Sunday, January 7, 2007

Novel Two : Design Test Two – The Foolhardy Brave

If you'll remember the introduction (and if not, here's a link) you'll recall that in installments I'm detailing an interconnected cycle of five quests from my fictitious game, Clans of the Highborn (or ClotH as the kids these days call it), which take place in a particular region of a particular island in my game known as the Land of Horses. The hub for these quests is a moving, nomadic city which transits through the zone known as the Grazing Lands on a regular schedule – players will find the NPCs to start this cycle and give out most of the rewards from the city of Warriror's Call. Before I continue further into the quests, though, I'd like to fill in more detail about the area itself – the sorts of things where if this were an actual game I'd be able to just write “This takes place in the Land of Horses” and my designer boss would go “Okay, so do you need any special monsters or anything?” and I'd go “Nope, not beyond that one NPC otherwise it's just the usual stuff that's in the production bible” or whatever it is they'd call the design document which details the various zones and their inhabitants. There'd be some resources to draw on and other people working at filling in the details is what I'm getting at. I, on the other hand, am doing this all from scratch because this is all being done as a writing exercise to help me gain insight into the workings of the imaginary game I'm developing as a background to at least two novels so far. As such I can gloss over a lot of things and focus on detailing what I think is important.

Take Warrior's Call, for example, I don't really know much about that place. I'm not the sort of person who'll just draw a highly detailed map of that sort of place without a lot of thought and effort so, at this point, it's not much more than a generic city not unlike many others in the game. I've drawn a distinction between a city and a town or other forms of settlments. Basically a city is the largest sort of settlement and features all the services that one could expect in such a place along with a wide variety of quests and some other things while others are smaller and more limited somehow. Warrior's Call is a big city and an important one but I don't want to get too bogged down in fixing it in place. Again, my motivation here is to be a bit vague on some details because when I'm writing I want the flexibility to change things as needed – I could draw up a map showing that Warrior's Call has three streets but what happens when I need my characters to duck into an alley on the fourth one? It doesn't seem likely to come up but in the course of writing stranger things have happened. Why then, you might ask, am I going to take the effort to detail these quests and things related to them in such detail? Well, the simple answer is that I'm insane. The more complicated answer is that I have no idea what I'm doing but these quests will help serve as templates for other quests I can come up with – by having a few really solid ones that I've worked out to the last letter I have a guide for when I need to come up with one on the fly, so to speak, that will help me make things consistent within the story. In so many words, once I know the general shape for the details I'll be able to fake it in the future. Warrior's Call, though, is not my template for cities (That would be Clanhaven, the large fortified city available after the newbie training tutorial area, the Scholar's Cove, on the starting Isle of the High. If I ever hook up my scanner, yes, you will see maps of it. Very shoddily drawn maps that I'll have to run through any number of programs to clean up but they do exist). Its mobility makes it a bit unusual but it's far from the most glamorous or awe-inspiring of cities.

That's because the people who built it are the Windrunner tribe a group of Amer-Indian like peoples who survive by hunting the plentiful herds that graze in the, well, Grazing Lands (A bit of a note on naming conventions here. I have the Purans, of which the Windrunners are but one tribe, name things in such a way that when translated they have the same meaning in any language. Except for their oldest ruins and things which have been around so long they've weathered some linguistic shifts. The effect is you get things like Grazing Lands or Chief Strong. Other areas and cultures do things differently so I get much more creative with names there. Just not here. Here I go for the blindingly obvious on purpose rather than by accident.) that Warrior's Call travels through. As such although I haven't gone to the lengths of detailing their architecture they're pretty basic about it. Not that what they make isn't sophisticated or well-crafted – it would be – but they prefer simple shapes and uncomplicated ornaments. So, I see Warrior's Call as a city on wagons or otherwised wheeled that can easily be taken apart quickly and it's rolling slowly but steadily along throughout the day, only when night falls do they set out some tents and campfires and stay in one spot for very long. There's a lot of wood, it's very rustic, and since this city literally springs to life overnight everything's pretty chaotic and thrown together without any attempt at planning where it goes. Since it's going to be shifting and changing over the course of the day I don't go into much more detail than that.

