RPG

This page lists the most recent journal entries related to role-playing games (RPG). There are some more pages on the related German page (Rollenspiele).

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2020-01-26 Collaborating on a setting

Wanderer Bill is wondering about a free and open source setting for role playing games.

Things I like about the idea:

  • collaborating means mutual inspiration
  • local geography, climate, weather, flora, fauna, culture, spirits, religious beliefs, and on and on
  • lots of non-player characters

But there are some major road blocks, I suspect. I use Hex Describe to generate mini-settings of 300 hexes each and I love the output. Sure, the maps could always use more details. But that would be a great framework, I think. If we all write entries on random tables, chances are that we are not going to need a lot of coordinating.

As I was cooperating with ktrey parker and J. Alan Henning, I noticed a problem: when it came to details, I felt often at odds. Like in all common creative endeavours that the products of our imagination, with no borders holding is back, no gravity holding us down, we’re starting to drift. Do we need a table of random trees? How can we make them relevant at the table? What about fifty landmarks that don’t quite fit the tone of how I imagined it to be? Somebody has to say that this is good and this needs editing, somebody needs to say that this level of details is useful and that level of detail is useless. Somebody has to say that these encounters are lame and those encounters are cool. It’s not easy. It needs a delicate hand, a charming voice.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff about this in the C4 chapter of Social Architecture by Pieter Hintjens. The part I want to focus on is optimistic merging which is programmer-talk for “accepting contributions without being 100% certain about them.” I tried hard to do this with Hex Describe. If this is going to be a collaborative project, then I need to be flexible. I’m going to add a circus even though I wasn’t too sure whether I wanted a circus. I’m going to add smiths selling little trinkets for weird prices even though I don’t know whether this is useful at the table. And then I’ll try to make these ideas my own. I want to love every part of this project. It’s not always easy, but that’s what I want from it. That’s what I’ll want from a setting we all work on.

Back to Wanderer Bill’s blog post, though. I guess I’m not quite the person to join such a project.

  1. I don’t like system neutral. I’d much prefer something like a B/X baseline. Maybe I’m silly, but to me it still makes a huge difference.
  2. I don’t think we need a common timeline. In that, I feel like most people in the old days didn’t actually know anything about the real timeline. The past was weird and full of myth. The people who had read the ancient books were spread all over the continent. There was no sense of history and I don’t think a setting needs it unless it’s key to some adventures. I don’t think that is required. I’ll concede that it’s good to agree on some common elements that existed in the past. For Hex Describe, for example, there’s often talk of “wight kingdoms”, a number of named wars, and so on. How long ago all this happened, doesn’t make a difference.
  3. A common spacial map: yes! That’s the part I like. Or do I? I think what I actually prefer is more mapping algorithms for Text Mapper and then I could just tell people to generate more stuff using the app. And every now and then people can pick a map and the results of all the random tables and polish it, make a beautiful PDF gazetteer and sell it on DriveThruRPG. Why not? Some people started working on it in 2019.

So... Yes, I’m interested – but my ideas are probably incompatible and I fear that most people have wildly differing views. I know that Gygaxian Democracy style community events have generated interested mini-settings in the past but I doubt that I would feel comfortable without a strong editing culture. Brainstorming is cool, but not enough.

I wonder where I would take it, if I were to try and orchestrate something... I guess I still think random tables would be more interesting than working on just a single document. Thus, I’d like to collaborate on extending Hex Describe. We could start with a fresh list of terrains. Start working on villages and towns; monster lairs; vistas (to pick something I saw in a post by Jens D. on the Disoriented Ranger blog: The Map is not the Territory - Part 4), and so on.

Or we could start smaller: maybe you just want to make frogling lairs more interesting. Or add badger people. Where would they live? How would we describe their lairs? What would they make? Who would they associate with? What could players learn by talking to them? And slowly the tables would grow and grow.

