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Tabletop Game: Unknown Armies

"You did it!"

Unknown Armies (abbreviated UA) is an occult-themed Role-Playing Game by John Tynes and Greg Stolze and published by Atlas Games. Subtitled "A roleplaying game of power and consequences".

The game is divided into three levels: street, global, and cosmic. At the street level, you know only this: there is something very weird happening, and you've had a glimpse of it. Now you're about to find out just how strange the world really is. Only at the global level do you learn the truth: magick is real, it's postmodern, and it's everywhere.

The world you know is only the surface. The Occult Underground swarms beneath it like a nest of bugs. Adepts alter reality with the power of their own obsessions and madness. Avatars gain the favor of the cosmos by playing their part in the collective unconscious. Those without magick hunt down those with for their own purposes—to control, to suppress, or to assimilate. Sounds pretty interesting, right? There's a catch. There's always a catch. All labor in secret for fear of the sleeping tiger—magick may be powerful, but all the forces of the arcane aren't worth much compared to the panicked masses on a witch hunt. Further, magick power is bought at a steep price. You can alter human flesh only by scouring your own. You can gain the strength of the archetypal Warrior only by never relenting, even when tact or sanity say you should back down. You can bring about anything with magick—provided you're willing to sacrifice what it takes to do so.

Why risk so much of yourself for impressive but seemingly minor power? You'll need to reach the cosmic level to find out...

This is a fantastic and extremely gritty roleplaying game. Combat is brutal and bloody—the combat chapter opens up by describing several ways to get out of a fight, since more often than not you're gonna get torn the hell up if you're not careful, or even if you are. The rules are light, but clever and flavorful, with fancy dice tricks adding spice to the usual d% system. The powers of magick are even more flavorful, bizarre, and amazing. The setting is imaginative, detailed, and engrossing.

Greg Stolze also wrote a novel, ''Godwalker'', starring several of the Non Player Characters from the game books as they converge on a small town in the midwest and completely mess up it, themselves, and each other. If you'd like an idea of what it's like to play in a global/cosmic game of UA, Godwalker is a good place to start, and it only costs $3.33 in Kindle format.

The game is often compared to Over the Edge, due to both games featuring an abundance of surface level weirdness and protagonist empowerment, along with a do-it-yourself skills list.

Warning: many of these examples contain severe spoilers for those playing Street-level campaigns!

This role-playing game provides examples of:

