Roleplaying Games


We picked up our Dungeons & Dragons game with the aftermath of the Battle of Castrum Stativa. The victors went through the bodies of their Quadi enemies, looting corpses, tents, and moving the hundred of dead to a mass grave south of the town and fort. The characters made a beeline to the commander’s tent, where they found a bunch of loot, including the war mace of the original general, Brutharius. They also found the corpse of the tiefling warlock that the monk, Icio, took out. In his coffin, the body was wrapped in muslin treated to preserve the body. Also there were scrolls with the spells he knew (including several that he never got a chance to unleash on them…) Also found was his amulet — a Christian cross in a pentagram. Fascinated by all things religious, our cleric, Augustinian, picked up the amulet…which promptly hit him for 8d6 damage and nearly killed him instantly. The necrotic damage aged him prematurely, and even after Icio laid hands on him and did a lesser restoration, the cleric was sickly and felt cold for days.

After a night of revelry to celebrate their victory, Legate Marcellus decided to take the remains of the cavalry and head for Augusta Vindelicorum to report the engagement and  their win over the Quadi. To bolster the severely weakened garrison at the fortress, Marcellus was able to convince their Marcomanni reinforcements to remain for a few weeks until he could arrange for Roman troops. they leave the fortress with two dozen horses laden down with their loot from the battle.

A two day trip, across the stone bridge the Romans built over the Danube and through the snow-covered fields led them to the Roman capital of Raetia. The characters arrive to a massive turn out by the town — soldiers on parade, citizens shouting and throwing flower petals, and the Proconsul waiting to present them with a victory wreath. They are houses with the praetor urbanis of the town in a massive villa, and treated to a state dinner with the finest of the city.

While Marcellus and Carrus are playing politics with the proconsul — Marcellus attempting (successfully) to support Castrum Stativa with a full legion, and to get troops to go to Lenta and investigate that troublesome tribe. Calvinus the Bard and Carona, their satyr friend, entertained the guests. Meanwhile, Icio went to find the local church, and Augustinian visited the Temple of Jupiter and Minerva.

The church in the city turns out to be a massive stone ediface with stained glass, a beautiful statue of Mary and the divine child behind the altar, and a bible. The bishop, Asis, welcomes Icio — he’s never met a barukhim (blessed) one, one of Jesus’ brethren. (In the campaign, he was an aasimar.) They are discussing the situation in town, with the slow incursion of Christianity over the pagans when they are interrupted by a tall, beautiful figure they first think is a woman…but turns out to be a man. The very sight of him is strangely disturbing, and both Icio and the bishop fail their Wisdom saves. Terrified by the creature, which dismisses the bishop, Icio learns that this visitor was looking for him, the “little angel” that is causing so much trouble in Germania. Icio, son of Zaccharius the Faithful…or so he was led to believe.

The creature questions him — he is the faithful soldier of the One True God, but hasn’t he wondered at all about the nature of these gods he’s encountered? Or of his guardian angel? Why are angels all male? Why has he never met a female aasimar? Perhaps not everything he has been told by the church is true — the best lie is wrapped in the truth. He should know; they call him “the Lie.” That isn’t his mandate, however: he is “the Accuser”, he who calls to account those whose faith has wavered, or who have committed sins. But when he noted falsehood in that god he served, and called him to account, he was cast down to Earth. Icio is paralyzed by fear in face of the Enemy, himself! But before things can go any further, the angel Michael, burst through the door to drive Sataniel off.

Icio is staggered by the implications: Satan, himself, has taken an interest in the monk. He finds Augustinian in a similarly shocked state. He has also received a visitation — the statue of Jupiter spoke to him! It told him of this demi-god, Sataniel, and his search for “the Shadow” — not a person as they had thought, but a veil that separates the planes of existence. This Shadow was cast by Jupiter, with the help of Minerva and Prometheus, after the Trojan War. The gods had realized their continued involvement in the affairs of Man could spell disaster for not just the people of the world, but the world itself. The Shadow keeps them from manifesting physically, but they can see the events on Earth and occasionally speak with those special folks who can hear them…people like Augustinian. Sataniel hopes to break the Shadow and collect an army to overthrow the god that cast him out. There are those protecting this veil, the Guardians of the Shadow,.

