong opinions about, the game.

In pre-Web days, a publisher's usual approach to a new edition was top-down: poll some potential customers, then retreat to the word processor, circulate a few playtest drafts, publish, and pray. But I was starting to hear that gamma-bomb deadline tick, so I looked for a way to harness all that enthusiasm, a sort of bottom-up angle. Fortunately, I found a ready model: the Forge.

The Forge is an online community of roleplaying game theorists - not a large group, but as devout as a Mennonite colony. They debate rarefied Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist theory, trade self-publishing strategies, and create small, fascinating games on weird topics. The Forge espouses a public design process, where designers float ideas for feedback and brainstorming.

Stealing this neat approach for the PARANOIA design, I organized dozens of collaborators using every Web tool I could find:; a Wiki; and a development blog started by Greg Costikyan. Fans vetted the playtest rules and contributed lots of material, like coders on an open-source software project. It wasn't really open-source; everyone knowingly surrendered their material to PARANOIA's owners, without hope of compensation. (The blog disclaimer read, "All your rights are belong to us. No bloody Creative Commons here! Bwahahaha!") But - this is the key point - they pitched in anyway, hoping they would benefit by getting an improved game.

The fans not only made the new edition incomparably better, they pushed me to safety just ahead of the deadline-bomb's explosion. The new edition received fine reviews and has sold well. Now I'm using the same model to package its support line.

Shared Creation
Watching the PARANOIA line evolve, I'm reminded of that Marvel Comics character, Rick Jones. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Rick in 1963 as the Hulk's nondescript teen companion. Rick later became the shared Marvel universe's all-purpose general sidekick, first for Captain America, then the Hulk again, then Captain Marvel.... Writers made it a running gag to work him in everywhere. And over time, Rick got a lot more interesting, growing into a jaded young man who had seen it all and now took the most astounding events in stride.

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