Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Against the Giants Review: Keep on the Borderlands

"But I need bands out there wanting to make the perfect album, wanting to piss in the face of every Reign in Blood, every Paranoid, every Master of Puppets. Wanting to fuck metal up the ass rather than the other way around. And while I'd like to know there were hundreds of bands like this, I'll settle for hoping there are four or five."

"Much of my appreciation for metal is based around conveniently ignoring lots of things."

(these quotes from two different authors, taken from METAL #2: Reborn Through Hate, published 2001)

The laws that govern metal also govern RPGs, and thinking about metal leads to revelations about RPGs.

Let's stop ignoring things for a few minutes. Let's take an attitude not of respect but of skepticism. Let's take some old things and dissect them a bit, poke around their insides, not to see where they are strong, but to see where they are weak. Let's see what we can learn that doesn't just repeat the methods of success, but will allow us to improve upon failures.

Let's stop chasing the perfection of the Daughter and deal the necessary violence to her brothers.

Keep on the Borderlands is one of the classic D&D modules. Everything that people recognize as D&D is captured in this adventure.

The good stuff, and the bad stuff.

The good stuff is great: You have a home base filled with potential for intrigue and interaction, you have the assumed adventuring area, wilderness in between, and room for customization and expansion. The setting is generic enough (none of the people have names!) that you can set this just about anywhere with a roughly medieval technology (defined by the presence of plate mail, catapults, pole arms) without culture being assumed. It fits just about every campaign's culture!

Awesome!

... except that it hard codes several other assumptions as well. It's unavoidable in a module (and perhaps desirable - the point of a module is packaging someone else's gaming for your table). It's particularly unavoidable in Gygax's work because he obviously loved to pile everything on... the monsters, the treasure, the magic. It's his style, and damned if he should change it, even for publication, to suit anyone.

That isn't the issue and it isn't the problem.

The problem happens when someone looks at a module and decides "This is what D&D is supposed to be!" Like it's the untoppable ultimate example of anything.

Keep on the Borderlands creates that impression both for marketing reasons (it was the first adventure for perhaps millions of people) and its in-many-ways (but not all ways!) superior design.

This is a beginning adventure. Designed to begin characters' adventuring careers and players' role-playing careers. And it's not a one-shot tournament design, it's designed to be both a mini-campaign in its own right as well as the springboard to an honest-to-goodness genuine ongoing long-term campaign.

There are 21 different monster types in the module.

This includes humans and does not count the generic random encounter charts given in the advice sections.

That actually doesn't sound so bad (my last play-through of the Keep took 5 sessions of play to complete, so we can do a bullshit calculation to average out to about 4 monster types per session). It does take the idea of "monster-infested caves" and crank it up to 11 (of course this cavern includes gray ooze, of course there's a random minotaur in the middle of this mini-society of humanoid mini-tribes), but most of it makes sense on the local level.

I mean, there are little stylistic bits I might quibble with (those bandits and lizard men seem awful close together in the wilderness, I'd drop one or the other, that sort of thing). But if you must have the minotaur, the fire beetles make sense otherwise there'd be a lot more predatory interaction between the minotaur and the rest than the adventure assumes, for one example.

But looking at the big picture, there's effectively an apartment complex of different creature types that doesn't make sense as a whole. It's kept together with chicken wire and duct tape. (quick, someone stat up a Duct Ape, right now!)

I would think that the Chaos Shrine wouldn't want to be so close to the humanoid creatures unless it had a master-slave relationship over what would be their troops... but that obviously isn't the case according to the the Tribal Alliances and Warfare section. It's too small of an area to handle all the infighting that obviously didn't begin the day before the PCs come into the picture, and those weaker humanoids who "hope to be forgotten by all" wouldn't live right next door to those who would presumably kill or enslave the weak, would they?

But it has to be a fractured environment or else the Caves aren't suitable for levels 1-3.

