Player-Prompted Paranoia

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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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Likewise, as talented contributors have added to PARANOIA, the setting has evolved in new directions. Known in the ’80s primarily for slapstick parody, it now embraces darkly satiric suspense a la Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Stanislaw Lem’s 1973 novel Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. Troubleshooters, formerly low-ranking disposable nobodies, can now rise and fall in The Computer’s esteem over lengthy careers – well, lengthy compared to the old days, when lifespans were measured in hours if not minutes. At high social ranks, characters face anxieties entirely new to RPGs, existential dilemmas that would make even Rick tremble.

Whether in comics, books, TV series, movies, and games, pop culture offers endless Jonesian examples of collaborators successively shaping a property – the property’s personality and tone unpredictable, emergent phenomena of the collaboration. In iterations over time by hired creators, these properties grow feature-rich. But this development was always, so to speak, closed-source. You personally, an audience member, cannot influence the development of Rick Jones, nor James Bond, nor Han Solo. Post fan fiction about them on your site and you get a lawyer’s nastygram, as surely as if you hacked Microsoft Word.

The PARANOIA example shows how to open up creative collaboration, to make the process thoroughly public.

The One-Word Takeaway: “Synergize”
You can adapt this approach to develop characters and background for any roleplaying game, either computer or paper. It would probably work for fiction and screenplays, too, though I suspect you’d want to keep the group small. Aim for these priorities:

1. Excited interest
Promote your idea. Convey why it’s cool, why people should mess with it, and how they can improve it. If you can’t get a dozen people excited about your creative property, it’s probably not worth pursuing anyway.

2. Fast, frequent communication
After you build energy, synchronize effort. Use mailing lists, instant messaging, forums, blogs, and shared netspaces of all kinds. Use a Wiki! A collection of editable Web pages is probably your best resource. Note, though, Wikis select for deeply involved contributors. It takes so much time to stay current, lightly involved onlookers may soon drop out.

3. A gatekeeper
Everyone involved will have a different take on the material. Either set direction and vet all contributions yourself, or appoint *one* person to do so – preferably a good listener.

4. Honesty
Ensure everyone understands up front the rights they’re assigning you, and their compensation (if any). Be candid about why you want things done one way and not another. Tell everyone basically everything, short of betraying confidences or making someone in the group look bad. Brace yourself for corresponding honesty in return. I’m already hunkering down, awaiting the criticism I’ll get for muddling that Rick Jones metaphor.

5. Love, not money
Though it sounds weird, it would be harder to make this PARANOIA thing work if actual money were on the line. I get a flat (extremely low) word rate for editing and packaging the line, and pay the contributors out of that minimal fee under a work-for-hire contract that assigns all rights to the game’s owners. Hour for hour, I earn less than an entry-level Starbucks barista. This is pretty much standard for the penurious roleplaying industry. And that’s fine. I knew the pay when I took the job. (See point #4.) If the designers thought they could make serious money, the maneuvering and politics would be awful.

It’s a labor of love for all concerned, like a lot of open-source software. The experience itself has been the reward, and I hope it works out that way for you too.

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