RPT#278 – 6 Ways to Create Paranoia

A Brief Word From Johnn

New Article At The Tips Site: “When It All Goes Wrong”

Written by Deacon Rayne, this article has a number of interesting ideas for GMs when players do something unexpected.

When It All Goes Wrong

What Are You Playing?

September has always felt like the start of the game year to me. I suppose that’s from the annual ritual years ago of marathon summer roleplaying coming to an end and the beginning of the school schedule. Last issue I rambled on about what I was playing this fall. How about you? What games are you playing?

Have a game-full weekend!


Johnn Four,

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6 Ways to Create Paranoia

A guest article by Debbie Johnson

I GM Shadowrun, a futuristic, technological, mostly urban setting with the addition of magic that has only been around for about 40 years of the in-game timeline. Granted, this setting already has elements of paranoia built in, so the job of creating more is easier. Therefore, I will give you examples from both the RPG’s techniques and my own.

1. Reversal

This is the fairly obvious technique of an NPC who initially seems bad and turns out to be good, and vice versa. It seems that, no matter how many times I use this, it always seems to work. Of course, I don’t use it with every NPC, otherwise the effect would be lost, but you can certainly use it regularly.

For example, the party’s fixer told them that two Lone Star cops were corrupt and to bring him evidence of this. They tailed them to the meet, and after hearing their conversation confirming that the two cops were planning some corruption, the PCs were discovered and had to defend themselves. Through clues during the combat, the PCs eventually figured out that one of them was an honest cop investigating the corrupt one. So now, because they helped the honest one, the PCs have a valuable contact within the police organization.

This will inspire paranoia because they won’t know what to expect from any given NPC. Is this the one that we (the team) should let into our inner circle? And if we do, will they betray us?

I was introducing a new NPC, Silver, who would eventually tie them into the next mission. First, I tried an attack on the street. She happened to be there, and I wanted her willingness to fight alongside of them to inspire gratitude when she wanted to ask them for help later. They instead were suspicious that the reason she was there was she had set them up.

I tried again with one PC who was on her own by the fortuitous event of capturing that character and putting her in an underground maze. My NPC had observed this kidnapping and followed to help the PC out of a jam. However, the player was so unnerved by the experience in the maze that, instead of being happy to see Silver at the end of it, she stole Silver’s bike and went home, furious at Silver for not getting there sooner and getting her out. Finally, I had to vouch for Silver with my fixer, a person who they knew from experience they could trust (though it’s true that most fixers are easily corrupted).

This was a bit frustrating in this instance from my point of view, but you can use this technique of an NPC showing up, not in the ambush, but near the ambush, over and over again, to make them wary of the appearance of that NPC.

2. Betrayal

This is one you shouldn’t use too often and it involves someone the PCs have trusted for a long time turning on them. There may be no reason for the betrayal that they can discern, or they may find out the reason at some later time.

The main constraint is the amount of time it takes to build trust of an NPC in your game. The longer it takes, the greater the shock and subsequent paranoia that will follow. This is especially effective with a person from their background. I require my players to give me a background for their character for this and other reasons.

A long-lost brother comes into town claiming he just wants to see the PC. However, the brother has secretly been tainted by an enemy of the PC and has arrived to betray the PC. Since I would most likely not attempt this technique against that same PC again, it is more effective in creating paranoia in the rest of the players any time a past acquaintance shows up.

Perhaps a mother was involved in something in her past (unknown to the PC) that goes against the morals of her son. Ashamed of herself and unwilling to admit her error, she has kept it secret all these years. Now the skeleton in her closet comes to light in such a way that the PC feels betrayed. Suspicion is built and the player should begin to wonder, “What else has been kept from me?” Once the player gives me a background, and as I develop a given NPC, I have the freedom to add whatever is necessary to expand her personal history and add to the overall storyline.

3. Mystery

I usually give the PCs glimpses of things that are coming up in the future. This takes GM planning because you can’t give tidbits if you don’t know what you’re doing next.

