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I recently began a new game in which I gave the players much more free reign in designing their characters than I might have in the past. What I wound up with was a very morally-diverse party, with each of the characters having extremely different goals and intended means of achieving them. (I'll edit in more game-specific details later, if people want them; I'm attempting to keep the original description and question brief.)

What this means is that it is a mostly selfish, evil-slanted group, each member of which is out pretty much entirely for himself. I really dislike railroading in games, so I attempt to have a more "open world" feel, however I had to railroad the first session very hard in order to make the party to even be a party. This made me very unhappy as a GM, and I could tell that it made at least one of the players unhappy as well.

Fortunately, I shouldn't have to railroad them like that again now that I've forced them into a situation where they have no real choice but to rely on each other to survive. (They're stranded in an unknown jungle with only each other for support; wandering off alone would literally be suicide.) But I've discovered in the course of that first session just how much I dislike their party, and I realized something: I don't think I'm interested in telling or participating in a story about evil people doing evil things. I love all of their character concepts individually, but as a whole it simply doesn't make a compelling story.

Maybe I'm simply expecting too much character development from the first session, and maybe I'm not giving them enough time to really come together, be more complicated, and prove to me that their motivations are more intriguing and complex than "screw the world, let it burn". But I'm suffering from severe disillusionment for the game, to the point where I'm honestly not even interested in running it anymore.

Is there any way I can reverse this or somehow patch the situation to make it better for me? I want to keep running the game for them, but I don't know if I can do it if I hate every minute of it.

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Hey all. The answers to this question are going fairly far afield. We have existing questions on "how to have an evil party/characters" and "how to form a party/get a party to stay together," the more unique part of this question is the GM disillusionment aspect. If you are writing a long response specifically about group cohesion or evil parties, go add them to those other questions instead please. –  mxyzplk Jun 28 '13 at 17:54
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I wish questions had conclusions so we can find out how the answers helped. –  Ellesedil Nov 19 '13 at 16:41
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@Ellesedil That would be an interesting feature for some of these SE sites. :) If you're interested, I played one more session with them before ending the game. What it really came down to was the fact that one or two of the players weren't willing to compromise and "give a little" into the collaborative aspect. There was very much an attitude of "this is my character, he is who he is, and I will play him as such" regardless of everything else -- and a sense that it was my job to facilitate this, no matter what, and that any failure of the game would thus be a failure on my part. –  asteri Jan 29 at 21:26
    
@Ellesedil I was also just severely burnt out at dealing with some of the attitude I was getting, I admit. Had I been more patient and understanding, I may have been able to salvage the game, but I just couldn't do it (there were also a lot of real-life stressors at the time). So to that extent, it was my failure. But my problem when I posted the question was that I had forgotten that the game was a collaborative thing just like they had; I took all the responsibility/blame/guilt onto my shoulders to force the game to work, and when it didn't, it fried me. Lesson learned. –  asteri Jan 29 at 21:28

11 Answers 11

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Talk to the players

Others have said it, but this can't be over emphasized. Most traditional RPGs are collaborative affairs and the GM cannot be responsible for making everyone happy. So talk to them plainly and see what they want. They may be highly supportive of ending this campaign and starting a new one or of working with you to change the direction of the game or any number of other options that you can all partake in as a team.

Railroading is not an either/or

You mention that you hate railroading, which I totally understand. But realize that most campaigns will not be and should not be "railroading or open world". It is much more of a spectrum of "some railroading and some open world, but with varying amounts". And the amount can vary not just between games but within one campaign. It may be helpful to railroad fairly heavily at the beginning of a campaign as you get the world established, get the characters fully established and grounded, and get some of the potential plots established. Then you can ease up and move more open world when all of the characters have motivations well established and plot hooks sunk deep.

Evil can mean a lot of things

You said that most of the characters ended up evil, but that can mean a lot of things. An evil character that just wants to make the world burn (probably) isn't well developed or interesting as anything but an excuse for Hero to get into fights.

