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Tag Archives: Pulps

Crimefighters

“Dark Night Dan settled into the recess of the window, knowing there was not long to wait. If his informer was right, the enemy saboteur would try to destroy the secret war material tonight. Dan would be ready in the fog to meet him…”

Dragon Magazine, Issue 47, Pg. 29

I love going through old issues of Dragon; you never know what you’re going to find. Recently I came across an interesting gem in issue #47, a complete (if rough) pulp-hero role playing game by David “Zeb” Cook called Crimefighters.

It wasn’t uncommon for games to be published in Dragon, and some were quite fun. Games like King of the Tabletop and Clay-o-Rama even saw repeated play at our gaming table and are worth posts of their own. However the idea of TSR publishing a complete role playing system through Dragon is something I never expected. Yet there it is, March 1981, and it wasn’t a small affair. The rules consist of 17 pages, with an additional four page adventure, all illustrated by Jeff Dee. This was followed by a one page article by Bryce Knorr about the history of pulps. That’s a significant page count for a 78 page magazine.

So how is the game?

It’s a fun and interesting read and it certainly looks playable and from a history standpoint it is especially fun. I doubt Cook had more than a month or so to throw the system together and I’d be surprised if it had more than a couple playtests before it went into the magazine. Yet despite its rushed feel it’s a complete game and looks like something you could jump into and have fun with. If my friends and I had owned Issue #47 I am sure we would have played the heck out of Crimefighters.

That being said, the system doesn’t hold up well by today’s standards. I have plenty of games on my shelf that do a better job, but for 1981 it was virtually alone in the pulp niche. TSR’s Gangbusters wouldn’t be published for another year. Top Secret was already on the market and was certainly adaptable, but it didn’t truly delve into pulp heroes until Top Secret S/I’s Agent 13 Sourcebook in the late 80’s.

The mechanics are an odd mix of old design tropes and new ideas, with a few interesting gems worth looking at. Character attributes are rolled randomly using a percentage system, then modified based on the roll. The modifications improve your stats proportionally, improving low rolls more than high rolls. The result is that no matter how bad you roll, you will have above-average abilities suitable for a pulp hero. Another interesting design choice is that your attributes include separate stats for your right and left hand accuracy, meaning your rolls determine if you are right or left handed, or ambidextrous.

A fun attribute is Presence, the ability of the character to influence others through charm or intimidation. At the cost of 20 points from their Willpower attribute a PC can roll against their Presence stat to force their will on an NPC. This is a delightfully appropriate Pulp idea.

Characters also have the chance to possess a mystical ability, such as hypnotism or invisibility. The chance of having such a power is slim, though a character may acquire one in the campaign by spending enough experience points. Some of these powers require the expenditure of Willpower (as with Presence) or Hit Points to activate, reflecting the mental exertion used to, “cloud men’s minds,” as The Shadow would say. The mechanics for using such powers are simple and understandable and back in the day when we were playing several times a week the acquisition of such abilities would have been a major character goal. Though were I to play Crimefighters today I’d let each player start with a randomly assigned power.

The game is skill based and here we find another interesting idea. Not all skills require a roll to be successful, for example if you have the Mechanic skill you can fix a car engine. The GM decides how long it will take based on the difficulty of the job and materials on hand, but no roll is required. You WILL get that car running eventually. We see this in modern game design, but in the early 80’s this was an unusual idea.

Combat is deadly. “In general, combat is short and quick, with the side acting most decisively and quickly getting the victory.” This is a game where you want to control the fight if you plan to survive. Players should use their wits, as on average they’ll have from 15-25 hit points, while the bullet from a .45 will do 2-8 damage. Frequent or prolonged fights are going to go against the unprepared PC.

The procedure for combat is intriguing, but is also one of the places that the game hasn’t aged well. Combat starts by determining the distance, then the players state their actions, then initiative is rolled, then actions are taken. The way actions work is unique and while I’m not sure it would work well in practice, it’s fascinating to consider. Each action takes a number of seconds to accomplish. The player can declare as many or as few actions as they wish, adding up the required seconds for the string. Once declared the player must follow through with all of them or cancel the sequence, they cannot change the plan. So a player may choose to declare a long string of actions and hope to save a few precious seconds overall, or they may declare a short action hoping to stay more flexible.