  • Adult Fear: Possibly more common than unnatural fear. Sure, you might have your body torn to bits by an Unspeakable Servant, but there's a much higher probability that you'll just lose your mind, become a recluse whose divorce from society is directly tied to a divorce from reality, and watch everything you loved or cared about slip away from you, until all you've got left is your power. And that's if you're successful.
    • This trope runs rampant in the Weep scenario "Garden Full of Weeds." - the city district of Garden View is an example of extreme urban decay made worse by supernatural phenomena. This means that there's a serial killer who traps peoples' souls in his sunglasses, but it also means that just about everyone is below the poverty line, every family is abusive, and extreme racism is coupled with rampant gang violence. Oh, and a Loogaroo running around murdering children under six months old.
  • Ambiguous Gender: The shtick of avatars of the Mystic Hermaphrodite. At upper levels, this evolves into instant sex changes.
  • Amusing Injuries: The Laff Riot videomancer spell protects everyone in the area from gunshots, reduces other types of attacks to five damage, and can turn a fall from a skyscraper from street pizza into an embarrassing pantsing. Watching the Detectives can retroactively turn any major injury short of death into a single point of damage. Game Masters who enjoy the Rule of Funny can have quite an lot of fun here.
  • Another Dimension: The Otherspaces are like alternate realities where the rules of existence are fundamentally different. Since they're disconnected from real time and space, they can be useful for transport... but they're generally difficult to reach, and they're often very dangerous, if not maddening.
  • Anti-Magic: The sample NPC, Eustace Crane, is a walking fifty yard bubble of this that ironically wants to believe in magic. Other sources exist.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: Each member of the Invisible Clergy is one of these, personifying an idea of what a human being can be. The very concepts of things like The Fool, The Mother and The Trickster (among others) are represented by ascended mortals in the Clergy.
  • Arc Number: 333, the number of seats in the Invisible Clergy. Once it's filled, the world will be reborn.
  • Arc Words: "You did it." In every sense of the phrase.
  • Archetypes: To consciously be an Avatar and later ascend into the Stratosphere, one has to find an unclaimed & widespread archetype that exists in the collective unconscious and then embody it.
  • Ascended Fanboy: A whole team of them: the Team Salvation is a team of occult do-gooders who used to play RPGs and read comics together as kids. The team leader's motivation is explicitly defined as "Be a superhero".
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: A very popular goal in the game is to ascend as an Archetype, a fundamental principle of the universe. This is the ultimate goal of many cabals, since they can then shape the next universe under their own principles.
  • Attack Drone: A common Mechanomancer toy.
  • Badass Normal: Most non-Adept and non-Avatar PCs in a Cosmic game.
    • Hell, being one is a prerequisite for being one of the true leaders of The New Inquisition. Their leader realizes that putting actual mages in charge of his group is a very, very bad idea.
  • Bad Powers, Bad People: Thanatomancers, people who gain power over life and death through Human Sacrifice, are not recommended as player characters.
  • Becoming the Mask: A constant worry if you're a Personamancer.
  • Berserk Button: The Rage passion for a character is whatever seriously pisses that character off.
  • Better Than It Sounds Tabletop Games: If David Cronenberg, Tim Powers, Christopher Nolan, Thomas Pynchon and the late Robert Anton Wilson met at a role-playing convention, that's what they would play.
  • Body Horror: Various, but Epideromancy is the #1 source in the game. It's a magic style revolving around molding the bodies of others like clay and powered by self-mutilation... think about it. Its signature attack spell isn't the one that lets you break bones or tear flesh just by touching someone, it's the spell that lets you mold flesh about the area of your palm. Its most common use? Seal someone's mouth and nose.
  • Booze-Based Buff: Dipsomancers, and most of the artifacts they make. Pity you have to be drunk to gain the benefits.
  • Brand X: Mak Attax is using a certain multinational corporation ( McDonalds) to further its agenda. The corporation is almost never mentioned by name. Ostensibly, this is because of the power of True Names.
  • Brown Note: The Alter language, and the book Das Garten.
  • But I Play One on TV: A Personamancy spell lets you use any professional skill as long as you can convince those present that you are a professional.
  • Cast from Hit Points: Epideromancy works this way, as do certain rituals. All magic schools, however, are fundamentally self-destructive in some manner, whether physiologically or psychologically.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe
  • Clockpunk: Nearly anything made by a Mechanomancer wanders into this trope, and will quite likely be self-motivated enough to rate as a Clockwork Creature.
  • Chainsaw Good: Chainsaws do a lot of damage, up there with katanas. See Katanas Are Just Better below.
  • Chunky Salsa Rule