However, an evil character with a backstory for why they are evil and a specific motivation can be very interesting, sympathetic, and even hold onto a code of honor while definitely being evil. Shylock is (often, there are multiple interpetations) portrayed as evil and greedy, but also in a sympathetic and relatable way and gets one of the most eloquent speeches Shakespeare ever wrote. Strahd in Vampire of Mists is unflinchingly evil, but his fall to evil was relatable and sympathetic and even when it was complete he held to code of honor similar to chivalry.

In short, it is possible that your loathing for these evil characters will fade somewhat if you work with the players to make sure they have well developed evil characters that have a strong motivation and some (preferably sympathetic) explanation for why they are evil.

Also, if evil to them just means "greedy" but not in a "watch the world burn" sort of way...well that isn't all that different from the way most good characters act in many rpgs. It just means that you need to shift plot hooks from things like "Help us, the orcs are attacking" to "Help us, the orcs are attacking and we can reward our rescuers handsomely".

Edit: an example

I closed this out, but then thought an example might help. A character whose motivation is "I want to plunder and kill" is evil, but boring. I wouldn't enjoy gming for that.

But lets say we have a character that starts out with "As a child of 6 I watched the Medici's stab my father, the rightful king of Alonion, dishonor my mother, and throw my older brother out of a window. They destroyed my family and stole my throne. I survived only because my nursemaid grabbed me and ran and then gave me to farmers to raise." Now we have something of a background and plot hooks. But its not necessarily evil, many good characters in fantasy have a somewhat similar background story.

So we add, "The Medici's that did this are now dead or old and retired. It is their son, who is my own age and didn't participate in the slaughter, that now sits on my throne. He leads the people well and does his best to rule fairly. Yet the throne is mine by rights and I will still seek to regain it." Now we are probably into evil territory, and we can talk about how evil and lawful v. chaotic based on how he intends to go about it and what he is willing to do or not do. But even if we go deep into evil, there is a reason for it and it is interesting with a very sympathetic justification.

But now we need to explain why he is off adventuring instead of trying to raise rebels (unless you want the game to be about him trying to raise rebels right off the bat.) So we add, "I know that I have little hope of regaining my throne without vast sums of money, personal experience, and a reputation for power and leadership. Thus, I set off now to make a name and a fortune. My sights remain firmly on my kingdom and I will do whatever it takes to gain the money I need to finance my war, but for now I work elsewhere and prepare..."

Now, we have a sympathetic reason he is evil, have established that he is willing to use at least some evil means to achieve his ends which are arguably evil, have plot hooks that could be used later, but also have a reason he is running around with first level adventurers doing more or less standard first level things.

Personally, I would be happy to gm for that character. If my players wanted to play evil characters I might try to help guide them to a story like that and the motivations that come with it.

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This. Not railroading doesn't mean the world is open, it means the consequences are. (Railroading is when the party gets the feeling that their decisions don't matter. You can drop them into any situation you care to contrive and they'll let it go, as long as they still feel they can change the outcome.) –  Tynam Jun 19 '13 at 8:14
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@Tynam That is the best explanation of non-railroading I've ever read. (We have a Q around here about what is railroading; it might be with answering if you haven't already.) –  SevenSidedDie Jun 19 '13 at 14:46

One of the things I say first when I'm about to start running a game for a new group of players is that it is not my responsibility to come up with increasingly convoluted reasons why a disparate set of characters with nothing in common should adventure together. I've been there and tried it, and it is stressful, frustrating and simply not fun. I'd much rather spend my time coming up with cool stories and fun situations that everyone can enjoy.

Given you've got a set of characters and you'd rather not have to get the players to start all over again, what I suggest you do is put the responsibility on the players to come up with reasons why those characters should be working together. This may or may not require them to make changes to their characters' backgrounds and/or motivations, but if you want a situation where you have a workable party of PCs that you have some chance of enjoying GMing for, I really don't see that you have much other choice.

I advise that you do this as a group rather than individually so that players can bounce ideas off of each other. That way you are more likely to end up with creative and entertaining interconnections that are fun to work with and use as plot hooks.