After bringing the rest of the party up to speed, Augustinian tells them they have one advantage over Sataniel and his minion Aiton, however…Jupiter told Augustinian where the Shadow is: the only plane that could not be separated from Earth — the Underworld. They need to travel to the River Styx. But where is the Styx? Augustinian had an excellent Religion test — the Styx has its source on Mount Aroania in the Peloponnesus. They need to get to Greece. Carona, however, warns that the Guardians are not to be triffled with. She has never seen them, but some of the dryads he people treated with described them as creatures “elemental in nature”, powerful and capricious.

The night ended with the group realizing that someone was observing them through the curtains over their door. The chased the figure into the hall, only to find the spy was gone, apparently disappeared into the night…

This was a big push episode, finally filling in some of the metaplot that has been hinting at since the start of the campaign. One of the challenges was pulling together the Christian and Greco-Roman mythologies, and providing a unified danger. Satan’s desire to build an army, pulled from the ancient creatures inhabiting the pit of Tartarus in the Underworld.

We picked up again tonight with the party having repelled the first attack by the Quadi (hobgoblins) and their allies, the Vandals (goblins.) In a very one-sided fight, the Romans held out against catapult attacks from the south and Vandal attempts to get over the wall from the east. In the end, the Vandals on the right flank of the legion of bad guys broke and ran for it. Insult was added to injury when the heroes disguised their monk with an invisibility spell, allowing him to pour Greek Fire on the catapults behind enemy lines, which were then lit by incredibly lucky (and well buffed) archery tests by Legate Marcellus and Benarix the spy.

Two days pass with the Romans putting the fortress in order for a prolonged siege. Augustinian the cleric purified the food and water that had been despoiled by the rats loosed on the fortress by the Vandals, injured were tended to, and at the end of the second day, they were roused to the western wall by horn blasts in the snow frosted forests. Someone was getting reinforcements…but who?

Moments later, Titus Germanicus — one of their scouts who had been sent to contact Marco the Hammer in Heilbrunna and ask for his aid — arrived at the head of a small group of mounted Marcomanni. 300 Marcomanni were on the march and about to relieve the castrum! Outside and to the south, the Quadi started shifting their lines in anticipation of an attack, giving them the opportunity to coordinate with Marco’s people.

The plan was simple: the Marcomanni would attack the left front of the Quadi, while the Romans flanked their right and struck in. The attack was led by the turna (cavalry) under Carrus the dwarf, and augmented with Carona the satyress, Icio the monk, and Titus. They would harry and distract the Quadi and allow the Romans to close the distance and attack.

Using the Unearthed Arcana mass combat rules, the larger force of Quadi held against the cavalry, and gave the PCs in the group the chance to battle some of the individual bad guys. This led to Icio and Carona getting pretty chewed up, Carrus getting knocked about a bit — badly at first, then not so much as the fight went on. Icio, at one point, was knocked to 0HP, but healed by Augustinian, who ran to aid him. The initial exchange between armies and the early injury to PCs made it look like this could be a possible TPK sort of night, but they rallied.

The turna was reinforced a few rounds later by the two cohorts of Roman legionnaires, who hit the Quadi hard. The real damage, however, came from the bard, who laid into the hobgoblins with shatter, killing or incapacitating 40+ of the hobgoblins. Between all the characters, they took out almost 60 of the 180 in that particular group, breaking their morale and causing them to flee. The Marcomanni were better prepared and smashed through the other cohort of Quadi with ease. In “real world” time, the entire fight was about 15-20 minutes long, but ended with the last of the hobgoblins evacuating the field in half-decent order.

During the fray, Icio had attempted to pray for help from his guardian angel (as it were), Michael, but was healed by Augustinian at that moment. He puts the intervention down to God’s aid.

In the end, all the players did very well in experience points, and loot. The characters also realized that the solid victory of the Romans — and the new allies that Marcellus had signed a treaty with — had put Marcellus’ star, until then just a lark of the young caesar, into rapid ascendance. Rich, victorious over new and dangerous enemies while outnumbered, and having brokered a successful alliance, the characters are set to become heroes of the empire!

