The sky has turned white; the stars pulse with inky blackness. This unexpected Carcosan weather pattern has trapped company principals Cat and Simon in the wilds of Ohio. Yet the commands of the pallid mask may not be delayed!

The Kickstarter for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, by Robin D. Laws, launches this Wednesday, June 21st, at 8 pm Eastern.

A column on Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A recent test session of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game (Kickstarting later this year, plug plug) shone a spotlight on a conundrum that can crop up in any GUMSHOE horror game:

How much should the GM intervene when the players have fallen all too desperately into a terror spiral?

As a game of investigation, GUMSHOE assumes that the PCs can investigate their way out of whatever trouble they find themselves in. In a horror game, that includes situations that in a scary movie could easily end up with everyone, or nearly everyone, dead.

In a baseline terror tale, a haunted house might exist only to destroy the protagonists.

A GUMSHOE haunted house, by contrast, presents a puzzle. Find the clues that unravel its mystery, and you learn how to reverse onrushing doom and defeat that haunted house.

But what happens when the haunted house works too well on the players, and they forget to look for those clues?

This session took place within the second of the four Yellow King Roleplaying Game sequences, The Wars. In this setting the players portray soldiers in an alternate reality battle zone. In this scenario the role of haunted house was played by an old hunting lodge the squad had been ordered to clear and hold.

Before play began, my conception of the improvised scenario was that the players would encounter ghostly manifestations of the people they had killed and seen killed over the course of the war. These would be caused by a being from the Yellow King’s world of Carcosa, which anchored itself to our reality through an object associated with myths of fear and terror. In this case, borrowing an image from a lesser Robert W. Chambers horror story, it would be the skull of a medieval sorcerer.

For starters, the squad showed up at the lodge to find it occupied by an enemy force, which they killed in a firefight. I then had each player describe a flashback about a key death their characters witnessed before the conflict had hardened them. Sue, playing a soldier conscripted from the peasantry, described an assault on her farm while she was fox hunting.

Flashbacks dealt with, we returned to the main action. On the bodies of the slain enemies the group naturally found the first indications that something supernatural was afoot. However, this did not immediately set them on a clue-finding path.

(This was only the second scenario featuring these PCs, so most players were still having big fun portraying their characters as unwilling to believe in the supernatural. Never mind that wolf monster they established a psychic link with last time. That had to have been a one-off.)

When it came time for Sue’s character, Jeanne, to meet her personal ghostly manifestation, why naturally that had to come in the form of a creepy fox.

Other manifestations occurred, but the foxes grew into the evening’s most terrifying element. For this we had YouTube to thank, because a search for “fox sounds” reveals that the noises they make are extraordinarily freaking creepy.

As escalating manifestations continued to eat away at the character’s Stability reserves, and the foxes kept coming in ever greater numbers and screaming screaming screaming, the session evolved into a particularly effective haunted house story. Not only that, the protagonists had a novel, unusually solid reason to stay in the house: they were soldiers, ordered to hold it.

But was it too effective? The session became all about the hunkering, as opposed to the information gathering that could have led to a means of ending the haunting.

Unlike some hunkering situations, I had a way for the outside world to communicate with the characters: the text-based black box that substitutes for radio in this alternate reality. The team had decided they were under attack by an enemy psy-ops unit and used the black box to inform HQ of that.

This gave me the chance to hint them into active mode: HQ ordered them to go out and hunt down the psy-ops squad. Of course, they’d find something else once they explored the surrounding area—I was thinking an old graveyard with an inscription that would trigger a telltale use of the History ability.

Although I repeated this hint a couple of times, the team stayed hunkered and running ever lower on Stability*.

At that point, I could have doubled down on the hinting, breaking the fictional wall to remind them that GUMSHOE is about investigating and maybe they should do some of that. I am not at all averse to wall-breaking when necessary. But was it?

I decided not, as the group was clearly gripped by the way the session had spontaneously developed, even though:

  • it wasn’t a representative GUMSHOE game
  • it didn’t match my initial plan

The so-called wrong thing was actually the right thing, because it was working.