  • City of Spies: While not explicit, the Sleeping Tiger (ie. The general public) pretty much turns any game of Unknown Armies into spy central. With weird ass magic.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: Subverted. It's the anti-Lovecraft: you aren't scared because the cosmic powers that can crush you like a bug without noticing it are inhuman horrors from the depth of the cosmos. You are scared because they were humans like you, and are living metaphor of what being human means. You aren't mortified because you're helpless, but because you did it!
  • Crazy Homeless People: There's plenty of these, but watch out. Unknown Armies has a disproportionate number of hobos who are also powerful wizards.
  • Critical Existence Failure: Averted; you automatically pass out/otherwise go unconscious at 5 HP and die at 0, but you take cumulative stat penalties depending on how messed up you are.
  • Deconstruction: The game plays with most of the tropes you see in modern fantasy games, but makes sense of them the most mundane ways possible. If they can change reality, why aren't Adepts in charge? Because the very nature of their power makes them loony, and the price they pay to work their miracles makes them as useful as a carefully chosen tool, only weirder. Why is magic falling behind technology? Because technology is just better, and more reliable. Why isn't the supernatural more widespread? Because it makes you batshit crazy, and you don't trust what batshit crazy people tell you.
  • Determinator: One of the powers of the Masterless Man.
  • Deus Sex Machina: Pornomancy. Subverted in that pornomantic sex rituals aren't much fun at all to their practitioner, and having regular sex is taboo to them.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: You can face the very principles of reality one on one. You can even take their place.
  • Disability Superpower: Some schizophrenics actively channel the backwash from any magic cast nearby, which can be a Very Bad thing.
  • Easter Egg: Page 333.
  • Easy Amnesia: The Personomancer spell The Mirror, Crack'd is a magical case of retrograde amnesia with some interesting side effects.
    • Mechanomancers exchange Easy Amnesia for magickal mojo. The more memories you give up, and the more personal and important they are, the more mojo you get.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: What happens when the number of Invisible Clergy hits 333. Not necessarily a bad thing, if the right people are in charge.
  • Equivalent Exchange: There's No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. To do magick, you have to pay the price. Controlling probability means you have to take insane risks now and then, you have to hurt yourself to mold flesh, and you can't spend your money if you want to magickally manipulate the stock market.
  • Eye of Newt: Ritual Magick. Sample ingredients in the GM section include "A lock of hair from a red-headed lover", "Those Groucho glasses with the fake nose and moustache", and "A copy of the Torah, translated directly from Hebrew into Klingon".
  • Fisher King: Known as "The True King" in this game, and one of several sample Avatar classes.
  • The Fool: Another Avatar type. Known specifically for doing foolish things and somehow surviving.
  • Functional Magic: Mostly rule magic, although ritual magic is popular and wild magic shows up.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Mechanomancers
  • Gender Bender: Avatars of the Mystic Hermaphrodite.
  • Genre Savvy: An avatar gains power by acting out a particular archetype. Unlike adepts, an avatar doesn't have to believe in his role, only be willing to act it out.
  • Ghostly Goals: A ghost's personality has no subtlety; they can only act to fulfill their Obsession. If they want revenge, they will chase you to the end of the earth. If they want to collect every last Pokemon card, you better not have a tight grip on that Charizard.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: "Sanity cannot exist for long under conditions of absolute reality." There are a lot of things that can cause you to gain some notches on the madness meters, but suddenly gaining an understanding of some cosmic truth is the most likely to cause a Freak Out.
  • God Was My Copilot: The Comte De Saint-Germain, immortal uberpower, sadistic bastard, and appearing in at least half the stock campaigns as a bit part, sometimes in simultaneous roles halfway across a state. Often provides Deus ex Machina and Diabolus Ex Machina.
  • Guns Are Worthless: Averted, at least for more skilled users. Someone with poor skill needs extreme luck to do much damage with a gun, though.
    • Which is pretty realistic. Guns are surprisingly unwieldy and hard to use for people that haven't practiced with them, a problem that becomes ten times worse when threatened and under pressure.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: In spades. Among the key factions are a private army of a dictatorial plutocrat (who genuinely wants to make the world a better place; albeit with him running it), a devoted hidden order determined to protect the world from magic's excesses (or just stop the flamboyant mages from ruining the game for everyone else, OR maybe just a pack of serial killers with a justification), and a gang of idealistic youngsters looking to make the world a better place (but who might have turned themselves into the perfect tool for someone looking to rule it). True examples of purely malignant or benign groups are very thin on the ground. Well, other than demons. They're pretty much bastards. But even then, they're selfish and ruthless, not serving a greater evil.
