What does a Game Text need to be 'complete'

edited March 2009 in Story Games
Hey Everyone,

Me and my Beautiful Wife have been working on a 'lite', d6ish system to use for what we are calling 'ensemble' play. I'm going to be writting up the system again after being forced to start from scratch again. I was wondering what everyone here considers a 'complete' game text, what sections or topics do you want/require a game to address.

If you want to put your answer in the form of a table of contents or just helpful suggestions it would be appreciated.

L

Comments

  • Depends... What are you going to do with the text? How is it going to be distributed? I think you'll get more serious and useful feedback if you include such information in your request.
  • For me the definition of completeness isn't about chapters or sections. Its about steps and procedures.

    When you play the game with your wife et.al. there are things that are going on around your table. Things like...

    when the scene changes and the characters were here and now they're there...who made that happen and what did they say?

    when a player is describing something and another player doesn't really like what's being said...what do you and your group do to get past it?

    when you break out the dice to roll for something...who is it that says "let's roll for that" and how do they recognize something worth rolling for from something that's not?

    when a player has an idea for something they want to see happen, how and when do they express that idea; does that idea now happen, or is it just a suggestion that might happen? Who decides which it is...the GM...on what basis?

    There's lots of things that you are doing at your table that make your game work when you play it with your group. My group may have different defaults for how we do those things around our table. Our defaults may work just fine in your game or they may make your game very difficult to play. So tell us what the things are that you're doing around your table. That way, even if we decide to do things differently we'll know where things went astray if it doesn't work.

    I'm reminded of an old exercise one of my elementary school teachers did with the class. We each had to write instructions for making a peanut butter sandwich. She then attempted to follow our instructions. So when a student wrote "take the knife and spread the peanut butter on the bread" she took the knife in one hand took the jar of peanut butter in the other and rolled it rolling pin style on the loaf of bread still in the plastic.

    Everybody laughed, but we all quickly got the idea. The REAL instructions for making a peanut butter sandwich includes a lot of "hold the jar firmly in the left hand. wrap your right hand around the lid. twist counter clockwise until the lid comes loose. Set the lid to one side. take the knife in your right hand. Insert the knife blade into the jar and scrape a small portion of peanut butter onto the tip..." etc. etc. etc.

    Point being that "take a knife and spread the peanut butter on the bread" only works as instructions if everyone already knows how to make a peanut butter sandwich. "open the jar" only works if everyone already knows how to open a jar, and so on. If they don't know...you need to be much more precise with your instructions. RPG texts generally assume to their great detriment that everyone not only knows how to make a peanut butter sandwich...but also knows how to make your Super Secret Elvis Special peanut butter sandwich.

    A complete game text is one that doesn't assume we already know how to play...where "we" here refers to the audience you are intending to distribute to. You can assume alot more intrinsic knowledge distributing a game for free to a very limited audience (like John Harper just did with Ghost / Echo). You should assume alot less intrinsic knowledge if you're distributing your game for sale from a general store front like IPR where there's alot less certainty about shared knowledge among all likely customers.
  • I think that completeness of the game text is a poisonous myth. The best you as a writer can require of yourself is a game text that serves to functionally communicate the ideas you wanted to communicate to the audience you wanted to serve. Anything more, some sort of externally acceptable criteria, is just a notion used by others to impose their will on your creative process.

    That, incidentally, is the sort of thinking that my head starts developing when I read Ralph's impetuous essays on procedural rpg texts. It's just not that simple - an excess of procedural detail can just as easily confuse your meaning as a dearth of detail can, the trick is to get into harmony with your readership, not to strive for an imaginary line of objective comprehensiveness. The "real" instructions for spreading the peanut butter might be one step more detailed, but they are neither as detailed as they could be (which side do I set the lid, again?) nor as to the point as the short version. There is no objectively perfect balance to attain.

    This is not to say that Ralph's not right about the historical fact that rpg procedures are being overlooked as a topic of writing. Whether these things belong in the rulebooks, and where in them, is a good question with no obvious answer. I find it easy and natural to write detailed accounts of procedure - I just switch to a personal voice and describe how I play a certain game; whether this is the right solution for a given text depends so much on the goals and context of the text that it isn't even funny. For the great majority of traditional roleplaying texts this sort of content would be completely extraneous, considering that those books do not (for the most part) even pretend to provide one-size-fits-all procedures for a singular game experience. A question like how scene framing works in Call of Cthulhu doesn't even make sense when CoC as a text does not address this question or tie any other procedures on it; the text just assumes that scenes get framed, just like it assumes that you have a table to roll dice on - the text discusses what you can do after you've figured out that scene framing issue, and I can't really claim that it's less complete for that.