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+1 for saying: "Make the players figure out why they're together" and for recommending a brainstorming session. –  Discord Jun 18 '13 at 19:47
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+1, its not just the GM that has a responsibility to the game. –  GrandmasterB Jun 18 '13 at 19:51
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This answer. My last campaign session ended this way too, but not as bad. What I did is to decide on the style of play I want and went through some ground rules. The Same Page tool is excellent in this regards - bankuei.wordpress.com/2010/03/27/the-same-page-tool –  Extrakun Jun 19 '13 at 7:14

I ran into this too, with the diverse characters and the hard first-session railroad. I became disillusioned because they wanted me to tell a story and I wanted a sandbox, but the result was the same: I had no desire left to run it.

It's awful advice, but my conclusion was that not every game is made to be continued, and it's only a failure if it's pushed beyond the number of sessions it can happily support.

You might be able to completely turn it around, but it's a tall order to change the game into something more like what you'd be happy with when it's contrary to what the players are already enjoying about the game. If you can pull it off, do it. You might consider offering to give up the GMing of this game to another player, and become a player yourself.

But if you can't pull it off, letting the game die peacefully is kinder to you and the other players. The sooner a doomed game is done, the sooner you can start on the next awesome one!

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Whenever a game I'm running gets this way (mostly D&D where alignments are unshakable without serious consequences) I sit my players down individually, and explain exactly what you said: "I like the character for a one person narrative, but it would really help the game if you could alter a few details to make them group/game friendly".

Most players are very open to making the game work, especially if they get to keep their intended character and actually play them. When a player fights against this, I usually take the time to explain to them that most of the challenges will be ones designed for multiple members of the group. Should they strike out on their own too much, I remind them that not every enemy will stand across an open field and shout their battle cry before attacking They will be singled out by enemies that are solely after them and at times there's nothing the party can do. With these parameters in mind, things tend to rein in a bit to at least be manageable for a party dynamic.

EDIT: Saw this and felt this thread needed to see it: 11 Ways to be a Better Roleplayer

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+1 For pointing out that some characters would only work best in a single person narrative –  Discord Jun 18 '13 at 19:49
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+1 for subtly threatening and scaring the character –  rishimaharaj Jun 19 '13 at 0:07
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And rishimaharaj's comment should be my new bumper sticker. –  CatLord Jun 19 '13 at 1:58

Seems like you have only a few reasonable options (other than running a game you don't like). All of them start the same way:

Talk to the players, and say that you don't want to run this type of game.

Then, how you proceed is up to the group.

  • If they want to continue playing these characters with you as the DM, there needs to be an understanding that they won't stay evil. Over the initial phase of the campaign, these characters will start to redeem themselves. (Or perhaps be made to pay for their evil ways, if the player prefers.)

  • Arrange for someone else to DM. If the players really want to play an evil campaign with these characters they've invested something into, someone else will need to run it.

  • Start a new campaign. If it makes sense, you could even have the previous group turn into antagonists for the new set of PCs.

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I hate to say it but I disagree with pretty much all of the comments above except those regarding railroading.

There is a ton of opportunity in your situation. Certainly their characters will not be fully developed and will be looking for reasons to work with each other or perhaps not. It will take time for them to form into a working party. So don't rush and don't expect them to be functional or even effective the first couple of sessions.

That being said there is a ton you can do to whip them into shape. Personally I adore evil parties because they allow me to up the ante in my games by offering them a variety of challenges that normally wouldn't be available to them.

So here are my rules of thumb when in this situation.

There is always something bigger and badder than you and, sooner or later, you will meet them.

Since you just started this campaign the characters you are dealing with are relatively weak when compared to the rest of the world. Having a competitor or even just a general antagonist can provide them a reason to stick together. You chose a jungle environment as your antagonist which is a good start however, environmental antagonists generally end up being pretty boring after a while. They will need something to compete against, it could be something as simple as a political competitor such as village shaman who preaches to their village members out against the adventurer, thus denying the adventurers access to valuable supplies in a hostile. You could follow up with the shaman implementing very effective defenses against the adventuring party making it difficult to just steam roll the shaman and it could offer them an interesting challenge at the low levels.