  • Guttural Growler: The Freak, as a result of drinking acid.
  • Hand Of Glory: One of the mystical objects that people can craft.
  • The Hecate Sisters: These are said to be "masks", or recognized spiritual icons that mirror the Archetypes. It's an open question as to which is which (though "The Mother" is fairly unambiguous).
  • Humans Are Special: One definite given in any UA game, on account of how the cosmos pretty much revolves around the collective will of humanity and its chosen representatives.
  • Immortality: One goal to aim for; apparently, if Dirk Allen could ever get this for the Freak, the Freak would stop hating him so much...
  • Intrinsic Vow: Supplement Statosphere. The Invisible Clergy cannot make a mortal (such as a human) to do something against their will or prevent them from doing something they really want to do.
  • Inverse Law of Utility and Lethality
  • Killed to Uphold the Masquerade: The Sleepers' MO.
  • Knight Templar: Literal example in the Order of St. Cecil, who may simultaneously begin to brainwash the party adept and take on quite a number of nasty critters for you. Other groups can serve, especially The New Inquisition and the Sleepers.
  • Let's Get Dangerous: Mak Attax were the joke of the Occult Underground. Then they managed to get two dozen terrorists arrested in a single night and perform the single largest magical act in recent memory. (And then they proceeded to do bugger all afterwards, until the events of the To Go campaign, the culmination of their Great Work. Depending on the outcome of the campaign, one of their higher-ups may ascend as the new True King.)
    • Since their goal is the creation of a new age of magic, one of the outcomes where their higher up doesn't ascend is the one they'd really want.
  • Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards: Averted. Adepts require not only a decent skill level to cast any sort of spell successfully, but also must charge up by doing particular ritual acts. Attacking via magic is less efficient than just using a gun. Avatar magic is flat-out linear, providing particular effects at a particular level of skill. Ritual magic progresses randomly, depending on the whims of the GM. Psychics are generally even more limited.
  • Liquid Assets: Played more literally than most, as an avatar of the Merchant can trade any intangible good between two other people.
  • Literary Allusion Title: "Unknown Armies" is a line cribbed from William Butler Yeats.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Mechanically, any individual who is alone for prolonged periods of time will fill up the Isolation failed bar to go insane or head a long way toward going sociopath.
  • Mad Hatter: An adept being this is a good sign-that mean's he's capable of functioning.
  • Made of Iron: While combat is very deadly, certain adepts and avatars, such as an epideromancer or a masterless man, can become very hard to kill indeed.
  • Magic Is Evil: According to the Order of St. Cecil, the actual Inquisition (as opposed to The New Inquisition, which is a Nebulous Amoral Organization). Given how damaging magick is to its practioners' sanity, and how their first response is generally psychological help, it's kinda understandable.
  • Mama Bear: A powerful avatar of the Mother gets big bonuses whenever defending someone that sees them as a mother figure.
  • Masquerade: The occult underground stays hidden because whenever magic is discovered by the public, murder is soon to follow. The core book cites numerous instances throughout history in which accused magic-users have been lynched en masse. They even have (pretty elegant) rules for angry mobs and their consequences.
  • Milkman Conspiracy: This is the game where one of the major dealers in the Occult Underground is a fast food chain that uses its meals in an attempt to align the chakra points of the American consciousness. And it only gets weirder from there.
  • Mind Rape: Entropics, demonic possession, and dozens of adept spells like the one that instantly spread a rumor to every one on Earth.
  • Mind Screw: And how! With extra strength in any scenario written by John Tynes. In one notable case, he wrote a scenario in which you run into a woman who fires bullets from her mouth by screaming "I'm a gun!", heal a man by binding pages of the bible to his body, free a young girl from a circle of corpses who drop coins from their mouths in a constant trickle, before fleeing in an ambulance ride with Jesus from murderous cars who can only be hurt by tossing the aforementioned coins at them. Man, all I wanted was some change. I don't love you anymore. (Said scenario is "A Few of My Favorite Things", from Weep.)
  • Misapplied Phlebotinum
  • Muggles: But don't you mess with them. They are officially referred to as "the Sleeping Tiger," and the book includes some sobering tables outlining what happens when they wake up.
  • Nigh Invulnerable: A powerful avatar of the warrior becomes immune to physical harm - but only when fighting those he is ideologically opposed to.