What I would like to go into more detail on, though, is the area where the questing will take place. If you'll remember the Land of Horses is laid out with one area encircling the next. There are three such areas the first which players will travel through to reach Warrior's Call – no doubt propelled by one quest or another, is called the Bad Lands. It's a scrub plain filled with tumbleweed and the sun-bleached bones of the fallen. The next sphere is the Grazing Lands where by quirk of fate and geography lush grass grows and herd animals like buffalo wander around. It's there that Warrior's Call will be found and from there that players will follow this cycle of quests and be launched into the innermost reaches of the Land of Horses – the Open Spaces. A mysterious place filled with arcane, reality bending energies centered around the Tornsky Mesa that's at the heart of the area and, indeed, at the heart of these quests. We'll get to the Open Spaces and how they're different eventually but for now I'm going to focus on the Grazing Lands because that's where the first four of these quests will be launched.

For the most part these quests are going to be using the monsters and features that will exist for players just wandering around in the Grazing Lands zone (Which, of course, I'm planning on allowing. People will be free to roam around and go wherever. It's just there's going to be numerous quests so they'll always have some place to go and something to do if they want to follow along in that particular story arc.). So these quests are going to be reusing the library of assets that my industrious little design team – which consists of me at this point and probably in the future as well – will be building up to make the zone into an actual place. First, of course, is the overall look and design of the place. Again, the details are a bit fuzzy because I can only hold so much in my head at any one time but the defining feature of the Grazing Lands would be that carpet of grass – growing wild but kept trimmed by the hoards of animals eating away at it – that stretches as far as the eye can see. It'll be a lush green but a washed out one – pale to emphasize the bright sun and clear skies in these places. The vegetation will contrast with the desolation of the Bad Lands and provide an easy way for players to mark the boundary between the two zones (I'm including seamless transition between zones the way you'll find them in WoW. Because, basically, I don't have to worry about any actual machine running this or writing any piece of code I get to design my “dream game” - even though for dramatic purposes I do completely the opposite of what I'd like at times – and include all the nifty features that I want. And I loathe loading screens with a passion. I have absolutely no idea how to make such things work between zones as borderless as the ones in the Land of Horses where players can't be funneled into a particular pass or tunnel but, then, I don't have to – I can just wave my hands and make all the problems go away. Probably not the best attitude to take if I were actually applying for a design job, though.). The boundary between the Grazing Lands and the Open Spaces will be much more subtle – the grass will start to wither and dry up to a nasty, sickly straw-like yellow as players get deeper so that realizing they've gone from one zone to another will be a slow process (I mean, they can check their maps and find out but in visual stuff like this I figure the more information I can encode to the player without screaming it at them the better – makes it much easier to play around with this sort of pacing and scene setting if I don't worry about the people who don't want to play that game with me. Again, I want to include a lot of things for a lot of different types of people who'll all play in their own way – that's what a good MMO should be doing, I feel.) to emphasize the creepy and weird sensation people would get traveling to a place where raw magic crackles in the air and reality itself gets a little arbitrary. I'll get to that when I detail the Open Spaces, though, the expansive covering of grass in the Grazing Lands, though, will also contrast with the sky.

Since we're out on the plains with very little in the way of trees or mountains to get between a person and the heavens, the sky is going to be shockingly, brilliantly blue with very few clouds drifting lazily through it (Unless I get wacky and throw an event where there's going to be a storm or something but I'm describing the concept artwork at the moment so I'll stick to the baseline appearance). It will hang in the air, pregnant almost, seeming to press down on the land underneath it and stretch everything horizontally. The Bad Lands and the Open Spaces will be more like Monument valley with large cliffs and rocky outgrowths but the Grazing lands will be more like Nebraska or Kansas – flat, wide, and almost mind-bendingly featureless. There won't be much in the way of landmarks beyond a rock here and a scraggly bush there maybe a shrine or other place of mystic power but not much to navigate by. The idea would be that it's a maze without walls made almost unnavigable by the lack of anything remarkable. This causes a lot of problems, not the least of which is that it's not going to look like much to the players but the visual variety and interest will come from the various monsters and patrols that are cycling through the area – which, along with the mobile Warrior's Call turn the whole place into one giant gear filled wheel rotating around the Open Spaces. My intent would be to make it so that this would be a very hard area for players to just head out and explore. Without the waypoints or landmarks that quests would create they'd be lost in a very short time because although there would be a pattern to the movements of things within the zone it'd be one that people would need to observe for a long while before it became apparent (Which should provide some fun to the people who like to puzzle out things like that. I foresee chapters and arguments in my book as players work desperately to crack the riddle for better drops or simply because they must know - “I'm telling you there's a pattern in the Land of Horses – look in about half an hour there's going to be a herd of buffalo that travel from east to west they'll reach about 100 yards past that tree and turn south.” “You are so high on crack. There's no pattern, it's all random. Look, they just went north.” “Well, okay, they do that every third time except on Tuesdays!” “Crack baby. It's all an emergent pattern from the random spawns. You're wasting your time.” “I swear I'm going to figure this out one day!”) because they'd be stuck looking at things from the perspective of the ground. If they could hover over things and see the way birds do they'd see an intricate dance being played out over and over again.