We had our next installment of our Dungeons & Dragons game this evening (with guest co-GM, my six-year old daughter rolling for the bad guys…) In this, the characters prepared for the one-on-one combat that Legate Marcellus had proposed to the general of the Quadi (or hobgoblins, in this world) forces. The PCs had never counted on a fair fight, of course — Roman notions of honor still maintained that fondness for craftiness that the Greeks had. The priest, Augustinian, had Carrus the Dwarf melt down a bit of platinum to craft a warding bond , and also cast Shield of the Faithful  to boost the legate to a ridiculous armor class, and allowed the cleric to slough some of the damage he would take to himself.

With ten cavalrymen in support, they rode out to meet Brutharius, the leader of the Quadi and his tiefling advisor, Raphael. Surrounded by hundreds of cheering Quadi and Vandals (goblins, in this world), Marcellus and Brutharius threw down in a contest of skill. Both characters were incredibly hard to hit, and after five rounds, I upped the ante by having the tiefling instigate Icio, the aasimar monk, into action. When he got close enough to the party, he cast Arms of Hadar and pummeled everyone for 16 necrotic damage, with only the monk managing to absorb some of this. He invoked armor of shadows, as well.

The monk got a hit in, only to be hit with hellish rebuke. Before Raphael could really lay into them with fireball, the monk got initiative and put him down with a flurry of solid hits. At this point the surrounding army moved in for the kill, all the while, Marcellus battling the Quadi general. Carrus, who realized they were severely outmatched, called in the cavalry to drag his friends to safety inside the castrum, then valiantly beat off a group of goblins and hobgoblins with his warhammer and axe.

Augustinian — who finally lost concentration on the spells he was using to protect the legate, Calvinus the bard, and Icio the monk all were pretty badly mauled in the fight, and finally withdrew. With a final shatter, Calvinus managed to kill Brutharius. The party fell back behind the walls of the fortress, while the Roman troops poured arrows and ballista bolts into their pursuers, then dumped hot oil on those that got too close to the gate.

Hit dice and healing spells pulled them all back to their max hit points, but this had proved to be a decent challenge for them. Now the question is — did their ploy to break the leadership of the Quadi and hopefully their will to fight work..?

I recently got to see Porco Rosso for the first time this week. I’ve never been as enamored with the Studio Ghibli stuff as other geeks, but this seemed like it would fit my taste for pulp-action. While there’s some of that, what I got was a movie that was a wistful romance — romance for seaplanes, romance between old friends in the form of Gina and Porco and Fio and Porco, and love of the period. It’s a great movie, but one of the things I noted was the absolute love the creators — and their characters — seemed to have for aircraft. There’s a scene after Porco’s plane has been shot to pieces that his mechanic muses it would be cheaper and easier to build a new one. His response was something like “I’ve grown attached to this one…”

Having known a lot of pilots and other forms of gearhead, it’s an affection I’ve seen in real life, and have experienced. I’ve had a bunch of motorcycles over the years — my current 2010 Triumph Thruxton (named “Trixie” after Speed Racer’s girlfriend) is hadns-down my favorite bike I’ve owned, despite others having been faster or more maneuverable. I know car guys that hang onto their favorite car long after the cost-benefit of owning the vehicle has tipped negative. I know motorcycle guys who go looking for that bike they owned 20 years ago, even though it’s technologically inferior.

For sailors, pilots, motorcyclists, and real driving aficionados, their vehicle usually represents more than just a room that moves me from point A to point B. (A ghastly trend that started with entertainment systems in cars and will only worsen with the introduction of self-driving vehicles.) “This ain’t no dead piece of metal,” Rex Racer tells his brother at Thunderhead in the much-underrated Speed Racer movie, “A car’s a living, breathing thing…” They are companions that are freedom to move and escape, they show off your personality, indicate your social and economic status.

Strangely, I rarely see this connection between role-playing game characters and their rides. Partly, this could be that most of my players just haven’t bee machine-heads, but even those that were rarely had that spark with their vehicle. Partly, it’s the lack of having an actual thing to see or use; a lot of the joy in owning a vehicle comes from that feedback you get when driving/flying/riding them. There’s bee n some connection to ships in our sci-fi games: Galactica in our long running campaign, for instance; Constitution, our Sovereign-class starship in an old Star Trek game…but no one has that “screw it, I’m staying on my dead ship” quality that you see in Malcolm Reynolds towards Serenity, nor do they send years tracking down their Millennium Falcon.