    What all that boils down to is a sort of opposite exhortation to what Ralph suggested - if your game (and when I write "your game" I mean "you") does not concern itself with or be interested in scene framing, then writing about that stuff might just be padding space at best and misleading at worst. Not everything that happens at your table needs to be part of your game text if those parts are not in fact part of the game you design.

    (This is not to say that it's not a good idea to consider your procedures - this is even not to say that it's not a good idea to write game texts that provide a "whole" package of procedures. I'm just saying that if your game design in fact does not consider complete procedural structures from the first principles, then it might be futile to try to write about those things. There are other values under the sky.)
  • I think this is an important feature regardless of what theories you subscribe to. One thing that a game script needs in order to be considered complete is... testing. If you can at all manage it you should try out your opus with a group that's not too close to the issue, who aren't afraid to give criticism but are objective enough to tell the difference between something that doesn't work, and something that they just don't like for personal reasons. And once your testing is done, don't be afraid to take any valid criticism on board and make changes.

    -Ash
  • edited March 2009
    Eero, you will note that I specifically did not say Scene Framing. I said "when the scene changes".

    You are quite correct that if the game does not concern itself with "scene framing" as we story gamers tend to use the word than it should not be in the text. But unless your entire game from beginning to end takes place in a single spot...the scene will change...somehow. I mention that only as an example demonstrating that my point is not to promote a certain answer (everygame needs scene framing) but to highlight the sort of basic things that often get left out of a text when they should be in.

    I also refuse to accept that just because there is no full and definable set of criteria for "completeness" that it becomes an invalid goal or an invalid standard...and certainly not a poisonous myth...geeze...what's that but an excuse to be lazy. You may not be able to say "this game is 100% complete" but you can absolutely say this game is more complete than that game, or this game is more complete now than it was before it was properly edited. Perfection is the enemy of excellence. Just because perfection cannot be obtained doesn't mean we shouldn't bother striving for excellence.

    The standard of completeness is conceptually very simple. Can a typical member of your audience reliably reproduce quality play using only the text in your book and their own knowledge base.

    Pitfalls include assuming too much about your audience's knowledge base...both in terms of amount of knowledge and consistency across the audience (an audience that knows "too much" is often as much of a pitfall as an audience that knows "too little"). The broader your distribution is, the larger your audience and the less reliable your assumptions about their knowledge...the more you'll have to include in the text. Too many times the designer assumes the audience's knowlege base (i.e. play experience and history) to be "just like me and my group"...meaning...they didn't put much of any thought into it at all and just assumed everyone would play just like they do.

    Also a pitfall is pretending you have a "target" audience. Audience is targeted by your choice of distribution, not by who you think you're writing the game to. If you're writing the game to a limited audience but distributing to a broad audience, then you don't have a target audience...you have a mess where people who are part of the distribution audience don't have the required background to play. So if you're not going to write for a broad audience, you shouldn't distribute to a broad audience. You don't get to come back later and say "well, those people aren't my target audience anyway". If they're not your target audience...how did they get a copy of your book? If your book is on the shelf of their FLGS or for sale at IPR then they're your targeted audience whether you want them to be or not. If you really don't want them to be then you'll have to figure out a way to get them to self select out of buying your game. Technical Manuals do this all the time for other products. "C++ Programming for Dummies" is going to target a different self selecting audience then "Advanced C++ Programming for Experienced Coders". If you want a limited audience but you've chosen a broader distribution...what can you say on your cover text to make sure that people not in your target audience don't buy your book by mistake? All of which is to say, understand who your audience is REALLY.

    There's a tremendous amount of artistic hubris in the RPG community that assumes that RPGs are somehow special because they're "different" and as a result we can't write complete texts for them. Hogwash. Boardgames manage to write texts that are procedurally complete. Card and minis games manage to write texts that are procedurally complete. The art of writing procedurally complete text for CCGs has improved dramatically from the early days of Magic.

