A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.

Review: Deep Carbon Observatory

Deep Carbon Observatory is an adventure by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess. I bought it the day it was announced because it’s an adventure by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess. I’ve been reading it on and off while also reading the adventure found in the D&D 5th Edition Starter Set. The contrast between the two adventures is so stark.

Gus has written a thorough review of the nuts and bolts of the module. My opinions more or less mirror his so I’m not sure it’s worth repeating them in too much detail. Instead I will say this one thing: Deep Carbon Observatory is wonderfully written.

The sight is without sound and stinks like an airless tomb burning in the light of an unwanted sun. But, in the silence, movement worms. The whole place has the feel of a terrible revealing. Like a black sheet pulled back from a naked corpse.

Deep Carbon Observatory is thoroughly unrelenting its bleakness. There is a sadness that permeates the whole work. The players march towards the observatory passing all sorts of horror on their way.

The Roc’s bowed wings make a beautiful but alien bridge across the churning water. The body of the bird twitches slightly, devoured by whatever lies beneath. Looking down, you see leeches, sized like men, feeding on the bird. Not yet fully dead its head lolls half sunken and gasps. The ‘bridge’ will be consumed in d4 hours. It may be possible to save the Roc. It will not be grateful if you do.

So much of the adventure makes me feel uncomfortable: there is this dread that builds and builds as you move from page to page in the book. These little vignettes all do a great job of showing the players the terrible aftermath of the flood, hopefully filling them with that same sort of dread as they play. The adventure feels like it would be at home in a Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign.

Things don’t get better when you make it to the Underdark.

Hidden under the dirt of the far wall are slave survival spells in a simple tongue, decipherable by any mage. All the spells count as level one, are not very powerful and can be cast without being noticed: Reduce Scars. Lessen Pain. Minimise Thirst. Hide Sorrow. Avoid Notice. Ease Grief.

Scrap Princess’ illustrations contribute to the overall tone of the book. I find her work is so frenzied and terrifying. Maybe that’s not the right word, but there is something about how she draws that I find really visceral. I don’t know anyone else that draws like her.

I own no other adventure like this one: I liked it a lot.

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D&D 5th Edition

I took a particularly long lunch today to go and pick up the new D&D Starter Set.1 I have been looking forward to grabbing it for quite some time now. It’s hard to believe that they announced 5th Edition over two years ago now. The boxed set contains the core rules you need to play the game, and an adventure that helps set the tone for the new edition and hopefully helps teach people how to DM a game. I haven’t ran a game since I was a little kid, so I’m thinking i’ll try and run this one.2

Today also saw the release of the first version of the Basic rules for 5th Edition. Wizards of the Coast decided to publish a subset of the players handbook for free, online as a PDF. What was particularly amazing is that the PDF isn’t behind some weird login form or any other nonsense. It’s just there for anyone who wants it. What’s not to love about that?

As I’ve mention before, I am pretty hyped about 5th Edition. They are off to a good start.

  1. It’s my birthday, so that seems fair. How many birthdays am I going to enjoy where there is some crazy D&D mega-event going on?

  2. Derek from Dungeons’ Master has a much better review of the starter set. (Of course he does.)

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Review: 4th Edition D&D

My friends and I played in a 4th Edition campaign that ran for 3 years, give or take. Once it came to a close I continued playing 4th Edition D&D at the Encounters public-play events organized by Wizards of the Coast. I thought I should write up my thoughts on 4th Edition as it quietly makes room for the 5th Edition of D&D.

When my friends and I started our 4th Edition game we had six players: two were brand new to role playing games, while four including myself had played previous versions of D&D. I don’t think any of us had played 3rd edition—I certainly hadn’t. Even those of us who were experienced gamers hadn’t played a game since high school—that was a long time ago.

When we first started playing 4th Edition I felt like the game had been greatly simplified. Pretty much any situation is decided by trying to roll as high as you can on a 20-sided dice. Situations are assigned difficulty classes (DCs), a number that needs to be beat on the roll of a d20, that indicates how tricky a task is to accomplish. Combat also works this way too. Armour is essentially a difficulty class as well. To hit someone in plate mail you need to beat their AC of 18 when you roll a d20 and add your bonuses. That’s right, no more negative AC! At first blush this made explaining the rules of the game simple: if you want to do anything contentious you just roll a d20. Still, initial gaming sessions were fairly slow going. Eventually it became clear that while some rule changes simplified the game, others added levels of complexity that didn’t exist before.