So how to foster this connection, especially in a character that is supposed to be a gearhead or pilot/diver/etc…?

First, don’t talk stats. When you introduce the vehicle, don’t focus on the stats. Focus on the way it looks, the way it makes the character feel. Have a picture of the thing…

Second, don’t talk about that stats. Talk about how the seats feel, how it sounds or smells, how it handles. For a character’s Sikorsky S-38 seaplane, I described the wicker seats and settee, the table in the passenger compartment, the old-school steering wheel on yoke, the smoothness of the engines. Really, have pictures.

Third, the GM has to think of the ship as a character. What sets this think apart? Serenity is a beat-up barely functioning tramp steamer of the stars…why is she such a draw? Because she’s a home, but she is also freedom from the war, from the Alliance, from all the things people don’t want to face. Why is Porco Rosso’s Macchi S.33 (no, I don’t care what they say in the movie — it’s not a Savoia S.21. Google it.) so important to him? It’s a temperamental, difficult to fly, aging seaplane…but it’s his escape from the world and his connection to when he was human. The escape, the freedom — look at vehicle ads — those are the power lines for getting people to buy a motorcycle, a car, a boat, or a plane.

These vehicles make their owners feel free. And that’s your in as a GM.

The D&D game picked up with the characters in Heilbrunna — a new Alemanni settlement along the old Limes Germanicus, only a day or so away from Lenta, the seat of the Celts that have been stirring trouble in southern Germania Magna and Raetia; and Castrum Stativa, the last Roman garrison on this side of the Danube. Run by Marco the Hammer, a seven-foot tall barbarian, the people of Heilbrunna were open and gregarious. Marco knows their Celtic traveling companions, led by Cairc, and has heard of Carrus the Goblin Killer (whom Calvinus is trying to rebrand as Carrus the Troll Killer, even though they didn’t kill said troll…)

They spend two days in the town, telling stories of their exploits, but mostly trying to impress upon Marco the danger the Quadi tribe (hobgoblins) present to the people in the area. They are besieging Locoritum, one of the larger cities in the region, and have been ranging south tracking the party. (They left that last bit out…) With some help by Calvinus the Bard’s charisma, Legate Quintus Marcellus was able to negotiate a treaty with these Marcomanni, making them foederati of the Roman Empire. He’s started to realize exactly what his rank entails: as a legatus imperium — charged by the emperor with diplomatic powers — he is second only to a proconsul!

Their Celtic companions push south during the negotiations with Marco, to warn their king, and Marcellus dispatches their spy, Benarix, to tail them to Lenta and get the lay of the land. The party then turned southeast to Castum Stativa to see if they could find some assistance in their mission. Arriving at the fortress, they find it is light on personnel. Instead of a legion’s strength, there are 350 men — a century of archers, two of foot soldiers, half of whom are local volunteers — a troop of 30 or so cavalry, and a smattering of engineers and artillerymen for the ballistas and catapults. Led by 30-something Pannonian centurion with the rank of prefect castratus named Sextus Hadrianus, they are doing their best to keep the peace with the Marcomanni in Heilbrunna and the Lentienses — despite the latter’s hostility to Rome. With Marcellus turning up to pull rank and request troops for him mission, Hadrianus is a bit worried. This grows worse at the stories of the Quadi. They dispatch a rider to Augustus Vindelicorum, on the other side of the Danube, to request help from the army there.

That evening while out for his constitutional on the wall, Icio the monk catches sight of movement in the trees…lots of movement! On the road coming from the north, he can make out dark figures moving against the snow on the ground. Rousing the garrison, they use a light spell on a ballista bolt and shoot it at the road, where they can now see hundreds of Quadi and Vandals on dire wolves, moving siege equipment! There are more in the woods around them, encircling the fortress and the small Alemmani town to the south. There’s at least a legion’s worth of these creatures. While they are preparing for an assault, the Quadi send a pair of Vandals to call for parlay at dawn.

Marcellus and the party go out to meet the leader of Quadi here — a giant bugbear named Brutharius. He is advised by a tiefling named Raphael Tinirian who is taking a great interest in Icio… Instead of being actively intimidating, Brutharius is calm, haughty, and diplomatic. He is hear to collect the people that killed his soldiers near Wolfangel — them. He pretends he doesn’t realize he’s talking to them, but give the garrison the day to “find and turn over” the criminals he seeks. Marcellus takes a risk and challenges the Quadi leader to one-on-one combat, which is accepted. They will meet at twilight.

