Tag: roleplaying

Dawn’s Heroes

It was too long since my roleplaying group last played A New Dawn – sixteen months, in fact. I’ve been writing fiction instead, for the most part.

But it was time, and on Friday I hoisted on the Weskit of Narrative Consistency to run the game again.

Since it had been such a long time, a lot of this first session of the season was reintroducing the characters to the setting. There were several unresolved threads from the last session we played, and I got to disinter some NPCs to help the players remember what they were. I was especially pleased to remember the voice I used for Dr Leslie Perfect (a character who is meant to be a lot more than a nod to Agent Simmons in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD).

Here are some of the storytelling tricks I used to start the season.

Get the Players In the Mood

When I was introducing A New Dawn to the players, I had them all prepare some description of a typical day in March, and some description of how they would discover their powers after they wake up in June.

For this reintroduction session, I did a similar thing: had the players write a short title sequence segment that would describe their character and encapsulate that character’s powers. Then I made up some pumping title music on the spot* and flipped pages to simulate titles. It was pretty well received, overall.

Remind, But Don’t Resolve

As I mentioned above, there were some outstanding threads from the last session – in particular, some equipment which they’d recovered from a cult site and which needed to be decoded.

We spent probably the best part of a half hour chewing over the specifics of the device, the effects on animal subjects, and how the team wanted to proceed with the investigation.

Don’t Be Afraid To Tweak Things

But the point of the evening was not about the device research, but about getting the characters to flex their powers again. We needed combat.

I thought it was time for some werewolves. At a furry convention, to boot.

… except that looking at the werewolves in the Savage Worlds bestiary, I did not like what I saw. Immunity to any weapon except silver? Victims rising from the dead to become werewolves?

Nah. None of that appealed.

My modified version made the werewolves a lot harder to kill than most creatures and also made it possible for surviving victims to become infected (none of the PCs were sufficient’y damaged for that to apply). I’m not going to go into specifics, but my point is that if the material in the game doesn’t fit the narrative you want to convey then change it.

The only requirement is that you remain self-consistent. Now I have werewolves, that is what werewolves will look like in my world.

On to the next scenario, now.

[*] probably very derivative and trite because I am no musician, but it got the point across.

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Crack of Dawn

Restarting A New Dawn reminds me of how ingenious and committed my players are.

The session started with the characters being told to take a couple of weeks off. I wanted to lay down a thread of disquiet and mentioned that the homeless population seemed to be lower than it had been – no one in the party had long-standing links to any dispossessed, but they all swung into action to try and ascertain the cause.

Within five minutes they had:

  • interviewed staff at homeless shelters
  • set up a surveillance network using traffic cameras to watch for disappearances
  • talked to homeless people to see if any of them had any idea where their comrades had gone

… and this was before I’d even briefed them on the information that they needed for the adventure.

It’s so cool to have such an energised group.

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GM Styling

I enjoy running roleplaying games, but I get stressed about it too. Part of this stress is the energy required for me to prepare the game*.

The thing is that I am a high prep GM because of the stories I want to tell – the setting and overall story arc for A New Dawn generates stories pretty quickly, but sewing together the threads which connect those stories takes time. Then I want to have a decent idea of the layouts for the battle scenes, and the stats for the opposition**, and character traits for any NPCs which the players will interact with directly. Without a lot of these details I do not feel ready to operate a game.

Not all GMs are like this. Another GM in our group is much more free-form in his preparation. He has ideas of what should happen, but the settings he uses tend to be looser. I don’t know how much time he spends preparing, but I’m willing to bet it’s less than me. And there are many articles online about improvising roleplaying sessions, or prep-free GMing.

All of these are instructive, but don’t really seem to help me with my story-driven prep. I have the tales to tell, and I have the intertwined narratives that don’t want to be mis-tangled, .

In other words, I am making it difficult for myself because I have specific stories I want to tell when I run a game, and I want those stories to line up.

I think of A New Dawn as being structured like a television show***: an evening’s play is one episode, and the set of episodes in one run as a GM is a season. When a new season starts I spend more time than usual on prep because I am working on the theme for that season and the events to be related. I’m also trying to think of likely hooks at the end of each episode – not so much cliffhangers as bridges from one episode to the next.