There are no classes in the traditional sense, but the character receives experience based on a role determined by the players. Defenders gain double experience for each criminal they bring to justice, but none for criminals who are killed. Avengers gain only half experience for criminals sent to jail, and then only if they confess. It’s implied, but not stated, that they get normal experience for killed criminals. Pragmatists gain normal experience for criminals sent to jail and half experience for killed criminals.

The rules include a short but solid section on creating pulp adventures and how it differs from the traditional location (i.e. dungeon) settings that gamers would be used to.There are also rules for using Random Encounters, which are not tied to the adventure plot. The value of including these in a mystery-based game seems dubious and more like another artifact from D&D, but it does give me something new to consider.

The introductory adventure is a solid, fun mystery that comes complete with a city map and a couple floor plans. It is quite suitable for anyone looking to run a short game and worth a look.

My final verdict? While the game would have definitely been worth playing in the early 80’s, I would not run it today. The real joy is in the reading, seeing what David Cook could come up with in a short amount of time, seeing the transitional design elements and recognizing the concepts that would show up in later games, and the fun of knowing that at one time TSR would devote that much space in Dragon to give its readers a complete role playing game.

Crimefighters is a delightful artifact. If you want to check it out for yourself, there is a link from the game’s Wikipedia page where you can download the rules in .PDF format.

MF-spy

 
 

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Stop the Presses!

One of the perks of living in Southwest Ohio is that I’m not terribly far from the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH. It’s a wonderful facility, filled with aircraft and artifacts from every era of flight. Including of course the dawn of flight, appropriate for a museum located not far from the Wright Brothers’ home.

Not long ago we took a family trip to the museum. In the section where they have a Wright Flyer they also have an issue of the Washington Post dated Saturday, July 31st, 1909 that includes the announcement of the Wright Brother’s first flight.

This is a cool thing in itself, but what caught my gamer’s eye were two more articles that also ran on the front page; one is about a new secret weapon rumored to have been developed by the U.S. military and the second regarding a medical breakthrough that would be quite at home in the annals of mad science.

Please excuse the image quality. I had planned to find better shots online, but the Post’s archives are behind a paywall.

WashPost1

The first story is about a death ray that can hurl lighting to, “Make Enemy’s Guns Useless, Slay Men, and Cripple Ships.” The story comes from an anonymous source within a European government, and is used as an explanation for why the U.S. military seemed to have very little interest in the success of the Wright Flyer. The suggestion is that aircraft would be insignificant against an army capable of swatting them out of the sky with lightning bolts.

The second story is unrelated to flight, but no less intriguing:

WashPost2

The topic is a medical procedure being explored in Paris, by which a surgeon could sever a nerve in the brain. Doctor Bonnier believed that removal of this nerve, “relieved greatly persons suffering from melancholia and timidity.” Speculation was that the procedure had, “the possibility of turning a coward into a hero by a surgical operation,” a concept that was of interest in 1909, when everyone knew that another major European war would happen sooner or later.

I couldn’t locate more information on Dr. Bonnier, though I did find reference to the article in a professional journal of Phrenology. However it’s worth noting that the article uses the past tense regarding the doctor’s procedure.

He’d already performed the operation. More than once.

To sum up; we have the front page of a world-renowned newspaper running articles about aircraft, death rays, and medically created supermen.

Happy gaming!

 
 

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Skullduggery

In 1919 the Allied Powers compelled the German Empire to sign the Treaty of Versailles, thus ending the Great War. The treaty itself is legendary for being a tool for harshly punishing Germany by placing heavy burdens on the defeated nation. These include the dismantling of Germany’s military forces, stripping them of their colonies, demanding the return of an African king’s skull, crippling financial reparations, the…

Wait… what was that?

“ARTICLE 246: Within six months from the coming into force of the present Treaty, Germany will hand over to His Britannic Majesty’s Government the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa which was removed from the Protectorate of German East Africa and taken to Germany.”