In one pre-printed adventure I used, the authors provided dreams that the PCs were having before getting involved in the mission. I used most of them, and revised them to fit my PCs, plus I chose to add one of my own, tailoring each dream to its recipient. Since the common theme was sacrifice, it was interesting watching the players try to figure out what the dreams meant, who would be sacrificed from the party, and would they get any choice about it.

A similar method would be to pick a single image in the dream world or in a series of omens and make that a common element so that it stands out to the PCs. Then, in “real game life,” when the PCs spot that image, they’ll be paranoid about its possible relevance.

Perhaps in all the dreams there’s a pocketwatch that reads 11:59, and just as the second hand is about to reach the 00 mark something nasty happens to the watch: it melts, or explodes. During the game, they enter a store (it will have more impact if it is part of the mission) and find the store owner staring at his watch, sweating profusely in great nervousness. Coincidence?

There were some dreams and omens tips awhile back:

Roleplaying Tips #162
Roleplaying Tips #154

4. Surprise

Nothing gets the players jumpy like surprise. This is even included as a game mechanic in Shadowrun. It is a very well-known technique of the opposition ambushing the PCs. The important factor is the suddenness of the attack.

One of the things you may want to do is give them plenty of Perception (or Spot/Listen) checks ahead of time. This gets them thinking something is about to happen. Usually you don’t want them to know this, but it really raises the paranoia level if you delay the ambush (or at least it appears that way from their perspective). Plus, it’s much more effective when you do spring it on them.

The team had to infiltrate the house of an evil female mage who had stolen a dragon egg. The mage was aware of their intent, and they seemed to suspect this because they were extremely cautious. I had the perfect ambush set up, almost too perfect. The evil Blackheart had invented a new spell that she called Liquid Barrier, a translucent fluid substance that acted as if trapped victims are floating in mercury. The idea was that, while the PCs were floundering around in that, Blackheart could take potshots at them from the safety of a crawlspace in the ceiling. However, she couldn’t see them until they entered the room, and consequently the unknown substance, and so she had to wait until the appropriate time.

The PCs first thought that there was something alive in the substance that would attack them, so they did several experiments before getting into it. Meanwhile, they kept expecting to be attacked at any moment, so it seemed to them that I was delaying the ambush and the suspense built. Then, when the first person got to a table that stood above the Liquid Barrier, and because just then Blackheart successfully cast the Petrify spell at him, that caused them to think that touching the table was the source of his predicament. They thoroughly investigated the rooms and equipment that was just there for ‘decoration’ because their paranoia was at an all-time high.

Another time, they were attacked by mundane rats, Devil rats, and even a couple of Demon rats, a new species of paranormal animal that had just recently appeared, and which none of the team had ever encountered. This was in the kitchen of a house where their target was supposed to be. A couple of rats escaped into a hole in a door, though the rest were defeated. When they opened the door, they found it led down some stairs to a dark basement. At the bottom of the stairs was another door to the left. When one of the PCs opened it, I said, “It looks like rats live in here.” He immediately slammed the door shut, paranoid that there were more Devil and Demon rats in there. Little did they know that all that was in there were the two mundane rats who had desperately escaped the fight upstairs.

5. Secretive

This is useful if you have devised your own world, or you are very familiar with the setting of your game. I am constantly thinking about the storyline behind the scenes to make connections. This makes the world realistic, but it also allows me to know how to react to something unexpected from the players.

For instance, the High Prince kidnapped the team to keep them out of the way while he talked to one of the PCs who was kept unaware of the kidnapping. The High Prince had the politics of his country, in addition to his own personal goals, to consider. He carefully pressured the PC to do what he wanted, and while some of his goals were revealed through the assignment of this mission, most of his motivation was kept secret from the PC. This has continued to make the PC (and the player) wonder what the High Prince is up to, and he fully expects personal, and perhaps cultural, repercussions from this mission.

