Saturday, 25 December 2021

Missed Classic 103: Paranoia (1987)

Written by Joe Pranevich

Merry Christmas! I have a confession to make. When I set out to play a Christmas adventure game for the first time back in 2014, I had a game in mind. I vaguely remembered it, but I knew that it was a text adventure that I first played sometime in the mid-90s. I was just learning Linux and had installed Slackware, probably around 1994 or 1995. Included with the distribution was a handful of text-based games: NetTrek, Hunt the Wumpus, Dungeon (mainframe Zork), and others. While I searched around for another text adventure, I found a surprise: a Christmas spoof, very dystopian, where you were challenged to combat the consumerism of the holiday. It also involved dying a lot and being reincarnated as your clone. This game was Paranoia, based on the table-top game of the same name, but I was completely unaware of it as anything other than this amazing experience hidden among the Linux arcana. 

A few years ago, I tracked this game down again based on my half-remembered experiences. Fortunately, “Christmas” and “dying clones” don’t go together very often! I expected it to be ancient in computer terms, as vintage at least as the mainframe ports that made up most of the games on the system. Surprisingly, most online sources placed the game as having been written in 1993, and my own research discovered no earlier copies. Eventually, TAG made it far enough in our timeline for me to look at the game for real. Like so many things I thought I knew about this game, that date was wrong.

We’ve told some great stories here and our Christmas games make for surprisingly good ones, but this is the first case I’ve ever seen where the game’s writer was unaware of the game’s release or enduring popularity… until I called him thirty-five years after the last time he thought about it. More after the jump.

I bought the set!

Paranoia - The Roleplaying Game

Before we can talk about this game, we have to set the stage. While we have talked a great deal about early computer systems, type-in adventures, and even “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style books, we have never looked closely at one of the foundations of our genre: tabletop roleplaying. In the mid-1970s, a group of eight friends and colleagues sat around a table in Cambridge, Massachusetts and played Dungeons & Dragons. One of those friends, a software engineer and caving hobbyist named Will Crowther (he played “Willie the Thief”), was inspired by these sessions to create arguably the first computer adventure game, Colossal Cave Adventure. A second friend around that table, Dave Lebling, would be inspired to create Zork. These two games are foundational to our genre, and perhaps neither would have existed without the imagination and whimsy of Dungeons & Dragons

While we know Dungeons & Dragons today as being fiercely character-focused, the genesis of the experience came out of tabletop war games. One of the most influential of these, Siege of Bodenburg, first hit the scene in 1967. Players take command of medieval armies and battle across a playing field using 1:20 scale miniatures. Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren subsequently expanded the game with their own rules in Chainmail, released in 1971. Chainmail, for the first time, included a supplement to allow players to stage battles in a Tolkien-like European fantasy setting. Over the following years, these adventures became less about feats of armies and more about feats of men (and women). To enable telling a more personal story, Gygax (with Dave Arneson) released Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. They updated and improved the game over subsequent releases and expansions; they built a community and a world of gaming that continues to this day. My 1983 edition of Dungeons & Dragons remains a prized possession in my house, even though my parents never let me play the game with my friends. I read and re-read the Players Handbook and various game modules I could buy, never once actually playing the game, but using the books and modules to imagine that I was. Alas, my parents were convinced that not only was Satan real, that he could reach out to children using unusual-sided dice.

My prized 1983 Players Manual

Dungeons & Dragons quickly expanded beyond traditional tabletop games. Their first fan-made video game came out in 1975 (The Game of Dungeons) for mainframe systems, while the first real licensed computer game (AD&D: Cloudy Mountain) came out in 1982. By 1985, they even had a Saturday morning cartoon series! It should come as no surprise that many other companies wanted a cut of this growing gaming market. West End Games was one such company. Founded in 1974, they were best known for board games until 1984 when they were approached by the trio of Greg Costikyan, Dan Gelber, and Eric Goldberg with a novel idea for a tabletop system. While most D&D-inspired games of the time were based on forming and adventuring with a collaborative party, the trio imagined an adventure game where the players were at each other's throats, where suspicion and backstabbing ruled the day, and where players could even laugh off character death in favor of just having a good time. That new game was Paranoia and it was unlike any game that had come before. It won an Origins Award in 1984 for best new game system. 