This way, the setting grows from the bottom up. The text is always focused on the information the referee needs when running the game. And thus, there is a map, there are non-player characters, monsters, treasure, factions, maps of buildings or dungeons, pictures of people and descriptions vistas, but there is no timeline, to high-level political description, no essays on the various cultures: just the actual people, their actual villages, the actual foods they are preparing, the dances they are performing. The essay you might have wanted to write has turned into random tables generating an endless plethora of material for play.

I guess I want there to be something like Yoon-Suin for a gazillion landscapes and cultures.

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Now I’m reading The formless wilderness by Melan, following a link from The Map is not the Territory - Part 1 by Jens D. This is going to be a long night, I can tell.

The Map is not the Territory - Part 2 by Jens D. makes some interesting points.

The first one is considering the utility of a map for players:

“... imagine yourself in the middle of a forest without a map. What are your options, what is it you can do to get around, etc., etc. ... Now imagine yourself with a map. What would change? What is it you can do now? How does the map relate to what is surrounding you? Your options change, but not as much as one would actually think. As a matter of fact, if you don’t know where you are or how to work a map, it might end up being useless to have a map, right? And now imagine the players having a map without the characters having one ... that’s the discrepancy I’m talking about.” – Jens D.

The second one is considering the normative influence maps have on our imagination.

The first example given is that a map implicitly also defines all there is. Once you have a map, you can look at it and find this and that and the other. But you cannot find the things that aren’t on the map. In fact, it gets harder to think of the things not on the map if you have a map. This is true for both players and referees.

The second example given is that a map implicitly structures our imagination. If we create maps that are easy to map (like the maps created by @gridmapper) then the dungeons will be easy to map. When you compare this with actual underground locations, real caverns, real tunnels that were dug by people and grew over time, then you’ll notice how hopelessly artificial it all is.

I’m not sure what to make of it. I like maps.

In terms of designing a setting, I guess I’d like there to be a bunch of local maps and no clear way of getting from one place to another. Like, Hannibal moves from Carthage to Rome via Spain, France and Switzerland. The movie doesn’t show us how he moves on the map. The movie would show us the Spanish landscape, the Pyrenees, the French landscape, the crossing of the Rhône river, the Alps, the Po river, and on and on. We could have a setting map in Catalonia, one in the Alps, one in the Italian plains, and so on.

Everything else is white space, a gap, a lacuna, the unknown. Our vision of the land would be fragmentary, and we’d keep it that way. Any larger maps would simply be in-game guesswork.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-26

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2020-01-24 How much mapping is actually required?

Hex Describe sometimes generates “dungeons” or “lairs” that basically consist of multiple “rooms” or “zones” with residents. On the first screenshot you can see how I stuck a Set temple description into my notebook. It consists of the following zones:

  • the gate of snakes with 26 snake people and two giant lizards
  • the central temple without any monsters
  • quarters with 23 snake people and one giant lizard
  • the lair of the spirit naga

I feel this more or less linear arrangement has about the complexity of the Thulsa Doom dungeon in the Conan movie.

The question is: does adding a map help the referee run the game?

I just spent some time drawing a map. It doesn’t add too much complexity, I feel. Giant lizards are kept in stables and have extra gates... that’s it, I guess?

I’m not convinced that these kinds of dungeons need elaborate maps. They need a short key that delivers the necessary punch.

Image 1 for 2020-01-24 How much mapping is actually required?

Image 2 for 2020-01-24 How much mapping is actually required?

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There was a reply over on The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms. I said:

I agree about the multiple exits. Furniture? It depends. Would one kitchen improvisation really differ from another? Many details only need mapping if their spacial arrangement is important for the game and non-trivial to improvise. But that gets me into another problem: at the end of the day I’m going to use words to describe the rooms to my players and if I can’t put it into words on the screen then chances are I won’t be able to it into words at the table. That’s why I’m drifting towards ever simpler layouts.

Some of the thoughts I had regarding maps were due to me wondering what I should add to the Gridmapper bot – do I really need to add pillars and chests and beds and tables and shelves? It would look nicer for sure. But would it be more useful?