Hinting at secrets kept from the PCs behind the scenes can create paranoia by making them wonder if and when any information they receive from obscure sources is somehow related to the overall picture. Of course, for this to work, you have to also throw in interesting tidbits that have absolutely nothing to do with the current secret.

Right now, there are strange things happening to the magic in my Shadowrun world due to the return of Halley’s Comet in 2061. Each in-game month, I report the news that the PCs have typically heard that month, and I mentioned that the Devil’s Tower has grown 94 meters in the last month, and that the surrounding area had grown highly dangerous for magicians. I simply added this news item to give an overall average perspective in addition to giving them a feel for what is happening to magic, and thereby succeeded in producing paranoia beyond my wildest dreams. The players are now fully convinced that I will send them to the Devil’s Tower, and that it has got to be the lair of a great dragon!

Something that is not new to roleplaying systems, but which can be used in a way that increases paranoia, is the secret GM roll. When using astral perception, a PC can attempt to break the astral masking of an NPC. In Shadowrun, the GM rolls the dice secretly for the player. (I find it’s even more fun to request the player to provide me with their dice, particularly if they are the type to get paranoid about dice rolls, though I don’t insist on it.) If I roll that they fail the test, or if the NPC wasn’t magical to begin with, I say, “He appears mundane to you.” This almost always makes them suspicious, and they usually continue to wonder. Just recently, my players spent an additional two days of in-game time questioning someone who had already told them everything he knew, and whose astral masking they had previously broken, because they thought he was still hiding something.

6. Replay

This one is just plain fun! When one of your players makes a bad roll, and the consequences affect the character in a major way, set up the same situation again. This is especially effective if she sees it coming for a while before she gets there.

For example, the PCs were on a slippery catwalk and one of them failed a roll that she shouldn’t have and fell off. So, two months later in real game time, I presented that player with another catwalk situation.

I looked directly at her and grinned for a further effect. There was no real reason that the PC would fail again, but the players (all of them) couldn’t seem to help being worried that it could happen again, and the probably unnecessary precautions proliferated.

* * *

These are the strategies that I have used to create more paranoia in my game. The downside is that they take preparation on the part of the GM.

With a little thought ahead of time, you should be able to make your players wonder what devious circumstances you’re going to throw at them next.

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Readers’ Tips Of The Week:

1. Generalist/Specialist Character Creation

From: John Grigni

[In response to Fair Random Attributes in issue #277 https://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=277 ]

Another option, which takes less time to do manually, is inspired from an older game, “Dragonquest.” It was a point based system, but you rolled randomly on a chart that had two complementary lists; number of points to spend, and maximum stat value. The more points available, the more spread out you had to make them because your maximum went down. It basically gave a range of ‘specialist’ to ‘generalist’, stat-wise. A roll based on d6 might go something like this (all numbers are before racial mods):

1 21 points, 19 max – specialist
2 23 points, 18 max
3-4 25 points, 17 max
5 27 points, 16 max
6 29 points, 15 max – generalist


If you rolled a one, you got at least one stat that could go beyond normal, but then you only have 10 points to spend on everything else. You could use a racial mod to reinforce a secondary stat rather than a primary (unless your GM allows a character to start with a 20 in something).

If you rolled a six, you could bring four stats up to 15 and still have a point left over, then use a racial mod for reinforcing a primary.

2. Even Monsters Need Someone To Understand Them

From: Aki Halme

Monsters should have an identity; short term and long term goals, values, fears, and priorities. In most cases, this can be kept fairly simple, but doing it at least on some level gives depth to the encounter. Only mindless creatures (golems, some undead, possibly some mind-controlled or insane creatures, and so on) lack these. The motivation for all but the most simple-minded of creatures should consist of at least two different drives that interact in decision making and possibly more for highly intelligent monsters.