The full game of Paranoia would be challenging to explain without killing you– knowing the rules is treason– I will summarize briefly. The game takes place primarily in “Alpha Complex”, a futuristic city ruled by a helpful and not-at-all crazy AI called simply the “Computer”, or sometimes “Friend Computer”. In this AI-controlled utopia, peace is maintained through the use of Troubleshooters, adventurers such as yourselves who have obtained Red clearance level and who may now be set on tasks small and large for Friend Computer. Successful completion of missions can result in increases to your clearance level, moving up the spectrum “Roy G. Biv”-style from Red, to Violet, and eventually Ultraviolet. If there are any levels above that, knowing about them would be treason. Alpha Complex is under constant threat at the hands of the “commies”, a malignant force that may have led to the fall of civilization. Even worse, some humans have evolved to possess mutant abilities. Having a mutant ability is treason and will result in immediate execution. The Complex is also besieged by secret societies, groups that work in the shadows to overthrow the Computer and all of the goodness of Alpha Complex. Belonging to one of these societies is also treason. Our Troubleshooter character is always tasked to keep a lookout and to shoot or report commies, mutants, or secret society members that he or she may come across. This is made somewhat more difficult by the fact that we are also a mutant member of a secret society, and so is every other player character. On the bright side, each party member has a handful of clones waiting in the wings to jump in should we meet with an unfortunate end.

Potentially treason.

A typical game of Paranoia plays out somewhat like a D&D game on acid. The system has attributes and ability scores and other hallmarks of a tabletop RPG, but while the party is theoretically trying to meet a goal, they are also trying to figure out which of their compatriots are traitors (generally, all of them…) and suck up to Computer (played by the GM) to keep the AI off their scent. I am told that a “good” game of Paranoia can see the party die multiple times before they even make it through the mission briefing. I’m not sure that’s my cup of tea, but many people seem to enjoy the game. All of the above is based on the original 1984 edition of Paranoia; subsequent versions have tweaked the rules, but I am unfamiliar with those versions. Unfortunately for me, not knowing the rules is treason and grounds for immediate termination.

If you want to get an idea how the (newer version) game plays, “Geek and Sundry” (the original home of Critical Role) did a session for Youtube a few years ago. It stars Felicia Day, Wil Wheaton, Matt Mercer, Laura Bailey, and some other friends. If you ever want to see Wil Wheaton be blown up repeatedly, this is a way to do it. 

At one point Felicia Day has a very intimate accident with a laser pen. Seriously.

Enter: Sam Shirley

Paranoia had only been out for two years, when the new editor at SpaceGamer/FantasyGamer magazine was looking for a holiday treat. The magazine, previously an in-house product of Steve Jackson Publishing, had been sold and the new owners (DTI, “Diverse Talents, Inc.”) would take over starting with the Jan/Feb 1987 issue #77. Thanks to the way magazine publication works in the US, that would actually ship in November or December of 1986. They appointed game designer Anne Jaffe as the magazine’s new editor. Jaffe was an old hand in the gaming community having both developed games and previously launched and edited Game News magazine. Jaffe needed some stellar content to launch her new magazine with and she turned to an old colleague, Sam Shirley, to contribute a special holiday treat.

In the early 1980s, Sam “Shams” Shirley was just getting his start as a game designer and writer. Although we tend to equate “game designer” to mean “computer game designer” around these parts, that certainly wasn’t the case in the fast-moving world of the early 80s when TSR and smaller publishers took the tabletop world by storm with Dungeons & Dragons and a myriad of clones. They were inventing a wholly new genre of game! Shirley discovered D&D as a teenager, but his interests quickly moved onto RuneQuest and Chaosium’s ecosystem of games. Chaosium, led by prolific designer Greg Stafford, created a “Basic Role-Playing” (BRP) system which was easily adaptable to a variety of fictional settings. This led, at the time, to a level of variety of play that wasn’t possible in the more straight-laced rules favored by TSR’s early D&D. Shirley fell in love with these games and this world, eventually even dropping out of college to seek a career in game design.

One of Shirley’s first adventure modules.