And I like that because of my elemental system which I haven't really bothered to take the time to detail in full just yet beyond the fact that it exists and a lot of things in my game revolve around my system of five elements – Air, Earth, Fire, Metal, and Water. There's a further two elements – chaos and order formed in the absence or presence of the base elements, respectively but that's more important in the endgame of the main storyline. For the most part things are based on those five. The Land of Horses, for example, is based on the element of Air. Which being connected with the religoins of the islands has acquired deep symbolism and meaning which I'll spare you from because that's delving deep into the lore. Simply put, though, Air is the element of change. Good change, bad change, it doesn't matter (another way of saying this is “luck” but that's highlighted more in the Open Spaces). It's constantly shifting and altering all while being invisible to the naked eye. The gentle breeze that sways the grass and the vast, eye opening reaches of the cloudless skies all speak to that but so does the constant pathing of things within the Grazing Lands. And I'll further emphasize that motif by using a lot of Air elemental enemies within the zone.

Now, in terms of my game that means that there will be a lot of people throwing around lightning so players with lightning resistant gear and skills will be at an advantage while players with lightning elemental damage will be at a disadvantage but, well, there's Warrior's Call where they can craft or trade for better things. Lightning skills, though, are about being faster and cheaper than other elemental magic and that'll also play into the fact that enemies here will be fast – several of them mounted – and agile rather than hulking brutes. The final aspect of the various monsters which will oppose the players that I want to play up will be the trickster aspect of the Air element (which flows from its identity of change and trade) and I'll do that through spell-casters that don't hurl lightning bolts but will corrupt and twist things through their debuffs and otherwise countering things. Among players these sort of characters would be Mentalists but I don't exactly want my monsters to follow the player's classes so much as highlight one facet of them or another. Other classes can use debuffs, too, it's the Mentalists that have the most and the most devastating and the most in-class synergy (There are five basic classes just like the five basic elements but each player can multiclass with another class – and switch their second class trivially easily – so that there's a lot more options than appear at first.). They're also the player class that's associated with the Air element but there's the Sundown Swamps on the Eternal Isle where Mentalists or their equivalent feature heavily – with the Void Witches that plague the Ghostwalker tribe. So I'm going to use this area to play up other aspects of my Air symbolism and avoid rehashing what makes that other area unique. What's really amazing is that I didn't plan any of this it just sort of developed as I was going along from the building blocks I'd left lying around.

Anyhow, I wanted to detail my monster template but as I'm running long again and I've yet to get to the quest at all I'll save that for next time. Instead, let me talk a bit about the weird – for me, anyway – design constraints that having a mobile launching point for my quests caused me. Simply put, I figure Warrior's Call is going to be covering a large area inside of the Grazing Lands and the Grazing Lands themselves have no large, discernible landmarks so that means I can't use many of the tricks I've seen in quests in the various video games I've used – the perils of getting too clever, I suppose. Now I could just handwave it away but since I'm challenging myself here I'm going to try and solve the problem. And the solution I keep coming back to is spawning. I can't put these quests in any given area of the zone because I can't be quite sure of where the players will be in relation to it. I plan that players will be given maps and radars and pathfinding waypoints and all the other modern conveniences but I still don't want them trudging across half the zone (Especially not when I have the Open Spaces sitting in the middle of it and I'd prefer players not to explore in there unless they're ready. It's going to be a tougher zone than the Grazing Lands and the Dreamtime Path dungeon in the middle of it is not for the faint of heart. I can't stand raiding myself so I don't really have much to compare it with but it is the sort of dungeon that max level players will be returning to over and over again for the challenge – and the sweet loot that comes with that, of course.) just to get to some quest. So, instead whenever someone accepts a quest they'll spawn the monsters and NPCs needed to complete it when and if they reach some trigger point. In some quests this is going to be pretty straight forward but in others it will let me change the goals of the entire quest in the middle of the action with ambushes and surprises and the like. This is another one of those things I have no idea how to actually build but I know what to ask for from the people who do but this plan does bring up the possibility that wandering around in a persistent zone that someone will come along and steal away the mission critical goals but I think by making it so that monsters only spawn in when someone with a quest gets within a certain distance (far enough that they can't see it but close enough that they're almost on top of things) and through liberal use of instancing (Basically the game will split each area into multiple instances whenever they get too crowded. This limit's going to be pretty low to prevent a lot of lag and people bothering each other. And it's going to go on invisibly in the background – except in towns where people will be able to select instances in order to group more easily – to create a seamless, shardless world. I did mention I was crazy, right?).