Character creation is a slow going process in 4th Edition. There are powers and feats to worry about, and lots of bonuses to track. I don’t know if I really noticed how much slower it was the first time I made my character: it was fun and exciting to be playing D&D again. After having to make characters several times for D&D Encounters that charm quickly wore off. I find making a 4th Edition character a giant pain in the ass without the 4th Edition character builder. Even with that tool making a new character takes way longer than I want it to. There is something refreshing about making a character for one of the older editions of the game. My generator spits one out in seconds, but doing it by hand is still quick. (The only real place for analysis paralysis is buying equipment.)

Combat, which felt a lot more open ended and free form in earlier rule books, had become a fair bit more structured in the new rule books. The use of miniatures is assumed, making the game feel a bit like Warhammer. There is a strong tactical combat element to D&D 4e. In my mind this is the biggest plus and minus of the edition. If you are not into the whole ‘combat as chess’ thing you’re going to find playing 4th Edition frustrating. Most gaming sessions with my friends would be spent slogging through combat. We might get through a couple fights in between some exploration on a given gaming night. Combat in 4th Edition is slow going at early levels, and only gets slower as characters level up. In my mind having such clear cut powers also discourages creative play. These explicit “moves” feel stifling. For each situation in combat there is often an optimal choice when it comes to doing damage or providing support. It’s rarely the case that going off script is that optimal choice.

Teaching someone how to play D&D using the 4th Edition rules is trickier than it needs to be because the rules for combat are so complex and nuanced. People need to think about combat advantage and flanking and all sorts of stuff that they might not have thought they needed to think about when they signed up to play pretend. That’s not to say this sort of thing doesn’t exist in older editions of the game, it’s just managed in a simpler loosey-goosey way. Combat comes up often enough in most games of D&D that this is problematic.

Eventually the warts in the game are all you see. I liked playing 4e with my friends, but in hindsight I think we’d have been better off just playing 2nd Edition, which we had grown up with. Of course, we’d probably not have started playing D&D again out of the blue if not for the new edition. For that reason alone I will always have a soft spot for 4th Edition: it’s what got me back into D&D.

Public-play games transitioned to play testing D&D Next, and on my own time I shifted to playing Original D&D. Both variations of the game felt like an improvement over 4th Edition. 5th Edition looks to have addressed my big complaints with 4th Edition: combat is much simpler and faster, and character creation is much simpler. 5th Edition takes the d20 rules from 4th Edition and simplifies them further. Depending on what bits and pieces from the play test they turn into 5th Edition, it may turn out to be the easiest version of D&D to teach and learn. I’m really looking forward to 5th Edition.

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The Spirit of the Rules

People discuss playing OD&D ‘by the book’ online, though I’m not completely sure what that means. There are so many holes in the rule books that any attempt to avoid “making stuff up” is doomed to fail. Original Dungeons and Dragons is more of a framework to build your own fantasy RPG than an RPG, as we might understand one today, in its own right. This laissez-faire attitude towards spelling everything out can be seen in the earlier source material for OD&D, Chainmail:

These rules may be treated as guide lines around which you can form a game that suits you. It is a good idea to amend the rules to allow for historical precedence or common sense — follow the spirit of the rules rather than the letter. — Chainmail, pg 8.

Making the game your own seems to have been a core tenant of early versions of role playing games that starts to get lost with AD&D. Gygax seems to have an about face when it comes to playing D&D the official way. It’s possible this comes out of a need for consistent rules for tournament games, or annoyance at people making up dumb rules and telling him about them in the letters sent to Dragon magazine.

One of the biggest differences between what one might call old-school and new-school gaming probably hinges on how you feel about house rules and a poorly spelled out ruleset. 3rd and 4th Edition are notable in just how verbose and exacting they are: very little of the core elements of the game are left up to the DMs discretion. Some people appreciate that with 3rd and 4th Edition their gaming experience will likely be consistent, at least with respect to the rules.

I’ve come to really enjoy the variety that comes out of playing old-school D&D. Everyone has their own rules for this and that. I enjoy all the subtle differences.

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20 Quick Questions for your Campaign Setting

I also wrote this up some time ago for a Carcosa campaign I may never run. Jeff Rients suggested 20 questions about your campaign setting that would provide just enough backstory that your players could figure out what’s up without needing some crazy info-dump they’ll just tune out anyways.

  1. What is the deal with my cleric’s religion?

    There are no clerics. Problem solved!

    There isn’t much proper religion to speak of in the world of Carcosa. Some people worship the Old Ones and their spawn, others ancient technology. No one is worshiping otherworldly benevolent beings. There are certainly no centralized religious organizations.