    When a board game's rules are as vague and imprecise as the typical RPGs rules there is no hesitation from the boardgame community at calling that game "broken". But when a little criticism is leveled at vagueness in an RPG -- Oh no...the horror. Bad rules text is bad rules text, RPGs are not excused just because they're "different". They are. But that simply means we need to solve the problem differently. Not that we get a free pass because we're "artists". Unfortunately we don't have as much experience doing it write as other games do yet...which makes it more of a challenge. But not an insurmountale one.

    What we have in the RPG hobby is a situation where we reward clever design ideas with kudos and accolades, but the skill of technical writing generally goes past unremarked upon. That's an artifact of the culture we've created...not a valid justification of the status quo.
  • This is basically a complex literary argument, but what it boils down to is that I don't see a rpg text necessarily being a procedural instruction manual. As I intimated above, a majority of game texts are anything but. So you might say that I challenge your conceit that the correct answer to the original question is "write your actual play procedures down carefully". Looking at what actually passes as a roleplaying game text historically, the vast majority are not and try not to be procedural manuals like boardgames have. So unless we're repudiating the whole tradition, it seems wrong to whip out this requirement normally applied to boardgame rules and ask rpg writers to stick to it.

    I like your standard of completeness, it's essentially similar to the one I suggested up there. Very practical. The thing is, I don't find it obvious that maximum clarity in procedural explanation (which you focus on here) is the perfect or only way to reaching a situation where your game text allows the target audience to produce quality play. How do you figure this when the practical history of rpg texts strives for successful play by the way of intentional ambiguity, succinctness and inspirational fluff? Are all these writers unequivocally wrong and a radical new direction is needed, or what do you think is going on?

    Essentially, I don't personally have a clue how such a diverse field of writing could have universal standards of completeness apart from the most generic exhortation to communicate what you wanted to communicate. I'd call something like Call of Cthulhu, say, a most complete game text. One could say that it is not a "game" in the sense that it doesn't provide full procedural knowledge, but the text gives you a complete paradigm for adjudicating character action in a certain fictional setting; this is enough to be considered a "game" historically in the rpg hobby. There are many other examples of game texts that vary wildly in whether they include procedural information at all, and it seems to me that their completeness is best judged on whether they communicate everything the designer wanted to communicate, not on whether he chose to write a full procedural instruction set.
  • I don't see a rpg text necessarily being a procedural instruction manual.
    An RPG text can be many things. It can be poetry. It can be a physical artifact that qualifies as art in its own right. But ultimately, by definition, its an instruction manual and has to function effectively as one. "And now I'm going to tell you how to play this game"...there's no way for that NOT to be an instruction manual.
    So unless we're repudiating the whole tradition,

    Yes, exactly that. The whole tradition is ass.
    (note for clarity...I'm not talking "culture of play" "tradition" here. I'm talking culture of how game texts are written)
    How do you figure this when the practical history of rpg texts strives for successful play by the way of intentional ambiguity, succinctness and inspirational fluff? Are all these writers unequivocally wrong and a radical new direction is needed, or what do you think is going on?

    Historical accident is not proof of effectiveness. I haven't seen any evidence that any of the RPG companies or writers have ever done a thorough examination of why RPG text is written the way it is or how it could be done better. In contrast there's an entire industry dedicated to that topic surrounding text books.

    And for the record...intentional ambiguity...that's totally fine. The Old School renaissance folks love all the empty spaces that they can fill in for themselves. I want this next part to be perfectly clear because I've said it a bunch of times and people keep missing it. I'm not promoting a specific answer on what the text should say. I'm promoting the idea that it should say whatever its supposed to say for that particular game. If the right answer for "how does this work" is "the game isn't going to tell you that, those are the parts we leave open to your own creativity to derive solutions for your group however you like"...then write exactly that.

    Leaving it open ended for me to use my own judgement because that was a concious design goal and you're telling me that's what I need to do is AOK with me.

    Leaving it open ended by default because you couldn't be bothered, or didn't realize, or never really thought very hard about it, and so there's nothing in the text one way or the other...that's not ok.

    Does that distinction make sense?

