Sunday, February 26, 2012

Comma, Blank_ Has Moved!

This will be my final post on Comma, Blank_, because I now have my own domain! All new posts can be found at:

Comma, Blank_'s entire archive of RPG posts has been successfully ported over to the new site. I have also transferred each and every one of the post comments by hand, including links back to each commenter's profile, because I put a high value on the feedback you, my readers, leave for me. However, no new posts will be posted here after this one. And I will not be monitoring comments on this site any longer. So update your bookmarks, feed reader, or whatever it is you use to access my writings! I consider it a privilege to entertain my readers, and I would hate to lose even a single one of you in this move.

This site has been of immeasurable value to me, and I must confess I'm sorry to leave it, even if I'll just be doing the exact same thing on the new site. Before I started this site, I was not very happy with my life. A quick peek at the first post on the blog, entitled "Worthlessness," (which is one of the few non RPG posts here, and will not be moving to the new site), might give you a bit of an idea of just how down on myself I was. Truth be told, that's not even the half of it. I was struggling through more emotional distress at the time than I want to bother talking about here. Suffice to say, my life was not going well, and I had very little hope that it would ever get better.

The blog trudged along lazily through August and September. I was aiming to put up 3 posts every week, but I was failing, which was business as usual for me. In my mind, it was a foregone conclusion that eventually I'd get bored of the blog, and go back to being an "aspiring writer," who thinks a lot about writing, but never actually does it. I felt shitty about myself, and to be honest, I should have felt shitty about myself. I have no pity for the faults in myself which are rooted in my own lack of will. During a moment of courage in early October, I decided I was going to push myself harder. I was going to get 15 posts done that month, I decided. On October 10th, 2011, while driving my girlfriend Morrie to the train station in the morning, I told her that I was going to try to put up 15 posts in October. She snickered.

"No you're not." she said flatly. The comment stung, and I think she sensed that. She quickly qualified her statement. "I mean, you'd have to do a post what...every night?"

Don't judge her harshly. It was an off-the cuff response which she has repeatedly apologized for in the time since. I almost didn't even mention that it was her who said it, but I want to make clear that this was the opinion of someone who matters to me. The comment stung. I got angry. I've heard a lot of writers say that a dismissive comment, or a rejection, is what motivated them to keep going. I never understood the sentiment until that day. As soon as I got to work I pulled a calendar off the wall and began marking off days. I figured I shouldn't write every day, since that would just burn me out. I would, instead, write every other day during the week, on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule. I have the weekends off, so decided I should have plenty of time both to rest, and to write on Saturday and Sunday. By that schedule of 5 posts a week, I figured out that I could have 19 posts done by the end of the month. That was plenty. Over lunch that day I started working on Magically Generating New Adventures, which remains one of my most popular posts. I started keeping tally marks for how many posts I had for the month. I was going to prove Morrie wrong. I was going to hit 15 posts. I could even skip 4 days if I wanted to.

I didn't want to.

I kept to my schedule exactly. Even on Halloween, my favorite holiday, I was answering the door between writing paragraphs of The Problem With Feats. I tapped away at my keyboard despite a finger which I had severely burned on an ultraviolet light. Despite the fact that my hair kept getting in my face, since having it down was part of my costume. Despite the fact that I had already reached my 15-post goal. The goal didn't matter anymore. Proving Morrie wrong didn't matter anymore. I owe her a lot for that single insensitive comment, because without it I don't know if I would have managed to forge the self discipline which has allowed me to devote myself so fully to this writing project.

I continued my 5-posts-a-week schedule through November, which proved harder. By the end of November I had decided two things. First, writing a Comma, Blank_ post five days a week was too much for me. I started to worry that I was going to burn out, so in December I officially dropped down to only one post over the weekend, bringing my work load down to only four posts per week. Second, I decided that it was time to devote myself more fully to the writing project. So, in early December, I did some budgeting, and some brainstorming, and registered the domain, and purchased two years of hosting. Yeah, I've been working on this for almost three months. What can I say? I'm a busy guy.