Ultimately the lieutenant irrevocably lost her mind, Jeanne fragged her with a grenade, and the rest of the group escaped being eaten by a newly swapped-in cause for the manifestations: a predatory toad-like creature surrounded by the white sky and black stars of Carcosa.

In the post-session review, the players seemed happy with the way it all went south, observing that this episode felt more King in Yellow than the one previous.

I didn’t want them to feel that they’d played wrong, and so didn’t mention that some investigation might have turned things around. Good thing none of them have access to the Internet and thus will never read this column.

Joking aside, they of course didn’t play wrong. They leaned into what the session became, and that was playing right.

If I’d tried even harder to yank them toward my preconceptions, that would have been GMing wrong.


*Well, to quibble with myself, the YKRPG equivalent of Stability. The system works differently than past GUMSHOE horror iterations.

In The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Kickstarting soon at a Kickstarter near you, players portray characters linked across various eras and timelines corrupted by alien supernatural influence.

In the third of these linked settings, Aftermath, the investigators are all ex-partisans who fought in a successful rebellion against a tyrannical regime backed by Carcosa. Now they want to rebuild their nation and put their violent past, and memories of weird incidents connected to that, behind them. But He Whose Mask Is Not A Mask isn’t finished with America yet, and they find themselves drawn into a succession of weird mysteries requiring them to draw on the skills they’d sooner put behind them.

To emulate this I’m introducing* a new general ability, which goes like this:

Insurgency

Before attacking targets in a location you have the opportunity to case in advance, you can devise the most efficient plan of attack, dealing maximum harm at minimum risk.

Make an Insurgency test with a Difficulty keyed to the location: 4 for most civilian targets, 5 for a secure military target, 6 for an ultra-secure installation.

On success with a margin of 2 or less, all combatants on your side get a +1 Fighting bonus. A higher margin nets a +2 bonus for all.

This also allows you to defend against attackers using guerrilla tactics against a position you have had time to hunker down in. Here the Difficulties flip: 6 for a civilian location, 5 for military, 4 for ultra-secure. When defending you can make a Counterinsurgency Push for a +4 bonus on your roll.

Insurgency tests take the place of extended planning sessions in which players manage the tactical details of an assault, just as Preparedness skips the part where you laboriously write out every item on your equipment lists.

After a successful Insurgency test, ask the player, abetted by anyone else in the group who likes to describe skirmishes in loving Tom Clancyesque detail, to describe the clever plans they’ve laid for their soon-to-be-attacked targets. In the ensuing Fighting test, they can describe them working to superb effect (if the group wins), or the GM can describe them being countered by a victorious foe.

*       *      *

This ability only suits games where you find it desirable to collapse the tactical planning process into a single ability test. The previous setting in the cycle, The Wars, does not do this. It has the player characters fighting in a great European conflict in an alternate timeline. Planning how to grub up crucial bonuses for an upcoming scrap should take center stage there, with players weighing options, discarding some and choosing others, perhaps with the aid of intelligence they’ve gathered with investigative abilities.

In Aftermath those scenes fade back to a tertiary status, to make room for subplots about rebuilding the nation.

You could add this ability to other GUMSHOE games, probably renaming it Tactics or some other more generally apt term, in cases where quick and dirty combat planning suits the genre. It would fit a standard Esoterrorists game, for example, while feeling out of place in a Special Suppression Forces campaign frame. It would also work in Mutant City Blues or Ashen Stars, but likely not in the more combat-forward environment of Night’s Black Agents.

You might also consider your group’s tastes when deciding whether to use it. Your players might dig its abstraction even in NBA, or prefer to do the tactics in detail even when the setting takes little interest in that side of things.


*In the current draft, anyhow. A designer can never count on any new element surviving the playtest process.

The book has been written.

The book has been read.

Now it rewrites you.

Across time it spreads, creating dread new realities.

And you’re in all of them.

Pelgrane Press is terrified to announce that The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is now live on Kickstarter.

Written and designed by GUMSHOE master Robin D. Laws, YKRPG takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines.

Inspired by Robert W. Chambers’ influential cycle of short stories, it pits the characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. This suppressed play, once read, invites madness or a visit from its titular character, an alien ruler intent on invading and remolding our world into a colony of their planet, Carcosa.