-The Treaty of Versailles

I first learned about this provision while reading the 1938 book Brigade of Spies by William J. Makin. This delightful book is a highly sensationalized collection of questionable anecdotes about spies, focused mainly on tradecraft from The Great War and on through the 20’s and 30’s. It’s a rare glimpse into the world of espionage through the lens of Europe after the Nazis have come to power and before the outbreak of World War II. While I have reason to question many of the details presented, I’ve been surprised to find an element of truth to the stories I’ve investigated further. If you can find a copy of this book I highly recommend it, it reads like one big collection of adventure seeds.

Case in point, the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa.

According to Wikipedia, a source less entertaining but more reliable than Brigade of Spies, the man referred to in the treaty was Chief Mkwavinyika Munyigumba Mwamuyinga, commonly known as Chief Mkwawa. He was the leader of the Hehe tribe in the former German East African colonial region, in what is now Tanzania. His name translates to “conqueror of many lands”. The title of “sultan” seems to be an error, as I couldn’t find any indication that the Hehe tribe were Muslims, and I’ll attribute that to the general European lack of understanding about the people of Africa and the Middle East.

In 1891 the German government sent a battalion of colonial troops under the command of German officers to suppress a rebellion by the Hehe tribe. Chief Mkwawa waited in ambush with a force of 3,000 warriors. German forces, under the command of Commissioner Emil von Zelewski, marched into the trap and were annihilated.

“The Germans imagined he could be easily conquered. A confident Captain Zeuike in charge of a number of askaris, set off for the interior. The Sultan was waiting for him – in ambush. The whole party was massacred and the Sultan returned triumphant to his kraal. Witch doctors danced in triumph and prophesied further victories.”

-Brigade of Spies, pg. 126

Three years later the Germans sent a stronger, and more cautious, force against the Hehe. They succeeded in defeating Mkwawa’s forces, but the chief escaped and continued to wage guerrilla warfare against German rule. It wasn’t until 1898 that the Germans finally cornered Mkwawa, who took his own life to avoid capture.

Most records say he shot himself, though the account in Brigade of Spies gives him a more romantic death by falling on his sword. What the accounts do agree on is that the Germans beheaded the corpse and sent the skull back to Berlin as a trophy.

During the Great War the Hehe people aided the British in fighting against German forces. With the conclusion of the war the story of Chief Mkwawa was retold and the idea arose of returning his skull to the Hehe people in thanks for their aid and as a symbol of Germany’s removal from power in Africa. Most accounts attribute this idea to Sir Edward Twining, then governor of Tanganyika, but again Makin’s book goes with a more romantic story of native delegates in tribal dress traveling to Paris and pleading their case to Lloyd George. What Makin did get correct is that the framers of the document did incorporate the demand into the treaty as Article 246, and once the German government had signed it they were compelled to turn over the skull.

There was only one problem, they had no idea where it was.

Makin’s book describes how over the years this provision would continue to bedevil both the Germans who had lost the skull and the British who had sworn to see it returned. Again there seems to be some truth to this and in 1953 (15 years after Makin’s book was published) Sir Twining once again pushed for Article 246 to be fulfilled. Finally in 1954, after searching a sizable collection of skulls kept at the Bremen Museum, and using questionable methods of deduction, the British government returned a skull to the Hehe people claiming it to be Mkwawa’s.

“The Museum had a collection of 2000 skulls, 84 of which originated from the former German East Africa. He short-listed the ones which showed measurements similar to surviving relatives of Chief Mkwawa; from this selection he picked the only skull with a bullet-hole as the skull of chief Mkwawa.”

-Wikipedia Entry for Chief Mkwawa, 4/7/2015

Chief Mkwawa is a hero to the Hehe people and to this day the skull is on display in Kalenga at the Mkwawa Memorial Museum. His life is already a tale worthy of legend, but when you add the unusual details about his skull and its inclusion in a document that had such an impact on the 20th Century it propels Chief Mkwawa’s story into the realm of mystery and pulp adventure.