Since starting Comma, Blank_, I have missed only 2 posts, which were over the Christmas holiday. My life is better in countless ways. I feel like I'm improving myself a little bit with every word I write. And my readership is growing as well. During the month of February, there has not been a single day where traffic was lower than the corresponding day of the previous month. It kinda makes me want to continue using the old site until Wednesday just to see if the trend actually continues throughout the whole month. But, to be honest, it has been a serious pain in the ass to format everything post twice--once for Blogger, and again for Wordpress. I'm eager to be done with that. Besides, in 25 days of February, I've already surpassed the traffic during the 31 days of January by over 200 unique hits, and broken the 1000-hit-per-month barrier for the first time. And I don't intend to stop there. I've got so many plans for future projects and improvements--you have no idea.

So thank you, my readers, and everyone who has ever linked to me. Thank you to my friends on Twitter, and to my girlfriend Morrie. Thank you to -C of Hack and Slash for sending me several unique hits ever day, and to /tg/ for giving me years worth of scintillating conversation and inspiration, and to every RPG blog I've ever read which has given me an idea or caused me to question my preconceived notions. Thank you to my friends who play these tabletop RPGs with me, who have been very patient with me when I've allowed writing about games to distract me from running games. You all rock.

By the way, if you were wondering, this blog was called Comma, Blank_ because I originally envisioned it as a project "in between" the major projects of my life. The idea was that looking back, the stuff I worked on before this blog would be considered significant, and the stuff after this blog would be significant, but this blog was likely to be somewhat forgettable. That's what I thought at the time, anyway. Thus, this blog was the comma between the things I did in the past, and the things I would someday do in the future. Ironic that it ended up becoming a project which I used to redefine who I am. For three days, the blog was actually titled simply " ,_ " but I started to feel like too much of a hipster douche for my own taste.

I figured I ought to tell that story, since I likely won't get another chance.

See you on the new site, friends!

-Nick "LS" Whelan

Friday, February 24, 2012

Merciless Monsters 2: Bloody Avenger (Bloody Mary)

I recently became rather intrigued by Bloody Mary folklore. I've always been a fan of undead creatures. In particular, I'm fascinated to learn about the reality of humanity's fear of the dead. Pop culture is so inundated with movie monsters these days that it's easy to know everything about zombies of vampires without ever learning the reality which inspired the fantasy. In fact, it was the trailer for the movie "Paranormal Activity 3" which first got me interested in this folklore. I find it hilarious that a movie trailer failed to convince me to see the movie, but succeeded in motivating me to do some reading. Even if it was just Wikipedia, and a handful of other websites.

Each of us is a student of popular culture, whether or not we realize it. But there's so much more to these creatures. Historical information, which filmmakers never passed down to us. Did you know that while Catholics in Western Europe took a slowly-decomposing corpse as a sign of sainthood; Catholics in Eastern Europe took it as a sign that the corpse was waking at night as a vampire? It's true. Likewise, Zombies originate from Afro-Haitian superstitions, where "sorcerers" would use psychoactive chemicals to place a victim in a highly suggestible state, then order that victim to do their bidding.

Interesting stuff.

Hoping to find some similarly interesting revelations for Bloody Mary, I did some looking around. I haven't found a ton of solid information on the tale's origins--it seems to be a relatively recent, and particularly fractured piece of folklore. However, the sheer volume of completely different accounts of this mirror-dwelling creature make it a curiosity to me. And as I looked for additional sources of information, I began to wonder if Mary had ever been converted into a monster for gaming. I flipped through the various incorporeal undead in my Bestiaries and Monster Manuals, but didn't find anything which seemed specifically based on her. Since I find the folklore so fascinating, I thought I'd go ahead and create my own.

As an aside, in my study of Bloody Mary, I learned a word which should be very useful to game masters and world crafters. Catoptromancy; Divination by use of mirrors, or other reflective surfaces.

Bloody Avenger

At first all that can be seen is the dripping blood, falling apparently from thin air. Once one looks upon vengeful specter's crimson form, the black pits of its eyes widen, and it gurgles a curse from a blood filled mouth.