For example, consider a gang of goblins led by a single orc. The goblins might be driven by lust and fear; lust for conquest, loot, and causing pain on one hand, fear of outsiders, fellow goblins and especially the big orc leading them on the other. The orc leader shares the lust, which gives it common ground with the goblins, but fear is not a driving factor. Rather, it is guided by pride. As a result, the orc gathers an increasing group of goblins around it, and uses the gang to commit raids against ever more challenging targets in search of bigger spoil. The infamy resulting from this serves the orc’s pride and increases the fear of the goblins in the gang as well as the other goblins that the orc recruits. The gang is kept together by a combination of bloodlust and terror but has to keep moving or it is whittled away and eventually destroyed. Should the Orc fall, or even be severely wounded, the gang would self- destruct.

An aging vampire could be driven primarily by self- preservation and thirst but also for a need for company and the thrill of the hunt. This leads to dilemmas in amongst other things, the choice of a lair and the level of procreation. A secure place far from those capable of ending its existence is hardly the best possible hunting ground. Procreation gives vampire hunters other targets, provides defensive strength in numbers, and means company in the eternal night, but also makes the vampire coven a higher priority for hunters and taps more deeply into the blood reserves of the nearby communities.

When adding a monster, give some thought to how it thinks and what it values. Some things are familiar and there by necessity (such as self-preservation for most creatures), others can be alien to human psychology, and familiar drives can be either missing or in an unusual order of priorities.

3. Google Floor Plans

From: Roy Hanna

Running low on time and need a quick area for your players to run through but don’t have the time to draw it out? Just run a quick Google Images search for “floor plan” or “castle floor plan” or “blueprint”, change the names from “living room” to “armory” or the like, print it out, add some random monsters or treasure, and you’re good to go!

4. Quick Tip Regarding Background Music

From: David Andrews

If you’re running a fantasy game, a good site to get background music is Shoutcast.com. Particularly Radio Rivendell in the Film/Show section, which plays non-stop soundtrack music from fantasy films, although you do get Gandalf occasionally reminding you what station your listening to.


5. Plan An Improv Session

From: Steven Gardiner

For all you GMs out there who feel like they need to prepare everything but want to be more relaxed about upcoming games, I have a solution for you. Take one session with your players and inform them that this session is not related to the overall plot of the campaign, though they’ll still get some XP for playing during the session (think of it as bribery for them helping you to improve as a GM).

Give them a starting location and maybe an enemy or two (start a conflict of some sort) and then make up the rest of the situation as you go along. It doesn’t have to be a spectacular plot, just give it a try. I ran an improv session like this for a change of pace and I’ve found I can be a lot more lazy about preparation since because it helped me learn to GM on my feet. It also helped me gain the ability to think of on-the-fly plot twists!

If you’re nervous about doing an improv session, read up on the topic. Johnn has a lot of great tips on it already. If you’re still nervous, just tell the players it’s a completely improvised session and if they’re anything like my players they’ll think the idea itself is pretty cool, even if the plot isn’t the most spectacular. Anyway, just thought I’d share. Make sure to write in if this worked for you too.

6. Use Aim Chatrooms To Roleplay

From: Steven Gardiner

For GMs who are electronically inclined, I’ve found that using AIM chatrooms to roleplay is an excellent option. It helps my group roleplay more intensely because they can type long descriptions of what their characters are doing. Additionally, (and this is probably the best part) record keeping is a snap! I can save the entire conversation in HTML on my computer and look up anything that happened whenever I need to do so.

AIM even has a built-in 6-sided die roller (perfect for D6 systems like the old-school Star Wars RPG). To use it you type the following: //roll-dice # (the number sign being the number of six-sided dice to roll). To roll one D6 you change “dice” to “die”.

We’ve also found certain conventions that make my life a lot easier in reading the transcripts. Anything that is not in- character is enclosed within doubled-up parentheses. ((These are really noticeable, making it easy to delete side comments, etc.)) To express when someone’s turn begins is easy too. We would type this: turn->Bob. If we ever want to take a break, we can just type [END], which signals that the following text is not IC until the directive [SCENE] appears, which “turns on” the whole double-parentheses thing again. All in all, AIM is extremely useful for RPing. If you’re ready for a change, give it a try. You might find you like the medium quite a bit.

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