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-25 11:44 UTC


I think I agree with your assertion that for simple layouts maps are unnecessary. In my experience, even with more complicated layouts, it’s easier to run off a flow-chart diagram than an actual map.

Beyond necessity though, I find maps to be one of the pleasurable pieces of the D&D experience (like the act of rolling physical dice). Not necessary per se, but part of the fun. I like looking at maps just like I like looking at pictures of monsters.

I think where maps add the most, is when they are player facing. You can convey a fair amount of flavor with a well drawn map. Plus, it gives players something to focus on, and, at least for my players, really speeds up the adjudication of where everyone is relative to everything else.

deadtreenoshelter 2020-01-25 19:22 UTC


Yes! Absolutely, maps as artefacts for players to have and to hold!

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-25 21:57 UTC


A lot of my maps these days are more scribbles and flowchart like. Whatever their quality, my player groups have generally found maps, even of simple situations, to be of use. Good text and word pictures are useful, and help, and may be enough sometimes, but I’ve never found a good diagram (which is often all a map is, really) to be surplus to requirements.

– Alistair 2020-01-26 13:23 UTC


Yes, I agree. If the map is basically a flow-chart that provides information that you can’t achieve by using a bunch of bold words in a text, then it’s definitely not superfluous.

I think my point still stands regarding room geometries. Back in 2017 I wrote a blog post about dungeon mapping and I said: “If I can’t communicate it at the table in a reasonable amount of time, it’s a waste of time.”

I also quoted Noisms who made the following point in Elementary Principles of Dungeon Drawing: “Snazzy weird shapes and arrangements of rooms look good on paper but in my experience are really hard to explain at the table without ending up with the DM doing lots of drawing, which defeats the purpose of having players do the mapping.”

Once we drop mapping the details, I agree that maps can be useful.

Back in the same year I also wrote about the purpose of a map and focused on wilderness maps. It can’t really be reduced to a pithy point. I end the post with a list of questions:

  • Are the distances important in my game?
  • Is the terrain important in your game?
  • Are rivers and mountain ranges important obstacles?
  • Are the locations mines, pastures, or forests important assets?
  • Is the distribution of settlements important in terms of politics?
  • Is there an opportunity to get lost, take risky short cuts, claim unsettled terrain?

I guess I just want people to make a conscious choice regarding the mapping they do. Not everybody needs to draw maps like Dyson Logos or Paratime Design. Not everybody needs to draw the kinds of maps you see on the Cartographers’ Guild.

I guess when I draw beautiful maps, it’s just to entertain myself. It’s something I do to get into the mood as I prep for an upcoming game. It gets me in the right head space. But I doubt that it is useful beyond that.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-26 15:23 UTC

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2020-01-21 Blog finds

Ten art treasures I liked: Unique Treasures by Ezra Bloom.

To be honest though I just roll 3d6x100 for jewelry and adlib something about earrings, necklaces, cultures, gems and what not. Works well enough for a handful of items but not for dozens – but in that case I fear players wouldn’t care either.

Many weird swords that you can replace your +1 swords with, from the DW Discord: 42 magic swords.

A series of blog posts by Frylock starting with this one talking about copyright and stat block copyright and Wizards of the Coast and D&D.

A fantastic map I found via the links on the Thought Eater Humpday summary of blog post. Beautiful! I don’t think I need yet another map to run a campaign, but even I don’t need it, it’s beautiful. So beautiful!

Under Gallax Hall - Level 3 - Old Gallax Hall. Gridmapper is still getting used! That makes me so happy.

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2020-01-20 Bugbears are cat people

I just learned about tabaxi (D&D 5E cat people) as I was reading 6th Edition Dungeons & Dragons by Jack Guignol. I’ve been using bugbears as cat people in my game, thinking of them as perfect thieves – like the Khajiit in Skyrim. Bugbears work well in my system because the 5-in-6 chance of surprise can be extended to all thieving activities and a human thief needs to attain level 9 before their thieving skills are at 5-in-6 (2-in-6 at first, 3-in-6 @ 3rd, 4-in-6 @ 6th, 5-in-6 @ 9th level).