Bloody Avenger; CR 10; [Undead(Incorporeal)] [Urban] [Any Climate] [Nocturnal]

XP: 6,400
CE Medium Undead
Init +7; Senses darkvision 60ft; Perception +12

AC 18, touch 18, flat-footed 14 [10 + Dex(3) + Dodge(1) + Incorporeal Deflection(4)]
HP 90 (9d8 + 45)
Fast Healing 2
Fort +3 Ref +6 Will +12
Defensive Abilities Incorporeal
Immunities Undead Traits

Speed fly 30 ft. (Perfect)
Melee Lacerate Face + 14 (4d6 + 4)
Special Attacks Death's Gaze, Share Guilt, Expose Guilt, Bloody Chains

Str -- Dex 16 Con -- Int 6 Wis 15 Cha 18
Base Attack +6/1 CMB +9 CMD 19
Feats Improved Initiative, Dodge, Ability Focus(Death's Gaze), Iron Will, Toughness, Natural Weapon Focus (Lacerate Face)
Skills Fly (+12), Intimidation (+21), Perception (+12), Stealth (+20)
Languages Common

Environment Most commonly in urban homes, but they can strike wherever a mirror is nearby.
Organization Solitary
Activity Cycle Primarily nocturnal, but do not tire, and can function wherever there is low light.
Treasure Standard


Invisibility(Sp) A bloody avenger may cast Invisibility (as the spell) at will.

A bloody avenger can enter any mirror, and exit through any other mirror on the same plane. Broken mirrors do not affect the creature's ability to travel through them, however, a mirror covered with a cloth cannot be traveled through. The creature can do this while invisible. Note that this ability works only for mirrors, surfaces which are incidentally reflective cannot be used for this, or any other mirror-related ability of the Bloody Avenger.

Lacerate Face(Ex) Bloody Avengers are compelled to destroy their victim's faces. It is not entirely clear why they do this, but it is surmised that it is based on the creature's intense feelings of guilt, and a desire to destroy its own identity. This is a melee touch attack which deals damage equal to 1d6/2 hit dice. A Bloody Avenger's charisma modifier is considered a weapon bonus for the purposes of this attack, and can be added both to the attack and the damage roll.

Death's Gaze(Su) 3 times per day, as a standard action, a Bloody Avenger may show a target opponent their own death. This is the death which they are currently fated for, though their fate is not immutable. However, the individual who sees this image of their death will know, inherently, that it is not an illusion. The fear this causes is profound. The target becomes immediately Panicked, but is entitled to a will saving throw [DC 20 (10 + 1/2 HD + Cha + Ability Focus)] to be only shaken. Targets can repeat the will save on each turn until they succeed. The Shaken condition lasts 3 rounds. In order to be affected by this attack, the target must look either at the Bloody Avenger, or at any mirrors.

Share Guilt(Su) Once per day a Bloody Avenger may pass through a target creature by moving through a square which that creature occupies. The target is entitled to a reflex saving throw [DC 17 (10 + 1/2 HD + Cha)] to take an immediate 5-foot step out of the way. If the Bloody Avenger successfully passes through the target, then for the next 24 hours, any damage inflicted on the Bloody Avenger will be inflicted on that target. This effect is treated as a curse, and any ability which removes curses will end this effect.

Expose Guilt(Su) Once per day, a Bloody Avenger can select a target. As a standard action, the Bloody Avenger shares the target's greatest unknown sin to all of that target's allies within 60ft. Any moral boosting effects which that character granted to his companions ceases to function, and all opponents within 10ft of the character take a -1 penalty to all rolls. This effect lasts for 24 hours.

Bloody Chains(Su) Once per day, a Bloody Avenger can cause four blood-soaked barbed chains to emerge from any mirror within 60 feet, and grapple with a target. The chains are treated as having the Grab ability, so they do not provoke an attack of opportunity when they attempt to grapple. The chains have an effective CMB of +14, and can extend a maximum of 30ft from the mirror. The chains immediately begin attempting to draw a grappled target into the mirror (requiring a successful grapple check each round to move the target at half of the chain's speed of 30). Each of the 4 chains has hardness 10, hp 5, and a break DC of 26. Each chain destroyed reduces the chain's overall CMB by 2.

If the chains successfully move a target to a space adjacent to the mirror which they came out of, then on their next turn they may attempt a final grapple check to pull their target into the mirror. (This is considered a hazardous location, granting the target a +4 on their grapple attempt). If the target is successfully drawn into the mirror, then they fall out of another mirror somewhere on the same plane. This mirror could be elsewhere in town, in another nation, or even on another continent.