However, the most important piece for this rule is to make an antagonist that will follow them for levels. Such as your stereotypical lich (this is an example, be more creative) seeking a particular artifact that the group is looking for as well. Having someone who constantly gets in their way even if unintentionally will draw their attention to the fact that they will need to work together in order to get what they want. Have fun with this, villians are amazing characters to work with. They are intelligent, resourceful, cunning, and have a plan unlike the vast majority of protagonists.

Be mean but be realistic. They will love you for it.

Everyone wants something. A party that wants the same thing, stays together.

In order to provide them something to chase after as a group and work together you have to know what they all want. During character creation they had to have told you what each of their characters wanted. If you didn't get this from them now is the time to ask them. "Why is your character adventuring?" If they don't have an answer for this question then they really don't have a character that will work at all. They have to want something. If you are running into this situation then perhaps it is time to ask them to fill out a questionnaire about their character so you can get a better idea of what you are working with. Feel free to include anything you want to include in it. Generally, I ask about their background, temperament, long term goals, short term goals, dreams, enemies, favorite possessions, and general dislikes. Answers from this questionnaire can be very useful later when you want to pull strings to move the party this way or that or even just to get them moving.

When you have all of this information from your players it is time to find ways of offering them opportunities to move closer to what their characters want. Generally you can do this by putting everything they want in the same place or offering them a chance to get closer to what they want in relatively the same place. In the time they take to get where they want to be going you can work on getting to have a common goal or desire. As the person who shapes the setting and the overall story you have plenty of carrots and sticks at your disposal. Each of your players characters have their arms out with their hands pointing to something they want. Your job is to get them all pointing in the same direction.

When all else fails get them interested in each other

Each of them should have had a back-story when they walked into this campaign. Placing pieces of their back-story in relative reach of them and their compatriots is a good way to get them moving in a direction. Often characters have people that are close to them or societies that they are close to them. Offer them something intriguing to related to those people or those societies could spur them into action to protect the things they care about. If it is a city they all adore, throw a war at it. Evil or not they will protect the things they care about. Even if it is as simple as a thief stealing each of their prized possessions. During the time they figure out the situation and find the thief they will learn more about each other and perhaps expose something about themselves that the other members can relate to and potentially admire them for. The end goal is to bring their back-stories to the forefront while applying realistic pressure for them to act.

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I think Phil nailed how to get the party to be a party with each other. However, it is my experience that a party tends to act like the member with the lowest moral standing, if not lower. Unless you have a dedicated moral compass (which is a player thing, and not many players do this) or you have some kind of stick in the mud paladin (in which case, you have another problem) the party will probably swiftly devolve.

However, I refuse to let the players be the bad guy. I do this by having a worse guy. I have a three step process to making villains everyone will love to hate.

  1. A different moral stance. Make it clear whenever convenient that however bad the party is, this guy is worse. If your party likes to eat puppies, then this guy loves to eat puppies while they're still alive. Sometimes scaling things up works ("I killed a man. If your players are Ted Bundy, then the villain is Hitler. Have the good guys recognize this- If the Sacred order of Paladins is willing to work with the party to take this punk out, then that says something. Have other, lesser villain's be afraid of him, a nice hierarchy of evil. Grand Moff Tarkin gets choked by Vader, who kneels to the Emperor.

    You can go the complete opposite way, and have a holy warrior intent on removing evil from the world. I find that tends to encourage the players to get that much worse, but if you want a lower bound on the evil in your world, this can work to. Sometimes, it's not a good/evil thing of course- Individualist vs Collectivist, Augmented vs Normal Humans, or just as impersonal as the church of Pelor vs the church of Blargle. I find these are less fun for me, but that's probably just me. I like planning the bad guy!