Last session the part did run into three bugbears who kidnapped a party member (a retainer) while on watch, and were very hard to track – basically requiring reconnaissance by the player character that has taken over a dragon. For a few minutes I was inspired by the Futility Closet episode about The Mad Trapper of Rat River. If you prefer reading: Albert Johnson, “The Mad Trapper of Rat River” in The Canadian Encyclopedia.

page 11, bottom

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I have been using Bugbears as my assassin/enforcer forces for my continent as well. I will admit that I changed their (9 fold) alignment to get them more in line with this role. My players seem to have fun with them like this. They are willing to talk so now the party has a couple of inroads to the place they are traveling to.

PresGas 2020-01-21 01:33 UTC


If they are cats, they are big fat chonky cats! Love it!

RogerGS 2020-01-21 06:21 UTC


I love image searching all this stuff. So much visual inspiration!

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-21 06:40 UTC

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2020-01-19 Not designing for level gain

When I read A tuneable method for placing treasure in BX by robdalexander I wondered: why don’t I ever think about these things?

Procedures to calculate how much treasure to place in adventures in order to guarantee level-up at opportune times is something product designers might have to keep in mind. Designing an adventure such that a certain amount of levelling up happens per timespan played... I don’t know. That is complicated, error prone, and I don’t think that this is how I want to play as a player.

Sure, I’ve been in groups where the players complain when no great treasure is found session after session as we are pushed back by infected goblins and tough fire giants. But to me, that is great: it tells me that we haven’t tried hard enough, or that we bit off a chunk to big to chew. We lacked preparation, scouting, grit, or suicidal tendencies. I like it.

Conversely, in my own games, people advance slowly, clawing their way up to level three, and then suddenly – BAM! – there is a golden barge worth 50,000 gold, or they defeat a dragon that happens to have around 90,000 gold in gems and jewels. It happens. To me, this is the variable reinforcement schedule with a proven track record in slot machines and other games of luck: it’s more exciting, it makes you want to come back. The joy of hitting Jackpot is sweet because the dry spell is desolation.

Anyway, back to the blog post: I do think that the criticism about modules lacking enough treasure can be handled without taking the hours played into account. The buyer of a product only wants to know for what level range the product is, and how many levels could be gained by exploring it. That gives you the total treasure to distribute in your product (plus a 50% margin or so). They can be quick or slow about it, but you as the designer have figured out that the treasure can be recovered by a party of the appropriate level and you’ve placed enough treasure to make sure that they will gain the expected levels. All the requirements of consumerism have been fulfilled. 🙈 😁

Courtney has some good posts on treasure and all that. The following two come to mind, for example:

There’s plenty more: check out the index, and the treasure tag.

Personally, I think I’m still going to roll on those random tables:

A simple way to do this is to follow the rules regarding dungeon levels, monsters encountered and the treasure types they have. As for myself, I’ve been tinkering with the monster descriptions, the numbers encountered, the treasure types, and I don’t usually have big dungeons – but that just means that I need to telegraph potential risks and rewards by other means: describe the landscape such that players now that they’re in dire straits; describe the monsters such that the players know whether they’re going to be pushovers or not; describe the signs of wealth or poverty before players rush in...

Then again, I do like reading how other people prep their games. And robdalexander is absolutely right when saying in Why bother having prep procedures?:

Related to that, explicit prep methods make it easier to teach good prep. If every new GM (or new-to-BX GM) has to feel their way to good treasure placement, then that’s a lot of learning work. If they can use a method to do it, at least initially while they’re finding their feet, they can spare their learning effort for something we can’t mechanise (e.g. making good rulings in a BX context).

I totally agree with that. It just happens that I don’t like crunching the numbers and doubt that a game that basically works is easier refined in play than redesigned. Tinkering with the elements of the game the way I did it was the way I enjoyed tinkering: at the table, informed by the events at the table. But I can only speak for myself when it comes to that.