Death Rattle(Su) Upon its destruction, a Bloody Avenger lets out a piercing wail of anguish. Characters within a 60ft radius of the destroyed Bloody Avenger, who are not wearing protective ear coverings, take 10d6 sonic damage from this wail.

Distraction All Bloody Avengers are created from a death which resulted from the death of someone else--whether or not they are guilty of it. They are fixated on that event, and seek indiscriminate revenge for it. However, if they are presented with someone who reminds them of whomever's death caused their own, the Bloody Avenger may become distracted. For example, a mother who went mad and died after the passing of her child may, as a Bloody Avenger, become distracted by a young child, believing it to be her own for as long as her distraction is not interrupted.

Summoning If an adventurer looks into a mirror and speaks the true name of a Bloody Avenger three times, then confesses to causing the death for which the Bloody Avenger is seeking vengeance, then the Bloody Avenger is immediately transported to that mirror.

Forced Medium Bloody Avengers can be used to discover secrets which may otherwise be impossible to discern. Once one is encountered or summoned, the party or individual who encounter it must not meet the Bloody Avengers eyes, nor harm it at all. For 1 minute (10 rounds) the Bloody Avenger will attack the party normally, however, unless the party meets the creature's eyes or attacks it in return, it cannot use lethal force. After a minute has passed, the Bloody Avenger can no longer attack the party. The party can, at this point, ask to speak with a specific dead person. They need not know the person's name, but must know something about them. "The person who designed the ruins of Aomur," or "The little boy who was killed by Joey Grills four years ago" would be sufficient. The Bloody Avenger will then retrieve the soul of this person with unerring accuracy, assuming they are dead, their souls still exist, and the phrasing of the question did not specifically exclude the intended person (Such as if Joey Grills killed a girl).

The soul is then compelled to answer any questions the party has for it. This bypasses any of the normal restrictions on the Speak with Dead spell. Three conditions cause this effect to end: 1) if the party meets the eyes of, or attacks, the Bloody Avenger, then the dead spirit disappears, and the party must combat the Bloody Avenger normally. 2) If the party tells the spirit it can go, then the Bloody Avenger will also excuse itself by exiting through the nearest mirror. If the mirror has been covered, the Bloody Avenger will attack the party. 3) after 10 minutes, the Bloody Avenger is released from its compulsion, and will release the spirit and attack the party.

Background A Bloody Avenger is a very particular manner of ghost. In life, the creatures who eventually become Bloody Avengers all suffer greatly from the horrible death, or loss, of someone dear to them. Such as a mother whose child goes missing, a man whose mother is murdered, or a child who watches another child fall down a well. The exact manner of the loss is irrelevant, so long as the person feels guilt over the loss. It matters not if the person in question is actually responsible in any degree for the loss, so long as they feel guilt over it.

That guilt must then drive the person to their own death, or dominate the rest of their life. To use the above examples, if the mother who lost her child went mad, and eventually committed suicide, that would qualify. If the man mentioned above had murdered his mother himself; and was then tried and executed for the crime, that would qualify. Even if he denied his guilt, it is likely that he still felt that guilt on some level. Lastly, if the young child lives a long life, yet is always haunted by feelings of guilt for the other child's death, then even dying of old age would not save him or her from qualifying. Any of these people might potentially rise as Bloody Avengers.

Bloody Avengers remember very little of their lives. They wander, only half aware of the world around them, while the other half of their attention is constantly reliving the moment which caused their guilt. This leaves them angry and violent, and poised to attack anyone who disturbs them.

  • The Undead Type is described on page 309 of the Pathfinder Bestiary.
  • The Incorporeal Subtype is described on page 312 of the Pathfinder Bestiary.
  • The Incorporeal Trait is described on page 301 of the Pathfinder Bestiary.
  • Information on the Bloody Mary legend drawn from the Wikipedia entry, and the entry (oddly enough. Do ghost stories really need to be verified?)
  • Images for this post taken from a remarkable fan-video for the Lady Gaga song "Bloody Mary"

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Suppositions on Tabletop RPG Time Tracking

Since Monday's post on time management, I've had four separate people ask me how keeping track of time would work in a game. This may not seem like much, but it's probably the most universal response I've received to a single post. Normally I don't even get that much feedback on a given day's writing, and when I do, it's pretty varied. So to have four people ask the same question is unusual, and warrants further attention. I thought I would use tonight's post to look into time management further. Specifically, to look at how it might be applied to a Pathfinder game. I would like to make clear before hand that I've never actually kept track of time in a game--at least not in the ways I'm about to delve into. This post is, at best, educated speculation. If nothing else, the following will be a solid outline for what I will be attempting in the future, and I can do another follow up post with what I learn.

