James Wallis | PARANOIA Game Developer

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JAMES WALLIS is one of Britain’s top tabletop games designers, responsible for the likes of ALAS VEGAS, THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN and ONCE UPON A TIME. He’s also one of the people responsible for bringing back the darkly comic dystopian game PARANOIA, which is currently looking for funding via Kickstarter and smashed its funding target in the first six hours. PARANOIA is famous for its dark and satirical humour, but has been out of print for a while. We caught up with James to find out more about the game’s revival...

STARBURST: Tell us about Paranoia…
James Wallis: The plan with Paranoia is to pick it up and give it a thorough shake ‘round the scruff of the neck. They’ve been new editions round about every five or six years but it still felt like old school Paranoia. The world has changed very fast since then. We will be updating the actual background to give us a post-911, post-Edward Snowden, post-Google Glass vision of Alpha Complex.
We’re also retooling the rules. I’ve already annoyed a few people by saying this, including a former Paranoia designer, but I don’t think Paranoia has ever had a good rules set. It’s always had this fantastic background, but it’s been saddled with this rather middle-of-the-road, slightly simulationist, rules-heavy set of mechanics, which are not right for the game. It needs something tailored to create a sense of Paranoia, and I mean that with both a capital and a small p. We’re trying to capture the sense that you get in a lot of the better Paranoia scenarios; you’re presented with an initial problem and your first thought is that this could go all right, then one tiny thing happens and everything just cascades into complete and uncontrollable chaos. What we want to do is not just have that not just the way the stories map out, but also with each individual combat. You can keep it together and fight as a tight unit. But you’re more likely to fumble and end up dooming half the team.

How hard is it to do comedy in a Tabletop Roleplaying Game?
It’s taking cues from the likes of Toon and Ghostbusters, which for my money are the only two successful comedy games. It’s not saying, “This is how you’re funny” it is giving you a structure that within which it’s very easy for the players to find humour, rather than forcing it on you. This is not a book full of silly names.

How will character creation work in this new game?
We’re creating a whole bunch of systems, from the simple and very fast to the rather more involved. There’s three designers working on the game: myself, Grant Howitt - who is a genius designer - and Paul Dean who’s better known for his games journalism and has some very, very clever ideas. My favourite version of the character creation system is one I initially designed for a game I wrote called Cop Show, and it was meant to make balanced parties.  Every time you take an ability, let’s say the Fire Guns Ability at 4, you get to nominate another player to have it the same ability at -4. What we discovered is that people can be quite spiteful about this and you end up with a party that is completely rubbish. In most games, that mechanic wouldn’t work, but it’s completely in the spirit of Paranoia.

How different will this re-imagined game be from classic Paranoia?
It will be recognisably Alpha-Complex. Things will have changed but it will still be recognisable. The thing we must preserve above all else is the spirit of the original. It’s just that Commie Mutant Traitors don’t really fly given that the communist bloc fell apart in the early nineties. You have to remember that was twenty years ago! It’s not a reskin, it’s a reimagining. Like the Star Trek reboot is not a million miles away…  We are working with the original designers Greg Costikyan and Eric Goldberg and they are keeping a close eye on what we do. It will be Paranoia. Some of the notes and the original design work that we’ve seen from them, and the underlying idea that it’s satire not parody, is still very crisp. We are remaining faithful to the original voice, but reinventing it for the new generation.

Should we expect modern dystopian influences in this new game? The Hunger Games, perhaps?
I don’t want to give away too much, and obviously The Hunger Games is a different sort of dystopia, but I think it’s impossible without making nods to modern dystopian fiction. There’s never been anything quite like Paranoia, with the exception of perhaps THX1138; but that’s a very dark and bleak film. Paranoia takes this vision of the future of humanity and makes it funny. It’s still its own thing. We’re not going to do parody supplements of modern dystopias, or anything like that.

The PARANOIA Kickstarter runs till December 3rd 2014.
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