    I use board games as an example because board games excel at telling you exactly what you need to play this particular game. But people keep taking that to mean that I'm saying all RPGs should play like board games all tied down and limited to just a few set moves. That's not what I'm saying at all.
  • edited March 2009
    Posted By: ValamirLeaving it open ended by default because you couldn't be bothered, or didn't realize, or never really thought very hard about it, and so there's nothing in the text one way or the other...
    and, I'd like to add. "because that's how RPG texts have always been written" to that list.
    Just because something has "always been done this way" doesn't mean it's actually a good way to do things. Tradition, in and of itself, is not a valid justification for anything.
  • Well said, Eero. I've been trying (and failing) to compose a clear response to Ralph's philosophy, and your replies here are 100% where my thinking is on the topic right now.
  • edited March 2009
    Logos7, I think the most important thing is not what content you have -- not even to the extent of "you need something about how to make characters" -- but that throughout the text you make it easy to distinguish how the content varies within itself. For example, a D&D-inspired text might divide things between Building Your Character (Race vs. Class) vs. Playing Your Character (Exploration vs. Combat); and a reader should be able to correctly infer that half the game is focused on building a character, and that the half which isn't is half focused on exploration and half focused on combat. Your text might call for completely different sections, and perhaps a triad or quintet. There's no good way for me to give specific answers to your question, since I am not familiar with the whole nature of your text, and that's what it's all about. The best I can offer is that within each section, make sure the key relationships between that section and other sections is clear.

    We could theoretically debate what makes something an RPG text vs. not an RPG text. But I think even an RPG with neither definite characters nor formal procedures may be possible and fun -- and who knows what the text of such an RPG would need to be complete? It depends. And regardless, any text, RPG text or not, will invariably be a thing in itself. The best you can do is make it appear like the thing it is, rather than try to force it into one mold or another. My best guess for your text so far is that it needs the words "ensemble" and "game" to appear at some point or another, but not necessarily. I realize that's not much help.

    ***

    Regarding the philosophical discussion: A complete hammer does not need a label saying, "Use how you like," any more than it needs a label saying, "Use the heavy end to hit things." However, any tool with a heavy end would not be complete if the heavy end does not look heavy. Moreover: a tool with a heavy end that looks heavy seems more complete, IMO, than a tool with a heavy end that looks light but has a label saying, "This end may look light, but it's actually heavy." In addition, a complete tool minimizes the number of perspectives needed to infer its whole nature. For instance, a hammer's bisymmetry in its narrow dimension allows a person to infer its whole nature with a single glance. Finally, if more than one perspective is needed, then each perspective of a complete tool should contain a complete informational tool mapping the relationship between that perspective and the whole nature of the larger tool.
  • edited March 2009
    Posted By: ValamirAnd for the record...intentional ambiguity...that's totally fine. The Old School renaissance folks love all the empty spaces that they can fill in for themselves. I want this next part to be perfectly clear because I've said it a bunch of times and people keep missing it. I'm not promoting a specific answer on what the text should say. I'm promoting the idea that it should say whatever its supposed to say for that particular game. If the right answer for "how does this work" is "the game isn't going to tell you that, those are the parts we leave open to your own creativity to derive solutions for your group however you like"...then write exactly that.
    I just wanted to quote this as it summarizes my feelings. I don't care what the content is or what holes I need to fill. I just want to know what it is and what I need to do. But if the creator doesn't want an accessible book, that's cool as well. But if they complain that the game is not being played, then I don't know what else to say :-(

    I know many people who know nothing about RPGs that give it a try and enjoy playing RPGs. But I don't know many people who have little experience with RPGs that bought a book, learned how to play, and put a game together on their own.
  • I'm basically agreeing with Ralph on the baseline practical level here, actually: designers should, indeed, act deliberately in making their product design decisions. Asking whether a game text participates in producing quality play for your target audience is a perfectly reasonable gauge for quality of a game text, being that such a text is directed at producing play and not just looking good or whatever.

    However, I think that Ralph is being rather radical in wanting to burn everything and begin anew, it smacks of cultural imperialism from where I'm standing. There is both a sender and a receiver in a textual situation and the context matters, which is why I don't think that you can just look at a game text, pinpoint a place where the text doesn't accord with your own assumptions of detail and then declaim it as incomplete. That's a bit of an asshole move wherein you try to turn "I don't understand this game" into "this game is incomplete". The former is just audience reception, the latter is a poisonous effort at forcing your own objectives and standards of communication on others.