By the time of our story, Shirley’s aspirations were beginning to pay off. He had co-written at least two modules for Mayfair Games, The Keep (1983) and Swordthrust (1984). Of those, The Keep immediately piqued my interest: it’s a licensed game! (You all know how much I love those.) The game module was designed to tie into the 1983 horror film of the same name (based on the 1981 book by F. Paul Wilson), allowing high-fantasy characters to enter into and escape from a world of Nazis. This module was co-written by Anne Jaffe. By 1985, Shirley was also contributing reviews to Jaffe’s Game News magazine, as well as regularly gaming with her and other friends. Shirley may have first suggested his idea for a crazy Christmas Paranoia adventure to her at one of those game nights. Jaffe seemingly jumped on the chance to include the game in the inaugural issue of her relaunched magazine. 

Out of the gate, Shirley’s Christmas adventure displays a striking irreverence. The work, hilariously titled “The Best Mini-Solo-Adventure of All Time”, consumes 8 magazine pages and includes 57 separate locations. It assumes that the reader has dice and an understanding of Paranoia’s combat system, but this is almost unnecessary in the module itself. It’s easy to see why this game was selected as the cover story. Not only does Paranoia strike a compelling image, this was also near the height of that system’s popularity. Even just reading the introduction, I am stuck by Shirley’s easy knack for comedy in this irreverent universe. Having not read any of his other works yet, I don’t know if he does “serious” as well, but he is immediately funny in a way that (at least to me) jumped off the game. These talents would serve him well in his later career.

Shirley’s 1987 game was his greatest critical success.

After publishing his mini-adventure, Shirley did not have much time to look back. Life as a freelance writer and game designer was a challenging one and he continued to churn out games by himself and with his game designer friends. In 1987, Shirley would co-write “Tournament of Dreams” for the Pendragon system, published by Chaosium. It won “Best Roleplaying Adventure” at the 1987 Origins Awards! This critical success led to other work and Mr. Shirley was eventually offered a role at Chaosium itself, as a staff writer, game designer, and editor. For a young man that grew up playing their adventures, that must have been a dream come true. In these years, he contributed his talents to many modules and game systems including King Arthur Pendragon, Call of Cthulhu, Nephilim, Cyberpunk, and others. He returned to writing for the Paranoia series twice more: the module “The Iceman Returneth” and (incredibly) a crossover module that linked the Paranoia and Twilight: 2000 game systems. I’ve had the chance to read through “Iceman” and it displays much of the same comedy as his mini-adventure. Without spoiling too much, the “Iceman” of the title turns out to be a cryo-suspended developer of the original Paranoia computer system; your mission is (in part) to escort him to the lost city of Des Moines to collect the original backup tapes and reinitialize the computer back to its factory settings. Hilarity ensued. In 1998, with the decline of tabletop roleplaying, Shirley left Chaosium and found work in the “real world” as a web developer and UI expert, work that he continues to this day. I hope he finds opportunities to leverage his tremendous wit and writing skills in his current adventure.

A VAX system like the one that Mr. Lister developed "A Paranoid Adventure" on. 

Enter: Tim Lister

The next phase in the development of Paranoia has been a bit more difficult to track down. One of the game developers that read that 1986 Christmas issue of SpaceGamer/FantasyGamer was Tim Lister, a student at Basser College, in the University of New South Wales in Australia. Lister was inspired to take the text and mechanics of that article and implement it in C, on a “VAX 11/780 under UNIX”. 

Only a few months after the Christmas issue, Lister sought to publish his game (likely for the first time) on the Comp.Sources.Games (CSG) USENET newsgroup. In the early days of the internet, USENET was a globally distributed message board system where you could find everything from recipes to Star Trek porn. As the internet shifted towards the web as its primary medium, USENET gradually slipped away and is no longer generally available. CSG was a moderated group and Lister must have coordinated with those moderators before the game was launched. They would have been concerned for both quality and portability; games on that group were required to work on common systems of the day. This first version, entitled A Paranoid Adventure, was published on July 16, 1987. It was approved by John Mackin, one of the moderators, but also a faculty member at Basser College. Coincidence? Most likely not. It was a small world back then. The game was given the CSG index code of “v01i094”, the 94th game of their first “volume” of games. 