So there's a bit of a conflict there between gameability and... well, what? Showing off D&D's possibilities like it's a catalog listing?

I don't buy that people in 1978 were somehow less creative or easier marks for plain illogical concepts. I could buy that they were less jaded than fantasy and RPG fans are now, but with that assumption I would expect the situation to be reversed... "You know, those quaint 70s RPGers may have made do with two factions back then, but people have seen it all so now our 2010s Keep reboot needs 8 factions to keep people's interest!"

Of course, over-explanation is no good so going more in-depth about the relations between the factions is not the answer; it's boring and much of it gets glossed over or outright ignored in actual play, because who wants to read and internalize all that stuff? It's a bit of a conflict, but in this case the conflict can be solved by simplifying the whole thing and not having eight factions squeezed into a small ravine. Either cut some of the tribes (and thus decrease the number of different monster types) or don't make the Caves of Chaos be scrunched all together. Spread them out on that wilderness map. If the module could include maps of the guild and reprint charts from the basic rules, then it could have done this.

If things had been more spread out, it could still satisfy those who want their gonzo D&D while reinforcing the exploration aspects of the game (the module already expects/assumes PCs to poke around the wilderness and find things scattered within it), and at the same time those who want a bit more grounded approach wouldn't be forced to change details to have it all make sense, or hope PCs didn't ask inconvenient questions about it all...

Hindsight is, especially nearly three and a half decades on, 20/20, but Gygax had at least a half-decade of experience playing and running D&D at this point, had read far more fantasy and history by 1978 than the majority of people reading this blog post in 2011, not to mention all that keen game-logistics thinking he honed from being an avid wargamer. The art of module design may not have been mature in 1978 but Gygax himself was a mature and experienced gamer.

Oh, I forgot to mention...

There are 69 magical items found in Keep on the Borderlands.

(probably a few more, I likely missed a couple... bundles of magic arrows count as 1 item, as do scrolls no matter how many spells are on a particular scroll... and not counting all those amulets of turning resistance and protection from good medallions which would add dozens more to the number)

Even for a near half-dozen sessions of play, that's a fucking lot for what is assumed to be the start of a long term campaign, isn't it?

But that number doesn't begin to describe the situation.

The majority of the permanent (non-scroll/potion) magic items are in the Keep itself! Sure, that cuts down significantly on the amount of items the PCs are expected to gain for themselves, but what the hell?

I wonder if I did a treasure count if I'd find that there's more treasure in the Keep than outside it... oh hell, let's do some addition!

The Castellan's Chamber has nine magic items (one of which is so unimportant it is used as decoration) and 6200gp in treasure (not counting coins!).

But maybe he's just the example of what a successful adventurer can aspire to, and so a bad example of "The good stuff is already where it needs to be!" Fine.

The loan bank's vault has 26,965.5gp worth of treasure in it.

To compare, the entire Shrine of Evil Chaos complex has 18,504.34gp worth of treasure in it (assuming maximum values of coin in the Gelatinous Cube). The minotaur cave has 4,185gp in treasure, the gnoll cave has 1743.02 (again, assuming maximum values of coins), the bugbears 1797.8gp.

If you completely looted the four most difficult caves (which in D&D logic would carry the most treasure), you still wouldn't have as much treasure as the bank vault in the Keep, and the Castellan keeps as much treasure as any two caves not including the assumed final one.

Holy shitballs.

This is genius if you take the position that it creates a very open module where role reversal is possible and evil parties can ally with the humanoids and/or raid the Keep. Or if you assume some sort of corruption at high levels within the Keep. But neither of those are the intent at all. Proof of that is not only the printed background material, but also suggestion alliances with Keep authorities and giving PCs extra experience for destroying evil artifacts in the Shrine of Evil Chaos yet having no equivalent bonus for screwing around in the Keep. And good luck to a low level party assaulting a fortress with a unified garrison, even with 100 humanoids in tow.

