"Imagine a world designed by Kafka, Stalin, Orwell, Huxley, Sartre and the Marx Brothers..."
Thus begins the back cover of the second edition Paranoia RPG rulebook. Set in the darkest and most humorous of darkly humorous futures, Paranoia was a tabletop role-playing game that challenged players to survive in Alpha Complex, a post-apocalyptic, underground city ruled by an extremely paranoid, buggy Computer, where treason is punishable by death and pretty much everything is treasonous (including knowing the rules of the game). Suffice it to say, the dystopia found in Paranoia makes 1984 look like Disneyland.
Paranoia was a breath of fresh air when it hit the tabletop RPG scene in 1984. Its darkly humorous tone was more conducive to pure fun than a slog for experience points and gold, like most RPGs of the time. The rules we supposed to be ignored if they got in the way of a good story or a good time, and the game was flexible enough to be an almost serious attempt to survive in a schizophrenic, totalitarian future state, or a chaotic free-for-all where players endeavored to be the last one standing. This was all thanks to the incredible dystopia that served as Paranoia's setting.
In the future, humanity will live in Alpha Complex, a giant, semi-sustainable, underground city ruled by The Computer, a sentient artificial intelligence with a problem — it's crazy as shit. See, after an unknown apocalypse drove people into Alpha Complex, The Computer tried to figure out what was responsible for the accident, and came across a treasure trove of 1950s anti-Communist propaganda. Assuming communists were responsible — and that they were undoubtedly infiltrating Alpha Complex — the Computer became… well, paranoid.
Over the years (no one's really sure how long Alpha Complex has been in operation since The Computer declared every year 214), the Computer has "uncovered" more enemies, such as Mutants and members of Secret Societies. The Computer does not seem to realize that every single human living in Alpha Complex is both a mutant and a member of a Secret Society, but since both crimes are punishable by death, life is generally exciting, tense and exceedingly short. In fact, the Computer killed so many inhabitants that it began producing Citizens in sixes, meaning everyone has six clones; when one clone dies, a new one takes its place.
The Computer, presuming enemies are everywhere, has spies and surveillance hidden throughout Alpha Complex, watching and listening for the merest hint of treasonous behavior, although whether they can be trusted is anybody's guess (probably not, though). Signs of treason include 1) questioning the Computer, 2) showing anything other than pure cheerfulness at all times, 3) walking funny or 4) needing a scapegoat for your own act of treason, generally all Citizens are a bit paranoid themselves.
Most of Alpha Complex is run on a bureaucracy so convoluted as to defy description. Everything needs a form, and the form always needs to be approved by a different department. Generally, the only way to ever actually accomplish something in Alpha Complex — even on the behalf of the Computer — is to lie, cheat, forge and/or ignore the sytem, all of which is, of course, treasonous (in the spirit of this Brazil-esque nightmare, the Paranoia RPG actually provides several forms for Gamemasters to force their players to fill out).
Life in Alpha Complex is dictated by a color-coded security clearance system, based on ROYGBIV — Red clearance is low, and while Violet is high. Most drones are considered Infrared, while those with Ultraviolet clearance are also known as High Programmers (and the fact that the Ultraviolets have been adding their own, often contradictory programs into the Computer for goodness knows how long hasn't helped anything). Obviously, anybody of lower clearance has to obey anybody with higher clearance, even if that order is to shoot themselves in the head (disobeying someone of higher clearance is, of course, punishable by death anyways).
Most players start out with Red clearance, as they have been "promoted" to Troubleshooter, the Computer's non-elite agents who find trouble and, er, shoot it. Missions can involve almost anything, almost all of which are designed to get players killed. For instance:
• Hunting suspected mutants. Again, everyone in Alpha Complex is a mutant.
• Hunting members of secret societies. Again, everyone in Alpha Complex is a member of a secret society. This gets more complicated when you're supposed to hunt your own secret society.
• Exploring the Outdoors, the area outside Alpha Complex. Knowledge of Outdoors is treasonous and punishable by death, although that rarely stops the Computer from sending Troubleshooters there anyways… and then killing them for having gone Outdoors.
• Testing weapons, gadgets and things from the R&D division. Since the most widely available soda in Alpha Complex actually explodes id shaken too hard, you can imagine how dangerous this stuff usually ends up being.
Obviously, missions are difficult enough before you have to start worrying about your secret society, what other secret societies are plotting, hiding your mutant power, dealing with Alpha Complex's bureaucracy, trying not to look treasonous, trying not to look too non-treasonous because then you'd look kind of suspicious in the opposite direction, the constant insane robots roaming Alpha Complex, the fact that everything in Alpha Complex is constantly on the verge of breaking, and, of course, The Computer.
In order to survive — even with six clones — players are forced to bullshit and backstab their way through the game, blaming all problems on others and trying to take all the praise for themselves in hopes that it'll buy their current clone a little more survival time. Generally in the survival of the fittest, the fittest happen to be the fastest talkers, who can best argue why their intensely treasonous behavior was actually a noble act on behalf of Alpha Complex and so forth. It's worth noting that when the Computer asks you for an explanation, dead clones can't contradict your story.
All in all, Alpha Complex proves that just because a dystopia is evil, soul-crushing and deadly doesn't mean it can't also be massively entertaining. Paranoia manages to warn of the same dangers that 1984 and Brave New World did, but in a manner that kept role-players laughing even as their characters were being torn apart by a faulty medibot. If nothing else, Paranoia created a dystopia that role-players wanted to visit over and over again, and if that doesn't make it the greatest, I don't know what does. Failure to agree is, of course, treasonous.
The current edition of the Paranoia RPG is available at Mongoose Publishing.