  2. Love to hate him. Give the bad guy a personality, a theme, a style. Mustache twirling is optional, but sometimes making him dashing and rich and also a serial murderer works just fine. The best of these I ever made was basically just Robert Downing Jr's Tony Stark, but environmentally unfriendly. Make him insufferable. ("yeah yeah, he's an agent of the Wyrm- he's going out with two redheads at once, and one of them was my sister!") Go for cold, calculating evil maybe- forms at the front desk requesting assassinations, kidnappings, and WMDs, along with a standard price rate sheet. Fear is hard to pull off, but if every time he appears, he starts casting /Apocalypse From The Sky you can probably get there. (or you know. Be subtler than that. The swish of the black cape, the sound of hard boots on the ship's hull, and the respirator which allows him to breath all make Vader imposing long before we see him fight.)

  3. Threat. Make the bad guy somebody that they cannot ignore. A lot of "evil" PCs are self centered. Have the necromancer's army of the dead sweep the jungle from side to side, killing everything in their path. Or, have the Fire Demon setting the place alight, on a campaign of simple destruction. It might be personal- someone's hired hit men to kill them in particular. Maybe several someones hired hits on them separately, if the aren't really a group, but they are constantly coming under attack.

Yes, not all campaigns are about stopping a bad guy. Most of mine are though, and cackling madly and rubbing my hands about Urist McEvil's new scheme usually gets me interested in the campaign.

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(I'm not going to repeat all the great advice found in the other answers, just add an additional option that you could find useful.)

Adapt and introduce a game mechanism that supports - sometimes implicitly - character personality development towards a less-evil approach. If the game you're playing already has one, rely on it heavily.

What do I mean by that? Things like...

...the Sanity system of Call of Cthulhu. Sure, your party might be composed of burnt out, "who gives a damn" characters. Find out, if you haven't done so already, what made them so, how they became like that. Assign an appropriately low Sanity score for each horrible turn of event (either witnessed or committed by the PC) of the background stories, then keep using the system, have them roll and likely get more degenerate for each horrible deed performed and scene witnessed. Tell them reaching zero means the PC going utterly mad and unplayable.

...the Dark Powers checks of Ravenloft. It's like CoC's Sanity with the addition of the temptation of the "dark side." Offer the PCs chances to commit evil, and if they go for it, reward them... besides noting that they're getting closer and closer to becoming an NPC villain.

...the Humanity system of the Storyteller/Storytelling games (the engine of the (new) World of Darkness.) Again, assign an initial score based on their backgrounds, and have them check for Humanity loss (and becoming, practically, a monster) each time they cross the boundaries and commit acts forbidden by their Humanity.

...and so on.

Of course, in all cases, provide interesting and intriguing chances for the PCs to get better, to redeem themselves one step at a time. Don't make these opportunities blatantly obvious and "good", though: go for mature, moral dilemmas. But reward the players if they take the better option. Also, make evil seem less interesting than "the good", or at least grayer solutions. Shepherd them, carefully (which is not the same as railroading.) Show the consequences of their evil graphically (not literally, but through ample description), if you can stomach that. If not, just imply it.

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A lot of profound and thorough answers here already. I thought I might chip in with a purely in-game solution:

Have the party stumble across the hideout of the main plots super powerful villain. Let them see all his evil and depravity, and stare into the bleak and burning future that is the world after he has his way with it. Give them every reason to hate him. If needed, do small and stupid things like making fun of the monk who can't deflect the magic missile he just got in his face, threatening family members - or bigger things like cutting off a hand here and a nose there. Then the villain, in all his arrogance, let's them go, gloating at their wounds and powerlessness.

Now, evil or good, the party will have something big and evil they all want very badly to defeat. And after all, if you fight to put down evil you end up (at least looking) good.

This could give you a party with the lasting common goal of taking down your super villain, and in turn give you all the break you need to start constructing a fun story for everyone to play.

Could something like this perhaps do the trick?