Four books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront your players with an epic journey into reality horror:

  • Belle Epoque Paris, where a printed version of the dread play is first published. Players portray American art students in its absinthe-soaked world, navigating the Parisian demimonde and investigating mysteries involving gargoyles, vampires, and decadent alien royalty.
  • The Wars, an alternate reality in which the players take on the role of soldiers bogged down in the great European conflict of 1947. While trying to stay alive on an eerie, shifting battlefield, they investigate supernatural mysteries generated by the occult machinations of the Yellow King and his rebellious daughters.
  • Aftermath, set later in the same reality, in 2017 North America. A bloody insurrection has toppled a dictatorial regime loyal to Carcosa. Players become former partisans adjusting to ordinary life, trying to build a just society from the ashes of civil war. But not all of the monsters have been thoroughly banished—and like it or not, they’re the ones with the skills to hunt them and finish them off.
  • This is Normal Now. In the 2017 we know, albeit one subtly permeated by supernatural beings and maddening reality shifts, ordinary people band together, slowly realizing that they are the key to ending a menace spanning eras and realities.

New GUMSHOE features include:

  • A completely new player-facing combat system.
  • A fresh, evocative approach to wounds, physical and psychic, inspired by the innovations of GUMSHOE One-2-One.
  • Linked character creation across multiple settings.

Crowdfunding now for a 2018 release.

Back the Kickstarter

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

My designs for Pelgrane have all been modular. Each includes
several sub-systems one could drop out without affecting the way other parts of the game operate.

(I say “for Pelgrane” because one of my games does use a universal engine in which every action is handled in the same way as any other. That’s HeroQuest, from Moon Design, which isn’t paying me for this column, removing my need to fit that into any kind of grand theory.)

This enables you to take the bits you like and replace them with a system from another design, if desired.

You can pair the investigative approach from GUMSHOE with a replacement for
general abilities from whatever system you find most comfortable to work in.

Same with the procedural resolution system from Hillfolk.

Sometimes, as in both of the above cases, I’ll design a sub-system so that it doesn’t pull focus from the main point of a game, even to the point of allowing it to be aesthetically displeasing.

Procedurals from Hillfolk do the job but they aren’t meant to be sleek and fun to handle. I didn’t want those rules to be alluring. Instead, whenever a situation comes up that tempts someone to call for them, I want everyone around the table to ask, “Do we really need a procedural here, or can we just agree to narrate it?”

My approach to general abilities in GUMSHOE isn’t so extreme, but they’re not meant to outshine the simplicity of the investigative bit.

When first creating a new rule or sub-system I don’t worry about its additional implications. I’m only working to solve a problem immediately before me.

For example, for the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game one tool I needed was a way to get the players speaking like Jack Vance characters. So I came up with the tagline system. This naturally carried through into Skulduggery, the goal of which was to preserve the DERPG mechanics outside of the setting they were originally built for.

When I was assigned to turn Vance’s Gaean Reach SF books into a game, I assumed it would use the new, simplified Skulduggery mechanics—until I read the books and found that they were almost all investigative in their plotting. So The Gaean Reach became a GUMSHOE game. Yet the need to get players talking like Vance characters remained, so I ported taglines into GUMSHOE. Once there I was able to hook them into an entirely different context, GUMSHOE’s need for ability pool refreshes.

That said, now that I (and Ken, and Gar) have created a shelf full of games, that means a box full of tools stands ready to serve when I need X to do Y in a new design.

This always starts with the need first. I don’t ask myself how can I repurpose starship combat from Ashen Stars or the Quade Diagram from Mutant City Blues. Instead I start with the problem and see if a sub-system already exists that can do the trick. (Also I’m leery about stealing the defining element of an existing game, each of which needs to sustain its own distinct feel within the GUMSHOE line.)

In the case of GUMSHOE One-2-One, all the problems I needed fixes for were new to the one GM, one player format. Since we’ve never done a game tuned for that configuration I had to invent new tools to solve its problems—Challenges to contain possibilities in a way that protected the character from prematurely being taken out of the story, Problems to replace the sense of deterioration and attrition fostered by dwindling general ability pools, Edges to counter-balance problems and generate a sense of reward, Sources to give players access to a full suite of investigative abilities without making every PC a polymath.