Adventurers based on the skull could have British agents infiltrating Nazi Germany to locate the artifact, both to erase the embarrassment to Britain and to gain support in Africa. Meanwhile agents of the Gestapo would strive to keep the skull secret and eliminate the agents, while at the same time concealing the fact that they still possess it.

The importance of skulls is not limited to aboriginal people and inspiration can go into realms beyond Africa. Many religions venerate the bones of their saints, especially the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthadox churches. The skull of a saint would be a powerful MacGuffin for any pulp adventure. Or perhaps clues would be discovered for locating the skull of Brutus, the legendary first king of Britain. A race for such a relic could pit the player characters against all manner of opposition.

If you want something that appeals to those of us in the former colonies, consider this adventure seed; In the late 19th century there was no question that another war was coming in Europe. What wasn’t clear was who would be allied with whom and given the large German-American population there were people who thought the United States might side with Germany. Today we can’t imagine a time when the US and England were not the closest of allies, but before World War I it was not as certain. Especially when you consider that barely 100 years before the Great War the British Empire had invaded the US and burned our capital.

For this adventure the year is 1915. The Great War is well underway and while the German advance has been halted the allies are in a precarious position. England looks to the United States for aid but many of the people there are reluctant to get involved in a European war. Still aid comes in the form of money and supplies and there are those in the US Government who advocate for sending troops.

It is at this point that the player characters learn a well kept secret. During the War of 1812, when British forces were burning Washington DC to the ground, a small detachment was sent into Virginia to raid Mount Vernon. Their they broke into George Washington’s tomb and stole the head from the corpse. The skull was sent back to England as a trophy, but King George IV was appalled by their actions. By royal command all knowledge of the raid was made secret and the skull was hidden in the Tower of London. Meanwhile the Americans also kept news of the theft a secret to preserve morale in the face of invasion.

Now a crisis has arisen. German agents have broken into the Tower of London and stolen the skull. They plan to reveal the story to the world which would enrage the American populace, prevent the United States from entering the war, and possibly end their aid to England. It’s up to the player characters to find a way to stop this plot.

Skull_of_MkwawaSmall

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Gaming, History, Pulps

 

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The Intergalactic Nemesis

“The year is 1933. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Molly Sloan and her intrepid research assistant Timmy Mendez team up with a mysterious librarian from Flagstaff, Arizona, named Ben Wilcott. Together, they travel from Rumania to Scotland to the Alps to Tunis to the Robot Planet and finally to Imperial Zygon to defeat a terrible threat to the very future of humanity: an invading force of sludge-monsters from the planet Zygon!”

The Intergalactic Nemesis: Target Earth

Last night my kids and I enjoyed a unique stage show called, The Intergalactic Nemesis. The show is the live performance of a graphic novel done in the style of an old science fiction melodrama. It’s a fantastic blend of performance where all the aspects of the show are on stage for everyone to see.

At one end of the stage they have a live pianist who improvises the score for every show. The center stage is dominated by the folly artist and her table, giving the audience a rare glimpse at the art of producing sound effects as part of the performance. Above her is a large screen on which they project panels taken straight from the graphic novel, which are controlled by a board operator who is also on stage. She also handles organ music. Finally there are the three voice actors, up front with their microphones, each actor deftly handling a total of about 30 characters.

The story is something straight from a pulp novel, where Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers would feel right at home. There is murder, intrigue, a mind controlling master villain, alien invaders, a square jawed heroic librarian, a fresh faced kid from Texas, and a woman reporter with enough moxie to impress Lois Lane.

There is also humor. Lots of humor. The story has tongue in cheek without drifting into outright satire. This is a love note to pulp fiction, not a parody, and the enthusiasm the cast projects is contagious. An infection they enhance by encouraging audience participation. The audience is encouraged to cheer the heroes, boo the villains, and gasp in shock.

My children had a tendency to cheer for the villains. This should surprise no one.

The Intergalactic Nemesis is the brainchild of Ray Golgan and Jason Neulander, who came up with the idea back in 1996. The project evolved many times over the years and the current incarnation has been touring the world since 2010. In addition to their stage performance they have three dramas available on CD and two in graphic novel format with the third book slated to be released soon.