Before I get started, lets go over some basic definitions. As mentioned yesterday, I think the best way to scale time tracking is to use the same definitions Pathfinder establishes for movement on pages 170-172 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. Tactical Time is something any Pathfinder player will be familiar with. It is built on the 6-second round, and is what we use to measure the passage of time in combat, or in other severely time-critical situations. Local Time is for exploration, such as when the players are delving into a dungeon. The six second round would be far too short for this, and slow down gameplay to a ridiculous degree, so for Local Time, we will use the 10 minute turn, which can also be divided into 1 minute fragments. Overland Time can be measured in days. If the party is simply traveling from point A to point B across a great distance, breaking things down into a unit smaller than a day would be tedious. Lastly, the Hour can be useful as a unit of measure for both Local, and Overland Time, when the situation warrants it.

With our basic units of measure established, we need to know how they fit into one another, and how they eventually build into a year. This may seem somewhat silly at first, but consider: the Gregorian Calendar (the calendar most westerners use) is as confusing as the endless layers of the abyss. Largely due to the fact that it is an imprecise attempt to force a variety of natural phenomena into logical time-measurement boxes. By taking advantage of the fact that we're playing a fantasy adventure game, we can easily redefine the way units of time fit into one another so that we can more easily keep track.

For most of the smaller measurements, it's simpler just to keep them consistent with the real world, to avoid the need to alter game rules. Casters need to rest 8 hours to recover their spells because 8 hours is 1/3 of the standard day, so changing the standard day would upset the balance of the game. However, larger units of measure can be toyed with at will.

6 Seconds = 1 Tactical Round
10 Tactical Rounds = 1 Minute
10 Minutes = 1 Local Turn
6 Local Turns = 1 Hour
24 Hours = 1 Day
7 Days = 1 Week
5 Weeks = 1 Month (35 Days)
10 Months = 1 Year (350 days)

Keeping a week at 7 days means that the few spells which have a 1 week cooldown are not unintentionally weakened or empowered. Making each month a consistent 5 weeks means you can avoid any confusion by having a single week bridging two months. And 10 months to a year keeps the everything close enough to our reality that the players won't feel detached. Everything is uniform, which will be helpful later on.

Now that we've established our definitions, lets talk about movement. A character's speed is already listed on their character sheet for use in combat. The speed which is listed on a character sheet is the distance, in feet, which a character can cover in a 6 second round. (The "move action" in combat is treated as a hustle, rather than a walk, which is why it takes less than the full round). This means that a character with a speed of 30 can move 30 feet in a round, 300 feet in a minute, and 3000 feet per 10 minute turn. This may seem ridiculous, but consider that the average human can walk a mile in 13 minutes. A mile is 5280 feet, which actually breaks down to a little over 406 feet per minute, so Pathfinder actually underestimates our movement speed.

Wouldn't this be easier if we were using metric?

Considering the size of most dungeons, players will likely be moving in 50-100 foot spurts, rather than moving in increments of 300 or 3000 at a time. So I think the simplest way to handle time tracking within a dungeon will be to mentally keep track of how far your players have moved. Your figure only needs to be a rough estimate. Every time the players have moved about 300 feet, make a tally mark on a piece of paper. Once you've got 10 tally marks, make note that a turn has past. Bear also in mind that often players will not be moving at walking speed. Sometimes they will be hustling (in which case, they can move 600ft per minute), and other times they will be tapping every cobblestone with their 10ft pole. (There is no official rule on this, so lets just say they'd be moving at 1/3rd their normal pace, at 100ft per minute).

This sounds like a huge pain, doesn't it? I know, I'm thinking the same thing. But think of how much depth you can add to your game by having your player's torches burn out, or having time sensitive events in your dungeons, such as secret meetings that begin 3 turns after your players enter the dungeon, and end 2 turns later. Maybe your players will find them and be able to listen in, or maybe they won't! That's part of the beauty of tracking time.