  • Obstructive Codeof Conduct: The Taboo of any magick-user is basically this. There are some behaviors that you cannot engage in, ever, or you weaken your power in some way. On a meta level, the Self meter is meant to be this for the players, to prevent them from doing just anything (destroying own life's work, cannibalism, public denying their most deeply held beliefs) with their characters.
  • Off the Rails
  • Only a Flesh Wound: The Videomancer spell Watching the Detectives is intentionally designed to invoke this trope.
  • Otherworldly And Sexually Ambiguous: The Mystic Hemaphrodite archetype is the embodiment of magick. It represents not just men and women, but other dualities as well: love and hate, war and peace, and killing and mercy.
  • Our Demons Are Different: They're actually this world's version of ghosts, and are universally quite bitter about not being able to move terrified of moving on to the next life.
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: They're victims of demonic possession by a demon that had previously possessed an animal, which spontaneously and retroactively change shapes.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: A high-level avatar of the Trickster can disguise himself perfectly with just a few token props.
  • Personality Powers: Adept magic has to match the adept's obsession, and avatar powers match the archetype's theme and personality.
  • Post-Modern Magik: The Trope Namer. Adepts twists the meaning of culturally relevant phenomena, like TV or booze, to achieve their enlightenment. Some rituals are based on VHS tapes, or Bruce Lee paraphernalia.
  • Power Born of Madness: Magic works by taking something that isn't supposed to work and making it work.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: The Hotchkiss Compass from Godwalker, an artefact that utilises an aborted hermaphroditic foetus to detect Mystic Hermaphrodites.
  • Powers as Programs: Skills can be stolen in a number of ways, both temporarily and permanently, even supernatural ones. The infomancy skill to do so is called Download, pointing this out.
  • Powers That Be: The Invisible Clergy have incredibly vague motives other than those tied to their Archetype, operate from ineffable levels of the cosmos, and can attack only indirectly, mostly by affecting probability, causing lucky coincidences, or siccing associates on you.
  • Punctuated Pounding: The Freak does this to Jolene in Godwalker:
    You don't hurt me! You don't fuck with me! No-one! No-one!
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Being based in "the real world, except real", 9/11 cast a pretty tall shadow over some of the events of the game. This particularly affects Mac Attax, who saved the world in 2000 only for the end to suddenly loom that much taller in 2k1.
  • Reality Warper: The Entropomancy spell Edit the World. Also the random magick of many schools, if you've got enough charges.
    • Get a major charge and this is the kind of effect you're looking at.
  • Retconjuration: A few of the high-powered magicks can do this. If you sell something to Thorvald Drake, the past changes so that you never had it in the first place. A werewolf has either always been a human, or always been a wolf, depending on what it is right now. While Cliomancy can't actually change the past, it can change what everyone thinks happened.
  • Ret Gone: Pissing off the House of Renunciation, or a particularly powerful Infomancer or Bibliomancer might do it. In addition, this weirdly happened to The Naked Goddess and nobody's really sure why.
  • Revolvers Are Just Better: Averted. Revolvers have all the flaws they do in real life (low ammunition capacity, bulk, and ect.), making pistols and, for that matter, automatic weapons far more usefull.
    • Entropomancers love revolvers though. To their minds, what good is owning a gun if you can't play Russian Roulette with it?
  • Rhetorical Request Blunder: Less scrupulous (and less sane) Avatars of the Executioner have been known to interpret statements like "that guy really pisses me off!" as an excuse to murder someone- an Executioner can't kill anyone they haven't been ordered to by someone they consider an authority.
  • Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies: The players piss off The Freak, the number of Archetypes in the Invisible Clergy hits 333, pop in a CD full of Alter language...
    • The characters piss off the Comte, get a unfiltered vision of The Statosphere, screw up a magick roll with a Major charge...
      • The Cruel Ones show up.
  • Room101: The Otherside Room is a mystically empowered version, showing any fool trapped in it the very worst of his or her beliefs. This is non-partisan and all-accepting, by the way; stick a hardline Christian and a hardline Communist in there, and both will walk out with their beliefs torn down.
    • Many of the other Rooms of Renunciation work by similar principles; e.g. the Room of Cold Reflection forces the victim to face the consequences of their selfishness, while the Room of Rusted Things shakes up apathetic people.
  • Rule of Three: Invoked. 3 is a number that comes up a lot in magic. There are 333 members in the Invisible Clergy, for example, but there's no knowing if they started the 3 business or if they're as subject to it as everything else.
  • Sanity Has Advantages: No Taboo to break, for example. Playing a Badass Normal in this game is perfectly feasible.