It’s difficult to say now how many players were exposed to the game through that newsgroup. The next big moment in the distribution of Paranoia came in 1993 with the release of BSD-Games 1.2. Since the earliest days of UNIX (of which BSD is a flavor), games were included as part of the operating system. This may come as no surprise at all: Windows shipped with Solitaire (1990) and Minesweeper (1992), but the UNIX world was a stuffy place filled with reel-to-reel tapes and strangely-colored VT terminals. As early as 1973, BSD shipped with games such as Hunt the Wumpus included. The BSD-Games package emerged in part to collect and maintain the games that had shipped with those early systems. Even without the pedigree of some of the games on the list, the maintainers added Paranoia to their collection in August 1993. In turn, that package was adapted or ported to most of the UNIX-like operating systems of the day. My mid-90s copy of Slackware included a Linux version of that package, leading to my first (and perhaps others’ first) experience with the game. 

In 1997 however, the BSD-Games maintainer realized that Paranoia was not clear on its copyright status. Lister had not received permission to publish the game, and its use of copyrighted text made its “free software” status questionable at best. The following year it was removed entirely with this note:

Paranoia has been removed from bsd-games-non-free, since it has no clear licence at all, and being derived from a magazine article it is not clear it was ever legally distributable. Anyone wanting to resurrect it in a separate package would need to investigate the copyright on the magazine article as well as getting a proper licence from the author.

I understand from Mr. Shirley that no one ever contacted him for his permission to make or publish the game. He is uncertain whether he even retains the rights, or whether they are owned by one of SpaceGamer’s successors. Perhaps its removal was for the best. Despite that, the game lives on. Another developer, Sean Kane has produced two versions of the game, one in Python in 2005, and one in Go in 2018. Other versions supposedly exist based on Inform, Adventure Game Toolkit, and other languages. There is (or was?) a web version somewhere. This tiny little game continues to maintain a small following eager to keep it playable almost 35 years later.

Although I have been able to learn a small amount about Mr. Lister from publicly available sources, I was unable to track him down in time for this article. I believe– but am not certain– that he may be the same Tim Lister that developed a solitaire game (Blue Moon Solitaire) for UNIX systems in the late 80s or early 90s. Beyond that, I have been unable to locate any game credits or other information about him. If Mr. Lister ever reads this, I hope he reaches out to confirm or clarify the history that I have put together.

Enough backstory! Let’s play the game!

Playing The Game

As the game begins, we are given a brief overview and a copy of our character sheet. (Subsequent replays show that the sheet is fixed; the game does not reroll ability scores at the start.) Our character appears average in most things, although a bit low on “chutzpah”. More importantly, we learn that we are a member of the Illuminati and possess the mutant power of precognition. I didn’t pick up on the importance of those details in my first playthrough, but a Paranoia player would know that both of those things are treasonous and subject to immediate execution. 

The game plays more like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” than a text adventure. Rather than having a parser loop and type commands, we select options from a list in each location. The game begins like this:

You wake up face down on the red and pink checked E-Z-Kleen linoleum floor. You recognise the pattern, it's the type preferred in the internal security briefing cells. When you finally look around you, you see that you are alone in a large mission briefing room.

In the centre of the room is a table and a single chair. There is an Orange folder on the table top, but you can't make out the lettering on it.

Select 'a' or 'b' :

 a - You sit down and read the folder.

 b - You leave the room.

In each location or event we experience, we get a textual description followed by a list of options. The game helpfully suggests that we “continue doing this until we win”. (Note that Lister’s game consistently uses British/Australian spellings. Shirley’s original favored American spellings.) Just for giggles, I try to leave the room but find the way blocked. A nearby guard will not let me leave unless we provide a “briefing release form”. While I am positive that the origin of this trope extends back to some dystopian ur-story (Brazil? I haven’t seen it), I can’t help but be reminded that I am presently solving a puzzle in Stationfall that requires me to find and validate an authorization form. Some puzzles are universal!

I open the packet and read the briefing materials. The important bits are as follows:



There’s just something about the term “Master Retailer” (presumably for Santa) that I just adore. The guard accepts my release form and we are off to the tubecar station for a lift to Distribution Hall 7-Beta. We are also given the option to interrogate the Computer more about Christmas, but as I know the Computer Is My Friend, I am certain that Friend Computer told me everything I need to know already. 