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+1 for a unique and creative answer! –  dodgethesteamroller Jun 20 '13 at 0:38

In addition to what's been said - just talking it over with your players is usually enough IME to get things back on track - you can make it so that you do encourage people to follow along one story at a time by presenting PCs with rational consequences. It is perfectly normal and right to say "okay, I understand that it doesn't make sense for your character to tag along with the party while his wife is dying of umber hulk cancer, but that's the direction that we're moving the story because that's what the rest of the party wants to do." At that point, the player can either make up a reason the character comes along on their own (as a GM, you should encourage players acting with their own agency - I would try and see how I could fit their thing in so long as it doesn't detract from the main storyline or provide the PC with some kind of special boost) or not go. If it's the latter, hey, the player can control one of the hirelings or something.

With selfish and evil characters, I know that my weariness doesn't so much come from everyone going off and doing their own thing, it's the way that the game gets too competitive. At its worst, people stop RPing and start just screwing with each other. I've likened it to DnD Survivor in the past. If that's the kind of game you want to play, fine, but it's often not. In such a situation I think it's perfectly fine to sit down with the players and say "look, I just don't want to GM this kind of game. We need to find some motivations for your guys to not be evil all the time or we need to roll up new characters entirely."

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Wow, lots of really good material coming out on this one. Kudos again on a good question.

Having said that, I think many of these answers are trying to recast your players into roles that we are familiar with. Working them towards a less evil stance, or pitting them against a bigger evil really just slides the alignment scale back towards a zone where you're more comfortable. And there are some good suggestions here on how to do that. Or, you could try to up your game, and theirs, and really explore evil.

First off, in my experience running both successful evil campaigns and dismal failures, I find that most players haven't really thought through the complete picture of the evil psyche. You almost always end up starting with wildly lude, malicious behavior and a general attitude that evil characters get to do whatever they want, whenever they want, and if anything gets in their way they start laying waste to everything. It's hard on the DM, and it almost always ends up with a nasty wake-up call to the players as the world they're in rises up and squashes them. And even if it doesn't, being a directionless psycho with a penchant for violence isn't particularly fulfilling. At this point most groups abandon the whole "evil party" thing as not for them and move on.

But let me give you a few thoughts that you might explore on the off chance you can salvage an interesting role playing experience from the wreckage of something like this.

First off, when that initial attitude is "Let the world burn", fireproof the world. Put them in a stable land with well established countries, laws, civil protection, ancient magics steeped into the town walls to mitigate huge disasters and curb destructive magics, etc. It can be especially annoying and effective if the mindset of the local leadership is a bit on the touchy-feely side, so that while your players go through their (hopefully short) heidonist phase, if they have to be beaten down they are heavily fined, exiled, sent to a work camp for a year (don't play out that whole time, just skip to the end when they're released after an agonizing year of daily farm work and nightly lectures) or subjected to some other creative non-lethal corrective action. The more infuriating, and quickly played through, the better. Let them work up a good, solid intolerance for this idyllic and stifling setting.

Then you hook them up with the other evil elements of the society. Smugglers, the nobel ruler's jealous younger sibling, congregations of evil deities, slavers from a land over the mountains, etc. People to infuse them with long-term goals, resources, and planning options to allow them to focus their energies on re-shaping the world into one where their characters are the ones in power. Where they make the rules, get the profit, control the powerful magics, etc. At this point you're out to tempt the players, and by proxy their characters, with the typical lures of wealth and power.

All the cool, villainous activity that gives you goosebumps at the theater or when reading a novel, from well-timed assasinations, to ensuring a bad sucession to the throne, to starting a war, to subverting the training of the next generation of knights, all of this is material at your disposal. Go back and re-read your favorite fantasy novels, but this time think about how difficult those grand evil plots would be to pull off. What are the obstacles? Where can things go wrong? What bits can be foisted off on subordinates (and hence play out as a few minutes of quick narration when they report in), and which require hands-on, intense application of the main villains' skills and cunning? What information did the villains' need to begin? Do they know the heroes that oppose them? Can subverting or undermining those heroes be part of the greater plot?

Go ahead, step through the looking glass...

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