  2. Where can we go to buy standard equipment?

    Characters begin in the town of Invak. One can find most standard equipment for sale in the town in a large shop run by “the Infinite Keeper”. The Brown Men village of Jahar to the South may have other items that are trickier to track down. Trade caravans run between the two towns.

  3. Where can we go to get plate mail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?

    You are unlikely to find anyone in the region who knows how to produce plate mail, let alone the metal you would need to produce it. “The Ocean of Humility” in Invak may be able to fashion something out of leather. Most people have little idea how to fashion useful armour that fits people, let alone monsters.

  4. Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?

    The most evil of all the Purple Men, “the Icon of Judgment,” is known throughout the land for his mastery of sorcery. He rules a small village protected by advanced weaponry and battle armoured soldiers. The Old Ones yield to his will.

  5. Who is the greatest warrior in the land?

    You know of no greater soldier than “the Swift and Silent Beginning,” the leader of the Bone Men village Invak.

  6. Who is the richest person in the land?

    “The Icon of Judgment” is said to possess vast amounts of wealth.

  7. Where can we go to get some magical healing?

    Nowhere. Sorcery is only used for evil and wickedness.

  8. Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?

    The desert lotuses can heal the sick and dying. Of course, they can also kill you.

  9. Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?

    There are no traditional magic-users, and sorcerers are definitely not forming guilds: they are two busy harvesting each other for fuel for their spells.

  10. Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?

    “The Falling Flower” is a Desert Lotus Apothcary who lives in the village of Invak. He operates a small stall in the ex-slaves quarter of the town. He may be addicted to the lotuses he sells.

    The nearest sage you know of is “He of the Air,” who lives in Jahar.

  11. Where can I hire mercenaries?

    The town of Invak maintains an informal standing milita. Most of the men and women in the town have served. For a little money it won’t be hard to find people willing to have an adventure.

  12. Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?

    Most people consider magic wicked. You are best to hide any sorcerous tendencies you may have. On the other hand, no villagers are likely to complain about a person carrying a weapon: it’s rough out there.

  13. Which way to the nearest tavern?

    This Way to Death in Invak serves fermented drinks and is the place to go for all sorts of shadiness.

  14. What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?

    A large spherical hunter-killer robot stalks the wastes around Invak at night. No one knows who created it or for what purpose, but it has been stealing away men and women for as long as anyone can remember. Few have encountered the machine and lived to share their tales.

    “The Swift and Silent Beginning” will pay for proof of any killed slaver or spawn.

  15. Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?

    Occasionally a town and its leader may get bold and try to expand their reach or power: this rarely ends well for anyone involved. There are currently no large scale wars of note.

  16. How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?

    A castle of Orange Men to the North run a gladiatorial arena of sorts: there are no prizes and the winners of the games are fed to the Spawn of Shub-Niggurath the Orange Men worship as a god.

  17. Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?

    Maybe, but they are secret.

  18. What is there to eat around here?

    In Invak people subsist off the meats and eggs of the various lizards that make their home in the wastes, along with mushrooms and all sorts of strange roots. There is nothing good to eat anywhere.

  19. Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?

    The Elder Signs, rune inscribed stones that keep the Old Ones at bay, would probably be quite handy.

  20. Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?

    Few creatures are interested hoarding treasure on Carcosa besides the various races of Men. Of course, it’s not clear what anyone actually does with their piles of gold and jewels: Carcosa is a crap hole world with nothing good to buy.

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20 Quick Questions: Rules

I wrote this up some time ago for a Carcosa campaign I may never run. Brendan of Necropraxis suggested answering these questions as a way to help new players quickly get a sense of what’s up with your particular game of D&D. I haven’t ran a game since I was a little kid, but if I did it’d probably look like the sort of games I’ve been playing since I got back into old-school D&D.

  1. Ability scores generation method?

    3d6 in order, just like God intended.

  2. How are death and dying handled?

    If your hit points drop below or are equal to zero make a Save vs. Death Ray and Poison: success indicates your character is merely unconscious, completely incapacitated until they can get a full week of rest; failure indicates your character is oh-so dead. If you roll a natural 20 on your saving throw roll, your character not only survives, but is invigorated by his near death. In this case your character re-rolls their HP for the session.1

  3. What about raising the dead?

    The ancient snake-men may have had a ritual for raising the dead, though it is currently lost to the ages. Perhaps intrepid adventurers may uncover such a spell, though I am sure the costs to cast it would make death look like the better choice.

  4. How are replacement PCs handled?

    Roll up a new character and we will jam them into the game somehow. It’s handy to have henchmen for such a situation.

  5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else?

    Individual: roll a d6, high roll goes first, your dexterity score is used to break ties.

  6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?

    Yes: a 1 is always a miss, a 20 is always a hit and you deal the maximum damage for the attack.