Also, since I want to include a method of instant and painless travel the shifting nature of Warrior's Call makes it rather unsuited to being a place people can click on and warp to. Basically, players will be able to click and travel to any place they've already visiting and those Sorcerer class will be able to teleport their groups to the places they've visited even if the other players haven't been their before (Letting those players have a way of earning money by shuttling lower level players all around the map for a fee. It's going to happen anyway so I might as well build it into the game, right?) but they'll need a map point to do so. Normal cities and other settlements will serve as these kinds of points but that's not really going to work in the Land of Horses. Instead, those shrines I mentioned earlier will serve as bind points – not only will players be able to teleport to them after visiting they'll also be able to resurrect their when killed. So, that network of map nodes masked by sacred Windrunner spots will also be circling the zone and provide for a few handy landmarks even if they won't be very distinctive in and of themselves.

Those problem solved lets get on to the quests. The first three quests will comprise the player's earning the trust of a specific Windrunner NPC – the lead mystic in the gathering army that is Warrior's Call who's called Mother Natasi Skytamer. And with that trust they'll earn a special magical item called the Silveroak Dreamcatcher which I'll detail more later on. Players won't know they're working on gaining that little item unless they've got some metatextual knowledge like reading a guide or some quest listing (Which, again, doesn't bother me. If they don't like searching through the game for hidden things then I don't think they should have to – some people turn to the backpage of any mystery and see who's done it before reading the rest, after all - but some players will so I want to build in quest cycles like this one which slowly reveal themselves over time.) but on completing the third of these quests they'll receive a shorter quest called “Gathering the Silveroak Dreamcatcher”. This is what I call a reward quest – there's nothing the player has to actually do except to travel to and talk with the NPC that will reward them. It's a good way to get players into new areas and new quests as well as give them feeling that they're accomplishing something. It's just not much of a quest – although I'll probably talk about it when we get to that point - so I'm not including it in the five quest total, it's just bridging between the first three quests and the next step. These first three quests can be undertaken in any order and, indeed, my design is for players to collect as many quests as they can in a settlement – here Warrior's Call – and then go out and complete as many as they can before turning them in. Which, of course, unlocks more quests and more adventures and players can skip whatever they want whenever they want but it would just be a way of giving players a constant goal so they can structure their play sessions around a trip to town and a whirlwind tour of filling out quest requirements (With, of course, the occasional dungeon crawl serving as a roadblock for advancing the main story.). But we have to start somewhere so I'll choose the simplest – for me – quest to begin with and present “The Foolhardy Brave”

Clans of the Highborn – Sample Quest: The Foolhardy Brave

Found: Warrior's Call

Given: Holly Bladegrass (She'll also reward the characters. And, yes, I know the name sucks.)

Level: Medium-High (Characters have a maximum level of 100 in ClotH which is high but each level is easily obtained and not much of an advancement over the previous one – just a few more hit points, and a few points to spend on attributes and improving skills. So, while there's a definite difference between a starting lv1 character and a maxed out lv100 character the degree of difference between, say, a lv60 and a lv67 is negligible. The 60~70 range is about where I'd put the Land of Horses and the majority of quests in Warrior's Call. It's not an easy are to get to, Twilight Isle itself is pretty far along in the game, and around lv75 is about when I'd expect players to be reasonable able to finish off the storyline. They'll miss out on a lot that way and lower level players with a good group to play with can probably do it earlier but it leaves a lot of time for them to get into the “elder game” that exists beyond beating the big bad – of this particular storyline anyway. Still, I have a potential solution for what to do when the game's over but I'll talk about that when I get to the Dreamtime.)