Overland Movement should be much simpler to track. A character with a speed of 30 can move 24 miles at walking speed in a given day. A day, in this case, being 8 hours, which is the maximum amount of time a character can travel without requiring a constitution check. This amounts to precisely four hexes, if you're using the standard six-mile hex. If you're not using a hex map (like me, in my current campaign, where I haven't yet converted the world map yet) you'll need to figure out how far 24 miles is in some other way. One thing you'll definitely want to keep in mind is how your player's traveling speed might be affected by obstacles such as mountainous terrain, swamps, etc. It would probably be beneficial to establish a baseline speed difference between traveling on roads and traveling through the wilderness as well. Perhaps road travelers can move and even 30 miles, or 5 hexes?

Movement isn't the only thing which takes time. Players don't simply walk from their home base to the dungeon any more than they walk from the dungeon entrance directly to the treasure room. There are things to explore, battles to fight, an traps to disarm. So how do we measure those in our time tracking system?

Combat is obviously going to be the most frequent interruption to movement--particularly if you're fond of random encounters. When working with Overland Time, their interruption can be largely ignored. Unless the party faced a large number of encounters in a given day, the amount of time a battle takes should be negligible. Whilst using Local Time, however, the length of combat is much more significant. Regardless of how long combat takes, you should probably round the time up to the next minute. Gygax even recommends that "they should rest a turn [LS: 10 minutes] after every time they engage in combat or any other strenuous activities."

Other activities can include any number of things. Dealing with a trap, discussing a strategy, negotiating with a monster, exploring a room, opening a locked door, bashing open a locked door, the list goes on. GMs will have to use their judgement on a case by case basis to determine whether an action should be considered negligible (such as glancing around a room), a minute long (such as opening a relatively simple lock, or busting down a door), or longer (negotiating a truce with a hostile creature, or thoroughly exploring a room). I would advise against trying to track increments of time smaller than a minute. Either put a tally mark down for a minute, or don't mark anything at all. It'll even out eventually. Chapter 4 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, "Skills," notes what type of action each skill requires. This can be helpful to determine how much time you want to mark down, though your players will probably hate you if you check the action-typeevery time they make a skill check. Some GM arbitration is called for here.

The number of events which consume enough time to be counted as relevant on an overland scale are few and far between. Sleeping tops the list, followed by crafting, and perhaps a few other activities which have their time requirements listed as hours. Overland time might also be consumed by switching to local time for a significant period. For example, if a party can travel 24 miles a day, then the party might travel 12 miles, discover a village, switch to local time, spend 10 10-minute turns in the village, then continue on their way. They could still make it the full 24 miles (since that distance is traveled in 8 hours of the day), while the time they spent in the village would be rounded up to 2 hours, leaving them with 6 hours of rest before needing to sleep for 8 hours.

Tracking time in towns is tricky. As best I can tell, most GMs don't even bother with it. However, I think there could be some real value to it if you pulled it off. Often, as a GM, one of my players will want to do something in town, while the rest are content merely to wait. This, to me, seems silly. If the player who has something they need done takes 3 hours, then what is the rest of the party really doing? Sitting at a bench next to the town gate waiting? It strikes me that if I actually turned to them and said "What would you like to do during your 1 hour turn," that might encourage players to engage with the world around them.

Lastly, I'd like to touch on long-term time tracking, which is actually what I've found the most information on. The common wisdom seems to be to print out calendar sheets using whatever number of days you have in a month. Many GMs seem to simply mark days off as they pass, which would work fine. However, I think the calendar is a good opportunity to enhance your campaign record keeping. Simple notes such as meeting an important NPC, engaging in a major battle, or recovering a valuable treasure could be notated on the calendar. And, if you're like me and want to create a living world around your players, you can make notes for things the players didn't witness, such as the day two nations went to war, or the day your villain recovers the Big Evil Thingamaboo which will allow them to summon demonic servants. You could also use the calendar to plan future events--keeping in mind that you may need to erase them if your players avert those events from happening.

Once again, these are just my musings on how I think I'll try to track time in my upcoming game sessions. I haven't done it before, and I've found a remarkable lack of information on the Internet about how to do it well. So if any more experienced GMs out there would like to set me straight on something, please comment!

Either way, I'll be gathering notes on my success and failure, and will revisit this topic once I have a little more experience.
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