Now that I’m embarking on the design for the Yellow King RPG, I’m looking at the solutions I need and seeing some of them already in the ever-growing toolbox.

One key campaign frame has the players portraying versions of their characters refracted through time and reality. Since you might be playing several characters throughout the course of a series, character generation has to be fast, yet allow for creative input and modification. That means borrowing the Gaean Reach modular card-based chargen system, which has already been modified from Skulduggery, to yet another purpose.

Not all borrowings are from GUMSHOE. There might also be a touch of Hillfolk in the character generation.

Yellow King focuses on Robert Chambers stripped of retroactively applied Lovecraftian elements. (Don’t worry; if you own Trail of Cthulhu you can stick the Hounds of Tindalos back in if that’s your desire.) Accordingly I want an approach to subjective horror other than the Stability / Sanity system that works so well for a classically Mythos-driven spiral into cosmic despair. It just so happens that the approach to mental disintegration taken for unrelated reasons in Cthulhu Confidential fits that goal swimmingly.

Or at least I think it does. Everything’s up for grabs when theory meets play table.

And presumably problems I have yet to discover will call out for new solutions, which one of the Pelgranistas can later slot into a new need, as yet undreamt of.

harlem-unbound-cover_350Investigate Mythos Mysteries in 1920s NYC’s Harlem Renaissance! 

From Chris Spivey, one of the writers of Pelgrane Press’s Cthulhu Confidential and the upcoming Out of the Woods, comes Harlem Unbound, an RPG sourcebook for GUMSHOE and Call of Cthulhu, published by Darker Hue Studios and written by Chris Spivey, one of the writers of Cthulhu Confidential and the upcoming Out of the Woods.

There are just a few days left to support Harlem Unbound on Kickstarter.

PICTURE THIS…

New York City in the 1920s: Prohibition is in full swing, and bootleggers are living high. African Americans flee the oppressive South for greener pastures, creating a new culture in Harlem. The music of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington pours out of the city’s windows and doorways, and the sidewalks are crowded with women in stylish skirts with silk stockings, and men in white gloves and Chesterfield coats. There’s a feeling of possibility in the air, like never before. But even in this land of promise, Harlem is a powder keg. While classes and cultures collide, Lovecraftian horrors lurk beneath the streets, creeping through dark alleys and hidden doorways into the Dreamlands. What Great Old One shattered our reality? Can you hold it together and keep the Mythos at bay for one more song?

Harlem Unbound is a unique RPG sourcebook that takes players into the exciting world of the Harlem Renaissance at its height, to face terrifying horrors from the Lovecraftian Mythos. This groundbreaking tome gives Keepers and players everything they need to bring this unique place and time to life, and engage with the people who gave it its soul.

Harlem Unbound is compatible with multiple systems, with options for investigating the Mythos on New York’s jazz-soaked streets using either Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG or any of the several GUMSHOE-powered investigative RPGs by Pelgrane Press.

This sourcebook flips the standard Lovecraftian view of minorities on its head, putting them in the role of heroes who must struggle against cosmic horrors while also fighting for a chance at equality. By default, the protagonists of Harlem Unbound are African American, not white (which is the standard assumption found in Lovecraftian fiction). Our heroes and heroines come from all walks of life with regard to class, ethnicity, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation.

The heart of the Renaissance was a revolution aimed at changing the world through art, ideas, and the written word. It was a uniquely powerful movement against the unjust status quo, a time in history that still inspires today. The history, people and stories in this book shine the spotlight on the people of Harlem, their successes and their struggles.

More information about Harlem Unbound can be found on its Kickstarter page.

A rules option for GUMSHOE horror games

In situations where a Sense Trouble test might reveal the presence of danger from an otherworldly or eerie source, offer the players a chance to pay a price later in exchange for a benefit now.

One player gets an automatic success at a Sense Trouble test by agreeing to take on a Stability penalty that lasts for the rest of the scenario. Let’s call this a Stability Handicap.