My kids and I immensely enjoyed the performance and I recommend you catch the show if they show up in your area. Information about the show, tour dates, and copies of their merchandise can be found on their website, The Intergalactic Nemesis. They even have a YouTube channel where you can watch their performances!

It is a joy to see people with a love for the genre who have found such a unique way to share it with audiences and I hope their schedule will bring them back to our area in the future.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2015 in Books and Comics, Reviews, Science Fiction

 

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Reskinning Saltmarsh

Riffing on my review of The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh I got into a discussion on how this adventure would be easy to reskin for other genres. Without further ado, here are some of my ideas.

1. Call of Cthulhu – This one is simple, as the setup for Saltmarsh is practically a 20’s pulp adventure already. The smugglers are gangsters running alcohol who have hired a down-and-out stage magician to rig up the hauntings that keep people away. The alchemist’s hidden lab remains practically unchanged, with the addition of a mythos tome. Otherwise the mansion remains mostly the same.

But since this is Call of Cthulhu we need to add some hooks. Something is wrong with the hooch being brought in by the smugglers. Some people who drink in the speakeasies supplied by the gang seem to go mad and even experience physical mutations. The gangsters captured a few of the worst cases, fitted them with cement overshoes, and sent them to sleep with the fishes. Unfortunately those individuals came back to shore. The gangsters now have them locked in the zombie room.

The rum is being stored in a cave underneath the alchemist’s lab. Magics from his experiments have seeped down into the cavern and infected the alcohol, which has begun mutating certain sensitive individuals into Deep Ones.

The sea elf prisoner on the ship is replaced with a deep one hybrid who has a psychic connection with sea life. The ringleader of the smugglers forces the hybrid to use his powers to allow them to avoid coast guard patrols.

2. Sci-Fi – This one is for Stars Without Number or Traveler fans. The mansion is a derelict research station in deep orbit that was once the property of a private research firm. Rumors say that the crew was killed when something they were working on got loose; a biological weapon, a killer robot, or out of control nano-technology. A former employee for the company claims to have discovered a shutdown code in the now defunct company’s files and is looking for a crew to salvage the stations data core. There are megacorporations who will pay good money for any files remaining in the station’s data core.

Unknown to the players, the threat was neutralized long ago and the station is now being used as a base for space pirates. The alchemist’s lab can be the station’s dormant AI, or a locked down cryo-statsis unit storing inert genetically engineered monsters. This could lead to an unstable alliance between the party and the pirates should the insane AI or the inert creatures be unleashed.

If you are playing Star Frontiers the sea elf prisoner should become a Sathar, alive but in stasis. A live Sathar would be worth more than the entire station and all its contents, if the players can get it to the right person.

3. Cyberpunk – The mansion is turned into a data vault that once belonged to a criminal syndicate. The mob was broken up decades ago but their intranet is still running, protected by an AI armed with high powered black ICE. Rumors on the dark web say that more than one decker has had their mind fried trying to run the node. However the party’s fixer has information of interest to the party. The old gang had blackmail material about one of the team’s powerful enemies. If that information still exists it would be in their old data vault and if the team could recover it, they’d have a powerful weapon against their enemies.

The vault was protected by a dangerous AI, but what they don’t know is that the AI was taken offline a few years ago by enterprising hackers. The vault now serves as a virtual information bazaar where world class deckers come to store and sell their illegally obtained files. Anyone who gets deep enough into the VR environment to discover this will find a very upset collection of capable deckers who will be quick to protect their secret.

Should the AI be brought back online it will determine that anyone it finds inside the data vault is an intruder and will unleash its countermeasures to eliminate them.

4. Pulp Adventure – Another relatively straight forward conversion, this time set during WWII. The mansion is a front for a Nazi spy ring. Or move it to the 60’s and use the KGB.

The hook for the players would be a series of sabotage incidents at factories in the region. Throw in the disappearance of an allied agent and the kidnapping of a senator’s son or daughter (to replace the sea elf) and you’ll have ample reason for agents to investigate the mansion.