    To return to Call of Cthulhu as my example, I think that adding to that text with a detailed account of how to narrate scene shifts, how to protagonize PCs and so on and so forth would be completely meaningless. It's not that sort of product, it's a game text from an era when it was presumed that the imaginary stuff is orchestrated essentially freeform into a substrate over which the world-emulation rules provided by the game are then slotted. An essay about how Sandy Petersen frames scenes or whatnot would actually, from that culture's viewpoint, actively limit and confuse the usability of those rules. CoC as a game simply doesn't care what you do to set up the fictional situations, it just gives you procedures for how to determine the limits of individual characters task resolution -wise. Of course it's a horribly incoherent and even unplayable work if we insist on following the text to the letter as a procedural manual, but if that's not what it was written to be, then we have two choices: to say that "it is not a complete game" or accept that the very concept of "game" (game text, that is) in roleplaying just happens to not be such an objective thing. Just like Advanced Squad Leader is not a boardgame but a boardgaming system, your average roleplaying "game" simply is not a game but a toolbox; trying to force the toolboxes of this world into singular tools is not useful advice for the designer who specifically wants to continue creating those toolboxes.

    So I guess that I'm simply more sympathetic than Ralph towards the historical rpg-writing - these people have surely thought hard about what they are doing. Those games might have been complete in relation to the audience and manner of use they were intended for. Perhaps no instructions were included for opening the jar simply because only a tepid idiot would fail to do so before spreading the peanut butter.

    Also, I can totally see how a rpg creator might choose to forgo accessible, mechanical proceduralism as his paradigm of communication. Technical writing is not the only nor the best paradigm of communication under the sky. I see nothing wrong in making a deliberate decision to write in a different way. As I said at the beginning, the only real requirement for completeness is that you succeed in communicating the ideas you wanted to communicate. The better you succeed, the better the communication. A hardline postmodernist might even claim that the only thing that matters is that your text communicates some ideas, even if they're not what you intended; some confused games like Primitive certainly work this way. If your "game" consists of nothing more than a 10,000 word essay that makes the reader understand how awful the state of vampirism must be for a poor soul, combined with an exhortation to go immerse into that, then is this game incomplete? It has no procedures to describe, after all, and is in fact just a bunch of prose directed at transmitting an aesthetic idea. This simplified description resembles a large array of historical roleplaying game texts, and calling them incomplete or flawed because they do not concern themselves with procedural detail seems like ultimately misunderstanding their purpose. Certainly one could write on the cover of the book in large letters that this is "FOR ADVANCED USERS ONLY; DOES NOT INCLUDE PROCEDURAL ADVICE", but if you take a frank look at the roleplaying culture during the last couple of decades, whatever for? RPG scene is already extremely insular, anybody buying a rpg is essentially investing in specialist literature already.

    What this comes down to, I guess, is that I find Ralph's stance to be tantamount to a political agenda. He wants to change the face of rpg writing to accord with what he thinks is better. I might even not disagree with him in practice, certainly there's much to be said for the virtues he emphasizes. But we have to understand that it's a political agenda masquerading as objective truth, not a law of nature that states that game texts need to be procedurally complete and written out to the more or less timeless standards of clarity Ralph espouses.

    So yes, personal opinion. Big news there, Ralph said as much at the beginning of the thread. I wouldn't have started harping at it otherwise, but I always feel a bit sorry for the folks who get chewed out for not following the standards of clarity Ralph or other pundits of clear writing espouse. It gets especially nasty when they start casting aspersions on the professionalism or honesty of the person who dared to publish an incomplete game. Might be a necessary social dynamic, I don't know - I'm just more relaxed myself, less keen to turn from "I didn't understand this" to "this is done wrong".
  • I have to provide an analogue from the software development world. (and you can then ignore and shoot it down if you like :)

    See, I'm reading Agile Software Development with Scrum right now. One of the basic premises of Scrum is that software development is a complex process and it cannot be controlled by defined process prescriptions. In fact, the author goes on to say that there's no use of defining a process description for any activity that cannot be well defined.

    Process being well defined means that it is described in enough detail that if two people perform the activity according to the process they have similar outcomes. And if an activity consists of processes that for the most part cannot be described in such detail, using empirical process control is much more practical. Empirical process control basically means a trial, reflection and adjustment kind of a cycle of activity, the instructions and processes being in the meta (control) level rather than the activity level.