Unfortunately, I mistakenly board an incorrect (“brown line”) tube train and am blasted off into space. Apparently, in Alpha Complex, this is a normal means of garbage disposal. My first clone is dead and I start again with Clone #2. We get a cute little activation scene before the game resumes as before.

"Hrank Hrank," snorts the alarm in your living quarters. Something is up. You look at the monitor above the bathroom mirror and see the message you have been waiting for all these years. "ATTENTION TROUBLESHOOTER, YOU ARE BEING ACTIVATED. PLEASE REPORT IMMEDIATELY TO MISSION ASSIGNMENT ROOM A17/GAMMA/LB22. THANK YOU. THE COMPUTER IS YOUR FRIEND." When you arrive at mission assignment room A17-gamma/LB22 you are given your previous clone's remaining possessions and notebook. You puzzle through your predecessor's cryptic notes, managing to decipher enough to lead you to the tube station and the tube car to GDH7-beta.

This time, I stop to ask for more information about Christmas. That turns out to be a mistake as simply knowing about Christmas is an ultraviolet “immediate self-termination” topic. I confess that I am not ultraviolet and am sent to a “Internal Security self incrimination” station. Rather than pop in for a quick death, I walk blithely by and return to the tube station instead. For an AI-controlled dystopia, the Computer is awfully trusting. On my next attempt, I board a purple-line train that takes me successfully to the distribution hall. Is it just by chance what tube color we board, or was there more to it? I have no idea. 

You manage to pull yourself out of the tubecar and look around. Before you is one of the most confusing things you have ever seen, a hallway that is simultaneously both red and green clearance. If this is the result of Christmas then it's easy to see the evils inherent in its practice.

You are in the heart of a large goods distribution centre. You can see all about you evidence of traitorous secret society Christmas celebration. Rubber-faced robots whiz back and forth selling toys to holiday shoppers, simul-plast wreaths hang from every light fixture, while ahead in the shadows is a citizen wearing a huge red synthetic flower.

You are searching Goods Distribution Hall 7-beta.

Is the citizen with the red synthetic flower the “Master Retailer”? Before I can consider it further, a robot salesman walks up to me and offers to sell an “Action Troubleshooter” doll with realistic napalm. I get the option to buy the doll, shoot the robot, or just ignore him. Since you never know when you might need an action figure with realistic napalm, I purchase the toy. The game helpfully lets me know that I can use the doll later in combat; it will work just like a “cone rifle firing napalm, except that occasionally it will explode and blow the user to smithereens”. Helpfully, the game adds, “but don’t let that stop you.” 

In case you needed to be reminded what a Christmas tree looked like.

I continue searching the room (just by pressing enter a few times, really) and come across what we recognize as a Christmas tree, but which our Troubleshooting character perceives as “a green multi armed mutant horror hulking 15 feet above your head. Its skeletal body is draped with hundreds of metallic strips [...] and the entire hideous creature is wrapped in a thousand blinking hazard lights.” While we are staring agape at the tree, we are bumped into by an ultraviolet shopper and are startled enough that we immediately kill him. Searching the body, we discover the clue that we needed:

You have found a sealed envelope on the body. You open it and read:

"WARNING: Ultraviolet Clearance ONLY. DO NOT READ.

Memo from Chico-U-MRX4 to Harpo-U-MRX5.

The planned takeover of the Troubleshooter Training Course goes well, Comrade. Once we have trained the unwitting bourgeois troubleshooters to work as communist dupes, the overthrow of Alpha Complex will be unstoppable. My survey of the complex has convinced me that no one suspects a thing. Soon it will be too late for them to oppose the revolution. The only thing that could possibly impede the people's revolution would be someone alerting The Computer to our plans (for instance, some enterprising Troubleshooter could tell The Computer that the communists have liberated the Troubleshooter Training Course and plan to use it as a jumping off point from which to undermine the stability of all Alpha Complex), but as we both know, the capitalistic Troubleshooters would never serve the interests of the proletariat above their own bourgeois desires.

P.S. I'm doing some Christmas shopping later today. Would you like me to pick you up something?"

When you put down the memo you are overcome by that strange deja'vu again. You see yourself talking privately with The Computer. You are telling it all about the communists' plan, and then the scene shifts and you see yourself showered with awards for foiling the insidious communist plot to take over the complex.