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I think pacing treasure/xp should be talked about more, because whenever there’s something experienced referees “just know” that others might not the game is prone to devolve in response to a misunderstood problem.

I like xp for gold. And I would bet that the reason modern games tend to use other systems even when they suffer for it (like incentivizing killing everything) is because there are better guidelines for number of encounters etc than for treasures.

Olav 2020-01-19 22:55 UTC


Yes, we definitely should talk more about treasure and XP. If we spell things out, we make it easier for others to accept or reject the conclusions, or tinker with them.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-20 07:39 UTC

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2020-01-12 Hew Crawl Link

This is great:

The Hex Crawl, from “a blog for practical advice, turn-key resources, tips, and examples of how to run a roleplaying game.”

So you’ve heard about this thing called a Hex Crawl. What is it? Why should it interest you if you’re not an “OSR” fan?

I liked it.

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2020-01-09 Everybody against everybody else...

Norbert G. Matausch wonders: Static vs. dynamic: how old is your game? The idea is that in a fight, the two opponents roll simultaneously and the winner hurts the loser. I wondered how this would work in a fight with more combatants.

How about this:

All combatants in melee roll their attack and deal damage to anybody they beat.

That would explain why mooks don’t dare fight big shots... it would also make sense to have long “rounds” because it’s basically everybody tries to cut everybody else and then we all take a step back and see who falls...

I guess we can roll morale checks after every round, now!

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That’s interesting! I was familiar with the simultaneous roll mechanic from gamebooks, where it was likely popular because it cuts down on dice rolls. I added it as a variant combat rule to Battles&Balances after using it successfully in The Fairy’s Throne, then used it again in Keep of the Mad Wizard, with just as much success.

As for your suggestion, I briefly considered a similar system where everyone picks an opponent then rolls for attack. All combatants act in descending order of their rolls (so the attack roll doubles as initiative). If you beat the chosen opponent’s roll, then you deal damage and interrupt them. Which of course falls apart for one-on-many battles.

But I never got to test this idea anyway. And your version sounds better.

Felix 2020-01-10 12:40 UTC


Maybe if one day I switch to an even simpler 2d6 based rule system.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-10 16:29 UTC


Hey, that’s exactly the way we’re playing it!

Norbert 2020-01-10 21:17 UTC


Excellent. 🙂

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-10 22:34 UTC


A 2d6 system would be the gamebook way, yes. Tried to design one of those just recently in fact. Ended up with another dice pool system, except with fewer dice and success counting. Oh well.

Felix 2020-01-11 09:16 UTC

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2020-01-08 Boneless magic

I finished another spellcaster for my Spellcasters project: Lem. It started with thoughts on squids and having no bones, on maybe having multiple arms, but then I started thinking about madness and mindflayers, as I am wont to do. When I started writing about Lem’s lair (that’s the introduction at the beginning which I can use to make sure every spellcaster gets a two page spread) it went to dark places… Maybe I should change that. People have joked that old school D&D is starting out thinking it’s a D&D campaign and then realising that actually it’s a Call of Cthulhu campaign and that you are totally unprepared. I prefer thinking of this as a joke. I remember once when I was a teenager the game had body horror and gore and my players told me afterwards that I should tone it down. Little did I know about X-Cards or Lines and Veils.

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2020-01-08 Another hex map generator

I was looking at a GitHub repository for Generative Art and saw a hex map listed. As it turns out, there’s a separate repository for these: Hex Map.

If you like Python, perhaps it’s something for you?

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2020-01-05 Spellcasters and Spell Lists

Every now and then, people wonder whether there’s some magic system out there that could supplant the so-called Vancian system: have some spells you know, have some spell slots, cast spells until you’re “out of spells” and then wait for the next day, in game.

The variations I like work within these confines: I liked D&D 3.5 sorcerers, for example: they knew a limited number of spells but didn’t have to choose any before using them. The “repertoire” of spells used in ACKS works the same way, and I’m using the same for Halberds & Helmets.