The bard continues to try and press Marcellus to launch a preemptive strike on the Quadi, but he realizes they are outnumbered three-to-one, the Quadi training is probably better, and they are better shutting up the castrum and waiting for reinforcements from the nearby Legion III Raetia.

That’s where we left it for the night.

The characters have reached 4th level already, and the characters seem much more powerful than their similarly ranked analogues would have been when I last played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the mid-80s. Each episode has required me to bump up the stakes and the challenges. They plowed through a platoon-strength of bad guys in the last big encounter…if they ‘re going to have a light legion’s strength, they needed to be met with proper opposition.

We’ll see how I balanced it next week.

“Wer hat Angst vorm schwarzen Mann?” German childhood song

Sing that ditty with the usual singsong of the creepy kid in the movies to get the full flavor. “Who’s afraid of the Dark Man?”

The critter for one of our recent adventures, the Black Man is based on Germanic myth and which has many analogues in European myth — the “Gray Man” or Fear Dubh of Scotland is very similar, as is the “Faceless One” of Welsh lore. This bogeyman roams the childhood imagination from Romania to Ireland, and was used by parents to scare kids into behaving. He’s under your bed, in your closet, peering through the heating grate, moving through the darkened forest, following you across a lonely moor, looking for those disobedient, mean, willful children.

Here’s the Welsh version, which is close to the description of the thing we used:

Hush, my child, do not stray from the path,

Or The Faceless One shall steal you away to Fairieland.

He preys on sinful and defiant souls,

And lurks within the woods.

He has hands of ebony branches,

And a touch as soft as silk.

Fear The Faceless One, my child,

For he shall take you to a dark place.

And then  what shall become of you?

No one knows, so be good, my little one…

Oh No! He is here to take you away!’

I added the to this already awful creature, which inhabits shadows and can move through the a water aspect — combining the Dark Man with the usual shape-changing water-bound horror like the Nix or Nie in Germany, the Voyanoy of Russia, or the Neck of the English. this was partly from having watched the creepy-as-shit trailer for It while running the game. so I mixed a bunch of the usual horror themes and threw in the murdering child rapist who was executed by the townspeople and buried in the refuse outside of town trope.

This presented an interesting challenge mechanically. I wanted the unstoppable terror vibe for the monster, which means you don’t want the characters toddling in and wiping the floor with the baddie in a few rounds. The wight didn’t quite hit the mark, nor the shadow, and neither incorporated the water features, so here’s our monster for your use:

DIE SCHWARZE MANN

This wanderer came to [enter town] and soon after children started turning up dead. Captured in the act, the townspeople executed this awful person and buried him without rites in their refuge mounds outside of town. Over the course of months, the spirt of the dead man regained strength and began to look for the same prey as in life, those disrespectful, curious, naughty children, and lure them to their deaths. He does this by surprise, or using the bodies of their dead friends or family to draw in the victim. He can do this by reanimating the recently dead, which he keeps well-preserved in his lair — a body of standing water like a pond — or imitates their voices.

It is a creature of darkness, not shadow, and often appears as a dark, slender form with long, branch-like arms that can grow in length. The creature will often rise silently out of bodies of water, or simply stretch out of the shadows for its prey. It is a glistening black, with vaguely human features, and when it speaks (which is rare) it is a whisper of a familiar voice.

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It collects bodies and souls, and the dead it keeps in its lair can be reanimated as zombies (standard stat block, save they have illusion with allows them to appear unmolested and alive).

Medium undead, neutral evil (CR 3 — 700xp)

Armor Class: 12     Hit Points: 45     Speed: 30′ land, 50′ water

STR: 15   DEX: 14   CON: 16   INT: 10   WIS: 13   CHA: 15

Skills: Intimidation +6, Persuasion +5, Stealth +6

Condition Immunities: Exhausted, Frightened, Poisoned;, Damage Immunities: Necrotic; bludgeoning, piercing ,and slashing from nonmagical or silvered weapons

Damage Vulnerability: Radiant

Senses: Darkvision 120′, passive 13

Languages: those it knew in life

Traits: Amorphous — can move through small spaces; Illusion — can mimic the form and sound of a person it has seen or killed. Wisdom save DC12 to see the true form; Shadow  and Water Movement: The creature can move from one shadow or standing body of water to the any other it can see; Shadow and Water Stealth: In dim light, or when using a body of water, it can Hide as a bonus action with an extra +6. However, bodies of water it inhabits exhibit a strange lack of reaction to wind and are non-reflective; Sunlight Sensitivity: Disadvantage on all tests when exposed to sunlight.