Select 'a' or 'b' :

 a - You rush off to the nearest computer terminal to expose the commies.

 b - You wander off to look for more evidence.

That “strange deja’vu” is our mutant powers kicking in. As I would like to be showered with awards, I race to a terminal to bring news of the plot against the Training Course. The game forces me to confirm several times that I really want to provide Computer with the information, but I persevere. The good news is that the computer is very happy with my performance, the treason is dealt with, and the Master Retailer is defeated. The bad news is that I am executed for knowing too much. Perhaps doing the “right thing” isn’t the point of this game, after all…

The Computer orders the entire Vulture squadron to terminate the Troubleshooter Training Course. Unfortunately you too are terminated for possessing classified information.

Don't act so innocent, we both know that you are an Illuminatus which is in itself an act of treason.

Don't look to me for sympathy.


Is that the best ending? I do not know how many endings the game has, but I elect to jump back in and see if there is anything that I missed that could prevent my death. I won’t dictate each of these attempts from here, but I spend some time trying out other options in each of the locations to see what kills me and what doesn’t. Trial and error isn’t always the most fun, but the game rewards exploration with more well-written text, so it’s not so bad. 

My first discovery is that if I ask the Computer about Christmas and then claim that I have Ultraviolet clearance, Friend Computer assumes that I am telling the truth. I am immediately requisitioned with a new ultraviolet (actually, black) jumpsuit and rewarded with more of the game’s backstory:

"Now, about your question, citizen. Christmas was an old world marketing ploy to induce lower clearance citizens to purchase vast quantities of goods, thus accumulating a large amount of credit under the control of a single class of citizen known as Retailers. The strategy used is to imply that all good citizens give gifts during Christmas, thus if one wishes to be a valuable member of society one must also give gifts during Christmas. More valuable gifts make one a more valuable member, and thus did the Retailers come to control a disproportionate amount of the currency. In this way Christmas eventually caused the collapse of the old world. Understandably, Christmas has been declared a treasonable practice in Alpha Complex. Thank you for your inquiry."

If I am not mistaken, the “real” Paranoia game goes out of its way to never reveal the cause of society’s collapse. This is, of course, a joke… but also a swipe at Christmas consumerism. (Poking fun at the consumerism of the holiday wasn’t a new idea, of course. If you think so, Peanuts and Gremlins would like to have a word with you.) For all that the game (both this one and the original Paranoia) hates “commies”, it is capitalism that really caused the collapse of the old world. No wonder knowing this information is treasonous! 

Several more attempts and deaths later, I stumble on an informant in the Goods Distribution Hall that claims to have information on the Master Retailer. Exploring the hall seems (like the tube cars) fairly random, but could be based in part on things that I did earlier in the adventure. I bribe the informant for more information.

You step into the shadows and offer the man a thirty credit bill. "Just drop it on the floor," he says. "So you're looking for the Master Retailer, pssfft? I've seen him, he's a fat man in a fuzzy red and white jump suit. They say he's a high programmer with no respect for proper security. If you want to find him then pssfft step behind me and go through the door."

Behind the man is a reinforced plasteel blast door. The centre of it has been buckled toward you in a manner you only saw once before when you were field testing the rocket assist plasma slingshot (you found it easily portable but prone to misfire). Luckily it isn't buckled too far for you to make out the warning sign.

   WARNING!! Don't open this door or the same thing will happen to you. Opening this door is a capital offense. Do not do it. Not at all. This is not a joke.

My mutant powers confirm that opening the door is a very Bad Idea. But given that my powers were exactly wrong the last time, I plunge in and open the door. On the other side, a giant plasma cannon is being prepared (it seems?) to shoot into the Hall. Somehow, in my rush, I trip and fall head-first into the barrel and get my head caught. While that seems like an ignoble end, I’m patted on the back and told that I won the training course!

"Congratulations, troubleshooter, you have successfully found the lair of the Master Retailer and completed the Troubleshooter Training Course test mission," a muffled voice tells you through the barrel. "Once we dislodge your head from the barrel of the 'Ultra Shock' plasma cannon you can begin with the training seminars, the first of which will concern the 100% accurate identification and elimination of unregistered mutants. If you have any objections please voice them now."