So what I am working on right now are the details of the first session’s play. I’ve got the large scale content sorted out, but I’m trying to finalise the specifics of what the characters will see when they are plopped down in the world.

A lot of this is transferable to writing stories – the world building is similar, the story structures can be related to each other. And of course it’s fun.

Telling stories is fun.

[*] the other part is the stress I feel because I am not working on my novel when I am doing this prep, but that’s a separate discussion.

[**] I should be preparing battle tactics for the opposition too, but if anything falls off the end it’s this aspect.

[***] a concept I borrowed from some of the Savage Worlds settings, particularly Slipstream

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Dawn Light

It’s time for my roleplaying campaign, A New Dawn, to kick back into gear.

Just as a quick summary, this campaign is a superhumans setting. The player characters woke up having no memory of the previous ten weeks or so. It doesn’t take them long to realise that they are now able to do bizarre things – fly, turn invisible, stretch, blast foes with radiation bolts…

They have become superhumans, if not superheroes.

The group is confronted by a bank robbery featuring other superpowered characters, and from there they are recruited by a government agency which has been charged with monitoring and employing superhumans to protect the country from others of that ilk.

They’ve had numerous adventures, mostly in Portland, but the state of play right now is that they are aware of at least three other groups of superhumans (one defeated and another which claims to be friendly), they have a bad guy in custody, and there appears to be some connection with an ancient cult.

The job now is to write plots for the next season. The ideas are coming thick and fast, I’m glad to say.

Bwa, as they say, hahahahaha.

Best get back to it. Evil plans don’t make themselves.

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Accidental Worldbuilding

Apparently, I can’t help but do some world building.

Looking through the Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion, there is a lot to like: many weapons, interesting races, and a bundle of professional edges that emulate classes. All well and good.

What it doesn’t have is much in the way of setting – which is to be expected, this being a generic game, but it means I need to come up with something for a context within which my boys are going to play*.

Just Enough For This Story

I don’t need a deep story here yet. It’s not like A New Dawn where there is a plot to uncover: the game here is of ordinary adventurers in an extraordinary world. I just need some context for things like magic systems to function. To that end, apart from some broad concepts, I’m not going to define much about the world.

Magical Roots

Most fantasy games have at least two basic divisions of magic: the magic of humans, be it wizardry or sorcery or some other mechanism, and the magic of the gods, that divine energy called upon by clerics and other devout.

I don’t especially care for gods in my stories, though. Their use is essentially unsatisfying to me, moving the interesting parts of the story into an unopenable box: literally “deus ex machina”, the god outside of the machine.

So what basis shall I give for clerical magic? It still needs to be there, but who should the clerics appeal to for their powers?**

I’m going to use the classical elements of fire, water, earth and air. If I have those four in both positive and negative aspects then I have a pantheon of eight right there.

And look – no Cthulhu Mythos influence at all.

A Simple Start

But where are the players playing?

I can always come up with a new world, but I think I will reuse some ideas from both my work and others. I am thinking of an Atlantis-like place in the late prehistory of our own world, during the last glaciation.

  • most of the planet’s water is frozen in the ice caps, so sea levels are low.
  • the culture of the central land, a chain of volcanic islands in the middle of what will become the Atlantic, is an amalgam of various ancient cultures: a bit of Egyptian, a bit of Mesopotamian, a bit of Greek and Phoenician Mayan and Aztec. And so on. Different islands have different cultures, perhaps?
  • Hyperborea to the north is the freezing centre, the great enemy, of the world, seeking to freeze the world entirely.

The influences here are many: Pratchett’s Nation is critical, as is Michael Scott Rohan’s series The Winter of the World***. In both of these there are prehistoric civilisations which thrive during the last glaciation. Tales of Atlantis often speak of a land from which the founders of so many of the great civilisations fled, carrying the seeds of Atlantean knowledge with them. I also have a story [link to The Manx Connection?] which uses an Atlantean back story.

Anyway, it’s pretty derivative but that’s largely unavoidable. It’s also enough to be going on with. Time to be making a dungeon.