So we have a very large fortified garrison (157 soldiers, many in plate mail, plus all the warhorses and catapults, and that's not counting the curate or others in the chapel, or those in the inn, or the merchants and their guards, or the lackeys and pages... just the armed garrison of the Keep) that's better organized, better equipped, is better protected, has more magic, and has more valuables than the evil critters out in the Caves of Chaos.

And fortresses like this aren't for hiding away and locking the door, they are for projecting power. Which Gygax knew well as a student of military history.

So what's the story of this squabbling collection of inhuman tribes so close to the Keep? Seriously, if a small group of adventurers who fell off the turnip truck yesterday are supposed to be able to conquer the Caves of Chaos with a series of clever incursions, how easy would it be for an organized, well-equipped force with high level characters on hand to just wipe all that shit out? The Castellan is "a very clever fellow, but at times he can be too hasty in his decisions," so why is there a single living thing left in the Caves?

It seems utterly ridiculous that a place out on the absolute fringes of civilization, expected to be an adventuring environment menaced by evil, would be so wealthy and this secure. What, then, must the heart of civilization be like? The areas where the evil forces of chaos aren't less than two miles down the road? How must it be when this armpit of a stronghold directly in harm's way is so filthy stinking rich and well-stocked?

So the PCs could clear out the Caves of Chaos, rid the wilderness of all the threats lurking there... and what will they have accomplished? They'll still be returning to the Keep which was never realistically in any danger to begin with, and any appreciation given by those in charge will be for just doing the job they couldn't be bothered with. All that loot they got still won't make them seem hot shit in the Keep because the place is overflowing with riches (yet I bet the rank and file soldier will resent them for taking their share of loot from when the Keep would have gotten around to dealing with the problem) and half the officers seem to be equipped with magic anyway so bully for you and your +1 doodad.

Shit, if that's all "gold and glory" is worth on the borderlands, might as well stay home and milk cows.

I would think the entire setting makes more sense, that the impetus for the PCs to act is much stronger, that it better matches the written background description and develops the atmosphere described in the module, if the Keep is weak and ill-equipped compared to the menace outside its walls.

... and here I should put some sort of summation or closing bit for all this, but frankly, I think I'm rather done with this...

29 comments:

  1. You're a bad man. A little piece of my childhood just died. Couldn't you have just kicked a puppy?

    Serious comments later. :P

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  2. I believe you have just proven why it is what D&D should be.

    It is a beginner's adventure with more shit than you can shake a stick at. Gygax threw too much in? Probably, but he gave choices. Not everyone used everything in that module.

    You have shown us an example of Gygax's intent; extrapolating elements and creatively putting them together in a way that makes sense to you in order to entertain your players.

    Sure, the Castellan has more money. He's probably a Sherrif of Nottingham type, allowing humanoid creatures to loot wayfarers and then have foolhardy adventurers go "collect" the loot and bring it back to the keep. Even if the adventurers only wind up spending it on weapons and gear, foodstuffs, taxes, etc.

    Nice post!

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  3. Dude, you have just unlocked the greatest secret of Red Box D&D...the Keep IS the objective of the game!

    The module is not called "The Caves of Chaos," it is called "The Keep on the Borderlands." Every single module in the history of TSR contains the title of the TARGET OBJECTIVE: the Tomb of Horrors, the Forbidden City, the Lost Shrine of Tamoachan, the Hidden Caverns of Tsojcanth, etc.

    It is clear that the pillaging of the Keep is indeed the objective of the module.

    Otherwise, why busy stocking it so? Why bother recording how many guards to each tower, their usual shifts/rest periods, the weak points (the officers routinely drunk at the tavern)? Why bother describing the workings of the Inner Bailey? I've run the Keep for years and no one has EVER gone into the Inner Bailey! Ever!

    That's like the Holy Grail of loot.