Despite “successfully” finding the lair, we are told that our overall performance on the course has been subpar and we’ll need to take a series of remedial lectures. This starts a new segment to the game with less of a Christmas theme, but at least it’s short:

  • In the first lecture, we are shown a mutant detection gun and the professor calls for volunteers. We can decide whether to volunteer or not. As usual, the obvious answer is wrong: we should volunteer and test the gun out on another student in the lecture hall. They are revealed to be a mutant and taken away for the following day’s dissection class. 

  • Just prior to the second lecture, we are met with a man who correctly gives me the secret Illuminati handshake. We can choose whether to respond with the correct code phrase (“Ewige Blumenkraft”) or not. We need to avoid the temptation: this is a secret society detection training course and the lecturer was demonstrating how easy it is to spot secret society members once you know their secret handshakes. That password comes from Robert Shea and Robert Wilson’s “Illuminatus!” trilogy from the 1970s. Those books warped my brain as a kid.

If we successfully pass both of these seminars correctly, we graduate and are ready for new missions. Even better, we have learned valuable information about how the Computer tracks down mutants and secret societies; the latter will be especially useful when I report it back to the Illuminati themself. Maybe they’ll even give me a promotion… This appears to be the “real” end to the game. 

Time Played: 45 min

Final Rating

Judging Christmas games is difficult. Judging this one, arguably not even a “real” adventure game, may be harder still. It’s difficult for me not to be biased, but that very bias reveals a truth: the imagery in this game stuck with me for decades, even when I couldn’t remember any of the specifics. It may have helped that I didn’t know a thing about Paranoia before playing this game; as such, some of the tropes that are just “normal” for that system were revolutionary and exciting to me. We’re not here to judge this game as a Paranoia game, but rather as an adventure. How does it stack up?

Even before getting into the details, I think it stacks up quite well. This version of Paranoia is barely more than an appetizer, but it’s a damned good appetizer. It would have made me interested in the game system if I had read it in 1986, and encouraged me to research that game system (and several designers) in 2021. None of Shirley’s later modules were made into computer games, but he exhibits the same wit and charm in the other modules that I read. He had a fantastic career as a tabletop designer, but I know he would have been right at home among companies like Infocom or LucasArts. 

As every review may be someone’s first here at “The Adventurers Guild”, let me remind you that ratings are desperately unfair and should be ignored at all costs. Our  “EGGNOG” rating system used for Christmas games is based on an idealized version of Monkey Island from the 1990s; using it on a text adventure from 1987 is criminal… and yet, that is what we are here for. Try not to take the rating too seriously.

Enigmas and Solution-Findability - Paranoia’s puzzles are let down by the random nature of the design. While there is some combat and some exploration, often there is no solution to getting past an obstacle other than getting lucky. And when you don’t know that you’re rolling a 1d4 to find out if you entered the correct tube car, for example, it can lead to false assumptions. And yet, some of the puzzles are quite clever. Convincing the computer that you are ultraviolet and having it give you the correct uniform is brilliant. I just wish there was more. My score: 2

Game UI and Items - The game has very little UI. We answer questions, we check our inventory, and that is it. It’s a basic skin on top of “Choose Your Own Adventure”. A peek at the code suggests that more was planned– there’s even a partly-implemented save system!-- but the game wasn’t large enough to need more than the basics. My score: 1

The first Paranoia game with graphics came out in 2019, but appears to have been discontinued. 

Gameworld and Story - We cannot credit Mr. Shirley for creating the Paranoia game world, but he created an efficient holiday narrative in that milieu. The flow isn’t perfect and the training sequence at the end seems tacked on, but it’s well done overall and a testament to what he could accomplish in just a few pages. My score: 2

Noises and Pretty Pixels - As text adventures go, this one has text. Unfortunately, that does not warrant it receiving a score in the graphics department. My score: 0

Overworld and Environs - This category is called “Environment and Atmosphere” in our usual rating system and if there is one thing this game has in abundance, it is “Environment and Atmosphere”. The writing is witty, the setting is great, and little details like the concept of Christmas colors interfering with the color-coding of the game is fun. The atmosphere was so memorable that it stuck with me for decades after only playing once or twice. If it were longer, it would have scored higher. My score: 7

Gregariousness and Thespianism - Shirley is a gifted writer. His prose is well-written (although Lister introduced spelling and punctuation errors) and he’s gifted at writing a scenario in this dystopian space. It’s a joy to read the game and I’m just sad there wasn’t more. My score: 4

Adding the score: (2+1+2+0+7+4)/.6 = 27 points!