[*] not, I will concede, for their benefit so much as mine. Having some setting makes for an easier time coming up with stories.

[**] do these elemental gods really exist? Or are the clerical characters drawing on elemental energies using their faith as a lever to crack open the world? I don’t know, but it will be fun to find out.

[***] there’s also an interesting magic system here based around smithing which I did a bit of work codifying for a fantasy game many years ago. Might need to pull those notes out.

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Fantasy Defense

The Savage Worlds fantasy sourcebook that I mentioned last time turned up*. I haven’t had time to really dig into it but I will post more about the content and how it fits into my plans for a fantasy game for my boys at some later date. In the meantime, I wanted to write a bit more about fantasy gaming.

Dungeons and the Crawling Thereof

What is a dungeon in a roleplaying context?

Well, it’s not really much to do with the real-world definition, which is an underground cell or “close, dark prison” as Chambers puts it. A roleplaying dungeon is a complex of interconnected rooms in which there are monsters to fight, traps to avoid, and treasure to collect. They are classically situated underground, but that is not mandatory: a castle complex, a tree city, or a sinking ship could all be treated as dungeons with rooms to explore and adversaries to overcome.

The AD&D GM materials included a random dungeon generator, tables which you roll dice against so that you get random rooms and their contents – obviously these tend towards the arbitrary, but they can be a diverting way to spend time hacking and slashing your way through them. One of the funniest roleplaying sessions I engaged in at Uni was a random dungeon played for laughs, where the rolls were taken at face value no matter how absurd, along with some very silly set pieces. However, it’s not really roleplaying: the characters are only considered as tactical units, not as people.

One of the reasons I have resisted this kind of arbitrary dungeon delving with my kids is because there is usually so little story. The games I’ve run have been concentrating on storytelling while minimising combat – going to action rounds** for fiddly bits where inter-character timing is important, but mostly just letting the description of action and reaction tell the story. I am going to try to retain as much of that flavour as I can, but there will inevitably be more fighting because the boys have now had a few games of Munchkin.


Munchkin is very silly, entirely by design. It takes many of the roleplaying game concepts popularised in Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and turns the dial all the way over. It’s a game which specifically encourages undermining other players in combat, focusses on the loot collected during a dungeon crawl while utterly ignoring the geography of the dungeon, and it doesn’t have any story at all.

It’s also enormous fun. Terrible and wonderful things happen to the characters in more or less equal measure, and the game can completely flip in only a couple of turns. One game we played had my oldest’s character*** suffer some deep indignities and then die rather messily at the feet of a stomping dragon, but he ended up winning. It’s chaotic and hilarious.

Playing Munchkin helped lodge a few fantasy game staples in the boys’ heads: class, race and level are basic concepts in D&D, especially the trade-offs inherent in what you choose for your character. So now the boys know that a wizard might be able to control coruscating arcane energies but can’t pick up a sword, or that a dwarf can see in the near dark and lug around twice the amount of gear of any other race but can only run half as fast****. Savage Worlds doesn’t impose quite the same constraints of class that D&D does (or did) but many of the same trade-offs are present.

And so now we’re ready to dive into a dungeon.

Before we do so, however, I do need talk to the boys about the portrayal of women in fantasy.

Women In Fantasy

Fantasy, even more than science fiction, has historically appealed to and been targetted at young adult males, and part of that targetting has led to the pervasive portrayal of women as scantily clad, pneumatic objects: women in fantasy are often shown as fantasies.

Most games (at least the ones I am willing to play) don’t discriminate in the abilities of the characters based on gender: female characters are just as capable as male characters, and even in Munchkin the sex change curse only gives a penalty for one round because of the sudden confusion over how your body works.

But still… the fantasy source books tend to be illustrated with cheesecake. The Savage Worlds book is no exception here, with the cover showing an unnecessarily lightly clad female warrior, even though no one sane would go into battle without some kind of covering over every inch of skin.

So, there is a conversation to be had there before we start the game proper, with possibly a strategically placed paper cover over the unavoidable cleavage.

But I’m looking forward to running a dungeon. There will be puzzles at least as much as fighting, but a dungeon will be fun.