    Obviously, Gygax intended the Keep to be its own site based adventure. The Caves are just a "warm-up" (or perhaps a red herring) for the main event: the sacking of the Keep itself. Definitely the Castellan is the baddest "boss monster" in the game, and the Curate is a lot tougher than the Evil Priest of the Caves.

    Wow...NOW I know how to run this thing! Why should players troll for chump change in the goblin warrens when they can be knocking over the bank?

    Thanks James!
    : )

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    1. Not to nitpick, but other modules, Saltmarsh and Hommlett to name a couple, were not titled in honor of the conquest objective.

      It's a good point though, I think every group has at least toyed with the idea of sacking the keep, especially if role playing occurs within and the PCs earn enemies among the NPCs.

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  4. Perhaps KotB is Gygax's love letter to Ken St. Andre's Monsters!Monsters! game, a T&T variant first published in 1976, where the players play monsters trying to loot civilization.

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  5. It's proved awfully handy at various points in my DMing career to have a statted-out fortress. Change the "L" to "C" and you have a nice little bandit warlord capital.

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  6. I agree that the Caves of Chaos are highly unchaotic. They are basically a demihuman ghetto where poor monsters live shoulder to shoulder.

    The Caves need some magic to work.

    When I ran it I added a magic mist around the area that required a chaotic amulet to navigate. Players characters were lost until they clued in, and the amulet became a major proof of collaborators within the keep.

    I don't think many of the 'classic' modules could be run as is. I don't know whether we've grown more sophisticated as consumers or just gotten older and jaded, but that's my feeling.

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  7. Dude, no "spoilers" warning?!?!

    Great post though. And great comment from JB....

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  8. Is there something in the design of the dungeon that would be compromised if it were scattered along the wilderness? My gut tells me yes. There is something cool about standing in the middle of all these portals that lead to different parts of a dungeon. We'd lose that if they weren't in the same place or if the destination of the portals were empty because tribes were removed.

    As for treasure allocation, I wouldn't put too much stock in the background or suggested alliances. That it's there and statted is I think a stronger argument that it can be taken. The proportion of magic to regular treasure is a personal preference, although I think it's there to reward any type of approach to the Keep. If the players were to try to clean out every room of treasure, I think they'd end up dead, having alienated and pissed off every entity in the module.

    All that still makes little sense, but I'd rather trade off logic for fun. Is that one of the premises for D&D?

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  9. There are going to be a LOT of people who go to the mat for this module, but it's for one reason:

    They play/played it this way and like it.

    There are going to be a lot of people (like me) who will totally not go to the mat for this module, for basically one reason:

    They would prefer it to be a different way.

    You don't want to run a game with tons of magic items (neither do I ), I don't want to run a game with tons of underdifferentiated humanoids next to each other as the main opponents. I also don't want to run a game with an owlbear in it.

    As long as nobody pretends their idea about Keep is the "real" one or the "appropriate" one, or the one you'd "have to have if you have been playing as long as I have" or the one you'd "have to have if you knew anything about fun: it's all good.

    And, of course, pretty much the entire rest of RPG history (including LOTFP:WF) comes from people reading stuff like "Keep" and going "Nope, gonna do something different"

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  10. A few random thoughts:

    (1) The great thing about the Caves of Chaos as an introductory scenario (irrational as they may be or not) is that they immediately and forcibly demand that the PCs make a meaningful and substantial CHOICE. You enter that valley, you see a bunch of caves, and you have to CHOOSE which cave you're going to go into.

    This. Is. Huge.

    Most other introductory scenarios in the RPG industry lead the PCs around by the nose. (Either explicitly or by giving them a purely linear dungeon experience.) They probably do this because most introductory scenarios implicitly assume that new players are incompetent and can't be trusted. But here's B2 saying: "Fuck that. They may not have confidence yet. They may not have experience yet. But they are able to make goddamn CHOICES, and that's what roleplaying is all about. Let's show 'em that."