Actions: Multiattack: It can make two attacks per turn, and can add its life drain to both; Life Drain: +4 to hit, reach 5′, one creature. Hit 1d6+2 necrotic. Target must succeed on Constitution DC13 save or lose the damage. Lasts until after a long rest. Target dies if the effect reduces hit points to 0. Target can be reanimated at the will of the Dark Man and is under its control. It can control up to 12 zombies at a time.

Tonight’s Dungeons & Dragons session saw the characters leaving Wolfsangel for Lenta, the home of the Lentienses, the tribe of Celts (elves) that the 12 the party rescued from the Quadi (hobgoblins) after the festivals of Saturnalia. The group travelled south along the Neckar toward the Danube, following the old Limes Germanicus from over 100 years ago. The feeling of decay was exemplified by the sections of still standing wall, the empty or half standing guard towers, and the snow-covered, but solid Roman road still taking them south. Marcellus is particularly touched by the fact this barbarian land was once part of the empire.

A few times, they thought they glimpsed people tacking with them, but never got a good look. After stops in little towns graced with thermal springs (hot baths!), they moved into the hills and the Black Forest. Only a half hour or so out of Bad Neckar, as the sun was setting, they went to cross an old Roman bridge over the river, only to be jumped by a massive humanoid creature! Twelve feet tall, mottled, greenish skin, wearing clothes of bear pelts sewed together and a necklace of human ears, and wielding a small tree trunk club, the troll bashed Carrus the Dwarf right off of his pony, killing the animal, and nearly nearly killing their other tracker with one swing.

This encounter was designed by my six year old daughter after leafing through the Monster Manual with me. The previous week, she had gotten to roll for the bad guys, and had knocked the party around pretty handily.  She chose the creature, but only after a long argument about the nature of trolls, which a certain movie convinced her were herbivorous, friendly, and musically inclined. I had to explain the real legend to her.  Trolls it was.

The fight involved 12 elven archers, the characters, and a single troll. I played the rules to the hilt, and several characters got knocked about pretty handily, but finally they started to make a dent in the monster. Finally, Carrus used his menacing attack badly injuring the creature and frightening it enough that it slipped and fell off of the bridge while retreating. They saw it last floating downstream vowing revenge.

After a stop in Bad Neckar to heal and avail themselves of the hot springs, they pressed south toward Heilbrunna, a new Alemanni town of 5000 or so, led by a Marco the Hammer. They were jumped an hour outside by more Quadi, but this time led by a pair of giant versions of the creatures (bugbears) — this is a Quadi bloohound squad and they had been hunting the party for days.

The fight was short, only 5 rounds, but saw Legate Marcellus and Calvinus the Bard hit first, then the creatures concentrated their efforts on the monk and cleric. It didn’t help them. Calvinus’ shatter spell destroyed two of the Quadi soldiers, Carrus took out another, and the NPCs dealt a death volley to one of the bugbears. Augustinius took an arrow through his leg, but afterward was able to use bless to boost the other characters. Carona the satyress took out one with a surprise attack ram maneuver killing him instantly. Eventually, the bard drove the other bugbear off, giving Marcellus time to collect himself, give chase and kill it with a single blow.

With one hostage, they were able to learn that the Quadi use the larger, meaner versions of themselves as hunters, and that they have been tracking them. They learned about the characters, and which were magic users, from the people of Wolfsangel — which the Quadi destroyed after they raided the place and heard about the fight with their platoon of men a week ago. The town was raided, people taken as slaves, and the place raised, then bloodhound were sent looking for them.

We ended the night with the reaching Heilbrunna, where they were received with enthusiasm after Marco the Hammer recognized Carrus the Goblin Killer from stories about him. He’s even heard of his father, the master blacksmith! They were treated to baths, new clothes and a fine meal when we knocked off for the night.

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