[*] or rather the paper copy did. I already had the PDF, but I haven’t looked at that yet either.

[**] the less combat-focussed term for combat rounds that I suggested last time.

[***] the characters don’t even have names.

[****] the same speed limitations being true of halflings, the non-copyright encumbered version of the hobbit race, leading to the saying that you do not need to run faster than the dragon, you only need to run faster than the halfling.

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Fantasy Attack

I’ve mentioned the roleplaying I have done with my boys before, particularly the Animal Agents sessions that we played last year. Those sessions were intended to tell stories about the setting and to avoid physical confrontation. They were also using a simplified game system.

Well, the kids are ready for something different: a fantasy roleplaying dungeon crawl.

This has come on because of a couple of things:

  • broader awareness of fantasy elements in culture – they’re both pretty knowledgeable about goings on in The Hobbit and Harry Potter.
  • playing more games with fantasy combat in them – both video games (LEGO Batman, for example) and board games (Castle Panic, and Munchkin)

More about Munchkin another time.

The boys are old enough to deal with more complex rules, especially now that the younger one is reading fluently. Using a full ruleset seems like a plausible thing to do.

That ruleset won’t be D&D though.

Why I Don’t Like D&D

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is by far the most well known roleplaying game – it’s the first one I played, back when Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a thing. I loved roleplaying from the start, but I was always uncomfortable with the opacity of the game system: determining whether a blow hit was a table lookup in a table only available to the GM (or Dungeon Master, in D&D parlance).

Then there were the systems of class, race and level: boxes the characters get put in which punish the player who wants to do something different. Want a fighter with some stealth abilities? You might have to multi-class with thief, which makes advancing in either class more expensive.

More recent editions of D&D have addressed some of these concerns, but they are still terrifically complex. When I joined my current roleplaying group we were playing D20 Modern, which is the D&D system with modern trappings. We had to use a computer program to manage the characters because of all the interactions of different class abilities and bonuses.

One of D&D’s great strengths is the combat system – there are rules, it seems, for everything, from charging into combat to firing spells into melee. This betrays D&D’s roots as a skirmish war game, and it’s not for nothing that there are players who will play arena combats using the system.

The problem for me is that all of this faffing about gets in the way of telling the story.

So, not D&D.

Savage Worlds

Savage Worlds is a much simpler system to learn and to administer. It’s a skill-based system akin to Runequest, but there is a unified mechanic for testing for success: each trait has a die to indicate its level, and you just roll that die type to try and exceed the target difficulty number. Traits are divided into skills and attributes: skills are learned and specific (Drive, Shoot, Persuade) while attributes are innate and general (Smarts, Agility).

Combat is faster and involves less bookkeeping than with D&D. It’s also cruder, but a single combat round* won’t take half an hour** which is the point of the simplification.

The Savage Worlds system itself is generic, that is there is a core rulebook and separate materials for particular settings. The most famous of these (and in fact where the system originated) is Deadlands – a Weird West setting of undead monsters, mad science, and gunslingers. There are many other settings from fantasy to pulp science fiction to horror (including a truly excellent Mythos setting called Realms of Cthulhu).

I now have the Fantasy Companion which includes fantasy races and some specialised rules for suitable magic systems. This should help me build some small dungeons for the boys’ characters to crawl around in.

Next time I will explain what a dungeon is for.

[*] games go to combat rounds whenever there is any activity where timing is important, not just combat. Maybe they should be called action rounds instead?

[**] unless there are a lot of combatants, but scaling combat is one of the harder things to deal with.

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Dawn Surprise

The latest season of A New Dawn closed out in June with the uncovering of a mole in the organization the PCs are allied with. There are a few lessons I took away from this season.

The Value of a Side Quest

This is a supers game so a lot of the stories are resolved in combat rounds, if not actual combat*, but the mole hunt was intended to allow the softer powers to come to the fore: telepathy, mind reading, etc. There are a couple of characters in particular who were built around those softer abilities.

And those characters are always available, since we play with all characters at all times (if only to keep the experience levels consistent), but the players for those characters were not.