Reward: Minor (I don't want to get too tied down with specifics but this isn't going to be a massively difficult quest so the rewards going to be something like 20% of the XP required to level up – which to speed up leveling I'm going to keep consistent for all levels and just scale the XP rewards from monsters of varying levels, possibly quests and dungeons too but at the moment I think keeping the quest rewards consistent is the way to go – and a handful of gold pieces. As well as a slight increase in the reputation of the player with the Windrunner tribe – but this will be a hidden statistic they won't be able to see. No fancy items or anything.)

Requirements: Befriending the Windrunners (This is a quest that will need to be completed before Holly Bladegrass will talk to the player – basically all that one is is getting a high enough reputation with the Windrunners by completing other quests. Completing it will give the player the logical title of “Friend of the Windrunners” which will be one of the titles they can earn on their way to becoming completely trusted by the warchiefs in Warrior's Call. It'll unlock a few quest of which the Silveroak Dreamcatcher Trilogy won't appear much different from any of the others. And it can be lost if the player happens to ally with the Windrunner's enemies meaning that all the quests the title unlocks will be locked back up tight if they try and rep up with another faction.)

Completed: Grazing Lands (This is where the majority of the quest will take place, letting me/anyone else know what sort of monsters and things can be expected along the way.)


  1. Find Aurochs Bladegrass in the Grazing Lands
  2. Help Aurochs survive his ordeal.
  3. Return to Holly Bladegrass for your reward.

In-game text:

(quest information) Holly Bladegrass: “Please, outlander you must help me. My husband is determined to become a Brave and fight alongside his brothers when the war clouds roll. But first he must prove his worth to his war leader, Chief Strongarm of the Stormcloud Ravens. I fear for his safety and pray to the five gods for his return. A tale, no doubt, you've heard from other maidens in this camp. But their husband don't follow a man enthralled by the weird ones of the empty spaces in the deep lands. Those crones have poisoned his mind and he requires all his followers to pass through their rites. These rites are dangerous, far too dangerous for the man I married – one who's never held a blade in anger before. All of my brothers and my husband's brothers will not believe me because the strange magics they practice have bewitched them all. Not one of my kinsmen will lift a hand to aid my poor beloved bull because they, too, are under the sway. But you, outsider, I know I can trust. Please, travel to the nearest shrine where my husband Aurochs is to be tested. Save his life and his soul before they're both lost to me forever.” (Rewards. Acceptance dialog. This will also appear in the quest journal for players to refer to.)

(When players encounter Aurochs) Aurochs Bladegrass: “My friend what are you doing here? I'm afraid I have no time to talk, I must concentrate on gathering my power before my ordeal begins.”

Priestess Creeping Weed: “Who are you to interfere with our ways, outlander? Heed my words, the war chiefs will hear of your trespass if you prevent our sacred rites from being performed. Great enchantments and powers have been woven here, they cannot be easily untangled. The ritual must go forward. We will call upon the wolfpacks which have served our tribe when our blades clashed with those from your isle. And Aurochs will face them all and defeat them before he can number himself among those who would defend our tribe. ”

Aurochs: “I see you have been talking with my wife. I'm sorry to cause her such distress but I'm afraid my mind is made up. This is something I must do. I must be as brave as my brothers. Now, either stand aside or stand against me.”

Creeping Weed and other mystics: “Oh great wolf spirit we call to you and invoke you. Test our child to see if his strength can be measured by yours. Send your children and let both our tribes be made stronger.”

(random quotes during fight): “My friends this is too dangerous for you.”
“Pull back, there's too many!”
“I can handle this alone.”
“Windrunners show no fear!”
“Argh! No, don't worry, it's only a flesh wound.”

(after fight) Aurochs: “My friend, I thank you for your help. Without your aid I...I...I don't know what would have happened. But with it I have shown my bravery. Now, I must finish the cleansing rituals and report to the war leaders for my training. If you could, please tell my wife the good news. She's much less likely to thump your head than she is mine.”