  • Sanity Meter: Five of them (Violence, Unnatural, Self, Helplessness, Isolation), each with two aspects (Hardened, Failed).
  • Sanity Slippage: A consequence of gaining "notches" on your sanity meters. Getting hardened notches makes you more and more emotionally dead to a given stimulus, culminating in a complete immunity to stresses of a given kind along with total sociopathy. Getting failed notches makes you more acutely sensitive to a given stimulus, culminating in a severe phobia and total madness.
  • Scaled Up: The Herpemancy formula, "I am become Typhon" - "Sometimes you just gotta turn into a giant snake."
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Plutomancy, where holding down a good-paying job fuels your magic (and spending too much for any one object is taboo; most live in modest homes to avoid wiping their power with their mortgage payment).
    • Alex Abel, eccentric billionaire, created a powerful occult cabal from scratch - the New Inquisition - that embodies this trope.
  • Serious Business: Adepts in general, as well as their lower-powered siblings, Mageekians. To be fair, said Serious Business causes actual magick powers.
  • Sleeps with Everyone but You: One theory behind the Naked Goddess is that she ascended as The Girl Everyone Can Have But You.
  • Sourcebook
  • Squishy Wizard: Subverted with fleshworkers, who are usually enormously tough...but go down all too easily all too often because they Cast from Hit Points. Especially true if they go for the Major charge, which involves permanently damaging themselves in some hideous way. (Amputation's a popular one. The Freak drank acid.)
  • Sympathetic Magic: Rituals and tilts use this heavily.
  • The Trickster: Another one of the archetypes a character can channel. The powers of an avatar of the Trickster are pretty much straight from the trope, which is of course the idea.
  • Unexpected Gameplay Change: The most obvious consequence of casting the Ritual of Light is that Unknown Armies changes from being a "rules and dice" RPG to a pure story-telling RPG. Instead of rolling d10s to determine the outcome of any given check, the gaming group votes on whether they think the outcome should be a success or failure. The GM's vote does not count for more than the players'. This is because the player characters who cast the ritual are linking directly into the Statosphere: for a short time, reality is defined purely by their will, and their choices.
  • Unfazed Everyman: Depending on the outcome of To Go, this archetype may just ascend to the pantheon.. Further spoilers: A side-effect of this is that adepts can suddenly turn ten minor charges into sigs, making magick immeasurably more powerful.
    • On a less spoilery note, everyone in a campaign who is directly involved in magic but doesn't practice it is automatically this.
  • Unreliable Narrator
  • Urban Fantasy
  • The Usual Adversaries: Demons, and to a lesser extend tenebrae.
  • Vancian Magic: Adepts kinda work like this. They're directly compared to Energizer batteries.
  • The Villain Makes the Plot: Averted. While there are cool, Manipulative Bastard factions trying to create a perfect world by any means necessary, they are presented very sympathetically and as PC options, particularly for global and cosmic games. Real, pure villain groups are actually kind of pathetic (infernomancers are portrayed as more dangerous to themselves than anything, while demons are immensely petty creatures who are actually harmless in the grand scheme of things).
  • Whatevermancy: Used heavily. Every magic school is some kind of "-mancy." Examples include the entropomancer (who powers up through risking her own life), dipsomancer (power from alcohol), bibliomancer (power from acquiring rare books), and many others.
    • However, calling everything _____mancy is mentioned as a modern fashion. The name "Urbanomancy" is an example of this, with the book stating that if mages cared about language it would be called "Polisurgy". Earlier schools of magic were generally named things like The Way Of The Cogs, or The Way Of All Freedom.
    • One notable fan-made school of magick from the website is "Tropamancy". Yup. Inspired by this very wiki.
  • Who Shot JFK?: The "magic bullet" is an artifact that makes people shoot better. The game suggests some adept caused the assassination just to create the "magic bullet" or just took advantage of the situation.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: The Fear passion encompasses both the fears listed in this trope with others such as victimization, losing control, and other things that key off one of the Stress meters.
  • With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: And with great insanity comes great power.
    • And often the other way around too. Just ask Jeeter...
  • You Kill It, You Bought It: Supplement Statosphere. One of the ways for an Avatar to replace a Godwalker of their archetype is to kill them in a symbolically correct manner. For example, to replace the Executioner you would have to render them helpless and then execute them, preferably with an axe.
  • Your Head A Splode: Get hit by a minor Entropomancy blast, and it carves words or symbols into your flesh. Get hit by a significant one that's enough to kill you, and you explode.

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alternative title(s): Unknown Armies
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