  7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?

    Of course: helmets shall be splintered! 10% of hits that would damage a character will be to a character’s head. If the character is wearing a well made helmet it will shatter protecting them from the blow.

  8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?

    Yes, targets would be chosen at random when firing into the fray.

  9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?

    You will probably want to avoid some fights.

  10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no?

    Hells no: they are the worst.

  11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?

    Yes, but hopefully that won’t feel stupid. What’s the point of a Save vs. Death Ray if you don’t have death rays in your game?

  12. How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?

    Strictly! Bust out that spreadsheet, asshole.

  13. What’s required when my PC gains a level? Training? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?

    Leveling happens during down time. There is no need for special training.

  14. What do I get experience for?

    Finding treasure, killing monsters and terrible people, freeing slaves, stopping sorcerers, exploring the wilderness and anything else I can think of.

  15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?

    Description, mostly.

  16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?

    Yes, the more the merrier. Morale is handled using the obscure rules hidden within OD&D. When a morale check is required roll a 2d6, adjusted by a retainers loyalty, the higher the roll the better.

  17. How do I identify magic items?

    Characters may encounter ancient magical snake-men artifacts, or the great technologies of the Primordial Ones or the Great Race. Chances are nobody in Carcosa will know what’s up.

  18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?

    Sorry, no.

  19. Can I create magic items? When and how?

    It is possible, through some long lost terrible sorcerous ritual that’s probably not worth the trouble when you can just go hunting for laser guns.

  20. What about splitting the party?

    That never works out, right?

  1. The “Hulkamaniac” rule.

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One Page Dungeon

One Page Dungeon Flyer

The One Page Dungeon contest has been running for several years now. This year it is being organized by Mundi King, aka Random Wizard. He’s done a really great job of securing some sponsors and getting all the old contest entries online in one place. You should participate in this years contest. It looks like it’ll be the best one yet.

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Review: Scenic Dunnsmouth

Scenic Dunnsmouth by Zzarchov Kowolski was released a couple weeks ago. It seems to have been in the works for ages now. It’s a location based adventure taking place entirely in the mysterious town of Dunnsmouth. What sets it apart from modules of yore like Village of Hommlet, The Veiled Society or Against the Cult of the Reptile God is how its town is described: it’s generated randomly. Scenic Dunnsmouth is a book about how to make an adventure in scenic Dunnsmouth.

The module is broken up into several sections that outline the town and its inhabitants. You determine the contents of the town by rolling some dice, which will indicate the homes of families and perhaps other places of note. The NPCs that inhabit the town are determined by drawing from a deck of playing cards. As such, 52 families from 4 larger extended families have been described. This section of the book was very reminiscent of Village of Hommlet. Each home is described with a little detail, always mentioning where the jewelry is hidden, where weapons might be stored, and what the various family dynamics are within the home. Unlike Hommlet, the people of Dunnsmouth are a lot more twisted and terrible on the whole. The town may have some additional special locations or people present, depending on how the dice fall. There is a lot of variety in what might turn up. It’s all creepy and weird and in line with what you would expect from a module from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. When I tried generating a random town myself it took a little over 15 minutes.

During the generation of the town each home can become corrupt in some way I will skip discussing because that might be a spoiler. (Can you spoil a randomly generated adventure?) I will say that while none of the writing in the book is particularly gory or gratuitous, I found these extra descriptions hard to read because they were grossing me out in a way I didn’t think descriptions of ████-people would. Outlines of what the resident serial killer is getting up to also move the module firmly into LotFP territory.

The book itself is quite nice, similar to the recent softcover adventures from LotFP in its presentation: perfect bound, rough matte paper, etc. The interior art is two tone: the extra colour is used really well. Jez Gordon has done a wonderful job with the art and layout of this book. I had originally thought the layout of the NPC section was a bit spartan, with one family described per page, but it actually makes looking up who is part of the town a breeze. If you have the PDF you can also just print up the pages that pertain to your town. It’d be straight forward to generate your own mini-Dunnsmouth booklet. It’s nice to see some extra thought going into how these things are laid out: they aren’t just books, they are meant to be used to game with.

Scenic Dunnsmouth is a very strong release for LotFP. Along with Forgive Us, I think it really showcases how to run an RPG game in the ‘real’ world. If you have been waiting for someone to write a really creepy Village of Hommlet look no further. (Now we just need a randomly generated creepy moat house.)

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Review: Forgive Us

I really like Kelvin Green’s Forgive Us.1 The module is well written and looks like it’d be fun to play. The thing is, there are lots of adventures I could say that about. Almost everything LotFP puts out is well written, at the very least. In my mind what makes Forgive Us really stand out is its smart use of page layout and illustration to effectively present the adventure.