    (2) There may be more treasure in the Keep than in the Caves, but if the PCs loot a goodly portion of the Caves they'll still be hot shit. They may not be Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but they're still the local equivalent of multi-millionaires.

    I don't think it's a problem that the PCs aren't immediately Top o' the Entire World after their first adventure. Let's make 'em work for it a little.

    (3) The Keep isn't designed to be disposed of as soon as the Caves are dealt with. The module barely covers a single hex, IIRC. The Keep hasn't dedicated its forces to the Caves because, presumably, there are bigger and nastier threats out there and they can't ignore them or leave the castle unguarded.

    The module is meant to be a seed for a whole campaign, not a complete campaign in itself.

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  11. JB , I cannot believe you're treating this as a revelation !

    Sorry kids, we totally rinsed the Keep of it's dosh back in the day. We hated how the Castellan and his lackeys did not think we were important enough to be told their names so we Greyhawked the gaff. Why would you not ?

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  13. @Zak:

    Nope. Or, half-right.

    There's a lot of people on BOTH sides of the Borderlands.

    I played the module back in the day AND I did incorporated differences (if only for the fact that I knew other players had the same boxed set with the same module).

    I never believed in a motherload of magics. The undifferentiated humanoids were there for other reasons and were not the main opponents. I happen to like owlbears. :)

    There is no "real" Keep, etc. Everyone has their own and that's fine. Whatever kept the dice rolling for their own groups.

    I look at every module, kit, etc and say, "not bad, but let's do this with it..."

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  14. @Justin A: I had a group try and take over the Keep. Almost succeeded. Almost. Rather than prison, they were able to serve their time performing adventuring services for the Keep.

    Later, their reputation made them sought out by the rulers of the Yeomanry who wished them to set out after some local giants troubling them.

    They cleared out the giants and made the steading their new base of operations. There's just no stopping some determined players.

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  15. To Zak's point, I'm very much in the camp of people that grew up using the Moldvay Red Box, and the KOTB defined my aesthetic on how D&D should work, which was institutionalized in most of the TSR publications of the 70's and early 80's.

    You had one guy at TSR (Gary) who had a certain style of home play that became the de facto norm for anyone that used TSR as their guidepost.

    When I returned to D&D some year ago, it was out of nostalgia and recreating that lightweight, fun house experience of early D&D. It's only been the past year or so that I'm seeing the possibilities of taking D&D "seriously" and running campaigns with a higher degree of internal logic and consistency.

    Oh - and we always had adventures within the Keep when we ran it back in the day. Knocking over the bank, Butch and Sundance style, is de rigueur.

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  16. Aww man... next thing you are going to tell me is the goal of "Tomb of Horrors" is to bump off other high level PC's and their henchmen to thin out the field so your PC can gain more influence in the campaign afterward.

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  17. Well, obviously, all those mini-tribes living in the caves are all that's left of the humanoid tribes that used to run the area back when the Castellan just turned 9th level and built the keep. Of course he's got magic and coin to spare, he and his men looted it while clearing out his brand-spanking-new barony. The PCs are just there to mop up the dregs.

    Or loot the keep, 'cause why not.

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  18. There are people who DIDN'T come back from the Caves, level up, and then loot the Keep from the inside?

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  19. > Perhaps KotB is Gygax's love letter to Ken St. Andre's Monsters!Monsters! game, a T&T variant first published in 1976, where the players play monsters trying to loot civilization.

    +1!

    I'm currently running B2 for my daughter and nephew using T&T, whenever my nephew comes over. I never ran or played B2 before, and I found the things Raggi mentioned problematic too; but James Smith pointed me to Nicolas Dessaux's articles about the anthropology of the setting which were very helpful.

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  21. I only have one issue with the review, since all the points have merit.