    Translated into role-playing game procedure descriptions, I think that only the parts of the game that can be described in detail should be described in this way. For example if you have a conflict mechanic or a scene-framing procedure, you should describe them as unambiguously as possible. For other things you would be better off to provide some group-social level ground rules for settling any other type of activity, as any one group is probably going to run into different kind of problems than any other group. Or at least different in that way that you'd have to have a multitude of process descriptions for these kinds of situations for completeness and enough definition.
  • Also, I can totally see how a rpg creator might choose to forgo accessible, mechanical proceduralism as his paradigm of communication. Technical writing is not the only nor the best paradigm of communication under the sky. I see nothing wrong in making a deliberate decision to write in a different way.

    You're a far more generous person than I Eero. If even 10% of the RPG texts out there were written the way they are due to a deliberate decision after weighing different communication paradigms, I'd be shocked.
    Again to be clear: I have ZERO problem with an author making a deliberate communication paradigm decision on how to best communicate their design to a target audience...in fact...that's what I'm WANTING to see happen.
    But that's not what's happening. What's happening is people who don't even know there's a decision to be made writing their texts in the same fashion as the texts they read...perpetuating the status quo for reasons of, at best, habit, and at worst, outright laziness.
    For other things you would be better off to provide some group-social level ground rules for settling any other type of activity, as any one group is probably going to run into different kind of problems than any other group. Or at least different in that way that you'd have to have a multitude of process descriptions for these kinds of situations for completeness and enough definition.

    Yes this. Most games get to the ambigous part that can be defined by explicit steps and say...nothing...
    If you get to the part of the game where its best to let the group figure their way through it on the social level...then say that, provide some ground rules for what that looks like, and move on. But don't just leave the reader scratching their head and wondering...what now?
  • I suppose we're really of the same mind with Ralph about the basic principles, even if we focus on different parts of the issue. I'm quite satisfied with happy agreement.

    Also, Antti has a good example of the sort of difficulties pure proceduralism encounters. Nothing more to say for now.
  • How's this for a short definition of "complete"...

    1. Make sure the game tells the players how to do everything you want them to do.

    2. Make sure anything the game doesn't tell them to do is something you're intentionally not telling them to do.

    Basically, if it's vague, make sure it's vague on purpose, and only to the extent that you believe the vagueness is beneficial to play.

    Essentially, the fruitful void shouldn't be "Oops. I forgot to say you were supposed to do this, but the fact that you did that instead is awesome!"

    Also, at the risk of derailing the thread some, I want to take a shot at Ralph's claim that you can't have a target audience and still put your game in stores, et al.. Bullshit.

    You can and should have a target audience. Best-case, you should have a realistic idea of who your target audience is, though this is sometimes difficult. You should distribute this in such a way that anyone who falls into your target audience can get it, even if that means people who aren't your target audience can also get it. Buyer beware, and all that. Yes, this can cause a mess, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't write to a target audience. If I want to write a game that assumes that anyone playing it has been playing D&D 3.5 for 2.37 years or longer, and has played completely through Temple of Elemental Evil at least once, and has read the entire text of that module thoroughly, then I can and should do that. I shouldn't put anything into the text to make allowances for those who are outside my target audience, except this: A clear statement of who my target audience is.

    If you have not played D&D for 2.37+ years, and if you have not played through Temple of Elemental Evil at least once AND read the entire text thoroughly, this game isn't intended for you. There will be things you will not understand, and I will make no effort to explain to you. Knowing this, if you choose to purchase this game and play it, that is your choice. If you manage to have fun regardless, then great. If you do not, then you will know the reason why.
  • Lance, did you miss this part:
    If you really don't want them to be then you'll have to figure out a way to get them to self select out of buying your game. Technical Manuals do this all the time for other products. "C++ Programming for Dummies" is going to target a different self selecting audience then "Advanced C++ Programming for Experienced Coders". If you want a limited audience but you've chosen a broader distribution...what can you say on your cover text to make sure that people not in your target audience don't buy your book by mistake? All of which is to say, understand who your audience is REALLY.
  • I missed this part:
    If you really don't want them to be then you'll have to figure out a way to get them to self select out of buying your game.

    The rest of it sorta seemed like you were playing devil's advocate without that line.
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