Repertoire: The list of spells in your spell book make up your repertoire. It’s size is determined by your level. The table below shows the maximum number of spells in your repertoire and the number of spells you can cast per day. You regain your spell casting powers after a good night’s sleep at the dawn of day.

Level1st2nd3rd4th5th
11
22
321
422
5221
6222
73221
83322
933321
1033332

So, as a second level elf you have two spells (”of the first circle”) in your repertoire, and you can cast two spells (”of the first circle”) per day, without having to pick anything ahead of time. The drawback is that you can neither cast more spells per day nor can you learn more than given by the limits in the table above. If you want to learn a spell without gaining a level, you need to lose one of your existing spells in your repertoire. And you always need a mentor to teach you new spells.

I find this works well at the table.

  • There’s no paralysis as the players of magic users can’t decide which spells to pick.
  • There’s specialisation as magic users only have a limited selection at their disposal. Every magic user feels different.
  • Having to find teachers for new spells encourages them to take note of who is who in the world. It automatically makes all magic users and elves potential quest givers as they ask for favours before teaching new spells.

In contrast, when I tried to use a magic words system in the past, it didn’t quite work: I was trying to go back to the old Schwertmeister system where player characters discover magic rune stones and can combine them in a triangle, one for medium, one for the means, and one for the target, except simpler. I thought: have some runes; tell me what spells you improvise on the spot and it will be great! Sadly, it also put a lot of pressure on players in a fast paced, immersive game where I don’t too much meta discussion about the game and the mechanics. Incidentally, that’s also what I don’t like about very light magic systems like the ones I saw in Burning Wheel and Barbarians of Lemuria. I mean, I like rulings, a “short negotiation”.

I propose how this is going to fall out and there’s a little moment of silence where players can interject or propose a different ruling until we’re all as happy as can be, and play proceeds.

But I don’t want to have this sort of discussion for every single spell being cast. Is power level two or three more appropriate? How about we figure it out and write it down? And then we write it down for the next spell, too. And for the one after that. Well, actually, now that we’re doing that, how about going back to those old spell lists. It works!

Yes, it’s less “mysterious”. But it works. I guess “spellburn” allows magic users and elves to cast more spells at the risk of permanently reducing their ability scores, and that fits well with some of the literature. I’d be willing to try it. Back when I was trying to run M20, however, where hit points also doubled as mana points and so casting spells simply drained hit points, my players were not amused. So I have the lingering feeling that this is great for short character arcs but less interesting for campaigns fifty sessions long.

Anyway... I still love good ol’ spell lists! I like Gavin Norman’s Theorems & Thaumaturgy. I like Nathan E. Irving’s The Basic Illusionist. And Ancient Vaults & Eldritch Secrets as been posting new spells since 2009! 😀

And I’ve been working on my own spells, too. I’ve been organising my Spellcasters document as a list of individual magic users and elves with their spell books, each with more or less unique spells (but in practice of course many of them also share such classics as charm person or sleep). In a game were casters need teachers, the magic users and elves in the book can act as such. Or perhaps they can simply be interesting non-player characters in your campaigns. Let me know if you ever use one of them! 😁

These last few days I’ve been working my documents:

  • the title page now has a date 😇
  • there is an EPUB edition
  • there is a simple list of spells, too
  • there is an EPUB edition of this list as well
  • and all the casters are still available as individual PDF files

You can find all of this in the download section.

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Do you refer to first or revised edition of Theorems and Thaumaturgy?

– K Yani 2020-01-05 19:08 UTC


I think for the purpose of this argument it doesn’t really matter. The one I know best is the first one, though.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-05 20:16 UTC


I am asking because on DriveThru storepage one review mentions that some part(s) is/are removed in Revised edition.

– K Yani 2020-01-06 11:38 UTC


That is true. Contact me via email and send you a copy. 😀

– Alex Schroeder 2020-01-06 14:58 UTC

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