    You praise the overall setting of the module, for having "a home base filled with potential for intrigue and interaction, you have the assumed adventuring area, wilderness in between, and room for customization and expansion. The setting is generic enough ... It fits just about every campaign's culture!" but then criticize the random and illogical presence of different factions in the Caves of Chaos.

    Two ways of looking at the problem, I guess.

    1 - If you're playing this as a standalone romping dungeon crawl, who cares? To quote Knights of the Dinner Table, "You're a Dwarf, what else do you need to know?"

    2 - If, as you suggest, you are using B2 as a launchpad for a bigger campaign, you can easily add in some basic politics and logic to the Caves. Maybe the Chaos Shrine clerics ARE uniting or recruiting and importing the various tribes of monsters in a long term campaign to sack the keep and conquer the borderlands. Perhaps the minotaur, initially a loyal servant, recently attempted a coup and is chained up as punishment. Maybe a stronger chaotic power located just off map has driven the tribes out of their normal homes and the Caves are a sort of temporary refugee camp for them, and they must tolerate each other grudgingly or face extermination by that chaotic power or the lawful forces of the Keep. Or, just maybe, the Castellan himself, or one of his allies, intends to betray the folk of the Keep, or whoever the lawful overlord he answers to, and is recruiting a humanoid army and housing them in the Caves. This would explain why he doesn't muster the militia and just march over and clean house. Yet, the monsters are chaotic, and despite their cooperation with his secret plans, raid a farm now and then, ransack a caravan, waylay hunters, etc. In a token bid to make the people of the Keep (and the generally assumed farmsteads and hunting lodges in the vicinity) think he's trying to thwart the monsters, he hires some travelers he thinks have no chance of success to buy himself some time. Unfortunately the PCs succeed, and uncover his plot...

    In other words, I prefer adventures like these, where the plots and subplots are not intricately worked out. It lets me customize things, and allows me to reuse material later in a campaign with minimal tweaking of the original material.

    An interesting review though, I'm always glad to read current opinion on the classic material, especially from some of the "movers and shakers" in the OSR community who are creating new material. It's comforting to know that the guys putting out the newfangled products are familiar with the foundations of the game.

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  22. Sorry to throw in a reply in a two year old post, but this is a fun over-analysis of my favorite module. Thanks for sharing.

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  23. Sorry to throw in a reply in a two year old post, but this is a fun over-analysis of my favorite module. Thanks for sharing.

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  24. Sorry to throw in a reply in a two year old post, but this is a fun over-analysis of my favorite module. Thanks for sharing.

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  25. Sorry to throw in a reply in a two year old post, but this is a fun over-analysis of my favorite module. Thanks for sharing.

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  26. I'm running this the day after tomorrow using LotFP. It'll be my first dungeon using a D&D-like system in 23 years or so. I find this review and the discussions very helpful in modifying the module; I agree with most of the criticism, but unlike in some newer adventures for Other Games, it's really easy to modify. A 10-year old might learn some bad habits, but since I've gone through a fuckton of blog posts and so, and am not 10, I think it's a swell starting point. The familiarity of the standard D&D tropes might actually help my players so they can focus on learning to play the game.

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  27. I always assumed that both 1-there was an 'evil power' just off the map, so the Borderlands were just that - an area of pretty constant warfare, which meant that the Caves were just one threat among many to the Castellan; 2 - that the arrival of the humanoid tribes is recent bu the caves must pre-exist them - they certainly didn't dig the caves while the Keep was in operation, but neither does it seem likely that the Keep was built while the caves were a monster-haunt; 3 - the Evil High Priest is trying to unite the different bands into an effective fighting force and if the party doesn't start playing them off against each other, the EHP will start to succeed; and 4 - the bandits are also part of this building Chaos invasion.

    Thus, the somewhat random nature of the Caves and the strength of the Keep would both be a result of recent increased tension on the border. This provides a background for continuing developments over coming months of play as the EHP's plans come closer to fruition (or the PCs begin to thwart them).

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