In the typical situation in which Sense Trouble merely allows the element of surprise in a fight already guaranteed to happen, that penalty is -1.

If the test lets them entirely avoid a significant hazard or skip a fight with something nasty they don’t want or need to tangle with, the penalty rises to -2.

In the story, the moment represents a sudden flash of eerie awareness, attuning the recipient to eldritch energies. Depending on the situation, you might narrate:

  • a jackhammering heart

  • the nearly overwhelming urge to vomit

  • a jolt of rootless anxiety

  • an epiphany of cosmic dread

  • the appearance of a rash, welts, or other psychic injuries

  • an overpowering smell unsensed by anyone else present

  • an awful vision of monstrous violence that surfaces in the mind for a split-second and is then immediately suppressed

Make this a rare option, keyed to specific story events. You may decide that it only makes sense for characters already exposed to the supernatural, or those who have succumbed in some way to its influence.

Offer it only when the rest of the scenario holds out the possibility of at least 2 Stability tests.

The more physical symptoms for the Sense Trouble success might instead call for an Athletics or Scuffling Handicap. Instead of increasing your mental vulnerability, that rash that came out of nowhere makes it harder to throw punches.

For an additional fraught choice, you could even let the player choose which of the three abilities to Handicap. In that case you can allow the Handicap even if you aren’t sure that 2 or more tests of each ability still remain in the scenario. Correctly predicting which Handicap will hurt the least becomes part of the player’s challenge. Here the cost lies in the anxiety of decision making as much as in any actual penalties dished out in later scenes. If players always guess right, and Handicaps start to feel like a free gift, make sure they pay the piper next time around. See to that a penalty happens, in a situation with truly harrowing stakes.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Over the years I’ve occasionally been asked, most often by Simon, how GUMSHOE and player narrative control might work together.

My answer has always been the same—uh, they kinda mostly don’t.

GUMSHOE assumes that the solution to the mysteries the PCs investigate remains fixed once established in the GM’s mind. You and your fellow players aren’t trying to hit a moving target, but instead pursue the answer to a puzzle that makes sense and won’t change on you in mid-stream. Players recognize that some details surrounding the mystery might be indeterminate until they hit the gaming table, but not the mystery itself.

For example, no one’s going to much object if an Antagonist Reaction does or doesn’t occur based on how well the group has been doing and how far away the end of the session is.

But if you play half the scenario with the GM thinking that Mrs. Hatch was carried off by Deep Ones but then she decides to rearrange everything so that it was degenerate man-apes of the Everglades, and you find that out, you’ll feel cheated.

Allowing players to narrate details in scenes frustrates the investigation process of a fixed mystery. If you say, “and then I find an envelope with a blurry photo of degenerate man-apes in it” when your character searches the boat house, you’ve forced the GM to alter the mystery. Assuming she can even keep up with all of the player-inserted details and weave them into an internally consistent story on the fly, it’s still not the puzzle you were all working on before you brought that detail in.

If everyone at the table instead wants to play out a fungible mystery that becomes fixed only when the story reaches its conclusion, the apparatus of GUMSHOE’s investigative abilities and scene structures isn’t just unnecessary but counter to your needs. Instead, seek out Jared Sorensen’s Inspectres, which is all about creating the mystery collaboratively. Unlike GUMSHOE, it’s built to do that.

It might be tempting to say that players can add details to scenes that don’t relate to the central mystery. But those scenes can be hard to identify and wall off from the clue-gathering part of the game.

Even an Antagonist Reaction scene in which the investigators battle mercenaries or vampires or backwoods cannibals can contain info that could muddy the mystery.

With sufficient definition of who gets to describe what, you could let the players narrate simple elements of their environment during fight and action scenes, as is par for the course in Feng Shui. (Though you probably want to tone down the craziness in anything other than TimeWatch.)

If you say that there’s a garbage can nearby you can throw at the oncoming motorbike, or describe a rocky outcrop that ought to give you a decent vantage over activities down in the gravel quarry, the GM can probably roll with that—especially if she takes care to stage the actiony bits away from clue-bearing locations.