The early modules from TSR are pretty terrible when it comes to something you could use to actually run a game at a table. It’s insane how dense they are. I find them hard to read leisurely. I can’t imaging flipping through them in the middle of a gaming session.2 Lots of DMs I know re-write them to make them easier for play and to help them memorize the key parts of the adventures. Most adventures I buy today continue to ape design choices made in the 70s and 80s, by people who probably were constrained by the printing technology of the time and their own knowledge of graphic design.

Green on the other hand has clearly thought about what this adventure would look like printed in a book. There are no wasted two-page spreads. Maps for relevant sections of the adventure are presented alongside their keys. Each map is illustrated with a level of detail that lets Green avoid overly verbose room descriptions. The heavy lifting is done by the maps. That’s not to say the module is bereft of any words. There is still a fair amount of writing, but it’s more useful and interesting than tedious description. Each section of the lair is discussed at a high level, with a mix of pertinent backstory, information, and jokes.

So, all of that said, you’re probably wondering what the hell this adventure is about? Green summarizes things thusly:

Forgive Us is the main and largest adventure, and is the closest to a classic dungeon crawl. The dungeon in this case is the lair of a gang of thieves, abandoned after an unlucky encounter with mutant shape-changing monsters. Said mutant shape-changing monsters are still there when your players arrive. Although the format was inspired by the Marienburg articles in White Dwarf – back when it was good, etcetera – in terms of plot it’s more or less John Carpenter’s The Thing mixed in with John Carpenter’s Escape From New York; I hope one of your players is Kurt Russell.

Who doesn’t like the Thing? That’s a rhetorical question. The adventure is an exploratory puzzle. How you explore the lair is pretty open ended. Because much of it is locked up, part of the adventure will involve tracking down keys or breaking down doors. There aren’t too many monsters to encounter, and I think many could be avoided by smart players. The adventure feels very much at home under the LotFP umbrella.

Forgive us is the 2nd module I’ve received for participating in the LotFP crazy summer adventure kickstarter bonanza thing. Thus far I’ve been quite happy with the results. If you’re going to ship late, it helps that what you ship is really good.

  1. I should go back and look at my old reviews, because I suspect I say this about most everything I read. Whatever. This book is good.

  2. Yes, of course you have. You are made of stronger stuff, no doubt.

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Men and Magic

It’s read an RPG in public week. That’s how I live every week of my life. Nevertheless I grabbed the first booklet from my fancy Original D&D boxed set to read on the train yesterday.

I’ve read Men and Magic before, but my bootlegged PDFs don’t do an actual copy of the book justice. It’s nice to be able to read a nicely printed copy of the booklet. As I mentioned when discussing Pits & Perils, the Original D&D books are pretty charming. Here is how they describe that infamous 6th attribute, Charisma:

In addition [to its other uses] the charisma score is usable to decide such things as whether or not a witch capturing a player will turn him into a swine or keep him enchanted as a lover.

There are lots of gems like that scattered through out the book. It also has a great introduction.

These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity — your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination — the fascination of the game will tend to make participants find more and more time.

People often complain—rightly so, I suppose—that OD&D is incomplete. For someone like myself, who is revisiting the game knowing how to play its modern incarnations, this isn’t really that big an issue. I can fill in most holes in the game because I know how they were eventually filled in.

What is notable is that the creators of D&D were well aware that what they had published wasn’t ready to play out of the box, so to speak. There is an expectation from them that rules would be fleshed out by gaming groups. OD&D exists to help you build your own fantasy RPG.

We advise, however, that a campaign be begun slowly, following the steps outlined herein, so as to avoid becoming too bogged down with unfamiliar details at first. That way your campaign will build naturally, at the pace best suited to the referee and players, smoothing the way for all concerned. New details can be added and old “laws” altered so as to provide continually new and different situations. In addition, the players themselves will interact in such a way as to make the campaign variable and unique, and this is quite desirable.

This is also great advice on how to approach developing a long-running D&D game. There is definitely a meta-game to D&D which is all about the things you do to prepare to play D&D: drawing dungeons, making up NPCs, house rules, etc. (Games like How to Host a Dungeon take that meta-game and make it explicit.) It’s easy to get sucked into doing far more than is needed when it comes to this sort of prep work. The authors tell you upfront that you need to watch out!

I read Monsters and Treasure today. Tomorrow I’ll probably read The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures. If you haven’t read the original D&D books they are well worth checking out. I think they are by my favourite edition of the game.

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