While not our top-scoring Christmas game, Shirley (and Lieber) managed to strike a nerve to create something that outlived its magazine roots. I am glad to have come back to this game, glad to have solved the mystery of its creation date, and glad to have had a chance to interview Mr. Shirley for this post. This was great fun. 

If you would like to experience Paranoia yourself, you can download several versions from Sean Kane’s site here. I played his version for this review (after comparing it to the C source to look for changes) and this game would be more difficult to play today if not for his efforts.

I hope you enjoyed our annual Christmas tradition, and our first Christmas as “The Adventurers Guild”. It is one of my great joys each fall to play one of these games for you and I hope to be able to continue for a few years more. I know of at least one or two more, prior to 1993. If you are looking for even more Christmas fun, please check out our previous holiday specials:

From all of your friends here at The Adventurers Guild, we wish you a joyous and healthy holiday season.


  1. if you want to try the original. It seems to be a very faithful port.

    1. Thank you for posting the link! I had discovered the magazine archive as well, but neglected to include it in the review.

      This one ended up having a lot of content on the cutting room floor, as it were. I collected far too much on Sam Shirley, including old interviews, several of his game modules, etc.

      One nugget of information that I should have included was that Shirley's game might not have been *fully* his choice. It appears that West End Games may have sponsored the game as an indirect advertisement for "Hill Sector Blues", a module released around that time.

  2. Wow! Sounds like an awesome game concept. Somehow I never heard of it before. Should watch the Geek&Sundry video when I have some hours...

    1. I've watched it in short bursts and still only made it through half. It's fun because you get to watch people that you like screw around, but there's not much plot there and it has none of the watchability of a normal D&D youtube play. "Paranoia" is a great game to play, I am fairly certain, but maybe less fun to watch.

      As an aside, I just *finally* realized that the art on the game (the cover I included is reproduced as the "cover" for the game section inside) has the characters wearing BLUE when they would be wearing RED. And even though I knew that the magazine was promotion "Hill Section Blues" (a Paranoia module) that month, I didn't connect until this morning that they actually just used the cover art for that module for the magazine and Christmas game. A bit lazy overall, but can't be too bad if I just noticed it now.

  3. I played a game of this on IRC ages ago, it was fun! Was really my first proper RPG experience outside of a computer game. It took us most of the first session to make it out of the briefing, as we all kept reporting each other (more fun than perhaps that makes it seem, especially since it's not game over for you!).

    This was lovely to read, just what I needed as I have a bit of a quiet christmas this year. I hope everyone is having a good holiday!

  4. Very interesting. I wouldn't take Paranoia for the kind of PnP game to get a Christmas module at first, but it does make sense. I believe that game that came out not too long ago got delisted because it was just that bad.

    As an aside, you don't have to worry about Christmas games, at least for a decade, because the Solution Archive lists a bunch of Christmas games before 1993, and two games with unknown years that are probably before 1993.

    1. Thank you! That gets me four more that I didn't know about that were pre-1993, although quickly checking, it seems that some of these don't have readily available images. I could search.

      That means that I have five more games in English that I could play (assuming I can find them and they work), plus two two foreign language ones. That'll keep me at this for a while...

  5. The 2019 Paranoia (which was pretty lackluster btw) was not "The first Paranoia game with graphics", as your final screenshot states. That honor rather goes out to the 1989 game "Paranoia Complex" - which is categorized as an adventure game, as it happens!

    1. I did not know about that one! Thank you for pointing it out.

      It looks to me more of an overhead shooting game than what we play here, but I'll dig into it further and see. I'm just surprised that I missed that this existed. (It doesn't appear to be OFFICIAL. Perhaps the 2019 game is the first official one?)

    2. Yeah, it's very likely not a licensed game. Apparently it was reissued under a new name (Cyber world) shortly after the original release. Also, I've found some contemporary reviews that being up the connection to the pen & paper RPG (in German - it was a German game after all, I'm doing know if it even was released anywhere else but in Germany), and these reviews read like "Paranoia Complex" was more an action-strategy kind of game than a classical adventure, though there are inventory items...