This is where side quests come in handy: an urgent call to action for the group on an investigation not directly related to the main action. In this particular case it was to the site of a flame-drawn instance of the taloned fist symbol which they have seen a few times around Portland when the bad guys come calling, but this one was out past The Dalles, burning in the centre of the replica Stonehenge** at Maryhill. The source of this burning fist turned out to be a copycat group rather than the actual bad guys, but it allowed a few things:

  1. it postponed the need to make central use of characters whose players were unable to attend
  2. it provided more evidence of the presence of the mole
  3. it gave me more hooks to hang later story from***

If you can manage it, it’s a good idea to have this kind of short form story in your back pocket at all times. That’s my intent now, anyway.

Sandbox It

One of the criticisms that has been leveled at this campaign is that it is too linear, and I think that is fair. I am portraying a narrative progression which the PCs are a part of, and that narrative produces a linear storytelling style.

But the mole hunt was something framed rather than planned: I knew who the mole was and I had mapped out triggers for what the mole would do at which point, but I did not write much about the hunt itself. The intent was to setup a sandbox which the players could play in.

As always, my players surprised me.

Plans Don’t Always Work

As I said, I had triggers in the setting for what the mole would do and when. Unfortunately, I failed to take account of both the players’ paranoia and tactical acumen****.

So, I triggered the mole’s escape plan after the final action to be taken. He got to the lift, but I omitted to block the stairs which meant that the super-fast characters got to the lobby long before the mole. I had an ace up my sleeve with an invisible character waiting to assault the PCs that were attacking the mole, but fundamentally the mole was utterly useless in a fight.

The upshot was that the mole was captured rather than getting away. This was not the outcome I was looking for.

Instead I have more opportunities for story, so although the session did not go as intended I think it will end up being more satisfying.

[*] the combat system in most games is really about imposing temporal structure on a situation, so you drop into combat rounds in any time-critical situation. It may involve combat, or it may just be that you need to know exactly when the landslide happens and who happens to be in the way at the time.

[**] yes, really. The existence of this replica surprised me when I first heard of it, but it’s actually rather good fun. At least you can walk around inside it, unlike the actual Stonehenge in Wiltshire.

[***] specifics, perhaps, at a later date when those stories have been played through.

[****] I don’t especially enjoy combat in roleplaying games, partly because it tends to be a very time-consuming endeavor and partly because I am not very good at it. I’m also not very good at chess.

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Dawn Again

a new dawn

a new dawn

The roleplaying campaign I’ve been writing and running called A New Dawn wrapped up its second story arc on the first day of November. I am still enjoying running this game a great deal, and the players have been putting in a great set of performances. Good game!

I’m not going to talk about the plot here, but I did want to raise a couple of storytelling points.

Don’t be a slave to the source material

As writers, we draw inspiration from many sources and in an effort at verisimilitude will often drop in specifics taken directly from a source. But the world we are writing in isn’t the same as the source* – it is all right to make changes.

A New Dawn is set where I live in Portland which makes both for a rich set of story opportunities and a lot of setting detail without much work. However, I have made changes to advance the story. For example, in the kerfuffle in Pioneer Courthouse Square, the scale and layout of the square itself was accurate, but the buildings around it had rather more billboards and antennae than are present in the real Portland (all the better to topple onto innocent bystanders). Similarly, if you are drawing inspiration from myth or traditions of magic, there is nothing wrong with changing details that will serve the story better.

It’s your world – make it yours.

Leave a ragged edge

This is a point that applies to the writer and the audience.

For the writer, finish a writing session in the middle of a chapter, or scene, or even a sentence – as long as the work is picked up again fairly quickly, it can make it easier to start writing at the next session. You dam the flow while it is still running, which makes the flow easier to restart once the headwaters have been replenished.

For the audience, leaving an unresolved question makes them want to come back. In A New Dawn (and as recommended in many of the source books for Savage Worlds, the system we play with), this has been manifested as cliffhangers at the end of the session: the PCs walk out of the door to witness a bank robbery going on, or the session ends with one of the characters having been captured by the bad guys.

“Players hate capture scenarios”

Those were the closing words from one of my players as I triggered what looked like a capture scenario at the end of the last session.