It’s likely this will end up being a straight forward raid by the agents on the spy’s lair. For an added twist, as the battle plays out, have something get loose from the alchemist’s lab. Perfect for swerving the adventure from conventional secret agents into Delta Green territory.

5. Role Reversal – The characters are the ones charged with keeping the Sinister Secret, be it a speakeasy or an OSS base in occupied Europe. Let the players come up with ways to perpetuate the scary rumors that keep curious people away. Make them try to spot enemy agents or federal officers and find ways to throw them off the track.

Or the group of meddling kids and their dog.

They may also have to deal with anything they find still hidden in the basement chambers. Or which comes crawling up out of the sea, answering the call of something inside the mansion.

—–

Do you have any classic modules you’ve reskinned for other games? Any more ideas for Saltmarsh? I’d love to hear about them.

SinisterSaltmarsh

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in Cyberpunk, Fantasy, Gaming, Horror, Science Fiction

 

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Bandits & Battlecruisers PWYW

World of Ortix is celebrating 600 posts!

To celebrate he’s making PDF copies of Bandits & Battlecruisers a Pay What You Want product for a limited time.

You can find B&B here, and you can find my thoughts on the game here and here.

Congratulations to World of Ortix on 600 posts!

BandBcover

 

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2014 in Gaming, Science Fiction

 

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I Spy

Recently I’ve been reacquainting myself with some classic television, an endeavor made easier by having both an excellent library system and finally getting a Netflix account.

One of the genres I love in particular is the secret agent show. The 60’s were the golden era for spies on television and in movies, before my time but syndication and the birth of Nick at Night were boons for me. I watched them all, but preferred the “realistic” shows to the fantastical ones. So while I loved The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I would choose something like Mission: Impossible if given the choice.

Or to put it in James Bond terms, I’ll pick From Russia with Love over Moonraker. 

One of the shows that I remember liking in particular was I Spya show that to my young mind fully justified the existence of Nick at Night. However over the years the series faded from my memory. While other shows would pop up in remakes or on TV, I Spy dropped out of the spotlight. I vaguely remember the I Spy Returns TV movie from the 90’s and the less said about the 2002 movie atrocity with Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy, the better. The classic show seemed to have slipped into obscurity.

I Spy first aired in 1965 and ran for three seasons, starring Robert Kulp and Bill Cosby as agents Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott who worked as secret agents for the US government. For their cover, Robinson was a world class tennis player and playboy while Scott was his coach and partner. The pair had adventures all over the world, including sites in Europe, Japan, and Hong Kong. The stories were well written, grounded in an almost noir sensibility, and loved to throw in a good plot twist or two. There were murders, femme fatales, traitors, and double agents galore. The show also had a good sense of humor, sometimes of the gallows variety, and the banter between Robinson and Scott was that of old friends who’ve have been under the gun more times than they could count.

The show was well received, with awards going to several of the cast and writing. It was also historically significant, being the first TV drama to cast an African-American in a starring role. Cosby’s Scott was in all ways an equal partner to Kulp’s Robinson, a fact that led to the show being banned by some TV stations in the American south.

It’s always a risk taking a fresh look at a show you haven’t seen since you were a kid, but I’m pleased to say that I Spy holds up. Yes, the material is dated and some of the portrayals of foreigners, particularly Asians, are as stereotypical as you’d expect from a 60’s show. Thankfully, as a rule, these aren’t played for laughs (at least that I’ve come across so far).

Those issues aside the writing is strong, the settings are vibrant, and the acting is excellent. If you’re a fan of secret agents, then I Spy is one you should check out.

It’s also perfect material if you’re looking for inspiration for your next game of Top Secret, Spycraft, or Covert Ops.

I Spy was released on DVD in 2008 and is also available on Hulu.com.

It also has a swinging 60’s theme!

Man, I wish I could look that cool when lighting a fuze.

Not.. that I toss bombs or anything.

Hello NSA. Please don’t hurt me.

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2014 in Pulps, Reviews

 

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