However, if the backstory driving the mystery’s logic depends on there not being a way to observe the quarry from above, the GM finds herself in a spot. By vetoing this detail, she may be pointing you to an avenue of investigation the characters didn’t earn.

Maybe that’s not such a big deal. While disallowing your proposed description of the landscape, the GM could charge an investigative spend, asking you to describe the sudden hunch that led your character to realize that lines of sight around the quarry matter to the case in some way.

It feels to me that this calls for a lot of fine meta-fictional hair-splitting that isn’t worth the effort. Declaring GUMSHOE a trad game when it comes to player narration remains the simpler and therefore clearer way to go.

That said, in certain games the solution of the mystery doesn’t end the story. In Night’s Black Agents you may learn who assassinated your contact at The Guardian, and then decide what to do with them. Ashen Stars mysteries often lead to a science fictional moral quandary the crew must then resolve for good or ill. The GM could declare that certain scenes freely permit player narration, including all post-mystery sequences. The Veil-Out at the end of an Esoterrorists run works more or less this way already.

GMs might look for other roped-off areas of a scenario in which player narrative can run and play without impinging on the central mystery. The collaborative process by which Gaean Reach players define Quandos Vorn, the interstellar arch-villain all the characters have sworn vengeance against, already fits that mold. Some similar elements will find their way into Yellow King. These happen at the outset of play but you could just as easily ask players to narrate interlude scenes between cases.

Maybe someday we’ll come up with a GUMSHOE game premise that requires a solution to this issue I’m not currently seeing. When we do that we’ll have to check to make sure that we haven’t merely stapled a Fear Itself cover around a copy of Inspectres.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of GUMSHOE we invited fans and Pelgrane pros all over the world to play their favorite Pelgrane Press games today! Here’s a sampling of the day’s goings-on and shenanigans thus far.

Games were streamed:

Upcoming books were playtested:

Upcoming campaign settings were playtested.

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Designers shared their work:

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Monstrous Dramaturgy: Kostroma

Adventures were had:

Existing gaming plans were quickly changed.

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Campaigns launched:

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Heroes made (and their horrible deaths predicted):

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There are still quite a few hours left, and we look forward to seeing what else Pelgrane fans are up to in other time zones! If you want a social media banner or icon you can get them here.

I’ve been binge-watching last year’s seasons of “Arrow” and “The Flash.” One moment both shows frequently resort to, in keeping with their balance of superhero action and emotive interactions, is the inspirational exhortation. One character, the figure everyone else needs to save the day, succumbs to doubt. Another cast member then breaks the self-doubter from self-pitying despair: “You can do it! Because that’s who you are, Barry!” (Or Oliver, or Willa, or Cisco, or whoever it happens to be.) Buoyed by these words, the subject then summons previously untapped reserves of will and determination and steps forward to make the extra heroic effort required to do the impossible.

To model this in GUMSHOE, a character with Inspiration (in games that have it) or Reassurance (in those that don’t) can spend 2 points of it to aid another PC in the accomplishment of a task thought lost. The recipient then refreshes the general ability in question. Let’s call this the Refreshing Exhortation.

Conditions apply: the prospective recipient has to have already failed at a related task, either in the current scenario or the one immediately previous. Whenever it occurred, the player must have already portrayed the character as being in a funk over that past failure. The crisis of confidence must be seen at least one scene prior to the one in which the Refreshing Exhortation is attempted.

Also, both players have to sell the moment through roleplaying. The inspirational character gives a stirring speech, in character dialogue. The recipient perhaps interjects with thoughts of doubt, and certainly must play the moment when the turnaround occurs and heroic certitude returns.

Finally, in most genres you’ll want to restrict its use to once per scenario.

If playing a game with Drives, you might suggest that the exhorting character reference the nature of the recipient’s Drive. In series laden with an atmosphere of doom, such as The Esoterrorists, purist Trail of Cthulhu, or dust mode Night’s Black Agents, the GM might allow Refreshing Exhortations only in situations where successful ability use offers the recipient a good chance of attaining self-sacrificial destruction. Some genres might call for speeches in a different tone. In The Gaean Reach, a reminder of the many crimes of Quandos Vorn, and the character’s burning desire to see him destroyed, would better befit its dark, dry humor.

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