The cliff-hanger the last game session closed on was with the PCs having cleared out a hideout: hostile weapon systems neutralized, and so on. A surprise NPC attacked tthe he PCs with a gizmo. The fear expressed from a player whose character was previously captured is that now it is the entire party which is captured rather than just one member of it.

Well, obviously I’m not going to go into plot details of what happens next, but the thing about this fear is that it engages the audience. If you put your MC in jeopardy, the reader will (as long as the MC is someone they care about) want to see what happens next – commiserate with the MC’s loss, or celebrate as the MC escapes with a single bound.

Right, back to plotting the next arc.

[*] usually.

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A New Dawn: storytelling variations

dice-and-chipI am still running A New Dawn, the superhumans game I started with my roleplaying group in June. It’s just restarted after a couple of months’ hiatus, and I wanted to talk about a couple of novel elements in the most recent session.

Presenting A Prologue

“Show don’t tell” is some of the most repeated advice for writers. It captures the balance to be struck between exposition and demonstration: telling the reader what is happening, or showing the reader what the effect is.

The parallel in roleplaying is the choice between narration and playing it out. The narration can be player-guided or not, but if you have story happening which is not on stage then that’s narration – it doesn’t engage the players as much because they’re not as invested in the outcome, but it also moves the story on a lot faster. Roleplaying everything out takes a long time.

The way the story has developed in A New Dawn led to an interesting situation. One of the PCs had separated himself from the group and gone off investigating on his own – without telling anyone where he was going. Sanity being a fragile thing, this PC entered into a mental twilight upon exposure to unexpected horrors.

So we had a character captured by the bad guys, and no one in-game knowing where he was.

Playing out the scene didn’t seem very likely since insane characters are hard to play, and there wasn’t really a lot that the PC could actually do: he was physically out-matched, and his captors were… well, let’s just say unsympathetic.

On the other hand, resolving the situation just through narration seemed unsatisfactory. Something more engaging was required.

The approach I took was to use narration, but narration in which the captured character’s player could participate: I wrote a short scripted episode, with me playing the bad guys and the player reading his own character’s words. The scene faded to black, and the story picked up when the group next met.

I’ve used this scripted scene approach before, of course, with the Animal Agents stories I’ve been running for my kids. This was a different situation, but at least allowed the story to move on (or accrete more mystery…) without taking an hour of solo roleplaying to resolve.

A Chance To Be Heroes

A pretty common structure in roleplaying games (and TV shows) is Monster of the Week – the PCs get something to fight to resolve the situation.

The setting we’re playing is not quite as straightforward as that: the bad guys hide in the shadows, and they have already learned the lesson that direct confrontation between them and the PCs tend to end badly.

The PCs had agreed to a meeting in downtown Portland (yes, the game is set in Portland – I am that lazy) and it seemed that giving the PCs a chance to demonstrate their heroism would be useful.

In the game, Pioneer Courthouse Square was hosting the Beach In The City* event when the PCs were there. The square was crowded. The PCs met at Starbucks and tried to sort through what they knew. The PC who had been captured had been released but his memory interfered with, so he at least was interested in finding out what exactly had happened.

That was when the beach event display systems were hijacked to display a disturbing and threatening piece of computer animation. Once that had run its course, a billboard started to fall, followed by radio aerials and other high structures which would severely damage anyone they happened to land on.

The PCs swung into action, looking in vain for an opponent to chastise for this outrage, but none could be found – because there wasn’t one. The structures were all set to drop using carefully placed explosives and remote detonators. All the PCs could do was to mitigate the collapse, and shepherd the crowd from the square – a task which the group accomplished handily.

But there was no villain on-scene – no one to thump. This idea of protecting the populace from something which cannot be stopped is something that turns up in superhero comics and science fiction quite regularly but it’s not something I’ve played through very often. I thought it was an interesting way to have the characters act, and for me it was also a nice change to not have to think tactically in a combat situation.

Are there any unusual narrative techniques you’ve used in your games?

[*] modelled on a real event where there are mounds of sand sculpted into various elaborate dioramas. It’s pretty cool.

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