(Quest reward) Holly: “Even if you couldn't end this madness, you've saved my husband's life for another day. That's more than I'd hoped and all I can ask for. Please, accept this small token of my gratitude. Still, these mystics are up to no good, I'm sure of it. No sooner did I speak with you than their leader, the Skytamer herself came to visit me. To ask of you! Keep an eye out for their treachery.” (Rewards. Acceptance dialog.)

Notes: Alright, the basic structure of this quest is players get it from the wife, Holly, in town, they rush out towards the nearest binding point shrine where the husband, Aurochs, will spawn with a large group of Windrunner priest types – I'm going to call them Windrunner Mystics although if I could think of a better term I would. The only one of these that will be really detailed is Priestess Creeping Weed who'll be their leader and guide them through Auroch's rite of passage. They'll stay away from Aurochs and near the shrine where they'll perform the ritual and chants needed. Once the players set that in motion by talking to Aurochs and then Creeping Weed the mystics will summon a large group of Elder Wolves who'll focus on attacking Aurochs in waves. The players can either sit back and watch him try and tank them all – which will work until the Diseased Elder Wolves who will poison Aurochs and drain his health away appear – or they can join in and help him fight the things off. After they kill 100 (or some other number, I don't really care 100 just sounds impressive when players are trading warstories in my books) of the creatures, the rest will run off. Players will then be able to turn in the quest for a reward back in town.

The Bladegrass brothers are a group of NPCs hoping to become warriors for the Windrunners that the players will be able to help out through quests – the ones that will rep them up with the Windrunners, of course – so they'll have encountered Aurochs before, most likely. He and his wife, Holly, are typical representatives of the Windrunner tribe – there's nothing too special about their appearance beyond the fact they're a little on the young side. Aurochs himself is big and strong with a blacksmith's build – that's what he and his brothers did before heading to Warrior's Call – he just has no idea how to fight. As such he's the perfect tank and that's what he'll try to do with the various monsters that spawn. He'll be armed with a simple, non-magical melee weapon – an axe probably as that's what the Windrunner's prefer - and he uses defensive skills that are available to any Fighter. The effect of those and Auroch's armor though will be cranked all the way up to the point where most of the monsters pose no threat to him (They'll do something like 1 damage a hit and he'll have a heal) but left to his own devices it will take him a long time to kill off even one wolf. He'll also have a taunt skill (If I have such things in game, I'm not sure at this point) to keep all the monsters attacking him. He'll be standing by himself a ways away from the shrine and the mystics when the players encounter him.

The mystics are non-combatants who'll be mostly out of range but if the players get close enough to them they'll throw heals at them. And maybe a buff or two.

The wolves I'll detail more when I get around to filling in the various monsters but they'll spawn some distance away and stream towards Auroch's starting position in waves. At first they'll be nothing but the melee-based typical Elder Wolves but as the waves go on damage over time causing Strong Elder Wolves and Diseased Elder Wolves will be sprinkled into the groups. It's the Diseased Wolves and their poison effect that will cause Aurochs the most problems as he'll be able to shrug off the damage from the others fairly easily. In any event they'll concentrate on attacking Aurochs and ignore the players – either because their AI will be tweaked for the quest or because Aurochs will be spamming a taunt of otherwise drawing all of their agro.

My idea here is basically to have a little bit of fun with the kind of overconfident tanks who think they can handle any number of enemies (I'd have to punch up the dialog a bit before it was actually, you know, funny but I'm going for something a little more subtle than straight out laughs at the moment. Missing wildly no doubt but, then, I'm not really slaving too hard over these quests). Aurochs actually can – at least until creatures that cause DOT start to show up – but only because he's going to be ridiculously overpowered. He's basically invulnerable thanks to his extra armor and completely imbalanced skills. But he's also going to be a pitiful attacker who can hardly cause damage and will gleefully sit there and chip the wolves to death if the players let him (I hope I've structured the quest and the mobs such that they'll have an incentive to try and help). But the idea would be that he's so overpowered and such a perfect tank that the players don't have to worry about being attacked just about mowing down wave after wave of enemies. With just a little bit of lore thrown in to draw them deeper into the mystery of the Windrunner's religious beliefs and the hermits from the Open Spaces those revolve around.

I'll get to those in another installment, though.

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